Empire: Not So Evil

In Empire, described as a "heady treatise on globalization," co-author Michael Hardt says the age of imperialism has given way to a web of relationships--economic, political, cultural--that overcomes traditional borders and barriers.

Michael Hardt is riding a wave of relevance. It's been a heady voyage for someone now dubbed a fast-rising academic star. But it's not been without its rough spots.

Hardt, a Duke associate professor of literature, was labeled by no less a cultural arbiter than The New York Times as "the latest contender for academia's next master theorist." The buzz surrounding Hardt, as the newspaper put it in a July profile, concerns Empire, "a heady treatise on globalization." The book is co-authored by Hardt and Anthony Negri, listed on the dust jacket as a former political science professor and more recently "an independent researcher and writer and an inmate at Rebibbia Prison, Rome." It was published by Harvard University Press in March of last year. Since then, translation rights have been sold in fourteen countries, including Japan and Croatia; the leading Brazilian newspaper has placed it on the cover of its Sunday magazine; Dutch television has broadcast a documentary about it; and Hardt has given more than two dozen academic talks along with an equal number of press interviews.

The book portrays a new global reality functioning along the lines of the World Wide Web: It's fluid, infinitely expanding, all-embracing. To accent the all-embracing quality of Empire, the two authors coin the word "biopower"--a determinism that, as they interpret it, carries a certainty beyond economic determinism. Biopower means "a control that extends through the depths of the consciousness and the bodies of the population--and at the same time across the entirety of social relations."

But Hardt and Negri don't regard this web of relationships as just some new brand of imperialism. Rather, they envision the end of imperialism, which involved nation-states vying for economic advantage. Empire suggests optimism about Empire: Because it disperses power and resists any kind of central control, it has great democratic potential. "Empire creates a greater potential for revolution than did the modern regimes of power," according to the book, "because it presents us, alongside the machine of command, with an alternative: the set of all the exploited and the subjugated, a multitude that is directly opposed to Empire, with no mediation between them." As they declare near the end of the book, "the fact that against the old powers of Europe a new Empire has formed is only good news."

If the Web is a metaphor for the emerging Empire, there's a historical parallel with the Roman Empire. Hardt says the Roman Empire was thought to be a great innovation because it combined monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy in a single structure. Empire today has aspects of monarchy--for example, in the presumed absolute rule of the World Trade Organization; of aristocracy, in transnational corporations and dominant nation-states that often call the shots on the world stage; and, perhaps most interestingly to him, of democracy, including non-governmental organizations and the border-leaping media.

Hardt also sees a kind of model for the new form of global power in American history. He notes that the Founding Fathers, after all, looked to ancient Rome as they envisioned the American Republic, and so they put in place a system that accommodated "multiplicity and unity" alike. As the book puts it, the U.S. constitutional project "is constructed on the model of re-articulating an open space and reinventing incessantly diverse and singular relations in networks across an unbounded terrain." (The authors don't treat that project as unfailingly positive; in their view, racial subordination and the expansionist Monroe Doctrine are aspects of the American Empire.)

Hardt and Negri discerned their theory at work last summer, when protests greeted the meeting in Genoa of the Group of Eight. Writing in the opinion pages of The New York Times, they said the protests were based on the recognition that no national power is in control of the current global order. That's not an unhappy development, as they see it: The world is a better place if it can no longer be understood in terms of British, French, Russian, or even American imperialism. But the new order has no democratic institutional mechanisms for representation, as nation-states do--no elections, no public forum for debate. "The protests themselves have become global movements, and one of their clearest objectives is the democratization of globalizing processes," said the two writers. This should not be called an "anti-globalization movement." It is rather "an alternative globalization movement," a democratic wave that's aimed at eliminating inequalities and deepening self-determination.

With the rise of such global players as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, how can the nation-state have a certain fate? Princeton political scientist Robert Gilpin, for one, insists that "the nation-state continues to be the major actor in both domestic and international affairs." It has been around for more than three centuries, he points out; effective international institutions have existed for half a century, while non-governmental organizations have been active for just a couple of decades. Many of those institutions and organizations can't function without the sanction of the nation-state. Likewise, in his view, many of the problems pegged to economic globalization are the consequences of national policies--notably the destruction of the Amazon forest, caused principally by the Brazilian government's national development policies.

In his book Global Political Economy, Gilpin also disputes the supposedly unprecedented level of global economic integration. "As the twenty-first century opens, the world is not as well integrated as it was in a number of respects prior to World War I," he writes. "Under the gold standard and the influential doctrine of laissez-faire, for example, the decades prior to World War I were an era when markets were truly supreme and governments had little power over economic affairs. Trade, investment, and financial flows were actually greater in the late 1800s, at least relative to the size of national economies and the international economy, than they are today." Historians of economics note that before World War I, half of British savings were invested overseas--far more than is now the case for the U.S. or any other country.

Other analysts point out that borders were, if anything, more fluid in the past. Exactly one month before the events of September 11, The New York Times offered a skeptical look at the novelty of today's globalization. Before World War I, "There were no passports and virtually no restrictions on immigration, making for perhaps the biggest migration in human history." By one estimate reported in the article, one-seventh of the world's working-age population migrated across national boundaries between 1870 and 1925. In more recent times, the U.S. may be the only country to have boasted a relatively open immigration policy.

It's not so much that, by his theory, the nation-state is fading, Hardt says; rather, the nation-state is contending with competing power centers. "What has changed about nation-states is that they are no longer the ultimate sovereign authority within and certainly outside of their own territories. That doesn't mean that nation-states are no longer important. It means that they function within a larger structure." So in allowing the clear-cutting of forests, the Brazilian government has to be attentive to larger economic forces--like the debt-relief demands of international lending agencies.

And trade figures, he says, are not the only indicators of an integrated world. The notion of "control" is more interesting to him. "In sub-Saharan Africa, there's very little production, very little consumption. What there is, though, is a lot of debt. And one could say that debt is a primary weapon of Empire," that debt is "a disciplining mechanism" in regulating the flow of capital.

All of that makes it tough for today's dissidents to find a convenient demon. "If there's no center of power, we no longer have a Winter Palace to storm," said Hardt last summer, speaking on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. "We can't just attack the White House because, in fact, the system is much more difficult to grasp than any of its specific actors."

Two months later came the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Early in the morning of September 11, Hardt was meeting with a reporter for The Washington Post in New York, where he's on leave for the year. From his midtown apartment, he watched the strange spectacle of financial-district workers walking north from the shattered downtown. Applying the theory of Empire to the brutal nature of events, he sees the terrorists' targeting of the U.S. as senseless; he also says a U.S. response may not be adequate. "The general interpretation of September 11 is that it was a strike at the center of the global power structure. By our conception in Empire, that's wrong. In fact, it's wrong in the same way that those who think the U.S. can act unilaterally and dictate world affairs by itself are wrong. These are parallel misconceptions."

Hardt says the evolution of an anti-terror coalition--embracing as it does Russia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and potentially even Syria and Sudan, long accused of harboring terrorists--is an indicator of Empire. "It may be that this war coalition is in fact a formation of a new kind of power, a super-national kind of power. One of our fundamental claims is that the U.S. is not the world's sole and central actor, that the U.S. can't just dictate world affairs and force others to line up behind its lead."

That assessment echoes the book's discussion of the 1991 Gulf War--an event that the two authors peg as announcing "the birth of a new world order." Hardt and Negri write that the importance of the Gulf War derives "from the fact that it presented the United States as the only power able to manage international justice, not as a function of its own national motives but in the name of global right." While the U.S. showed itself to be the essential power--the "peace police"--it also rationalized its response in terms of international legal norms.

To Hardt, it's simplistic to insist that "everything changed on September 11." Terrorist networks, after all, are just one of the fluid forces of Empire. "Here we have an enemy that has no center; it's more serpentine, it's a distributed network rather than a centralized system. That requires not only a rethinking but a different kind of strategy in attacking it. It's not clear to me that a state structure can combat adequately a non-state enemy." Spreading the idea of democratic inclusion and participation may be the best weapon, he says. "Long-term security only comes from an increase in democracy. Constructing democracy on a global scale is a huge challenge, but that seems to me the most important objective to pursue. That doesn't necessarily conflict with the normal police activity of bringing the perpetrators of the crime to justice. These are separate issues in a way, but just one of them is a long-term and lasting solution."

Long-term or short-term, the campaign in Afghanistan is widely seen as targeting a religion-infused extremism. In Empire, Hardt and Negri write that the current forms of Islamic fundamentalism (and fundamentalism in general) should not be understood as a return to past social forms and values. As they describe it in the book, such fundamentalism "is not a premodern but a postmodern project" that "has to be recognized primarily in its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony." Fundamentalism and postmodern thinking are, then, both linked to Empire. "One has the ultimate security of the text and the truth of the Word," says Hardt. "And the other, postmodernism, is all about playfulness and relativism. Yet, we're claiming that they're similar to the extent that they are responding to the emergence of Empire."

But critics haven't been quick to embrace such linkages. Writing in The New Republic just after the September attacks, Alan Wolfe questions the authors' assumptions about "the progressive potential of Islamic fundamentalism," in his own phrase. For his part, Hardt says, "I guess one couldn't say that it's progressive at all; I'd say it's contemporary, which doesn't mean that it's progressive. And it's postmodern, in the sense that it's a reaction against tendencies of Westernization within the Islamic world."

Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, also savages the book as an apology for anarchism on a worldwide scale. "If it is true, as Hardt and Negri blithely claim, that efforts to find legitimate reasons for intervening in world affairs are only a smokescreen for the exercise of hegemonic power, then the way is cleared for each and every illegitimate act of global intervention."

"I was doing this radio show, and the announcer was just attacking me the whole time," Hardt says. "He was saying I'm responsible for September 11 because I supported anti-globalization. Well, for one thing, equating breaking Starbucks windows with killing 5,000 people seems to me very unusual. But he was upset because I wasn't willing to condemn all forms of violence. I do think there are times when political violence is useful and justified--the American Revolution being one, the struggles against fascism in occupied France and Italy being another. That doesn't mean that I support breaking Starbucks windows at demonstrations. In fact, I don't. Breaking windows and intentionally provoking police is very destructive to the movement and inappropriate in the contemporary context. But I don't oppose political violence on categorical grounds. These things have to be decided in context."

The National Review, in an essay headlined "Evil Empire," dismissed the book as "a political manifesto with the aim of laying out a new guise for Communism." As the essay summarizes the book's argument, "It is essential for Communists to gain control of the history of the Cold War, in order to be able to claim that they were right all along, and we must start the whole experiment over again in some form adapted to today's circumstances. That is what this hot, smart book is all about. Karl Marx it was who said that great events appear 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.' Duke University is a lost cause, it may well be, but even at The New York Times, Time magazine, and Harvard University Press, you'd think they might be able to dispense with frissons and spot farce for themselves."

Harvard University Press, in promoting the book, dispenses with the language of dreary political science; the press calls it "an unabashedly utopian work of political philosophy, a new Communist Manifesto." But Hardt doesn't consider himself an apologist for Lenin, Stalin, or even Marx. The Soviet and Nazi experiments "were both horrible," he says. He sees totalitarian tendencies as inherent in the nation-state. "What we argue, perhaps in an exaggerated way, is against the nation-state as such, claiming that the nation-state, in all its forms, is a hierarchical and repressive organ, and eventually an obstacle to democracy."

"Many friends, and maybe some who are not friends, ask me why we maintain the word 'communism' when in a certain common understanding, it means something different from our meaning," he says. "Some seem to understand it as centralized state control, planned economy, tyranny. Others have criticized me for insisting on maintaining the word 'democracy'--for saying, that is, that the central project is to reinvent democracy for the world. Throughout the modern era, democracy was fundamentally tied to the nation-state and functioned within nation-states. The mechanisms of representation and expression that we have--labor unions, civic groups of various kinds that institutionalize democracy--were all national institutions. Today, in order to construct a global democracy, one can't simply magnify these institutions for the new terrain. They have to be fundamentally transformed. In other words, we can't just have global voting for, say, the head of the IMF.

"What I think we need, and I know this is an ambitious task, is the same kind of reinvention of democracy that was accomplished in early modern Europe. They didn't simply take the Athenian notion of democracy and plant it in Paris and London; they reinvented it for the nation-state. In the same way that I think democracy has to be reinvented and mean something different, I think, too, that the concept of communism needs to be reinvented and mean something different than it has previously. I see them as fundamentally linked."

In conversation, then, Hardt comes across less as a relentless firebrand than an engaging idealist. Still, he has had to fend off accusations against his co-author, Antonio Negri. The National Review calls Negri "the brains behind the Red Brigades," the Italian terrorist group that operated in the Seventies. A similarly hostile New Republic declares that "the question of whether Negri was himself a violence-prone terrorist is still open." The evidence makes it a closed question, according to Hardt. He says that Autonomia Operaia, the leftist group with which Negri was associated, was not a terrorist organization. "It was a political group that did some violent things, but it wasn't a terrorist group by any consideration. He's never been charged with nor convicted of any acts associated with terrorism. He's been charged with and convicted of being responsible for acts of political violence. And he's been held responsible for them not on the basis that his writings led to the acts--not owing to his having knowledge of or participation in the acts--but because his writings identified him as a leader of a group."

Hardt says he thinks it's important to be accurate about "the political past," but also to separate it from a contemporary context. "Both in legal terms and in terms of general moral responsibility, his writings supported acts of political violence. That's true. One could think that Negri, in the years since the 1970s, has changed his thinking about such things. Or one could think that the times have changed, and that he views these times differently than he views the past. At least in my mind, our book doesn't promote or condone or even deal with the question of political violence except in the broad sense, in terms of state violence."

He doesn't feel an obligation to crusade on behalf of Negri (now serving a loose form of house arrest in Rome), Hardt says. But he adds that it's satisfying to see his co-author, through the success of the book, being "transformed from an old political leader from the Seventies to an international philosopher."

It was along a zig-zaggy intellectual path that Hardt found Negri as an intellectual collaborator. Hardt grew up outside Washington, D.C.; his father was a Sovietologist specializing in economics at the Library of Congress. At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he studied engineering. This was the late Seventies, when the nation was in the midst of its energy crisis, and Hardt was drawn to alternative energy sources. During vacations, he worked at a factory in Italy making solar panels. "Not only exploring alternative forms of energy, but also bringing technology to different parts of the world seemed like a form of political activity to me," he says. "Then I recognized the limitations of technology; I was working as an engineer and it no longer seemed rewarding to me, partly in a political sense."

Hardt moved to Seattle in 1983, and he later earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Washington. In the same period, he worked in Guatemala and El Salvador for the Christian Sanctuary Movement, which gave church shelter in the U.S. to refugees from the "dirty wars" in Central America. "I remember having El Salvadorans telling me, 'it's very nice that you're here, but you should go home and make a revolution at home.' That seemed utterly impossible at the time. But I learned a lot from them. Most importantly they taught me that the process of politics itself is a collective, a joyful activity."

As an academic generalist in a market that values specialization, Hardt found the process of landing a job less than joyful. He applied to French, Italian, English, political science, and philosophy departments. Finally, in 1993, he took a job in the Italian department at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and quickly found himself at some intellectual remove from his colleagues. "I went to a conference on Marx and deconstruction," he told The New York Times. "I listened to a series of papers that were so convoluted and abstract. The speakers said they were talking about politics, but I couldn't understand a thing political about them. I was so frustrated after the weekend that on the Monday after, I called the state prison commission and found out how I could volunteer teaching at the local prison."

In 1994, he moved to Duke's literature program as an assistant professor. He says he felt from the start that he had found an intellectual home, that Duke in general and the program in particular "recognize the importance of interdisciplinary studies." Typically, he says, interdisciplinary scholars establish themselves in a particular discipline before they feel comfortable branching out. "I remember thinking when I first came to Duke that I hoped that I could get job where I'd be tolerated. I didn't expect to get one where I'd actually be appreciated."

By that time, he was already collaborating with Negri on Empire. (He says this is a pure kind of co-authorship: "The book is not written in my voice, it's not written in his voice. It's as if there were a third voice that we've adopted for the project. I try to write what he might say, he tries to write what I might say, but we end up talking in a language that's neither mine nor his.") In the mid-Eighties, Hardt had asked a friend to introduce them during a visit to Paris, where Negri had fled to avoid serving his jail sentence. "It seemed to me that he'd found a way to bring together his political interests and his scholarly interests," Hardt says of his collaborator. "I had felt that I had political interests on the one hand and then scholarly interests on the other. They never had anything to do with one another. Even the prospect of combining them seemed completely false."

Some scholars praise Empire for its power of synthesis; they say the book provides a needed spark, even a grand unified theory, to humanities fields like English, history, and philosophy. The writers don't just outline a new political system and new power relationships. They also offer a remarkably sweeping intellectual history, stretching from imperial Rome to Haitian slave revolts, and an equally remarkable range of thinkers, from Machiavelli to Foucault. And Hardt is a quiet proselytizer for the breaking down of barriers between disciplines. "I'd be pleased if we moved toward a more interdisciplinary paradigm. Certainly globalization and questions of empire engage with questions in the humanities and in the social sciences quite directly and quite broadly."

Thoroughly affable in manner, unfailingly graduate-student casual in dress, Hardt, the academic star illuminating this new Empire, is in many ways a traditional academic. He certainly doesn't see himself as a revolutionary. Despite the exuberant prose of his publisher, he resists calling the book a manifesto or a call to arms. The book is essentially "an analysis of the contemporary global situation rather than a proposition for its transformation," he says. It is geared to scholars and students, he says, not to the restless masses.

In the final passage of Empire, he and Negri write about communism, cooperation, and revolution. They also make references to "love," "simplicity," and "innocence," in the context of the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. "Francis in opposition to nascent capitalism refused every instrumental discipline, and in opposition to the mortification of the flesh...he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature, the animals, sister moon, brother sun, the birds of the field, the poor and exploited humans, together against the will of power and corruption."

So that's the end point in this phase of Michael Hardt's political journey: not a looking forward to a utopian vision, but a looking backward to the quiet dignity of an individual.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor