The Futures of Empire:An Introduction
The essays contained in this symposium attest to the vital legacy of the volumes authored by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri for the 21st century. What started in the mid-1990s as the improbable collaboration of two very different thinkers has now become an almost legendary project comprising three lengthy tomes, whose impact in the world of academia and political thinking can be felt at many different levels and will still reverberate for many years to come.
Historically, the premises of the first volume go back to the apparent “pax Americana” of the early 1990s. A few years after the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Eastern socialist republics, the assumption that anticapitalist perspectives had lost their validity became quite commonplace, and Marxist theory was forced to retreat into a somewhat defensive position. Capitalism had triumphed, and the new world order was confidently expected to be the harbinger of a new era of global stability and peace. This kind of assessment, however, was not only short-lived, but also far less universal than we were led to believe. After 1989, the opposition to the dominant structures of capitalist power did continue, although in relatively isolated and disconnected quarters. If we want to retrace the theoretical and political genealogy of the Empire project, a few words about the different fields where this opposition could still be located are necessary.
First of all, it is important to mention a small diasporic group of activists and intellectuals, the Italian autonomists that had been displaced in the early 1980s by the repressive measures adopted by Italy’s judicial system during the so-called “years of lead”. Some of them fled from actual convictions, while others left the country for a few years and either came back when things settled down, or actually chose to remain where their self-imposed exile had brought them. It is easy to recognize in this general profile the history of Antonio Negri himself, who spent 14 years in France after being forced to leave his position at the University of Padova in the wake of his conviction for alleged terroristic activities. But there are other, less-known thinkers, whose work was vital in the elaboration of many concepts and insights contained in the volumes constituting the Empire project and followed this kind of trajectory: here, I will mention the Swiss economist Christian Marazzi (who is one of the contributors to this symposium), who had been a student of Negri in Padova and went to study at the London School of Economics in the 1980s, the activist and postmodern philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi, who spent the late 1970s and early 1980s between Paris and New York, and the sociologist and theorist of “immaterial” labor Maurizio Lazzarato, who also went to Paris in the late 1980s and still lives and works there.
In order to understand the continued engagement in oppositional politics on the part of this group one thing needs to be said straight off: the Italian autonomists never identified with any of the institutions set up by the so-called “real socialism” of the Eastern republics, and therefore did not see in the collapse of the European communist parties a real theoretical defeat. While it is true that by the end of the 1970s they felt that they had lost their immediate political battles, this defeat did not have a clear meaning other than the retreat forced upon them by the overwhelming force exerted by the Western democracies against its internal opponents. Communism was not dead, on the contrary: liberated from the totalitarian shackles imposed upon it by the Soviet and Maoist brandings, this notion could now find new and unexpected instantiations, both in theory and in practice. What was lacking was the confidence in a unified project, which disappeared with the illusion of having geopolitical interlocutors, however flawed and corrupted they might have been.
It is only in the last few years, after the financial crisis that shook the capitalist world in 2008, that a theoretical return to the word “communism” has become more frequent in the Anglo American academic world. The prompt publication or translation of works such as The Actuality of Communism, by Bruno Bosteels (2011), The Communist Hypothesis by Alain Badiou (2010), The Communist Postscript by Boris Groys (2010) and The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean (2012) are just a sample of the vast literature that has emerged on the topic, for which an eager audience of young scholars and activists has joined the most established Marxist thinkers and critics. Faced with the undisputable evidence of a financial crisis whose most traumatic consequences are being painfully weathered by the lower and middle classes in terms of unemployment and loss of revenue, the exploitative and ethically blind nature of capitalist organization is much harder to deny. However, the people who have inspired the Empire project did not wait until this last crisis in order to further their critique of contemporary forms of social organization.
In fact, the impetus to keep communism alive in the era of capitalist consensus dates back, for Antonio Negri, to the early 1980s, and the book that he co-authored with Félix Guattari in Paris (after already planning for it during his last year in Rome’s Rebibbia prison) is probably the first articulation of many of the topics that will resurface a few years later in his collaboration with Michael Hardt. Recently republished in English with a more literal translation of its original French title, New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty contained already in 1984 many passages that still resonate with the readers of the Empire project:
The project: to rescue “communism” from its own disrepute...Bankrupt: the collectivist regimes have failed to realize socialist or communist ideals...Forget capitalism and socialism: instead we have in place one vast machine, extending over the planet an enslavement of all mankind. Every aspect of human life – work, childhood, love, life, thought, fantasy, art – is deprived of dignity in this workhouse. Everyone feels only the threat of social demise: unemployment, poverty, welfare.1
The holistic perception of a highly diffused and stratified system of power that contributes to transforming the world into one huge “workhouse” dominating people’s existence is characterized in this book by the general appellation of “Integral World Capitalism”, first coined by Guattari. This is, I think, an economical-political entity that prefigures the “empire” later theorized by Hardt and Negri and otherwise referred to as “global capital”, “global governance” and the like.
In the existing scholarship on the Empire project, there is one essential aspect that still has not found its appropriate space: the continuity insured by figures such as Negri, Guattari, and the Italian expatriates that I have mentioned earlier between the Marxist revolutionary movements of the 1970s and the analyses of postmodernity first articulated in the 1980s and then put to the test of economic and political globalization from the 1990s onwards. The existential and intellectual survival of these apparently defeated intellectuals introduced a measure of continued critique of present forms of exploitation precisely when “major” figures were either formulating apocalyptic assessments of an irreparably broken political and symbolic system, or were intent at formulating neo-humanistic projects lacking the necessary will to meddle into the complex technical and economic determinations of our time. Antonio Negri himself, as Tim Murphy reminds us in his recent study, has been accused of being simply a “nostalgic humanist intellectual”2, but this criticism clearly ignores how much Negri’s positions owe to the Marxist analytic tradition on the one hand, and the more recent post-workerist theorization of anti-capitalist organization and struggle on the other. It is from this perspective that what Murphy calls “the accomplished critique of essentialist humanism itself”3 had indeed already been enacted by the Italian autonomist left.
The autonomist tradition, which through Negri’s and Bifo’s collaboration with Félix Guattari had already integrated a psycho-social dimension by the early 1980s and had inserted itself in the intellectual life of French poststructuralism, demonstrated its historical relevance precisely in its ability to survive its political defeat in Italy and other Western European countries, while in fact remaining vital to different sorts of later realizations. To a certain extent, then, these manifestations constitute a contrapuntal text to the macro-narration of the encroachment of global capital on every aspect of our daily life. At a time when “globalization” has become the justification for every injustice perpetrated in the name of economic rationality, this tradition coming from the 1980s has proven most useful, insuring the survival and the development of a radically different, but every bit equally as compelling logic. The basic tenets of a contemporary autonomist approach to current forms of social and economic organization are maybe best expressed in a passage from Commonwealth where the authors say:
Today there is a growing rupture within the organic composition of capital, a progressive decomposition of capital in which variable capital (and particularly bio-political labor power) is separating from constant capital along with its political forces of command and control. Biopolitical labor tends to generate its own forms of social cooperation and produce value autonomously ... Should we thus declare capital doomed, finished?...No, crisis, as we said earlier, does not mean collapse ... Instead the rupture within capital and the emerging autonomy of biopolitical labor present a political opening. We can bet on the rupture of the relation of capital and build politically on the emerging autonomy of biopolitical labor...but political organization is required to push it across the threshold4(Commonwealth, 150-151).
Instead of a simple return to the “ideal” of communism in the face of a new crisis, we see in Hardt and Negri the belief in an increasing ability, on the part of the labor force, to constitute itself within its own relation to capital, and to engage in a continued political struggle. Autonomous Marxism is not a new form of dialectical historicism: nothing happens by itself. The logic of autonomy consists in locating the “political openings” present in a certain socioeconomic contingency, and to occupy them with the appropriate manifestation of a never ending class struggle. New political actors organize around capital’s breaks, and open the door to “insurrectional events”5(Commonwealth, 345) that have the potential to profoundly alter “institutional norms”6. Communism, in other words, is not the total product of a unitary revolution, but the temporary actualizations brought into existence by the multiple subjects of biopolitical labor and organization.
When, in 2000, I read Empire in its original English version, I was elated to hear, through Hardt’s and Negri’s own discourse, the echoes of what some had considered a defeated political project intent at demystifying and destabilizing capital’s hold on contemporary life. It is precisely with the intent to further this political project that we decided to look at the vital legacy of the Empire volumes in the work of scholars who are fully engaged in a critique of contemporary discourses on economic and cultural globalization.
This symposium originated in a conference that was held at the University of Pittsburgh on November 18 and 19 2010. While organizing it, I had noticed that the publication of Commonwealth in October 2009 actually coincided with the ninth anniversary of Empire. This was enough, at least in my mind, to suggest adopting a retrospective attitude with respect to what could now be considered, if not a “trilogy”, at least a coherent “project”. Of course, the collaboration between Hardt and Negri preceded the work on Empire, and is now continuing even after their collaboration on Commonwealth. However, as Michael Hardt has stated himself, the Empire project will not have another “sequel”, and can therefore start to be questioned in terms of its own influence and legacy. The essays that were presented at the conference and are now presented are the response to a mix of invitations and submissions following a call for papers. In both cases, I did not know exactly what to expect, and this respect the response to my invitation has been quite enlightening. To a certain extent, what was most surprising was the fact that the contributors were not mainly interested in proposing an exegetic commentary of the Empire project itself: no one was really interested in restating what Hardt and Negri had written, and even less in developing a detailed critique of it. For once, that had already been done when each of the volumes had appeared. Now that the project could be considered complete, what the contributors wanted to say was what the project had meant to them, what it had inspired in their own fields of research and political engagement. In other words, what has become clear to me is that the legacy of the Empire volumes is not a self-referential body of criticism, but a generative legacy of cultural, political and economic critique. Today, the “futures” of these three volumes is radically different from what I had imagined: not commentary, but new ideas; not imitation, but the authorization to invent.
And this is how Tim Murphy and I came to formulate the title for this collection: what is important now, is not so much the Empire project and its past, but its many different “futures” dispersed in a wealth of new research coming out both of young and not-so-young scholars across a spectrum of generational belonging and disciplinary affiliation. The symposium articles are organized, therefore, into two broad sections that map different future trajectories made possible by Hardt’s and Negri’s project. Often, the debt to the Empire project is acknowledged not without the expression of reservations, or even of critique. The intention, however, is never to engage in a purely academic argument, but to further a critical project that was made possible only by the confrontation with the Empire texts and their presence in a larger cultural and political debate. It is not by agreeing with Hardt and Negri that we will continue their legacy, but by maintaining an engagement with their texts. This is what the individual contributions have made clear to me, in a way that I hadn’t fully anticipated.
The first section of this symposium is called “Conceptual Futures” to emphasize the focus of the essays gathered here on the fundamental concepts that emerge from Hardt and Negri’s work. All four essays acknowledge the force of the theory of Empire, but they also identify its limits. To begin this section, Timothy S. Murphy proposes that Empire and its sequels should be considered an example of an unusual and powerful literary genre: not the political manifesto, but rather the compositional map that draws together many disciplines, groups, languages and individuals, generating a discursive and conceptual matrix for the production of a manifesto and the forms of militancy that emerge from it. Other works in this genre are Marx and Engels’ German Ideology and Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia. The broadly collaborative nature of this genre makes it difficult to accommodate within traditional intellectual history, which holds fast to the conception of individualized authorship and thus represses the context from which the compositional map arises. In a very real way, the multitude itself made Empire and its sequels possible, and only such a richly intersubjective and interdisciplinary process can produce a conceptual framework adequate to the politics of the common.
Drawing upon his extraordinary work on the Haitian Revolution, Nick Nesbitt confronts Hardt and Negri’s militantly productivist ontology, which incorporates the critique of universals carried out by the radical tradition of philosophy and political economy from Spinoza to Deleuze and Guattari, with the challenge of a new conception of universality that has emerged most clearly from the work of Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux. This is the notion of absolute or universal contingency, not only of the actual forms of subjectivity and objectivity that present themselves within a given regime like Empire, but also of the very conditions of such presentations. In other words, Nesbitt challenges Hardt and Negri (and us) to try to think the event that must intervene for us to become able to produce a post-imperial political world in which everyone is equal.
Feminist theorist and filmmaker Miriam Tola locates the limits of Hardt and Negri’s constructivist “humanism after the death of Man” in their inadequate conceptualization of the relation between humans and non-humans, that is, the natural world, and proposes that the work of posthumanist and materialist feminists Elizabeth Grosz and Rosi Braidotti can help overcome those limits. Tola demonstrates the remarkable parallels that exist between the projects of the multitude and posthumanist feminism (which should not be surprising, given the extensive theoretical background that the two projects share) as well as the increased power—in the Spinozian sense—that a philosophical and political alliance between them would generate. To get at the normative deep structures underpinning the new media that play an important role in the formation and repression of the multitude as a revolutionary subject.
The second section, “Political Futures”, consists of texts dealing with the means that Hardt and Negri, among others, offer us for resisting the present. Matthew Gayetsky puts Hardt and Negri into dialogue with the reactionary political theorist Carl Schmitt in order to bring out the implications of their concept of the multitude as a political subject. Gayetsky compares Schmitt’s analysis of the modern partisan’s relation to the sovereign nation-state with Hardt and Negri’s notion of the multitude that must contest Empire in the postmodern era. He notes that the transformation of space and borders in Empire undermines the traditional partisan’s ties to his/her locality and traditions, but this doesn’t necessarily render the partisan irrelevant today. Just as the partisan constituted the mirror-image—and therefore the potential negation—of the modern sovereign, being both inside and outside the law, so the multitude must mirror Empire with its own counter-Empire, which alone can negate Empire’s constituted power.
Long engaged with the new modes of capitalist domination, Kenneth Surin situates Hardt and Negri’s work in the wake of the three great moments of emergence of the contemporary capitalist order: the failure of the radical movements of 1968, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the global economic crisis that began in 2007. Surin focuses his extension of Empire’s framework on the recent expansion of the financial sector through its reliance on the logic of rent and accumulating debt, and he calls for a radical politics of the common to overcome this logic. However, Surin sees the state having a more central role in this process—primarily through banking regulation—than Christian Marazzi does. Swiss economist Marazzi has had a long association with Antonio Negri, having taught Negri’s courses at the University of Padua when Negri was under investigation by the Italian police in 1977-78. He has also been widely recognized as one of the most accessible and eloquent analysts of the new, “post-Fordist” world of capitalist production that constitutes the engine of Empire.
In an interview done especially for this symposium, Marazzi applies his incisive understanding of the functional contours of post-Fordism, especially its “linguistic turn” and the enormous increase in productivity it has achieved by imposing the costs of co-production upon consumers, to the looming crisis of the Eurozone welfare economies. Marazzi argues, against the moralistic leftists who are nostalgic for Fordist stability, that the logic of finance capital is no longer peripheral or supplementary to industrial production but in fact the center of capitalist valorization. The logic and history of the Euro, as well as its deepening crisis, demonstrate this. However, its contradictions are necessarily precipitating a thorough re-organization of the Eurozone that is so intense that it may give rise to previously unthinkable pressures of disaggregation or deglobalization (the restoration of national currencies, along with nationalist protectionism, intrazone conflicts, etc.). A politics of the common may well be the only way to escape such a crisis.
The symposium concludes with a settling of accounts by Michael Hardt. This piece represents a further twist on the title of our symposium, as it addresses what we might call Empire’s future perfect, that is, its critical reception in the years immediately following its publication. That “future”, of course, happened over ten years ago and only now can be assessed with some distance. At the time, unwilling to engage in futile and sterile polemics, the authors did not respond to the most violent attacks, but Hardt is now willing to attempt an analysis of the hostility that the book encountered in a number of quarters. In particular, he reminds us how many of the accusations leveled by the Right both before and after September 11, 2001 were repeated in center-Left and even anti-imperialist circles. After a decade, it is in fact easy to recognize the truth of Hardt’s main argument: the Right immediately reacted against a successful radical text, willingly misquoting it and slandering its authors, and that was to be expected. But what is much more interesting is the fact that some Leftist critics decided to repeat, sometimes verbatim, these same attacks. Apart from the nationalist pressures generated by the events of September 11, 2001, Hardt recognizes in this hostile reception a profound truth: the alter-globalization and autonomist perspective adopted by the book was considered naïve and even dangerous by the traditionalist Marxist left, who furthermore considered the contributions to Marxism by poststructuralist critique that were also present in the book to be absolute anathema. Empire, in that sense, was the occasion to declare their disagreement with the most contemporary developments of revolutionary thought and practice: in that respect, Hardt is right to say that the first decade of the 21st century would, in many ways, make the stakes of this controversy much clearer. And even if the authors did not contradict their detractors directly, it is in fact the future of Empire – the other volumes, the research that followed in their wake, together with the continuing movements of a renewed and ever-changing Left, from Italy’s precarious workers’ movement to Occupy Wall Street – that responded to these critiques leveled by intellectuals too attached to their own theoretical assumptions to accept the collaboration of “foreign” interlopers. But cooperation and collaboration are our only hope, and our most successful practice, and as the essays clearly show, this future of Empire is not “perfect” at all, but ongoing and indeed still to come.
It is only appropriate what we should end on this particular note, as the politics of the common are indeed what we are pursuing through our research endeavors: only a few years after activists were “occupying Wall Street” in a physical enactment of collaborative political projects and life practices, we believe that this symposium is also an attempt at “occupying” the spaces of academic research in a shared attempt at better counteracting the overwhelming force of the isolation imposed on us by disciplinary boundaries and institutional pressures.
Giuseppina Mecchia is Associate Professor of French and Italian and Director of French Graduate Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She co-edited a special issue of the journal Sub-Stance on Italian Post-workerist Thought (Sub-Stance, 112, v. 36, n.1, 2007) and a special issue of the French journal Sites on The Idea of France (Sites, v.17, n.2, 2012). She has translated, edited and introduced several books of cultural critique, intellectual history and philosophy by Franco Berardi “Bifo’, Christian Marazzi and Paolo Virno. She has published essays on the politics of aesthetics in authors such as Marcel Proust, Jacques Rancière, Jean Baudrillard, Antonin Artaud, Gilles Deleuze, Paolo Virno, Elsa Morante and the Italian post-modern novel. Guiseppina’s email address is email@example.com
1. Félix Guattari and Antonio Negri, New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty (New York: Sémiotext(e), 2010), 26.
2. Timothy Murphy, Antonio Negri: Modernity and the Multitude (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 18.
3. Murphy, Antonio Negri, 19.
4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 150-151.
5. Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, 345.
6. Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, 359.