A Critique of Imperial Reason
Thoughts on the impact and receptive history of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s »Empire«

»It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but
vigilant and insomniac rationality« (Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari)

In the political debates of the Left - and not only there - »Empire«, by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, abruptly formed a sort of international point of crystallization. There has barely been any socio-theoretical discourse within the past three years that has not referred, positively or negatively, to central categories of this “grand narrative”. Moreover, the book provides something like an implicit-explicit frame of reference for political theories and interests of every sort, or is instrumentalized as one. Even though all the hype has died down and Giorgio Agamben is now more in vogue, the congress »Indeterminate! Kommunismus«2, for example, which took place in Frankfurt in November, very clearly showed the ambivalent traces left by »Empire«. The initial excitement of the debates, the »promise« that the text exuded at the start, celebrated by many and opposed by others, have, in many quarters, given way to an indifferent negation: Empire? Much ado about nothing!

At any rate, there is nothing more to be seen of a new dawn. This change certainly also has to do with the fact that »Empire« was written before September 11, 2001. But war is still raging within the debates. If one randomly looks at some of the texts once more, the feeling of resentment almost leaps out at one. Precisely because the radical criticism appears filtered through a fine meshwork of rationality, the debates have something insane and monstrous in their tendency to take things to absolute extremes. The upshot of all this is that the ontology of »Empire« is placed close to fascist jargon and reveals the ugly features of anti-Semitism. Robert Kurz and Detlef Hartmann agree at least on this point, even if their comprehensive reviews »Empire« differ spectacularly in many regards. The latter suggested the direction of his criticism in the title of his book: »Empire – linkes Ticket für die Reise nach rechts« (Empire – Left-Wing Ticket for the Journey to the Right)3. He puts Negri/Hardt in one box with Peter Sloterdijk and Joschka Fischer as kindred spirits espousing a new elitism. The fact that this comparison is absurd solely by virtue of the fact that Sloterdijk promotes himself via TV as a sort of media Plato and Fischer has handed in the Molotov Cocktail to pose as a mover of worlds instead, while Negri was in prison until recently – as a result of political conflicts and intrigues in the seventies – does not count. For Detlef Hartmann, the case is clear: »Empire« is a piece of propaganda from above that aims to make the compromise with global capitalism palatable to the Left by celebrating it as a pseudo self-liberation. Precisely the immanence of which Negri/Hardt constantly speak when writing about the relationship between »Empire« and multitude opens up no opportunities for emancipatory struggles, but represents a theoretical betrayal of real past and future fights of the militant and undogmatic Left. Seen in this way, the operaistic neologism »multitude« is nothing but a neo-liberal trap into which many too many people have fallen.

It seems to be almost a micro-political law that, when the social situation becomes complex, the Leftist sub-cultures either turn the most unsubtle theoretical weaponry on one another or gather together in a diffuse consensus. Both reflexes, particularly when combined, bring about strange death throes. One does not have to join in the swan song that Robert Kurz4, Hartmann and others are singing in unison, if with different intonation, to take some of the most important criticisms of »Empire« seriously and look more closely at central theoretical points made by Negri/Hardt - the more so because these two writers themselves are not gentle in their treatment of other theories, as can be seen in their criticism and rejection of Giorgio Agamben, their simplifications of theoreticians like Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Michel Foucault, and their reductionist use of feminism and post-colonial studies, for example. This essay is not the place to run once more through the debates on bio-politics, class struggle, immaterial work, value theory, world order, war or globalization. Rather, in what follows, I am concerned with the crystallization points of different discussions and their linguistic or real effects, using the example of some topoi raised by »Empire« - as well as various feedbacks on them. Who lays claim, explicitly or implicitly, to this concept, and what happens as a result? The effectiveness of political theories for the constitution of a »revolutionary project « cannot be measured by their conceptual distance from terms like »Empire« and »ideational total imperialism«, as Robert Kurz would like, but by the way the various conceptual apparatuses can be mutually reinforced in a political practice. This does not mean blurring the differences, but following the distinctions as far as possible, neither sacrificing them to resentment nor deadening them by repetition. As far as the real debates of the last three years are concerned, precisely these splits have occurred at many points of the discourse. Journalistic factions have formed that either roundly dismiss Negri/Hardt’s entire theory for totally opposed reasons – such as the journals »Bahama »Bahamas«, »Krisis«, »Das Argument« and »Konkret« - or that, like the »Subtropen«, try to carry out a balanced discussion, but tend to eternally repeat the same concepts and models.

However, in order to evaluate the content of concepts and models in a more exact and also more productive fashion, it is necessary to leave this often extremely polemic level and to take the »patchwork of minorities« in its concrete forms as a point of departure; the more so because precisely the critique of capitalism premised on the value theory, as espoused by Robert Kurz, for example, in his scenarios of barbarization and decline, tends to misjudge contemporary political counter-movements as being themselves impotent by-products of the great decline. Perhaps the potentiality that a term like »multitude« envisages is situated precisely in-between. This level can be more exactly grasped by using three widely differing political and aesthetic practices as examples. In the public appearances of the Germany-wide action alliance »Kanak Attak«5, which has formed around an anti-racist campaign organized by migrants and non-migrants in imitation of the »Sans Papiers« movement in France, various means are used to work on a revaluation of the negative social construction of the »migrant«. Kanak Attak not only criticizes the repressive mechanism of illegalization, segregation, invisibilization, criminalization, control and deportation using slogans like »Right to Legalization« or “Relative Autonomy of Migration”, but concretely works on it and shifts it performatively from within, so to speak. For example, in the »KanakHistoryRevue – OPEL PITBULL AUTOPUT«, which was put on at the Volksbühne Berlin in 2001 as part of the action »Dieser Song gehört uns!« (This Is Our Song), the history of the struggles and protests by »migrant workers« of the first generation in the seventies in West Germany was »performed« and thus brought to the general awareness as social reality. It was intended as a counterbalance to the »official« image of a passive »problem« that refuses integration and has to be observed and controlled, showing as it did a social subject that does not simply resign itself to fate, but is actively involved in political struggles; one that thus also has an autonomy that itself then produces social reality and possesses concrete powers and existential contexts that are constantly discriminated against and denied by the racist apparatus. Kanak Attak’s actions, which it sees as part of this resistance, subvert the distinction between »inside« and »outside« based on the criterion of »cultural identity«, and thus hit right at the centre of the state regime of regulation. In this way, they get around a problem that has often crippled certain forms of political activism: the inner tensions that arise from having a representative function. »Speaking in the name of others« almost necessarily entails repeating – and thus reinforcing - certain externally imposed ascriptions, therefore weakening autonomy. Kanak Attak calls these categories themselves into question, opening up scope for maintaining a variety of links to other political powers.
The movement of the »sans papiers« in France has shown that the combination of legal discourse, the right to legalization and a practice of political identity – that is, of the relative autonomy of migration – can be become a political power. Here, too, two central provisions of the term »multitude« as defined by Negri/Hardt are practically fused: the very abstract demand for the right to world citizenship, and the emphatic stress on the positivity of the migratory streams and the »exodus« with regard to the constitution of the »multitude« as political subject. In »Empire«, Negri and Hardt stress again and again that, when they speak of a shake-up of the political configuration of power, it is precisely movements like the »sans papiers« that they have in mind. At the same time, however, it is apparent that the emphatic way they put a positive sheen on the exodus at the edges, but also in the centres, of the global space, and describe the empire as an even space in which a bio-political, ontological fusion between productivity and resistance takes place that in itself could bring about an immanent, positive counter-power to global exploitation, undermines their own theoretical apparatus. On this point, I would very much agree with Detlef Hartmann when he points out the false use made in »Empire« of Foucault’s microphysics of power and, particularly, the concept of bio-power. When analyzing apparatuses, it is, after all, of paramount importance to transform seemingly fixed ontological forms into relations and power balances and thus to lay bare the potentials for resistance. In addition, the concept of even space that Negri/Hardt take over from Deleuze/Guattari only makes sense, strictly speaking, when it is placed in relation to »notched space«. A major part of the theoretical endeavour in »Thousand Plateaus« consists in showing how the two forms constantly merge into one another and coexist. Fences, borders and deportation camps are not even spaces, but »notched spaces«, territories in which power can take hold and be exercised, imposing forms and identities and depriving them of their autonomy.

The method of emphatic short-circuiting that Negri/Hardt very often use here shows its very striking weaknesses. The New York artists’ group “Bernadette Corporation” seems, however, be interested in precisely this theoretical style and its aesthetic implications. Its film »Get Rid of Yourself« employs documentary material of street fights in Genoa (2001) and television images of the attack on the WTC to glide through a very lucid reflection on political militancy. Here, very different forms of violence are deliberately brought into a diffuse proximity with one another, projecting, with direct reference to »Empire«, a strange apocalyptic scenario of transition whose actual political intention does not really become apparent. Rather, it seems to want to produce a fusion between forms of radical chic, product fetishes, violence, fashion and a deliberate aestheticization of politics and resistance to give an idea of what could face us if globalization starts to panic. It is interesting here that a dimension is added to the complex of political militancy, as it is also outlined by Negri/Hardt in their book, that is completely disregarded in »Empire«: What actually happens to the energy and the desire that attach people positively to the world of goods and the capitalist ways of life after they have left them or destroyed them, and why would they want to do without them anyway? The enormous pull of the »capitalist way of life« consists, after all, in precisely this attachment. The film »Get Rid of Yourself« works, with reference to a certain idealistic Leftist vocabulary, with distinctive situationist pathos, but at the same time reproduces one-to-one the myth of the machismo of the militant street fighter.

The musician, label-founder (Comatonse Recordings6) and queer activist Terre Thaemlitz also works in a way distinct from Leftist myths, but is much more radical and exact, precisely because he reflects on the much-reviled »queer politics« in his universe and does not disregard them as a “subordinated contradiction”. His deconstructive approach to the codes of pop history with their implicit political fantasies is an aesthetically precise rejection of any fetish of directness and expression, without opening up a bad contrast between culture and politics. For example, at the »Communism Congress« he expressed his profound scepticism as far as the concept of love in connection with issues of a future communism goes: if we all love one another, it will certainly not produce communism, precisely because love can legitimate all forms of violence as well, and requires a balance of power.

Even if there are those that see the kitsch at the end of »Empire« as camp, I would like to propose replacing the italicized verbal eruptions on love and militancy by the new CD »Lovebomb« by Terre Thaemlitz and simply hearing what happens.

Nicolas siepen

Translation: Timothy Jones

1 Harvard University Press, 2000
2 http://www.kommunismuskongress.de
3 Berlin 2002
4 Weltordnungskrieg: Das Ende der Souveränität und die Wandlungen des Imperialismus im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. (World-Order War: The end of sovereignty and the changes in imperialism in the era of globalization) Bad Honnef 2003
5 http://www.kanak-attak.de
6 http://www.comatonse.com