The sharpest description of globalization ever written is this: "Modern industry has established the world market. All old-established national industries have been destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries whose products are consumed in every corner of the globe. In place of the old wants, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes... All fixed, fast-frozen relations are swept away; all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air."
Those sentiments of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formed part of the Communist Manifesto, first published in February 1848, a few weeks before revolutions swept through Europe. The revolutions failed, and Marx fell out of favor; not until the 1870s did the Manifesto find a large audience. Now, as Genoa prepares for what may be the largest demonstration against globalization ever seen, the Manifesto deserves to be read again. And no, we're not kidding.
For Marx and Engels, globalization was a revolutionary phenomenon. The triumph of global capitalism had weakened the chains that held human potential in check. Autocratic rulers and priests had seen their power wither away; technology had offered the promise of plenty; great cities had rescued millions from the "idiocy of rural life." Trade had diminished the differences and antagonisms between states so that it was possible to dream of a true internationalism. Globalization, in other words, was potentially liberating.
That's not what the crowds gathering in Genoa seem to think. For them, globalization is bad news--the triumph of giant corporations, the trashing of the earth, the end of self-government. But globalization's positive side is, intriguingly, a message of a hot new book. Since it was published last year, Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, has been translated into four languages, with six more on the way. It is selling briskly on Amazon.com and is impossible to find in Manhattan bookstores. For 413 pages of dense political philosophy--whose compass ranges from body piercing to Machiavelli--that's impressive.
Negri spoke to me last week from Rome, where he is under house arrest, serving the balance of a prison sentence imposed for his "moral responsibility" in the actions of left-wing activists in the 1970s. Globalization, he said, had a dual nature: subordinating men while also "providing them with the opportunity to rebel against capitalism." In fact, you don't have to endorse Empire's authors' broadly Marxist perspective (I don't) to find the book fascinating. For Hardt, a professor at Duke University, the modern world is characterized by the absence of a power center. The U.S. may be mightier than any other nation, but with economic and political resources widely distributed, it cannot always call the shots--ask Jack Welch. That much has been said before; but in a new departure, Hardt and Negri place mobility--not just of goods and services but of people too--at the center of their analysis. "A specter haunts the world," they write, "and it is the specter of migration." In a world of porous borders, the ability of nations to define themselves as discrete entities is bound to atrophy.