The left should love globalisation

Antonio Negri, a Marxist sentenced to 30 years for supporting terrorism in Italy, has now turned con

Opponents of globalisation may have finally met their match. The challenge comes not from the sharp suits of the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or even from Clare Short, but from a middle-aged academic who is no stranger to direct-action techniques. He is the man accused of leading the Italian revolutionary left in the 1970s: Antonio Negri. Thirty-odd years after he achieved notoriety in the student revolts of 1968, his new book, Empire (published by Harvard University Press), has been hailed as "a communist manifesto for our times". It is a riposte both to the Jeremiahs on the left who see globalisation as an unalloyed evil and to the fatalists of the right who see it as a fait accompli that we are powerless to change.

To Negri, still infused with the optimism of a previous era, globalisation is a great opportunity: for a knowledge economy where life itself becomes the "raw material of production" and workers are liberated from the heavy machines of industrial capitalism; for a shift from "representative democracy" that forces one-size-fits-all solutions on a diverse population to a new politics of "expression"; for a real global citizenship as an increasingly mobile population interacts to create new forms of identity; and, above all, for a left-wing politics concerned with liberty and the quality of life, rather than with a reductive quest for equality between groups.

I first met Negri in Rome, to drink wine and tea in the bourgeois comfort of his open-plan flat. It could be the home of any left-wing intellectual - except it doubles up as a prison.

The story goes back to 1979 when, as a respected professor at the University of Padua, Negri was arrested and accused of being the secret leader of the Red Brigades, the terrorist group that had kidnapped and assassinated Aldo Moro, the president of the Christian Democratic Party. Negri was formally acquitted of this particular charge, but faced others of "armed insurrection against the state" and "moral responsibility" for the clashes between revolutionary activists and police in Milan in the 1970s. After more than four years of "preventive detention", while the court deliberated these charges, Negri was released following his election to parliament on the Radical Party list in 1983. Two months later, the parliament stripped him of his immunity and voted to send him back to prison. He fled to France. There, he taught at the University of Paris and did research for French government departments, becoming a cause celebre among members of the French intelligentsia, including Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Meanwhile, in Rome, he was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment in his absence, despite Amnesty International's condemnation of "serious legal irregularities" at the trial. Then, in 1997 - after 14 years' exile in Paris - he gave himself up to the Italian authorities. He was sent to prison but allowed out to his home every day, provided he returned each night. A few weeks ago, he was told that he need not go to prison any more: he is now allowed to sleep at home, providing he does not go out from 7pm to 7am. "That's amazing," I said when he told me. He laughed: "I can tell you, sleeping with a woman at night is amazing."

Bubbling with energy, laughing through his eyes and speaking with his hands, this sixtysomething philosopher delights with his warmth and charm. Occasionally stopping to catch his breath when his excited delivery outpaces his lungs, he speaks with several voices at the same time: Marxist, witty polemicist, analytical thinker, intellectual gadfly. He is almost impossible to pin down. A life that oscillates between academia, politics and prison has left a man comfortable with contrast. The orthodox voice that sees a teleological progression towards revolution (he speaks of "the irrepressible lightness and joy of being a communist") somehow coexists with his playful and open-ended attempts to understand a baffling world ("don't push me on that, I'm just playing games").

His new book, written with one of his former students, Michael Hardt, starts with a paradox. On the one hand, globalisation is a new capitalist "empire", uniting all states under a single logic; on the other, this quest for global norms frees individuals to live more fulfilled, flexible and varied existences. "Our political task," argues Negri, "is not simply to resist these processes but to redirect and reorganise them towards new ends."

Turning Marx's theory of immiseration on its head, Negri argues that modernisation has always been positive in the end. Each new phase of capitalism has improved the position of the working class - and created a platform for further liberation. Professional workers forced the recognition of trade unions and political parties and, once they became organised as "mass workers", they had the clout to demand the welfare state. Negri quotes William Morris: "Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they want under another name."

Negri adds: "The big shift is the impossibility of war between civilised nations. But it is not something that the industrialists brought about. It comes from the emancipation of working classes who were no longer willing to go to war."

Negri delights in the shift to a post-industrial economy: "In the past, labour depended on capital to provide the factory and all the tools of production. Today, we have all the tools we need to work in our heads. This is the end of the distinction between production and life - life and work have become the same thing. But it is not life that has been reduced to work, like in a totalitarian society. Instead it is work that has identified itself with life. Capitalism today needs to make free men work - free men who have their own means, their own tools.

"Free men who one day or another might think in a different way, because the raw material of production is thought. This means that emotional and ethical values enter work in a fundamental way . . . For politics, the big question today is how to organise life. This marks a real revolution. In the past, one looked at the economy and the relationship between working time and non-working time. Today, it is just about life. Our challenge is to invent new forms for organising liberty in life and production."

Politics therefore becomes a cultural rather than a managerial project, concerned as much with quality of life as macroeconomics or public spending. Unlike the British and German left, Italian Marxism has always placed great emphasis on individual emancipation. It echoes some of new Labour's thinking - for example, John Prescott's "quality of life indicators", measuring everything from pollution to childcare and working hours.

Negri argues that the challenge for welfare is to mirror life rather than to shape it. This means an end to corporatist welfare and traditional notions of the family wage. "The family wage keeps family control firmly in the hands of the male wage earner, and perpetuates a false conception of what labour is productive and what is not." He argues instead for what he calls "constitutive welfare": continuous schooling and training, home services for working women, daycare, and aid to children.

The challenge is to do this for an age in which everybody's lives and aspirations are different. Because traditional categories - from social classes to national groups - are melting away, many of our existing institutions have ceased to work. Traditional distinctions between countries and blocs of countries no longer make sense: "We continually find the first world in the third, the third in the first, and the second almost nowhere at all." We should think of "global citizenship" and of open borders, to feed the hunger of the north for labour and of the south for development.

Mobility, Negri argues, has changed our conceptions of space and time. "When Rousseau said that democracy could only exist in small places, he cited Geneva as an example. Today, the whole of Switzerland counts as a tiny place. So it is against these definitions of space and time that we should judge democracy." The death of mass society requires a reinvention of political institutions lest they become irrelevant. "Representative democracy . . . has been neutralised or, if you like, expropriated by television and mass communications . . . we have to move from 'representative democracy' to 'expressive democracy' . . . It is impossible to define what we called the 'general interest' in an age of diversity. And an amorphous 'general interest' can be totalitarian, which means that an instrument of democracy becomes the opposite of what it is meant to be."

But how are these flexible multitudes, trading on their intellect rather than their capital, to create this new "expressive democracy" - by which Negri seems to mean a politics based on direct participation rather than representation through parties, trade unions or other social groups? Here, he is less forthcoming.

"The protesters at Seattle are not unsympathetic. They don't stand for anything. They don't have a programme. But what is important is that they have found a space for a different politics - a global politics. My old communist friends compare Seattle to the 1905 revolution in Russia, but I don't think Seattle will lead to a universal process. The important thing is the new space. There is no politics without a space. But if you ask me what form it will take, I don't have any answers. I'm not a utopian. I provide an analysis. I've always thought that forms of organisation come from people. They are invented by people. From this perspective, I am completely Marxist. Marx always used to say go and look at the Paris commune, look at other forms of organisation, go and learn."

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre

This article appears in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men