Struggling with the state

Three strategies – engaging with state institutions, practicing exodus in the form of prefigurative politics, and an aim of taking power – need not be viewed in isolation, but can bolster one another and lead towards lasting democratic transformation.

New Yorkers took to the streets on September 5, 2017 to defend DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced its closure. Erik McGregor/PA Images. All rights reserved.While working on the politics of citizenship at the Friendly Fire conference, we focused on civil society initiatives that struggle to create new political forms of belonging and on initiatives that try to reclaim the state as a “people’s platform”. In this context, an interview undertaken with the political theorist Michael Hardt was instructive in rethinking the relationship between social movements and the state. Hardt is best known for his work with the philosopher Toni Negri – their trilogy “Empire”, “Multitude” and “Commonwealth” has had a great impact on thinking and acting politically in the 21st century. 

Krystian Woznicki (KW): In your recent work with Toni Negri – such as the new book “Assembly” – you have focused on cooperation in general, and on building robust institutions from within social movements in particular. In contrast, you seem not to consider it key to 'rebuild' or 'repair' the state and its institutions. But is this really an either/or issue, or is it rather about whether and how to reconcile both approaches? 

Michael Hardt (MH): You are certainly right that this is not an either/or issue and that we can engage state institutions at the same time that we develop the power of social movements. 

In line with your point, I would add that it has been easy to recognise the insufficiencies of some of the standard strategies, especially when posed in isolation. First, the venerable strategy of a long march through the institutions remains important today. But we also have to make clear how those who have embarked on that march have often gotten lost and never arrived at their destination. The inertia of the institutions has in many cases proven too strong.

Second, the strategy of exodus – that is, the prefigurative practices of social movements, especially in the encampments and occupations of recent years – has raised hopes for new democratic relations and demonstrates their arrangements on a small scale. The experiences have made really significant contributions, but they have been socially limited and relatively brief. Moreover, they have been difficult to sustain over an extended period in conflict with the values of the dominant society.

The strategy of taking power remains an important goal. But we have to recognize the limitations of this strategy too. 

Finally, the strategy of taking power remains an important goal. But we have to recognize the limitations of this strategy too. Even when we manage to take state power, that does not guarantee effectiveness – the Syriza experience in Summer 2015 might be read as an illustration of the limits sovereign states can face. But, more important, too often those who take power end up repeating the practices of those they took power from.

There’s no need to despair in light of such difficulties and defeats. Instead we should discover ways that these three strategies can bolster one another and lead towards a lasting, democratic transformation. In fact, I would say that these strategies can only be effective when they are pursued in concert, and in relation to each other. In any case, I think that goes in the direction that you are suggesting. 

KW: There is a noteworthy approach to this dilemma. As the philosopher Fred Moten explains: there is “this monolithic thing that appears to be the referent when people utter the word ‘state’. [But] it’s not monolithic at all... There are all kinds of little holes and tunnels... through the state that are being produced and maintained constantly by the people who are also at the same time doing this labor that ends in the production of the state.” Can we imagine this labor a political project to rebuild and reinvent democracy?

MH: I agree that the state is not a monolith. There are always pockets for doing the work of social welfare – which is important work, of course, but not always transformative. There are also always opportunities for reform within the state. But one should not underestimate either the inertia of state institutions, as I said, or underestimate the overall coherence of the set of state institutions. Louis Althusser provided a useful metaphor when analyzing the coherence of the ideological state apparatuses, which, I know, extend beyond what you are thinking of here. He claimed that the ideological state apparatuses are each relatively autonomous in their functioning but, like musicians in an orchestra, they all read off of the same score. Before putting faith in the work conducted in these pockets within the state, then, one should ask if ultimately they are reading off the same score of the state as a whole. 

There's this monolithic thing that appears to be the referent when people utter the word ‘state’. But it’s not monolithic at all.

Here, then, are two criteria that might help guide any such reformist projects. First, in order to open up potential for transformation, any reformist project has to be also antagonistic. An antagonistic reformism is both within and against the state (at least, in its current form). Second, such reformism must always be nurtured in alliance with projects outside the state. (The alliances and exchanges between factions of certain political parties and social movements, in Germany and elsewhere, is one way to configure this relationship.) These two criteria are only a start, obviously, but they can be useful to avoid the illusions of reformism. 

KW: The state is enmeshed in global networks and ultimately emerges from these networks that are also constitutive of the multitude. What role and relevance do you ascribe to the cooperation between state sectors and non-state sectors such as the multitude? Perhaps you could give an example? 

MH: The relations between social movements and progressive governments in Latin America over the course of the past two decades provide one set of examples. Each of these governments – in countries including Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador – came to power on the backs of powerful social movements. The question is how the new government in power relates to those movements.  

One model is for the movements to be quelled, as if their work is done by bringing the new government to power and the state can now represent their interests. The other model is for the continuing action of the movements, sometimes antagonistic to and sometimes in collaboration with the state. In the former model, the state reduces the effectiveness of the movements and in the latter it fosters their growth and gives them more space.

Any reformist project has to be also antagonistic. An antagonistic reformism is both within and against the state.

I think the second model provides the only beneficial and sustainable arrangement. In any case, this alternative gives a criterion for evaluating the progressive experiences of those Latin American governments, which have in large part come to an end. 

In Europe, the experiences of Syriza and Podemos can be analyzed using this same criterion. Many internal debates to Podemos, in particular, have focused on the space, power, and autonomy afforded to the movements in relation to the party structures and leadership. 

I thus agree with the emphasis you place on the relations between state and non-state actors. The crucial question, though, regards the terms and priority of the relation.

KW: Emerging from with the Syriza experiment is DiEM25 – a new transnational political party. Is this perhaps also an example of that? 

MH: The core aspect of DiEM25’s project, as I understand it, might aid in our discussion: the claim that political problems will not be resolved (only) at the national level but that we must focus (also) at the supranational level, that is, at the level of Europe. Your questions have suggested that you believe that the nation-state is the most important site for political action. I certainly agree with you that it is one important site, but it is not the only one and perhaps not even the central one. DiEM’s focus on Europe is one way of recognizing the importance of sites for politics beyond the nation-state.

KW: If the new organizations that we are talking about here are 'located' outside of the state but are still – by expanding their cooperative capacities – also related to it, how can they actually manage to keep their antagonism thriving and avoid being incorporated into the conventional scripts of the state? Perhaps you could give a concrete example to learn from? 

MH: I understand your desire to refer each time to concrete examples, but sometimes reference to a specific example limits a theoretical point and often the specificity distorts the discussion. 

Let’s try this example and see how it works. The civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s aimed to reform the state from the outside and succeeded in part. I imagine everyone knows the basic outlines of this history. The movement demanded voting rights for African Americans, desegregation, the end to police brutality, and the reform of many other forms of institutional racism. To a large extent, the movement maintained its antagonistic stance without being incorporated into the state. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, famously refused an invitation by President Johnson to take an official position in the government. Some notable leaders did later become politicians – John Lewis is a well-known example – but that seems to me like an indication of the success of the movement, not its failure.  

Today the Black Lives Matter movements are certainly maintaining their antagonism without being incorporated into the conventional scripts of the state. And they are doing this with very different organizational structures than the old civil rights movements. 

One shouldn’t measure the success of such movements, of course, only in terms of concrete reforms that they directly bring about.  Often much more important are the indirect changes they bring about, such as revealing, at a social level, forms of oppression that had been unrecognised by many or simply mobilising a widespread desire for social justice. My point, in part, is just that there are many different ways that success can and should be measured. 

But let me come back to what I understand to be your primary concern here. I agree that today’s social movements – powerful and inspiring as they are – do face an important challenge: they need to develop the capability to enact real social transformation and to create lasting institutions. (The institutions they create will have to be of a different nature than the existing political institutions, they will have to create what Toni and I call nonsovereign institutions, but that is another discussion.) To say the movements face this challenge does not mean that they need to old models of centralised parties. They will have to invent new models in line with the demands for democracy that run throughout the movements.

KW: I wonder whether we are not neglecting the point of view of illegalised migrants, whose perspective is mostly not informed by the European enlightenment and its ensuing conception of political actors and of political discourse in general as matters of rational thinking and public debating, articulating demands and reforming institutions or laws, etc. A perspective, by the way, that has contributed to constituting political actors as citizens and vice versa. Looking at this broader framework, we have to acknowledge that illegalised migrants, who nowadays constitute one of the largest undeclared social movements in history, are excluded from our political discourse.

MH: It is true, as you suggest, that there are many barriers that prevent undocumented migrants from participating in social movements and other “unofficial” forms of political expression. There are certainly linguistic and cultural barriers, but one major obstacle is that they run major risks (being arrested, being deported) for even participating in a demonstration.

But there are also many instances of undocumented migrants engaged social movements. One inspiring example is the Dreamers in the US. They lack citizenship but have (with great courage) been successful in organising an effective social movement. More to your point, though, are the experiments with co-research that are conducted in some migrant organisations in Europe and North America. The point is for the migrants to become, not only objects of charity or assistance, but also political subjects themselves. Those are challenging experiments but important ones. 

There is no such thing as a leftist government. What there can be is a government that gives more or less space to the Left.

But let me come back to my main point. I am not advocating that we focus our political energies only on social movements that refuse engagement with state and electoral institutions. But neither do I maintain that the state is the only terrain of effective politics. My point is that we need to pursue many strategies simultaneously. We should find ways of linking together, as I said earlier, projects of prefigurative politics, antagonistic reformism, and taking power – without thinking that any one of these is sufficient alone.

Here is another approach that leads, I think, to the same point. In the video interview series with Gilles Deleuze called L'Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze, Claire Parnet proposes “Gauche” for the letter G. Deleuze begins by remarking, “Il n’y a pas de gouvernmente de gauche” – there is no such thing as a leftist government. What there can be, he continues, is a government that gives more or less space to the Left. That might help reframe the relationship between the state and social movements, which has been at the center of our discussion. The state can play an important role, but it is never the sole or even primary terrain of struggle. Reformist projects that work within and against the state, as well as efforts to take state power, must always look to the social terrain, nourish and learn from developments there, because that is where the real processes of transformation will arise.

The documentation of the Berliner Gazette’s Friendly Fire conference is available here.

The German version of this interview is available on Berliner Gazette.


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