The Invisible Armada

Brief retrospective look at Empire

By Alain Brossat

7 November 2022

That an infinitely ambitious book, claiming to be prophetic and visionary, sees some of its predictions flatly denied over the decades following its publication - I am talking here, of course, of Hardt and Negri's Empire - that does not bother me particularly and that does not seem to me a sufficient reason to throw away this work. What I expect in the first place from a book of this kind is that it makes me think . That the diagnoses and prognoses that it put forward do not stand, in whole or in part, the test of time, it is the rule rather than the exception. The question that really matters is whether this book, more than two decades after its publication, helps us to problematize the present , with it or against it. I think it does. It is in this spirit that I would like here to roam a little around Empire and the theses that the authors uphold there.

To get straight to the point, it seems to me that the point on which one can say, in the light of the present, whether from a European point of view (the war between Ukraine and Russia) or from a East Asian view (the rising tensions around the Taiwanese issue), we can say, that Hardt and Negri have gone astray is visible to the naked eye: this is the very definition of what would be the empire or an empire today. The notion of an empire in the singular, with a front capital letter perhaps - post-national, supra-national, deterritorialized, global, without outside and quite simply capitalist - this notion does not stand up to scrutiny. What our historical and political present is made of, on the contrary, on a global scale, is the return of the motif, finally classic, of the clash of empires, of imperial ambitions, of imperial formations on the decline or in expansion, of phantom empires, etc.

In short, the notion of an empire that is global and without outer edges, covering the entire surface of the globe, rhizomatic rather than rooted, molecular rather than molar, post-territorial, post-national and post-state - this very notion saturated with borrowings from Deleuze and Guattari openly conflicts with a present made of the current conflict between the United States and China, as it overdetermines today all the other factors of crisis and conflict on a global scale.

The Empire of Hardt and Negri is really today the night when all the cows are gray; we have seen, for example, in the face of the Hong Kong crisis, how this nebulous notion of a global and deterritorialized empire could lead a whole post-leftist constellation inspired by these authors to support without reservation the secessionist movement welcomed in open arms by Western powers; this for the sole reason that anything that sets in motion against the generic "Empire" would be good to take, the Empire here being Chinese-capitalist rather than Western-neo-imperialist - in short, according to a totally abstract and off-ground approach , dissociated from real geo-politics and in particular from the context of the new Cold War and the policy of reconquest undertaken by the West in this part of the world. The undiscriminating movementism which exerts its effects and imposes its conditions everywhere in the circles of the new post-leftist eco-libertarian radicalism of the global North derives directly from the conceptual blunder of Hardt and Negri about the overcoming of imperialism in its classic form, of the end of the era of blocs and camps, from the very notion of the “capitalist” standardization of the planet, of the global and homogeneous dissemination of the imperial form.

So I think we need to rethink the notion of empire afresh, in the light (a very dark light, indeed...) of the current events, particularly in Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia/Pacific, but more globally also, thinking of Africa and Latin America. This leads us not to "forget" Hardt and Negri, but, unfortunately, to come closer to Carl Schmitt. What Schmitt shows well, in his book entitled The right of peoples regulated according to the great space is that in modern history, not only Western but world history, the issue of empire or rather empires, as a question of sovereignty and assertion of power, is not soluble in th history of nation-states and the more or less chaotic establishment of a system of nation-states – a dynamic to which, since the Second World War, the existence of the UN bears witness.

In this book, Schmitt writes: “Are 'empires' (…) the leading powers carrying a political idea radiating in a large determined space, from which they exclude in principle the interventions of foreign powers”. And to add: "It is certain that any empire has a large space where its political idea shines, and which must be preserved from foreign intervention".

It seems to me that these definitions constitute a solid basis for evaluating what are today the imperial stakes or, if you prefer to grasp the imperial dimension (a notion that must be carefully distinguished from imperialist here ) of major and, let's say, structuring conflicts which inhabit our present and weave its singularity.

Is it necessary to specify that we follow Schmitt here only up to a certain point, which must be quite distinct: for him, these definitions were the theoretical premise of his enthusiastic support for Hitler's policy, aimed at extending the German Reich in Eastern Europe, at any cost, as what followed showed. It is obviously not this conquering and supremacist phantasmagoria that interests us. What matters, both for understanding the colonial past and the collisions that occur between great powers today, is the indissoluble link that Schmitt provides between the expansion of a power that is not only a state but also a people endowed with a particular dynamism and the formation of a large space understood as a zone of exclusivity if not strictly speaking of exercise of sovereignty.

No empire therefore, really existing or in the making can last without the constitution of a large space, effective or in the making. Indeed, it is quite obvious that the two great powers whose conflict overdetermines all the other lines of confrontation today, the United States and China, fit well into the boxes drawn by Schmitt and therefore have, in this respect, both an imperial structure. The imperial (and allegedly manifest) destiny of the United States asserted itself, according to Schmitt, from the end of the 19th century, with the promotion of the Monroe Doctrine; China's imperial dimension must be taken into consideration today not so much according to a historicist approach (the PRC as pure and simple imperium novum , the Chinese empire repainted in red) but because it is obvious that the need for its own large space is today inseparable from its rise to power. The most basic definition that can be given of mainland China is that it is a great power lacking in large space, particularly at sea. It is not a power that consciously aspires to world hegemony in reference to any “manifest destiny”, it is, in the words of Victor Hugo, "a force that goes", with the automaticity that such a dynamic entails. All the Western imperial powers were, in the same way and in their time, such “forces that go - or went" - they are therefore very badly placed to reproach China today for being carried or carried away by a movement of expansion of this kind...

It is therefore necessary to forget about the mantra that runs through all Western propaganda about China, consisting in affirming that it would henceforth be inhabited by the fixed idea of wresting global hegemony from the United States. What must be said, on the contrary, and which we owe Schmitt to understand, is that Chinese power can only continue to grow on the condition that it acquires a large space. However, this expansion, entirely Spinozist, leads it to encroach on what, since the Second World War, the United States has defined as its own great space – where, to use the Schmittian definition, “[their] political idea radiate, and which must be preserved from foreign intervention" - in the first place, the Pacific, East and South-East Asia. So it's not a collision for or about hegemony over the world, as if 'Emperor' Xi's most abiding ambition was to supplant the ailing 'Emperor' Joe. It is a collision whose source is the incompatibility between two large spaces, the encroachment of one on the other .

It is not for nothing that this conflict is concentrated around the Pacific and territories bordering it: on the one hand, it so happens that after the defeat of Japan, the United States was inclined to consider the Pacific , globally, as their mare nostrum , in the Roman style, while on the other side, for obvious geo-strategic reasons (it is enough to understand it to look at a map), mainland China can continue or complete the expansion of its power, in all domains, only on the express condition of expanding in the Pacific.

Taiwan, from this point of view, is only the detonator of this explosive conflict around the meeting between the tectonic plates of these two great spaces.

We can clearly see here to what extent the notion put forward by Hardt and Negri of a new type of sovereignty, of a sort of post-sovereignty, without center or border, is stranded on the reef of the present. Quite the contrary, it is with redoubled ardor that sovereignties which do not only embark on the destiny of states but that of entire peoples, are about to confront each other now. The interesting thing is that it is an ocean that is here at the center of the conflict, even though according to traditional international law the sea is the element which, as opposed to the mainland, cannot be territorialized and therefore cannot constitute the base or foundation of sovereignty. It is because, as Schmitt maintains in the essay to which I am referring here, (this same Schmitt who is nevertheless the promoter of the notion of Nomos of the Earth) "The sea is no longer today, like the the authors of international law of the 18th and 19th centuries still admited an 'element' inaccessible to human domination; but on the contrary and very deeply, a 'space' of human domination and effective deployment of power”.

Here, Schmitt anticipates the present state of the creeping war between the United States and China and how it, in geo-strategic terms, centers on the Pacific. This, as a liquid expanse, is not and cannot constitute a territory, but it is indeed, as Schmitt says, an "area" contested by two imperial formations of a different nature or form - a bit like this was already the case for the Pacific, when the rivalry between the United States and Japan developed – with the apocalyptic result that we know. The area, in Schmittian terms, is what extends beyond the state territory on which a people is established. The area is the great space understood in its "total" dimension - not only geo-strategic, but also diplomatic, economic, commercial, industrial and cultural. There is, one might say, the same relationship between territory and area or large space as between state and empire. “The empire, writes Schmitt, is more than an enlarged state, in the same way that the great space is not only an enlarged micro-space”.

It seems to me that the analytics of empire and the great space are tools here that have improved our understanding of what is at stake today in the increasingly tense face-to-face between China and the United States – this even though everything opposes us, politically, to this conservative nationalist rallied to Nazism that was Schmitt.

The second point on which it is important to argue when carrying out a retrospective evaluation of Empire, twenty years later, is obviously the question of the multitude. To put it succinctly, it seems to me that Negri and Hardt did a work of theoretical and political salubrity by affirming head-on that it was time to break with the theology and political teleology attached to the notion of a providential class , in its historical and social conditions – the proletariat. In doing so, they have cleared the ground for the redeployment of new modes of problematizing the class struggle, the struggle for emancipation – this in a post or neo-Marxist constellation where we find thinkers like Rancière, Badiou or Laclau. At the same time, by advancing the notion of multitude as a sort of "isomorphic substitution for the working class" (Daniel Bensaïd), they perhaps did not clearly break with the lack of distinction which, in the great Marxist narrative, is at the root of the perpetual overlap between, say, myth and reality.

The proletariat, in the classical Marxist discourse, is strictly speaking a myth, a collective and aggregating historical myth, in the sense that Georges Sorel gives to this term, equipped therefore with an infinite dynamic capacity and supporting the power of a movement of emancipation, that of those who see themselves as workers as opposed to their exploiters, the capitalist bourgeoisie. The proletariat, in this sense, is something other than the working class understood as a social entity defined, among other things, by its place and function in economic relations. Now, ever since the historical myth of the proletariat began its decline until it was erased on the sand of historical actuality, since the dismantling of the Soviet empire, in particular, the greatest confusion reigns on this point – we confuse everything, disappearance of the proletariat and end of the working class, crisis of a historical myth or of a great discourse (narrative) and end of the class struggle, etc.

Now, of the working class, of workers in the generic sense of those from below who sell their labor power and occupy a position of subalternity in our societies, there are many still and always and, I would say, more than ever, despite the very profound changes that have taken place since the 1980s in the composition of this class and the forms of work and the forms of organization and political expression of this class; this with, among other things, the rise of precariat and the racialization , in all the countries of the Global North, of the working class.

The characteristic of neo-Marxists, including the most agile and inventive, let's say, à la Bensaïd, is to be reluctant again and again to accept the evidence of the collapse of the historical myth of the proletariat and therefore to be brought to maintain against the winds and the tides the confusion or the lack of distinction between the proletariat (historical substance endowed with a mythical and utopian power) and the working class (social entity of variable form, in constant evolution and mutation). Now, what one could reproach Hardt and Negri for is, in their enterprise of homological or isomorphic substitution of the multitude for the proletariat, for surfing on the same confusion. What replaces the proletariat in their analysis is a new class of dominated whose appearance is provoked by the new conditions of capitalism (flexibility, availability, commitment, mobility...) and baptized, therefore, in memory of Spinoza, multitude.

This new class is, in their perspective, a new social reality as it is a historical factor – a potential subject, a collective actor whose destiny would be to invent new forms of resistance to these new conditions of capital and, in the long term, to subvert it. But the problem is that, as much in the classic Marxist schema, the mediations intended to allow the proletariat to accomplish its historical mission were clearly drawn and rooted in a certain political reality (that of the history of the workers' movement of the 20th century), as much as it was transcribed in terms of theory and strategy – so much the historical and political power of the multitude remains, in the perspective of Hardt and Negri, nebulous.

By what providential ways (a neo-providentialism works behind the scenes in the perspective drawn by Empire ) can a multitude by definition fragmented, heterogeneous, diffracted by the very conditions of the new globalized capitalist economy, can access the condition of a historical subject inscribing its action within the horizon of emancipation? On this point, the sociologism (with a Deleuzo-Guattarian whiff) of the authors of Empire does not really instructs us... How to compose a force from components as heterogeneous and dispersed as are the elements forming the multitude, how to act strategically, what traditions could a multitude refer to, how to adopt a program, adequate forms of organization, what forms of action should be adopted? - on all these points, Hardt and Negri do not really tell us what it's all about; therefore, there is a great risk of seeing a spontaneity inclined to espouse the cause of everything that moves to replace the heavy ideological, programmatic, strategic and organizational apparatus which equipped, all throughout the 20th century the Marxist parties.

Twenty years later, it is clear that the opus of our two authors has not laid the foundations of a new revolutionary policy nor really staked out the territory of a new radicalism. But it would be unfair to throw stones at them for all that – these limits and the perplexities that would come from them are ours, that of the whole generation that has been shaken and disoriented by the collapse of the great myth of the providential class. It is probably not for nothing that today, the time of a generation having elapsed since the publication of Empire , a return of the pendulum is occurring which leads part of the new generation set in motion by the climatic emergency and the environmental crisis, to advocate a refounded Leninism , an ecological Leninism, among others (Andreas Malm...). However, a Leninism, of whatever kind, presupposes a whole theoretical, political and organizational apparatus of a completely different kind from the movementism underlying the perspective of Hardt and Negri – starting with the question of avant-garde , avant-garde organization.

As far as I am concerned, I persist in thinking that the motif of the people , with all its ambiguities and ambivalence noted by Agamben, retains a power, for a radical or revolutionary policy, a power that the term multitude lacks. I consider in fact, with Laclau, that the primary political operation is that which consists in composing a people whose property will be, as a part (of society, of opinion...) to make its own terms be worth as those of all or the whole. The problem, of course, is that this operation, in the absence of any providentialist or finalist horizon, is not by destination turned towards good and emancipation. It can be the way by which all kinds of peoples are formed, including the worst, fascist, racist, supremacist peoples, peoples animated by an obscure nationalism, etc. - as we see right now all around the planet.

But in any case, it is a definition of the people, properly political and not essentialist,

which immunizes us against the reductive and, to put it bluntly, unthinking idea according to which a modern people would necessarily be a national people, the people of the nation-state – the reason why the useful idiots of Taiwanese independence today keep repeating over and over again that the people of this island can only become a real people by becoming a normal nation , a normalization that would therefore suppose their alignment with the supposedly universal model of the nation-state, of the people as a state-controlled nation.

However, it is precisely the opposite that is true, as I tried to show in my book Peoples and Films , recently published in Chinese: the notion of people cannot retain a power, be a propelling force only on the condition of being torn from all allegedly “destiny-made” and substantialist approaches – a people of the emancipation is what it becomes , in the very process of its setting in motion, its awakening and its self-assertion. It is, in the realm of great History, the way in which the people of the revolution emerge with the storming of the Bastille and the abolition of privileges ( The Night of August 4) and, in the infinitely more modest register, in the greyness of our present, the way in which the still minority people of the Yellow Vests are formed, in chiaroscuro - to stay within the references that are familiar to me and far from any Francocentrism...

One last word: it seems to me that we can take the measure of the very great singularity of the history of your island, Formosa then Taiwan, by noting that it is undoubtedly one of the rare countries in the Global North where the great myth and the great narrative of the proletariat as a providential class, with everything that proliferates and arranges around this myth, (understood positively, I repeat), one of the rare countries of the global North where this great myth has hardly left an imprint, or a distinct trace. This is how we take the full measure of how Formosa-Taiwan has remained, until today, for essentially geo-political reasons, like a small town or a village lost in the tormented landscape of the universal History (to speak like Hegel) – far from all the great currents of cultural and political avant-gardes which galvanized the 20th century – starting with communism understood as this world and narrative in which hope entered into violent collision with terror.

However, from this outlying, arch-provincial situation, Taiwan is, in the age of globalization, in the process of emerging through the most dubious and depressing of emergency exits: the cult of economic performance (the famous semiconductors) combined with the servile alignment with the senile master – the United States. Which is really, I insist, the worst way to form a people to navigate the stormy seas of present History...