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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Theory and Practice

I'm curious because one of the criticisms of the book that I've encountered in the readings is that it does not answer the question "what is to be done," so to speak. We have talked here in this hour about your own thoughts about being involved, as you were involved in political activism. You were suggesting a separation between theory and action at different points of your career. I want to address that question directly and see if I've misunderstood you. What, generally, do you think is the relation between theorizing and political activity? Are they two separate compartments, two sets of activities that both need to be done, or do they inform each other, and how do they inform each other?

Well, first, I wouldn't make the distinction between theory and practice. I would make the distinction, first off, between theorizing in different contexts.

Tony and I don't want to write what is to be done, because it seems to us quite inappropriate for the two of us in a philosophical register to try to propose the course of action. That's not the right way to do it. We're not the right ones to do it. No one in that position is in the right place to do it. Where that should be done is collectively in movements, and that's where I think it is done.

Movements aren't just about practice. There's a theorizing that goes on in movements. In many ways we see our own philosophical work as existing in parallel with the theorizing that's going on in the movements. There's a great intelligence one has to read often. It's not that the movements also have their own philosophical organs, it's not like you can go to one person and say, "What do the movements think?" The movements think in a different way, they think in a way that has to be interpreted, but is nonetheless clear and intelligent. That's the distinction I would make between what I'm calling the philosophical reflections, which I think are useful (I don't think our work is not useful, but it's not the place to make practical proposals, it's not the place to make a program), and then there's theorizing done collectively in the movements, which is the place to [do it]. It's the place that it's already done; it's the place that it's done all the time. That's what seems to me the appropriate division. One can do both. One should have, I suppose, different sides of one's own intellectual life.

Earlier you said that you didn't see this work as something other than putting together a lot of theorizing and information that was out there across disciplines and across spheres of activity.

Primarily that, and saying things that people are already thinking, maybe if they don't even know what they're thinking in life. For instance, an example of what I was just talking about, before September 11th, the trajectory of these North American and European movements around globalization: they had more or less the same idea of empire we did. Why do I say that? Because if they thought that the White House, that the U.S. state, the U.S. government was the one who was directly responsible for all the problems of domination in the world, they should have been protesting at the White House every week. But instead, they had recognized that there was a new power structure, and new enemies. And they were experimenting with possible enemies: "Well, let's try the G8." "Let's try the World Bank and the IMF." "Let's try the WTO." In a way, all of those experimentations were inadequate, but there was a piecing together of this network of powers that were in fact forming the new power structure. I think it's the same. That's why I was saying so it's not terribly original. We wrote in 1998 what they were enacting in 1999. It's not like they read our book and decided to do this, or we just saw what was happening and wrote the book. It's all grappling with our present condition.

When I say this, also, about this not being terribly original, it's not with any modesty, it's more of a recognition of how intellectual activity happens. We think things in a common fabric. That's the way it works.

One other thing that stands out in the book, which is its lack of extreme criticism of the United States. I guess that's the euphemistic way to put it. Again, you do make the distinction between American imperialism and the implications of the order that America has put into play. For example, following up on what you just said, the U.S. was very important in creating a lot of the international institutions that now become the locales of protest and so on. It's surprising, in a way, that an Italian radical philosopher/activist and you would together coin a book which has a sophisticated analysis of both the pluses and the minuses of U.S. power. Talk a little about that. Am I right in that assessment, or am I making you more pro-American than you are?

No, I don't see the need for this alternative of either being anti-American or pro-American. It doesn't seem to me a rational division that's imposed on things. The point is that if you want to understand the nature, particularly thinking strictly of the notion of sovereignty that has emerged in this new global structure, one can't look at the model of sovereignty developed within the modern European national states, which, in fact, was the basis for imperialist projects: a notion of sovereignty based on closed boundaries, on the dialectic of pure identities, or self and other outside the colony, etc.

One can much better understand the kind of global sovereignty that's emerging today by looking at the U.S. constitutional traditions, which involve at least in ideology and in some places the fact of open boundaries: open in the notion of expansive boundaries and an indifference between inside and outside, a continual inclusion of the outside, and, probably, consequently, a notion of hybrid identities, which aren't based on purity. This seems to us not that it's a better or worse [constitutional tradition], but a much better model, better in the sense that it fits analytically with what the emerging global system is.

Once again, this is not a matter of actually singing the praises at this moment of the U.S. tradition; it's a matter of recognizing a different form that, in fact, coincides [with the new globalism]. We call this imperial, and link it to empire in large part because it corresponds in certain ways to ancient Rome. Of course, the [U.S.] founders were very interested in Rome precisely in these regards. There's a way in which the Roman notion of sovereignty had a similar inclusion of external populations, hybrid identities within Rome, expansive open boundaries, that sort of thing. The U.S. founders loved to say that [the U.S.] was to be a new Rome and a new Jerusalem. They certainly had that in mind. In any case, one aspect of it is that U.S. history, and particularly U.S. constitutional history, seemed to us a better model for understanding what's going on now.

The other aspect was that there are wonderful liberating things within the U.S. tradition. One has to condemn all kinds of things throughout U.S. history, but also recognize others. I think that there's a kind of blackmail that goes on often on the left, both in the U.S. and outside on this count, which seems to me self-defeating.

What do you mean by that? Explain it to me.

I mean that one has to either be ... well, even just with the way that you posed the question to me before. I don't mean it's you; it's the common way of posing it, which is [to suggest that] our not condemning the U.S. categorically makes us apologists for the United States, or something like that. One my friends and colleagues says that the first duty of a U.S. intellectual is to be anti-American. Well, I disagree. It's not that I mean one shouldn't apologize for all the horrible things the U.S. government has done, I don't mean that at all. But one should recognize those and [then also] recuperate the streams within U.S. history (and also within French history, and also within English history) that in fact are the basis for future struggles. That's what I mean by blackmail.

In the book you comment on the Gulf War, the first Gulf War, as an instance in which there were clearly American interests involved in stopping Iraq's aggression into Kuwait, but on the other hand, the way the United States mobilized support for that operation, built a coalition, and the arguments it used moved beyond its own interests and pointed in the direction of this world of empire, as opposed to the world of imperial power. So what you're saying is there are pieces in American history, in American law, that transcend what its leaders at a particular time might choose to do, that is, of imperial action, which some might say is what happened in the second Iraq war. So there's always a potential which transcends what may be the narrow interests or intentions of U.S. leaders.

I think that it's true that today U.S. leaders are constrained and will fail when they try to act as an imperialist power. That's definitely true. The forces of circumstances (this would be the argument) make it so that they can only succeed by not in acting in the universal interest, in the interest of everyone, but acting in the interest of a much broader foundation of global power.

I don't mean to suggest, though, that in any way our new global power structure is less brutal, less cruel than imperialist regimes. On the contrary, in many ways, it's more cruel and more brutal. The differences of poverty in the world are more brutal, and there are many ways in which exploitation is greater in economic terms, in which political oppression is greater. The first argument is that it's different, and that one has to recognize the difference in order then to combat it.

On that note, I want to thank you very much for joining us today for this conversation, and this interesting story of your odyssey and your thoughts on your book. Thank you very much.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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