October 11th, 2011
03:30 PM ET

Occupy Wall Street as a fight for "real democracy"

Editor's Note: Michael Hardt is Professor of Literature at Duke University. Antonio Negri is former Professor of Political Science at the University of Padua and the University of Paris 8. They are the authors of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.

By Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Foreign Affairs

Demonstrations under the banner of Occupy Wall Street resonate with so many people not only because they give voice to a widespread sense of economic injustice but also, and perhaps more important, because they express political grievances and aspirations.

As protests have spread from Lower Manhattan to cities and towns across the country, they have made clear that indignation against corporate greed and economic inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the protest against the lack - or failure - of political representation.

It is not so much a question of whether this or that politician, or this or that party, is ineffective or corrupt (although that, too, is true) but whether the representational political system more generally is inadequate. This protest movement could, and perhaps must, transform into a genuine, democratic constituent process.

The political face of the Occupy Wall Street protests comes into view when we situate it alongside the other "encampments" of the past year. Together, they form an emerging cycle of struggles. In many cases, the lines of influence are explicit. Occupy Wall Street takes inspiration from the encampments of central squares in Spain, which began on May 15 and followed the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier last spring.

To this succession of demonstrations, one should add a series of parallel events, such as the extended protests at the Wisconsin statehouse, the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, and the Israeli tent encampments for economic justice. The context of these various protests are very different, of course, and they are not simply iterations of what happened elsewhere. Rather each of these movements has managed to translate a few common elements into their own situation.

Read: Why the Rich Are Getting Richer. 

In Tahrir Square, the political nature of the encampment and the fact that the protesters could not be represented in any sense by the current regime was obvious. The demand that "Mubarak must go" proved powerful enough to encompass all other issues. In the subsequent encampments of Madrid's Puerta del Sol and Barcelona's Plaça Catalunya, the critique of political representation was more complex.

The Spanish protests brought together a wide array of social and economic complaints - regarding debt, housing, and education, among others - but their "indignation," which the Spanish press early on identified as their defining affect, was clearly directed at a political system incapable of addressing these issues. Against the pretense of democracy offered by the current representational system, the protesters posed as one of their central slogans, "Democracia real ya," or "Real democracy now."

Occupy Wall Street should be understood, then, as a further development or permutation of these political demands. One obvious and clear message of the protests, of course, is that the bankers and finance industries in no way represent us: What is good for Wall Street is certainly not good for the country (or the world).

Read: The Broken Contract.

A more significant failure of representation, though, must be attributed to the politicians and political parties charged with representing the people's interests but in fact more clearly represent the banks and the creditors. Such a recognition leads to a seemingly naive, basic question: Is democracy not supposed to be the rule of the people over the polis - that is, the entirety of social and economic life? Instead, it seems that politics has become subservient to economic and financial interests.

By insisting on the political nature of the Occupy Wall Street protests we do not mean to cast them merely in terms of the quarrels between Republicans and Democrats, or the fortunes of the Obama administration. If the movement does continue and grow, of course, it may force the White House or Congress to take new action, and it may even become a significant point of contention during the next presidential election cycle. But the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations are both authors of the bank bailouts; the lack of representation highlighted by the protests applies to both parties. In this context, the Spanish call for "real democracy now" sounds both urgent and challenging.

If together these different protest encampments - from Cairo and Tel Aviv to Athens, Madison, Madrid, and now New York - express a dissatisfaction with the existing structures of political representation, then what do they offer as an alternative? What is the "real democracy" they propose?

Read: The Tea Party of the Left?

The clearest clues lie in the internal organization of the movements themselves - specifically, the way the encampments experiment with new democratic practices. These movements have all developed according to what we call a "multitude form" and are characterized by frequent assemblies and participatory decision-making structures. (And it is worth recognizing in this regard that Occupy Wall Street and many of these other demonstrations also have deep roots in the globalization protest movements that stretched at least from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa in 2001.)

Much has been made of the way social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been employed in these encampments. Such network instruments do not create the movements, of course, but they are convenient tools, because they correspond in some sense to the horizontal network structure and democratic experiments of the movements themselves. Twitter, in other words, is useful not only for announcing an event but for polling the views of a large assembly on a specific decision in real time.

Do not wait for the encampments, then, to develop leaders or political representatives. No Martin Luther King, Jr. will emerge from the occupations of Wall Street and beyond. For better or worse - and we are certainly among those who find this a promising development - this emerging cycle of movements will express itself through horizontal participatory structures, without representatives. Such small-scale experiments in democratic organizing would have to be developed much further, of course, before they could articulate effective models for a social alternative, but they are already powerfully expressing the aspiration for a "real democracy."

Read: Anatomy of A Protest.

Confronting the crisis and seeing clearly the way it is being managed by the current political system, young people populating the various encampments are, with an unexpected maturity, beginning to pose a challenging question: If democracy - that is, the democracy we have been given - is staggering under the blows of the economic crisis and is powerless to assert the will and interests of the multitude, then is now perhaps the moment to consider that form of democracy obsolete?

If the forces of wealth and finance have come to dominate supposedly democratic constitutions, including the U.S. Constitution, is it not possible and even necessary today to propose and construct new constitutional figures that can open avenues to again take up the project of the pursuit of collective happiness? With such reasoning and such demands, which were already very alive in the Mediterranean and European encampments, the protests spreading from Wall Street across the United States pose the need for a new democratic constituent process.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Daisy

    It's the misrepresentation of our economic situation, that's one of the biggest problems. How can some argue in defense of complete freedom for corporations, those that are now recognized as individual people (although, I'm sure the "cells" of these "people" - the workers - are not all voting on the Corporation's final, political opinion), "freedom" padded with public subsidies and increasingly little regulation?

    Our current economy is not a "Free Market" because we have stripped away any useful mechanisms - regulations - that correct for unfair disadvantages and inefficiences. It comes down to the oft repeated phrase: "Finance and the banks privatize the gains, but socialize the losses."

    How do they continue justifying their tax breaks and subsidies, when we are getting nothing in return? In fact, we are taking perpetual losses? Even at the least sentimental level, this is blatently unfair and dishonest business. We are not rewarding "Jobs Creators" (nor are we passing new policies that would do so) we are enabling opportunists, with this cluelessly static sense of confidence that, in the end, they'll "make good". We just know they will.

    That sounds like too much power over the well-being of our society, trusted in the hands of the few - just like "Citizen's United". The power is too concentrated and now they have all our wealth and resources, too.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:54 am | Reply
  2. Parker East

    Here is my contribution to the movement.... so far. Pass it along.


    Worth watching... subscribe if you like it.

    October 12, 2011 at 5:42 am | Reply

      You’re being used. Be wise enough to recognize it.

      October 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
  3. BEAR

    obama stoked this fire and now he's saying nothing....shame on this populist president, pitting one american against another...

    these lazy sob's need to go home, shower and GET A JOB!

    October 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Reply

    MEMO from LA COMMUNIST BRANCH (they’re coordinating with Occupy Wall Street)

    This is an exciting time! Thousands of mainly young people have been occupying Wall Street for three weeks already, and the “Occupy Movement” has spread to more than 200 other cities. On Oct. 6 the actions spread to our nation’s capital.

    The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) will hold a national teleconference to discuss it:

    Arturo Cambron
    The Communist Party and the Occupy L.A. Movement
    Tuesday, October 11, 8 pm Eastern
    Teleconference number: 605-475-4850 (please note this is the corrected number. ignore previous.)
    Access code: 1053538#

    Southern California Party leader Arturo Cambron will share how the CPUSA and Young Communist League (YCL) are working in “Occupy Los Angeles.”

    This movement, also known as the “99% movement,” is being hailed across the country. Movements and organizations are reaching out in solidarity. The AFL-CIO is opening union halls and offering other material assistance. Ordinary people are donating food, money and materials.

    October 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  5. Kweg Yung

    Corporate America's expansion into China was paid for by the American taxpayer. Bush's “tax cuts for the rich” policy helped to fund this transition. That's why no American jobs were created but a lot of Chinese jobs were. Republican politicians represent the corporate rich, the 'job creators'. When was the last time you saw a job created in the U.S.? The rich don't pay tax in this country and their corporations are physically based in communist China; where, by the way, SOCIALIZED healthcare and SOCIALIZED education are the norm and ALL the banks are state owned. These former American companies only pay tax in China, supporting a growing communist government and military. Republican politicians sold us (U.S.) out. These guys aren't batting for us (U.S.) anymore.

    October 13, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  6. Richard Schiller

    We corporations have to stand together to insure that the peasants don't get any control back. If you are a corporation, please join us at http://www.corporationsagainstdemocracy.com/

    October 14, 2011 at 6:41 am | Reply
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    January 31, 2013 at 5:14 am | Reply
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