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Dialogue with the Philosopher Toni Negri



The Italian philosopher Toni Negri analyzes the United States’ invasion of Iraq as a “defeat.” He spoke to Pagina/12 from the recuperated Hotel Bauen, expounding an auspicious perspective for Latin America and criticizing the “traditional” European left.

The Italian philosopher and militant Toni Negri is in Argentina for a second time. He is arriving from a trip to Chile and is now headed to Brazil. After having launched a worldwide polemic with his book Empire, about the end of the age of classical imperialism, he is now convinced that we find ourselves in an anomalous period for Latin America because it has finally ceased to be “the back porch” of the United States. From the Argentine crisis in 2001 to the current crisis in Brazil, passing through the failed coup in Venezuela and the Andean revolts, Negri reads a profound continental change capable of giving way to a multilateralism that will dispute North American pretensions toward an imperialist sovereignty. In his dialogue with Pagina/12, he insists that Latin America is further along than Europe with regard to its ability to think the relation between social movements and governments through the experimentation of a democratic radicalism.

P/12: What actual relevance does the thesis of Empire have after the military of the United States in Iraq?

T.N.: After the release of Empire, the polemic was centered around the role of the United States in the war, around those who insisted that North American policy was a manifestation of imperialist policy, a position which tended to see the thesis of Empireabout the redistribution of power at the global level as false. In the face of such a position, the first thing that one has to say is that the war on Iraq did not show a rebirth of an imperialist function; more likely it showed the opposite — the definitive defeat of North American imperialist unilateralism.

And this has been due not only to the difficulty that the North Americans have faced in the war itself, but also because it has now been demonstrated that it is absolutely impossible to conduct the processes of international police action outside of the global framework that includes other actors and countries.

The defeat of the United States is not only a defeat on the ground, it is above all a political defeat due to its incapacity to install order in the region. The war in Iraq does not imply a defeat like that in Vietnam, due to the resistance of the Viet-Cong, in the context of the cold war. The current defeat is due to the incapacity to create unanimity around an operation of war. On another level, the old international legal order, which was a classical order of right for the Nation-State, has been totally displaced, and, furthermore, one has to consider the absolute incapacity of the United States to finance this war — the crisis of the North American budget deficit is grave.

P/12: On other occasions you have spoken about a “coup d’etat” within Empire. Could you explain that image? How would you currently explain the formation of a structure of power in Empire?

T.N.: In the current situation the North American project shows itself to be in a profound crisis. Bush is a little Louis Bonaparte that attempts a coup d’etat within Empire in order to impose a unilateral command over globalization. This is not only not possible, but it is also extremely dangerous from every perspective. In addition, the United States’ capacity to take ideological initiative in the formation of political economies has also entered into a crisis. Neoliberalism, which seemed completely “viable” only a few years ago is now rejected by a broad cycle of struggles which now opens an extremely complicated and variable situation. The war has confirmed that the biggest problem is that the Empire doesn’t know in what direction it is headed. What we will see then is a new battle to see who will command in Empire, which is the sovereign regime that will be determinative. Today it seems to me that the most plausible hypothesis is the emergence of a grand aristocratic conglomeration made up of the major continental powers like China or India and part of Europe which find themselves on the front lines of globalization/worldization (mundializacion).

P/12: And how do you view the persistence of an anti-imperialist sermon on a good part of the left?

T.N.: What I am certain of is that the anti-imperialist ideologies of the traditional left, ideologies that are profoundly conservative, are mistaken. They function like a deformed mirror reflecting the positions of the likes of Fukuyama and his end of history that thinks more in terms of large nations rather than in these new syntheses of sovereignty. Or like Huntington, only he is a real enemy because he organizes a discourse for the elites of the United States. I think, in contrast, to return to what we were previously discussing, that we must pay very close attention to the ways in which movements permanently condition these political syntheses, the new sovereign modes. You’re always dealing with very complex variables.

P/12: How do you think that Latin America participates in the new redefinition of imperial sovereignty?

T.N.: I begin with a very basic idea and that is that this is the first time that Latin America does not act like the back porch of the United States. In this sense the fall of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (ALCA) is very significant. This change is important even if you keep in mind the limitations of this process due to the global presence of neoliberalism. In addition, this new situation moves into the political terrain precisely at the moment in which the great neighbor to the North is in difficulty and has no capacity to immediately intervene. In this way, the situation in Brazil, represented by the victory of Lula, has produced a consolidation of leftist forces and a positive intercontinental equilibrium from the point of view of the movements. From Uruguay to Venezuela, through to the intense struggles in the Andes, the least one can say is that we are living a moment of profound mobility. On the international plane, these processes present Latin America with a tremendous continental capacity to participate, on a transnational terrain, in directing initiatives in the global market. This, obviously, implies a true novelty. It is in this sense that we can interpret the importance of the development of South–South relations. It is from this perspective that I think that we must evaluate the role played by the governing Latin American left, due to its impact on the global terrain. What does it mean then that a Latin American government considers leaving the IMF? The end of dependency is one possibility, a potentiality. And that possibility is the one we should think about. The key problem that now faces us is the relation between movements and governments, to the extent that the latter are faced with the possibility of deepening this creative potential of the new forms of sovereignty.

P/12: What could the relation be between leftist governments and social movements?

T.N.: Before we use to say that governments lived with a dual power. Today we’re dealing with, in contrast, a true moment of the transformation of sovereignty itself, and of the relation between these terms. And this is cast directly at an international level. Which takes on great significance if one recalls that at the base of Empire is war and in Latin America one can see how these things happen or don’t happen. What is happening today in Brazil? It is likely that the movement will pay a very high price for the ongoing stabilization of Lula’s government, at the same time that the organized movement feels a deep sense of disillusionment. The situation in Argentina seems to maintain itself in a certain equilibrium following the crisis, and there is the Venezuelan situation that probably presents this problem in caricatured form, because the initiative has come from on high and it has unchained an enormous energy. The truth is that we are dealing with the most radical situation within these countries because it can be the doorway for war as a variable on the part of the United States.

P/12: What are you referring to when you speak of a “new deal?”

T.N.: The issue of a new deal is the redefinition of a strategic alliance. But the key point is the multitudinous content of this new deal. For example, the defense of small property in Brazil, in a way that is compatible with the development of agriculture, which is in fact one of the programmatic demands of the MST (Movimento Sem Terra/Landless Movement). Contextualizing this for Latin America, this would imply the discussion of how one can think a deal that would not insist on the reproduction of a Keynesian perspective which is no longer possible. Today one cannot discuss a pact taking as a premise the productive dynamic given by large industry; rather, the new deal should refer to relation between social organizations and productive organization in terms of social cooperation. The great error of the traditional and opportunist left is that if one does not speak of institutional and political forms from which a great reform will arise, then one is not talking about anything. Only by taking these forms as a starting point does the true dimension of a democratic radicalism from below truly appear. The question today is what does it mean today to have force and how is it consolidated. Obviously, it is not through a military. This problem is very present today in Argentina, which is like an open body, primed for an analysis.

P/12: You supported the “Yes” vote to the European Constitution in the French Referendum. How do you explain this position that was in opposition to the majority of the European left?

T.N.: In Europe we are faced with the reconstruction of the left. Take for example the Linkspartei in Germany. The European corporatist left has achieved its first victory in the “no” vote to the European Constitution in France. For me, this was about starting a debate about the relation between three things: the appearance of Europe as a necessary alternative to the United States; the construction of an European space open to entirely new dynamic; and finally, the construction of a constitution which would not give positive definitions but rather as a negativity open to very interesting contradictions. This hasn’t been possible because the social movements have been absorbed by this traditional left, with the exception of a wing of the movement that works on the issue of migration. When I declared support for the yes vote many friends were bothered (he laughs). But the unity formed around the no vote, especially in France, was a unity of the inane: rightwing socialists, Stalinists, Trotskyite intellectuals and others that teamed up with the right and ultraright wing in the name of resentment caused by the end of the social state and a supposed defense of rights to the detriment of migrants.

P/12: How do you see the global movement?

T.N.: It is in a profound crisis. That which started in Seattle, moved through Genoa and continued into the anti-war movement has fallen off brutally. It is from this situation that the traditional left has fed its own reconstruction. But the interesting thing is that within this falling curve another is beginning to rise, enacted by social struggles of a new kind, that appear fundamentally around precarious work and migration.