Nation, State or Empire?

This text challenges the claim of Antonio Negri that imperialism has now been superseded by new, supranational, political institutions and forms of sovereignty. The text seeks to demonstrate the continued viability of the nation-state and of nationalism in the present epoch of the real domination of capital.

Capital, the operation of the law of value, has continued to ceaselessly transform the world, economically, politically, ideologically; the point, however, is for revolutionaries to grasp the nature and impact of these changes.

Today, at the dawn of a new century, revolutionaries, for the most part, continue to "see" the world through the lens of theories articulated in the first decades of the last century; through the lens of theories of imperialism first articulated on the eve of World War One, by Lenin and by Rosa Luxemburg. Yet, capital has continued to transform the world over the past century. The epoch of the formal domination of capital has given way to an epoch of the real domination of capital. The law of value has spread from the point of production to all spheres of the economy, including distribution and consumption. The point of production itself has been transformed; the Fordist factory and the material labor of the proletarian has, in significant respects, given way to global networks, information technology and the immaterial labor now an integral part of the activity of the Gesamtarbeiter. And the law of value has spread from the economic realm to the political, social, familial, linguistic and cultural realms as well. Indeed, commodification and the law of value now preside over the very conditions in which the human subject is constructed, over the complex processes of subjectivation itself.

In the face of those transformations, it is inconceivable that the theories of imperialism articulated by Marxists on the eve of World War One can explain the structure of the world market and of international relations today -- quite apart from the question of whether or not those theories adequately grasped the operation and structural dynamic of capitalism at the historical moment in which they were first conceived. It is in this context that the theory of "Empire" articulated by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has burst upon the scene. Here is a theory that acknowledges the very transformations in the operation of the law of value that have been enumerated above; a theory that takes its point of departure in the existence of a "global market" and the emerging organization of political power that corresponds to it. Hardt and Negri claim that the new organization of the world market requires a new politico-juridical order, a new organization of global power, one that corresponds to the transformations in the operation of the law of value, and which concentrates in its hands the elements of sovereignty: "the military, monetary, communicational, cultural and linguistic powers." For Hardt and Negri, what has emerged over the past several decades is a new apparatus of political power, one that supersedes the nation-state and imperialism; a political order and apparatus of "collective capital," in which the highest ranks of the capitalist class, the administrators or executors of the collective capital, are not Americans or Europeans or Arabs, but rather a truly supranational class, no longer bound to any national framework: "This apparatus is supranational, world-wide, total: we call it "empire."

There are three issues that we want to pose. First, has empire superseded the nation-state, is it supranational; or is this empire a new manifestation of the American empire, of American imperialism? Second, in terms of the conditions for its hegemony (understood in the Gramscian sense), for the control of the processes of subjectivation (that of the capitalist class and the working class too), can capital dispense with the framework of the nation-state and the ideology of nationalism? Third, even if the tendencies that Hardt and Negri have identified (empire as a supranational juridico-political apparatus of power) are, indeed, operative, aren't there powerful counter-tendencies, centrifugal tendencies, that portend conflict and war (inter-imperialist war) between capital entities, that is, capitalist states or proto-states?

To a considerable extent, the events of September 11 (2001) will shed light on all three of these issues, inasmuch as the "war on terrorism" has revealed divergences within the capitalist class(es), and raised (again) the issue of American unilateralism; inasmuch as patriotism and nationalism have re-emerged as powerful elements in the social imaginary; and inasmuch as conflict, not between the historic classes (class struggle), but between capital entities themselves has again taken center stage.

There can be little doubt that to the transformations in the operation of the law of value there have been corresponding transformations in the apparatus of power through which capital controls its "world." These changes, set in motion during and after World War Two, include the powerful role of the IMF, the World Bank, the GATT, and other financial and monetary institutions that operate on a global scale. However, whether these institutions are the supranational institutions of the "Empire," or whether they are extensions and appendages of American imperialism and its global hegemony, is what is at issue. And, given the still undisputed power of the dollar, and the power of the Federal Reserve System over global financial networks, the latter would seem to be the case. Moreover, in the political or military realms no comparable "supranational" institutions or power containers even exist: The UN remains dependent on the (still) sovereign states that constitute its members, and especially on the permanent members of the Security Council (and especially on the US), and the transfer of power from individual national states to European power containers in the EU does not constitute the formation of a supranational organization of economic, social, and political power at the level of global capital, but (perhaps) the emergence of a European nation-state, one that could potentially rival the US. The new framework for "imperial power," "that would give to the American Constitution an expansion making it possible to develop -- on a world scale -- a multiplicity of functions of government ..." has yet to make its appearance. Certainly, the influence of representatives of collective capital, of its non-American elements, have an impact on the decisions made in Washington, but there are as yet no sovereign political or military institutions that correspond to a supranational structure of power. And, as the aftermath of September 11 demonstrates, the decision to launch a war, and the operational control of a military campaign, despite its potential impact on the global economy, and on the future of the collective capital, remains firmly in the hands of the American nation-state. Thus, the claims of Negri that "the three substantial characteristics of sovereignty -- military, political, cultural -- [have been] absorbed or replaced by the central powers of the Empire," is, at the very least, premature. While such tendencies may, indeed, be operative, the present configuration of political, economic, and military, power on a global scale, whether manifest, for example, in the diplomacy in the Middle-East, the actions of the IMF in Central Asia or Latin America, or the Pentagon in Afghanistan, all seem to point to the power of American imperialism and its global reach.

Has the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital severed the historic link between the nation-state and capitalism? Is the nation-state today no more than a residue of an earlier stage in the development of capital, one that can be dispensed with in the epoch of a global market? Has nationalism been superseded as a crucial element in the processes of subjectivation -- of the members of the capitalist classes or in the culture that shapes the working class?

The processes of subjectivation under the real domination of capital seem to proceed along two distinct, and seemingly opposite tracks. On the one hand, the outcome of the inexorable destruction of the affective bonds of the pre-capitalist community, and the corresponding relentless processes of massification, atomization, and privatization, result in a hyper-individualism in which all social bonds not directly linked to the cash nexus have been eliminated. On the other hand, the desperate quest for some kind of social bond, some kind of affective connection to other human beings, seeks an outlet in some kind of replacement for the lost community. Capitalism satisfies this quest through the ideology of nationalism, through processes of subjectivation in which a sense of "belonging" to a nation or race is central. Nationalism has proved itself compatible with capitalism throughout its history, playing a progressive role in the shattering of feudal bonds in the epoch of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, and a reactionary role in the colonial expansion of capitalist states and in the epoch of inter-imperialist wars, when it provided the bases for a mobilization of the population behind the flag and country. Indeed, the complex political, social, cultural and psychological processes of what George L. Mosse has termed the nationalization of the masses, has been an essential bulwark of capitalism throughout its history, and especially in the present epoch when capitalism has, as a mode of production, become reactionary and a threat to the very existence of the human species.

Privatization and atomization do not provide the bases for a mass mobilization, either in the face of the need for a concentration of human and material resources to develop the national economy or capital, to defend it in the face of its enemies, other nation-states or capitals, or to assure the loyalty of the working class to its rulers. Abstract symbols, such as a constitution, human rights, free elections, consumer choice, etc., lack the emotional charge necessary to effect such a mass mobilization. Indeed, as the flourishing of patriotism in the US after September 11, or the willingness of large numbers of Palestinian youth to die in suicide bombings indicates, nationalism, and its attendant xenophobia, and racism, appears to be a necessary element in the processes of subjectivation through which capital can seek to create the social bonds necessary to perpetuate its hegemony and rule. And those very social bonds seem to require the existence of the nation-state in some form. Who, after all, will be prepared to die for the Strasbourg Parliament or the bureaucrats in Brussels, unless of course these latter can be linked in an emotionally powerful way to a European nation, a European people?

Yet, even if capital could find a substitute for nationalism, and even if there was a tendency to the formation of supranational political institutions and forms of sovereignty, such developments would not proceed smoothly or unopposed. Even if the nation-state is no longer the necessary or adequate political form for capital (and it is not at all clear that that is the case), the assertions about its demise are still premature, and it will not disappear from the historical scene without a protracted struggle.

The very pronounced tendencies to American unilateralism, about which European political leaders, and especially the European cultural elites of the left and right, have complained since September 11, and the upsurge of Islamism throughout the Arab-Muslim world, are indicative of the resilience of the nation-state and nationalism in the contemporary world. China may have joined the WTO, but can anyone doubt that there is a Chinese capital which seeks the economic development of its nation, and the extension of its strategic and imperialist interests in East Asia and the Pacific? India may have opened its economy to foreign investment and its markets to foreign goods, but can anyone doubt that Hindu India has its own strategic vision in South Asia? Russia's President Putin may cooperate with the Americans in the war against terrorism, and in the WTO, but it would be a mistake to think that the Kremlin has no strategic or imperialist interests of its own.

Hardt and Negri's vision of a single collective capital and a corresponding supranational political order and de-nationalized capitalist class (an updated version of Kautsky's vision of super-imperialism, articulated, as luck would have it, literally on the eve of war, in August 1914) represents a tendency that revolutionaries cannot ignore. But, it is only one tendency of late capitalism, and not necessarily the dominant one. Divisions within the capitalist class, divisions corresponding to nation-states, and manifesting themselves in nationalism and racism remain hallmarks of the epoch in which we live. Moreover, nationalism and racism not only fuel, and will fuel, the struggles between rival factions of the capitalist class, but will also serve as vehicles of the wars launched against those ejected from the productive process, rendered marginal by a capitalist system increasingly dependent on information technology and immaterial labor to produce its plethora of commodities. Capital must not only produce surplus-value in order to survive, but it also increasingly produces a human mass whose very existence bears witness to its inhumanity, a human mass whose conditions of existence are an invitation to capital to engage in racial wars of extermination, and -- that is one of the challenges to revolutionaries -- a human mass whose emancipation can only be assured as an integral part of the Gesamtarbeiter, whose material and immaterial labor alone produces the wealth that can make it possible to free us from the shackles of the law of value.

Imperialism assumes new shapes, forms, and configurations in the present epoch, but its supersession does not seem to be integral to the "logic" of capital, inherent in the trajectory of capital, as Hardt and Negri believe. That outcome may only be the result of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism as a mode of production; inseparable from the end of value-production itself.


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