[Reader-list] On Empire

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at www.sarai.net
Mon Dec 24 15:54:33 IST 2001

Dear Readers,

Sometimes, especially on days when the finance minister of the country whose
passport you carry makes statements like "war is avoidable but affordable" you
feel like doing anything necessary to ensure a world in which the passport and
the finance minister, both were made redundant. 

For full details of the "war is affordable" statement, which has been made by
Yashwant Sinha, Union Finance Minister, Government of India, see


Days such as these, invite long spells of reflection, and we are grateful for
anything that makes the reflection occur - 

I have been reading a book called Empire (by Michael hardt and Antonio negri,
university of harvard press, 2001) , which some people on this list might be
familiar with, and I wanted to share with all on the list a brief review of
Empire that I have been working on for some time. 

The reason I recommend this book to the readers of our list is that it is the
one of the most succint takes on the global contemporary condition, and I find
it especially relevant in terms of the fundamental critique it offers of

The review itself will be published by Biblio - A Review of Books in its
forthcoming special issue on cosmopolitanism and the nation state. 

comments and criticism on the review and further thoughts on the book are
welcome. for those of you who want to read Empire without straining your
wallets, please visit -


- where you will chance upon the full ascii version of the text of Empire.


ON EMPIRE by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

a review ----

?The vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his
works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave??

(Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) 


A less well-known image from the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the
World Trade Centre on September 11 haunts me every day as I travel to work
through the streets of New Delhi. A lone man, on a park bench, surrounded by
what seems to be the detritus of a nightmare of confetti, covered in ash,
looks at his open laptop computer.  Searching for the data that might have
survived the crash. This man, a helot in the factories of immaterial labour,
the ashen survivor and his laptop, are for me a key image of the daily
collapse of our immediate realities. With his life falling apart all around
him, he is still checking to ensure that the machine boots up as it should. 

In his place, caught unawares in the middle of a bombing raid that might be a
minor episode in a war that our rulers in their wisdom might bequeath to us, I
too would perhaps have done the same. The machine and the man are both hooked
on to the apparatus that sustains the immediate co ordinates of power and
production. The cog checks to see that the wheel is running, even as the
towers crash, or bombs fall like food packets from the sky. And a week after
September 11, on a business programme on television, one heard the Indian
worthies of flailing dot com, delight in the anticipation of an upturn in the
data recovery business, as nervous transnational corporations relocated more
of their back office operations to virtual sweatshops in ?our? suburbs. War,
Capitalism, business as usual.

And so Empire finds, in the accumulation of such minute acts, momentary
deferrals from the vicissitudes of fortune. Empire runs with the battery of
bio-power, the life force of the global workday. The factory siren, the punch
card device and the ID card inside our heads, mark our time, and apportion our
claims on space in the service of capital.

More important than the destinies of states dying and reborn, and far more
important than the rhetoric of war that now besieges us, is the daily cost of
ving in times of perpetual crisis. Each day drains the will to resist the
assumption that the state of terror that is capital is a permanent condition.
The stage set of everyday life has relocated on to the theatre of war, and
there seem to be no calls for desertion. Empire rampant, Empire triumphant?

The last days of the Roman Empire too were marked by the same confidence in
the staying power of power. It took an Edward Gibbon, and the lapse of many
centuries to show that what might seem to be absolute power too is vulnerable
to the accumulated disaffection of the multitudes, and the force of its own
inner contradictions. Gibbon had the advantage of hindsight, and he was
writing at a time when the foundations of power were once again shaking loose.
In today?s world, it might seem that the only certainties are those of the
synergy between state terror and free lance terror, and the continued
oppression, calls for austerity and sacrifice that a global war economy
entails. In these times, it takes a combination of a prophetic imagination,
and a willingness to seize the devil of the details of power by the tails to
produce a more sceptical and visionary call to the multitudes to desert the
Empire that rules us today.

Empire, (not the reality, or the metaphor ? but the book that describes the
reality and inscribes the metaphor) by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri issues
such a call, and those of us who chafe at the bits, anywhere in the world,
might do well to heed this call. In our dialogue with this text, and in
threading links and connectivities of material resistance with the
provocations within it, we might turn the tide of the accumulations of
subjection that allows Empire to tide over the vicissitudes of fortune. This
book, and its many readings across the world may turn out to be a contribution
to the misfortune of Empire. 

But what do Hardt and Negri mean when they use the word ?Empire? to describe
today?s global reality. They mean something more than that shop worn bauble - 
?Imperialism? which is the fashion accessory of every self-respecting
third-world leftist. Where would the liberators of oppressed peoples, and the
fathers of all our nations be without Imperialism? How would factions of
global capital negotiate with local elites, if not by playing the discreet
game of playing one fiction of national identity against another on the world
stage? How else would brands, markets, and tariff regimes function? How else,
if not by staging gladiatorials that pit worker against worker, can profits
accrue to mobile capital when it is able to cut deals to its own advantage
against a labouring multitude hemmed in by passports, armies, border check
posts and immigration laws. How else can capital rule, if not by dividing
those it rules, and by decorating those divisions with flags and the regalia
of identities, even anti-imperialist, third world, national identities. 
While capital itself, in production and speculation, is global and dispersed,
wages and the mobility of labour are constrained by the boundaries of nation 
states. The rising tides of fundamentalism and other forms of identity specific
militancy, only strengthen the coercive apparatus of existing nation states, or
inaugurate new mechanisms, in the name of newly liberated territories. The
state, as Negri and Hardt, succinctly put it, is the ?poisoned gift of national
liberation? it enables, in every part of the globe, local regimes of control and
discipline, that regulate the conduct of the worker in the ?national? interest.
Nothing serves better the global interests of capital than the state that can,
in its own territorial backyard, effectively demand and mobilize public
spectacles of the sacrifices of its citizens in the name of their own freedom.
Every time we sing a national anthem we sing the dirge of dead labour.

 For Negri and Hardt ? Empire is this apparatus of the global governance of
bio-power that transcends the nation state and yet percolates downward through
the disciplinary regimes of the very same national or proto national entities
that it renders redundant as factors within the global economy. It feeds off the
fluid and immaterial labour of the multitudes, channelled through vast networks
of information and communication mediums, which permit an agile and intensive
engine of capitalist accumulation to shape not only the world, but every
relation within it after its own image. This is the spectre that haunts the
world today, and it is the spectre of capitalism, the ghost of dead labour,
weighing heavy on the body of living labour.

Yet, Negri and Hardt maintain that it is this very condition of the supercession
of national entities by global capital that can be the bedrock of resistance.
There is, as they say, ?no outside? to Empire. We must search for the conditions
of resistance within the global for that is the only arena of the Empire. This
can lead to the effective articulation of transnational solidarities of the
multitudes, and of labouring people that are Empire?s only productive base.
Today, the engines of the new world economy are fuelled by immaterial labour,
which produces, the informational infrastructure, the communicative capacity and
the affective glues that sustain the global machine of capitalism. This is a
network that includes the service, information technology, media and
entertainment industries, which ride over the vast machine of production, making
sure that it remains reproducible on a daily basis. The work force that toils in
the global, dispersed, digital assembly line is networked internationally and if
it is able to canalise its resistance along the lines in which it is made to
produce, internationally, it can strike at the very heart of Empire. This is
why, there can be no such thing as a purely local struggle any more, and each
demand to take back what is taken away from a worker by capital is no longer
capable of effective articulation on a scale that is less than global.

This leads naturally to even more intensive repression and counter attack, and
an even greater fuelling of the purely identity based ?civilisational clashes?
that undermine the solidarity of the multitudes. So much so, that one might say
that if the valorization of identity ? say of the kind that is represented by
various denominational classifications of religious fundamentalism and the forms
of terrorism associated with each confession ? were not present in the world to
unleash mayhem and provoke repression, it may have had to be specifically
invented to sustain the frayed legitimacy of state power. After all, an event
such as that of September 11 came at the most convenient time, when the global
resistance to global capitalism was becoming self-conscious ? on the streets, in
the numerous manifestations against the WTO and other international apparatuses
of its own global, interlinked presence as a counterweight to the state and non
state actors (corporations and NGOs) that act as the bulwarks and fortresses of

This new (and constantly threatened) solidarity of the fluid multitude, which
brooks no representation, (no leaders who act in the name of a people, no nation
in which to herd a people, no armies or police to defend a people, no parties to
mobilize a people, no cultures woven from the spiritual fabric of the people,
and no priests to intercede with god for the people) discovers itself through an
ethic of nomadism and miscegenation that contravenes the production of cultural
and civilisational brand identities. The multitude stands against the people and
counterposes acts of representation with instances of the production and
constitution of new forms of power The belated recognition of this fact may lead
to some heartburn in the camps of the celebrants of ?multiculturalism? as a
condition of post-modern resistance (although it is nothing but the management
of representations in a manner conducive to the maintainance of the spectacle of
everyday life in the thrall of capital) but it need not be a cause for worry to
the worker who discovers the baldness of the conditions of his/her existence.

The recognition of the networks that sustain the domination of living by dead
labour lead Negri and Hardt to propose two demands that are as simple as they
are radical. They say that if Capital benefits from its expansion on a world
scale, it is nothing but legitimate for Labour to demand that it be free to
move, on a world scale, and that there be a globally determined social wage to
sustain the utilisation of bio-power by each individual unit of the multitude.
These demands, in their boldness, reflect not a utopian advancement of
impossible conditions, but a considered and sober stock taking of the
immediate and existential realities of labouring in the world today. They
reflect, not a reactionary backtracking from globalisation, (which is what
most of the left rhetoric on the question of globalisation has consisted of
till now ? a throwback on the left?s disastrous flirtation with the tragedy of
national liberation) but an insistence that globalisation occur on the terms
of the labouring multitude, and not on the dictates of corporations and the
military industrial apparatus.
In the recognition of this immediacy of a here and now that is global, Negri
and Hardt advance and transpose what was proposed by Marx and Engels to the
international working class movement in the nineteenth century on to the
material realities of the world of the twenty first century. In this
recognition, which has within it the seeds of the capacity to dissolve each
mechanism of Empire, lies what Negri and Hardt call the ?irrepressible
lightness and joy of being communist?.

Today, we, the ashen survivors of the collapse of our immediate realities,
need more than ever before to be infected with this lightness and joy. Then we
might cease to be the cog that checks to see that the wheel is still
running.Then, we might witness the vicissitudes of fortune turn in our favour
as we stand about Empire?s common grave

We have after all, nothing to lose but our chains, and only a world to win

Shuddhabrata Sengupta
SARAI:The New Media Initiative
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
29 Rajpur Road
Delhi 110 054
Phone : (00 91 11) 3960040

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