The United States never held a large number of direct colonies, a fact that has prompted many political leaders to declare it the great exception to colonialism. Yet the Monroe Doctrine was for a century and a half a rallying cry for American economic and military engagement in Central and South America, and, fueled by cold war considerations, it remained a hallmark of American foreign policy into the nineties. And for many, the Vietnam War was emblematic of US imperialism: Consistent with its cold war foreign policy, the United States assumed the role of protector of a weak, antidemocratic but anti-Communist regime and intervened to thwart the self-determination of the Vietnamese people, especially when they chose to live under Communist rule. While it is doubtful that the United States was seeking, as France had, to make Vietnam an actual colony, still the government followed historical precedent in dominating a weaker nation for political, strategic and economic advantage, as had been the case in Korea and Latin America.
As the recent struggle by Puerto Ricans to prevent the Navy from maintaining the island of Vieques as a bombing range indicates, the US government retains something of a colonialist mentality. Moreover, contrary to the claims of various presidential administrations, we have rarely been at peace. Even the collapse of Eastern European Communism and the rapidly proceeding integration of China into the world market have failed to stem the steady tide of US military intervention into the affairs of smaller, quasi-sovereign nations.
While the rhetoric of anti-Communism has–with the notable exceptions of Cuba and North Korea, recent developments notwithstanding–given way to the rhetoric of human rights as a justification for involvements such as the Gulf War and the Kosovo War, for many these are merely continuing examples of the same old imperialist adventures. But according to Antonio Negri and his American collaborator Michael Hardt, the Vietnam War was the last great battle of the old imperialism. In their view we have entered the era of Empire, a “supranational” center consisting of networks of transnational corporations and advanced capitalist nations led by the one remaining superpower, the United States. In this new, globalized economic and political system, a genuine world market has been created, national boundaries are increasingly porous and a new system of “imperial authority” is in the process of taking hold.
A former professor of political science at Padua in Italy and at the University of Paris, Antonio Negri sits for the second time in an Italian prison on charges that he was “morally responsible” for acts committed by political groups of which he was alleged to be a leader. During the seventies Negri published a number of influential books on Marxist theory and politics. Hardt teaches literature at Duke University and was Negri’s main collaborator in the nineties. In many respects, Empire is a partially successful synthesis of Negri’s previous writings and collaborative work with Hardt. The main thesis of the book is richly supported by brief accounts of the history of political philosophy, of relevant ideas of classic thinkers such as Spinoza and Marx, and some leading twentieth-century philosophers, especially Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. They offer a sweeping but compelling narrative of the conditions that led to the transition from the era of the sovereign nation-state to that of Empire.
The new paradigm of Empire “is both system and hierarchy, centralized construction of norms and far-reaching production of legitimacy, spread out over world space.” The invocation of human rights is not merely a fig leaf for the imperium; it is part of an effort to create enforceable international law in which the institutions of Empire take precedence over formerly sovereign states–in short, assume the role of world court as well as policeman. The interests of Empire are also invoked in the economic arena, where it may be noted that the US President has been largely refashioned as a high-level trade representative for the transnationals.