Radio Tahrir (Part II): The Indignado and Occupy Movement

This is a transcript of one of the two main interviews during Radio Tahrir (Part I is here), a marathon looking back on the Arab awakening, the Indignados and the Occupy movement, live recorded at the Kaaitheather, Brussels, 11th of March 2012, conceived and moderated by Lieven de Cauter. An edited version (by Werner Trio) of the debate was broadcast as “Radio Tahrir” on Radio Klara, a week later. The first skype interview is with Tariq Ali, who shares his view on the developments in the Middle East, the second with Michael Hardt who is being queried on the Occupy and Indignado movement and the political ramifications for Western democracies. Members of the panel in the Kaaitheater are Rudi Vranckx, Sami Zemni, Yassine Channouf, Eva Brems, Christophe Callewaert, Linus van Hellemont, Eric Coryn and Thomas Decreus. Or listen to the program in English and Dutch.

(Transcript by Odette Dijt)

Michael Hardt is co-author with Antonio Negri of the Empire trilogy (Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth). Their latest book, Declaration, which addresses the encampments and occupations of 2011, will be published in May 2012.

LDC: I have been, of course, in the Indignado manifestation, here in Brussels, I have been at Occupy Rotterdam – but I have less experience from concrete realities than some of the members from the panel – what struck me was that the people you talk to, in their stalls, in their tents, were so incredibly apolitical. In fact, it was hard to, sometimes, find out whether they were really against neo-liberalism. So, they were like … harmless. What is your feeling, because you were, of course, closer to the whole Occupy movement in America. Is it also that sort of confused, harmless idealism?

Michael Hardt: I might be talking about the same phenomenon as you, but I approach it from a different angle. I think it’s true that in all of these European and North American encampments and occupations, there’s been a large percentage of the activists who were not experienced militants. Now that has some disadvantages which I think you are pointing to, it also has some real important advantages. I think some of the success has been related to being new to politics of many of the activists. For instance, before the 15th of May, in Spain, in Madrid … you know, there was a large demonstration called for that day and in 60 different cities around Spain, and it was the non-experienced activists that really forced the slogan of “Democracia real, ya!” “Real democracy now!” A lot of the experienced activists in Spain whom I know very well, were very uncomfortable with that as a slogan, as good Leftists. In some ways to be experienced militants means to be cynical about democracy and to have a certain discomfort in proposing democracy as the objective. One of the really exciting things about 2011, that it has reopened the discussion about democracy. In many ways it was made possible by the Arab spring to put democracy on the agenda, in a kind of naive way – but I mean naive here in a really positive sense – this couldn’t have happened simply in the frameworks of the experienced militants and the politics as it was. So, in some sense I agree with you. I, too, have read about it, and had that sensation of a certain disquiet from the inexperience of many of the militants, many of the activists, in this. I think there are also some extremely positive effects of that. Of the influx of populations I mean. The result has been, in many ways better and credits to the success of the movements in 2011. We have to regard it as an extraordinarily powerful, pedagogical moment of people becoming a much wider population, becoming engaged in these kinds of political issues. So, I guess I am more inclined to see the positive aspects of that.

Eva Brems: Occupy Wall Street, in the first place, fights economic injustice and the undemocratic power of financial markets. Right? It’s Wall Street that’s occupied, not the White House. If you look at the testimonies on “We are the 99%” it’s all about economic injustice. Yet, sort of automatically, another agenda, an agenda for political change, for democratic change of institutions and mechanisms seems to be attached to that. And I understand that perfectly in the US context, because power alternates between two political parties, and neither of the parties really has an agenda for true economic justice, I would say. Plus the rules on party financing are so lax that they are actually votes in the pocket of the one percent, you might also say, but I would submit that in Europe things are somewhat different, actually. The parties are not in the pockets of the one percent? And actually, real and even radical claims for change of economic markets or financial markets of economic redistribution are on the agenda of political parties, even some of the change that is so needed in the US, is already realized in some European countries. So, what I am wondering is, whether these automatic attachments of this agenda of change of political mechanisms should be the case also in Europe? I actually think, that the whole movement, could be much more effective and efficient in Europe, by working through what’s already there, through strong unions, through … even political parties?

MH: Let’s start with the US, and then Europe. I think you’re right that there was a quick movement between the question of economic justice and political democracy. I would say, that, when one thinks about the cycle of struggles of 2011 as a whole, in contrast the to Alter-Globalisation movements from ten years earlier, one of the striking differences was the focus on the concept of justice. Global justice, ten years ago, and the focus on democracy, this last year. So, I would say also, like you, that in some ways that Occupy Wall Street translated the struggle against the tyrant, against tyranny, into the struggle against the tyranny of finance. I would say that the political character of Tunisia and Egypt, and also, of course, of Spain and Greece, all of which preceded the Occupy Wall Street, that the political character really was dominant. So, in all of that I am agreeing with you. What I am not as optimistic about – I love to accuse someone else of optimism, because I often get that – I am not as optimistic as you about the European parties of the Left. Certainly, you know we probably have to talk about different countries, but certainly in Spain, the 15th of May, and the occupations of Puerta del Sol in Madrid and in Barcelona, were not in support of the Socialist party. In fact, a lot of the struggle was against the betrayal of the Socialist party, against a movement that had brought them to power, several years earlier. So, I wouldn’t say that either the trade-unions, or the Socialist party or any other Left formation was in this. What I found most interesting, and complex, and challenging… in May, in Spain, was the slogan that “You don’t represent us!” In some ways, which was an echo of Argentina, ten years earlier. The slogan”¡Que se vayan todos!” That they all go – so, not just against any one politician, or any one political party, but against the entire political class, and really against the entire political system. I see this as a challenge to the republican constitutions, this refusal of representation, and a quite serious one. Now, I think that you are saying that the traditional forms of representation, both through trade-unions and through political parties, is still sufficient to lead and guide the populations and in a way they should give up their struggles, or conceive their struggles or allow their struggles to be taken over. Or, maybe just trust in their leaders, in the unions and the parties? Well, there are two ways of responding. One is that I, personally, don’t have much faith in that, but more importantly, maybe is that the content of the encampments have been decidedly against those traditional forms of representation. Not only because they’ve now been corrupted – undoubtedly, of course, they have – but because of the form of representation itself is not adequate to their desires. All I’m trying to do is express a slightly different evaluation than, I think you give to the traditional forms of representation. I think that’s where we differ.

Linus van Hellemont: Hello, Mr. Hardt. Apparently we don’t have time for another analytical question … so, I have a very practical question for you. As you know, Occupy Wall Street and Madrid, the Indignados of Madrid, are calling for a next global mobilization on the 12th of May. You are a leading political philosopher, and you have the capacity to call the scientific community for joining the protest. My question to you is: will you do this? Will you take your responsibility? Yes, or no? A very short question.

MH: Who cares about the scientific community? And who do you mean by that?

LVH: I know of a lot. I will just add, I know of a lot of political philosophers, but also a lot of readers of your books, who are working within the academic milieu, in, academia, who really follow you, and if you would call to join the protest, and ask them to do the same yourself, this will spark maybe the debate on what is a democratic university. On what is democratic academia: should we focus on quantity and produce texts as much as possible or should we go for quality? Et cetera, et cetera. This is part of the outrage, which is there in the Indignados movement, will you take part and will you call with us?

MH: I am not quite clear about the call, yet. I am certainly taking part. Like, there’s no doubt about what I want. I am skeptical about those who think that the revolution will start in the university. I don’t mean to say that the university is not an important site, but it seems to me the wrong location to look for some sort of leading role. And then the second thing I am hesitant about is I would be very much disinclined to think of myself as a leader of any-thing. You’re sort of casting me in some leadership role which I don’t think is appropriate. I think what is more appropriate, is to write about and to participate in the activities, rather than calling on others to do so.

LDC: Okay, on this moral dictum we end. We thank you very much. Give Mr. Hardt a warm applause. Thank you very much. Great. Thank you for your time. It was great talking to you. Bye bye. And hope to meet you soon. Bye. The 12th of May! [applause]

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011) . He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.