“Declaration” Examines the Significance of the Social Movements of 2011
Hardt and Negri should be lauded for the audacity of their utopian vision. At the same time, their theorization of class is thin, as is their grasp of geopolitics and related cultural questions.
By Steven Sherman
Almost as predictable as U.S. presidential elections or the Olympics, roughly every four years political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri publish an opus with a portentous title. Together, they have authored “Empire” (2000), “Multitude” (2004), “Commonwealth” (2009), and now, in 2012, “Declaration.” The regularity of their production schedule may be a little deceiving. The first three books were conceived of as a trilogy, while the latest is clearly a response to the movements of 2011. It is by far the shortest, and is available only as an Amazon Kindle Single, likely in order to hasten its availability.
That said, the strengths and weaknesses of “Declaration” closely parallel their previous works. Hardt and Negri should be lauded for the audacity of their utopian vision. At the same time, their theorization of class is thin, as is their grasp of geopolitics and related cultural questions. Something can be salvaged from their vision if these aspects are more thoughtfully integrated, but it would likely be quite transformed.
“How can (the social movements’) declaration become the basis for constituting a new and sustainable society?” they ask near the beginning, framing the question for the rest of the text to answer. In the following chapter, they identify four “subjective figures” of the crisis: “the indebted,” ” the mediatized,” “the securitized,” and “the represented.” They then indicate how the movements are challenging these subjectivities. “Constituting the Common,” the third chapter, describes the new political/social order the movements are groping towards, while the conclusion, “Next: Event of the Commoner,” reclaims the term “commoner” as a description of a social actor rather than status in a social order.
“The indebted,” as readers probably suspect, refers to the people who find themselves trapped in commitments to financial institutions–student loans, mortgages, credit cards, etc. Such commitments turn pleasurable consumption into a source of dread (can I really afford this?) and paralyze action, since any discontinuity in earning threaten to bring the house of debts tumbling down on one’s head. “The mediatized,” refers to those trapped by the world of screens that hypnotize their users. In a passage that is frankly bizarre to read in a text only available electronically, the authors portray the usage of mobile devices as dehumanizing and corrosive of thought. According to the Hardt and Negri, silence is needed for real thinking, and face-to-face contact must be made to produce collective intelligence. The drift of the United States and other democracies towards a police state is captured in the term “the securitized.” Expanding prisons, wars, security cameras, invasions of rights have become regular features of the contemporary “state of exception.” Finally, “the represented” speaks of those who are not well-served by parliamentary democracy. In much of the world, people live under democratic regimes, and large numbers of citizens vote for candidates they hope will represent them well. Yet governments seem to do little more than the bidding of corporations. Cynicism grows.
The key to undoing these subjectivities, according to Hardt and Negri, is to act collectively. Debt cannot simply be renounced individually, but collectively we can strengthen each other and develop new bonds. In one of the books most striking passages, they identify a genealogy of struggles against debt that includes not only movements in Latin America against International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity, but the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, in the banlieues of Paris in 2005, and in Tottenham in England in 2011. To combat our mediatized subjectivitiy, we can collectively interact in ways that defy the isolation imposed by the world of screens. Collectively we can find the courage to defy the fear imposed by securitization. And collectively we can figure out how to manage the commons, rather than be represented.
That the existing institutions are failing to address the crisis adequately, in ways analogous to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, is a signal that the “ancient regime” of republican democracies which emerged out of the eighteenth century is exhausted. In a nutshell, the movements present in city squares last year provide the embryo of new forms of more directly democratic rule. Hardt and Negri are not simply concerned with running an encampment, but the entirety of society, and in particular managing the commons. In this sense, they mean a way of understanding resources like water or goods like knowledge as commonly controlled, rather than private property or state-controlled public property. Notwithstanding this utopian vision, the authors also argue for the need to at times defend state property. They highlight the relationship between autonomous social movements and center-left electoral forces in Latin America as worthy of emulation.
All of this builds to the actor identified in the final chapter, “the commoner.” While this term was developed in older regimes to refer to those without status, for Hardt and Negri it identifies those who, collectively and horizontally, are creating the commons as a counterpower to the current regime.
It is difficult to do justice to the argument of such an ambitious text in a short review. Practically every page bristles with assertions that one may embrace or challenge. Here I will instead simply try to offer a few criticisms that might better ground their theoretical insights. But first, I should say, they are on to something. Representative democracies should be seen as ancient regimes, increasingly incapable of meeting the expectations and needs of their citizens. The sort of horizontalist direct democracy of the squares they celebrate is likely the beginnings of an alternative, which advances in fits and starts. The “cycle of struggle” including the summit protests in Seattle in 1999, and continuing through Quebec City, Prague, and Genoa was one such fit, while the movement of the squares in 2011 was another, one which involved far more people and spoke to a wider group of supporters. Hardt and Negri’s interest in theorizing this and making these grand claims is a salutory alternative to the glum despair that characterizes much Marxist theorizing these days. Arguably, it is truer to the spirit of Marx and his greatest followers, who did not sit on their hands and wait for a more perfect movement to arrive, as some of the most prominent contemporary Marxists appear to.
Still, these propositions need to be better grounded in an understanding of class and geopolitics, and related cultural struggles. Hardt and Negri mostly offer one claim about class. This is the rise of “cognitive labor” (in some of their previous works, “immaterial labor”), the production and manipulation of texts, images, feelings, etc. They claim this form of labor plays the central role in contemporary capitalism. They also claim that this form of labor cannot be productive unless freed from discipline. Neither of these claims seem adequate. Some of the fastest growing portions of the workforce globally include service work that is often not cognitive, but instead involves staffing a cash register, and sweatshop industrial production. The rhetoric about “cognitive labor” requiring freedom from discipline obscures the way it is often subjected to extraordinary discipline – a commitment to the mission of the enterprise that is routinely expected to extend into the worker’s private life, for example. The obsession with cognitive labor smacks of an attempt to universalize the experience of the strata to which Hardt and Negri themselves belong, a sort of radical version of Richard Florida’s “creative class.” This reaches a dubious level in their assertion that “cognitive laborers” were at the forefront of the movements last year. This is true, in the sense that college educated middle class activists who typically aspire to “cognitive labor” were often at the forefront. But this has little to do with a new phase of capitalism.
Far more apropo is Chris Hedges’ description: “The real danger to the elite comes from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who are barred by a calcified system from advancement. Artists without studios or theaters, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and journalists without newspapers descend economically. They become, as they mingle with the underclass, a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. And they are the dynamite that triggers revolt.” The striking thing here is that these declasse intellectuals don’t represent some new phase of capitalism at all. In fact, this is precisely the same group that helped trigger the French revolution over 200 years ago.
Hardt and Negri’s valorization of “cognitive laborers” tends to obscure both those more powerful and those beneath them. Rather than identifying upper classes, they tend to speak of structures like “Empire,” although this phrase has just about disappeared from their writing, and subjectivities passively produced like “the indebted” and “the mediatized.” One of the crucial contributions of Occupy Wall Street was the notion of the 1% elite as the problem. The 1% appears once in “Declaration,” during a discussion of debt, but is not illuminated much. Nor is the deployment of “cognitive labor” taken as an occasion to discuss the question of professionalism, the monopolization of certain well compensated forms of knowledge labor by those possessing the right certification, the classic examples being medicine and law. And the reality of those beneath the cognitive laborers, whose lives are often characterized by deadly workplaces, wage theft, incarceration, or more broadly, stigmatization by the state, and a struggle to survive, are hardly visible at all, just lumped together with all “the indebted.”
This is particularly relevant last year because of the class character of the protests. The Arab spring, the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain, Occupy in the US — all can basically be characterized as movements of a middle class in crisis. At their core are college educated young people losing hope that they will find the secure life their degrees appeared to promise. Other classes joined at times. Strikes by the working class helped drive Mubarak out; Occupy encampments were sometimes friendly places for the homeless. But I think an honest appraisal would say that these movements were all largely defined by this imperiled middle class. The limits of trying to challenge a system without the participation by the worst off was clearest in Israel, where tent protesters skirted around the 800 pound elephant of the Palestinian question. But elsewhere, even in Tunisia and Egypt, one could identify similar, if slightly less absurd, questions. If the emergent forms are to displace the ancient regime of the representative democracies, they will need much broader participation, and that participation will only come when uncomfortable racial/cultural questions are forthrightly posed. The exception to this dynamic referenced by Hardt and Negri were the riots which began in Tottenham. Adapting an “autonomist” attitude, they claim that one should not hope for political organization to follow the riots; the riots themselves are the legitimate form of struggle. But organizing does often follow riots. The riots in Venezuela provided the underpinnings for the rise of Hugo Chavez, a populist leader Hardt and Negri would likely keep their distance from. The riots in Los Angeles produced more “horizontal” dynamics, including a gang-truce process and increased cooperation of activists across the “black/brown” divide. What sort of actors will emerge in England remain to be seen. Here it is also worth noting a struggle missing altogether from the pages of “Declaration,” the uprising in Wukan province in China, when thousands of villagers drove government officials from their village. Perhaps the most radical action of last year, it was conducted by peasants, who barely seem to exist in Hardt and Negri’s framework.
The movements were not only dominated by a falling middle class; they also largely occurred in what might be described as states which fear declining status. These include most of the Arab states and Southern Europe. The U.S. and England, the embodiments of fading Anglo-American neoliberalism, saw substantial movements, as did Chile, another pioneer of neoliberalism. On the other hand, Japan and Germany and most of Northern Europe were relatively quiet. Significantly, the poorer parts of the world–Subsaharan Africa, much of South Asia, Central America–were also mostly absent, although, at the beginning of 2012, Occupy Nigeria produced what is probably the largest strike action yet called under the Occupy banner.
Then there is the matter of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known by the acronym BRICS. Apart from the protests late in the year in Russia, apparently too late for inclusion in “Declaration,” and the aforementioned uprising in Wukan, BRICS were largely absent from the movements of 2011. Yet one of the striking aspects of the new century has been the rise of BRICS. That rise has so far continued since the crisis of 2008. One can see a number of signs of tension between BRICS and the traditional centers of wealth, particularly the U.S. BRICS are notably unenthusiastic, for example, when NATO or “the international community” (both euphemisms for the U.S. plus whatever friends it can find) intervenes in places like Libya. BRICS also seem interested in reviving United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a key United Nations agency squashed in the era of neoliberalism. It is not entirely unreasonable to present the standoff between BRICS and the traditional centers of wealth as simply a confrontation between two neoliberal blocs. But there are other aspects to it. BRICS do not pursue global militarism. All of the major “cognitive labor” industries, including computer software/internet, pharmaceuticals, and entertainment, are concentrated in the global north, and require hefty amounts of protectionism (i.e. “intellectual property law”) to continue to secure rents. Furthermore, global finance is largely headquartered in the global north. BRICS have no pressing material interest in maintaining a global project of Eurocentrism/white supremacy. It is not inconceivable that the movements may develop a loose alliance with BRICS, or some similar grouping, to demand peace, a global knowledge commons, and an undoing of Eurocentrism/racism. Geopolitical struggles have taken on a political coloration before.
To sum up: in 2011, the falling middle classes revolted across a broad swath of states. I broadly agree with Hardt and Negri that this augurs the expansion of the new left that was emergent in the struggles of 1999-2001. However, to slough off the ancient regime of neoliberal states and international institutions, it will have to broaden and deepen both within particular nation-states and globally. This would necessitate thinking about work, culture and geopolitics in more complex ways than is on offer in Hardt and Negri’s work. At the end of declaration, Hardt and Negri challenge a lament they heard in 2011, that “the streets are full, but the churches are empty,” meaning, protest is growing, but the formal organizations of the left are not. They refuse to lament this, and call for these “churches” to instead be burned to the ground as the new left rebuilds itself. Neither the lament nor their advice captures the actual situation. The novel forms of social protest actually spurred interest in all sorts of more traditional left activity and thought, as a number of thinkers like Rick Wolff, or socialist organizations that have seen growth spurts and electoral victories, can attest. That does not mean traditional left forms of organization will soon capture the movements, as they did, with disastrous effect, in the aftermath of 1968. Things are too far along for that. However, just as many churches, including the Quakers, the Unitarians, and sometimes the Catholics, made important contributions to social justice struggles in the secular age, so left traditions are likely to continue to offer a rich trove of ideas, tactics and strategies in the new phase we are entering.
Steven Sherman is the editor-in-chief of Left Eye on Books.
Short URL: http://www.lefteyeonbooks.com/?p=4978