PRINT October 2005


Michael Hardt on Afflicted Powers

AFFLICTED POWERS is a venomous and poetic book. Indignation, hatred, spleen, and disgust for the powers that dominate the globe today spill forth from its pages. And yet all this is expressed in a cultured, measured, and often exquisite prose, reminiscent of the great polemicists of the past, from Thomas Paine to Rosa Luxemburg. The depth of this antagonism is intensified by a prevailing sense of defeat that runs through the book—the defeat of the Left generally and, more specifically, the defeat of the multitude that had attempted to contest the ruling powers and their permanent state of war in the enormous demonstrations of February and March 2003. Perhaps, in fact, the beauty of the writing is somehow linked to the rancor and bitterness of the argument. Venom has its own peculiar poetry.

The authors—four members of the Bay Area political collective Retort, Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts—situate the book intentionally in the venerable tradition of political pamphlets, and there is indeed something pleasantly old-fashioned about it. This “broadside” style is marked not so much by the length of the text as by the polemical force of the argument. Consider, for example, this mournful passage about how the spectacle of the war in Iraq seeks to respond, by a strange logic, to the spectacle of the September 11 terrorist attacks: “And where, in the end, is the image the war machine has been looking for—the one to put paid to the September haunting? Toppling statues, Presidents in flight jackets, Saddam saying ‘Aah,’ embedded toadies stroking the barrels of guns . . . wake us (wake the whole world of couch potatoes) when it’s over” (“The State, the Spectacle, and September 11”). Afflicted Powers is a frankly partisan intervention aimed at concrete political effects. The collective voice of the text agrees well with its polemical manner, highlighting its political nature. There are discontinuities in the writing, of course, but these seem to relate less to the different authors than to the different faces of the argument. Such a text should have a plurality of voices within it.

What strikes me most about Afflicted Powers, however, is that, despite this recognizable polemical mode, the book is much more than a pamphlet. It takes on questions that are central for the future of the Left in the US and beyond but treats them with far greater complexity than the pamphlet style would usually permit. Even when the book’s claims or arguments are not particularly original, they are articulated with a remarkable openness, clarity, and subtlety. This is evident, for example, in the superlative chapter “Blood for Oil?” which grapples with that eponymous slogan so omnipresent in the demonstrations against the war in 2003. The slogan isn’t right, the authors argue, but it’s not completely wrong either. The US invasion of Iraq wasn’t simply about the acquisition and control of oil; rather, the war was a means to defend and promote a version of global neoliberal capitalist production in which oil plays a central role. This line of reasoning leads away from the slogan toward a much more accurate and useful analysis of the causes and consequences of the war.

In some of the other chapters what I find most intriguing and productive isn’t the analysis but the questions posed. In the chapter on Israel (“The Future of an Illusion”), for example, the authors do not analyze the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics or rehearse the injustices suffered by Palestinians. They merely ask why the US government continues to support and follow Israel, and, more specifically, why it continues to emulate the Israeli model of military occupation—in Iraq and elsewhere—when that model has so clearly proven to be a failure. Simply exploring the nature and consequences of this question is enough to make for a penetrating and engaging discussion.

The sections of the book that deal with “revolutionary Islam” and the terrorist attacks of September 11 seem to me lucid, even courageous. I admire, in particular, how the authors manage to hold together in fine balance, on the one hand, their analysis of why the politics of revolutionary Islam appeal to so many in certain parts of the world as a response to contemporary global conditions and, on the other hand, their profound disgust with those politics and their violent tactics. The authors are most comfortable, however, when they are analyzing the society of the spectacle and its form of rule, and that is exactly how they approach 9/11. The event and its effects, they explain, cannot be understood outside the logic of the spectacle that is normally wielded as an instrument of control by capital and the state: The terrorists merely followed the logic of the spectacle to its horrifying conclusion.

All these and other sophisticated analyses, as I said, make Afflicted Powers much more than a pamphlet. In another respect, however, the book does remain just that insofar as it does not seek to articulate the living alternative to these horrible powers under which we suffer. Along with the book’s despair about the present defeat of the Left there is also a sense of hope, but that hope must necessarily remain vague and weak, as I think the authors are well aware, until it is given a solid foundation to stand on. It’s not enough that the current powers fail or even self-destruct in their projects of war, terror, control, and domination. And it is not enough either to pin hope simply on those who periodically descend into the streets in protest. One has to establish that there are existing subjectivities capable of constructing a different society, a democratic society. But that requires an extended analysis that goes well beyond the limits of a pamphlet.

When critiquing the society of the spectacle, to give just one very specific example, one could investigate also the desires and capacities of the workers who produce spectacles. One might look at the political struggles of intérimaires, for instance, the part-time workers in the media, entertainment, and the arts in France who have been organizing in creative ways for well over a decade. After all, the George Bushes, Bill Gateses, and Rupert Murdochs of the world might command the spectacle, but thousands, even millions of workers actually produce it. Investigating the capacities of those workers might help reveal how there already exist ways in which the forces that now create the ruling spectacle might be deployed differently.

In a more general way, too, it would be necessary to analyze the skills, the knowledges, the experiences that multitude have in their daily lives and in their work—in the factories and the fields, in service work and health care. These are the capacities that produce the current society and, if organized differently, could produce a better one. The authors do express their loathing for vanguard politics in all its forms, but to back up such a position one must establish the generalized political and social abilities of the multitude to organize and rule itself without any vanguards.

Such an inquiry into the existing forces and subjectivities capable of creating another world, a democratic world that would provide a real foundation for hope, is, as I have already remarked, too much to expect from a pamphlet. And I suspect that adding such an analysis to the critiques offered by Afflicted Powers would disrupt or even undermine the polemical tone of the book. I’m happy, in fact, that the authors have left such investigations for another time and place and allowed us to appreciate here their venom in its pure state. n

Michael Hardt co-authored Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2004) with Antonio Negri.