Behind every revolution lurks a set of heavy tomes. The frenzy of men and women of action is often fuelled by the carefully worked out thoughts of philosophers. The French Revolution can be traced back to Rousseau, international communism to Karl Marx's patient dissection of the vices of capitalism, and the rise of the 1960s New Left was partly kindled by writers like Herbert Marcuse.
The past six months saw a cluster of demonstrations and occupations across Europe. Those protests, along with the uprisings of the Arab Spring, helped inspire the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, which in turn is prompting solidarity actions across the continent, including Toronto and Vancouver next weekend. So who qualifies as today's Marx or Marcuse?
The one book that both predicted and helped shape the current wave of radicalism is Empire, a dense and controversial study of globalization by the Italian political philosopher and activist Antonio Negri and the American literary theorist Michael Hardt.
A surprise bestseller when it first came out in 2000, it was quickly overshadowed by the events of 9/11, which temporarily made arguments over globalization seem irrelevant. Still, Profs. Hardt and Negri went on to write two sequels, Multitude (2005) and Commonwealth (2009). And after the U.S. crash threw a wrench into the world economy and the Euro crisis threatens to return the favour, globalization seems very topical again.
Micah White, the senior editor at the Vancouver anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters who first put out the call for Occupy Wall Street, has cited the two academics' work and interviewed Prof. Hardt about youth activism.
So what does the book say? Its “Empire” is modern capitalism, distinct in its reach around the globe and into every facet of life, even more than previous imperialisms: “Empire establishes no territorial centre of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers,” they argue. “The distinct national colours of the imperialist map of the world have merged and blended in the imperial global rainbow.”
The only real, productive social wealth, they claim, comes from the “multitude” – not “the masses” but a “group of singularities” that includes not just the traditional working class, but “immaterial labour,” those who work in information, services and communications, rather than producing goods. Underemployment and precarity make all of them ripe opponents against the system, as shown by the many Occupy Wall Street complaints about unsustainable student loans.
The book's distinction between the productive multitude and the parasitical Empire – “a vampire regime” – finds an echo in the rhetoric of OWS protesters who call themselves “the 99 per cent,” members of the vast majority being exploited by Empire, as represented by the “1 per cent” that hoards the wealth.
The movement has been criticized for its lack of a coherent message or structure. Here again, Profs. Hardt and Negri were ahead of the curve. Adamant about moving past the failure of Soviet Communism, they have little use for Leninist tenets on building a centralized party. A successful radical movement would be more like a “swarm” – decentralized, spontaneous, free-flowing and adaptive, much the way online social networks are.
Where some look at the OWS protesters and see kids on an unserious lark, Profs. Hardt and Negri argue the modern militant should not be like “the sad, ascetic agent of the Third International whose soul was deeply permeated by Soviet state reason.” The great advantage of the multitude is a tactical flexibility rooted in survival skills.
Not that they won't meet resistance: “Empire must restrict and isolate the spatial movement of the multitude to stop them from gaining political legitimacy,” as seen in “kettling” and other control techniques of the New York Police Department today.
Still: “These imperial practices in themselves … do not touch on the political tension that runs throughout the spontaneous movements of the multitude.” So far, tear gas and pepper spray have only made OWS stronger.
As you may see, Empire is a wild mix of academic theory and speculation, and it's met with skepticism even from political fellow travellers. Left-wing economist Doug Henwood, for example, called it “a cascade of assertions with little or no evidence. Its heavy reliance on metaphors and religious imagery makes it seem at times like a theological fantasy, more a dreamwork than an exercise in political economy.” (Mr. Henwood has been supportive but critical of OWS.)
Then again, Empire was written in the 1990s, a moment when it looked like capitalism might never again receive any kind of systematic challenge. The book's real achievement was recognizing that beneath the seemingly placid triumph of the free market, there were turbulent oppositional forces waiting to surface.
Jeet Heer is a writer based in Regina and Toronto.