Sunday July 15, 2001An unlikely book by a left-wing academic and an Italian prisoner is taking America by storm. It argues that globalisation, far from seeing off Communism, is the vehicle for powerful new forms of protest. World leaders might do well to take it to Genoa this week
How often can it happen that a book is swept off the shelves until you can’t find a copy in New York for love nor money? The central library’s edition is reserved for the foreseeable future. Amazon’s promise that the volume ‘usually ships within 24 hours’ is rendered absurd. The publisher has sold out, is reprinting and gearing up for a paperback.
Such intense interest is strange since Empire is hardly a blockbuster; it is a dense, 500-page tome by a jailed Italian revolutionary and a previously unheard-of American academic called Michael Hardt. Stranger still because the book rehabilitates the C-word, ‘communism’ – not despite the fall of the Berlin Wall but because of it – along the corridors of respectable academe and on to the streets of Genoa, venue for this week’s Group of Eight summit.
It is matter of Zeitgeist. Hardt, with his co-author Antonio Negri, a political dissident in the tumultuous 1970s in Italy, has become the unwitting sage (and critic) of the movement thrown up by demonstrations in Seattle, Prague and Gothenberg and written a book about that the theme dominating us and the headlines we read: globalisation.
But Hardt has done more. Last week the New York Times was quoting eminent professors describing it as ‘nothing less than a re-writing of the communist manifesto for our time’ and the first ‘great new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium’.
Empire is a sweeping history of humanist philosophy, Marxism and modernity that propels itself to a grand political conclusion: that we are a creative and enlightened species, and that our history is that of humanity’s progress towards the seizure of power from those who exploit it.
In saying this, Hardt and Negri have detonated a debate ‘not against the post-Seattle movement, but within it’ – proclaiming a number of heresies, including a defence of modernity and the argument that the globalised economy presents a greater opportunity than ever for humanist and even ‘communist’ revolution.
Empire does three things: first, it examines the global economy, the Empire, and finds that, like the internet, it has no centre – it is a ‘non-place’. Or, as Hardt says in conversation: ‘There is no longer a Winter Palace.’ (As stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.)
Second, the book redefines what was called the ‘working class’ or ‘proletariat’ as a new, diverse and potent ‘Multitude’.
Third – and here’s the crunch – Hardt and his colleague scorn the Marxist Left’s doom-laden stagnation over two decades. They say the ‘post-modernised global economy’, far from being all-powerful, contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that the political climate has never been more favourable for uprising by ‘communism which is Marxist, but bigger than Marx’.
In short, the decline of Empire has begun and the revolution against it is in progress.
Michael Hardt is a genial, quietly spoken man, self-effacing and, famously, always dressed in denim. He was born in 1960, and raised in a suburb of Washington DC, son of a Sovietologist specialising in economics at the Library of Congress. At Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, he studied engineering ‘during the energy crisis’, when he became interested in alternative energy sources, and worked during his holidays at a factory in Italy making solar panels.
Hardt moved to Seattle in 1983, where he earned a PhD in Comparative Literature. From there Hardt went to Paris to write a dissertation about Italy during the Seventies under the guidance of fugitive philosopher-activist Negri.
He and Negri – who was once linked with the 1970s Italian terrorist group Red Brigade, and is now imprisoned in Italy after a 14-year exile in France – enjoyed an immediate meeting of minds and later collaborated on their first joint book, The Labour of Dionysus.
In the same period, Hardt became involved in America’s ‘dirty wars’ of the 1980s in Central America. He worked in Guatemala and El Salvador for the Christian ‘Sanctuary Movement’ that gave church shelter in the US to refugees branded as illegal immigrants, often people in flight from CIA-trained death squads; ‘work which was wonderful but also horrible… Sanctuary certainly did more for me than I did for them,’ he says.
But Italy was closer to home politically and he took a job in the Italian department at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in time to catch the riots of 1992. He recalls going to a lecture on Marx and deconstruction, not being able to understand a word.
By 1994, though, he was offered a professorship teaching literature at Duke University in North Carolina, the year he started work on Empire. After its publication and success he was granted tenure – a year earlier than expected. Since then, the book has been translated into 10 languages, and Hardt has been the star turn at more than 20 international conferences.
Hardt’s ‘new idea’ is to take the conclusions of contemporary physics and the ‘post-structuralism’ or ‘deconstruction’ of French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault into the realm of concrete politics. Derrida’s notion that such stalwart notions as ‘truth’, ‘centre’ and ‘ground’ needed to be questioned in the post-modern world had been seen as an abdication from politics. He was attacked, from the Left and the Right, as being anti-political and nihilistic.
But one of Derrida’s pupils, Thomas Keenan, wrote a theoretical precursor to Empire called Fables of Responsibility, arguing that the opposite was the case. If politics was to be redefined then we would have to stop worrying about ‘centre’ or ‘ground’, argued Keenan. When grounds are uncertain, then you really have to make political choices. Doing without grounds is a way of rediscovering fragile values like freedom, rights and responsibilities or human creativity.
In Empire, Hardt and Negri follow Keenan’s premise across a sweep of history from ancient Rome to the Los Angeles riots. Sometimes it is almost religious or millenarian: St Francis is a model militant, American syndicalists of the early twentieth century are ‘Augustinian’. The style is bold and iconoclastic; they write about the ‘joy and lightness of being a communist’ and posit ‘against the misery of power, the joy of being’.
The two frequently diverge from left-wing orthodoxy. For example, this holds that the global economy is centred on the US and controlled by the World Bank, IMF or a clutch of corporations. Hardt argues there is no place of power and describes this as ‘a smooth space… both everywhere and nowhere. Empire… is a non-place.’
In conversation, he makes an analogy to the seamlessness of the web: ‘The organising principle is similar to the principle of the internet – it links the internet age to the way power functions as a distribution network’. Even the ‘North-South divide’ doesn’t work – ‘there is Third World in the First World and First World in the Third World – Brazil is the ideal example’.
Hardt’s refusal to treat the US as enjoying more than a ‘privileged position’ within Empire has drawn sharp criticism. ‘But,’ he says, ‘one of the primary questions we had to begin with was dissatisfaction with “US Imperialism” as a way to name the contemporary world order.’ Indeed, Hardt is enthusiastic about the American Constitution, with its concerns for the universal rights of man – ‘and one can trace the Constitution surfacing positively at various points in US history’.
In Hardt and Negri, the proletariat has become the global multitude. ‘I keep thinking of fast-food workers in McDonald’s all over the world,’ says Hardt, ‘who wear a badge saying “Service with a Smile”.’ But there are stirrings within this ‘multitude’, says Hardt, that reach beyond its smiling servitude to Empire.
So, even if Empire is ‘a more elusive system of exploitation’ than its predecessor, he says, ‘it also, simultaneously, creates more potential for wider co-operation and connections between people, which are the preconditions for liberatory movements.’
And so, says Hardt, the flipside of globalisation is that those it exploits have ‘a greater potential for commonality among each other. The possibility of the recognition of the multitude is dependent on us seeing our commonality as humans… Global capital makes that possible in the same way that industrial capital made possible the organisation of the industrial working class. It didn’t make the [Communist Party – but it made the Party possible’.
The Party? Or the party? In Genoa, both will take to the streets, unless the Empire strikes back first.
Age: 41 – born in Washington DC, January 1960
First job: Making solar panels in Italy
Degrees: Engineering (Pennsylvania); Comparative literature (Seattle)
Books: Translation of Spinoza (by Antonio Negri); The Labour of Dionysus (with Negri); Empire (with Negri)