Hardt and Negri

Assigned: Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. From Empire, from Part 2. Passages of Sovereignty, from Section 4. Symptoms of Passage (2510-24). Also read the editors’ introduction (2506-10).

From Empire (2000)

From Part 2. Passages of Sovereignty

From Section 4. Symptoms of Passage


1. On 2510-11 (“The end of colonialism and the…”), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest that the world order is transitioning from a period of modern sovereignty, in which nation-states were central, to a “postmodern” period of empire, in which nation-states (and the binary-based thinking that maintains them) are nearly or entirely irrelevant to the imperatives of power and global capital. What fundamental error, according to Hardt and Negri, do many postmodernist and postcolonialist theorists commit as they survey the political, social and economic scene at the beginning of the twenty-first century? What don’t they see about their own relation to the new paradigm, “empire”?

Politics of Difference

2. On 2511-13 (“In order to appreciate fully…”), what do Hardt and Negri identify as the one common thread shared by the three varieties of postmodernist theory they describe—namely, Jean-François Lyotard’s interest in taking down “modernist master narratives” (2512), Jean Baudrillard’s concentration on “cultural simulacra,” and Jacques Derrida’s emphasis on deconstructing Western metaphysics? (2512; selections from all three authors are included in Leitch: Lyotard 1383-88; Baudrillard 1480-92; Derrida 1602-54). What is the common enemy of these theorists? By way of greater analytic specificity, what two “traditions” (2512) of the Enlightenment do Hardt and Negri go on to identify? Which of these two traditions are postmodernists really taking aim against, and why does this attack, according to Hardt and Negri, also necessarily involve an attack on the Hegelian dialectical model of historical process and political power?

3. On 2513-15 (“Once we recognize postmodernist discourses…”), Hardt and Negri turn to characterizing how postmodernist discourses construe (and misapprehend) the value of their efforts. On what grounds, according to the authors, do postmodern theorists see themselves as instrumental to “the successes of national liberation movements, women’s movements, and antiracist struggles” (2513)? While Hardt and Negri acknowledge the sincerity and integrity of many postmodernist theorists, how do they also describe their current efforts as misplaced and therefore counterproductive? What do such theorists simply not grasp about the current geopolitical moment—a failure that, in Hardt and Negri’s view, means they are essentially fighting the battles of a previous era rather than the ones taking place now? How does postmodern theorizing and analysis risk actually being complicit in the increasing dominance of the contemporary paradigm called “empire” (2514)?

The Liberation of Hybridities, or Beyond Colonial Binaries

4. On 2515-17 (“A certain stream of postcolonial studies…”), Hardt and Negri discuss the work of Indian theorist Homi K. Bhabha (see Leitch 2150-71), which they say “presents the clearest and best-articulated example of the continuity between post-modernist and postcolonial discourses” (2515). How do they characterize this author’s work, excellent though it may be, as an instance of the limitations of such postcolonial discourses and of their symptomatic relationship to the objects of their criticism? In what sense is Bhabha’s main target, according to Hardt and Negri, the Hegelian dialectic, and why does Bhabha apparently consider the dialectic’s opportunistic approach to false and reductive binary divisions damaging to people facing colonial oppression? (2515-16) Yet, in Hardt and Negri’s view, how is Bhabha’s intense concentration on “difference and hybridity” (2516) bound to be ineffective in fighting the global power structures and political discourses that seem likely to dominate in the twenty-first century?

Fundamentalism and/or Postmodernism

5. On 2517-18 (“Another symptom of the historical passage…”), Hardt and Negri mention another “symptom”—an ironic and counterintuitive one, to be sure—of the world’s passage into a new phase of empire: the growth of various kinds of fundamentalism, in particular Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms. How do such “fundamentalisms,” with the agreement of certain Western “theoreticians of the end of history” (2517) in the aftermath of the Cold War (the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991), generally see and present themselves to the world? In short, if one accepts the self-presentation of such movements, what do they seem to be up to in terms of their relation to the modern world, to “modernity,” and to the premodern past? What would appear to link them all together against a common enemy?

6. On 2518-20 (“These common characterizations of…”), Hardt and Negri dismantle the notion that Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms are as rooted in looking backwards to a premodern ideal as they themselves appear to believe. In what sense, then, according to our authors, are these fundamentalist movements not marked by “a return to past social forms and values” but instead based on views that amount to “a new invention” (2519)? What is the real source, for example, of the American fundamentalist Christian drive towards “purity and wholesomeness” (2518 bottom) and the real object against which the Iranian revolution of 1979 was directed? How are these brands of fundamentalism, in Hardt and Negri’s opinion, more properly termed “postmodern” than premodern in their inspiration and aims?

The Ideology of the World Market

7. On 2520-22 (“Many of the concepts dear to…”), Hardt and Negri begin their discussion of the “ideology of the world market” (2520) by considering the centrality of marketing to the smooth functioning of the global economy. In what sense do today’s marketers follow postmodern logics and strategies in their drive to expand and diversify “consumption” (purchase and use, that is) of the commodities upon which any capitalist economy must rely for its profitability and growth? In what sense are these marketing strategies emphasizing “difference and multiplicity” (2521) and opposing binary-style reduction of cultural diversity a nearly perfect match with the methodologies, assumptions, and aims of postmodernist theorists?

8. On 2522-23 (“Postmodern marketing practices represent…”), Hardt and Negri proceed to a reflection on the global market with special attention to the factors most relevant to that market: the “flexible and hybrid networks” (2523) of contemporary production; an updated approach to corporate organization and location as well as a transformed workplace and management style. How does a large corporation’s way of organizing itself and locating its various branches follow what Hardt and Negri would call a “postmodern” strategy? Similarly, how is the contemporary workplace increasingly reconceptualized, rearranged, and maintained by experts in so-called “diversity management” (2522) in a manner that owes much more to postmodernity than to the traditional notions and methods of old-style capitalist production? Finally, how do Hardt and Negri find common cause with postmodern theorists such as David Harvey (Leitch 1772-79) and Fredric Jameson (Leitch 1731-71) about the deeper implications of this new postmodern phase of “capitalist accumulation and production” that reigns in “the world market” (2523)?

Truth Commissions

9. On 2523-24 (“It is salutary to remind ourselves…”), Hardt and Negri offer some concluding thoughts about the abiding but geographically and culturally limited value in postmodernist and postcolonialist discourse. Why, for example, would it be inappropriate (and even cruel) to apply postmodernist praise for “mobility” to, say, the plight of immigrants driven to seek refuge from a dangerous, untenable country of origin? Why, too, would it be wrong to insist on the primacy of the postmodern “critique of truth” and rejection of Enlightenment-derived political and social “master narratives” (2524) during the proceedings of a truth commission in an autocracy-ravaged Latin American country, a place where unconstrained generals and ruthless leaders may have tortured or even “disappeared” thousands of innocent people?

10. On 2524 (“In our present imperial world…”), Hardt and Negri, after carefully pointing out how inappropriate it would be to deploy certain postmodernist notions and points of critique in large swathes of the world, address the question of when and where such ideas would be appropriate and valuable. In what circumstances, then, might they be appropriately pursued? What do Hardt and Negri suggest about the real significance of concepts like “difference, hybridity, and mobility,” or “truth, purity, and stasis”? How can theorists and the people themselves assert and wield such concepts in a manner and place that might result in genuine progress for humanity and the planet?

11. General question: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri published Empire in 2000, only around a year before Al Qaeda’s lethal terrorist attack against the United States on 9/11/2001. It has been nearly two decades since those attacks were launched by adherents of a fanatical fundamentalist group that claimed as its justification the supposedly unholy presence of the United States in Islamic territory. In your view, do the initiatives thereafter set in motion by the Bush 43, Obama, and Trump administrations from 2002 to the present validate, invalidate, or complicate Hardt and Negri’s confident assertion that the world is rapidly transitioning from the age of the modern nation-state, which they term “modern sovereignty” (2510), to an effectively postmodern era of empire? Has America’s insistence on violently crushing the forces of terrorism and extremism delayed this transition to postmodern empire and reasserted the power of the sovereign nation-state, or should we view this response in another way, as in fact still consonant with the inevitable coming-on of “empire” as the dominant paradigm of power in the world? Explain.

12. General question: On a note similar to that of the previous general question about the pertinence of certain contemporary political developments to the thesis set forth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their 2000 study Empire, what about the Trump administration’s dogged pursuit of “the Big Beautiful Wall that Mexico is going to pay for”? This populist initiative is highly nationalistic, even nativist in its intensity, and as such it hardly seems conducive to the notion that the nation-state has become irrelevant, the victim of a postmodern paradigm that scoffs at Donald Trump’s old-fashioned appeals to the erection of “Fortress America.” However, consider the matter from another angle: might such a populist nativism be akin to the illusionary self-presentation of the “fundamentalisms” that Hardt and Negri analyze so well in our selection from Empire (see in particular 2517-20)? Why or why not?

13. General question: long ago, in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote with a certain awe of a newly ascendant industrial capitalism and its profound transformation of the pace and purpose of life. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” they observed excitedly, “and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (Leitch 663). Marx and Engels also wrote in their Manifesto of the “cosmopolitan character” (Leitch 663) of capitalism—of the increasingly global reach of capitalist production, and the ceaseless, ever-expanding manufacture of consumer desire itself. To what extent are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offering us in Empire (2000) “version 2.0” of this dramatic pronouncement by the foundational theorists and exponents of modern communism? If the international, global quality of capitalism has been a dynamic fact for a century and three-quarters, why does Hardt and Negri’s “update” seem new to so many of us, analysts included? What does this degree of surprise suggest about the functioning of ideology in our understanding of the grand systems that govern our lives, and, perhaps, about the ability of a wily capitalist order to protect itself from even the most radical of critiques? Do Hardt and Negri—themselves postmodern theorists, or at least theorists of postmodernity—seem aware of this remarkable resilience on capital’s part? If so, what in the presentation of their thesis convinces you that this is indeed the case? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake