The Future of Social Movements

// Reflections
on the book launch: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri ‘Assembly’ | Westminster
University, London, 12th October 2017

von Alessio Kolioulis and Rahel Süß

The
book launch of Assembly at Westminster University was something in
between a meeting and a seminar. Several local activists attended alongside
academics and the discussion with Hardt (Negri was absent for health reasons)
was as stimulating as the presentation. Hardt confessed right at the beginning
that the book serves as an excuse to meet people and discuss the status of
movements across the globe.

In
fact, with the rise of the movements following the world financial crisis, the
idea for the book Assembly gravitates around one question: Why aren’t
social movements able to achieve lasting change and create a new, more
democratic and just society, despite being the manifestation of the needs and
desires of so many?

The
book Assembly tries to answer this question by calling for an inversion
of strategy and tactics and for an understanding of the relationship between
strategic multitude and a tactical leadership.

How do we address the future of social movements?

Looking
at how we can address the future of social movements, a critical question
raised by the authors of Assembly is: where are all the leaders gone? In
Negri and Hardt’s view, on the one hand leaders have been attacked from the
outside. On the other, they have been undermined by an internal critique of
centralised structures in the name of democracy. This is the case, for
instance, of the Black Lives Matter movement, a leaderless movement
which rejects an historical tendency of celebrating charismatic leaders.

According
to Hardt and Negri, both “leaderless movements” and “movements with a
leadership” are incapable of long lasting structures. They are unable to make
long term claims and democratic decisions. Instead of suggesting one of these
two options, the authors argue that the choice between a short-lasting movement
without leaders and an undesirable leadership is false. Assembly reveals
a different horizon.

The
framework of the book is underpinned by the idea that social movements can
produce a lasting strategy, provided they find ways to confine leaderships to
short-term tactic decisions. This inversion of the old formula by which the
party leads the movement according to its strategy, is now reversed. The
multitude is capable of giving its own political directions. However, a
different question becomes critical: how do we restrict leadership to local and
short-term tactics?

With
this in mind, the authors introduce two terms: tactical leadership and
strategic multitude. With tactical leadership, Hardt and Negri indicate that
leadership should be restricted to a tactical role, a form of leadership that
is limited to short-term action and tied to specific occasions. A strategic
multitude is a movement which is able to organise new forms of cooperation and
fight against the extraction of the commons.

Improving the capacity of movements’ strategic
decision-making

In
order to improve the capacity of social movements in making decisions, Hardt
and Negri trace four strategic areas which define the structure of the book:
social production, the extractive nature of capital, the entrepreneurship of
the multitude and the commons. From a strategic perspective, we can look at
these areas as four different levels of analysis.

Social Production

The
first area corresponds to the analysis of the relations of production. What is
social production? In Hardt and Negri’s view, an example of social production
is the type of work that hospice workers carry out in care homes. These workers
are employed to provide care and humanity to an ageing population. They provide
affects and sustain links with family members. In other words, their main task
is to offer emotional labour. Care workers are thus the example of a tendency
which we can observe analysing the current phase of production. Factories still
exists, but if we look at how finance extract profits, it is clear that is now
increasingly through the extraction of affective labour, such in the case of
human activity across interactive social media.

Extractive Nature of Capital

The
second strategic area that Hardt and Negri discuss is the extractive nature of
financial capital. The authors of Assembly draw a link between how
capital extracts value produced at the bottom of production and financial
markets. Finance is an extractive industry that relies on the type of social
production described above. Finance remains an extractive abstraction that implies
a relative distance from the point of production. As Hardt brilliantly put it,
gentrification is an extractive activity that relies on the care provided by
people through affective labour. When a group of people produce wealth by
producing social added value caring for the neighbourhood, estate markets are
the long hand of extract that affective work done.

Entrepreneurship of the Multitude

The
third section of the book deals with the controversial concept of
“entrepreneurship of the multitude”. The entrepreneurship of the multitude can
be seen as a new form of cooperation, provided is antagonistic to the system
which reproduce social injustice. At the book event, Hardt admitted that the
term entrepreneurship is far from being ideal. However – he added – much of our
political vocabulary and concepts are corrupted. It is up to us to produce
struggles over concepts, such in the case of the term and notion of democracy,
which can be seen as an object of these struggles. On this point, the fifth
issue of engagée “Becoming-Machine” contains a text
by Negri where he elaborates the question of entrepreneurship.

The Commons

The
final area on which movements can improve their capacity in making strategic
decisions is linked to the commons. For Hardt an Negri the common is about open
access and democratic decision making, as opposed to a notion of property
defined as limited access. In practical terms, political activities should be
organised against the exploitation of the social production of the common and
at the same time they should aim for a society of the commons, fighting for
open access and a democratic management of the commons.

The Future of Social Movements. Is Circularity the New
Strategic Horizon?

At the end of the presentation, Hardt returned to the
question raised at the beginning: where are all the leaders gone? He concluded
by saying that this is perhaps the wrong question to ask. We should instead
have a different line of inquiry: where can people find the power to organise?

In this brief conclusive reflection, we would like to make
one suggestion following this question. If we understand Hardt and Negri
correctly, social movements should locate and organise the enterprises of the multitude,
because these represent a space where new struggles can emerge. But if vertical
and horizontal strategies can´t work today, how can the multitude be strategic?

Looking at David Harvey’s analysis of Marx’s totality, we
can observe that the three volumes of capital correspond to different moments
of paradigms and anti-capitalist struggles. These are 1) the Fordist struggles
in the sphere of production characterised by vertical strategies, and 2) the
Post-Fordist struggles in the sphere of reproduction characterised by the
horizontal strategies of the sixties and seventies. We could say that 3) within
financial capitalism, where the sphere of distribution is central to the
dynamics of capitalist re-configurations, our struggles and our strategies
should be “circular”.

By circular we mean that, if Hardt and Negri are correct,
the future of social movements could be determined by a two-fold strategy. One,
organising those who are at the forefront of that cooperation from below that
characterise social production. Two, by radicalising democratic decision-making
processes, power and leaders will circulate, taking and giving up tactical
positions. This is what we could call – after the vertical and horizontal
strategies of the twentieth century – a circular horizon. This evocative image
– inspired by the Mandevillian cover – is
an open question to be discussed and developed.

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