Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt published a bold treatise in 2000 titled Empire. They followed it with two other titles. These three books made up a trilogy. Empire and the other two texts were an attempt to understand the blossoming global capitalist economy within a Marxist framework informed by the Italian operaisti/workerist and other European autonomist movements. Although there were flaws in terms of some of the authors’ analysis—especially in regards to the role of nations in this latest phase of capitalism—the trilogy proved prescient on other matters. No matter what, it provoked a good deal of discussion. Negri and Hardt’s latest book, titled Assembly, is a detailed discussion of the various movements and manifestations since Empire was published opposed to global neoliberalism. After briefly examining the movements, notably Occupy, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, Podemos, etc., the authors spend most of the text discussing how to organize and take down neoliberal capitalism.

Assembly is an honest, practical and visionary application of Marxist thought to the situation we find ourselves in. Like and unlike other attempts to figure out how to organize for radical, indeed revolutionary, change, there are no certitudes in this text. However, there are plenty of possibilities. It is fairly simple to understand the current crisis when one applies Marxist thought. Figuring out how to change it is considerably more complicated.  The project these men are attempting seems straightforward: they want to convert the social sphere political in order to affect a fundamental change in current social relationships. These are relationships determined by money in such a way that it seems nothing else matters. It is this element of the dynamic, argue the authors, which has rendered the social movements of the past twenty years essentially impotent. It is also the latter element that makes their goal of outlining the project for revolutionary change without optimism or despair an optimistic goal in and of itself.

The book describes a present where humanity is told reasonable security no longer exists, where capital so determines every facet of existence that many cannot conceive of a life experience without a dollar sign attached.

Intrinsic to this reality is the privatization not only of public space, but of public experiences; where Disneyland is real and parks charge admission fees. It is a society where social cooperativism is discouraged if not economically impossible, replaced by an all-powerful individualism whose power is determined by how much money an individual has the more their power is multiplied. It is an economy where self-management is transferred from the collective to the individual, thereby replacing a potential genuine autonomy with an illusory one controlled more by financial institutions driven by profit from speculation than by individuals.

Hardt and Negri discuss certain aspects of the current economic and political situation fundamental to its ability to tighten the grip it has on human existence. One of those is what they see as the separation of the social from the political. What this means in practice is that in today’s world humanity’s political maneuverings exist in a sphere separate from the social sphere we live in. This dynamic means that political decisions affecting our lives are made in a realm that most humans have little to do with—wiith voting being foremost among those interactions.

Consequently, they argue revolutionary organizing needs to take place in human social spaces, not political ones. It was this understanding that created some of the more popular (and arguably successful) protests like Occupy and those of the Arab Spring, in which the occupation of public social spaces was crucial to their existence.

Assembly is an intellectually stimulating analysis of the realities of neoliberal capitalism, that goes beyond analysis and agitates for revolutionary change. Although occasionally contradictory in its attempts to unravel modern reality and suggest new modes of relationship between capital and labor, workers, and communities, Assembly’s essential message seems to be that private property must be eliminated in favor of the commons. Marxist in its inspiration and motivation, the text rejects vanguardism as surely as it rejects bourgeois electoral politics, seeing in them a millenarian impulse not up to the challenges modern capitalism imposes. Instead, argue Hardt and Negri once again returning to the Occupy and Arab Spring protests, the trend towards non-hierarchical protests needs to be refined to prevent the lack of hierarchy present in these protests from becoming a lack of direction. As anyone who participated in Occupy and other protests organized along these lines recalls, that lack of direction often proves to be a major pitfall. Lack of leadership should not entail lack of organization. Their suggested solution is simple: let the organization’s grassroots make strategy while choosing leaders to make tactical decisions. After all, there really is no time to get consensus when the police are attacking a blockade or a decision to occupy a space or leave it needs to be made quickly.

It is difficult to reasonably argue that a decent life for the multitude can be sustained under neoliberal capitalism. In fact, it is already killing us all. Solutions to this worsening situation do not lie with the current regime in politics or finance. This is true at a fundamental level: both are beholden to the concept that freedom is linked to the ownership of property. Considered objectively, this concept has been proven wrong for most of the world’s population. Consequently, it seems clear that social justice and human freedom begin with the end of private property and its return to the commons. However, most of those who own property are reluctant to return it to the commons. This reluctance seems to expand with the amount of assets one has despite the obvious inequality that results. Hardt and Negri’s text Assembly is an important contribution to the discussion of how humanity can and must move beyond this identification of ownership with freedom. A combination of insightful analysis grounded in Marxism and a reasoned look at organizing in the social reality defined by neoliberal capitalism, Assembly is a highly recommended read.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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