PRINT October 2017


“TAKE POWER, but differently.” This exhortation—one of a series of resonant proposals at the core of political theorists’ Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s new book, Assembly—could hardly be more timely. As an emboldened Far Right threatens all-too-familiar methods of violence, and a fractious Left debates strategies of opposition, Assembly investigates the vital question of how the energies of protest and resistance can be transformed into durable democratic change. Acknowledging that recent movements on the left have been criticized for a perceived lack of organization and coherence, Hardt and Negri, in their first book since the completion of their Empire trilogy (2000–2009), argue that a return to more centralized institutions is no way forward, but neither, crucially, is the rejection of leadership tout court. What’s needed, instead, is a radical rethinking of the relationship between movements and their leaders. Here, Hardt talks to Artforum about activism, anti-fascism, and change.

Black Land and Liberation Initiative event, East Oakland, CA, June 19, 2017. Photo: Roselyn Berry/Twitter.

SINCE TRUMP’S ELECTION, and even more so since the tragic events in Charlottesville, it should be clear that protest is necessary. A dangerous complex of political forces, evoking some of the darkest moments of the past, circulates among right-wing groups and institutions as well as in segments of the government. Our indignation and outrage must translate into action against demonstrations of fascist and racist violence and ideologies of racial purity as a condition of national belonging, and we must also mobilize against policies producing environmental disaster; acts of mass detention and deportation of migrants; the creation of an atmosphere of terror for women, LGBTQ communities, and people of color; the seemingly interminable series of racialized police killings; and so much more.

But while protest and resistance are necessary, they are never enough. We also need to instigate lasting alternatives. And, despite the dark times we are facing, there are still spaces today for political action to enact social change. Some of the most powerful social movements of the past decade, such as Occupy in the United States or the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, have successfully illuminated the injustices of the current system, including its undemocratic structures and the means by which it reproduces inequality, but they have not yet been able to achieve a real social transformation. That’s the point of departure for Assembly.

We have to understand, on the one hand, that the old organizational models of social movements are not viable today. Centralized, hierarchical political organizations are themselves undemocratic, and this contradiction has rightly been a constant source of friction and internal struggle for decades on the left. On the other hand, however, it is a mistake to equate the critique of centralized leadership with the rejection of lasting organization and institutions. Critics of “leaderless” movements, including Occupy and Black Lives Matter, often focus on the ephemeral and quixotic nature of the protests and the absence of concrete proposals. But this is not an irresolvable dilemma. There are other, more democratic ways to construct social movements, creating what we would call democratic counterpowers. These can be alternative social institutions, or, as we call them, nonsovereign institutions.

Several of the initiatives in the orbit of Black Lives Matter certainly point in this direction. The platform of the Movement for Black Lives, for example, articulates a sustained agenda with radical, clearly defined demands. We need to be able to recognize the emergence of institutions that have a different character, that don’t fit the older centralized or sovereign model, and that are better able to address the democratic imperatives of activists.

When we critique hierarchical and centralized organizational models, we are not advocating the elimination of leadership. Rather, we propose an inversion of traditional organizational roles, whereby strategy (the big picture, as it were) would become the province of the movement collectively, and tactics (logistics, practicalities, the execution of strategy) could be, when necessary, delegated to leaders.

Given that Toni [Antonio Negri] and I are arguing that the kind of political innovation we require today is produced collectively, and isn’t invented by leaders of any sort, including theorists or public intellectuals, we were mindful that it would be completely contradictory for us to offer, for instance, a ten-point program. But we didn’t just want to throw up our hands and say, “You all figure it out.” Our rhetorical solution in the book is to address the question of what political proposals are necessary at this moment as a dialogue, even if it is our own internal dialogue. So the book is punctuated by a series of calls and responses, where each call takes the form of a proposition—“invent nonsovereign institutions” is one; “take power, but differently” is another—that is elaborated and then inflected by a “response,” and thus left open, as opposed to being put forth as a pronouncement.

One proposition that might unsettle some readers is our call for the “entrepreneurship of the multitude.” We’re fully aware, of course, that entrepreneurship is a core concept of neoliberal ideology. It is a central element of the ideological attack on structures of welfare and collective organizing. Moreover, all of us are called on to be entrepreneurs of ourselves: We’re exhorted not to expect a stable job but to continually reinvent ourselves for work and to anticipate constant change—and to celebrate that as freedom. This is the cruelest kind of ideology, because it asks you to embrace your precarity, to treat your servitude as if it were your salvation.

If that were the only possible understanding of entrepreneurship, we would want nothing to do with it. However, a crucial aspect not only of political theory but also of political practice is to struggle over concepts, rather than simply allowing the dominant usage of a term to be its only meaning. For us, entrepreneurship fundamentally means creating new forms of social cooperation. We take this in part from the economist Joseph Schumpeter—an unlikely source, perhaps, and of course no radical—who viewed entrepreneurship as a method for constructing new social and economic combinations. That seems to us a potent idea, and one that we should pursue: to create new forms of productive cooperation from below. And, in fact, people are pursuing it. There are all kinds of forms of self-management and mutualistic experiments today, especially in the context of economic crisis. One that Toni and I have long admired is the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or PAH), in Spain. It’s an anti-eviction campaign, but it’s also aimed at the construction of housing alternatives, even the occupation of empty houses. That is a kind of entrepreneurship of the multitude.

As we’ve done in our previous works, including Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004), in Assembly we argue against the relations of private property and in favor of the common. The call for the abolition of private property might strike some as both antiquated (tied to old communist rhetoric) and utopian. But many contemporary social movements are going in this direction. One example that might help bring our argument into focus is the Black Land and Liberation Initiative, which argues against the extractive economy and associated forms of violence and enclosure: the enclosure of land, the enclosure of culture, the enclosure of other forms of wealth. Combating extractivism and opening various kinds of enclosures is a sort of restitution. But reparations in this sense, refusing the enclosure of land and wealth, is not simply returning to you what is yours, and therefore paying you back for something that’s been taken. It’s not really a property argument. It actually goes beyond that, because it is a refusal of the very form of power—and the relations of private property—that makes something “yours.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation are another example of the affirmation of the common. One of the many important things about Standing Rock is that those resisting the pipeline, the “water protectors” in particular, articulate their claims not in terms of property rights and land ownership, but in terms of the need to establish a different relationship with the earth. We have a shared responsibility to care for our common wealth. This, too, is a reparation without enclosure.

The history of Native Americans, like that of Black Americans, is a history of theft. And movements like these certainly recognize that, but they also go well beyond it. In effect, they cast in a new light the way Marx criticized Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s claim that property is theft. For Marx, this wasn’t radical enough. In order to call property theft, he asserted, you have to have accepted that it is property in the first place. What we really need is to get outside of the mentality of private property itself. That is, in fact, what groups like the Black Land and Liberation Initiative and the Standing Rock protesters are doing. Some of the most important work of social movements today, in addition to protesting and resisting the injustices of the ruling powers, is to imagine that a new world is possible. Without losing sight of the urgency of protest, we need to be thinking with an equal sense of urgency about ways to transform those visions into reality.

—As told to Elizabeth Schambelan.

Michael Hardt is a professor of literature at Duke University and the author, with Antonio Negri, of Assembly (Oxford University press, 2017).