Musings on the Empire
Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

Empire and Beyond
By Antonio Negri. Trans. Ed Emery.
Polity, Cambridge. 
Pages 239. £16.99.

Empire and BeyondRestless politics is the focus of this book. After 11 years in prison and 14 in exile, the Italian philosopher, Antonio Negri, travels and lectures all over the world; it is these lectures, delivered in 2003-04, which are collected in this volume. Though we may call this collection of thoughts "travel writing", they include serious considerations about the nation-state, empire, Europe, multitude, post-socialist politics and political philosophy in imperial postmodernity. Of these, the nation-state, empire and multitude have been much popularised in Negri and Michael Hardt’s two earlier books, Empire and Multitude.

I would like to put together in this short space some of the ideas emerging from these broad areas. But first, a word about Empire, where Hardt and Negri discussed how the substitution of "nation" by the capitalist world order "Empire" creates a "new form of sovereignty" that is borderless because it combines in itself three forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The US is the monarch, indisputable master of the world, ruling through the Pentagon, the institution symbolising its military might. The big three—the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—are in the service of securing US monarchy.

The Empire is aristocratic in the sense that only a select few (like the G-8 and the UN Security Council) are in control of the rest of the world. As for democracy, the US-led nations and the developing world can together appropriate Empire’s democratic function by being representative of their people. The United Nations General Assembly is the primary example here. If all else fails, we can always fall back on non-governmental organisations that proclaim emphatically the democratic roots of all nation-states. With these three strands, the new state which is the Empire can include within itself collaboration and dissent, similarity and difference.

Some of these ideas are extended in Empire and Beyond. In the course of lectures, some of which are quite short, Negri shows how nation-states may appear to be facing a crisis because of the take over by the "Empire". Having adjusted to the strength of global capital, he believes that Empire will supersede not just the nation-state but the US as well. Quite obviously, Negri is far from addressing the nation-states of the developing world, those that had declared themselves sovereign after their decolonisation struggles and now find themselves under pressure of globalisation. He argues that since the sovereignty of the nation-state depends upon the sovereignty of the people or the "multitude", the concept of the people becomes important. After the Second World War and the dissolution of imperialism, it was the multitude that had brought the modern world to the point of postmodernity and to the new era of decentred capital. Yet, the new world is borderless owing to the presence of transnational corporations. Despite the proletariat, the end of the nation-state is looming large because it is pursuing capital accumulation without obstruction.

In the context of developing countries, the nation-state (as we know it) assumed enormous significance in overthrowing colonialism. So long as decolonised countries worked on a socialist model, the nation-state remained strong. But with the delegitimisation of the ideology of socialist states, the impetus towards capitalism grew. The outward signs of good fortune tend to eclipse the desire for freedom from global forces inherent in nation-states. The greater the global pressures, the lesser would be the status of nation-states in the developing world.

Some of the criticism attached to prematurely declaring the obituary of the nation-state and along with that, that of the proletariat, can be attached to Empire and Beyond. Despite exhortations of resistance and the attempts to maintain links with Marx, the celebratory note, where global capital is concerned, is hard to miss. In the face of a global revolution initiated by the "multitude" that is fashioned out of the "people", there would be little relevance of local struggles, provincial nationalisms or alternative world models. If one is an advocate of swimming with the tide, how can others be inspired to go against it? The message is implicit: capital is such a monolithic force that opposition to it would be futile. Negri’s endorsement of the role of the WTO and the IMF in safeguarding and regulating capital flows and his overall sanguineness in the face of globalisation prompts the question whether small, local struggles at the point of production can be at all successful in encountering massive flows of global capital working their way through transnational corporations.

To that question, many instances of resistance that advocate an alternative world imagination can be cited: the Zapatista movement, which is a war against free trade negotiations, has begun to inspire other protestors around the world; the 1999 rallies to interrupt the WTO summit in Seattle that was to frame policies on privatisation, patenting and intellectual property rights is another exemplary case. Negri’s wistfulness for resistance is a desirable wish for both Marxists and postcolonialists, but what sort of a resistance would that be? The book is allegedly about hope and optimism for the rise of resistance in the world but the creation of new subjectivities is nowhere clear.