“Empire is materializing before our very eyes.” So begins Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, one of the 100 significant works we’ve chosen to highlight as we celebrate our centennial. Below, HUP sales representative John Eklund looks back on the book’s reinvigoration of the left.
I’ve been representing university press books for fifteen years now and I’ve noticed two kinds of scholarship.
One approach tackles a big subject by nibbling away at the edges, hoping to find the loose strand that will unravel the whole project. Every season we publish many books of this type and I love them for their patient, long-term, sometimes-stealthy style of argument.
But the other kind of book I enjoy selling is the full-blown, frontal assault, big idea book. These are scarcer, but when they happen it’s as if you can feel the unacknowledged givens, our invisible social and political assumptions, shift beneath your feet. Like the writings of Herbert Marcuse in the late sixties, which were anxiously awaited and debated with relish, everyone who cares about social progress has to grapple with books of this sort when they appear. Such a book was the 2000 cri de coeur by an Italian revolutionary and an American scholar, Empire.
A decade before its release, the non-capitalist world collapsed and evaporated. Even committed leftists sat shiva for socialism, and the ideological cheerleaders of global empire gleefully declared the case closed. The triumph of market capitalism seemed complete.
But along came Hardt and Negri to argue that the diffusion of power we’ve come to know as globalization is not necessarily the savior of capital but its gravedigger; that Marx was right, there is a forward momentum to history, and that it arcs toward throwing off oppression; and, perhaps most surprisingly for readers of left criticism accustomed to turgid, joyless polemics, that the rebuilding of a revolutionary movement can be accomplished in a spirit of romance and optimism. In the beautiful final pages of Empire, we are warned “against sadness.”
But wait! What’s really new and big about this argument? Aren’t Hardt & Negri simply riffing on an old and very well known ideology? What’s really being overturned? What’s staler than the assorted leftovers of a failed worldview?
For another thing, one of the main threads of the Hardt & Negri argument, which they’ve pursued through two additional volumes, is the need to re-assess and truly understand the changes wrought in the composition of the working-class worldwide. This is a big idea indeed. Twenty-first century capital roams the world crossing national borders at will, while unfettered border-crossing by labor is criminalized. The definition of democracy itself has been twisted to incorporate a regime’s attitude toward allowing corporations free rein. Nationalized ownership of resources is taken as a sign of oppression, private control by foreign owners as freedom.
Hardt & Negri propose an antidote. The key to everything, they argue, is to acknowledge the demise of the industrial working class, and to accurately characterize the new one. As they put it, “the proletariat is not what it used to be, but that does not mean that it has vanished.” Though class struggle is a very old idea, it’s jarring to hear it respectfully invoked as an analytical tool rather than wielded as an epithet. Whether they are right about the nature of the contemporary working class strikes me as one of the most important starting points facing anyone interested in social change. It’s a very big idea.
By now it must be obvious that I sympathize with Hardt & Negri’s overall critique, while not agreeing with (or even understanding) every particular.
When I was a bookseller my mentor David Schwartz used to forbid booksellers from spouting politics to customers. “Let the books you sell do your talking,” he’d say. And that’s been my approach to being a book rep. Harvard University Press has bravely published some remarkable political texts over the years. I cherish my 1958 copy of Trotsky’s Diary in Exile: 1935. But the beauty of working for a press like HUP is that each season’s new offerings run the ideological gamut. There are plenty of titles across the political and economic spectrum. Though some make arguments I would question, I represent them with professionalism and enthusiasm.
But when an editor has the foresight to sign a thrilling utopian manifesto, a challenge to the status quo at a time when a lazy received wisdom is more entrenched than ever, it’s worth celebrating. This was and is a book that I imagine not just pleasing a reader but changing the world, and it’s a special privilege to pitch it. With joy, and without sadness.