Two years ago, Harvard University Press published a book called Empire, by Michael Hardt, a professor of literature at Duke University, and Antonio Negri, an Italian political philosopher and leftist activist serving a lengthy prison term in Rome. A long, abstruse book described by the catalogue as "a new Communist Manifesto," it made for an incendiary and unlikely bestseller. OK, OK, not a bestseller in the Left Behind sense, but for a while last year—as ads for the paperback edition later proudly proclaimed—you couldn't lay a hand on a copy. Last July, The New York Times ran a glowing profile hailing the arrival of the Next Big Idea, and the buzz in the academic world has continued.
Thus an unsuspecting audience of graduate students and aspiring intellectuals found themselves committed to one of the most acutely painful reading experiences since Oprah recommended Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon to her faithful multitude. After all, even most of the volume's fans, like my Marxist editor at Seattle's The Stranger, Charles Mudede, admit that Empire is "in many respects, an impossibly difficult book."
The problems go well beyond the academic tendency to make up words ("interimperialist," "reterritorialization," "globality," etc.) that create walls, or the cascades of nigh unintelligible verbiage, or the annoying tendency to tack completely italicized, uplifting afterwords on chapters ("Once we recognize our posthuman bodies and minds, once we see ourselves for the simians and cyborgs we are, we then need to explore the VIS VIA, the creative powers that animate us as they do all of nature and actualize our potentialities."). The text has to be more pierced than read and, even then, what we find leaves us scratching our heads as to what all the fuss was about.
So why even bother to try? The answer is that—especially in the post-September 11 world—the book is invaluable as a compendium of ideas and attitudes around which what's left of the Left is trying to construct a program. The "empire" of the book's title, it turns out, is really a close synonym for another slippery term, globalization. Though Hardt and Negri begin with the assumption that after the Cold War the nation state has begun to atrophy, this emphatically "does not mean that sovereignty as such has declined" [italics theirs]. Rather,
Throughout the contemporary transformations, political controls, state functions, and regulatory mechanisms have continued to rule the realm of economic and social production and exchange. … [S]overeignty has taken on a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a simple logic of rule.
Here the fudging begins. The authors reject outright both the idea that global capitalism could have arisen through global give-and-take, "as if this order were a spontaneous concert orchestrated by the natural and neutral hidden hand of the market" (take that, Adam Smith), and also the "conspiracy theory of globalization," wherein The Man is conspiring to keep us all in our place. However, in practice, they lean toward the latter explanation. Using contradictory Marxist, anarchist and postmodern critiques, Hardt and Negri finger, first capital—sorry, "Capital"—and then America for bringing on "enormous oppression and destruction" in the form of wars, sub standard wages and environmental degradation.
It is not an overstatement to say that Empire, like one popular (mis)reading of St. Paul, presents money as the root of all evil. Capital takes on a dark, supernatural transcendence that in Christian theology is reserved to the devil. It is compared to "a vampire"—always seeking and corrupting new blood to sustain itself—and treated as an intelligent force, rather than as a more benign and accurate explanation: the diverse information-driven investments of millions of human beings. Rousseau, the authors say, nailed it when he blamed "the first person who wanted a piece of nature as his. … own exclusive possession and transformed it into the transcendent form of private property" for literally creating evil.
Capital—the book's secular Satan—can be found everywhere, of course, but nowhere is it more concentrated than in the United States of America. No nation is more overtly materialistic than the U.S., with the most expansive definition of private property possible ("the pursuit of happiness") penned into its very foundational document; not as compromise, like the Magna Carta, but as right. Hardt and Negri, though they go back and forth on this point, view the U.S. as a new Rome or, worse, "a cluster of new Romes" with the firepower, the financial interests, the influence and the ideology to impose its view of the world on any nation or people who would dare to buck the tide of globalization.
Empire acknowledges a debt to St. Augustine's concept of two cities for its effect of the authors' thinking. They view the anti-globalization movement as challenging the new Empire in roughly the same fashion as the Bishop of Hippo and the church he spoke for put the lie to Rome's claims of grandeur. Christianity, in Hardt and Negri's reading, introduced a "subjectivity"—another conflicting standard—that eventually undermined Rome's very rationale. However: "[unlike Augustine] our pilgrimage on earth. … remains absolutely immanent. … From this perspective the Industrial Workers of the world is the great Augustinian project of modern times." Heaven isn't part of the equation.
In order to combat globalization, they order "the multitude" to resist. Analyzing the cultural tumult of the 1970s, in which millions of people the world over—workers, obviously, but also feminists, managers, environmentalists and a deluge of divorcees—forced real changes in work practices, laws and wages, they argue that Capital can again be forced to accommodate Labor.
Here the Augustinian/anarchic streak shows through. It isn't only work that has been corrupted by the Original Sin of property: Everything, from attitudes to reproduction to love has been controlled and corrupted by it. The authors not only call for a return to something like the riotous strikes at the turn of the 20th Century, and any other uncoordinated attacks on globalization that the audience can conceive (e.g., the Seattle WTO riots of 1999), they also preach a new hedonism dressed up as asceticism. "The will to be against," they say
really needs a body that is completely incapable of submitting to command. It needs a body that is incapable of adopting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life, and so forth. (If you find your body refusing these "normal" modes of life, don't despair—realize your gift!)
For a manifesto, Empire comes short on policy proposals—beyond "revolt!" In the end, Hardt and Negri work themselves into a good lather over such pie-in-the-sky-ideas as global citizenship and a guaranteed worldwide income that isn't tethered to production. The penultimate section admits that "We do not have any models to offer for [the Revolution]. Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real."
It remains to be seen how much of a lasting effect Empire will have on debate in the U.S., but I predict that the impact in the long run will be negligible. The surprising thing, in my mind, is that any book that ends with the sentence, "this is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist," could ever have garnered the phenomenal attention that it did. And I've no idea how the New York Times could have viewed the book as something new.
One plausible, but untested, hypothesis for the book's success is that the domestic political events of the last few years (impeachment, WTO riots, the Y2K non-meltdown, the 2000 election tie) predisposed young twentysomething Americans to grope about for some answers and, hey, here was this radical new book. …
Whatever the case, September 11 seems to have soured even many liberals on the anti-globalization movement. Peter Beinart, editor of center-left New Republic, claimed that the movement is, in part, "motivated by hatred of the United States," using Empire as Exhibit B. Others, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Marxist columnist for The Nation, have begun speaking out on the positive benefits of globalization. Though many still have some sympathy for the movement's claims about global inequality, the concern appears to be waning. Understanding for this season of war is being shelved in favor of old-fashioned monolithic moral judgments.
Finally, there is something decidedly odd about looking to Marxism to answer America's political problems. It is analogous to rooting around in one's own dustbin for blueprints. One may find them but the more one looks at them, the more he or she realizes that they were discarded for a reason.
Jeremy Lott is senior editor of Spintech Magazine and co-author (with Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanBeek) of the forthcoming The Case for Enoch?
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Empire is available at Amazon.com.
Jeremy Lott recently interviewed author Christopher Moore for Books & Culture Corner.
Previous Christianity Today book reviews by Jeremy Lott include:
Tall Tales | Two Christian thrillers rediscover the 'giants' of Genesis 6 (and Enoch). (February 28, 2002)
'I'm Not in It for the Money' | The digital revolution created many wealthy tech-heads. What do they do now? (September 25, 2001)
Peretti's Past Darkness | The best-selling novelist describes the tormented childhood that shaped his imagination. (March 13, 2001)
Previous articles by Jeremy Lott for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture include:
Is Globalization Christian? | Why the WTO protestors had it wrong. (Jan./Feb. 2002)
Neuroscience After Nietzsche | Is the brain a symphony orchestra without a conductor? (Nov./Dec. 1999)
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries!
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Dictionary of the Future | Trendspotter Faith Popcorn on the words that will define our tomorrow. (Feb. 11, 2002)
Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)