Negri’s politics are shaped by the defeat of the movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His borrowed economic theory was shaped by the triumphalism following the restructuring of US capitalism in the 1980s and the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. Having created a Marxism gutted of its central emphasis on the working class, he filled this empty shell with the poststructuralist philosophy developed by a generation of disappointed post-1968 French intellectuals.
Atilio Boron argues that Hardt and Negri’s increasing reliance on poststructuralist philosophers flows from a shared backdrop of trying to come to terms with working class defeat and capitalist hubris. Faced with a system that appears, for the time being, unbeatable:…a series of theoretical and practical consequences emerge that…are neatly reflected in the postmodern agenda. On the one hand, an almost obsessive interest in the examination of the social forms that grow in the margins or in the interstices of the system; on the other hand, the search for those social forces that at least for now could commit some sort of transgression against the system, or could promote some type of limited and ephemeral subversion against it.
This concern with subversion and transgression is indeed characteristic of many of the autonomist movements with which Negri is associated. But for Negri, with the rise of post-industrial production and the multitude, the potential for postmodern subversion has spread across the whole social terrain, and across the globe. One might expect Hardt and Negri to explain what such a confrontation would look like. However, what we instead get is a retreat into philosophy and descriptions of the multitude that the authors themselves admit are merely ‘poetic’.
Hardt and Negri also borrow from the poststructuralists, especially Deleuze and Guattari, an eclectic form of expression known as ‘assemblage’.
Timothy Brennan writes in his Italian Ideology:
It expresses itself as a gathering of substantively incompatible positions. In Empire’s assemblage, the juxtaposition of figures whose political views are mutually hostile to one another…is presented as the supersession of earlier divisions in pursuit of a more supple and inclusive combination.
So, in Empire, philosophers such as Michel Foucault or Baruch Spinoza and revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg rub shoulders with Bill Gates, former US labour secretary Robert Reich and St Francis of Assissi. This form of expression evolved as a rejection of attempts at a ‘grand narrative’ such as Marxism that could hope to explain and help transform the world, or of an agency such as the working class that could carry through such a transformation. For Hardt and Negri this method mirrors the multitude that they describe—a series of heterogeneous, isolated subjects, coming together to fleetingly act in common. Indeed they have gone so far as to say that the struggles of the multitude have become ‘incommunicable’ and lack a ‘common enemy’.
Their assertion would be contested by most of those who have attended the great international gatherings and protests of the anti-capitalist movement since Seattle. Here opposition to neo-liberalism and war have become common themes. The world working class may have been traumatised by the impact of neo-liberalism and the defeat of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But, rather than celebrating the much-exaggerated demise of the working class, the challenge today is to re-engage the growing ideological opposition to capitalism with the potential power that workers still hold. Negri is dismissive of such a project, but offersanothing substantial in its place.
His faux pas—over neo-liberalism, the EU constitution and the war in Iraq—stem from his failure to come to terms with either the defeats of the past or the nature of contemporary capitalism. Almost every assertion in his recent writings vanishes into thin air once subjected to even a cursory empirical examination. As for strategy, Multitude ends:
We can already recognise that today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living – and that yawning abyss between them is becoming enormous. In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real political act of love.
With an upsurge of the Techno-Commercial Right in the world, multinationals and Commodity Trading firms and HFTs and states wreaking havoc, and global warming (believe it or not!) threatening our very survival as a species, waiting for an act of political love to save us sounds like bad advice.