The Imperialist backlash on Empire

Antonio Negri interviewed by Ida Dominijani

[Empire�s] commercial success indicates how the interpretative proposal of the book resonates with the reality of the present. The proposal has become, through agreement or disagreement, a compulsory point of reference in the debate on the global world. S11 intercepts it, is interrogated by it and interrogates it: especially the relationship between the form of Imperial sovereignty outlined in the book and the actual American policy. The latter seems to be characterised as a traditional imperialist state that aims to redesign the geo-political borders of the planet by mobilising national identities more than as global decentred and deteritoiralised Empire that administers hybrid identities and flexible hierachies with no recourse to ethnic, national traditions and values.

Q. Empire came out in the US at the beginning of 2000 and in Italy two years later. In between the two towers collapsed. One would have expected the Italian edition to have an additional chapter on S11 like many other political books that came out this year. You didn�t add one, is it because the event was not epochal or because it did not constitute a surprise for your thesis?

A. The event was very relevant but it confirmed one of the fundamental theses of the book i.e. the end of American insularity and the difference between telluric and maritime nations. The fact that New York could be bombed like London, Berlin and Tokyo confirmed that the process of formation of the new global order was fully deployed. The fact that Al Queda had attacked the symbols of American economic power was a sign of the �civil war� for imperial leadership. What is absolutely new with respect to the book�s structure is the fact that the American reaction is configuring itself as a regressive backlash contrary to the imperial tendency. It is an imperialist backlash within and against Empire that is linked to old structures of power, old methods of command, and a monocratic and substantialist conception of sovereignty that represents a counter tendency with respect to the molecular and relational characters of the imperial bio-power that we had analysed. The gravity of the situation today lies in this contradiciton.

Q. How do you explain it?

A. S11 occurred the moment when the conservatives were gaining ground in the U.S. through the program of safeguarding national interests that were penalised by the political economic and social process of construction of empire. The group that went to power with Bush is exquisitely reactionary, linked to a populist rather than ultra-liberalist ideology and to the maintainence of certain mega structures of American power such as control of energy and the development of the industrial military complex. These people have remained sidelined to the third industrial revolution and do not want to take it further, they are hostile to it since the new economy has gone into crisis, and they have no hypothesis of alternative in mind other than a return to reliance on tradition.

Q. The contradiction you mention is not negligible. It makes the process of costruction of empire much more accidental than you had described it�

A. It is a serious contradiction: it reminds us of the reaction of nationalisms to the changes of scenery in the 30s. Anything could happen; the tension betweeen the growth of the world market and these regressive pulsations of the American administration pushes the situation to an extreme limit.

Q. �With the war as physiological instrument of intervention and self-legitimation, Empire had said this too�.

A. Yes. The war becomes a preventive police operation � careful, this does not mean that it is softer than traditional war: for the first time since the containment the U.S. entertained the idea of using the atomic bomb. International organisations are pushed aside without the least decorum, on the Kyoto protocol as much as the international criminal tribunal, as well as the war on Iraq.

Q. Will Bush�s administration manage to take forward this project? If the imperialist backlash is in such a contradiction with the imperial trend, so anachronistic, can one hope that it will meet with obstacles and resistances?

A. It is difficult to evaluate this: apart from everything there is an element of bluffing in Bush�s behaviour that is the perfect correlative to Bin Laden�s bluff. At the level of international politics, there are signs of a radical refusal of the American position, both in Europe and � despite the adherence to the anti-terrorist coalition � in Russia and China; but there are no leading groups capable of expressing it and pushing it forward. The real obstacle to Bush comes more from the markets: markets don�t want a war.

Q. Are you convinced of this? Wouldn�t the war help to relaunch the economy?

A. No. The American economy would only be relaunched by the second world war, not by a police operation against Iraq, which would only have negative effects on savings in the U.S. and bring confusion to the Islamic markets. Moreover, contrary to what the early 90s revolution in military affairs sustains, it does not contain strong elements of technologial innovation: it requires military investments of a traditional kind, despite the fact that the structure of the army has changed in the opposite, imperial sense. It is a full regression at the military level too: it isn�t surprising that vast sectors of the military apparatus are contrary to the intervention in Iraq.

Q. What about the social level? What chance does the umpteenth call to arms have in obtaining the consensus it needs?

A. It seems to me that Bush would go to war with a weak consensus that will not be strengthened by a call to patriotism. A social crisis is emerging in the U.S. and the government pretends not to see it. Bush�s administration took power the moment when the neo-liberal wave had taken all there was to take. Then the crisis of the market shares arrived and in a society of salaries like the American one where the redistribution of wealth largely takes place through the financial market, a crisis of the financial market touches on the low incomes and becomes a crisis of the entire community. Of course in such a situation of potential social crisis, there emerges the political weakness of the American system i.e. a system reliant upon the media and the control of public opinion; and there are no counter-tendencies with respect to the governmental trend in the media.

Q. I wouldn�t be so sure about that. The media operate at the linguistic-symbolic level and at that level the shifts can be less predictable and faster then at the political one.

A. I don�t know. I can�t see significant shifts between the semiotic and the social. The system of American media is too closed and self-referential.

Q. Can anything happen at the electoral level? In November there will be elections for Congress in the U.S. It is not secondary whether Bush wins or loses.

A. Obviously everyone hopes that the Democrats win, however weak and minimal the alternative that they would be capable of is. But my impression is that at the electoral level the essential has already occurred, and this consists in an important modification of the very electoral. There are important sectors of American society who have moved to the right, firstly the Jewish component, with the consequent deplacement of the democratic political class that was traditionally linked to it. Bush took over an alliance between this Jewish right and the Christian extreme right, as well as the Hispanic community. I do not think these ethnic electoral borders are rigid per se but so long as the politics of Israel keeps rigidfying them there is little to do.

Q. What caused this shift to the right of the Jewish component? Is it a defensive appeal to identity?

A. It is because the diaspora has lost. The figure of diaspora, that meant the difference of always being other and that�s why we liked it, has been defeated. And this weighs enormously on the Middle East question, which today really presents itself as a C19th residue in the global world. We wrote this in Empire: the end of the socialist revolution entails processes of re-feudalisation, more or less similar to what happened after the reformation. Another backlash: the question is to understand whether it will be stabilised.

Q. I summarise: S11 revealed so to speak the accomplished globalistation and the process of imperial constitution in the making. The political and military American response is reactionary, it takes that process backwards and appeals to forms and methods that are nationalist and imperialist i.e. anti-imperial, or at least it tries to do so even though we do not know if it will succeed. It seems to me that the progressive antibodies, the forces that can push towards empire you identify in the markets and multi-national corporations rather than politics, at least institutional politics�

A. I find it also in other contradictions that are opened up. The militarisation of power for instance: if the war becomes a constant element of political legitimation, generals become the true governers, as we can allready see in Bush�s administration which is full of generals, and since the armies evolve towards mercenaries, the process of corruption of imperial strategies can run very fast. Crisis and corruption are powerful elements in the erosion of power. They open up to strategies of opposition and exodus such as the refusal to pay taxes to finance war expenses.

Q. There is little to be expected from institutional politics and the weak alternating between right and left of western democracies. But what about that you and Hardt called counter-empire, the multitude? Since S11 the movement of movements has stopped, especially in the U.S. what cards does it hold in its hands?

A. Two: exodus and resistance. And it must play both. Exodus i.e. abstaining from the game, refusal, demonstrating that it is on a different side with respect to the current game, all this is the radical behaviour that the whole events around S11 deserve. But at the same time, faced with returns to barbarism, it is necessary to pose resistance on a terrain of possible encounter with reformists. The movement can only be constructed on exodus, but it must also exercise resistance. This is because power does not let you practice exodus in peace; it continuously attacks. Hence either exodus becomes militant and combative or it loses. You must exercise force even when you�d rather not, especially when you would rather not: the adversary imposes it. The problem is to understand how, how to play the creative surplus of the multitude in real relations of force. The problem is to understand which topology of resistance needs to be designed and which practices � even singular - to put into practice. How to fight against the war, which alliances to build with the imperial reformist aristocracies�all this needs to be thought about.

Q. There is more if I may. The multitude is made up of men and women. The freedom gained by women in the last decades of the C20th already put into practice exodus from the logic of power. In feminised societies such as ours [not Italy presumably � ed] these are relevant to the prediction of how the game will turn out. A great difference with respect to the thirties is the possibility of the lack of feminine consensus to the seduction of power and the strategies of war. Even though the backlash is felt at this level too: as there are backlashes of imperialism on empire, there are also patriarchal regurgitations at the end of patriarchy in the east and the west and these are clearly painful regurgitations. In this situation it is a question wagering - personally for instance I feel like betting that the patriarchal backlash is not a winner on womens freedom.

A. I see patriarchal regurgitations very well, Bush�s position is patriarchal, Bin Laden�s too and maybe even Arafats�but you must be able to concretise and configure politically the feminine exodus too. I know very well that the multitude, men and women, is full of potential, but the situation is very dramatic and it would not be the first time that a process full of potential gets blocked and distorted.

Q. Like many others you focus on Europe in your project. I�ll make to you the same objection I made to others. European history is not militant in favour of an advantage of Europe over the U.S. in facing the political and social challenges of the global world. As we read in Empire it is the American constitution based on open frontiers and the inclusion of differences to have the upper hand over the European one made of rigid frontiers and national identies.

A. From a historical point of view you are right, but today Europe is the space given to us for any political project. This is because it is a space inhabited by social forces � strata of productive intellectual labour � that are interested in new social organisation. If built from below, mobilising the multitudes, a united Europe can be a terrain on which to exercise a subversive function of the global order.

Q. Last but not least. Empire is not an anti-American book even though it does not under estimate the weight of the U.S. in imperial strategies. We cannot hide though that today, also due to the stupidity of the reactionary strategy of Bush, on the left anti-americanism grows even amongst the anti-globalisation movement itself. This seems to me a confused, wrong and even dangerous position, to you?

A. I completely agree as it is obvious from what I have clearly said so far, I am extremely critical of the American government and any sensical person could not be otherwise. But to think that Bush�s government is America does not make any sense. Despite all that is happening, American society is still a completely open machine. Therefore even if Bush�s project is monocratic and imperialist it is wrong to regard the United States as such as monocratic and imperialist. But there is more: the anti-american position coincides with a position of reevalutation and defense of the nation state as the anti-imperialist trench � this is a temptation not extraneous to some sections of the movement of movements, as we have seen in Porto Alegre. However this would really be a wrong posture since it would prevent an understanding of how the world is made, who has got the command and who can subvert it.

2002 AD. Translated by Arianna Bove. Edited by Erik Empson



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