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Antonio Negri: A Philosopher of ‘Autonomism’

Negri sought to build an intellectual life beyond academia and that earned him enormous respect for his position on critical issues.

Antonio Negri, the distinguished Italian political philosopher and Marxist sociologist who died at the age of 90 in Paris, leaves behind a legacy marked by profound intellectual contributions. In collaboration with his coauthor Michael Hardt, who is 30 years younger, Negri earned both global acclaim and critique for their influential works that generated extensive debates on philosophy, politics and social movements. Negri taught as a professor of philosophy and political science at the Universities of Padua and Paris. However, he sought to build an intellectual life beyond academia and that earned him enormous respect for his position on critical issues.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Negri became a prominent figure in the realm of continental philosophy, specifically within the French-inspired Neo-Spinozism movement, alongside influential thinkers like Althusser and Deleuze. This philosophical approach draws inspiration from the ideas of the 17th-century philosopher Spinoza. In an interview, Negri said that Spinoza provided a principle of freedom that resonated with the idea of building a world through the multitude of singular ways. His contributions to Neo-Spinozism involve a reinterpretation and extension of Spinoza’s concepts, exploring themes like immanence, power and the relationship between the individual and the collective. Negri’s engagement with Neo-Spinozism, similar to Althusser and Deleuze, marks a departure from traditional philosophical modes, offering a fresh perspective on subjects such as subjectivity, politics and social organisation.

Best known for his contributions to autonomism, Negri played a crucial role in founding the Potere Operaio (Worker Power) group in 1969 and was a key figure in Autonomia Operaia. His advocacy of workerism (operaismo), aligned with autonomism, focused on empowering the working class. Operaismo draws from Marx’s idea that capital responds to the actions of the working class, emphasising the active role of the working class and the reactive nature of capital. The theory argues that ongoing struggles of the working class influence technological and political changes, citing examples such as the connection between strikes and the introduction of machines.

In the late 1970s, Negri faced charges linked to left-wing militant activities but was convicted in 1984 for unrelated accusations. He spent time in prison, later seeking refuge in France. In Paris, he collaborated with intellectuals like Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze, and met Michael Hardt. Negri voluntarily returned to Italy in 1997, served a commuted sentence, and was released in 2003. His prison years were productive, resulting in influential collaborative works with Hardt, including The Labor of Dionysus (1994) and the acclaimed Empire (2000).

Empire‘s release pushed Negri and Hardt to the forefront of social theory, coinciding with the influential ‘Battle in Seattle’ in November 1999. The book introduced the concept of ‘Empire,’ a global form of sovereignty surpassing nation-states. Amid concerns about neo-conservatism, Negri and Hardt’s perspective, emphasising a new class called the multitude emerging from globalisation, gained popularity. According to Slavoj Žižek, Empire is a modern reinterpretation of The Communist Manifesto, exposing conflicts inherent in global capitalism. Negri described a decentralised global power structure, termed Empire, challenging the ‘end of history’ narrative and urging a comprehensive engagement with contemporary capitalism. The model advanced a totalising system of capitalist domination where capital and sovereignty converge, perpetuating global exploitation and wealth concentration.

Following the success of Empire, Negri and Hardt co-authored Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire in 2004, exploring the potential for global democracy, a novel concept at the time. The book deals with the ‘project of the multitude’, envisioning a world marked by equality and freedom and proposing tangible means to achieve it. Multitude engages with the idea of a global democratic transformation, asserting that war has become an inherent part of the global order, with military force deemed essential for the world market’s functioning. Unlike some globalisation theorists, Negri emphasised grassroots movements and societal forces as driving transformative changes.

Antonio Negri. Photo: Columbia Law School website

The trilogy concluded in 2009 with Commonwealth, emphasising the conceivability and achievability of a democracy of the multitude. The term ‘common’ embodies the material wealth of the world, extending to air, water, soil and nature’s resources, as well as social products like knowledge, languages, codes, information and affects. This perspective portrays humanity as intertwined with nature, emphasising practices of interaction, care and cohabitation in a shared world, with a focus on fostering positive aspects of the common while limiting detrimental ones.

In 2012, Negri released Declaration, a pamphlet centred on the Occupy movements. He also collaborated with Hardt on Assembly (Oxford University Press, 2017), a work exploring the potency of collective political action. The title ‘Assembly’ captures the idea of coming together for political engagement. The book provides a comprehensive analysis of contemporary politics, analysing  various aspects of capitalism influenced by neoliberalism, finance capital, nationalism and digital dynamics. Critiquing both capitalism and bureaucracy, it advocates for progressive social movement politics, urging a reevaluation of left-wing strategies and emphasising dialectics like movement/leadership, spontaneity/organisation and revolution/reform. A key aspect is the appropriation of fixed capital, outlined in their strategy as the “new Prince” and the “entrepreneurship of the multitude”.

In Negri’s trilogy – comprising Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth – he introduced an ‘altermodernity’ thesis, asserting the obsolescence of the old class structure and dynamics. Departing from traditional dialectics, Negri presents a new logic of history characterised by endless diversity rather than growing class homogeneity. This departure from dialectical orthodoxy, influenced by Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, introduces the concept of the ‘multitude’ as a diverse ensemble inspired by Spinoza. In Negri’s view, the postmodern multitude is a collection of singularities.

Raewyn Connell criticises Negri’s works, particularly Empire and Commonwealth, for lacking concrete knowledge in discussions of power. Connell points out the absence of analysis on multinational corporations, their strategies and the issues they face. She also notes the vagueness of the ‘multitude’ as a social entity, echoing criticisms from others. Alex Callinicos sees the multitude as expressing good intentions rather than a useful tool for class analysis. Giovanni Arrighi criticised the heavy reliance on metaphors in Empire and the avoidance of empirical evidence, arguing that some key claims about globalisation are false.

Samir Amin criticised Hardt and Negri’s theses, identifying two flawed premises. First, they argued that globalisation makes national policies obsolete, dismissing the importance of nations and national interests. Secondly, they claimed there is no imperialism, only an ’empire’ without central power. Amin disputed these assertions, emphasising the ongoing relevance of imperialism as the use of economic, political and military means to subjugate peripheries to dominant centres. Amin contended that the shaping of peripheral capitalist societies results in distinct forms of proletarianisation, varying based on assigned functions. These forms, although different from those in dominant centres, are complementary. The perceived ‘multitude’, representing global working classes, is structured differently across countries and phases of capitalist development. Amin highlighted Negri’s error in supporting the European constitution, arguing that it aims to consolidate, not weaken, neoliberal capitalism by eliminating civil society’s potential to protest. Amin also contrasted this with the Washington establishment’s understanding, emphasising the role of imperialist powers in controlling globalisation through military strategies, a point downplayed by Hardt and Negri.

In a 2019 New Left Review article, Negri and Hardt discussed the evolving dynamics of globalisation, noting its resurgence as a central issue. They observed various reactions, from the decline of the liberal international order to calls for national sovereignty. The authors argued for transitioning from class-focused struggles to a multitude framework, embracing intersectional analysis, and acknowledging multiplicity in addressing different forms of domination. They stressed the importance of understanding subjectivities in relation to diverse structures of domination.

Negri, historically critical of 20th-century socialism and the Soviet Union, later supported modern social democracy. In 2005, he endorsed a ‘Yes’ vote for the proposed EU constitution, viewing the European Union not as a constraint but as a suitable arena for working-class struggle in the era of globalisation. Despite differences with leftist forces, he supported referendums on the European Constitution. In the current global context, marked by a relative decline in American power, Negri believed a united Europe could serve as a powerful democratic alternative, reinforcing aspects like welfare and the culture of rights. He advocated for the European Union’s disengagement from NATO, positioning itself as the heir to anti-fascism and socialism of the 20th century.

In an interview, Negri reflected on the defeat of socialism and the violent overthrow of communism. He characterised postmodernism as the prevailing ideological framework that legitimises a global restoration of capitalist power. Personally experiencing the defeat of the class struggle and violence against the exploited, poor, and excluded, he identified himself as a citizen of this catastrophe. Despite the solitude of defeat and imprisonment, he maintained recognition of the enemy and a sense of possible rebirth.

Acknowledging the ongoing war between the West and the East, both incapable of producing freedom, Negri expressed a desire for them to weaken each other. From the resulting grief, suffering, and misery, he foresaw the potential for a new strength to emerge – one that vehemently rejects war and envisions peace as the essential condition for human life.

In an article in New Left Review in 2022, Negri and Nicolas Guilhot argued that the war in Ukraine posed a significant threat to the future of Europe, not for the commonly cited reasons. They suggested that the conflict might create a divide between eastern and western Europe, potentially marking the end of Europe as a political project. They also stressed the importance of preventing this outcome and advocated for a return to realism. Negri and Guilhot emphasised that European interests increasingly differ from those of the United States, urging Europe not to sacrifice unity for U.S. goals. They also cautioned against allowing the war in Ukraine to be exploited by Washington to maintain its declining hegemony. Europe caught between the American crisis and Kremlin manoeuvring, must assert itself politically and develop strategic autonomy globally, Negri and Guilhot noted.

Negri’s impact on political literature is profound, evident in an array of articles and books. This diverse body of work demonstrates Negri’s position as a remarkable intellectual in contemporary political discourse.

K.M. Seethi, an ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.