Hardt and Negri’s much lauded text has been a major talking point amongst radical left wing theorists and activists since its release in 2000, being described by some as a Capital for the 21st century, taking its dual heritage from Karl Marx and the radical materialist poststructuralism of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
The departure point presented by Hardt and Negri is that since the 1970’s society has undergone a paradigm shift which has rendered traditional forms of activism defunct, while creating an opportunity for new forms to arise. This paradigm shift is described in numerous ways throughout the text as a transition from Imperialist power to Imperial power, from the sovereignty of the nation state to the control society of the world market, from a Foucaultian disciplinary society to a Deleuzian society of control, from modernism to postmodernism or from an industrial economy to an informationalized economy.
While this in itself is not radically new – similar arguments have been made by the likes of Manuel Castells, Fredric Jameson and David Harvey – what Hardt and Negri focus on, unlike other authors, is the possibilities of resistance created by the transition to globalized capitalism.
Indeed, Hardt and Negri trace the roots of the new paradigm to the crisis of modernity presented by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, hippy, punk and other subcultural movements who expressed dissatisfaction with the homogenization and striations of a mass society. Arguing that
Capital had to confront and respond to the new production of subjectivity of the proletariat. This new production of subjectivity reached (beyond the struggle over welfare)what might be called an ecological struggle. A struggle over the mode of life. (p269)
As such, the imperial regime of Empire goes beyond the disciplinary society whereby the formation of subjectivity was tied to specific places and institutions such as the factory, the school and the prison and moves into a struggle over biopower; a struggle over life’s ability to produce and reproduce life itself. Evolving to neutralize the threat of the 1960’s counter-culture, capitalism evolved into its postmodern cultural phase, whereby
More often than not, the Empire does not create division but rather recognises existing or potential differences, celebrates them, and manages them within a general economy of command. The triple imperative of the Empire is incorporate, differentiate, manage.’ (p201)
Difference is no longer seen as a threat to the singular body of the people, but presents the opportunity to sell alternative consumer lifestyles to different groups based on their race/gender/class/taste etc. Difference is no longer an essentialist case of Other and Self, but is understood through numerous immanent and corporeal differences which afford industry the potential to sell different products to different groups of people.
Consequently, Hardt and Negri forcefully argue against numerous postmodern and postcolonial critics who advocate a politics of difference and hybridity, contending that
When we begin to consider the ideologies of corporate capital and the world market, it certainly appears that the postmodernist and postcolonial theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity and hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialism of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. (p138 )
This leads them to argue that while ‘Postmodernism is indeed the logic by which global capital operates,’ (p151) and within its cultural logic ‘Every difference is an opportunity.’ Essentially Hardt and Negri contend that while a politics of difference was a viable method of resistance to the unitary sovereign figures of modernity, globalized capitalism has incorporated aspects of these critiques within its contemporary make up.
They are however quick to emphasize that ‘The global politics of difference established by the world market is not defined by free play and equality, but by the imposition of new hierarchies, or really by a constant process of hierachization.'(p154) Globalized capitalism may respect differences with respect to consumer choices, however the mode of production and capitalist accumulation requires the creation and maintenance of new hierarchies and new forms of exploitation.
Hardt and Negri are also dismissive of the absolute relativism and rejection of truth espoused by postmodern thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard, stating that
In the context of state terror and mystification, clinging to the primacy of truth can be a powerful and necessary form of resistance. Establishing and making public the truth of the recent past… appears here as the ineluctable precondition for any democratic future. The master narratives of the Enlightenment do not seem particularly repressive here, and the concept of truth is not fluid or unstable.(p155)
Consequently, Hardt and Negri adopt a neo-Marxist position centering on production, although production within a biopolitical context which creates not only goods, but affects, social networks and communities, in other words production over all of life.
Difference, hybridity and mobility are not liberatory in themselves, but neither are truth purity and stasis. The real revolutionary practice refers to the level of production. Truth will not always make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will. Mobility and hybridity are not liberatory, but taking control of the production of mobility and stasis, purity and mixtures is. The real truth commissions of Empire will be constituent assemblies of the multitude, social factories for the production of truth.(p156)
While the vast majority of Empire is dedicated to analyzing the rise of modern sovereignty and its transition to Empire, Hardt and Negri to begin to sketch the figure of the revolutionary figure; the new social composition of the proletariat, which they see as possessing the potential to replace the exploitation of Empire. This is their conception of the multitude, a concept further explored in the sequel to Empire, which is entitled Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.
Whereas throughout modernity societies have been ruled by a Hobbsian Leviathan, a single entity, be it the Monarch, the Church, the President, the Party or the People, Hardt and Negri see the multitude as the heterogeneous assemblage of people whose diverse voices have always been overcoded by the sovereignty of the single voice which speaks for them all. The transition to an economy where immaterial labour , communication and information hold a pivotal role, allied with the massive boom in decentralized communications technologies allows for the first time, according to Hardt and Negri an absolute and global democracy, where the multitude is able to self-organize and govern itself, rather than rely on centralized forms of command and control.
Hardt and Negri stress the importance of global resistance to globalized capitalism, contending that
We believe that toward the end of challenging and resisting Empire and its world market, it is necessary to pose any alternative at an equally global level. Any proposition of a particular community in isolation, defined in racial, religious or regional terms, ‘delinked’ from Empire, shielded from its powers by fixed boundaries, is destined to end up as a kind of ghetto. Empire cannot be resisted by a project aimed at a limited, local autonomy… Globalization must be met with counter-globalization, Empire with a counter Empire. (p206)
Consequently, the figure of the heterogenous and plural cacophony of the multitude has been compared to the emergent movement which began with the protest against the WTO in Seattle and has subsequently followed the G8, WTO, IMF and other supranational capitalist institutions around the globe.
Hardt and Negri conclude then that
Far from being defeated, the revolutions of the twentieth century have each pushed forwards and transformed the terms of class conflict, posing the conditions of a new political subjectivity, an insurgent multitude against imperial power. (p394)
That the possibilities for a global and absolute democracy accompanying the overthrow of global capitalism are possible today in ways that have never previously existed. Hardt and Negri end Empire with three demands of the multitude which they see as essential starting blocks on a path to global democracy.
Firstly a universal global citizenship, ending the systems whereby markets and capital are free while people are segmented, striated and bounded to territories.
Second a social wage and guaranteed income for all, extending the social welfare of the global rich to all global citizens, ensuring that no one will starve or die of easily treatable diseases
Finally a right to reappropriation, as the current material inequalities which divide the globe serve to perpetuate the hierarchies born of capitalist exploitation and the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Reappropriation then is deemed necessary for the multitude’s right to self control and self production.
While these are only starting points, Hardt and Negri seek to avoid imposing a strictly defined teleos on the multitude, stating that
Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models of and determine when and how the possible becomes real.(p411)