Michael Hardt, "Preoccupied"

Occupied Times Interviews Michael Hardt

[Michael Hardt has combined his role as Professor of Literature and Italian at Duke University with political writings and activism. Together with the Italian Marxist Antonio Negri, he has produced an influential critique of our present time. Their trilogy of books – titled “Empire”, “Multitude”, and “Commonwealth” – have been described by Slavoj Zizek as a “Communist manifesto for the 21st Century.”]

The Occupied Times: In your recent work, Declaration, you and Professor Negri identified four political archetypes or ‘paradigmatic subjectivities’, as you call them, that you believe will be crucial to any political change. These are: the indebted, the represented, the mediatised and the securitised. In looking at the indebted, how can we transform what starts as consciousness-raising about the importance of ‘the debtor’ as a subject under post-Fordist capitalism, into a more viable means to challenge those who make us the indebted?

Michael Hardt: We intend for these names to identify subjective figures produced and reproduced today by capital and the crisis. This is what capital makes us into. Our assumption or claim is that capital functions centrally through the production of subjectivity. And these are also the figures, it seems to us, that many contemporary movements seek to attack.

Two core elements of being indebted are the individualising power and the moralising effects of the condition: you are responsible – even guilty – for your own debts. And yet, in the US, at least, you practically have to be in debt in order to live – to go to university, to get health care, to get an apartment, etc. I like Christian Marazzi’s formulation that we have passed from welfare to debtfare, meaning all those things that used to be covered by welfare — education, health, housing — are now subject to personal debt.

So, movements that reveal the broad social nature of debt make one step to de-individualising it. And a second step is to organise debtors in a movement to make collective demands. I think Strike Debt, which has emerged in the US out of Occupy Wall Street is an excellent example of the kinds of organising that can address the situation of indebtedness.

OT: What do you think about a fifth subjectivity: the stigmatised? Mentally ill, disabled and trans* people can be seen as “fair game” for discrimination by both the state and wider society. The stigmatised experience the kind of isolation you say is key to the formation of your other groupings, and are often forced to be more politically conscious and active as they are more likely to be on the frontline of the neoliberal state’s attacks.

MH: Yes, that’s great, and you might link that discussion to the tradition of analyses of the normal and the abnormal.

We by no means consider our short list to be exhaustive. We hope it might stimulate others to think of other subjective figures produced by capital that we need to struggle against. The point is simply to identify the forms of the capitalist production of subjectivity and discover means to challenge or even invert them.

OT: So, do you agree with much of the recent theorising around debt by the likes of Graeber and Lazzarato? Are they correct in arguing that labour is, to a large extent, about social control, and it is through our debts that the bulk of capital accumulation now comes?

MH: I very much agree that debt is a central structural and subjective mechanism of control today. And I find David’s and Maurizio’s books wonderfully helpful and illuminating in that regard.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that debt has somehow today replaced exploitation as a primary figure of domination, as if labour were no longer a central element of domination – and I do not read David or Maurizio as saying this. Increasing debt has added to and exacerbated forms of exploitation.

Along the lines of your previous suggestion, then, we should add the figure of the precarious to emphasise that any political focus on debt should also focus on labour. That would allow us to clarify some of the intersections of the indebted and the precarious and highlight the lines of control and domination.

OT: We’ve recently seen workfare emerge as a form of discipline here in the UK. Would you agree that a form of unionisation around new forms of capitalist exploitation could provide a successful post-Fordist alternative to the traditional union? What would be the potential outcome/result/change if the unemployed, the precarious, the indebted collectively organised themselves outside of existing trade unions, which tend to identify around specific forms of work?

MH: In my view, we have to work from both sides. As you say, we must create new forms of unionisation that can effectively organise the precarious, the indebted, the migrant, and the unemployed, experimenting with organisational methods adequate to confront the great challenges posed by their conditions. And, at the same time, traditional labour unions must break open their corporativist structures and transform themselves so as to engage and include greater labouring populations. These two processes can complement one another.

OT: To turn to an anecdote of yours: you once recounted that when in Latin America some years ago, activists there told you that you would be of more help to the struggle if you returned home. Do you think there’s an argument for us to overwhelmingly focus efforts on the local or are the exploits of the roving activist valid today, like they were in the Spanish Civil War?

MH: The point of that anecdote, in part, was that in the mid-1980s I had great difficulty imagining how to develop a revolutionary or transformative movement in the United States – and I don’t think I was the only one. Since then, though, the situation has changed. Beginning with ACT-UP and Queer Nation, at least in my experience, and through the alterglobalisation movements, Zapatista collectives, occupy, and others, there has been a great deal of important experimentation.

I think that for movements to be rooted in the local territory is powerful and important. The various encampments and occupations that emerged throughout 2011, particularly those in North Africa and Spain, demonstrated this in clear terms.

But it is certainly also important not to be closed in the local or national framework. Not just solidarity but also communicating and being inspired by struggles elsewhere is key – as well as developing an analysis that grasps the global nature of the forces and powers we are confronting. The alterglobalisation movements were very important in this regard.

And furthermore there is no reason for any of us to be limited to doing politics only where we are from. Think of how Argentinians and other South Americans played important roles with the Indignados in Spain, and how people from all over were central in the Zuccotti Park occupation. I imagine that your experiences with non-Britons participating centrally in the St Paul’s occupation were very similar.

OT: If the manifestation of today’s Empire is global, whilst most legal apparatus deal with sovereignty at a national level, are there currently any forms of institution that have a hope of holding this supranational Empire to account in any tangible or practicable way? If not, can they, or should they, be built?

MH: I am all for working through existing supranational institutions to challenge violations of international law, aid the poor, help refugees, etc. Much good can come, for instance, from working through United Nations structures to aid Palestinian refugees in the West Bank or to challenge violations of human rights.

At the same time, though, one should not expect too much from such supranational institutions. They operate under rigid political and ideological limitations. Necessary too are various forms of autonomous and direct political action. My point is simply that it’s not a question of either/or.

MH: One important idea derived from the Italian Autonomist school is the notion of immaterial labour, or affective labour. David Graeber argues that immaterial labour relies on a “crude, old-fashioned Marxism” yet ignores a basic Marxist concept: that the world does not consist of a collection of discrete objects, but of actions and processes. This form of labour has traditionally been the work of women, as Silvia Federici points out, but has nevertheless always been a central tenet of traditional Marxism. What do you make of Graeber’s argument? Where do you think the theories of immaterial labour stand apart from traditional Marxist theories?

MH: The most important idea that should be maintained as point of departure, it seems to me, is that in each era and each situation one should first conduct an analysis of class composition. All kinds of errors result when one just assumes that the composition of labour is just the same as it was in the past or as it is elsewhere. We have to ask, in other words, what do people do at work? How is cooperation among them achieved? How are they divided hierarchically by race, gender, and other lines? And how might they be organised politically?

In our effort to look at labour today in this way, Toni and I (along with many others) arrive at concepts like immaterial production, biopolitical production, affective labour, precarious work, and so forth. We are trying with these concepts to grasp what people do at work today and to respond to the questions I posed above.

So, if by traditional Marxist theory you mean continually going back to conduct an analysis of class composition as a basis for political strategy, then, yes, that is our method. But that method, of course, leads us today away from some traditional and orthodox Marxist claims about the centrality of the industrial working class, the subordinate role of non-waged female domestic labour or of peasant labour, and so forth. The point is to recognise, in other words, that class composition is continually changing.

OT: Federici claims in her essay Precarious Labour: A Feminist Viewpoint that, the theory of affective labour strips the feminist analysis of housework and reproductive labour of all its demystifying power. Would you agree? Do theories surrounding precarious labour ignore feminist theory as Federici has claimed?

MH: In my experience, much of the discussion about immaterial and biopolitical production over the past decade, especially in France, has focused on “cognitive labour” and the new cognitariat. I think much of this work has been extremely important, but it has tended to focus (sometimes despite the intention of the authors) on the intellectual work of the high level sectors of the workforce.

I have found that, in this context, focusing on the concept of affective labour has the potential to extend this discussion through various levels of the service sector and to highlight the gendered nature of these forms of work. For me and Toni, the notion of affective labour brought together two different traditions: one that derives from Spinoza’s analysis of the affects and the other grounded in the Anglo-American socialist feminist analyses of care work, kin work, maternal labour, emotional work, reproductive labour, and the like.

Therefore, I very much agree that analyses of affective labour should highlight the gender hierarchies at work, and, when possible, point toward feminist political action.

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