So Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have published a Declaration regarding the global social movements of 2011 and their implications. If you’ve followed their trilogy from Empire to Commonwealth, there are not too many surprises here but, as ever, some great formulations. Perhaps most usefully they can serve as the lightning rod for the debate over parties and leadership (they’re against) and in starting a new discussion over “commoning.”
Declaration is above all a voicing of support for the social movements and their encampments as offering a clear articulation of the current situation and the beginnings of a way to get past the crisis. It will not be without its detractors within and without the movements but the support is surely welcome.
In the manner of Derrida in Limited Inc., one might start with the inside matter (which is in fact the last page of the Kindle): “Copyright…All rights reserved.” For a project about commoning, wouldn’t a copyleft or Creative Commons license be more appropriate? OK, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon but you have to have a Kindle-friendly device: why not just put out a free PDF? So this post will give a fairly extensive summary of the pamphlet as a form of copylefting.
This isn’t just a cheap shot, I hope. In an early formulation that they return to often, Hardt and Negri (HN) quote Ralph Ellison’s invisible man:
“Who knows,” Ellison’s narrator concludes, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Today, too, those in struggle communicate on the lower frequencies, but, unlike in Ellison’s time, no one speaks for them. The lower frequencies are open airwaves for all. And some messages can be heard only by those in struggle.
This eloquently speaks to the sense that the social movements articulate in murmurs that cannot be heard by self-declared elites and in media that are not known to them.
To explore these frequencies HN use four main figures:
the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented.
Debt: here HN nicely note that
[t]he social safety net has passed from a system of welfare to one of debtfare.
They suggest that the indebted suffer from an “unhappy consciousness” but, contrary to Hegel, this is a
nondialectical form, because debt is not a negative that can enrich you if you rebel.
They see debt as an end to the “illusions that surround the dialectic,” a phrase that will no doubt get them into trouble in certain quarters, because the indebted “cannot be redeemed, only destroyed.” Perhaps they have ventured here where even David Graeber feared to tread, but it would not have hurt them to acknowledge Graeber’s work in more than an endnote bibliographic reference.
Given the opening formula, this section is disappointing, sometimes very much so. Time and again, people appear as mere dupes of the media, “hypnotized,” “stifled,” “absorbed,” “fragmented and dispersed.” The theory of the military-industrial-entertainment complex seems more useful as a means of exploring these effects than this lament, to use their own term, for lost reality.
By contrast, “living information” is said to be gained by physical proximity based on a study of an Olivetti factory in the 1960s by Romano Alquati. Thus, at the encampments
the participants experienced the power of creating new political affects through being together.
While that seems clearly true, there’s a hint of Romantic nostalgia in the evocation of the letter over the email and the distaste for social media. Entirely absent here, despite the inclusion of the “image” in their biopolitical production, is any mention of the role of photography and moving image distribution. From the al-Jazeera feeds of Tunisia and Tahrir to the Livestreaming of Occupy, web-disseminated video has indeed created a new way of being together without which it’s hard to understand the formation of global affinities that we’ve witnessed over the past 18 months.
This is a strange usage because it means the production of fear as politics, the “state of emergency” and mass surveillance, rather than referring to the financial securities that caused the crash. Again, HN cite Foucault to support the notion that the prison begins as soon as you leave the house, with no reference questions of digital privacy and surveillance that have recently created waves of activism.
After all, if 2011 began this phase of the global social movements, it did so in part because hackers from Anonymous allowed Tunisian activists to liaise undetected and to evade Ben Ali’s digital surveillance. At the time of writing, Twitter has intervened in support of an OWS activist, Malcolm Harris, whose tweets have been subpoenaed, arguing that they remain his property.
While I completely agree with the substantial focus on the US incarceration crisis that follows, it’s again odd not to see this described in terms of Angela Y. Davis’s notion of the prison-industrial complex, although she is cited later on in relation to prison abolition.
The apparent elisions in the preceding figures become clear when we reach this section, which is at the heart of HN’s analysis:
The represented gathers together the figures of the indebted, the mediatized, and the securitized, and at the same time, epitomizes the end result of their subordination and corruption.
The power of wealth, the media and the security apparatus have made representative democracy into the present-day ancien régime, corrupt and incapable of being reformed, leaving the represented with “no access to effective political action.”
The second chapter, “Rebellion against the Crisis,” both seeks to create a theoretical apparatus for, and to give approval to, the rebellions against neoliberalism. The chapter theorizes that
Real communication among singularities in networks … requires an encampment.
By which is meant that the indebted become singular (as opposed to individual) by refusing debt, and learning to communicate outside the mediatized environment, a process that causes them to set aside fear. The encampment becomes the form of the real communication that results. At this point
subjectivities capable of democratic action will begin to emerge.
For HN this is a constituent process, as well as the destituent refusal of the encampments. Words like “must” and “required” get used in relation to this constituent issue, which sounds like another form of saying that there must be demands. At the same time, “constituent action” calls into being “autonomous temporality,” in which the slowness of the assemblies mingles with the acceleration of social change to create an “alternative.”
The alternative takes the form of “counterpowers” and here it’s great to see a strong stress on anthropogenic climate change and planetary degradation set into historical context. Following Peter Linebaugh, HN stress that the Magna Carta, root of Anglophone doctrines of “liberty,” was accompanied by a Charter of the Forest that allowed for sustainable living. In the present, a key question becomes the “transforming of the public into the common,” which they discuss briefly in a variety of contexts including water, banks and communications. They acknowledge the paradox that in such contexts
we set out aiming for the common but find ourselves back under the control of the state.
Following the experience of social movements in Latin America, they suggest we should attempt rather to remain external and
force the mechanisms of government to become processes of governance.
This is a form of organization HN call “federalist,” meaning not a pyramid but a horizontal and plural set of organizing mechanisms, of which the 2011 encampments were an example. In this way, a democratic affect can be generated by the very process of direct democracy.
In sum, HN call for a new “commoning” in which the commoner works on the common. I like the recuperation of commoner, which, in the UK at least, is often used in somewhat derogatory fashion. I like the making of the common into a verb, something that is performed and learned through doing. They close with a salutary warning: it will not be through
ideology or centralized political leadership
that this commoning will be accomplished. To the contrary, they argue, what they call the “traditional Left” (meaning vanguard and social democratic parties alike, I presume) is a significant obstacle:
What a tragic lack of political imagination to think that leaders and centralized structures are the only way to organize effective political projects!
For that, the brickbats will fall on their heads and those of us interested in developing and expanding horizontal direct democracies should thank them. Perhaps a similarly direct approach throughout would have given Declaration a more rousing feel than it currently has, at least on first read. There’s plenty of material for substantive discussion and useful categorization of the past year here. By the very argument of the project, the next steps won’t be found in a pamphlet but in the sometimes arduous, sometimes exhilarating process of commoning.