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ARCHIVES: Democracy on the Defensive – Interview with Michael Hardt, Co-Author of Empire and Multitude

(This article by Glenn Brigaldino was published in the September/October 2005 issue of Newtopia Magazine)

Globalization is swiftly mutating from an economic and political process of transactional introduction of liberal capitalism and global interdependencies to an openly aggressive, US-driven neo-imperial type of rule over societies and their institutions. Rosa Luxemburg’s predicted alternative between Socialism and Barbarianism appears to be coming true, heavily tilted toward the non-democratic alternative. From Baghdad, again today, over to London, from Addis Ababa on to the back streets of America, democracy is on the defensive, under threat or in retreat.

Political theorists and authors Antonio Negro and Michael Hardt have analysed and situated 21st century “Empire” in its historical context. In “Multitude” they have identified a possible democratic counterforce to armed globalization. Michael Hardt (MH) shares his views on a mix of current questions on historical and potentially new political struggles for global democracy. The following online interview with Michael Hardt was arranged and conducted by Newtopia Magazine contributing writer Glenn Brigaldino (GB).

GB:To “Make Poverty History” was the leitmotif of the Live8 events on July2nd. Hundreds of millions of people watched and over 27 million signed the online petition to the political leadership of the G8 countries, ahead of the Edinburgh summit. In “Multitude”, where together with Antonio Negri you explore this political concept, you see it as an emerging democratic, network-type of alternative to an essentially imperialised daily praxis of globalization.

In your view, could the global anti-poverty movement become or can it already be described as a political project of the Multitude?

MH: One thing we should recognize, first of all, something that is probably obvious, is how influential the globalization movements have been. Ending poverty, especially in Africa, had been one of the central demands of the movements for a long time and now, finally, it has become an important element of the agenda of all the institutions of power. The World Bank, for example, now describes its mission no longer to promote development but rather to combat poverty. Defining the agenda in this way has been a real success of the movements. It’s a partial success, of course, and the pressure of the movements will continue to be necessary, but it’s a success nonetheless.

Let me give you just one example about how these things sometimes get confused. I did an interview with a Brazilian journalist at the last World Social Forum, in January 2005. He began the interview by asking me, “Don’t you think it’s a problem that the World Economic Forum has made combating poverty its central theme this year?” I was confused and asked him what the problem would be. “They’re stealing your issue,” he responded. That’s not a problem, I tried to explain. On the contrary, if they adopt our agenda that means we’ve been successful.

For Negri and I, though, when we talk about poverty we mean something rather different. It’s important to us to recognize the power not only as victims and not only as objects of charity but also as creative powerful subjects. Sometimes you have to take a different perspective to recognize how people in conditions of incredible poverty are nonetheless enormously productive and innovative. Recognizing this might lead us toward creating not only a movement for the poor but also actually a movement of the poor. This is not opposed to the various proposals to make poverty history. It just goes one step beyond.

GB: In 1979, popular revolt against the imperial regime of the Shah of Iran did not lead to a democratic society but rather it allowed an extremely reactionary, indeed an archaic theocratic system to come to power. After years of war with its equally autocratic neighbour Iraq, years of prolonged internal repression of democratic dissent, social protest and cultural autonomy, the mid-1990s appeared to mark the beginning of a period of gradual relaxation of uncompromising state control over society.

Now, presented with few if any genuine political alternatives, the Iranian electorate has chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a candidate deeply opposed even to minimal political reforms of the theocratic rule over society, as the new president. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who to many Iranians (and foreign observers), appeared to at least be a slow-motion reformer, was clearly defeated in the second round vote. Hard-line prevailed over half-heartedness.

In a generalist manner, could the Iranian second round vote be likened to the 2004 US-presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry?

MH: I don’t think I understand your analogy well enough. Are you simply opposing fundamentalists to reformers in both countries? That might be true, but in a very general, abstract way, it seems to me. I sense that you are thinking of something more specific that I’m not getting.

GB: Of course I should clarify this. Where I sense an analogy is in the type of social composition of active voters. Here as there it seems that people who live on the economic fringes but who consider themselves as good, God-fearing citizens, are being mobilized to vote by politically reactionary parties/candidates. As in Algeria in the early 1990s, in some ways as in Germany in 1933, voter majorities can voluntarily opt for totalitarianism. Are these “lost souls” for the Multitude?

MH: I think I see what you are getting at. Spinoza is aiming at a similar issue when he asks in the Preface of his Theological-Political Treatise, why is it that people struggle for their servitude as if it were their liberation and why do they regard not with shame but as a mark of honour to waste their blood and their life for the vanity of a single man? Spinoza explains this as an effect of superstition and fear. That may not be sufficient, but it is certainly true that superstition and fear are powerful factors in all the situations you mentioned.

That said, however, there is no reason to consider those who vote for reactionary politics or even who struggle for their own servitude as lost. There is nothing immediate or spontaneous about the struggle for liberation. It might be true that the desire for freedom is natural but, even if that is so, the struggle for liberation is something that must be learned. It requires training. And that is part of our political project — not just that of Negri and me, but all of us.

GB: I believe it was last year, when you were invited to Germany by the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) to present “Multitude” and engage in discussions about its political implications. A surprising host, considering that the PDS is a party that emerged from the one-party State of the former East Germany, a country of extreme perversion of the concept of political representation.

This coming September it is likely that there will be an election in Germany. Yet few Germans today, appear to strongly identify with any of the political choices offered.

In “Multitude” you speak of “Grievances of Representation”, also at the local and national level. However, in discussing “Reforms of Representation” you limit the discussion to the global and the EU-level. In view of the upcoming elections in Germany, are meaningful reforms of representation illusionary, given the mix of political parties a hand? Apathy and disillusionment with party politics appear to be widespread, in Germany as in most other core capitalist countries. While you were in Germany, did you happen to bump into any credible projects of the “Multitude”?

MH: I agree with you that in Germany, as in every other country, the structures of national representation are in crisis and that disillusionment with party politics is at least in part due to a generalized recognition of this crisis. For credible projects of the multitude, if we can call them that, I would look, at least initially, outside the electoral system.

The current projects that I’ve found most inspiring in Germany and throughout Europe are those surrounding issues of “precarious labor,” that is, part-time, informal forms of labor without fixed contracts, which are often highly exploitative. The alternative May Day celebrations this past year, which took place simultaneously in various European cities and focused on the “precariat,” are one example. What is so exciting about these movements is that they are able to bring together labor questions with immigration issues, since precarious forms of labor are most common among immigrants.

GB: So I take it that reform through party politics, in Germany, Ethiopia or Malaysia, is ultimately wishful thinking from the past?

MH: No, I wouldn’t say that reform through party politics is useless, but only that it is not enough. There is no contradiction between party politics and these non-party projects, nor is there any contradiction, in a more general way, between reform and revolution.

GB: In “Multitude” you underline that in today’s global order, the lines between what is political, economic, social and cultural are extremely blurred. The very concept of representation (which you characterize as historically closely bound to the rise of the nation state) is part of the problem rather than a source of resolution of power and equality divides. Where democracy is reduced to periodic participation in an electoral process, the ideals of justice and equality are empty shells.

Global civil society, rightly recognised as a vague concept, may nevertheless provide an organizational alternative to the US-driven, neo-imperial world order. Could a civil society type of global alternative, in its individual, community, national, regional as well as in its network dimensions, gain sufficient momentum and political power to stall or even to dismantle “Empire”?

If it could, and at times and in specific localities this may already be happening, how can it succeed in maintaining, in securing its position of influence on a global scale?

MH: I think you are using the term “global civil society” in a way very similar to the way we use the term “multitude.” Sometimes I find such terminological choices very important, but for the purposes of our discussion here it’s probably best to leave them aside and assume the two terms are roughly equivalent.

You raise two very important questions when you ask about the multitude having the power to overthrow the current imperial order and also having the capacity to sustain a lasting alternative to it. I don’t have an answer to these questions. I suspect that answers will have to be developed collectively, in practice, over time. It does seem essential to me, however, that we develop ways to institutionalize the movements of the multitude. By “institutionalize” I don’t mean create bureaucracies or any other rigid, hierarchical structures, but rather to develop mechanisms to guarantee the continuity and effectiveness of the multitude.

GB: Could the World Social Forum (WSF) be considered as an institutionalized form of the Multitude?

MH: Yes, I certainly do consider the WSF that way, but it is important not to get carried away with its size or power and significance. And it is important too not to mistake the WSF for a representative body, as if it were representing a global multitude or even the participants in the forum. The Forum is not a representative subject; it is rather an open space of encounter.

GB: So “Multitude” in short, can be seen as the innumerable political subjects throughout the world who, although different in many ways, democratically communicate, collaborate and act in common; potentially they do so with increasing effectiveness and in opposition to armed globalization. However, especially in local and grassroots levels, to rally around the common goals and possibilities of the multitude, appears to be immensely more difficult, even unimaginable to most of the global population: they are familiar with and accustomed to a world of nation states insisting on sovereignty.

The “big issues” of the commons, such as democracy, sustainable development, peace, justice and equality throughout the world, may often be felt to be abstract notions, removed from the cultural pressures, material concerns and social expectations impacting upon most people’s daily lives, of their existence. There is a gulf between individual daily life experiences and uncertain prospects for existential alternatives. What are the suitable “biopolitical weapons” as you call them, that are sufficiently capable of “constituting democracy and defeating the armies of Empire”?

MH: You are certainly right to focus on people’s concrete daily life experiences, but I’m not sure that perspective tips the scales in the favour of national identity and sovereignty. On the contrary, those are extraordinarily abstract notions. The nation has only been made real in people’s daily life experiences through innumerable, elaborate apparatuses. It seems to me that the issues of the commons that you mention — questions, for example, of poverty, strategies of survival, access to water, even equality and democracy — are much more immediate and concrete. I’m not saying it is not difficult, as you suggest, for people to rally around their common needs and desires. Certainly there are very powerful obstacles in the way. But taking the perspective of people’s daily life experiences can at least help us recognize how it is possible.

GB: How would this be possible, for example from the perspective of political activists who are rallying against social and racial injustices of the US prison system, “home” to some 2 million people? What means and opportunities do they have, if any at this time, to promote democratic control and introduce some form of humanization to the incarceration system?

MH: I don’t think the issues of imprisonment and racism are too abstract. That’s not the primary obstacle to this kind of organizing. But, in any case, I don’t think I have any secrets to impart to those struggling against the carceral system and the death penalty. They are using the meagre resources available.

GB: Probably only some very few people today will remember or have heard about Rudi Dutschke (1940-1979). In the late sixties, as one of the leaders of the German student movement Dutschke was closely engaged in advancing the non-parliamentary opposition, or in its German acronym, the APO. Later in the late seventies, after surviving an assassination attack, Dutschke co-initiated the German Green Party. At the time political representation was in deep crisis in Western Europe, authoritarian institutional structures were crumbling and international solidarity with the anti-Vietnam War movement was on the rise. Perhaps a pre-Multitude was expressing itself politically, but its momentum waned and many of those in the political opposition were absorbed by a political system that had adapted to the protests by allowing for some reform to the institutions of capitalist society.

Today’s anti-globalization movements bear some similarities to the student protests of those days, but is it useful or even relevant to think in terms of continuity? If one agrees that knowing about past struggles prepares for present day action against the global hollowing out of the democratic ideal, then in what ways is it possible to socialize and indeed, to equip the “Multitude” with significant knowledge and competence with regard to the “lessons of history” in order to inform today’s’ political actions?

MH: There are powerful continuities, but they don’t always travel in a straight line. Historical memory is indeed useful, sometimes to help recreate elements worth replicating and often to avoid repeating past failures. For me, the student movements of the 1960s would not be the struggles that come most immediately to mind as a point of comparison. I would be much more inclined to look at the legacy of anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements. The difference of the current situation from theirs seems to me very instructive.

How can we keep these lessons of history alive? Well, continuing to speak and write about them, as we do, is all I can think of. But maybe it would be more useful to turn the question around. It would be interesting to conduct a very broad investigation into what kinds of historical memory activists already have at their disposal, what struggles they see as points of reference and contrast. I don’t know what such an investigation would reveal, but I suspect we would find much more widespread and powerful forms of historical memory than we expect.

GB: The capitalist establishment in 1968 was probably less concerned about mere student issues but felt cornered by the APOs insistence on linking student demands with international struggles. Earlier you pointed to some new political dynamics through the linking of labor and immigrant questions. Would you agree that much bolder steps are required and that we should insist on “multiple linkages” of political issues and themes? To stay with your example, shouldn’t democratic alternatives to issues revolving around labor and immigrants be expanded to include discussion and consideration of issues such as gender, environmental impacts, consumerist lifestyles? I’m concerned that too much of the critical “historical memory” can get parcelled off, buried or relegated to isolated subcultures.

MH: I agree with you that the linkages are important and often empowering. But, once again, my sense is that activists do already think this way to a remarkable extent. It may be that intellectuals have more to learn from activists than they have to teach. In any case, I often recognize how my own work insufficiently takes into account the various issues you mentioned and it continues to be a project for me, as, I suppose, it is for all of us.

GB: Micheal, on behalf of the Newtopiamagazine team I want to thank you for sharing your views with our online readers and supporters. If we’d give the advice to you and Antonio Negri that in your future work you ought to attempt a strong shift from political philosophy to a political program for a “Multitude of Linkages”, then what advice would you give us in turn?

MH: I don’t think I’m in the position to give advice. But I have thought long and hard about the question of writing a political program. My thinking about it now is that political programs should not be written by one or two political philosophers in separation, but rather should be written collectively in the movements. One should never underestimate the sophistication and innovation of the kind of theorizing that goes on collectively in movements. That does not mean that Negri and I may not some day write such a manifesto or program and it may even do some good. I just think that a more interesting and more useful program will be the one written by the movements themselves.

GB: Thank You very much Michael for your thoughts and views, we hope that you and Antonio will keep your pencils sharp! Here with Newtopia Magazine we’ll continue to provide a forum for democratic movements to find space and opportunity to give voice to their ideas, to be shared as widely as possible. The project of the Multitude that you and Antonio have advanced through an impressive and significant contribution to political theory is a vision we all look forward to asserting itself in a true multitude of democratic forms, struggles, and passions.

Glenn Brigaldino is a specialist in international cooperation and is based in Ottawa, Canada. He is a contributing writer to Newtopia Magazine, focusing on international affairs, globalization and democracy.

Michael Hardt is Associate Professor in the Literature Program at Duke University.






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