Michael Hardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Empire: Conversation with Michael Hardt, Professor of Literature and Romance Studies, Duke University, March 12, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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The Ideas of Empire

So what is "empire"? I jotted down these notes, and I'll have you respond -- that in a way, it's a structure, it's an opportunity, and it's an emerging condition. Those are the three things. Am I right? Give us a definition, because Empire does not connote what it normally connotes when we talk about empire today. What is it for you?

It's probably not a good term, we just couldn't come up with any other one.

For book sales, it might be a very good term.

It might have been, I don't know. Our initial mandate was to say that we think that imperialism as it was practiced mostly by the European powers from eighteenth to the twentieth century is no longer the adequate model of global domination. book coverThat in fact, there was emerging a new form of global power, of global domination. So insofar as imperialism is essentially founded on the structures of national sovereignty, in other words, the imposition of a national sovereignty over foreign territories, the imposition of British sovereignty over its colonial and also its noncolonial territories, or French, or German, or also the U.S. sovereignty in its imperialist formations, the [new] idea is not founded on the nation state. We're entering an age when national sovereignty cannot suffice for globalizing projects.

There has to be instead -- and this is what we mean by empire -- essentially a network of powers that function collaboratively. It's not that national states are no longer important. Nation states are important; some, obviously, more than others. We were thinking of empire as a network of national powers, but also economic powers, super-national organizations, even nongovernmental organizations. That this de-centered network structure is the emerging form of global order today. It's something different than imperialism as we previously knew it.

It might be useful to start directly with a post-9/11. Although the book was written before 9/11, there's an immediate post-9/11 question that comes to anyone's mind when one says something like this, which is, "Well, that might have been true in the Clinton years in the nineties, but now with Bush and his war on terrorism, post-9/11, etc., what we have is imperialism in the old style." You know: we have a U.S. imperialism invade and occupy Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

Our hypothesis -- I'm stubborn; I still manage to believe things, no matter what -- our hypothesis is that, in fact, that's not true, that it's not true today that the U.S. can act as an imperialist power in the way that imperialist powers have previously. In other words, to use the more recent terms for these things, that the U.S. cannot succeed in a unilateralist project of global reshaping or global domination. Let me give you what seemed to me an amusing proposition I heard a year ago from Tariq Ali, who is the editor of New Left Review, a good friend.

And who has been a guest on your problem.

And a guest on your program -- good, I can do publicity for that segment. Tariq said a year ago, "What Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bush, etc., are doing is they're trying to prove Empire wrong" -- prove our book wrong, prove the idea or hypothesis wrong. Prove it wrong precisely by reinvigorating the old kind of imperialism: unilateralist control over other territories. Now, he said that, more or less, at the time of what we call the "victory of Baghdad" a year ago. Well, a year later, it doesn't look so hot.

And that is, trying to bring the old imperialism back.

Right. What our hypothesis would say about such matters is that the only effective and long-lasting means today of constructing a global power structure, a global form of control, will be along the model that we suggest in Empire, and that these resurrected imperialist notions are doomed to failure, to continual instability. That doesn't mean, of course, that we want the one or the other; it's an hypothesis about the emerging structures of power.

You both are coming from the left. Is it fair to say that you come out of the Marxist/Communist tradition, or is that an unfair [statement]?

No, no, that's fine.

That's fine, okay. So coming out of that tradition and trying to find these new power structures and their tendencies, and their possibilities for progressive causes, you have been accused in that context of wholeheartedly embracing globalization. What you're saying is a networked world across areas [of study], not just economics, but culture and so on, that this networked world which we'll put under the rubric of globalization is something that should be looked at in a different way, to see what it is, and to say that there are alternative forms of globalization. Explain that. Am I right about that, and is your attitude more positive toward what globalization is and might be than is the case traditionally with the left?

I think that's probably fair to say. "Globalization" is a horrible term, in the sense that it encompasses all kinds of things; it's used very widely and vaguely. I think that one can certainly be against the contemporary forms of globalization, if by that we mean control by multinational corporations, the invalidation of labor and ecological laws, etc. But if one means by globalization a free movement of peoples and a global movement of liberation, then, of course, that's long been the project, probably of the left generally, but certainly of the, as you put it, Communist and Marxist left.

Let me [say a word about] the so-called anti-globalization movements. It seems to me that these movements are, in fact, not anti-globalization in the least, they're really the pro-globalization movements. I would say, in fact, that the so-called proponents of globalization, those are the economists and in the White House, are the ones who are really anti-globalization. The movements are themselves globalizing. Even if we insist on local issues, we're doing it in a way that coordinates with those in other countries and other places, and recognizes the consequences. It would be impossible to imagine new democratic structures without having a global vision. And that seems to me, in fact, the end goal of these globalization movements.

When you say that the establishment -- the White House, the people who run the American economy -- are in a way anti-globalization, by that you mean that their strategies and plans work against the democratic and progressive possibilities of globalization.

Absolutely. Right.

Within the left there has been a search throughout history for the possibilities of internationalism. In recent times, there has been an interest in local struggles, and the importance of those struggles. But somehow, and you comment on this in your book, there hasn't been a linkage of discrete local struggles in Chiapas, in L.A., or wherever, across international borders. Why is that, and what are the possibilities for turning your insights into a political program?

One shouldn't think that there's an alternative between local struggles concerned with immediate needs and global or transnational or distant links. There has to be, in fact, a way of pursuing both at the same time, and usually there is. When we were writing this in the middle nineties and recognizing the difficulty of linking up, whether labor struggles in Paris in 1995, or in South Korea, or the Zapatista movement, and the L.A. riots, these things seemed to us at the time to be discrete and not linked together either in a cycle of struggles or a common moment.

Since then, there have been many developments in that direction. There was a recognition of things that were already happening in Seattle in 1999. The various world social forums and regional social forums have also [connected] a variety of different local and regional struggles. February 15, 2003, the great day of global demonstrations against the war, was exactly this kind of demonstration of a global reach and commonality of struggles. The war itself, the then-imminent war against Iraq, proposed a common occasion. But it's the kind of thing that we will see in the future years developed even further.

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