Hardt and Negri Counsel the Aristocrats


posted to www.marxmail.org on April 13, 2004


Over the past five years, no Marxist theorist except for Zizek has been lionized as much as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the co-authors of "Empire". In 2001, at the height of their fame, the two were chatted up in a NY Times article titled "What Is The Next Big Idea? The Buzz Is Growing."


As if writing about a trendy restaurant in NYC, reporter Emily Eakin focused on how they had arrived.


"It comes along only once every decade or so, typically arriving without much fanfare. But soon it is everywhere: dominating conferences, echoing in lecture halls, flooding scholarly journals. Every graduate student dreams of being the one to think it up: the Next Big Idea.


"In the 1960's it was Claude Levi-Strauss and structuralism. In the 1970's and 1980's it was Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, Michel Foucault and poststructuralism and Jacques Lacan and psychoanalysis, followed by various theorists of postcolonialism and New Historicism.


"And now scholars are wondering if the latest contender for academia's next master theorist is Michael Hardt, a self-effacing, 41-year-old associate professor of literature at Duke University and the co-author of 'Empire,' a heady treatise on globalization that is sending frissons of excitement through campuses from Sao Paulo to Tokyo."


For some readers, including myself, the notion of "frissons of excitement" seemed to have more to do with a watercress vichyssoise than Marxist theory. As a moldy old fig trained by Trotskyist militants in the 1960s, I often worried that history was passing me by in the fast lane. It was bad enough that I missed out on the dot.com boom. Now I was missing out on some new-fangled Marxist theory.


It all had a lot to do with the excitement over "anti-globalization" protests which seemed to have "anarchism" or "autonomism" (practically indistinguishable when you really get down to it) stamped all over them. Instead of targeting state power according to some hopelessly misguided Leninist schema, the emphasis would be on challenging capitalism everywhere at the same time through the power of the "multitudes" rather than workers or peasants.


In some ways, the autonomist rejection of state power at the national level (a poisoned pill according to Hardt-Negri) was a funhouse mirror of the long-standing Marxist insight that socialist revolution must triumph worldwide if it is to have any long-term prospects for success. Unfortunately, this became transformed into a kind of fuzzy call for revolution everywhere and nowhere in autonomist terms. For John Holloway, it was changing the world without taking power, which for me was something like getting pregnant without having sex beforehand.


For Hardt and Negri, the notion of world communism was even fuzzier than it was in Holloway. Somehow, protests like the ones that occurred in Seattle or Genoa would lead to communism. At the time, I said to myself that I would be pleased if they would only lead to the cancellation of IMF debts in someplace like Argentina, but then my imagination has always been somewhat limited.


Emily Eakin informed her NY Times readers that others besides me had questions along these lines. For example, Zizek "complained that for a book that preaches revolution, it had an unforgivable omission: no how-to manual." The always genial, tow-haired Michael Hardt agreed: "I wrote him an e-mail and said, 'Yes, it's true we don't know what the revolution should be.' And he wrote back saying, 'Yeah, well, I don't know either.'"


Just when Hardt and Negri were at their pinnacle of their fame and being interviewed on Charlie Rose and other high-profile media, a bunch of terrorists came along and messed things up. After September 11, 2001, the anti-globalization movement went into a tail-spin as the more mainstream NGO component decided that it was too risky to be associated with violent demonstrations. Since for the balaclava-wearing set, there was no other way to protest, it would naturally mean that their ranks would be thinned. This was especially true in the new situation facing the left after the US invaded Iraq. The last thing that seasoned Marxists in the leadership of the antiwar movement would put up with is temper tantrums against Starbucks, when the stakes were so much higher.


In a February 21, 2003 op-ed piece in The Guardian, Michael Hardt waxed nostalgic for the good old days before the war in Iraq inconvenienced him and his theory:


"The globalisation protest movements were far superior to the anti-war movements in this regard. They not only recognised the complex and plural nature of the forces that dominate capitalist globalisation today - the dominant nation states, certainly, but also the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the major corporations, and so forth - but they imagined an alternative, democratic globalisation consisting of plural exchanges across national and regional borders based on equality and freedom.


"One of the great achievements of the globalisation protest movements, in other words, has been to put an end to thinking of politics as a contest among nations or blocs of nations. Internationalism has been reinvented as a politics of global network connections with a global vision of possible futures. In this context, anti-Europeanism and anti-Americanism no longer make sense.


"It is unfortunate but inevitable that much of the energies that had been active in the globalisation protests have now at least temporarily been redirected against the war. We need to oppose this war, but we must also look beyond it and avoid being drawn into the trap of its narrow political logic."


In the year or so since this article was written, events have conspired to make the "Empire" paradigm of a multitude-led communist takeover worldwide that much more unlikely. Young people seem far more interested in challenging *imperialism* than in mounting ill-considered adventures against an ill-defined *Empire*.


In the meantime, Hardt and Negri seem to be having second thoughts about whether Empire is such a bad thing to begin with. In the current issue of Global Agenda magazine, they explain "Why we need a multilateral Magna Carta." Just as the aristocrats of the 1215 were progressive in relationship to the King, so are the lesser powers today that might stand up to Washington. They write:


"The primary challenge facing these global aristocracies is to reorganize the global system in the interest of renewing and expanding the productive forces that are today thwarted by poverty and marginalization. To do this, a new agreement is needed – a Magna Carta contract for the age, that today’s aristocracies are in the position to demand of the monarch."


Only 5 years ago they were rapturous over the multitudes. Now it is "global aristocracies" that they are wooing. To be sure, there is always the possibility that the black bloc and the Mitterands of the world might make common cause:


"Taking the lead from the governments of the global South in this manner is one way for the aristocracies to orient their project of the renewal of productive forces and energies in the global economic system.


"A second source of orientation is provided by the multitude of voices that protest against the current state of war and the present form of globalization. These protestors in the streets, in social forums and in NGOs not only present grievances against the failures of the present system, but also numerous reform proposals ranging from institutional arrangements to economic policies.


"It is clear that these movements will always remain antagonistic to the imperial aristocracies and, in our view, rightly so. It might be in the aristocracies’ interest, however, to consider the movements as potential allies and resources for formulating today’s global policies."


full: http://www.globalagendamagazine.com/2004/antonionegri.asp


In a thoroughly Machiavellian manner, Hard and Negri counsel that the movements can be "potential allies" and "resources" to the aristocrats. Somehow this smacks of the attitude of traditional liberalism more than anything else. During the 1960s people like Ted Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy always saw youthful protestors as "resources" to be drawn upon in election campaigns for ringing doorbells or collecting ballot signatures. Now that we are in a similar period in which the "lesser evil" candidate John Kerry has stressed to the point of terminal ennui that he seeks a "multilateral" approach in contrast to the implicitly monarchical style of George W. Bush, it might occur to some that the Hardt-Negri article is a contribution to the ABB effort. They would be right.