Broken Hardt, but still works: A Critique of “Empire”

Brent Cooper
Formative Essay – SO407, February, 28th, 2011
MSc. Political Sociology, London School of Economics
In Empire, Hardt and Negri articulate the emergence of a new ontological paradigm for
global politics. Their basic thesis is that "Empire" is the new global sovereignty. The book has
attracted widespread praise as well as criticism. Gopal Balakrishnan calls it "a work of visionary
intensity" (Di Nardo, 2003) while Pietro Di Nardo says there is "nothing fundamentally new in
it" (Ibid). At any rate, the work has generated an interesting discussion among many scholars
who agree that the political nature of the global order is transforming. In this essay, I will review
several competing opinions, critically evaluate Hardt and Negri's thesis, and offer my own
interpretation of where it is prescient and where it is lacking. My general position is that while
Empire is a salient description of the contemporary world in a state of upheaval, it is decidedly
vague in some of its language, and its conclusions could be more powerful if some alternative
approaches were employed. I argue that their theory is in large part falsified by events of

September 11th, 2001 followed by the Iraq War (2003), but Empire is nevertheless emerging
slowly through the fallout, while the recent Middle East revolts (2011) give credence to their
notion of multitude. The book's large scope covers the themes of the global market,
globalisation, sovereignty, disciplinary society and society of control, biopower, immaterial
labour and the multitude (Hoy, 2005). I would like to focus on the notions of globalization,
sovereignty, and Marxism in giving my critique.
First, it is with great respect I consider Negri's work, as he has been a political prisoner.
That being said, it is then ironic that he speaks of the decline of the nation-state subsumed under
Empire while his imprisonment is juridically ordered and administered solely by the state for
outdated historical and political reasons. Nevertheless, this does not pose a contradiction for
So what is Empire? Hardt and Negri's basic hypothesis is that Empire is a new single
logic of rule that encompasses various national and supranational organisms. Contrary to
historical imperialism, this is a "decentered" and "deterritorializing" version that continues to
assimilate every corner of the globe within its power. (Hardt and Negri, 2000; xii) They argue
that all conflicts effectively encourage integration. As they put it, "Peace, equilibrium, and the
cessation of conflict are the values toward which everything is directed." (Ibid, 14) What they are
referring to in practical terms is the various human rights regimes, trade agreements, and
supranational political conventions that institutionalize the already rapidly integrating world.
(Ibid, 9) Keeping in line with their basic Marxist instincts, this top-down process is driven by
capitalist interests, while the bottom-up resistance comes from an still-emerging global middle
class they call the "multitude".

Yet as many critics point out, the world is still highly unequal in many ways, such that
these concepts are not applicable across societies. It is in this sense that I argue their claim has
been better framed by other authors such as Francis Fukuyama in The End of History. To be
clear, Fukuyama's book was largely discredited along the way, but current globalization debates
revive the thought. Hardt and Negri admittedly carry on in this tradition, which is why it is
important to make connections between them. In their words, "Empire presents its rule not as a
transitory moment in the movement of history, but as a regime with no temporal boundaries and
in this sense outside of history or at the end of history" (Ibid, xv).
Fukuyama argued that (hu-)"mankind" had realized the final form of ideological
evolution in "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human
government." (Fukuyama, 1992) He was widely criticized for being short-sighted and
presumptuous, although he specified that it was not the end of events, but rather was aptly
predicting the inevitable adoption of liberal democracy by the rest of the world impoverished
and repressed world. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek agrees that Fukuyama was right, in a sense, that
global capital signals "the end of history" (Zizek). As the meaning is properly understood, the
end of history actually means the beginning of history; the inauguration of an era of universal
acceptance of functional consensual governance - liberal democracy.
With Fukuyama's thesis, and perhaps Empire, it would be more appropriate to consider it
premature rather than incorrect. The recent rebellions across the Middle East are revealing the
innate human desire for freedom and self-governance, or at least legitimate representation.
Moreover, they show no signs of slowing down or ceasing their spreading influence. Social
scientists are often so quick to falsify a theory that they neglect its contingent, provisional, or

imminent truth value. The long-term process of globalization is what is in question here, and
always has been. To quote the sometimes ambiguous authors themselves, "From the perspective
of Empire, this is the way things will always be and the way they were always meant to be."
(Hardt and Negri, xiv). To the point, Fukuyama borrows from Alexandre Kojève, who argued
that historical progress leads necessarily toward the establishment of a "universal and
homogenous" state (Strauss, 2000; xvi). Hardt and Negri are for "leftist internationalism" (Ibid,
45) as opposed to localized resistance, since the latter is based on "a false dichotomy between the
global and the local, assuming that the global entails homogenization and undifferentiated
identity whereas the local preserves heterogeneity and difference" (Ibid, 44). This of course does
not have to be true. The word 'homogenous' has negative connotations for those who interpret it
as a result of assimilation, cultural imperialism, nation-building, etc... Moreover, it is simply
feared by those who are highly nationalist or egocentric. It is not intended as such, but rather in a
liberating and transformative sense of political harmony.
My own analysis reflects Michael Hoy's conclusion as well, that Hardt and Negri's
Marxist project provides important insight alongside other theories such as cosmopolitanism. On
the other hand, some of the concepts are arguably ambiguous and contradictory; perhaps they are
necessarily the latter. Hoy is an advocate of the idea of cosmopolitanism as an alternative to
Empire (Hoy). Hoy, however, invokes it in the classical sense, and not the more nuanced version
of Ulrich Beck. Although, Hoy does refer to other forms such as "'embedded' or 'rooted
cosmopolitanism,'" in which national-subjects also embrace moral obligations to citizens of other
states. The common idea is that impartiality ('impartialist cosmopolitanism')(Ibid.) or moral
relativism is clearly not a viable option anymore (if it ever was). Hardt and Negri describe the
newly levelled diversity of the world as an "imperial global rainbow" (Hardt and Negri, xiii).

Moreover, they make the claim that the global cleavages are no longer differences in nature but
of degree only,(Ibid, 335) but this is directly criticized by Hoy as "sounding suspiciously like a
neoliberal justification of global income disparity" (Hoy). Here, the weakness of Empire that
Hoy is against is revealed, in the naiveté of traditional cosmopolitanism which can be use to
exploit weaker nations.
Beck says this type of "banal" cosmopolitanism hides under the surface of persistent
nationalism, while flags and anthems reinforce the dominant national identity and thus
consciousness (Beck, 2006; 19). During early modernization nationalism became rooted and
overwhelmed cosmopolitanism, such that the latter could only be a fleeting normative idea. Now,
Beck argues, globalization is forcing 'cosmopolitization', meaning the inverse is becoming true
and nationalism is becoming irrational and impractical up against the reality global
interconnectedness and integration. We cannot deny the Other any longer. This is the
'cosmopolitan turn' and needs to occur in the needs to occur in the social sciences to reflect the
new reality; The End of History, Empire. This would enable us to more effectively make policy
and promote progressive social change. This is precisely what Hardt and Negri should be making
more clear in their thesis. Conspicuously absent in Empire any discussion of cosmopolitanism.
To be sure, the word 'cosmopolitan' only appears in the text three times. Nevertheless, they are
aware of the general problem, revealed in the following quote:
"Every imagination of a community becomes overcoded as a nation, and hence our
conception of community is severely impoverished. Just as in the context of the dominant
countries, here too the multiplicity and singularity of the multitude are negated in the
straitjacket of the identity and homogeneity of the people" (Hardt and Negri, 107).

To return to the economic foundations of the book, Di Nardo explains that Hardt and
Negri's Empire shares similarities with Karl Kautsky's "superimperialism", in that capitalism has
entered a new phase in which imperialist states ally themselves for collective exploitation of the
world in the interests of international finance capital (Di Nardo). Notwithstanding the fact there
are still a few stubborn rogue states (and rogue subnational and transnational groups), this has
generally become true. But as Di Nardo explains, Hardt and Negri fundamentally misinterpret
much of Lenin's theory of 'imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism.' Specifically, he says
that Hardt and Negri misconstrue Lenin to say that this process is conducive to peace, whereas
Lenin says it creates temporary peaceful arrangements which facilitate capitalist imperatives. But
as Marxists, Hardt and Negri believe that the real enemy is capitalists and the victims (the
exploited) are the workers of the world, or multitude.
Thus, perhaps the popularity of the work can be explained by its revolutionary character.
Zizek celebrates Empire as the "Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century" (Zizek). He
praises the radical duo for revealing the contradictory nature of today's globalization process and
describes their formulation as "turbocapitalism" (Ibid.). In large part, the paradox is a result of
divergence between what Bill Gates calls "frictionless capitalism" (speculative; virtual reality) in
the developed world and the hard reality capitalism in the global South. The notion of 'private
property', he says, in the developed world has lost its standard meaning, as the capitalist class is
characterized by control over massive amounts of imaginary capital. This leads to vulnerability
in the system, which we must form a resistance towards. The fantasy must be transcended

because "a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory" (Ibid.). Zizek says the "old
formula of Marx is still valid: capitalism digs its own grave" (Ibid.).
But their Marxist foundations can be questioned also. In Eric Hobsbawm's new book How
to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, he proposes that Marxist thought can still be
applied to 21st century problems (Gray, 2011). Reviewer John Gray launches a strong critique,
arguing that there are no major Marxist parties in any advanced countries (Ibid.). To return to Di
Nardo's critique of Empire, he claims that the authors actually deny the essence of classical
Marxism while still disguising themselves in Marx's beard. Di Nardo rebukes Empire, saying
that "Marxism is as valid as ever." In stark contrast, although arguing in a general sense, Gray
writes "Marx has never been more marginal politically." There certainly must be a median
between the two; Marxism (or at least the thought of Marx, re-evaluated) is still valid in some
cases, perhaps not in others. Perhaps Empire constitutes a bold innovation on Marxism, as Hoy
suggests. If this is not confusing enough, Malcolm Bull gives his two cents writing, "Empire is
more Jeffersonian than Marxist" in the sense that we (the multitude) can reclaim sovereignty
over ourselves against the institutions of war, mass media, and immigration controls (Bull,
Perhaps Hardt and Negri are unclear because they mix theories into a hybrid form, without
really addressing the foundations. There is much influence from Foucault and his notions of
diffused power. More importantly though, Hardt and Negri invoke Luhmann's highly complex
systems theory several times, although they do not offer any explication of it, making their
argument all the more nebulous. They write,

"Empire is not born of its own will but rather it is called into being, and constituted on the
basis of its capacity to resolve conflicts. Empire is formed and its intervention becomes
juridically legitimate only when it is already inserted into the chain of international
consensus aimed at resolving existing conflicts" (Hardt and Negri, 15).

This is a direct reference to autopoesis, meaning self-creation, which in effect can be better
understood in evolutionary terms self-organization theory. In a similar vein, Anthony Giddens
describes the modern world as an unsteerable "juggernaut" barrelling through space, yet rejects
evolutionary explanations of societies. The evolutionary character of the world system is a major
feature of Fukuyama's End of History and thus stronger connections could have been made.
Similarly, the scientific discourse on the subject of "emergence" is completely absent. Likewise,
the 'superorganism' literature is ignored as well, which is what they seem to all be effectively
describing. So much for a genuine collective will; we are stuck with an "acephelous [headless]
supranational order which the authors choose to call ‘Empire’" (Balakrishnan, 2000). For all
their organismic metaphors and super-capitalist epithets, they might as well take the leap in
making some concrete claims, as some International Relations scholars have projected the road
to a real world government 100+/- years in the future (Cabrera, 2010).
Near the book's conclusion, Hardt and Negri see the power of the multitude in their very
helplessness. The brute force of Empire is not a legitimate weapon against those merely seeking
employment and affluence, as anyone would, that the capitalist system insisted upon them.
Moreover, these economic needs are now inextricably linked to the "tenacious desire for
cosmopolitan freedom" (Balakrishnan). Balakrishnan explains the multitude's prerogative to

control their own movement is their "ultimate demand for global citizenship" (Ibid). For this we
should review the cosmopolitanism and global government literature instead.
I sympathise with David Moore in charging the two authors with "hubris," (Moore, 2003)
considering they only selectively cite the contemporary globalization literature to paint their
elaborate metaphorical picture. But it has been the decade following their first edition that has
borne such spectacular events, from 9/11 to the global financial implosion, that have radically
challenged the traditional globalization debate. As I said, this doesn't mean it is wrong. Empire
may still be premature, but nevertheless destined to manifest itself the world over. In a
remarkably short and concise 'world government' review article, Luis Cabrera (2010) observes
that in the last decade there has been a rigorous resurgence of global governance discourse.
There seems to be an emerging consensus based on empirical trends that world government. But
Cabrera's citations don't include Hardt and Negri.

Works Cited
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2011. <>.
Beck, Ulrich, and Ciaran Cronin. The cosmopolitan vision . Cambridge, UK: polity, 2006. Print.

Bull, Malcolm. "You can’t build a new society with a Stanley knife." London Review of
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European Journal of International Relations 16.3 (2010): 511-530. Print.
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Fukuyama, Francis. The end of history and the last man . New York: Free Press, 1992. Print.
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Hobsbawm." New Statesman. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
< >.
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Moore, David. "Hardt and Negri's Empire and Real Empire: The Terrors of 9-11 and After." An
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Strauss, Leo, Alexandre Kojève, and Victor Gourevitch. On Tyranny . Including the StraussKojeve Correspondence ed. Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.
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