on 18 May 2006
The main purpose of this follow-up to "Empire" seems to have been to address some of the swathe of criticisms the book received in the wake of its phenomenal success. Some of these are attempts to deal with substantive problems such as how their theory of empire as a de-nationalised system can stand up to a post-911 world where US global power is asserted more forcefully than ever. Most are simply attempts to clarify points which were unclear in Empire, such as the status of immaterial labour and why it's given such a central place in Hardt and Negri's worldview.
Stylistically the book is an improvement on Empire - it flows better, is divided into clear sections, and includes a lot of empirical examples which back up the arguments. Politically and analytically it is basically the same points repeated in different ways or in a different context. The main exception is the first section on war, which includes a lot of new discussions of distributed network forms and their importance for resistance and power. Indeed, the appropriation of the network model is the biggest step forward they make from Empire.
The book also has fundamental problems, however. Basically, Hardt and Negri have taken an orthodox Marxist ontology and tried to impose it on a perspective of the social world which bears little resemblance to Marx's. The result is an attempt to fit square empirical pegs into round analytical holes - for instance, to portray the masses of excluded poor as really included but exploited. If you don't find persuasive the initial premises (such as that correct forms of resistance necessarily follow from dominant forms of production), chances are you won't find the conclusions persuasive either. And for all the empirical detail, the basic analytical perspective is extremely broad - the thesis of "biopolitics" (the multitude as productive of life as a whole, so that every social act is now "productive") conflates social-constructivist truisms with Marxist system-theories in an untenable way, wrongly assuming that the "productivity" of social construction necessarily involves belonging to a common productive system and being useful for capital.
This is a creditable attempt to construct a new theory, however, and well worth a read for anyone interested in continental philosophy, radical politics or contemporary social movements.