The Empire does not exist - a critique of Toni Negri's ideas

We are replublishing a 2003 critique of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire, which takes up the key ideas of the authors that are still fashionable among those who today wish to deny the essence of Marxism while at the same disguising themselves as Marxists.


In 2001, Toni Negri's book "Empire" hit bookstores all over Italy. The author [i], who was a leading figure of the Autonomia Operaia [Workers' Autonomy] movement back in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy, is today, along with Michael Hardt [ii], the leading advocate of a theory that claims that the age of imperialism is dead.

The book, which was written at the end of the 1990s, had already been published in many other countries and had attracted a high level of interest in academic circles all around the world, triggering much heated debate within the European Left itself.

However, my excitement at the book's imminent publication quickly turned into disappointment as I began to read the book's four hundred odd pages. Although undoubtedly well written from a stylistic point of view (his linear manner of writing and his use of metaphor make it far from a dull read), what one can basically say is that there is nothing fundamentally new in it. It simply sets down a set of old ideas that have already been debated within the labour movement over a number of years. In some cases, the authors have even managed to present an even worse version of these ideas, ideas which have been used repeatedly in an attempt to lower the level of political understanding of the working class (and thus to paralyse it at crucial moments in history).

The book's main premise is that the era of "Imperialism" is over and that we are now living in era of the so-called "Empire". The authors also make a number of other claims in their analysis of this "Empire", which also need to be dealt with if an accurate analysis of the book is to be made.

For example, amongst other things, they claim that the 'Law of Value' has disappeared, that the working class has been replaced by the so-called "multitude" and that the concept of political "activist" has changed.

I believe that we should not consider a discussion of such topics as some sort of abstract academic exercise. In the current epoch, it is increasingly important and urgent to criticise such ideas, especially at a time when once again the workers are beginning to flex their muscles all over the world with demonstrations and strikes, or in the case of Argentina, with genuine revolutionary movements. If these ideas ever were to succeed in gaining a majority within the leadership of the international labour movement this would mean the movement would be signing its own death sentence.

On every continent of the planet, in the coming historical period, the working class united with other oppressed social classes faces the task of leading the way to the world socialist revolution. However, if we prove to be incapable of consigning the ideas currently being forward by Comrade Negri to the dustbin of history - where they deserve to be - all our actions would be in vain. The lack of a subjective factor capable of leading the working class in Italy, would result in the defeat of the present movement, just as the movement of the 1960s and 1970s was defeated. Therefore, the task is all the more urgent as the current movement has already proven its highly explosive character and has already served the bosses with notice that it intends to seek a radical alternative to the established social order.

Empire versus Imperialism

Perhaps the most significant part of the book is where the authors deal with the concept of "Empire". Negri and Hardt have tried to demonstrate that the capitalist system has gone beyond the imperialist stage and has entered a new phase that can be defined as "imperial".

I think it is best to use the authors' own words to describe their theory of the "Empire":

"The Empire can only be seen as a universal republic, a network of power structures and counterbalances structured into an inclusive and unlimited architecture. The expansion of the Empire has nothing in common with imperialist expansion and is not based on nation states bent on conquering, pillaging, massacring, colonising peoples into slavery. Unlike this imperialism, the Empire expands and consolidates its power structures [...] Finally, remember that at the basis of the development and expansion of the Empire is the quest for peace." [iii]

Negri's "big idea" is that of the "global network distribution of power", which is a horizontal capitalist-dominated structure in which, due to the complete elimination of  "the centre", a new form of exploitation of "the multitude" has been created. The authors believe that instead of fighting each other, the various imperialist countries are now engaged in a period in which they interact with each other within the Empire and in its interests, in the quest for peace.

This type of thinking is similar in many ways to that developed by the "renegade Kautsky" [iv] who, in contrast to Lenin's views, invented the theory of "superimperialism", which can be summarised, in the words of Kautsky himself as follows:

"From a purely economic point of view, therefore, it is not impossible that capitalism is now to enter upon a new phase, a phase marked by the transfer of trust methods to international politics, a sort of super-imperialism. Instead of fighting each other, the imperialisms of the whole world would unite and we would enter a war-less era under a capitalist regime, in which the imperialist countries could dedicate themselves to the collective exploitation of the world on behalf of a coalition of international financial capital." [v]

As can be seen, both refer to a global power structure in which conflicts between the various imperialist countries would cease to exist. Negri, however, who is fully aware of this dispute between Lenin and Kautsky, goes one step further by saying that in reality:

"Lenin agreed with Kautsky's basic argument according to which capitalist development contains within it a trend towards increasing international co-operation between the various national finance capitals which would have probably created a single global organisation. Lenin however disagreed strongly with Kautsky's efforts to use this perspective to justify his forecast of a future of peace and to negate the dynamics of the contemporary situation".

Although this a distortion of Lenin's theory, the authors of "Empire" try to defend themselves from accusations of revisionism and try to develop their Marxian ideas. In reality Lenin had something very different to say about the creation of a world economic trust. In "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism" [vi], Lenin clearly states that although the various imperialist powers are able to make agreements between each other on a world scale, these agreements are only temporary and are only a reflection of the existing balance of forces between the opposing imperialist countries at a particular moment in time.

It is obvious then that if this balance of forces changes, the agreements will also change. Therefore, such a situation cannot be described as peaceful and stable co-operation, but merely a series of temporary agreements designed to obtain the maximum amount of profit from a specific sector of the market.

Marx writes that capitalism does not always need war to establish its hegemony over markets. Sometimes the specific balance of forces created by the level of development of the productive forces in a given country are sufficient enough to impose the required conditions.

Today, advanced capitalist countries may find it to their advantage to sign commercial treaties between each other. Tomorrow, on the other hand, they may have to wage war with each other in order to capture and secure new markets for themselves. Capitalism is quite happy to use either method, depending on which one suits it best at a particular moment in time.

For this reason it is not only incorrect, but downright reactionary to claim that the concept of "Empire" or "superimperialism" is "dedicated to peace".

This distortion of Marxist ideas does not stop here either, but reappears several times in the writings of Messrs Negri and Hardt. For example, in an interview for the "Mattino" newspaper, Negri says the following in support of his theory that the era of imperialism is dead. He says "there is no exteriority that is conquered and colonised" [vii]. He thus obliterates one of the fundamental points of the analysis of imperialism with a stroke of a pen.

Chapter V and VI, in particular, of Lenin's "Imperialism - the highest stage of capitalism" explain clearly that imperialism and colonialism expanded in parallel during a certain period of capitalism's history. However, after the various imperialist powers had finished carving out the world between them at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little scope left for further colonial expansion. In other words, Lenin believed that once the whole world had been divided up between the advanced capitalist countries, the struggle between inter-imperialist forces would be to keep control of what they had already conquered.

For example, Germany, which at the beginning of the twentieth century had still not developed its productive forces sufficiently enough, and therefore had a smaller share of the world market than its rivals, would do everything in its power to win new slices of market to the detriment of other states.

Once again, the determining factor in the division of zones of influence between states would be the capacity of a particular imperialist nation to develop to a greater or lesser degree its own productive forces. And once again, regardless of whether this division of zones of influence between countries was peaceful or not, its main motivation would be the quest for the highest level of profit.

Negri's criticism to some extent is based on the writings of Rosa Luxemburg in her book "The accumulation of capital" [viii] which raised the idea of the necessity for pockets of non-capitalistic subsistence to exist, for the development of imperialism. However, it would be a generalisation to claim that this specific theory of Luxemburg represents the wealth of theories concerning imperialism.

The concept of "Empire" not only changes our view of current economic structures but also profoundly changes the concept of military intervention. The authors of "Empire" insist heavily on the changes in what I will call the psychology of military intervention. In his analysis, Negri refers frequently to the French philosopher Foucault [ix] who on many occasions throughout his life dwelt on the various forms of punishment and intervention carried out throughout history.

The limits revealed in the preceding analysis here probably reach their extreme consequences and therefore I will limit myself to quoting one sentence which I believe is symbolic: "the American world policeman acts in the interests of the Empire and not in the interests of imperialism" [x]. The USA is not the head of the Empire, but only a very specific component of the latter, therefore when it acts, whether militarily or economically, it supposedly acts in the interests of the Empire.

At this point, we must ask ourselves where has comrade Toni Negri been for the last few years? What Marxist can consciously state that American interests in the former Yugoslavia were the same as German interests, or for that matter, that Germany's interests were the same as France's? During the whole conflict, the Americans and Europeans clashed frequently with each other over what tactic should be employed to intervene. These disputes were not only over military tactics but were mainly a reflection of the divergent interests of the various national capitalist classes in the former Yugoslavia.

The same goes for Afghanistan today. Who can possibly say that the US has currently the same interests as the other European powers in that country? "Le Monde" recently published an article about the agreements that had been signed between the Americans and the Taliban before September 11, to allow US oil groups in to the country to build a pipeline. In the end, the agreements fell through, but here we have a shining example of US interests diametrically opposed to those of the European powers.

As Ted Grant and Alan Woods [xi] state in their article, the United States have taken on the role of world policeman (for which they are bound to pay the consequences sooner or later). However, the Americans' aim in waging war is to be in the most advantageous position when the spoils are shared out between the victors.

In the capitalist world, there has never been, and probably never will be, a situation in which a world power engages in military conflict only to give up its share of the spoils to the imaginary 'Empire' to which it allegedly belongs.

In conclusion, it is correct to say, as Negri does, that modern society is a truly "globalised" society, that capitalism has reached such a level of expansion that it is able to extend its tentacles into every nook and cranny of the planet. However, at the same time, the limits imposed by the nation state, which are the expression of the various national capitalist classes, cannot be overcome within the capitalist economy itself and represent a massive fetter on the future development of humankind. Today, more than ever before, such a contradiction can only be resolved by the destruction of capitalism, thus creating the conditions for putting an end to borders and the nation-state, and for building the union of workers of all nationalities into a world socialist federation.

The concept of the 'Multitude'

Another argument, which takes up as much space as it is vague, is the idea of 'the multitude'. It is vague because the most surprising thing is that the authors never explain clearly what they mean by the concept of 'the multitude'. A cloud of fog seems to come down every time this issue is discussed. Even at his public appearances, comrade Negri makes no further effort to provide a clearer explanation of the characteristics of this multitude. The authors have skilfully avoided answering the question "what is the multitude?" every time it has been raised in public meetings.

I do not intend to insinuate that the writers themselves are not completely sure of their own theory but I do intend to demonstrate how little focussed and lacking in scientific basis this idea actually is. Marx defined his concept of the working class with extreme clarity in a wealth of different texts and it has nothing in common with the concept of the multitude, which is mentioned on numerous occasions in the pages of "Empire".

In order to provide a little more understanding on what the authors mean by this concept of the multitude, I though it interesting to quote an interview given by Negri shortly after the release of his book in Italy. In this interview, Negri provides a definition of the concept of the multitude, although once again with characteristic haziness: "the multitude" says Negri, " is a class concept, a new version of class...". It implies that the "working classes" are in the minority, at least in traditional or Fordist terms. However, they become the majority, when one factors in those employed in intellectual, immaterial, autonomous and inevitably subordinate work.

Although Negri believes that labour is no less exploited than in the past, he adds that in modern society it is "intelligence" that creates Capital, "[...] the essential is the reproduction of life, and this is more important than the traditional production of goods: genetics, images, information technology, education." Negri explains that "the system has changed because exploitation has changed. Workers' struggles of the Ford era forced the system to change and reinvent itself. Simple work is now no different from complex work, it has become intelligence, just as Marx had predicted" [xii].

In these few lines, in addition to the attempt to link the concept of the multitude to the concept of the working class, Negri and Hardt completely distort several of the most fundamental tenets of Marxist analysis. Their strong desire to remove from the phase of production the possibility of a revolutionary transformation of society is evident. They seek by numerous methods to transform a secondary level of the capitalist system, e.g. the phase of reproduction and consumption, into a level of primary importance. This attempt is not accidental and has a specific political motivation.

The only class able to put an end to the capitalist production process and build a socialist economy is the proletariat and Negri is fully aware of this fact. But by eliminating the importance of the process of production, one also eliminates the importance of the proletariat. Furthermore, by emphasising the importance of the process of reproduction and consumption, revolutionary significance is given not only to the proletariat but also to social classes that are either subordinate to it or even opposed to it. For example, in the "multitude" one finds sectors of the petit bourgeoisie, layers of the proletariat and in some cases, acting as a counterbalance, even sections of big business, all united into one big amorphous mass.

With this sort of reasoning, the authors take the thinking of the Italian "Autonomist Workers" [Autonomia Operaia] movement of the 1970's to new extremes. This movement believed it pointless to carry out a "revolutionary break" within society. Many in the Autonomist Workers' movement believed that simply with continuous strikes and demonstrations, it would be possible to modify the structures of capitalist society so much so that they would be able to achieve socialism.

Only if you believe that it is not necessary to seize power, can you eliminate the importance of social classes and state that they have common interests. Marxists however know full well that the interests of the proletariat will never be those of the bourgeoisie and that the taking of state power in order to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule of the working class, is and will always be the only way forward.

The passage quoted above also shows how Negri once again tries to refer to Marx. Once more he uses one of the Autonomist Workers movement's favourite themes, i.e. the reference to Marx on machinery [xiii], in which it is alleged that the law of value has disappeared due to the production of intelligence by the proletariat.

In this passage, Negri makes two incorrect statements: firstly, that the industrial proletariat is diminishing; and secondly that according to Marx the law of value is tending to disappear from everything.

According to the latest OECD data, the industrial proletariat worldwide is growing and in any case no Marxist would make the mistake of confining his thinking entirely to that particular sector of the proletariat. The working class is not purely the industrial proletariat, although the latter is of key importance. Marxists must in fact strive to organise the new layers that have emerged from the changes in production itself. For these new layers are still subject to the same old exploitation at the hands of the bosses.

And as far as the passage on machinery by Marx is concerned what Negri says is very questionable. It is not at all clear that what is written is that the law of value is disappearing from everything. If Marx had said so, he would have also said that the capitalist system would collapse under its own weight. However, Marx fought most of his life against such a suggestion. One cannot go so far as to suggest that it is disappearing from everything.

Finally one has to ask whether the organisational method and objective of this multitude is the internationalism that has for so long been cherished by the labour movement. However, the answer provided in the book "Empire" is a very definite "no!" Negri says the following: "Internationalism was the will of an active mass subject that recognised that the nation-states were key agents of capitalist exploitation and that the multitude was continually drafted to fight their senseless wars[...] International solidarity was really a project for the destruction of the nation-state and the construction of a new global community [...] Today we should all clearly recognize that the time of such proletarian internationalism is over" [xiv].

After denying that internationalism can be a modern form of struggle for the proletariat, Negri digs himself into a deeper hole when he uses the example of the mole, which Marx used in his analysis of the cycle of working class struggle in the nineteenth century.

The mole that Marx describes is one that surfaces during periods of heightened class struggle, to return below the surface during calmer periods, not to hibernate but to dig new tunnels so that it can resurface during new periods of struggle. For Negri that mole is now dead.

He replaces the mole with the "snake" and its twisting, meandering movements. Negri says: "Perhaps the incommunicability of struggles, the lack of well-structured, communicating tunnels, is in fact a strength rather than a weakness - a strength because all of the movements are immediately subversive in themselves and do not wait on any sort of external aid or extension to guarantee their effectiveness [xv].

Consequently, the author of "Empire" believes that there is no hope for a movement that started in Argentina to spread to other countries. It would also be impossible for workers in this historical epoch to adopt as their own a battle carried out by other workers in other parts of the world. And in relation to this, he says the following: "in our much celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable" [xvi].

The inaccuracy of this statement has been demonstrated by recent events. In Italy, a labour movement that seemed to be in crisis just a short time ago has revealed itself able to call a mass demonstration and a general strike in 2002. And, while similar events have been unfolding in Greece, Spain, Portugal, the UK and elsewhere, further general strikes of historical significance are now on the agenda.

In Venezuela the workers who came out onto the streets to stop the coup d'état in April 2002 were carrying Cuban and Argentinean flags together with Venezuelan ones. In Uruguay in response to a very grave economic crisis, workers and the unemployed have demonstrated shouting "Argentina!", "Argentina!". Even the trade union bureaucracies, which have been pushed towards the left under the pressure of the workers, are being forced to talk of "internationalism", and in some cases have called general strikes in parallel with other countries. (In Italy there was a regional general strike at the same time as the Spanish general strike).

Although some might say that these examples are not really relevant, we believe that these important signals give a good indication of the current level of class consciousness around the world. Even though it is an inevitable process, workers do not become class conscious immediately. This is why Marx used the analogy of the mole, which is an animal, which, although hidden from view, continues to dig and improve its means of attack.

When we have the streets filling up with demonstrations, and workers becoming more class conscious while struggling in the name of proletarian internationalism which they feel as their own, it is absolutely incorrect to say that the "centre" has disappeared because there is no physical enemy. On the contrary, the workers in Argentina, united with the unemployed, know their enemy very well and are fully aware that the workers striking in Italy, Spain and in the rest of the world are fighting against the same enemy.

We can just give one example. During a recent trip to Europe, Neca, a representative of one of the most militant sections of the Piquetero movement, more than once appealed to the Italian working class and the powerful force that the unity of workers around the world can generate. All this clearly disproves the "incommunicability" of different struggles and on the contrary shows that only the international workers' movement can provide an alternative to capitalism. This is all the more the case now as workers are increasingly reaching the same revolutionary conclusions as they come under the mounting pressure of the ever more sharper contradictions of the capitalist system.

Negri's idea of "Militancy" [political activism]

Negri and Hardt only devote the last paragraph of their book to this theory, although it is probably the part with the most practical consequences and significance. In order to make the importance of this paragraph clear, as well as the large number of concepts outlined in its text, I will have to include a very long extract from the book. I believe that the extract by itself is very revealing as, although the mistaken ideas that I criticised above had a certain logic to them, those pertaining to the theory of 'militancy' have no such logic at all.

Negri writes the following:

"In the post-modern 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 [...] When we speak of the militant, we are not thinking of anything like the sad, ascetic agent of the Third International [...] We are thinking of nothing like that and of no one who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends his or her actions are deduced from an ideal plan [...] Today the militant cannot even pretend to be a representative, even of the fundamental human needs of the exploited. Revolutionary political militancy today, on the contrary, must rediscover what has always been its proper form: not representational but constituent activity.[...] Militants resist imperial command in a creative way. In other words, resistance is linked immediately with a constitutive investment in the biopolitical realm and to the formation of co-operative apparatuses of production and community.[...] There is an ancient legend that might serve to illuminate the future life of communist militancy: that of Saint Francis of Assisi. Consider his work. To denounce the poverty of the multitude he adopted that common condition and discovered there the ontological power of a new society. The communist militant does the same, identifying in the common condition of the multitude its enormous wealth. Francis in opposition to nascent capitalism refused every instrumental discipline, and in opposition to the mortification of the flesh (in poverty and in the constituted order) he posed a joyous life, including all of being and nature [...] Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis's situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control - because biopower and communism, co-operation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist" [xvii].

Once again it is particularly difficult to find any ideas that bear any relation to classical Marxism in the extract above. For Negri, the militant [activist] becomes an individualist who confronts the capitalist system in a "creative" way and who draws his own revolutionary strength from his or her own very uniqueness and his or her capacity to identify with the conditions of the masses.

On top of this, the hero of this type of militancy is St. Francis of Assisi! In reality, genuine Marxist activists are able to place themselves at the vanguard of the working class, not only because they have won the trust and respect of workers through their ideas but also because they are able to connect with the political consciousness of the working class at a particular given moment and raise it towards the accomplishment of the socialist transformation of society.

These types of activists never act on the basis of their own individuality, but know how to use it by linking it up with the individualities of other activists and put it at the service of the revolution. The political activist is in no way some sort of dour killjoy, but is the driving force of a whole class, the proletariat.

For the activist, being part of the proletariat also means not being afraid to represent it. On the contrary, each day of the activist's life is dedicated to advancing the working class in its quest for the final victory. The Marxist activist's revolutionary duty is to organise and lead, without ever becoming separated from his or her own class.

At this point, let me use the words of one of the greatest revolutionary activists of all time, Lenin. The leader of the Russian Revolution, in a critique of Rosa Luxemburg's conception of party organisation - which he saw as a vanguard based on revolutionary discipline - says the following in "Left-wing communism, an infantile disorder" about how the discipline of the proletariat's revolutionary party can be maintained.

"First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and - if you wish - merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people - primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct." [xviii]

All this has little to do with the ideal kind of activist described in the pages of "Empire". In conclusion, we have a good suggestion for bringing Negri's theory face to face with stark reality. What would happen if Negri's "activist" went to a factory gate, or any other workplace at the beginning of the day's shift, and invited the workers to "have fun" and "disobey", in order to subvert the established order?

We do not claim to know the conditions of every single workplace or factory, but we are certain that in those places that we know and where we often go to give out leaflets and organise campaigns, the level of alienation and fatigue caused by waged labour under the control of the capitalists is very high.

Activists going to workers and proposing to them the type of activity that Negri suggests would be lucky to get away with less than a scratch! Again, once petit-bourgeois theories are confronted with the reality of the situation, they show their completely bankrupt nature.

(January, 2003)

[i] Antonio Negri has taught political science at the Universities of Padua and Paris VIII.
[ii] Michael Hardt is a lecturer in the department of literature of Duke University
[iii] Toni Negri, "il vasto impero" (To simplify matters, if the footnote refers to the book "Empire", I only indicate the author's name and the paragraph from which the extract was taken. If other books are cited, I indicate the name of the book as well as its author.)
[iv] Theoretician of the Second International, who distanced himself from the ideas of Marxism towards the end of his life. He finished by lending his support to the actions of the German bourgeoisie and social-democracy.
[v] Karl Kautsky, "Superimperialism"
[vi] Lenin, "Imperialism - highest stage of capitalism"
[vii] Interview given to Corrado Ocone by Toni Negri
[viii] Rosa Luxemburg, "The accumulation of capital".
[ix] French philosopher and author of several books on madness and on the birth of prisons and methods of punishment.
[x] Toni Negri, "Oltre la guerra fredda"
[xi] Ted Grant and Alan Woods, "The new world disorder"
[xii] Interview given to Bruno Gravagnuolo by Toni Negri
[xiii] Karl Marx, "Grundrisse"
[xiv] Toni Negri, "Ritornelli dell'internazionale".
[xv] Toni Negri, "La talpa ed il serpente"
[xvi] Toni Negri, "La talpa ed il serpente"
[xvii] Toni Negri, "Il militante".
[xviii] Lenin, "Left-wing communism - an infantile disorder"

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