Assembling a New Left
By Terence RenaudAugust 16, 2018
Assembly by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
This was a small victory for the left. The DSA briefly took control over a public place, and its act of resistance served to remind government officials that they will face democratic scrutiny. A minor party of the left thus planned and executed an action that had the feel of a spontaneous protest. That kind of background organizing is reminiscent of the sit-ins pioneered by the US Civil Rights movement. To a certain extent, it also evokes the more recent series of occupations that occurred around 2011. Some see such actions and wonder whether they were planned, and by whom. Others see spontaneous assemblies of the multitude.
In the present atmosphere of permanent crisis, the left grapples with this basic ambiguity of agency and organization. Who makes up the movement, and how should it be structured — as an independent party, a faction within a larger party, a union, an assembly, or something else? Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s latest book, Assembly (2017), tries to explain the multiple experiments in left organization conducted by global militants over the past few decades.
Their book appeared last fall, but their timing would’ve been better this year. Fifty years ago, in 1968, the Global North erupted with popular protests and strikes against the democratic capitalist order. The young generation at the vanguard of those revolutions would forever be known as the Sixty-Eighters. Their curious blend of counterculture and radical politics defined the anti-authoritarian New Left. In France, the general strike of May 1968 was the last time that a Western capitalist country found itself in a truly revolutionary situation. The conservative retrenchment that followed that miraculous year doesn’t diminish its epochal significance.
Not until 2011 would such a miracle recur. First, millions of young people, workers, and citizens throughout the Arab world took to the streets in protest against authoritarian regimes and flagging economies. As the Arab Spring swelled, a wave of anti-austerity protests swept through Spain, Portugal, and Greece; riots shook London; and Occupy Wall Street shut down Lower Manhattan. Those protests were a direct response to the 2007–’08 financial crisis and the ensuing recession. Despite different national contexts and causes, participants imagined themselves as taking part in a common enterprise: the democratic revolt of the “99 percent” against oligarchical elites.
Aftershocks of 2011 have reverberated in Black Lives Matter, Gezi Park in Turkey, Euromaidan in Ukraine, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, Nuit debout in France, the Women’s March, and the March for Our Lives, among others. Divisions exist between and within these protests, and each has its specific targets. But a universal field of struggle nevertheless seems to unite them. As the insurgencies behind Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have demonstrated, the global uprisings have thrown even center-left parties like the Democrats and Labour into crisis.
Are we witnessing a new era of uprisings, as the theorist Joshua Clover claims? Has the renewed anti-capitalist energy of “2011” already subsided, or will it imbue a new left for the 21st century? And how does right populism fit in? These questions guide Hardt and Negri’s analysis in Assembly, the latest volume in their series of books that began 18 years ago with Empire (2000). The authors argue that today’s uprisings reveal a force of resistance that has been building within neoliberal capitalism for decades.
The first thing that they observe about the uprisings is their leaderless mode of organization. Horizontalism, a concept that arose from the alter-globalization efforts of the early 2000s, refers to social movements that categorically reject vertical hierarchies. Such movements radicalize the demand for internal democracy that animated a broad range of left politics in the past. They have little patience for electioneering or parliamentary politics. Similar to anarchist and council communist currents of the 20th century, today’s uprisings practice a prefigurative politics that dispenses with leaders and rank and file, bureaucracy and party discipline.
The best example was Occupy’s general assembly. In this alternative form of collective decision-making, assembly participants used hand signals to communicate their feelings (agreement, disagreement, soft opposition, firm “blocking” opposition) and desire to speak (new comment, direct response, clarification, point of order). Such mechanisms reduced the noise that ordinarily drowns out speakers in a crowd. The general assembly also used a human microphone system, which involved people repeating in chorus what a nearby speaker says in order to amplify that individual’s voice. Images of Occupy protestors in 2011 “twinkling” their upraised hands in agreement invited a fair amount of ridicule in the media. But they did prefigure the kind of participatory democracy and popular control that the militants hoped to experience in a future, post-capitalist society.
Crowds have formed spontaneously and self-organized without any clear leaders. They draw on a common repertoire of encampments, occupations, and digital networks. In choosing Assembly as their title, Hardt and Negri highlight horizontalist practices as the main feature of today’s uprisings. But they immediately note the tendency of such movements to dissipate over time. Occupy Wall Street lasted only two months, and the other uprisings have likewise faded rapidly.
A transformative left politics thus faces the problem of how to extend the lifespan of such ephemeral assemblies. Hardt and Negri start by warning against the abstract rejection of leadership as such, or what they call “a fetish of horizontality.” Even radical democracy requires some kind of organization and continuous leadership. But they do reverse the traditional division of labor between the leaders and the led, that is, between high-level strategists and tacticians on the ground. The authors propose that a new left allow the mass movement to decide strategy. The most active militants will confine their decisions to matters of tactical support, such as deploying security teams or calling for a retreat from riot police. The assembled multitude will provide everything else: programmatic innovation, alternative languages, chants, networks, memes, and crowdsourced knowledge.
In other words, the new left needs “organization and institution of a new type.” None of the existing party or union forms have yet produced a non-leading leadership that takes its cues directly from the masses. Nor have left movements yet seized political power in new ways that do not reproduce hierarchies of representation, sovereignty, and authority. As Hardt put it in a recent interview, how do you prevent situations in which “even though the personnel have changed, the new rulers in power repeat the same problems of old”? The authors want to break what the sociologist Robert Michels deemed the iron law of oligarchy: organizing differently and taking power differently, they hope, will not result in the bureaucratic sclerosis that has overtaken democratic movements in the past.
Invoking Niccolò Machiavelli and Antonio Gramsci, the authors call their model of neoleftist organization a New Prince “born of the passions of the multitude.” This new left will channel popular indignation, outrage, and anxieties into a sustainable politics of revolutionary reforms. New weapons are required to combat the monopoly on violence held by sovereign states and corporations. Perhaps alluding to The Nomadic Hive Manifesto written by militant art students who occupied the National Gallery in London in 2010, the book’s emblem is a swarm of bees: “a multitude moving in coherent formation and carrying, implicitly, a threat.”
The book’s title refers not only to political assemblies. New modes of production under neoliberal capitalism have also yielded machinic assemblages, a concept that the authors borrow from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. It refers to “new combinations of human and nonhuman forces, social and digital machines, material and immaterial elements” that characterize present labor conditions.
As economists like Carlo Vercellone and Christian Marazzi have shown, capitalism has entered a post-industrial phase of the general intellect, which prioritizes social cooperation, digital algorithms, and financial speculation. Intellectual property such as images and code take precedence over physical property. The primary site of production has shifted from the factory floor to the social networks that govern our public and private lives. People have become human capital: we work even when we’re not working. For example, Google mines extensive data from its search engine users. In exchange for a service, the company and others like it extract human intelligence on a massive scale. The types of jobs best suited to this new stage of capitalism are flexible, mobile, and precarious.
We now resemble the cyborgs that the feminist scholar Donna Haraway prophesied more than 30 years ago. Or perhaps we’re already the queer androids imagined by Janelle Monáe? At the forefront of such machinic assemblages are young people, the millennials who get told constantly to market themselves, work harder, and produce more. Early analysts of “2011” stressed the importance of young people using social media to plan protests, form militant communities, and video-document clashes with the police. Digital technologies definitely have a dark side, which since the 2016 US presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal nobody can deny. But social media still functions as a crucial tool for the left today.
Just as neoliberal capitalism extracts ever more value from the social realm, it feeds off of the privatization of public goods. Punitive institutions such as prisons and border control grow, while social services for vulnerable people continue to decline. Like the theorist Judith Butler, Hardt and Negri argue that this situation of precariousness “has become something like a generalized existential condition.” Against precarity, they defend “secure forms of life grounded in the commons.” New circuits of interdependence and social care may actually develop within the miserable conditions that neoliberalism has created. Paraphrasing Butler, the authors claim that the “vulnerabilities that we share […] are the basis for social bonds that can generate real security.” Through their emphasis on care and affective economies, Hardt and Negri subvert the meaning of “biopolitics,” turning it from a neoliberal mode of governance into a popular mode of liberation.
In their most provocative chapter, the authors subvert another neoliberal concept. Hardt has jokingly admitted that their “proposal of an entrepreneurship of the multitude definitely has been the part of this book most hated by our friends.” Entrepreneurship has long been trumpeted by neoliberals as the hallmark of a capitalist free market. How could it possibly serve the interests of an anti-capitalist left?
To explain, Hardt and Negri read the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter against the grain. Schumpeter argued that the capitalist must always invent new combinations, innovate, and creatively destroy existing markets. Silicon Valley investors call this disruption. But the authors ask what happens if we replace Schumpeter’s capitalist actor with the creative multitude. The multitude already organizes itself with smartphones and social media, constantly inventing new memes and communities. The entrepreneurial self surely belongs to neoliberal ideology, insofar as it turns individuals into self-reliant “bureaucracies of one.” But through the entrepreneurship of the multitude, plural subjects may arise that challenge the capitalist market logic.
Hardt and Negri thus try “to recuperate terms important for building political vocabularies of liberation, but which have become corrupted.” We have to use the tools at hand. Since the anti-capitalist revolution won’t happen automatically, the authors insist that any progressive social movement do real organizing within the social workplace. Social unionism, rather than traditional trade unionism, marks the intersection of labor struggles and social movements. The recent teachers’ strikes in the American South embody what Hardt and Negri have in mind. Indeed, in their wildcat character and extensive grassroots preparation, the teachers’ strikes “renew the methods of unions, allowing the antagonistic dynamics of social movement activism to break the sclerotic structures of union hierarchies and their worn-out modes of struggle.” The multitude is already on the march, while the old unions straggle behind.
Hardt and Negri join several other left theorists who have put the question of organization back on the agenda. In Crowds and Party (2016), Jodi Dean highlights the inability of horizontalist movements like Occupy to sustain their momentum over the long term. She sees an organizational deficit on the left that only a revived communist party can fix. Like her fellow neocommunists Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels, and Slavoj Žižek, she wants to revive the vanguard party form as a means of channeling, organizing, and sustaining spontaneous assemblies after the radical event. Dean rejects Hardt and Negri’s theory of immanent resistance, whose focus on hybrid and mobile subjectivities concedes too much ground to neoliberal processes of decentralization. Historically, she argues, only centralized parties have proven capable of building solidarities that last.
According to the authors, such neocommunist proposals aim to revive an old authoritarian form (the party) in a neoliberal era that demands new forms. Both the vanguard party and Badiou’s theory of the radical event strike them as transcendent solutions to the problems of neoliberalism: the party swoops down like a messiah, and the radical event just happens like a miracle. No salvation will come from outside existing society, they claim. But they agree with Dean about the untenability of left populism. Most notably, the theorist Chantal Mouffe and her late partner Ernesto Laclau isolate “the political” as an autonomous realm in which the people may constitute itself without confronting the social dynamics of neoliberalism. A real strength of Hardt and Negri’s analysis is its injunction against thinking that politics alone can solve all of our problems.
Assembly fits squarely within a left tradition that highlights Marxism’s method rather than its dogmatic prescriptions. By means of this “Marxism against Das Kapital,” the authors “descend into the hidden abode of social production and reproduction.” There they encounter a social reality that has changed a lot since the heyday of industrial capitalism. The new stage of capitalist development demands a new structure of left critique.
The third and final meaning of the book’s title refers to the methodological form of assembly. Most of the book appears like a standard work of theory, but interspersed between the chapters one encounters a series of calls and responses. These short passages mimic “[c]lassic African American styles of preaching,” insofar as they invite participation by the entire congregation of readers. Hardt and Negri draw an analogy to work songs or slave songs, whose coded lyrics formed a hidden transcript of resistance. Assembly’s calls and responses also evoke the back-and-forth dynamic of Occupy’s general assembly. In this sense, the book itself practices a prefigurative politics.
In their trilogy of Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009), Hardt and Negri adopted the subaltern perspective of the oppressed, studying their labor conditions and identifying potentials for resistance. Radical theory needs a social base, they argued. Now in Assembly, they redefine their bottom-up approach as political realism, or a hard-nosed look at “the existing and potential capacities of the multitude.” The real capacities of the multitude today, however dispersed and unconscious, form the silver lining of neoliberal domination.
Hardt and Negri see today’s uprisings as part of a long cycle of struggles. “What begins as a coalition,” they write, must “undergo a sea change and assemble as a multitude of powerful new subjectivities.” In other words, the diverse uprisings must coalesce into a plural movement: “2011” must become conscious of itself as a world-historical event that will usher in a post-neoliberal society. Like the past generation of Sixty-Eighters, militant millennials must start identifying as the Eleveners. Or perhaps they’ll adopt an older radical identity: the Levellers.
Assembly functions as an extended critique of the old left as much as it provides a blueprint for a new left. Indeed, every historical new left has emerged out a dialectical break with prior left forms. And repeatedly Hardt and Negri stress the need for new forms: new organizations, new subjectivities, new languages. “Whether or not we call it Left,” they write, “contemporary movements have repeatedly affirmed the need to start over, to discover a radical new beginning […] a radically innovative ‘what is to be done.’” The ’60s New Left along with other past new lefts had the same insight.
But what about right populism, or what the authors call “the dark mirror of right-wing movements”? Surely the alt-right Patriots in the United States, PEGIDA in Germany, and even ISIS employ horizontalist practices and claim a grassroots legitimacy similar to Occupy and the other leftist movements. In a recent interview, Hardt acknowledges that “not every assembly, and not every social movement, is progressive.” One might conclude that the only thing that distinguishes right populism from grassroots leftism is ideological content, rather than form. But Hardt and Negri counter that left movements differ in organizational form as well.
Right populism characteristically defines “the people” in such a way that closes it off from future inclusions. Based on racist and religious fundamentalist ideas, the people is fixed as a static entity that must be defended against external and internal threats. In terms of both ideology and organization, the left by contrast orients itself toward the ongoing transformation of the multitude. If the right polices the borders of the people in order to exclude the Other, then the left understands itself as the perpetually evolving Other: the multitude that can’t be defined in advance. Moreover, Hardt and Negri claim that only the left creates new forms. Right populists and the alt-right alike appropriate originally left-wing practices. The left innovates, while the right mimics and distorts.
Because they acknowledge the social roots of the populist revolt, Hardt and Negri hold out hope of converting some followers of right-wing movements to the left. But their effort to separate right populism from spontaneous assemblies of the multitude isn’t always convincing. Something links the new right and new left insurgencies. Both rebel against liberal institutions and established elites. In the current crisis of democracy across the world, one can’t help but feel that the extremes may actually meet.
Unlike right populism, the new left that Hardt and Negri envision is radically democratic and nonidentitarian. Their project remains oriented toward a radically inclusive pluralism. Similar to theorists such as Susan Buck-Morss and Paul Gilroy, they recognize the existence of a multifarious, diverse, and syncretic multitude that has yet to attain consciousness of its shared condition. It remains to be seen whether this hybrid new left will share the same fate as the ’60s New Left — or whether the Levellers of today will have greater success than those of centuries ago.
Given how much the political terrain has changed since Empire appeared in 2000, much of Hardt and Negri’s project appears dead. It has said all that it’s going to say. Even so, the authors do an excellent job of highlighting the internal challenges that a resurgent left will face. Every new left risks degenerating into sectarian conflict, heavy-handed leadership, and complacency about its own righteousness. Hardt and Negri insist on a self-critical and internally democratic left that never ceases to call its own assumptions into question. In order to transform society, the left must first transform itself.
Terence Renaud is currently a visiting researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Prior to that he was a postdoc and lecturer at Yale University. He received his PhD in history from the University of California, Berkeley.
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