Empire: Michael Hardt with Leonard Schwartz

image of Michael Hardt
Michael Hardt

This is the first of three interviews Leonard Schwartz conducted with Michael Hardt. The second and third interviews will be published in the November and December issues.

From CCP Episode #112: Empire. September 21, 2006. This interview was transcribed by Holly Melgard and originally published in Rain Taxi Review of Books.

Leonard Schwartz: Your books Empire and Multitude have provided a rich humus for all kinds of other projects that have been created in their wake. Can you say a bit about the nature of your collaboration with the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri? The whole notion of a theoretical work of philosophy that is written by two people is intriguing.

Michael Hardt: I love the collaborative process. It is really quite liberating and obviously productive too. I’ve often thought that when people write together, in any collaboration like this, one almost ventriloquises in the voice of the other—I sort of write in Toni’s voice, and Toni tries to write in my voice—and we end up writing in this third voice, which is neither his nor mine. And that’s one of the things that is freeing about it, this third voice that neither belongs to one nor the other person.

LS: Tell us more about Antonio Negri—obviously you have collaborated with him on these two books, but you began actually as his translator. Is that accurate?

MH: Well, I suppose so. I translated one of his books in order to meet him. He’s someone with the kind of life story that ought to be a Hollywood script: he was a professor of political science in Italy in the ’60s and ’70s, but was also involved with workers and student movements, and was arrested and imprisoned for his political activity in the late ’70s. He left prison in the mid ’80s and then spent fourteen years in Paris. It was during that period that I went to Paris to meet him. And I thought I really couldn’t just present myself as some, you know, graduate student from Seattle [laughs], and so presented myself as a translator. We got along quite well and so I moved to Paris. Eventually one thing led to another and we started writing together.

LS: What a great story. What’s the title of that book?

MH: That was his book on Spinoza called The Savage Anomaly. It was published in the U.S. by University of Minnesota Press.

LS: Let’s talk about your book Empire. Many readers leap directly to the propositional nature of the statements in the book, but I wonder if, for you, is the compositional process as important as what actually gets said?

MH: I suppose so. The experience of writing these books has been one of confronting a new global situation that we don’t really understand, and the writing process is really one of trying to grasp the situation. It’s not like we start a book and we really know what we’re after; we get it in the process of writing.

LS: Speak in order to discover what to say, and write in order to figure it out.

MH: Exactly! And that’s one of the reasons why Empire is so difficult. I think we’ve made a big effort with Multitude to write in a way that a non-academic audience could appreciate. But one of the things I discovered in trying to write for a more general audience is that certain difficulties of these kinds of projects are just inherent in them. And it goes something like this: if we were just writing something we already knew, then we could write it in the most straightforward way. But if the writing process itself is part of the discovery, and we’re trying to gesture towards and find figurations for something that we don’t yet understand, then of course it’s going to be difficult—partly because the reader is involved in the same process of trying to grasp something that hasn’t yet been fully digested. I don’t know exactly how to say it.

LS: I know what you mean… if it were easy to say, it wouldn’t be especially worth saying. In Empire, you do talk about the difference between “empire” and “imperialism,” and you talk about the three modalities of control that Empire exerts, one of them being language. So, in a sense, that problem is posed when you speak about the compositional strategy. How do you reach or write for many people without it becoming immediately commodifiable?

MH: I realize that I was probably wrong when I said before that what we’re writing is something that we don’t understand. I think it’s really that sometimes recognizing different or more precise terminology, or trying to invent different languages, allows us to see more clearly, gives us a different perspective or a different vision on things. I wouldn’t exactly put it that language has become commodified, at least in the old sense. There’s a long modernist tradition of talking about the commodification of language, that advertisers ruin things and we need to break through that with a kind of modernist difficulty. I’m thinking of high-modernism, of the great novelists and poets—it’s not quite the same as that, it seems to me. It is grasping the new, but it’s trying to find a way of expressing or having us see, newly, the changes that have taken place in the world. In my experience, I have to break through with a different language. And that allows us to see things differently.

LS: In a way what you say also mirrors your stance toward empire in the book. You don’t moralize against empire or globalism per se; rather, you seem to see a certain aspect of it which is inevitable and necessary, and potentially even revolutionary. Could you say a little bit, especially for readers who haven’t yet read Empire, about the general theoretical stance you take concerning the differences between imperialism and empire?

MH: It’s partly again to try to see power structures newly; the point of departure for the book is that imperialism, as we knew it, is no longer the ruling form of power. Now of course, after September 11th, 2001 and especially after 2003, many people would say, “No, what’s going on is exactly U.S. imperialism.” The U.S. has taken up the mantle of the old British empire and they are attempting to control foreign territory and potentially the whole globe. That’s the way I would define imperialism: the power of a nation state to impose its sovereignty over foreign territory (as the British did, as the French did, as other imperialist powers did). And so, in some ways, we would see it through the same lens, but I think that’s a misrecognition of how power functions today. In fact, I would even argue that Bush and his cronies were also mistaken. They really thought that the U.S. could be an imperialist power; they really thought that unilaterally the U.S. could dictate, remake the Middle East, rule over the world, etc. And they were wrong, they were completely wrong… and now we see the disaster from it. We see the failure from it. In any case, we don’t need to be taken in by the same mistakes. The only way that global power can function today, the only way that the rich can stay rich and keep the poor poor, is by constructing a much more networked form of power, a network of control… a network that of course includes the United States, but also includes the other dominant nation states, the capitalist corporations, various multinational institutions, plus a variety of non-governmental organizations. It’s this that we’re trying to call empire; it’s a new logic of global control or domination. You might say this: in a way we’re trying to guard against fighting against old enemies and recognize the new enemy.

LS: Along those lines, you reject the term “military industrial complex” as a piece of language that has outlived its utility, or is not descriptive of the enemy. Can you say what, in the description of “empire” you just offered, differs from the older notion of a “military industrial complex”?

MH: It used to be much easier to recognize a single locus of power—if there was a Winter Palace that we could invade, if it was really all coming out of the White House—if we could locate power in that way, it would make political practice, at least at a conceptual level, very easy. You know who the enemy is. You know where it is. On the other hand, if in fact power, global power, is tending towards this kind of network that we’re describing, it makes it much less clear where to attack or where to stand. It really poses a new challenge for politics. Philosophers like Toni and I, and of course larger social movements and political movements, have been trying for the last ten years to grasp this new de-centered power structure and find ways to challenge it.

LS: In Empire you suggest “Imperial control operates through three global and absolute means: the bomb, money, and ether.” Now we know what the bomb is, and we know what money is, but it’s your third term “ether” that it seems to me is the most important, at least from the point of view of a poetics. You say about this third term:

“Ether” is the third and final fundamental medium of imperial control. The management of communication, the structuring of the educational system, and the regulation of culture appear today more than ever as sovereign prerogatives. All of this however, dissolves in the ether. The contemporary systems of communication are not subordinated to sovereignty; on the contrary, sovereignty seems to be subordinated to communication—or actually, sovereignty is articulated through communication systems. In the field of communication, the paradoxes that bring about the disillusion of territorial and/or national sovereignty are more clear than ever.

Can you talk about the way in which you chose to foreground communication as the battleground?

MH: One thing we’re trying to do is argue beyond a notion that all the means of communication are manipulated in some instrumental way by some sovereign or localizable power that stands behind them. In other words: it’s not just that the media, or other forms of communication, are instrumentally used to dupe people, or to maintain profits of corporations, or to make the population passive. I think that those are sometimes good approximations; I remember a wonderful science fiction movie from the ’80s in which the characters would put on a certain kind of glasses, and when they’d look at the newspaper, instead of the regular headline, it would say things like “Obey Authority”—that’s what the real message was! Those kinds of conspiracy notions about the media have a certain utility, but I think it’s more difficult than that. There isn’t a censor that tells the newspapers exactly what to think, and there isn’t even, usually, the head of a corporation who calls up a newspaper and who tells them what to print and what not to print. It’s a much more amorphous aspect. It’s de-centered and has a network form. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to grasp.

LS: I’m thinking about your strategies as a writer—your command of a certain kind of theoretical language, but also the way in which you draw on a literary background: in Empire there are passages from Melville that come in, for example, but also a series, interestingly, of Christian rhetorical figures. What do you see as the writing strategies at this moment that best intervene in a communication system that is loaded in the direction of empire, but not inevitably destined to express the interests of power as opposed to the subversion of that power? Is it, for you, theoretical language that remains the best bet? Or is it the mixing and the cutting back and forth between direct speech, theoretical language, and a kind of literary parlance?

MH: I think it is that mixture that seems most effective, but I was thinking as you were speaking about the political power of language itself and how much weight one can put on that. I’m against the notion that philosophers and writers can write a certain way and that’s going to tell people what to do—I’m definitely against that, but I sort of react too hard in that direction, and therefore discount the power of language and think the real power is in practice, is in the movements… but then I think that’s not really right either. I think there is, and there is necessarily, a properly political power in the invention of language. But that doesn’t reside necessarily in the authors; we just grasp, sometimes, this linguistic convention that can have political effects.

What it reminds me of is this passage from Spinoza’s book called The Theological Political Treatise, a book that got him in a whole lot of trouble. The whole book takes on religion, bringing it down to materiality; Spinoza says that prophets are just people with great imaginations, that sort of thing. But he also says that what a prophet does is call a people into being—and that seems to me like an amazing expression of the properly political power of language. When you say that a manifesto, or a prophet, can call a people into being, what it means is that it can organize the passions—you know, the striving for liberty, the organizing for democracy, etc.—and construct out of them a political reality.

LS: An extraordinary way of putting it. And I think that is the project of your book Multitude too—to replace terms like “masses” with the possibility of some other form of collectivity that you call multitude and are attempting to talk into being. To go back toward the philosophical structure of your thinking, can I mention a philosopher or two and ask you about their influence on your work?

MH: Sure.

LS: How about Giorgio Agamben, the great Italian philosopher whose work is cited and referenced throughout your book?

MH: He’s definitely a very close fellow traveler. He’s a personal friend of me and Toni and he’s also thinking through many of the same problems. But then we come to great differences. The shorthand way of saying it (for people imbued with the history of philosophy) is that Agamben comes out of thinking through Heidegger and Hegel, and Toni and I come out of thinking through Spinoza and Marx. But I think the difference really has to do with the fact that in Agamben’s work there’s never a pointing towards the subjectivities that can create the new; he’s much more focused on recognizing the forms of power that determine and limit us, and less focused on the ways within contemporary reality that something else emerges.

LS: Gilles Deleuze?

MH: He’s definitely the writer that I came to philosophy through; I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and so on. Toni’s relationship to Deleuze is quite different, because Toni comes through a heretical sort of Marxism of the ’60s, and only comes to Deleuze’s work, say, in the early 1980s. That relationship between Marxism and this newer French thought—call it post-structuralism—was a kind of shift for Toni, whereas for me it was my first… my baptism.

LS: As you’re talking about your books, it’s wonderful to hear the way you always think about what Negri would say as well. It reminds me of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom language is a form of responsibility. But there’s another passage in Empire I was hoping I could get your response to; it’s in your chapter on “Virtualities.” You write:

Through circulation the common human species is composed, a multicolored Orpheus of infinite power; through circulation the human community is calculated. Outside, every Enlightenment cloud or Kantian reverie, the desire of the multitude is not a cosmopolitical state but a common species. As in a secular Pentecost, the bodies are mixed and the nomads speak a common tongue.

Again, if you could take us through a few of the figures, images, and concepts there… it is a rich and startling passage.

MH: I think we did a certain number of these things subconsciously, like this relationship between the theological and the political…. Someone once said, “Why do you have to use religious imagery, when you’re not talking about something religious in that sense?” I think that often, theological language allows us to grasp that creativity that we have to recognize—the actual construction of the new. It’s one way of approach that helps us get out of our daily understandings that don’t seem to be able to grasp that possibility of creating a future; so, the mixing of that theological imagery with this worldly political project is a way of trying to grasp what you might call the divine, or the divinity of the creative instance: that’s a long standing trope in poetic language, but here we’re trying to recognize it in the creativity of the political process.

The notion of mixture and flows is clear throughout our books. We’re trying to talk about subjectivities that are not really identities, that are not essences, but are based on a primacy of mixture, a primacy of miscegenation, a crossing of these boundaries that ought to be a way of addressing and undermining racial hierarchies, gender hierarchies, other hierarchies based on identities. In any case, the method, in a way, of “mixture” and “movement” is already implicit there in what you’re pointing towards.

LS: Could you say a little bit about your emphasis on the term “immanence” in your writing?

MH: Well, the simplest level (which always appeals to me) is immanence as the insistence on horizontal political structures and horizontal social organization—“horizontal” meaning on the same level as each other, as opposed to a transcendent instant that stands above us. I’m describing things that are supposed to be commonplace among social movements and political organizations today, the organization of anti-war or anti-capitalist protest movements—it’s always done in that form. Or at least that’s the ideal, the spirit in which things are attempted. The more difficult problem is when we try to understand the forms of power that we need to oppose today as also residing on the plane of immanence. If we were to think of power as simply transcendent, that would be like having a man behind the curtain. You know, something like in The Wizard of Oz, where you have this guy behind the whole thing. Then power is transcendent and we can recognize where it is and we can attack it, blah, blah, blah… but if power really functions immanently, if it’s really spread out and not centered in any one place, it becomes much more difficult to identify and analyze and attack.

Let me just give you a little example of that which I think all of the anti-globalization movements were struggling with, before our new age of war and terror. What these movements were trying to do was to think about how to recognize the new forms of power, how to recognize that they were multiple. In other words: if you think back to the late ’90s and early 2000s, the various different globalization protest movements weren’t just against the White House. They didn’t analyze it as though global power were all just dictated by the U.S. Government. Otherwise, they should have just been at the White House every weekend. But rather, they were experimenting with new enemies; they were trying to recognize how the WTO is actually a kind of power, how the IMF and the World Bank are sites of power, how NAFTA is a locus of power, and how they were all constructing this kind of network of powers that function together. And so they were trying to analyze what is the power that controls the world today, that dictates globalization, and also how to attack it. I wouldn’t call all of this a success—it’s not a finished process—but I will say that it was and has been an open experiment to try to recognize these things. How to recognize a form of power that functions immanently, and then how to address it, attack it, challenge it, overthrow it—these are the kinds of questions that we’re trying to confront, and that a large group of other people are trying to confront too.

LS: I appreciate what you said earlier: you’re not interested in your books offering dictates or precepts or taking any kind of moral high ground—this is because of the nature of immanent power, right? What is a solution in one situation isn’t going to work in another. It’s not relativism per se; it’s just a recognition of the fluidity of the object of critique.

MH: Right, and its plurality.

LS: Michael, it’s a little bit off subject but I think it maybe brings us back to language and communication—I’m just wondering what poets you might be interested in? Do you read or find the work of those kinds of language workers useful for your own?

MH: In school, high modernism was the angle of American poetry I really worked in, and in recent years, it was Pier Paolo Pasolini—he’s well known for his films and somewhat for his novels, but it’s really the poetry that interested me most. It’s one of those things, I have to say, that I’ve set aside because of other things seeming more pressing or urgent. But I think contemporary poets have addressed these same problems and are in a way part of, let’s say, the experimentation to create sorts of new responses. I’m convinced that that’s true and I think that I’m not up to the level of being able to recognize it.

LS: There are parallel kinds of concerns and investigations going on within a certain kind of poetic discourse—one of the reasons Empire and Multitude seem to constitute a really important horizon for so many poets. But let’s go back to the nature of your collaborative writing process with Antonio Negri, who as you said earlier was in prison for an extended period of time on charges pertaining to his political activism. Could you say just a little bit about that legal entanglement?

MH: It is complicated. The short version of it is that he was very involved with the non-terrorist stream of Italian worker and student movements of the ‘70s, and so, when he was arrested in ’79, he was at first accused of all sorts of things: being the mastermind of all terrorism in Europe. But what he was actually then charged with and convicted of was that his writings made him essentially a leader of these non-terrorist but radical left movements. The law in Italy was that he could be held responsible as leader for any act committed by members of the group, so he was convicted on those sorts of things—things that happened at demonstrations, mostly. He spent four and a half years in prison, then managed, through a very peculiar Italian phenomenon, to leave the country and spend fourteen years in exile in Paris, and then came back and did four more years in prison plus two house arrests, and that completed the sentence.

LS: That is extraordinary. And when you first began writing with him, he was at what stage of that odyssey?

MH: He was in Paris; that was in the mid-80s, and so he had been a few years in exile.

LS: Then part of the writing process must have taken place during his second period of incarceration.

MH: A little bit, yeah. It wasn’t very productive, I have to admit. I think that often when someone’s in prison, they have a lot of other things on their mind.

LS: Well, there’s Antonio Gramsci, and a whole tradition of prison writing… but not in this case, it seems. I want to read you one last passage from Multitude: “How can we discover and direct the performative lines of linguistic sets and communicative networks that create the fabric of life and production? Knowledge has to become a linguistic action, and philosophy has to become a real reappropriation of knowledge. In other words, knowledge and communication have to constitute life through struggle.” Can you comment on that passage and what’s behind it?

MH: It’s interesting hearing you read these passages; I haven’t read them in awhile.

LS: I think it helps to hear one’s writing in someone else’s voice sometimes.

MH: You’re right—in someone else’s voice, and then after a certain amount of time too. The basic sense behind this, of course, is that we have to organize politically, and that has to become central to productive life. When we’re talking about knowledge, language, communication—these have to become central to economic production. In a previous era, the industrial production of material goods (automobiles, refrigerators, etc.) organized all the rest of production in the world under their image: agriculture, service work, etc. were organized under that pinnacle of the factory. Our argument today is that the pinnacle of production that organizes the rest of the economy under its image is in fact what we call immaterial forms of production: the production of knowledge, the production of ideas, the production of effects. These are now economic activities, production values that are transforming all the others. So when, in this passage, we’re talking about knowledge and the organization of philosophical thought as a political need, it’s partly with that in mind—that these are now sites of extraordinary power.

LS: It puts extraordinary responsibility on the cultural worker. What are you working on, post-Multitude?

MH: Toni and I are of course writing, and we do think of it as a third in this series with Empire and Multitude… what it will actually turn out to be is very hard to say yet. Have you ever felt that when you ask a writer what she or he is working on, often the response sounds secretive? But I think in fact you can’t really tell until it’s done, so it seems false to try to dream up something, say it’s about X or Y.

LS: It also could hex the whole book too if you start to tell—while you’re talking about it you might kill it. I respect that demurral. Are you in the middle of it?

MH: Yeah, we’re in the writing of it, which feels like the middle because the whole first half is thinking and talking.


The Conversant would like to thank Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer for allowing us to republish this talk.

3 comments
  1. […] Schwartz conducted with Michael Hardt. You can read the first interview, “Empire,” here and the second interview, “Love as Such,” […]

  2. […] can also find the interviews in our October 2012, November 2012 and January 2012 […]

  3. […] can also find the interviews in our October 2012, November 2012 and January […]

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