The New World Order and the Possibility of Change: A Critical Analysis of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude

By Marcella Bencivenni*


Few scholarly relationships are as fruitful and rewarding as the recent co-authorship of Antonio (Toni) Negri and Michael Hardt. Indeed, since the publication of their book Empire in 2000, they have attracted extraordinary media and scholarly attention. La Nouvel Observateur, for example, proclaimed them “the Marx and Engels of the internet age.”1 Enthusiastic remarks reverberated in the English mainstream press as well. Among others, the New York Times hailed Empire as the “Next Big Idea,” the London Review of Books described it as “the most successful work of political theory to come from the left for a generation,” and Time magazine publicized it as “the hot, smart book of the moment.”2

Negri achieved “a stellar academic career” as a political science professor at the University of Padua in Italy (the city where he was born in 1933) and the École Normale Supérieure of Paris, where he was invited by Louis Althusser.3 But he is perhaps best known for his influential role in redefining Marxism and the revolutionary left movement in Italy during the seventies.4 After briefly joining the International Socialist Party in 1956, he eventually broke ties with former party allies and moved to the far left.5 During the 1960s he became a member of the radical journal Quaderni Rossi and the theoretician-in-chief of the revolutionary group Potere Operaio (Worker Power). Disbanded in 1973, Potere Operaio was replaced by Autonomia Operaia (Worker Autonomy) – an open network of local groups that opposed “the notions of vanguard party and centralized leadership,” advocating instead the “autonomy” of workers not only from capitalist society but from leftist parties and labor unions as well.6 Autonomia’s philosophical tenets, developed mostly by Negri and Mario Tronti, became known as “operaismo” (generally translated as workerism). Operaismo departed from the Marxist political line of the period in two important ways. In addition to opposing capitalism, it also called for a repudiation of salaried work, as exemplified by its main slogan – “rifiuto del lavoro” (refusal of work). The official left considered the re-appropriation of labor a precondition of liberation. The operaisti, instead, argued that “liberation from work,” rather than “liberation of work,” was the key to attaining true personal fulfillment.7 The other central feature of operaismo was the development of a broader notion of the proletariat that included not only industrial workers but also marginalized groups and alienated “social laborers,” such as part-timers, students, and the unemployed.8

In 1979, following an escalation of terrorist attacks against the Italian State, Negri was arrested and charged with directing the revolutionary underground group Red Brigades and masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democrat Party. Although he was never tried for “crimes of blood” and was eventually absolved of charges of association with the Red Brigades, the judges held him “morally responsible” for acts of violence against the Italian state due mostly to his writings and his advocacy of revolutionary action. Initially sentenced to 30 years in jail (reduced on appeal to 13 years), he spent fourteen years in exile in Paris. In 1997, however, he decided to return to Italy to serve the remainder of his sentence and was definitively released in 2003.9

In addition to being politically active, Negri has been an extremely prolific writer. Expanding his workerist critique of capitalism, over the years he has published more than twenty books on Marxism, political thought, and philosophy. Now in his seventies, he continues to be an important engagé philosopher of the Italian and European Left.10

Much younger and less known is his co-author, Michael Hardt, born in 1960, raised in Washington DC, and currently a professor of literature at Duke University. Their collaboration began in the mid-80s when Hardt, then undertaking a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature in Seattle, sought out Negri to direct his dissertation on Italian politics during the 1970s. Feeling at odds with the American academy, Hardt found in Negri not only a mentor but also an inspirational model of political and intellectual engagement. “It seemed to me,” said Hardt, “that he’d had found a way to bring together his political interests and his scholarly interests. I had felt that I had political interests on the one hand and then scholarly interests on the other. They never had anything to do with one another. Even the prospect of combining them seemed completely false.”11 Hardt’s dissertation project marked the beginning of a rich intellectual exchange with Negri which led to the publication of three books in ten years: Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).

In their last work, Multitude, Negri and Hardt amplify the arguments advanced in their international bestseller Empire, which, with more than 70,000 copies sold, has generated a lively debate among scholars, public intellectuals, and political activists over many vital themes such as globalization, imperialism, anti-capitalism, and Marxism.12 The book has been particularly popular among anti-globalization and anti-imperialist groups, especially those opposed to national sovereignty. But, at the same time, it has been harshly criticized both on the right and the left, for lack of empirical evidence, sweeping generalizations, boundless abstraction, and revolutionary rhetoric.13

Empire was a book about the cultural, political, and economic logics of the contemporary world order; its follow-up, Multitude, is about the possibility of challenging that order and creating a political alternative. As Hardt and Negri state, their primary goal is “to work out the conceptual bases on which a new project of democracy can stand” (xvii, all quotes, unless otherwise noted, are taken from Multitude). The book is divided into three sections: “War,” “Multitude,” and “Democracy.” It begins with an analysis of the current state of war; it then discusses the emergence of a new global class formation; and, finally, it explores the possibilities of a new democratic project.

Like Empire, Multitude is highly interdisciplinary: while conceived primarily as a philosophical book, it deals also with history, culture, economics, political science, and anthropology. And like Empire, its reading is not easy. Despite the authors’ declared efforts to write “in a language that everyone can understand” (xvii), the discussion remains, generally speaking, too abstract and the meanings of some concepts too obscure. The key terms of “Empire” and “multitude” themselves are almost impossible to visualize, even with all the metaphors, examples, and wordplay used to describe them. Although at times they enliven the book, the many italicized excurses and anecdotes further complicate the reading, tiring even the most patient booklover.

Empire and Multitude are clearly interconnected, but readers will be able to follow Multitude even if they have not read Empire. Any assessment of the book, however, presupposes an understanding of Hardt and Negri’s basic ideas. Therefore, for the sake of this review, I will first précis the authors’ arguments and then, building on previous critiques, I will discuss some of the problems inherent in their analysis, particularly with respect to Multitude. While I agree with other critics that there are serious flaws in Hardt and Negri’s intellectual theory – particularly regarding their theorization of Empire and their treatment of globalization – I believe that their project contains, from a political point of view, useful and inspirational elements to rethink the struggle for a more peaceful and just world.


The starting point of Hardt and Negri’s analysis is the transformation of the modern economy. Echoing recent globalization theories – and adding nothing new to them – they argue that the nature of capitalism has changed. Today, production not only involves material commodities such as cars, televisions, and clothing, but also immaterial goods, such as communication, entertainment, culture, information, knowledge, and affects. The Fordist era of industrial labor typical of factory workers is over. Our times are characterized instead by what they call immaterial labor – labor that is not restricted to material production but penetrates also the political, the social, the cultural, and ultimately life itself.14 Life, in other words, becomes both the object and subject of production and consumption. It is in this sense, they explain, that immaterial production is biopolitical, because “it tends to create not the means of social life but social life itself” (146).

Hardt and Negri recognize that industrial and agricultural labors still remain dominant in quantitative terms. But, they insist, jobs belonging to the tertiary sector of the economy, that is, jobs involving the immaterial production of services, communication, and information (i.e. fast food workers, salespersons, computer technicians, teachers, legal assistants, journalists, and media and social workers), are becoming more important in qualitative terms. Capitalism, in short, is being “informationalized” through new communication technologies, knowledge, and data.

Immaterial labor represents today the dominant tendency; it is transforming not only other forms of labor and production, but also society as a whole. For example, whereas employment was previously characterized by stable, long-term work, today’s jobs are more precarious, flexible, and mobile. Production too has shifted from large-scale economies organized according to the linear relationships of the assembly line to more specialized, small-scale systems that use the network as the main organizational model of production and exchange. “Information, communication, and cooperation become the norms of production, and the network becomes its dominant form of organization” (113).

These observations are not new. Scholars of economics have long described the transformation of capitalism in view of the expanding global markets.15 What is new, according to Hardt and Negri, is that in addition to transforming capitalism, globalization has also created a new world order. More specifically, in the course of the last decades, nation-states have lost their hegemonic role and their authority has been replaced by a new supranational form of sovereignty they call “Empire.” Today’s Empire, however, has nothing to do with classic imperialism. Unlike imperialism, which revolved around nation-states trying to impose their sovereignty over foreign territories, Empire has no center of power and no geographical boundaries: “It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” (Empire, xii, emphasis in the original). Imperialism, as we have known it, is over: our Empire, write Hardt and Negri, is “imperial,” not imperialistic; it does not have a supreme nation ruling over all others, but it is based instead on a multidimensional network of power that includes dominant nation-states along with supranational institutions, corporations, and media.

Whereas world politics were characterized by rivalry for hegemonic control among dominant nation-states, the major powers must now cooperate to create and maintain the current global order. This is not to say that every nation has equal participation or that nation-states have stopped imposing their hegemony over others. Severe divisions and hierarchies still exist, but the current global order necessitates interdependence and cooperation to survive.16 Today, argue Hardt and Negri, “no nation-state, not even the most powerful one, not even the United States, can go it alone and maintain global order without collaborating with the other major powers in the network of Empire” (xii). There is, in other words, a constant interplay among political, economic, and legal forces in the control of life.

This complicity, however, does not limit Empire’s power: on the contrary, social control has never been greater. Empire stands above people and society; it is transcendent and immanent. Through new mechanisms of control and constant conflict, Empire imposes its order everywhere, in an attempt to regulate not only human interactions but the entirety of social life.

War, in particular, has become a primary organizing principle of Empire, a powerful instrument of rule and control.17 The use of war as a mechanism of control however is not new. War after all has always been a primary organizing principle of ruling powers. But according to the authors, until the events of 9/11, war was a limited state of exception, now the exception has become the rule: war has become permanent, perpetual, and indeterminate. Whereas war traditionally involved an armed conflict between nation-states, now it is global in scale. Today’s war is also intangible: the enemy is no longer posed as a specific nation-state, but as an abstract concept, or system of beliefs, as in the case of the war on terrorism. As a result, war becomes indefinite, with no ultimate target and no clear end.

In this state of war, the distinctions between foreign conflicts and homeland security, international relations and domestic policies, wars of oppression and wars of liberation, become increasingly blurred. War, we learn, has become “virtually indistinguishable from police activity” (14), and, in the process, democracy has been “buried beneath the weapons and security regimes of our constant state of conflict” (xii).

Luckily, Empire is only one face of the new global order. Globalization has also created a network of unprecedented encounters, cooperation, and collaboration among people across the world, which represent the potential for organized resistance and revolution. This tendency is what Negri and Hardt call the “multitude.” The term resists easy definitions or comparisons. The authors insist that the multitude is different from other notions of social subjects such as the people, the masses, and the working class. While these terms imply unity, single identity, and uniformity, the multitude is made of “innumerable internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity – different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations; different forms of labor; different ways of living; different views of the world; and different desires” (xiv).

The multitude does not submerge these differences. On the contrary, the multitude is an open, inclusive concept: singularities remain internally different, and, yet they are linked together by the common conditions of life they share: for example, information, knowledge, political oppression, economic exploitation, a desire for democracy, peace, and justice. This discovered commonality (which is ironically the by-product of the new global order) is what gives strength to the multitude – what enables singularities to act and fight together for a better world. Differences, in fact, do not prevent the singularities from acting in common, because, state Hardt and Negri, “there is no conceptual or actual contradiction between singularity and commonality” (105).

The multitude, however, is not the result of “a spontaneous harmony among individuals, but rather it emerges in the space between, in the social space of communication” (222). It is, in other words, the fruit of collaborative and cooperative activism. The best examples to date of the way the multitude operates are offered, according to Hardt and Negri, by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the globalization movement that arose in Seattle in 1999 and evolved into the World Social Forums. These organizations coalesce many different groups including environmentalists, trade unionists, gay and lesbians, human rights advocates, anarchists, and pacifists. These groups do not act under a single authority or central body; they remain different but operate in a network structure that uses forums, affinity groups, and other democratic forms of direct participation to make decisions on the basis of their common grievances against the global system and their common dreams of a better world.

For Hardt and Negri, the multitude is, indeed, an emblem of the growing global desire for equality, freedom and democracy, and the belief that “another world is possible.” Today, the multitude represents the potential force to create an alternative society; it constitutes actually “the only social subject capable of realizing democracy” (100). But what forms of resistance are possible to fight Empire? How can the multitude overthrow this global state of power?

First of all, urge Hardt and Negri, “we must really walk beyond Marx and develop on the basis of his method a new theoretical apparatus adequate to our own present situation” (141). This, after all, is the major goal of both Empire and Multitude. As I explained earlier, Hardt and Negri argue that the hegemony of immaterial labor has transformed working conditions, production, practices, as well as life. The working class itself has changed: whereas unionized industrial workers had come to occupy a relatively privileged position in the economy, today’s proletariat includes also immaterial workers, agricultural laborers, migrants, the unemployed, the underemployed, the poor – in other words “all those who labor and produce under the rule of capital” (107). Traditional labor differences no longer apply, in that “production takes places today equally inside and outside the factory walls” and “equally inside and outside the wage relationship” (135). Consequently, all participants in social production, not just the industrial workers, are capable of revolt.18

Conventional forms of class struggle and revolution, particularly the trade unions, are then, for Hardt and Negri, no longer adequate or efficient. In their view, we need a new form of labor organization capable of overcoming the old divisions of trades and representing the entire realm of social labor. As a model, they propose a type of “social-movement unionism,” like that of the “piqueteros” in Argentina or the “intérimaires” in France, where trade unions have merged with other social movements.19

Class oppression and economic exploitation too must be revised in view of the paradigm of immaterial production. Immaterial workers of course are still exploited but today’s exploitation can no longer be measured in terms of labor time but rather as “expropriation of the common,” that is the “private appropriation of part or all of the value that has been produced as common” (150). Privatization today is no longer limited to factories, railroads, and land – material property is becoming bioproperty. The markets have extended their domain to all aspects of life: knowledge, information, communication networks, public goods and services, natural resources – they are all being increasingly privatized and controlled exclusively by their owners. Today’s struggle, then, is not so much about seizing the means of productions as regaining control of the common and reclaiming our life and our world. “All that is general or public,” explain Hardt and Negri, “must be reappropriated and managed by the multitude and thus become common” (206).

However, those who expect to find in Multitude a concrete answer to “what is to be done” will be disappointed. Even though the volume offers some examples of new strategies and forms of resistance as evidence of the multitude’s growth, Hardt and Negri absolve themselves from concrete suggestions about how to carry on a global revolution. As they warn in their introduction, they did not write this book to propose a concrete political program or solution (xvi).

The authors, indeed, remain reluctant to state their political ideologies and agenda, despite widespread requests by Empire’s readers to do so – a choice perhaps motivated by Negri’s former problems with the Italian justice system for his alleged involvement with the Red Brigades. Or perhaps, much in line with their theorization of autonomous struggle and from-the-bottom-up organization, Hardt and Negri are deliberately keeping away from naming political ideologies. They are telling us that there is emerging a new global class formation, the multitude, that has the potential to build an alternative society. But it is up to the multitude – to us – to decide, through collective and collaborative discussions, how.

To be fair, in Multitude, the authors have actually responded to some of the accusations of political evasiveness raised by critics, and clarified they are invoking neither anarchy nor a new subject of sovereignty. “As long as we remain trapped in the modern framework defined by this alternative – either sovereignty or anarchy – the concept of the multitude,” they explain, “will be incomprehensible” (208). We need instead to break free of this old paradigm and search for “a postsocialist political alternative” – a new politics “based on the transformative power of reality and grounded in our current historical epoch” (255, 356).

Yet, nowhere in the book do they give a name for such politics. They shrewdly avoid the issue, vaguely identifying in “the power of he multitude to create social relationships in common … a new possibility for politics” (336). In the end, we are left with a fascinating theoretical project, but little sense of how to put it into practice. As Peter Hudis notes, their approach “falls short of posing the necessity of developing a comprehensive, liberating alternative to capitalism.”20 Is it possible to fight Empire, to unify people across the world, without a specific political ideal? Can we build a better world without an ideology behind it? And, if Empire is defeated, what kind of social order will be established in its place? After all, as Hardt and Negri themselves recognize, “The multitude needs a political project to bring it into existence” (212). Where will this project come from?

Hardt and Negri do not openly answer this question, but in Multitude they give us some hints. For example, they make it clear that social change will hardly be achieved through voting rights and social reforms. Proposal and implementation of reformist policies can of course help ameliorate the injustices and inequalities we confront today, but the engine of social transformation must be antagonism, resistance, and organized revolt. New weapons are also needed in view of the new challenges of the contemporary order – weapons that resort to inventiveness as well as to a “democratic use of force and violence” (342). Hardt and Negri clarify here that they do not advocate violence per se, but they consider violence at times legitimate and justified, as in the case of resistance against tyranny, aggression, and conquest. Adequate forms of struggle, however, should always be reinvented depending on specific historical context. Today, they point out, traditional weapons and methods (such as strikes, sabotage, passive resistance) can be still effective to some extent, but what we really need is imaginative weapons that “are not merely destructive but are themselves forms of constituent power, weapons capable of constructing democracy and defeating the armies of Empire” (347).

In Multitude, Hardt and Negri also reaffirm the primacy of grassroots movements and self-rule, insisting that real change cannot be imposed from above but can come only from below. Instead of vanguard parties and centralized leaderships, they call for the autonomy of local groups, a decentralized network of organization, and collaborative relationships as pre-conditions of a truly effective class movement.21

Finally, Hardt and Negri stress the centrality of democracy to the creation of an alternative political project, where by democracy they mean “the rule of everyone by everyone, a democracy without qualifiers, without ifs or buts” (237). Their description of democracy remains, like Empire and multitude, rather abstract and vague. It is hard to infer from their language what kind of democracy they actually have in mind, or how it will be achieved. But they justly consider representative democracy insufficient. Democracy to them must be built on a global scale, based on inclusion and direct participation, and above all, capable of protecting the rights of all peoples across the world.

Fulfillment of such a democracy implies, however, the destruction of the state. Nation-states are, for Hardt and Negri, inherently oppressive, hierarchical, and repressive. “Sovereignty in all its forms,” they argue, “inevitably poses power as the rule of the one and undermines the possibility of a full and absolute democracy” (353). A truly democratic world is by necessity “a world beyond sovereignty, beyond authority, beyond every tyranny” (354).

One can easily recognize in Hardt’s and Negri’s writing shades of Marxism, syndicalism, and, especially, anarchism, which rejected electoral politics and espoused direct and spontaneous revolutionary action, aimed at the destruction of the state and all forms of centralized authority.22 Also obvious is the influence of Autonomia, the revolutionary group with which Negri was associated in the 1970s. As many critics have already noted, Hardt and Negri’s work seems, in many ways, an attempt to bring back the ideas of “autonomism” and operaismo.23 Like the group Autonomia, Multitude rejects the belief that value in society comes through uncreative work, celebrating the will “to enjoy life rather than to have to earn it.” Ultimately, for Hardt and Negri, the main goal of society should be what the autonomists called autorealizzazione, personal self-realization or fulfillment based on the anarchist principle: “from each according to his/her abilities, to each according to his/her needs.”24

Multitude also clearly draws on the workerist critique of centralized organization and the rejection of the Leninist notion of the vanguard party. Like the autonomi, Hardt and Negri have come to consider the so called “social realism” of communist countries as oppressive as the capitalist system they opposed. In their view, socialism has failed so far because it has simply adapted the laws of capitalism to a socialist form, enforcing a centralized state, planned economy, and uncreative labor. As they write: “socialism and communism did not develop fundamentally different conceptions of representation and democracy, and as a result they repeated the founding nucleus of the bourgeois concept of sovereignty” (252). Real communism for them cannot be separated from the destruction of exploitation and the abolition of the state. True communism, in other words, cannot be realized without the fulfillment of human creativity and individual freedom.


Hardt and Negri’s work has received a great deal of critical attention, both inside and outside academe, spurring a remarkable intellectual debate. Most critics seem to agree that Empire represented “a spectacular break,” providing “a needed spark, even a grand unified theory, to humanities fields like English, history and philosophy.”25 But Hardt and Negri’s ideas are actually quite derivative. Empire and multitude are after all just the modern faces of the antagonism illustrated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto between oppressors and oppressed, those who have the power and those who don’t. In this sense, to borrow what Thomas Sheehan said of Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, “the Marxism he offers us, does not go ‘beyond Marx,’ but simply substitutes an earlier Marx for a later one.”26

Similarly, their concept of Empire, as a transcendent and immanent force which controls the entirety of life, obviously derives from Foucault’s idea of bio-power and his theory of “disciplinary society,” while their concept of multitude bears a striking resemblance to identity politics.27 As others have already pointed out, Hardt and Negri’s theories can perhaps best be described as a post-modern re-making of Marx’s ideas, or perhaps a fusion of Marxism and post-modernism.28 As Hardt wrote:

In one respect one may say that the central project of Negri’s thought throughout this entire period has been to bring together (or perhaps reveal the existing resonance between) the political thought of Italian operaismo with the new French philosophy of authors such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. Thus, for example operaismo’s project of the refusal of work encounters Foucault’s notion of resistance to disciplinary society and Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of lines of flight. As a result of this encounter, of course, all of these concepts come out changed. We are thus given a new version of “post-structuralist” philosophy that is clearly politically engaged.”29

Negri himself, in an interview with Danilo Zolo, explains that he has long tried to bring together his operaismo with French post-structuralism and other post-colonial approaches, insisting that “Marx can be fully integrated with postmodern analytical methodologies.”30

To be fair, Hardt and Negri concede that theirs are not new ideas. As Hardt candidly said to the New York Times, “Toni and I don’t think of this (Empire) as a very original book. We are putting together a variety of things that others have said… It is what people have been thinking but [have] not really articulated.”31 For some, however, this attempt to combine different schools of thought has resulted in what Timothy Brennan described as “assemblage”32 – “an assortment of motifs plucked from disparate classical works, arranged into dazzling, yet intellectually fragile, bouquets.”33

I personally like Hardt and Negri’s interdisciplinary approach and eclecticism. As Charlie Bertsch noted, we should admire their attempt “to think big when most leftists seem to be thinking small.”34 But, on the other hand, I agree that their peculiar deployment of different, and at times incompatible, sources, combined with their iconoclastic language, results in an ideological ambivalence which obscures their positions.

In addition to theoretical problems, there are also some inconsistencies in Hardt and Negri’s arguments. For example, they describe Empire as a supreme power that orders the entirety of life, and yet, despite this society of total control, “the ruled become increasingly autonomous, capable of forming society on their own” (336). We are also told that Empire envelops all the world powers, but the authors eventually concede that the United States occupies a “privileged position.” How then is Empire really different from American imperialism? Even though the US has had few formal colonies, a close study of American history reveals a long engagement of imperialistic policies in the Caribbean, South America, and Asia. Starting with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the US government has powerfully used the rhetoric of ‘Manifest Destiny’ to justify westward expansion (and the annihilation of the indigenous population in the process) as well intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries. Hardt and Negri argue that the Vietnam War represented the last imperial venture of the United States, and that now, despite its overwhelming financial and military supremacy, American command is restrained by the network power of Empire.35

But the “Bush Doctrine” and the current War in Iraq, as well as US foreign policy in Latin America (particularly the ongoing embargo on Cuba and the attempted coup against Chávez in Venezuela), suggest that the United States actually continues to act as a global agent of the “American way,” despite growing international criticism of American unilateralism and illegitimate use of force. As Niall Ferguson put it: “They may not aspire to rule, but they do aspire to have others rule themselves in the American way.”36

As Samir Amin has pointed out, the main problem is that Hardt and Negri define imperialism almost exclusively in political terms, as the extension of a nation’s power beyond its borders. They equate, in other words, imperialism with colonialism, failing to see the imperialistic implications of American hegemonic power.37 However, US monopolization of capital, information, and culture is too palpable to be ignored. Whether we call it an empire or not, the US still constitutes the driving force of the current economic and political world order, and, despite different political interests, other powerful nation-states (notably Europe) are becoming increasingly Americanized.
Hard and Negri, surprisingly, seem to actually admire the United States, invoking, for example, Madison and the American Constitution as inspirational forces for the establishment of true democracy. Of course the Constitution represented an important laboratory of institutional innovation. But, once again, Hardt and Negri oversimplify the issue, failing to see the real agenda of the Founding Fathers, who were actually trying to restrain, not expand democracy.

Things become even more nebulous with the concept of multitude. Hardt and Negri argue that the multitude is made of many singularities which, despite their differences, are able to act in common on the basis of shared desires and complaints. But what they share does not necessarily guarantee cohesion or prevent internal conflicts. As Lev Grossman of Time magazine noted, “Multitude treats the global populace as if we were all one big, happy, left-wing underground, undivided by cultural differences, eagerly awaiting our chance to sock it to global capitalism.”38 But, as history has shown, one of the major limits of mass movements has been precisely their internal fragmentation and disunity.

I am not suggesting here that we should therefore discard Hardt and Negri’s new matrix of resistance. I actually concur that the struggle for social change cannot be rooted in a universalism that crushes subjectivities, silencing their diverse needs and interests. But I also think that we must be more attentive to a political program that enables the multitude to overcome internal differences and reach a deeper level of unity, without wiping out differences. Otherwise, the multitude will inevitably remain inconclusive and ineffective.

We must also be careful not to exaggerate the autonomy and strength of the multitude. True, in the last years there have been numerous local and global struggles against the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other institutions of the current social order. But the problem is that these voices of protest remain in many respects unheeded, as in the case of the massive worldwide protests against the Iraq war. Indeed, while the authors argue that the multitude has matured to the point that it could create an alternative society, they also recognize that a revolution is not necessarily imminent.

Many critics have also noted that the decline of nation-states’ power does not necessarily mean the end of imperialism.39 Others even dispute the extent of contemporary flows of capital and labor, arguing that the gap between industrialized and developing countries is far from closing.40 Another major criticism centers on the claim that global economic integration has signified a decline of the nation-state.41 Using his own personal experience, Paul Ahluwalia shows how national identities, exemplified by a person’s passport and citizenship, retain their impact on people’s lives. As a non-western professor traveling across the world, he is “constantly reminded about the demarcations that so clearly divide us, the borders that have been erected to keep us separate, and the power of citizenship and the passport – those formal markers of identity that can mean everything to an immigration officer at various border-posts around the world.”42

Furthermore, as other critics have complained, Hardt and Negri have failed to address important sources of autonomous struggle, such as Third World politics, feminism, and environmentalism.43 Georgy Katsiaficas adds to this criticism by noting how Negri has long ignored patriarchal domination and the way in which it intersects with, and yet remains separate from, class exploitation. As he writes, Negri “subsumes the patriarchal domination of women into the phenomenological form of capital,” but “what occurs between men and women under the name of patriarchy is not the same as what happens between bosses/owners and workers.”44

In what is probably their most controversial statement, Hardt and Negri insist that political and social resistance must take place within Empire, rather than against Empire. Unlike critics of globalization, Hardt and Negri see the coming of Empire as a potential progressive force: while, on the one hand, it reinforces hierarchies and inequalities, it also creates new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration that are conducive to the creation of an alternative political project. Far from being oppressive, globalization represents to them “really a condition of liberation of the multitude” (Empire, 52).

There is no doubt that globalization has brought some positive developments, such as the creation of alternative media channels, network campaigns of solidarity, and flows of people, information, and cultures. But overall, as many scholars have noted, globalization is producing more, not less, oppression. As even Hardt and Negri clearly show, the processes through which the free market operates affect every realm of life (education, culture, relations, etc.). Although it is true that this means an expansion of collaborative opportunities, it also means that life as a whole is becoming more and more market-dependent, subjugated to the laws of profit, and remodeled according to the rules of global capitalism.

As a result of globalization people today have less free time. Increasing competition and materialism are producing more selfishness and eroding solidarity. The “Information Society” is destroying convivial relationships among individuals. The environment is rapidly deteriorating, with serious consequences for the planet’s ecosystem. The gap between rich and poor, North and South, core and periphery, is widening. Social welfare is being dismantled little by little, piece by piece. Education, research, and knowledge are being privatized. Ancient cultures, knowledge, and values, which constitute the spiritual wealth of our civilization, are disappearing, supplanted by a standardized and homogenous mass-culture. The result, as Mario Alcaro notes, is “an artificialization of society and life – their actual denaturalization.”45

This picture of globalization contrasts sharply with the optimistic view of Empire offered by Hardt and Negri. Is globalization truly as desirable as they suggest? Does Empire really increase the possibilities of a revolution across the world? Does globalization really foster democracy? And – presuming that it does – does the multitude have a real capacity to challenge global capitalism?

I believe that Hardt and Negri are right when say that the conditions of Empire’s rule could backfire. More and more people across the world are becoming aware of the deterioration created by global capitalism. I also agree that today’s struggle cannot be limited to industrial workers and labor unions. Clearly we must acknowledge that we live in an integrated, newly networked world. But to acknowledge globalization does not mean we should succumb to it, or celebrate it. We must be careful to distinguish between the neoliberal globalization agenda, which aims at unifying the world in the name of profit, sweeping out all cultural differences in the process, and globalization intended as internationalism – that is, greater integration and understanding among peoples and cultures, in full respect of their diversity and individuality. While Hardt and Negri are fully aware of this difference (Empire, after all, is global neoliberalism, while multitude is global cooperation and resistance), they downplay the disproportionately negative effects that economic globalization is having on life as a whole. The problem is that as long as liberal capitalism remains in place, as long as the economic interests of a few take precedence over the interests of the people, Empire will retain its control. As Callinicos put it: “The processes of what Trotsky called ‘uneven and combined development’ continue to operate in contemporary capitalism, creating huge concentrations of wealth and power at particular points of the system. This unevenness requires strategic analysis and debate in order to identify the enemy’s points of vulnerability and our principal sources of strength.”46


For all their shortcomings and contradictions, I believe that Hardt and Negri have something important to offer. In a time of startling ideological vacuum, they have tried to come to terms with our contemporary global order, providing a broad theoretical framework to understand the current world and possibly change it. Their ambition and their capacity for synthesis are indeed impressive: drawing on both classical and modern political philosophers, they move across many disciplines, languages, and theories, offering a far-reaching intellectual history along with contemporary political analysis.

Perhaps more importantly, in a time when political opposition to capitalism and neoliberalism seems futile, Hardt and Negri have revitalized the debate on the left and the hopes for social change. One might disagree with their theoretical assumptions and their conclusions, or prefer a more concrete approach and plain language, but how not admire their endeavor? Here are a few ideas that I believe deserve special consideration:

Their insistence on spontaneous and autonomous struggle from below.
Their critique of “real socialism” and refusal to equate communism with the political platforms of established communist parties.
Their understanding of democracy as the radicalization of both freedom and equality.
Their emphasis on human needs for joy, peace, and love.
Their faith in human goodness.
Their understanding of politics as a collective, joyful activity.

While often dismissed as utopian, I believe that the appeal of Hardt and Negri’s Marxism lies precisely in these ideas. They are trying to recover and rediscover an important, yet neglected, aspect of the political left: the dream of establishing brotherhood, social equality, and justice for every man and woman on earth. In this respect, the most important dimension of their project is not political but ethical. As they write, “we need a more unrestrained conception of love. We need to recuperate the public and political conception of love common to premodern traditions…. Love serves as the basis for our political projects in common and the construction of a new society. Without this love, we are nothing” (351-2). This idealism, centered on the values of love, unselfishness, and universalism, should still inform any struggle for social change.

I also like their emphasis on the political as a collaborative activity, as a rediscovery and reinvention of living together. Most people today, particularly the youth, feel completely estranged by politics. The political is often seen as the peculiar field of experts, as a corrupted world where ideological differences between left and right become thinner and thinner. Political representation has been degraded and drained of any real connection to the people, as statistics about voter participation often attest. Against this depressing picture, Hardt and Negri insist that genuine politics must be separate from sovereignty. People must reclaim politics as an act of socialization, as an opportunity for confrontation, communication, and dialogue. Politics, in other words, must be constructed from below: only direct participation and self-management can promote real change. Hardt and Negri, in this sense, remind us of a powerful lesson of history: that democratic rights and freedoms are not given to people by governments but are won by their collective efforts.

I remain skeptical that “the constituent power of the multitude has matured to such an extent that it is becoming able, through its networks of communication and cooperation, through its production of the common, to sustain an alternative democratic society on its own” (357). But I have no doubt that what the world needs is more justice, equality, peace, and real democracy. Hardt and Negri may have failed to identify how to achieve them, but they have opened up the door to the debate.


*I would like to thank Hilary Hallett, Carol Quirke, Lucien O’Neill, and the editorial board of S&D, for their stimulating comments and suggestions.

1. Cited in Paul Thompson, “Foundation and Empire: A Critique of Hardt and Negri,” Capital & Class, n. 86, Summer 2005, 73.

2. See Emily Eakin, “What Is the Next Big Idea? Buzz is Growing for Empire,” The New York Times, July 7, 2001; Malcolm Bull, “You Can’t Build a New Society with a Stanley Knife: A Review of Empire,” London Review of Books, vol. 23, n. 19, October 4, 2001; and M. Elliott, “The Wrong Side of the Barricades,” Time, July 23, 2001. Positive comments were also made by other world-renowned scholars. For example, leading Marxist critic Fredric Jameson described Hardt and Negri’s work as “the first great new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium,” while Slavoj Zizek, an eminent political philosopher, equated it to “the Communist Manifesto for our time.” Jameson’s and Zizek’s comments are quoted in Eakin’s article.

3. General biographical info can be found at

4. An interesting profile of Negri’s political career is offered by Thomas Sheehan in his “Italy: Behind the Ski Mask,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 26, n. 13, August 16, 1979, retrieved on line at

5. It is interesting to note that Negri actually began his militant career in the 1950s as an activist in the Catholic youth organizations Azione Cattolica and Intesa, but he abandoned them after the bishop of Padua tried to curb their radicalism. See Sheehan, “Italy: Behind the Ski Mask” (n. 4).

6. Michael Hardt, “An article on Toni Negri and his intention to return to prison in Italy,” found in Ed Emery’s Toni Negri Archives, available on line at:

7. Ibid.

8. For a discussion of operaismo see Thomas Sheehan, “Italy: Behind the Ski Mask” (n. 4), and Alex Callinicos, “Toni Negri in Perspective,” International Socialism Journal, n. 92, 2001. Callinicos’s article has been republished in Gopal Balakrishnan, ed., Debating Empire (New York: Verso, 2003).

9. Information on Negri’s political case can be found online at See also Thomas Sheehan, “Italy: Behind the Ski Mask”; Michael Hardt, “Toni Negri and his intention to return to prison in Italy;” and the statement made by Negri in response to the allegations made against him by Keith Windschuttle in The Australian (March 16, 2005), available online at,5744,12556881%255E7583,00.html.

10. Besides the books he co-wrote with Michael Hardt, Negri’s works in English include: Negri on Negri: In Conversation with Anne Dufourmentelle (London: Routledge, 2004), Time for Revolution, tr. Matteo Mandarini (New York: Continuum, 2003), Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State, tr. Maurizia Boscagli (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (New York: Autonomedia, 1991), The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, tr. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), and The Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects, 1967-83 (London: Red Notes, 1988).

11. Quoted in Robert J. Bliwise, “Empire: Not So Evil, A New World Order,” Duke Magazine, November-December 2001, available online at For a general profile of Michael Hardt see Ed Vulliamy, “Empire Hits Back,” The Observer, July 15, 2001, and Eakin, “What Is the Next Big Idea?” (n. 2).

12. Three volumes have been published so far in response to Empire: Gopal Balakrishnan, ed., Debating Empire (n. 8), Paul Passavant and Jodi Dean, eds., Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (New York: Routledge, 2003), and Atilio A. Boron, Empire and Imperialism: A Critical Reading of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (London: Zed Books, 2005).

13. Among the many scholarly critiques of Hardt and Negri’s work see: Callinicos, “Toni Negri in Perspective” (n. 8); Timothy Brennan, “The Empire’s New Clothes,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 29, Winter 2003, 337-367; Thompson, “Foundation and Empire” (n. 1); Bashir Abu-Manneh, “The Illusions of Empire,” Monthly Review, June 2004, 31-47; Julian Bourg, “Empire versus Multitude: Place your Bets,” Ethics and International Affairs,” vol. 18, n. 3, 2004, 97-108; Pal Ahluwalia, “Empire or Imperialism: Implications for a ‘New’ Politics of Resistance,” Social Identities, vol. 10, n. 5, 2004, 629-645; Ugo D. Rossi, “The Counter-Empire to Come or the Discourse of the Great Rival: An Attempted Decoding of Michael Hardt’s and Toni Negri’s Empire,” Science & Society, vol. 69, n. 2, April 2005, 191-21, and Samir Amin “Empire and Multitude,” Monthly Review, vol. 57, n. 6, November 2005, 1-12.

14. The concept of immaterial labor actually comes from Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, eds., Radical Thought in Italy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

15. See, for example, the following works cited by Hardt and Negri: Martin Carnoy, Manuel Castells, Stephen Cohen, and Fernando Enrique Cardoso, eds., The New Global Economy in the Information Age (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993); Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York: Harper, 1993); Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); and Herbert Schiller, Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America (New York: Routledge, 1996).

16. The question of the distribution of power inside Empire is discussed above all in Chapter 2.5 of Empire, “Network Power: U.S. Sovereignty and the New Empire.”

17. The global state of war is thoroughly discussed in Part I of Multitude.

18. This broader notion of proletariat was already advanced by Negri in Marx Beyond Marx (n. 10).

19. This concept however is not new: “Social Movement Unionism” is the title of the concluding chapter in Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World (New York: Verso, 1997).

20. Peter Hudis, “Developing a Philosophically Grounded Alternative to Capitalism,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, n. 2 (July 2005), 95.

21. These ideas, as I discussed earlier, draw significantly on Autonomia Operaia and operaismo.

22. Among others, Michael Rustin has pointed out Hardt and Negri’s sympathy for anarchism, especially evident in their view of the state. See his “Empire: A Postmodern Theory of Revolution,” in Debating Empire (n. 8), 3.

23. The relationship of Empire to Negri’s operaismo is discussed, among others, by Callinicos in his “Negri in Perspective,” and by Timothy Brennan, in his “The Italian Ideology,” both in Debating Empire (n. 8).

24. Both quotes come from Thomas Sheehan, “Italy: Behind the Ski Mask” (n. 4).

25. Gopal Balakrishnan, “Introduction” to Debating Empire, viii, and Bliwise, “Empire: Not So Evil, A New World Order” (n. 11).

26. “Italy Behind the Ski Mask” (n. 4).

27. As Thompson notes: “Hardt and Negri extend Foucault’s concept of disciplinary society into ‘a society of control’ in which the whole social body is conscripted and consumed within the machinery of power.” See his “Foundation and Empire” (n. 1), 77.

28. See for example Michael Rustin: “Empire: A Postmodern Theory of Revolution,” in Debating Empire (n. 8).

29. Hardt, “An article on Toni Negri” (n. 6).

30 . “Empire and the multitude. A dialogue on the new order of globalisation,” Interview of Danilo Zolo with Antonio Negri, available on line at: On the relationship between workerism and post-structuralism see also Negri, “A Contribution on Foucault” (, and Hardt & Negri, “Marx’s Mole Is Dead,” Erozine, 02/13/2002 (

31. Eakin, “What is the Next Big Idea?” (n. 2).

32. See Brennan, “The Empire’s New Clothes” (n. 13), republished with revisions under the title “Italian Ideology” in Debating Empire (n. 8).

33. Balakrishnan, “Introduction” to Debating Empire (n. 8), viii. This criticism is also raised by Amin in his “Empire and Multitude,” 5 (n. 13).

34. Cited in Scott McLemee, “After the Empire,” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 51, n. 11, November 5, 2004, 16.

35.Hardt and Negri’s refusal to call the United States an imperialistic power has drawn sharp criticism. See for example Rustin (n. 28), Rossi (n. 13), and Thompson (n. 1).

36. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), x. In stark opposition to Hardt and Negri, Ferguson argues that the United States is, and has always been, an empire.

37. Amin, “Empire and Multitude” (n. 13), 1-2.

38. “The Multitude Strikes Back,” Time, vol. 164, n. 6, August 9, 2004, 96.

39. e.g. Rossi (n. 13) and Thompson (n. 1).

40. e.g. Giovanni Arrighi, “Lineages of Empire,” in Debating Empire (n. 8).

41. e.g. Robert Gilpin, Global Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

42. Ahluwalia, “Empire or Imperialism” (n. 13), 631.

43. Cited in Bourg, “Empire versus Multitude” (n. 13), 101. For articles dealing with this criticism see: Kevin C. Dunn, “Africa’s Ambiguous Relation to Empire and Empire,” William Chaloupka, “The Irrepressible Lightness and Joy of Being Green: Empire and Environmentalism,” Lee Quinby, “Taking the Millennialist Pulse of Empire’s Multitude: A Genealogical Feminist Diagnosis,” all in Passavant & Dean, eds., Empire’s New Clothes (n. 12).

44. Georgy Katsiaficas, “In Defense of the Dialectic: A Response to Antonio Negri,” in this issue of Socialism and Democracy.

45. Mario Alcaro, Economia totale e mondo della vita: Il liberalismo nell’era della biopolitica (Rome: Manifestolibri, 2003), 61.

46.Callinicos, “Toni Negri in Perspective,” in Debating Empire (n. 8), 137-138.

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