Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Why we need a multilateral Magna Carta

It is becoming increasingly clear that a unilateral or “monarchical” arrangement of the global order – centred on the military, political and economic dictation of the United States – is undesirable and unsustainable.

The crisis of this arrangement presents the opportunity for the proposition of a new global order by the “global aristocracies” – that is to say, the multinational corporations, the supranational institutions and the other dominant nation states.

The primary challenge facing these global aristocracies is to reorganize the global system in the interest of renewing and expanding the productive forces that are today thwarted by poverty and marginalization. To do this, a new agreement is needed – a Magna Carta contract for the age, that today’s aristocracies are in the position to demand of the monarch.

Imperialism, in our view, is no longer possible today. In other words, no nation state, not even the United States, is capable of acting as a sovereign power to rule over the global order.

Furthermore, the contemporary global order will not be defined by the competition among imperialist powers, as it was during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. A new form of sovereignty is emerging today – a properly global sovereignty, which we call Empire.

We use the term Empire in part because the new structures of power resemble those of the ancient Roman Empire. Specifically, the new global sovereignty is characterized, as it was in ancient Rome, by the constant collaboration and interplay between the “monarchy” and the “aristocracy”.

This means that the United States cannot act independently as a global monarch and “go it alone,” dictating the terms of global arrangements in military, political, economic or financial terms.

The United States must rather collaborate with the other dominant nation states, the multinational corporations, and the supranational institutions that compose the global aristocracies. Today’s imperial sovereignty, in other words, cannot be dictated by Washington (either the Pentagon or the International Monetary Fund), but must result from the collaboration among the various dominant powers.

We think of this Empire as a network form of power in that there is no single centre, but rather a broad set of powers that must negotiate with each other. Our hypothesis, then, is that this Empire is an emerging tendency and that, for those in power, it is the only form in which contemporary global hierarchies and order can be maintained.

When we claim that this new global imperial form of sovereignty is emerging, we should be clear: this does not mean that nation states are no longer important. Too often discussions about global power fall into an either/or fallacy: one person says that, since global power structures are emerging, nation states are no longer important; the other says that, since nation-states continue to be important, there are no global power structures.

The aim of our concept of Empire, instead, is to recognize that nation states are still powerful (some, of course, more than others), but that they tend today to act within a new form of global sovereignty that includes, in addition to nation states, various other powerful actors including corporations and supranational institutions.

Our hypothesis of Empire can be confirmed negatively by the clear failure of unilateralist policies in a variety of fields. Most obvious is the failure of the unilateralist military strategies pursued by the US government particularly in the past two years.

Even in strictly military terms the US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are proving incapable of meeting the minimum objectives of security and stability. On the contrary, they are creating increasing conflict and strife.

Moreover, the global state of war and conflict created by the unilateralist military policies has had strongly detrimental effects on the global circuits of production and trade. One might say, in summary fashion, that the unilateralist armed globalization pursued by the United States has raised new boundaries and obstacles, blocking the kinds of global economic networks that had been created in the previous decades.

Another kind of unilateralist strategy that has failed is the imposition of neoliberal economic regimes, characterized by the mandates to cut public welfare programmes to a minimum and privatize public industries and healthcare.

The so-called “Washington Consensus” and the policies dictated by the IMF, which amount to a kind of economic unilateralism, have been promoted strongly by the United States and often go hand in hand with its unilateralist military actions.

These economic and financial policies have for decades come under heavy criticism, but the economic disasters in southeast Asia in 1997 and Argentina in 2000/01 (two areas previously considered shining examples of neoliberal success) have confirmed the crisis of the economic model.

The most general indication of the limitations of the global neoliberal economic regime is that it engages such a small fraction of the productive potential in today’s world. Large and growing portions of the global population live in poverty, deprived of education and opportunities. Numerous countries are plagued by national debts that drain vital resources. It is increasingly clear, in fact, that the majority of the world is excluded from the primary circuits of economic production and consumption.

Some scholars have thus begun to claim that within the present neoliberal economic regime large portions of the global population are “disposable”, as if the economic system were sustainable but immoral.

They maintain that the exclusion of large populations is what makes the system functional. This fact explains for them the seeming indifference to large-scale poverty and even high mortality rates due, for example, to the spread of Aids in Africa.

Our view, rather, is that the economic exclusion and marginalization of large populations are indications of the failure and unsustainability of the neoliberal regime. No economic system can continue while suffocating the productive potential of such a large portion of the population.

The failure of neoliberalism, in other words, makes inevitable the task of creating a new productive system with the means to realize better the productive potential present in the world today.

This is the moment of the Magna Carta. Remember from English history that in the early 13th century King John could no longer pay for his foreign military adventures and could no longer maintain social peace.

When he appealed to the aristocracy for funds and support, they demanded in return that the monarch submit to the rule of law and provide constitutional guarantees, and thus they drafted the Magna Carta.

The monarch, in other words, agreed to abandon a strictly unilateralist position and collaborate actively with the aristocracy. Our global “monarch” is faced with a comparable crisis today – unable to pay for its wars, maintain peaceful order and, moreover, provide the adequate means for economic production.

Our “aristocracies” are thus in the position, in return for their support, to demand a new social, political, and economic arrangement – a new global order.

What would be the content of a new global Magna Carta today? Peace and security are obviously important objectives. Putting an end to unilateralist military adventures and the seemingly interminable state of global war is a fundamental condition.

It is also important, however, to renew global productive forces and bring the entire global population into the circuits of production and exchange. Priorities such as eliminating poverty and absolving the debts of the poorest countries would not in this context be acts of charity, but efforts aimed at realizing the productive potential that exists in the world.

Another priority would be reversing the processes of privatization and creating common access to necessary productive resources – such as land, seeds, information, and knowledge. Making resources common is necessary for the expansion and renewal of creative and production potentials, from agriculture to internet technologies.

We can already recognize some movements that can indicate a path toward the creation of such a new Magna Carta. The demands of the “group of 22” at the Cancún meetings of the WTO for more equitable agricultural trade policies, for example, is one step towards reforming the global system. More generally, the international alliances tentatively articulated by Lula’s government in Brazil within Latin America and more broadly indicate possible bases for global reconstruction.

Taking the lead from the governments of the global South in this manner is one way for the aristocracies to orient their project of the renewal of productive forces and energies in the global economic system.

A second source of orientation is provided by the multitude of voices that protest against the current state of war and the present form of globalization. These protestors in the streets, in social forums and in NGOs not only present grievances against the failures of the present system, but also numerous reform proposals ranging from institutional arrangements to economic policies.

It is clear that these movements will always remain antagonistic to the imperial aristocracies and, in our view, rightly so. It might be in the aristocracies’ interest, however, to consider the movements as potential allies and resources for formulating today’s global policies.

Some version of the reforms that these movements demand, and some means to incorporate the global multitudes as active forces, are undeniably indispensable for the production of wealth and security.

The most progressive governments of the global South and the globalization protest movements are some of the existing forces that can orient a project of renewal. A new Magna Carta would offer an alternative to our failed unilateralist regimes.

Michael Hardt/Antonio Negri
Michael Hardt teaches at Duke University and Antonio Negri has taught at the Universities of Padua and Paris. They are co-authors of Empire (Harvard, 2000). Their forthcoming book, to be published by Penguin in 2004, is Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.