Interview with Michael Hardt – “Dissatisfaction makes me hopeful”

Michael Hardt wants us to rethink democracy. We spoke about the struggle for democratic participation, the future of protest movements, and lessons from Lenin.

Mensel: In Spain, Greece, and Italy people are protesting against the austerity politics championed by the European Union. At the same time, elections in those countries have caused political turmoil – hardly suited to counteract European demands. Is participation failing?
Hardt: It has not yet succeeded. In Italy and Spain, the political situation is not just a refusal of the austerity measures but also a rejection of the political structures. The Italian election confirmed the death of the Democratic Party of the Left, which had become an austerity party. But in addition to the dissatisfaction with the austerity discourse, I would interpret it as a rejection of the established way of doing politics and the established structures. Some of the discourse of the _indignados_ has not only been about the economic policy but about the political situation. They claimed that the political parties do not represent them and refuse to collaborate with or participate with those parties. We must distinguish between protest and even protest votes as an economic rejection, and the destabilization of traditional political structures.

The economic situation in these countries nevertheless seems like a catalyst for protest: In Spain, it was the economic background that pushed them on the streets.
This assumes that there already used to be a dissatisfaction with politics as a whole – an interesting point. One of the things I find most interesting in discussions with the _indignados_ is that current processes are refreshing the path to democracy taken after Franco’s death and recognizing the false nature of the democracy that was created then.

Dissatisfaction has a history
It wasn’t just born in 2008 but preexisted before the economic crisis and the resulting austerity. What I find useful about that perspective is that it makes questions of economic politics and austerity secondary to an existing dissatisfaction – and to political desires. I feel too often that the reading of these movements in their dominant countries has been strictly about their economic nature and not about their political nature. Both the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupies were of course about economic inequality, the role of finance, new poverty, the gap in wealth. But some of the most profound experiments of Occupy had to do with political relations and the form of political movements. This dimension often seems eclipsed.

You mention a false nature of democracy, and yet the countries you mention are parliamentary democracies. They stand in a tradition we hold dear: Elected representatives, checks and balances…
…and all that is a lot better than tyranny and dictatorship. But I don’t think it corresponds to everything we hold dear in our European or Northern Atlantic traditions. There are traditions within the European thought that regard both republicanism or democracy not as being based on representation. In the US, there is often an over-the-top reverence for the Founding Fathers. In all their brilliance, that reverence makes them uniform – as if they were all the same and had always been in agreement. But there were significant differences: James Madison – one of the primary drafters of the constitution – wrote that representation is the defining characteristic of republicanism. Whereas Thomas Jefferson said that structures of representation are meant as a bulwark against republicanism. For him, republicanism requires the active participation of all the population in self government. That is why I think we have resources in our tradition to think democracy differently.

So participation is merely underdeveloped.
There are obstacles that need to be addressed. In some ways I agree with you: The common sense is that of course these are democracies because of the aspects you mentioned. But on the other hand, it would be hard to find someone who wasn’t cynical about the nature of these media-corporate spectacles that are given to us as elections. I am sure that from a European perspective, one can denigrate what goes on in the US. But I would claim that is a more general phenomenon, which involves both the role of media and the role of money. And there is a general recognition of not just the imperfection but the falsity of that notion of representation.

In your most recent book “Constitution” you describe protest movements as a birthplace for a new kind of democracy. In this magazine, you have written about democracy in 100 years, outlining a future in which participation has become more universal and where self-governance is a reality.
The realism of utopian thinking has to be based on a recognition of desires and imagination. That in fact is the best guarantee of the plausible or reasonable in a utopian project. That is what would then give me confidence: First of all, there is dissatisfaction with the existing structures even when functioning at their best. It may only be a minority – albeit a growing one – that has some desire for some sort of alternative and to not being resigned to how bad things are.

Why does it emerge now?
In Europe and the United States, the Cold War had a great freezing quality on the critique of the current system and imagination of alternatives…

…even though the system might have seemed imperfect, there was a much more menacing one behind the Iron Curtain?
Exactly. The removal of that worse pulls out the foundational argument and just leaves the dissatisfaction – without the worse. If you take away the ultimate evil, you are just left with something that is really bad. The other evils of the world don’t fulfill the same functions in Western Europe that the Soviet threat did. Politicized radical Islam figures as a military face of threat that continues military operations but it doesn’t figure as a political alternative that can calm political dissatisfaction in the same way. This has opened up the possibility of expressing dissatisfaction and imagining alternatives.

A common critique of the protest movements is that their participatory nature slowed down their formulation of such an alternative. The German Pirate Party took a similar approach and were first hailed as a model for the future, and now they are being criticized for not having an all-encompassing program. Where does the optimum between participation and practicality lie?
I don’t think participation means that everyone has to do the same thing and that everyone has to do everything. It is a similar principle when one thinks about production or work: The division of labor doesn’t prohibit us from making decisions about how we produce. I would say the same thing about these political decisions. When you say practicality, I assume it is about divisions of expertise, focus, and spending time. That doesn’t necessarily require everyone to decide on everything. We are at a pretty embryonic point at developing systems of political participation that are effective and long-lasting. Many of the experiments have created a lot of frustration. One could regard those as proof of impracticability. In my view, it is proof of not yet having succeeded. Experiments don’t have to show what you expected, so one has to keep experimenting.

In Switzerland, participation takes place within the established structures in the form of referenda. Aren’t those kinds of participation a first step to what you have in mind?
It isn’t hard to come up with referenda that have worked well and stimulated political participation. But most of them function very differently, they don’t stimulate public participation, awareness, or inquisitiveness  – learning about things – but instead have just been the expression of an engaged minority. Referenda have a useful outcome when they work as public pedagogy.

Doesn’t that show that greater participation is very much possible within the existing structures.
Absolutely, greater participation is possible, our existing representatives could be more honest, less corrupt – all these things could be good.

I am asking because I sense a tendency to romanticize the lone protester – even though there are many examples in history when systems have improved from within.
You are right in your reluctance to romanticize the criticism of the system in its totality. There are ways in which protest functions together with reforms within the system. Think of Occupy Wall Street, those were trying to dream of a different system, but some of the most immediate and substantive effects took place within the US political system, like the general recognition of the role of finance. One of the immediate responses to Occupy Wall Street was the small shift in discussion about social inequality and the need to recognize the problems of the poor, the exuberant powers of Wall Street. These were subtle shifts, like a resonance of what was happening in the protest of the outside.

Speaking of progress, an influential thinker you frequently mention is Lenin – a somewhat controversial choice. The Russian revolutions are almost 100 years ago, what can we learn from Lenin today?
The way I read Lenin’s theory of the party is that one needs to recognize how people relate to each other in their everyday life and particularly at work. For him, the most powerful political organization is one that functions on the structures of people’s work relationships: People have a boss at work so they need a boss in their political life.
If you were trying to be properly Leninist today, you’d have to look at people’s relationships at work and so the party would suddenly look different: A much more horizontal and cooperative relationship, a kind of network. Therefore, the most powerful political organization today would be based on those models.

Isn’t it what we can see in today’s movements?
The way I read Lenin’s point, people weren’t capable of self-organization in the Russia of 1916 – in part because they weren’t doing it at work. To the extent that people do know how to self-organize today both at work and in their daily lives, one would hope that we could create a powerful political organization based on peoples’ practices of self-organization. It often comes to my mind that Jefferson and Lenin actually make a similar point: Jefferson once wrote “Maybe the result of this experiment will to finally rule ourselves without masters.” Both recognize that democracy is not something spontaneous that people are born with but rather has to be the fruit of a political progress, that we learn to rule ourselves without masters. It doesn’t seem to me that we have arrived at that, but we are working on it.

This interview was first published in The European on April 15, 2013.

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