Michael Hardt

Michael Hardt, Professor of Political Literature at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Michael Hardt (b. 1960) is a political philosopher and literary theorist, best known for three books he co-authored with Antonio Negri: Empire (2000), Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), and Commonwealth (2009). The trilogy, in particular its first volume—Empire—has often been hailed as the “Communist Manifesto of the 21st Century.” Michael Hardt is a professor of literature at Duke University and a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.

Hardt, however, did not begin either as a philosophy or literature student. Indeed, he began as an engineer, receiving a Bachelors of Science from Swarthmore College, in 1983. During this time, Hardt worked for solar energy companies, both in Italy and the USA. This was not an apolitical time in Hardt’s life; rather, he saw work in the field of alternative energy as political: "I thought that doing alternative energy engineering for third world countries would be a way of doing politics that would get out of all this campus political posing that I hated." After his Bachelors, he turned his attention to comparative literature, and received an MA from the University of Washington, in 1986. Four years later, he would complete a PhD in comparative literature, also at the University of Washington.

Parallel to his studies throughout the 1980s, Hardt participated in the Sanctuary Movement—a political and religious campaign to provide a safe haven in the United States to Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. The campaign was a response to the American government’s restrictive federal policies for asylum seekers. Later, Hardt would help to organize a project to furnish the University of El Salvador with donated computer hardware and software. During this time, Hardt was also involved in contesting US funded wars across Central America. By his own account, he became progressively more radical over the course of the decade. In the 1980s, he would meet the Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri and begin a collaboration that has lasted to this day.

In addition to Empire (2000), Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), and Commonwealth (2009), Hardt and Negri have also written Labor of Dionysus: a Critique of the State-form (1994) and Declaration (2012). Aside from these works, Hardt has also written Gilles Deleuze: an Apprenticeship in Philosophy (1993), as well as numerous articles, including: The Withering of Civil Society (1995), Prison Time (1997), Affective Labour (1999), Jefferson and Democracy (2007), and How to Write with Four Hands (2013).

From when its publication until today, Empire stands as an exceptional work of the political Left for the simple reason that—unlike the majority of other works of similar ideological orientation—it proposes a total vision of the contemporary world as well as a positive outlook on the political potential of the Left today. Certainly, in the last three decades there have been numerous works that have offered comprehensive visions of the state of the world in the wake of the end of the Cold War, but they have been overwhelmingly on the side of the proponents of capitalist liberal democracy, in all of its variations. The works of Fukuyama, Nye, Huntington, Luttwak, Friedman, Brzezinski, and others, have all echoed the common sentiment that this socio-political matrix is the right one, and that political will ought to be directed towards its extension and perfection. Empire, on the other hand, critically analyses this same matrix but with a view to uncovering its hidden potential for radical political change. In consequence, it stands as one of the few theoretical works that does not see the last few decades as a long sequence of only punitive defeats of the Left.

Hardt and Negri begin Empire with a hypothesis that flies in the face of the conventional opinion, namely, although nation-state based systems are unraveling at the seams as a consequence to the unbridled power of world capital, globalization is not at all purely a process of de-regulation. Rather, there is today an exponential proliferation of national and international regulation, the interlocking of which the authors call “Empire.” The term, however, does not refer to a system—within which there is a constituting heart or core—out of which determination flows to the peripheries, but to a diffuse, heartless and anonymous network of englobing power—reminding readers of Foucault’s infamous remark that there is no longer a king’s head to be cut-off. Hardt and Negri’s contention is, in fact, that the traditional political model of determining core and subject periphery is not only inaccurate—as a description of the contemporary world—in all elements of the social edifice but would also be an inadequate form to regulate the volatile flows of capital, information, and people. Further, the authors suggest that the contemporary period demands a reinvention of critical political thought—given that the inherited political divisions between state and society, control and freedom, core and periphery, system and anti-system, and even war and peace, are no longer adequate.

In their analysis, Hardt and Negri suggest not only that there is a clean break between the new world order and the state-based colonialisms that preceded it, but also that the genealogical roots of the post-modern Empire are to be found in the Ancient Roman Empire. Referring specifically to the writings of Polybius, who proposed that the rise and endurance of the Roman Empire—through the volatile cycles of the classical polis—were on account of its constitution being a mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; all of which functioned as checks against the degenerative potential inherent to a single solitary form of government. The contemporary Empire, according to Hardt and Negri, has an analogous structure: US nuclear supremacy represents the monarchic element; the economic wealth of the G7 and transnational corporations, the aristocratic element; while the internet is the democratic element. By extension, the authors propose that there is a parallel between potential revolutionaries today and the Christians of the later Roman Empire.

A further contention of the authors is that Empire is not the result of the failures of systematic challenges to capital. Rather, it is a testimony of the efficacy of some of these challenges to the old colonial nation-state form. In consequence, throughout Empire there is a constant emphasis that contemporary capitalism is not impervious, natural, or inevitable. Indeed, the authors even argue that contemporary capitalism is becoming ever more vulnerable to rebellion and revolution—in part as a result of the increased importance of immaterial and intellectual labor, which has only heightened the subversive potential of laborers and their organization.

A further critique is aimed at multiculturalists and academic enthusiasts of diversity, on account of the analysis that their agendas offer no real alternatives to the order of Empire. Moreover, Hardt and Negri propose that such positions are not even truly opposed to the logic of Empire, given that the logic of the latter no longer depends on natural difference or classical notions of hierarchy—in fact, it thrives on their absence. This criticism is extended to NGOs, which are exposed to be not at all political but charitable wings of the established order.

Much of Empires position, as that of its two sequels—Multitude and Commonwealth—is grounded in Negri’s earlier theoretical developments, in particular those of Autonomia, which itself drew significant influence from Guy Debord and the Situationists. Their criticisms of and propositions for political action, therefore, rely heavily on The Society of the Spectacle—in fact, Hardt and Negri contend that Empire is a society of the spectacle. And so, while the Empire appears to be driven by its subjects’ unremitting pursuit of happiness, in actuality it is driven by desires sutured to a fear of failure, loneliness, worthlessness, and exclusion. Their thesis on effective political action finds its kernel in these very false promises—which, they suggest, constitute a void wherein a new future could take root. A second fundamental influence of Negri’s earlier work found in the Trilogy is the idea that revolutionary political action must abandon its classical mediations—leaders, unions, parties, etc.—and assume the power inherent to the multitude. In short, the Trilogy is an extension of the theory of Autonomism, or Autonomia. Both Multitude and Commonwealth are continuations of the project begun in Empire, with different points of emphasis—as designated by their very titles.

— Srdjan Cvjeticanin