Hadrian or Caligula?
Serena Anderlini D'Onofrio
I begin with outrage at the easy dismissal of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire and Multitude in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “Dreams of American Empire” (11-04-2004), where Tony Judt reviews a total of nine volumes on American imperialism. Judt calls the two Hardt and Negri books “dreadful,” and dismisses them in three paragraphs, even as they are the only two in the batch that grapple in a holistic way with the central topic of his review, namely not with the simple intent to suppress the symptoms of an alleged American-empire syndrome, but rather to deal with its causes.
Even as one might disagree with some or all of Hardt and Negri’s conclusion, it is the job of a progressive, intellectually sound journal to engage analytically in the discussion proposed therein. I am a liberal with mild leftist tendencies, with a tendency towards alternative lifestyles and utopian visions, so I wondered about the kind of journal I had been subscribing to.
My critique of the NYBR review embarks with some observations about the narrative strategy Judt uses to dismiss the books. He jabs at Mussolini’s pathetic attempts to recoup Roman grandeur through Italy’s belated modern colonial projects, by claiming that, compared to other more successful imperial efforts, “there is little to say in defense of [them]” (38). Later on he begins his would-be analysis of the two books in question by presenting Negri as a confirmed criminal justly condemned by a fair judicial system, as he affirms that “Negri . . . spent many years in prison for his part in the homicidal radicalism of Italy’s Lead Years” (40). If Judt thinks Italians were so bad as colonialists, it is not clear where he gets his trust in the Italian judicial system, which has no presumption of innocence and no habeas corpus provisions, and which, in the Seventies, kept dozens of innocent citizens suspected of terrorist activities in prison without the slightest evidence against them, including the famous anarchists Pinelli and Valpreda. The first one was “suicided” by the police, as Dario Fo jokes in his play Accidental Death of an Anarchist; the second languished in prison until more than a decade later it was discovered that a Fascist group was responsible for the massacre of which he was accused.
Negri is in a sense part of that group and a victim of the same system, since no violent acts have been actually pinned to him, but rather the inspiration for Autonomia operaia, a highly subversive group in what turned out to be a failed revolution, but not the most violent of them. At one point, Negri was also a member of Potere Operaio, a revolutionary group that dissolved into area collectives in 1973. Sentencing Negri to jail for terrorism is like trying to blame Marx and Engels for the Russian Revolution. Revolutions happen, and some are more successful than others in actualizing their vision and making it stick. They are often responses to vastly unjust systems that have been unable to amend themselves. One cannot pin on individuals the due course of history. So why not grant Negri the benefit of the doubt as he is presented as an author of the books under review? (This is what Alexander Stille had done in his lengthy NYRB review of Empire, which offers details on Negri’s political vicissitudes and passes no direct judgment on him.) It seems that in this more recent issue of this self-described progressive and intellectually sound journal, the “presumed guilty” syndrome of the Italian judicial system has spilled off to Judt’s mode of reasoning, in an eerie resonance with the logic of those who are keeping the Guantánamo prisoners locked in, against any shade of respect for the Geneva agreements. This spilling is a pernicious syndrome for American self-described liberals. After all, the European partisans who mounted the anti-Nazi resistance that helped Americans win World War II would be called terrorists if the Nazi were allowed to write history.
In addition, the review also passes judgment on those who read Hardt and Negri’s books, as he makes fun of widespread campus students’ enthusiasm for it. These gutless intellectuals --the implication is -- are no threat to the bad guys of American imperialism and allow Cheney to “sleep easy”. Yet I have experienced teaching Empire to undergraduates here in Puerto Rico, and it brings lethargic minds to life, it sparks their interest, it catalyzes their thinking as if it interpreted body/mind energies that were already active within them. I haven’t tried Multitude on them yet, even as I believe the effect will be much more astounding, for while Empire still has some Derridean cloudiness to it, Multitude is crystal clear, as if all the clouds of self-doubt and censorship had disappeared and a new, somewhat utopian, vision was allowed to emerge in all its beautiful, loving simplicity. Multitude presents at least two key ideas that might wake up Cheney from his easy sleep and should be mentioned in sound a review. The “immaterial labor” which forms a model for today’s styles of productivity, and the “swarm intelligence” that operates within “distributed networks” are key concepts to explain the upsurge of the global peace and justice movement within and outside of the United States, an upsurge whose strength is mounting despite the higher surveillance enforced in the belly of the beast.
For intellectuals like me, originally from Italy, who have spent a number of years in the effort of purchasing into a system whose myths we half-bought and which we intended to transform from within, these two books have been the fount of serious reflections on what kind of enterprise that was and what kind of system. If in the past one could hope to be more effective in defending authentic democracy as an insider to one of the two-superpower system, now that the Cold War is over the tide seems to have reversed as authentic intellectual energy escapes to the less contaminated peripheries. Indeed, this is the project Michael Hardt seems to have engaged in, as he participates in a productive communion of the minds with a prolific thinker from one of the least rationalistic cultures in Europe, who is at least one generation his senior. The visionary clarity of Multitude is evidence of the success of this communion.
Hardt and Negri argue that today’s crisis of democracy is also a crisis of representation, since, in the one-superpower system, the president of the United States is supposed to represent everyone, but only US citizens are entitled to vote for him. If the American empire has global jurisdiction, then citizens of all countries should be represented by it. The same NYRB issue where Judt’s article appears provides information that aligns with this type of thinking, as it presents a map of the results of the recent presidential election as if they had been held on a global scale. There we see that all continents would have overwhelming picked Kerry. How come that, even in Judt’s terms -- since after all he is not a Bushite -- the world knows better what America needs than America itself? We do need to read books like Multitude and Empire for they address these global questions challengingly and analytically, even as we may disagree with the authors’ conclusions. And we do need to afford them fair and unpartisan reviews that can tune fine readers onto them.
What occurred to me as I passionately read Multitude is that the choice I made as a voter and naturalized citizen is one between two emperors, Hadrian and Caligula. The first is like a benevolent prince dedicated to peace and to consolidating the empire by strengthening its borders and inviting fruition of it; the second a disturbed child of the imperial family, who resolves his ineptness through governing by fear and is on his way to further destroying the pretty toy his legacy offered to him as a undeserved gift. I already cast my absentee ballot and am proud of my effort to acquire the citizenship that entitles me to this vote. Still, there is only one thing about empires we know for sure: they fall. As a sound intellectual who thinks with her own mind, I must wonder which one is best, a slow agony mitigated by benevolent and compassionate leadership, or the quick and painful death promised by Caligula? These reflections have a place in any self-described progressive journal. Happily, Hardt and Negri’s books offer the occasions for them. The NYRB missed the opportunity, and this indicates to me an even stronger need to access sources of information one can depend on. Among the publications that still abide by the logic of the system, those are ever fewer and far between.
Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio is associate professor of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico. She is the author of The ‘Weak’ Subject (1998), and Eros: A Transcultural Journey (2005).