Débat autour d'Empire

Lineages of Empire

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Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire1 is a powerful antidote against the gloom, suspicion
and hostility that have characterized the predominant reaction of the radical left to the advent of
so-called globalization. While excoriating its destructive aspects, Hardt and Negri welcome
globalization as the dawn of a new era full of promise for the realization of the desires of the
wretched of the earth. In the same way that Marx insisted on the progressive nature of capitalism
in comparison with the forms of society it displaced, they now claim that Empire is a great
improvement over the world of nation-states and competing imperialisms that preceded it.
Empire is the new logic and structure of rule that has emerged with the globalization of
economic and cultural exchanges. It is the sovereign power that effectively regulates these global
exchanges and thereby governs the world. Unlike empires of pre-modern and modern times, the
singular Empire of post-modern times has no territorial boundaries/frontiers or center of power.
It is a decentered and deterritorialized apparatus of rule that incorporates the entire global realm.
The establishment of this new logic and structure of rule has gone hand in hand with “the
realization of the world market and the real subsumption of global society under capital.” The
world of nation-states and competing imperialisms of modern times “served the needs and
furthered the interests of capital in its phase of global conquest.” At the same time, however, it
created and reinforced rigid boundaries… that effectively blocked the free flow of capital, labor
and goods-thus necessarily precluding the full realization of the world market” (p. 332). As
capital realizes itself in the world market, it “tends toward a smooth space defined by uncoded
flows, flexibility, continual modulation, and tendential equalization” (p. 327).
The idea of Empire as a “smooth space” is a central theme of the book. The smoothing
does not just affect the division of the world into nation-states and their empires, merging and
blending the distinct national colors “in the imperial global rainbow.” Most significant, it affects
its division into First, Second and Third Worlds, North and South, core and periphery. While the

1 Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. and London 2000. This review article has been published in Historical Materialism 10, 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 3-16. It was reprinted in G. Balakrishnan, ed., Debating Empire. Verso: London 2003, pp. 29-42.

Second World has disappeared, the Third World “enters into the First, establishes itself at the
heart as the ghetto, shanty town, favela.” The First World, in turn, “is transferred to the Third in
the form of stock exchanges and banks, transnational corporations and icy skyscrapers of money
and command.” As a result, “center and periphery, North and South no longer define an
international order but rather have moved closer to one another” (pp. xiii, 253-4, 334-7).
As in most accounts of globalization, Hardt and Negri trace its origins to the new power
that the computer and information revolution has put in the hands of capital. By making it
possible “to link together different groups of labor in real time across the world,” the revolution
enabled capital “to weaken the structural resistances of labor power” and “to impose both
temporal flexibility and spatial mobility.” Speculative and financial capital strengthen the
tendency by going “where the price of labor is lowest and where the administrative force to
guarantee exploitation is highest.” As a result, “the countries that still maintain the rigidities of
labor and oppose its full flexibility and mobility are punished, tormented, and finally destroyed”
(pp. 337-8).
In contrast to most accounts of globalization, however, Hardt and Negri do not conceive
of the forces of labor as the more or less reluctant recipients of the tendencies of capital. On the
one hand, proletarian struggles “caused directly” the capitalist crisis of the late 1960’s and early
1970’s, and thus “forced capital to modify its own structures and undergo a paradigm shift” (p.

If the Vietnam War had not taken place, if there had not been worker and student revolts
in the 1960’s, if there had not been 1968 and the second wave of the women’s
movements, if there had not been the whole series of anti-imperialist struggles, capital
would have been content to maintain its own arrangement of power…. It would have been
content for several good reasons: because the natural limits of development served it
well; because it was threatened by the development of immaterial labor; because it knew
that the transversal mobility and hybridization of world labor power opened the potential
for new crises and class conflicts on an order never before experienced. The restructuring
of production… was anticipated by the rise of a new subjectivity…. it was driven from
below, by a proletariat whose composition had already changed. (pp. 275-6)

On the other hand, this new proletariat-or “multitude,” as Hardt and Negri call it-
promptly seized the new opportunities of empowerment and liberation created by globalization.
The key practice in this respect has been migration. “The multitude’s resistence to bondage-the
struggle against the slavery of belonging to a nation, an identity, and a people, and thus the
desertion from sovereignty and the limits it places on subjectivity-is entirely positive…. The real
heroes of the liberation of the Third World today may really have been the emigrants and the
flows of population that have destroyed old and new boundaries” (pp. 361-3). The multitude is
thus both protagonist and beneficiary of the destruction of boundaries that marks the coming of

Moreover, the very globalization of capital’s networks of production and control
empowers each and every point of revolt. Horizontal articulations among struggles-and hence
the mediation of leaders, unions and parties-are no longer needed. “Simply by focusing their
own powers, concentrating their energies in a tense and compact coil… struggles strike directly
at the highest articulations of imperial order” (pp. 56-9).
As Hardt and Negri recognize, this double empowerment of the multitude under Empire
leaves open the fundamental question of what kind of political program can enable the multitude
to cross and breakdown the limits that imperial initiatives continually re-establish on its desire of
liberation. All they can say at this point is that global citizenship (papiers pour tous!) is a first
element of such a program, followed by a second element: a social wage and a guaranteed
income for all individuals. “Once [global citizenship is extended to all, we could call this
guaranteed income a citizenship income, due each as a member of [world society” (pp. 399-

This is probably the most optimistic picture of the nature and consequences of
globalization proposed thus far by the radical left. The author’s endeavor to do away with any
nostalgia for the power structures of an earlier era of capitalist development is in my view
commendable. And so is their endeavor to show that the emerging logic and structure of world
rule is both a response to past struggles of the exploited and oppressed and a more favorable
terrain than previous structures for ongoing struggles against new forms of exploitation and
oppression. There are nonetheless serious problems with the way Hardt and Negri pursue these
commendable endeavors.

Most problems arise from Hardt and Negri’s heavy reliance on metaphors and theories
and systematic avoidance of empirical evidence. While many readers will undoubtedly be taken
in by the erudition deployed throughout the book, more skeptical readers will be put off by
statements of fact unbacked by empirical evidence or, worse still, easily falsifiable on the basis
of widely available evidence. I will limit myself to two crucial examples, one concerning the
“smoothness” of the space of Empire, and the other concerning the role of the contemporary
mobility of labor and capital in equalizing conditions of production and reproduction across that
It is hard to question that the disappearance of the Second World makes it anachronistic
to continue to speak of a First and a Third World. There is also plenty of evidence that the signs
of modernity associated with the wealth of the former First World (Hardt and Negri’s “icy
skyscrapers of money and command”) have proliferated in the former Third World; and it may
also be the case that the signs of marginalization associated with the poverty of the former Third
World are now more prominent in the former First World than they were twenty or thirty years
ago. Nevertheless, it does not follow from all this that the distance between the poverty of the
former Third World (or South) and the wealth of the former First World (or North) has decreased
to any significant extent. Indeed, all available evidence show an extraordinary persistence of the
North-South income gap as measured by GNP per capita. Suffice it to mention that in 1999 the
average per capita income of former “Third World” countries was only 4.6 % of the per capita
income of former “First World” countries, that is, almost exactly what it was in 1960 (4.5 %) and
in 1980 (4.3 %). Indeed, if we exclude China from the calculation, the percentage shows a steady
decrease from 6.4 in 1960, to 6.0 in 1980 and 5.5 in 1999 (calculated from World Bank 1984 and

Hardt and Negri’s assertion of an ongoing supersession of the North-South divide is thus
clearly false. Also flawed are their assertions concerning the direction and extent of
contemporary flows of capital and labor. For one thing, they grossly exaggerate the extent to
which these flows are unprecedented. This is especially true of their dismissal of nineteenth
century migrations as “lilliputian” compared to their late-twentieth century counterparts.
Proportionately speaking, nineteenth century flows were in fact much larger, especially if we
include migrations within and from Asia (Held et al 1999, chapter 6). Moreover, the assertion
that speculative and financial capital has been going “where the price of labor is lowest and
where the administrative force to guarantee exploitation is highest” is only in small part true. It is
true, that is, only if we hold all kinds of other things equal, first and foremost per-capita national
income. But most other things (and especially per-capita national income) are not at all equal
among the world’s regions and jurisdictions. As a result, by far the largest share of capital flows
is between wealthy countries (where the price of labor is comparatively high and the
administrative force to guarantee exploitation comparatively low) with relatively little capital
actually flowing from wealthy to poor countries.

These are not the only statements of fact in the narrative of Empire that on close
inspection turn out to be false. They are nonetheless among the most crucial for the credibility
not just of the book’s reconstruction of present tendencies but for its political conclusions as
well. For Hardt and Negri’s optimism concerning the opportunities that globalization opens up
for the liberation of the multitude largely rests on their assumption that capital under Empire
tends towards a double equalization of the conditions of existence of the multitude: equalization
through capital mobility from North to South and equalization through labor mobility from South
to North. But if these mechanisms are not operative-as for the time being they do not appear to
be–the road to global citizenship and to a guaranteed income for all citizens may be far longer,
bumpier and more treacherous than Hardt and Negri would like us to believe.

I will deal with the possible configuration(s) of this bumpy and treacherous long march by
responding to Hardt and Negri’s criticism of my own account of the evolution of historical
capitalism in early modern and modern times. Hardt and Negri include me among the authors
who “prepare[d the terrain for the analysis and critique of Empire” (p. 471 n 5). At the same
time, they single out my reconstruction of systemic cycles of accumulation in The Long
Twentieth Century (Arrighi 1994) as an instance of cyclical theories of capitalism that obscure
the novelty of contemporary transformations (“[from imperialism to Empire and from the
nation-state to the political regulation of the global market”) as well as the driving force of those
transformations (a “[class struggle [that, pushing the nation-state towards its abolition and thus
going beyond the barriers posed by it, proposes the constitution of Empire as the site of analysis
and conflict”) (pp. 237-8). More specifically, in their view in the context of Arrighi’s cyclical argument it is impossible to recognize a rupture of the system, a paradigm shift, an event. Instead, everything must always return, and the history of capitalism thus becomes the eternal return of the same. In the end such a cyclical analysis masks the motor of the process of crisis and restructuring…. [It seems
that the crisis of the 1970s was simply part of the objective and inevitable cycles of
capitalist accumulation, rather than the result of proletarian and anticapitalist attack both
in the dominant and in the subordinated countries. The accumulation of these struggles
was the motor of the crisis, and they determined the terms and nature of capitalist
restructuring…. We have to recognize where in the transnational networks of production,
the circuits of the world market, and the global structures of capitalist rule there is the
potential for rupture and the motor for a future that is not simply doomed to repeat the
past cycles of capitalism. (p. 239)

I find this assessment curious for two reasons. One is that for thirty years I have been
advancing a thesis about the crisis of the 1970’s that in many respects resembles what according
to Hardt and Negri The Long Twentieth Century obscures. And the other is that, although The
Long Twentieth Century does construct cycles, its argument is not at all cyclical, nor does it
contradict my earlier thesis about the crisis of the 1970’s. It simply puts that thesis in a longer
historical perspective. Let me deal with each of these two issues in turn.
In an article first published in Italian in 1972 I pointed out some crucial differences
between the incipient capitalist crisis of the 1970’s and the crises of 1873-1896 and of the 1930’s.
The most important among these differences was the role of workers’ struggles in precipitating
the crisis of the 1970’s. I further maintained that this and other differences meant that the
incipient crisis was less likely than the earlier crises to result in an intensification of interimperialist
rivalries and a consequent break up of the world market. Rather, the crisis could be
expected to result in a strengthening of the unity of the world market and of the tendency
towards the decentralization of industrial production towards capitalistically “less developed”
regions of the global economy (Arrighi [1972 1978).

In The Geometry of Imperialism, published six years later, I carried this analysis one step
further. Not only did I underscore again that the kind of world-economic integration via direct
investment that had developed under US hegemony was less likely to break down in a
generalized state of war among capitalist powers than the kind of world-economic integration via
commodity and financial flows typical of nineteenth-century British hegemony. In addition, I
pointed out that workers’ struggles consolidated this new forms of world-economic integration
and suggested that over time the consolidation could be expected to weaken nation-states as the
primary form of political organization of world capitalism (Arrighi 1983 [1978, 146-8). It
followed from this argument that the very theories of “imperialism” that had been most
successful in predicting trends in the first half of the twentieth century (most notably, Hobson
1932 [1902; Hilferding 1981 [1910; and Lenin 1952 [1916) had become hopelessly obsolete.
These theories had become obsolete for the simple reason that world capitalism as instituted
under US hegemony was no longer generating the tendency towards war among capitalist
powers that constituted their specific explanandum. And to the extent that the system of nationstates
was actually ceasing to be the primary form of political organization of world capitalism,
the obsolescence of these theories would become permanent (Arrighi 1983 [1978, 149-173).
Twelve years later (Arrighi 1990) I recast these arguments in an account of the “long”
twentieth century that focused on the rise of the world labor movement in the late nineteenth
century, the bifurcation of the movement into social-democratic and Marxist trajectories in the
early twentieth century, the success of workers struggles along both trajectories in provoking a
fundamental, “reformist” reorganization of world capitalism under US hegemony at the end of
the Second World War, and the crisis that both kinds of movements faced in the 1980’s as the
unintended consequence of their previous successes. As in Hardt and Negri’s similar story, I
diagnosed this crisis–including and especially the crisis of Marxism as instituted in the first half
of the twentieth century–as a positive rather than a negative development for the future of the
world proletariat. Whereas Marxism had developed historically in a direction antithetical to the
one foreseen and advocated by Marx, I argued, ongoing transformations of world capitalism–
first and foremost the unprecedented degree of integration of the global market–were making
Marx’s predictions and prescriptions for the present and future of the world labor movement
more rather than less relevant.

Starting from different premises and following a different line of argument I thus reached
conclusions very similar to one of the central theses of Empire. Unlike Hardt and Negri, I
nonetheless qualified these conclusions with a warning against excessive confidence in the
Marxian scheme of things.

For in one major respect the Marxian scheme itself remains seriously defective–namely
in the way in which it deals with the role of age, sex, race, nationality, religion and other
natural and historical specificities in shaping the social identity of the world proletariat….
To be sure, the cost-cutting race of the [1970’s and 1980’s has provided compelling
evidence in support of [Marx’s observation that for capital all members of the proletariat
are instruments of labor, more or less expensive to use according to their age, sex, color,
nationality, religion, etc. However, it has also shown that one cannot infer, as Marx does,
from this predisposition of capital a predisposition of labor to relinquish natural and
historical differences as means of affirming, individually and collectively, a distinctive
social identity. Whenever faced with the predisposition of capital to treat labor as an
undifferentiated mass with no individuality other than a differential capability to augment
the value of capital, proletarians have rebelled. Almost invariably they have seized upon
or created anew whatever combination of distinctive traits (age, sex, color, assorted geohistorical
specificities) they could use to impose on capital some kind of special
treatment. As a consequence, patriarchalism, racism and national-chauvinism have been
integral to the making of the world labor movement along both trajectories, and live on in
one form or another in most proletarian ideologies and organizations. (Arrighi 1990, 63;
emphasis in the original)

Even before completing The Long Twentieth Century, I was thus far less sanguine than
Hardt and Negri about the possibility that under the emerging condition of world-market
integration, proletarian “exit” (South-North migrations) and “voice” (struggles against
exploitation, exclusion and oppression) would promote greater solidarity, equality and
democracy across national, civilizational, racial and gender divides. It seems to me that the
1990’s have provided plenty of evidence both against the idealized and idealistic view of the
multitude that Hardt and Negri advance in Empire, and in favor of my earlier warning that
intensifying competition in the global market–including and especially intensification through
labor migration–could well strengthen the patriarchalist, racist and national-chauvinist
dispositions of the world proletariat. This is a first important reason why in my view the road to
global citizenship and to a guaranteed income for all citizens can be expected to be far longer,
bumpier and more treacherous than Hardt and Negri maintain.

Other equally important reasons have to do with Hardt and Negri’s idealized and
idealistic view, not just of the multitude, but of capital and Empire as well. It is in this
connection that their misreading of my reconstruction of systemic cycles of accumulation
becomes relevant. For the reconstruction neither prevents a recognition of systemic ruptures and
paradigm shifts, nor describes the history of capitalism as an eternal return of the same, nor
masks the motor of the process of crisis and restructuring, as Hardt and Negri maintain. Indeed,
it does exactly the opposite by showing that, world-historically, systemic ruptures and paradigm
shifts occur precisely when the “same” (in the form of recurrent system-wide financial
expansions) appears to (and in a sense actually does) return. Moreover, by comparing successive
periods of return/rupture, it shows how the motor of crisis and restructuring (as well as the
agency of capitalist expansion) has changed over time, making the present crisis novel in key
More specifically, the reconstruction of systemic cycles of accumulation serves a double
purpose. First, it serves the purpose of identifying the distinguishing features of world capitalism
as an historical (as opposed to an idea-typical) social system. And second, it serves the purpose
of identifying what is truly new in the present condition of world capitalism in the light of its
entire life history, as opposed to what may appear new in the light of some temporally or
spatially partial view of that history. It seems to me that these two identifications are essential to
an historically grounded recognition–to paraphrase Hardt and Negri’s previously quoted
passage–of where in the global structures of capitalist rule there is the potential for rupture and
the motor for a future that is not simply doomed to repeat the past cycles of capitalism. Such an
historically grounded recognition does not so much contradict (though in part it does) as it adds
important new dimensions to my earlier and Hardt and Negri’s present assessment of the
emergent condition of world rule. Let me briefly mention the most important of these new

First, while confirming the plausibility of the contention that a world state (which I have
no objections to calling “Empire”) is in formation, my reconstruction of systemic cycles of
accumulation adds both a temporal scale and an element of uncertainty to the ongoing transition
from a phase of world history based on national states to a possible but by no means certain
world-state phase. As The Long Twentieth Century and subsequent work on hegemonic
transitions show, world capitalism was originally embedded in a system of city-states and the
transition from the city-state phase to the nation-state phase of capitalism stretched over several
centuries. For at least two centuries of this transition, city-states (most notably Venice) or
business diasporas originating in city-states (most notably the Genoese) remained protagonists of
the capitalist dynamic, while the leading agency of the transition itself was a state (the United
Provinces) that combined characteristics of the declining city-states and of the rising nationstates
(Arrighi 1994, 11, 36-47, 82-158; Arrighi and Silver et al 1999, 37-58). Although we also
noted a certain acceleration in the pace of world-systemic transformations, past experience
seems to suggest that the present transition from the nation-state to a world-state phase of world
rule will take at least a century to complete. It also suggests that at least some national states or
hybrid forms of nation- and world-state may be protagonists of the transition.
Second, much of the uncertainty surrounding ongoing transformations derives from the
fact that past periods of financial expansion and hegemonic transition have been moments of
increasing instability and unintended capitalist self-destructiveness. Although a major factor of
past instability and self-destructiveness (inter-imperialist wars) is unlikely to intervene, the
attempt of today’s declining hegemonic power (the United States) to impose on the world an
exploitative domination may well become a more important source of instability and selfdestructiveness
than similar attempts by its predecessors (Arrighi and Silver 2001, 976-9, 982-3).
Thus, paraphrasing Joseph Schumpeter (1954, 163), The Long Twentieth Century concluded that
“before humanity chokes (or basks) in the dungeon (or paradise) of a post-capitalist world
empire or of a post-capitalist world market society, it may well burn up in the horrors (or glories)
of the escalating violence that has accompanied the liquidation of the Cold War world order”
(Arrighi 1994, 356)

Third, a comparison of the present with past transitions does confirm the historically
novel role that proletarian and anti-capitalist struggles, both in the dominant and subordinate
countries, have played in precipitating the crisis of the 1970’s. Indeed, in a very real sense the
present financial expansion (unlike previous similar expansions) has been primarily an
instrument–to paraphrase Immanuel Wallerstein (1995: 25)–of the containment of the combined
demands of the peoples of the non-Western world (for relatively little per person but for a lot of
people) and of the Western working classes (for relatively few people but for quite a lot per
person). At the same time, however, the financial expansion and associated restructuring of the
global political economy have had considerable success in disorganizing the social forces that
were the bearers of these demands in the upheavals of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Integral to this
success has been the reproduction of the North-South income divide which, as previously noted,
is as large today as it was twenty or forty years ago. It is hard to believe that this huge and
persistent divide will not continue to play a decisive role in shaping, not just proletarian
identities and dispositions North and South, but also processes of world-state formation. As the
implosion of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle has shown in exemplary fashion, the
struggle over the social orientation of the emerging world-state is as much a struggle between
North and South as it is between capital and labor. Indeed, since the possessors of capital
continue to be overwhelmingly concentrated in the North, while a vast and ever-growing
majority of the world’s proletariat is concentrated in the South, the two struggles are in good part
obverse sides of the same coin (Silver and Arrighi 2001; Silver forthcoming).
Finally, while the overall North-South divide has remained remarkably stable, over the
last forty years there has been a major relocation of manufacturing activities and world market
shares from North America and Western Europe to East Asia. Thus, between 1960 and 1999 the
East Asian share of world value added (a good measure of the share of the world market
controlled by the residents of the region) increased from 13% to 25.9%, while the North
American share decreased from 35.2% to 29.8% and the Western European share decreased from
40.5% to 32.3%. Even more significant was the shift in the shares of world value added in
manufacturing, with the East Asian share increasing in the same period from 16.4% to 35.2%,
against a decrease in the North American share from 42.2% to29.9% and of the Western
Europeanshare from 32.4% to 23.4% (all percentages calculated from World Bank 1984 and
2001). It is hardly plausible that shifts of this order will not affect the constitution of Empire,
particularly in view of the fact that East Asia has a much longer history of state and market
formation than Europe and North America (Arrighi and Silver 1999, ch. 4). And yet, Hardt and
Negri focus exclusively on the Euro-American lineages of Empire and do not even entertain the
possibility of their hybridization with Asian lineages.

In short, Empire may indeed to be in the making, but if it is, it may well take a century or
more before humanity will know whether its constitution has succeeded or failed, and if it has
succeeded, what its social and cultural contents will be. In the meantime, all we can hope for is
that the ruling classes of the declining and rising centers of the global economy deploy in their
actions a greater intelligence than they have done so far; that proletarian struggles shun
patriarchalist, racist and national-chauvinistic temptations; and that activists and intellectuals of
good will develop a better understanding of where Empire is coming from and where it can and
cannot go.


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