How can social movements succeed without centralized leadership? Michael Hardt tackles this question in his recent book Assembly, co-authored with Italian intellectual Antonio Negri. The Urban Democracy Lab co-sponsored a discussion of Assembly with Hardt on September 25, 2017. Hardt, best known for his trilogy of influential books co-written with Negri—Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth—is a key thinker in political left.
In his presentation at NYU, Hardt summarized the key arguments of Assembly. He argued the new era of movements are “horizontal,” those protest struggles without charismatic leaders, where all members can interchangeably provide critical roles, what he calls “tactical leadership.” Hardt does not see a reason to return to the old modes of social movements with centralized, male-dominated leadership. For Hardt, change must come from the democratic involvement of the multitude from the outside.
Hardt challenged the notion that any movements are “spontaneous,” arguing all protest movements involved considerable, often invisible prior planning. Here, Hardt list as examples the Greensborough sit-ins, and the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP). These movements build organizations and a base of supporters and participants slowly throughout several years.
Controversially, Hardt argued popular movements need to reclaim the notion of entrepreneurship from its neoliberal meanings. Neoliberal capitalism forces people to become entrepreneurs as a necessity of survival, the “cruelest type of ideology.”. Instead, social movements could pursue entrepreneurship as novel practices of creating popular democracy. Here Hardt uses this word as relating to its French meaning of to go on a voyage.
After Hardt’s insightful discussion the audience posed their questions and commented on the information presented. Some members of the audience wanted to know how to best organize “horizontal movements” in the current political landscape where it seems that the “right has triumphed over the left.” Others asked about shifts in his orientation to elections, his critique of sovereignty, and his assessment of the changing nature of work.
Hardt might have spurred new converts to assemble on this day. If not at very least he was honest when he did not know how to answer a question. A characteristic that is essential in every leader.