Empire

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Now, ain't that some shit? The immanence of revolution, glimpsed in Charlie Chaplin, absent all those dead papers this or that dyspeptic Marxist insists on sliding under my door.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Reviewed by Aaron Shuman

Wednesday, June 14 2000, 1:33 PM


When was the last time you met a communist who proclaimed, "The dominant stream of Marxist tradition has always hated the poor, precisely for their being 'free as birds,' for being immune to the discipline of the factory and the discipline [deemed] necessary for the construction of socialism"? Continuing on, because as with many other parts of this book, you'll want to regurgitate it in great paragraph-sized chunks, like a mama bird feeding a brood: "What was really prophetic was the poor, bird-free laugh of Charlie Chaplin when, free from any utopian illusions and above all from any discipline of liberation, he interpreted the 'modern times' of poverty, but at the same time linked the name of the poor to that of life, a liberated life and a liberated productivity."

Now, ain't that some shit? The immanence of revolution, glimpsed in Charlie Chaplin, absent all those dead papers this or that dyspeptic Marxist insists on sliding under my door. Roll over Spartacists. Push out the way as many -ists or -ites as you need to make room. I'll bar the crypt door and try to keep out those grave-robbing Marxist Studies students, so you may rest. Most of them are moneychangers in the temple anyway.

But lest I get ahead of myself, let me point out that the quoted passage, and others like it in Empire, refuse to romanticize the poor, just as Antonio Negri, and translator/co-author Hardt, refuse to be Kerouac, invoking the freedom of dusky-kneed gals sitting out on porches on his walk through the dark side of town. Negri and Hardt have the self/consciousness of a post-60s generation to thank for avoiding that. But I bet they dig Kerouac, because like him, they freestyle and bust moves across a wide terrain of intellectual history, chopping up philosophers who'd refuse to sit in the same room at a university tea but are thrown together in Empire, hailed by no less an authority than Slavoj Zizek as "The Communist Manifesto for our time." Its fusions of thought may drive those who swim in schools willy-nilly, but thrills me (and I'll venture, you too) with a conception of the New World Order, and ways of challenging it, that make sense.

Negri and Hardt are saying what folks in the street at any of this year's massive demonstrations (WTO, IMF, May Day, DNC, etc.) are discovering: the kingdom of God lies within us, and we have a responsibility to each other to build it. Lest that God talk seem too far out, note that the authors begin Empire's revisionist history of globalization with the medieval and Renaissance philosophers who wrenched the powers of creativity and generation from the heavens and re-sited them on earth. Or let us root this fine philosophizing in the harsh realm of politics, as they do:

"Whereas Machiavelli proposes that the project of a new society from below requires 'arms' and 'money' and insists that we must look for them outside, Spinoza responds: Don't we already possess them? Don't the necessary weapons reside precisely within the creative and prophetic power of the multitude?"

Against these powers rises capitalism, the genius of which was to create networks to strengthen itself and the state by draining the masses and diffusing their power. Negri and Hardt cite U.S. constitutionalism as the platform for Empire, the key revving the engine of capitalism towards a globally unified world, the base from which the multitude's power (represented by popular culture) was projected into air, then cyberspace.

To say that the U.S. set the paradigm for Empire, however, is not to say that the U.S. controls it, and it's here where Negri and Hardt begin to diverge from conventional Leftist critiques of globalization. Proclaiming "reality is not dialectical; colonialism is," the authors sweep away all the false binaries-black/white, man/woman, etc., that have straitjacketed human identity for centuries, as well as the faith in history as evolution towards a transcendent ideal, as embodied by King, Church, or State. In globalization's erosion of national borders, sovereignty, and identities, and its production of a transnational, free-floating working-class, Negri and Hardt argue it has never been more possible to realize the good ol' spirit of proletarian internationalism. The multitude has never been so empowered to create and project itself, and imperial power, in its Web-like dispersal, in its utter dependence on our biopower to feed it, has never potentially been so weak.

Elsewhere, Negri and Hardt note, "constituent power upsets the dialectic," by which they mean: the power of being, the power to create and from those creations build alternative networks and ways of interacting that contest those we inherit, as well as the power we gain by learning and growing in the process-can supersede the imperial forces that constrain us. Celebrating the passage from popular culture to people's culture, or from a representational culture to a constituent culture we make, Negri and Hardt are evangelists for the collective power gained when Keanu's decoupled from The Matrix.

You'll have to buy the book to buy the argument, to see where it diverges fromWired-style or indie rock entrepreneurialism (and it does so, markedly.) George McKay's DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain (Verso, 1998) is a book similar in effect but more rapidly digestible, and time is of the essence these days. Forsaking Empire's panoramic view of a history whose revolution is immanent, McKay compiles careful case studies of the fractal movements that are making it.

But the real value of Empire, besides its restoration of people power to the center of Marxist historiography, lies in the intellectual credence and weight it gives the forms of political organizing and protest emerging now. When they hit you with Victorian novels like Das Kapital, you hit them with Empire. That is, if you have the time or desire to stop building, to engage in such conversation.

Empire is available from Harvard University Press  

Copyright © 2000 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.
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