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Italian Marxist Philosopher Antonio Negri (1933-2023) on Resisting Empire & Renewing Democracy

Web ExclusiveDecember 22, 2023
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The famed Italian Marxist and political activist Antonio Negri has died at the age of 90. Negri inspired generations of leftist scholars and activists with his writings about the human desire for liberation and the self-organizational capacity of ordinary people to make change. Negri co-authored along with Michael Hardt the seminal book Empire. Democracy Now! interviewed Antonio Negri in Venice, Italy, in 2015.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Antonio Negri.

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] Democracy now is really in crisis, but rather than a crisis, because the process is certainly an irreversible one, democracy is very uncertain, fragile, and led by a political class, in general, that is very weak and incompetent. I believe that there is a manifest reaction transversing the soul of the younger generations, who are trying to renew, in very radical terms, this democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what direction do you think Europe will take now?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] I think Europe is waiting for a political action that breaks with neoliberalism. Austerity is unsustainable. Necessarily, as we can now see and appreciate in all European countries, there is pressure toward a rupture with the criteria of austerity, both as far as the economic dimensions of the problem are concerned, as well as, in fact, the shift to a further phase of European political unity. But this will only be possible when all the political forces of the left take on the European vocation. This is what is missing today, a renewal of the European left.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonio Negri, what about the United States, the role of the United States today in the world?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] This is a very difficult question, one that I believe not even Americans can answer. I think that what is noticeable from outside, because I follow the international situation of the debate and the movements, is that the imperialist pressure has profoundly been transformed. The unity of military and economic action has broken up. The predominance of the dollar has weakened. So the U.S. will shortly find itself in a situation of imperial balance amongst the large continents that enjoy their autonomy: China, which is a continent, but obviously Russia, too, obviously also, perhaps, Latin America. So the function of balance, which I still believe the U.S. could have, is one that will be posited through these new powers and points of reference. But evidently this also depends on what is going to happen within the U.S. Clearly, if the reactionary forces, as we used to call them back in the day, took hold of power in the U.S., the situation would become very dangerous for the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonio Negri, what about Occupy? Were you surprised by the Occupy movement? I mean, you could say it began in Spain with the Indignados, but in September of 2011, it exploded on the scene in the United States, so many cities occupied. What did that mean to you?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] The movements from 2011, when they started, the various Occupy movements, were certainly manifesting new desires, which Michael Hardt and I, in our third volume, after Empire and Multitude, had tried to define, in Commonwealth, as a desire for community. Today socialism is no longer possible. It is no longer possible to seize the state. Our experience of Bolshevik socialism was too heavy to be repeated. For me, the significance of Occupy, not only in the U.S., was to show that there are forces that can build a new society, a new community. And this is something that has become a little universal and, like all political hopes, now inhabits both consciousness and action.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of that as a way of Occupy transforming society, if they don’t want power?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] I think this can come through political investment in all issues — house occupations, pressures on all forms of welfare, building of alternatives. In Greece, for instance, we have seen all these phenomena. Hospitals, when they are no longer paid for by the state because it has become impossible with austerity, are managed by volunteering medical staff. The same thing we see in Barcelona when it comes to housing. We have seen that this new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, is the woman who managed the occupations of hundreds and thousands of homes in Barcelona. There is action that can be done, which is not anarchistic; it is organized and builds new institutions of power. It is the same thing workers did in the factories many years ago: They built the struggle on wages, and on the side they built cooperatives, parties. In Europe, we have an extremely rich experience of all of this, and today we are renewing this experience. Occupy is the beginning of this great enthusiasm, of a social strike, of a struggle that builds ever new elements of self-organization, of democratic self-organization of institutions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you feel, Antonio Negri, that Occupy has only just begun?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] I think that representative parliamentary democracy, in the classical sense, is in deep crisis, under siege by financial powers. From the moment the U.S. Supreme Court allows any sum to be paid toward an electoral campaign, obviously there is no longer a democracy. Candidates are nothing but a mass of money introduced in order to govern, and evidently they can only act in that interest. So parliamentary democracy is in crisis, and it is necessary to discover new forms of democracy. Occupy is a sign of this beginning, but it is not only an American beginning. We find it, more or less, in all the corners of the world, with the tragedies that have often ensued. For instance, when I saw the beginning of the movement in Tunisia that restored democracy there, with my comrades, we said, when it comes to Tunisia and the Middle East, 2011 is like 1848 in Europe: the birth of a new demand for democracy, for a democracy that is not subjected to money, but builds new forms of exchange and cooperation amongst people.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been observing the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who is getting larger crowds than any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican? In Portland, Oregon, recently, 28,000 people came out to see him. He is vying with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Your thoughts about a socialist president of the United States?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] It is difficult to answer this. Clearly, a president presenting himself as a socialist in the U.S. is a losing one from the start. It is a president who supports a utopia, who is more of a religious pastor than a politician. The issue, in a situation of complete defeat, isn’t bringing words of prestige to the concept of socialism. The issue is inventing a new socialism. Rather than becoming a candidate for the election, one must engage in action. Only in this way can democracy be renewed, not by preaching socialism. Socialism was only ever something preached in moments of great crisis. Look at how it ended in Europe. In Europe, socialism no longer exists. When you say the word “socialism” in Europe, you have to laugh. The “great” German Socialist Party is allied with Merkel. Greece was expelled from Europe — by socialists. Spanish socialism was a complete betrayal. In Italy, we have socialists, a Democratic Socialist Party, which is now a center, center-right party. This is austerity. Austerity has not merely impoverished populations. It has also unsettled, eliminated socialist parties and any forms of resistance from the framework of institutional politics. In the framework of instituted politics, by which I mean parliament and representation, there is no longer anything that has to do with socialism.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonio Negri, first, happy birthday. I understand you just celebrated — what was it? — your 82nd birthday?


AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you would share with us you life story. You were born August 1st, 1933, here in Italy.


AMY GOODMAN: This is at the time of the rise of Mussolini.


AMY GOODMAN: The fascist. Take it from there.

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] The great shock of my childhood was the war. I was 10 years old when the war broke out. I was 10 in 1943, the bombings. I experienced and suffered the war. Mine was a communist family, and I also experienced the transformation of Italian socialism. Of fascism, my memories are rather childish and comical. But the disasters caused by fascism I remember as tragedies. At the end of the war, the reconstruction began, under the command of the United States. Italy was a country bordering the Soviet Union, so in Italy the possibility of a socialist transformation was out of the question.

At that moment, when we were 20 to 30 years old, we began to understand that our main task was to renew class struggle. And we managed that. During the 1960s and 1970s, we managed to develop a class struggle, a highly powerful one, which produced a crisis in the structures of the capitalist form of domination that presented itself at the time. Starting from the end of the 1970s, capitalism presented itself differently. It became cognitive capitalism, essentially based, rather than on factories, more on computerization, automation, information. And this was a great transformation of the mode of industrial production, with a much more intensive and widespread investment of society. And from then on, we began to reinvent socialism.

AMY GOODMAN: You were imprisoned several times. Explain what happened.

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] I was in prison because I was a scapegoat. I was a university professor, rather well known, who did not concern himself with the university as much as class struggle. I was in prison charged with very heavy accusations: killing the Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The first line of charges were 17 murders plus insurrection against the state. The reality is that I had simply expressed opinions and led discussions. After four-and-a-half years of preventative incarceration without trial, I was elected as a member of parliament and exited prison due to parliamentary immunity. And I went to France, where President Mitterrand protected me and many other comrades. In prison, I studied. I worked hard. I wrote a rather important book — excuse the lack of modesty — on Spinoza and the concept of power in Spinoza. I am deeply Spinozian in this respect, which is where I drew the concept of the multitude from. And this was very useful to continue my work. Empire was written after prison and at the end of the exile. Prison is very hard, difficult to experience, but also a time when you can really reflect.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you write books in jail? What was your actual regimen in the day?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] The regimen was different in prison in the first period. The prison was really harsh, and you could have no more than three books. When you returned them, you could have three more. There is a presumption of good treatment in prison. The public was very attentive to how political prisoners, in particular, were treated. As far as writing is concerned, writing is solitary. In a cell, you are on your own. For instance, I asked to be put in solitary confinement when I had to write.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote, and Empire was published, while you were still in prison?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] Empire was published when I was in prison the second time, between 1997 and 2003. I was in jail only the first year and then under house arrest. Empire came out at that time, in 2000, so in Italian in 2001-2002, when I was still under surveillance. When I returned to Italy, I was locked up in Rebibbia prison for a year, a year and a half.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like to be in prison and to get a tremendous response to this book?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] It happens. Neither the judges nor the guards were moved by it.

AMY GOODMAN: Empire has been described as a new communist manifesto. Can you summarize your thesis?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] Empire is born out of the realization that after the fall of the Soviet Union, a single market was built. This market needed laws. Markets need laws. A spontaneous market does not exist — only liberals believe this, but it is not true. Therefore, the question of making laws is always one of finding consensus and establishing a relationship.

What was this relationship at the global level? This was the question we asked. We knew perfectly well how to build a normative power, or the ability to govern at the level of single nations. And we had a series of theories called theories of imperialism, which concerned the command of one nation over another. But how did a unified market function? Two conditions needed to be given: that the U.S. provided the model of this new world order, with a military power, Washington; an economic and monetary power, New York; and a cultural one, Walt Disney and California. So this unification of the world occurred under this condition, but it had to come to terms with some resistance.

So we asked ourselves how to organize a process of resistance. We said this was a monarchical form, a form of oligarchic dictatorship, where the monarch was the U.S. president and the great governments of the world. There were multinationals and large global corporations that represented the oligarchy. And then there was democracy. There was resistance, which always must be present. This was the terrain on which we tried to understand what happened. Resistance was no longer the working class as such; it was the whole of the global proletariat. Given that the mode of production had changed, the whole of the cognitive forces, cognitive labor had become our subject, a precarious, mobile, flexible, fundamentally intellectual labor, which has great strengths. Empire is the ensemble of these powers, monarchical, economic, but also democratic ones, and it is the struggle of these new classes, thinking classes, that becomes important.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see any of this being successful today, in 2015?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] Bah! At the moment, empire is the skeleton of today’s reality. Then there are changes we discussed earlier: the fact that the centrality of the United States and the dollar has come to fade, and therefore new powers are born. But for the time being, that skeleton is still imperial.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonio Negri, you came out of prison in 2003, the time the world was engaged in tremendous strife. The U.S. attacked Iraq. What did it feel like for you stepping foot outside prison and seeing the condition of the world, particularly what was happening in the Middle East?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] I understand that Bush’s policy was profoundly old-fashioned, and he would never achieve his objectives through it. It was a new form of war, that was no longer a war but an attempt at policing, internal policing of what was then a unity, with effects that were wholly negative — as we might say in a more complicated language, a heteronomy of ends. An action would be carried out that, instead of winning, would determine a series of other phenomena that were different and counterproductive. The policy of Republican governments has destroyed the prestige of the U.S. in great parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2004, you co-authored Multitude. Explain the title. It’s the second of your trilogy.

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] The concept at the basis of Multitude is an analysis of how work is carried out today. Work now is not mass labor, the old factory as we knew it, the car factory or the chemical plant of times past, until the 1970s. The mode of working has deeply changed. Today it is not a case of simply assembling the work of laborers, of massifying them homogeneously, making them all repeat the same action. It is a case of grasping them in their singularity, in what each can give in an original, inventive and, in some ways, free manner. The multitude is the whole of these singularities, the plurality that can function, and does function, as the ground for the foundation of wealth. The foundation of wealth no longer consists of large masses put to work, but of an ensemble of many, diverse, plural singularities. And this is the form of production to which we ought to correspond adequate political forms. In Spinoza, there is a critique of the sovereign and of sovereignty as something that has risen up above society. It is necessary to return sovereignty to the multiplicity of individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: I would like you to complete the trilogy. Commonwealth came out in 2011, only a few years ago. What is meant by “commonwealth”? What are you trying to convey in this book?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] Commonwealth emerges as a book before 2011, but we already felt something in the air. It begins with the premise that cognitive and informational labor is increasingly constituted horizontally by singularities and that community is no longer something closed, like religious or new age communities in general. Community is the need to live and work together to build commodities, languages, codes, all of which today can be constructed immaterially.

And the common is this. The common is a concept that goes against both private and public property, because private property prevents contact between singularity, whilst public property unifies it to channel it towards ends that, as we have seen, can be perverse, such as war, slavery, imperialism, etc. So the common is born out of the new exigencies of working and living. Commonwealth is the construction of this concept by means of a critique of private and public property, or, in general, of sovereignty, and the definition of a new genre, the common, which is new, because our manner of living, and of working, is new.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said that the noted theorist Antonio Gramsci reestablished philosophy where it should have remained, in the life and struggles of ordinary people. Can you talk about Gramsci’s influence on your own work, and the role you see of the philosopher today?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] I confess that I only recently become Gramscian. Gramsci was always presented to me as the author of the Italian Communist Party. In the polemic I entertained with the PCI, I was forced to avoid referring to Gramsci in particular. It was only recently, when the falsifications of the figure of Gramsci that the PCI had produced have disappeared, that I’ve started referring to Gramsci in an honest and direct way.

In Gramsci, there was a capacity to develop Marxism in an original and powerful way. Gramsci, for instance, understood the changes brought about by Taylorism and the New Deal on contemporary societies. Our task is to understand what has happened after the New Deal, after Keynesianism and after Taylorism. We need to understand today, when production has become fundamentally a production of languages, when the machine is no longer touched by your hands but commanded through codes, we need to understand what being communists means today, in a society that is a cognitive society, a society of thought, one that increasingly becomes such, and in so doing refuses command, refuses capital. This is what being Gramscian today means.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonio Negri, what gives you hope?

ANTONIO NEGRI: [translated] Hope? The fact that the new generations, and not only them, have understood that they can fight, that they can move on the terrain of new capacities for action. I believe these new generations, born out of communicative and intellectual labor, are much freer than our fathers or my generation of factory workers. These are social generations, generations who communicate and build their future with language, with the word, with intelligence, and this is hope. Hope lies wholly within people and their ability to determine their own destiny.

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