Thursday, 15 November 2007


The email below is included here as a recommendation for people to read Hardt and Negri's "Multitude"... One caveat: Note that a lot of the words used in the email - e.g. empire, imperialism, multitude, democracy - mirror the very specific usage of Hardt and Negri. This may be misleading if you haven't read the book...

Dear Professors Hardt and Negri,

I have just completed your book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire which I found deeply insightful and very inspiring. You are no doubt far too busy to be reading every passing critique of your work but, for what it's worth, I thought I'd provide some constructive feedback. It will help me clarify my thoughts on the current state of global war if nothing else.

In your book you characterise the enemy of empire as a network, a swarm. You posit that in order to fight this network the military of the empire must also become a network. Your argument to back this up is contingent on two unstated hypotheses which are, I believe, very important in understanding the current situation - for they are true, but only partially.

[1] The enemy really exists.
[2] The empire wants to win the war.

I would contend that the global state of war has at least two fronts. One of these is mythical and it is in empire's interest for that war to continue ad infinitum; the other is substantial and here the empire is intent on victory. The two fronts are often deliberately conflated by the mouth pieces of empire, and I feel that your analysis would have benefited from a more clear distinction between the two.

The first, mythical front is (currently) that of terror and its associated notions of civilisations. When I describe this front as mythical I do not mean that it is entirely without substance but its substance is secondary; the role it plays in global geopolitics can be discerned by the way empire speaks of it. This front is continually emphasised in imperial propaganda; battles are said to be won and lost (the empire periodically manufactures a victory for mass consumption) but the empire warns against hoping for an early victory. This is a war that empire wants - I don't need to explain why, it has everything to do with Orwellian notions of subjection and manipulation; Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares explains it well I think.

The second, substantial front is that of poverty and the associated cahiers de doleances which you list. This front has content and this battle strikes at the heart of what empire is about - in contrast to the mythical terrorist enemy which, while it purports to strike at empire, is really an entirely complementary structure. The substantial front is continually under attack by empire as it is a serious hindrance in empire's efforts to extract maximum production from its subjects (as you describe beautifully).

Now you might argue that the above distinction is really a return to the previous notions of imperialism, which no longer apply. The key point seems to be that the empire wishes to absorb everything within it and thus the existence of a terrorist enemy is not in the interests of empire. My argument is that empire has, in fact, already absorbed the terrorist enemy into its fabric and this enemy plays a vital role. In fact it plays several:

First it distracts from the substantial enemy. It allows the other front to become forgotten, or overwhelmed. I don't just mean by the media and such like - the poor don't need the media to tell them that they are poor! Rather I mean that the poor are misguided into thinking that their real enemy is someone else. And what's more that that enemy is being engaged by empire and, one day, maybe, things might change. In other words it provides an appearance of movement in the political and social fabric. People know that the status quo is wrong but, if they can be convinced that things are being done to change it, then they will put up with it.

In fact, of course, empire is intent on moving things in a direction of ever increasing injustice. As you describe, geopolitics today is one of crisis - conflict between multitude and imperial power. There are only two ways for this situation to resolve itself - either the project of the multitude takes shape and diffuses this crisis; or, empire manages to prolong this crisis indefinitely. The only way that this can be done is by distraction and disingenuation. If that's a word. This is the first role of the mythical enemy.

It is very important to clarify that empire contains no potential for a resolution of geopolitical crisis. The fundamental activity of empire is to extract production from the multitude and this action will always be antagonistic. In general empire deals with this antagonism by forcibly crushing dissent, however it is also useful to have some method for diffusing this antagonism - enter, stage right, the terrorist.

The mythical enemy also provides distraction in another way. By conflating the two wars, empire is enabled to more easily undertake the militarisation of society (a process which I won't define now, but which has many elements). So not only is the illusion of movement created, but an actuality of movement also - except that, as I said, the movement is in an opposite direction to the project of the multitude.

Yours sincerely, etc

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