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Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, The Fight For "Real Democracy"

The Fight for "Real Democracy"
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

Demonstrations under the banner of Occupy Wall Street resonate with so
many people not only because they give voice to a widespread sense of
economic injustice but also, and perhaps more important, because they
express political grievances and aspirations. As protests have spread
from Lower Manhattan to cities and towns across the country, they have
made clear that indignation against corporate greed and economic
inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the
protest against the lack -- or failure -- of political representation.
It is not so much a question of whether this or that politician, or this
or that party, is ineffective or corrupt (although that, too, is true)
but whether the representational political system more generally is
inadequate. This protest movement could, and perhaps must, transform
into a genuine, democratic constituent process.

The political face of the Occupy Wall Street protests comes into view
when we situate it alongside the other "encampments" of the past year.
Together, they form an emerging cycle of struggles. In many cases, the
lines of influence are explicit. Occupy Wall Street takes inspiration
from the encampments of central squares in Spain, which began on May 15
and followed the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier last
spring. To this succession of demonstrations, one should add a series of
parallel events, such as the extended protests at the Wisconsin
statehouse, the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, and the Israeli
tent encampments for economic justice. The context of these various
protests are very different, of course, and they are not simply
iterations of what happened elsewhere. Rather each of these movements
has managed to translate a few common elements into their own situation.

In Tahrir Square, the political nature of the encampment and the fact
that the protesters could not be represented in any sense by the current
regime was obvious. The demand that "Mubarak must go" proved powerful
enough to encompass all other issues. In the subsequent encampments of
Madrid's Puerta del Sol and Barcelona's Plaça Catalunya, the critique of
political representation was more complex. The Spanish protests brought
together a wide array of social and economic complaints -- regarding
debt, housing, and education, among others -- but their "indignation,"
which the Spanish press early on identified as their defining affect,
was clearly directed at a political system incapable of addressing these
issues. Against the pretense of democracy offered by the current
representational system, the protesters posed as one of their central
slogans, "Democracia real ya," or "Real democracy now."

Occupy Wall Street should be understood, then, as a further development
or permutation of these political demands. One obvious and clear message
of the protests, of course, is that the bankers and finance industries
in no way represent us: What is good for Wall Street is certainly not
good for the country (or the world). A more significant failure of
representation, though, must be attributed to the politicians and
political parties charged with representing the people's interests but
in fact more clearly represent the banks and the creditors. Such a
recognition leads to a seemingly naive, basic question: Is democracy not
supposed to be the rule of the people over the polis -- that is, the
entirety of social and economic life? Instead, it seems that politics
has become subservient to economic and financial interests.

By insisting on the political nature of the Occupy Wall Street protests
we do not mean to cast them merely in terms of the quarrels between
Republicans and Democrats, or the fortunes of the Obama administration.
If the movement does continue and grow, of course, it may force the
White House or Congress to take new action, and it may even become a
significant point of contention during the next presidential election
cycle. But the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations are both
authors of the bank bailouts; the lack of representation highlighted by
the protests applies to both parties. In this context, the Spanish call
for "real democracy now" sounds both urgent and challenging.

If together these different protest encampments -- from Cairo and Tel
Aviv to Athens, Madison, Madrid, and now New York -- express a
dissatisfaction with the existing structures of political
representation, then what do they offer as an alternative? What is the
"real democracy" they propose?

The clearest clues lie in the internal organization of the movements
themselves -- specifically, the way the encampments experiment with new
democratic practices. These movements have all developed according to
what we call a "multitude form" and are characterized by frequent
assemblies and participatory decision-making structures. (And it is
worth recognizing in this regard that Occupy Wall Street and many of
these other demonstrations also have deep roots in the globalization
protest movements that stretched at least from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa
in 2001.)

Much has been made of the way social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been employed in these encampments. Such network instruments do not create the movements, of course, but they are convenient tools, because they correspond in some sense to the horizontal network structure and democratic experiments of the movements themselves. Twitter, in other words, is useful not only for announcing an event but for polling the
views of a large assembly on a specific decision in real time.

Do not wait for the encampments, then, to develop leaders or political
representatives. No Martin Luther King, Jr. will emerge from the
occupations of Wall Street and beyond. For better or worse -- and we are
certainly among those who find this a promising development -- this
emerging cycle of movements will express itself through horizontal
participatory structures, without representatives. Such small-scale
experiments in democratic organizing would have to be developed much
further, of course, before they could articulate effective models for a
social alternative, but they are already powerfully expressing the
aspiration for a "real democracy."

Confronting the crisis and seeing clearly the way it is being managed by
the current political system, young people populating the various
encampments are, with an unexpected maturity, beginning to pose a
challenging question: If democracy -- that is, the democracy we have
been given -- is staggering under the blows of the economic crisis and
is powerless to assert the will and interests of the multitude, then is
now perhaps the moment to consider that form of democracy obsolete?

If the forces of wealth and finance have come to dominate supposedly
democratic constitutions, including the U.S. Constitution, is it not
possible and even necessary today to propose and construct new
constitutional figures that can open avenues to again take up the
project of the pursuit of collective happiness? With such reasoning and
such demands, which were already very alive in the Mediterranean and
European encampments, the protests spreading from Wall Street across the
United States pose the need for a new democratic constituent process.