“Real Democracy”: an interview with Michael Hardt

Published online, October 2011.

On October 15th, hundreds of squares were occupied worldwide by activists united by the slogan ‘real democracy now’. Here, Shift Magazine editor Raphael Schlembach interviews Michael Hardt, author (with Toni Negri) of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.

Submitted by shifteditor1 on May 14, 2013

In the latest print issue of Shift Magazine [issue 13], John Holloway argues that “real democracy is and must be a frontal assault on the power of money”. He implies that the demand ‘real democracy now’ is not enough in itself, but must be connected to a movement against the rule of money-capital-state-abstract labour. He insinuates a difference here to your own perspective, writing that “people who prefer to talk just of democracy (Hardt and Negri, for example) … prefer to let the movement itself discover that money stands in the way of real democracy”. How have you experienced the recent global democracy movements? Do you think the assemblies in Sol, Syntagma or Wall Street already carry an inherent potential to constitute an affront to capital?

I think that John's perspective and mine overlap much more than is implied by that quotation. There is a long tradition in Marxist and communist thought, you know, that poses a separation between economic struggles and political struggles - in fact, in many cases the division would be posed as "merely" economic struggles and "properly" political ones. In the context of the 3rd International, for example, this division corresponded to the work of the trade unions, on one hand, and that of the party, on the other. Well, I think it is clear that today this division between economic and political struggles no longer holds, and that the economic and political protests and demands of movements are inextricably mixed. John and I certainly agree on that. In fact, I would say that part of the work done by a concept like "biopolitical struggles," which Toni Negri and I, as well as many others, use, is to bring into focus together questions of life, economics, and politics.

In any case, I certainly agree with John’s point, which you quote, that a project of real democracy must also challenge capitalist rule, which in the current era predominantly relies on the power of money and finance.

I do see in this regard at least one real difference of approach in our most recent books -- John's ‘Crack Capitalism’ and our ‘Commonwealth’. My book with Toni tries to base the critique of capital and the proposal for democracy on a challenge to the rule of property, the rule of private property most urgently and also the rule of public property, meaning the rule of the state. John instead anchors his critique of capital on his analysis of money and abstract labor. We then both, of course, pursue these lines in terms of the transformations of labor in the current period and both share what might be called in shorthand a refusal of work perspective on this. These different approaches are in many ways compatible, of course, and one might even see them as complimentary, but this is where I would search for a difference if pressed to do so.

All that said, I do believe that the current cycle of struggles poses a new and more directly political character with respect to previous ones. The cycle of struggles from Seattle 1999 to Genoa 2001 put the accent firmly on the critique of neoliberalism and sought to reveal the undemocratic structures of the emerging global system of rule. The protests were mobile and nomadic, moving from one summit to the next and at each stop shining light on another aspect of the global neoliberal ruling structure: the IMF, the World Bank, the G8, the WTO, and so forth. In contrast, the cycle of struggles forming this year, including the encampments in Tahrir, Syntagma, Sol, Madison Wisconsin, and Wall Street, has a less mobile and more rooted territorial structure. The practice of encampment is an important novelty along with their assembly structures that manage to bring together a variety of economic and social issues. Democracy is practiced and experimented on the small scale - often in the organization of one square.

This cycle of struggles too is, of course, aimed at neoliberalism and the crisis, but I am particularly fascinated by the way that the aspiration toward democracy has become more prominent. Think of two of the central slogans in the Spanish encampments of 15M: "you don't represent us" and "real democracy now." The former certainly echoes the call from Argentina a decade earlier: "que se vayan todos" against not only one corrupt party or politician but against the entire political class. But it adds the critique of representation that touches at the heart of the republican constitutions. "You don't represent us" doesn't mean I want to get rid of this leader so that I can be represented by new leaders. It means I refuse to be represented and, moreover, when combined with the latter slogan, this so-called democracy you have given us is a shame. Instead we want to construct a real democracy. This seemingly naive idea to bring democracy back to the center of the discussion in this way, which probably entered this cycle of struggles from the aspirations in North Africa, seems to me extraordinarily powerful.

Occupy Wall Street was originally proposed by the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, calling for “20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, and set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades”, representing the 99%. But such protests come with their own problems. Supposedly, opposition to ‘corporate greed’ and ‘political corruption’ can unite all Americans beyond their political or social differences against the 1% of bankers, CEOs and politicians. Isn’t such populism incredibly simplistic? The term (direct) democracy is sometimes so broad that it can attract anyone from right-wing conspiracy theorists to La Rouchians. There seems to be a lack of political content.

It seems to me too early to evaluate in this way Occupy Wall Street and the other, spreading US developments. It is not the kind of movement that appears fully formed with a program. Instead it will take form as it develops, which, I hope, will continue for several weeks and months.

My view, which I think aligns with the sentiment of your question, is that these US movements should develop into a constituent process. This, in fact, is how they would most explicitly take up some of the challenges posed by 15M, which I mentioned before: the critique of representation and the aspiration to constitute a new democracy. In this way, the US movements would certainly carry further the cycle of struggles that has developed throughout the year.

How could we imagine this developing into more constituent forms of democracy? Do we need to go beyond the assemblies that are currently at the heart of the protests?

Yes, eventually one would have to go beyond the assemblies as they are practiced in occupied squares – even though, as I said, all these democratic experiments in organizing are themselves very important.

Opening a constituent process in this context has at least two sides to it. First of all, it is a recognition that the Constitution (and indeed all of the supposedly democratic constitutions) is not a sufficient basis for a really democratic society. As I said earlier, the critique and refusal of the representational structure is a powerful lever that could have profound effects. Call this first moment, perhaps, a “deconstituent” or, better, a “destituent” process. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a constituent process has to create a new set of social relations and, in this sense, a new foundation for democracy. This is a revolutionary process that creates new structures and institutions, as well as new political habits and affects. One cannot foresee now exactly what such a process would look like. The kinds of questions and aspirations that are becoming generalized today, however, do indicate that such a process is appearing somewhere on our horizon.

Finally, do you think there is a true global character to this movement? The square occupations in, say, Athens, Cairo, Tel Aviv and New York have come about in very different political contexts, with participants that wouldn't necessarily have regarded themselves as political allies.

The different movements that have emerged in this cycle certainly do, as you say, come about in very different social and political conditions. But they also do share some interesting aspects. I have been emphasizing the shared aspiration toward democracy, even when it is not completely clear yet what a real democracy would be. They also share the multitude form of organizing, characterized by a refusal of leaders, network organization structures, horizontal practices of decision-making, and so forth.
But even these shared aspirations and practices, as you say, do not guarantee agreement or unanimity. Isn’t it fascinating, then, how a cycle of struggle like this forms? How is it that people are inspired by revolts conducted elsewhere and translate them into their own local conditions in order to construct their own rebellion? How do they connect together in a chain this way in situations that are so different?
I would say that the struggles themselves, by this very act of linking together, are teaching us how the global level can be constructed – not through homogeneity but rather by posing relations among differences. That seems to me one among many things we have to learn from these movements.