The new anti-Americanism

I wonder if Empire—the nearly 500-page reader-proof tome by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—is about to make a comeback. The book has long-since disappeared into well-deserved oblivion.

But when it was first published some twenty years ago, it took the world—at least the gullible world of academia and adjacent media middens—by storm.

The venerable literary Marxist Fredric Jameson opined that it was “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.”

Neither blurb writers nor cultural journalists write under oath, of course. But even with all of the appropriate discounts, this is an exceptional outpouring. At the time, Hardt was a thirty-something associate professor in the literature program at Duke. His co-author, Antonio Negri (1933-2023), was  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.

Empire’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 had 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, schemas, 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.” Et very much cetera.

Contemporary academics simply love 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. Empire is a veritable compendium of such passages. This alone makes it a good candidate for academic stardom.

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, 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 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. That idea seemed big once upon a time. It is now as thoroughly discredited as a 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, post-colonialism, or new historicism, the other academic fads to which Eakin genuflects.

One and all, they were—and 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 enjoyed 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. It is the same in other fields. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and 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 the book’s style. When George Orwell observed that it was now “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.

But 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 were adept at deploying the dialectic, but they hadn’t mastered the art of duplicitous ambiguity. 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 was such a hit in the academy was 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 2024 and capitalism is still going strong and making the world richer and richer.

How is this possible? Hardt and Negri offer three hypotheses. One, that capitalism has reformed itself and 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 would have been 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 that “the ‘merely cultural’ experimentation [of the 1960s] had very profound political and economic effects” (emphasis in the original). Hardt and Negri are both children of the 1960s, Hardt by adoption and 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.

Empire, like the anti-Israel protests sweeping college campuses today, was just another redaction of the radicalism and anti-Americanism of the 1960s. Which is to say that books like Empire are not innocent academic inquiries. They are incitements to violence and terrorism.

This was something that Antonio Negri, at any rate, understood 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 the authorities had no doubt that Negri was ultimately responsible. Negri 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.”

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. 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 was not to understand but to destroy society. Sensible citizens should be alarmed that it was 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 reminds us that the real battles have yet to be joined.

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Notable Replies

  1. Fortunately “Empire” came after that part of my life where I might have been forced to read it. But those living in the unfortunate time slot of its release were spared that fate due to its sheer length. All books by academic leftists should be read first–if at all–by certified critics of academic leftist blather. The author has my gratitude for having performed this important public service. So far, this century has seen more than its fair share of “Empire” books. It could be that the internal contradictions of Marxist ‘thought’ have been largely responsible for this phenomenon, in that the light bulb of bad intellectual ideas always burns brightest before the end. The authors of “Empire” did more to kill trees for no good purpose except for their hero’s murderous waste of the same for almost the last two centuries.

  2. Never read Empire. I don’t read communist claptrap. However, I am more than well aware that the 60s and 70s were a result of the 50s when “McCarthyism” rooted out communists in the Federal government, they were part of the New Deal, and their Red Diaper Babies went into academia and switched from the Stalinism and Trotskyism of their parents to Maoism, Castroism and Ho Chi Minhism. Now their descendants are blowing the same smoke in a - successful - effort to continue the efforts of their grandparents to establish an American workers paradise.

  3. Well, I read “Empire” back in the day, and I read it as an update to the bourgeoisie vs. proletarians of Marx. Empire is global corporations and the nation state. Multitude is what I described in 2012 as "groupings of singularities in the world of work, no longer the ‘habit’ of work in mass-production factories and offices, but becoming a culture of ‘performance’ in creative occupations and productions of ‘affect’. The new multitude calls for a new ‘life in common’.
    Do you see the point? The poor helpless victims are the “creative class” desperately trying to create a new world in the face of the evil billionaires and populist nationalists. Bless their hearts.

  4. Do you ever just speak in plain , easy to understand terms ? Are you trying to impress somebody , perhaps Mr Kimball ,by "seeing "the two authors affinities for inane sophistry and " raising “it ? Kimball, whom I generally have thought of as perhaps the best writer on this site , seems to have done exactly that as well in this piece . I’ve been away from this morgue for awhile but I realized I’ve been” auto payed "into another year of membership so I figured I’d drop in and see how all the cadavers are doing . . So if you have some insightful observations to make about all of this academic non sense pleas don’t do it in their language , its not a good look Mkay > I used to actually find you somewhat entertaining just for your quirky delivery but good gawd Chris ?

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