Empire built on shifting sand
Issue: 109 Winter 2006
The last few years have not been kind to Antonio Negri. Empire,1 his most famous book, produced in collaboration with Michael Hardt, heralded the death of imperialism. The authors claimed that the old logic of warring nation-states had been replaced by a de-territorialised Empire, functioning according to a new global logic of rule. The ink had barely dried before the events of 11 September 2001 and the beginning of a new cycle of imperialist wars. By the time their second major collaboration, Multitude,2 was published in 2004 the authors were forced to find a placefor the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq within their theory.
However, their attitude towards these wars has been contradictory. On some occasions they have seen them as an imperialist ‘coup against Empire’. This view led Negri to support a yes vote in the May 2005 referendum in France on the proposed EU constitution. Support for this neo-liberal document would, he argued, heelp create a ‘counterweight against US unilateralism’. At other times they have seen US military might as serving the interests of the emerging Empire, referring to the invasion of Iraq as ‘an attempt at transition, not at colonisation’.
Hardt and Negri welcome the emergence of Empire, seeing it as the terrain for the struggles of a radical new counterpower, the multitude, which both sustains and can potentially overcome the new order. They attack any nostalgia for previous movements and forms of struggle—seeing them as irrelevant in today’s ‘postmodern’ world. The multitude has been widely identified with the forces that took to the streets against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999 and at countless other anticapitalist mobilisations since. But Negri has recently identified other, more curious, allies. A 2004 interview saw him heap praise on Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Nestor Kirchner, the presidents of Brazil and Argentina, who have both provoked anger in their own countries by continuing to drive through the neo-liberal attacks of their predecessors.3
Despite his political contortions Negri remains an influential figure, attracting considerable interest from both the left and the right. Many of Negri’s earlier writings have now been republished. Time for Revolution brings together two essays by Negri, the first written in 1981 and the second at roughly the same time as Empire.4 The essays trace the development of Negri’s thought over the last 20 years. Like many of his writings, they are almost impenetrably dense and difficult works.
The Politics of Subversion, originally written in the late 1980s, is by contrast one of Negri’s most accessible works.5 It takes up many of the themes that reappear in Empire and Multitude, but in a far clearer form. A collection of Negri’s key pamphlets from the 1970s has been republished under the title Books for Burning.6
Alongside these early writings by Negri come several articles and collections attempting to grapple with his work. The Philosophy of Antonio Negri7 contains essays tracing the history of Negri’s thought from 1968 onwards and some responses to his contemporary work. The essays range enormously in quality. Those by Kathi Weeks, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Kenneth Surin, all of whom are broadly sympathetic to Negri, make some interesting comments and criticisms. Steve Wright’s essay on the debates within the ‘Autonomist Marxist’ current that Negri helped establish in Italy in the 1970s is well worth reading. Wright has also written a very useful book on the history of Italian Autonomist Marxism entitled Storming Heaven.8
Debating Empire, a more critical collection of responses to Empire, brings together several thoughtful contributions from left wing writers including Ellen Meiksins Wood, Giovanni Arrighi and Leo Panitch.9 It also reprints Alex Callinicos’s ‘Toni Negri in Perspective’, which first appeared in this journal.10 In a similar spirit of criticism is an essay in the journal Capital and Class by Paul Thompson, entitled ‘Foundation and Empire’.11 Slavoj Zizek, who was enthusiastic about the publication of Empire, has produced a short essay, available online, critical of the strategic weaknesses of Hardt and Negri’s theory.12 One of the most withering attacks on Empire comes from Argentina-based Marxist Atilio Boron. His book, Empire and Imperialism, is at times rather shrill in tone, but Boron does deal with many of the key problems in Empire.13
The wealth of new and republished work by and about Negri makes it possible to trace the development of his thought. In particular it helps explain why Negri has got it wrong on several key questions for the movement. His errors stem both from the trajectory of the Italian movement amid which his politics were shaped and from the strange and eclectic sources of inspiration he has selected in recent years. Lenin famously argued that Marx’s ideas were drawn from all that was best of the 19th century—a synthesis of ‘German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism’. But today, according to Negri’s collaborator Michael Hardt, ‘the orientations have changed and revolutionary thought is guided by French philosophy, North American economic science and Italian politics’.14 As Boron writes, ‘Hardt is right, as long as he is referring to the orientation that guided his own work and not to the sources that inspire revolutionary thought. In fact, both French philosophy and the economic theories that are taught in most business schools throughout the United States play a predominant role in Empire’.15 (...)
[Artículo completo en: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=164&issue=109]
NOTES1: M Hardt and A Negri, Empire (Harvard, 2001).
2: M Hardt and A Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin, 2004).
3: L Duart-Plon, quoted in A Boron, Empire and Imperialism (Zed Books, 2005), p20.
4: A Negri, Time for Revolution (Continuum, 2003).
5: A Negri, The Politics of Subversion (Polity Press, 2005).
6: A Negri, Books for Burning (Verso, 2005).
7: T Murphy and A Mustafa (eds), The Philosophy of Antonio Negri: Resistance in Practice (Pluto, 2005).
8: S Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto, 2002).
9: G Balakrishnan (ed), Debating Empire (Verso, 2003).
10: A Callinicos, ‘Toni Negri in Perspective’, in International Socialism 92 (Autumn 2001), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj92/callinicos.htm
11: P Thompson, ‘Foundation and Empire: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’, in Capital & Class 86 (Summer 2005).
12: S Zizek, ‘Objet a as Inherent Limit to Capitalism’, www.lacan.com/zizmultitude.htm
13: A Boron, as above.
14: As above, p106.
15: As above.
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