Delia Duong Ba WendelI’d like to start, quite simply, by asking: what is wrong with our world, Michael? Can you identify some of the dominant forces that shape our lives?
When Toni Negri and I were writing Empire, we were most concerned with the role of the nation-state. Our observation was that the United States was no longer able to rule the world unilaterally. This is not restricted to the United States; no nation-state today will be able to shape the global environment the way they had previously. The decline in nation-state sovereignty does not mean that sovereignty as such has declined, however. Instead, a new, global form of sovereignty is composed of national and supranational organizations, corporations, and states, which are united under a single logic of rule. This is what we call Empire. It works to control and regulate economic and social life, but its power has no territorial center; it is a deterritorializing apparatus of rule with no geographical boundaries.
We published Empire in 2000, and at that time, it seemed no longer useful to read the world as divided by different nation-states, or by First, Second, Third Worlds, or by north/south, or even by center/periphery. That doesnít mean, of course, that every place in the world is the same. It means, instead, that the divisions have changed.
DDBWWhat is the nature of these divisions?
I’m thinking about divisions in terms of labor and power. For example, in the 19th century, it was common to say that Britain was the workshop of the world because manufacturing occurred there, and the cotton for that industry was grown in Egypt or South Asia. Today, the divisions of labor and power are more mixed.
These conditions force us to read some phenomena, like the family, as having similar forms and challenges in different geographical zones. Looking at forms of family and other social institutions in the dominated and subordinated parts of the world, we can recognize common modes of control and common possibilities.
Whereas Empire represents a global power structure, driven in large part by the logics of global capital, you and Toni have taken care to emphasize that social institutions have a central role in these transformations. Social institutions have roles in managing people and our relationships, and these roles can be further articulated through the prison, the factory, the school, and, the family.
The notion of family seems critically important to your and Toni’s theory of contemporary social conditions. What mechanisms of control, governing, or structuring are specific to the family?
I primarily think about the family as it is formed in the modern capitalist era as a site of reproduction. We might say that the site of this reproduction is the home, and that as a social institution the family has several defining characteristics.
One is its antisocial nature. The saying “blood is thicker than water” is quite telling in this regard, suggesting that one’s primary bonds and relationships are delimited by the family. Hence, the family is an antisocial mechanism in that it isolates us from others. For example, a friend was recently hospitalized in the intensive-care unit. When another friend and I went to visit her, the nurse asked, Oh, are you family? And we responded, No, no, no, we’re much closer than that. The hospital was operating on the idea that family would be the primary bond that excludes others. So exclusion is one of the characteristics of the modern family, by which we really mean the family in the capitalist era, defined as the site of social reproduction.
A second aspect of family is its hierarchical nature. We see this in the gendered division of labor within the family, which is remarkably persistent despite the successes of feminist struggles. This gendered division of labor, of course, takes different forms in different parts of the world. But the hierarchical natures of both gender roles and parent-child relationships are intrinsic to families in general, and are reproduced in a larger social world.
The family is also a vehicle of social repression. Often, familial bonds are the stand-ins for all other possible bonds. People talk about teacher-student relationships in familial terms, or a notion of a band of brothers, or even the political concept of sisterhood. There seems to be a poverty of imagination on how we can define relationships.
DDBWIt seems that the types of hierarchies and power relationships that you mention are reproduced by the family and are the essence of all types of power relationships, both vertical and horizontal, that we have within larger social institutions or larger scales of social interaction. For example, we can see patriarchy as a foundational form of vertical relationships, or kinship as the essential structure for horizontal power relationships.
Aha, that’s interesting.
DDBWIs the family, in your view, a minimalist form of the types of power relationships we see throughout society?
What you said reminds me of the debates among feminist theorists from the 1970s and 1980s about whether patriarchy or capitalism came first. Is patriarchy created by capitalism? Or is capitalism—because patriarchy is older—subordinate to it? Or should we instead think of a dual system that maintains the autonomy of both patriarchy and capitalism interacting with each other?
I think it would be a mistake to say that the family is an epiphenomenon created by capital (or something else); or the opposite, that the family is the cradle of all other hierarchical relationships. Rather, there is a social archipelago of institutions that resonate with each other, and the family is one of those islands. The archipelago metaphor is nice because social institutions—the school, the military, the factory—function as islands. Each has its own rules. But also, they resonate with one another and reinforce one another.
DDBWIn your writings you’ve referred to families, corporations, and nations as “social terrains.” Could you describe what a social terrain is, and how this category establishes connections between families, corporations, and nations? Is a social terrain different from a social archipelago?
The nation-state, the corporation, and the family all promise a kind of belonging and sharing and equality. And even a form of love. It’s easier probably to see that with the nation-state and the family. But I would say that this is possible in corporations, too. These social terrains promise an experience of the “common,” of belonging, sharing, and equality. At the same time, each of these institutions undermines these values and gives us exactly the opposite: hierarchy, exclusion.
But even though we call them social terrains, they’re not really limited spatially and institutionally; one should refer to the nation, corporation, and family also as discourses and sets of practices.
DDBWI’d like to return to your earlier use of the word “home.” Do you see a distinction between a home and a house, particularly as it relates to your critique of family? Are there, in your view, specific spaces associated with families and with the types of power structures and relationships that families reproduce?
I’m attracted by the history of architectural experiments that challenge some aspects of the family—to open its antisocial nature, to extend beyond the nuclear family, and to challenge its internally hierarchical nature. Charles Fourier’s phalanstére and the kitchenless house inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman are examples of spatial experimentation to overcome the restricting nature of the family.
When you mention the difference between house and home, my thought is that the home is often used as an expression of the “common.” In emphasizing the closed and hierarchical natures of the family, I do not wish to minimize the experiences of love and sharing that are defined by home. But it is in fact because the notion of the home promises equal bonds and sharing that it seems crucial to highlight and criticize the ways that the family, by its very nature, either corrupts or fails to deliver on those promises.
So there’s a minimal and a maximal way of saying this. The minimal way is to say that you love your mother and that you love your brother. But if those are the only people you love, if that’s the only context in which you share things in common with people, that would be a disappointment. So it’s the limited nature of the promise of family that’s the problem.
But there’s also a maximal, or a more systemic way of saying this: a lot of the promises of home turn out to be the opposite. The home promises to be a haven of safety. But really, the home is the site of some of the worst violence. Women are not safe at home. There are different kinds of violence that can be identified as physical and psychic violence. The insistence on the heteronormative nature of family is itself a kind of violence.
DDBWYou’re speaking of the home and the family as having a dual nature—conducive to both love and violence. This brings to mind the importance of scale to forging commonality and care, or effecting violence. The scale of the family or the home would seem to produce a limitation on these relationships or the nature of them.
MHWithin the family or in a monastic order, or in a commune, it’s easier to imagine sharing equally. But recognizing this doesn’t blunt my ambition for organizing and mobilizing people in democratic structures at a larger scale. I assume that you’re thinking of how the smaller scale might function as a model for, or a stepping stone toward, creating larger-scale forms of commonality.
DDBWI am also thinking about how a home can function as a kind of sanctuary from things outside of one’s control—from the violence in the world. Iím thinking of a photograph of a couple dancing in Soweto, South Africa, during apartheid.
MHI can see home being thought of as a sanctuary. My hesitation is that when we think of home as being defined by the family, it often doesnít function as a sanctuary from violence. It instead is an instrument of violence.
DDBWI’d like to shift back to the family as a site of social reproduction. As you frame it, the family is a social institution that establishes norms for how individuals engage with others, reproducing social, political, economic orders. In Empire, you and Toni suggest that the nature of contemporary social institutions has changed and that this has affected the nature of subjectivity. What kinds of changes were you referring to?
Previously, different social institutions had their own logic, and functioned within their own walls, as a kind of archipelago, as I said earlier. When you were at work you obeyed the rules of the factory. When you were at home, you obeyed the rules of patriarchy. When you were at school, you obeyed the rules of the schoolmaster.
But more recently, the different logics of these institutions have been mixing. The walls between the institutions are breaking down, as Gilles Deleuze puts it. The logic of the prison—of surveillance—has now spread throughout society. Not only by way of cameras in the bank and on the street—you’re also being observed through the data you produce. The logic of the family has transformed similarly; its patriarchal control over reproductive activities is seeping outside of the family and becoming generalized throughout society.
Can the family be reformed? If so, how might it transform to locate or activate the kinds of love or interaction that are more beneficial to togetherness and equality?
MHMy inclination is that the family has to be destroyed, and not reconstructed or redefined through alternative family models. People talk about constructing queer families, meaning not only having different love relationships, but also different friendship networks that fulfill the function that family was supposed to fill. The emphasis is on lasting bonds, the sharing of resources, and cooperating. Thinking about alternative families and destroying the existing notion of family may amount to the same thing. The distinction between the two may just be rhetorical, but perhaps the most important difference is in their practical effects; it would be unfortunate if the alternative family turned out to be the same as the traditional family.
DDBWThe same in terms of their exclusionary practices?
MHIn terms of both their exclusionary practices and their internally hierarchical nature. I’m attracted to Walt Whitman’s idea of “love of the stranger.” It seems like a good antidote to the poisons of the corrupted notion that you can only love ones like you and near you. Love of the same is the most horrible thing politically; it is the basis of white supremacy. Love can have horrible political effects. So we need mechanisms for breaking it out of its closed and homogeneous nature.
DDBWYour writings suggest that love might be taking the place of the family as a core social organizing force. What is it about love that seems more redeemable than family?
MHI think we must disentangle love from the family and from the nation and try to make something different of it. In one sense, there’s a dominant cultural conception that love is closed within the family. In another sense, the properly political notion of love is that of the nation. Since both of these end up turning love into something that is both closed and hierarchical, love needs to be reconstructed in a different key. It’s not that we need to create a new love by fiat. Rather, we should recognize the forms of the common, the forms of social sharing and bonds, that we already have.
DDBWAlthough we have, thus far, been discussing social institutions, the individual has a critical role in your writings. So how do individuals learn to love differently? How do they develop autonomy from preexisting norms? How do they exercise their right to refuse? I suppose I am asking how individuals become the “multitude.”
MHOne of the things that I’m attracted to about the conception of love, in contrast to friendship, is that in love we lose ourselves. Love has a transformative power. And so, if you go in as an individual, you come out as something different. It doesn’t mean that you’re transformed into something homogeneous or a mass or something that is identical to others. It doesn’t mean—and this is something that both at a political scale and on a personal scale seems revolting to me—that in love you become one. Rather, I think that the transformative power of love is an activation of all of the differences that compose you as an individual. Through love, these differences come together and compose relationships. I’m thinking of it musically—they compose a stable refrain.
DDBWSo love must be held by individuals in order to have larger social ramifications.
MHI move back and forth between the small, intimate scale and the large, sociopolitical scale. I suppose I can do so because I assume that they have a relation. At the intimate level, one loves another as an individual. You yourself are composed of many different elements—and so is the other person. And some of the elements of you are put into a relationship with the other. I’m trying to think of a way in which love doesn’t function only at the level of individual.
DDBWWe’ve talked a bit about families as institutions, about individuals, and about love’s interactive nature. But in your work, the city and its physical and social infrastructure have always been crucial to defining the “common” and “commonwealth.”
We’re taught to think about a world in spatial terms as being divided between public and private. By “public” I mean what’s controlled and regulated by the state, and by “private” I refer to that which is under the control of private property. The “common” is what tries to break that exclusive division. The common is that which is neither public nor private. And it’s probably easiest to approach this in spatial terms, by thinking about the city.
One of the beautiful things about the series of encampments at occupations starting in 2011 was the way that they tried to transform parts of cities into common space. This happened in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Taksim Square/Gezi Park in Istanbul, and also in Oakland, New York, and elsewhere. Many of them arose, in part, as protests against privatization.
In Istanbul the proposed transformation of the city’s central public park into a shopping mall was the impetus for the beginning of the protest. Activists didn’t oppose privatization in order to make the space public (controlled by the state). Rather, they insisted that access to the space should be equal and open. These different encampments also tried, with varying success, to experiment with forms of democratic decision making about space.
One of their primary political aspirations was to rescue the city from public and private and make it something different—make the space of the city into the common. That’s what the discourse about the “right to the city” is partly about. Making the city ours.
That’s at least one way of approaching the common: to understand it as neither private property nor public property. And when I say “public,” I mean controlled and regulated by the state.
DDBWAnd when you say “private,” you mean controlled by anyone from a corporation to a family?
MHRight. I mean: under a regime of private property, where there is a monopoly over decision making.
DDBWIn Commonwealth, at the end of a chapter on the city, when you’re describing the common, you write something like, the city is where the multitude is finding its home. It just comes to mind now that we’re talking about the private and the public and the common. Of course, this is partly metaphoric, but I’m wondering: what is it about the city as opposed to the family or the home that is fitting for this concept of the common, for the radical alternatives of the multitude? What is especially homelike about the city, such that it establishes conditions for the types of transformations that you envision?
A city in many respects is a reservoir of the common—a reservoir of what we have together produced. I’m thinking of the city of course as much more than the built environment—as the construction of social and cultural relationships that constitute a neighborhood and that constitute a city. So the city is, in that sense, a product of all of our common interactions. That shared past and those relationships make it homelike. What the city promises, more than the family, is an expansive set of continued social relations. It operates against the closure of the family. The city is primarily social in that respect.
To say that the city has the potential for expansive social relations, one has to recognize, too, how the cities we have are horribly unequal and exclusive. But I would say—and this is what Toni and I mentioned in Commonwealth—that the city is in some sense becoming a primary site of resistance and struggle in the same way that, in a previous era, the factory was a site of production and exploitation, and also the primary site of struggle. So rather than see the city as utopian or ideal, the city is the site on which inequality and exclusion can be fought.