Hardt on leadership

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Michael Hardt talk about leadership in social movements. The title of the talk was “Where have all the leaders gone?” and his goal was to think through some of the recent “leaderless” movements: BLM, Occupy, etc. One aspect of the talk really resonated with our last discussion on Bifo’s recent book, and that’s what I wanted to post about here.

To set up his analytical framework, he began with the distinction between strategies and tactics. Typically, strategy is the realm of leaders: taking the long view, gauging the field of action, and making plans, while tactics are the purview of the followers, or the grassroots: they involve specific interests, short term action, etc. Rather than doing away with leadership altogether and noting the spontaneity of political events (which is often a mischaracterization of careful planning, in his view), Hardt instead wants to think through what might happen if the realms of strategies and tactics were inverted. In this case, it would be grassroots movements that define the strategies (what he ends of calling the entrepreneurship of the multitude, in an effort to recapture the “e” word from the enthusiasts of neoliberalism) and to have tactical leadership to execute these strategies, which would take place in the short term, serve specific purposes, and rely on leaders’ technical expertise.

But I found this particularly compelling when he spoke about how we should look to other spheres to identify our virtual capacities to strategize politically.  Following the increasing sociality of production that has arisen in the post-Fordist era, he suggests that if people can manage to do this in economic production, for example, then why not in politics? His examples were the role of caring by hospice nurses — who serve as points of contact for the patient and their loved ones — and the role that coding plays in Google’s pagerank algorithm, which continuously makes new connections between the search engine’s performance and the collective intelligence making use of it. Beyond the economic, if this can also be done in other social or cultural relationships, then isn’t the capacity also transferable to political organizing?

It’s this point that I find to be the most compelling. I’m thinking particularly about my comment on the eight-hour immersive play Gatz, and how I — as someone who is not likely to protest in the street — am drawn to this sort of collective aesthetic experience (and want to be more involved, want to discuss and “share breath,” as Bifo says). Or like this reading group, which has functioned as a self-organized body for 6.5 years. In Hardt’s formulation, the ability to organize these sorts of interactions attests to the capacity to organize, and therefore to strategize. The challenge, politically, is to then actualize these (virtual) capacities toward political ends, and to then select leaders/experts that can carry them out.

Why Agamben Is Worrying Me

For me the concern that I had not perceived on my reading but that emerged from our discussion of The Coming Community was the possibility that Agamben is trying to reassault those who would rally politically around some kind of concrete identity (gender, race, sexuality, etc.) and the inequalities/injustices/domination/violence associated with those identities.  I worry that he is insisting that we must think politically in terms of concepts that transcend identity (primarily, “whatever,” but also “being-thus,” “not not-being,” etc.), concepts that get at what is original, or essential, or universal about humanity.  He seeks concepts that are not limited to circumstances particular to a certain group (and not to other groups).  We are all the same in terms of our whatever humanity, and also, it seems in “Shekinah,” in terms of “the communicative nature of humans.”  Agamben is looking for what is shared, which is what is the same, which is what is common to all, which is what is universal, which is the Form of humanity.  OK, maybe that last sentence is a bit too easy in its associations, but that is what is worrying me.

And it is worrying me primarily because this book is very much, I think, part of the new wave of people in the post-1989 era trying to bring back the idea of “communism” as a political rallying point.  It might even stand as one of the first attempts to do so.  People like Badiou, Nancy, Hardt and Negri, Ranciere, Dean, etc. have all been working in this vein.  And I am excited about this new wave, eager to bring it into dialogue with my understanding of democracy.  Eager to recapture the idea of communism not only from the Stalinist disasters of the USSR, China, etc. but also from the hard-line Old Leftists (who, inexplicably, still live and breathe) who want to shove everyone into the moving train of class politics and tell them to shut up about all that identity crap.  So I worry Agamben is (or can be read as) an eloquent and lyrical and sophisticated reincarnation of this crusty Old Leftist.  A sort of Althusser 2.0.  And I am even now starting to retroactively worry about Hardt and Negri, who share Agamben’s people-have-been-reduced-to-just-one-global-class conception of the contemporary political situation.  And, lastly, is it just me or is it entirely plausible to suspect that Agamben’s understanding of the world is deeply Platonic, or, as he hints, some Gnostic re-reading of the theory of the Forms?

Let me end, though, by saying I loved reading the book, and will continue to think these issues through, both in the group and in my own writing…