What happened to Hardt and Negri?

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.

18 thoughts on “What happened to Hardt and Negri?

  1. Not having read the books, I wonder if Hardt and Negri offer a suggestion that sovereignty is “more real” in Western countries because of their power to enforce it. But, throughout much of developing world, sovereignty is something that the West grants to other countries. So, for instance Iraq and Afghanistan are only as sovereign as the West permits. Some nations play the West against other powers, such as Myanmar using China to support its sovereignty. Some have become powerful enough to determine their own sovereignty, such as Venezuela or Chile.

    Of course, an embrace of neo-liberal economics seems required. So, it might be said that the West is simply the current home of neo-liberal power.

    Just some lunch-time thoughts…

  2. I recently looked over a syllabus for a friend who was taking a class on feminism and globalization and Empire was one of their main texts. Anecdotal, I know, but it’s somethin’.

  3. Perry Anderson also mentioned them in a recent article in New Left Review. Plus Zizek talks about them in Parallax View. Guess their moment hasn’t actually passed!

  4. It has been a long time since I read either book but I don’t remember Multitude being anything like a retraction.

    There is an art exhibit here in Nottingham celebrating the 40th anniversary of May 68. The description relies heavily on Hardt & Negri.

  5. I did start to feel circumspect about the comments on Multitude — I think the impression of retraction came from the long section on “War,” which presumably would not have been included in the book if not for current events and which seems to throw off the scheme of having two books (one on Empire, one on the budding alternative).

  6. I predict a resurgence of interest in Hardt and Negri in continental philosophy of religion circles in the next couple of years, with the publishing of Hardt’s Politics of Love, an upcoming conference on that theme, and a number of edited books and monographs on their thought and political theology.

  7. Adam, I’m glad you raised this question as I’ve been wondering this myself. I basically got pushed back into rereading Negri and Hardt for an article that was requested from me on Deleuze (those requesting the article were very specific as to what they wanted). The experience has been surprising. The first time around I found myself neither wildly impressed nor dismissive. Their work just sort of slid of my back. This time around I’ve found myself deeply impacted by their work. Indeed, it seems to me that they’re more relevant than ever. Perhaps something has changed in me, perhaps something in the world situation. I don’t know. I’d be curious to know what happened to them as well. The critiques I have heard– the 9/11 one you mention, criticisms of immaterial labor, etc –strike me as either missing the argument or missing the manner in which Marxist cultural analysis is deployed, i.e., through an analysis of dominant tendencies within a historical situation. Marx could have been pilloried for example the same reasons that Negri and Hardt are pilloried about immaterial labor: by critics pointing out the underveloped nature of capitalism and factory labor during his time. Nor do I see it as an either/or. There’s nothing about discussing the central role of immaterial labor that diminishes or excludes material labor and its importance. Moreover, it seems to me that the failure of the war in Iraq and the growing collapse of the American economy lend some credence to what Negri and Hardt argue about the demise of the nation state (again these are processes, not all or nothing observations). The only critique I’ve heard that somewhat hits the mark is that their proposals at the end of Empire are rather vague and undefined. Of course, in the Marxist tradition, the role of the social theorist isn’t to propose what changes are to be made, but to immanently locate those tendencies from whence change might emerge. Moreover, others in the Autonomia school such as Virno deal with these issues more explicitly.

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