Barbarian resistance and rebel alliances: social movements and Empire(1).
Rethinking Marxism, 13 (3/4).
Empire is a curious and challenging book. Although it sets out to be a latter-day Communist Manifesto, it lacks the concrete aesthetic, the urgent pace of argument, and the practical cutting edge of the latter. There are sound material reasons for this, some of which its authors would doubtless acknowledge: it is not, after all, the product of the needs and temperature of a radical organisation, written in the midst of a great revolutionary wave.
What Empire is not, however, is made up for in some ways by what it is. A closer analogy than with the Manifesto would probably be with the German Ideology. Like that work, Empire offers a "a general theoretical framework and a toolbox of concepts" (p.xvi), still some way detached from the actual use of those tools, and a sustained exposure to a particular way of thought which - just maybe - can help particular kinds of militant to see themselves and their situation in new ways, ways they can then practice in concrete movements.
An even closer analogy would be with contemporary socialist science fiction. Caught in this same period where the assured languages and strategies of the mid-century have finally broken down, while new senses of potentiality are stirring on the fringes of what can be articulated, authors like MacLeod (1995 etc.), MiÃ©ville (2000), Byrne (1999) or Robinson (1993 etc.) show us successful moments of popular revolt, placed in settings which illuminate the present without being allegories and driven by forms of agency which bear a similarly metaphoric relationship to reality.
The richly allusive nature of the book makes this a stronger way to read what Empire has to say on social movements than a formal critique of an analysis of movements which it lacks, in that sense of a neat organisation of propositions. It is not a book which is easy to grasp on first reading; like Starhawk or Le Guin(2), it demands rereading ("front to back, back to front, in pieces, in a hopscotch pattern, or through correspondences" (p. xvi)) to enter into its mental world and find new possibilities there.
To keep going in the present, an important resource may be to recognise that we do not know as much as we thought we did: like the barbarian priest or the rebel volunteer, we understand our local struggles but find it hard to grasp their insertion within - and challenge to - Empire. In our own provinciality, of campaigns and jobs, gatherings and books, what do we gain - and what do we not find - in Hardt and Negri's alternate world?
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