Antonio Negri

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Apr 24 17:00:32 MDT 2001

[This is an excerpt from an article in the current Lingua Franca that is
unfortunately not on their website. Titled "The Convictions of Antonio
Negri," it is about the evolution of an Italian professor from
ultraleftism--although the author Rachel Donadio scarcely recognizes it as
such--to post-Marxist oracle. The subtitle claims that along with Michael
Hardt--co-author of "Empire", he "attempts to rewrite the Communist
Manifesto." Well, good, that's just what we need I suppose even if Hardt
and Negri are totally disconnected to any kind of communist movement based
on the working class. Negri is a BIG thinker, fond of issuing new versions
of the Communist Manifesto about every ten years or so. His last shot at it
was back in 1985 when he wrote "Communists Like Us" with Felix Guattari.
The opening sentence proclaims "The project: to rescue 'communism' from its
own disrepute." Wading through Negri and Guattari's prose, you discover
that the project boils down to something that Abby Hoffman did much better
and with a greater degree of modesty.]

How does an unrepentant Marxist rebel make sense of today's post-Cold War
world? With his former allies absorbed into the ever more centrist politics
of the Third Way, how does he [sic] keep the hopes and dreams of revolution
alive? To judge from Empire, Negri begins with the assumption that we now
inhabit a fully globalized, informationalized economy with no real power
center. Whereas many fellow neo-Marxists stress the persistence of state
power and a coherent ruling class, Negri sees a new world at hand. Indeed,
his description of the dispersal of centralized power into uncontrolled
information networks and capital flows resembles that of cheerleaders for
global capitalism like Thomas Friedman, author of The Lexus and the Olive
Tree. (In a sympathetic review of Empire in the New Left Review, Gopal
Balakrishnan even claimed that the book "can be read as the Lexus and Olive
Tree of the Far Left.")

"When you talk about sovereignty and the idea of a nation-state in European
history, you talk about concepts that don’t make sense anymore," Negri
says. With the era of state-based imperialism over, according to Negri and
Hardt, people inhabit a world of supranational corporations and entities—
the "Empire" of the book’s title. In this new global order, they argue, the
United States is not necessarily functioning as an imperialist power—though
most global financial, diplomatic, and military power happens to beheld by
the United States. (Indeed, Negri and Hardt laud the American
constitutional system for permitting sovereignty to remain largely with the

So what distinguishes Negri and Hardt’s outlook from Thomas Friedman’s? For
one thing, they do not believe the globalized economy will empower
consumers or bring about higher living standards around the  world.
Instead, they feel that this new commercial Empire is a far vaster and
infinitely  more menacing form of domination than anything that has
preceded it. ("Empire not only regulates human interactions," they write,
"but seeks directly to rule over  human nature.") Fortunately, there are
grounds for optimism. Just as Empire has replaced the old nation-state,
they argue, the international "Multitude" has replaced the
nineteenth-century proletariat. As Negri notes, "It is a multitude that can
no longer be called a rabble or mob." With labor no longer linked to the
factory structure, Empire argues, the Multitude are now intellectual
workers, "emancipated from factory discipline" and hence not linked to
"fixed capital." Sounding something like the ultra-capitalist prophets of
the business magazine Fast Company, Negri and Hardt cast the Internet as
the ultimate rhizome connecting these intellectual workers; it is, they
believe, a compelling metaphor for a future of possible "democratic

Of course, this future has not yet arrived. How will it be brought about?
How does a prospective radical in the age of globalization pursue a
revolutionary agenda? One way is to globalize the strategies of dis persed,
anarchic disruption that Autonomia employed in the 1970s. Negri and Hardt
enthusiastically argue that the new capitalist world order, replete with
cubicle dwellers with Internet connections, carries even more subversive
potential than previous systems and that the time is accordingly ripe for
revolution. Local political struggles, they argue, are fundamentally
misconceived when they aspire to target local sites of power, for in
reality such struggles are mere blips on the radar screen of the vast,
decentralized network of Empire. The new model of resistance, Negri and
Hardt conclude, should be that of the "nomadic revolutionary"—akin to the
eco-protesters who demonstrated against the World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle in 1999. Like Autonomia itself, this model also has
Catholic overtones. In fact, Empire concludes with a paean to Saint
Francis, whom Negri and Hardt laud for his denunciation of "the poverty of
the multitude" and describe as the epitome of the nomadic warrior.

In the concluding chapter of Empire, Negri and Hardt push for three rights
that they believe the global multitude should have: the right to global
citizenship (a no-borders argument); the right to a social wage (the claim
that all citizens should be guaranteed a living income); and—striking a
familiar Autonomia theme—the right to reappropriation (that is, to control
communication and other means of production). "We argue that they sound
unreasonable but that they are reasonable," says Hardt.

Some academic reviewers appreciate Empire’s optimism, but criticize the
book for falling to explain how theory becomes practice. Just how will the
Multitude productively engage in conflict with Empire to  bring about
revolution? Writing in The Nation, the City University of New York
sociologist Stanley Aronowitz argues that, having declared labor unions and
other traditional avenues of protest obsolete, "Hardt and Negri are unable
to anticipate how the movement they would bring into being might actually
mount effective resistance." Likewise, the University of Minnesota
professor Timothy Brennan [I knew Timothy when he was an impressionable
young man who had come around the SWP after a disappointing stint in the
Spartacist League. Apparently he has matured, perhaps too much so.]
applauds Empire for "reintroducing the concept of utopia" but contends that
in the end Empire is "finally conservative," because it refuses to consider
using democratic controls to retard the global market: "They float the
astounding thesis that the revolution has already taken place—we only need
the eyes to see it. We might call this ‘the revolution of the already is "‘
Other critics simply question the common left-wing assumption that global
capitalism is best understood as the latest form of imperial power. In his
book Peoples and Empires, the historian Anthony Pagden refers to Empire as
"the most recent, overstated, and hysterical expression of this fear."

Louis Proyect
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