Michael Hardt, ‘The Right to the Common’ – A Response

What, if anything, unifies the expressions of public protest that ‘kicked off everywhere’ in 2010-11, from Dataran to Tunis to Zuccotti Park? If such a unity exists, to what extent are those engaged in the struggles self-consciously aware of it? And, if such a self-consciousness exists, to what extent does it help further the cause of social justice in a world beset by financial crisis and elite corruption? In his talk at Ohio University’s campus in Athens, last week, Michael Hardt argued that the main stake in this most recent “cycle of struggles” was the pursuit of a sort of ‘right to the common.’ While those in the movements were engaged in struggles that were spatially and temporally specific, he suggested, they were unified by a desire to resolve a contradiction that has become increasingly apparent in the context of the current financial crisis. That contradiction inheres in the fact that the main ideological wellsprings for resolving the crisis have essentially run dry. The flaws of neoliberalism, on the one hand, or the idea that the optimal distributive solutions are to be found through a doubling-down on the rationalizing logic of the market, are by now well-known. Conversely, on the other, the notion that a philosophy of ‘public goods’ can somehow guarantee “shared open access” to the common, a notion which Hardt understands in quite an expansive sense, is increasingly suspect given the draconian statist policies such a position can sometimes underwrite. Hardt’s thesis then, briefly stated, is that the commitment of the movements to a form of organization and decision-making that is essentially horizontal (my term, not his) in nature attests to a sort of emerging awareness of the need for an alternative to these ‘zombie’ ideologies. This spirit of horizontalism, he appeared to say, distinguishes the movements as engaged in a kind of “double combat.” That is, in their efforts to engage in a kind of radically democratic form of allocative management – an attempt beset by flaws to be sure, but a meaningful attempt nevertheless – horizontalism appears to adopt the following posture: “We win the public, but then we have to fight it for the common.”

This unity of a desire for a right to the common then, what exactly is it? The common is of course a concept that Hardt and his co-author Antonio Negri have been talking about for a long time. It is a central topic of their second book, Multitude, for example. Here, broadly speaking, it refers to open knowledges and capacities for creating and sustaining life and relationships (he alludes also to an ‘environmental’ common). An openness of access to the common is important for Hardt and Negri insofar as it is the wealth which enables a meaningful and properly joyful life, for everyone. As things stand, however, and especially in the context of the financial crisis and its regime of austerity, this access is thwarted and the promise of human potential forestalled. In its place, we find indebtedness and misery for the many, and exceptions and bailouts for the few. The unity of desire for the common can be traced empirically to some extent, he suggests. Indeed, in his talk, Hardt spoke of the fact that there were many examples of activists from the various encampments visiting each other, and learning from each other. But these literal connections are perhaps less important than we might think. For while veteran activists have the resources and skills to make these sorts of connections, and often do, the more interesting energy in the process seemed to come from relative newcomers to the protest scene. These newcomers, admittedly naive in some ways, perhaps, were nevertheless roused to issue incredibly powerful and unified demands. For Hardt, one of the most pure expressions of this phenomenon is the ‘que se vayan todos’ chant of the Argentinian streets in 2002. From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, countless numbers of people who had never before engaged in protest became part of this tradition by asserting for themselves the right to represent their own views, directly. This moment is part of a ‘constituent process’ – a process which, through its ‘destituent power,’ holds the foes of democracy in check, reasserting the sovereign power of the ‘declaration’ over the ‘constitution,’ and reminding us of the necessarily dynamic nature of the real politics. For, after all, rights are proposed and won in struggle – a fact which the legal experts who specialize in interpreting Constitutions seem all too ready to forget.

The most interesting part of the evening was probably the Q&A, however. For in a talk rich with references to Spinoza (“we have as much right as we have power”), Jefferson and Lincoln (the Declaration is “an apple of gold” and the Constitution its “frame of silver”), it was easy to feel oneself called upon to join in a sort of fantasy: “We’re here, this multitude, or this constituent process. We’ve arrived, and this is our time.” Yet questions remained. Obviously, its not quite here yet. So what is it that might drive this constituent process to a point of crystallization where it actually poses something more? That is, what yet needs to happen for the multitude to become continuous or, as Hardt puts it, “become prince”? How are we supposed to understand this metaphor that Hardt seemed only hesitantly wed to, that the history of this struggle is like a burrowing mole? I think in some ways, the most interesting part of the talk was right here, but it was frustratingly short. Hardt suggested that the mole metaphor, drawn from Marx, was perhaps too naturalistic. He wanted a metaphor, perhaps something more like a virus, that implied something more “reckless,” a power that would be able to modulate itself to its specific circumstances, yet retain something of itself all the same. This, I suppose, in keeping with the sort of claim Hardt and Negri make sometimes, that the moments where destituent power ‘breaks out’ can be linked to a genealogy of similar such moments: i.e., the spirit of the current cycle is a return of the spirit of Seattle, but maybe different this time. Back then it chased and harassed the process of the entrenched powers around the globe. Now it camps. Yet in both instances it put horizontally-organized bodies on the line, as destituent obstacles in the name of the common.

For me, thinking back on the talk now, I guess one of the frustrating things is perhaps the idea that the multitude has to find out for itself how to become prince. Are there no pointers as to how this might be achieved? (I’ve not quite fully read Declaration, or Multitude, I should note). I sometimes wonder why there is not more they can say on this subject. After all, there are places in the firmament of this crisis where it is not clear that the mole is anywhere nearby. And even where protest does break out, its not always clear that its horizontalist credentials are enough to earn it a place in the multitude. In Ireland, for example, the ‘Occupy Dame Street’ movement sustained itself horizontally for a long time. But it was clear to see for anyone venturing to the camp that the loyalties of many were quite statist in nature. Messages and slogans in favor of quitting the European Union, slandering the ‘Nazism’ of contemporary Germany … to anyone looking to the camp for a hopeful example of the multitude in action, these claims appeared nationalistic and partial. I can’t help but feel that tactics and strategies for overcoming this kind of silliness would be helpful. But maybe the fact that I say this means that, somehow, I don’t quite get it yet. Reading Hardt’s essay in his short Declaration of Independence book, you get the sense that he sides with Jefferson’s spirit of letting the experimenters in democracy make their mistakes. Yet, in the same breath, Hardt ended his talk by suggesting that a commitment to the right to democratic management of the common is a core metric by which we can evaluate social justice movements today: “so future constituent power has to be measured against this.” I find this to be an important line…

4 thoughts on “Michael Hardt, ‘The Right to the Common’ – A Response”

  1. I've read Empire and Declaration. I had to leave without asking my question after his talk. I wonder, for instance, how he viewed the anti-rape movement that emerged in an enraged manner in Delhi and India in December. What happens to movements like that? And do leader-less movements eventually need leaders?

    1. I think, for Hardt, an authentic 'Multitudinal' movement honors the need to collectively govern the resources of the common through a commitment to non-exclusive forms of decision making. The rape case you speak of would be an expression of this insofar as it was a spontaneous 'destituent' expression. The bigger question for him, however, is how to institutionalize this expression so it 'becomes prince' – that's where I'm curious. If we read Declaration, its apparent in several places that they disavow their ability to say how this 'becoming prince' should be achieved. They do, however, offer some guiding advice about the challenges… and new opportunities… But I think this is where I get frustrated.

  2. In other networks a vanguard forms of which its membership is then pieced out to form additional networks. Thus far the end goal finishes up as conventional warfare from Mao to now. An authority is present even if it is delegation of duties and responsibilities. The key to maintaining this leaderless structure long term, to my mind, appears to be keeping the levers of power rigorously depersonalized. This way the benefits of specialization or compartmentalization are reaped while frustrating fiefdoms or intra-organization Realist balancing. Frustration is the best you can hope for: the Communist Party of China came in as revolutionaries and are now the presiding power, so to speak.

  3. Hardt’s elusiveness about becoming prince is likely because he knows no plan survives intact first contact with the enemy. To add another allusion or something to the discussion: Hardt is enlightening us with a floodlight and not a spotlight. While the general terrain is obvious the lights diffuse nature obscures some specific landmarks as well as pits. Boots on the ground going forward find those.

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