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The Ineducable Left

Brian C. Anderson

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The far left's disgraceful response to September 11--it has temporized about terror, embraced moral equivalence between the Islamist fanatics who killed thousands of innocent Americans and the military actions of the democratically elected U.S. government, and even blamed the U.S. for the atrocity--shows that its hatred of democratic capitalism and, more broadly, Western civilization itself remains fierce more than a decade after the collapse of socialism. The intensity of this hatred will come as no surprise, however, to anyone who has paid attention to the praise that the academic left and its sympathizers in the liberal media have been showering on one of the most pernicious books published in recent memory: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's encomium to anticapitalist revolutionary violence, Empire.

This forbidding five--hundred--page book of political and social theory, which ends with a surreal celebration of "the irrepressible lightness and joy of being Communist," is that rare commodity: a genuine academic bestseller. Its publisher, Harvard University Press, has gone through ten printings and has sold foreign translation rights to at least ten nations across the globe. Upscale bookstores have a hard time keeping it in stock. Everybody is talking about it.

Small wonder, given the eye--popping reviews it has received. Postmodernism guru Frederic Jameson of Duke University calls it "prophetic" and "the first great new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium." Slavonian philosopher Slavoj Zizek celebrates it as "nothing less than a rewriting of The Communist Manifesto for our time" (this, needless to say, he deems a good thing). "Brilliant," "erudite," "extraordinary," "an amazing tour de force," "irresistible," "revolutionary," "a work of visionary intensity"--left--wing intellectuals have exhausted superlatives describing it. The liberal press has been just as enthusiastic. The New York Times, in a glowing write--up, crowns Empire the "Next Big Idea." Time breathlessly commends it as "the hot, smart book of the moment." The influential British weekly the New Statesman gushes that Empire has "turned conventional thinking on its head." Not since Michel Foucault's history of sexuality started appearing in English translation two decades or so ago has a work of high theory produced such palpitations on the left.

What's all the excitement about? In part, it is the book's grandiose ambition that has generated the buzz. Hardt and Negri seek to update Marx's Capital for the era of economic globalization. In doing so, they plunder every imaginable recent source of academic foolishness, from postcolonialism to Queer Theory to French post--structuralism, and wed it to Marx, Lenin, and even Mao, making the book a kind of up--to--the--minute manual on how to get tenure in today's university. Empire's pages brim with the science--fiction--like neologisms that typify much contemporary academic writing: "agentic," "biopower," "deterritorialization"--words that give those who wield them the sense of gaining Shaman--like access to hidden realms. Unlike most leftist writing since the fall of communism, which has been dourly pessimistic, Empire is also brashly optimistic, heralding the revolutionary dawn of a utopian postcapitalist age.

But the deeper reason for the zeal, I think, is the unusual biography of Empire's Italian coauthor Antonio Negri. The book's glossy jacket matter--of--factly informs us that he is "an independent researcher and writer"--and an "inmate at Rebibbia Prison, Rome." In addition to having a career as an influential political philosopher, with widely--translated books on Spinoza and Marx to his credit, Negri is a convicted terrorist.

In 1979, the Italian government arrested Negri, at the time a political science professor at the University of Padua, and accused him of being the secret brains behind the Red Brigades, the Italian version of the Weathermen in the U.S. or the Baader--Meinhoff Gang in West Germany--left--wing groups that during the 1970s sought to overthrow capitalism through campaigns of terrorist violence. Italian authorities believed that Negri himself planned the infamous 1979 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the leader of Italy's Christian Democratic Party. Just before Aldo's execution, his distraught wife got a taunting phone call, telling her that her husband was about to die. The voice was allegedly Negri's. Unable to build a strong enough case to try the philosopher for murder, Italian authorities convicted him on lesser charges of "armed insurrection against the state."

Negri's theoretical work was in keeping with his terrorist activities. He had become the leading voice of Italy's ultra--Left by advancing an inventive reinterpretation of Marx's Grundrisse that located the agent of social revolution not among the industrial proletariat, largely co--opted as it was by capitalist wealth and bourgeois democratic freedoms, but among those marginalized from economic and political life: the criminal, the part--time worker, the unemployed. These dispossessed souls, Negri felt, would be far quicker to unleash the riotous confrontations with the state that he saw as necessary to destroying capitalism.

Facing thirty years in prison, and after much legal wrangling, Negri eventually fled to France, where during the mid--1980s he became chums with philosopher Gilles Deleuze and other radical thinkers, lectured at the University of Paris (meeting his American coauthor, Duke literature professor Michael Hardt, who was his student there), and wrote a host of books and essays, including paeans to the "politics of subversion" and a bizarre meditation on St. Francis of Assisi as a proto--Communist.

Then, a few years ago, after nearly two decades in exile, an unrepentant Negri returned to Italy to serve a reduced sentence. The book--jacket claim that he is currently an inmate at Ribibbia is wildly exaggerated. In fact, Negri serves his time under partial house arrest at his lovely book--lined apartment in a tony Rome neighborhood. He must sleep there at night, but he is otherwise free to come and go as he pleases, and regularly receives fawning journalists and academics seeking the master's wisdom.

Negri's criminal past grants Empire a veneer of revolutionary authenticity and gives readers predisposed to feel it an agreeable frisson of danger and transgression of bourgeois conventions. Negri "brings with him the glamor of murder," acidly observes writer David Pryce--Jones. Few things are more alluring, he adds, to the armchair radicals of academe and the New York Times.

What is the argument, such as it is, of this strange book? For Hardt and Negri, "Empire" is "the sovereign power that governs the world"--a new "capitalist mode of production." It is, more concretely, the global market. At the pinnacle of Empire is the capitalist power par excellence, the nuclear--bomb--wielding U.S., "a superpower that can act alone but prefers to act in collaboration with others." Among those others: the G--8 nations, the Paris and London Clubs for Growth, and various nongovernmental organizations that seek to expand economic exchanges among states. The vertiginous market forces these political and economic bodies have unleashed are destroying the old imperialistic nation--state and creating in its stead a new transpolitical global order where economic considerations trump all other concerns. "In its ideal form," the authors write, "there is no outside to the world market: the entire globe is its domain." Quoting Polybius, Hardt and Negri draw an explicit parallel between the new Empire's continent--spanning reach and Rome's mastery of the Mediterranean world in Antiquity.

Economic globalization, Hardt and Negri assert in Marxoid language, has meant that a handful of rich folks are getting richer and more powerful at the expense of the vast majority, who grow "always more exploited," more abject, more "proletarianized." The new global order claims to promote peace, they charge, but in practice it is "bathed in blood." Any time Empire senses a danger to the circulation of commodities, whether it's Islamic "terrorists" (the scare quotes are Hardt and Negri's) or Mexican revolutionaries, out come the guns and missiles to deal with the threat. Today's Empire, like its Roman predecessor, is a brutal pacifying force.

What makes Empire truly insidious, the authors believe, is that people internalize the ways of life it promotes. Citizens of prosperous liberal democracies only seem to be free. In reality, say Hardt and Negri, they are subjects of terrifying "societies of control," consumed completely in the "rhythm of productive practices and productive socialization." Capitalism, in short, creates capitalist men and women, brainwashed automatons buying what the market says to buy and dutifully trudging to work in the "social factory." "The great industrial and financial powers," the authors warn, "produce not only commodities but also subjectivities": individuals whose very "needs, social relations, bodies, and minds" respond to the market's call.

Yet, all is not lost. Even as Empire seduces, Hardt and Negri hold, it is sowing the seeds of its possible destruction. Gestating within the womb of economic globalization is a "counter--Empire," led by "the multitude"--the authors' stand--in for Marx's proletariat. The multitude are all those that don't fit neatly into the global capitalist economy. Have--nots across the planet, the anti--globalization movement, the L.A. rioters, Latin revolutionaries, inner--city blacks, drug addicts, anti--family women, drag queens, body piercers, Islamic radicals, and anyone else who rejects bourgeois values--together they constitute the nomadic "against--men" of the multitude. Just as the Christians of the late Roman Empire colonized its spiritual universe from within, so the multitude will overcome the new Empire. The political task of the third millennium, the authors believe--they're not vulgar historical determinists, they stress, so political action is essential--will be to help bring this multitude together so that it can forge "an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges" that "will one day take us through and beyond Empire."

What will this "alternative political organization" look like? Hardt and Negri, like their intellectual god­ father Marx before them, remain mostly silent about the postcapitalist world, but they do offer a few provocative hints. Global citizenship will be one key feature. "The cities of the earth will become at once great deposits of cooperating humanity and locomotives for circulation, temporary residences and networks of the mass distribution of living humanity--an end to borders and nations," Hardt and Negri prophesize. A second aspect will be "absolute democracy," in which the multitude directly manages and organizes economic, political, and social life. No more will private property--"a putrid and tyrannical obsolescence"--pit man against man. Free access to and control over "knowledge, information, communication, and affects" will be a matter of course. A final characteristic: equal compensation for all. Hardt and Negri call it a "citizenship income."

The counter--Empire is possible only after modernity--including the universal solvent of global capitalism--has dissolved the certainties of all earlier ages. Hardt and Negri's multitude is a Promethean power, born with the modern age's emancipation of the human will from the moral constraints of religion and human nature. "Today there is not even the illusion of a transcendent God," the authors proclaim. "The mythology of the languages of the multitude interprets the telos of the earthly city, torn away by the power of its own destiny from any belonging or subjection to a city of God, which has lost all honor and legitimacy." Human nature is a mirage too. We must embrace our "post--human" identities as monkeys and cyborgs, Hardt and Negri aver. "Humanism after the death of Man," the authors call their stark vision of man as demiurge. The multitude represents an "uncontainable force," an "excess of value with respect to every form of right and law." Beyond good and evil, it will "create and recreate" the human world in a "secular Pentecost." Hardt and Negri, dreaming of Communist Supermen, view the American Declaration of Independence and the Marx--inspired revolutions of the twentieth century as anticipatory signs of the coming liberation.

These epochal transformations will require a cleansing bloodletting. "The new barbarians" of the multitude must "destroy with an affirmative violence and trace new paths of life through their own material existence." Hardt and Negri's language bristles menacingly at the multitude's bourgeois enemies: "Who wants to see any more of that pallid and parasitic European ruling class that led directly from the ancien régime to nationalism, from populism to fascism, and now pushes for a generalized neoliberalism? Who wants to see more of those ideologies and those bureaucratic apparatuses that have nourished and abetted the rotting European elites? And who can still stand those systems of labor organization and those corporations that have stripped away every vital spirit?"

The success of Empire is astonishing when you cut through the jargon and see exactly what it says. Hardt and Negri fall prey to every destructive error that has characterized radical antibourgeois thought, of the left and right, from Lenin to Heidegger to Foucault to Islamism. Though the book seems on first inspection to be something new, it is really very old news.

Like their radical predecessors, Hardt and Negri fail to think politically--fail to explore the real possibilities and dangers of political reality and take measure of the lessons of history. Though the authors say they want to mine the "dense complex of experience"--a praiseworthy aim for any political thought--a reader of Empire will wander through hundreds of pages of arid theory before he encounters a flesh--and--blood political actor or a real decision or historical event or institution. The book, like much contemporary political theory, is inhumanly abstract. The same abstraction was abundantly evident when Hardt appeared on The Charlie Rose Show. To the host's commonsense questions, Hardt could only respond in hallucinatory theory--speak. To anyone unfamiliar with the latest academic buzzwords, he sounded like a space alien. Rose seemed--justifiably--completely befuddled.

Inseparable from the failure to think politically, Hardt and Negri, like the rioters endlessly disrupting World Trade Organization meetings, offer no evidence to support their basic charge that economic globalization is causing wide--scale planetary misery. Predictably, this past summer, as the G--8 meeting got underway in Genoa, Italy, the New York Times chose these two "joyful" Communists to write a lengthy op--ed extolling the virtues of anti--globalization rioters.

The truth about globalization is exactly the reverse of what Hardt and Negri assert. Globalization is dramatically increasing world prosperity and freedom. As the Economist's John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out, in the half century since the foundation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the world economy has expanded six--fold, in part because trade has increased 1,600 percent; nations open to trade grow nearly twice as fast as those that aren't; and World Bank data show that during the past decade of accelerated economic globalization, approximately 800 million people escaped poverty.

Needless to say, economic globalization isn't without its downside. As I've argued in these pages (see "Capitalism and the Suicide of Culture," February 2000), it can--there's no necessity at work--amplify and disseminate some of the less attractive aspects of today's libertine culture. But on balance, as neoconservative sociologist Peter L. Berger has suggested, the empirical evidence proves it far preferable to any alternative economic order we know of. It has profoundly diminished human suffering.

If Hardt and Negri's depiction of global capitalism is mendacious, their hazy alternative to it--absolute democracy, open borders, equal compensation--is apolitical utopian nonsense. How would such schemes actually work? Hardt and Negri never say. Do they truly think that "annulling" private property and eliminating nations, if it were somehow possible, would be liberating? Wouldn't it lead to a totalitarian increase in political power, as in the old Soviet Union? But then Hardt and Negri seem to look back fondly on Lenin and Stalin's dark regime. "Cold war ideology called that society totalitarian," they complain, "but in fact it was a society criss--crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom, just as strong as the rhythms of economic development and cultural modernization." To which one can only respond: Have they never read a page of Solzhenitsyn? Moreover, as filled with admiration as Hardt and Negri are toward the Soviet Union, they are contemptuous toward the decencies and the humbleoften not so humble--freedoms of democratic capitalist societies.

Along with this utter failure to look at political reality, Hardt and Negri share another ugly characteristic with Lenin, Franz Fanon, and many other antibourgeois thinkers: a totalitarian style of thought that substitutes rhetorical violence for reasoned argument. For Lenin, disagreement with the revolutionary line (as he defined it) was heretical. Differences of political vision or even pragmatic disputes were not open to moderation through debate, as in the liberal democratic tradition, but deserved only insult--and in practice, ruthless elimination. Hardt and Negri's violent verbal attacks on Western capitalists--"putrid," "rotting," "parasitic"--could come right from the pages of Materialism and Empirocriticism (or, for that matter, from one of Osama bin Laden's terrifying manifestos). After September 11, the authors' illiberal, terrorist language seems obscene.

Hardt and Negri's contempt for the bourgeois men and women who go to work, attend Mass, raise their kids, and generally live respectable, productive lives is itself contemptible. Who do these two men think they are? How did they free themselves from the "society of control" while most of us fritter away our lives, drones in the social factory? Empire's elitism is an updated version of the Marxian notion of a revolutionary vanguard, another terrible idea that helped spawn the political monstrosities of the last century.

Hardt and Negri's final delusion is their cartoon version of the modern world as completely secularized. Tell that to the Islamist fanatics who made bombs out of planes, praying to Allah as they died, or to the friends and relatives of those they killed who have crowded into churches and synagogues seeking meaning and solace for their suffering. For both good and ill, as André Malraux predicted, the twenty--first century clearly will be religious, not secular. Hardt and Negri believe that something decent will arise from their lawless atheism. But why assume justice will prevail from such nihilism, when everything we know from history--the wounded history of the twentieth century above all--says that it results invariably in the law of the jungle? Without morality and the rule of law, the powerful simply feel free to rape and pillage; the weak can only tremble and hide.

Apolitical abstraction and wild--eyed utopianism, a terroristic approach to political argument, hatred for flesh and blood human beings, nihilism: Empire is a poisonous brew of bad ideas. It belongs with Mein Kampf in the library of political madness.

Do Empire's many fans really believe their own praise? Does Time really think it's "smart" to call for the eradication of private property, celebrate revolutionary violence, whitewash totalitarianism, and pour contempt on the genuine achievements of liberal democracies and capitalist economics? Would Frederic Jameson like to give up his big salary at Duke? To ask such questions is to answer them. The far left's pleasure is in the adolescent thrill of perpetual rebellion. Too many who should know better refuse to grow up. The ghost of Marx haunts us still.

For all its infantilism, the kind of hatred Hardt and Negri express for our flawed but decent democratic capitalist institutions--the best political and economic arrangements man has yet devised and the outcome of centuries of difficult trial and error--is dangerous, especially since it's so common in the university and media. It seems to support Islamist revolutionary hopes, the increasingly violent anti--globalization movement, and kindred political lunacies. September 11 has reminded us of the fragility of our freedom and prosperity. But the continued influence of the far left, which some mistakenly dismiss as inconsequential, can weaken our collective will to protect ourselves from our enemies. Why fight for a political and social order that is so contemptible?

The journalist Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argued that one consequence of September 11's terrorist assault will be to discredit permanently the views of those who, like Hardt and Negri, despise democratic capitalism every bit as much as the Taliban does. I hope he's right, but I'm not so optimistic. After all, Empire is the "Next Big Idea" after a century in which more than 125 million people lost their lives because of antibourgeois political movements. A few thousand murdered Americans may not be enough to end the hold the radical left still has on elite culture.

Brian C. Anderson is Senior Editor of City Journal, author of Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, and editor of On Cultivating Liberty, a collection of Michael Novak's social and political writings.

Copyright (c) 2002 First Things 120 February 2002): 40-44.

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Posted: 04-Sep-05



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