Below is an interview I did with Michael Hardt by phone in October 2006. It was slated to appear in an issue of Greenpepper Magazine. I haven’t been able to reach folk from Greenpepper for a while and I don’t know if that issue came out. I’d like the piece to be read rather than sit on my hard drive, so I decided to circulate it by email. Please feel free to circulate it and so on.
Many of the questions were the result of ongoing discussions with friends and comrades on the aut-op-sy email list and elsewhere. Some of us were part of an earlier interview with Hardt conducted by email. Because the questions come from ongoing discussions some of which were a year or more in length, and because the interview was done about a year and a half ago, I don’t remember exactly who all shaped the questions or otherwise had a hand in this. Among those I can name for sure are Angela Mitropolous, Thiago Oppermann, and Gavin from Greenpepper.
Q: Could you start by giving a short introduction to the idea of the ‘multitude’ for those who may not be familiar with it?
Hardt: I like phrasing things in formulas, so the formula is that multitude equals singularity plus cooperation – or autonomy plus association. This is, of course, recalling Lenin’s slogan that ‘communism equals soviets plus electrification’.
For us, the issue of multitude is to think about a form of political organisation and of social life that is based on a relation of differences – one that doesn’t preclude differences, doesn’t preclude cooperation and association. You might think of older US political slogans, I think it was Audre Lord, ‘our differences are our strength’. Or there’s another: ‘we don’t want a world without sexual difference, we want one where sexual difference doesn’t matter’. I’ve given various definitions, sometimes economic, philosophical. This is a political one.
Q: There’s an argument in your recent work with Negri that democracy is an unfinished project and that the destiny of the ‘multitude’ is to materialise ‘real’ and absolute democracy by discarding the current ‘inauthentic’ application of the concept. Isn’t this democratic thesis a way of asking for more adequate and inclusive representation, rather than opening spaces to explore ways of moving beyond representation itself? Is there a way in which the teleological project of realising ‘true’ democracy and authentically applying it as a principle might stifle more open-ended experimentation of other non-representational political forms or ways of coming together?
Hardt: I can understand how you might want to abandon the concept of democracy. I mean, George Bush gets on television and talks about going to war to protect and restore democracy. So I can see how you might want to say let’s not use that word anymore. On the other hand, it’s possible to fight over what the concept means. Not to return to a previously existing meaning but to think about a possible meaning. We can fight to make it mean something other than the forms of representative democracy we have today. That is, to say no, that’s not the case, that’s not what Bush is doing, that’s not democracy in the sense that we mean it.
Q: Are you saying you’d want to break the link between representation and democracy?
Hardt: Yes, I’d want to break that link conceptually but also through historical investigation into how the word has been used at different times — both before the link between democracy and representation was historically constructed and in experiments in practice today.
I don’t think that democracy or absolute democracy has to be understood as stifling. I think it can be a term for the activities you’re talking about, the activities that you are worried might get stifled. I’d also like to say that I don’t think the one precludes the other — we can insist that representative institutions today live up to their claim, engage in some way with the structures of representative forms of democracy, while also trying out forms of non-representative democracy as well.
Q: In Grammar of the Multitude Paolo Virno talks about Marx’s descriptions of the working class on the US frontier, saying that we can see there an instantiation of the working class in the form of the multitude. But the idea of the ‘not yet multitude’ that you and Negri propose implies that this type of instantiation has never yet occurred. Can you expand on the some of the differences between your work and Paolo Virno’s in this respect?
Hardt: I don’t think that Toni and I actually disagree with Paolo. In his introduction to Grammar of the Multitude Sylvère Lotringer might be trying to say that we do, but I don’t think we do. We do use the term — and by ‘we’ I don’t just mean Toni and I because there are a lot of us using the idea of multitude — and we sometimes use it in self-contradictory ways. I don’t think self-contradiction is always a bad thing, as long as it’s productive. We often use the term in different ways to read political possibilities in the past – like when Paolo talks about Marx talking about the U.S. frontier in the texts on primitive accumulation. In a way, we can say that multitude has existed before, but in another way. Another way to use the word is as a project that hasn’t yet been done, but one that could be done. That’s what we mean by the ‘not yet multitude’. We can read history and earlier struggles as precedents and for inspiration but not for repetition. We don’t want to just do what was done before or to return to an earlier point in time.
In the 1990s, for example, Paolo had this idea to reformulate the International Workers of the World (IWW) based on immaterial labour, calling it the ‘Immaterial Workers of the World’. This wasn’t really a matter of repeating what the IWW did. It involved drawing on that experience, drawing inspiration from its heterogeneity in terms of languages, its mobility, its transversal nature. The reason I insist on the ‘not yet’ is to insist that the multitude is not immediate. It’s an organisational project. You can think about it this way — which was a commonplace of 1970s feminism — that just because someone is a woman doesn’t mean she is automatically a feminist. You have to become a feminist – it’s a project. I insist on this because sometimes people will want to say that just any group of people, any crowd, is the multitude. The multitude is a project that takes organisation to come about. And I think there’s a way that Toni and – and I think Paolo – would agree that this project is more ever possible now.
What is different about Paolo’s work, though, is his focus on language — his use of linguistic approaches to analyse and understand production today and its potentialities – which is really great, very important and something that Toni and I steal from him. On this note, I want to say that I love the collective development of concepts like ‘multitude’. It’s something I enjoy very much and it’s a way to really develop ideas, by working on them together. It’s not like they belong to anyone, and this type of collaboration can be very productive.
Q: You say that the project of the multitude is ‘ever more possible now’? Surely the capacity to organise ourselves autonomously — that is, the capacity for singularity plus cooperation — doesn’t just begin to exist in post-fordism as is implied in both your work and Virno’s?
Hardt: Okay, think about Paolo again. Virno reads Hannah Arendt when she says, in The Human Condition, that there’s a difference between politics and economics. Economic life is instrumental and political life is speaking in the presence of others. Paolo takes this idea and says it applies to production in the factory — the factory is not a place of speaking in the presence of others. You might disagree with us and with Paolo and say though that there is still speaking going on in the factory?
Q: Yes, and that the factory was always connected to the home and the community and other loquacious spaces as well.
Hardt: That’s right but today, production (the factory itself) is more loquacious. There’s an increased proximity between the political and the economic. The talents needed at work are the talents used in politics. Frederic Jameson talks about the de-differentiation of fields in the era of globalisation. Virno, Toni and I are saying something similar – though in a different and very specific case – that there’s a de-differentiation between work and politics happening today under the present form of capitalism. This means there’s an increased capacity for democracy, for politics. Of course, this claim has to be verified.
Q: When you talk about the capacity for multitude, for democracy, do you mean that we are able to perform labour because we have the capacity for the good life? Or do you mean that we have a capacity for the good life because we work? In other words, do our capacities for singularity plus cooperation derive from the fact that we perform immaterial labour, or do we have to pass through labour in order to arrive at the multitude?
Hardt: That’s an important question, the question of where our capacities come from, and I think the answer has to be that it’s both. This is an aside, but I used to be really into reading management literature. This issue is something that management and management trainers are thinking a lot about – where do skills come from?
Take, for example, McDonald’s. McDonald’s has this training school they send their managers to – I think they call it ‘McDonald’s University’ or something like that. There’s this interview with one of the manager trainers where he is asked how the workers get the skills that they need. In response, the trainer says that the workers get the skills from their parents in the family – they get the skills they need to work at McDonald’s when their parents raise them and teach them to be ‘people persons’.
Q: This gets at a thread that runs through a lot of the questions we have about your work — the issue of unwaged reproductive labour, labour that is ostensibly off the clock, but is still bound up with value production. There’s a section of volume one of Capital where Marx quotes some English thinker who says “the English working class are phenomenally productive today, and it’s because they have leisure time”;, which makes this point. So when you and Negri talk about general intellect entering into production, does general intellect enter from the space of the home and from reproduction?
Hardt: In a way, yes, that’s right. There’s unwaged labour before post-fordism and you could see some capacities present there in earlier times. But like with multitude, it’s not a spontaneous or immediate thing. It’s important to recognise that people have these capacities, to look at what specific capacities there are today, to see how they’re used in labour and how they could be used differently. And then there’s the matter of actually using them differently. We have to figure that part out and it’s also a matter of organisation in order to be able do to that.
Q: In response to a similar question on unwaged reproductive labour in an earlier interview you did for the aut-op-sy mailing list, you mentioned Deleuze and Guattari and their idea of desiring-production as a way of opening up the idea of production. Can you say more about this, particularly about different types of production? For example, there’s desiring production and there’s value production and they’re not always the same all the time?
Hardt: It’s important to note that for Deleuze and Guattari desiring production is often co-opted. They understand that it enters into value production at least some of the time and that it’s not always external. I think this is important because sometimes Deleuze and Guattari can be taken as being too optimistic. But they do recognize that desire has a relationship with value production. We also could look at these as perspectives, different perspectives from which to view things and to see what we can better understand from one perspective or the others.
Q: What is at stake here is the question of practical rupture and of having the theoretical space to think rupture. It’s like Tronti’s point that the working class acts in certain ways that are disruptive of capitalism but then these behaviours get capitalised. Doesn’t arguing that ‘all life time is productive’ make it hard to think about activity that doesn’t — or at least some day, some activity that won’t — get capitalised?
Hardt: That’s an important question. First, though, I think it’s important to note that one doesn’t preclude the other. Capitalisation of activities isn’t solely a bad thing. If workers demands are met by capital and capital is forced to change that means that the working class gets more powerful and new spaces and possibilities open up. At least that’s what I think Tronti meant back in the 1960s.
For example, I did an interview at the last World Social Forum in Porto Alegre with a Brazilian journalist who asked “the World Economic Forum said that their agenda is to alleviate poverty, isn’t that a problem?” And I said, “Why is that a problem?” It took a while to figure out what the point was, but finally he said, “they stole your ideas, they stole your agenda!” I told him, “that means we won.” Being able to dictate your enemy’s agenda is a strength and a sign of power.
The question of rupture is another is another really important organisational question. In some ways it’s a matter of figuring out what the forms of sabotage are today that we can use to turn the capacities that we take to work and that are learned at work and use them another way. I wish I had a good example of this, though and that it was a simple as jamming a wooden shoe into a machine!
Q: You and Negri reference Lenin approvingly in your recent work. You have stated that if Lenin were here today he would organise in network form — and, presumably, concur with the arguments presented in Empire and Multitude. Could you clarify what you find relevant in Lenin’s work and in the history that he is bound up with? Inversely, if you and Negri were around in Lenin’s time, would you have agreed with Lenin?
Hardt: In his book on Lenin, Toni says (if I remember correctly) that Lenin’s theory of the party is not a theory of the Bolshevik party. It’s a theory of organisation and the idea is that the dominant form of labour will provide the most powerful form of organisation to oppose capital. The form of organisation has tended to correlate to the dominant form of labour — there’s a boss in the factory, there’s a boss in the party or the union — and these forms of organisation are the ones that are most effective for moving forward workers demands. It’s basically a functionalist argument.
This is what I think about with regard to the differences we have with Slavoj Zizek. In some ways I’m not sure if Slavoj is saying ‘we need a party’ in the former sense or the latter sense. I’d like to think he means the latter sense – that is, that we need a form of political organisation adequate to the contemporary field of labour and its capacities, not that we need to repeat the organisational structure of the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, as for the issue of what I would do if I was in Lenin’s time, I don’t really know. I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know if what I think looking back is the same thing I would think if I had actually been there.
Q: Could you talk more about what you refer to as the ‘dominant form of labour’? There are, for example, dominant forms of value that are important in the total circuits of production and there’s also dominance internal to the working class (or labour aristocracies). You seem to be saying that the most effective and the most desirable form of organisation are not always the same thing. Or that what are taken to be most effective don’t actually have efficacy in addressing important questions, and this is a problem for communism.
Hardt: Efficacy is really important, but in a way this is what Toni and I are saying about production today and the possibilities that are present. The model in production relations today is more desirable compared with those in prior times. The gap between desirability and efficacy is narrowing.
What we are referring to is not what segment of the proletariat is in a most privileged position or has political dominance; we are asking rather what type of labour is having its qualities extended across to other areas of labour and over society as a whole. At one point, industrial labour’s qualities were progressively imposed on all other forms of production and across society itself — its mechanisation, its temporality, its working day, its family structure, its rhythms. Toni and I argue that this is what is happening with immaterial labour today. Of course there are big differences in how some people get compensated for this, and there are gendered divisions of labour, racial divisions of labour, geographical divisions. Affective labour, for example, is largely feminine and poorly compensated — and in that sense it’s in no way a labour aristocracy – but its qualities are being spread to other areas and that’s where the gap between desirability and efficacy is narrowing.
Q: But there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between unwaged reproductive labour in earlier times and the unwaged reproductive labour done today. For instance, a housewife today does things similar to a housewife in the 1900s (albeit in different ways) — they are both bound up with value production. Why do you see the possibility for a new form of organisation based on the qualities of this type of labour?
Hardt: Because now those traits are being spread throughout various forms of labour. In many ways, this is the point of looking at labour and at class composition – in order to see what people are capable of. We don’t want to just assert people’s capabilities. We don’t want to just assume that everyone is born able to form autonomous networks. We have to see what capacities people have and how to verify them.
I can see that the very fact of social existence means that some of these capacities must already exist. But I’m not sure that the capacity to love a child, for example, is the same as (or enough for) a capacity to organise and run society. And even then, doesn’t love itself have to be learned? It seems to me that if we simply assume human capacities — for love, for democracy, for self-organisation — as immediate and natural we fail to recognise the necessary organisational processes.
Q: Your writing on biopolitics seems to overlap with – yet in important ways differ from — Giorgio Agamben’s ideas on sovereign power and naked life. Q: In Multitude you and Negri criticise Agamben and elsewhere forcefully argue against ‘confus(ing) the flesh with any notion of naked life’. How would you characterise Agamben’s view of biopolitics, particularly in relation to your own? Could you clarify what is at stake in this disagreement with Agamben about the condition of naked life and the potentiality of the body? More specifically, how do you understand the relationship between the condition of naked life and the potentiality of the multitude?
Hardt: It’s a methodological question. Agamben’s use of the term opens up important possibilities, but it also closes some off. His work is valuable for understanding what the sovereign does and so forth. Our differences with Agamben all turn around bare life, it’s power and its potentials. Toni and I are trying to do work to help recognise the fullness and power of multitude. And I just don’t think that’s Agamben’s project. And I’m not sure I see his project as helpful for that. The concept of bare life doesn’t seem to me to allow for recognising this power (of the multitude).
Q: You and Negri seem to suggest that biopolitics is a new trait, specific to contemporary capitalism and anti-capitalism. Is there a biopower or biopolitics prior to post-fordism? Couldn’t was say that child-rearing, for instance, is a production of life and of social life?
Hardt: It’s impossible to deny what you’re saying. Foucault says that ‘what’s at stake in power is life itself’ and of course all of power is always directed at life. But I would want to say that there’s a new prominence and a new capacity for multitude, which Toni and I want to call biopolitics. It’s along the line of what I was saying before about the forms of organisation that are desirable, which are now found in some ways already in labour.
Q: Lately we’ve been discussing emergency, emergencies. How do you understand the relationship between emergency and emergence — or, in different terms, between constituted and constituent power — and what is at stake in the arguments about the different ways they can be understood?
Hardt: I love that pairing of emergence and emergency. I wish I had more to say about it. In some ways it’s a reformulation of some arguments about crisis, that crisis is provoked rather than the product of objective contradictions. I wonder, though, if the idea of emergence implies an idea of a thing that is pre-existent — in the sense that it seemed to me earlier you were implying that the human capacities for communism are not historical but always already existing. It may not have to imply such pre-existence, but if it does then that’s not as interesting to me. It’s important to note, in any case, that crises are products of creativity and are also themselves moments of creativity, creative possibilities that open up.
Q: I don’t mean to say communism is pre-existent or spontaneous, or to minimise the need for organisation. There’s no struggle without organizing. Sergio Bologna says that even moments that get held up as spontaneous are actually the result of inadequately understood micro-processes of struggle and organisation. At the same time, it’s important to insist that any location whatsoever is a place where organising can begin.
There are versions of Marxism that consign some people to being totally exhausted, reified, inert, and incapable of self-activity in any communist sense. It’s a theory of people as weak, limited, powerless – exemplified in Leninists who say workers are objectively limited, only able to achieve ‘trade union consciousness’ on their own, and so they need the party to enlighten and lead them. You and Negri, however, seem to emphasise that everyone is capable of autonomous self-activity today, that workers can get past trade union consciousness today, which is I think why many Leninists don’t like your work. On the other hand, your emphasis on ‘capable today’ — as opposed to ‘still capable’ – implies that there were people who were yesterday incapable of this activity, that some workers were unable to act autonomously without the role played by the party or something similar.
Hardt: I don’t know how to avoid making implied claims about the past here: as you pointed out, insisting on ‘still capable’ implies a pre-existing capacity for communism, but insisting on ‘capable today’ implies ‘incapable yesterday’, a prior incapacity for communism. Neither is satisfactory, but if pressed I prefer the former.
I don’t really see that there has to be a conflict here between the two statements. I appreciate that you want to stand up for the dignity of past struggles, but to say that we have learned from them, that we are more powerful because of them, that we stand on their shoulders today: that doesn’t denigrate them in any way. On the contrary! What better way to recognise their power and success?
Q: You argue that the ‘war on terror’ and permanent social war that we are now living in has been made possible through the suspension of ‘real’ democracy. Are you then suggesting that the defence of democratic rights (civil liberties, privacy and human rights) is sufficient to the task of realising ‘authentic’ democracy or does militant resistance require something more innovative and creative? If so, what do you think that might look like — specifically, in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and the states of emergency it creates?
Hardt: To be clear, no one is saying that things were great before the suspension of rights and so on in the War on Terror. But we can and should fight against the attacks on these rights, and that doesn’t at all imply that the moment before those attacks was somehow one of authentic democracy or a moment that we want to go back to.
Q: The idea that resistance is ontologically prior to, and constitutive of, power is one of the central currents in your writing with Negri. It seems fair to say, though, that capital also has a creative capacity to be fluid and adaptive — absorbing the obstacles, contradictions and conflicts put in its path (for example, post-1968 demands for the refusal of work, abolition of the state) in order to move forward again and produce new kinds techniques of violence, subjugation and wage slavery (for example, the mobile and flexible paradigm of post-fordism). Could you speak on the importance of the idea of ontological priority in the political project of the multitude, and on the question of power being productive as well?
Hardt: Certainly, yes. I don’t think there’s any way to deny that the sovereign and capital has some power to act, to do things and shape outcomes of things. I mean, if we give accounts based on our power and we don’t take into account the power of the sovereign and capital then it seems to me that our accounts will just be lacking in some way, they won’t be true to our experiences or to what happened.
Q: Does this mean you disagree with Deleuze’s or Tronti’s ideas that resistance (or the working class) is ontologically prior and that production always flows from the bottom up?
Hardt: I don’t think so. First of all, both Deleuze and Tronti are posing the claims in a compensatory fashion. Against the assumption that capital or power is the only actor, they insist that resistance is also an important actor. But, secondly, they go further than that, because they pose a different quality to the two sides. To use Deleuze’s terms from his book on Nietzsche, one could say that capital is only reactive whereas only the workers’ struggle is active and creative. That does not mean that capital cannot exert enormous power. Of course, it can. It means simply that capital’s power is always based on resentment, that it is always aimed at the threat of the other. Only the working class can create autonomously. That difference in quality is what they are pointing to and that seems an important point to me.