This post is going to begin what will probably be a pretty long series. I don't know if I’ll link them. I’m going to talk about Antonio Negri, and the ideas from his work that will inform the Utopias project.
Utopias basically has two major philosophical influences: Gilles Deleuze and Antonio Negri. The two are pretty closely linked already. Negri introduces Empire by explicitly citing Deleuze and Félix Guattari as forerunners. Essentially, Empire is picking up the approach to understanding globalization that A Thousand Plateaus developed and giving it a clear political mission.
I first read Empire in the summer of 2008. Personally speaking, that was a wonderful summer. I had been accepted into the doctoral program at McMaster University's Philosophy department, I was staying at my mom's house to save on expenses, working at The Rooms gift shop part time to put a little extra away, and hanging out with all my friends in St. John's before moving to Ontario that August.
And I was reading. Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, Dostoyevsky, Gao Xingjian, and of course Antonio Negri. Empire helped me solidify a lot of what I hadn't previously understood about the politics of the 21st century.
I’ve written many times before about the impact of the September 11 attacks on my own political sensibilities. My own life was perfectly and perversely timed, as they happened on my third day of university.
I was 18 years old, still figuring out what my place was going to be in the world, still figuring out who I was. And the politics of my world were defined by this horrifying act of terrorism and its aftermath.
That aftermath was the war in Iraq. It was a stupid war, even more stupid than most wars. One particularly stupid myth about this war (which I still hear repeated regarding other wars in Iraq, including the military incursions of my own country’s army today) is that it was all about oil.
This is the argument that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was about American imperialism. They were going to capture Iraq's oil supplies for themselves.
Yet this made no sense. The United States is still a petroleum producing country, and its firm alliance with Saudi Arabia, cemented since the Second World War, means that its oil supplies are in no danger for decades, probably longer.
The most disturbing possibility was true. George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and others in the W Administration affiliated with the now-defunct think tank Project for a new American Century, actually thought they could invade a country into democracy, and that its people having been freed, would be natural allies of the United States, beacon of liberation that it is.*
* One element of my Utopias manuscript will probably be a sad meditation on the irony of how many peace-minded, progressive intellectuals of the mid-20th century, like Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, wrote so sincerely about America as a beacon of liberation, because of their defeat of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and standing up to the Soviet Union. Hoo, boy.
A lot of the most vocal left-wing today decries America as an imperialist nation. They support Vladimir Putin's Russia and even Bashar Assad himself because they stand up to Western imperialism.
Negri helped me understand that America’s modern military entanglements aren't actually imperialism. Even when they invaded Iraq, there was no desire among any American leadership to make Iraq the 51st state.
Imperialism is about conquest, taking control of a foreign land and treating it as if it's a new territory of your own country. This is what I think most of us in the 21st century seem to have forgotten about the imperialist era.
Britain – its leaders and all of its people – actually considered India to be just as much a part of Britain as Scotland and Basingstoke are today.
To French people, Algeria and Vietnam weren’t just foreign places where the French army and some French citizens lived. Those soldiers and people were in France.
Portuguese people seriously considered fucking Mozambique just as much part of Portugal as a Lisbon suburb. In the 1960s!
Imperialism is about conquering foreign territory and considering it your own.
Empire, as a concept, is bigger than any one country’s army. It’s not about anything as provincial as conquest. Empire is about how the structure of the global economy includes mechanisms to define who is a person and who isn’t.
This power no longer rests with governments, where we’ve figured out some minimal accountability strategies like democracy. It rests with systematic economic relationships.
Bit of a difference from just shipping some tanks and hopped-up bodyguards to Baghdad. That’s what Negri taught me.