Inequality Is Back On the Agenda

Globalization is making us more different, says the American scholar Michael Hardt. He talked with Martin Eiermann about the global village, the rhetoric of inequality and the future of education.

The European: Let’s talk about the “epidemic of sameness”. Do you think that we are living through a period where the decline of biological and cultural diversity has become troublesome?
Hardt: That seems to imply that globalization is principally a process of cultural and social homogenization. I don’t think that is true. I would argue instead that globalization is characterized just as much by heterogenization as it is by homogenization.

The European: What I enjoyed about the argument was the attempt to take insights from biology – namely from resilience theory, i.e. the idea that a loss of diversity can lead to tipping point events where a whole system becomes unstable – and apply them to the social sphere. Do you think there is something to be gained from these interdisciplinary approaches to political questions?
Hardt: I am very interested in the importance of heterogeneity and multiplicity in social relations. The political projects that most attract me are ones in which very different social subjectivities are able to struggle and work together. These are projects that are not founded on stable and homogeneous identities. I am quite skeptical, though, about the analogy between the biosphere and the social or political sphere. They don’t function by the same logic – in particular they have very different relations to limits. Furthermore assuming that the biosphere and the social sphere do operate by the same logic can lead to quite conservative results. Pier Paolo Pasolini, for example, makes that kind of analogy in an essay written in the mid-1970s on “the disappearance of the fireflies.” Indeed Pasolini frequently used analogies with the natural world in order to argue for the preservation of earlier, often precapitalist social forms. Pasolini is one example of the kind of Left conservatism that can result from that kind of analogy.

The European: In Europe today, fewer people are willing to transfer power to Brussels; many countries see a resurgence of nationalism. We might identity as the member of a certain community, or as the citizen of a country. But a continental scale could simply be too detached from our everyday experiences to identify with it.
Hardt: I don’t think this is primarily an issue of cultural or social difference. When you mention the transfer of power, it introduces the question of representation. Many are concerned about the inability of a central government to represent them. And at the European level there is indeed an exacerbation of the crisis of representation of republican structures. It starts on the national scale: We are living under the false pretense of democracy, even on a national level. When that is raised to a continental level, the pretense of democracy becomes even thinner. One of the central demands of the Spanish 15M movement, the occupations in Madrid and Barcelona that began last May was: “You don’t represent us!” They refused representation and demanded instead a real, participatory democracy.

The European: When you talk about “false pretense”, what do you mean? Our parliamentary structures are far from perfect – but they are a whole lot better than the political structures in many other countries that call themselves “democratic”.
Hardt: One contribution of the protest movements of 2011 has been to experiment with new forms of democracy. The demand for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt was profound and undoubted had significant effects elsewhere. When some people first heard the Spanish slogan “democracia real ya”, it sounded naïve to them. Indeed many on the Left have ceased to use the term democracy or they understand it only as a corrupt term, as the rule of corporations, something where the practices are actually contradicting what democracy really is. Over the past year, that notion has begun to change. So the protests have been naïve in a very good sense: We have been willing to rethink our idea of democracy.

The European: When you say “real democracy”, are you talking about procedural reforms of parliamentary representation? Do we have to remake political mechanisms or re-conceptualize what we mean by political life?
Hardt: I think the latter. What we have seen is a widespread condemnation of the constitutional order and its representative structures. The so-called republican institutions of the dominant countries are based on a representative system that restricts democratic possibilities. This is something that the 18th century authors of the US Constitution, for example, understood clearly: representation is a mechanism that both links the rulers to the population but also separates them from it. Hence it is insufficient to reform the institutions. We have to question the political system of representation itself. By contrast, the protest movements have not relied on representative systems. They call their approach a horizontal form of political discussion, I would call it a multitudinal approach. It puts the focus on equal participation.

The European: The obvious question is whether those community-sized models can become permanent, and whether they can be expanded to a national scale.
Hardt: I am primarily interested in the experimental nature of it. I don’t think that one can immediately blow things up to a larger scale. But political innovation cannot happen without these experimental attempts. As a result of the protest movements of 2011 we are now able to talk about inequality in profound ways. The political landscape has been changed, at least temporarily.

The European: In Greece and Italy, the opposite is true: Expert technocrats run both governments. The argument is that stability and foresight are appropriate in a time of crisis but radical politics is not.
Hardt: It would depend what you mean by radicalism. Here is one way to tackle the question: I am a bit suspicious of the quick division between radical politics and the everyday recognition of indignation. Often enough, growing political movements start with very reasonable and widely shared ideas. And as you go forward, you realize how radical the changes would have to be to pursue these ideas. In this sense there’s not really a clear division between what is reasonable and what is radical. By pursuing what seems to us perfectly reasonable and necessary we find ourselves sometimes in a radical position.

The European: Your background is in engineering and literary studies. What draws you to these political questions?
Hardt: I will give you a boring response: When I was in college during the second energy crisis, becoming an engineer seemed like a political choice to me. I wanted to work on solar energy, I wanted to bring technological innovations to the third world and reduce our oil dependence. Alternative energies seemed like the most appropriate way to become involved in politics. I did not take me long to realize that all these changes – which seemed quite rational and necessary to me at the time – could not be done. I was naïve enough to think, perhaps, that the kind of rationality involved in engineering could of its own change the world.

The European: And literature seemed like the way out?
Hardt: At the time, departments of literature in the United States were a place within the university where alternative kinds of scholarship could happen. It was different from the analytical thinking of the philosophy department and from the rational choice theory that was practiced in the political science departments. Literature departments offered an interdisciplinary space and an avenue for alternative scholarship. That seemed like a space for political to me.

The European: What do you mean when you say “alternative scholarship”?
Hardt: I was interested in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, but philosophy departments in the United States seemed to have very little interest in his work. The analytical tradition gives little space for continental philosophy, even the tradition but especially not contemporary figures. I was looking for an interdisciplinary home, really.

The European: And do you think that it’s a sign of personal failure to be a perpetual misfit? Or is it a systemic problem with the education?
Hardt: There are ways in which the university inhibits rather than enables certain forms of exploration. I have given you a story of personal failure, but some of my experiences are general phenomena. I was looking at all these ways that I hoped would allow me to be political, and none of them quite seemed to work. But then I look at it from a different perspective and I realize how much I have gained from each attempt.

The European: I recently talked to the economist Herman Daly. He told me this: At the university, the natural sciences produce determinists, and the social sciences produce nihilists. But we need to be non-determinists and non-nihilists to engage in politics.
Hardt: That is quite brilliant. I can quickly agree with his claim that it is necessary for political thought that one be non-determinist and non-nihilist, but I do have a more complicated understanding of the university system, as I’m sure he does too.

The European: How do you relate intellectual work to activism?
Hardt: The traditional distinction is between theory and practice. I think that is a misconception, as if theory happened only in universities and practice happened only in the street! Recognize that a lot of theorizing happens within political movements. That is precisely where I see the benefit for the university: When we open up to these outside strands of thought, it allows us to learn and to think better. Let me give you an example: After Antonio Negri and I had published our book on empire, I realized that many of our central ideas had already been articulated within social movements. These previous thoughts actually bridged a gap and allowed us to think about the same issues in more concrete terms. Take the notion of Empire as a global order that both includes and transcends the category of the nation-state, including also transnational corporations and global institutions: Social movements were already trying to discover that new global power structure, each protest summit was shining a light on one of the nodes within the network of empire. If you think that the world is run by the United States government, you should go and protest every week at the White House. But the alterglobalization movements were experimenting with new understandings of the emerging global power. One week it was the WTO, another week the World Bank and IMF, then the G8. They were theorizing collectively something like what we called Empire.

The European: Much has been written about the supposed “democratization of knowledge”. Do you think that technological change has empowered critical thinking outside of the university?
Hardt: This year, many people have argued that Twitter and Facebook have made movements like the one in Egypt or Tunisia possible. I am not quite persuaded by that logic. I would instead say the following: What made Twitter and Facebook so appropriate is that they have the same organizational structure as the movements themselves. There is a correspondence between the horizontal, decentralized nature of the movements and the network nature of the tools they use. They clicked. The broadcast approach of traditional radio and TV would not have worked.

The European: There seems to be a fine line between being a globalization critic and an opponent of globalization. Can the Left today afford being anti-globalization or anti-EU?
Hardt: A very small proportion of social movements of the 1990s advocated localism or the reconstruction of boundaries. So the appropriate name for them was “alter-globalization movements” instead of anti-globalization. They proposed a different framework for globalization. One of their pedagogical contributions was the recognition of global power structures beyond the nation-state. Their opponents were mobile, so they had to be nomadic as well. So the movements themselves were incredibly globalizing. By contrast, the protest movements of 2011 have been deeply rooted in local and national realities. Instead of moving from summit to summit, people refuse to move.

The European: Let us try and situate 2011 within a wider context. Is this a kind of Marxist millennial moment, when the system blows up and collapses? Or is it rather an unexpected and chaotic accident of history?
Hardt: This is an event. And all events come from the outside, in the sense that cannot be foreseen. But even though political events come from the outside, they are nonetheless prepared. Many elements of the last decade or two of social movements have made possible the developments of this year.

The European: What comes next? What happens if Egypt descends into stalemate or when the last occupy camps are evicted?
Hardt: I am not very good at predictions and it’s usually imprudent to make them. But look already at the cycle of struggles that has developed in the past year. Think of it like a relay race in which runners pass the baton from one to the next: from Tunisia to Egypt and other countries of North Africa and the Middle East; then Greece and Spain; then Occupy Wall Street and other occupy movements across the US together with London’s occupation at Saint Paul’s. Each time the baton is passed, the new movement takes inspiration from the last and also innovates. So what can we look for now? That someone else takes up the baton and innovates again.

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