Introduction: Looking Out from Here
As the crisis deepens, and nationalism and religious belief, the twin last resorts of capital, are mobilized around the world to set working people everywhere against each other in the false name of "democracy," it might help us to ask what exactly is being built. Up until now, the anti-capitalist critique, of which until recently there was an enormous production, has focused on the failures of neoliberalism and what, if anything, the global financial ruling class was attempting to maintain by staying in power. But the processes of capital do not stop. It is just as much a fantasy to speak of arresting them as it is to speak, like the neo-Keynesians, of reversing them and returning to a previous era. In fact one of the main impetuses for the rapidly rising stench of nationalism in America right now is the belief that if only certain things are done, we will return magically to a (mostly fictional) time of vast productivity and relative peace between the classes. This myth is constantly pushed in the media and even here on OS, while the ruling class goes on setting one area of the country against another, aligning one sector to demolish all the rest, much like the same goal is being pursued in Europe by setting one group of "richer, more developed" eurozone nations against the "poorer, more indebted" ones. Never mind that the poverty being described in both cases was created by capital's viciously uneven and wildly unplanned development.
But again, instead of focusing on fantasy, let's ask ourselves, "What is being built?" For as the savage plans of austerity politicians and financial traders move forward, society does not cease to evolve. Rather it evolves at an increased rate. And we are not, in fact, headed into the past, as some ex-left and pseudo-progressive critics would have it. We are moving into an altered future, one that is steadily being transformed by capital in its attempts to hold a power structure in place that has obviously failed on every level to deliver for social need. In this sense, capital is doing what comes natural to it--expanding, while trying to keep its core structures intact--and as it wallows in its objectifications of people's misery as "laziness," "recalcitrance," "faithlessness," and finally, and most deadly of all, a lack of belief in one's nation (does everyone have their made-in-America uniforms yet?), the cycles of production, and social reproduction, continue. And we find ourselves more and more dependent on a system that is capable neither of extricating itself from its core structural problems, nor even of accurately perceiving the tremendous dangers created by its increasingly precarious real-material conditions. Steeped in its own fantasies of faith and nationalistic self-delusion, it is descending into ruin, and taking us with it.
Old Empire and New
In this situation, where everything is dovetailing quickly with the nation and the state, where capital has fled to protect itself from the growing disorder caused by it, and the unrest of the multitude, it is perhaps useful to remind ourselves of the work of Howard Zinn, the anti-imperialist historian who labored for many decades against the power structures of America and what he saw as the threat of global hegemony. As the privileged site from which the most violent movements of global capital are already being projected--finance, militarism, the murderous "diplomacy" of a false internationalism--America has a special role to play in the coming future, the one that capital is busy trying to inaugurate, whether its individual agents are aware of it or not.
This is not exactly the future predicted by Zinn's tireless warnings against traditional imperialism, either, as another pair of authors, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have sought to point out in their trilogy of books focusing on the recent evolution of global power. Like with many powerful critiques that point to a possible future, and caution against it, Zinn's ideas were bounded by his own time and his own background, in his case the post-War period and non-violent resistance movements. This led him to take up a principled stance against what he saw as the main threat to democratic freedom and a better society for the vast mass of people--American imperialism. In the first in their own series, Empire*, Negri & Hardt point out some of the limitations of traditional anti-imperialist criticism and maintain that what is being brought into existence by the spread of information economies, control societies, and the new structures of global capital--all the most unique outgrowths of the recent evolution of power under capital--is a kind of "floating empire."
Negri & Hardt's idea of empire is one that exists not as a direct consequence of the actions of only one nation, but rather as a structure that operates through multiple, interlocking mechanisms, all for the benefit of an emerging global ruling class. This is centered around finance, but it has many arms, including a kind of monarchy in the militarism and "cooperation" of the richest and most powerful countries (the G20, especially those "blessed" with nuclear weapons); a series of legislative bodies (in the various false internationalist organizations, the UN, EU, IMF, which really serve the interests of the monarchy exclusively); and a war machine (mostly the US and NATO) and finance control mechanism (global monetarism) which act as the main levers in a global control society. This is not your grandfather's imperialism.
But this emerging Empire is not yet able to affect control over all nations or absorb all movements of resistance, and as a result it seeks rather blindly instead to concentrate on its own internal structures. These are not the structures of capital exactly, but the reflection of past dreams of hegemony of the traditional imperialist kind denounced so eloquently by critics like Zinn. All nations that tried to dominate their own time attempted to suppress the power of other nations, and other groups, that threatened (or that were pictured by hegemonic power as threatening) the interests of the empire. With Negri & Hardt's Empire, too, the basic goals of domination and hegemony are starting points. But with contemporary means of control available--the micro-control of information economies, global trading, "international" financial organizations, privatized security, hyper-technologized and "unmanned" warfare etc.--the possibility of a truly global Empire, one no longer centered in a single nation, comes into view.
With the end of the cold war, and America emerging as the victor, it seems obvious to the traditional anti-imperialist that an era of American super-domination would begin. But beyond the illusions of American wardening of the world, and beyond the murderous lies of "humanitarian intervention" and "wars for democracy," the development of Empire continues. This is no conspiracy, either, although the series of developments involved may contain within them any number of conspiracies, ideological flattenings, and deceptive moments: the "project for a new American century;" the "bloodless" corporate invasions of smaller states that resist global capital's influence; the repurposing of regionalism, once a nationalistic military strategy, to fit the needs of the G20; even the spread of not-for-profits and non-governmental organizations in the name of "peace" and "cooperation" (when in reality they play a major part in the destabilization of national economies, loosening them up for restructuring and plunder by disaster capitalism).
All this makes the recent rise in nationalism among capital's critics (including here on OS) especially stupid and worthless. The theories of neoliberalism and neoconservatism have already become the property of a new point of view, one that cares nothing for national self-interest, and that sees it only as a means to manipulate workers and prevent resistance from reaching a critical point. For any effective dissent in our own time, as a basic requirement, would have to ignore national boundaries and local chauvinisms. This is why it is so useful to power to keep the ex-left, and pseudo-left, around--locked into their partisan and identitarian boxes (or worse still, the sentimental idiocies of religious belief), they are invaluable to Empire. Without this distraction, the multitude might emerge--Negri & Hardt's term for an effective mobilization of the vast mass of people, across national boundaries (us v. them, US v. China, etc.) and internal segmentations (black v. white, immigrant v. native born)--which would challenge Empire for the global position. Worse yet for power, and for the aging bourgeois interests of capital, a new form of society, with new political formations, might emerge out of the struggle.
The Coming Multitude...Still Coming...
Before going on with Negri & Hardt's concepts, it might be helpful to review a few of the characteristics of traditional imperialism and hegemony detailed by Zinn in his essays.** In his work, Zinn gives us a series of strategies deployed by power around the construction of historical "fact," both in how we talk about the present and how we represent the past. These insights are not mutally exclusive to Negri and Hardt's point of view. It is rather necessary to understand them if we're to grasp how these strategies are still being used by power, and how their use differs, within the new framework of Empire.
1. The Massacres of History:
This concerns which massacres are remembered--those useful to power, especially those that can be used to stir up nationalistic sentiment and keep the founding myths of a nation (which obscure the founding violence) intact--and those which are forgotten, especially those where the victims are the subjects of power, slaves, minorities, indigineous peoples, workers (the murder of the American Indian, the expropriation of the Palestine, the systematic destruction and absorption of left parties in the West, and the East for that matter). These power structures last into the present, where they continue to operate, and share in the operation of the state and corporations.
Today this is used to differentiate between events that are pictured as purposeful and "democratic," or democracy-supporting (like power would have us believe the invasion and takeover of Libya was), and "destabilizing" and therefore dangerous (like power would have us believe about the continuing ferment in Egypt). The metric used is also obviously nothing "on the ground," or real in terms of the experience of the vast mass of people, but rather the current direction of markets, or the analyses of think-tank observers, or the talking points of corporate media, or all three. Empire is speaking to us. And it's speaking to us about history in real-time. And its opinions are not limited to the interests of any particular nation, not even America. If this were the case, then the debt ceiling debate between the US Congress and White House would not have turned into a massive demonstration of the power of the banks to direct government to do whatever it is they want government to do. In Europe, the situation is a little worse, with the technocratic control arm of Empire wrenching democratically elected leaders (albeit ineffectual ones) from power and replacing them with dopplegangers.
2. Repurposed by Power:
Zinn points out in one essay how Veterans Day in the US, a day originally meant to celebrate peace--the armistice ending World War I, the war supposedly to end all wars--was turned into a celebration of militarism. This demonstrates the perversion of history, both past and present, by power, and the extreme nature of this perversion. It is often a total inversion, a turning-inside-out of the facts of the case, and a "repurposing" of previously radical tools for some of the more hideous purposes of power: war and internal strife. The pattern is not limited to the meaning of national holidays, either. Institutions created for international unity and consensus can be turned into machines in the service of Empire.
In Europe right now, Greece, the poorest nation, is being blamed for a crisis brought on by the financial sector and its recklessness. The situation is backed up by the threats of the EU and IMF. Notice too how in America there has been a steady increase in racially fueled beliefs about how awful working conditions and wages--long-term functions of capitalist control--should be blamed on Latin American immigrants, the poorest, least powerful people in the system. All the main agencies of power--political, corporate, national media--participate and help to spread the lies. Here are two examples of extreme direct inversion of the realities: economic crisis brought on by capital turned into the "laziness" of the poor, and exploitation produced by capital transformed into the "threat" from illegal immigration.
3. Their Atrocities and Ours:
Zinn compares the coverage given in the media to Serb atrocities, especially those against Kosovan Albanians, during the Serbian War following the breakup of Yugoslavia, to the far less extensive and less sensationalistic coverage given to the effects of NATO and US bombing. Zinn runs through a number of ugly implications: our atrocities are better than their atrocities; our atrocities are more rational than their atrocities (just because we had a "larger purpose," which of course coincides with the purposes of Empire); and our atrocities were a necessity, while theirs were preventable. The last argument is perhaps the most insidious and, as Zinn says, the least true. Bombing civilians--always part of the murderous course of modern war--is also always preventable.
The implications for today hardly need to be drawn out. The media coverage, what little there is, of Iraq and Afghanistan, speaks for itself. Murder is turned into liberation, and our atrocities are always made to seem to pale in comparison to theirs.
4. A Diplomatic Solution, and Beyond Machiavellianism:
During his six decades of work and activism, Zinn reapplied many of his insights to other examples as they came along: the Vietnam War (1 and 3); the UN sanctions against Iraq following the '91 war in the Gulf (2 and 3); even the way in which World War I and World War II are seen by Hollywood (all three). All the time he was cross-checking and readjusting his conclusions. Zinn may have been an activist-scholar, but was no less meticulous as a scholar due to his political beliefs. In one of his best later moments, he took on some of the dearest shibboleths of American foreign policy theory, comparing the officially sanctioned ideas to the often horrifying results in their application. What he saw running through the picture that emerged was, in his understated words, "a distinct Machiavellian thread."
Zinn was suspicious of contemporary ideas about diplomacy. Always a complex way for the various players to get what they want in any situation, diplomacy between nations in the twentieth century also became a way for some very narrow interests, corporate and class interests, to make sure they were represented at the table. The argument will be made that this was no different than what had always been the situation. However the narrowness of the interests represented, and the way in which they tended to squeeze out all other concerns, including even a vague reflection of the concerns of the vast mass of people, these were certainly unique and troubling developments.
To Zinn this trend doesn't merely refer back to the abstractions of contemporary political theory, and some deep problem within it, but rather to the lived realities of people who have to suffer daily under such an amoral and conniving system. This strikes at two of political theory's most sacred, and most unremarked assumptions: egalitarianism and commonality of purpose within democracies. Zinn writes:
"The notion that all our interests are the same (the political leaders and the citizens, the millionaire and the homeless person) deceives us. It is a deception useful to those who run modern societies, where the support of the population is necessary for the smooth operation of the machinery of everyday life and the perpetuation of the present arrangements of wealth and power."
In other words, to cast the matter into Negri & Hardt's way of thinking, nationalism, quite paradoxically, is necessary for the maintenance of a free-floating, multi-mechanism, global Empire. It is the gap that allows the deception of a "common" interest in. If there really were a global government, with a single conspiratorial mechanism controlling everything, it would be open to attack from below. It would be subject to the same questioning and the same rigors, the same political dialectic, as all previous systems of power that have experienced challenges, interruptions, ruptures and revolutions. But if Empire is everywhere, it cannot be opposed. Or at least it can only be opposed effectively if the opposition takes on one of the multiple forms of the multitude. What this does not include are the traditional political formations held out by power, at least as they are given. If one accepts this limited menu of options as the final word on permissable politics--as many of the pseudo-left and ex-left critics do--one remains trapped within the impotent confines of Machiavellian game theory. This will always serve power in the end.
What we need to do is to change the rules on the system. We need to interrogate and violate and undermine and mutate and improve on those rules. They are, after all, our rules (the multitude's), and not theirs (the various agencies of Empire). We are the origin of sovereignty, not anyone or anything else.
Here is where the break occurs between Zinn and the other traditional anti-imperialists on the one hand, and Negri & Hardt on the other. Zinn was limited in what he felt were acceptable means of resistance. And while Negri & Hardt share his disdain for violence, one must keep in mind that the system today increasingly defines violence as any act at all perpetuated against the growth and spread of Empire. To accept such limitations is to accept one's own extinction, and in all probability the extinction of life.
*Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2000.
**Howard Zinn on War, Howard Zinn, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2001.
Michael Hardt talks about democracy, empire, and an even dirtier word than politics--Love. To skip the goofy introduction, go to 2:20.