A Black Cat in a Dark Room
A Black Cat in a Dark Room
Empire, the popular book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, has finally appeared in Russian. The English edition of this work caused a considerable shock; it is rare for a work of revolutionary theory to become a commercial best-seller. And if left-wing texts have started to attract a mass readership, why should a book of precisely this kind have been so successful? But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Empire, despite its unusual length, is quite easy to sum up. The authors themselves have done this in their preface. If anyone simply wants to acquaint themselves with the ideas of Hardt and Negri, I recommend that they not read the whole book, but limit themselves to the first pages.
Here we learn first of all that globalisation, which has transformed the capitalist world, is effective and irreversible. Secondly, we are told that economic relations are becoming less and less subject to political control, and that the nation-state is in decline. These two theses are, of course, familiar arguments of neoliberal propaganda. But take note: this is where we also find the main contribution which Hardt and Negri have to make to social thought. The place of the nation-state, the authors argue, is being taken by the Empire - given a capital letter as a matter of principle, and not to be confused with imperialism. "The Empire is becoming a political subject which effectively regulates these global exchanges, a sovereign power holding sway over the world" (p. 10) Properly speaking, we do not learn any more about the Empire in the rest of the book, since Hardt and Negri promptly declare that what is involved is a network of power that is omnipresent and elusive, but extremely contradictory.
The Russian reader, corrupted by the nationalist newspaper Zavtra and other works of Russian post-modernism, might inadvertently wonder whether the authors are referring to a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy or to some set of behind-the-scenes international dealings. But no, the conspiracy theorists propose the existence of a secret power, while the power of the Empire is out in the open. It is simply that Hardt and Negri have neither words to describe it, nor specific examples to which they might refer. The impossibility of formulating anything in concrete terms is the main new idea to be found in this astonishing book. The whole point, the authors explain to us, lies in the contradictory nature of the phenomenon itself. The Empire has not yet taken on its final form, but it is already in profound decline. "Subtle and unlocalised, the contradictions of imperial society are multiplying; there are contradictions everywhere" (p. 191)
Since the existence of the Empire is the authors' initial axiom, the fact that they can neither see nor describe the Empire in no way puts their thesis in doubt. On the contrary, the less precisely we imagine the empire, the more we are supposed to be convinced of its existence. In the arguments of Hardt and Negri there is, of course, a certain logic, of a profoundly ideological nature. While accepting the neoliberal theory of globalisation as absolute truth, they nevertheless refuse to be reconciled to the power of capital. On this basis they formulate their own conclusions and even their own program of struggle, corresponding to the new reality and the new rules. The empire is merely the political embodiment of the new reality. If there is no longer any nation-state, and if the market and capitalism are global, while national and regional markets are no more than relics of the past, must the power of capital have some "political superstructure"? If we fail to see it, this means it is simply invisible. All the economic and social theories which the authors recognise as true, however, point to the necessity of its existence.
The trouble is that the theories which Hardt and Negri take as their starting-point are fundamentally false, even in empirical terms. One is reminded of the words of the British scholar Alan Freeman, who observed at one point: "It is usually considered that globalisation has been an economic success, but a political and cultural failure. In fact, the precise opposite is the case." The list of economic failures of globalisation is endless. It is enough to recall the Russian default of 1998 and the subsequent financial crisis in Latin America, the present weakness of the world economy, and the inability of the US economy to pick up speed following the depression of 2000-2003. Most significant, however, is the fact that both world trade and world productive output as a whole have risen more slowly in the period of globalisation than in the times of protectionism. Capitalism is cyclical in character, and it goes through periods of internationalisation, which alternate with periods of "national-oriented development". In this respect, what distinguishes the current epoch is not that something particularly unusual is occurring, but the fact that information technologies have made us far better able to see and recognise processes which in previous cycles were known, for the most part, only to experts.
In just the same fashion, experience does not bear out the thesis that the state is growing weaker. The very opposite is occurring. The state is growing stronger, not to speak of the fact that it is renouncing its social functions, while becoming more bourgeois, more violently repressive, and reactionary through and through. It is precisely this constant and growing state coercion (a sort of repressive regulating of society in the interests of the market) that allows globalisation to continue despite its unbroken succession of economic failures and the stubborn resistance of the majority of humanity in virtually all areas of the planet.
The transnational corporations which Hardt and Negri see as the basic force organising the new social and economic order in fact have an acute need of the state, and of the national state in particular. After all, the "globalism" of the transnationals is possible only so long as the world labour market remains heterogeneous. If all national markets were really to merge in a single global market, the activity of the transnationals would cease to have any point. Why, for example, would anyone produce running shoes in Vietnam or Mexico for the British market, if the costs of production were roughly the same as in Britain? Because of its homogeneity, such a global market would inevitably disintegrate into numerous local markets of similar type, in which production from local raw materials for local consumers would be incomparably more advantageous than transporting goods from distant countries.
Corporations have an interest in ensuring the continued existence of local markets with fundamentally different conditions and rules of operation. Meanwhile the corporations, thanks to their mobility, can exploit these differences. This is why globalisation also remains essentially incomplete; to pursue it to its conclusion is not in the interests of those who control the process. On the propagandist level, meanwhile, the eternal incompleteness of globalisation will constantly be employed as an excuse for its failures.
It is not hard to see that under present conditions, the nation-state is far from being a relic of the past. It is in fact an ideal instrument for the transnational elites to use in solving their problems. The corporations have no need of the Network Empire as a political structure, since over the past fifteen or twenty years the nation-state has been totally reconfigured. No longer does it serve its citizens, but to use the language of Putin, it solves the problems of "competitiveness"; in other words, it gratifies the wishes of transnational capital.
The reason why Hardt and Negri's "Empire" is absent from this picture is not because it is elusive, but simply because it does not exist. The authors, of course, are well aware that the global social and economic space they describe is diverse and hierarchical. But the only conclusion they draw from this fact is that the Empire and the transnational corporations (which of these, precisely?) are organising this space. Meanwhile, the crucial new feature of the contemporary scene is not that the nation-state is growing weaker, but that the corporations are privatising it. In this respect we have seen a turning back of the process that was under way throughout most of the twentieth century - the process through which the state, under the pressure of the working classes, was gradually being transformed from an organ of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into a system of institutions functioning on the basis of compromise between classes. During the social democratic epoch, capitalism appeared before us in the guise of a "civilised" regulated market and of the "welfare state", while the left, content with its achievements, declared that it had renounced the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The social democratic order, however, turned out to be reversible, just like any compromise. With modern-day capitalism "turning feral", the assertion by Hardt and Negri that the new order is better than the old seems particularly strange, though the authors of course are not concerned with the moral side of things, and not with the concrete problems which people confront in their everyday experience. Hardt and Negri have in mind a philosophical dialectic in the spirit of Hegel. This dialectic is conditional and abstract, and hence has no application in actual life. If things were different, then human thought would have no need of either Marx, Weber, or Freud.
Meanwhile, a critical glance at today's situation poses questions quite different from those with which our heroes are preoccupied. In the first place, if the present-day state of affairs is in practice a manifestation of reaction, and if the social-democratic compromise has turned out to be reversible, then it follows logically that the successor to this compromise - neoliberal capitalism, with its globalist ideology - is reversible as well. Of course, it does not by any means follow from this that a return to social democracy is in the offing. In the light of present historical experience, such a return is neither inevitable nor desirable.
Then there is the moral side of what is happening. Rhetorical references to the need for "resistance" are not enough to change the situation. The masses have resisted capital from the very moment when the bourgeois order came into being. For the most part this resistance has been ineffective, though in the past two centuries we have also seen examples of successful struggle; each time, of course, what has been involved has not been resistance, but the realisation of more or less distinct revolutionary or reformist projects. The success of these projects - whether left jacobinism, bolshevism, trade unionism or Keynesianism - has been limited, and as already noted, reversible. More than once, a revolutionary outburst has turned into a totalitarian catastrophe. Nevertheless, the importance of thses attempts cannot be denied.
In the world of Hardt and Negri, by contrast, there is neither the need nor the possibility of developing programs of any sort. The elusive, ever-changing reality of the new global Empire makes such efforts pointless. Here there is only motion, which in some mystical fashion (but again in the spirit of Hegel) leads to a predetermined goal. This goal, as on the placards of the Soviet era, is communism, and it is just as abstract and unattainable as the ideal future of Soviet propaganda.
As has already been noted, Hardt and Negri's Empire is essentially without a subject. Or to be more precise, it has a subject, but one that is also elusive, inconstant and abstract, like all the other concepts in this book. Hardt and Negri see this mutability, this lack of a subject, as evidence of the uniqueness of the modern epoch. Paradoxically, when they talk of the past, it also becomes diffuse and without a subject. It is enough for them to refer to history - for example, to the European renaissance and enlightenment - and floating before us are the same indistinct features of a self-impelling process in which eminently Hegelian universal ideas are at work - the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary principles, the urge to freedom and the need for control. Meanwhile, there is no concern as to whose urge this is, and whose need. From time to time, no less abstract "masses" appear on the pages of the book; of these, we learn no more than of the absolute ideas of classical philosophy. When Marx spoke of "masses", he had in mind the form of being and organisation of quite concrete social groups and classes, possessing specific interests and formulating demands on this basis. The proletariat became a mass because this was required by the logic of factory production, by the accumulation of capital and by urbanisation, acting to concentrate people together and to turn them into a "mass". At an earlier stage, this same logic had also drawn the petty bourgeoisie into its orbit. All these social groups, however, retained their own distinctive characters. Sociology, whether that of Marx or Weber, is interested in the particular features of a class, in its specific peculiarities, from which there also proceed the need of the class for political action, the necessity of struggle and the urge for liberation. The sociology of Hardt and Negri, if the word can be used with relation to them, presupposes a complete lack of personality.
All that Empire really tells us about the masses is that they are poor. It is this, above all, that distinguishes the current period. There is no longer a working class. Poverty, the authors tell us, has become a relationship of production. Unfortunately, Hardt and Negri do not explain just how this occurs. All we learn is that poverty now "appears in all its openness, since in the epoch of postmodernism the subordinated have absorbed the exploited. In other words the poor, and every poor person, have swallowed and digested the masses of poor people, and have digested the masses of proletarians. By virtue of this, the poor have become a force of production. Even starving beggars, those who sell their bodies - all types of the poor - have become a force of production. Consequently, the poor have acquired even greater importance; the lives of the poor enrich the planet, and invest it with their striving for freedom and creativity. The poor are a condition of all production." (p. 154)
The sociological thinking here rises to the level of Charles Perrault; the heroes of Cinderella and Puss in Boots had a perfect grasp of the difference between poverty and wealth, applying exceptional creative efforts (and in the process, demonstrating a good deal of freedom) in order to move from the first category to the second.
Since ancient times, writers have had a great deal to say about the contrasts between rich and poor, but they have not been able to suggest any clear solutions to the problem, simply because poverty is not a "productive relationship" or even a social relationship. It is merely a consequence of the existing social relationships and of the economic system. What was new about Marxist thought was the way it rejected the moralising of earlier radical ideologues, who either praised the benefactors of the poor in rapturous terms, or who waxed indignant at the poverty around them. Marxism urged people to speak concretely about the social structure and about the organisation of the economy. Poverty, it emerged, had a variety of sources. For this reason, movements that have sought to base themselves on the poor have proven unstable and ineffective. When Marx wrote of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, it was their poverty that was furthest from his mind. It is entirely natural that the most successful revolutionary struggles should have been waged by social groups that were far from being the most deprived. All this is of course banal. But the novelty of Hardt and Negri's theorising lies in the fact that it does not even reach the level of modern-day banality, staying on the level of the banality of a hundred and fifty years ago.
The struggle against the Empire is reduced to opposition, to "being against". This is neither a program nor an ideology, but a way of life. Moereover, it is a way of life that is perfectly compatible with bourgeois reality; it does not transform this reality but complements it, along with Che Guevara T-shirts, radical best-sellers and other symbols of protest for which the market grows as the demand for neoliberal ideas diminishes.
Geydar Jemal once told a forum of left activists that Islam was a banner beneath which masses of the oppressed had resisted tyranny for one and a half thousand years (for that matter, the same might be said of any other popular religion). Unexpectedly, a reply rang out from within the hall: "That's all very well, but maybe it's time to stop resisting tyranny, and to simply put an end to it." In recent years the word "resistance" has become fashionable in left-wing and anti-globalist circles. Few other words are repeated as often in rallies, in discussions and in declarations, and few words have such a positive emotional charge. Resistance implies staunchness, adherence to one's principles, and a readiness to carry on the struggle despite everything, regardless of the unequal strength of the contending forces and the fact, obvious to onlookers, that the struggle is doomed. The logic of resistance is existential. I do not calculate my chances; I simply stand up for what I believe. Even if I cannot win, even if I am doomed to defeat, I must nevertheless give battle, since any other course would be treachery - not only to my cause, but also to myself.
This is how we struggled against the onward march of reaction throughout the 1990s. Tactical considerations took a back seat. The people who weighed up the chances of success quickly abandoned the struggle, joining the ranks of the turncoats asserting the bankruptcy of Marxism and the self-evident effectiveness of the free market. Others became admirers of Tony Giddens, advisers to Tony Blair, "red-green" German ministers or "socially concerned" deputies of the United Russia bloc, spewing out "progressive" rhetoric to accompany every draft law aimed at restricting the rights of workers. Nowhere will you find so many sometime revolutionaries as among these esteemed individuals. They would be delighted to overthrow capitalism, but finding on sober reflection that revolution is a matter for the remote future, while life is short and a career has to be made quickly, they have preferred to enter the service of the evil they have unmasked. Meanwhile, they do not cease for a minute to pride themselves on their revolutionary past, and at every suitable opportunity, try to extract moral and material advantage from it.
Contempt for these individuals increases the resolve of the resistance. If you do not want to resemble them, then stay true to your principles and carry on struggling, ignoring petty concerns and dubious tactical benefits.
Nevertheless, the logic of resistance has its own moral ambiguity, which becomes evident as the effectiveness of our resistance increases. Capitalism is quite able to survive being resisted; what it cannot survive is a revolution that does away with it. Revolutions can fail, and indeed, the great majority of attempts at revolution suffer this fate. But as Jean-Paul Sartre observed before his death, the progress of humanity advances from failure to failure. If it were not for these unsuccessful attempts, we would probably still be living under feudalism. Incomplete revolutions, and even those that suffer tragic defeats, have more importance for history than whole decades of "peaceful" development. Once the world has undergone such social eaerthquakes, it can never again be the same.
Let us return, however, to the ideology of resistance. It was no accident that General de Gaulle uttered this word early in the Second World War, when the power of Nazi Germany appeared insuperable, and the cause of free France hopelessly lost. France had been occupied, its army shattered, and a substantial part of the elite had abandoned the country to its fate. In such circumstances, it was natural to raise the banner of resistance. After Stalingrad, however, the struggle took on a radically different aspect. The task was no longer simply to endure, but also to win. Thanks to the steadfastness and self-sacrifice of the early war years, victory had become genuinely attainable, but to advance towards it, a quite different mode of action was necessary. The requirement now was for tactics, strategy, and coordination. It was essential to show efficiency and organisation, qualities which had by no means been obligatory for each act of resistance, because these acts had in the first instance been of a moral character.
This means that tactics and organisation are becoming vital. We need positive programs and politically effective methods of action. Compromises are possible when they make political and moral sense, allowing us to draw nearer to the goals of the struggle, goals that become thoroughly concrete and real.
Of course, it is not only repression that is involved here. The moral risks are no less important, and ultimately, even more so. It is possible to live, as the great Russian writer Saltykov-Shchedrin put it, "conforming to baseness". One can simply say "no" to the system, and be content with this. The latter course allows one to avoid a great many difficult and morally ambiguous problems. Practical activity, aimed at carrying out specific tasks, forces us to constantly make decisions. These decisions are questionable, and may be incorrect; they pose moral quandaries to which we lack ready answers. Who can we collaborate with, and who not? Where are the limits of permissible compromise? Who should we accept financial contributions from, and on what terms? How do we ensure that an organisation is united and effective, while retaining a democratic internal life? How can we exploit disagreements between our enemies to aid our cause? How can we struggle for power, while at the same time recognising that power corrupts? Despite Churchill's famous aphorism, a little power corrupts even more than power attained in its fullest extent. In short, how do we defeat the dragon without ourselves coming to resemble it?
There are no universally applicable theoretical answers to such questions.
It is not surprising that in the epoch of resistance, anarchist ideas have been fashionable. After all, what is the use of politics, if there is nothing to be achieved in this area? It is only natural that books should be published that call on their readers to change the world without trying to take power. As in Aesop's fable, the grapes are unripe; we cannot take power in any case.
Nevertheless, we cannot change the world unless we set out to take power. If the truth were fundamentally different, history would have known neither revolutions nor political struggle. The people who rule the world and who keep their hold on power not only refuse to allow the system to be transformed, but do not agree to even the slightest concessions unless they sense their power is under threat. Oppositions do not always succeed in taking power, by any means, but they become effective only when the ruling class starts to understand that its danger of losing power is entirely real.
It should be recognised that in any society, the majority of people are by no means revolutionary. This is as true of Marx's proletarians as of any other class in history. This does not, however, signify that the "ordinary person" is conservative by nature. It is truer to say that the ordinary person is a spontaneous reformist. The more working people become conscious of their class interests, the more hostile they are to the system. This hostility, however, is passive; the readiness to act arises when the concrete prospect of success emerges. Resistance is the fate of individuals; when it becomes massive, it is already an uprising, the first step toward revolution. But revolution requires strategy, politics, and a program.
It may be that this piling up of banalities has given the book a competitive advantage, ensuring its commercial success. The abundance of commonplaces means that readers can assimilate the text without particular intellectual effort, despite the copious use of philosophical terms and the book's unusual length. The impressive size of the tome is due not least to a great deal of repetition, especially in the second half. It is as though everything has already been said, but the authors cannot bring themselves to stop. I confess that I liked the second half more, since a large part of what it contains has nothing to do with the main ideas set out earlier on. In essence, this part of the book repeats the familiar arguments of modern-day (and sometimes of classical) Marxism, and left-wing readers of course find this agreeable. As the old anti-Soviet joke has it, "How many times can I repeat it - Soviet power no longer exists." "But repeat it, repeat it!"
It is as though the two authors could not agree completely on what they really wanted to say. Theses about the working class, drawn from Marxist textbooks, appear side by side with the earlier-cited arguments about poverty. The concepts of class, of production and of the proletariat unexpectedly return, in a quite traditional interpretation. But what do such contradictions mean if, as we have been given to understand, everything in this world is fleeting and elusive... .
In essence, Hardt and Negri offer us a new version of the ideas of the young Hegelians - the same ideas which Marx began developing his own theories by criticising. This, clearly, is the reason for many of the book's extended passages. In the spirit of the Hegelian evolution of the absolute idea, we see developing before us the idea of Empire, from ancient Rome, through the troubled times of modern history, to the epoch of imperialism. Then it achieves its full, absolute expression in the modern global Empire. Becoming conscious of itself in the works of Hardt and Negri, the Empire completes its evolution.
Such an intellectual catastrophe could occur only against a background of profound social reaction, and on this level, changes really are evident. It might be said that neoliberalism really has triumphed, since it has reduced world social thought to the point where books like Empire are not only able to be published, but can be successful. One has the sense that all the work of critical theory carried out by the European left since Marx's time has gone down the tube, and that at best, we are back in the days of the Rheinische Zeitung. The revolution of 1848 is still far in the future.
Nevertheless, one is reluctant to think that the situation is so hopeless. After all, books are not being burned. From off the shelves, one can still take the same Marx, Freud, Trotsky, Marcuse, Wallerstein... and even Lenin. As well as fashionable books, the world still contains intelligent ones.