The Categories of Empire & Multitude: Critical Analysis


From the end of the Cold War on in numerous descriptions of the international stage that have been made they have insisted permanently on the dusk of modern sovereignty, on the incapacity of the State to orient the economy and plan development, on the loss of importance of the State as a main actor of international relations and on the crisis of national entities. The “declining” sovereignty has been constantly pointed out of the State-nation and its growing incapacity to regulate economic and cultural exchanges, as well as the loss of the importance of the concept of “the people” as a social subject and the apparition of a new social subject denominated the “multitude”,that grows on the inside of an empire.

Among the most important authors, within leftist thinking, who redefined the concept of an empire and who proposed the disappearance of the concept of a people as a social subject, it is deserving to mention Michael Hardt and Antonio Negro, who take great care to clarify that they do not employ the word “empire” as a metaphor but rather as a concept. To them: “The Empire is a now form a world order, power in a network, that emerges today and that includes State-nations as key elements or nodes, together with the supra-national institutions, the main capitalistic corporations and other powers. In the Empire network not all powers are equal, of course. Very much on the contrary, some State-nations have enormous power, and others almost none. […] But, despite the inequalities, they find themselves forced to cooperate to create and maintain current global order with all its divisions and its internal hierarchies” (Hardt and Negri, 2004: 14). For Hardt and Negri, in that new world order, no State-nation can constitute the center of an imperialistic project. They believe imperialism to have ceased because not even the most powerful of states, the United States, can “maintain global order” on its own without the collaboration of the other main powers of the empire network.

Just as the empire is a product of globalization, its flipside is the occurrence, in the midst of the empire itself, of a new social subject: “The multitude, that can be considered as an open and expansive network, where all differences can be expressed in a free and fair way” (15). While the “people” is one, the “multitude” is plural and is made up of innumerable internal differences that could never be reduced to a single identity. The multitude demands an open and inclusive democratic global society. On this Hardt and Negri state: “Democracy on a global scale is turning into a more and more extensive claim, sometimes explicit and other implicit in the innumerable complaints and resistances that are manifest against the current global order” (18). This, states Negri, progressive forces should work on the construction of the “multitude project”.

The brilliant ideas expressed by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their works Empire and Multitude –despite their enormous value for the critical analysis of the international reality - present, to our understanding, some conceptual mistakes at the foundation. We believe that the category of “empire” as a “central not” of Negri’s ideas –that the author brings about in this last stage of globalization - was already an evident reality from the first stage of the globalizing process. In Negri’s work there is an overestimation of the role played by the States in the Westphalia Peace until the stage we denominate “the third globalization”, and an underestimation of the role of the States (fundamentally the role of the continental States like the United States, China, India, Russia and possibly the European Union, if it is able to go from the stadium of economic integration to that of military-political integration), on the current international stage. Overestimation and underestimation, in the minds of Negri and Hardt, are two sides of the same coin. The empire is not a new fact. The mistake of overestimation” of the role played by the European State-nations, after the Westphalia Peace, clouds the fact that the empire, that we prefer to denominate “hegemonic structure of world power”-following Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães -, was already an evident reality from the beginning of the globalization process. Seeing as how the empire is a permanent reality, it is also true without a doubt that currently it has increased its gravitational field causing the sovereignty of the classic State-nations to be eroded.

Nevertheless, it is much more arguable that that we denominate “continent States” or in terms of Darc Costa (2005), “mega-states” have considerably diminished the substance of power. Likewise, when the concept of multitude is analyzed and one looks at China or at the Islamic world, the fact quickly comes into view that Hardt and Negri’s idea of “multitude” corresponds to Western society and to small “westernized” nuclei of the Islamic and Asian world. Rarely will the common Chinese inhabitant, for example, be able to identify him or herself with the “multitude” as Negri understands them.

It is at very least doubtful that the great majority of the population of China is even interested in “the multitude project”, meaning, “the possibility of democracy on a global level”. It is even more doubtful that the vast majority of the Islamic population, from Morocco to Indonesia, to understand democracy, conceptually, in the same way that the majority of the population of Mexico or Germany does. It also seems doubtful that the common inhabitant of India, given he or she has not done it already, go out and discover –in a near future- the “common element” that will allow him or her to “act together” with the common inhabitant of Pakistan. In China and the Islamic countries there seems to be, still and for quite a while longer, “the people” and not the “multitude”. The prevailing “social subject” in India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, seems to be “the people” and not the“multitude”. It seems incredibly difficult to produce, in Negri’s terms, the “common ground” between the individual that lives in Calcutta and the one that inhabits Beijing or Bangladesh. Negri’s statement that “democracy on a global level is becoming a more and more extensive claim” turns out to be difficult to sustain when we step away from philosophy (Negri himself affirmed that his work is philosophical: “Have in mind”, writes Negri in Multitude, “that this is a philosophical book”, Hardt and Negri, 2004: 19), and we land on concrete sociological analysis. Undoubtedly, it is true that the primary factors of production and exchange –money, technology, people and goods- cross, with ever great ease, national borders.

Nor is there any doubt that, in concordance with the process of globalization, the sovereignty of the State-nations – though it is still effective- has been slowly dropping off. However, there is an evident exception that challenges this previous description: the State, the people and the nation of China are much more consolidated today than at the beginning of the 10th century. There is no identity crisis in China of any kind. The Chinese State has not lost power and the Chinese people dive into globalization with outright nationalistic effervescence.