Michael Hardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Empire: Conversation with Michael Hardt, Professor of Literature and Romance Studies, Duke University, March 12, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Political Work in Central America

You were involved with the Central American crisis and the Sanctuary work there. Tell us a little about that, and how you got drawn into it.

I got drawn into it [by] a friend who was [there]. I did it with a friend. It wasn't so much actually the U.S.-ers involved that interested me, it was the Central Americans that interested me. In fact, the political sensibility of the people from the U.S. didn't agree with me, let's say. This friend and I went to Mexico City first as contact people for Sanctuary, for sending people north. We were working with the Quakers in Mexico City, choosing people to send north, to cross the border. It was then that I got know people involved in political struggles in Guatemala and El Salvador. And later, El Salvador was a political initiation for me.

What were you seeing? Was it the oppression that they were suffering, their ability to adapt?

No, on the contrary, it was the pleasures and the joyful life of political struggle. Let's put it this way -- I think this is true, in general, and still true today: there are two kinds political activists that you see, especially ones that go outside of the U.S. This is North Americans and Europeans, I see this in both of them. There's the one kind that goes out of their guilt, and that is a kind of, "We are privileged. We need to, therefore, sacrifice to help others who are less privileged. We need to pay for our being citizens of the oppressor nation, etc." Then there are the other ones, who are completely different. The first ones think that I'm giving something to them, and that's what I need to do, is give something. The other ones, who are much more like me, [decide to go] because it's a better way to live. This is a much more joyful way. And [the people are] giving something to me, not me giving something to them.

I never really imagined (it was certainly true in Nicaragua, or El Salvador, or Guatemala), that we did very much good for them. They did a lot of good for us. So for the one type [of activist], the defining emotion is shame or guilt, and for the other type, the defining emotion is joy. Politics as joy, or something like that.

Where does the joy come from? That they're involved in a struggle, that they're active, that they're deciding and thinking about their own fate? Is it all of those things and more?

Sure, absolutely. That's the joys of a political life. There's nothing particularly new in that. You can think of a long tradition of that sort of thing. Not just in my generation, but certainly my generation was plagued by a political moralism which led to ... not exactly inaction, but a lot of misplaced action.

There's another thing that the Central Americans would say to all of us, and was certainly true, but it wasn't so clear how to address it at the time. I remember a group of Salvadoran students sitting me down at the National University and saying, "Look, it's certainly sweet that you're here and that you're trying to help and everything, but what would really do us the most good is if you went back to the U.S. and made revolution there." It was right in the middle of the Reagan years, and I thought, "Oh, my God. They don't realize how hard that is."

There was a kind of self-exporting of political or even revolutionary desire among U.S. kids of my generation, where it felt like we couldn't do politics in the U.S, and so going to Nicaragua or going to El Salvador seemed like the solution. But these Salvadoran students telling me that were exactly right. It's not a very easy question to answer. It's not a very easy task to respond to.

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