C17: Michael Hardt on the abolition of property

Michael Hardt. Photo: The Global Center for Advanced Studies.

There is no alternative to communism today.

This was the premise of C17, a remarkable conference on communism held in Rome at the social center Esc and the National Museum of Modern Art during this past weekend. The program of the seminar included an awe-inspiring lineup of communist intellectuals, including interventions by Silvia Federici, Jodi Dean, Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Bifo, Saskia Sassen, Maria Lucia Boccia, Mario Tronti, Christian Marazzi, among many others.

One of the more exciting presentations was given by Michael Hardt on Saturday, at the session on the ‘communism of the sensible’. In his presentation, Hardt walks us through the idea of communism, starting from the economic sphere but quickly extending his argument into a beautiful elaboration on the nature of the common and a uniquely concise articulation on a theoretical basis for a contemporary communist politics. The video of the session has thus far not been included in the archive of events at C17, so it’s worth to reproduce the argument at length here. To be clear: unless otherwise noted, the following text is based on notes from the presentation Hardt made.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels define the “distinguishing feature of communism” as the abolition of bourgeois private property. This definition of communism is entirely negative, and according to Hardt, Marx and Engels don’t really give a positive definition as a correlate. Hardts’ response is, hardly surprisingly, to issue the common as a positive ground for thinking communism.

If private property is characterized by a limited access to use plus a monopoly on decision making, then, conversely, the commons are characterized by open access to use and collective decision making. Without the common there is no communism, and thus a positive rewriting of the Communist Manifesto today would have to include an affirmation of the common. This isn’t a mere issue of symmetry – a communist politics can not just oppose the capitalist state with a communist one – and, in fact, the very idea of ‘common property’ is an oxymoron. The common, then, is not property.

But if this is the case, why is the theory of communism so often reduced to the question of property relations – and something of the economic sphere – not least by Marx and Engels? This question, Hardt explains, eludes the fact that private property relations actually extend into all realms of human activity. Hardt then proceeds to give four examples on how this articulation of the depth of property relations has been expressed in the history of communist struggle and theory.

Some of the greatest achievements of the early Soviet Union came through investigations of the abolition of private property, Hardt says and introduces his first example (1). One of the more articulate voices was the communist theorist of law, Evgeny Pashukanis. His thesis was, that civil and public law cannot really be separated, since the very sovereignty that any law in capitalist societies rests upon is based on private property. All laws under capitalism are at their base about property relations. As a consequence, Hardt says, we need new forms of rights that are based on the common. (As a side note: Similar ideas can be found in the writings of Carl Schmitt when he makes a parallel between Marx’s idea of primitive accumulation and a political variant of the original accumulation of power through the establishment of the sovereign state).

Hardt finds his second example (2) in the “more daring and far reaching efforts to abolish private property in the Soviet Union” that Alexandra Kollontai ventured upon during her time as People’s Commissar for Social Welfare. Kollontai attacked the private relation of the couple that binds the family together and functions as a vehicle for gender hierarchy, “making the wife an instrument for production”. This lead Kollontai to equal romantic love with a trap and a mechanism for the subordination of women. The relation of the couple is defined by property and possession (“I am yours and you are mine”) and in the couple form attachment takes the expression of a refusal to share past experiences. The couple becomes an antisocial unit that has no need for the rest of society and that breaks other forms of attachment and love. This is repeated in the family that completely closes in on itself and where the parents often hold a proprietary attitude towards their children (my children/your children). Here Hardt quotes feminist theorists Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, when he says that “caring/sharing/loving would be more widespread if the family wouldn’t claim them for itself”. (This, one might remark, is actually at the root of why raising children today can be so challenging: while childcare has in many societies been a collective task, responding to the continuous needs of a child by one or two people is a daunting task that is very hard to perform without excessive stress.)

These arguments serve to stress the point that mere abolition of institutions is not sufficient without experiments with new forms of life. Hardt tells us that Kollontai actually prepared a platform for the withering away of the bourgeois family, but Lenin’s response was that “it wasn’t time” and the rest is, as the saying goes, history. Hardts’ suggestion is not to abolish love entirely but that today, like then, to find a new basis for love in the common is a fundamental communist task. (This, of course, is already something that’s happening, with the amorphous and open significance that the concept of ‘fam(ily)’ gains in queer networks of care serving as a particularly good example.)

Hardt then gives his third example (3) on the depth and extent of property relations through legal theorist Cheryl Harris equation of ‘whiteness as property’. For Harris, whiteness doesn’t only afford economic advantages. No, whiteness functions at a deeper, metaphorical level as actual property. Hardt elaborates on this through W.E.B. DuBois’ expression ‘wages of whiteness’, which the latter used to describe how white members of the working class are compensated with public and psychological wages that are simply not available to workers of color. Whiteness as property is the possession that white people have over the exclusion of people of color and a promise of their own sovereignty – which in turn offers a hint on why so many whites vote for racists that don’t actually promote their economic interests. Whiteness here becomes a privileged means to property beyond mere economic resources.

Hardt extends this point further with reference to Fred Moten who has described blackness as non-property (building upon the afropessimist writings of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton), as “a continuous performance for a quest for freedom”. Why is this last point relevant to the general argument that Hardt makes? Well, because Motens description of blackness as non-property against the property of whiteness has parallels with the way Hardt tries to pin down the common as non-property against bourgeois private property.

In a fourth and final, slightly different example (4), Hardt moves to the question of political organizing, where the refusal of leadership can be opposed with centralization akin to the limits imposed by private property on use and decisions. The standard version of this opposition equals hierarchy with efficiency and durability whereas horizontality is equaled with spontaneity, inefficiency and ephemerality. This is the same line of attack that standard arguments raised against the commons follow: In his (in)famous essay on the tragedy of the commons, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote that property is the only mechanism for care. Without property there is not only bad decisions, but no decisions. In other words, without private property, chaos reigns.

Now, many have been lured into responding to this by defending the inherent harmony in spontaneity. But this won’t do for Hardt: The common is not spontaneous, it needs to be managed. Democratic modes for this type of management are possible, Hardt says, and must be developed. Returning to Kollontai, Hardt finds a parallel argument in the false opposition between the supposed fidelity of the romantic couple and the indiscriminate promiscuity feared by conservative advocates of the nuclear family. This is a mistake, as sex is (literally) a distraction here.

According to Hardt, the argument Kollontai makes is not only not about sex but, in fact, not even against monogamy per se (“the revolution will not be sexual”). The real point is to show how our affections are tied to property relations in order to open up the possibility to build them upon another, common basis. So, Hardt isn’t giving this lecture in the history of struggles to call for an abolition of all institutions and collective rituals but to chart a strategic field where the quest to build new, common,forms of collectivity appears through exposing the weaknesses of old, proprietary forms. We do not need to get rid of families, love and all the associated rituals but make them common, through opening them up and making them ‘non-property’. (This, one might add, is also one more theoretical blow to the sloppy critiques of ‘identity politics’ that conflates political form with it’s contents).

Hardt articulates this point further through Foucault’s writings on the homosexual way of life. If we place our hope in sex, we leave unexplained the very thing in the homosexual relations that Foucault observed and participated in which can potentially threaten the social structure – namely, that they expressed modes of love characterized by care of different temporalities and degrees of openness (partnerships that last a lifetime, short encounters of care and so on). It’s interesting to note, that Hardt here seems to make a very similar reference to the same passages in Foucault’s History of Sexuality II that Giorgio Agamben uses in his attempts to pin down the ethical in his recent book The Use of Bodies. This, despite the fact that Agamben was chastised heavily by Negri and Virno during their interventions at C17.

Here, Hardt makes a turn towards some kind of a political proposal, suggesting a model of dual power where projects and leaders that engage with the state apparatus are subordinated by movements – the primacy of the common over property means that actual communist strategy need to be in the hands of movements/the multitude. Hardt doesn’t go into details, but I assume a textbook example of this type of division of labour would be that between the Spanish indignados and later movements like la PAH on the one hand and municipal election initiatives like Barcelona En Comú and their leader Ada Colau on the other.

The Spanish experience has certainly given some credibility to this approach, but I found this last part slightly anticlimactic nonetheless. There’s is a certain poverty in the way Hardt, Negri and others use the concept of ‘movements’. This feels like a relative to the banal economism that Hardt so eloquently disseminates in his presentation, as a fetishization of movements that tends to guide us into the common as a variant of activism, always returning us to the lacking imaginaries of the exclusively political sphere (and not really doing justice to what la PAH is either). Here I might be echoing The Invisible Committee, when they recently criticized the idea of the commons for its separation of the common into something to be managed by a someone. This attack against the split between a constituting and constituted power highlights the very things that one could easily read into Hardt’s own presentation, namely the need for an expression of the common that far exceeds the movement perspective that Hardt in the end evokes.

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