TALK OF empire is everywhere. Right wing historian Niall Ferguson is presenting a TV series on Channel 4 celebrating the British Empire. American neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer openly boast that the US has acquired a global empire since the end of the Cold War.
If the right is willing so openly to champion imperialism, the left should also be confronting the issue. Indeed, apart from Naomi Klein's No Logo, the most celebrated book to come out of the movement against capitalist globalisation is called Empire.
Written by the veteran Italian Marxist Toni Negri and the younger American intellectual Michael Hardt, the book has had an enormous influence. The language of the Italian movement known as the 'disobbedienti' is full of the jargon popularised by Hardt and Negri.
Just before Christmas the Guardian published an article by Hardt in which he writes, 'The US is fast becoming an imperialist power along the old European lines, but on a global scale.' He argues that this development is against the interests of all capitalist classes:
'Business leaders around the globe recognise that imperialism is bad for business because it sets up barriers that hinder global flows. The potential profits of capitalist globalisation, which whetted the appetites of business elites everywhere only a few years ago, depend on open systems of production and exchange. This is equally true for the captains of capital in the US. Even for the US industrialists drunk on oil, their real interests lie in the potential profits of capitalist globalisation.'
Hardt goes on, 'US military actions will most likely feed the antagonisms created by the inequality of wealth and power around the world, increasingly exponentially the insecurity of global elites.' But, he continues, 'there is an alternative to US imperialism': Empire, by which he means 'decentralised network power' that no individual state dominates. Hardt concludes, 'We can be confident that in the long run their real interests will lead global elites to support Empire and refuse any project of US imperialism.'
This is extraordinary stuff. In their book Hardt and Negri portray Empire as the latest form of capitalist exploitation whose oppression is provoking the revolt of what they call the 'multitude'.
Now Hardt apparently sees Empire as a policy option for big business that he is trying to persuade them to adopt in their own interests. This is not the first time that people on the left have argued that growing global economic integration is overcoming national conflicts. At the start of the First World War Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the socialist Second International, came up with the idea of 'ultra-imperialism'.
He wrote, 'There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the world war, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself. On the contrary, the capitalist economy is seriously threatened precisely by these disputes. Every far-sighted capitalist today must call on his fellows-capitalists of all countries, unite!''
The error that both Hardt and Kautsky make is to conclude from the fact that international trade and investment are growing that conflicts among capitalists are becoming less intense. This reasoning was mistaken in 1914 and it is no less so today. Economic globalisation actually intensifies capitalist rivalries.
The US economy's growing dependence on imported oil is forcing the US state to project its power into unstable regions where the main reserves of fossil fuels lie. This can bring it into conflict, not just with established powers such as Russia and France, but also rising ones.
China's economic growth means that it too has to rely increasingly on imported oil-which could produce a collision with the US in a few years time. What revolutionary socialists like Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin grasped was that under imperialism economic competition among capitalists and geopolitical rivalries among states tend to fuse together.
We can see this in North East Asia today. The Bush administration's policy of confrontation with North Korea is dangerously fuelling antagonisms between the US, South Korea (historically almost its client state), Japan and China (a potential strategic challenger).
Of course, this anarchic competition among rival capitals could destroy us all, bosses included, in a nuclear catastrophe. Hardt is right to that extent-imperialism is irrational. But this is all the more reason, rather than appeal to the rational self interest of 'far-sighted capitalists', to build the forces of resistance to the system itself.