“Democracy!” by negri & hardt: trapped in the manifesto

Toni Negri and Michael Hardt are the most important intellectuals of the globalization-critical left. Now they have written a declaration.

"Free yourselves!" Image: reuters

This book begins with a trick. Some may see in it a fallacy, but it is a trick. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, theorists of the anti-globalization left, authors of the 2000 world bestseller "Empire," open their new book "Democracy! What We’re Fighting For" with the sentence, "This is not a manifesto." Manifestos, they argue, proclaim ideal worlds for us and invoke a ghostly subject. They belonged to a time when politics followed prophets who created their people.

This position of spokesperson, well known to the left from approaches that, in the wake of the Hegel-Marxist overloading of the subject, assumed a philosophical progress of consciousness to be brought about, has been done away with. On the one hand by postmodernism and on the other hand, according to Hardt and Negri, with the new social movements of our new century, especially the Occupy movement, which they want to describe.

The booklet, just 120 pages thick, therefore bears the simple title "Declaration" in the original. As such, the writing has been circulating in some Internet forums for a year, and Campus Verlag has now tried to pump it up once again into a work under a different title. Declaration – the word is meant to suggest a different self-positioning. It means that here two authors summarize what they see on the streets from Cairo to New York, without wanting to be avant-garde themselves.

Suffering of political theory

That is the trick. It gives the movements a strong phenomenological reality and is self-protection. For the authors do not want to repeat the affliction that has always afflicted political theory, namely that their own speaker position, which is above all else, could not be epistemologically legitimized.

But in the end the trick is just a trick. Already the literal derivation of "manifesto" and "declaration" does not yield this separation. If one considers that manifest means "to make something tangible" and declaration can be translated not only as "announcement" but also as "revelation", the differences become very relative. And so, in accordance with a prophetic revelation, the authors not only once fall into the dilemma of conjuring up a coming day when "real" democracy will finally be possible.

The book is also another manifesto for the very reason that Hardt and Negri adopt a corresponding ductus and move away from a concise political-economic analysis.

New Capitalist Paradigm

Their book "Empire", in addition to attempting to describe the new world order in the wake of the decline of nation states, opened up nothing less than a completely new analysis of how a new capitalist mode of production – something that now accompanies our everyday knowledge in terms such as knowledge capitalism or neoliberalism -, in other words, how a new capitalist paradigm changes work and life down to the most intimate ramifications: that work no longer means that we sell our labor power, but that we take ourselves to market.

That we are no longer exposed to so-called through-capitalization as a subject of work on the one hand and as a subject of leisure on the other, but that beyond that it is our whole subjectivity that becomes a resource – our knowledge, our affects, our social cooperation with others. This is what distinguishes so-called knowledge capitalism from industrial capitalism.

So exploitation no longer has a specific place, such as the factory. Precisely in this, they also discovered the possible reversibility of relations. Capital can no longer simply appropriate labor power; rather, by exploiting cooperative properties, it depends on cooperation. On the other side, if you will: the multitude. This is their term for a new resistance. It is an attempt to describe the new, undoubtedly more democratic constitution of decentralized protests. In them, so-called singularities take the place of an organized, homogeneous political subject.

Swept under the carpet

The fact that in the declaration this global multitude is composed equally of the revolters in Egypt and the Occupy campers in New York or Frankfurt sounds strange and suggests that the social, political and economic conditions of those who are on the streets around the globe, and who could hardly be more different, are being swept under the carpet.

But here, too, a trick helps: the fact that actors across continents related to each other, borrowed slogans, and imagined each other as numerous confirms, according to the authors, their commonality.

Hardt and Negri now theorize less and draw more conclusions from phenomenological observation. These include: The institutions of representative democracy are hollowed out; the financial and environmental crises cannot be solved with the existing systems. They make proposals for a new constitution, which must be oriented to the precept of broad democratic participation and which should guarantee cultural as well as natural common resources, i.e. water, education and even banks, as common goods.

Living participation

In order to achieve this, and this sounds very voluntaristic at times, the powerful subjectivities, in which we appear as the indebted, the monitored and the merely represented and have no access to our political capacity to act, must be stripped away through living participation. This voluntarism is furthered by the German translation: if Hardt and Negri speak of subjectivities in the original, they chose "roles" in German.

As if roles could simply be assumed and discarded and as if subjects were not bound to their own identity. This then often sounds as if Hardt and Negri now assume an autonomous subject instead of the constitutive historical conditions of subjectivation. The many imperatives – "Liberate yourselves!" – underscore this reading.

Good old alienation is also invoked, and there is talk of all kinds of mystifications. Just as if there were something authentic to be uncovered and as if power were only the rule of individuals who cloud the consciousness of the many. The fact that they do not see it that way disappears behind this vocabulary. A manifesto is allowed to speak in this way, because it is supposed to be a catalyst. But especially from these two authors more would have been expected than the repetition of the demands in the Occupy camps.

"Democracy! What we are fighting for." Trans. by J. Neubauer. Campus Verlag 2013, 127 p., 12.90 euros

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