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The Strange World of Empire
by Louis Proyect
22 May 2002 18:51 UTC
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The strange world of Empire

Whilst it would not now be unduly cynical to suggest that “globalisation
books” have become a distinct genre, initially an academic one centred on a
debate between economists, but after Seattle a political one with wider
appeal, Empire does not fit comfortably into this niche. It has a far less
economic emphasis than any other text on the question of globalisation from
a more strictly Marxist perspective, where economic issues have been at the
very centre of the debate as to whether or not world capitalism is going
through an entirely new phase. Nor does it offer a wide-ranging panoramic
view of international relations in the current phase from a Marxist
position in the manner of Peter Gowan. Moreover, it lacks the wealth of
empirical detail to be found in many of the works by non-Marxist radical
campaigners on globalisation issues, such as Naomi Klein, George Monbiot
and Susan George, who have become known to wider layers of anti-capitalist

Perhaps Empire’s failure to take as its starting point the economic trends
of recent decades is not surprising given that in Marx Beyond Marx Negri
had the arrogance to claim Marx’s Capital “served to reduce critique to
economic theory, to annihilate subjectivity in objectivity, to subject the
subversive capacity of the proletariat to the reorganising and repressive
intelligence of capitalist power” (p.19). Arguably, an approach rooted in
the decline of the nation state and the very notion of unlimited national
sovereignty – serious issues which in however distorted a form inform real
political debates, including British Conservative discussion of the
European Union – might be a perfectly reasonable way of tackling the
question of real or apparent globalisation. But an analysis of sovereignty
that begins with Duns Scotus, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza is not at
first sight the most obvious point of entry into a serious discussion of
the real changes in the international system since 1945.

My scepticism increased when I read this: “In other words, the contemporary
empirical situation resembles the theoretical description of imperial power
as the supreme form of government that Polybius constructed for Rome and
the European tradition handed down us” (p.314). Negri’s pompous classical
references are a constant refrain – the best example is his assertion that
“the name that we want to use to refer to the multitude in its political
autonomy and its productive activity is the Latin term posse – power as a
verb, as activity” (p.407). He is aware of the slightly different use of
the term by rappers lacking a classical education of the kind he received
in his liceo classico in 1940s Italy and haughtily remarks that “this
American fantasy of vigilantes and outlaws, however, does not interest us
very much” (p.408). Such is the quite comically fractured consciousness of
a rather precious traditional intellectual who has been idealising the
lumpenproletariat since he gave up on the traditional factory worker a
quarter of a century ago.

Some of us might have more patience with Professor Negri if he had the same
grasp of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the General Agreement on
Trade and Services and various other recent proposals emanating from the
World Trade Organisation as he has, or appears to have, of Machiavelli,
Descartes and Spinoza. Although the book claims to start from “the
juridical perspective” (p.122), Negri’s interest in legal theory is always
a very abstract one, and is of absolutely no assistance to those interested
in practical questions such as patent law as it affects AIDS drugs for
South Africa or Monsanto’s infamous Terminator seeds or the implications of
international agreements for bananas, Roquefort cheese or cattle fed with
hormones, to name but a few of the legal issues that have given rise to
campaigns across the world, and even to some measure of dispute between the
EU and the USA.

full: http://mysite.freeserve.com/whatnext

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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