Now in its seventh week, the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to expand and evolve. Notable events this week include the successful effort by Occupy Oakland protesters to shut down the city’s port, the fifth busiest in the nation, and tomorrow’s coordinated “Bank Transfer Day,” when those opposing our banking system plan to move their money from large corporate banks to local institutions. Throughout the movement’s duration, much attention has been focused on its governance structure and on its “demands.” For the protesters themselves, these things are deeply intertwined: the decision-making process is just as critical as the decisions. The dynamic puts us in mind of the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, co-authors of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. In the following excerpt from Commonwealth, the authors discuss how the governance structure of a movement can itself help to prepare its participants for what comes next. Or, in terms of Occupy, how the work of deciding on “demands” can itself create the conditions for their achievement.
Too much of revolutionary thought does not even pose the problem of transition, paying attention only to the overture and neglecting all the acts of the drama that must follow. Defeating the ruling powers, destroying the ancien régime, smashing the state machine—even overthrowing capital, patriarchy, and white supremacy—is not enough. That might be sufficient, perhaps, if one were to believe that the formation of the multitude was already achieved, that we were all already somehow not only purified of the hierarchies and corruptions of contemporary society but also capable of managing the multiplicity of the common and cooperating with one another freely and equally—in short, that democratic society was already complete. If that were the case, then, yes, maybe the insurrectional event destroying the structures of power would be sufficient and the perfect human society already existing beneath the yoke of oppression would spontaneously flourish. But human nature as it is now is far from perfect. We are all entangled and complicit in the identities, hierarchies, and corruptions of the current forms of power. Revolution requires not merely emancipation, as we said earlier, but liberation; not just an event of destruction but also a long and sustained process of transformation, creating a new humanity. This is the problem of transition: how to extend the event of insurrection in a process of liberation and transformation.
Condorcet proclaims, and Hannah Arendt echoes him almost two hundred years later, that “the word ‘revolutionary’ applies only to revolutions that have freedom as their object.” We would extend this to say that revolutions must have democracy as their object and thus that the direction and content of revolutionary transition must be defined by the increase of the capacities for democracy of the multitude. People are not spontaneously, by nature, capable of cooperating with one another freely and together governing the common. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, studying the promises, betrayals, and failures of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War, is keenly aware that emancipation alone is not sufficient. In addition to all the traps and subterfuges of the U.S. government and dispossessed Southern slaveholders, in addition to the color and class hierarchies created by Northern carpetbagger capitalists, Du Bois also focuses on the problem that even after the abolition of slavery the vast majority of the population, white and black alike, remains poor and ignorant, lacking the capacities for democracy. Emancipation is only the beginning.
In the annals of modern revolutionary thought Lenin provides the locus classicus for understanding the revolutionary transition. Lenin recognizes, as we noted earlier, that human nature as it is now is not capable of democracy. In their habits, routines, mentalities, and in the million capillary practices of everyday life, people are wedded to hierarchy, identity, segregation, and in general corrupt forms of the common. They are not yet able to rule themselves democratically without masters, leaders, and representatives. Lenin thus proposes a dialectical transition composed of two negations. First, a period of dictatorship must negate democracy in order to lead society and transform the population. Once a new humanity has been created, capable of ruling itself, then dictatorship will be negated and a new democracy achieved. Lenin has the great merit of posing the problem clearly, but his dialectical solution is today widely and rightly discredited, not only because “transitional” dictatorships so stubbornly hold on to power, resisting the dialectical inversion in democracy, but more important because the social structures of dictatorship do not foster the training in democracy necessary to make the multitude. On the contrary! Dictatorship teaches subservience. Democracy can be learned only by doing.
The problem of transition must be given a positive, nondialectical solution, leading toward democracy through democratic means. Our analysis in the previous section has already developed some elements for such a democratic transition. The insurrectional event, we explained, must be consolidated in an institutional process of transformation that develops the multitude’s capacities for democratic decision making. Making the multitude is thus a project of democratic organizing aimed at democracy. Rather than counting on the boomerang effect of the dialectic to thrust the process at the final moment to the opposite end of the spectrum, this notion of transition delineates an asymptotic approach such that even if the movement never reaches a conclusion, the distance between transition and goal, between means and end becomes so infinitesimal that it ceases to matter. This process should not be confused with old reformist illusions that insist on gradual change and constantly defer revolution into the indefinite future. No; rupture with contemporary society and its ruling powers must be radical: as much as insurrection is swept up in the process of transition, transition must constantly renew the force of insurrection. Often in evaluating the state of the present society, in other words, the point is not to haggle over whether the glass is half empty or half full but to break the glass!
The process of transition, however, as we said, is not spontaneous. How can the transition be governed? What or who draws the political diagonal that guides the transition? The political line, after all, is not always straight and immediately obvious but moves diagonally through mysterious curves. These questions, though, throw us back into the dilemmas of vanguards, leadership, and representation. Revolutionary movements have repeatedly in history allowed the helm to be taken and the process steered by charismatic figures or leadership groups—the party, the junta, the council, the directorate, and so forth—who represent (to different degrees) the masses. And how many times have we heard the need for leadership as an argument to privilege one social group (with superior knowledge, consciousness, or position in the production process) over others in the revolutionary struggle, breaking the potential parallelism we spoke of earlier? Industrial workers have claimed to lead peasants, white workers to lead black workers, male workers to lead female workers, and so forth. Often the establishment of leadership has been accompanied by claims of the “autonomy of the political” with respect to the social, the economic, the private, or the merely cultural.
Our argument seems to have led us into an impasse. On the one hand, the process of transition is not spontaneous but must be guided according to a political diagonal. On the other hand, however, allowing any social identity or vanguard group or leader to take control of the process undermines the democratic function the transition must serve. There seems to be no path for the revolutionary process to walk between the danger of ineffectiveness and disorder on the one side and that of hierarchy and authority on the other.
The way out of the impasse is to bring the political diagonal back to the biopolitical diagram, that is, to ground it in an investigation of the capacities people already exercise in their daily lives and, specifically, in the processes of biopolitical production. In the terms we proposed earlier, this means to explore the technical composition of the productive multitude to discover its potential political composition. Here we get the political payoff of all our economic analyses. In the biopolitical context, as we saw, the production of ideas, images, codes, languages, knowledges, affects, and the like, through horizontal networks of communication and cooperation, tends toward the autonomous production of the common, which is to say, the production and reproduction of forms of life. And the production and reproduction of forms of life is a very precise definition of political action. This does not mean that the revolution has already begun and the problem of transition has been solved because, first, the autonomy of biopolitical production is only partial, since it is still directed and constrained under the command of capital; and second, these economic capacities are not immediately expressed as political capacities. It does mean, though, that in the common fabric of the biopolitical diagram rest latent, potential, chrysalis-like the capacities for the multitude to determine autonomously the political diagonal of the transition. Realizing this potential, by means of political action and organization, would mean carrying forward the parallel revolutionary struggles through the insurrectional event of intersection to an institutional process of managing the common.
Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution” and its limitations helps us understand how the relation between political diagonal and biopolitical diagram addresses the conundrum of the transition. As he does with many of his key concepts, Gramsci employs “passive revolution” in a variety of contexts with slightly different meanings, using multiple standpoints to give the concept greater amplitude. His first and primary usage is to contrast the passive transformation of bourgeois society in nineteenth-century Italy with the active revolutionary process of the bourgeoisie in France. Passive revolution, Gramsci explains, is a revolution without a revolution, that is, a transformation of the political and institutional structures without there emerging centrally a strong process for the production of subjectivity. The “facts” rather than social actors are the real protagonists. Second, Gramsci also applies the term “passive revolution” to the mutations of the structures of capitalist economic production that he recognizes primarily in the development of the U.S. factory system of the 1920s and 1930s. “Americanism” and “Fordism” name what Marx calls the passage from the “formal” to the “real subsumption” of labor within capital, that is, the construction of a properly capitalist society. This structural transformation of capital is passive in the sense that it evolves over an extended period and is not driven by a strong subject. After using “passive revolution” as a descriptive tool of historical analysis, regarding both the superstructural and structural changes of capitalist society, Gramsci seems to employ it, third, to suggest a path for struggle. How can we make revolution in a society subsumed within capital? The only answer Gramsci can see is a relatively “passive” one, that is, a long march through the institutions of civil society.
Gramsci’s various political proposals coalesce as a Leninist critique of Leninism. He is critical of Leninism in that he emphasizes not the “war of movement” but the “war of position,” proposing, in other words, not the insurrectional blow against the ruling powers but an extended series of battles in the cultural and political spheres in the effort to wrest hegemony away from the bourgeoisie. Gramsci’s critique, however, remains Leninist. Passive revolution, for the nineteenth-century Italian bourgeoisie or the twentieth-century proletariat, is not superior to active revolution but merely an alternative when the primary avenue is not possible, when there is no active subject to lead the revolutionary process. All the core ideas of Gramsci’s politics—including war of position, hegemony, and passive revolution—are aimed at inventing revolutionary activity for nonrevolutionary times, but this is oriented nonetheless toward the horizon of active revolution, when sometime in the future this becomes possible.
Gramsci is thus in many ways a prophet of the biopolitical diagram. He understands that the vanguard of industrial workers can no longer serve as the subject of an active proletarian revolution and, at least with respect to their “leadership” of the peasantry, questions the desirability of the worker vanguard. Gramsci also recognizes in Fordism that the subsumption of society under capital leads to a transformation of the technical composition of the proletariat, and he seems to intuit that eventually, within the biopolitical diagram, capitalist production will spill over the factory walls to invest the entire social sphere, breaking down the divisions between structure and superstructure, bringing culture and social relations directly into the realm of economic value and production. He even grasps that the new technical composition implies a new production of subjectivity: “In America rationalization has determined the need to elaborate a new type of man suited to the new type of work and productive process.” But Gramsci fails to foresee—and how could he foresee it?—that with the development of the biopolitical diagram opens up the possibility of a new political diagonal. The making of the multitude and the composition and consolidation of its capacities for democratic decision making in revolutionary institutions is exactly the kind of production of subjectivity that Gramsci sees as necessary for an active rather than passive revolution. Such a return to the Leninist Gramsci on the biopolitical terrain allows us to bring together the seemingly divergent strands of his thought. We are not faced with an alternative—either insurrection or institutional struggle, either passive or active revolution. Instead revolution must simultaneously be both insurrection and institution, structural and superstructural transformation. This is the path of the “becoming-Prince” of the multitude.