erasing clouds

In the spires of the Empire: a lesson by Toni Negri

by Anna Battista

"He's in the foyer, talking to a journalist," a guy who's just arrived excitedly whispers to his friend sitting next to me, he smiles, underlining, "He's being interviewed, you know," as if, before entering the room, he himself had been the witness of a very private conversation. Then guy sits down among the rest of the audience of the Michetti Theatre in Pescara, Italy. Finally the man we're all waiting for gets into the theatre room from the main entrance, surreptitiously passing near the lateral stalls, as if he didn't want to be noticed. I can hear a lady behind me softly remarking to a friend, "He looks older…well, after what he went through…" Actually, so many dramatic events marked Toni Negri's life, but tonight all those years of suffering are lost in the folds of time, finally put behind his back, aeons away, and he's not even feeling any resentment towards anybody, because as he will state later tonight, "Resentment is the worst quality of a free man". Besides, Toni Negri cannot linger about his past tonight, he is here to talk about his latest book, co-written with Professor Michael Hardt, Empire.

A Step Into The Past.

In the '60s, Antonio Negri is teaching State Theory at the University of Padua, in Italy. His works are mainly centred on themes like labour theory and work. It is during these years that he also joins the Marxist journal Quaderni Rossi and starts taking part in the Potere Operaio (Worker Power) group. When the latter splits up, Negri moves with another group, Autonomia Organizzata (Organized Autonomy). We are in the '70s by now, what are usually called in Italy "gli anni di piombo" ("the years of lead"), an expression that well defines the violence that spawned terrorist groups like the Red Brigades. On 7th April 1979, Negri is arrested in Milan: he is accused of being the head of various terrorist organisations. Four years will pass, years in which Negri will be moved from one prison to another and will also be accused of being the organiser of the murder of politician Aldo Moro. In 1983, when Negri's trial takes place the accusation of having been part of terrorist organisations is dropped and he is basically condemned on the substance of his writings. On 25th and 26th June of the same year, Negri runs as candidate for the Radical Party and, after obtaining parliamentary immunity, leaves prison. Months pass and the Chamber of Deputies finally requests to withdraw parliamentary immunity from Negri. In September 1983, instead of going back to prison, Negri escapes to France. Here he spends fourteen years, teaching political science at the Université de Paris VIII (Saint Denis), studying and writing. In 1997, Negri decides to come back to Italy, where he enters Rebibbia prison in Rome to serve his sentence. Thousands of articles are published on international newspapers about Negri's case. Even Amnesty International studies his case and the trials that followed, what are considered unjust trials.

A Step Into The Future.

Marx Beyond Marx (Pluto Press, 1991), The Savage Anomaly (1991), Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State (1999; both published by the University of Minnesota Press) are listed among Antonio Negri's most studied works, but there is one essay which is at present considered as being the best one. Empire (published by Harvard University Press) was written before Naomi Klein's No Logo, actually it was practically finished quite a few years ago, exactly at the end of June 1997, before Negri came back to Italy to be arrested: on the day before 1st July 1997, the last page of the book was written, the page in which the legend of Saint Francis of Assisi is mentioned. Nowadays, the authors state, we find ourselves in the same situation St. Francis was in, divided between the joy of being alive and the misery created by power. And yet, though the book was finished five years ago, it deals with something, an evolutionary process, which is happening right now.

Negri and Hardt, who previously published together the volume Labor of Dionysus (1994, University of Minnesota Press), theorise in the new volume the death of the nation state and the rising of a new Empire, the result of the various capitalistic processes occurred throughout history. The book, divided in four parts, tackles issues such as the new Empire, the new concept of labour and multitude, immigration, wars and the final destruction of the Empire. Hardt and Negri do not tend to identify the Empire with a single nation such as the United States, but they claim that the proper Empire is a sort of place without boundaries, which is forming right now, through a thick network of new laws and regulations. Though it is still forming, the new power is already going through a deep crisis, analysed in the last part of the book, in which, very optimistically, the two authors confide into the power of the multitude to destroy the Empire.

"The book written by Hardt and me is rather old, we finished compiling it around 1997-98," Negri starts remembering, explaining, "The Empire forms when the nation state and the national space reveals itself as incapable of taking proper control. The workers' struggles in the capitalistic countries, the anti-colonial struggles in the ex-colonial countries and the struggles for freedom in the socialist countries, have little by little transformed the space controlled by the modern sovereignty. As a first consequence, the capital had to establish new wider structures to contain these groups. We must underline one thing: there isn't yet an 'Empire', but it is getting formed through an attempt at regulation, at creating rules. The sovereignty is taken away from the single nations and transferred to another level, but who does exercise it and in which limits? These are today's problems. Today we can't say 'let's go back to the nation state to try and defend ourselves from the attempts being made at forming the new order of the world'. The nation state is going through a crisis. The sovereignty has three characteristics: it can organise an army, it mints coin and it can determinate the local culture. All these things aren't possible right now in a modern nation state. At present only the Empire can organise a war, only the world market can determine the possibility of minting coin and, from the cultural point of view, a nation can't really have a cultural monopoly. In the same way, also other wide categories, such as the international law, don't exist anymore. The formation process of the Empire is not quiet and calm, but it is charged with grave consequences. This is a process with incredible implications."

Among the various consequences of the process which is forming the Empire, Negri underlines one in particular, the concept of labour. "Labour has become immaterial, a characteristic helped by the third revolution which has provided the technological means that allow to develop labour in these forms. Today, for all those ones who produce intellectual and immaterial work, there isn't any difference between the working day and the temporal day. Labour becomes a vital activity: it becomes the intellectual or linguistic capability of building new values. At present, the single persons can generate a product. Once, in the period of time that goes from capitalism to the formation of the great industry, when people went to work, it was the master, the owner who gave them the tools, the instruments to work. But now things are changed: working means expressing intellectual and linguistic abilities, so that we ourselves own the tools, the instruments to work with. In this way, the virtues of a single person are estimated to a higher degree and the concept of class comes to an end. The concept of class and mass had a subordination value: it was the capital that formed a class. Today the situation is modified. The capitalist doesn't give me the instrument anymore, but I have the instrument to work, because I'm a alive, because I develop an activity, because I co-operate with the others and produce a language and the language is what determines the production and the valorisation. The sovereignty develops, but the intellectual strength grows. In this way the anthropologic structure is transformed. Labour transforms the man and when labour identifies with the man it is then that everything is modified. The attempt at exercising the sovereignty clashes with a formidable force constituted by individuals who are in possession of the instruments to work with."

In Empire there is also the formulation of a new concept, that of "multitude": "With this word we intend all the single persons, all the subjects. The multitude is a process born out of a singularity that evidently wanted to get together and find their unity. These singularities are, as first thing, a multiplicity. The concept of 'mass' weighs over the concept of 'multiplicity' in the same way as the concept of 'class': the concepts of 'mass' and 'class' don't let the creativity process emerge. If with 'people' we indicate the whole group of people who delegate their authority to the state, with 'multitude' we indicate the reaffirmation of the singularities of the people. When we talk about multitude we talk about a power opposed to the Empire. Sovereignty is a monolithic, unilateral power that the state or the prince exercise over the others. In the workers' struggles this kind of unilateral and fascist concept is a concept of relation it is a dynamic relationship between the sovereign and somebody who obeys. And this relationship determines the conditions in which the sovereign can live. The time of the Welfare State and of the great industries was a time in which such a relationship was evident . But given the transformations of the political and productive web, the concept of sovereignty is changing even more. Today the multitudes aren't an obstacle, they are a proper limit which can't be overstepped. The limit to the word market is the multitude."

But apart from the concepts of multitude and mass, there is another issue Negri can't escape talking about, war: "War intervenes inside the process of formation of the Empire as an element that undoubtedly renews the control technique. But the definition of war has changed. Once with 'war' we indicated 'politics', war meant making politics but with other means, this is a definition linked with a secular Machiavellian tradition. Is war today a continuation of politics? No, it actually stands at the foundation of politics, it is the regulating principle of the world, it presents as the governing element of the political reorganisation of the world market. War now takes place against an enemy which isn't territorially defined. The enemy is an enemy inside the Empire, a public enemy inscribed in the imperial space. But, in modern history, when we talked about an enemy inside the national space, we also implied that it was the police who had to face it. The war in the Empire becomes police from a theoretical point of view. The war is not the destructive war in which millions of men were thrown in the trenches and set one against the other. Before 11th September the American army system went through a reformation: it was transformed so that the army became a sort of police force, divided in small units capable of surviving for long periods, after having been transported in various parts of the world, whenever and wherever they are needed. The Intelligence and the secret services aren't anymore considered as institutions parallel to the army, but they are integrated into the military force. War and police do not identify one with the other, but the two concepts are getting nearer and nearer, they are put in a relation of continuity. A low intensity war is identified with high intensity police. We are in front of such a situation in Israel and we were in front of such a situation in Genoa. The enemy is a public enemy linked to the forms and to the problems of the structures. Often the enemy is identified with the immigrants, it is a mobile enemy."

And so Negri introduces the immigration issue, which is also analysed in Empire: "The struggle against emigration, the attempt at enclosing this work force that moves in such an impetuous way on a worldly basis, is one of the most horrible examples which proves that the relationship 'war-police' is forming. The impossibility from the side of the Empire to control the demographic and emigrating movements becomes one of the top priorities on the agenda of the 'war-police' relationship. In the emigration flux we only see the huge sufferings of the emigrating multitude and we feel compassion towards them. To feel sympathetic towards this people is a good thing, a right thing to do, but inside these movements we must also see the search of these population for expressing themselves. Moving is a rebellious act, an extremely positive act. We must consider the migrating populations as people who want to build new forms of freedom, they are positive elements who are breaking down the enclosures."

After talking about Empire, Negri moves on, reminding the audience that he's also the editor of the journal Posse. The name of the journal comes from Latin, it indicates the verb "to be able to", "posse" indicates what a body and a soul can do together, Negri and Hardt claim in Empire, "We did three issues of the journal: the first one was called 'Vivere nell'Impero' ('Living in the Empire')," Negri explains continuing, "It was inspired by the book Empire and it took into consideration a few thesis developed in the book. We wanted to verify the things said in Empire on a daily basis after Seattle. We started developing an inquiry on the job situation, noting how the multitude works in a new way and that it lives in a condition of territorial mobility and flexibility and works in a society and not in the factory, creating the production through the co-operation. We wanted to see how the Empire worked in productive situations. What is extraordinary right now is that labour has really changed and it is coming back to the centre of our attention as it was for Marx."

When Negri concludes his speech with the words "Once we used to say 'It is right to rebel'. Now they prefer to say 'Another world is possible'", the audience claps for a long minute. In Empire Hardt and Negri compare the new power to the Roman Empire: it can indeed be divided into monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, the basic trinity at the foundation of the ancient Empire. The army, organisations such as NATO or the G8 nations are the monarchy whereas the aristocracy is constituted by the multinationals. Finally the democracy is incarnated by the various non-governmental organisations and by the multitude. Like a million-footed body, the multitude moves against the Empire, standing in front of the new global sovereignty ready to subvert it and to turn it to its needs. It is difficult to predict the kind of government which the multitude of the future may reach, we might say, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky's Literature & Revolution, but it is easy to hope that, like the human beings mentioned by Trotsky, the multitude will become "immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; their bodies will become more harmonised, their movements more rhythmic, their voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human being will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

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