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date: 23 May 2017

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Summary and Keywords

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are among the most powerful theorists of communication and social change under present-day global capitalism. In their Empire trilogy and other individual and collaborative works, Hardt and Negri argue for the fundamentally communicative nature of contemporary power. Their analyses demonstrate the ways that media technology, global flows of finance capital, and the contemporary shift to economies based on information and affective or emotional labor create new, more complex networks of oppression and new possibilities for more democratic social change. Hardt and Negri’s work, therefore, shifts the focus of critical communication and cultural theory from attaining or challenging political power within the nation-state and invites scholars to rethink sovereignty as empire: an interconnected global phenomenon appertaining to capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They furthermore reimagine dissent as a constitutive process of resistance and mutual aid through which the multitude simultaneously withdraws from empire and composes itself through the social communication of struggles across time and space. Hardt and Negri’s work has been taken up in communication studies to theorize the materiality of communication; the labor performed in cognitive, communication, and service industries; contemporary media audiences and reception; and historical and contemporary social movements, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

Keywords: Marxism, biopolitics, networks, empire, multitude, democracy, capitalism, sovereignty


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offer some of the most powerful theoretical resources for social justice-oriented communication research. The conceptual framework they developed across their trilogy of books, Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2011), gave voice to generations of activists and theorists of social justice, old and new, anxiously seeking a language to describe the elastic power of capital and its increasing capability to replace the governing functions and legitimating rationalities of state authority, constituting a new world order in which the terms of subordination and freedom in the 21st century would be decided. As we will explain in more detail, the trilogy notably reconstructed Marxism for the 21st century by weaving together novel readings of Marx, French-based postmodern social theory and philosophy (especially the works of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari), traditional democratic theory, and emergent knowledges developed in and across anti-capitalist struggles around the world. The impact of Hardt and Negri’s work, especially of Empire, is difficult to overestimate. Writing for Cultural Critique, one review exclaimed, “Hailed as the new Communist Manifesto . . . Empire is a comprehensive and exciting analysis of the now reified concept of globalization, offering a lucid understanding of the political-economic quagmire of our present and a glimpse into the possible worlds beyond it (Roach, 2001, p. 253).

The theoretical resources Hardt and Negri supply for communication scholars stem from their efforts to theorize communication as a force of global capitalist expansion and as the medium through which the commons of a world beyond capitalism are established. For them, global communication media and the symbolic economy of 21st-century culture form an interconnected web in which commons composed of collective life and popular and scientific knowledge are continually captured and transformed into dead labor (i.e., into degraded and commodified forms of cooperation and freedom). This process is, for them, the central tension of modernity itself. Modernity, for Hardt and Negri, is constituted by “a contradictory development in which there has always been an alternative between the development of free productive forces and the domination of capitalist relations of production” (Hardt & Negri, 1994, p. 282). Modernity is thus characterized by the forceful superimposition of abstract logics, capitalist rationalities, and techniques of social division over the “extraordinary liberation of productive forces and emancipation from every transcendental destination of human activity,” roughly from the Renaissance forward (Hardt & Negri, 1994, p. 282–283).

If one is able to grasp this process of capture (i.e., the subsumption of human labor power within a universalizing logic of exchange value), one may easily understand the power of Hardt and Negri’s project for capturing the present moment. The main thesis of what is arguably their most important and influential book, Empire, is that the political constitution of the present, for all of its apparent differences with the past, operates according to the same dynamics of abstraction and superimposition. In our increasingly connected and “smooth” world, however, the realization of human capacities is no longer obstructed primarily by labor time in production, the atomizing cultural norms of disciplinary society, the isomorphic structures of factory hierarchy (a hierarchy that Michel Foucault has discerned not only in the factory but also in schools, barracks, etc.), and the reservation of the most sophisticated technologies of communication for purposes of war or mediated social control. The potential for freedom offered by a post-national era and the novel generation of commons that this freedom permits (commons of thought and affect, commons of novel human-machine articulations, and, perhaps most importantly, commons of struggle and the social communication of struggle) confront capital today as a “transformation of the dominant productive processes themselves with the result that the role of industrial factory labor has been reduced and priority given instead to communicative, cooperative, and affective labor” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. xiii). Forced to confront these pervasive global transformations of the dominant forces of production, transformations that Marx foresaw as “the material condition of possibility to blow . . . the foundation [of capitalism] sky-high,” capital required a qualitative transformation in the mode of production of the entire social field in order to survive (Marx, 1993, p. 706). It is thus, Hardt and Negri argue, that modern forms of sovereignty, oriented around the autonomy of the nation-state and all of its attendant categories (i.e., the citizen, systems of rights, geographic territories, constitutions, etc.) were restructured and plugged into empire, the mode of sovereignty that appertains to the globalizing patchwork of rationalities and interconnected apparatuses of postmodern capitalism.

The force of Hardt and Negri’s thought, then, derives from their incredible ability to conceptualize the shift from a factory-oriented industrial form of capitalism to a new model of production—based on the fundamentally communicational and affective labor of postmodern cultural formations, flows of finance data, metrics of risk speculation, interventions in human reasoning through profit-driven data collection on a massive scale—and from their powerful argument that this shift in the mode of production entails the rise of post-national sovereignty. To take serious account of the impact of this reasoning would mean accepting, at the very least, the problematic character of any analysis of contemporary communication or capitalism that neglects to address the centrality of the former as part of the infrastructure of the latter.

Hardt and Negri’s central concepts have their roots in a decades-long tradition of social struggles in 1960s and ’70s Italy, commonly known as autonomist Marxism. This tradition reworked many of the core assumptions of traditional Marxism in response to ongoing protests not only against capitalist exploitation but also the dominant communist organizations active in Italy at the time. Although it would be incorrect to say that the Empire trilogy simply restates or extends autonomist thought, an approximation of the full implications of Hardt and Negri’s more recent work requires an in-depth understanding of two parts of this history: the overall development of operaismo, or workerism, as a movement within Italian Marxism, and Negri’s participation in the philosophical and political elaboration of ideas rooted in workerism throughout the 1960s and ’70s. A necessary detour through this political history will help clarify the tools that Hardt and Negri see as crucial for assessing the post-Marxist contours of empire today, in addition to a constituent counterpower for a world beyond empire.

Laboratory Italy

Workerism emerged in the context of class and economic inequalities of postwar Italy. The economic fallout that followed World War II led to a depression in the 1950s. At the beginning of the decade, real wages had fallen to one-fifth of 1913 levels, while industrial output stood at around a quarter of prewar productivity (Wright, 2002, p. 6). In response to the crisis, the Italian government encouraged aggressive industrialization, particularly in the already-industrialized north, and embraced market expansion as the solution to the postwar crisis. This move increased industrial production severalfold over the course of the 1950s and, by the end of the 1960s, had drastically expanded both industrial production and consumption, in what some have called the “Italian miracle” (Wright, 2002, p. 6). Market engagement came at a cost, however—economic and cultural disparities between the north and the agrarian south were exacerbated (to the detriment of the lives of southern Italians) and industrialization created a mass of migratory and contingent workers who faced uncertainty in the job market and poor working conditions (Wright, 2002, p. 7). The responses of the parliamentary Italian left and Italy’s major trade unions only added to the problem. The Italian Communist Party (PCI), haunted by the violent defeat of communism in the 1920s and the specter of fascism, and strained by the tension of revelations about the atrocities committed by Stalin’s government, focused on building a party that could play a major role in parliamentary politics. They subsequently embraced the rhetoric of industrialization and an efficient national labor force and condemned individual capitalists with ties to fascism, while neglecting discussions of society-wide class struggles (Wright, 2002, p. 9). Italy had several politically strong trade unions, but they were also largely removed from the lives of rank-and-file workers and larger class issues. They embraced the rhetoric of the PCI and remained primarily interested in piecemeal wage increases instead of fighting notoriously corrupt political institutions (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 51). This situation led to a split between a corrupt trade union bureaucracy “put together by the boss so as to fulfill the need of pretending there was some dialogue and mediation” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 51) and a militant left increasingly marginalized by Italy’s parliament and other national political institutions and their major labor organizations.

Workerism, as a movement and a body of thought formulated within this context, sought to address obstacles to rank-and-file solidarity in theoretical and strategic terms. By grounding critical rereadings of Marx’s oeuvre in the concrete experiences of organizing and worker agitation, workerists articulated theory and practice as inseparable aspects of an anti-capitalist project. Academically oriented workerists “sought to confront Capital with the ‘real study of a real factory’” (Wright, 2002, p. 3), rereading Marx’s Capital, the Grundrisse, and other key texts outside the hermeneutic framework encouraged by the PCI. Furthermore, their rereading of Marx’s late focus on “learning from the working class itself” (Haider & Mohandesi, 2013) generated novel projects of conricerca or co-research (Bologna, 2011), where those studying capitalism from an academic perspective engaged with other workers as partners, produced co-authored pamphlets, and moved the work of theorizing from the offices of party elites to the factory floor. This collaborative theoretical process was born from the conviction that workers’ experiences already manifested the antagonistic perspective that the PCI and Italy’s major trade unions had failed to fully grasp, let alone implement as policy.

With this background in mind, we turn now to present the signature theoretical transformation borne out of the encounters of conricerca. Traditional Marxism frames class struggle as a process of coming to consciousness of objective conditions of exploitation, moving from a class in itself or a group of people with the same objective interests, to a class for itself; that same group, guided by a group of intellectuals positioned to represent those interests into authentic class consciousness, a process of enlightenment that in turn forms an impetus to class struggle (Lukacs, 1971, pp. 76–77). In contrast, through the process of conricerca, workerists discovered a kernel of resistance built, by structural necessity, into the process through which labor power is transformed into capital. As labor power cannot exchange itself, it must be extracted from the body at a certain level or point of production. Capital is thus forced to interface with the body as the principle instrument by which labor power is converted into capital. However, the body provides, at best, an imperfect means through which this exchange takes place: Bodies are finite, they get tired, and, by virtue of the plural character of subjectivity, manifest all manner of micro-resistances in the exchange of labor power for a wage. Furthermore, capital is prevented from fully subsuming labor power without destroying the very source of power, the body, whose labor is necessary for capital to be activated and reproduced anew each day. Therefore, prior to any conscious identification of their interests as a class for itself, the collective bodies of the working class, from the start, constitute, in the bodily real of their materiality, a concrete refusal of themselves insofar as they are capital. When the refusals of the body transform from being a point of immobility in the system to a generalized vector of the refusal of work, there is no longer any hope of a vanguard (at least in the traditional sense of the Second International), except perhaps as an engine of further bodily alterity emergent from within unfolding acts of refusal and sabotage, culminating eventually, as the theory portends, in civil war against empire.

This theoretical divergence from traditional Marxism generated a number of activist strategies. In addition to strikes and refusals of work within the factory, activists inspired by workerist thought engaged capital’s capture of labor over the whole field of life throughout the 1960s and ’70s, self-reducing public transportation and utility payments to protest the costs associated with commuting and the treatment of infrastructure as a private resource. Groups like Lotta Feminista deployed workerist ideas and organizational tactics to consider reproductive labor and housework as modes of exploitation, and to demand that these areas of life be considered as labor and compensated accordingly. Moreover, communist, feminist, and queer groups experimented with new modes of collective living in an effort to create alternatives to the division of labor within the nuclear family. Radical writers and artists broadcast and printed radical fiction, political commentary, and poetry, attempting to create the media and culture of a post-revolutionary world.1 These experiments subsequently led labor activists inspired by workerism to organize a wider array of working bodies, making the model of class struggle responsive to short-term laborers, unwaged and domestic workers, and others who did not fit within mainstream trade unionism’s constituencies. The common denominator among all these lines of theory and practice was a conviction that the PCI and Italy’s major trade unions, beyond being corrupt, valorized labor only insofar as it was already a commodity and therefore already captured by capital (Tronti, 2007, pp. 28–33). Rather than attempting to work within existing political or union institutions (and rather than trying to copy the forms of those institutions to create competing versions) workerist activists advocated self-organization, rejecting strategies that sought minor improvements in working conditions and wages in favor of the wholesale refusal of work as it existed in the status quo (Tronti, 2007, pp. 33) and an assertion of workers’ power to self-determine their own time and lives.

The practices of workerism in turn led to new avenues of theoretical reflection. Workerist authors suggested that, since the world is produced in struggle and laboring practice, capitalism should be regarded as the mere organization of bodies that already have the capacity to labor (i.e., to produce their conditions of life) before they are made into wage workers. In other words, capital can only react to labor—when it is secure in its own power, it is because it positions itself or the state as a neutral medium through which antagonisms between workers and bosses are carried out, thus making exploitation at the most basic level an apparent fact of life. When capital moves to improve standards of living, shrink working hours, or expand access to education, then it is because it has been forced to do so by worker struggles and innovations. This analysis placed historical agency squarely in the hands of workers (whether waged or unwaged) themselves, reframing the appeals to sovereignty on the part of the PCI and trade unions as attempts to translate the force of struggles that were ontologically and logically prior to these institutions into the governing mechanisms of the status quo. This take on political institutions led in turn to a theory of class struggle as the organization of antagonistic social relations—rather than building formal political parties, workers should instead reclaim their capacities on all fronts, organizing a new society within the old and forcing capital to accommodate or fall apart.2

The strategies of workerism led to a search for creative forms of resistance outside parliamentary and trade-union politics throughout the 1960s, and its ideas informed an even broader range of movements and ideas after the events of 1968. While the protests that took place that summer in Italy, France, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere lasted for only a few months in many places, in Italy, the summer of ’68 “extended over 10 years, right up until the end of the 1970s” (Hardt, 1996, p. 2). In working to “generate and sustain social forms and structures of value independent of capitalis[m]” (Hardt, 1996, p. 2), workerism linked anti-capitalist struggles to questions of everyday life, nationality, and nontraditional work (such as sex work and migrant labor) that fostered conversations with other social movements of the time, forming a kind of laboratory for the movements that took shape in Europe after 1968 and later struggles against exploitation. By 1973, “the focus of radical struggles” had “spread . . . out of the factory and into society . . . increasingly the movement became a form of life” (Hardt, 1996, p. 3). Decolonial struggles, feminist demands for divorce and abortion rights, calls for living wages for housework, unemployed and contingent workers’ demands, student activism and struggles against heteronormativity were linked in common cause not only to fight repressive policy but also to experiment with collective economic, social, and sexual relations, new routes for media and cultural production, and other forms of “horizontal, nonhierarchical living” (Hardt, 1996, p. 3).

For Antonio Negri, workerism was both a formative site of political activism and a central inspiration for academic work. While Negri was a philosophy student at the University of Padua, he encountered radical politics in the group Azione Catholica, which “anticipated the liberation theology of the 1960s” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 41). During this time, Negri was reading theology, carefully exploring a wide range of canonical philosophical thinkers (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Spinoza) and engaging with the history of legal thought and the Heideggerian and Hegelian waves that were then sweeping France (Casarino & Negri, 2008, pp. 42–45). Negri describes these explorations as a search for a “way out of the modern” and the easy assumptions of philosophical universalism (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 43). Eventually, this search would lead Negri to define modernity, as we suggested, as a clash between the “capacity of human cooperation” to construct “history and life itself” and the forces “insistent on the order of power,” construed as domination and exploitation, and its reproduction (Hardt & Negri, 1994, p. 284). More immediately, it led Negri to Marx: By the mid-1950s, he had translated Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness and, by 1958, he had become an active member of the Italian Socialist Party.

If these early years brought Negri to traditional Marxism, the experiences of the next decade would pull him beyond it. In 1959, Negri began to write for and edit Quaderni Rossi, or Red Notebooks, one of the main workerist journals, alongside several other key workerist activists and thinkers (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 40). In 1960, in recognition of his Socialist Party activism, Negri was invited on a trip to the USSR. The corrupt bureaucracy he encountered there horrified him and “cured” him “of any sympathy for the outcomes of the Soviet project” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 50). These experiences led him to equate and ultimately to reject the leadership of the Kremlin and the solutions of traditional Hegelian Marxism as “too easy” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 46). Through Marx’s Grundrisse, however, Negri acquired the crucial insight “that struggles—or rather activities—are what produce and make the world” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 51). Marx thus prompted Negri the philosopher to “go in front of the factory doors to find out what was really going on there” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 51).

This turn to practice and the factory provided Negri with a political apprenticeship every bit as important as the philosophical one. He traveled regularly to Turin, the location of one of Italy’s central Fiat factories, and to Porto Marghera, an industrial center near Venice driven by the chemical and oil industries. While continuing to teach the histories of philosophy and legal theory, Negri went to the factories before and after working hours, forged friendships and co-authored pamphlets with workers in an effort to “describe and . . . advance their struggles,” (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 51), seeking to link workers’ efforts to organize with the research being conducted by the Quaderni Rossi group and other allies of the left. Negri began to publish original research informed by his political work throughout the 1960s. Starting from the basic assumptions of workerism, Negri argued for subjectivity as one of the key sites of class struggle. Rather than a “mythical” class positioned as the saviors of history, the proletariat is instead composed by its practices and ways of life (Negri, 1988). In other words, class struggle is as class struggle does3; it is composed of every aspect of life (including and especially the struggles over race, gender, sexuality, national identity, and culture that had grown following 1968), and these diverse struggles are united by the refusal of subjects to allow their capacities and lives to be commodified (Casarino & Negri, 2008, p. 51). Further, by creating new forms of life that valorize surplus labor without commodifying it (e.g., circulating labor in local economies driven by collective production and exchange) and by struggling against capitalist capture, the exploited create new, more powerful forms of subjectivity that facilitate desire for further revolution and self-valorization. For Negri, capital’s response to the activism of the 1960s took the form of a shift from the Fordist mass worker, characterized by interchangeable, relatively unskilled factory labor (Negri, 1988, p. 105) to the social worker. Labor was increasingly controlled by management strategies that individualized workers and forced them to compete for greater wages, that enticed workers to become active participants in corporate culture, and that controlled workers outside of jobs through the cultural normalization of wage labor and the pleasures of consumption and visible social status (Negri, 1988, pp. 107–108). Negri’s theory of the social worker rethought the power of capital over labor as fundamentally communicative, attempting to control not only workers’ senses of self and subjectivity, but also curtailing potentially radical demands for living wages or social services into the logic of the welfare state. In turn, the forms of resistance developed after 1968 sought to produce new communicative relations based on demands that could not be integrated back into the system. Through strategies of refusal and experimentation with new forms of life, post-1968 social movements presented the potential for a new culture that would work on a variety of fronts to reclaim the capacities of global labor from their control by capital.

In the face of a growing anti-capitalist left, the Italian government pursued a “strategy of tension,” encouraging violent right-wing groups to bomb public places and blaming the attacks on the left. Increasing violence and the differing objectives pursued by social movements after 1968 led Potere Operaia, the principal workerist group, to disband in 1973. Also in 1973, the PCI supported the center-right Christian Democrat Party in an effort to further marginalize the extra-parliamentary left and, over the course of the mid-1970s, the movement became increasingly fragmented. Some of the group’s former members, including Negri, participated in the coalition of social movements just described, operating under the banner of Autonomia Operaia and in many other formations to pursue a variety of activist projects. A minority of others joined the Red Brigades, pursuing “communism through the strength of warfare and arms” (Morucci, n.d., p. 274). A climate of guerrilla warfare developed, with many militants going underground and taking up arms and increased police repression of even those activists opposed to guerrilla warfare. On April 7, 1979, following the kidnapping and execution of the politician Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades late the previous year, Negri and 20 others were arrested in connection with the plot. Over the following years, thousands of other militants were arrested under laws that allowed long-term preventative detention, and many were imprisoned for belonging to groups (like Potere Operaia) that had disbanded before the wide adoption of armed struggle as a protest tactic (Hardt, 1996, p. 3). Negri was accused of masterminding Moro’s kidnapping, being the head of the Red Brigades, and simultaneously leading Autonomia Operaia, which opposed guerrilla warfare. Although extensive evidence cleared him of direct implication in Moro’s murder, the Italian press dubbed Negri il cattivo maestro (literally, the wicked teacher) and a Socratic corruptor of Italy’s youth (Negri, 2005). The state eventually dropped the charge that he had masterminded Moro’s murder as head of the Red Brigades organization, but charged him with inciting violence through his writings and intellectual leadership of the Autonomia movement and detained him indefinitely pending trial (Kreisler, 2004).

Prison, for Negri, was a place a place that, even more so than the factories he had protested in, used the power of routine and bureaucracy to control time almost completely (Negri, 1991, p. xxiii; Negri, 1988, pp. 245–268). Forcibly removed from his immediate political milieu, he turned to Spinoza, a philosopher he had admired from an early age. Spinoza allowed Negri to build on his previous work in the history of philosophy (most notably a 1968 book on Descartes) and to rethink the “way out of modernity.” The result, Negri’s Spinoza: The Savage Anomaly (initially published in 1981), garnered praise and extensive critical engagement from the world’s foremost Spinoza scholars. By carefully following Spinoza’s philosophical development in conversation with his biography and political milieu, Negri was able to account for Spinoza’s work as an ontology of power and pleasure. Spinoza, he argued, offers a conception of being (substance) as directly constituted by the “needs and desires” of modes, or individual bodies. These needs and desires are in turn produced by “collective imagination”: the accumulated and constantly interacting affects of a multitude of bodies in relationships of mutual influence (Negri, 1991, p. xx). Moreover, in a world where power appears everywhere, Spinoza differentiates domination or power over other creatures (potestas) from the capacity or power to engage with the world (potentia) in different ways (Negri, 1991, p. x). These two insights allowed Negri to reflect on the revolutionary culture of which he had been a part; by widening the sphere of available connections to others and dissecting the desires that led people to desire their servitude, activists after 1968 created new relations of power (potentia) with one another that enabled them to challenge those who desired to dominate them (through potestas). Moreover, working through Spinoza allowed Negri to apply these insights to the history of philosophy and politics writ large, drawing a historical line between thinkers (from Lucretius and Epicurus to Machiavelli to Spinoza to Marx, among others) who had maintained similar attitudes toward power in their own times, and who thus offered resources for a philosophy that moved from the composition of subjective desire to the collective composition of the world through radical experimentation and disruption of the status quo. It also grounded a theory of power as either constituted (i.e., imposed from above) or constituent (i.e., emergent from the power of the multitude) that Negri would use in later works to evaluate the history of world revolution (Negri, 2009). Negri argued that the antidote to the pervasive power of capital was a counterpower, outside of extant state institutions, that worked to generate new powers (potentiae) for the exploited, while refusing and disrupting institutions that sought to translate these powers into hierarchy or exploit them for the gain of a few.

After four long years in prison, in the midst of his trial, Negri was elected to Italy’s parliament. This was a potential break for Negri: Italian law stipulated that sitting politicians could not be imprisoned for political crimes, so Negri was briefly freed (Kreisler, 2004). The reprieve was short, however. Almost immediately, a special measure was passed to rescind Negri’s election and re-jail him. Negri fled to Paris where he would spend the next 14 years without papers, living at first with militant psychoanalyst Félix Guattari as “Antoine Guattari” (Negri, 2005) and later under the protection of the Mitterand government, which refused to honor Italy’s extradition order. Despite his situation, Negri found a vibrant intellectual community in Paris. In 1977–1978, fleeing arrest and at the behest of Louis Althusser, Negri had given a groundbreaking seminar on Marx’s Grundrisse that theorized many of his core political insights in terms of Marx’s work (antagonism as the test of political strategy, the importance of subjectivity for thinking about political resistance, the new relationships of control characterized by the social worker) and contributed to a wide intellectual following in France. The next 14 years would see Negri produce several more books (including a collaboration with Guattari) and work actively with Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Macherey, and the other Spinoza scholars whom Negri had discussed in his book, as well as other politically active French intellectuals.

Negri’s renewed philosophical production coincided with the beginnings of a concerted global interest in Italian autonomist thought and the legacy of the social movements of the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, scholars and activists attached to the German journal Wildcat, the North American journals Zerowork and Midnight Notes, the French-language Futur Anterieur and the Roman Derive Approdi, along with other fellow travelers in Britain, Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere, developed autonomist ideas of precarity, class composition, and the social factory to more fully account for the exploitation of migrant labor and engage the increasing global dominance of service and technical industries (Wright, 2008, pp. 111–140). This global dialogue also fueled a new generation of students interested in renewed internationalist activism against capital. One such student, Michael Hardt, traveled to France to meet with Negri, beginning a friendship and working relationship that would eventually bear fruit in the Empire trilogy. Hardt had studied engineering as an undergraduate before moving to Central America and working alongside leftist activists in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, providing computing equipment to replace what had been destroyed by the Salvadoran military and helping to move refugees from right-wing coups and U.S. imperialism to sanctuaries in the United States (Kreisler, 2004). Hardt encountered Negri after returning to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in comparative literature, focusing on romance-language poetry, literature, and philosophy and authoring one of the first book-length English-language studies of Deleuze’s work. Hardt inquired about translating Negri’s work, traveled to Paris to meet him, and their collaborative working relationship began.

Hardt’s work played a crucial role in exposing the experiences and ideas of Italian autonomist thought to the Anglophone world. In 1994, Hardt and Negri collaborated on Labor of Dionysus, composed of both jointly authored work and translations of some of Negri’s political writings that synthesized many of Negri’s directly political interventions with the immanent materialist philosophical current that Hardt had explored in his book on Deleuze, and Negri had explored in his works on Spinoza, Marx, and Descartes. Labor of Dionysus developed questions of capitalist crisis, antagonism, subjective composition, and constituent power that laid the groundwork for the Empire trilogy. Hardt also collaborated with Paolo Virno on Radical Thought in Italy, an English-language compendium of key autonomist writings bookended by collaborative essays discussing the genesis and legacy of the movement, and he translated several works by Giorgio Agamben and other Italian intellectuals working to extend the discussion of the 1970s, as well as translating a substantial swath of Negri’s earlier writings into English. In the mid-1990s, Negri invited Hardt to collaborate on a textbook on modern sovereignty commissioned by a French publisher; after the book deal fell through, the work evolved into Empire, Hardt and Negri’s first book-length collaboration (Catanese & Wissa, 2011).

The Empire trilogy engages several problems of concern to contemporary communication scholars: the global, communicative nature of contemporary power; what a movement “within and against” this power would look like; and what would be the most effective tools for constituting such a movement. While the reader may productively trace each of these problems chronologically through the trilogy, here we focus on the three sets of concepts that describe these problems in their largest sense: the ontology of the common and its capture in biopolitical production; the global and decentralized model of sovereignty implemented under empire; and the possibility of a counterpower, the global multitude, that might disrupt empire’s operation and work toward an alternative system of governance within and against it. Following our treatment of these core concepts, we briefly outline the uptake of these concepts in communication studies and suggest some primary resources for further reading. In so doing, we hope to provide a solid point of departure for future research and a catalog of key interlocutors with whom future scholars may engage.

Communication: Producing Common Life

In their most well-known and widely referenced work Empire, Hardt and Negri build on the dual theory of power developed in Negri’s work on Spinoza and the ontology of practices and activities he generated from Marx’s work to offer a theory of power as fundamentally communicative. When someone communicates, whether through in-person speech, gesture, or at a distance, they draw on resources of signification and meaning that defy ownership by any one person or institution. The results of an effective communicative act are likewise collective: The relationships of trust and solidarity (or antipathy and antagonism) produced in conversation are not any one person’s feelings, but are collectively generated. Communication therefore forms a primary instance of what Hardt and Negri refer to as the common—a dimension of life that is inherently collective, fundamentally irreducible to ownership, and that encompasses the condition of possibility for the coordination of all social and economic forces of collective human production. Beneficial organizations of the common acknowledge its collective dimension and mobilize it in order to generate new avenues of cooperation and collective power (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 56). Crucially, even the most reactionary organizations, though their end goal might be profit or individual gain, must continually draw on common resources while negating the political implications of cooperative labor (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 108). Because the common is not a static entity but a power to (re)make the world, the stakes of this capture go beyond the appropriation of objects of labor (the focus of some classical Marxist accounts) to the capture of the capacities and resources necessary to produce those objects—in short, the capture of life itself.

Hardt and Negri see this dynamic of capacity and capture as fundamental to the different experiences that make up modernity (Hardt & Negri, 2000, pp. 69–91). It matters uniquely to the present, though, in that contemporary power (in Negri’s sense of potestas) mobilizes the common to an unprecedented degree (making the collective nature of labor and life even more apparent) and employs an increasingly efficient and complex set of tools for expropriating it. For Hardt and Negri, the turn to the social factory, a turn that Negri saw in the 1970s as a somewhat provincial tendency of capital, anticipated the now-widespread move toward subjectivity as a site of governance. Capitalist production has become in significant part biopolitical—capitalism produces and markets not only products, but also emotional investments (in particular, brands or the corporation one works for), desires (the vision of a consumerist “good life”), and certain kinds of identity or subjectivity—in short, many of the elemental components of human life. Hardt and Negri do not claim that the production of subjectivity becomes the only or even the numerically dominant model for capitalism—rather, biopolitical mechanisms “organize production . . . and impose a [qualitatively different] new structure” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 33) that intervenes in industrial production through management techniques that focus on subjectivity, the creation of consumer audiences for manufactured products, and financial instruments that subsume manufacturing under decisions motivated by financial speculation. Through both the production of subjectivity and direct intervention in all life (as in the patenting of plant or animal genes to develop pharmaceuticals), biopolitical production also intervenes in the reproduction of working bodies, squeezing assets for capital (in the form of time invested to develop work skills and data collected from audience labor, among many other things) out of even the most apparently private moments, and blurring the line between time spent in the factory or workplace and free time.

Hardt and Negri see this new productive regime as both intensifying capitalist power and opening up possibilities for liberation. On the one hand, the shift to biopolitical production makes the mechanisms by which capitalism exploits life pervasive and immanent. In addition to naked force, capital strives to control the subjectivities of the exploited: Workers may very well compete with other workers to secure their own oppression, and actively desire to do so, or cite subjective fulfillment (or pressure to embody a particular identity) as a reason for performing extra, unpaid labor under conditions that would meet with resistance otherwise. If these subjective mechanisms fail, more violent interventions on capital’s part are certainly still possible, but these interventions take the form of military or financial actions framed against a backdrop of universality and objectivity (e.g., ostensibly objective market mechanisms, police or military actions motivated by the need to secure “global” safety) that makes them less legible as the violent class aggressions they are (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 37). On the other hand, because so much of contemporary production revolves around common creativity of different sorts, biopolitical production signals a “becoming-common of labor” (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 103). All labor is cooperative, but “producing communication, affective relationships and knowledges, in contrast to cars and typewriters, can directly expand the realm of what we share in common” (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 114). Moreover, the raw materials worked over by these forms of labor—languages, images, affects—are produced socially and in common on face, avoiding the mystification of an inert “nature” worked over by human labor. Both of these features together mean that a critique of capitalism based on the common can encompass a wider definition of labor (including frequently unwaged but directly affective labor like sex work or housework) and a wider array of struggles than traditional models of class struggle. Moreover, because biopolitical production exploits those common resources with the most global reach as commodities and circulates them throughout the world (Hardt and Negri give the example of the marketing of hip-hop culture), resistance to biopolitical exploitation is more potentially globally focused than traditional trade unionism. Hardt and Negri argue that the world’s common resources, and the multitude of different workers that draw on them, must be reclaimed on a global level in order to combat these new forms of power. This focus links their insights about shifts in the productive process to the analysis of global sovereignty that Hardt and Negri see as the other key context for their revolutionary project.

Empire and War in Post-National Sovereignty

As we have suggested, Hardt and Negri argue that the shifting dynamics of struggle today—between, on the one hand, the productive forces of global labor liberated through the new communication technologies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and, on the other hand, the increasingly adaptive technologies that capture these productive forces in market-based rationalities—give rise to a form of sovereignty that is irreducible to a geographic territory, as well as legitimating mechanisms like constitutions and systems of rights. However novel this shift in capitalism, the contemporary form of sovereignty it produces as its political byproduct is as old as human history itself and goes by the name of empire. Rather than rule based upon a Westphalian principle of territorial national constitution, empire today rules through a differential process in which the imposition of market logic is accomplished through a decentralized patchwork of international agencies, flows and counter-flows of bodies and capital, nongovernmental organizations, biomedical crises and environmental devastations, religious colonizers, and paramilitary groups that operate in conjunction with or, increasingly, in place of, the ideological and repressive apparatuses of the nation-state. We stop here but, by virtue of the crisis of institutions set in motion by the global generalization of market logic, the agents and agencies that make up the fabrics in the patchwork of empire are endless, for empire thrives on the continual management of the crises of institutions that it sets in motion. The continual breaking down of institutions provides it with this endless means of recalibrating techniques of non-state and profit-oriented forms of intervention. In this way, empire realizes, in a much more efficient manner than modern forms of sovereignty, capitalism as a mode of production that operates according to overcoming the crises that it creates, an endless spiral that recognizes no bottom and no limits, an “omni-crisis” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 197).4

At a conceptual level, the modern nation-state was constituted by virtue of the possibility of a distinction between “inside” and “outside.” This distinction was operationalized in various ways and at different scales. The imperialist project of the modern nation-state involved a spatial expansion of territorial boundaries, often through war and the subordination of indigenous peoples. In their words, prior to empire, “the territorial boundaries of the nation delimited the center of power from which rule was exerted over external foreign territories through a system of channels and barriers that alternately facilitated and obstructed the flows of production and circulation” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. xii). In empire, however, there is “no territorial center of power and [empire] does not rely on fixed boundaries. . . . It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open expanding frontiers” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. xii). As an imperial rather than imperialist form of rule, then, empire presupposes the encapsulation of the globe in an immanent network of control, a network that weaves market logic, and the crisis of institutions it generates, into the social fabric of human life and relationships (i.e., the very ways in which the ontological potential of human becoming is actualized in the “real world”).

In the context of the social production, the citizen-subject of modern sovereignty was produced through an “archipelago of factories of subjectivity” (i.e., places such as the home, the school, the barracks, etc.; Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 196). Modern institutions of the archipelago operated according to internal rules of enclosure—each of which contributed to the material fabrication of subjects—predicated on the need to define and delimit the spaces of the external. The subject was “protected” from the rules of one enclosure (e.g., the factory) by the rules of another (e.g., the church). As they argue, “[t]his clearly delimited place of the institutions is reflected in the regular and fixed form of the subjectivities produced” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 196). In empire, however, the place of the production of subjectivity is in crisis: “today the enclosures that used to define the limited space of the institutions have broken down so that the logic that once functioned primarily within bounded institutional walls now spreads across the entire social terrain” (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 196).

In the second volume of the Empire trilogy, Multitude, written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the United States-led “war on terror,” Hardt and Negri address the function of war in the context of post-national sovereignty. The historical record itself, in the context of the belligerent international policies of the administration of President George W. Bush and the apparent reassertion of national sovereignty these policies entailed, invited questions about the historical accuracy of the characterization of contemporary rule as post-national. In modern nation-states, war constituted a forceful but temporary and exceptional instrument of extending state interest when politics failed. Thus it was, in their words, a “limited state of exception” to the usual business of modern international affairs. Rather than war understood as “the armed conflict between sovereign political entities,” Hardt and Negri argue, war today is always civil war (i.e., war “within a single sovereign territory” of empire (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 3). The pretense to sovereignty of belligerents in hot or cold war must be understood as an essentially rhetorical device that obfuscates the struggle “for relative dominance within the hierarchies at the highest and lowest levels of the global system” of empire (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 4).

The conflicts and hierarchies established within empire divide the liberatory potential of cooperative forces of production in order to impose a form of discipline. In a new twist, if empire rules through the reduction and division of the productive forces of living labor through market-based rationalities (i.e., through horizontal processes that control the actualization of the productive powers of the social body), Hardt and Negri argue that it perfects the enforcement of control and limits deviation through command logics activated by the repressive and warring apparatuses of nation-states. In truth, command and control operate in tandem according to the functional needs of empire. As Brian Massumi notes, there is really no mediation between command and control, but only “resonation and autonomic readjustment” (Massumi, 1998, p. 47). “When control procedure hits a snag,” Massumi argues, “a specialized autocratic function rises up from the horizontal web and swoops down on the problem in a sometimes spectacular command-center assault” (Massumi, 1998, p. 48). The function of war (or state violence in general) is thus to reproduce empire as a “a system that is so complicated that it cannot be described as a structure, but only a metastable, self-organizing system of systems in a continual struggle to integrate interruptions, planned and unplanned, ranging from the relatively minor to the catastrophic, into periodicities or regularized rhythms or functionings” (Massumi, 1998, p. 47). War is an “internal variable within the system” that allows, here and there, for the realignment and reproduction of imperial rule (Massumi, 1998, p. 61).

The Multitude: Toward a Global Counterpower

In order to combat the global, continually shifting command-and-control apparatuses that characterize empire, Hardt and Negri call for the creation of a similarly global counterpower that might reclaim the world’s resources and structures of governance on behalf of the oppressed. They call this counterpower multitude. In the work of early modern political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, the multitude denoted the mass of common people who formed the building blocks of all types of political communities, and who, these authors argued, posed the greatest threat of insurrection and unrest if poorly governed (Spinoza, 2004, pp. 117–121, 155–165). Hardt and Negri retain these authors’ sense of the multitude’s power, but rather than fear or ambivalence, they find in the multitude “the central means of encounter” that might create a world where “we can work and live in common” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. xiv). For Hardt and Negri, the multitude names the flesh of contemporary politics: a dimension of political life that includes the cooperation of laboring bodies, the affects and relationships produced through sexuality, friendship, and shared experiences of protest and political action, and the communicative and cultural resources that sustain and extend these relationships. This flesh appears monstrous to many, because it escapes the major political categories of modernity. A multitude is not a people, because the different practices that compose it “can never be reduced to a unity or single identity,” much less the borders of a single nation-state (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. xiv). Neither is the multitude a mass: Where “the essence of the masses is indifference,” the multitude hums with a multiplicity of desires, tensions, and affective connections. As a manifestation of the common ontological processes discussed above, “the flesh of the multitude is pure potential, an unformed life force” that is both inherently social, and as elemental as earth, water, air, or fire (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 192). Like these elements, the multitude contains the potential to manifest sublime power but, from a political perspective, it is “maddeningly illusive, since it cannot be corralled into the hierarchical organs of a political body” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 192). Rather than treating the multitude as an ideal to be uncritically affirmed or a Manichean other to empire, then, “[w]e need to learn what this flesh can do,” exploring the political capacities it contains and producing the experiences of common freedom it makes possible.

Among the first of the multitude’s capacities is that it points toward a new, more expansive concept of class and class struggle. Hardt and Negri lament the ways that “the concept of the working class has come to be an exclusive concept,” not only distinguishing workers from bosses, but also separating waged workers from “the poor, domestic laborers and others who do not receive a wage” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. xiv). This version of the concept of class not only fails to respond to shifts in the ways that labor, and the violence used to expropriate it, are globally organized but, they argue, it also forecloses avenues of common struggle that hermeneutic models grounded in traditional Marxism fail to see. In contrast, the multitude grounds a definition of class as “a constituent deployment, a project” that organizes bodies in collective struggle, such that “the classes that matter,” those we must create vocabularies to describe and compose, “are those defined by lines of collective struggle” in a given moment (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 104). Between the classically Marxian alternative of two irreducible social classes locked in struggle and the liberal view that sees innumerable classes existing in interdependent, ideally pluralistic harmony, Hardt and Negri argue that any class is “an irreducible multiplicity . . . [that] can never be flattened into sameness, unity, identity and indifference,” and also that this multiplicity can be objectively, materially exploited, as well as learn to act in common to resist exploitation (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 105). Multitude describes this process of flexible organization in global terms, allowing radically different struggles in different times and places to be linked across a common dimension of desire for collective empowerment, without reducing the singularity of those struggles, or those involved in them, to a hierarchy of oppressions.5

In addition to enabling new lines of class struggle, the concept of multitude is a powerful resource for composing a global counterpower against the wars waged within empire. Hardt and Negri see one of the most important contemporary sites of class struggle in the uneven distribution of violence and violent expropriation around the globe. The ongoing state of war described in the previous section has positioned an ever-greater part of the world in a “grey zone between war and peace” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 52) where more and more military operations take the form of violence against an “indefinite and often unknown enemy” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 52) that potentially includes anyone, but that in all likelihood means that that those living in the aftermath of European-U.S. colonialism or proxy wars and workers in the world’s manufacturing and natural-resource-rich regions encounter violence as an ongoing, day-to-day reality. Hardt and Negri turn to the European history of peasant revolts (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 236), as well as South African anti-apartheid struggles (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 84), the contemporary struggles of Argentinean factory workers (Hardt & Negri, 2004, pp. 216–217), the EZLN (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 85), and the Occupy and Spanish indignado movements (Hardt & Negri, 2012) among many other sites of struggle in order to develop a model of revolution as emergent from the bodily and cultural exchanges that compose the multitude. All of these movements share a tendency toward decentralized, directly democratic resistance and, to varying degrees, all advocate for direct action as a means to social change rather than dialogue with dominant political institutions. They are also all, in one way or another, movements against “misery and poverty” as intolerable aspects of the world, but this negative critique is driven by a profound desire for “the rule of all, based on relationships of equality and freedom” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 67). Hardt and Negri find these movements to be proof of the local, struggle-driven model of class already discussed, but they also see each of these movements as the basis of a critique of the violence of empire. While none of the above movements could be described as totally nonviolent, Hardt and Negri argue that their grudging embrace of defensive violence draws attention to the fundamental asymmetry of power within empire (as in the image of protesters throwing rocks at tanks or bulldozers, or the “violence” done to property by protesters in Seattle or Ferguson), as well as providing the rudiments of an ethical model whereby the multitude can bring its force to bear as a counterpower against empire without perpetuating the misery it condemns (Hardt & Negri, 2004, pp. 342–345).

Hardt and Negri’s deployment of the concept of multitude to assess contemporary class struggles and to think through resistance to contemporary war result in a model of revolution as exodus. The idea of exodus draws on Negri’s experiences with early 1970s autonomist movements, as well as the experiments in revolutionary life and culture effected by some of the already-listed groups, to propose that those interested in pursuing social orders outside capitalism work to create the conditions of new life within the old, experimenting with alternative economic models, living situations, and cultural production within and against empire. Crucially, Hardt and Negri see this model not as an alternative to movements of liberation based on class, race, gender, sexuality, geography, or any other element of life, but as a way of building common ground across all these struggles. In addition to the revolutionary movements already mentioned, they also draw on radical feminist (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 334) and queer politics (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 335), black (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 213) and indigenous (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 108) liberation movements, decolonial struggles (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 103), farmworkers’ movements, and nontraditional unions like the IWW and Justice for Janitors (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 214)—as with the list of empire’s strategies of command and control, the list of avenues and sites of resistance could go on indefinitely. Hardt and Negri see the common denominator among these movements in the desire for equality and basic sustenance, and they reframe these movements as parts of an “international cycle of struggles in which revolts spread from one local context to another . . . through the communication of common practices and desires” (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 213).

While political action at the level of national political institutions remains important, especially from a tactical perspective, Hardt and Negri develop a politics at the level of the practices of relation that constitute the flesh of the multitude. In part, this involves safeguarding social practices of empowerment from appropriation by empire’s mechanisms of control, as well as from violent destruction by its apparatuses of command. Much of Hardt and Negri’s theory of defensive violence aims at thinking through this problem and, while they do not downplay the physical violence deployed by some of the movements they discuss, they focus on displays of power—from “millions of bodies in the streets at a demonstration” to Queer Nation kiss-ins, radical theater, and other confrontational strategies—that might appear as violent to those in power, but that in themselves produce and display the constituent force of the multitude (Hardt & Negri, 2004, p. 347). Building on this emphasis, Hardt and Negri see a second primary task of politics as creating new practices of governance—new radical rhetorics—that enable different struggles to communicate horizontally across different issues and geographic regions, as well as vertically through historical and philosophical research aimed at activating “the past as a field of possibilities through which an alternative futurity could be imagined” (May, 2013, p. 8). On both of these fronts, Hardt and Negri invite their readers to participate in a global project of constituent power that “struggles against capitalist exploitation, the rule of property,” and the corruption of the common in all its forms, communicating their desire to fight global misery with a laugh of joy (Hardt & Negri, 2010, p. 383).

Hardt and Negri in Communication Studies

Hardt and Negri’s conceptual and political project has been taken up in communication studies in several very promising ways. The 1980s and ’90s generated several broader dialogues between autonomist thought and theories of communication; Nick Dyer-Witheford, Tiziana Terranova, Franco Berardi and other scholars of communication leveraged autonomist thought to reconsider Marx’s relevance for theorizing the information economy at the same time as Hardt and Negri embarked on their rethinking of sovereignty. These scholars provide an important discussion of the communicative dimension of autonomist thought that complements Empire and informs Hardt and Negri’s more recent work (Dyer-Witheford, 1999; Terranova, 2004).6 Ronald W. Greene, who has been largely responsible for introducing U.S. rhetorical studies to Hardt and Negri, has highlighted the communicative dimension of Hardt and Negri’s formulations of the common and their ontology of collective practice, rethinking the relationship between discourse and materiality in the process. Scholars such as Catherine Chaput and Joshua Hanan have further developed the implications of Hardt and Negri’s ontology for rhetorical studies of economics, theorizing the common as an oikos or environment out of which the disciplinary discourses and governing apparatuses of economics as a discipline emerge, an environment that must be accounted for in order to think about alternatives to the economic rationalities of late capitalism.7 Beyond rhetorical scholarship on economics, Hardt and Negri’s ontology has advanced rhetorical debates regarding kairos (Cloud, 2009, pp. 293–320; Cloud, McCann, & Feyh, 2009, pp. 147–157; May, 2009, pp. 515–523), the methodologies of critical rhetorical history (Engels, 2010; May, 2013; Bost & May, 2016), and debates over the philosophical status of ideology and representation (Bost & Greene, 2011, pp. 440–444). Finally, by virtue of the inestimable impact of Greene’s work and several highly visible ensuing debates, there is a significant record of opposition to Hardt and Negri’s uptake by communication scholars (Cloud, 2008, pp. 102–107; Slack, 2007, pp. 336–342; Cloud, 2006, pp. 53–70; Cloud, Macek, & Aune, 2006, pp. 72–84; Cloud, 2006, pp. 329–354).

Rhetorical scholars’ engagement with Hardt and Negri’s overall ontology is complemented by a substantial literature that uses their work to diagnose the possibilities and perils of public discourse under empire and to suggest rhetorical strategies for engaging the multitude as a potential counterpower. Greene’s work remains particularly important here, theorizing rhetorical agency in a world where “capital exists everywhere, gobbling up every domain of social action” (Greene, 2009, p. 200). Chaput’s “Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy” (Chaput, 2010, pp. 1–25) engages Hardt and Negri’s immanentist ontology and their insights about contemporary capitalism to provide one of the most important rethinkings of the rhetorical situation in the past two decades. Kristin Swenson’s Lifestyle Drugs and the Neoliberal Family places Hardt and Negri’s theory of subjectivity under capitalism in conversation with the history of psychiatry and the insights of materialist feminism to provide a nuanced and important account of antidepressants, ADHD medication, Viagra, and other “lifestyle drugs” as they are deployed as tools of governance by empire (Swenson, 2013). Jason Del Gandio’s Rhetoric for Radicals (2008) finds resources in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy to produce a rhetorical handbook for political activism in the new millennium and joins several other insightful uses of Hardt and Negri’s work (in conversation with authors from Gilles Deleuze to Louis Althusser) to assess the possibilities presented by contemporary instances of social protest (May & Synk, 2014, pp. 74–84; Greene-May, 2011, pp. 342–348; May, 2009, pp. 204–208; Foust, 2006, pp. 329–341). Finally, the conceptual reservoir provided by Hardt and Negri has produced a wealth of media scholarship.8 Most notably, Jack Bratich has produced influential media-based studies of audience reception, the transformation from public to “machinic” intellectuals, and the media ecologies of Occupy Wall Street that heed Negri’s call for a “genealogy of dispositifs of subjectivation from the perspective of resistance” (Bratich, 2014, pp. 64–73; 2008, pp. 24–45; 2005, pp. 242–265).

While this review of the literature within the discipline is by no means exhaustive, we see it (and the account of Hardt and Negri’s work we have provided) as opening up three major avenues for future research. First, Hardt and Negri’s ontology and their historical and conceptual elaboration of the concept of the common contains many undeveloped insights that communication scholars could use to think through the history of rhetoric (as a series of interlinked constructions of, and fights over, common resources and life); the relationship between the common contained in language and communication in general and its instantiation through digital media technologies and other communicative apparatuses; and efforts by historical and contemporary social movements to construct new spaces, times, and dimensions of common life. Second, and in complement, Hardt and Negri’s rethinking of the concept of class is an effective way of retaining the critical force of traditionally historical materialist scholarship on class while emphasizing the situationally specific and intersectional nature of any effective description of class or class struggle. Put differently, Hardt and Negri’s work convincingly demonstrates, as Nick Dyer-Witheford writes, that “the tendency of capitalism is to subordinate all activity to the law of value,” making capitalism’s processes of capture central to a successful account of any communication whatsoever. It also emphasizes that “the extraction of surplus value” by capitalist processes is an optic for discussing a “whole range of dominations and oppressions,” from sexism to racism and homophobia, meaning that the tools of class analysis should be thought of as fundamentally intersectional from the start (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 9). Third, we are compelled by their work, indeed even encouraged, to rethink communication scholarship from within the context of a capitalist totality (or, if not a totality, at least the hegemonic universalizing tendencies of capital). This may involve, for example, revisiting and rethinking notions of global citizenship and communicative norms of participatory democracy, mapping the way in which struggles made in common communicate compositional power across territorial obstacles through affective resonances within the multitude and new communication technologies, and further specifying the dynamics of causality from within the universalizing logics of empire (how instances of refusal transition or become generalized at different scales of impact).

Primary Sources and Further Reading

The popularity of Hardt and Negri’s work over the past 15 years has resulted in substantially increased scholarly interest in both Hardt and Negri’s individual works and in the historical context of late-20th-century Italian radical politics more generally. Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (2002) provides a useful reading of the key texts of workerism, and assesses the divergences between workerism more narrowly defined and the broad range of autonomist social movements that took workerism as an inspiration or historical predecessor. Robert Lumley’s States of Emergency: Cultures of Revolt in 1970s Italy, 1968–1978, takes a more detailed look at the fragmentation and varying interests of 1970s autonomist movements, with a brief chapter on the origins of the crisis of the 1970s and separate treatments of post-workerist labor movements, student movements, 1970s Italian feminism, and the eventual split between the Red Brigades and the rest of the movement. Andrea Righi’s Biopolitics and Social Change in Italy: From Gramsci to Pasolini to Negri exceeds the scope of 1970s politics, but treats Italian feminism in more detail, linking it to both Negri’s thought and Italian intellectual history more broadly (backward to Antonio Gramsci, and laterally to the filmmaker, political dissident, and public intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini). Two edited collections, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno) and Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (edited by Sylvére Lotringer), are also important. Hardt and Virno’s book documents the philosophical legacy of autonomia, collecting several essays by thinkers involved with workerist and autonomist politics, reflections on the repression of the 1970s, and work by scholars influenced by autonomia; and Lotringer’s book provides the best English-language collection of primary photographs, written political communiqués, and art related to the movement. Finally, the websites and both contain extensive archived writings by workerist and autonomist thinkers, with libcom containing links to several translations of works by Tronti, Negri, and other related thinkers, and generation-online archiving workerist and autonomist writings in Italian, as well as in English, French, and other translations (Libcom,; Generation Online,

Beyond Empire (1999), Multitude (2004), Commonwealth (2010), and Declaration (2013), most of Hardt and Negri’s other major works are now readily available in English. Hardt’s main work outside the trilogy consists of his book Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosophy (1993), written before Empire, and the Verso Revolutions edition of Thomas Jefferson’s political writings (Jefferson, 2007), which builds on the themes of constituent power developed in Hardt and Negri’s collaborative work. Negri’s early political pamphlets are collected in the out-of-print collection Revolution Retrieved, available at and elsewhere online, and in Books for Burning (2005). Negri’s works from the 1970s, including Political Descartes, The Factory of Strategy: 33 Lesson on Lenin, and Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, along with his prison writings, including The Savage Anomaly, and the work collected in Time for Revolution, all exist in English (though Marx Beyond Marx is only sporadically in print) and provide a robust picture of Negri’s intellectual itinerary before the trilogy (Negri, 1991, 2003, 2015a). Negri’s time in prison is documented in Pipeline: Letters from Prison (2015b), the filmed interviews in The Cell (Melitopoulos, 2008), and the latter part of Revolution Retrieved (1988). The documentary Antonio Negri: A Revolt that Never Ends and two books of interviews, Negri on Negri and Goodbye Mister Socialism, feature Negri relating the breadth of his own political history to the ideas developed in the trilogy; a third book of interviews coauthored with Cesare Casarino, In Praise of the Common, combines retrospective interviews with several essays by both authors that develop the philosophy of the trilogy in new and productive directions (Weltz & Pilcher, 2005; Negri & Dufourmantelle, 2003; Negri & Scelsi, 2008). Some of Negri’s solo work from his Paris years is collected in The Winter is Over, and Hardt and Negri’s early collaborations are collected in Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of State Form (1994) along with several essays by Negri, some of which were drawn from Negri’s early work, and some from his work in the 1990s (Negri, 2013). The themes of constituent power discussed in that work are further developed in Negri’s Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State. Negri’s political praxis and theoretical innovations, respectively, are the subject of a two-volume edited collection that bridges discussion of the Empire trilogy with treatments of Negri’s solo work (Murphy & Mustapha, 2005, 2007). Finally, the Empire trilogy (and especially Empire) occasioned a robust intellectual debate documented in Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (edited by Jodi Dean and Paul Passavant) and Debating Empire (edited by Gopal Balakrishnan) with critical discussions of the trilogy from a variety of theoretical perspectives (Balakrishnan, 2003; Dean & Passavant, 2003), in the 2011 special issue of Rethinking Marxism on “The Common and the Forms of the Commune” (Curcio & Özselçuk, 2010), and in the French journals Multitudes and Futur Anterieur (Multitudes; Futur Anterieur), both of which have published short works by Hardt and Negri and worked to expand and implement the political project developed in the trilogy.


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(1.) For general overviews of these experiments and strategies, see Lumley, States of emergency: Cultures of revolt in 1970s Italy from 1968–1978 as well as Lotringer, ed., Autonomia: Post-political politics. The historical intersection between feminism and workerism is more specifically discussed in Cunninghame, “Italian feminism, workerism and autonomy in the 1970s: The struggle against unpaid reproductive labor and violence” and Weeks, The problem with work: Feminism, Marxism, anti-work politics and post-work imaginaries. Notable examples of feminist theory that engaged with workerism include Fortunati, The arcane of reproduction: Housework, prostitution, labor and capital; Federici, Caliban and the witch: Women, the body and primitive accumulation; Dalla Costa and James, The power of women and the subversion of the community; and Righi, Biopolitics and social change in Italy: From Gramsci to Pasolini to Negri.

(2.) Matthew S. May has shown how an analogous process took shape in the United States in the experiences of the Industrial Workers of the World. See May, Soapbox Rebellion: The Hobo Orator Union and the Free Speech Fights of the Industrial workers of the World, 1909–1916.

(3.) For a further development of this idea, see May, Orator-machine: Autonomist Marxism and William D. ‘Big Bill’ Haywood’s Cooper Union address.

(4.) See Hardt and Negri, Empire, 197. It is true that people still toil in factories and on farms for slave wages; but the value extracted from that labor is overdetermined by the vagaries of fashion and symbolic power parading at the speed of a click through the hyper-networked circuits of our social media metropolises.

(5.) For two such non-hierarchical definitions of communism indebted to Hardt and Negri’s work, see May, Soapbox rebellion, 5, and Makdisi, Casarino, and Karl, eds., Marxism, communism and history: A reintroduction,” in Marxism beyond Marxism, 1–13.

(6.) For an overview of these trends, see Wright, Mapping pathways, 130–133.

(7.) Hanan, From economic rhetoric to economic imaginaries: A critical genealogy of economic rhetoric in U.S. communication studies, as well as the other essays in Communication and the economy: History value, and agency; see also Hanan and Chaput, Introduction: A rhetoric of economics beyond civic humanism, and the other essays in The Journal of Cultural Economy, 8(1) (2015).

(8.) This list is by no means comprehensive, but certainly provides solid footing for further investigation. For an excellent place to start, see the entire special issue of Journal of Communication Inquiry, 35 (2011), 305–369. See also Reeves and Packer, Police media: The governance of territory, speed, and communication, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 10 (2012), 49–55.