One World, After All

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A literature professor at Duke University and an Italian political philosopher living under house arrest in Rome would seem to have little in common. But in 2000 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri collaborated to write the most talked-about work of social theory in years. By last summer, Empire, their sprawling best seller, had been translated into four languages, with six more translations in the pipeline.

Hardt and Negri have cut through one of the most tedious debates in contemporary politics. Everyone understands that globalization, the process by which societies and economies are being integrated, is one of the defining issues of our time. But there has been little consensus on its effects. On the one side stand those who argue that increased global trade and investment raise real income levels and that the modernity that comes with economic prosperity increases opportunity for countless millions. On the other side are those who maintain that globalization has more losers than gainers, both in the rich world (think of steelworkers laid off because of foreign imports) and in the poor, where the march of Western capitalism and Western values shreds the ties of tradition. This debate matters; the argument over whether Congress should grant the President renewed authority to conclude international trade agreements, for example, turns on which conception of globalization one adopts.

Reaching back to early Marxism and forward to postmodernist literary theory (to say nothing of the practice of body piercing), Hardt and Negri finesse the argument by showing that both sides are right, yet both manage to miss the point. Globalization is a phenomenon with revolutionary, liberating potential--but in the process, it can crush the spirit of those for whom changes in social and economic structures are deeply disturbing. The trick is to find structures that preserve the economic gains of globalization without becoming just other forms of colonialism.

Hardt and Negri tend to ramble from subject to subject, but they have some rare insights. In particular, they make a persuasive case that the truly transformative change in our world is not found in technology or global economics but in unprecedented mobility, the power to get up and go. "A specter haunts the world," they write, and "it is the specter of migration." As policymakers struggle to come to terms with a world in which multiple diasporas create multiple identities and loyalties, that claim may be the place to start charting our common future.