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John Holloway

Time to Revolt. Reflections on Empire (1)

What is it about Empire that annoys me?

It is not the basic thesis. The idea that capitalism is a decentred and deterritorialising system of rule, that the old understanding of the world in terms of imperialism is not valid - this argument is unobjectionable. But then it was always a mistake to see capital as being attached in some way to a particular country. Capital is an inherently a-territorial relation of domination. The Leninist notion of imperialism was misconceived from the beginning. What is objectionable in Hardt and Negri's argument that imperialism has been replaced by empire is the assumption that the concept of imperialism used to be valid - but then this reflects the ambiguous relation to Lenin that has always been present in Negri's writings and indeed in much autonomist writing, beginning with Tronti's brilliant "Lenin in England": the argument that things have changed since Lenin's time, now we must rethink strategy, do what Lenin did in England.

What annoys me about the book is that I see it as the betrayal of a rich and powerful impulse. Or better, since 'betrayal' is a remarkably silly word: the book brings to its dire culmination a contradiction that was probably always present in that impulse.

By 'rich and powerful impulse' I mean autonomist Marxism (sometimes referred to as operaismo), the movement to put the subject at the centre of revolutionary theory. Tronti's oft-quoted criticism of orthodox Marxism is worth quoting again: 'We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class’ (1979, p. 1). This is the core of what Moulier refers to as ‘operaismo's ... Copernican inversion of Marxism’ (1989, p. 19). Whereas orthodox Marxism focuses on the analysis of capital and the forms of capitalist domination, understanding the task of theory as the analysis of the framework within which class struggle takes place, autonomism places working class struggle in the centre of the understanding of capitalism. This means not simply adopting a working class perspective, but, in complete reversal of the traditional Marxist approach, seeing working class struggle as determining capitalist development. ‘At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to the working class struggles; it follows behind them and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital's own reproduction must be tuned’ (Tronti, 1979, p. 1).

The autonomist impulse, this inversion of orthodox Marxism, has been of enormous importance, reviving Marxism as a theory of struggle. The problem is that it does not go far enough: 'the difficulty inherent in 'autonomist' approaches is not that 'labour' is seen as being primary but that this notion is not developed to its radical solution.’ (Bonefeld, 1994, p. 44) Working class struggle cannot really be the starting point, because 'working class struggle' presupposes a prior constitution of the working class. Marx himself is far more radical when he insists that the pivot is the 'two-fold nature of the labour contained in commodities' (1965, p. 41). The two-fold nature of labour is, of course, already class struggle, the struggle between abstract and concrete labour, the struggle between the purposive doing (that which distinguishes the architect from the bee) and its negation. The danger in starting from a pre-constituted 'working class struggle' is that the critique of orthodox Marxism (as Engels-Leninism is generally known) does not go deep enough, that too much is taken over unquestioned from the tradition that is being criticised. There is a tendency too to take 'working class struggle' at face value, as macho-militant-in-the-factory-or-in-the-street struggle. Taking working class struggle as starting point leads us easily to the pure subject (the struggle of the Working Class), whereas the two-fold nature of labour takes us immediately to the contradictory, desperately self-antagonistic subject. Hardt and Negri's model militant, introduced in the last paragraph of Empire (2000, p. 415), is Saint Francis of Assisi, no longer so macho, but as pure a figure as any to be found in the heroic monuments of socialist realism. A joke, perhaps, but a revealing one.

The autonomist impulse has to be made more radical, to be taken further than 'the beginning is the class struggle of the working class'. The beginning is the two-fold nature of labour or the self-antagonistic existence of doing, a doing that screams against its own negation. To place the subject at the centre of revolutionary theory in a world which denies the subject (as social subject) is to criticise, and criticism is possible only on the basis of doing. Criticism is the voice of the subject who says to an objective world 'you deny me, but I made you (and your denial of me)'. Putting the subject at the centre of theory is not just a question of saying 'here we are', but of criticising all that denies our presence, all that denies our creative force, all that denies that we are the only creative force, that we are the only doers.

The doing from which we start is a social doing. This is a tautology: all doing is social. Doing is inconceivable without the previous or simultaneous doing of others. Doing is part of a social flow of doing in which the done of some is the precondition of the doing of others. But this social flow is broken, so that doing appears as individual doing. The social flow is broken when that which has been done is appropriated by some, who say 'this is mine!' Since the done is the precondition of doing, these people own the means of doing and are able to control the doing of others.

Appropriation of the done breaks the social flow of doing. Doing appears then as an individual doing, the subject is hollywoodised, the subjectivity of the vast majority totally denied. The breaking of the social flow of doing class-ifies society, separating those who say 'this is mine!' from those who are forced to transform their doing into labour-for-others. But it goes much, much further than that: as Marx argued in his discussions of fetishism and alienation, the breaking of the social flow of doing is the breaking of every aspect of our existence. Living doing is subjected to past done. Living doing is subjected to the things made by past doing, things which stand on their own and deny all doing. Marx starts Capital with the terrible violence of this denying: "a commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us" (1965, p. 35). ["Die Ware ist zunächst ein äußerer Gegentstand" (1985, S. 49] What rules is the negation of doing, commodities, value, capital which deny their origin in the social doing of humans. The sociality of doing, the social relations between doers (people) exist as things.

Living doing is subjected to dead being. Capitalism is the rule of being, the negation of doing. Being, broken down into fragments of being, into identity and identities, becomes the basis for thought. Identity becomes the key category of social thought, not just of sociology and psychology, but of bourgeois social thought in general; identity creeps too into the concepts and struggles of against-ness. In a world of identity, we are, we struggle to say what we are or to profess what we are. The world then is a world of equilibrium, a world which denies as ridiculous the idea that the sociality of doing could be quite different, that we could do a different world. Identity proclaims that we are, whereas doing always destroys that which is. Doing proclaims that we-are-and-are-not. In a world of doing, it is the negation of is-ness that is at the centre, the creation of that which is not (or not-yet). The only way in which we can even pose the question of communism is by seeing that things are not as they are, by denying that 'that's the way things are', by proclaiming that the world is simply our doing. To place the subject at the centre (the impulse of autonomist theory), means, if we are to be consistent, that we must attack with all our might a world that 'is', that we must criticise, that we must place doing in the centre of our thought.

The negation of doing is the homogenisation of time. To deny social-purposive doing is to subordinate doing to being, to that which is. The doing of today is subordinated to the doing of yesterday, the doing of tomorrow can only be conceived as a continuation of the doing of today. Time then becomes tick-tick time, clock time, like a length of railway track. Tick-tick time measures duration, a being separated from doing, an existence separated from constitution. Capitalism is the separating of objects from their subjects, of things which are from the doing that made them, of existence from constitution. This separating creates duration, the notion that things 'are', independent of the doing which created them. Value, for instance, appears to have an existence independent of the self-divided doing which created it: Marx's Capital (the labour theory of value) is above all an attack on duration, a critique of the separation of existence and constitution, a restoration in thought of the doing denied by duration.

One of the great advantages of this homogeneous time, duration-time, is that it can be broken up into periods, into lengths of time. This is crucial to the organisation of work in the factory and in the office and in the schools and universities. Homogeneous time is crucial in the organising of the doing of others for whom doing is purpose-less, object-less labour. But it goes further than that. It permeates our social thought, the way we shape and think about our social relations. Time becomes stodgy, almost solid, something that can be cut into wedges, into periods, into paradigms, a million miles removed from the timeless-time of intense love or engagement. But communism, a world in which we shape our own doing, a world in which doing is emancipated from being, a world in which doing and being, constitution and existence are explicitly reunited, can then be conceived only as a world in which we break the homogeneity of time, a world in which duration is shattered, in which time is not a long railway track or a slice of pizza, but tends towards the intensity of the Jetztzeit (now-time) of Benjamin (1973) or the nunc stans of Bloch (1964), towards the timeless-time of all-absorbing love or engagement.

Bourgeois thought, of course, will have none of this. Bourgeois thought, built upon identity, upon extending what is into what will be: bourgeois thought is obsessed with labelling, with classifying, with fitting things together, with creating neat boxes, with paradigms. So many doctoral theses, so many applications for research funds that must show the coherence of the world, that must show how things fit together, how the world is a world of correspondences. But each correspondence closes the world, excludes possibility, negates the social power-to-do-otherwise. On the left, on the fringes of Marxism, in the work of those who would turn Marxism from being the intolerable theory of the unbearable scream into some house-trained school of social science: in this murky area we have seen in the last twenty or thirty years the growth of regulation theory, the obsession with labelling everything as Fordist or post-Fordist or neo-Fordist. What is wrong with that is not the phenomena that these theorists point to, nor the interconnections; what is wrong is the rounding-off, the systematisation, the drive to make everything fit, to close a world. In some aspects, regulation theory has been stimulating, but its overall effect is deadly.

To periodise the present is already to close the world, to project the present into the future, to homogenise time, establish duration. Today, the existence of capital was based on the exploitation of millions, the exclusion and misery of millions, the unnecessary deaths of how many thousands of children. Perhaps it will also kill and exploit millions tomorrow. Perhaps it will, but if we assume that then we are already closing the possibility that it may not, we are already assuming our own defeat. And if we extend that beyond tomorrow to the next day, to next year, to a period or to a paradigm, then it is clear that we are actively taking part in the struggle to defeat ourselves. If we assume from one day to the next that we shall be defeated then we progressively exclude any possibility that we can make the world otherwise. If we put the present into periods and paradigms, we actively participate in the subjection of doing to being, in the creation of a world that 'is', in the separation of existence from constitution. And with that we throw out all hope and all Marx and all critique. Marx devoted his life to critique, that is, to the placing of human social doing in the centre of our understanding. To emphasise social human doing in a world which denies that doing is absurd, of course, but the struggle for a different world is precisely the same urgently necessary absurdity.

To periodise the present, then, is always reactionary. This sounds silly, but it is not. It is indeed perfectly obvious. If we think, say, of torture: it is presumably possible to speak of new paradigms in torture, or in the sexual abuse of children. And yet, to discuss these new trends as though they had some fixity, as though they constituted a rounded paradigm, is surely to give to those activities a stability that few of us would want to do. So it is with capitalism. To speak of the present paradigm of capitalist domination is to give an air of normality to the existence of capitalism, when all our struggle is to show that there is nothing normal about it, that the possibility that human action may re-create capitalism tomorrow is an abomination that can never be accepted as normal.

Now it should be clear why I object to the Empire book. (2) It is not because of its content (which is often very stimulating in spite of the language) but because of the method. The book betrays the autonomist impulse in the sense that it incarcerates the subject within a structure, in the sense that it participates in the subordination of doing to being, in the sense that it extends the method of regulation theory, giving it a 'left' twist. Its method is based on duration. Although it pays homage at moments to the idea that it is the struggle against capital that drives the changing forms of capitalism, the general perspective of the discussion is very much in the opposite direction. It follows the classics of Marxist orthodoxy (Engels-Leninism) in focussing not on struggle, but on the structures of domination. Its notions of the state and of crisis are structuralist-functionalist. For an argument that comes from an autonomist background, it is remarkable in establishing a 'but-also' dualism between capital and struggle: this is perhaps not surprising, for the very notion of a paradigm of rule hides what every capitalist knows, namely that the existence of capital is constant, daily-repeated struggle. Worst of all, perhaps, is the total eclipsing of the centrality of doing in the development of the concept of 'multitude'. The concept of 'working class', for all its problems, for all its fetishised deformations, has at least the great merit of taking us to the centrality of human purposive activity, social doing. In the concept of multitude, this is lost completely. The working class does, albeit in a fetishised form; the multitude does not do. But if doing is not at the centre of our thought, all that is left is opposition, not hope.

A rage and a rant? Yes, perhaps. The book is better than many, of course. But that is not the problem. The problem is that its enormous success is the expression of how desperately people are looking for a way forward, how desperately people are looking for a revolution that is not a repeat of the revolutionary cant of the past. But this book leads them into a methodological stodge, a world of doctoral theses, a closure. That is why it annoys me.


(1) For a fuller development of many of the ideas presented here, see Holloway (2002).

(2) For a more detailed criticism of Empire, see chapter 9 of Holloway (2002).


Benjamin, Walter (1973): ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in: Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books)
Bloch Ernst (1964): Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie (2 Bde) (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)
Bonefeld Werner (1994): ‘Human Practice and Perversion: Between Autonomy and Structure’, in: Common Sense, no. 15, pp. 43-52
Hardt Michael and Negri Antonio (2000): Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press)
Holloway, John (2002): Die Welt verändern, ohne die Macht zu übernehmen (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot)
Marx, Karl (1985): Das Kapital, Bd. I (Berlin: Dietz)
Red Notes (1979): Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis: Italian Marxist Texts of the Theory and Practice of a Class Movement: 1964-79 (London: Red Notes)
Tronti, Mario (1979a): ‘Lenin in England’, in: Red Notes (1979), pp. 1-6

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