Cross Cultural Poetics Episode #254: Commonwealth. This interview was transcribed by Holly Melgard
Leonard Schwartz: Great to have you back on the program and to have your new book Commonwealth (published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) and your soon to be published new text with Antonio Negri entitled Declaration also in hand, about which I hope we can speak. As I mentioned, this is a kind of trilogy. Your first work was Empire, the second was Multitude and now the third is Commonwealth. I wondered if you could say a little bit about the underlying architectonic of the three and where Commonwealth fits in the structure as far as your thinking is concerned?
Michael Hardt: Well, you know in some ways, calling it a “trilogy” for ourselves was a way of stopping us from writing more books like this. So unless we start something like prequels—like Star Wars would do—at least we have an end to it. But once we started calling it a “trilogy,” like you say, we did sort of create in our minds an architecture of the whole. In some ways, we considered Empire, the first of the three, to be focused primarily on the characteristics of the new global power structure. Multitude in many ways was both inspired by the alter-globalization movements and following new possibilities in the era of globalization—new possibilities of democracy, of alternatives.
As a final piece, Commonwealth is trying to articulate the notion of the common as both a perspective and an alternative, really, to the current economic and social possibilities. In some ways, “common” can be understood here as being something outside of alternatives we are otherwise presented with, which are these alternatives between private property and public property. You might say Neoliberalism focused on the role of “private property,” and some sort of Keynesian and/or Socialist solution focused on “public property” (meaning, property controlled and regulated by the state). We think of “the common” as something which is neither of those two, and which is, instead, characterized by open-access and self-management. So this might find a way outside of what seems to us to be a restrictive binary, which we’re often faced with (especially in these moments of economic crisis like we’ve had since 2008).
LS: You know, from the point of view of poetics, there is a passage in your preface that is particularly striking. You write:
Language, for example, like affects and gestures, is for the most part
common, and indeed if language were made either private or public—
that is, if large portions of our words, phrases, or parts of speech were
subject to private ownership or public authority—then language would
lose its powers of expression, creativity,and communication. (Commonwealth,ix)
Could you comment on that aspect of it? I mean, large pieces of language are lost to private ownership or public authority—but I agree with you and your point stands: if there is any common really left, it might be in the arena of language. Could you comment on whether language resists its commodification, it’s privatization and the general deprivations visited upon it? (Because, obviously you’re writing a book that is calling for the increase of the common.)
MH: Yeah, that’s exactly right I think. I guess the important point about “language” for us here—or from my perspective—is that language is creative. What one loses when either commodifying language (making language into private property, and one could even think when one says “commodified language” of advertising language or of other ways that language becomes commodified), or when language is being regulated by some public authority (such as the state)…what one loses is precisely its inventive capacities. So that’s part of our argument for the “common” throughout this. I think “language” only poses one example, but as you say, this is maybe a paradigmatic one: what we lose when we lose the common, or what we stand to gain when we make more of our lives open to this structure.
But you know, there’s another way in which language is an excellent example here, which we don’t articulate in that passage and perhaps we don’t articulate this enough in the book: once we at first celebrate the common in this way, I think it’s also good to recognize that the common is not always a beneficial and positive aspect of life. The common can also be quite negative and destructive. Language is also a realm that has, for quite a long period, carried all sorts of social hierarchies and enforced them. I mean through accents, diction, etc., language has carried with it all kinds of hierarchies that aren’t regulated either by private property or the state, but rather created through different and even previous social forms of domination. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that even while we are affirming the possibilities of “common” (upholding wealth in common for creating common structures), it’s not as if it’s as simple as, “Making things ‘common’ is the answer.” Rather, I would say that the common is a terrain on which we have to struggle, and that we have to struggle for certain forms of the common and against others. And I think your focusing on “language” is one arena in which we can see that particularly clearly.
LS: I really appreciate what you just said, Michael, because I think there has to also be a critique of the “common” just as there is a critique of populism too. Not all forms of populism are desirable, and I’m not even talking about just “vulgarization” (which is connected to the notion of “the common,” or that part of its etymology of the word), but that aspect that you were talking about: if everything becomes common, there is a risk there as well. So I appreciate the willingness to critique “common” as well as the call for the need to rethink it. You know, it seems to me philosophically the major figures in your and Antonio Negri’s book are Michel Foucault, Immanuel Kant and Spinoza. Could you say a little bit about Foucault and the notion of “power”—the way we or I or as individuals give power away as opposed to it being static/fixed in a particular place—and the connection between Foucault and the idea of what you call “biopower” in the book as a whole?
MH: One aspect of Foucault’s thinking central for us during our discussions while writing this book is expressed by a relatively simple statement he made late in his life: “Power can only be exerted over free subjects.” There are at least two things that we were reflecting on here. First, those subjected to power always have access to a margin of freedom. The exertion of power, in other words, is never complete. There is always a remainder to power. But a second element of this statement is perhaps more important and has more radical implications: the freedom of those subjects really comes first. Freedom is prior to power. The exertion of power, in other words, is always a reaction to and an attempt to contain or restrict that prior freedom of subjects. This priority of freedom to power is most evident in temporal terms (the freedom already existed) but I would say it also is an ontological claim. Free subjects are the source of creation and invention, whereas power can only react, recuperate and obstruct.
In some ways, at least in our thinking, all this is very close to central aspects of Machiavelli’s thought, namely his view that “Power is always a relationship. Power is not a thing.” And so, what that means is that those over whom power is “held” always have the ability to refuse and overthrow and undermine it. That’s what it means, in a way, to say, “Power is always a relationship, not a thing.”
So Foucault helped us think through these questions about power. We do say in the preface that we think of the book as working toward an ethics of freedom, trying to think about the possibilities of freedom in these relationships of power, a very Foucaultian project…That does sound very abstract, but—
LS: —Well, no, I think it’s intriguing to think about just the way you put it: “power” as a “relationship.” As well, you cite Machiavelli behind Foucault in terms of thinking of “power” as a “relation,” and I think there’s a clear relationship to Italian philosophy in general in the book. With your co-author Negri being an Italian philosopher, I guess the two points I wanted to make there are: (1) You go on in those early chapters also to make a technical point about Kant that sometimes is overlooked, distinguishing the “transcendent” (being a kind of power that is not a relationship but a thing) and the “transcendental” (the desirable aspect of Kant’s thinking, where we have the ability to detach from the immediate in order to produce a critique of the immediacy of things), and the ability to abstract from experience on some level. So the abstraction is crucial to the book and crucial to the task of thinking about power as opposed to being overpowered.
One question I have for you stylistically, and maybe it relates to the relationship to both Foucault and Kant, is the way you use the personal pronoun “we” in the book. Does “we” refer to you and Antonio? Does the “we” refer to a larger collective you might see yourself as not speaking for but speaking with (as the book is arguing against, as does Declaration, the idea of a kind of leadership figure)? The question of “we” in writing is always a kind of problematic, particularly if it is a relationship of power. I wondered if you could say a bit about your use of “we” in the book.
MH: It’s difficult. I think that in the most immediate, we are thinking “we” as the two of us, and I’m quite sure that with the writings in our book, it’s partly the nature of how collaborations are. What happens in at least our collaboration, and maybe others too, is that a lot of the writing is really about the conversations between us. We’re not even thinking about some ideal or concrete readers—we’re really thinking about each other. I think that the “we” is often for us internal to that dialogue. In working through our differences, sometimes obviously we see things differently. In fact, I think more often than “we see things differently,” we sometimes don’t understand what the other person is trying to say. That happens not that infrequently you know, and I think we even have a sort of unspoken rule: you can ask three times “What does that mean,” and on the third time, if you still don’t get it you just let it go. And then it’s like, “Ok, it stands. You know, I tried. We both tried.” And so I guess what I’m trying to say is that the “we” is the fruit of the negotiation, and that the writing process is a kind of incitement that we experience together. Sometimes with negotiations (and I really think this is true)…very seldom do we find ourselves having different opinions, but often, if not frequently, we find ourselves not being able to understand each other. I mean, sometimes I find I can’t understand myself, so it’s not all that strange that part.
But I suppose there is another element to the “we,” which you were also suggesting, which I would like to think of as an invitation: I don’t think we’re the only ones that think this way, and you’re right, we’re very reluctant (but also careful not to pretend we’re) speaking for others, but there’s no need to fool ourselves in thinking we’re the only ones thinking this way. In fact, I would say a lot of what we learn is that the books are a fruit of not only conversations with each other but also learning from social movements that have been going on in the last ten years. In some ways, I think the “we” springs from that also. Maybe I’m now onto a third point—that “we” is partly that relationship with various groups of activists in different countries that we have relationships with and to whom we’re speaking. So, it’s not as simple as I first would have pictured it. It became more complicated.
LS: Yeah, I think it is a fluid “we” reading the book—a “fluent we,” as opposed to a “fluid wee” in that sense as well. It intrigued me to think through the compositional overflow and strategy vis-à-vis the pronoun we—and we’ve discussed this in the past— because of two points: (1) I think philosophizing as two is intriguing to think about. We think of the philosopher as a solitary mind or solitary thinker and here you and Negri are creating a work of political philosophy between the two of you as the fruit of a dialogue or a negotiation as you described it. But also: (2) We’ve discussed this in the past, that there’s a concept of love in this book; there is a desire to reclaim love as a political concept, a political or productive idea or expression throughout the book. You have a chapter entitled “De Singularite 1: Of Love Possessed,” where you write:
Love is productive in a philosophical sense too—productive of being.
When we engage in the production of subjectivity that is love, we are
not merely creating new objects or even new subjects in the world.
Instead we are producing a new world or new social life. (Commonwealth, 181)
Can you say a little bit about the political concept of “love” that you and Negri and your loving dialogues are constructing in this book? Any time you say “we,” you must love the others in that group too at some level.
MH: Right, I think so. Well first, a way that might make sense more immediately is how Spinoza defines “love.” He’s always very simple in all his definitions, but “love” is the recognition of the increase of my power with the recognition of an external cause. So I love that external cause, which makes me more powerful—both more powerful to act and to think. This might sound obscure when I say it that way, but you know we often find that in the company of (and in conversations with) certain people, we are more intelligent. In being with them, my power to think actually rises. I think what you were saying about “dialogue” and the “fruit of the collaboration” is true—I think together with Tony, but also we know other people too. And I’m sure you have this experience too, that with certain people, part of what one can understand with “love” is that, with them, I have a greater power to think.
The power to act might also then give us an entry into thinking about politics. Love could be conceived in this way: the political concept of “love” (at least in the Spinozan approach to it) as a relationship is a way in which we have greater power to act politically. I mean, I’ve often felt—and I remember us talking about this before—that activists, especially a younger generation than me, feel quite comfortable with this kind of discussion and they identify with it. And I think that the lives of activists, in the actual and practical work that they do, is recognizing that a political love is characterized by this (increasing the power to act together with these others). I think that Spinoza would say that we together compose a new body in that internal relationship among us.
LS: Last time we spoke about the concept of love, and at that time, you spoke—or perhaps we spoke about “love” as “hemmed in.” On the one hand, the Freudian concept of “love” is the notion of “trapped in family” or “family romance.” On the other hand, the concept of “love” is “hemmed in” or “trapped by” Platonic notions of the idealized “object of love” the “otherworldliness” of “love.” So, it’s intriguing for me to read the new book and see that Spinoza, for you here, is the way out of that trap! Indeed:
For Spinoza, in other words, love is a production of the common that constantly aims upward, seeking to create more with ever more power, up to the point of engaging in the love of God, that is, the love of nature as a whole, the common in its most expansive figure. Every act of love, one might say, is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with existing being and creates new being, from poverty through love to being. Being, after all, is just another way of saying what is ineluctably common, what refuses to be privatized or enclosed and remains constantly open to all. (There is no such thing as a private ontology.) To say love is ontologically constitutive, then, simply means that it produces the common. (Commonwealth, 181)
So, the notion of “being” in a philosophical sense, it is argued, is equivalent to the idea of the “common,” to that which we have in common—that which is. Spinoza provides a way of thinking about love as a form of productive power. I want to ask you more about Spinoza as a philosophical source.
MH: Spinoza is a difficult one to use in a way, because you know it’s really not ascetic, though his work feels ascetic at first (he distills his definitions and formulations to a minimum—they seem austere). Because of that austerity and rigorous simplicity, it’s extremely difficult for people to enter into Spinozan thought. I mean, reading The Ethics is a project. It’s not like something you can just pick up. So then drawing on it, we have found that it can be difficult not to put off readers with the obscurity and austerity of it. And yet, once you enter into it, and the kind of thinking we were just trying to work through in the passage that you just read, it’s anything but austere. I find it is, in some ways, the most sensuous and passionate of philosophical paradigms. In fact, this is something I’m trying to work through right now: the contrast between a seeming austerity and a deep sensuousness or passion is a quality that’s perhaps characteristic of Spinoza’s work. But all that takes a bit of excavation and working through that for non-specialist and/or people completely unfamiliar with his thought—as I think most of our readers are—is sometimes tricky.
LS: I can certainly say that opened up Spinoza for me. In a way I always found him sort of forbidding and austere. The great American poet Louis Zukofsky draws so deeply from Spinoza, and I never did really feel like I got it up until I started reading your book—which is not exclusively a commentary on Spinoza to be sure, but it did certainly open up some air and light for me, in terms of going back and trying to look through those texts.
Hey Michael, I have a completely different/related question, but it sounds different. Can you tell us a little bit about the difference between the bees and the wasps?
MH: Well I was intrigued by this passage that Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze were intrigued by too: they were intrigued by what Guattari read—that certain wasps pseudo-copulate with certain orchids so that the orchid takes the form and shape of the genitals of wasps, and the wasps think or act as if…I don’t know what they think. So, he was intrigued to think about “love” in this way and that’s what brought us to this passage. He was intrigued by it in a way that separated “love” from the kinds of strictures that you were mentioning a little earlier. It seemed to him like an image of cruising, kinds of non-reproductive sex acts, these sorts of things that he was partly titillated by. But it was a kind of non-productivity/non-re-productivity that I think fascinated Guattari, and then together with Deleuze, they were writing about it.
What Tony and I were trying to reflect on was the relationship between this and a number of bee narratives. Bees are really central and political in the history of European and political philosophy (from Adam Smith, who takes it from Bernard Mandeville, etc.). Most of the European philosophers, especially of economic thought, have some relationship to bees—for the division of labor and their productive qualities. And in some ways, what we were working through was the contrast between the productivism and the unproductive character of bees. I wouldn’t call it “refusal of work”—this relationship between the wasp and the orchid. Eventually, we came to propose that maybe a wasp and an orchid’s relationship could be a model for thinking about love. It gets outside of some of the cloisters or blinders in which both productivity and certain love relationships are enclosed.
LS: Yeah, so bees only do it with bees, which is ever always “love of the same,” and wasps at least try to do it with orchids, and that’s “the love of the other” or the “love of the stranger,” right?
MH: Yeah! I think that’s also certainly what Guattari is trying to get at. Sometimes these examples…I mean I felt we—
LS: —Wasps take so much grief. You know, I think this is really great: WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) and insects—they take so much grief! This is really a redeeming moment for them by way of you and Guattari—so, wasp celebration! Celebrate the wasp!
LS: About the book, Fredrick Jameson has written:
Commonwealth, last and richest of the Empire trilogy, is a powerful and ambitious reappropriation of the whole tradition of political theory for the Left. Clarifying Foucault’s ambiguous notion of biopower, deepening the authors’ own proposal for the notion of multitude, it offers an exhilarating summa of the forms and possibilities of resistance today. It is a politically as well as an intellectually invigorating achievement.
Michael, we’re talking about Spinoza and bees and wasps. I also want to talk about some of the formulations toward the later half of the book that related to Antonio Gramsci. You talk about the difference between armed struggle and a war of positionality, which is what we do as cultural workers—produce images and works that try and reshape the discourse in such a way as to change the way in which power flows. Could you say a little bit about Gramsci and the way you play certain things out—certain proposals and certain suggestions in Gramsci—in terms of your thinking about a biopolitical diagram?
MH: Well, in Gramsci’s term, “war of position,” Gramsci is of course thinking about trench warfare during World War I. He’s distinguishing a war of maneuver, especially an attack (“frontal attack”) from a “war of position,” where the trenches might gain a better vantage or relationship to each other. But, as you say, the way Gramsci then thinks the “war of position” is one in where you don’t conduct a direct political action, but rather you change the playing field—you change the cultural environment. Sorry if that gets us to a different kind of metaphor, but I think an excellent contemporary example of that is the way that Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy discourses of the past year have very successfully changed a public discussion about inequality. Many are often frustrated that the Occupy movement doesn’t have many concrete successes, and in fact it had very few demands that would actually lead to concrete successes.
But, one way one could undoubtedly recognize the success of it is the way discussions of economic and social inequality in the U.S. were transformed quite radically by the movement. Across the political spectrum, the discussion about wealth and equality (the 99%, etc.) has been radically transformed. So in a “war of position,” that’s what happens—we move not by any sort of direct political action but by recasting the field. You said “we as cultural workers” are often engaged in that, and I think you’re absolutely right. That is an important recognition: political achievements are often and maybe even most importantly achieved by reframing the discussion rather than by some more “direct” or “overt” achievement.
LS: Yeah, I think so. I think we kind of know as professors, and I think journalists and people who work with language know this too: whoever is asking the questions is shaping the possible answers in the discussion. So to ask certain questions or to produce a book that asks certain questions in a suggestive and powerful enough way that people want to respond to those questions or, to provide, if not answers, then at least responses to those questions, does begin to reshape the field—not necessarily the “playing field” (although it could be) but the “field,” as you put it. That does bring us right into your and Negri’s new work that to is to be published very shortly, Declaration. I do want to talk about your reflections and comments on the Occupy movement, on the Arab Spring, on the developments in the last year that you talk about in the book, but I would be remiss if I didn’t again cite your last chapter, “Instituting Happiness,” where you cite Spinoza:
We still don’t know, Spinoza says, what a body can do and a mind can think. And we will never know the limits of their powers. The path of joy is constantly to open new possibilities, to expand our field of imagination, our abilities to feel and be affected, our capacities for action and passion. In Spinoza’s thought, in fact, there is a correspondence between our power to affect (our mind’s power to think and our body’s power to act) and our power to be affected. The greater our mind’s ability to think, the greater its capacity to be affected by the ideas of others; the greater our body’s ability to act, the greater its capacity to be affected by other bodies. And we have greater power to think and to act, Spinoza explains, the more we interact and create common relations with others. Joy, in other words, is really the result of joyful encounters with others, encounters that increase our powers and the institution of these encounters such that they last and repeat. (Commonwealth, 379)
It’s a great passage, and it does I think really bring us to your new work Declaration in which you are writing in the first chapter at least about everything that stands in the way of everything described in that last passage. The way subjectivity is interrupted by new forms of subjectivity in these four figures: you call them the “indebted,” the “mediatized,” the “securitized,” and the “represented.” I wondered if you could talk about the first two of those figures, the “indebted” and the “mediatized,” and the clash between those stances—those statuses, and the concept of subjectivity in this passage.
MH: It seems here, what we’re trying to figure out are ways in the current crisis (the current crisis is not just an economic but also a social one) that the “we” has become generalized. (Yes, and I’ll say this “we” is a much more general we, since you’ve made me more self-conscious of this.) These forms of impoverished subjectivity or disempowered subjectivity are the figure of the “indebted” today. In the U.S. and elsewhere—in the sense that almost everyone has to become “indebted”—you have to become indebted to go to school, to get commodities, to get health care. Almost everything you do, you have to become “indebted.” It’s not just a periodic debt, like you go into debt and then you’re going to get out. Rather, it’s becoming a permanent condition—a condition of “indebtedness.” What we were then trying to think through was, “What are the disabling aspects of that subjectivity of the ‘indebted.’” It had to do partly with the immediate hierarchies that are involved and the ways that societies get divided by creditors and debtors. I think that already, as I was saying a little earlier, that one of the great successes of the Occupy movement in the US is to make more socially visible the kinds of hierarchies of debt and social inequalities that are associated with debt. But debt also has many other, let’s say, “debilitating” functions. Nietzsche thinks of modern society as based fundamentally on debt—so it’s no coincidence that in German the word “debt” and the word “guilt” are one.
I would say that there is a moralism to debt also (but of course in English we don’t have the same word for it). I think that there is a moralism combined with a work ethic because when you’re indebted (like for education), you have to not only work, you have to take the first job possible. Like for instance, the students who go to law school who, of course with the enormous debts they incur when they go to school, can’t get out and do pro-bono work for poor people or some other kind of job. They have to take the kind of job that is going to pay back their debt. And even more generally, in some ways I’d say we’re shifting from a society of welfare to a society of debtfare. The things that welfare had provided—housing, health, education—are now all provided individually through debt. And so the argument goes that this increasing prevalence of debt is a characteristic that disempowers us.
Similarly, there’s a certain lament about the “mediatized” that I think is partly true. I’m suspicious that there’s a certain lament about being “mediatized” that goes something like this: “We recognize that the more deeply media enters into our lives, the more shallow our experiences, so that the depth that had been the practice of writing a letter and mailing a letter and receiving a letter and reading it are all thinned by the rapidity and brevity of email.” Or that, “The practice of ‘friending’ has really thinned the previous experiences and complexities of friendship.” Or even that, “The narrating of one’s life that one does continually on Facebook thins the experience of previous experiences of narrating your life.”
So I think that’s one way of being “mediatized”—but we’re more concerned actually with not only the fact of the media (because that’s what we wouldn’t want to refuse: the fact of our engagement with new forms of social media and others, and the internet more generally). Rather, we’re concerned with the qualities of communication that need to be discovered (and it seems in a way disempowering), so that there’s a different communication. In both cases, we find that there’s a different “indebtedness”: a kind of indebtedness to each other—even bonds with each other, rather than the kinds of financial bonds under which we suffer. And here’s a different kind of communication both using new technologies and not, which can be discovered. In some ways that the movements beginning in 2011 can open for us, in order to transform the disempowered forms of subjectivity under which so many of us now suffer, the practices of these social movements offer a means for inverting them—like I say, by creating their opposite. They are empowered figures.
LS: In Commonwealth, I was struck by your quote from Hölderlin’s poem “Patmos”: “Where there is danger / The rescue grows as well.” In that there is this notion that, built into those poisonous aspects of certain structures, there is a remedy for those poisons, but here specifically I’m thinking about the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street (and so on). Over and against how The New York Times is always talking about how important Twitter and the Internet and Facebook were for the Arab Spring, the suggestion in your book is really about actual people and actual places encountering one another in the flesh and in person. That is a kind of triumph over the kind of alienating aspect of electronic media. Without being nostalgic in wanting to destroy the Internet, or thinking we can’t function without it, there is built into such movements the desire for personhood, the body and the flesh. I appreciated that in your analysis and discussion of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.
When you talk about the “mediatized,” you also have a passage where you talk about the way in which: “Watching the evening news is enough to make you afraid to go outside: reports of children kidnapped from supermarket isles, terrorist bombing plots, psycho-killers in the neighborhood, and more” (Declaration). This made me think about the poet Kenny Goldsmith, who does a very interesting piece that’s kind of like Duchamp’s taking a toilet bowl and putting it into a museum, except he does it with language. For one piece, he took twenty-four hours worth of traffic reports from WINS radio in New York, and then just read that in a different context (at the Museum of Modern Art), wherein you hear that even the most quotidian of media language is filled with the language of fear: “It’s the usual Sunday evening massacre at the Cross Bronx Expressway, etc.” In this context, you don’t hear it as violent or as “fear of the other,” because it’s a traffic report. It’s just the noise in the background in the car—that is where you’re getting your information. But when one hears it out of that context, one realizes, “Ah, everyone is in everyone else’s way as they commute home from work.” There’s the language of massacre embedded in the description of a traffic flow. So I’m wondering if you could say more about “mediatization,” because it does pertain directly to the question of “language” that we started off with.
MH: What you’re just referring to also refers to our being embedded in the security regime, and the way that the fear created by that positions us in a really false notion of security. That kind of fear is not only created by the media, because fear is at the root of accepting a security regime that functions to surveil us in all kinds of ways and also invokes us as its actors. And once one experiences the kind of fear you’re talking about, once one is not only willing to undergo all kinds of surveillance, but also to be the watch guard and look for suspicious activity of your seat-mate on the airplane and report the suspicious car in the neighborhood, etc….that entire cycle of pseudo-security that circulates through fear is another aspect (I would say) that characterizes our impoverishment and our lack of power. It would be another aspect of contemporary subjectivity that would have to be overturned, mainly by finding ways to overcome that fear, to discover a different form of security. Like the encampment in Tahrir Square that I probably don’t understand: if you remember, there was one very spectacular day during the eighteen days of the encampment of that square, when those in the square were beaten spectacularly by thugs in the regime who came spectacularly by horses and even on camel. And what was remarkable was that the next day, for those who were camped in Tahrir Square, their slogan for the day was, “We’re no longer afraid.” That to me seems to be a remarkable achievement. It’s not that kind of heroic, Che-Guevara, I-have-no-fear, faith-in-my-death-because-I-know-someone-will-rise-again. Rather, it’s that lack of fear that the fact of not being afraid precisely comes from—that being together in the square is a product of the kind of communication and composition that is achieved in a kind of encampment. And that was repeated in Madrid later. In fact, those occupying the central squares in Spain starting on the 15th of May in 2011 were, in many ways, inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. One of their mottos too was “We have no fear.” In fact, in Spain more than in the US…I would say this was ripe in many European countries. The social movement predecessors had often involved what I call “cliché violence” (you know, fighting with the cops, breaking Starbucks windows, that sort of thing) but there was none of that in the 15th of May encampments. To explain why there was no violence, they would say, “Well, we’re no longer afraid.”
So this is what I’m trying to work with: in some ways fear is the root of our acceptance of a security regime, and what the encampments seem to discover, perhaps more seriously, is a real security that involves banishment of fear—not in recklessness but in the kind of security found in being together. But, by proposing an agenda, how can we exit from fear and construct a real security—one which would be nothing like the security we’re constantly being fed and bombarded with?
LS: That’s very moving. Michael. I wonder if there’s any level at which you might also offer a critique of, say, Occupy Wall Street. I noticed you using the term “encampment” as opposed to the word “occupation,” and language is never innocent. I’ve thought several times that it’s a shame that the word is “occupation,” because you think of occupying the West Bank, you think of the U.S. occupation of Iraq—“occupation” is not a neutral term. There was the comedian the other day who was saying it’s a sign that Americans are really out of shape: “in the ‘60’s people used to march and today people occupy.” But beyond that, you did began by saying the common isn’t always desirable, and I wondered if there was implicit in your choice of words—“encampment” over “occupation”—a critique of the way in which this has been “framed” (in Gramsci’s sense).
MH: The first thing that seems important to Tony and I is that one needs to recognize that it didn’t begin in September in Zuccotti Park. That it is a continuation of a cycle of events that started elsewhere. There are many different ways one can trace these things, but our perspective sees it as a cycle that begins in Tunisia and is translated across North Africa, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria in very different ways, but that it also makes the leap to Europe in the Spanish encampments in May seems central to us. Also, for similar encampments in the major square in Athens (Syntagma Square, which faces the Greek Parliament) or of course the tents in Tel Aviv in the summer (for which, if it was called an “occupation,” it wouldn’t have succeeded in existing), they were much more drawing on Tahrir at that point. In some ways, by the time Zuccotti Park was occupied, they had the whole year at their backs. I think that…but I don’t mean this in any way to deflate the accomplishments of Occupy Wall Street. Rather, this is to understand them in a context in which I think that many of the activists involved in the Wall Street “occupation” were explicitly thinking of. And thinking of the lessons and tactics and aspirations of the previous encampments of the year, of course their aspirations have to be translated into radically different contexts. The struggle against the tyrant in Egypt becomes the struggle against the tyranny of finance, which is a very different thing of course. And yet, the encampment, the general assembly, the organization of the square, the negotiation of differences, the horizontal modes of organization without centralized leadership and spokespeople—these are all very recognizable practices that are adapted and translated for each local situation.
So, in part, I think what you’re picking up is a wanting to expand the focus and not think of the Occupy movement as strictly a U.S. phenomenon. Often it even seems to be presented as something that was born in Wall Street and then went everywhere else. But to see it in a larger context puts one in dialogue with these other encampments of the year.
LS: Absolutely. Your book Declaration does that work of trying to look at the inner historical logic of events that, even without thinking it through, you can see have to be related at some level. Trying to think out how they are related and how the dissatisfactions, unrest and movements from Tunisia to Zuccotti Park are somehow related, it’s also clear in your book where your sympathies lie. You write that some of the more traditional political thinkers and organizers on the left are displeased or at least weary of the 2011 cycle of struggles. And you respond:
We need to empty the churches of the Left even more, and bar their doors, and burn them down! These movements are powerful not despite their lack of leaders but because of it. They are organized horizontally as multitudes, and their insistence on democracy at all levels is more than a virtue but a key to their power. (Declaration 107)
So it’s clear that there’s an argument for, in Kantian terms, an almost transcendental (as opposed to transcendent) logic running through mass movements. “Mass” is not a term you use. You use the term “common”—but for the birth of the commoner and the common (that you see happening in 2011 specifically), where would that leave us? Where does that leave you and Antonio Negri in terms of your writing? What seems the next important thing to write?
MH: We’re certainly in a period where we are quite inspired by and learning a great deal from not only the practices of movement but also the kind of theorizing and concepts that are being produced in movements. One of the insistences of this pamphlet of Declaration is that the movements have to eventually progress towards the construction of lasting and durable alternatives. We pose this in terms of the language of constitution, even thinking analogically with the US, although being very different terms in some ways: moving from “declaration” to “constitution,” moving from what I think they’ve done so far—this is partly what we argue in this pamphlet. So far, they’ve been good at declaring new truths about the world, but not yet at organizing these in a new social formation. I mean, encampments have been very good at organizing a square but not a society. That seems to us not in the mode of predicting but certainly in the mode of telling them what we think they should do. But the next logical step seems to be one of constitution and of discovering ways of expanding the forms of democracy practice in miniature—the kinds of relationships that people have discovered in encampments, and generalizing the mechanisms for having them move outward to society as a whole.
Michael Hardt is the chair of the Literature Program at Duke University. He is co-author with Antonio Negri of Declaration as well as the Empire trilogy (Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth). He currently serves as editor of The South Atlantic Quarterly.