In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.
—George Orwell, 1946

Another reaction to the events . . . has been to ignore them altogether and to burrow deeper into academic Marxism, concentrate on the more esoteric critiques of American society and capitalism, and chart new approaches toward their delegitimation.
—Paul Hollander, 1995

A new species of political activist has been born with a spirit that is reminiscent of the paradoxical idealism of the 1960s.
—Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, July 2001

The accolades have been extraordinary. The venerable literary Marxist Fredric Jameson opined that it is “the first great new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium.” The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek—a plausible replacement for Jameson as the world’s trendiest academic Marxist—declared that it is “nothing less than a rewriting of the The Communist Manifesto for our time.” Further down the intellectual food chain, Emily Eakin, a journalist for The New York Times, delivered herself of an ecstatic summary, simultaneously certifying and increasing the book’s prestige. Perhaps, she speculated, it is the “Next Big Idea,” the successor to structuralism and deconstruction in the halls of literary academia. It is too soon to say for sure, she cautioned, but, possessed as it is of “the formal trappings of a master theory in the old European tradition,” the book “is filling a void in the humanities.”1

Contemporary academics simply adore this sort of thing.

Neither blurb writers nor cultural journalists write under oath, of course. But even with all of the appropriate discounts this is an exceptional outpouring. And what is the object of all these bright encomia? It is Empire, a five-hundred-page reader-proof tome written jointly by Michael Hardt, a thirty-something associate professor in the literature program at Duke, and Antonio Negri, an Italian political philosopher in his late sixties who is described on the book’s dust jacket as “an independent researcher and writer and an inmate at Rebibbia Prison, Rome.” I will say more about Negri below.

It is in some ways a curious success story. Empire was published without particular fanfare by Harvard University Press in March 2000. It was in fact something of a sleeper (a term whose dual associations—with the realms of cultural fashion and terrorist espionage—make it peculiarly appropriate for a book that preaches revolution). The book’s combination of owlish scholarly pretentiousness, on the one hand, and bristling Communist militancy, on the other, more or less guaranteed it at least a respectful audience in the academy. About the former—the owlish pretentiousness—it must be said that Hardt and Negri have perfect pitch. There are few fashionable academic clichés that do not make at least a cameo appearance in Empire. On every page Hardt and Negri field a large army of names and catch phrases—from Duns Scotus and Nicholas of Cusa to Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, from “postmodernization” to “biopolitical production.” Their book luxuriates in a vast proliferation of abstract categories, schema, and prognostications. They are particularly adept at maintaining an atmosphere of inescapable menace. “In the passage from disciplinary society to society of control,” they write in one of many passages that takes off from the work of Foucault,

a new paradigm of power is realized which is defined by the technologies that recognize society as the realm of biopower. In disciplinary society the effects of biopolitical technologies were still partial in the sense that disciplining developed according to closed, geometrical, and quantitative logics. Disciplinarity fixed individuals within institutions but did not succeed in consuming them completely in the rhythm of productive practices and productive socialization; it did not reach the point of permeating entirely the consciousness and bodies of individuals.

Contemporary academics simply adore this sort of thing. Promiscuous talk about “power” and “discipline” seems to provide them with an almost erotic frisson. The charge is especially great when the talk is translated into academese—never say “discipline” when you can say “disciplinarity”—and dark, irresistible forces unrecognized by the rest of us are postulated. Who knows what “permeating entirely the consciousness and bodies of individuals” in the above passage means? Think about it: we are supposed to inhabit that “society of control” Hardt and Negri describe (or warn about: they never describe anything without an air of admonition). In what sense does power or discipline or disciplinarity or whatever permeate “entirely the consciousness and bodies of individuals”—for example, you and me? In no sense. What, for that matter, are “closed, geometrical, and quantitative logics”? Who knows? But the aura of bad news is unmistakable, and for intellectuals bent on promulgating anguish bad news is glad tidings.

Empire is a veritable compendium of such passages. This alone made it a good candidate for academic stardom. And naturally the imprimatur of the Harvard University Press did not hurt. Still, it took a while before the book really developed a following. But by the time Emily Eakin and The New York Times caught up with it, in July 2001, translation rights had been lined up in ten countries and the book had become the darling of right-thinking—which means left-leaning—literary academics from New York to Sydney.

It is worth pausing over Eakin’s mash note. Not because what she says is astute. She even manages to get the basic message of the book exactly 100 percent backward. But Eakin’s panegyric is symptomatic of the smug, destructive cultural milieu that nurtures books like Empire.

“Empire” is Hardt’s and Negri’s term for that transnational, capitalist entity—or perhaps it is a process: it is difficult to say—that has supposedly succeeded the nation state. (The nation state they regard as a dinosaur that is well on its way to the dust-bin of history.) Hence Empire is not coterminous with the United States, though Hardt and Negri clearly believe that the U.S. figures prominently in the architecture of Empire. In fact, what they call Empire does not really exist. Hardt and Negri sometimes come close to acknowledging this (though a page later they are populating Empire with all sorts of powers and attributes). In their preface, Hardt and Negri boldly claim that Empire is “not a metaphor but a concept, which calls primarily for a theoretical approach.”

The words “theoretical approach” should send a shiver down the spine of any sensible person. The burden of their remark is to declare intellectual open season. When it comes to applying a “theoretical approach” to a “concept,” the bottom line is: anything goes. Still, using a capital letter whenever Empire is mentioned was a sound rhetorical move. It helps to give this airy nothing local habitation and a name, and people who are reassured by being told that something is not a metaphor but a concept will be grateful for that. Eakin writes that Hardt and Negri believe “Empire is good news.” In truth, they excoriate it on virtually every page. “In Empire corruption is everywhere,” they write in one typical passage. “It is the cornerstone and keystone of domination.” One of their central questions is how the “multitude” (their term for what Marx called the proletariat) can become political and overcome “the central repressive operations of Empire.” (The answer, which comes on page 400: “We cannot say at this point.”) Does this sound like “good news”? No, Hardt and Negri do not regard Empire as good news. They regard it as Marx regarded capitalism: something so bad that it would necessarily perish of its own badness. (Marx, being a Hegelian, substituted “contradictions” for “badness” in order to invest the process with the appearance of logical necessity, but there is no reason to dignify that philosophical sleight-of-hand by perpetuating the linguistic solecism.)

Eakin is also wrong to suggest that Empire may represent the “Next Big Idea.” This is mainly because Empire is based on a laughably tiny idea, and one that is also old and wrong. The idea, again, is Marx’s idea about the inevitable collapse of capitalism. It seemed big once upon a time. It is now as thoroughly discredited as an historical or political idea can be. Hardt and Negri gussy up Marx with a formidable panoply of New Age rhetoric about globalization. But the creaking you hear as you make your way through the book is the rusty grinding of the dialectic: it goes nowhere, it means nothing, but it keeps creaking along.

Eakin is mistaken not only about the intellectual size of Empire. She is also wrong about the intellectual size of the movements Empire is enlisted to succeed. Structuralism was not an important intellectual development. Neither was deconstruction, or post-colonialism, or new historicism, the other academic fads to which Eakin genuflects. One and all they were—they continue to be—intellectual con-games, utterly void of merit except as tools of obfuscation and intellectual corruption. (They can also help in the campaign to obtain tenure, but that is a separate matter.)

One of the things that makes Eakin’s discussion of Empire so distasteful is the crass and stunningly superficial view of the humanities it presupposes. It is a view that celebrates novelty and “daringness” to the exclusion of concern for truth. Of course Eakin is not alone in this bad habit. On the contrary, the subordination of permanent human concerns to the winds of intellectual fashion is epidemic in the humanities. It is a major reason that Empire is enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame. But the fact that an evil is widespread and popular does not mean it is any less objectionable.

Eakin speaks of “the need in fields like English, history, and philosophy for a major new theory.” What those fields really need, however, is not a “major new theory”—or any sort of theory, come to that—but a return to first principles. Professors of literature do not require a theory to make Milton or Shakespeare come alive. What they need is a straightforward concern for the text and the questions it raises. Great works of literature are inexhaustible when confronted by candid human curiosity.

The creaking you hear as you make your way through the book is the rusty grinding of the dialectic: it goes nowhere, it means nothing, but it keeps creaking along.

It is the same in other fields. Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas or Kant seem like old hat only to someone who has lost the ability to read philosophy. But such persons ought not to be teaching. Eakin quotes Stanley Aronowitz, a Marxist professor of sociology, who praises Empire for “addressing the crisis in the humanities, which has reached the point where banality seems to pervade the sphere.” Aronowitz is right that there is a crisis in the humanities; he is right, too, that it is in part a crisis of banality. But the cause of the crisis is not the lack but rather the ceaseless pursuit of new theories. Is there anything more banal than the expostulations of Derrida, Foucault, and their countless epigones and progeny? The triumph of what goes under the name “theory” has proven to be a prescription for frivolousness, grandstanding, and mendacity. If the past few decades have shown anything about the state of the liberal arts, it is that theory, so-called, does not enliven or illuminate the humanities: it replaces the humanities with an ideological counterfeit.

Which brings me back to Empire. Eakin cheerfully suggested that it was “filling a void in the humanities.” It would be more accurate to say that it epitomizes that void. I have already mentioned its style. Even Orwell would have been impressed. When he observed that it was “normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning,” he surely did not anticipate authors who would be able to keep up the unintelligibility for nearly five-hundred pages. (Perhaps that is why Empire is co-authored: the strain of unrelieved crit-speak would have been too much for any one individual.) Empire is full of passages like this on “The Dialectic of Colonialism”:

In the logic of colonialist representations, the construction of a separate colonized other and the segregation of identity and alterity turns out paradoxically to be at once absolute and extremely intimate. The process consists, in fact, of two moments that are dialectically related. In the first moment difference has to be pushed to the extreme. In the colonial imaginary the colonized is not simply an other banished outside the realm of civilization; rather it is grasped or produced as Other, as the absolute negation, as the most distant point on the horizon.

It is not just the style of Empire that is rebarbative. Its judgments are too. They are mostly a tapestry of Marxist chestnuts updated for contemporary circumstances. Remember the Cold War? Leftist dogma maintains that it is impossible that the United States won the Cold War. Ergo, the fact that the United States did win it—that the policies of the Reagan administration brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union—must be denied at every turn. So it is business as usual when Hardt and Negri solemnly assure us that “the United States did not defeat the socialist enemy” in the Cold War; rather “The Soviet Union collapsed under the burden of its own internal contradictions.”

“Internal contradictions”? We require permits for handguns: why not for lethal concepts such as the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic? Its careless use is clearly a public intellectual-health hazard. The dialectic is the ultimate sophist’s tool. Marx himself realized this. In an 1857 letter to Engels about an election prediction, Marx wrote: “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.” Hardt and Negri are not as cautious as the master. They are adept at deploying the dialectic, but they haven’t mastered the art of duplicitous ambiguity. Thus they baldly conclude that the Gulf War was “really an operation of oppression”—perpetrated, of course, not by Saddam Hussein but by the United States. The Los Angeles riots they describe as one of “the most radical and powerful struggles of the final years of the twentieth century.” High praise indeed! Most of us, looking back over the history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century, would conclude that there was no international proletarian revolution as Marx predicted there would be. But according to Hardt and Negri such a judgment would be superficial and short-sighted: “actually,” they write, the proletariat “ ‘won’ ” because nation states are not as powerful now as they once were.

I suspect that part of the reason Empire is such a hit in the academy is its superior insulation. Hardt and Negri have sealed every point of ingress: no hint of reality is allowed to seep in. The single greatest embarrassment to Marxist theory has always been the longevity of capitalism. It was supposed to implode from “internal contradictions” long ago. But here it is 2001 and capitalism is still going strong and making the world richer and richer. Attempting to explain this is the greatest test of a Marxist’s ingenuity. Here is how Hardt and Negri handle the problem:

As we write this book and the twentieth century draws to a close, capitalism is miraculously healthy, its accumulation more robust than ever. How can we reconcile this fact with the careful analyses of numerous Marxist authors at the beginning of the century who point to the imperialist conflicts as symptoms of an impending ecological disaster running up against the limits of nature?

They offer three hypotheses for this imponderable situation. One, that capitalism has reformed itself and so is no longer in danger of collapse (an option they dismiss out of hand). Two, that the Marxist theory is right except for the timetable: “Sooner or later the once abundant resources of nature will run out.” Three—well, it is a little difficult to say what the third hypothesis is. It has to do, they say, with the idea that capitalism’s expansion is “internal” rather than “external,” that it “subsumes not the noncapitalist environment but its own capitalist terrain—that is, that the subsumption is no longer formal but real.” I won’t attempt to explain this for the simple reason that I haven’t a clue about what it means.

Is there any important option they have neglected? Could it, just possibly, be that the “careful analyses of numerous Marxist authors” was just plain wrong? This is a possibility apparently too awful to contemplate, for Hardt and Negri never raise it.

It might seem that the best response to Empire is also the easiest: simple neglect. If anything is going to “implode” from its own “internal contradictions,” wouldn’t it be silly neo-Marxist diatribes written in polysyllabic gobbledygook? Who really cares whether books like Empire are considered hot stuff by the folks who run the Modern Language Association? Isn’t that just another confirmation of the complete irrelevancy of the academic world today? Writers like Hardt and Negri are clearly out of touch with reality: doesn’t that render them harmless?

Would that it were so. Unfortunately, preposterousness has never been a barrier to effectiveness. There are plenty of ideas that are fatuous, wrongheaded, or simply ridiculous that nevertheless have a great and baneful influence on the world. Books like Empire are a veritable repository of such ideas. The one unequivocally true statement in Empire is the observation (in italics in the original) that “the ‘merely cultural’ experimentation [of the 1960s] had very profound political and economic effects.” Hardt and Negri are both children of the 1960s, Hardt by adoption, Negri because he participated in them to the hilt. Empire dilates enthusiastically on the radical movement of the 1960s, on the great benefits of ingesting mind-altering drugs and the happy “experimentation with new forms of productivity” undertaken by the feckless denizens of Haight-Ashbury and other ghettos of irresponsibility.

A prime ingredient of the ideology of the 1960s was anti-Americanism. America—generally spelled “Amerika”—was public enemy number one, not only because of the Vietnam War but also because of its embrace of capitalism and Western liberal values. Susan Sontag spoke for many left-wing intellectuals when she excoriated American culture as “inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian,” wrote that “the white race is the cancer of human history,” and insisted that what America “deserves” is to have its wealth “taken away” by the Third World. (Some things never change. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Sontag published an angry letter in The New Yorker lambasting “the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures,” including our “robotic President,” who did not understand that those terrorists attacks were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”)

Empire is a contemporary redaction of the radicalism and anti-Americanism of the 1960s. It is the intellectual rationalization of attitudes whose practical effects were demonstrated so vividly on September 11. Books like Empire are not innocent academic inquiries. They are incitements to violence and terrorism. This is something that Antonio Negri, at any rate, understands perfectly well. Emily Eakin described Negri as a “flamboyant . . . Italian philosopher and suspected terrorist mastermind who is serving a 13-year prison sentence in Rome for inciting violence during the turbulent 1970’s.”

That is putting it mildly. Antonio Negri was an architect of the infamous Red Brigades, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist group. In 1979, he was arrested and charged with “armed insurrection against the state” and seventeen murders, including the murder of the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped in 1978 and shot dead fifty-five days later, his body dumped in a car. Negri did not actually pull the trigger. But, as David Pryce-Jones noted in an excellent article about Empire in the September 17 number of National Review, “The Italian authorities had no doubt that Negri was ultimately responsible. Just before Moro was shot dead, someone telephoned his distraught wife to taunt her, and that person was identified at the time as Negri.” He fled to Paris, where he struck up friendships with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and other specimens of enlightenment. He eventually returned to Italy and negotiated a sharply reduced sentence for “membership in an armed band.”

The single greatest embarrassment to Marxist theory has always been the longevity of capitalism.

There is nothing in Empire to suggest that Negri has had second thoughts about his activities in the Red Brigades. On the contrary, whenever violent insurrection is mentioned, it is praised. In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times in July, Hardt and Negri congratulated the violent protesters in Genoa who took to the streets this summer when world financial leaders met there. “These movements,” they enthused, “are what link Genoa this weekend most clearly to the openness—toward new kinds of exchange and new ideas—of its Renaissance past.” (Hardt and Negri have what might generously be described as an idiosyncratic view of the Renaissance. In Empire, they write—in italics, to be sure we don’t miss it—that “Michel Foucault’s final works on the history of sexuality bring to life once again that same revolutionary impulse that animated Renaissance humanism.” I wonder what Jacob Burckhardt would have said about that.)

Empire concludes with a section called “Militant,” printed entirely in italics. “In the postmodern era, as the figure of the people dissolves, the militant is the one who best expresses the life of the multitude: the agent of biopolitical production and resistance against Empire.” Hardt and Negri praise “the communist and liberatory combatants of the twentieth-century revolutions” and assure us that “militancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity.” The most nauseating part of the book comes at the very end: “This is a revolution that no power will control—because biopower and communism, cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.”

Although written in the abstract language of the graduate seminar, Empire has an ominously pragmatic aim: to undermine faith in the liberal institutions that inform American democracy. It is a poisonous book whose ultimate goal is not to understand but to destroy society. Harvard University Press should be ashamed of publishing it. Sensible citizens should be alarmed that it is glorified by trendy intellectuals and the press. It is sometimes suggested that America’s culture wars are over. The adulation showered upon Empire and its authors, together with the horrible events of September 11, show that the real battles have yet to be joined.

  1.  Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; Harvard University Press, 478 pages, $18.95 (paper).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 2, on page 17
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