Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
(Harvard University Press)

A Mercury Reader User's Guide

Once in a blue moon, something happens to the social universe: a grand convergence of social and cultural forces beams down to earth a radical new book. 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 provided the much-needed philosophical context to understand those protests. Since then, it's been an object of intensive study within the walls of academia. And then some rather surprising things happened: The stock market crashed, the movement against globalization from above gained momentum, and finally the mainstream press stumbled across Empire as the book that most adequately expressed our age's dissatisfaction.

We can't help you with the details, but we thought a general map of the central concepts in Empire would make the journey ahead a little easier.


Let's begin with the beginning. What Negri and Hardt call "Empire" is the successor of 19th century imperialism, best exemplified by British and French colonial domination over specific societies, mostly in Africa and Asia. The mechanism organizing imperialism was the European national state, which acted as a center around which colonies were ordered. The British empire, for example, had to establish rigid boundaries to ensure its economic advantage over competitors, and white Londoners had to be differentiated from colonial subjects to justify massive flows of profits from the periphery (Johannesburg, Hong Kong) to the metropolis (London). Imperialism functioned by producing limits.

Traditional imperialism did not survive World War II. What arose from its ruins was Empire, a new system of domination that no longer separated inside and outside. Empire aspired to globality, a world with no boundaries in which first and third worlds are inseparably intermingled: Fifth Avenue and Harlem, Mexico City and Chiapas, Beverly Hills and South Central.


But how is Empire to establish domination over global populations without the police powers of the nation state? Negri and Hardt's answer lies in the idea of biopower (which means "power over life"). By means of mass communication technologies, Empire has figured out how to leave 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.

But 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 new social movements of 1968. There will be no new Soviet Union, no second Gandhi. What replaces all that is a politics of everyday life--a biopolitics constituted by struggles for individual and collective autonomy in the present: women's right to choose, the fight against police profiling, and so on.

The Multitude

Biopolitics produces the multitude. The nation-state had been so successful as a form of political domination, because it made people believe that they had a stake in the state, that they were "The People." But in the brave new world of Empire, nobody is satisfied any longer with being an "American." At the very least, you are European-American. The People were subjects of the state; the multitude is an irreducible multiplicity of political/cultural subjectivities.

The flip side of this is that there is no more proletariat in the traditional Marxist sense. Whereas Marx and Lenin had argued that the (white male) industrial workers were the vanguard of the coming Communist society, which all other segments of the working class must follow, in Empire such a configuration is no longer possible. Since political identities are radically pluralized on a global level, but also linked by a global situation, revolutionary agency must itself be decentralized. There will be no vanguard--only a multitude of potentially coalescing revolutionary movements.


Negri and Hardt's conclusion is ecstatic. From their analysis, they draw the conclusion that Empire is, by its very nature, an unstable system poised for implosion. The global reach of the multitude's rebellion--exemplified in the protests against globalization that have rocked the world since the book'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, the global right to a social wage, and finally, global collective ownership of the means of production and communication--the factory and the TV station. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of Empire.