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.
While by no means minimizing the fact that the United States stands at the pinnacle of the new system, Hardt and Negri insist that the project is one of creating a system in which disputes between nations are adjudicated by a legitimate international authority and by consensus, upon which world policing may be premised. Even though the institutions are not in place–most of the initiatives remain ad hoc, as is evident in Africa at this very moment–the authors announce the existence of a dominant “systemic totality” or logic that, however invisible, regulates the new economic and political order that has taken hold almost everywhere. The new paradigm of Empire has gained enormous strength since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is not the direct result of cold war triumph. It emerged organically within the old system as a result of the tremendous power of the postwar labor movements to bid up both wages and the social wage, the pressure of national liberation movements on the old imperialism and the gradual delegitimation of nation-states and their institutions to maintain internal cultural as well as political discipline.
Having increased its power at the old industrial workplace, by the sixties labor was engaged in what Negri has previously termed “the refusal to work.” Even as mass consumption was rising, productivity eroded, and profits in some instances actually declined. The nation-state–which since the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutions had, through education, citizenship for the lower social classes and imperial ideologies such as racism and patriotism, been effective in enforcing internalized mass discipline–was increasingly unable to command popular allegiance as, one after another, efforts to thwart Third World national liberation movements ran aground. Things came to a head in 1968 and 1969 when mass strikes, notably in France and Italy, almost toppled sitting governments; disruptions and mass demonstrations also threatened the stability of regimes in Mexico and the United States. The authors argue that the conjunction of economic crisis and the crisis of rule was an occasion for renewal, not breakdown.
The renewal was signaled by President Nixon’s early-seventies abrogation of the Bretton Woods agreement; the dollar rather than gold became the universal money standard. Weakened by international competition and rising costs of production and governance, it was no longer possible to contain world prices by monetary means and preserve the system of internal trade regulation. Now the dollar “floated” along with other currencies. In quick succession, the United States removed most major regulatory controls: on banks, trucking and other transportation, and most antitrust restraints. Fuel prices and many others now floated in the market. While Nixon started the process of ending the stubborn legacy of the New Deal, the so-called Reagan revolution, of which the Clinton Administration has seemed a loyal follower, greatly accelerated the changes. The doctrine of Keynesianism, which proclaimed that since capitalism tended toward equilibrium below the level of full employment, governments must intervene directly to stimulate economic growth and employment, was declared dead. The free market, and with it the idea that government should as much as possible stay out of the economy, except to regulate the supply of money and credit in order to stem inflationary tendencies, became the new religion.
A key element in the new corporate strategy was to reduce wages by curbing the power of organized labor. Battered by the “deterritorialization” of industrial production as corporations moved plants offshore and by relentless antilabor policies, by the eighties organized labor in all major industrial countries was in full retreat. In the United States and Britain, unions proved unable to protect many features of the social wage (welfare-state benefits) won during the thirties and early postwar years. While the power of labor in other countries took a longer time to diminish, the nineties were years of agony for most European workers. Even when labor-backed socialist governments took power in France, Germany and Italy, welfare-state erosion, heavy losses in the old material-goods industries and the rise of largely nonunion information and communications sectors reduced the power of organized labor and, with few exceptions, its will to resist governments’ neoliberal economic policies.
For Hardt and Negri, globalization was the major mechanism to solve the crisis. Three key transformations have occurred since the sixties: the shift in the economy from the dominance of industrial production to information; the integration of the world market so that, with global communications, industrial deterritorialization, accelerated world investment and trade, the lines are now blurred between “inside and outside”; and the decline of the nation-state as the core of political sovereignty and as a mediator of economic and political protest. The introduction of new technologies led to the creation of entirely new communications and information industries, which have largely replaced the old regime of Fordist production. Fordism, which subjected the worker to rationalized tasks by transferring knowledge to machines–assembly lines and other methods–has largely been replaced with what has been termed “Toyotaism,” or post-Fordism. One of the characteristic features of the new production method is “just in time” production. Through computerized information technologies, management is able to compress the time between the provision of raw materials to the shop floor and the actual production process.
But the technological revolution has had another effect. Information technology signifies the advent of “immaterial” production, and with it the emergence of the worker who integrates knowledge, skill and labor–what Robert Reich has designated “symbolic-analytic services,” activities that entail “problem-solving” and “brokering,” once performed chiefly by managers. The central actor in this new immaterial production no longer stands as a cog in the labor process but is at the center of it. Since these workers are, contrary to popular belief, not immune to the vagaries of exploitation (many of them work on a part-time, contingent and temporary basis, even in software heartlands), they are among the potential actors in a potentially revived labor movement. Globalism is not primarily a regime of goods production but, with the aid of science, leads to a new paradigm of the relations of humans to the physical universe. Nature, too, has been integrated into the new system–witness the emergence of industries based on biotechnology that treat life itself as a new field for investment and production.
Nation-states, which emerged from the decline of the feudal monarchies and aristocracies and their replacement by liberal democratic systems, still perform important tasks for Empire. Without them the control of whole populations would be impossible. Yet imperialism has died precisely because nations are no longer the key mediators of international economics and politics. The nation may still ignite fierce loyalties among subordinate peoples, but for Hardt and Negri, it is no longer independent from the new world order.
Having destroyed the old colonial system by revolution and civil war, the legacy of newly decolonized states has been nothing short of tragic. Although the revolutionaries of Asia and Africa achieved national independence, they were never able to establish economic autonomy. During the cold war some, like India, maintained a degree of independence by playing on the division between the two great powers; others allied themselves firmly on either side. China, under an often brutal revolutionary dictatorship, broke with both sides and tried to modernize by subjecting its own population to development by means of force. In almost none of these nations were the majority of their populations afforded decent living standards. In the year 2000 a third of the world’s labor force remains unemployed or underemployed, and millions have migrated in order to make a living. The term “Third World” describes the past. Having been subordinated to Empire, these nations no longer offer an alternative. Acknowledging the hardships suffered by victims of war, famine and unemployment, Hardt and Negri see a new proletariat emerging on a world scale out of the enormous exodus of peasants, a proletariat that may become one of the constituents of resistance against Empire. The old distinction between industrial production and agriculture has been sundered, as hundreds of millions of people are herded into cities. Those who remain on the land are increasingly subject to capitalist industrial methods, literally factories in the field.
Although Empire sometimes strays from its central theme, it is a bold move away from established doctrine. Hardt and Negri’s insistence that there really is a new world is promulgated with energy and conviction. Especially striking is their renunciation of the tendency of many writers on globalization to focus exclusively on the top, leaving the impression that what happens down below, to ordinary people, follows automatically from what the great powers do. In the final chapters they try to craft a new theory of historical actors, but here they stumble, sometimes badly. The main problem is that they tend to overstate their case. From observations that the traditional forces of resistance have lost their punch, the authors conclude that there are no more institutional “mediations.” Not so fast.
One of the serious omissions in Empire‘s analysis is a discussion of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, three of the concrete institutions of the repressive world government of Empire. Lacking an institutional perspective–except with respect to law–Hardt and Negri are unable to anticipate how the movement they would bring into being might actually mount effective resistance. Although not obliged to provide a program for a movement, the authors do offer indicators of which social forces may politically take on the colossus. Having argued that institutions such as trade unions and political parties are no longer reliable forces of combat, they are left with the postmodern equivalent of the nineteenth-century proletariat, the “insurgent multitude.” In the final chapters of the book, incisive prose gives way to hyperbole, and the sharp delineation of historical actors melts into a vague politics of hope. Insisting that “resistance” precedes power, they advocate direct confrontation, “with an adequate consciousness of the central repressive operations of Empire” as it seeks to achieve “global citizenship.” At the end, the authors celebrate the “nomadic revolutionary” as the most likely protagonist of the struggle.
The demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle last December and the subsequent anti-IMF and World Bank protests in Washington suggest a somewhat different story. The 40,000-plus demonstrators who disrupted the WTO meetings and virtually shut down the city consisted of definite social groups: a considerable fraction of the labor movement, including some of its top leaders, concerned that lower wages and human rights violations would both undermine their standards and intensify exploitation; students who have been protesting sweatshop labor for years and are forcing their universities to cease buying goods produced by it; and a still numerous, if battered, detachment of environmentalists–a burgeoning alliance that appears to have continued.
These developments shed light on the existence of resistance to Empire but also on the problem of theories that wax in high abstractions. Events argue that some of the traditional forces of opposition retain at least a measure of life. While direct confrontation is, in my view, one appropriate strategy of social struggle today, it does not relieve us of the obligation to continue to take the long march through institutions, to test their mettle. After all, “adequate consciousness” does not appear spontaneously; it emerges when people discover the limits of the old. And the only way they can understand the nature of the new Empire is to experience the frustrations associated with attempts to achieve reforms within the nation-state, even as the impulse to forge an international labor/environmentalist alliance proceeds.