Once in a blue moon, something exciting happens in the social universe: A grand convergence of social and cultural forces beams a radically new book down to popular culture. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire is such a book. Published three months after the WTO protests that shocked Seattle in the winter of 1999, Empire provides the much-needed philosophical context to make sense of those seemingly sudden protests. Since then, the book has been an object of intensive study within the walls of academia.
Also since then, some rather surprising events occurred: The stock market crashed. The movement against globalization gained momentum. And finally, the mainstream press (Time magazine, The New York Times, etc.) stumbled across Empire as the perfect book that adequately expresses our age's dissatisfaction.
And now Empire is in your hands. But what is to be done? It is, in many respects, an impossibly difficult book, long and full of arcane references to Plotinus, Louis Althusser, and a plethora of other erudite figures and ideas. We can't help you with those details, but we thought a general map of Empire's central concepts would make the arduous journey a little easier.
What Hardt and Negri call an "Empire" is the successor of 19th-century imperialism. Best exemplified by British and French colonial domination, imperialism was characterized by territorial domination over certain societies, mostly in Africa and Asia. The European national state organized this form of exploitation, and Europe acted as a cultural, political, and economic metropolis orbited by distant colonies. The British Empire, for example, had to establish rigid boundaries between itself and the French Empire in order to ensure its competitive economic advantage over the latter, and white Londoners had to be differentiated from colonial subjects to justify the massive flow of profits from the periphery (Johannesburg, Hong Kong) to the center. Imperialism functioned by producing limits.
Traditional imperialism, however, did not survive World War II. What arose from its ruins was Empire, a new system of domination that no longer separated "inside" (ruling country) and "outside" (colony). Empire aspired to "globality"--a world with no boundaries, a world in which First and Third Worlds are inseparably intermingled: Fifth Avenue and Harlem, Mexico City and Chiapas, Beverly Hills and South Central, and so on.
But how is Empire to establish domination over global populations without the police powers of a nation-state? Hardt and Negri's answer lies in the idea of "biopower" (literally "power over life").
By means of mass communication technologies (television, radio, public relations, and advertising), Empire leaves the task of policing to the individual: "Go ahead. Buy that car and let the little fascist in your head take over!" This is the new society of control: There are no more prisons, only inmates. You don't finish school; remedial education is always in session. You're never healthy, but always in therapy. And the army is no longer a place where you learn how to kill, it's a career-resource center.
But, argue Hardt and Negri, this is not to say that people have now become happy robots. The field of politics has been displaced from the national liberation and socialist politics of old to a new kind of "biopolitics," formally set into motion by the social movements of the late '60s. There will be no new Soviet Union, no second Gandhi; what replaces all that is the politics of everyday life--biopolitics constituted by struggles for individual and collective autonomy in the present, such as women's right to choose, sexual liberation, the fight against police profiling, etc.
Biopolitics produces the multitude. In the past, nation-states had been so successful as forms of political domination because they made people believe, through various ideologies, that they had a stake in the state--that they were "the People," the central actors who, by sheer force of will, moved the machinery of "democratic" government. But in the brave new world of Empire, there is no more nation-state that "the People" can be hoodwinked into believing they still control. Political and cultural identities become pluralized. Nobody is satisfied with being an "American" any longer; you're now a Jewish feminist lesbian of Russian decent.
Though biopower reaches into the capillaries of society, inciting individuals to consume more and more commodities, this new system has no means of extending control over political allegiances. Hardt and Negri call this situation "the multitude"--an irreducible multiplicity of political-cultural subjectivities.
The flip side of this new system? There is no more proletariat in the traditional Marxist sense. Whereas Marx and Lenin had argued that the (white, male) industrial workers were the vanguards of the Communist society, in Empire, such a configuration is no longer possible. Whether the question is one of maintaining capitalism or of overthrowing it, there can no longer be a center of agency. Since political identities are radically pluralized on a global level, but also linked by a global situation (Empire), revolutionary agency must itself be decentralized. There will be no vanguards--only a multitude of potentially coalescing revolutionary movements. In short, according to Hardt and Negri, "The deterritorializing power of the multitude is the productive force that sustains Empire, and at the same time the force that calls for and makes necessary its destruction."
Every book must have an ending, happy or not. Hardt and Negri's ending is not happy, but ecstatic.
They draw the conclusion that Empire is, by its very nature, an unstable system poised for implosion. This, however, is not an occasion for sadness, but joy. The global reach of the multitude's rebellion--exemplified in the protests against global finance that have since rocked the world since Empire's publication--means that global communism is within reach. Hardt and Negri offer three potential demands for this movement to take up: the global right to immigration (global citizenship); the global right to a social wage; and finally, global collective ownership of the means of production, which is not only the factories of old, but also the means of producing and circulating information. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of Empire.