Radical media, politics and culture.

Adam Kirsch, "The Pomo Marx & Engels"

"The Pomo Marx & Engels"

Adam Kirsch, New York Sun

Like a dog to its vomit, Michael Hardt and Antonio
Negri return in "Multitude" to the vapid and deeply
irresponsible politics of their 2000 book, "Empire."

By fusing the favorite ideologies of the academic Left
— Marxism and postmodernism — into a new theory of
geopolitics, "Empire" won a surprising amount of
attention: here, the New York Times proclaimed, was
the "Next Big Idea" we had all been waiting for. The
New Statesman called it "perhaps the most successful
work to have come from the left for a generation."Messrs. Hardt and Negri were anointed as the Marx and
Engels of the new millennium. Now, having graduated
from a university press to a trade publisher, they aim
to move beyond academia and spread their ideas among a
general readership.

Briefly, the thesis of "Empire" was that the age of
the nation-state had come to an end. In place of
sovereign states ruling limited territories, a new
global regime was developing, in which transnational
corporations, institutions like the World Bank, and
nongovernmental organizations worked with traditional
governments to impose order on the entire planet. The
novelty of Empire, as Messrs. Hardt and Negri called
it (the absence of the article giving it a tinge of
science-fiction menace), is that "there is no more
outside": neither in terms of geography, since all
peoples are at least potentially subject to its
authority, nor in terms of privacy, since its power
goes beyond traditional capitalist exploitation to a
total control of human life. Or, as they put it in a
characteristic passage, "The absoluteness of imperial
power is the complementary term to its complete
immanence to the ontological machine of production and
reproduction, and thus to the bio-political context."

The neologism "biopolitics," along with its cousin
"biopower," is central to the argument. Messrs. Hardt
and Negri use it to suggest that, in very late
capitalism, the forms taken by labor make it
inseparable from the rest of life. Labor is no longer
restricted to the production of commodities for sale;
instead, it is increasingly intellectual, immaterial,
and affective, organized in networks and dependent on
cooperative relationships. Here the postmodernist
overturning of hierarchies and binarisms connects up
with the Marxist theory of surplus value: Labor can be
emancipated from capital because it has become as
autonomous and self-organizing as life itself.

"Biopower," then, is an ambivalent term. On the one
hand, it suggests the total subordination of human
life to the exploitation of Empire: "The highest
function of this power is to invest life through and
through, and its primary task is to administer life."
But at the same time, biopower means an organization
of life and labor so complete that no transcendent
authority, such as a state or a corporation, is any
longer needed to govern it. Biopower "disrupts the
linear and totalitarian figure of capitalist
development." Thus Messrs. Hardt and Negri, while
asserting their rejection of dialectical materialism,
embrace Empire as part of a classic Marxist strategy
of "heightening the contradictions": "We claim that
Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists
that capitalism is better than the forms of society
and modes of production that came before it." Empire
is to be embraced insofar as it hastens the

The reasons for the popularity of Messrs. Hardt and
Negri's theory are not far to seek. Like Marxism, it
is a theory of everything, purporting to explain the
entire development of politics and economics after the
Cold War. Like postmodern literary theory, however, it
promotes private and symbolic gestures of
transgression to the level of revolutionary acts: Even
getting a tattoo can be construed, in Foucauldian
fashion, as "refusal of the disciplinary regime." ("If
you find your body refusing ... normal modes of life,"
they wrote in advice-columnist fashion, "don't despair
— realize your gift!") By incorporating metaphors
drawn from the latest technologies — above all, the
Internet — it seems hard-headed and up-to-date; but by
characterizing the eagerly awaited revolution in
sunny, utopian-anarchist terms, it avoids any
distasteful program of vanguardist violence.

In "Multitude" (Penguin Press, 410 pages, $27.95),
Messrs. Hardt and Negri have set out to make their
theory more user-friendly. For one thing, their
writing has improved to a degree that will astonish
anyone who struggled through the Marxist-Foucauldian
dialect of "Empire." Along with the style, their ideas
have undergone some cosmetic surgery. The concept of
the multitude was already prominent in "Empire": The
multitude was the postmodern proletariat, a virtuous
and creative Prometheus bound to the rock of labor by
the Zeus of Empire. But now the multitude takes center
stage to such an extent that the idea of Empire
virtually disappears: The focus has shifted entirely
from oppression to liberation. Partly as a result, the
authors of "Multitude" seem much more temperate,
reformist, and democratic than the authors of

Much of the change has to do with tone and
temperament. At several points in "Empire," Messrs.
Hardt and Negri reveled in flouting what they no doubt
see as the oppressive pieties of liberal discourse. A
minor instance is when they refer to an essay by Louis
Althusser "written during his period of seclusion" — a
"seclusion" he earned by murdering his wife, which the
authors coyly deemed unworthy of mention. More serious
is their outburst against what they see as Western
intellectuals' unmerited concern with totalitarianism:
"The notions of 'totalitarianism' that were
constructed during the period of the cold war proved
to be useful instruments for propaganda but completely
inadequate analytical tools, leading most often to
pernicious inquisitional methods and damaging moral

Well might Messrs. Hardt and Negri like to transfer
the guilt for such "pernicious inquisitional methods"
from the Cheka to, among others, Hannah Arendt, given
their deep admiration for Lenin. "Empire" even ends
with a paean to "the irrepressible lightness and joy
of being communist," a sentence whose moral idiocy,
coming in the year 2000, hardly needs to be

In "Multitude," however, the lightness and joy of
being communist have been pretty well repressed.
Messrs. Hardt and Negri still lay claim to the
theoretical legacy of Marx, and even Lenin — they
conclude with a section titled, with what no doubt
seems to them roguish cleverness, "The New Science of
Democracy: Madison and Lenin." (Quick quiz: was it
Madison or Lenin who advised executing peasants "in
such a way that for hundreds of versts around, the
people will see, tremble, know, shout: They are
strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker

But the tenor of the book is far from revolutionary.
It lacks both the combativeness and the intellectual
intrepidity of its predecessor; instead of a new
theory of sovereignty, economics, and class struggle,
"Multitude" offers a series of optimistic exhortations
against war and globalization. Precisely because it is
more ingratiating than "Empire," however, "Multitude"
makes it imperative that the ruinous intellectual and
moral deficiencies of Messrs. Hardt and Negri's big
idea receive due scrutiny.

All of these flaws can be traced back, finally, to a
weak sense of reality. The premise of "Empire" was
that state power was giving way to a global
conglomerate or conspiracy; as a corollary, wars would
no longer be fought between states, but by Empire
against all dissidents, in the form of a continual
police action. This idea has been pretty well refuted
by the events of the last two years, when the United
States' war in Iraq was bitterly opposed by many of
its alleged cohorts in Empire. Even before Iraq,
however, it was clear that the Empire model could not
describe the most deadly conflicts in the world over
the last decade — neither the ethnic wars in
Yugoslavia and Rwanda nor the nuclear rivalry between
India and Pakistan. Only a powerful idee fixe could
lead the authors to suppose that "imperial"
intervention — as, for instance, in Kosovo — was a
greater threat to humanity than the genocidal war that
intervention was intended to stop.

The same ideological blinkers are in evidence when, in
"Multitude," Messrs. Hardt and Negri say that Osama
bin Laden "asks for legitimation by presenting himself
as the moral hero of the poor and oppressed of the
global South." In fact, bin Laden presents himself as
no such thing; he is and declares himself to be a
religious zealot dedicated to the imposition of
Islamic law and the chastisement of the secular West.
It is only in Messrs. Hardt and Negri's eyes that
every violent movement in the world is ipso facto a
liberation movement.

The same indifference to fact that nullifies their
political analysis hobbles their philosophizing. At
the core of their utopian promise is the notion of
biopolitics — a realm in which economic, political,
social, and cultural life are inseparable. It is
biopower that Empire seeks to exploit, and it is
biopower upon which the multitude can ground its
autonomy and rebellion. But while Marx had Engels, who
knew factory work at first hand, Messrs. Hardt and
Negri never seem to have any real sense of what
today's cooperative, networked labor is like for those
who do it.

Is there any real commonality between the disparate
categories of what they call immaterial laborers —
software programmers, health care aides, television
writers, genetic engineers, and retail salespeople? In
what way does the actual experience of these types of
work prepare people for building the anarchist utopia
Messrs. Hardt and Negri promise is on the way? Here,
as so often when humanists turn to the sciences, it
seems that metaphors — the network, the code, the
rhizome — have been wrenched from their original
contexts and endowed with fantastic new meanings and

Finally, and most crucially, what Messrs. Hardt and
Negri lack is any genuine humanism. Like other
ideologists of utopia, they reckon in categories so
vast and abstract — multitude, empire — that actual
human beings are no longer visible. The most alarming
section of "Multitude" is a hymn to "swarm
intelligence," in which a positively Orwellian
immolation of the individual in the mass is seen as
the condition of bliss: The multitude is imagined as a
vast hive, filled with "the buzzing and swarming of
the flesh."

But while Messrs. Hardt and Negri see this as an ideal
commonwealth, built on "the real political act of
love," it is actually a deeply sinister flight from
the condition of all moral judgment and political
action: the integrity of the individual human being.
The flesh has appetites, the swarm has instincts, but
only the human being has rights — a word significantly
missing from these authors' vocabulary. Indeed, the
seductiveness of their politics is that it promises to
make rights unnecessary.

In the New Jerusalem, when the multitude governs
itself directly, there will be no more rights because
there will be no more wrongs. But anyone more
respectful than Messrs. Hardt and Negri of fact,
including the facts of history and of human nature,
knows that we will never live in such a heaven; that
every attempt to bring it down to earth has ended in
catastrophe; and that the only hope of humanity lies
not in love, but in justice.