Italian*Marxistpolitical philosopher best known for his collaborative writings with Michael Hardt. A measure of his significance may be gauged from Michel Foucault's remark in 1980 that Negri had been imprisoned for his ideas—very few theorists can claim that status.
Negri was born in Padua, in Italy. He became politically active at a young age, via the Roman Catholic youth organization, ‘Gioventú Italiana di Azione Cattolica’, which he joined in the early 1950s. He joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1956. He studied political theory at the University of Padua and obtained a position there as a professor upon graduation, teaching state and constitutional theory. In 1969 Negri co-founded ‘Potere Operaio’ (Workers' Power), a ‘workerist’ (operaismo) political group that organized protests in factories on behalf of labour. The group disbanded in 1973 and Negri joined the Autonomia Operai Organizzata (Autonomous Workers' Organization), contributing numerous theoretical articles.
In April 1979 Negri was arrested along with several other members of the Autonomia movement and charged with several offences alleging a connection with the ‘Brigate Rosse’ (Red Brigades). Negri was also charged with masterminding the Red Brigades' 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party. He was exonerated of the latter charge, but was nevertheless convicted on the association charge and in 1984 sentenced (in absentia) to 30 years in prison. He was given an additional four years on the charge of being ‘morally responsible’ for the violence of political activists in the 1960s and 1970s. He spent four years in jail waiting for his trial, in which time he was elected to the Italian legislature on the Radical Party's ticket. He was freed from prison on parliamentary privilege grounds, but this was revoked by the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Rather than return to prison he fled to France with the aid of Amnesty International and Félix Guattari.
In France, he obtained a position at the University of Paris VIII in Saint Denis, where his colleagues included Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze. It was while he was teaching in Paris that he met a young student by the name of Michael Hardt, with whom he would produce a number of collaborative works in the decades to follow. In 1997 he returned to Italy to voluntarily serve out his sentence, hoping the gesture would raise awareness concerning the situation of the hundreds of other political exiles involved in radical activities in the 1960s and 1970s. His sentence was commuted and in 2003 he was released. The time in prison was productive for Negri: the first of his collaborations with Michael Hardt were completed there, The Labor of Dionysus (1994), which combined translations of older pieces by Negri with some new pieces written by Hardt, and the international bestseller Empire (2000).
It was the publication of Empire that catapulted both Negri and Hardt to the front ranks of critical theory. The book appeared shortly after the so-called ‘Battle in Seattle’ (November 1999) in which the worldwide anti-globalization social movement shot to prominence and it seemed to offer a powerful new message of hope. Hardt and Negri propose that a new form of sovereignty has emerged since World War II, which they term Empire, and argue that it is global in nature and already more potent than any nation state. They also argue that the new global processes of manufacturing, managing labour, and finance, known as globalization, are changing the very composition of capital, and in doing so creating a new class, which they term the multitude, and thereby opening up a new chapter in the history of class struggle. In an era when most other writers on the Left are making gloomy pronouncements about the rise of neo-conservativism, Hardt and Negri's work is a breath of fresh air. Not surprisingly, then, Empire was a runaway bestseller.