Reading Hardt and Negri

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* Book: The Empire's New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri.


See also: Debating Empire.


From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2006:

- a book of critiques on Hardt and Negri's book: Empire

Post-1968 radical theory took as its target the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, which posited a dominant ideology to explain why the masses do not rise up against their oppressors They suffer from a 'false consciousness' and mistake oppression for freedom.

Much of the post-1968 work took as is goal to disprove this notion by examining local acts of resistance that illustrate how the masses have not swallowed the dominant ideology, at least not completely.

A totalizing account of oppression and resistance became suspect in academic circles. and attention focused on micropolitics.

Laclau's Critique

According to Negri, "the primary event of modernity is the affirmation of 'this' world, the discovery of a plane of immanence. It started with the affirmation of Duns Scotus of the 'singularity of being', i.e. the human was no longer seen as a mix of immanence and transcendence; this was followed by Nicholas de Cusa, Pico de Mirandella, Bovillus, Bacon, and Occam, to culminate with Spinoza.

But this potential modernity was sidelined by a 'reaction', which after the Thirty Years War, re-introduced transcendence as 'sovereignty'.

Laclau disputes this genealogy, and sees it starting before, with the Carolingian Renaissance and Scotus Erigena. This theological debate is centred around 'evil', which is denied a independent existence by the immanentists; they see it as part of development , with an underlying rationality.

Laclau also does not believe in the spontaneous emergence of unity among the immanent multitudes.

He writes:

- "For Negri and Hardt, the unity of the multitude results from the spontaneous aggregation of a plurality of actions that do not need to be articulated themselves. These struggles do not link horizontally, but each one leaps vertically , and directly to the virtual center of Empire. Laclau insists on the necessary moment of articulation, as vitally important".

For Laclau, resistance is not automatic, it is a complex social construction dependent on external conditions and on subjective transformations.

Laclau then points to some unresolved contradictions in Empire:

   - 1) It is based on a theory of the multitude, which at the same time, remains to be written (presumable now done in the 2nd book ?0
   - 2) Multitude is constitutive of Empire  yet also constituted by it ?
   - 3) The multitude is an illimited possibility, yet also has limits

Ruth Buchanan

For Negri, Empire is

   - 1) a new legal imperialism
   - 2) it is decentered and deterritorialising, and it surpasses national sovereignty
   - 3) it is a totality both geographically and in terms of 'all human activity' and 'fully realized' as a world market. It is inclusive and has no outside.
   - 4) it operates in a smooth space that follows a postmodern logic. It thrives on difference.

The critique of this is twofold.

- One, that Negri does not see how globalization can be an expression of national sovereignty, rather than its transcendence. - Two, that he 'naturalizes' the market, thereby reinforcing its hold , and denying the constitutive role of global institutions such as the World Bank.

In a discussion of the new trends in the 'World Bank Development Report', they show the bank sees the global market as depending on the legal frameworks of the nation-states, which thus retain a pre-eminent role.

Paul Passavant

  • Article: From Empire's Law to the Multitude's Right

What does the term of 'absolute democracy' mean ?

That, since the advent of the postmodern age, state and society have separated. The multitude is born in the social, exists as absolute democracy, and cannot be represented by sovereignty. Representation destroys multiplicity of singularities', by taming it into a general will that serves sovereignty.

Hardt and Negri no longer have any faith in the law, the state, and civil society:

- the state has abstracted itself from practical politics, by no longer mediating between capital and labor

- the law, as in the works of John Rawls, is no longer based on the social valorisation of labor and is also now based on total abstraction

- civil society is withering away because of the intermediary disciplinary organizations such as labor unions are no longer needed.

       - "today, labor is a force inside the system, that no longer needs to be tamed", rather it is controlled by the control society

- civil society no longer functions as mediator because subjects have internalized capital norms and reproduce it in their social practices (such as wearing explicit logo's)

Faced with a 'spectacle of democracy', the multitudes are necessarily exiting representation.

However, concerning the separation of law (postmodern judicial formation) from society and a state gearing to a state of permanent exception, separated from both law and society. This thesis is based on a reading of Agamben. The author claim that both misread Carl Schmitt's decisionism; the latter insists that the state of exception must be connected to the law, even as suspended, because the alternative would be chaos. Passavant finds fault also in Hardt/Negri's history of the American Revolution, which pits the constituent Declaration of Independence, against the constituted 'Constitution', and see the former as the first expression of the unbounded multitude. This is wrong because even before the Constitutions, the rebels used British legal discourse and identified Americans as people against the 'savages, Indians, and Blacks".

Passavant sees no sharp distinction between the two documents, but he acknowledges that the Declaration was an important democratic document. M.L. King used it to advance civil right. Hence the law can and must be used to expand rights and cannot be disgarded.

Four characteristics define a state:

   - 1) a territory with well-defined boundaries
   - 2) a population to be governed
   - 3) a government to make binding decisions
   - 4) sovereignty (since the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648)

Sovereignty means that the state has pacified its population through legitimate coercion, while externally it does not accept any interference. This means the international system is based on anarchy, tempered by free agreements. Does this system still exist ?

Amongst the globalization hypotheses are the following:

   - 1) that the nations are being eclipsed
   - 2) the sovereign state persists and
   - 3) is even responsible for globalization

The authors suggest a non-territorial bounded approach (as many processes that are not confined to boundaries), which shows that for 300 years, the basis sovereign element was not the sovereign nation state, but the imperial state.

Mark Laffey and Jutta Weldes

In the view of Mark Laffey and Jutta Weldes, the 'sovereignty narrative' suffers from both state-centrism and euro-centrism, failing to see how the non-West has also shaped the international system. They stress the existence of a transnational coercive apparatus, using foreign forces, rather than 'internal force projected outward'. Thus there are other representations of the international, based on hierarchy, empire, and the internationalization of the state. (instead of respectively hierarchy, sovereignty and globalization as a problem for the state).

Globalization, which looks 'new' in the sovereignty narrative, only looks like a new phase of the old process of dominance, in that other narrative.

Hardt and Negri do not go sufficiently beyond the sovereignty narrative, which they consider a myth in any case. The authors Laffey and Weldes also challenge the notion that Empire is 'smooth'. This obscures the fact that borders are still important, though their nature and function may have changed. In their own theory, there is no sovereignty. States do not act, they are the enduring structure of rule, constituted of many agencies and relations of power. Moreover, capital needs the state to enforce its property and other rights, and globalization is simply the internationalisation of the state.