‘Reflections on Empire’, ‘Empire and Beyond’ reviewed by John McSweeney

Reflections on Empire

Translated by Ed Emery. Polity, Cambridge, 2008. 202pp., £15.99 pb
ISBN 9780745637051

Empire and Beyond

Translated by Ed Emery. Polity, Cambridge, 2008. 239pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9780745640488

Reviewed by John McSweeney

About the reviewer

John McSweeney is Hyde Fellow in Philosophy at Milltown Institute, Dublin. His research is in …


These two volumes gather together lectures, talks, interviews and shorter publications by Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri from two periods: the period after his publication, with Michael Hardt, of the highly influential volume Empire (Hardt and Negri 2000), and that after the writing of their follow-up work Multitude (Hardt and Negri 2004), when preparatory work was already underway for what would eventually become Commonwealth (Hardt and Negri 2009). Reflections on Empire is structured around five “lessons” that Negri delivered at the University of Cosenza-Arcavacata in 2002, supplemented by contemporary pieces (a small number co-authored with Hardt), and is primarily an exposition of key ideas and themes from Empire. Nevertheless, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and political responses to them, had already seen the global landscape reshaped in ways Empire had not anticipated. As such, the volume also shows Negri beginning to grapple with the resurgence of the nation-state in these years, as well as the emerging role of war within the globalized capitalist world order that he and Hardt had named ‘empire’.

Empire and Beyond is a somewhat more diverse collection of talks given by Negri around the world in the year or so from June 2003, when he was granted a passport to travel by the Italian government after 25 years of exile and imprisonment related to his alleged involvement with the left-wing Italian militant/terrorist group, the Red Brigades. This volume – divided into sections entitled “Empire and Beyond”, “Europe: An Opportunity for Struggle”, “Post-Socialist Politics” and “Political Philosophical and Imperial Postmodernity” – reflects a more thoroughgoing testing of the ideas put forward in Empire and Multitude against the evolving political realities of the post-9/11 world. Both volumes offer a valuable amplification of key concepts from Hardt and Negri’s project, and the principles that underpin them, while capturing Negri’s evolving thinking about them.

The lessons of Reflections on Empire take as their point of departure the problems of method that confronted Hardt and Negri in approaching the question of the emergence of a new phase of capitalist production: that is, of how to define simultaneously both a method and the object of study, without collapsing both within a single “banal” framework of description (12), especially when the object of study will be determined to be a global order without ‘outside’. Negri foregrounds how he and Hardt met this challenge by dialectically grounding the politics of Empire in the praxis of adequately theorising empire. On the one hand, he argues that if Marxism is to break out of determinism, it must recognise that determinism is bound up with a particular phase of capitalist production, in which appeal can be made to an external locus of determination (the theory of value and specifically the notion of use value). On the other hand, this requires a periodisation of capitalist production that both provides support for such an argument and can distinguish the characteristics of contemporary capitalism. Italian workerism provides the practical insight that social struggle is the motor of capitalist development (rather than the latter’s intrinsic laws), thus allowing that determinism is a moment of the capitalist development-social life struggle. Negri links this to the workerist analysis of the long evolution within capitalism of the subsumption of social life under production (culminating since the late 1960s in ‘immaterial labour’). In this way, Negri is able to reprise the argument of Empire: how there is a decisive shift from material to immaterial labour, based upon a socialised general intellect, which stabilises the social motor of capitalism as a moment of capitalist production itself and ultimately eliminates any ‘outside’ of capital, so that, henceforth, social struggle is itself immanent to capitalist production. However, more crucially, Negri is able to demonstrate how the method of Empire itself belongs to a dialectical movement toward empire, so that its theories are rooted in and tested by praxis, even as they are not merely descriptive but constitute a specific political stance. (This is something that the style of Empire itself can occlude.)

Negri also adds to the argument of Empire an analysis of the nation-state as a dimension of the emergence of a new stage of capitalism. It was a stabilising force within earlier periods of capitalism, when social struggle was external to capitalist development; today, however, its imperialist export of capitalism around the world is a limit to be overcome, now that empire has internalised that struggle to its own processes of production. U.S. post-9-11 imperialism remains, at this early stage of Negri’s reflection on the question, a temporary incongruity that can be expected to be subsumed within empire.

Further “lessons” integrate the analysis of immaterial labour – as in Empire – with Foucauldian biopower and the related distinction between constituted power (potere) and constituent power (potenza) (corresponding to Foucault’s pouvoir and puissance). Negri highlights how biopower seeks to control (rather than restrictively discipline in advance) subjectivities, which, in the first instance, it allows to flourish as powers (puissances) capable of constituting new productive possibilities. The novelty and value of Negri’s analysis lies perhaps in the way he stresses the link between these notions and the immanence of subjective resistance to empire – against the frequent criticism that Empire is characterised by a naive utopian politics. Not only is subjective resistance a potenza/puissance entirely immanent to capitalist production and distinct from controlling power (pouvoir). It is also, Negri argues, immanent to an empire that is an open-ended reality, whose locus of development lies precisely in the productive potentialities generated and realised by a “multitude” of subjective puissances, rather than any external, determinative factors. Hence, he can stress that it is not simply optimism that leads him, and Hardt, to locate political resistance in the “multitude”: the multitude is at once the locus of capitalist development and distinct from hegemonic power. Even if the latter seeks to control these powers (puissances), they are as it were always ahead of it, and, in the absence of any ‘outside’ of empire, this ‘gap’ defines the very possibility of politics.

If this analysis clarifies the political stakes of Empire, it also highlights its potential weaknesses: not least, its underestimation of the determinative forces within capitalist development at any given moment, even if these forces are no longer external to that development, such that politics is less a matter of deployment of the powers (puissances) of the multitude than the contested construction of the gap between constituted and constituent power. In Foucauldian subjective terms, one might say that Negri overestimates the shift from a determinative discipline to biopolitical control – a shift Foucault never fully endorsed, discipline always remaining, for him, an instrument of control. (As others have contended, Negri arguably misreads Foucault, the latter’s search for an ethics of the self among the ancient Greeks involving a recognition that, within the realm of biopower, subjective puissance is always already significantly conditioned by pouvoir.)

The talks that comprise the first section of Empire and Beyond largely reprise the arguments of Reflections on Empire, but with some important additional themes. Most notable is Negri’s discussion of the “monstrosity” of the multitude as it becomes positively embodied in movements that articulate its “common” – common possibilities of life that exceed the hold of power (and thus constitute an immanent “exodus”). Negri offers the insightful analysis that war (increasingly indistinguishable from policing) has become the final, non-rational obstacle which empire can pose to those who would simply refuse its power. War becomes the peace of the empire, and the multitude (via the artist, for example) must pursue a war against war by reflecting the global space of empire back on itself toward singularity. Arguably, Negri here is more attuned to the reach of constituted power, turning, for example, to the notion of the kairos, with its messianic overtones, to express the impossible invention of folds of the ‘inside’ that signal new expected historical possibilities. (70)

The second section, however, shifts the focus from the limits imposed by empire upon the multitude to the problems posed by a post-9-11 United States, which Negri at that point considers to be attempting an imperialist coup d’état over empire. Elaborating substantially on the notion, given some mention in Reflections on Empire, that we are both within the hegemony of empire and in a process of transition toward its realisation, he argues that a key political danger lies in the structures of empire being made to serve an imperialist agenda, thereby suppressing empire’s democratic potential. Europe – the European Union – here is proposed as offering, by contrast, the prospect of precisely such a democracy, being both internally multiple and having a ruling class that are more “aristocratic” than “monarchic” in impulse. Beyond signalling the importance of Europe for Negri, the significance of these speeches lies in the shift U.S. imperialism is shown to induce in Negri’s conception of politics.

In the pieces gathered in the third section of Empire and Beyond, Negri is forced to acknowledge that politics is defined to a significant degree by the tension between imperialism and empire. In other words, he has to concede that we are not entirely within empire. If the nation-states are to be included within it as distributed ‘nodes’ of activity, they nonetheless involve elements that are external to it. Hence, the task of contemporary politics becomes first and foremost that of making the argument for empire, with a slightly more hesitant tone about the transition to empire entering into Negri’s analysis. More basically, it requires a search for the form of government which will support the construction by the multitude of the common. (148) In one respect this shift undermines the strict argument of empire and the precise force of its conception of the political. Yet in another, it sees Negri develop a more interesting problematisation of politics, in which the power of the multitude is more clearly a contested power. This problematisation, therefore, is arguably of more interest than that put forward in Commonwealth, when empire is again considered to be in the ascendency over national-imperialist forces, and the politics of the multitude thereby simplified.

Finally, the concluding section of Empire and Beyond is broadly concerned with the question of postmodernity – postmodernity and its freedoms conceived as the outcome of the neoliberal/imperialist capture of the discourse of freedom. Negri’s primary concern is to contrast the new potenzas of the multitude that ultimately emerge from this capture with the possibilities associated with postmodern consumerism. And he seeks to distinguish those strands of contemporary thought that are adequate to articulating this distinction from those that are not, constructing a genealogy of thinkers (Deleuze and Foucault prominent among them) with whom one can recognise the signs of an emergent empire, think the multitude, and construct the common.

To sum up, these volumes offer accessible points of entry to Negri’s project with Hardt, which build, in their cumulative effect, to a sophisticated reflection upon its key ideas and their evolution – one that rewards close reading, even among those already familiar with his work. If the texts are, perhaps unavoidably (due to their source), marked by a degree of repetition this is more than compensated for by the opportunity to ‘eavesdrop’, as it were, upon Negri in the process of thinking.

18 June 2010


  • Hardt, M., and A. Negri 2000 Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).
  • Hardt, M., and A. Negri 2004 Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin).
  • Hardt, M., and A. Negri 2009 Commonwealth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).

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