Communism is the Ruthless Critique of all that Exists – Interview with Michael Hardt
Interview conducted by “Praktyka Teoretyczna” editorial collective on the occasion of publication of the Polish translation of Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth.
Commonwealth is an attempt to answer the question: how can we reexamine the conditions and horizons of the communist political praxis and theory today. It is not only a successful revival of the seventeenth century tradition of treatises on government, but also a kind of a political manifesto. However, looking at the reception of different leftist theoretical propositions in Poland, we can expect a quite harsh welcoming of this book in our country. Could you somehow try to convince readers from the post-socialist countries, “disappointed” by Marxism as an epistemological perspective and ideologically waterproofed to the most of leftist proposals, to familiarize with the communist project presented in the Commonwealth?
I can well imagine that for many Polish readers the concept of communism has become so corrupt that they do not want to hear anything more about it. In standard discourse today for many people (in post-socialist countries and elsewhere) “communism” means rigid state bureaucracy, total state control of economic and social activity, suppression of political dissent, workers’ sacrifice for the national good, restrictions on public speech, and so forth. For Toni and me, however, and indeed for many others, communism means something entirely different – not the exaltation of the state but the abolition of the state, not the celebration of work but the liberation from work, as well as experimentation with forms of freedom and democratic participation that go well beyond what exists in contemporary capitalist societies.
You might ask, then, why don’t we stop using the term communism and invent a new word for this? Well, one could do that, but then we would lose the connection with a long history of communist struggles, and we are inspired and enriched by that tradition. Why should we allow the Stalinist state to represent and contain the entire communist tradition, many portions of which struggled against it? It is important for us to recognize alternatives within the tradition and affirm the streams that we value most. We thus feel the need to struggle over the concept of communism and insist on what we consider its proper meaning.
That said, however, we seldom use the word communism in Commonwealth or Declaration, at least to the best of my recollection. Instead we articulate the major component parts of the communist theory and practice without naming them. We thus pursue the critique of the state and the critique of work, as I said, along with the critique of property. One might call these the three fundamental critical pillars of communist thought. And they are matched by three equally important areas of practical investigation and experimentation: freedom, democratic action, and multiplicity. This leads us not to answers or blueprints of a future society, but rather to questions. How can we organize a free and absolutely democratic society? How can we rule ourselves collectively through participatory processes without masters standing over us? How can we manage our common wealth without the relations of private property? These are the kinds of questions that communist inquiry leads us to, and they are also the questions posed by some of today’s most powerful social movements.
In his introduction to the English edition of Marx oltre Marx, Antonio Negri claims that being a communist is to live like a communist. He makes this statement in reference to the recognition at the basis of your conception of the biopolitical production, namely, that the boundary between production and reproduction is today arbitrary and blurred (if it was ever possible to draw it with precision), and that production is not only a production of an object for a subject but also a subject for an object, that is, it is the production of subjectivity. Taking all of this into account, what does it mean to you to be a communist today?
That is a difficult question. I suspect that what it means to live like a communist – or, better, to live a revolutionary life – changes in different historical situations. All of us probably know activist friends who look ridiculous when they try to ape or mimic the styles and positions of revolutionaries from past eras or foreign places – wearing Che Guevara’s beret or his beard, for instance, or blustering about guns and armed struggle in circumstances when they make no sense. Perhaps it is a (or, even, the) central question for anyone with revolutionary desires: what in our situation constitutes a revolutionary mode of life?
But that doesn’t yet answer your question. Marx gives us one useful guidepost when he writes in a letter to Arnold Ruge that communism is the ruthless critique of all that exists. That is a good start, I think, and one that helps avoid dogmatism. Communism is a destituent process that destabilizes not only the ruling institutions but also the dominant ideas. To the powers of critique, however, must always be added creative processes of experimentation with new forms of social relation, new modes of life. To communism’s destituent powers must be added its constituent processes. One of the aspects of the encampments and occupations of 2011 that I found most fascinating was their experimentation with new democratic practices, such as the general assembly and the working groups (or commissions). They ran into all kinds of obstacles, of course, due both to internal conflicts and external repression, but they created practices and institutions of autonomous self-government that inspired widespread interest in new forms of democracy.
Unlike in the earlier parts of the trilogy, the urban question plays an important role in Commonwealth. You have even urbanized the thesis on social factory, in agreement with David Harvey’s claim about the urban character of the anticapitalist struggle (in Multitude you’ve already spoke about the urbanization of the guerilla struggle). Your approach to the city, however, stems from the specific context, phenomena typical to the large concentration of people (Paris, Milan, New York, Buenos Aires, etc.) such as metropolization and its counterparts e.g. neoliberalization, informatization and networking. How do your analyses refer to the medium-sized cities, such as non-metropolitan (with the few exceptions of Warsaw, Moscow, Prague and Budapest) post-socialist cities? Can we think of them in terms of the locus of resistance and the borderless immaterial factories? Where would you see the lines of post-socialist resistance and how can we overcome its potential limitations such as the combined character of Eastern European economies, loss of class solidarity and the fetishization of locality, frequent in the case of Polish urban movements.
I think it is important in these discussions to question and revise our traditional conceptions of the division between the city and the country, the urban and the rural. One risk of our discussion in Commonwealth, as well as in David Harvey’s work on the city, is that rural populations and rural struggles be disregarded or underestimated.
In my view the most important criterion for dividing the urban from the rural in modern thought is not the density of populations but the communication among them. I return often to the passage in Marx’s 18th Brumaire on the peasants, which I think is emblematic. Marx was trying to understand why the mid-19th century French peasantry was reactionary and, specifically, why they supported the dictator. They could not act as a class, he said, which meant they could not act politically and instead could only be represented and manipulated by the dominant powers. Marx’s explanation was that, since the French peasants were dispersed in small holdings across the countryside, they could not effectively communicate with each other, and communication is necessary for collective and autonomous political action. The lacking communication here is not primarily a matter of information – for instance, whether French peasants received newspapers – but rather a question of the kinds of contact and exchange that allows for the formation of political subjectivity. The counterexample in Marx’s mind, of course, is the urban proletariat that is gathered together not only in the city but around the machines in the factory, and thus enters into a collection process of the production of subjectivity through intellectual and corporeal communication.
This communication divide, which carries such central political implications, is crucial in modern conceptions of the rural and the urban, and in theories of the metropolis. Well, I think it is clear that today this division no longer holds. The kind of communication required for collective political action exists today both in urban and rural spaces. In fact, in the late 20th century in the context of widespread peasant struggles – in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere – it frequently appeared that rural spaces had priority in this regard, and urban territories sometimes appeared as deserts.
So, I would approach your question regarding post-socialist cities with this criterion in mind. What are the possibilities of communication and the collective production of subjectivity? Are these urban spaces deserts where individuals are isolated or instead do cultural, social, and political circuits articulate across the urban terrain in communicative networks? This becomes, really, a very straightforward existential question: when you live in this or that city, does you power to act and think increase or do you find yourself becoming more stupid and lethargic? This is a classic Spinozian question about joy and sadness. I, unfortunately, don’t know these cities, but I’m sure that you and anyone else who lives in them can easily respond to this.
In Commonwealth, you have faced important critiques of your projects, countering the attacks of different, well-known (also in Poland) theoreticians such as Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou and Ernesto Laclau. Could you indicate the names of intellectuals who, according to your opinion, actually capture the current state of affairs, and whose books would be useful in the process of organization and struggles of multitude? By asking this question we have in mind something much more general – the question of the role of intellectuals in the production of knowledge for the use of the movement and practical -theoretical support for the work of revolution. How do you understand the relationship between theory and practice? Is it still reasonable to distinguish between the two?
The philosophers you mention – Žižek, Badiou, and Laclau – are certainly good places to start. And one should add too Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière, and many others.
I think, however, as your question suggests, that intellectuals should not be relied on to provide a theoretical guide for our (or anyone’s) revolutionary practice. The division is not that intellectuals do theory and militants do practice – or, even, less that intellectuals lead and militants follow. Some of the most important theoretical and conceptual developments today are accomplished collectively in social movements. The indignados, occupy, and the other encampments that began in 2011 are the authors of not only important political experiments but also theoretical and conceptual experiments. That said, of course, I don’t mean simply to reverse the traditional relationship and say that activists should lead and intellectuals should follow them. I would say there are different registers of theorizing that go on in the universities and in the streets, and that both of these are vitally important.
What we need to discover, it seems to me, are arrangements of co-research in which intellectuals and activists create the means to work together and communicate continually from the one register of theoretical production to the other. It’s not necessary for this that academics descend into the streets and that activists are brought into the universities – although this is not a bad idea. Essential instead is that there are means of communication and even translation between the kinds of theorizing done in the universities and those accomplished in the movements. Co-research depends on this communication and circulation.
According to what you write in Declaration, the most important movements in 2011 were rooted in the common. They not only benefit from new communication techniques and experiment with innovative, more inclusive forms of political participation, but also struggle to liberate the common, both from the fetters of the private property and state control (or to put it broadly, public control). This seems to be the ultimate withdrawal from your thesis in Empire that the alterglobalist movements cannot communicate with each other. In fact, now both you and Negri are trying to differentiate between the alterglobalist cycle of struggles and cycle inaugurated in the last year. Could you name the most important feature of this difference? Is the present cycle of struggles able to achieve “the impossible” (at least for the previous cycles) - create the institutions of the common?
When we remarked on the “incommunicability” of struggles in Empire the alterglobalization movement had not yet emerged. We finished the book before the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. Instead we were thinking of powerful antineoliberal struggles in the 1990s, such as the revolt in Tiananmen Square, the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, anti-IMF riots in Venezuela and Jamaica, and so forth. During the years of the alterglobalization movement – from Seattle in 1999 to Genova in 2001 – there was indeed intense communication among the movements at each summit meeting and also in other contexts, such as the World Social Forum. And, as you say, there is an even greater and more significant communication among the encampments and occupations that began in 2011.
In all of these instance, though, one fundamental characteristic that we have to understand is the profound discontinuity of the movements. There is both a temporal discontinuity (movements explode on to the scene and then after only a few months seem to disappear) and a spatial discontinuity (the desires and practices seem to leap from one location to another, from Cairo to Madrid, and from Athens to New York). How can we understand this discontinuity and, more important, how can we work with it politically?
One response, which I think is certainly in part correct, is to recognize that beneath this discontinuous appearance is a more profound, hidden continuity of the movements, their desires, and practices. Marx’s metaphor of the mole is the classic image of this subterranean continuity. French revolutionary struggles of the 19th century, he said, are like a mole that appears above ground for brief moments – in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, and so forth – but between those times is working underground and making progress. That’s a beautiful metaphor for grasping the hidden continuity, although I must admit that the naturalistic image of the hardworking mole doesn’t seem exactly right to me. I would say the revolutionary movements are more like an automobile speeding through the night with its headlights out. You see it briefly under a streetlight and then it disappears, only to reappear later way down the road. This metaphor has the advantage of giving a sense of the danger and even at times the recklessness of the revolutionary process.
I think it is important, in any case, to recognize these hidden continuities in temporal and spatial terms. What happened in Seattle in 1999 and then disappeared, for instance, sprung up much more advanced on Wall Street in 2011, and what was achieved in Tunis and Cairo early in 2011 reappears later in the year in Madrid and Athens. Claiming such continuities is not enough, but it is a good beginning.
When we look at the events of 2011, we may come up with a very sad conclusion. In almost all direct confrontation with power and capital, the multitude, at least for the time being, fails severely. Whether we look at the postrevolutionary governments in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt, or we consider the events following the March on Brussels of Indignados, breaking up the assemblies of Zuccotti Park, or consequences of the mass demonstration in Israel. In this context many of critiques claim that the political pressure of the multitude from all the plazas in the countries of Arab region was enough to get rid of the dictators. But to consolidate the achievements of the revolutions (or better – the revolts), the takeover of a democratic control (in the forms of worker’s councils) on the classically understood sites of production is necessary. In Declaration you emphasize the difference between the old left (with its feature of sentiment for the old forms of political organization) and the new movements like Indignados or Occupy. You also write that the movements of 2011 have created an opportunity for a new left to emerge. Do you think that an adequate use was made of this chance? Are there any bridges between movements and organizational forms of the multitude and the classical forms of organization of the workers movement (like workers’ councils with a system of delegates) that would allow a solidification of the achievements of the revolts in the institutions of the common?
Your question highlights very well the limitation of my response to the previous question regarding the discontinuous nature of contemporary movements. It is not enough to say that the continuity of the movements is hidden or subterranean and will appear in another place or at another time. It’s not enough to say that the real success of Tahrir Square can be judged not in Egypt but in Madrid or on Wall Street. Or even to say that maybe we were defeated now but in 10 or 20 years we will have won.
We have to also construct new political forms that achieve greater extension and duration of the movements here and now. It’s a commonplace already to say that the encampments of 2011 were great at organizing a square for a few months and creating democratic experiments with a few hundred or even a few thousand participants. But they were not successful in translating the victory of the square into a lasting new society, an alternative form of life.
In Declaration, Toni and I thus focus on the need for initiating a constituent process and, as you say, creating institutions of the common. By “institution” here, of course, we do not mean a rigid, bureaucratic structure and by “constitution” we do not intend a formal, fixed order. Instead we are interested in the creation of institutions composed of repeated social practices and habits, and the invention of constituent processes that spread and make lasting social assemblages and forms of life. The movements, in other words, need to create some greater forms of continuity.
These two responses to the question of the discontinuity of the movements – one insisting that there is already a hidden continuity and the other calling for the creation of institutions to establish continuity – are very different but not, I think, contradictory. In fact, I would say that the kinds of continuity that already exist, communicating among the movements across time and space, is the necessary ground for any project today to initiate a constituent process and create institutions of the common. Without that basis, such projects would be unimaginable.