Organizing Encounters and Generating Events
El Kilombo & Michael Hardt in Conversation
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LESSONS IN EMPIRE
El Kilombo: So much has been said about the concept of Empire since the publication of your book with Toni Negri, how would you summarize the importance of this concept for political action today?
Michael Hardt: One of the problems some people seemed to have with the concept of Empire was that is poses a difficulty for organizing. In other words, it seems that the notion that the emerging global order is organized not by a single imperialist state, or even by a small group of dominant nation states, but rather by a wide network of collaborating powers, including the dominant nation states of course, but also major corporations, supranational institutions, NGOs, etc. – that hypothesis of Empire, that there was no single center to global power, seems from a certain perspective to make organizing and protest impossible. In other words, you can protest but there is nobody home. Now, already the globalization movements from the late 1990s and early 2000s were addressing this new situation. In fact, the way I see the various examples of summit-hopping from that period as trying to articulate that theory of Empire: they recognized that it’s not just the US that’s in control of global order (if you did think that, you should be protesting in front of the White House every week), but rather the protests were an attempt to identify the new enemy through a of series of experimentations: with the IMF and the World Bank, the G8, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, that these were all revealing nodes in the network of the new global command. The problem of course that everyone realized at the time and that is even more pressing today is summit-hopping is only organized around these events and doesn’t leave us with anything else. Today when we’re faced once again with confronting the new global order, which is not simply dictated by the US or by the White House, we have to address this problem again, of how to organize when the powers we’re facing are multiple and dispersed. And how to do it in such a way that leaves us with lasting organizations.
EK: From our perspective the first thing that the discussion around the notion of Empire has accomplished is bring us back to the very basic idea that there is no struggle against capitalism as such, that one must always take time to define the parameters of what the struggle is today. You must always begin by conducting a survey of sorts to understand what’s happening now so that we can act accordingly, it’s never enough to simply denounce capitalism and its relation to imperialism as if these phenomena and their relations were timeless.
MH: I agree that we can’t just reject capital as such at an abstract level, that we have to recognize or invent concrete instances for resistance and struggle. But how does having to think Empire force you or allow you to recognize the concrete situation?
EK: For example, the givenness of inter-imperialist competition, or imperialism as the functioning parameters of capitalism were for a long time a simple given. But today we have to go back, and the concept of Empire gives us the capacity to at least open the discussion and say, if we’re not dealing with that situation, what is the situation that we’re dealing with today? It helps us to remember that we must always keep asking this question.
MH: It’s not the nature of what were calling Empire that forces this; it’s the notion that you have to rethink constantly the conditions of capital, and therefore the conditions of struggle. So whether you agree with our notion of Empire or not, maybe that part doesn’t matter, its just having to recognize that in capitalist relations and command something is new.
EK: Although it matters in the sense that reanalyzing the conditions and the tactics of struggle require a new analysis. So we were using the example of imperialism, where we still have anti-imperialist struggles because some motions, some particular gestures, look like imperialist gestures, but in fact are not. This is where the conceptual innovation makes quite a difference.
MH: Right. If you’re fighting against an old form of enemies, you risk not only being ineffective but even reinforcing them.
EK: Exactly. We also feel that the concept of Empire has had a second positive effect on the U.S. political scene; political agency in U.S. based activism has tended to be displaced onto subjects in the “third world.” The concept of Empire, this massive dispersal of capitalist networks which exceeds any given nation-state, forces us to question this displacement and instead attempt to place ourselves at the center, or at least within possibilities for political action, to imagine ourselves both as subjects of capitalist impositions as well as agents of possible change. It really puts an end to that bad habit of displacing our agency.
MH: To add to that, I wonder if it is the same thing to say that what we have to recognize is that the need for activism in the US is becoming more like the need for activism elsewhere, so in that way too, US exceptionalism is also coming to an end. Part of the exceptionalism was manifested by those practices of a politics of guilt and displacement, making our political actions not about us but only about people elsewhere.
PROTEST AND REVOLUTION
EK: This recognition is important in determining the possibilities and limitations for protest politics in the US, such as the upcoming demonstrations against the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this summer. For us, it is first important to clarify what these protest events should not be about. We need to disinvest from making demands toward political parties and the State, because the problems we are facing run much deeper than the party system – which from our perspective is now a product of media simulation and the spectacularization of politics. In that sense, we shouldn’t be waging protest as a plea or appeal to these parties, or as an appeal to the media. It is through media spectacle that the politics of the politicians is legitimated: through the circulation of images, the polling of ‘public opinion,’ political partnerships with civil society, and the permission and even encouragement of “dissent” which supposedly signals a healthy democracy. The imagery of public protest in and of itself doesn’t challenge this schema, but can in fact play an integral role in this game of simulation that has replaced representation (as limited as this concept already is) as the substance of electoral politics.
This shouldn’t suggest, however, that there is nothing to be gained through the organization of these protests. If the focus is not outward and upward – aimed at the politicians, the parties, the media – but is oriented inward, for and among those of us struggling against capitalism in a multiplicity of ways, these gatherings can become productive spaces of encounter. By this we mean the meeting and exchanging of struggles, getting to know people, projects, and organizations with which we might otherwise never connect. Yet these extraordinary encounters in and of themselves are not sufficient for establishing an alternative to our current situation. The space of protest is a temporary one, and the type of encounter it can provide is all too brief. However, it would be a mistake to falsely oppose the brevity of such encounters with the constancy of organizations. A careful examination of these protests will always show the prior existence of extensive organization, while all organizational efforts necessarily come about through a series of unplanned encounters. Therefore, rather than oppose these phenomena or fix them into a model of supercession (i.e., from protest to organization), what we need is a politics that opens each to the other in a constant relation of mutual regeneration – as the continuous articulation, embodiment, and renewal of our own collective political desires. The potential of the events planned for the summer lies exactly in the opportunity to enact this other kind of politics.
MH: I am little worried about cutting off the notion of revolt… I agree with making primary the encounters of the process of organization, but that doesn’t prohibit, functioning secondarily, making demands on the state, demands on the Democratic Party, demanding a living wage from the city, or calling on any number of political powers, even organizing our own spectacles for the media. What present organizing is moving against is a primacy of spectacle and a primacy of demands, and even a primacy of indignation. It doesn’t seem to me the right way to think about it to refuse those, but rather subordinating those to the organizing practice.
EK: We believe that what is needed is a form of organizational force independent of those structures. We’re not saying “never spectacle and never demands” in a transcendental way, but only that we think at this particular moment, participating in the spectacle empties all meaning from the act, and requires that you evacuate any other platform to stand on. We’re discussing the relation between a movement and its demands of state institutions, and in short what we’re trying to get at is that in order to be able to have this discussion we have to build a movement first.
MH: But what the spectacle is, is really just allowing people to see in the dominant media that some of us don’t agree – that we don’t agree with the electoral process, that we don’t agree with the party platform, etc. Even when that objection isn’t given any content by the media, but just appears as people who are against, I still think it can have great effect.
It might seem like I’m contradicting myself, to first propose this idea of Empire, and then to advocate making these kinds of demands on the political powers and the US government but that’s exactly how I think we need to act in this context, without believing that they are sovereign powers, without believing that they can determine their own fate, we still have to constantly make demands on them, in particular to open more spaces for ourselves to act autonomously. So I agree with you on the priority of organizational relationships, but I think that we could maintain a secondary mission also, of expressing our indignation and rage and hatred of the powers that be. I’m only worried that your exclusive focus on organization might cut off those necessary functions.
EK: Just to clarify, we’re not trying to avoid discussion with these institutions or these parties for the sake of revolutionary purity. That would be ridiculous. But we still need to have a discussion about the effectivity of political action towards reform. So we have to constantly question the effectivity of the way demands are posed and the tie of organizational structure to those forms of demands. For example, the effective provision of education by the autonomous communities of Chiapas has had way more of an impact on Mexican nation policy on education than if the Zapatistas had gone to the national government and made demands that there should be educational reform, because in a way, the national government is then forced to attempt to occupy that issue by addressing the underlying demand. Or, another example, the Black Panther Party here in the US didn’t say, “we want a national breakfast program,” instead, they built a breakfast program that fed tens of thousand of children. J. Edgar Hoover identified these programs as the greatest weapon in the hands of the Panthers and subsequently the federal government stepped in to create free breakfast programs in public schools. The same thing took place with the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia project.
MH: So it is more a question of what forms of organization are best for gaining reforms, the effectiveness of political action in that sense, because, after all, any real reforms are oriented toward revolution. In Italy recently, some of the most successful political activity has been really broad, “multitudinous” organizing campaigns against large public works, which are bad for the environment and bad for the local residents, and then most recently the most inspiring struggle has been against the expansion of a U.S. military base in Vicenza. And I would say the actual object of these struggles – stopping the expansion of the base for instance – is itself important, but it turns out to be secondarily important compared to the lasting organization that’s been built in Vicenza, of the different groups that came together that hadn’t been working together before but discovered new possibilities for organization. So I wouldn’t say that stopping the base doesn’t matter, its important, even if it is secondary to the connections and the new forms of organization that have emerged and the construction of a model for organizing that is being repeated elsewhere.
EK: So, in a way we’re back to where we began, saying that that these protests are important to the extent that they provide us all a base for constructing encounters and new organizational forms But it still might be useful for us to distinguish the effectiveness of achieving reforms from the goal or intent of reform; so if we establish an autonomous institution, and that causes a certain response or some kind of reform, then it has been an effective action, but reform was never the goal. So it is still important from our perspective to maintain a distinction between organizations that set out for reforms, and organizations that achieve reforms.
MH: You can tell the difference between the two by the fact that in that in the first model, once the reform is achieved, everybody goes home and never sees each other again; while in the other model, the achievement of the reform is just one step in a much larger process that continues on.
EK: Absolutely, and nobody should deny the importance of achieving those reforms, so in a way we’re saying the same thing; and for us what is most urgent right now is building the organizational power that gives us the power to force useful reforms.
A NEW CYCLE OF STRUGGLE: EVENT AND ENCOUNTER
MH: At this point then, it might be helpful to situate the challenges for organizing today in the context of the recent cycle of struggles that have now come to an end. It seems to me that we lived through an incredibly productive and innovative cycle of struggles that lasted from the mid-1990s until about 2003, which was oriented toward questions of globalization, especially in North America and Europe; and the power of it was precisely its diversity in organization and in agendas. In other words, it was not required that the movements unify under a single leadership or support even a common agenda. Rather the strength was precisely in the networks of groups, organized autonomously, cooperating together. But throughout that period, everyone in the movements recognized at least two limitations. One limitation was primarily geographical, which was that the movements in North America and Europe were oriented towards global issues but never managed, despite numerous attempts, adequately to extend outside of the global north. The second limitation was that organizations were centered on protest and therefore oriented toward a kind of summit-hopping, and therefore there was a lack of an institutionalization of movements. That movement came to a kind of forced end with the war on terror and the need to combat the second Bush administration, but these movements – anti-war, anti-Bush, in 2003 and 2004 – though of course necessary, destroyed the multiplicity of the organizing of the previous era. Because, by necessity it seemed, they required a single central agenda, and a unified organizational technique; and partly as a consequence all the excitement and innovation dropped out of the movements. Today we’re at the beginning of a third cycle of struggles that in some ways can pick up where the globalization protest movements left off, but maybe now we’re in a position now to address its limitations better. Last summer’s events at the G-8 summit in Germany near Rostock were a good start. Maybe the RNC and DNC events can continue this.
EK: Perhaps one place we might want to begin this discussion of moving toward a new cycle of struggle is what we referred to above as the necessary interplay, or mutual regeneration, of protest and organization. From our perspective, this would provide a way for the new cycle of struggles to move beyond a certain impasse that has formed within the alterglobalization movements – between on the one hand, organizational models that tout effectivity but don’t allow for difference, and on the other, the randomness of encounters that don’t allow for the development and consistency of new collective habits.
In El Kilombo, we feel that moving beyond this impasse implies the construction of permanent spaces of encounter, where no single subject (immigrant, student, industrial worker) is believed to be the principal agent of change, but rather where encounters across subjective positions allows for the creation of new collective habits. That is, this form of organization is capable not only of acting to provide for basic needs, but also of producing itself as a new collective subject (a community). In contrast to the vacuous “grassroots” rhetoric used by non-profits, we have to be careful to note here that community never pre-exists this process of self-constitution; and creating a community is not simply the process of recognizing people as they are, but rather acting collectively on who we want to become. Therefore, we need to reclaim this capacity for ourselves, to generate and sustain community, to exercise power collectively, to realize projects of autonomy and self-determination. We need the organizational consistency and structure to deal with real-life problems and be open to new desires, so we can move beyond the politics of the politicians and the paralyzing spectacle. If we look at the Latin American movements, for example, it becomes clear that only the ones that have been able to make this leap toward what you call ”institutionalization” have remained vibrant and effective and they have in many ways avoided the pitfalls that have tended to trap us here in the North.
MH: I love the way you use the notion of encounter, and it seems to me you’re actually talking about two theories of encounter. There is one notion of encounter that functions in the event; in other words, at a protest movement there are new connections that are made that open up towards the future and towards different kinds of organizing; let’s call this the event encounter. Then there’s another kind of encounter you’re talking about which has to do with continuity and what I think of as the construction of institutions. So this is an encounter that’s repeatable and this kind of encounter makes clear how your notion of community is different from the traditional notion of community. I think you’re right to find the idea of community creepy, and this notion of the encounter allows you to draw it away from these organic, fixed, identitarian, even familial notions, and allows you to bring community back to the common. What this second kind of encounter is about is a kind of institution of the common, in a way drawing out or developing our common powers that we find through our repeated engagement with each other.
EK: Shifting to this second kind of encounter seems to be a particularly difficult task now, because within Empire politics has been delinked from a specific mode of spatialized power – the nation-state – and as such, we are struggling to define the new parameters for the practice of politics and organization. We need a new map for understanding the territorial and spatial dimensions of power, a cartography that allows us to see how empire functions as an extremely spatially intense form of exploitation. The struggle to remove the producers of metropolitan forms of cooperation is most literally a struggle to displace them to the periphery of global cities, leaving behind remnants of their collective habits and practices for the enjoyment of others. We would like to be really concrete about this: we believe this is exactly what the issue of gentrification and the current foreclosure crisis are actually about. In the United States, this has taken the form of the largest transfer of wealth from families of color to banks, brokers, and investment firms in history; specifically, $164 billion – $213 billion over the past eight years. This scrambling of the geography has made it difficult to remember that all political practice necessitates spatialization, and therefore requires a struggle over territory.
Having said that, we have to recognize that although the struggle for territory is necessary, it is never sufficient. The aim of our struggle is not simply the control of territory, but rather the effective deployment of space as the necessary conduit for the production of collective habits which make possible a whole series of new social relations. (Perhaps rather than territory, it would make more sense to talk about “habitat.”) Therefore, in reality there is no such thing as a struggle against gentrification, there can only be the defense and organizing of territory as a tactical move in the struggle to dismantle Empire.
MH: So, on the one hand we were talking about the importance of the event, such as the protest event, when we make new connections and expand our networks – an extensive development – and now, on the other hand, you are emphasizing the need to create lasting institutions, like El Kilombo, through a kind of intensive development.
EK: Yes, because we’re dealing with two kind of events – first is the question of unexpected events, and then there is the question of trying to appropriate the means of producing/precipitating events.
MH: The second kind of encounter, though, the intense repeated engagement with each other, I don’t know if I’d want to call it an event.
EK: Don’t you think that the production of difference that would create the common is an event?
MH: Well, does it happen once or does it happen everyday, continually in our interaction with each other? What do you consider the “event” of El Kilombo? It seems counterintuitive to talk about habituation as event.
EK: By habituation, though, we don’t mean repetition. So it is habituation yes, but the habituation of encounter – the habituation of innovation.
MH: So one is a punctual dividing line of before and after, and then the other identifies the event with creativity and making that isn’t temporally isolated but is a duration, a procession of instances or a constant process of creation. So the question might be, why call it an event anymore?
EK: Because that highlights the innovation involved in it – despite the fact that it happens everyday, it is new every time. The event of Kilombo is the territory that becomes inhabited and habitual. But we should also be very clear about this point, we’re not talking about localism or turning inward, but creating a collective body and terrain that allows us to act with and in relation to others. It gives us the means to act and interact more effectively and more cooperatively, not just within and among ourselves but in relation to other communities – opening in fact more surfaces of struggle, not fewer. This is why we need practices and habits and collective ways of inhabiting our territory that keep it open to more and more connections.
MH: And that brings us back to what can be useful in the RNC and DNC actions later this summer, not only to show our dissent but also for the opportunity to open up and make more connections with other singularities. That is an extensive work that complements the intensive work of inhabiting the territory, as you say.
Holding together these two kinds of encounter, these two kinds of events, may be one way of thinking how we can take this new cycle of struggles beyond the limitations of the previous ones.