Hardt and Negri’s Declaration on Occupy and the Arab Spring

This text promises to make a big splash in activist as well as left political thought circles around the world: Hardt and Negri have published a declaration on the Arab Spring and the Occupy encampments. I’ve just finished a first reading of it, and my initial impressions is that it is very of the time, very much in a language and logic which, although undoubtably academic, can be picked up quickly by activists as a means of simplifying and comprehending what is going on, and it even concretizes a logic of how to move forward which surely will appeal to many socialists and anarchists.

To put it briefly, it suggests we consider debt and mediatization, rather than wage slavery and lack of access to information, as the primary and unifying forms of material and psychological oppression at work today. This is persuasive – debt transforms the relation of the worker to consumption, especially with respect to time. Hardt and Negri don’t go into the details of how debt functions, but this is the way I see it: Debt makes the worker responsible for their own failure to live beyond their means – whereas before easy access to credit if a worker couldn’t afford the necessities they simply couldn’t perform their job, now the worker is perfectly capable of performing labour while living beyond their means and racking up debt which can be paid back only by reducing future consumption. The fact that most desires remedied by the goods consumed is a manufactured desire is also not mentioned in the declaration – maybe because it’s too obvious today, but that is only the case for academics. I suspect it’s instead because to claim a desire is unreal presumes a real/unreal distinction with respect to desires which is not post-modern enough for today’s post-materialist activist culture. This is related to their development of the concept of “mediatization”, which is the idea that today the problem is not access to information but too much information and not enough time for reflection. In relation to this, the concrete occupy camps are quite important, because the learning that happens in common there can not simply be replaced by reading news articles (nor philosophical declarations) online.

Probably most significant here is the emphasis on the common as the correct goal of the disperate struggles today – local self-determination, which may not be immediately achievable but rather pass through a stage of public administration. Hardt and Negri suggest we abandon the concept of socialist state planning and proceed directly to local administration based on democratic principles, such as the ones employed at occupy encampments.

While I feel the need to defend this text against reactionary right wing criticisms, I do not in fact agree with much of its analysis or direction. For instance, I don’t actually believe that the affect produced at the encampments is sufficient, nor sufficiently democratic, to sustain or direct struggles in positive and creative directions which speak to the public, which can speak for or mobilize something like a general or democratic will. The shared affect can surely be effective and crucial, but so far I only see it doing so negatively – in opposition to unjust situations such as to oppose the tuition increases in Quebec, or to oust the dictator from Egypt. The organizing style of today remains too traumatized in its relationship with authority to found positive institutions which could carry out the reforms the principles here require. To speak to Hardt and Negri’s favour, they recognize this by emphasizing the need for the struggling movements to adapt a constitutional structure which can be effective at instantiating a program concretely.

In general, this text and the protest movements more generally are too blindly opposed to the idea of hierarchy and to the styles of revolutionary process they reject. They correctly do not buy into the 60s “pure individual against impure institution” narrative, but only by replacing it with a new idea of a pure institution (the general assembly), which is not only impure but weak and by its emphasis on inclusion of concretely present participants, effectively exclusive towards much of the disadvantaged masses today.

However, the text nor the protestors are not wrong to attempt to form new ways of forming institutions, and to refuse simple codification into existing political discourse. Existing political forms of discourse and power, rather than their content, are the key problem today. The problem is not to “get the right person elected”, or “take the right side on debates that appear in the public discourse”, but to change the way political power circulates and to change the way debates appear and occur.

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