Michael Hardt on Leaderless Movements and Organizing The Multitude

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We spoke with political philosopher and literary theorist Michael Hardt about his latest book Assembly, wherein he and Antonio Negri argue that three paths—exodus, antagonistic reformism, and hegemonic transformation—can work hand in hand to empower the working class, and that in a time of the decentralization of leadership new forms of collective organization and decision-making are needed to achieve democracy.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: In Assembly you discuss how the position of leadership has undergone internal attacks in the last fifty years in the name of antiauthoritarianism and democracy. You argue that critiquing leadership alone is not sufficient however, especially if there’s a refusal of organization and institution. You suggest that what is needed instead is a reversal of roles between the multitude and the leadership. Can you describe what you mean by a reversal of roles? What does leadership within the multitude look like?

MH: I think that my coauthor Toni and I are saying something that all activists are thinking, which is on the one hand, movements today need to refuse traditional models of leadership and centralized decision-making, but on the other hand, absolute horizontality, or the refusal of leadership that also means the refusal of organization, is also something that we’re working against. So this formula that Toni and I have, of an inversion of strategy and tactics, is just a way of saying that those are not our only alternatives. In the conventional, traditional liberation movements and revolutionary movements in the 20th century, strategy was assumed to be the responsibility of leaders, or of a leadership council, or even sometimes a single leader—strategy meaning long-term planning, thinking about the global process, posing substantial goals, and deciding what’s most important. Whereas tactics were thought to be the responsibility of the grassroots, of everyone—tactics meaning very local decision-making, restricted decision-making about specific things. Our thinking is that instead of just a refusal of leadership completely, this inversion poses a framework for accomplishing what we want. Strategy should be the responsibility of everyone, of the multitude. And there are certain limited things that leadership is important for. Here’s an example: at any demonstration, any responsible demonstration, there have to be some people who have a special role of paying attention to where the police are, to where the demonstration should shift to, what to do when people get arrested, these are things that have to be decided quickly, but they have a limited scope. That’s one way of thinking about a tactical leadership, that’s something that we already do all of the time. The other thing I want to emphasize is this is by no means a solution—it’s the framework for thinking about a solution. And another way of thinking about it might be as a framework for understanding what activists and movements are already doing, a way of framing the direction that we’re already moving towards.

MFU: In the recent response to toxic smoke filling the streets of San Francisco from the California wildfires, we saw that relief efforts were led by organized resistance movements, with the DSA leading the disaster relief effort supplying masks and water. What is the responsibility of the multitude to own these efforts ourselves as opposed to waiting on elected officials?

MH: Yeah it seems like a phenomenon a lot like Occupy Sandy, and the ways that Occupy Wall Street were shifted after the hurricane to self-organized relief efforts. I think that those kinds of things are super important and inspiring. What they can’t be is one-off events. Because what’s required is not only organization, but institution. It’s of course great to organize in a disaster to help people when they’re in need, but that has to also have a longevity to it.

MFU: You discuss the concept of taking power from below, and also the idea that taking power does not mean taking power as it is, but that taking power requires transforming power. Can you talk about power from below and what it means to start with the multitude to redefine power through struggle and resistance?

MH: In some ways here we’re just starting from the obvious point, or it seems obvious to us maybe, that on the one hand we don’t want to take power if that just means changing the people who are occupying the seats of decision-making—some different people might be better at it, that’s of course true, but we have higher ambitions than that. On the other hand, we don’t want to refuse the possibility of taking control of the most important social aspects. Part of a process of transformation, of liberation, of revolution, does have to involve that highest level of power. So here again it seems that we’re just refusing two extremes, but they seem to us to often be presented as if they’re the only choices. We’re refusing that the structures of power have to remain the same, that all we can change is who controls them; and we’re refusing the idea that we don’t want power, that it’s a matter of changing the world without taking power. We think that there’s an alternative which has to involve transforming the structures of power itself. One way of thinking about it is power from below, or transforming power from below. Here we’re citing a number of projects that use this same formulation. The Zapatistas have always used that formulation—from below—and feminist and anti-racist theories have long-talked about how knowledge production by the subordinated is a fuller knowledge than that of the dominant. So these are both ways of thinking, in terms of knowledge and also in terms of political capacities, that coming from below or addressing power from below is itself going to be transformative.

MFU: You touched on this just now but I wonder if you can speak more about those below having a “fuller knowledge of the social whole.”

MH: Maybe the first step is to valorize the kinds of knowledges that are produced, not only from those below, but from struggle. There is a tradition that weighs on us that views intellectuals as thinking and activists as acting, as if there were this strict division of labor. It seems to me that very important forms of knowledge are produced in struggle itself. There’s a kind of theorizing that goes on in movements and in struggle, a kind of knowledge production. I think the kinds of knowledges that are produced in universities and other intellectual institutions are important, but there is, especially in political terms, not only a different quality, I think a superiority to, the kinds of knowledges that are produced in struggle. And this notion of the fuller and superior nature of the knowledge produced from below, like I said, has a long 20th century tradition. There’s some aspects of Du Bois’s double consciousness that really indicates a superiority. James Baldwin also talks about this superiority and the greater nature of African Americans’ knowledge with respect to white Americans’ knowledge. Feminist standpoint theory in the 1980s was all about that notion, of the standpoint from below as one that’s superior. I guess all that I’m saying, I don’t need to completely undermine any originality that we have, but I guess I would like to indicate a sort of tradition that this kind of thinking already fits within.

MFU: You write that entrepreneurship “belongs to the multitude, and names the multitude’s capacities for cooperative social production and reproduction.” Can you talk about claiming this word for the multitude?

MH: Toni and I do a lot of work to take back concepts that have been part of liberation and revolutionary traditions and that have been co-opted by the right or by a certain kind of liberalism. The concept of democracy seems important to us. The notion of revolution itself gets co-opted, so that, I don’t know, every new ad by Apple seems to be a revolution or something. We’ve spent a lot of energy trying to take back the vocabulary that seems important to us. With entrepreneurship, in some ways we’re doing the opposite operation. Entrepreneurship was not a revolutionary concept, it was a capitalist concept from its inception, but in some ways it seems to us that it’s worth taking over. Of course I know all the horrible things that goes with the ideology of entrepreneurship today. Entrepreneurship often just means that there’s no help for people, that there’s no social subsidies. In a university, when they start telling you to be entrepreneurial it means they’re going to cut your funding and force you to raise money yourself, so I know how neoliberal ideology functions through entrepreneurship. But I nonetheless think that it actually names well the kinds of organizational projects that movements today construct; they involve a kind of entrepreneurship. Toni and I have been interested in how the concept of entrepreneurship was really a kind of taking over of the notion of cooperation that has seemed so important to us. So you can think of entrepreneurship in that way too, as instituting forms of cooperation. And you know, entrepreneurship, an enterprise, is really a daring endeavor, a daring endeavor that institutes forms of cooperation. That’s the way we think of entrepreneurship, and the way it names some of the most exciting political projects that have been going on in recent years.

MFU: What are some of the promising modes of organization you’ve seen emerging or that you can envision emerging?

MH: There’s one type of project that moves in this direction today, that moves from social movements to some form of electoral project. In Spain there is Podemos, at the national level, and the municipal government of Barcelona. Both of them take off from or ride on the backs of the social movements of 2011, and the ones that came after that, the so-called Indignados, the occupations, the encampments, these in some ways were electoral recuperations of the energies of the movements. And so the questions then for each of these projects are: to what extent were the movements really making decisions about these political projects and how much of this is merely using the movements for traditional electoral gains? To the extent that these are projects of governing, like in Barcelona, to the extent they’re doing that in a way that gives the power to the movements, that allows the decision-making to be done collectively and democratically, then they do seem to me like real transformations and something particularly exciting. So in that regard, one could ask to what extent was the Bernie campaign a transformation of electoral processes that gave power to the movements, and how much of it was, let’s say, taking advantage of the energies and desires that had been born from the movements, and transforming them into an electoral project. It seemed clear to me at the time, and maybe this is obvious enough for everyone, that Bernie wouldn’t have been possible without Occupy. In some ways Bernie was a mouthpiece for many of the things that had been worked out through Occupy—the theme of inequality, specific things about student loans, healthcare. These were all things that had been formulated within Occupy and then the Bernie campaign wonderfully put these in the electoral process. But like I said the question I would have for the process would be: how much is this a recuperation of the energy of the movements and how much of it is actually giving power to the movements? That’s what would really interest me, an electoral project that is able to give the decision-making process over to the multitude.

MFU: In Assembly you discuss three paths to empower the working class: exodus, antagonistic reformism, and hegemonic transformation. There are many differing opinions on the Left as to which path to take. Can you briefly describe each one and why you advocate for a blend of all three.

MH: These in some ways define the primary strategies and arguments over strategies on the left. Our view is that each of these strategies is both appealing and in some ways seem to have been proven a failure. The first one is about prefigurative political projects, which have defined a lot of U.S. activism for at least the last two decades and probably more. The limitations of prefigurative projects are obvious, and it’s often about their scale and duration. It’s difficult to live in an encampment for weeks on end, and it’s also difficult to transform the beautiful and democratic social relations that have been constructed in an encampment to the social whole. The second one, about antagonistic reformism, is not just a matter of entering into the existing institutions, it would have to require entering into the institutions in order to change them, not just to create a new party but to create a new party that can transform the entire governmental process, to transform it from within. The limitations for this, now I’m just speaking from common knowledge, are that those who enter into these institutions often get lost in them, or the offices turn out to be bigger than them, or the institutions are strong enough so that they can’t transform them. So antagonistic reformism turns out often just to be a kind of reproduction of power. That in some ways is similarly a common limitation of the notion of hegemonic transformation, or taking power itself. Like I said earlier, the danger with this is that it simply means replacing those in power and not transforming the power relations themselves. In some ways that was a lot of the debate around the so-called progressive governments in Latin America from the previous decade, from 2000-2010, the extent to which the progressive leaders in power were actually transforming institutions and the extent to which they were occupying them differently. And so Toni and I, after running through each of these and showing their limitations or insufficiencies, rather than just throwing our hands up in frustration, we tried to think of ways that the three need not be exclusive but can function together. What comes to my mind each time I think about putting these three together is something that Gilles Deleuze, the french philosopher, said in a video interview that he did. In the interview the interviewer gives him a word for each letter of the alphabet and he’s supposed to say something about the word. So they arrive at g and the interviewer chooses gauche, meaning the left, and Deleuze’s first response, which was useful for me, was there is no such thing as a government of the left, there can only be a government that gives space to the left. I like this response because if you just took the first clause, it might say that the left is against government, that we should refuse all relationship to state power or to governmental structures, but it’s the second clause that makes it more interesting, which is there is a utility in having that power and opening a space for the movements. That’s what he means by there is a government that can give space to the left. So if we think about this notion, about a way of evaluating these projects to take state power, it’s not just a matter of taking power, and it’s not the government itself that is the revolutionary project, it’s that the government can give space to the revolution, and evaluate them on that scale, to give space to prefigurative experiments, to give space to antagonistic and transformative processes. That’s at least a model for thinking about the way that these three strategies need not be exclusive for one another, but might work hand in hand.

MFU: You wrote that “searching for the bases of new democratic forms of political and institutional organization, begin by investigating the cooperative networks that animate the production and reproduction of social life.” Can you say more about this?

MH: Toni and I are those kinds of Marxists, like Marx himself, that believe that capitalist society not only oppresses and exploits us but also gives us or allows for the development of weapons that can be used against capital itself. Marx and Engels in the Manifesto have that lovely image of capital creating its own gravediggers. So in one sense then we not only need to critique capitalist relations, work relations, finance, etc., we also have to recognize the ways capitalist society creates the means of overthrowing capital, and the means of constructing an alternative. What seems to me and Toni to be emerging as ever-more central are the cooperative networks of constructing social relations. This is part of capitalist production itself; it happens often in ways that are super exploitative, and oppressive, but nonetheless could be used otherwise. And so it’s looking for the modes of cooperation that are within capitalist society today that could be repurposed. One of the examples (it’s not representative but it’s a useful example anyway) is about the kind of production done by hospice nurses, or healthcare workers in general. A hospice nurse is supposed to help someone during the last six months of their life. A hospice nurse does a lot of material things like stitch wounds, take care of medication, change bedpans, but what they mostly do is create and maintain social relations, affective relations, like managing family and friendship networks. Now it’s not liberatory in itself, hospice nurses don’t really get together with other hospice nurses, it’s not that this is a kind of immediate liberation. What we’re looking for in this, and this is true of many other kinds of work today, are the qualities or the kinds of cooperation and production of social relations that could be used as a weapon, could be used as a means of social transformation. Ok, I’m sure this doesn’t sound very revolutionary to anyone, but think of it as identifying a building block or a point of departure. It’s a first step to identify how people, even in horribly exploitative conditions, are not just victims but also really quite powerful. They are already able to produce and reproduce social relations, to animate networks of cooperation. Try thinking of this, following Marx and Engels, as a weapon that is created within capitalist society but can be wielded against it, and even be developed to create a democratic social alternative.