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Academic Endeavor: Review of "Implicating Empire"

Michael Sweiven
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Order
Eds. Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney
Basic Books 2002

“It’s hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists,” writes New York anti-capitalist activist and Yale anthropologist David Graeber in this new collection from Basic Books. Although many collections of essays on the new movement have recently been produced, this book, co-edited by CUNY professor Stanley Aronowitz, is one of the first serious attempts by US academics to produce such a collection. In light of Graeber’s comments, the book is certainly a welcome addition.

Implicating Empire was produced out of the “Globalization and Resistance Conference,” held in New York City in November of 2001. As such, its debate is heavily influenced by the reaction to the events of September of that year. The essays specifically dealing with September 11 and its aftermath, however, are not particularly groundbreaking. The section on “war and terrorism” has little original to say about US foreign policy or Islamic fundamentalism and is marred by a rather ridiculous essay by Ellen Willis who describes the twin towers as “quite obviously sexual symbols.”

However, the main section of the book is important as it interrogates Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s thesis in their very influential book, Empire (thus this book’s title Implicating Empire). The main points made by Hardt and Negri were that “nation states can no longer claim the role of sovereign or ultimate authority as they could in the modern era” and that an Empire of multinational organizations like the IMF and World Bank “now stands above nation states as the final authority and indeed presents a new form of sovereignty.” That thesis was clearly of interest as the US nation state plotted its retaliation for the acts of September 11.

Jeremy Breecher most clearly illustrates the current contradiction in Hardt and Negri’s argument as he contrasts Bush’s “unilateralism” to “the rule making that characterized the previous era of globalization.” Alex Callinicos further argues that “the geopolitical maneuverings generated by the efforts of different regional powers such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran...underline that states remain crucial political actors.”

Imperial world

But while Hardt and Negri’s position on the importance of the state takes some deserved criticism in this book, it is the radicalism of their conclusions that is of more interest. They argue that while many reform-minded activists focus on making institutions like the IMF and World Bank accountable to democratic pressure, “democracy in the imperial age is not only unrealized but unrealizable.”

Aronowitz disputes that position and claims that “Hardt and Negri are unable to anticipate how the movement they would bring into being may actually mount effective resistance.” He notes that they do not point to the social classes that could transform the world and they offer only “vague politics of hope.” He accuses Hardt and Negri’s disciples of being counter posed to those activists who espouse “incipient global citizenship” which can win such reforms as accountability for the IMF, debt relief, and accords on global warming.

It is encouraging that the revolutionary perspective has gained such ground in recent years that it can again be seriously debated by US academics. While many intellectual advocates of revolutionary politics can only support their position by using vague poetic metaphors, those advocating reformism are often far from convincing in their arguments either. Aronowitz, for instance, seems to have an excessive faith in the US labor movement which shows no signs of reversing its generation-long plunge.

There is more to this book than just a debate about Empire, including an excellent article on Argentina. But, as the US continues its war, it is increasingly clear that we do live in an imperial world, whether or not it fits the description Hardt and Negri give to it. Activists resolved to creating a different world will find many of the contributions in this book useful.