How to be a contortionist, by Michael Hardt
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Dec 18 04:34:25 MST 2002
I'm looking forward to the Proyect commentary on this...
Folly of our masters of the universe
Global elites must realise that US imperialism isn't in their interest
Wednesday December 18, 2002
Some of the worst tragedies of human history occur when elites are incapable
of acting in their own interest. The waning years of ancient Rome, for
example, were full of misguided political and military adventures that
brought death and destruction to the elites, their allies and their enemies
alike. Unfortunately we are again facing such a situation.
It seems inevitable that the United States will soon conduct a full-scale
war in Iraq. The US is also engaged in a war on terrorism that may extend to
all regions of the globe. And, most importantly, the US has embarked on a
foreign policy of "security" that dictates that it not merely react to
threats but anticipate them with pre-emptive strikes.
These military adventures are one sign that the US is fast becoming an
imperialist power along the old European model, but on a global scale. It is
imposing itself as the active and determining centre of the full range of
world affairs, military, political, and economic. All exchanges and
decisions are being forced, in effect, to pass through the US.
The ultimate hubris of the US political leaders is their belief that they
can not only force regime change and name new leaders for various countries,
but also actually shape the global environment - an audacious extension of
the old imperialist ideology of mission civilisatrice . Regime change in
Iraq is only the first step in an ambitious project to reconstruct the
political order of the entire Middle East. And their designs of power extend
well beyond that.
Many political and economic elites around the world, however, do not favour
the creation of a new US imperialism. One common view is that European
political leaders generally oppose US unilateralism because it excludes them
and prefer instead multilateral political and military solutions. What are
most significant, however, are not the conflicting interests that separate
US elites from others, but rather their common interests.
The common interests of the global elites are most visible in the economic
sphere. Business leaders around the globe recognise that imperialism is bad
for business because it sets up barriers that hinder global flows. The
potential profits of capitalist globalisation, which whet the appetites of
business elites everywhere only a few years ago, depend on open systems of
production and exchange. This is equally true for the captains of capital in
the US. Even for the US industrialists drunk on oil, their real interests
lie in the potential profits of capitalist globalisation.
Their common interests are equally visible from the perspective of security.
It is foolish to believe that the removal of a few malefactors, such as
Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, will provide security. Not even the US
leaders have the illusion that this war will bring peace. They see it rather
as a long-lasting and perhaps interminable war driven by continually
emerging threats. US military actions will, in fact, most likely only feed
the antagonisms created by the inequalities of wealth and power around the
world, increasing exponentially the insecurity of global elites. This is
doubly true for US elites since unilateral military actions paint a
bull's-eye on the US for anyone seeking to attack the centre of global
However, there is an alternative to US imperialism: global power can be
organised in a decentred form, which Toni Negri and I call "empire". This is
not merely a multilateral coalition of leading nation states. Think of it as
multilateralism squared. Empire is a network composed of different kinds of
powers, including the dominant nation states, supranational organisations,
such as the United Nations and the IMF, multinational corporations, NGOs,
the media, and others. There are hierarchies among the powers that
constitute empire but despite their differences they function together in
This decentred network power of empire corresponds to the interests of
global elites because it both facilitates the potential profits of
capitalist globalisation and displaces or defuses potential security
threats. Once empire is firmly established as the prevailing form of global
rule, those who oppose the domination of global elites in the name of
equality, freedom, and democracy will certainly find ways to struggle
against it. But that does not mean that we prefer imperialism today.
We can be confident that in the long run their real interests will lead
global elites to support empire and refuse any project of US imperialism. In
the coming months, and perhaps years, we may face a tragedy that we read
about in the darkest periods of human history, when elites are incapable of
acting in their own interest.
· Michael Hardt is professor of literature at Duke University, North
Carolina, and co-author with Antonio Negri of Empire
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