“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. You can read an excerpt from Empire at our centennial site, and, below, a look back on the book’s reinvigoration of the left by HUP sales representative John Eklund.
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?