The American empire is fading out: #BlackLivesMatter, Bernie Sanders & the secrets to a better tomorrow

Salon talks to philosopher Michael Hardt about how new forms of social movements can make a difference

Published July 26, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Jim Young/Emilio Morenatti/Jin Lee/Jeff Roberson)
(AP/Reuters/Jim Young/Emilio Morenatti/Jin Lee/Jeff Roberson)

Historians may end up describing this as a revolutionary moment.

It seems that in recent years no government, dictatorship or monarchy is safe. A protest movement in a small Mediterranean nation, Greece, threatens the whole European project, and a whole wave of leaderless protest movements throughout Europe in recent years still challenges the order. Middle Eastern and North African states remain in varying degrees of instability after the Arab Spring. The Green Revolution in Iran, though put down by authorities, might be seen to have turned that country toward a new moderation. Protest movements in Latin America in the 2000s have steered virtually the entire continent to the left and ended the hegemonic hold on the region by the U.S. since the Monroe Doctrine. Politicians in the United States now use the language of Occupy Wall Street, and just 4 years after the landmark protests, an Occupy-type candidate, the self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, challenges Hillary Clinton in a way that would not have been conceivable before thousands of Americans took to the streets and occupied to call for an end to runaway economic inequality.

It seems that only an immense police state keeps a secure lid on things these days, as we see in places like China and Russia. But that strategy creates problems of its own. America’s intensifying police-state experiment has made its largest cities into tinderboxes after decades of police violence and mass incarceration. The criminal justice system tasked with, in President Obama’s words, “containing and controlling problems” of poverty and racial subjugation has potentially created a problem it can neither contain nor control.

Philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri wrote presciently about the current circumstance in their "Empire" trilogy, whose first volume, "Empire," was published 15 years ago on the eve of President Bush’s election. The book was a landmark in radical thought, leading Slavoj Zizek to offer that the two thinkers had “rewritten the Communist Manifesto for the 21st century.” Hardt and Negri describe both the contemporary nature of power (corporations, police, surveillance, and debt) and the manner of resistance which has come to emerge in the years after "Empire’s" publication, what Hardt and Negri termed the “multitude,” or resistance organizations composed of an array of struggles -- economic, racial, gender, identity, and other modes of power and control. From the Arab Spring to resistance movements throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, nearly all theaters of resistance bear the mark of what Hardt and Negri describe in "Empire."

I recently spoke with Dr. Hardt, comparative literature professor at Duke University, to talk about the 15 years of increasingly tumultuous times since Empire, and to consider the prospects for revolutionary change. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

It’s been 15 years since the publication of "Empire," and a lot of what you and Negri describe has come to pass. How do see the political and economic circumstance now versus when Empire was written?

One intuition we had when writing "Empire" was that the U.S. is no longer able to rule the globe, that the U.S. is no longer an imperialist power in that sense. This is not to say that since the U.S. is in decline, now China or Europe is going to become the dominant power.  The idea instead is that the global order has shifted, or is in the process of shifting, such that nation-states, even the most powerful ones, are no longer able to rule as they had previously. And that’s really what we meant by “Empire,” not that nation-states no longer matter -- they certainly do -- but rather that they now have to fit within a larger structure, a kind of “network” of powers, including global institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the set of dominant nation-states, sub-national forces, non-state actors, and a whole array of other powers.

During the period following September 11th the Bush administration seemed intent on proving this idea wrong: They thought they could rule the world unilaterally and that the U.S. is still a properly imperialist power. But it didn’t take long, with the U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, for those dreams of imperialist grandeur to evaporate.

Our argument about national sovereignty was thus, first of all, descriptive, particularly with regard to the dominant nation-states. But it was also prescriptive with respect to liberation movements. Gone are the days when national liberation aimed at sovereignty was the appropriate goal. Instead liberation today has to be conceived and achieved in terms of circuits of autonomy and interdependence, democracy and cooperation.

How do you see the last 4 or 5 years of resistance and revolutionary movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the Black Lives Matter movement, and how these recent struggles connect?

When we were writing Empire, in the mid-1990s, we were inspired by many movements, such as ACT UP and Queer Nation in the US, the Zapatista Rebellion in Mexico, the June 4th Movement at Tiananmen Square, and the 1995 labor strikes in France. But those movements didn’t communicate with each other, they didn’t form a cycle, but instead seemed to point in different directions. In the last 15 years, in contrast, it is remarkable how strongly the movements communicate and resonate with each other, how they share common practices and aspirations.

One shared aspect of the most powerful movements of recent years is a questioning or even refusal of centralized leadership and hierarchy. You might date this practice in its current form with the Zapatista rebellion or the alter-globalization movement, and it is certainly a central figure of the cycle of struggles that began in 2011, from the various encampments around the Mediterranean to Occupy, to Turkey and Brazil. These movements share a highly developed immune system with powerful antibodies: When any form of centralized leadership emerges, they attack it.

That’s a really positive development. One concern we need to confront, though, is that the refusal of leadership is not translated into a refusal of organization. We need to avoid that a healthy antibody response doesn’t turn into an autoimmune disorder. We have to recognize the possibility of democratic organizing that don’t rely on traditional forms of centralized leadership, such as the vanguard party, the charismatic male leader, the central committee, and so forth. So I think in all of these movements, and including Black Lives Matter, we’re faced with that challenge: How to find forms of organization that are lasting and effective without resorting to the traditional hierarchical, centralized forms of leadership that we hate -- and for good reason.

That relates to what Toni and I were trying to capture with the notion of “multitude.” On the one hand, multitude is meant to emphasize the plural and democratic nature of the liberation movements, against traditional notions of “the people” and various other unified identities. On the other hand, however, “multitude” names a project that requires organization; it’s not something spontaneous or immediate. That characterizes, I think, the struggles we’ve seen and will continue to see, but also defines a challenge they face.

An aspect that characterizes the cycles of struggles at least since 2011 is that they insist on the right to the city as a common space. The various encampments in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, the U.S., Turkey, and Brazil -- and I’m undoubtedly leaving some out -- as well as the protests of Black Lives Matter, all challenge the exclusion from urban space, whether by forms of privatization, or by the police, or by structures of racial segregation.  What’s affirmed in all these movements, of course in different ways and in response to different national and regional contexts, is that the urban space must become common, must become open to equal access and become managed by democratic structures.

Black Lives Matter certainly fits as part of this global cycle of struggles, especially when you focus on how, like the other struggles, it is protesting the effects of economic austerity. One way in which Black Lives Matter is really different, however, especially when thinking about the U.S., and this is one of the most important things about it in my view, is that for the first time in a long time, people of color are at the center of the movement. Throughout the alter-globalization movements in North America and in Occupy too, most of the activists involved recognized racial inequality in the U.S. as a central problem they face, and wanted their struggles to include people of color, but people of color, even when they participated, were not at the center of the movements. Of course, there aren’t just people of color involved in Black Lives Matter, sometimes not even a majority, but maybe not since the 1960s has there been such an important and large movement in the U.S. with people of color at the center of the organizing.

After decades of decline in the strength of labor in the U.S., we’re seeing an emergence of a new wave of struggles, most visibly in fast food, Walmart, and other formerly non-organized sectors. How do see the prospects for organizing labor in the 21st century?

It’s useful to sometimes back up when thinking about class and working class politics to investigate first what labor means today and not assume that labor and the working class itself means the same thing as it did 20 or 50 years ago. The decline of the centrality of the factory and factory labor in the U.S. and other dominant parts of the world, doesn’t mean a decline of labor or of the working class, but instead a shift to different forms of labor. To think today about working class movements one has to conduct first an investigation of the composition of the working class today, to investigate, in other words, what people do at work. That’s the basis on which organizing is possible.

In some ways the mechanisms and structures for organizing an industrial working class were relatively straightforward compared to the challenges of organizing workers that, like you said, are involved in different sorts of tasks. Toni and I in "Empire" used the term “immaterial production,” which is a kind of  shorthand meant to focus on the kinds of labor that produce commodities that are, at least in part, immaterial. We meant to contrast the production of durable goods -- an automobile or a washing machine -- with the production of ideas or images or affects, like you said, or code. These kinds of labor require different forms of organizing and political structures, and I think we’re only halfway in the process of understanding how these forms of labor can be organized effectively for political action.

This is another advantage of the term "multitude," in our view. The laboring multitude is not negation of the traditional term "working class," but an effort to rethink it not as a unified subject but as the composition of a wide multiplicity. Put another way, and rather reductively, we cannot understand the male, white, factory worker today as the representative figure of the working class, but must instead try to grasp the links and alliances among the plural subjectivities of social production and reproduction.

It might be useful today to conceive of labor organizing in terms of social unionism (or social movement unionism), which has a long tradition in North American, Britain, and South Africa. The point, however, is not to think of an external alliance between a labor union and a social movement -- such as, for example, the inspiring link in 1997 between the Liverpool dockers and Reclaim the Streets. We need instead to understand the connection internally: Labor organizing must adopt some of the practices and aspirations of social movements and, in turn, movements must pose labor at the center of organizing discussions.

You and Negri presciently described the leaderless nature of these movements of the multitude. It means they’re more democratic and allow for more voices, but it’s also frustrated observers and even participants. How do leaderless movements retain democracy while also being effective?

This is one way to address the problem I mentioned earlier and the need to combine the critique of centralized leadership and the need for organizing.  We often seem to get stuck in a false [dilemma]: Either our movements can be beautiful and democratic and participatory, but that implies being ineffective and short-lasting; or they retreat to traditional forms of hierarchical and centralized leadership, which promise to be powerful and long-lasting, but betray our democratic aspirations. This kind of thinking assumes a standard division of labor, in revolutionary, progressive, and liberal organizing whereby centralized leadership is responsible for strategy (for understanding the general situation, evaluating the relations of force, making long-term goals, and maintaining continuous actions); whereas tactics (immediate actions that are partial and short-sighted) are the terrain of the popular masses.

It is helpful to invert this framework and ask what [if it is] necessary to confine leadership to tactics and give the multitude the strategic role. What would it take for activists together to become capable of generating a long-term and lasting vision and overall goals, conducting effective action? And how could leadership be deployed for limited, specific tasks and then dismissed. You might say that forms of leadership need to be subordinated to the multitude.

This inversion, it opens a lot of questions, too. But at least it’s an initial framework for starting to think differently about organization and leadership.

Do you see any examples of this new kind of inversion?

Let’s approach this from both sides. On one side, one could start by recognizing the strategic capacities that are already generated collectively within social movements and also, perhaps more importantly, thinking of what kinds of trainings or pedagogies would be necessary to develop further these strategic capacities. On the other side, we might use this framework of an inversion of strategy and tactics as a means to evaluate a number of party formations that have emerged from movements, such as the MAS in Bolivia, Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain. How can these leadership structures be brought back and held firmly under the control of the movements? The extent to which they are, let’s say, a party of the movements, I think could be judged in this framework—in other words, the extent to which instead of the party or the leadership claiming to represent or to direct the actions of the multitude, leadership is merely the instrument of the movements themselves.  Perhaps these various examples are just a first approximation of what an inversion of strategy and tactics could mean.

By Matthew Pulver

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Black Lives Matter Capitalism Occupy Wall Street Radicalism