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The Empire's Next Attack

August 10, 2001

Empire. By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. (Harvard University Press, March 2000, 512 pages) $35.00. 

This is one of those books that is expected to take the middlebrow world by storm. What Empire claims to be is a readable text in post-modern Marxist analysis combined with a "thesis" that will tell the reader what the world will be like in the near future.

The first goal is one that the authors have achieved: Their explanation of current Marxism, and how it relates to the global situation, is in fact quite comprehensible. What’s wrong with this book is that the fundamental idea upon which it rests is too narrow-minded.

Hardt’s and Negri’s central argument is this: There is a spontaneous push toward a global Empire whose specific locus of supreme authority is, at the moment, "virtual." It is a mistake at present to say that the top ruler is the global marketplace, the U.S.,  NATO, and/or the United Nations; it isn’t clear as of now who or what the top boss will be.

But it’s coming, according to them, because it’s being pushed by both partisans of political philosophy. "Imperial sovereignity marks a paradigm shift" (p. 8) for this reason: Both "parties" in political philosophy, Hobbesians and Lockeans, are helping bring about this goal of Empire—the Hobbesians by demanding a new power that’s above all nations and can thus land on the "rogue" ones, the Lockeans by pushing for standardization of laws, an example of which, not mentioned in the book, being the push for financial transparency.

World standardization of law is not here yet, but this "Empire" already has these police powers—Pearson’s Peacekeepers—and "bellum justum" [just war] is being redefined: a good war is one that promotes world peace and, as a subsidiary, world justice. War is both "banalized" as a police action and justified on certain "jus ad bellum" [right to make war] grounds. At present, a U.N. resolution is used for this sanction of military-police force.

Empire is born of conflict resolution (p. 15). Its primary right is the "right of intervention" (p. 18), which is continuous, not emergency-based, and is supported by these "universal values"—justice and peace.

The work of French philosopher Michel Foucault is identified by Hardt and Negri as a key to understanding their work—specifically, Foucault’s concepts of the "society of discipline," which explicitly includes and excludes based upon the rules set by the governors (p. 23), and the "society of control," which uses a more pragmatic, case-by-case method to rule, like the civil courts. The coming empire is a society of control where there is radical blurring between the controlled and the controllers.

The rest of the model of Hardt and Negri is straight Marxism, though post-modern. In this view, there are forces of great creativity at the bottom of society, which are drained and exploited by the capitalists at the top. The "veil of values" has to be torn away to see the real face of society.

As is usual in this subculture of the academy, ideas and morals exactly correspond to money in an economic analysis. You have to peer through them to get at the real, materialist truth. The "media of social exchange" doesn’t matter in the long run; better to clear it away, and you’ll see that the "cash value" of these beliefs is measured by the goods that they help you acquire in the process of "social exchange."

Once it is understood that Marxism collapses all fields into political economy, this philosophy becomes comprehensible. This is not economics, though; it’s politics. It is the politics of continual conflict. In every society, in the Marxist view, there are modes of behavior that people can use to get what they want, and all have one thing in common: they’re all political instruments. Thus, people whose behavior is consistent with the laws of economics are ones who like the political system they live in and who believe that the continuity of that system is in their self-interest. If they don’t, they will use other means to acquire wealth.

Since politics is saturated with conflict, any person who makes a living in society is bound to be conflicted to one degree or another. Even law-abiding economic agents have the potential of engaging in social combat to acquire the goods they need. If they don’t, they think the rulers of their society are doing a fine job. They don’t see the need to agitate for political change.

In a democracy, this agitation normally is expressed in politicking. But the most primal expression of this inherent conflict is physical combat—which, in a stable society, is softened. So, according to Marxism, radical students taking over a classroom, strikers beating up scabs, hood residents stealing food and TVs—all mean that the conventional modes of politicking available to "their" society are inadequate and "unfair." Soft Marxists would recommend a "New Deal" for these groups; hard Marxists would support them as warriors against an unjust system, as part of a potential army of the discontented.

The Marxian rule that society is divided into uppers with special privileges, the middle class who benefit by the existing order, and a lower class at whose expense the other groups are assumed to profit, is a subsidiary principle, but applies to almost all societies that have been studied. Part of social scientists’ job is to find out the specific mode of exploitation for the society they’re studying, which they merely assume is always there.

Marxists, paleo and neo, assume a zero-sum society. Any evidence of gain has to be the result of ripping someone else off, so the existence of consumers’ surplus is merely evidence that there has been some form of exploitation occurring. 

If Johnny prefers apples to relaxing and staying hungry, then he’ll go look for an apple tree. This is "production for use" in the Marxian scheme of things. Or, he can go over to Frankie’s house and ask for an apple, or demand or beg for one. This is an exchange, and a Marxist would say that this is precisely how one works. The boy who has the most social power, or the best "negotiating skills," wins at the expense of the boy who has less power. If Johnny can beat Frankie up, or his dad can get Frankie’s fired, then Johnny will exploit Frankie by getting a free apple.

Then again, if goods are exchanged, this is evidence that the social power difference is less than is illustrated in the example above, or that the stronger boy has to stay his hand somewhat to "keep things friendly." But the terms of trade that occur are determined by the relative power of the two boys, or of their families, or of their social circles: this demonstrates precisely both boys trying to exploit the other if they can. The laws of economics are clearly irrelevant to this process, except as a "bourgeois veil" that conceals or obscures this strong-arming.

Note that in this analysis there’s no way to separate any genuine exchange from this shoving around. Even a "just price" for the apple, such as one based on the apple’s cost in terms of the labor needed to acquire it, would only show that Frankie's and Johnny’s social power is equal. In other words, the counterclaims of "economic transaction" and "mutual exploitation" are impossible to weigh using the evidence, and this impossibility is used to dismiss all alternate models out of hand.

The fallacy in the above analysis is that any other source of "power" beyond either social rank or brute force is assumed away. Inventiveness, creativity, doing a better job to get ahead, saving, learning good habits—all are said to spring from the will to have power over others in society, and nowhere else. Marxism is like a one-instrument band, backed up by simple reasoning in a circle.

Now, what Marxism is should be clear. Since morals are a snare and delusion, and all social interaction can be understood in terms of power relationships, it’s clear that morals that do not coincide with your "real" self-interest, which often has to be told to you, are delusive, too. Where have we heard this before? Not from James Burnham, no, but from one of his mentors: Niccolo Machiavelli. Marxism is sophisticated Machiavellianism.

The authors of Empire know this, and they tip their hand in a pre-rebuttal found on page 162: They cite J.G.A Pocock and join him in giving credit to the Founders’ separation-of-power doctrine to Machiavelli himself. Never mind that a more sensible explanation is that both Machiavelli and the Founders learned from the same source, Polybius, which Hardt and Negri mention as Machiavelli’s own source on page 163.

But you can see where they would go with this. The hole card of Marxism today has been shown, and it’s none other than conflating the forces of geniue power and the voluntarism of market. We already know that the other four cards consist of the assumption that any feature of human socializing that isn’t part of a power relationship, of politicking, can be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, the authors’ characterization of the state of the world as empire is a tautology.

As for the Marxian economic doctrine, the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and the other Austrian economists is enough to refute it. But this tradition is completely unknown to our two authors. They proceed as if socialism never had a serious critic. 

As Ludwig von Mises said in Theory and History (p. 120), with reference to the alleged inevitability of socialism, "the circle is closed." And so are the ears. What seems to be at the bottom of this philosophical system is nothing more than the point of view of a man who sees fights everywhere, even and especially where peaceful, mutually beneficial exchange is taking place. Marx’s system is thus narrower than Rousseau’s. Even Jean-Jacques made room for simple gregariousness!

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Daniel M. Ryan is the proprietor of www.undergroundmind.com. He can be emailed at danielmryan@sprint.ca. See also Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth (1920), which is Mises's demonstration that socialism can't work, and Theory and History, which explains what's wrong with Marxist social theory.


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