Informational Capitalism and Empire: The Post-Marxist Celebration of US Hegemony in a New World Order

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Informational capitalism and empire: the post-Marxist celebration of US hegemony in a new world order, Studies in Political Economy, 71-72, 39-58, 2003 [1].

Because it is so difficult to grasp the complexity of a worldwide network of systemic interactions, one can understand the success of simple ideological arguments aimed at deducing all observed effects from a fundamental cause as the primary source of all contradictions[2]

The imperial machine, far from eliminating master narratives, actually produces and reproduces them (ideological master narratives in particular) in order to validate and celebrate its own power[3]

Two recent major studies by Manuel Castells and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have addressed the future of the capitalist economy, the modern state, and social struggles in the light of new information and communication technologies, new paradigms of production, and the dynamic of globalization. Castells’ trilogy on The Information Age has been acclaimed as a persuasive interpretation of the contemporary economy, society, and culture and is widely used in teaching. Although less student-friendly in style, Hardt and Negri’s scholarly volume on the apparently seamless integration of global economic and political power in Empire also became an international best seller and was heralded as offering ‘the next big idea’. This article is more modest in its ambition and aims merely to compare and contrast some key arguments in the two texts. It does not provide detailed exegeses of either text in its entirety nor relate them to their respective authors’ wider body of work. Some key arguments in these texts must therefore be ignored and my critique cannot benefit from putting them into their authorial contexts. Both studies can nonetheless be read on their own and in their own terms. It is on the basis of one such reading that I will advance two main claims.

The first claim is that these studies tend respectively towards a rightwing and leftwing celebration of (or, at least, apologia for) the new economy and network state associated with contemporary, global capitalism. This claim is based on the theoretical problematics and textual strategies that underpin these studies rather than their authors’ intentions, declarations, or use of empirical material. The second claim is that, in seeking to move beyond and/or to update Marx in analysing the current situation, both studies move backwards in key respects rather than forwards. This claim is based on their retreat from a concern with the historical specificity of capitalism, the role of form analysis as critique, and the value theory of labour (and what these categories imply for class struggle and capitalist competition) toward a concern with technological change, the role of the network form as metaphor, and knowledge work and/or a political theory of value (and what these categories imply for social resistance and capitalist rivalry). This can be seen in the neo-Weberian turn in Castells’s analyses of recent economic, political, and social change and in Hardt and Negri’s appropriation of Spinoza, Deleuze-Guattari, and Foucault in their post-modern critique of Empire and global capitalism.

In brief, Castells’ recent work can be read as a right-wing celebration of contemporary capitalism. He sees informationalism as a progressive mode of development; distinguishes only two modes of production, namely, statism and capitalism; argues that statism demonstrably cannot secure the conditions for informationalism to prosper and that the latter’s potentialities can only be realized in and through capitalist relations of production; and asserts that capitalism has reorganized itself to use informationalism to restore its growth dynamic after the economic and political crisis of the mid-70s and 1980s. One effect of this new approach is to naturalize contemporary capitalism, to attribute its dynamism to its capacity to realize the potential of new technologies, and, in the words of Peter Marcuse, to suppress ‘the political, in the broad sense of the dynamic between the exercise of power and the resistance to it’.[4] Thus, while noting that new social movements resist this transition, Castells does not accord them any serious transformative or revolutionary role and offers no new utopias himself, claiming to have seen too many fail. But this has not stopped him from providing expert counsel to new princes such as Yeltsin, Gaydar, and Cardoso, several national governments, and centres of transnational power such as the European Commission, the United Nations, and ILO.

Hardt and Negri’s work can be read as a left-wing celebration of the informational economy and the new imperialism.[5] They claim that ‘Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is better than the forms of society and modes of production that came before it’.[6] Indeed, ‘globalization, insofar as it operates a real deterritorialization of the previous structures of exploitation and control, is really a condition of the liberation of the multitude’.[7] Seen in these terms, the rise of the world market and a global imperial power are positive steps. They are the culmination of the inherent expansionary dynamics of capitalism and the republican form of political power respectively and remove the barriers posed by the nation-state to effective international solidarity. Capitalist expansion is motivated by the attempt to escape and exploit the inherent, creative living spirit of proletarian class struggle and/or the multitude’s desire for liberation. Indeed, the tight imbrication of capitalism and empire now offers the best chances for a revolution on behalf of life. Hardt and Negri’s optimism on this score is rooted in a blind voluntaristic faith in the emancipatory force of the ‘multitude’ that, by virtue of its developing capacities to think and act globally and to disregard traditional divisions and antagonisms among the oppressed and marginal, can shock to its foundations a global system already in a state of ‘omni-crisis’. In addition, Hardt and Negri insist on U.S. exceptionalism as the most fertile soil for the ‘ideal’ birth of Empire and then, with America’s open internal frontier, for the subsequent development of a borderless capitalism. Thus, viewed historically, the U.S. becomes the privileged centre of the de-centred Empire and self-organizing world market. In this sense, their work can also be seen to celebrate the assertion of US hegemony over a backward Europe.

These texts address different theoretical objects and realize their celebratory (or, at least, apologetic) effects in different ways. But they share a concern to move beyond orthodox Marxism without returning fully to Marx. This concern is more explicit in Castells’s analysis because he disowns his earlier Marxist analysis of the crisis of U.S. capitalism as too dogmatic and aims instead to provide a more comprehensive, accessible and valid account of recent changes.[8] The result is that Castells’ work is more Weberian than Marxist and, where it displays Marxist affinities, is more Engelsian than Marxian. Moreover, whereas Weber, like Marx and Engels, emphasized the importance of explaining historical developments in terms of intentional agency as well as emergent structures and processes, Castells’ approach to political economy systematically neglects the role of agency in driving forward technological, economic, political and social change and tends to regard social movements as reactive and fragmented. In contrast, Hardt and Negri emphasize that social struggles are the driving force behind the development of capitalism and insist on the revolutionary potential of de-centred acts of spontaneous resistance that can occur at any time and everywhere within the new Empire. Thus, while Hardt and Negri have also seen revolutionary projects and utopian dreams fail, they still place their faith in the power of desire and the will to life. This indicates the nature of their move away from ‘plain Marxism’ both theoretically and politically. The extent of the shift becomes even clearer when we note that, although they claim to have modelled their own study on Marx’s Capital and Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus,[9] they also remark without qualification or elaboration that the positive content of the new paradigm of power that they have identified involves ‘a hybrid of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory and John Rawls’s theory of justice’.[10] This strange comment is very perceptive and illuminates several otherwise puzzling features of their argument. This is clearest in their analysis of Empire as a self-organizing, de-centred, and global political system and in their penchant for political philosophy not only as a convenient entrypoint into a complex analysis but also as a major theme in its own right throughout their text.

Manuel Castells Goes to Berkeley … and Discovers Silicon Valley

In The Economic Crisis and American Society (1980), Castells identified three aspects of the capital relation: (1) exploitation, (2) intercapitalist competition, and (3) the appropriation and transformation of nature through the development of productive forces.[11] He proposed a hierarchy of structural determination among these aspects, running from the first through the second to the third; he also argued that, because the first is a contradictory relation, so are the second and third aspects and, a fortiori, their overall articulation in the social organization of production. Thus every mode of production is shaped by the contradictory logic rooted in the process of class struggle.[12] In developing these ideas he defined the mode of development in almost identical terms to that later used in the first volume of his massive trilogy. Written after many years’ close study of informational capitalism around the world, the latter work silently inverts the previously proclaimed hierarchy of determination. It now begins with the appropriation and transformation of nature through the development of productive forces and moves to capital-labour relations and intercapitalist competition without mentioning economic exploitation and surplus-value or the way in which, in competition, ‘one capitalist always kills many’.[13] Castells now stresses horizontal networks oriented to cooperation rather than vertical relations of exploitation and domination, studies the relations of ‘networkers’ and ‘networked’ within networks, and argues that the primary division in the modern network society is between those within networks and those excluded from them. Without careful analyses of substantive network dynamics, however, network becomes a catchall metaphor applied to anything and everything and explains nothing. Castells is therefore forced back to explanations in terms of the role of information and communication technologies  (ICTs) in facilitating networking, the primacy of the logic of a homogenizing space of flows over the continued importance of locational differentiation, or the profit-oriented, competitive logic of a subject-less and overpowering capitalism.[14]

The Rise of Network Society begins with a material genealogy of informationalism and how it has superseded industrialism as a mode of development. The latter concept refers to ‘the technological arrangements through which labour works on matter to generate the product, ultimately determining the level and quality of surplus’.[15] Mode of production is defined in turn as the ‘class relationships that define the process by which some human subjects, on the basis of their position in the production process, decide the sharing and uses of the product in relationship to consumption and investment’.[16] The distinction between mode of development and mode of production is central to Castells’s analysis and is superficially similar to Marx’s distinction between the forces and relations of production. But it actually derives from Bell’s account of post-industrial society.[17] It thereby reproduces an artificial contrast between a technicized account of production and a sociologized account of class relations in the allocation of investment capital prior to production and in the subsequent appropriation of surplus. As such, it ignores the central role of class relations in production itself and risks reviving old and stale debates about the relative primacy of technological development and class relations. Marx himself avoided these problems in his sophisticated analyses of science, technology, the division of labour, machinofacture, and accumulation and his insights have since been recovered in recent Marxist theoretical analyses that have moved well beyond the old polarized debates over technological determinism versus the primacy of class struggle. It is increasingly evident once again that technologies are always applied in specific social contexts and that class relations are shaped by technological change.

Castells’s position on these debates is ambivalent, if not thoroughly confused. He develops three separate lines of argument. First, as a historian of technology, he argues that ‘the evolution of technology has … largely determined the productive capacity of society and standards of living, as well as social forms of economic organization’;[18] or, again, ‘the specific ways of increasing productivity define the structure and dynamics of a given economic system’.[19] Second, as a self-described Schumpeterian economist, he notes that, ‘to argue that productivity creates economic growth, and that productivity is a function of technological change, is tantamount to stating that the characteristics of society are the crucial factors underlying economic growth, by their impact on technological innovation’.[20] And, third, as an erstwhile Marxist who has become an adviser to merchants and princes, he recalls that productivity is not a major goal in itself.[21] It is ‘profitability and competitiveness‘ that are ‘the actual determinants of technological innovation and productivity growth’.[22] It is this specifically capitalist logic rather than technological change that actually shapes the development of informationalism — posing issues that Castells chooses to ignore, namely, exploitation, struggles to increase surplus-value, and competition to secure above average rates of profit.

These lines of argument can all be found in Volume One. Successive chapters tend first to review conventional arguments about post-industrialism grounded in the significance of information and communication technologies, knowledge work, and the knowledge revolution; then examine (often with a wealth of detail and statistical support) the often limited or ambiguous evidence for a fundamental shift in economic arrangements directly attributable to the informational revolution; and then suggest how this revolution has been exploited by capitalist enterprises to reinforce its control over labour and/or to increase their competitiveness and profitability – albeit in a seemingly benign and uncontested manner. This explains why Castells can eventually conclude The Rise of Network Society with the claim that informational capitalism has become such a well-integrated and coherent system that its forms of competitiveness and the imperatives of profitability subject even capitalists themselves to its control – a point that Marx, of course, made about capitalism in general more than 150 years earlier. Castells argues that capitalism has finally reached a stage where its logic is all-pervasive because the new infrastructure provided by ICTs has enabled the capitalist mode of production to overcome the limits of time and space and become truly global, i.e., work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale.[23] Thus, for all his anorak fascination with technological change and the informational revolution, Volume One concludes that capitalism emerges stronger as a result but fails to explain how this feat is accomplished apart from capitalism’s greater facility to deploy networks. Castells offers us many plausible stories and persuasive data to support his general analysis of statist failure and network success. However, what is at stake here is not this overall narrative, which has already been told many times and in different ways, but the overall coherence of the categories that he utilizes and their implications for the validity of his explanations and conclusions.

In telling this story about informational capitalism, Castells disregards some basic features of capitalism as a mode of production. In particular, he ignores the crucial role of labour-power in the valorization of capital, preferring to focus instead on labour as just one factor of production among others that contributes to the production of wealth.[24] This in turn leads him to neglect the critical nature of labour-power as a fictitious commodity; and the central role of the transition from manufacture to machinofacture (the key transition in the development of industrialism) in securing the conditions for the real subsumption of labour-power under capitalist control. This point is worth emphasizing not because it establishes the reviewer’s Marxist credentials but because the treatment of information and knowledge as just one more factor of production poses analogous problems. Labour-power under capitalism is both concrete labour and abstract labour, both source of creativity and factor of production substitutable by capital, both use-value and exchange-value. By analogy, we can understand ‘information’ as both collectively generated knowledge and abstract intellectual property, as both social source of creativity and substitutable factor of production, and as both use-value and exchange-value. Posed in these terms we need to consider how information and knowledge came to be transformed into commodities and continue to be so transformed on an increasing scale; the mechanisms that enable the collective labourer to be dispossessed of its collective knowledge; the mechanisms that enable the ‘owners’ of industrial and intellectual property to appropriate rents and/or profits from this control; and the consequences of such appropriation for economic performance and economic justice. Castells ignores all of this.

Given his neglect of this set of problems it is unsurprising that, although he presents himself as a theorist of informational capitalism, Castells nowhere addresses such questions as the latest round of primitive accumulation of capital (in the form of intellectual property) through the private expropriation of the collectively produced knowledge of past generations (reflected in such controversial practices as bio-piracy); the history of the formal and real subsumption of ‘intellectual labour’ under capitalist control; the dynamics of the technological rents generated by new knowledge and the disappearance of these rents once the new knowledge (whether as knowledge, intelligent means of production, or smart products) becomes generalized and so comes to define the socially necessary labour time embodied in products and/or the socially necessary turnover time required for the distribution; the importance of establishing monopolies in knowledge or information to protect technological rents (witness litigation over Microsoft and the struggle between Microsoft and Linux); the implications of technological rents for reductions in the profits in less technologically advanced sectors (and hence the importance of globalization as a means of reinforcing uneven development and imposing unequal exchange); and the self-defeating nature of the informational revolution from the viewpoint of capital, insofar as each new round of innovation is prone to ever more rapid devalorization. Instead Castells seems to naturalize the role of knowledge in informational capitalism, treating it simply as a factor of production rather than as a contested social relation.

Castells’ account of the state is also confused. On the one hand, he still deploys a conventional Weberian notion of the state as an apparatus possessing a legitimate monopoly of violence over a given territorial area; and, on the other hand, he argues that the state has become a node or segment in a network state that spans different national territories and coordinates policies across them. The problems this poses are particularly clear in his account of the European Union as a model of the evolving ‘network state’ in action.[25] His account of the state’s role in economic development is at least equally ambivalent, if not downright self-contradictory. On the one hand, it seems closer in many passages to Engels than Marx. In Anti-Dühring and other texts, Engels accorded primacy to the development of the productive forces over the relations of production; argued that the state could either promote or retard their continued development; and concluded that states that retarded them would lose economic power and political influence. In like manner Castells argues that ‘the state can be, and has been in history, in China and elsewhere, a leading force of technological innovation … precisely because of this, when the state reverses its interest in technological development, or becomes unable to perform it under new conditions, a statist model of innovation leads to stagnation’.[26] In short, technological development is relatively autonomous and the state can either hinder or accelerate this development. Castells then illustrates this quasi-Engelsian law, with many examples drawn from China, Japan, Korea, the Soviet Union, Eurosclerosis, and Reagan’s military Keynesianism. On the other hand, he sometimes grants the state a more innovative role, at least in informational capitalism. Thus he argues that ‘the state, not the innovative entrepreneur in his garage, both in America and throughout the world, was the initiator of the Information Technology Revolution’.[27] The state has also developed new forms of intervention to promote competitiveness, productivity, and technology to advance the interests of capital and state managers alike.[28] And he asserts that:

‘competitiveness in the new global economy … seems to be highly dependent on the political capacity of national and supranational institutions to steer the growth strategy of those countries or areas under their jurisdiction, including the creation of competitive advantages in the world market for those firms considered to serve the interests of the populations in their territories by generating jobs and income. Governments’ actions are not limited to managing trade: they also may provide the necessary support for technological development and human resources training, the fundamental basis for the informational economy to work’.[29]

Later he will affirm that East Asian developmental states had a key role in economic ‘catchup’ and that contemporary ‘competition states’ have many core functions in the intense technological and economic race among advanced capitalist economies.

All of these arguments rest on the naturalization of the historical institutional separation between the market economy and the state to the neglect of the formal adequacy – but problematic functionality – of this separation in relation to the expanded reproduction of the capital relation.[30] Such views serve to normalize his account of recent changes in economic and social policy as natural, self-evidently sensible responses to the technological, economic, and global changes and challenges that he describes.

Conceptual and theoretical ambiguities do not stop here. Castells also tells us that ‘the nation-state, as historically created in the Modern Age, seems to be losing its power, although, and this is essential, not its influence‘.[31] Alternatively, faced with globalization, ‘it has lost most of its economic power, albeit it still has some regulatory capacity and relative control over its subjects’.[32] In the attempt to regain some of this power, nation-states are said to enter into political cartels (such as the EU), supranational consortia, and new forms of global governance (such as the OECD). This does not amount to the demise of the nation-state but is the condition for its precarious survival as one among many equivalent segments of interstate networks. But this survival strategy of pushing power upwards comes at the expense of a decrease in the relevance of national states, thus undermining their legitimacy, and ultimately furthering their powerlessness.[33] This triggers a counter-response in the form of decentralization of power to regional and local states. But this can also backfire if newly empowered regional and local elites develop strategies that compete with those of the national state or if new regional and local identities challenge the integrity of the nation-state (see vol II).[34] This declining legitimacy is reinforced by the nation-state’s inability to deal with the challenge of singular identities.[35] In explaining these changes, Castells tends to refer to processes without a subject (such as globalization, the logic of space rather than place, or the power of financial markets) rather than the strategies and decisions  of powerful actors. The overall logic of his argument affirms the disempowerment of the ’networked’ and those outside networks rather than highlighting the real social forces and agents that are driving these processes forward.[36]

There is much of interest in Castells’s various but by no means consistent descriptions of the state across all three volumes of his trilogy. Nonetheless it seems that, overall, his analysis is guilty of the same charge he levels against other accounts of the continued power of state, namely, that they ‘mix contradictory evidence with confused theory’.[37] This is reflected in his final comment on nation states, namely, that they ‘may retain decision-making capacity, but, having become part of a network of powers and counterpowers, they are powerless by themselves: they are dependent on a broader system of enacting authority and influence from multiple sources’.[38] This is hardly novel. The state has always been part of a network of powers and counterpowers – this is why Gramsci insisted on analyzing the state in its inclusive sense as comprising ‘political society + civil society’ and why he suggested that state power should be analyzed in terms of ‘hegemony armoured by coercion’.[39] This is not to suggest that nothing has changed in the organization of the state; it is to caution that one must compare like with like and not work with a mythical past characterized by an autonomous, sovereign state and contrast it with an equally mythical nation-state fully integrated into a global network state and hence lacking any autonomous powers.

Hardt and Negri Go to Washington … and Find the New Rome

Hardt and Negri’s work covers a wide range of topics, combining a wide range of political theory, philosophy, and ethical considerations with economic and political history and contemporary analysis. It draws extensively on literature in several Continental European languages as well as English, on philosophical traditions dating back to Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, and the revolutionary humanism of the Renaissance, and on post-structuralism, post-modernism, and post-colonialism. It is also a complex, multi-layered, labyrinthine work. On the one hand, it interweaves some familiar narratives about American economic and political history, the crisis of Fordism, the development of the informational economy, the rise of the network paradigm, the increasing mediatization of politics, inevitable and irresistible expansion of the world market, the imperial pretensions of the USA, and so on. On the other hand, it overlays these stories with several layers of meta-narrative and overburdens them with philosophical musings that are tangential at best and obfuscatory at worst. And, apart from presenting interwoven narratives and overcoding them with various meta-narratives, Hardt and Negri also critique, often incisively, post-colonial, post-structuralist, and other competing (meta-)theoretical positions.

The entrypoint for Hardt and Negri’s analysis reminds one more of the young than the mature Marx. For, following a coherent, accessible, and far from innocent ‘summary’ of their main theses, their work begins with a critique of the philosophy of imperial right. This provides the basis for an extended account of the ‘ideal genesis’ of Empire that draws on a wide range of philosophical and theoretical texts and a selective presentation of standard historical materials. They justify this approach on two main grounds: first, ‘juridical figures … provide a good index of the process of imperial constitution’;[40] and, second, politics is the privileged medium through which the crisis of modernity unfolds to produce a new economic as well as social order. This already poses interesting questions about the link between changes in juridical philosophy and theory and material transformation and, in this latter context, between juridical, political, economic, and social changes. It is one thing to say that changes in juridical figures are indexes of social transformation – a transformation that must then be explained in its own right; it is another to explain these juridical changes in terms of an autonomous logic that is facilitated by transformations and struggles elsewhere; and it is yet another to argue that material transformation induces changes in juridical figures in the manner of superstructural changes triggered by changes in the material base of society.

The early discussion of the ‘ideal genesis’ of Empire recalls Hegel in its quasi-teleological conceptual self-realization. Consider the following arguments compiled from scattered but consistent comments throughout the first part of Empire. Empire is a concept prior to reality, it has a ‘soul’ and a ‘vocation’ (it is called into being), and it is the end to which the new paradigm of power is leading. It is conceptually perfected but as yet imperfectly realized, and hence reasserts itself. It sets social change in motion, it is self-confirming through the right of police, it is self-enlarging via consensus-building, it is self-potentiating through the mediatization of politics, and it is self-legitimating and self-authorizing. It has a telos rooted in the conflicts that Empire resolves and is called into being by its functionality. It is totalizing and expansive, internalizing its outside so that there are no longer any weak links that can threaten it. In an admittedly uneven but nonetheless inevitable and irresistible process, it expands until it has absorbed the whole of social life, the collective biopolitical body. Indeed, the whole social body is now comprised by power’s machine and developed in its virtuality. An account such as this goes beyond simple Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history) to Begriffsrealismus, i.e., to the conflation of concept and reality, and even to Begriffsidealismus, i.e., the attribution to a concept of capacities for self-actualization. It gives the impression of the necessary self-realization of a self-perfecting and now perfect immanent ethico-political force based on human values. But this impression could be mistaken because we are also told that the emergence of Empire is incomplete because individual societies and nation-states still survive, because there is a state of omni-crisis, and because there is resistance everywhere, including from the body. Accordingly Hardt and Negri also inform us that the concept of Empire must struggle to establish itself, that the imperial machine must be set in motion, that it is hard to manage racially and socially diverse metropolitan territories, that the development of Empire becomes its own critique and its process of construction becomes the power of its overturning. The perfection of Empire is at the same time its corruption. Unsurprisingly, then, they also feel able to conclude that ‘[t]he juridical process and the imperial machine are always subject to contradictions and crises. And that, ultimately, the institutional frame in which we live is characterized by its radical contingency and precariousness’.[41]

Although talk of radical contingency and precariousness is reminiscent of Niklas Luhmann’s emphasis on the improbability of communication and, a fortiori, of the reproduction of the social system,[42] the explanation for radical contingency and precariousness offered by Hardt and Negri refers to the universal spirit of being-against, desire, and resistance rather than to inherent features of communication à la Luhmann. But the latter’s approach is reflected in another aspect of Hardt and Negri’s argument. This is their claim that the post-modern form of sovereignty that characterizes empire involves a self-organizing political system on a global scale, without a centre and based on political communication about what is good or bad for the maintenance of imperial order.[43] Rawls also enters here indirectly insofar as this imperial order is ideally oriented to universal human values, permanent peace, and social justice.[44] However, pace Hardt and Negri, Luhmann himself admitted that, in contrast to, say, the economic system of world society, the latter’s political system is strongly segmented through the persistence of national states.[45] Hardt and Negri themselves are also well aware of this and, indeed, describe a three-layered pyramid of power in the still emerging Empire in which the middle layer is occupied by a series of middle-ranking national states. This creates the space for a tension between the unicity of Empire and the plurality of actually existing nation-states that is best resolved through the exercise of hegemonic power over other nation-states by the dominant nation-state – not in its own, immediate realpolitisch and narrow economic-corporate interests but in the interests of Empire as a whole. This privileged position is occupied, of course, by the United States. And Hardt and Negri explain this in turn in terms of American exceptionalism vis-à-vis the Europe of the Ancien Régime. For it was in the embryonic United States of America that the secret of the immanent self-organization of politics was discovered in a republican constitution based on checks and balances and was articulated to a borderless, timeless imperial vision. All that was then needed for a post-national, post-imperialist, post-modern Empire to triumph in the struggle against national sovereignty, imperialism, and a crisis-ridden modernity was that the United States become the privileged hegemonic centre of an irresistibly expanding world society. And in this it was helped by capital’s immanent drive to expand unceasingly and to interiorize every ‘outside’ so that the whole world society and the collective biopolitical body are subsumed under its logic.

There are severe problems with this grand meta-narrative logically, theoretically, and historically. Even if we accept that the logical contradiction of asserting both unicity (‘a single logic of rule’) and plurality (‘a series of national and supranational organisms’) can be resolved through the introduction of hegemony as a mediating principle, there is the theoretical problem that this mediation cannot be explained within the terms of Hardt and Negri’s initial problematic. In addition, unless the emergence of Empire is somehow teleologically guaranteed by the self-realization of its concept and/or its self-substituting nature whenever its imperial interventions fail to secure peace, then the contradictory history of American imperial power and its expansion – even as it is selectively narrated by Hardt and Negri themselves – provides no proof that the American superstate will wield its power in the global imperial interest rather than in its own imperialist interests as these are (mis)perceived from time to time by its state managers. The fact that the pursuit of US imperialist interests may sometimes coincide with some other imperialist interests within a neoliberal transnational class, may involve ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’ (or mercenary ‘coalitions of the shilling’) where possible, and may be cloaked in the rhetoric of Empire should be deemed largely irrelevant. For it is equally clear (and, perhaps, increasingly so under the neo-conservative regime of George W. Bush) that US imperialist interests may also be pursued in splendid (or sordid) isolation against its supposed transatlantic partners in ‘old Europe’ as well as against more recalcitrant ‘rogue states’, ‘failed states’, and ‘client states’ elsewhere. The practical model for the current Bush regime is less an idealized imperial Rome than the globalization of American realpolitisch behaviour for more than a century towards its Latin American backyard.[46] More generally, Hardt and Negri overlook the continuing significance of major conflicts between different fractions of capital, between different regions and scales of capital accumulation, and different strategies (including their quite different implications for the differential integration-exclusion of sections of the proletariat, however defined).

This critique raises the crucial question about the relationship between economic and political development. Empire begins with a quasi-Hegelian account of the ‘ideal genesis of Empire’ as the self-realization of a borderless, timeless concept that emerged with Ancient Rome and, after various trials and tribulations, re-emerged in the American Republic; it then moves to a quasi-Marxist account (strongly influenced by Rosa Luxemburg’s underconsumptionist analysis of imperialism) of the ‘material genesis of Empire’ as the self-realization of a borderless political economy of time as capital struggles to absorb its ‘outside’. Moreover, just as the ideal genesis of Empire required Hardt and Negri to show how the crisis of the transcendent sovereign nation-state was overcome through the political resistance of the multitude, the proletariat must now be brought into their analysis to explain how capital overcame successive barriers to its consolidation of an integrated world market. Thus, as Hardt and Negri argue, ‘[i]n order to understand the passage from imperialism to Empire, in addition to looking at the development of capital itself, we must also understand the genealogy from the perspective of class struggle’.[47]

This theoretical manoeuvre is also problematic, however, because Hardt and Negri redefine the meaning of production and class struggle in three key respects. First, they argue that there is a shift from material production to biopolitical production (or from industrial production to informational production) in which the distinctions between productive forces and production relations and between production and reproduction dissolve. Second, they argue that the industrial proletariat, to the extent that it still exists, has lost its previous hegemonic position in the class struggle to the multitudinous masses of an expanded proletariat and the ‘poor’. And, third, they argue that these shifts require the development of a political theory of value based on immaterial production in the networked social factory to replace Marx’s economic theory of value based on material production in the industrial factory. It is on this basis that they offer their completion of Marx’s allegedly unwritten (and, in Marx’s time, allegedly unwritable) theory of the state.[48] In particular, they suggest that Marx could not have written an adequate general theory of the state because the world market had not yet been established to provide him with the material basis for such a theory.[49] Their own theory concerns a new, decentred, deterritorialized, global sovereignty (in short, Empire), of course, rather than the plurality of centred, territorially demarcated, national or proto-imperialist states that existed in Marx’s lifetime. Nonetheless Hardt and Negri do suggest a possible bridge between Marx’s necessarily ‘aleatory’ and ‘abstract’ comments on the state and their own theory of empire when they assert that, ‘[w]hen a new social reality is formed, integrating both the development of capital and the proletarianization of the population into a single process, the political form of command must itself be modified and articulated in a manner and on a scale adequate to this process, a global quasi-state of the disciplinary regime’.[50]

As this Empire gets formed, however, the prospects for revolution are enhanced. There is no place for the multitude to hide because economic power is now exercised by global monetary system, political power is exercised through police actions and imperial control oriented to local effectiveness, and cultural power is mediated through global networks of communication that integrate the symbolic with the biopolitical in the service of imperial power. The emergence of a multitude of individual acts directed against economic globalization and Empire will trigger shock waves throughout the system and lead to the emergence of counter-globalization, counter-Empire strategies. Once again the ‘multitude’ acts as the voluntaristic deus ex machina that can solve the aporias in this account because the multitude alone has the required spirit of ‘being-against’ and the desire for liberation.

Concluding Remarks

There are many further points that would merit discussion in a more detailed analysis of the two texts reviewed here. For example, it would be worth discussing the significance of the following similarities:

  • the break with frozen economic and political geometries based on imperialism, centre-periphery, or First, Second and Third Worlds in favour of integrated accounts of the globalizing, networked informational economy;
  • over-reliance on, and over-extension of, the network metaphor in both texts – coupled in both cases with remarkably vague definitions of this key concept;[51]
  • the tendency to treat information and knowledge in Ricardian fashion as simple factors of production, to the neglect of their transformation into intellectual property as well as the growing importance of intellectual property to the organization of production, valorization, and capitalist competition;
  • failure to develop an adequate crisis theory, let alone to apply it to the crises that triggered the transition from industrialism to informational capitalism or, in the case of Hardt and Negri, from industrial capitalism to biopolitical production;
  • over-reliance on simple before-after contrasts in their periodizations that allow little, if any scope, for continuity as well as discontinuity or for ‘conservation-dissolution’ effects;
  • over-reliance on simple conceptual couplets to characterize fundamental social changes (such as Castells’s ‘Net versus Self’ or ‘Empire versus multitude’ in Hardt and Negri);
  • the tendency to develop general theories of power without regard to the specific modalities of the exercise of different kinds of power in different contexts;
  • the tendency to resort to essentialist modes of explanation to explain struggle that are reminiscent of Lenin’s ‘class instincts’, Lacan’s ‘lack’, and Foucault’s ‘plebeian spirit of resistance’ – these being Spinoza’s ‘desire’ in the case of Hardt and Negri and the self-affirmation of historically rooted, particularistic identities in the case of Castells;
  • the tendency to ignore whether resistance is merely a tactics of the weak (in de Certeau’s terms)[52] or can be integrated into a transformative strategy capable of undermining the strategies of the strong; and
  • the tendency to establish chains of correspondence (if not equivalence) between the terms of these couplets so that social transformation appears to be especially ruptural, effecting a whole series of changes at one and the same time.

It would also be worth commenting on other major differences that have been neglected above. Castells’ text is primarily sociological and, in addition to extended empirical case studies of new social movements, includes a soft economic sociology of the information age and a plausible political sociology of the contemporary state. It deliberately eschews extended commentary on other theorists, however, on the grounds that Castells did not want to write ‘a book about books’. While this enables him to develop his argument in his own terms, it also enables him to avoid sustained engagement with alternative, more critical and contrarian accounts of the major changes that he identifies. Hardt and Negri’s text is primarily philosophical and, in addition to extended commentaries on key themes in juridical thought and leading political theorists, includes various more or less extended critiques of other theoretical positions. But it is remarkably short on empirical detail, relies mostly on mainstream accounts for such narrative political or economic histories as it does provide, and, whilst celebrating the fact that imperial power operates through difference, operates in practice with an even less differentiated account of economic, social, and political divisions than does Castells. This is linked to an abuse of metaphors and extensive reliance on reified concepts such as Empire, power, and machine.

Given the theoretical incoherence and empirical poverty of these texts, we are left to wonder about their bestseller status. A possible explanation is their common narrative and rhetorical strategies for making sense of the world. The appropriateness of such a strategy is already indicated in the quotation from Castells at the head of this article: growing complexity and its resulting perplexity offer fertile ground for ‘simple ideological arguments aimed at deducing all observed effects from a fundamental cause as the primary source of all contradictions’. And it is also indicated by Hardt and Negri’s remark that the imperial machine produces and reproduces master narratives to validate and celebrate its own power.

Good narratives have three key elements: (a) a selective appropriation of past events and forces; (b) a temporal sequence with a beginning, middle, and end; (c) and a relational emplotment of the events and forces and their connection to some overarching structure which permits some causal and moral lessons to be drawn.[53] Both texts offer powerful narratives, complete with beginning, middle, and end, linked to moral lessons and social imperatives. They also adopt a number of rhetorical strategies that serve to reinforce their appeal to their respective audiences.

In the case of Castells, the basic plot is the development of key information and communication technologies that have enabled the full potential of network forms of economic, political, and social organization to be realized.[54] The social imperative that he derives from his own emplotment of this story is that only capitalism can draw out this full potential and this is why one can interpret his work as a right-wing celebration of informational capitalism. This is reinforced by the fact that he distinguishes only two modes of production: statism and capitalism. The moral lesson that he derives is that networks are neither good nor bad, but nor are they neutral: when they are used to exploit and oppress, they generate opposition and resistance from those who wish to assert their sense of self against the networks. The paradox is that successful resistance must make use of the same ICTs and the same network forms of organization. All of this can be encapsulated in the simple phrase ‘Net vs Self’.

Hardt and Negri present a more complex, multi-layered story that combines three main narratives: the ideal self-realization of the concept of Empire, the material driving force of capital’s need for unlimited expansion into the material and biopolitical worlds, and the creative demiurge of an immanent desire to be free – a desire on which both imperial power and capitalist development are parasitic. Whatever the complexities of its genesis, however, there is a simple historical lesson and a simple moral lesson. The historical lesson is that the immanent potential for global empire and global market has now been realized and has thereby created the best conditions for a final confrontation between Empire and Multitude. And the moral lesson is that ‘Globalization must be met with a counter-globalization, Empire with a counter-Empire’.[55]

In writing their texts, both Castells and Hardt-Negri seek to move beyond the Marxist tradition. Castells does so quite explicitly despite his equally explicit interest in the dynamic of informational capitalism, Hardt-Negri do so implicitly despite their homage to Marx’s Capital in the introduction. My own view is that it is premature to abandon Marxism and that it would be more fruitful to renew it in the light of recent changes in the world order. A good guide in this respect can be found in the following statement:

‘The Marxist tradition is, to our knowledge, the only one that even attempts to put together the movement of capital and the process of social change as jointly determined by class struggles over production, consumption, power, and cultural values. Therefore, we will rely on this tradition to construct a tentative theoretical scheme capable of providing us with an understanding of current historical trends. … we would rather risk exposing ourselves to criticism by trying to use and develop the Marxist theory of crises than use its obvious weaknesses as a pretext to withdraw from any attempt at explanation’.[56]

The author is the 1980 Castells and it is this Castells rather than the author of the Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture whose advice I would prefer to take on how best to intepret the world and to change it.


[1]  This review was first presented orally in the context of a discussion of the War on Terrorism at the InKrit Conference, Berlin, in May 2002. I am grateful for the comments I received there, especially from Frigga and Wolf Haug, Thomas Sablowski, and Mario Candeias. A revised version was published in German as Bob Jessop, ‘Informationskapitalismus und Empire: Verklärungen der US-Hegemonie’, Das Argument, 248, 2002, pp. 777-790. The English version has been expanded to include a few additional criticisms of both texts.

[2]  Manuel Castells, The Economic Crisis of American Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980, p. 9. This is based on an earlier French text, La crise économique et la société américain, Paris: Maspero, 1976.

[3]   Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 34.

[4] Peter Marcuse, ‘Depoliticizing globalization: the information age and the network society of Manuel Castells’, in John Ede and Christopher Mele (eds.), Investigating the City: Contemporary and Future (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 131-158.

[5]  After this evaluation was published in German, I came across a similar claim by Callinicos, who describes Empire as a far-left celebration of global governance in the same vein as the left-liberalism of David Held. See Alex Callinicos, Against the Third Way, Cambridge: Polity (2001), pp. 137-8.

[6]   Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 43.

[7]   Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 52.

[8]   Castells, Network Society, p. 19n.

[9]   Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 415n.

[10]   Castells, Economic Crisis, pp. 13-14.

[11]   Ibid., pp. 45-6.

[12]  Ibid., p. 47.

[13]  Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1974, p. 714.

[14] Cf. Mikiya Heise, ‘Phantasmagorien der “Netzwerkgesellschaft”. Zu Manuel Castells’, Das Argument, 248, 2002, pp. 684-95.

[15]  Castells, Network Society, p. 16.

[16]  Castells, Network Society, p. 15.

[17] D. Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, London: Heinemann, 1973.

[18]  Castells, Network Society, p. 66.

[19]  Castells, Network Society, p. 67; cf. p. 80.

[20] Castells, Network Society, p. 69, my emphasis; cf. Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, p. 300.

[21]  Castells, Network Society, p. 80.

[22]  Castells, Network Society, p. 81, my emphasis.

[23]  Castells, Network Society, pp. 92-3.

[24]  One might qualify this charge about his neglect of valorization by noting that Castells does discuss the role of ICTs in reducing socially necessary labour time (without using this concept); in addition, he is aware of the role of ICTs in reducing the socially necessary turnover time (another concept not used) of capital and thus in competition among capitals.

[25]  For a critique, see Bob Jessop, ‘Multi-Level Governance and Multi-Level Meta-Governance. Changes in the EU as Integral Moments in the Transformation and Reorientation of Contemporary Statehood’, in Ian Bache and Matt Flinders, eds, Themes and Issues in Multi-Level Governance, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003 (in press).

[26] Castells, Network Society, p. 10.

[27] Castells, Network Society, p. 60.

[28] See, for example, Castells, Network Society, pp. 88-90.

[29] Castells, Network Society,105, italics in original.

[30] For a recent detailed account of this formal adequacy and problematic functionality, see Bob Jessop, The Future of the Capitalist State, Cambridge: Polity, 2002.

[31]  Castells, Power of Identity, p. 243.

[32]  Castells, Power of Identity, p. 254.

[33]  Castells, Power of Identity, p. 269.

[34]  See Castells, Power of Identity.

[35]  Castells, Network Society, pp. 243-4.

[36]  On this aspect of Castells’s work, see also Marcuse, ‘Depoliticizing …’.

[37]  Castells, Power of Identity, p. 299.

[38]  Castells, Power of Identity, pp. 304-5.

[39] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.

[40]  Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 9.

[41]  Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 60.

[42] See, for example, Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

[43] Cf. Niklas Luhmann, ‘The “State” of the political system’, in idem, Essays in Self-Reference, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 165-174.

[44] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

[45]  Niklas Luhmann, Die Politik der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000.

[46]  Rodney Edvinsson and Keith Harvey, Beyond Imperialism, London: League for a Revolutionary Communist International, 2002.

[47]  Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 234.

[48] For incisive analyses of Marx’s theory of the state, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. I (in 2 volumes), New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976; idem, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. II, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978; and idem, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. III, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986. And also: Antoine Artous, Marx, l’État et la Politique, Paris: Syllepse, 1999.

[49]  Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 236.

[50]  Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 255.

[51] Thus Castells argues that: ‘[a] network is a set of interconnected nodes. A node is the point at which a curve intersects itself. … Thus, distance (physical, social, economic, political, cultural) for a given point or position varies between zero (for any node in the same network) and infinite (for any point external to the network)’ (Network Society, p. 470). Likewise Hardt and Negri write: ‘The general outlines of today’s imperial constitution can be conceived in the form of a rhizomatic and universal communication network in which relations are established to and from all its points or nodes. Such a network seems paradoxically to be at once completely open and completely closed to struggle and intervention. On the one hand, the network formally allows all possible subjects in the web of relations to be present simultaneously, but on the other hand, the network itself is a real and proper non-place. The struggle over the constitution will have to be played out on this ambiguous and shifting terrain’ (Empire, pp. 319-20).

[52] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

[53] Patricia Ewick and Susan A. Silbey, ‘Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: toward a sociology of narrative’, Law and Society Review, 29 (1995), pp. 197-226, at p. 200.

[54]  Castells, ‘Materials’.

[55]  Hardt And Negri, Empire, p. 207.

[56]  Castells, Economic Crisis, pp. 14, 15.

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