Review: Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

There are few books of political theory that have received such widespread publicity as Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Hardt & Negri). It has been described as ‘neo-Marxist’ or even as the ‘new Communist Manifesto’.

Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Harvard University Press, 2001 (pbk), £12.95.

This in-depth review by Per Olsson, a member of RS, the Swedish section of the CWI, examines the main arguments of Hardt and Negri. See also Socialism Today, February 2002, Issue 62 for a shorter review by Per Olsson of Empire.

CWI Online, 24 October 2002.

‘Empire’ – A new Communist Manifesto?

"An unlikely book by a left-wing academic and an Italian prisoner is taking America by storm", wrote Ed Vuilliamy in The Observer (15 July, 2001). "The book rehabilitates the C-word, ‘communism’."

This 500-page book, however, is neither a Communist Manifesto for the 21st century nor a piece of work that seriously analyses global capitalism and its contradictions. The authors promise much more than they deliver and, while sometimes claiming to follow the footsteps of Karl Marx, they end up losing touch with reality.

An Empire without a center?

Their starting point is that "Empire is materialising before our very eyes. Over the past several decades, as colonial regimes were overthrown and precipitously after the barriers to the capitalist world market finally collapsed we have witnessed an irresistible and irreversible globalization of economic life and cultural exchange" (Preface, pxi). This, in turn, has meant, "that sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule. This new global form of sovereignty is what we call Empire" (Preface, pvii). Two pages later they conclude that "imperialism is over" and that no nation state, not even the US, will be "world leader in the way the European nations were". A somewhat remarkable comment given that the US is the only superpower left and its position vis-à-vis its two main capitalist rivals (the European Union states and Japan) has strengthened in the course of the last ten years. In fact, never in history has one power occupied such a dominant military, diplomatic and economic position. US imperialism controls nearly one-third of world output, in the late 1980s it was 22 per cent.

The dominance of US imperialism in military terms is even more striking. The US has no real competitor in high-tech military equipment. In the words of a recent commentator: "A couple of years ago the US was responsible for about 36 per cent of total world defence spending; its share is now probably closer to 40 per cent, if not more … Nothing ever has ever existed like this disparity of power: nothing. I returned to all of the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years and no other nations comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain’s army was much smaller than European armies and even the Royal Navy was equal to the next two navies – right now all the other navies combines would not dent American maritime supremacy. Charlemagne’s empire was merely western European in its reach. The Roman Empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison" (Paul Kennedy, London Financial Times, 2 February 2002)

The power and influence of US imperialism is in many ways greater than that of the European colonial powers at the end of the 19th Century, when the dominance of British imperialism was undermined by the rapid development of German capitalism and the rise of US imperialism. To deny the dominant role of US imperialism today is to deny reality.

Yet, according to the authors of Empire: "Our basic hypothesis, however, that a new imperial form of sovereignty has merged, contradict both these views. [Describing US as a sole superpower, which has "simply donned the mantle of global power that European nations left"] The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of imperialist power. Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were. The United States does occupy a privileged position in empire, but this privilege derives not from its similarities to the old imperialist powers, but from its differences. These differences can recognized most clearly by focusing on the properly imperial (not imperialist) foundation of the United States constitution, where by "constitution" we mean both the formal constitution, the written document along with its various amendments and legal apparatus, and the material constitution, that is, the continuous formation and re-formation of the composition of social forces" (Preface, pxiv, words italicised by Hardt & Negri). Implying that the answers to what stage modern capitalism has entered is to be found in the imperial ideas behind the US constitution and that the US could not be described as a nation state. "Imperial ideas, which have survived and matured throughout the history of the United States constitution and has emerged now on a global scale in its fully realized form" (Preface, pxiv). But when in history has a new global order been formed because of certain imperial ideas behind a constitution? This notion is purely abstract and idealistic. Later on in the book, however, the authors try to modify their position when they state that the US is the only superpower left, "that holds hegemony over the global use of force – a superpower that can act alone but prefers to act in collaboration with others under the umbrella of United Nations". The latter claim although is an exaggeration, the US wants to be in command and the so-called collaboration is on the condition set by US imperialism. After NATO’s war against Milosevic’s Yugoslavia in 1999, when other countries at NATO’s headquarter had a say in the conduct of the war, the Pentagon concluded, "We must never do this again". Since then the US acts "as if a Pentagon press release were a papal encyclical … The current machismo of Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, holds that America must always define its own interests and act on them, untrammeled by coalitions or alliances" (The Times 12 June 2002).

The war against Afghanistan has reinforced this false idea that US alone could dictate world events and "Either you are with us or you are against us". "The US is on an ego trip", the German magazine Der Speigel, remarked after president George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002.

US military and economic superpower

On the basis of its pre-eminent military and economic power, the US can intervene decisively in certain situations, such as in the Gulf War in 1990-91 and in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, even the US is not strong enough to maintain international stability or to secure the sustained growth of the world capitalist economy. This is why there has not been much order in the ‘new world order’ proclaimed by George Bush Senior in 1991.

US imperialism today displays the arrogance of power. It is back to the old addage "What is good for the US is good for the rest of the world". This policy, of course, will be undermined by the impending crisis of global capitalism, mass revolts of the poor and the working class, and by the growing rift within the imperialist camps.

Imperial or imperialism is not an issue of terminology or intellectual hairsplitting. The issue is not whether to call US an "American empire" or not. However, unlike the British Empire, which dominated the world scene at the end of the 19th Century, US imperialism does not have any colonies. US imperialism prefers to exercise power and influence through local puppets. This has been a feature of imperialism since 1945, when direct colonial rule was replaced by neo-colonialism. Nevertheless, in popular terms it would make some sense to describe the position and actions of US imperialism today as "an American empire" in being.

But that is something different to what the authors of Empire have in mind. If we accept the conclusions drawn by the book, then the world has reached a stage where rivalries, antagonism and competition between different capitalist nations or blocs have ceased to exist, and following from that conflicts, even armed conflicts, between nations are outdated. Not that a reign of peace has emerged. In fact, the Empire, Hard & Negri say, is in an almost permanent state of crisis, but "we have entered an era of minor conflicts. Every imperial war is a civil war, a police action … Today it is increasingly difficult for the ideologies of the United States to name a single, unified enemy; rather there seems to be minor and elusive enemies everywhere. The end of crisis of modernity, has given rise to a proliferation of minor and indefinite crisis, or, as we prefer, to an omni crisis" (p189). There is a grain of truth in this statement.

Since 11 September (S11), US imperialism has used terminology such as the "long war against terrorism" and "rogue states" to further its interests internationally. In much the same way, language such as the "fight against Communism" (the "evil Empire") served the purpose of promoting US imperialist interests during the ‘Cold War’.

The recently launched campaign "Protecting the homeland", by President Bush, sums up how the present administration tries to unify the nation against a specific threat or enemy. This will not work for any length of time. The beginning of the 21st Century is not like the period 1945-1990, when the world was divided into two main antagonistic blocs – imperialism and Stalinism.

‘War against Terrorism’

The "war against terrorism", however, has been used to re-assert the power of US imperialism, to overcome the Vietnam-syndrome and to implement new repressive laws and legislation. Bush’s popularity will soon start to go into reverse as the sickness of US capitalism and its corrupt political institutions comes under fire, and as US imperialism’s arrogance and lust for power backfires.

Nevertheless, at the present time, whenever under pressure the US administration talks about an imminent terrorist attack. Furthermore, the "war against terrorism" is used as means of expanding US influence, establishing new military bases and opening up new areas of investments in the former USSR and, and also, in for example, Latin America. "The game Americans are playing [in the region around the Caspian Sea] has some of the biggest stakes going. What they are attempting is nothing less than the biggest carve-out of a new U.S. sphere of influence since the U.S became engaged in the Mid East 50 years ago. The result could be commitment of decades that exposes America to the threat of countless wars and dangers" commented Business Week, 27 May 2002. This expansion will inevitably challenge other powers in the region. This is classical imperialism, and the US do not even bother to dress up its policy and actions, pretending it is acting on behalf of the "international community" or some other similar causes.

Tensions between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, the potential of a new war in the Middle East and the huge number conflicts in Africa illustrates how the actions of capitalism and imperialist gives way to a vicious circle of wars, civil wars and terror. These conflicts cannot simply be described as merely "minor" or localised. Unfortunately, the book repeats another postmodernist myth, that "old wars" fought between nations are outdated.

Anti-imperialist sentiments and increase tensions within the imperialist bloc is on the rise as US imperialism tries to expand its power, influence and dominance at the expense of others. This, in turn, precludes any kind of lasting stability or equilibrium in the new world order. The opposite, in fact, of what Empire is implying.

Empire does not take into account that after the collapse of Stalinism, which acted as glue holding the imperialist countries together, there is no longer such a bond. The present epoch is therefore characterised by increased rivalries within the imperialist camps, which will include the re-emergence of nationalism, right-wing populism and protectionism, as different capitalist classes act to defend their interests.

The authors, following the wrong assumption that the nation state is dead has nothing but contempt for the struggle to achieve national democratic liberation. There seems to be no difference at all between nationalism of the oppressed and of the oppressors. Symptomatic of this approach, the chapter dealing with the national democratic struggle is headed "The Poisoned Gift of National Liberation". [P132] The struggle of the Palestinian, the Kurdish or the Kashmiri’s is a dead as far as Empire is concerned. The authors of the Empire do not recognise that the struggle of the masses to throw off the yoke of imperialism, for genuine national liberation, could as a bridge towards the socialist revolution; that the struggle against imperialism in the neo-colonial world will partly express itself in the struggle for true independence. The struggle for national liberation is one important feature of global fight against capitalism and imperialism, and has to be supported by socialists and anti-capitalists.

‘Homeless’ transnational companies?

The authors also accept the old postmodernist myth that argues we live in a borderless world ruled by "homeless" multinational companies or transnational companies. But if imperialism is dead, then an entirely new form of capitalism must have replaced monopoly capitalism.

It is true that the service sector employs more people that industry and that its share of the economy has increased over the years. But that the number of industrial workers have declined does not tell the whole story. Due to an increase in production US industries now produce twice as much with the same number of workers as in 1973. Industrial production or manufacturing still occupies a key role in any modern economy and each job in manufacturing generates four to five jobs in the service sector. It was estimated that almost 45,000 jobs were at risk if Rover’s huge Longbridge car plant in Birmingham England, closed down in 2000. "The 4,000 to 5,000 jobs that are expected to go from Longbridge will trigger a further 15,000 to 20,000 in supplier companies. A further 5,000 jobs are expected to be shed from local business such as shops and newsagents – let alone hairdressers. Up to 15,000 jobs among Rover dealerships among are threatened" (The London Times, 5 April, 2000). This is just one way to describe the importance of manufacturing and the interactions and interdependence of services and industry. We are far from a wireless society based on "immaterial labour". As well as regarding manufacturing as outdated, the authors make an even worse error in neglecting the working class, and particular the industrial working class.

After downgrading the working class, the authors, in typical fashion, then invent a new social force called the "social worker", which struggle for all people – "absolute democracy in action" (p411). This never becomes anymore concrete than that, apart from many promises that the multitude will revolt and their revolution is going to be successful, because "militancy today [in contrast to the past?] is positive, constructive and innovative activity … The militancy makes resistance into counterpower and a project of love" (p413).

The ‘social worker’

Empire uses the world "imperial" to describe a new form of capitalism – a post-industrial society based mainly on services. "A passage toward an informational economy", as Hardt & Negra describes it (p289), where labour is becoming increasingly "immaterial" and there is a new type of worker "the social worker" or "socialised workers". In the 1970s, Negri formulated the theory of a new working class made up of "social worker". One commentator, in sympathy with Negri, claimed that the correct English translation should read, "diffused workers". Whatever, the "social worker" was supposed to become the new revolutionary force in society, overtaking the role of the old industrial working class. The latter was said to be under the control of the trade unions and no longer capable of being at the forefront of the struggle.

A generation without memory is therefore more revolutionary, argued Negri in the early 1980s. " … The youths of Zurich, the Neapolitan proletarians and the workers of Gdansk have no need of memory … Communist transitions is absence of memory" (quoted in Storming Heaven, by Steve Wright pp174-75). But what movement setting itself the task of transforming society could achieve its aim without drawing the lessons of the past, basing itself on earlier fighting traditions and experience – the very concept of memory! "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" as the Spanish born philosopher, poet, and novelist George Santayana remarked.

Negri and others have provided different theoretical justifications to support the idea of a "social worker". It has been said that the study of Karl Marx’s book ’Grundrisse’, led Negri to the idea of "social worker" – all labour becomes productive as the process of socialisation proceeds under capitalism. The new working class is first and foremost producing intellectual labour argues Negri (Grundrisse was never published by Marx, but is a series of notebooks later compiled into a book and published at the beginning of the 1940s).

That many different section of workers nowadays are involved in the production of surplus value does not mean that labour has become immaterial, or "calls into question the old notion (common to classical and Marxian political economics) by which labor power is conceived as ‘variable capital’ that is, a force that is activated and made coherent only by capital, because the cooperative powers of labor power (particularly immaterial labor power) afford labor the possibility of valorizing itself", as Negri & Hardt write (page 294).

The political conclusions drawn by Negri in the 1970s, after the Italian working class had failed to seize power despite years of determined struggle that to some extent reached a higher level than in France during the stormy events of 1968, was wrong at the time and has not been proven correct since. His ideas have become even more confused and contradictory in the pages of Empire.

The strength of what is called the multitude is in fact a weakness of the movement. The multitude is described as speaking no common language (today’s struggle is ‘incommunicable’ according to Hardt & Negri), the forces are scattered, do not act as collective force, they lack organisation and a programme but this agency is nevertheless described as a powerful, unstoppable force. At the end of the book, the authors repeat that the multitude is still not organized as a political force, although, "The organization of the multitude as political subject, as posse, thus begins to appear on the world scene. The multitude is biopolitical self-organization … The only event that we are still awaiting is the construction, or rather insurgence, of a powerful organization. The genetic chain is formed and established in ontology, the scaffolding is continuously constructed and renewed by the new cooperative productivity, and thus we await only the maturation of the political development of the posse. We do not have any models to offer for this event. Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real" (p411) At one stage the ideas put forward becomes ludicrous. Denying the very fact that the oppressed expressed their power through collective action, not "through desertion and exodus", they then talk about the emerging, "New nomad horde, a new race of barbarians, that will arise to invade and evacuate Empire" (p213)!

Static and rigid view of class struggle

The authors have a very static and rigid view regarding the impact of the struggle and its momentum. The struggle today is said to be "incommunable", but the very experience of the anti-capitalists protests, together with its global character, is an example showing the opposite. Globalisation works both ways On the one hand, markets for capital, goods and services are more integrated that ever before, but, on the other hand, globalisation leads to a tendency towards much greater synchronisation of economic ebbs and flows, political and social crisis and the class struggle. The struggles today tend to become global. At the time of writing (19 June 2002), air-controllers from five European countries are on strike. Workers in struggle are looking for support and solidarity from their brothers and sisters abroad, as we saw when French Marks & Spencer workers went to London to demonstrate against job closures. The general strike by Italian workers against ‘job flexibility’ in April 2002 obviously played a part in encouraging the Spanish trade unions to call a general strike 20 June (on the same day as the opening of the EU-summit in Seville).

The authors do not take into account that every huge battle fought provides experience, and changes the consciousness and the political outlook of workers and young people. It is mainly big events that lay the basis for a development of a class and socialist consciousness. But the work (campaigns, propaganda and agitation) of socialist groups and parties will also play a part in the process towards overcoming the negative political effects of the collapse of Stalinism and the betrayal of the old mass workers’ parties (the Social Democrats, the Socialist or the Communists) and the right wing move at the top of the trade union movement.

"Consider the most radical and powerful struggles of the final years of the twentieth century: the Tiananmen Square events in 1989, the Intifada against Israeli state authority, the May 1992 revolt in Los Angeles, the uprising in Chiapas that began in 1994, and the series of strikes that paralyzed France in 1995 and those that crippled South Korea in 1996 … None of those events inspired a cycle of struggles, because the desires and needs they expressed could not be translated into different contexts" (p54).

There is no mention here of the movements toppling the Stalinist regimes and that these movements sparked of a continental struggle for democracy, particularly in Africa. Furthermore, all the struggles mentioned in Empire did have political repercussions. For example, the general strike in France in 1995 was a crucial factor in the chain of events leading up to the defeat on the traditional right wing parties in the French general election of 1997. Every struggle mentioned had a global impact and still has in the case of the struggle of the Palestinians. Empire does not acknowledge that all the struggles since the collapse of Stalinism and end of the old world order established after World War II take place in a totally new political terrain.

Effects of collapse of Stalinism

The collapse of Stalinism had a profound effect on the consciousness and the political cohesion of the working class, as a whole generation of activists throughout the world have become disorientated and demoralised. Some dropped out of activity, others went over to the class enemy. It provided the basis for the final transformation of the social democrats and a range of former communist parties into capitalist formations. Guerrilla movements in Central America and Africa found themselves in an ideological and political dead end and saw no way out other than to try to make an agreement, on the basis of capitalism, with the ruling class.

This in turn paved the way for a wholesale offensive by the ruling classes, who was able to implement draconian cuts in social services and workers’ share of national income. Profit went up at the expense of wages and living standards, which partly explains why the boom in the 1990s was prolonged.

It will take time and the experience of events and struggles, before the working class and the oppressed can overcome these obstacles and create new fighting mass organisations. The absence of a political alternative to capitalism, independent class organisations and a fighting leadership are the main reasons why globalisation has not yet sparked off a movement that surpasses the tumultuous struggles of the 1970s which would pose the question of establishing a new socialist world order.

Lenin on Imperialism

The advent of imperialism represented a new stage for world capitalism. In his book ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, written in 1916, V. I. Lenin define the main features of this new stage in the development of world capitalism: "The epoch of the latest stage of capitalism shows us that certain relations between capitalist combines grow up, based on the economic division of the world, while parallel and in connection with it, certain relations grow up between political combines, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the "struggle for economic territory".

Later on in the same book Lenin explains, "If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist combines of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolistic possession of the territory of the world which has been completely divided up".

"But very brief definitions, although convenient, for they sum up the main points, are nevertheless inadequate, since very important features of the phenomenon that has to be defined have to be especially deduced. And so, without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its complete development, we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features: 1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; 2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this "finance capital," of a financial oligarchy; 3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; 4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist combines which share the world among themselves, and 5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed".

What Lenin analysed and examined was the early phase of imperialism. Still based on colonial rule – the revival of colonialism at the end of 19th century was the greatest land grab in history – but where giant monopolies had started to play a dominant role in the world economy. The period (1870-1914) preceding the outbreak of the World War I was a period of rapid growth and the creation of a world market. There were economic as well as political reasons behind colonialism. Colonialism was a means of opening up markets and exploiting new areas of the world as well as gaining prestige and power on the world scene. "The division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed", wrote Lenin. A new re-division of the world, reflecting the real relation of forces (the rise of US and German imperialism) could only follow in the wake of slumps, terrible defeats of the working class and wars. The period of 1914-1945 was one of wars and revolutions, economic depression and protectionism (world trade collapsed in the 1930s).

The outcome of World War II created a new division of the globe. No one could have foreseen the character of the Second World War and its outcome. Neither could anyone foresee that the reformist social democratic and the Stalinist leaders (the Communist parties) would be able to save capitalism in Europe and therefore delay world socialist revolution for decades.

Post WWII relations

The new world relations created by the outcome of World War II saw US imperialism becoming the dominant and supreme power in the capitalist world and the enormous strengthening of the Stalinist regime in Soviet Union, which helped establish Stalinism in half of Europe’s territory after the Red Army had defeated Nazi Germany.

The division of the world, and the formation of two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, that struggled to maintain and expand their respective spheres of influence, cast a shadow on all major international events. This rivalry gave way for a destructive nuclear arms race, the biggest military build-up in history, and the Cold War. In the wake of the insane and hugely wasteful arms race an influential military-industrial complex was formed, which is still an enormous burden on society. This world order ended in 1989-90, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Stalinist regimes collapsed.

In the post-war period, the huge movements for national independence and the increase cost of direct imperialist rule compelled the imperialist powers to give up colonialism. Colonial imperialism gave way to neo-colonialism – a new phase or stage of imperialism. The old powers ceded political independence but retained direct or indirect economic control over former colonial territories. This economic control was exerted effectively with exceptional growth of monopoly capitalism during 1950-75. Western monopolies totally controlled, and still do, world production and trade.

Many economic and political factors were behind the ending of the long capitalist upswing, the golden age of capitalism, which was built on the ruins of World War II. However, during 1974-75, the world experienced its first simultaneous recession and economic downturn (since the end of the World War II). The decline in profit and, at the same time, rising inflation (the rate of increase of prices) sent a clear message to the capitalists that the boom had exhausted itself. ‘Globalisation’ became a means of trying to restore profitability and in order to achieve that a new capitalist ideology had to be constructed. Globalisation did not follow out of a worked-out plan or arise because of some kind of conspiracy. It was the crisis itself that compelled the capitalists to find other ways to increase their profits and share of the national income. This global capitalist reconstruction inevitably meant turning the screw on workers and the poor; downsizing and destroying industrial capacity, dismantling the welfare state and abolishing subsidises on food, intensifying exploitation, de-regulations, privatisations, labour flexibility and the abolition of capital controls. Furthermore, the process of globalisation was given a powerful new impetus by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


Neo-liberalism is the political expression of globalisation. In economic terms globalisation is driven by a rapid increase in world trade, the export of capital, foreign direct investment (FDI) and a truly internationalisation of production. The number of companies operating on a global plane has gone through a spectacular development over the last 15 years. A rapid expansion of international production and dependence on export has followed. One main aspect of globalisation is the deepening of the process of economic integration and the development of a partly new international division of labour. The multinational companies have built up a sophisticated global network of suppliers and sub-contractors. This in turn has underlined the fact that the fight to change society has to be armed with an international perspective, that workers and youth in struggle in any country have to try to win international support.

The multinational companies’ aim to take home maximum profits is the driving force behind globalisation. The world economy is led by a few hundred giant multinationals, which are often larger than nations. Many sectors of the global economy are controlled by only a handful of multinational companies.

More than 50 of the world’s 100 leading economies are multinational companies. The combined sales of the top 200 corporations exceed the total income of all the countries in the world apart from the nine largest economies. The multinationals have also become bigger and more powerful after the recent wave of cross-border mergers and acquisitions, i.e. one company absorbing another. This has meant that the concentration of wealth and capital has reached an unprecedented level.

The multinational companies account for four-fifths of world industrial output and more than two-thirds of world trade. The multinational companies make up as much as forty percent of world trade. Furthermore, Intra-firm trade is frequently used as a means to avoid paying taxes.

Is the nation state still relevant?

Does this mean that the nation state is becoming irrelevant, as some commentators have argued? Certainly capitalism has been able to partially overcome the nation state by developing the world market. Some globalisation enthusiasts refer to ‘transnational’ companies bestriding the world, free of any controls. However, the term multinational is a more accurate description. Hardly any of the huge multinational companies can be described as ‘transnational’. The multinational companies are not completely footloose or "homeless". They operate on a global scale, but have strong roots through ownership, production, employment, management, research and development in their respective home countries. Whether large or smaller companies, they still depend to some extent on national or regional markets, infrastructure and various forms of state protection (subsidies, tax rebates, legal protection, etc.) provided by their own national governments.

Another important feature of globalisation is that speculation has replaced production as the most profitable economic activity, which in a way shows that the system as a whole has reached a cul-de-sac. It is amazing that Hardy t& Negri do not point to the speculative and parasitic nature of modern capitalism, which breeds corruption, sleaze and crony capitalism.

Globalisation is a "fluid, infinitely expanding and highly organized system that encompasses the world’s entire population", but which lack any "place of power" wrote the New York Times, 7 July 2001, encapsulating the views of Empire.

Many capitalist commentators claim that globalisation is a new technological-economic system based on the microchip and run by financial investors, funds and multinational corporations, free from any nation state or power structures. These postmodernist ideas are very much echoed, from a leftist point of view, by Hardt & Negri.

But as the Leftwing US magazine Monthly Review commented: "The notion of global free market hegemony without the nation state and without discernible centers of power (only highly visible instruments of the market) means a concept of capitalism that has become virtually synonymous with globalization. There is, it is proclaimed, no alternative because there is nothing outside the system, and no center within the system. The ideological fog that pervades all aspects of the globalization debate is bound to dissipate eventually, as it becomes clear that the contradictions of capitalism, which have never been surmounted, are present in more universal and more destructive form than ever before" (Monthly Review, January 2002).

Empire is not saying that the system cannot be changed, but as soon the question of how change can be made is posed the authors loose touch with all reality. They hope that migration and the almost mystical power of "refusal to work" is going to alone do the job of bringing about meaningful change.

In the Preface to Empire the authors make unsustainable statements and turn hypotheses into "facts", which then forms the basis on which their conclusions are drawn. Unfortunately this method is a common thread in the book. The authors assume that globalisation is "irresistible and irreversible" and following on from this notion they argue that a new "borderless" Empire is taking shape. But how could an Empire manifest itself without a decision-making centre or centre of power? There is no telephone number or even a postbox to the Empire. Instead it is supposed to be everywhere and bound together by diffuse networks. "Our postmodern Empire has no Rome," state the authors (p317). Reading Empire you cannot avoid asking the question: where is the power to overthrow?

Marxism versus post-modernism

Hardt & Negri try to reconcile the ideas and methods of revolutionary socialism (Marxism) with what could be described as a postmodernist trend within the international Left. The task is to "reorganize and redirect them " [the processes of globalisation] toward new ends. The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges" (Preface, pxv). The aim is to "construct a new city … to form a new form of struggle that is based not in direct opposition but in a kind of struggle by subtraction – a refusal of power, a refusal of obedience. Not only a refusal of work and refusal of authority, but also emigration and movement of all sorts that refuses the obstacles that block movement and desire" (quoted from Negri during an online discussion, 3 May 2000).

The authors write off the trade unions "the institutional workers’ organizations" as they described them (p308), the industrial working class and what they described as ‘old’ proletarian internationalism. The struggle against the Empire needs neither collective consciousness and class organisation or any programme, tactics or strategy, according to the authors. The liberation will come anyway as the oppressed resist and the counter-Empire gains strength.

The world, however, is not ruled by an imaginary ‘empire’, but by the dominant capitalist powers and the ruling classes of the ‘Triad’ of the US, the EU states and Japan. Imperialism is far from ‘dead’; the epoch of imperialism entered a new stage or phase with the process of globalisation. The US ruling class has seen globalisation as a means of expanding its position in the world market at the expense of other capitalist powers. This has increased the contradictions inherent in capitalism and, at the same time, given way to the re-emergence of an anti-capitalist mood especially directed against US multinationals and the super-exploitative nature of imperialism.

Empire was written before the change in world relations following the events of 11 September (2001). Many of the assumptions made by the authors have already proved to be false or one-sided, such as, "the U.S. world police act not in imperialist interest but in imperial interest". The US according to the authors, acts not in the interest of its ruling class, "in the universal interest" (p180). There is no mention of rivalry, divisions and competition between different ruling classes and imperialist powers in the book. But if the US ruling class and government do not primarily act in order to defend US capitalisms’ hegemony, markets, profits and prestige, what then dictates policy and actions? Decisions have to be taken somewhere and they are taken in Washington, not by "supranatural" bodies scattered across the world. The reaction to 11 September and its aftermath have illustrated to what extent the US ruling class is prepared to defend and expand its power and dominance. The present trend of unilateralism on the part of George W. Bush and his administration is the opposite of what is described as "universalism" in the pages of Empire. "The war on terrorism is simply a euphemism for extending US control in the world, whether it is by projecting force through its carriers or building new military bases in central Asia", says professor Paul Rodgers, Bradford University Department of Peace studies, (London Observer, 10 February 2002).

The reassertion of US power and unilateralism at the expense of others is bound to fuel instability as well as tension between the nations and the different capitalist blocs. The authors make a mistake when they assume that capitalism has been able overcome the barriers set by the nation state and the private ownership of the means of production.

The present trend towards unilateralism will, of course, go into reverse at some stage and the US ruling class may be compelled to look for other alternative ways, defend its dominant position.

What is striking is that the authors provide no real arguments, facts or figures to substantiate their claim that globalisation has given birth to an entirely new social, political and economic order – the Empire. Instead of analysing the past, present and future, the reader is given voluminous quotes from a countless number of thinkers and philosophers topped up with abstract comments, such as the following: "power is everywhere, but is everywhere because everywhere is in play, the nexus between virtuality and possibility. A nexus that is the sole province of the multitude" (p361). (As this extract illustrates, sometime Empire becomes unreadable).

Role of the IMF, WTO etc.

Hardt & Negri claim that international capitalist organisations and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Economic Forum in Davos etc. are part of a supranational power structure. But these organisations and the gathering of the capitalist elite at Davos are not so much part of "a supranational structure" as a means by the imperialist powers to impose a neo-liberal agenda and to open up new markets for the export of goods and capital, i.e. to safeguard the interests of Western capitalism in general and US imperialism in particular.

The IMF, for example, is so much under the control of the US that its emergency plan for Argentina (in 2002) was worked out by the US Treasury.

During economic crisis in South East Asia (1997-98) US imperialism, after pushing aside any attempt by Japanese capitalism to intervene, used the IMF as a cover to expand its influence. Representatives from the US Treasury were in charge of the IMF team negotiating with the different crises-ridden South East Asian countries. "The US behaved like looters after an economic cyclone" as one bosses in Australia remarked. The US magazine Newsweek, describe this kind of classical imperialist intervention in the following words, "The Americans have returned with a vengeance [to South East Asia]. This time it has taken the form of U.S. Investment banks, asset and hedge funds and speculators like George Soros, all of them riding a tide of triumphalism as the West’s powerful markets overwhelm the closed financial system that Japan inspired throughout Asia. As the Asian contagion topples economy after economy, the U.S. firms are pricing open these systems with a ferocity that 150 years of US trade negotiations could not achieve". If this is not imperialism, what is?

"The proletariat is not what it used to be", write the Empire authors (p63). They dismiss the working class and their industrial and political organisations. They are things of the past, and instead of parties the authors put forward the idea of "self-organizing" and mention the Zapatista movement as a model to follow.

It is notable that in listing many of the movements and struggles of the 1960s, the authors do not mention the ten-million strong general strike in France 1968: a movement so powerful that the French president, Charles de Gaulle, said to the US ambassador at the time, "There has been a Communist revolution in France and there’s nothing we can do about it". After that, de Gaulle fled to a military base in Germany.

Proletarian internationalism and even the struggle for socialism are regarded as old-fashioned by Empire and linked to the era when the nation state was an organic part of capitalism. But today’s condition, write the authors, demands a new movement "that corresponds to the post-Fordist and informational regimes of production" (p409). Leave aside that the bosses’ rule and the hierarchical structure of capitalism are not exactly an ‘informational regime’, the book has very little more to say about the struggle in the workplaces. It does not even mention the fact that globalisation has reinforced the need for ‘proletarian internationalism’ in deeds and actions.

The writing off of the working class and the silence about the need to build genuine, revolutionary socialist parties follows from the false premises and analyses made at the beginning of the book. The authors’ hypotheses never become anything more than abstractions dressed up in obscure, quasi-intellectual language. Statement after statement is made without being substantiated. Lenin’s analysis of "imperialism and its crisis", for example, is said to lead "directly to the theory of Empire" (p234). But Lenin argued the opposite against the ‘super-globalisers’ of his time.

Earlier on in the pages of Empire, the Bolsheviks are accused of having "entered the terrain of nationalist mythology" (p112) on account of their sensitive and Marxist approach to the national question and the struggle of the oppressed nationalities against Tsarism in Russia – which Hardt & Negri see as a concession to nationalism. They give no arguments to support this remarkable but also vacuous statement.

What Hard & Negri are doing is drawing the ultimate conclusion of what could be described as a theory of ‘super-globalisation’. Globalisation, however, has in fact aggravated the fundamental contradictions inherent in capitalism, i.e. the collision between the forces of production and the relations of production (the social and political framework within which the capitalist system operates: international relations, the role of the nation state, the government, relations between the classes, etc). It is this basic collision that leads to crisis, wars and revolutions.

Contradictions of capitalism

Capitalism by its very nature is unable to develop a single trend to its ultimate end. Monopoly capitalism does not abolish the anarchy of the market or competition. The present international capitalist order is just one moment in history, not its endpoint. Globalisation, as with every other phase in the development of capitalism, sows the seeds of its own downfall. The nation state and the private ownership of the means of production are acting more and more as absolute barriers on the development of society.

Capitalism is still rooted in the nation state, which is a social formation with historical elements, such as a common language, culture, territorial property, etc. Each national ruling class depends on various kinds of support and protection provided by its state apparatus. In the last analysis, the capitalist state is reduced to ‘armed bodies of men’ (the police, military, intelligence agencies, and so on) and their material appendages, i.e. prisons etc. The state is not a ‘neutral’ body in a capitalist society; it is firmly under the control of the capitalist class. The state provides the capitalists with protection against competitors abroad and ‘the enemy within’, as Margaret Thatcher once termed Britain’s striking miners in the 1980s.

Whatever the capitalists say about the ‘self-regulating forces of the free market’, when they are up against the wall they will cry for help, protection and support from their own state apparatus. In response to a an economic downturn in the US, President Bush recently decided to impose tariffs on steel import from other countries and to continue subsidies its own agriculture sector. "Mr Bush slapped tariffs on imported steel, moved to protect US lumber producers from Canadian competition and happily signed a farm bill that set back the course of free trade in agriculture by about 30 years" (Financial Times 13 June 2002).

As one capitalist nation, or group of nations, expands at the expense of the position of others, there will always be a tendency towards national protectionism or the emergence of continental or regional blocs.

The very nature of every agreement between capitalist states tends to be temporary and uneasy, reflecting the present balance of forces. Faced with growing social and political turmoil at home, and tougher competition on the world market, the different national capitalist classes will do whatever is necessary to protect their own skins. Capitalism does not uphold any holy principle other than the drive for profit. It is one thing to be in favour of a single currency, free trade and international co-operation when ‘all are winners’. But when margins are shrinking and markets are lost, the capitalists squeal for the state to protect them against competition from abroad, and to implement measures that strengthen their own position at the expense of others. This mainly expresses itself in the form of the different blocs taking action against each other, but also of countries taking action against a specific rival. An emerging protectionism and measures to control and restrict the flow of capital begin to reverse globalisation trends, with some similarities to the reversal of the process of rapid integration at the beginning of the 20th Century with the outbreak of the First World War and then the crisis of the 1930s.

Working call needs a political programme

The imaginary Empire is ruled, it is claimed, by a network – what forces are included in the network is not explained – and bases its power on money, the bomb (forces of destruction), and control of communication and information. By implication, world capitalism has entered its post-industrial era and that is why, according to the authors, the industrial working class "has lost its hegemonic position" (p256).

Empire’s definition of all oppressed strata as part of a ‘multitude’ is another way of reducing the working class to at best an auxiliary role in future struggles. Furthermore, the authors totally ignore the political and ideological outcome of the collapse of Stalinism.

Socialists have always argued against those who define the working class as only the industrial workers. This is a stereotype, a rigid definition, which has little to do with Marxism. The production and distribution of commodities under modern capitalism has become more social and international than ever before, involving different layers of workers on a national as well as a global plane. The production and realisation of profits depends not only on workers employed in factories.

It is due to its role in production and distribution that the working class develops and acts as a collective power. It is this collective power and action that the authors keep silent about. But even worse, the position taken by the authors would tend to alienate workers from the anti-capitalist movement.

The conditions of workers in the public sector or in services are largely the same as the conditions faced by industrial workers. At the same time, a large section of the middle classes no longer enjoy a privileged and secure position in society. A proletarianisation of the middle class is taking place in all capitalist countries. A crisis, as shown by Argentina and Turkey (2001-2002), could overnight lead to the pauperisation of the middle class. The middle class in Argentina is now referred to as" those who once had".

Events in Argentina have illustrated that the struggle to change society needs to be consciousness and armed with a political programme. The outcome of the class struggle will at the end of the day be decided by political factors and to what extent the working class is aware of its role and its strength.

The social weight and potential power of the working class, the wage labourer, has never been greater. But the lack of a political alternative, combative organisations and, above all, a leadership able to face up to the task of leading the struggle for a socialist transformation, have created an unprecedented gap between the potential power of the working class and the present situation of an onslaught against workers’ rights.

It is claimed that Empire will arm the anti-capitalist movement with an understanding of the present global capitalist regime, but it fails completely. This is a case of the Empire’s new clothes: a lot of pages with very little content.

Per Olsson, June 2002.

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October 2002