0. Building Power

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“We are in a period where the question of organization is most centrally on the agenda.”

Spaces for the Left

Michael Hardt is an American literary theorist and political philosopher best known as co-author, with Antonio Negri, of the influential trilogy EmpireMultitude and Commonwealth. He recently sat down with ROAR editor Jerome Roos to talk about the question of organization, the idea of social unionism and the challenges and opportunities for the movements today.

ROAR: This fall marked the fourth anniversary of Occupy. In hindsight, the movement appeared like a kind of flash mob: it took everyone by surprise when it first arose, and then it quickly dissipated back into the social fabric. What do you think is the reason for this? And what is the main challenge that movements face in moving beyond this initial phase of mobilization?

Michael Hardt: I have two contradictory things to say on this. The first is that it is important to recognize all the lasting effects of Occupy: the way it transformed a very wide sector of public opinion in the United States, the way it rendered visible the situation of inequality, the role of finance, and so on. In some ways Occupy profoundly transformed economic common sense in the United States.

Events like Occupy also leave traces in the activist memory, so that the next moment always takes up where the last one left off. So it’s not simply a flash that’s then forgotten, but rather like a leap that then, after a moment of pause, takes off again with another leap from that new space. So, on the one hand, I think it’s important to articulate the profound and lasting effects of Occupy in a country like the US, and of similar movements elsewhere.

One of the most important challenges facing social movements today is how to construct continuity in time and also continuity or extension in space.

On the other hand, and maybe this is the contradictory nature of what I was going to say, I do think that one of the most important challenges facing social movements today is how to construct continuity in time and also continuity or extension in space. The restriction on Occupy has not only been temporal, in that the encampments only lasted a few months, but it has also been spatial and social —in that the occupation of a square for a few months is not like occupying the whole city, let alone the national space.

This question of expansion—also of social expansion—is one of the things that struck me when talking with activists in Turkey on the one-year anniversary of the Gezi Park encampment. Despite the fact that there were quite a few different social components involved in the movement in cities throughout Turkey, Gezi didn’t have that kind of expansion that would extend to traditional forms of labor, or towards the Turkish population as a whole. So there was a kind of social restriction also there.

These seem to me the most important organizational challenges that the movements face at present, and they are organizational challenges precisely because I don’t believe that the traditional solutions would be successful here, let alone desirable. In other words, the formation of a traditional party structure, the operation of traditional union structures—I don’t see these as solutions.

It’s not only that I don’t think these traditional solutions are desirable, that they go against some of the foundational democratic principles of the movements themselves; I also don’t think that they would work. Some of the people who propose a return to traditional party structures might say—and some of them do say—‘look, you have to accept this limitation on democratic participation because this is what it takes to be effective’—I just don’t think that’s true.

And that’s precisely why this is such a large challenge to the movements today: because the traditional solutions have been disqualified and new, effective forms of organization must be invented.

One of the ways in which contemporary movements differ from these more traditional forms of organizing is in their horizontality. You seem to be quite sympathetic towards these horizontal forms of organization, but I have also heard you highlight the need for a kind of self-critique of horizontalism. Why? What do you consider to be the main shortcomings of horizontalism, and how can we move beyond them?

Some of the obvious limitations of the forms of horizontalism that we practice so far are the ones that you mentioned in the first question: the temporal, spatial and social limitations of the movements themselves. And I guess I’m taking for granted—and I’m not sure everyone would take for granted—the desirability of the struggles to become generalized; of them not to be minority experiences but rather to invest in the entire social terrain for the long-term.

I wouldn’t say that this disqualifies horizontalism and it certainly doesn’t disqualify democracy in movements, or the construction of democratic modes of participation. But it does pose a challenge that we have to confront.

Here’s another way of approaching it: we—and I should implicate myself in this too—we have a tendency to insist on how we’re winning, to always focus in a kind of compensatory way on what’s been a success and what has potential for the future. Why do I say in a “compensatory” way? Because we’re always bombarded with the notion that we’ve failed, that nothing is possible, that nothing will work, that nothing is happening.

But while you can recognize what people are already doing, and how they are already transforming their lives, that we’re not so weak, you can also at the same time recognize the set-backs and obstacles you face—the many ways in which we’re not winning. And that’s what I mean by the need for a certain kind of self-critique of the practices of horizontalism: that we have to recognize the limitations we have encountered so far.

I don’t know what the result of that will be. I’m not someone who is sympathetic to those who would say that horizontalism has failed and therefore we need to retreat to the old forms of leadership and organization—I would argue against that solution.

We have to recognize that the traditional institutions of the left, however much we might hate or criticize them, did in many historical situations act as an effective counterpower to the ruling class.

But I do think one has to take seriously the qualities that those traditional forms of organization did carry for a while. We have to recognize that the traditional and hierarchical institutions of the left, however much we might hate them or criticize them, did in many historical situations act as an effective counterpower to the ruling class, they did operate continuously over a long period, they did bring a wide social population within.

So my reason for bringing up the traditional institutions of the left is not to say that we should return to them, but rather that we should recognize ways in which we could accomplish some of their effects by different means—maybe by horizontalism conceived or practiced somewhat differently.

I’m also not tied to horizontalism in a way that I feel dogmatic about it. If we can figure out other practices of democracy that would accomplish those results that the traditional leftist organizations achieved, that’s precisely what I have in mind for this type of self-critique.

Speaking of such alternative forms of democratic organization, maybe we could talk about the notion of “social unionism” you have been discussing within the Euronomade network of late. What is social unionism? And why does this concept gain relevance in our current context?

A starting point for me is to think of how the term social unionism has been used in the English-speaking world for the last decades, which sets up—both in a positive and in a negative sense—how we use the concept within Euronomade.

Positively, social unionism—sometimes called “social movement unionism”—was conceived in South Africa in the 1980s, and in the United States, Canada and Britain, at the moment of the decline of the traditional trade unions and as an alternative to what could be called political unionism, which meant an alliance between party and union; one in which the union took political direction from the party. Instead, social unionism was conceived as a relationship in which the trade union makes alliance with the social movements—which ends up reinvigorating both.

Social unionism is a relationship in which the trade union makes alliance with the social movements—which ends up reinvigorating both.

On one hand, in such an alliance the social movement gains the organizational structures and lasting abilities of the trade union, and on the other hand the trade union is renovated by both the expansive social issues of the social movements, moving from labor to forms of life, but also by the antagonistic methods of social movements—the forms of activism that are outside typical trade union activity.

That reasoning seems to me a positive basis for thinking of social unionism in our context today, but what seems to me fundamentally different is that the older notion of social unionism thinks of political and economic struggles as in some sense external to each other. The alliance between the trade union and the social movement is one of two separate and two differently structured organizations, whereas in the context of Euronomade we’re trying to think of social unionism as an internal relationship.

This internal relationship passes in part through the notion of the common, which has also been central to our thinking, in that struggles over the common involve both economic struggles for the re-appropriation of the means of production and also more directly political or social struggles for the transformation of modes of life.

This fits with certain theorizations of recent social movements, for instance in Turkey and Brazil, in that we can conceive of these movements as struggles for the common—or struggles over the city, really, but conceiving the city as a common space, so that the struggle over transport in Brazil or the struggle over Gezi Park are really struggles to make urban space common, to make urban life common. And because we can conceive of them as both economic struggles and as political or social struggles, this poses an internal relation to what was traditionally conceived of as an external relation.

Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has been leaving a clear mark on US politics. What do urban uprisings like the one in Ferguson last year or in Baltimore earlier this year tell us about the complex relationship between class and race in contemporary America? And where do you see this struggle going?

It’s long been true in the United States, for at least the last 150 years, that one can’t think class without thinking race, or understand racial dynamics without understanding class dynamics. One thing that Ferguson revealed was the kind of volcanic magma that’s just beneath the surface, the willingness to rebel—when the conflictuality that’s normally held in check suddenly explodes.

What isn’t very clear are the possibilities of organization. Once again, with Black Lives Matter there are all kinds of voices on the left in the United States saying that they need traditional leaders. Like they said surrounding Occupy: ‘without their Martin Luther King they’ll never amount to anything.’ And similarly with Ferguson and Baltimore there were calls for leaders in the black community to step forward, which often means religious figures like Baptist preachers.

My feeling is that this is neither desirable nor effective, and it points toward the same situation we were talking about earlier, which is that we are in need of, I wouldn’t necessarily call it new thinking about organization, but at least a recognition that we haven’t solved our problems of organization yet, and that that’s precisely what’s required at this point.

We haven’t solved our problems of organization yet, and that’s precisely what’s required at this point.

I’m not satisfied with these periodic explosions and I feel the need—and I think this is a reasonably generalized feeling—for modes of organization that both allow for democratic expression but also for the establishment of long-lasting and effective counterpowers.

The Black Lives Matter movement, like many other struggles, points towards that. I wish I were in the position to say that I had the answer, although that would also be stupid. Rather, I think the only way such problems can be resolved lies within the movements themselves, through a kind of collective theorizing that goes on over a significant period of time. I think the best we can do—as people who write about these struggles—is to recognize that we’re in a period where the question of organization is most centrally on the agenda.

Speaking of organization, what do you think of recent evolutions like the creation of Podemos in Spain? Is this simply a retreat into the old party-form, or is there something more to it?

I don’t think Podemos is just the same old party. I see Podemos, together with the municipal electoral projects of Barcelona en Comù and Ahora Madrid, as experiments by the movements with new tactics.

They are a kind of wager on the part of activists coming out of the 15-M movement to see if they can enter the field of electoral politics and preserve the aspirations and dynamism of the movements. Whether they will ultimately succeed or fail, I don’t know. Entering into electoral contests like that is always risky. If the electoral experiment fails it could be destructive for the movements, having invested so much energy in it.

On the other hand, if Podemos and the newly elected municipal governments could provide a kind of opening to the movements, that could be extremely important. It reminds me of something Deleuze said in his Abécédaire when he is asked about the left and he says: ‘there’s no such thing as a government of the left. There can be, perhaps, a government that opens spaces for the left.’

And that, I think, is what we can hope for. If we can think of Podemos as something like that, that could be a success—as long as it opens up new spaces for the movements.

Michael Hardt

Michael Hardt is a political philosopher best known as co-author, with Antonio Negri, of the influential trilogy Empire (Harvard, 2000), Multitude (Penguin, 2004), and Commonwealth (Harvard, 2009). Hardt and Negri’s new book, Assembly, will be published in 2017. He teaches in the Literature Program at Duke University.

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Magazine — Issue 11