Now on the home stretch of exam prep, I am going back through Empire and find myself wanting to reread it “for real” sometime soon, now that I’ve finally read many more of the works they’re referencing. I have long thought that the supposed “disproof” of their theses by the events after 9/11 was a little too easy, and reviewing the opening sections on the new configuration of sovereignty, I’m much more inclined to argue that they were describing a transition that is real and that the Bush administration is continuing. Indeed, their analyses of the politics of fear, of the new ambiguous status of war, of the use of the blanket term “terrorism,” etc., etc., all seem to directly anticipate the post-9/11 climate, to be more plausible now than they were then.
At the same time, it feels like their moment has passed — they were extremely, even weirdly, popular for a brief time, then were suddenly dropped. Advocating a Hardto-Negrian position today would seem parallel to arguing that the Arcade Fire is the best band of the decade: maybe they actually are, but who’s even talking about them anymore?
Obviously their exaggerated popularity was a “bubble” caused by extrinsic forces — most of all, the need for a “next big thing” in theory circles and in the cultural journalism that feeds off of academic trends both real and imagined. One could also say that their decline in popularity was caused by the extrinsic event of 9/11, which seemed to disprove (the simplified version of) their thesis of the decline of the nation-state. If I were to point to an intrinsic reason for the decline, however, it may well be that Multitude seemed, at least on the surface, to be conceding too much to critics who thought that the post-9/11 world had proven them wrong. To present a grand unified theory of the contemporary moment and then apparently retract it in response to the headlines (even if this is only a surface-level appearance) is a really self-undermining move.