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 maestro become 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.