Michael Hardt: What’s most significant about September 11th ten years on I think is the illusion that it created of the end of politics. By the end of politics I mean the notion that force could rule. That terror could effectively…be sufficient for power. And this was an illusion I think that was recognizable at the time of September 11th but almost impossible to say. Almost impossible to say because of a variety of conditions of the dramatic nature of the event, and also of the forces of power that are arraigned with it.
So I think one way in which the illusion was created after September 11th of the end of politics was precisely in the US response to the events. Or the US actions that were made permissible by the events. And in this regard I think it was a return to an imperialist logic. An imperialist logic that assumed that force could determine and create global order.
Now, before September 11th and the end of the 1990s, we’d entered a period where there was a great deal of curiosity, even disorientation about globalization. The idea that a new global order was emerging in which no nation-state could dictate global order on its own terms. And I think in that framework, the old notions of imperialism—that is imperialism as the extension of the power of a nation-state over foreign territory—were declining and like I say there was a general…not consensus but a great deal of analysis and thinking about a new global order emerging, something different. In fact that the notion of US imperialism was no longer adequate for understanding the global system.
Well after September 11th, with the US’s launch of the War on Terror, there was in fact a kind of resuscitation briefly of the old logics of imperialism. The rhetoric of the Bush administration in the War on Terror was precisely the old logic of imperialism, assuming that the US, through its military might, could as they said at the time remake the global order. You know, first remake the political order of the Middle East, and then of the globe as a whole.
And they did. There was some talk of course of winning hearts and minds etc., but it was primarily a military adventure. And one like I say that negated politics. You know, negated politics in the sense primarily here…forgetting political wisdom at least as old as Machiavelli and probably older that it’s not force that rules. Force of course can be part of a method, a practice of rule. But it’s really through political struggle, achieving consent, hegemony in these terms, by which rule is constructed. So that we had at least from 2003 to 2007 the illusion that the US could construct global dominance through imperialist means.
So we had of course a whole wave of books on the left that came out about the new US imperialism. And also I would say that those in power—Bush, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney—that they believed, too. They believed too in their imperialist powers. I would say that all of these were taken up in the illusion, like I say, of the end of politics and the return to imperialism.
Now there’s a second way in which there was an illusion of the end of politics after September 11th, and that’s not so much in those in power in the US but rather on the left and the forces of contestation. And here I would say partly it came in the form of charges of fascism against the US state. You know, that the PATRIOT Act, that the US expansionist tendencies, etc. were fascist.
Now, here fascism too I think is… In many ways one could think of fascism, but one way certainly, one tradition of that charge of fascism, is properly about the end of politics. See, I would include in this both the charges on the left in the US and elsewhere of the US state being fascist. During this period and post September 11th, but also these charges from the right, particularly in the US, of what they called then Islamofascism. Now here I think in both cases what fascism means is the end of politics and the rule of force.
Now, remember when left terrorist groups in the 1970s used the term “fascism.” When they called the state fascist. I’m thinking of the Red Army faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, Action directe in France, even the Weather Underground in the US. And certainly various left guerrilla groups in Latin America. When they called the state fascist, what they meant is that politics weren’t possible, only force is possible. In other words, if the state is fascist, then armed struggle is the only answer. This is what I mean by an end to politics.
Now, strangely, when those… And this is I think really what the right-wing commentators in the US when they said is growing in Islamofascism, it was for them a legitimation of force. They only understand violence. Therefore, violence is the only alternative. On the left strangely, I considered it a very strange season of political discussion when the left called the US state fascist, but did not follow that as those did in the 70s with armed struggle but a kind of…resignation, and resentment about the overwhelming power of the US. Now, I think this was an illusion and an illusion that we now see for false. But it was certainly an effect of September 11th, and the War on Terror that came after.
Now the third illusion is perhaps the most significant, really, and it was going along with this notion of an Islamofascism is that, in the ten years after September 11th there was a quite extraordinary misreading of the impossibility of politics in North Africa and the Middle East, in the Arab world, and also within Islam. Now, what I mean by that is precisely again that this charge of Islamofascism, that this assumes the impossibility of politics, and that force is the only response, and that force can actually rule.
Now, one of the most healthy effects of the so-called Arab Spring, of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt; Libya, Syria; a variety of countries in North Africa and the Middle East—one of the most significant effects of this I think is to finally disperse that illusion of the end of politics within the Arab world. And what I mean by this— Well, on the first hand it’s really— One thing it did away with is the fundamentally racist notion that Arabs can only…their only political alternatives are either a religious fundamentalist politics, or secular authoritarianism. And instead what they’ve demonstrated…I mean, I think what these results demonstrate, is not only the possibility of politics but a kind of inventiveness with new democratic forms. And a demonstration that violence and terror cannot rule.
So in all these regards, both in terms of the illusions of the US government and its dreams of imperialist rule, the delusions and despondency of a North American and European left about the lack of spaces for politics or even power of contestation against US projects, and even most importantly in North Africa and the Arab world, there too the illusions of the end of politics, I think what we can see now, and I think what is maybe evident in a much more general way now, is that those attempts of the rule of force, those attempts of rule through terror, are really only temporary and let’s say assuredly failed projects. I mean in essence the… It’s not the return of politics, it’s the dispersion of the illusion of the end of politics. I think that’s the healthy point we’ve arrived at ten years on.
Going along with the charge of fascism during this post‑9/11 period, the charge of fascism especially against the US state with the demonstrations being torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo…it’s an exception from the rule of law. I think going along with this charge of fascism has been…and the illusion of the end of politics in this way, has been an exaggerated focus on sovereignty. Now, what I mean is sovereignty here conceived in a juridical way as that power that decides which is both inside and outside the law. That creates in this sense states of exception. Exception to the Constitution. Exception to the rule of law.
And of course, it’s true that during these ten years, particularly in the actions of the US government there have been a great number of examples one can point to that were instances of exception, and instances of sovereign power. I think, though, that this exaggerated focus on sovereignty and also exaggerated focus therefore on these states of exception, these zones that are outside the law, I think that the exaggerated focus on sovereignty has taken these periods, states of exception and spaces, as central or paradigmatic when I think that they have been in fact peripheral. I think that’s partly been the illusion of this period. So that the exaggerated focus on sovereignty has distracted us. That’s one way of putting it. It’s distracted us from the everyday powers of rule that seem to me more significant and more important to contest. So for instance, focusing on sovereignty, states of exception outside the law, focus us less, or allow us to focus less on the way that properly through law and legal means forces of domination act. Or, similarly, states of exception and sovereignty also distract us from economic forms of domination. The rule of capital in general, that happens on an everyday and unexceptional way. So that I think that’s part of this illusion of the end of politics in this age of terror in the ten years post September 11th has distracted us from or put into the shadows the everyday functioning of power that is in fact more significant and should be the object of both analysis and resistance.
Now, this focus on the exception and sovereignty also seems to me an historical misreading of fascism and the way that fascism has functioned. It’s true of course that within the national socialist experience in Germany, and within the Italian fascist. twenty-year period, there were of course many instances of extraordinary, exceptional power of forms of sovereignty. But that doesn’t account for and it has a very difficult time explaining the social phenomena of fascism and the consent of the populations. I think one has to explain the historical instances of fascism not simply through the rule of force in that sense, and seeing the sovereign power as an exception, but rather through the mobilization of large segments of the population. So, it’s in this sense that Spinoza’s famous question becomes significant, “Why do people sometimes desire their domination as if it were their liberation?” And so I think that’s the question one has to answer to grasp the historical existences of fascism, rather than simply focusing on the rule of force and violence, the exception to the law, and the forms of sovereign power.
In some ways this paradigm of the end of politics, this illusion of the end of politics during the ten years after September 11th, an allusion of global war on terror really, it was convenient conceptually both for those on the right and the left. Or for at least certain segments. I mean, on one side it was the understanding, and I think a real belief, especially in those in power in the United States that a war on terror could define the world in two camps. As famously Bush thought that everyone could either be rallied with or against that project and that dominating power.
I think that on the left too there was a kind of conceptual convenience to this understanding that the varied forms of violence and the various innumerable wars in the world could all be slotted into this one global dynamic of the US neoconservative expansionist project. Let’s put it that way. But once the solution is— First I think— And once we do away with a solution we’re left with a very complex and difficult question. How do we understand the logic of the continuing or even unending wars across the world? I mean, sometimes it’s the US of course bombing people, other times it’s NATO bombing people, and there are a variety of other forms. How can we understand this?
And I think one first approach is that it shouldn’t be understood as a single divide. I think that we misrecognize the current state of war—the current states of war, really—if we try to impose one single logic on it. Sometimes of course these are wars conducted in the name of protecting national sovereignty against invasion. Many times, on the contrast, they’re in violation of national sovereignty to protect human rights. Sometimes they’re done in accordance with international law. Sometimes they’re done in violation of international law. I think that the variety of these instances is the first challenge we have to look at. And that like I say that we won’t be able to divide them into two camps of one global opposition.
In my view rather than looking for a single logic or a single actor of global domination, one can really only understand the states of war today globally by first trying to understand the nature of the emerging global power structure. Which as I say I think is not univocal. It’s not dictated by Washington, or Beijing, or any other source one would imagine. But rather the emerging global power structure I would say is in a kind of network form. A network or collaboration between a variety of uneven powers. So that sometimes of course the US does, or the Pentagon does act as if it could be unilateral. But really what it is is a collaboration among the dominant nation-states together with the interests of the dominant corporations, the intervention of the major international institutions. I think that one has to first understand that complex…complex but not incoherent power structure that is emerging at the global scale to then be able to understand the varieties of violence, and the types of war, that are continually emerging and continuing across the globe.
I was very reluctant to accept right after 9/11 that so many were happy to say at the time that everything had changed. They proposed, I think this was even the standard narrative, that September 11th was an event which meant that all the rules of politics had changed. In fact I was so reluctant precisely because it seemed to me that that notion of September 11th as an event was being used then to declare the end of politics. Declare the end of the possibilities of struggle and contestation on a political train, and instead declare that only force would rule.
So if one thinks of that as the claim to being an event for September 11th, then really ten years on I think we could say that September 11th wasn’t an event. Now, of course I don’t mean it didn’t happen. I don’t mean that…of course that thousands weren’t killed, that there was noth— You know, I don’t mean that it— Okay, yeah.
By saying that September 11th wasn’t an event I don’t mean of course that the attacks didn’t happen. What I mean is that it didn’t fundamentally change the relation to politics. That in fact what appeared, and I think were pursued by many as the consequences of September 11th, the way it made everything different, I think all that has really turned out to be an illusion. It’s in that sense that what we could say now that September 11th was not an event. Because now, ten years on, I think we are in the process of returning to the political position we were in before September 11th. We’re returning to that position in a variety of ways. One is the recognition of the complexity of the emerging global system. The need posed by globalization or the transformation of the global power structure to invent new concepts or to understand the global order by new concepts.
Second also I think that the illusion created and/or perpetuated by thinking of September 11th as the event was also about the politics of Islam, the politics of the Arab world. The illusion that those politics could only function irrationally, religiously, in terms of force. So that there too I think one of the great developments of 2011 is in a way a return to the recognition of the political struggles within the Arab world. And in that sense the possibility for politics.
So in some ways I would say that ten years on the event quality of September 11th has proved to be an illusion. Because everything didn’t change. Because in a way what we are left with, what we are returning to (let’s say in that way), is the kinds of political challenges and political struggles that we were facing already in 2001.
One enormously productive aspect of this Arab Spring in 2011 is the kind of ideological housecleaning that does away with these fundamentally racist notions of a clash of civilizations. As if culture defined by Islam, or also that Arab cultures in a different way were not capable of democracy, and that they were fundamentally different than other geographical cultural units. I mean, so that the the demonstration of political activity and of democratic aspiration and democratic creativity seems to me to have an enormously productive effect.
The second aspect of it that I think is really useful and significant is the lack of the United States in these struggles. I mean, that in Tunisia, Egypt, and various other uprisings in this whole cycle of struggles, the US hasn’t been present either as proponent or antagonist. I mean, that these have not been primarily anti-American struggles. But neither have they been celebrating the US struggles. I mean, there hasn’t even been the opportunity that we saw, throughout 1989 for instance, of the kind of manufacture of a pro-US nature of democracy struggles. I mean, remember all the stupid things that were said about people in Eastern Europe just wanted blue jeans, or this paper mâché statue of liberty in Tiananmen. So ’89 was sort of filled with this sort of claim that these were pro-US movements. And then we can think of a variety of things in which the anti-US aspect has been celebrated. Now here, these are really just struggles without the US. And without Europe, I would say. And enormously beneficial for that.
Now, I would say in this thinking about it this way, and trying to analyze this cycle of struggles, the NATO decision to bomb Libya’s really the first counterrevolutionary event of the Arab Spring. It’s counterrevolutionary not because it didn’t intend to save people from Qaddafi. It’s not counter revolutionary I certainly don’t mean in the sense of combating Qaddafi. But rather in the logic of reasserting US and European dominance within the logic. So that this legally-sanctioned, liberal intervention, which in many ways recalls the interventionism of the 1990s, was one that reasserted a claim to global dominance of NATO, of the US, and the dominant European powers. This seems to me…yeah, like I say it has been the major counterrevolutionary event, precisely because it has blocked the possibilities of democratic development. And poses an obstacle, not maybe not an insuperable obstacle, but an obstacle towards democratic organizing and revolt in the other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. It poses an obstacle precisely in the sense that it once again brings up the threat, let’s say, of having to be either anti-US or pro-US. And that is one of the biggest obstacle it seems to me in the development of these…I wouldn’t call them democratic revolutions—democratic insurrections. We’ll have to see if there can be developed a constituent revolutionary dynamic. But so far they’ve been democratic insurrections which like I say have fundamentally taken place without the US and Europe, and without the dominance of them.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this illusion of the end of politics is that it has, for many, eclipsed what people are actually doing. And has led those to say, underestimate the importance of ten years of extraordinary democratic experimentation. Revolt, certainly. Insurrection against neoliberal governments, against authoritarian governments. But also attempts at constitution of alternatives. In some ways, the ten years since September 11th have really been an extremely rich period of politics.
Now, the most obvious place this has been true has been in Latin America in this decade. I would say characterized in a variety of countries are rebellions particularly against neoliberal governments, and in some cases the creation of a dynamic relationship between powerful social movements, often led by indigenous communities, often around questions of land, rights to resources, etc., a dynamic between these movements and leftist and progressive governments. And I think that’s been in fact a major field of the democratic innovation of political struggles in this decade. You could say that they were eclipsed by the War on Terror from a certain North American and European perspective, and in some ways that was a good thing. In some ways the US was looking elsewhere. The US was no longer trying to…and perhaps was unable to, police its own backyard, as it said, and this flowering of democratic experiments in a variety of different ways in Bolivia and Ecuador, in Venezuela and Brazil, in Uruguay and Argentina and Paraguay, all of these countries have developed I think an extraordinarily rich dynamic. Without the US. Without being either primarily pro-US or anti-US. Really without the US as a dominating presence.
Now, the new decade perhaps may be marked by a similar dynamic in the Arab world. Because there, too, we have the development of extremely powerful popular forces against authoritarian and neoliberal governments. Where they will go it’s unclear but perhaps the one thing one could hope for is this similar dynamic between new progressive governments that are a result of the insurrections or of the revolts, that are constantly challenged and pushed by the continuation and strength of these social movements that have made the results, that could be, and one might hope that would be, the dynamic of this new era.
But it seems to me that these are the kinds of political realms, realms of struggle and contestation over economic, social issues, that should be the focus of our political research and political activism. That have been in some sense eclipsed or cast in the background by the War on Terror, by the focus on sovereignty, by the excessive focus I would say on the states of exception. These should in fact be the focus of our energies, and they are in fact what is really making the world. It’s those revolts to which global power structures have to react. They are in fact the dynamic forces that are leading the possibility of a new world.