Ruptures in Empire. The Power of Exodus

An interview with Antonio Negri, by Giuseppe Cocco and Maurizio Lazzarato

Translated from the French journal Multitudes (Issue No. 7) by Thomas Seay and Hydrarchist. 2001AD

Multitudes: In the early 90s, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were together in the streets of Paris, demonstrating against the bombing of Baghdad. International intervention in the Gulf region under the aegis of the United States seemed to open a period of expansion in imperial management of international relations. In relation to that period, do the events in New York constitute a rupture, or is it part of a continuum? Should we consider the events in New York as bringing to a close a period opened by the fall of the Berlin Wall? Or, instead, should we consider that that period had already been drawn to a close by the unilateral positions taken by the United States in regards to the Palestinian question, the non-proliferation treaty on bacteriological weapons, on Kyoto, then at Durban?

Negri: In the early 90s there were really very few of us demonstrating. Today, we are many more, at least here in Italy. That is in itself a fact to take into account. But it is equally true of the United States, I believe. In addition to this important point, the New York events do indeed constitute a rupture. It is a rupture in imperial management, and one that takes place within the process of building the imperial network that collective capital has been putting into place. The construction of this imperial network started in the early 90s, with the end of the Cold War. It should be considered a real rupture because it comes from outside, or rather, outside of this process, which is not to say that it comes from the exterior of imperial constitution. By this I mean that there has been a process of imperial constitution, whereby capitalist sovereignty has been expanded out across the entire fabric of international relations; this has created a large-scale shift in sovereignty whereby international relations have been overshadowed by imperial sovereignty. And it was precisely in this moment that a suspension, a rupture occurred: the attack against the United States. Thus the rupture came from outside of the process, but at the same time it comes from within Empire. It involves a suspension of the process, a setback, a block; it is something that has been imposed. Before this turn of events there was undoubtedly an American attempt to unilaterally take control of the process. But now they are confronted by some very serious difficulties. For the sake of clarity, we'd best make use of an abstraction. In my opinion, three crises are in progress (I say "three" in order to simplify, but in fact there are multiple crises). These three crises concern the characterization of imperial sovereignty.

The first crisis has to do with the military component. The reason for this crisis is that the sovereignty, this enormous power that the Americans built up (development of the bomb made such an absolute hegemony possible), today finds itself confronted by something to which it must face up: kamikazes, suicidal acts. If in the past this sovereignty held power over life and death, pushed to the level of a nuclear power extended over the entire world, today this power no longer exists. Thousands of people can decide to oppose it with their voluntary death. It’s like the cutter phenomenon [1]. It's a problem that must be resolved.

The next crisis has to do with currency. Sovereignty also brings the power to strike currency. This huge crisis stems from the fact that the striking of currency has been handled within the context of a neo-liberal agenda, that is to say according to "lex mercatoria", thus by the capacity of the private sector to devalue currency. Regulation has ceased to be a function of the State. Now 80 percent of regulation is carried out directly by the private sector. Now, after this attack, the problem of insurance has arisen. Who can insure this private process? They want to exclude the State but that's not possible, for it is not possible to dispense with some principle of apportionment that perforce implies the general interest.

The third crisis is one of communication; this is a crisis linked to the circulation of meaning, whose complexity becomes dizzying and which almost seems to get lost. It's a very intriguing phenomenon, but it is likewise absolutely dramatic. The communication crisis is catastrophic. The complexity of meaning, in the context of the situation in which we find ourselves since September 11th, turns out to be so great as to make the crisis impossible to manage: some aspects of this sunder once and for all the framework of normal communication.

The problem then is in terms of multiple crises. I said already that in the early 90s we were small in number and that today we are larger. There are many more people who are aware of this crisis, a crisis internal to the construction of Empire and through which we have come to these three fundamental problems: the three fissures which I just brought up. What must be emphasized is that the Americans have tried to be underhanded as regards the Palestinian question, the treaty on non-proliferation of bacteriological weapons, the ecological issues at Kyoto, the question of racism at Durban. At present they find themselves suddenly thrust into this accentuation of contradictions, into this triple crisis.

Multitudes: After the events in New York, the most powerful country in the world, its imperial center, declares war on one man. What meaning do you attribute to this new rhetoric of war and its political, military and diplomatic articulations? What type of war will this one be? Does the change in the concept of sovereignty equally imply a change in that of war?

Negri: The press seems to be in turmoil over one question: Who can tell us this is not a war without end? What does it mean to wage war, certainly with high tech instruments, but in the valleys and mountains of Afghanistan, where we know there is a risk of this turning into a guerilla war that will go on forever? In other words, don't we run the risk of a "vietnamisation" of the conflict?  The concept of war has changed. The reaction in face of this crisis seems to fall within a strategic framework that assumes war to be a key element in management and discipline. When violence no longer has an "outside", when language is no longer a bearer of meaning, when measure cannot be found, it's clear that they must be imposed with extreme force and violence. Here we are in the middle of the problem of sovereignty. I am convinced that sovereignty, as a concept, is an utter mystification; there is no instance of sovereignty, which is not at the same time a rapport, a relationship. The concept of sovereignty, as Luciano Ferrari-Bravo rightly said, is always two-sided: it is a sort of hegemony, which paradoxically integrates something that it does not manage to subsume. It's impossible to exclude either of the two terms when dealing with the concept of the State or politics. The powers of Empire, on the other hand, are constrained to exclude; they are required to think that war is the constituent, institutional form of the new order. What this means precisely is to extol violence, measure [2], and language: make violence a standard procedure, impose measure and create linguistic signification. They want to turn sovereignty into a constituent machine.

Multitudes: Empire is a "non-place". However, is a battle for this non-place possible? Is what we are living through now not this battle? How does the relationship Empire-United States -- a relationship that causes so many misunderstandings about the concept of Empire-- manifest itself in light of the New York events? How do you interpret the formation of the "Euro" within the context of this process?

Negri: I cannot say of the world capitalist leadership that it is American. For those who are used to linking the rules of power back to those of exploitation, it is only in the second instance that one can, if need be, speak of people. That was still possible when there were imperialist powers. What do we mean by imperialism? It was the possibility to widen the field of exploitation out on an international scale. If today all that is finished, or partly finished or is tendentiously on the verge of finishing, it is no longer possible to speak of "American imperialism." There exists quite simply groups, elites who hold the keys of exploitation and, as a consequence, the keys to the war machine; it is these same groups who are attempting to impose themselves on the world. Naturally, this process is rife with conflict and will necessarily be so for a long time. For the moment, it is above all the North American bosses who exercise this domination. Immediately behind them are the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese.   They are there to support them, make trouble for them, or even to take on a new position if there is a change in centrality; however any such change would remain superficial seeing as in the end, what is still, as always, at work is collective capital. From the perspective of political science, we can see who is succeeding along with the Americans. It's the Russians. On the other hand, the Europeans are losing out. Since the early 70s, every time Europe -- and I'm not talking here about the big European capitalists who always march in step with their American peers, but rather the European class of leaders-- every time Europe tries to build up, as it sometimes does, its institutions (monetary or military), it gets systematically dragged down into an international crisis.

Multitudes: So you think there is a hegemony of American capital.

Negri: There is a hegemony which might look like the hegemony of American capitalism, but I am convinced that Italian capitalism, German capitalism, French capitalism are likewise implicated in this operation.

Multitudes: With the collapse of the Towers, men and women of one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world were massacred; it wasn't only upper management or chiefs of big financial firms, but also immaterial laborers and immigrants of all nationalities. Should we consider the suicide attack against the City as an attack against cosmopolitanism, against the power of liberty and exodus?

Negri: Your question is interesting because it helps us think about the war. Indeed this confrontation is being played out between those who are in charge of Empire and those who would like to be. From this point of view it can be asserted that terrorism is the double of Empire. The enemy of both Bush and Bin Laden is the multitude. I don’t think that we can all say that we are all Americans. I do think though that we are all New Yorkers. This seems of great importance to me. If we are all New Yorkers, it is not because we embrace American culture but because we embrace the culture of New York.... the mongrel culture, the Big Apple full of worms.

Multitude: Before the G8 summit, you spoke of two alternatives (a Roman form and a Byzantine form) within the development of Empire. How is the Byzantine form taking shape?

Negri: It is quite evident that the Byzantine approach was the basis of the first plan that the Bush group advanced: the Missile Defense Program. This approach is yet again one of viewing war as a constituent machine: a machine established in fact on what was a sort of technological innovation pushed to extremes. This design, which was already old, aimed to create an automatic defense and likewise give a post-fordist form to the military development itself. What are the components? Above all, the automated nature of the Space Shield’s response. It involves on the one hand a huge accumulation of fixed capital and, on the other, extreme mobility in the art of war, the manner in which war is conducted. It's what's being called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) [3], concretely put into place in the 90s, and founded on these two pillars. It involves a post-fordist military organization. Now the events of September 11th have thrown a monkey wrench into this mechanism. Here's how it's been reversed:  The RMA will continue to move forward full-throttle in favor of utilizing the military as an international police force -- which is what the Americans are currently in the process of doing in Afghanistan-- but at the same time, the Missile Defense issue which divided the capitalist elites of various regions in the world -- and particularly the confrontation between the US and Russia -- this obstacle has been cleared. The ruling class of the American Right has sacrificed the Missile Defense Program in order to deepen the alliance, this "great alliance," in order to build a unitary world power [1][4]. From this perspective, a new form is emerging.

Multitudes: The United States seems to have definitively come to the close of a neo-liberal phase. The American initiatives to boost the economy and financial sector have been characterized as "keynesian". But how is keynesianism possible if there isn't fordism? There seems to be ever more insistent talk of the return of the State and policy, though over-determined by the war-buildup. But war, as you recently noted, has always been the foundation of the State. What might then be the multitude's political stance toward this? Elude the war?

Negri: The United States is once again making military organizational strength a central theme...a military structuring of the world according to a sort of authoritarian neo-liberalism, rather than keynesianism. It is true that once again the State is to intervene and in a very big way, but this question takes us back to the subject of sovereignty. The State is intervening as one of the nodes in the sovereignty relationship, not as a force with the capability of single-handedly reconstituting social processes in the political sphere. I would say that authoritarian neo-liberalism feels it has free-rein with regards to sovereignty, has an open conception of sovereignty, in the same way as the relationship that linked stalinism to socialism. It's this aspect which is particularly disquieting.

Multitudes: Up to now you've been speaking about the crisis of Empire. Now let's look at the other side, the crisis of the multitudes. How has the Italian movement of movements reacted to the events of New York? How can the multitude's movement get out of the deadly clamps that have been placed upon it? What does exodus now mean? To stick with the metaphor, are the multitudes the Christians or the barbarians?

Negri: I am going to proceed very carefully with these questions. My feeling is that the reaction of the movement has been without a doubt very good but it is as of yet quite fragile. And this latter is quite negative. This renewed cycle of struggles, outlined in Seattle and Porto Alegre and most recently in Genoa, has been interrupted. Since the end of the 70s we have unfortunately become accustomed to such ruptures in cycles. In Empire, we describe several struggles -- those in Los Angeles, those in Chiapas, the one in Tiananmen -- as well as the struggle that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. These involve real struggles but it is absolutely impossible to discern a common thread of any sort running through them. But after Seattle, to the contrary, we were able to get our hands on a genuine cycle of struggles. There is no doubt that, on that level, we have now come to a stop. That's not because there will be no reasons for demonstrating again. There's a real problem in envisioning how to move forward in the future (what should the slogans be? How is it possible to link the issues up on a world-scale?), but it's no less true that "quod factum infectum fieri nequit", what's been done cannot be undone. This movement had established a high degree of ontological consistency; today there's a block in all that, there is an obstacle. It's like water coming down a mountain. If at first it whirls around an obstacle, it always ends up burrowing a new path past the obstacle. We are in a situation of this sort. We are in a situation where there is a block we must find our way around before we can continue on our way.

So, let's analyze the Italian movement's reaction. These reactions are quite interesting. In the first place, the movement is trying to keep afloat, no matter what, that which it has built. The relationship that was developed with the Catholics, which is always important in Italy, must be given particular attention. The question of civil disobedience figures largely in this relationship. The same thing -- keeping afloat what had been built up -- is also occurring in the United States, as well as other countries where political life is open.

The second point is extremely important: keep the networks open and continue to broaden them. What takes place nowadays in factories, schools, and universities is essential as it allows consolidation of alliances, which are at present becoming alliances of identification, struggles, movements and tendencies, which were previously inconceivable. All of that does not mean that we should forget the problems we face today in getting a half-million people into the streets, as was done in Genoa; nor does it mean that we should necessarily do it in the way it was done in Genoa. It involves a passage that is powerful [puissant], and I emphasize this word powerful [puissant] because it truly means, "full of possibilities"[5].

Another thing that seems absolutely fundamental: people have understood. They have now understood that it is subjectivity that produces and that all activities have become "production centers", now that there s no longer a "production center".  When there is an ever broader and ever deeper consciousness of this sort, in which pacifists mix with workers movements (both immaterial and material laborers), who in turn mix with social movements, feminist movements, and the youth of the social centers, whenever this consciousness broadens and deepens as powerfully as we see today, certain slogans begin to become possible, for example, "desertion".

Now when we speak of "desertion", we are not invoking a negative slogan! It was negative when "desertion" expressed itself simply in terms of strikes: when it was capital, and it alone, which could put at the disposal of all the means of production, then the strike could only be passive. Today, if we desert, if we rebel against the relations of power or the nexus of capital, or the nexus of knowledge or the nexus of language, if we do so, we do so in a powerful way, producing at the very moment that we refuse. With this production -- not only of subjectivity but immaterial goods as well -- desertion becomes an important keystone of struggle. One must look deep within the hacker world for a model of this type. It involves models or networks that kick in at the very moment of "defection", which is to say at the very moment that we reject or we elude the capitalist organization of production and the capitalist production of power.

Multitudes: So, it's in this way that the discussion of desertion and exodus should be understood? However, for desertion to be effective, wouldn't that require a transmutation of all values?

Negri: It is quite clear that desertion, exodus must be understood as a political laboratory. But it's also clear that we are faced with a fundamental transmutation of values. The problem is to understand that the private and the public no longer signify anything at all, that they no longer are of value, that the important point is to manage to construct a "commons" and that all production, all expression must be made in terms of "commons". The big problem then is that the transmutation of values must exist and must lead to a decision. However, neither the decision nor the objective can be decided presumptively. They arise from within the processes of the multitude’s transformation of the world. Or else, none of that takes place and we go backwards. A cycle of struggles had begun and it allowed us to start building our very own little war machines…very deleuzian machines.

It's apparent that we have been delayed in relation to the expectations we had of this process, which has now come to a "stop". And yet, this stop, if it is thoroughly understood and mastered, paradoxically could be very powerful. The error, the very serious error would be, as certain people are proposing, to return to national electoral politics, that is to say, return to the mechanisms of classical political representation, which would reterritorialize political action. Going back to old ways is therefore an error that should not be committed. This is all the more true as there is a strong possibility of finding a niche within the electoral process.

The fundamental idea is the following: at the level of biopower, at the level of a position of power like ours, it's not possible to avoid a relationship with the other, especially a relationship with the other who produces, the other who thinks. And the other that they are trying to crush, in spite of pretences to the contrary, is not Bin Laden and terrorism, but rather it is the multitude. This passage is absolutely essential. The capitalist attempt to wage this war as a means of crushing the other is a huge mess…for them at least.

[1] (Translators’ note*) 'cutter'- a widespread pathological phenomenon in the USA. There are two million of them, mostly women, but also men, who cut themselves with razors. Why? It has nothing to do with masochism or suicide. It's simply that they don't feel real as persons and the idea is: it's only through this pain and when you feel warm blood that you feel reconnected again. So I think that this tension is the background against which one should appreciate the effect of the act. For Zizek's online interview with Spiked, see Spiked Online)

[2]By measure, Negri intends “a transcendent ontological foundation to order”. For an in-depth discussion of measure, see Hardt and Negri, Empire, pp. 354-359.

[3] For background on RMA, see

[4] This interview was conducted before the Russian and American “agreement” on the Missile Defense Program.

[5] To clarify this statement it is important for the anglophone reader to understand that the French word for  power,  puissance, is a direct correlate of the Latin potentia

*All footnotes are those of the translators.

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