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Apocalypse Soon

Empire
by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Harvard University Press, 478 pp., $36.95; $18.95 (paper)

The book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has come as close to becoming an international best seller as a university press book dense with references to Spinoza, Marx, and Gilles Deleuze is likely to get. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it has become a cult book among the anti-globalization protest movement, praised by academics from Berkeley and Buenos Aires to London and Paris. When a major American university raised the possibility of hiring Negri, someone observed that this was impossible since he is still serving a lengthy prison term in Italy—although under a form of house arrest—for heading a “subversive organization” during the 1970s, the most violent years of Italian terrorism.

Negri’s current status as an intellectual superstar in many nations could not be in sharper contrast to his standing in Italy, where he has been regarded, almost universally, with opprobrium. Empire was published in Italy long after it appeared in Korea, for example, and although it sold an astonishing 40,000 copies, it was almost entirely ignored by Italian reviewers. In his homeland, Negri is the most notorious of what the Italians call i cattivi maestri, the bad professors who poisoned the minds of a generation, sending tens of thousands of young people to the barricades to destroy themselves for a Communist revolution that could never happen.

Outside Italy, Negri and his followers have been able to use his judicial struggles to increase his charismatic appeal; his often leaden prose is interpreted as intellectually daring. “Isn’t he in prison for being an intellectual?” Michel Foucault supposedly said in the early 1980s—a quotation that appears on an American Web site dedicated to Negri and his work. And indeed, this is how Negri has portrayed himself to foreign journalists. A profile in the magazine Lingua Franca accepted at face value Negri’s assertion that he had never advocated violence in his writing—a claim that would arouse astonished laughter from anyone who lived in Italy during the 1970s.

In Italy, Negri’s name is identified with what is called the Sette Aprile trial. On April 7, 1979, he and about eighty of his followers were arrested in a major crackdown on the movement he then headed, called Autonomia Operaia (Worker Autonomy). Negri was accused of being the behind-the-scenes strategist of the Red Brigades, Italy’s principal terrorist organization, and of having, among other things, been directly involved in the kidnapping of former prime minister Aldo Moro. Neither these nor most of the other serious charges against Negri held up in court; dozens of members of his political movement were held in prison for years awaiting trial, only to be totally absolved. Negri was convicted of the more nebulous charge of heading a “subversive organization.” “They convicted me entirely for crimes of opinion,” he told me when I talked with him last year in Rome at the apartment he stays in while required to report his movements to the police. Terrorist acts by “some” young people, he said, provided the government an opportunity to crack down on a radical movement which, while it did not practice terrorism, represented something much more dangerous, a true alternative to the capitalist system. Negri escaped to France and returned a few years ago to live under house arrest.

But untangling crimes of opinion from terrorism in Italy in the late 1970s is not so easy. While Negri may well have had no advance knowledge of specific illegal acts, his followers, in responding to his call for “mass illegality” and “permanent civil war,” committed literally thousands of violent acts, including throwing Molotov cocktails and burning automobiles, firing guns at rallies, and beating and knee-capping their political enemies. Nor was it strictly true that Negri was convicted only for crimes of opinion: magistrates held him responsible for an armed robbery that was undertaken to finance a magazine that Negri edited—a widespread practice of the movement called “proletarian expropriations.”

 

All this has begun to assume more than an academic interest. As the book by Negri and Hardt, an assistant professor of literature at Duke, became popular with leftists, the authors began to be attacked in the conservative press, particularly after September 11. The editor of The New Republic blamed Hardt and Negri for helping to create the climate that encouraged the violent demonstrations in Genoa and even the World Trade Center attack; and National Review revived all the old accusations against Negri as the mastermind of the Red Brigades and the Aldo Moro kidnapping.

There has thus been much distortion of the facts about Negri and Empire. On the left, there is a tendency to whitewash his past and to portray him as a modern-day Giordano Bruno, the freethinker burned at the stake in 1600 for his heretical ideas. On the right, there is a tendency to demonize Negri as the secret head of the Red Brigades and Empire as an inflammatory attack on globalization and particularly on the US.

Both, I think, are wrong. Negri was not the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the Red Brigades, and Empire is Negri’s most moderate book by far. It does not advocate violent protest and its attitude toward globalization is hardly negative. What is surprising about Empire, particularly for those familiar with Negri’s history of promoting extreme ideas, is that it welcomes globalization, seeing it as vastly preferable to the old form of capitalism, which was strictly connected to the nation-state. For Negri and Hardt, the worldwide circulation of goods and services through international trade is a much more open system than the capitalism of gunboat diplomacy and imperial conquest of foreign lands. In a world dominated by global markets and multinational business, the role of the single nation-state is muted, boundaries blur, and war is to be avoided as bad for business. “Empire”—Negri and Hardt’s term for the new global order—is, they argue, fundamentally different from the old imperialism that Lenin denounced. Empire seeks to harmonize relations between nations—which are all seen as potential trading partners—by developing a series of “universal values,” including not only respect for human rights and due process but property rights as well. “The struggles to contest and subvert Empire, as well as those to construct a real alternative,” they write, “will thus take place on the imperial terrain itself—indeed, such new struggles have already begun to emerge.”

In some ways, the book, whose text was finished some three years ago, prefigured the current anti-globalization movement led by transnational bands of protesters, many of them nonviolent, who organize on the Internet and move between places as distant as Seattle, Gotesburg, Nice, Genoa, and Washington. Today’s struggle is over access to technology, fairer distribution of resources and profit to the poor nations, and the right to preserve cultural values from being submerged by the international mass media.

Although Empire is strongly critical of capitalism, its tone is relatively mild: one finds few of the catchwords of Marxist-Leninist thought, such as “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that characterized Negri’s earlier writings. The book is careful to advocate a “democratic alternative,” by which the victims of Empire will create popular mass movements that will open up closed international organizations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

 

What, then, is the relation of the Antonio Negri of Empire to the much more extreme ideologue who wrote his previous work? How did Italy’s leading cattivo maestrobecome a maître à penser for the global village? Negri, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Padua, first became well known as one of the founders of a movement called Potere Operaio (Worker Power)—one of the most important radical left groups that emerged from the student protests of 1968. At a time of constant strikes, right-wing bombings, and threats of right-wing coups, the rhetoric of Potere Operaio was particularly incendiary: “Democracy is the rifle on the workers’ shoulders,” proclaims a typical cover of the movement’s magazine, Potere Operaio in 1971. “Proletarians. We must rebel. We must organize. We must arm ourselves,” declared another.

In the mid-1970s, as the Italian Communist Party moved toward the center, and attempted to enter a coalition government with the ruling Christian Democrats through an arrangement known as the “historic compro- mise,” the extreme left, which heretofore had maintained the possibility of solidarity with the Communists, was thrown into crisis. Some revolutionary groups, including Potere Operaio, dissolved. Many radicals on the edges of the Communist Party were faced with what they saw as the stark choice of reentering the world of conventional political parties or undertaking armed struggle on their own. It was in this period that left-wing terrorism emerged as a major factor and in which Negri wrote the theoretical tracts for which he is both famous and infamous.

Negri responded to the crisis of the far left by founding in 1977 a new group called Autonomia Operaia, which shared with the Red Brigades the goal of armed, violent revolution but whose attitude toward organized terrorism was complex and ambiguous. It was not, strictly speaking, a terrorist organization. Membership in the Red Brigades was secret; the autonomi proclaimed their beliefs loudly in the streets. The Red Brigades had a rigid hierarchy and military-style rules; Autonomia was loose-knit and anarchic. Instead of promoting terrorism, defined as the killing of innocent civilians, Negri advocated what he called “mass illegality,” and this took various forms, from occupying abandoned buildings and refusing to pay bus fares to more violent actions such as sabotaging assembly lines, robbing banks or supermarkets, and beating up and intimidating political opponents.

Negri now defends his early writings and political positions, insisting that he has always been a libertarian democrat, an anti-Soviet revolutionary, a prophet of postmodern radicalism rather than of an old-school Marxism-Leninism. He dismisses the idea that he advocated, let alone practiced, terrorism. It is true that Negri and the intellectuals of Autonomia were far more sophisticated theoretically than the Red Brigades. In some ways, the Brigades were following an old-fashioned, early-twentieth-century revolutionary model, the Bolsheviks’ storming of the Winter Palace in Moscow. The Brigatisti‘s objective was “to attack the heart of the State,” and bring down the government. Negri insisted that the capitalism of the 1970s was mutating rapidly, that the state was becoming increasingly irrelevant in the multifaceted world of international capitalism. Thus, he argued, one must “disarticulate”—i.e., separate at the joints—the capitalist system in “all its manifestations” by creating a state of “permanent civil war.” The proletariat, whose definition he expanded to include students and professors, would create its own “autonomous” power through a variety of illegal actions, including occupying public buildings, throwing homemade bombs at demonstrations, burning police cars, and disrupting university classes, or through “proletarian expropriations” like bank robbing.

Instead of being discredited by subsequent events, Negri insists that his work of the 1970s was ahead of its time, that he was more a prophet of the effects of globalization than an old-fashioned Bolshevik. As with much else that Negri says, there is a measure of truth in this, combined with a strong dose of self-serving revision of past history. It is true that Negri was quick to grasp the changes in capitalism during the mid-1970s. The oil crisis of 1973 had brought about a recession and factories were beginning to reorganize by cutting back their labor forces and introducing automation, including the use of robots. The beginning of a post-industrial economy meant a shrinkage of the blue-collar working class and the expansion of the non-manufacturing jobs. The mainstream unions and the Italian Communist Party responded by adopting a policy of greater cooperation with management, trying to minimize the harm to workers from the restructuring of industry. They negotiated better unemployment benefits and pensions for the victims of “downsizing” and helped create one of Europe’s most generous social welfare systems. In short, in trying to promote the “historic compromise,” Italy’s Communists made it clear they wanted the capitalist system to work and did not want to overthrow it.

This position, in Negri’s view, ignored the revolutionary potential of the post-industrial economy, with its proliferation of marginal, precarious, part-time workers, as well as students and intellectual workers affected by the restructuring process. Negri stressed the shift from manufacturing to what he called lavoro immateriale, “non-material work”—the service industries and non-industrial production. The new “autonomous” workers, he believed, were natural revolutionaries, while the Italian Communists were stuck in the early-twentieth-century dichotomy between industrial workers and management. He ignored the fact that service industry workers, in Italy as in the United States, have pretty much the same political values and inclinations as most of the middle class.

Negri argues that he was anticipating the fragmentation of economic life in the post-industrial age. “We saw that the old industrial model of ‘fordism’ [i.e., assembly-line capitalism] was ending,” he told me when I saw him in Rome. “We were interested in a revolution based on prosperity, not in the third world revolutions. We were interested in the highest forms of capitalist development. Unlike many on the left, we were not anti-American. We saw America as a source of innovation…. We were totally anti-Soviet. I can assure you that I was among the first to pop open a bottle of champagne when the Berlin Wall came down.”

Thus Negri insists that even his calls for worker sabotage were extremely forward-looking. New technology had made boring, repetitive assembly-line work obsolete and so, he claims, factory sabotage was a call for humane post-industrial work rather than a Luddite rejection of technology. The emphasis on “non-material work,” he says, prefigured the growth of the information economy. The failure of his movement, he insists, was not caused by some inherent defect in its strategy but rather by the malice of his enemies, above all by the Italian Communist Party, which stuck stubbornly to a policy of respecting legality and adopted an increasingly intransigent position against left-wing terrorism. “They were so hard on us,” Negri told me. “If they had considered the possibility of negotiation during the Moro kidnapping, negotiation which we favored, there might still have been a chance for compromise, to accomplish un riformismo forte [a strong reformism].” Negri seems to have forgotten that some of his most vicious attacks were made against “reform” and even now he sees the killing of Moro as purely a tactical error rather than a cruel and appalling crime in itself.

In an astonishing act of intellectual egotism, Negri, in the preface to a new edition of his political tracts from the 1970s, sees modern global capitalism as a response to the radical protests of the kind he led in the 1970s:

In order to achieve hegemony, the capitalist political class had to learn the lesson of the 1970s and organize itself as a movement…. We who had anticipated this [new] mode of production of public space [including the réseau, or Internet]… were not very surprised by this new political expression of capital.*

Reading this, one might suppose that the inventors of the Internet had been poring over copies of Dominio e Sabotaggio.

To be fair to Negri’s writings of the 1970s, his comments on the economic shifts of the period—the oil crisis of 1973, the Nixon administration’s abandonment of the gold standard, the emergence of new categories of work—had elements of originality. But they were not all that original. Books such as Daniel Bell’s The Coming Post-Industrial Society, written from a liberal, democratic perspective, called attention to many of the same trends. Negri was unusual in doing so from within the far left.

But his retrospective account of the 1970s is highly distorted. While he may have been privately anti-Soviet, he did not criticize the USSR in public. Covers of Potere Operaio include photographs of Lenin haranguing the crowd in Red Square, and in 1977 Negri published a book called 33 Lessons on Leninism. As for economic trends in America, the American phenomenon that Negri appears to have found the most appealing was the looting that followed the New York electricity blackout of 1976—an example of the “mass illegality” that promised imminent revolution.

The occasional passages of lucid analysis in Negri’s writings from the 1970s are buried in virtually unreadable prose that combines traditional Marxist-Leninist categories such as the dictatorship of the proletariat with borrowings from French post-structuralist writing and overheated D’Annunzian rhetoric in celebration of political violence:

The vanguard of the worker party must, starting today, move with force against this project [the restructuring of the economy], with squadrons of assault…. It is only the armed organization of the entire proletariat that will win.

Indeed, Negri’s writings from this period leave absolutely no room for compromise and are unsparingly vicious toward his perceived enemies. “The adversary must be destroyed,” he wrote in the pamphlet “Marx, Beyond Marx.” In “Domination and Sabotage,” he wrote “No pity for our enemies!”

Don’t you think, I asked Negri, that by demonizing your adversaries, and telling your followers to have no pity for your enemies, you encouraged the violence of the period? “That was the Red Brigades,” he said. “I never wrote, ‘No pity for our enemies.’” When I pointed out that exact phrase in Domination and Sabotage, he reacted with sudden anger. “I’ve already paid for those writings! We’re not in criminal court here. I’ve already paid!”

It is not hard to imagine how some Italian magistrates might have connected Negri’s writings with the actions of his followers. In the late 1970s, Negri wrote about violence with erotic passion and identified himself with the autonomi who wore ski masks while carrying out violent acts:

I live the life of the sniper, the deviant, the criminal and the worker who doesn’t show up at his job. Every time I put on my ski mask, I feel the warmth of the proletarian, worker community around me…. Every action of destruction and sabotage seems to me a manifestation of class solidarity. Nor does the eventual risk bother me: rather it fills me with the feverish excitement as one waiting for his lover. Nor does the pain of my adver-sary affect me: proletarian justice has the productive force of self-affirmation and the faculty of logical conviction.

While Negri now plays down passages of this kind as mere rhetorical excess, his students and acolytes during the 1970s appear to have taken his incitements to violence literally. Professors and former students at the University of Padua, where Negri taught, describe a reign of terror in which, for about three years, theautonomi, who recognized Negri as their principal leader, took over buildings, disrupted classes, shouted down opposing speakers, set off bombs, humiliated and beat up professors, and intimidated dissenting students. During their so-called Nights of Fire, Autonomia set off bombs in several different places in or around Padua.

The gestures of what Negri called “proletarian self-affirmation” assumed truly grotesque forms: under threat of violence an elderly professor was forced by theautonomi to give an oral examination to a dog. Guido Petter, a psychology professor who had supported the student demonstrations of 1968, was so badly beaten with iron bars that he was taken to a hospital. Oddone Longo, a professor of ancient Greek literature and the dean of the literature department, was also savagely beaten by three autonomi wearing ski masks and wielding metal wrenches.

This attack was particularly cowardly: Longo already suffered from a congenital limp and walked with great difficulty so that he could neither defend himself nor run away. He was able to get his hand over his head so that when they tried to smash his skull, they ended up breaking the bones in his hand instead. Along with his effort to maintain the ordinary meeting of classes in his department, Longo’s principal offense was being a member of the Italian Communist Party—the bête noire of Negri and Autonomia. When I asked Negri about the beatings of professors at his old university, he dismissed them as the work of “a few stupid students,” for which he had no responsibility, and he became annoyed at my bringing them up. But if Negri disagreed with what was going on around him in Padua, he did not object to it at the time.

Between 1977 and 1979, the highest point of Autonomia’s popularity, there were 817 acts of sabotage or vandalism—small bombs, Molotov cocktails, burning of cars, destruction of property. There were also 174 attacks against people and 206 “proletarian expropriations” committed by left-wing protesters in the Veneto region, most of them at Padua. While many innocent people arrested in the April 7, 1979, roundup of those suspected of these and other acts (mostly the theoreticians and leaders), 150 autonomi were convicted in the Veneto for specific acts and crimes; the crackdown on Autonomia put a rapid end to political violence in the region.

Yet to damn Negri because of his involvement with Autonomia would be to miss the new directions his work has taken in recent years. Negri has succeeded in changing some of his premises, while arguing vociferously that he has remained perfectly consistent. Empire, perhaps because of the influence of his coauthor Michael Hardt, is the clearest and most readable of Negri’s books. Since the emerging world empire is both less violent and more open-ended than the old imperialism, they write, it is now far harder to tell who is influencing or controlling whom, especially with the advent of the Internet. Human rights and environmental groups, they say, have become unwitting agents of Empire by smoothing the path for an economic order based on individual rights; but they also have the potential to spread dissent. Making clever if questionable use of the ideas of Michel Foucault, they claim that concerns for human rights and the environment, promoted as “universal values,” have allowed dominant Western nations to intervene in the affairs of less powerful ones in such places as Bosnia. That such nongovernmental groups in fact protest imprisonment, torture, starvation, and ethnic cleansing while often criticizing Western governments does not figure much in Negri and Hardt’s account.

They plausibly observe that when anti-globalization protesters demonstrate at the international meetings of the G-8 and the World Bank rather than in front of the White House, this bears out their assertion that the notion of sovereignty has changed and that the demonstrators have understood instinctively that Empire does not depend on the will of a single nation-state. There are, however, several ways in which Empire suffers from some of the same defects as Negri’s earlier work. In mentioning some of the challenges to globalization, or attempts to develop autonomous movements that escape it, Empire cites various recent instances of popular rebellion, including Tiananmen Square, the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict, demonstrations in favor of democracy in South Korea, the Palestinian intifada, and the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas. In this list, there is no mention of the largest revolt of recent history: the mass demonstrations that overturned the Communist governments of the Soviet bloc, from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuanian, Ukraine, and Russia to Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Not only did these people overthrow the power of communism, to which Negri and Hardt are sympathetic; they wanted, quite explicitly, to join the world economic system and the consumer culture of Empire.

To the extent that Hardt and Negri deal with the Soviet system, they treat it kindly, portraying it as “a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom.” The system, in their view, outlived its purpose by accomplishing many of its aims: its demise was, they write, “death from the socialist victory of modernization.” One would think that any serious attempt to revive communism would have to recognize that past, and existing Communist societies have without exception depended on force and coercion. Whenever their citizens have been offered a choice these regimes have been overthrown.

As in his earlier work, Negri views most forms of rebellion as worthy of support. He and Hardt praise the L.A. riots, the Zapatistas, and the Seattle and Genoa demonstrations as positive expressions of liberating energy irrespective of their differing aims. “All of the movements are immediately subversive in themselves,” they write, “subversive” always having a positive value in Negri’s work. Here is an echo of Negri’s earlier writings in which worker violence must automatically be considered good, because it is a form of worker self-empowerment. But they have replaced the old division between the “masses” and the “proletariat” by a new distinction—between “the multitude” and “Empire.”

“The multitude is the real productive force of our social world,” Hardt and Negri write,

whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude—as Marx would say, a vampire regime of accumulated dead labor that survives only by sucking off the blood of the living.

The effect of global trade on people living in such places as China, Indonesia, and Sub-Saharan Africa does not interest Negri; nor do their local needs for education, medical care, and the liberation of women. Unlike such critics of globalization as Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros, they show no interest in the actual workings of the agencies of international investment and how they might change their policies so as to improve conditions in poor nations. They make no empirical attempt to assess whether particular nations are better or worse off as a result of globalization. To describe the new revolutionary movement, Hardt and Negri have come up with the term “posse,” the Latin verb meaning to be active, to have power, which combines the appearance of classical erudition with the appeal of the citizens’ posses in American westerns and the hip slang used by contemporary rap groups to refer to their own brotherhood. In keeping with their Manichaean vision, they appropriate and reverse the language of Saint Augustine in the City of God, holding out the alternative prospect of a City of Man, for whose workings they say they have nothing whatever to suggest:

This is the point when the modern republic ceases to exist and the postmodern posse arises. This is the founding moment of an earthly city that is strong and distinct from any divine city…. We do not have any models to offer for this event. Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real.

“The posse,” they write, “produces the chromosomes of its future organization.” As with Negri’s writings of the 1970s, apocalyptic rhetoric here takes the place of a political program.

When I talked to Negri’s friend and former Potere Operaio leader Franco Piperno, he said, in a moment of disarming candor, “You know, it’s probably a good thing we didn’t win, because we had very little idea of what we would have done if we had.” That no such doubts appear to trouble Negri is both his strength and his weakness. In the face of political defeats—arrest, prison, flight, exile, the disbanding of his movement, the collapse of communism—Negri has managed to summon a new radical vision for the global age. Its confident, optimistic rhetoric, at a time when most of the left has retreated from revolution, is a big part of its appeal. But as before, it is a vision based on little more than the mystique of protest and a refusal to address in any detail the old question, “What is to be done?”

I libri del rogo (Rome: Castelvecchi, 1997), p.18.

– November 7, 2002

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