The Subversive Seventies

  • By Michael Hardt
  • Oxford University Press
  • 320 pp.

An erudite exploration of a surprisingly pivotal decade.

The Subversive Seventies

The world seemed to be coming apart in the 1970s. Leftist groups like the Black Panthers challenged the existing order, terrifying many with their vitriolic rhetoric. The Red Brigades in Italy employed violence in their pursuit of change, notably in the kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro. It was also a decade of fascist repression: Steve Biko was murdered by South African security services, and the democratically elected Allende government in Chile was overthrown. And the counterculture movement was in full swing in the U.S., with students protesting racial injustice, the war in Vietnam, and all aspects of conventional morality.

If The Subversive Seventies suggests to you a rollicking tale of pot-smoking hippies and protest songs sung at sit-ins, you will be disappointed. Michael Hardt, professor of Romance Studies and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University, has written here a book for specialists, part of a dialogue among political philosophers about the viability and liabilities of progressive and revolutionary tactics. It’s sprinkled with textual references to other academics and political thinkers like Marx and Foucault, is heavy with endnotes, and has an extensive bibliography.

Hardt argues that postindustrial society grew out of the turmoil of the 1970s. During that decade, liberation struggles around the world began to incorporate new constituencies and expand the goals of leftists. What started with the traditional Marxist doctrine of freedom from capitalist exploitation morphed to include freedom from myriad other oppressions like race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, or Indigenous background — what is now commonly referred to as intersectionality.

Two previous books by Hardt tee up The Subversive Seventies. Empire (2001) focused on the transformation of traditional imperialism to exploitation marked by new forms of racism and identity, and on the influence of transnational corporations on the global world order. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2005) discussed the role globalization played in building connections among multiple groups in their fight for democracy.

In The Subversive Seventies, Hardt cites wide-ranging examples from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa to chronicle struggles challenging “structures of domination,” which include governments, the military, and police, as well as union leadership. History shows, according to the author, that true liberation must be built on democratic governance from the bottom up, rather than the top down, eschewing the leadership of traditional elites in government, political parties, and unions.

Hardt cheers workers who built a capacity for self-government, like those at the Lip watch factory in France who occupied the plant and restarted production under worker control. The Carnation Revolution in Portugal likewise was built on “popular power,” characterized by commissions of local representatives that made all decisions at the grassroots level. And Hardt sees the Kwangju uprising in South Korea as a “touchstone” movement because of “the autonomous organization of participatory governance during the five days when the people controlled the city.”

The holy grail for the author, nevertheless, is a movement in which laborers are not the principal movers for liberation. For example, he writes, in Italy:

“Activists, on the basis of their theorizations of the new terrain of political conflict, began to imagine and construct new revolutionary constellations that included but were no longer centered on industrial workers. They experimented with the means to link together a multiplicity of struggles, including those of feminists, students, industrial and public sector workers, unemployed and precariously employed workers, gay liberation activists, and others.”

Despite some limited success, these movements failed, but Hardt argues we should not measure their impact by success or failure. Rather, we should see value in how they demonstrated a viable path forward. The most instructive movements extended self-management beyond the factory floor to local government and expanded labor demands to include issues like housing policies, distribution of food and medicine, and other social services.

This all sounds a bit utopian. The examples Hardt cites were, as he admits, short-lived and limited in scope, suggesting that perhaps the model is flawed. How self-management would work across a space larger than a single factory or small town is also unclear. Would human nature trump democracy and, as among the inhabitants of Orwell’s Animal Farm, leave some more equal than others?

Likewise, the author seems overly optimistic in his admiration of Greenpeace for its spreading of scientific knowledge and demonstration of “the potential for democratic decision-making, even regarding nuclear technologies.” The potential for the “democratization of knowledge” as a catalyst for social and political change, however, seems naive in our current national environment. Social media can be a double-edged sword, spreading disinformation just as easily as fact and working at cross purposes to positive change.

Be that as it may, the world is Hardt’s laboratory, and perhaps the future will prove him right. In the meantime, this provocative book will undoubtedly encourage more conversation about democracy, liberation movements, and leftist tactics.

C.B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in East Hampton, CT.

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