From the Perspective of Resistance

An Interview with Michael Hardt

Michael Hardt is the author of Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosophyand an editor of a new edition of Thomas Jefferson’sThe Declaration of Independence. With Antonio Negri, he is co-author of Empire, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, and Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form. He teaches in the Literature Program at Duke University. Hardt was a keynote speaker at the conference on Empire held in Barrie, Ontario in May of 2007. In his plenary “Empire After Iraq” he critiqued political positions common on the left from the standpoint of their consequences for resistance. In this interview, conducted in July of 2007, Gary Kinsman asked Hardt to elaborate on some of the thoughts he presented at the conference. Tracy Gregory transcribed the interview.

In your talk on Empire, you focused on the importance of evaluating political positions from the vantage of their impact on organizing and resistance. Can you elaborate on this statement?

The first thing to recognize is how much theorizing is done by movements. A previous generation of activists operated with a very strong division between theory and practice and even an anti-intellectual approach to activism. One thing that’s been really exciting about the present generation – what the Zapatistas call “the generation of ‘94” – is its high level of theorizing and its recognition of the forms of power we’re facing today and how they’ve changed. This is not just an academic question because the ways that power is shifting in the world have important implications for resistance.

When the character of power changes, old forms of resistance might not only become ineffective, they might even become counterproductive. We have to recognize that the forms of power we confront have a role in determining the forms of resistance we should adopt.

Certain claims about power lead to a kind of resignation that can disempower activism. That’s partly what I see in the current trend in the US to think of the US state as fascist. There are two separate questions here. One is an analysis of the facts. I mean, is it a fascist state or not? And, if one does think the US state is fascist, what does that mean for forms of resistance? My current impression is that the position that maintains that the US state is fascist leads to a certain moral satisfaction combined with resignation. It’s worth noting that this is quite different from the way this same claim was advanced in the 1970s.

During the 1970s, there were significant portions of the left in different countries that claimed that the US state – or the Italian state or the German state – was fascist. Back then, the form of resistance associated with that claim was usually armed struggle. And the logic they used seems quite coherent: if by fascism we mean that the state operates with a predominance of force rather than consent, then forms of politics that try to position themselves within the arena of consent are not going to be effective. Therefore, since the state only – or predominantly – functions through violence, armed struggle is a necessary response. Of course, that decision can be tragically wrong. But it seems to me to be a logical step once one says that the state is fascist. I think the premise was false in the 1970s and led to many tragedies on the left.

I should also say that many times what people mean when they say the state is “fascist” is that things are really bad, that people in general aren’t recognizing it, and that we need to wake them up to how bad things really are. Since fascism is the worst name one can choose, this is what gets attributed without great precision. I understand the gesture. I think it’s true that things are really bad today, especially in the US. And it’s true that awakening people to how bad things are is important. My objection is that this gesture has implications. The two choices on offer for opposing fascism are armed struggle and a combination of moral outrage and resignation. Neither choice corresponds to the forms of resistance we’ve been developing over the past 10 to 15 years, and neither seems useful or appropriate today.

You’ve mentioned that, when Empire first came out, a number of activists felt it strongly resonated with their thinking. You said this was because you and Negri “were reading them.” How do you respond to activists who did not find Empire and Multitude helpful in their organizing?

I’ve been trying to emphasize moving in a direction where people like myself, who are primarily doing theoretical reflection, are learning from the theoretical work that goes on in the movements. I’ve been trying to de-emphasize the other direction, which is people in movements learning from more abstract forms of theorizing. I would say to those activists who didn’t find Empire or Multitude very helpful: “well, you know, maybe it’s not that direction that is most important right now.” Maybe they are the ones making the great innovations and people in my position are profiting from that movement.

There are, of course, divisions among activists today. It’s a good thing that many of us think differently and have different analyses. One of the most wonderful things about the last dozen or so years has been the plurality of thinking without division into camps. We’ve worked collaboratively without insisting that we must always agree. So it might be, for those activists who don’t profit from the things Toni Negri and I write, that we’re on different sides of this really plural movement – and that seems perfectly wonderful.

For instance, what Toni and I do is very compatible with the work of John Holloway (author of Change the World Without T aking Power), but we’re also looking at things from different perspectives. The focus for Toni and me is on what I think of as the constitutive moment: the moment where we – a multitude of us – construct social order, social institutions, and social organizations; the moment we transform human nature and change ourselves to be able to autonomously construct communities and societies. We’re also interested in the moment of refusal that comes before or accompanies that moment: a refusal of structures and commands, a refusal of the order of capital. But what we’re more interested in is the constitutive and self-transformative moment. My impression – and this is what I’ve written in discussions with John – is that he is less interested in the constitutive moment. And so, when I present it that way, one can see a kind of complementarity. People always criticize me – Toni first among them – for being too conciliatory about everything. I don’t agree. I would like us to have fights where there are real antagonisms.

I think that a younger generation, those in their twenties and thirties now, are very wary of the kind of sectarian fighting that characterized the generation that came before me. Now there’s less pressure on activists in these kinds of theoretical debates. For instance, in theoretical terms the division between anarchists and communists in the movements today is perhaps as substantial as ever, but there isn’t the same pressure because these differences no longer need to divide us. I find myself resisting the creation of these kinds of divisions.

Along with your critique of those who characterize the US state as fascist you’ve mentioned two other problems you see on the left today: the defense of sovereignty and the tendency to define the main enemy as US imperialism.

A certain defense of sovereignty goes closely together with the notion of US imperialism because, thinking from the perspective of resistance, the strategy traditionally used for combating US imperialism and other imperialisms has been to insist on national sovereignty as a kind of protective barrier. Certainly that’s clear in Latin America. Protection against Yankee imperialism in Latin America has taken the form of a kind of national alliance. I don’t mean to say that there are no longer problems of domination by the United States and US capital. What I do think is that the forces of global power and the forces of capital are much more diverse than this, and that the pressures of US imperialism are waning.

A signal event seems to me to be the refusal of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas at Mar Del Plata, Argentina, where we saw Latin American leftist governments – with Hugo Chavez as the most vocal representative – blocking a vehicle for US imperialism. Now, if US imperialism is not an adequate formulation; if we were to think instead of a much broader formulation that includes other dominant nation states and supranational organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, or even transnational corporations and NGOs; if we were to think of our enemies in that form, then national sovereignty wouldn’t be the adequate resistance strategy. It would have to be a different, perhaps a continental, strategy. In any case, it would have to be something new, something innovative.

Even if one disagrees with me, I would like to see some recognition of the practical consequences. This also means that you can’t just say, since I don’t want to resist in terms of national strategy, I’m going to somehow believe that power is different and no longer operates through US imperialism. You have to actually recognize the way things are. What I want to emphasize is the consequences for resistance.

There’s a tendency for the resistance to US imperialism position to act according to the logic that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. But there are many anti-US and anti-imperialist forces – and even forces against global capital – that are not in the least forces for which the movement in general has affinity or with which it would want any sort of alliance. I think that’s the disjuncture between the logic of the movement and a certain notion of resistance to US imperialism.

I’m also interested in posing the question of sovereignty in a more philosophical framework and recognizing that it has become a major topic of leftist theorizing in recent years. The work of Giorgio Agamben, the notion of the state of exception, and references to Carl Schmitt are all academic touchstones of this.1 And I think it’s related to the current analyses of fascism, US imperialism, and the state of exception in the current era.

The inadequacy of this analysis is that it fails to grasp that the most effective forms of power under which we suffer are not forms of supra-legal sovereignty but are rather normal capitalist relations – the rule of law, not the exception to law. I think these are the main forms of domination under which we suffer. And I think it’s inaccurate to say that the state of exception, the sovereign instance, is what makes the normal functioning of power possible – or, in the most extreme formulation, to say that the state of exception is really the centre of modern power, what Agamben called “the nomos of the modern.”

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pay attention – in the US in particular – to the erosion of civil rights, to Guantanamo, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib, and to the spectacular abuses of the state. But I don’t want that focus to eclipse the real structures of poverty that work precisely through the normal relations and functioning of capital. I think there’s a risk of forgetting the normalized and even naturalized domination that works through the rule of, not the exception to, law. The consequence of focusing on forms of sovereignty that rule outside the law is that we risk losing sight of battles over inequalities of wealth, exploitation, and other regular functions of capital.

The other important aspect of this question is what kinds of resistance are involved. The focus on sovereignty can easily make it seem – and this seems to me to be common among the readers of Agamben – that if we eliminate extreme cases like Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib then everything will be okay. In fact, the real problem, which is capital, remains. And that’s what the legal system, in its normal functioning, perpetuates.

Let’s return to the characterization of US imperialism as the main enemy. You’ve put forward a different analysis arguing that the major problem right now is not imperialism, but Empire.

Let me explain the way I’ve seen it develop in activist communities in the season of struggle that went from the mid-1990s to 2001. If we start from Chiapas in ’94 and also include Seattle in 1999 and Quebec City and Genoa in 2001, a lot of the activism about capitalist globalization was not focused on a single nation state. Each of the protests experimented with and recognized new forms of power. Each protest was not out in front of the White House or on Wall Street, which is where they should have been if the emphasis was on the US state or US capital. Instead, the brilliant advance in activism during that period was to recognize a more complex global structure of power related to the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the World Bank, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the G8.

All of these are different experiments in the network among nodes of power that are controlling the global system. The development within the movements during that period is very much what Toni and I are trying to understand with this notion of Empire. We’re trying to think of the ways that global capital is enabled by a network of dominant nation states, supranational economic institutions, transnational corporations, and various NGOs. These players are not all following White House dictates. There’s necessarily a kind of collaboration or interaction among them – and this includes hierarchies and conflicts. This is what Toni and I propose as the challenge for understanding global capital and the power structure that supports it.

In recognizing that the US is not all-powerful, two things come together. On the one hand, this is an enormous intellectual challenge because we have to understand something new. I mean, there’s something almost intellectually comforting about the notion of US imperialism because it’s something with which we are familiar. It’s something we’ve struggled against for a long time. On the other hand, this broader conception indicates an opening of spaces and the need for the globalization of resistance – not just in national terms but in newer, more open networks of resistance.

In Canada, left opposition to US imperialism often plays itself out in a nationalist form, as in the argument that the problem with what’s going on in Afghanistan is that the Canadian government has subordinated itself to the Bush regime, or that the problem with the new Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) is that it’s a threat to Canadian sovereignty. What do you think of this?

The period of the so-called “global war on terror” has significantly advanced that particular anti-imperialist position because the US has attempted to dictate politics unilaterally around the globe. I think the great dream of the Bush White House was that it could dominate the world in an imperialist fashion. And if the US were capable of that, then one response would be a traditional anti-imperialist struggle along the lines of national sovereignty and a kind of national united front.

My claim – and this is difficult since there’s no definitive proof on one side or the other – is that the US government has not been capable of dictating global order unilaterally and that’s been part of its failure over the last five years. The failure of the war in Iraq is the first among those. And these failures are due to the Bush regime’s inability to dictate global affairs, its inability to act as an imperialist power, and its inability to do what imperialist powers need to do – guarantee profits and maintain order within a range of violence. It seems to me that the failures of the current US administration should at least invite questions about those abilities.

On the one hand, we have to analyze the nature of current and emerging forms of global power, which is difficult to do. On the other hand, we should look at the kinds of politics and resistance being generated and evaluate whether they’re what we want. In many parts of the world, there are now forms of resistance that are much more closed and limited than what we had before 2001 in their insistence on national sovereignty, on national alliances, and in some ways on an externalization of the sources of domination.

In the Canadian context, an example of this is that some people attribute all forms of domination to the US and don’t recognize the sources of domination within Canada. In many ways, I think that’s also been true in Britain over the last five or six years. But that analysis over-estimates the capacity of the US and also tends to centralize the source of domination. It therefore eclipses or minimizes the workings of domination in local contexts, seeing these as merely expressions of the evil imperialist power.

This misdirects our focus. It creates a politics that doesn’t correspond to our desires in the short term and misreads the situation in the longer term. We must not only attack the enemies that face us today but also prepare for emerging forms of domination. Recognizing the emerging tendencies of global power is one of the most difficult parts of this theoretical task.

You and Negri have advanced the notion of “Empire” to refer to the emerging networks of power. You have counterposed it with “multitude” to recognize a new composition of labour and struggle. Could you tell us a bit about what you perceive to be the value of this concept?

The notion of multitude corresponds to what I see as interesting theoretical developments within the movements: trying to construct forms of social organization that are not under centralized leadership or under a single agenda. They are not fragmented or separate, but function through a kind of network of autonomous communities. That’s the basis of the notion of multitude, and this distinguishes it from traditional notions of either “the party” or “the working class.” Although these notions can take many different forms, their dominant forms have been centralized and hierarchical. The multitude is meant to try to construct an effective and powerful, but horizontal, organizational structure. What we’ve seen in microcosm in the movements – with their insistence on horizontality, democracy, participation, and autonomy – is similar to the kind of thing we’re after with the notion of multitude.

This is combined, for us, with an analysis of the transformation of labour today. I don’t mean to sound Leninist here, but here’s a Leninist idea: Lenin proposed that the possibilities of political organization in any society will correspond to the dominant form of labour. In Lenin’s view, the power and the necessity of the Bolshevik Party corresponded to the dominant labour organization in Russia at the time – the hierarchical industrial labour force. He did not mean “dominant” in quantitative terms but dominant qualitatively. If one were to accept that (and I’m not inclined to), it’s interesting to look at the structural forms of labour and the forms of cooperation determined by them in the present.

Looking at the forms of cooperation emerging in labour processes today and in capitalist production as a whole, they seem to be arising within a much more horizontal and even autonomous framework. This is true not just of the kinds of production that involve computer technologies and networks but also those that are often understood as “service” work. This includes what we call affective labour: various kinds of production of ideas, code, images, or information that are organized in distributed network structures. The kinds of cooperation suggested by those forms of labour are no longer dictated by the centrality of the factory, but rather by workers who need to have the capacities to connect with others and to create cooperative relationships. These networked and horizontal relations of labour indicate to us the possibility of forming a powerful social subject in this same network form.

So, you might ask, why must we take this detour through changes in labour and through an analysis of the class composition of the contemporary proletariat? In response, I’d say it’s because we have to ask about people’s capacities for organizing autonomously. What is it that allows people to do that? It’s not given, in my view. There’s nothing in human nature that allows people to be able to spontaneously construct society in a democratic way. They need to develop those capacities. Our emphasis on work is a way of evaluating people’s capacities based on everyday life. If we can verify that people have certain capacities through labour, that’s one way of recognizing their capacity for democracy, autonomy, and self-organization. Without some way of verifying that, then all this talk about democratic organization – which is largely what we mean by multitude – would be just dreaming. We need some way of recognizing where people’s capacities lie and how they can be developed.

We’re living at a time marked by horrific sectarian violence in numerous places, including Iraq. Elsewhere, we can see the reassertion of national and ethnic identities in perhaps their worst and most regressive forms. How do you make sense of these phenomena in terms of the multitude?

These divisions are fomented as new weapons of domination. They are being used as instruments to make autonomous self-organization impossible. They also point to one of the areas in which theories of the multitude have to be pushed further. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily a weakness, but it’s something that hasn’t been developed as much. This isn’t something we’ve totally ignored. It’s not like we pretend that autonomous self-organization happens spontaneously or necessarily, or that it’s an element of human nature. We focus more on the possibilities of making it happen. In a world where so many people are convinced that it’s impossible to interact democratically or to form society without authority, we’ve felt the need to insist more strongly on possibilities. But the things you’re pointing toward make clear the necessity of thinking about the conflicts that arise among us and how we can manage them. It’s an extremely important theme to develop.

Within movements, there has been a lot of work done on conflict resolution. I’m not assuming that we’re all the same, that we all think the same, want the same things, or want to do the same things at demonstrations. Many of the practical and immediate organizing techniques to have arisen in these contexts have been about maintaining differences and allowing for internal conflicts to happen without weakening us. That’s the kind of thing that needs to be further developed theoretically.

You’ve argued that there have been three waves of global struggle since the mid-1990s. The first, which you’ve already hinted at, was initiated by the Zapatista revolt and continued through to Québec City and Genoa. Why was this cycle of struggle important?

During this period, there was experimentation with new understandings of global power and, therefore, confrontation with increasingly complex enemies. This involved thinking about global trade and entering into the specifics of trade agreements while still contesting dominant nation states, confronting the IMF, and so forth. This was an enormously complex, and I think very successful, element of that cycle of struggle. Second, there was the development of new modes of organizing. One of the dominant characteristics, especially in North America, was that a kind of joyfulness returned to the movement. This stood in contrast to what I experienced during the dour and moralistic 1980s.

The period after the Zapatista uprising signaled a return to a movement that was not only colourful and fun, but also properly joyful. This was linked to the experiments with horizontal structures. It allowed for and even encouraged a great diversity of movements with people working on different agendas, organizing differently, and being able to cooperate in ways that made us powerful. I think those were both extremely rich elements of this period. For all the justified self-criticism – for focusing on summit hopping, for maintaining a negative relationship to power and not being able to propose alternatives, and for being unable to make the movement properly global – despite these limitations, I think that cycle was enormously important.

What for me characterizes the subsequent cycle of struggle, which we might place between 2001 and 2006 is the return to a unification agenda around which the plurality of previous movements dealing with numerous global issues was reined in and centralized as an anti-war movement, an anti-Bush movement. I think that this was necessary. I don’t mean to say we should have done something different, and it did have some important positive effects, some of which were delayed, at least in the US. The anti-war movement’s efforts during the US government’s moment of self-congratulation opened the way for what has now become a wide majority of public opinion against the war. But it also had negative effects in closing down the plurality of the movement and by focusing on just the one objective, which created a certain kind of disillusionment, melancholy, and cynicism. This is certainly true in the US, and I think at least partly true in Canada. One cause of disillusionment was that the movements, despite how enormous they were throughout the world in 2003, couldn’t stop the war.

What made the movements build in the years before 2001 was their diversity. One of the wonderful new developments of the 1990s was the recognition that autonomy and difference didn’t mean separatism and isolation; it didn’t mean a weakening of the movement. In fact, people recognized that autonomy and difference are precisely what build movements. So the reduction to unity in the anti-war period coincided with a dramatic decline in activism and even a decline in the inspiration and creativity we felt in the previous period. While this anti-war/anti-Bush period was necessary, then, we made no real gains from it. We had nothing to learn from it. It wasn’t a moment of creativity the way the previous period was.

With the recent mobilizations in Germany against the G8, do you think there are signs of a new cycle of struggle taking shape?

I think Rostock was certainly different than previous anti-G8 struggles. It was the first one since Genoa to be marked by that plurality and creativity. I think that’s a good measure, actually, for the differentiation of these three different cycles. In Rostock, we had creative tactics on the ground once again. Even at the most micro-level of organizing, Rostock was enormously creative, open, and plural. There was no single agenda. There were enormously varied agendas that were once again feeding off each other and working together – with all their differences and disagreements. One of the exciting things about Rostock was the much greater participation of Eastern European activists (Polish, Ukrainian and Russian) who hadn’t been involved previously. Since at least the mid 1990s, Southern Europe had been taking the lead in Europe, including the French, Spanish and Italian movements. Rostock signalled that the Northern European movement (Scandinavian, German) and Eastern European activists are taking a much more dominant role.

Movements no longer feel the pressure to drop everything or subordinate all our of other ideas and agendas to oppose the war. This announces something quite hopeful. I also think the discussions in the United States at the US Social Forum and in preparation for the Republican National Convention next summer show signs of the kind of excitement that has been muted in recent years.

How does this new cycle of struggle stand in relation to the two you described earlier? Do you see it as a return to prior themes, or do you see it coming back to those acquisitions in a different way?

It has to be coming back to those characteristics in a different way. It’s difficult to say how the intervening period has changed things. What’s clear to me is the return to focusing on capital itself – a return to considering properly global issues and not simply focusing on either a specific war or on the US.

The mobilizations in Rostock have had an impact on people in different parts of Europe and elsewhere. How might this cycle of struggle impact Canada and the United States?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the activities at Rostock are going to have much direct impact. There were some North Americans there, but not a lot. Among North American activists, there isn’t that much consciousness of what’s been developing in Europe. In the US, I always have trouble recognizing what’s happening until it has already happened. But the one thing I do recognize is that there is a new excitement among activists about the potential to think differently. And I think that no longer being the lone voice against the war has, in the US, liberated activists. It’s like taking off the lid that had contained our excitement and creativity for several years.

I definitely think Rostock signals that the anti-capitalist globalization movement is back. In the United States, the condition that allows for that is the failure of the Bush war effort. This failure again opens a space for thinking globally and addressing the domination of capital. What forms this will actually take can’t be predicted. The most interesting innovations always come out of local organizing and from theorizing within movements. We are entering a period when, once again, activist innovations are going to teach us something new. ?


1 Commonly attributed to early 20th Century German jurist and Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, “the state of exception” refers to the legal suspension of thelaw(e.g.thewarmeasuresact).InPoliticalTheology,(1922)Schmittargued that the ability to declare the state of exception was the definitive mark of sovereign power. Owing much to the uses to which Giorgio Agamben has put it in recent years, Schmitt’s concept has once again become a matter of left theoretical debate. Focusing on biopolitics but contrasting his position to the one adopted by Foucault, Agamben argues that sovereign assertion is the normal form of power in modern society. Following this postulate to its logical conclusion, Agamben proposes that the state of exception – especially as expressed through the concentration camp – is “the nomos [law] of the modern.” See: S tate of Exception (2005) and H omo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998).