I'm off to Scotland (been in the UK 9 months now and this will be the second trip to Scotland, but I've only crossed the border into England in order to take a plane to the states - note the nascent Welsh nationalism) in order to talk about 'normative violence' at a 'workshop' where almost everyone else will be talking about sovereignty. It's a workshop and not a conference because most or all participants are giving papers and everyone's paper was distributed beforehand. Thus, I have a lot of reading to do, and while working on some of it this afternoon I was struck in a particular way by the disconnect between academic and other-than-academic discourses.
You see, I was too busy panicking about life, so I missed the great imperialism debate over at Freedom from Blog. (If you missed it as well, then you can start with the link I gave you and work your way backwards.) I think most of the bases are already covered there, but it only hit me this afternoon: the entire debate went on with no one mentioning Hardt and Negri.
I imagine that the italics and bold are going to look really stupid to most readers of this blog, so let me just try to give you a sense of what I'm on about. For anyone in the tiny little field of contemporary political theory Hardt and Negri's Empire (2000) is THE BOOK. It's the biggest, most talked about text since...I don't know, KKV, Making Democracy Work, Theory of Justice...take your pick going backward in time.
I'm not going to try to summarise the 500 pages of Empire, but suffice it to say that the thesis of that book suggests that in the late-modern capitalist system neither the US nor any other country can be imperialist. Capitalism today forces the transfer of some national sovereignty to the needs of the flow of global capital, in such a way that no nation can have an empire. Now, this flow of global capitalism is, in fact, led by the US, but for H&N that explicitly does not make the US an imperial power like Britain or Rome.
I'm not making the case for Empire, since I think it's an overhyped, reductive, and highly disappointing text; it's the only book I've ever taken off the syllabus as the semester began. However, it is also a daring, imaginative and most of all suggestive text, one that has served to start a conversation about how we think about sovereignty and empire in a world where the nation-state looks nothing like it did in 1648. One cannot talk about any of these issues in contemporary political theory now without taking account of Hardt and Negri, and it seems to me that the discussion about America as the world super-power and possibly imperial power would actually be significantly aided by this new frame for thinking. It's too bad, then, that political theorists seem only to be talking to themselves.