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Alain Joxe, 'Empire of Disorder' and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, 'Empire'

Empire of Disorder, Semiotext(e), 2002; ISBN 1 5843 5016 4; 223pp. Empire, Harvard University Press, 2000; 0674006712; 504pp; US$19.95

Empire has never completely gone out of style, but now in the early 21st Century it has very become popular for describing the current international system. In particular, there is a growing recognition that the United States is an empire. 1 Of course, most of the world saw the US this way already, but it comes as a bit of a shock to the “homeland.”

Accepting the “new” US Empire is usually linked to the claim that the US is the only remaining superpower and that it will continue the civilising missions of the British and Romans--Pax Americana. There are two major fallacies in this story: that the US is uniquely powerful and that the US Imperial goal is spreading democracy.

The power of the US in the early 21st Century is greatly overrated. It is true that it deploys amazing cultural, economic, and military resources, but their efficacy is very limited. Culturally there is no instrumental power. Economically US power is awesome, and is very good for forcing bad deals on third world countries, but it too is difficult to bring to bear consistently and directly, especially on the other great powers. And the US is as dependent on the world economy as the world economy is dependent on it. But it is in terms of military power that the US is most overrated.

Consider these statements from three different articles in an issue of Foreign Affairs, the premier policy journal in the US, after the fall of Baghdad .2

If anyone doubted the overwhelming nature of US military power, Iraq settled the issue. (Nye 2003, p60.)

Joseph S Nye, Jr, is Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He was matched by Max Book, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, who gushes that despite the overwhelming odds they faced in Conquering Iraq...

...the United Sates and its allies won anyway - and won so quickly - must rank as one of the signal achievements in military history. (Boot, 2003, p44.)

A very ironic claim now, six months since the fall of Baghdad. The US overthrew a weak, unpopular dictatorship and now can't occupy a country that doesn't want to be occupied. Finally, the last author draws a purported lesson from the great US victory:

American hawks were right. Unilateral intervention to coerce regime change can be a cost-effective way to deal with rogue states. (Moravcsik 2003, p74.)

The cost has just started coming due in lives and broken bodies, not just dollars. Dollars can't buy zero causalities. Even though US military spending far outstrips that of its top five rivals and allies, the US is remarkably constrained in terms of its military options.

It isn't the only superpower. China and Europe have strong militaries and nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have nuclear weapons and so are immune from attack. China is clearly still an empire, and one could make the argument that Britain is as well. Neo-colonial (aka “soft” empire) and other structures of domination mark the relations between France and its old Empire and, in Africa and Asia (Nigeria and Indonesia are good examples) there are so-called nation-states that are really more like tribal or ethnic empires than anything else.

The old “new leftists”, Michael Hardt (an American professor) and Antonio Negri (an imprisoned Italian far-left revolutionary), have put forward a gigantic neo-Marxist analysis of the current world system called simply Empire. Their “Empire” isn't the traditional system of domination emanating from one nation or nation-state. Instead it is a new organisation for the world economy. As the book blurb proclaims:

Imperialism as we knew it may be no more, but empire is alive and well...the new political order of globalisation should be seen in line with our historical understanding of Empire as a universal order that accepts no boundaries or limits.

And it is very radical indeed, embracing a moderate amount of postmodern analysis such as the importance of shifting identities and hybrid forms. Opposed to this new Empire, in fine dialectical fashion for this is still a Marxist analysis, is the multitudes. Not a class, not the people... A bit like civil society but, no not that either. Actually, it is a bit hard to get a handle on the multitudes, something a number of critics have whined about.

The tremendous popularity this book has garnered on the left since being published (in English by Harvard University Press, ironically enough) is strange for a number of reasons, most notably that as Negri himself points out it doesn't describe the current situation, but rather one that Hardt and Negri think is coming.

So, the proof of the thesis will apparently have to wait. Meanwhile, it is notable that through various Marxist theoretical contortions Empire does reach some surprisingly postmodern and anarchist conclusions. Apparently the postmodernism is acceptable now in the academic left, but Hardt and Negri felt compelled to put in several pages explaining how they weren't anarchists, all evidence to the contrary.

A much better book to help us now is Alain Joxe's Empire of Disorder. His is truly a postmodern work, so it is short on absolute conclusions. But in the details of his analysis (including a long interview with Sylvere Lotringer) he helps us notice some crucial things about our world: the incredible instability, the viciousness of war (“atrocious little wars” he calls them), the reality of military power and its limits for making political solutions. No one will agree with all his points but the careful reader will learn from them, while agreeing or not. His critique of Hardt and Negri's Empire, for example, is spot on:

I do not think they have taken the military question seriously enough. They have a somewhat idealistic vision, perhaps even a Clintonian vision, of the expansion of the capitalist system. (p74.) The battles of Afghanistan and Iraq certainly support Joxe's critique. Globalisation seems much more the confusion Joxe describes, more grounded in concrete political and military problems than the clean new economy system garnished with dialectical materialism that Hardt and Negri try so hard to bring to life.

1 This is not just the old characterisation long put forward by the left to explain Indian Wars, the Monroe Doctrine, 1848, 1898, and many small expeditions before or since in Latin America, the superpower status (and colonies) won in WWI and WWII, the interventions in Korea, Vietnam, and other places since then, especially the Middle East which the Carter Doctrine added to the US sphere of influence. Now the idea of empire as a defence is embraced by right wing think tanks, government officials, and a growing segment of the public.
2 Nothing could be more revealing of the poverty of mainstream policy thinking than these articles so replete with conquering pride and hubris.

Topics: Empire