Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Image from Artnet
It is easy to imagine Hardt and Negri's Declaration as something like a revolution in terms of at least the form and content of its publication. In terms of form, it is a self-published text, appearing first on Kindle, then on Jacobin, all of which should be followed by a pamphlet (and no doubt multiple pirated versions on scribd and other sites). Two things can be said about this format. First, it is something of a reversal of the event that was Empire, in which Antonio Negri co-published a book with Harvard Press, bringing autonomia into the mainstream. Over ten years ago it was an event that one of the most notorious figures of the Italian left was publishing with the bastion of academic respectably: now it is a matter of two of the biggest names on the left publishing on their own. However, it is still a publication; as cheap as the 99¢ price is, it is still a price. The ebook/pamphlet is copyrighted. That it is a work arguing for the common appears under the rules of private property is a point that has already generated some criticism. This transformation of format is matched at the level of content, Declaration opens with a declaration that it is not a manifesto. Once again, this is a point of distinction with Empire, which was hailed or lambasted as the new "communist manifesto." The difference here is not one of analysis, but of the changing social and political terrain. As Hardt and Negri write, "Today’s social movements have reversed the order, making manifestos and prophets obsolete." Declaration reflects, albeit in a somewhat distorted way, some of the shifts in theoretical production provoked by the series of struggles from Arab Spring to OWS, namely the shift from books to websites and pamphlets.
In form and content, in the quick online publication and the refusal to write a manifesto (which may have already been the case with Empire), Declaration reflects the changes of theoretical production after OWS. For a long time radical critics of capitalist society wrote under the "condition of theorizing without social movements" to quote Michael Hardt quoting Fredric Jameson. Speaking as someone who attended my first anarchist reading group in the early nineties, and my first Marxist academic conference by the end of that decade, I know how strange this was, words like revolution, communism, and sabotage were invoked, and it simply wasn't polite to suggest that these words meant nothing if they only passed between the same dozen people. One could even argue that this condition made possible a kind of radical grandstanding, where one tried to be more radical than one's audience: if they read Marx, you cited Lenin, if they cited Lenin, you cited Mao, and so on. (Yes, this is a thinly veiled critique of Zizek). All of this has changed slowly, now academics (myself included) find themselves suddenly talking to different audiences. The critique of capital is becoming less of a purely academic issue. I think that this an important statement to make, not just because it provides some context for this intervention, but it reflects the larger transformation of theory of practice which we think within.
Hardt and Negri's intervention has one of its defining characteristics a lack of any nostalgia for the social movements of the past. They do not look for a revival of the unions, the party, or democracy (as it has been practiced) from the assemblies. As they say, responding to the charge that the streets are full but the churches, the institutions of the left, are empty, they write, "We need to empty the churches of the Left even more, and bar their doors, and burn them down! These movements are powerful not despite their lack of leaders but because of it." Hardt and Negri affirm that the current movements have to grasped through their refusal. As they write, "Rebellion and revolt, however, set in motion not only a refusal but also a creative process."
Beyond this invocation of the creative force of destruction, Hardt and Negri's pamphlet can be roughly divided into two segments, one descriptive and one prescriptive. As far as description goes, Hardt and Negri describe the present according to four subjective figures--"the indebted, the mediatized, the securitized, and the represented"--all of which could be generally described as a kind of alienation, or, in the preferred Deleuzian/Spinozist terms, a force separated from what it is capable of. Much of the discussion of debt, and the critique of representation, has been articulated elsewhere, by theorist such as Graeber and Lazzarato. It is worth noting it here for two reasons. First, the critique of debt, of the politics of fear and repression (what Hardt and Negri call securitization), and of the media and representation are becoming something like a common sense, a common affective sensibility, of politics post OWS. Their assertion and citation here can be understood as a kind of construction of the common notions of OWS, a shared vocabulary and understanding of the world. Second, the invocation of debt, specifically student debt moves Hardt and Negri's economic analysis beyond the assertion of an increasingly cooperative and social productive force opposed to an increasingly exterior force of exploitation. As Hardt and Negri describe this increased dimension of exploitation, "The social safety net has passed from a system of welfare to one of debtfare, as loans become the primary means to meet social needs. Your subjectivity is configured on the foundation of debt." It is somewhat striking that such a practically oriented text Hardt and Negri offer some of their most pessimistic descriptions of the current conjuncture. As Hardt and Negri write (in a passage that I take to be accurate), "When you bend under the weight of debt, when your attention is hypnotically glued to your screen, when you have made your house into a prison, you realize how much the capitalist crisis individualizes and strains the human passions. You are alone, depotentialized."However, Hardt and Negri do see a positive dimension to this, a bit of a dialectical reversal, arguing that the extraction of debt is fundamentally different than the exploitation of the wage, gone is the semblance of equality that the wage made possible. "Debt obscures the productivity of workers but clarifies their subordination."
Hardt and Negri's prescriptive argument continues the argument of Commonwealth. In each case it is a matter of creating the institutions which can sustain and extend the common. As Hardt and Negri write, "Political organization always requires the production of subjectivities. We must create a multitude capable of democratic political action and the self-management of the common." Hardt and Negri graft the general outline of this constitutive process onto the constitution, schematizing a federal, executive, and judicial dimension. These are not the dimensions of the US constitution, nor are they component parts of Empire. In this refiguring of the constitutive process the fundamental divisions are refigured for new processes and problems, the legislative becomes that which fosters the participation of all in the governing of social life, the executive becomes that which addresses the need for planning and organization, and the judiciary becomes the management of the differences. There is no doubt that participation, planning, and differences are fundamental problems confronted by the occupations and broader movements. They have all been encountered in concrete forms in the various camps. However, I do not share Hardt and Negri's fascination with the US constitution. In fact, I remain profoundly influenced by Negri's great work on Constituent Powers (titled Insurgencies in English). In that book Negri developed an ontology and politics of a constituent power that, to put it briefly, would not alienate itself in any constitution. As Negri summarizes (sort of) in that book,
"A great current of modern political thought, from Machiavelli to Spinoza to Marx, has developed around this open alternative, which is the ground of democratic thought. In this tradition, the absence of preconstituted and finalized principles is combined with the subjective strength of the multitude, thus constituting the social in the aleatory materiality of a universal relationship, in the possibility of freedom.”
I do not want to simply juxtapose the constituent to the constitution, especially since the latter is more of a schema for thinking the political problems of institution than an actual structure, but I will conclude by at least posing the problem of the new and the old, invention and institution. Hardt and Negri are right to dispense with the "Churches" of the left, the parties, unions, leaders and other organizations, but perhaps too quickly lapse in the language of dead revolutions. As Marx wrote (you knew I was going there, didn't you):
"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."