Empire Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 2000, 478pp. h.b.
reviewed by MC5, January 6, 2001
Recommending Empire to us, an anonymous writer told MIM that if there is an anti-Christ, then this book is the anti-MIM. Upon reading the book, MIM can see why this correct thought occurred to the little birdie who wrote us. It handles many of the same topics MIM covered in "Imperialism and Its Class Structure in1997," available free on our web page. While MIM is not mentioned, the book is talking to us.
Having published the "Black Book" on the alleged "crimes" of communism two years ago, in 2000 Harvard University Press regaled us with a book openly claiming to be communist, a work of theory proclaiming to offer a new synthesis of Marxism in ponderous academic language approved by numerous reviewers including Etienne Balibar and others who said it is a grand rewriting of the "Communist Manifesto." In fact, it is tempting to say that Empire's description of contemporary reality and offer to re-write Marxism is the intersection of Amerikan business pulp with academic post- modernism; however, in actual fact, MIM does appreciate this book above all for its self- consciousness.
While most people calling themselves communist in the imperialist countries have long ago abandoned the labor theory of value and continue to agitate for the demands of the labor aristocracy and have learned nothing of social- democracy's role in clearing the way for fascism and war, Hardt and Negri retain enough scientific sensibility to realize that they have accounts to settle with the labor theory of value and numerous other propositions of Marxism- Leninism-Maoism. Wherever MIM would uphold a thesis of how the imperialist world works, Hardt and Negri rarely refute MIM with data, especially not economic data, but they do offer an alternative theoretical proposition. Since the large mass of anarchists and non-party Mensheviks have already headed in the direction that Hardt and Negri point to, we can expect this book to have some impact amongst the intelligentsia.
Empire The title of the book arises because of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the phenomenon of globalization, which is world trade with fewer political restrictions. Hardt and Negri deny that the new world order is explicitly Amerikan.(e.g., p. xiii) Rather, U.$. power has projected itself to such an extent that it truly has united the world under one roof, where the nation- state has little relevance anymore according to Hardt & Negri.
In much of the book, the authors use the word "imperialism" to refer to what existed until the Vietnam War. In the last quarter century, we have had "Empire," which is the seamless whole with no center according to Hardt & Negri. In contrast, MIM uses the word "imperialism" to mean the highest stage of capitalism and we refer to "colonialism" to cover much of what Hardt & Negri call "imperialism." We believe we have been in the same era of "imperialism" since Lenin wrote about it.
Perhaps rewriting dialectics itself while still seeing a world as an interconnected whole, Hardt & Negri say, "In the constitution of Empire there is no longer an 'outside' to power and thus no longer weak links--if by weak link we mean an external point where the articulations of global power are vulnerable."(p. 58) As a result, they say, "the virtual center of Empire can be attacked from any point. The tactical preoccupations of the old revolutionary school are thus completely irretrievable."(p. 59)
What is the proletariat?
As far as MIM knows, there are still people starving to death in 7 or 8 digit figures each year. Many more are homeless and lack adequate medical care. The discipline called for from the dire situation of the Third World exploited and super-exploited is not the discipline that Hardt & Negri call for. "When we speak of the militant, we are not thinking of anything like the sad, ascetic agent of the Third International whose soul was deeply permeated by Soviet state reason. . . . We are thinking of nothing like that and of no one who acts on the basis of duty and discipline."(pp. 411-2)
In contrast, what Hardt & Negri do is glorify aspects of parasitism by renaming them resistance by the most advanced proletariat in the world, perhaps centered in "what was going on in Haight- Ashbury and across the United States in the 1960s."(p. 274) They are referring to doing heavy drugs and "dropping out."
Next they refer to "CP" time, which refers to workers moving slowly at "Colored People's" time, and also they talk about "the young woman who refused to get married and make a family."(p. 274) Hence, they draw a picture of lack of discipline as the true resistance to Empire, true proletarian characteristics--things that MIM would just as often see as examples of the decadence of imperialism.
Having blathered about "democracy" here and there, Hardt & Negri do not surprise MIM by saying that laziness is the hallmark of the proletariat. Too many people reason backward from what a majority or large number of people do and conclude it must be proletarian in imperialist countries. They have social-democratic and populist prejudices and are completely taken aback when MIM says the proletariat is tiny to non-existent in major imperialist countries.
For MIM, aversion to work, laziness, lack of discipline--these have an ambiguous impact in imperialist society. If the workers say they have the right to be lazy while they support imperialism to extract super-profits, the result is pure decadence, not proletarian life. In fact, this is what is happening--lazy enjoyment of parasitic life, now encouraged by Hardt & Negri who say the Leninist style party of the Third International is passe.
MIM is old-fashioned this way. We see no change from the times of Marx or Lenin on this score and we still see a hierarchy of needs as characterizing humyns--and no, LSD is not one of them. We count on people like Hardt & Negri to let us know when this is no longer the case. Already they do not think twice about counting entertainment service workers as proletarians and an increasing portion of the proletariat to boot.(p. 292) No doubt the paid skippers of yachts and drivers of race cars and monster trucks are important to the communist movement, and it was terrible of Marx not to count service-workers such as butlers as producing value.
Hardt & Negri alternate between acknowledging the realities of which MIM speaks and then forgetting them: "The geographical and racial lines of oppression and exploitation that were established during the era of colonialism and imperialism have in many respects not declined but instead increased exponentially."(p. 43) Later they will say that the Third World and First World proletariat are already united.
Not surprisingly, Hardt & Negri talk about the proletariat as if it were Europeans and Amerikans, with Russians thrown in now and then as the exception that proves the rule. "mechanisms of command become ever more 'democratic,' ever more immanent to the social field, distributed throughout the brains and bodies of the citizens."(p. 23)
As far as MIM knows, it is only in the imperialist countries that more than half the people hold white-collar jobs. College for more than half is not the norm. In fact, last we checked, to go to college means that someone feeds, clothes and shelters the student, unless that student is a work-study student to a sufficient degree, something that rarely happens even when there is work-study, because such "work" is usually parasitic in the imperialist countries. In other words, the privilege of college education in this world is still essentially the deposit of capital in the brains of elites, capital with its origins in the Third World.
In contradiction with themselves, Hardt & Negri admit that "constant capital tends to be constituted and represented within variable capital, in the brains, bodies, and cooperation of productive subjects."(p. 385) There is nothing new about this idea of putting capital into someone's brain. Marx already recognized it as a hallmark of the petty-bourgeoisie. Contrary, to Hardt & Negri who call for "reappropriation"(p. 406) of the capital in their own brains by white-collar workers, the capital placed in those brains is what makes those people not proletarian. There is a class conflict over such capital and no proletarian content to be calling for the autonomy of such producers.
Hardt & Negri say, "we are faced once again with the analytical task of understanding the new composition of the proletariat as a class."(p. 53) Since MIM believes this will result in another round of dominant nation chauvinism and imperialist apologetics, MIM prefers that these post- modernists write a book about why the very definition of proletariat changed and who changed the definition.
What is value?
Hardt & Negri are aware that the labor theory of value would tend in the MIM-type direction, so it is quite scientifically responsible of them to abdicate it in the open. We are not saying that they did a thorough job in coming to terms with the theory of value, and they toss the concept of use- value in a sentence,(p. 386) but the step toward responsibility is remarkable in itself.
Echoing countless bourgeois business pulp authors justifying the gap between the rich nations and poor ones, Hardt & Negri come up with a Marxist veneer, "The central role previously occupied by the labor power of mass factory workers in the production of surplus value is today increasingly filled by intellectual, immaterial, and communicative labor power. It is thus necessary to develop a new political theory of value that can pose the problem of this new capitalist accumulation of value at the center of the mechanism of exploitation (and thus, the center of potential revolt)."(p. 29) In other words, whatever the white workers are doing must be most advanced instead of an expression of parasitism. If in the past the most advanced class was the industrial proletariat, today it is the Third World with a disproportionate share of such people with the outlook of "nothing to lose but their chains" and Hardt & Negri conclude that industrial work is not most advanced anymore.
According to Hardt & Negri, who make no thorough examination of Marx's theory of surplus-value, all that matters is that workers be dominated by capital to be counted as proletarian.(p. 256) There are three new areas of work that Hardt & Negri want counted as "proletarian," areas which they implicitly recognize Marx did not count: "the communicative labor of industrial production that has newly become linked in informational networks, the interactive labor of symbolic analysis and problem solving, and the labor of the production and manipulation of affects," (p. 30) this last point loved by pseudo-feminists of academia no doubt. Such grandstanding is the purpose of the theory, and later Hardt & Negri prove it by tossing the theory of value altogether into the category of ineffable ontology(pp. 355-6, 365)-- mysticism so prevalent in post-modernism.
Such a conception destroys Marx's concept of surplus-value completely. In the year 2001 it remains true that there is a big distinction between the car sold to someone and the car sitting in the dealer's lot with no owner. Too many unsold goods not only influence credit but result in a profit crisis for the capitalists. Hardt & Negri's preferred theory offers no insight into that. Likewise, they offer no way to determine what is parasitic existence and what is not. Yet this is not surprising, since Hardt & Negri offer the demand for a universal salary and acceptance of whatever degree of work people do as they choose.
Another consequence of what Hardt & Negri say is that there is no theoretical limit to how much workers can sit around contemplating technology at their desks. There is no sense of necessity to Hardt & Negri, but that does not surprise us, because no one is starving or even needs food, shelter and clothing anymore in what they call the post-modern world. "In postmodernity the social wealth accumulated is increasingly immaterial; it involves social relations, communication systems, information, and affective networks."(p. 258) Hardt & Negri are essentially telling us that Empire is a new progressive phase of capitalism such that new forms of wealth are accumulated. They draw an analogy to how capitalism was superior to previous modes of production.(p. 43)
"Freedom is the recognition of necessity," and such knowledge is the same thing as understanding the need for science. In typical academic fashion where something must be new to be published, Hardt & Negri talk about something new in the imperialist countries as if they were the whole world and not a minority of it.
Oppressor nation anarchism
Hardt & Negri disappeared U.$. global dominance, but much more important is their disappearance of all national division between oppressor and oppressed: "the worker struggles [in the Vietnam War era--MC5] throughout the domain of international capital already decreed the end of the division between First and Third Worlds and the potential political integration of the entire global proletariat. . . With this objective convergence and accumulation of struggles, Third Worldist perspectives, which may earlier have had a limited utility, were now completely useless."(p. 264) They also reject the idea that the world is divided into bourgeois countries and proletarian countries, put forward in one book about Africa.(footnote, p. 457)
Hence, without a single economic statistic, Hardt and Negri dismissed the economic basis for national oppression in recent times. It is the type of thing intellectuals do and that Marx criticized in his essay on the "Poverty of Philosophy." Hardt & Negri are involved in creating a new political mythology of the white proletariat--economic facts of life be damned.
Their opportunism has received tremendous encouragement around the world in the international communist movement by those who reason first from political generalities and methods instead of the class structure as it actually exists. They throw about terms like "ultraleft" and "opportunist" and "sectarian" without knowing where they are going with such terms used by political helmspeople. Political steering can only have meaning when people know where they stand with both feet on the ground and where they are going. Otherwise, such words tossed about are mere expressions of pre- scientific prejudice, usually of the social-democratic and populist sorts.
The most advanced proletariat in the world, they say
According to Hardt & Negri, the imperialist country workers used to be "labor aristocracy." With the transition to Empire, however, Hardt & Negri say the imperialist country workers became the most advanced again: "The imperialist advantages of any national working class had begun to whither away. The common struggles of the proletariat in the subordinate countries took away the possibility of the old imperialist strategy of transferring the crisis from the metropolitan terrain to its subordinate territories."(p. 263) One thing for sure, economic statistics are not a strong suit for Hardt & Negri. Once again, with a few strokes of the pen, Hardt & Negri claim to have healed the international schism in the working-class. We could not help wondering why they did not bother to proclaim communism with their pens too, just as Progressive Labor Party proclaimed communism's existence--in its party!
"We can get a first hint of this determinant role of the proletariat by asking ourselves how throughout the crisis the United States was able to maintain its hegemony. The answer lies in large part, perhaps paradoxically, not in the genius of the U.S. politicians or capitalists, but in the power and creativity of the U.S. proletariat. . . the U.S. proletariat appears as the subjective figure that expressed most fully the desires and needs of international or multinational workers."(p. 269) So further down the well- traveled road of imperialist country "worker" chauvinism Hardt & Negri tread.
Speaking aloud, Hardt & Negri were not able to discern that they were talking about a petty- bourgeoisie, not a proletariat. "Against the common wisdom that the U.S. proletariat is weak because of its low party and union representation with respect to Europe and elsewhere, perhaps we should see it as strong for precisely those reasons. Working-class power resides not in the representative institutions but in the antagonism and autonomy of the workers themselves."(p. 269) Hardt & Negri are indeed educated anarchists. They just did not follow their thought through to the end. What do we call such a large mass of people amongst the highest paid in the world but who did it without labor organizing relative to the rest of the world? What class has its power in "autonomy"? That class is the petty-bourgeoisie, in its historical form of "labor aristocracy" in this case. This class had the super- profits handed to them, not for labor organizing but for supporting imperialism.
The petty-bourgeoisie is the class with the illusion of independence, floating above the proletariat and the imperialists and their respective class disciplines. What Hardt & Negri have discovered is their infatuation with the petty-bourgeoisie able to rise "for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism"(p. 294) in their work on the Internet and other new-fangled gadgets used by that "most advanced" class. While these "most advanced" "proletarians" are talking about the goods they want on the Internet, some workers are actually manufacturing them.
MIM's sense of alliance
In conclusion, if people like Hardt & Negri did not write this kind of material palatable to the post-modern academic Establishment, the issues in the book would not get any academic coverage at all. On the other hand, if they gave up their day jobs, we'd bet they'd make good artists.
Then there is the matter of their impact in the activist world. On this point we have considerable concern. With several sweeping generalizations typical of the whole book, with a few flourishes of the pen, Hardt & Negri have declared national oppression abolished. Their denial of U.$. dominance and portrayal of an Empire with no center is essentially in the interests of the white workers to be equated once again with the Third World workers. With the theory of "immaterial labor," Hardt & Negri move boldly to put the white workers within the proletariat at the presumed head of the communist movement once again, a move which is to put the petty-bourgeois line at the head of the international communist movement.
MIM cares little for the subjectivities of the people of the imperialist countries, but Hardt & Negri make the production of those subjectivities a centerpiece of their book. To them, the Soviet bloc fell apart because it could not motivate its people; even though technologically and militarily it was even with the other bloc.(p. 278) The collapse of the Soviet bloc was simply an inevitable transition to post-modernity, they say.
Whatever small portion of subjectivities MIM can influence successfully in the imperialist countries, MIM will not change its approach simply to influence a quantitatively larger number. Hardt & Negri refer to us as "Third Worldist" and they are correct, because we point to the scientific truth that the subjectivities of the Third World will play the more important role. Most people calling themselves communist in the imperialist countries are busy producing subjectivities that will contribute to fascism. It is better that such people sleep than to be awakened by pre-scientific communists and revisionists.
Nonetheless, we consider Hardt & Negri allies to the extent that they have correctly identified that fanning the flames for imperialist protectionism are not the road forward. Like Hardt & Negri, we believe the appropriate response to globalization is not to whine about "our" imperialists going abroad to find workers. That is the response of the propertied with something to lose. Our response is to agitate for an international minimum wage--guaranteed income in Hardt & Negri's case.(p. 403) We are for the opening of borders,(p. 400) not immigration restrictions playing into fascist hands. All this is a way of saying that we should enter into the globalized imperialist terrain and fight there and not attempt to drag the imperialists back to the previous terrain.(pp. 45-6)
It is fine that Hardt & Negri consciously reject MIM-style discipline. They forgot there are people starving to death by the minute and are no longer driven by such facts of life. They deny that they are anarchists, but we are more comfortable calling them "the better anarchists" (but not as good as Sakai) than saying they are communists, but maybe they are "communist anarchists." Their models of activity are the Wobblies-- the International Workers of the World (IWW).(pp. 207, 412)
That's OK, because most of the people calling themselves communist in the imperialist countries have a pseudo-discipline of the Khruschev style anyway, and they make it a profession to be at least one step behind in the struggle against revisionism, still denying or at least debating whether or not it was the bourgeoisie in the party that restored capitalism in the Soviet bloc and whether or not it was the labor aristocracy that dragged down the communist movement of the imperialist countries. Increasingly, MIM expects that it will be in dialogue with the partially parasitic elements of our movement led by the likes of Hardt & Negri. To our right, a new revisionism is taking shape to waste the next revolutionary upsurge, so there may be greater hopes in the radical petty-bourgeoisie like Hardt & Negri.
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