Empire | Study Guide

Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri

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Empire | Context


Political Philosophy and Marxism

Ancient Philosophy

Political philosophy is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the way humans live as part of a political system and how they engage with it. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated the function of political power and the role of government, as well as the nature of liberty, justice, and oppression under different forms of political governance. The origins of western political philosophy can be traced to ancient Greece, a loose collection of city-states. These city-states experimented with a variety of political governing styles, and Greek philosophers such as Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) grappled with their benefits and drawbacks as well as with the idea of a utopia, or an ideal society.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment

Empire mentions a great number of political philosophers who lived during the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries) and the Enlightenment (17th–18th centuries). Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) wrote an influential work called The Prince (1513), which in turn influenced the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) to argue for the concept of the "social contract," an agreement between rulers and their subjects, defining the rights and duties of each. During the Enlightenment, new ideas about knowledge and the nature of happiness emerged, and philosophers such as Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) and English political theorist John Locke (1632–1704) grappled with ideas of the fundamental nature of humans and the best way to govern them. Issues over the roles of the individual and the state were widely debated, and many of the ideas proposed influenced events such as the American (1775–83) and French (1789–99) Revolutions.


Perhaps the biggest influence on Empire is the work of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). Marx's Das Kapital (1867) was sparked by the shifts in society brought about by industrialization, which in turn, led to capitalism. His work inspired many communist governments in the 20th century, given his ideas on class struggle as the basis of politics, government, and capitalism. This class struggle also had the capacity to create social change. Marx stood in great opposition to capitalism, believing the world was better off embracing socialism, in which the people rather than a powerful few own the means of production, distribution, and exchange. Marx referred to the collective working class as the "proletariat," and he believed they were alienated from the production of their work. He believed a socialist revolution could occur if the proletariat collectively recognized that they were being oppressed by capitalism. In Marx's view, socialism was an intermediate step on the path to a communist utopia in which private property would no longer need to exist, and all resources would be communally owned and available to all.

Imperialism and Globalization

The authors of Empire often refer to the function of imperialism and the transition from modern imperialism to Empire. Imperialism occurs when a nation imposes its rule over other territories. These takeovers have rarely been peaceful and often depend on the use of military force, violence, and exploitation. In the modern era there have been three major periods of imperialist expansion. From the 15th to the mid-18th century European nations built empires, largely in the Americas. In the mid-1800s a second wave occurred; Africa was rapidly colonized, and newly powerful countries including the United States, Germany, and Italy joined the list of imperialistic nations. Expansion slowed after World War I (1914–18), but the 1930s and early 1940s saw renewed imperialist expansion from the United States, Japan, and the totalitarian states of Europe. Members of imperialist nations typically saw certain territories as "outside" of civilization and its inhabitants as a kind of "Other," which provided justification for their exploitation. Imperialism had the long-term effect of displacing or destroying entire civilizations and disrupting or decimating their native cultures.

Empire investigates how the role of globalization brought about the end of modern imperialism and introduced a new, postmodern kind of global power—Empire. In Hardt and Negri's view, Empire is distinct from modern imperialism specifically because it is global. Whereas individual nation states were the loci of imperialism, Empire is an overarching power not grounded in any specific territory but agreed upon and collectively maintained by powerful nations. A number of historical events and new inventions in communication around the globe contributed to this transition. World War II (1939–45) left the industrialized nations of Europe largely in ruins. The enormous costs associated with the war left most European nations either bankrupt or deeply in debt. The United States and the United Kingdom began meeting to plan a conference of nations to hammer out a new economic regime for Europe. After the first round of negotiations, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) and U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) issued the Atlantic Charter (1941) to provide all struggling countries with "the trade and ... the raw materials ... needed for their economic prosperity."

By 1942, U.S. and U.K. delegates were planning a meeting of world nations to be held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The meeting, officially called the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, convened in 1944 with representatives from 44 nations. Delegates from the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to use the U.S. dollar, pegged to a specific value in gold, as the fixed global exchange rate. The most important outcome of the conference was the establishment of global economic institutions, each designed to carry out important economic functions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was created to oversee the newly created fixed exchange rate.

The shift from imperialism to globalization means that world powers have become more of a collaborative network rather than enemies in a quest for domination. The authors of Empire argue that it has also given the working class more autonomy and mobility, as they are able to move for different kinds of labor and opportunities. It has blurred the boundaries of inside and outside and lessened the distinction between self and other.

Biopolitics and the Influence of Foucault

While the authors of Empire reference a great many political philosophers, they reveal their debt to the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–84) in influencing much of their thinking about capitalism and how people interact with and are governed by it, which Foucault calls "biopolitics." Foucault articulated the idea of biopolitics as a kind of politics that deals with the administration of life by ensuring, sustaining, and multiplying it. In Foucault's view, regimes of authority can manage the processes of human life using knowledge and power. He connected biopolitics to his concept of "biopower." Foucault believed that life was a border to politics, and he was therefore interested in how politics had jurisdiction over people's bodies in regard to laws around births, deaths, and reproduction. Biopolitics operates through networks rather than from one source of power. Because it is so dispersed, it enables resistance at various sites.

Foucault's influence can be found in Empire's political philosophy when the authors investigate and dissect the relationship between the working class with those in power and how that relationship is often informed by capitalism and the means of production. The authors ultimately believe that it is the proletariat, worker of the laboring class, who has the most power to influence revolutions, given the shifting nature of networks, communication, and the ability to be mobile. In the view of the authors, life is inextricable from knowledge, power, and politics, and the more people realize that, the more control they can have over their own bodies and lives.

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