Indigenous Otomi women are protesting at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs after a Zapatista delegation was denied their passports to travel to Europe. June 16, 2021. Credit:
John Holloway is one of the staunchest critical thinkers against the capitalist system of our time. Inspired by anti-capitalist social movements like the Zapatistas, his writings focus on new forms of struggle against — and ways of moving beyond — the power of global capital. Holloway’s work is widely read and discussed by libertarian leftist and anarchist groups. Influenced by Ernest Bloch’s Principle of Hope and Theodor W. Adorno’s power of negativity and non-identity politics, Holloway offers us possibilities and an alternative imagination to negate the existing capitalist order and start building democratic, non-hierarchical, and communal ways of life and organization.
In the following interview, Holloway reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, which he sees as inextricably entangled with the ecological crisis caused by capitalism. In addressing this crisis, he rejects state-centered approaches and instead places his hope on democratic grassroots social movements to guide us out of the pandemic and through the climate crisis. In addition, the interview explores political and philosophical influences that have underpinned Holloway’s thinking. To conclude, Holloway generously shares his thoughts, support, and critical solidarity with the Kurdish Freedom Movement and Abdullah Öcalan’s writings.
— Cihad Hammy
Cihad: The global COVID-19 pandemic is the defining crisis of our historical moment, so let’s start with this. During the pandemic, as you know, racism, violence, exploitation and other injustices, including a system of vaccine apartheid (where only the wealthy world has had abundant access to the vaccines), have increased dramatically against oppressed people: POC, women, workers, refugees. What lessons can we learn about the nature of capitalism from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic? What are your own reflections on this situation?
Holloway: For me, this is a very difficult question. I see it very much as a capitalist crisis in two senses. Firstly, in the sense that the pandemic, which I think is very real indeed, is a product of the destruction of the equilibrium between human and other forms of life. And that destruction is propelled by the capitalist pursuit of profit. The very fact of the pandemic just tells us of the destructive nature of the society in which we live. Secondly, we have to see it as a capitalist crisis in terms of its effects, particularly its economic effects. Before the crisis, many or even most mainstream economists were saying: “There is a crisis coming, we don’t know exactly when, but it is going to be a very major crisis.” The pandemic has precipitated that crisis — the coronavirus “crisis” is very much part of the dynamic of capitalism.
Beyond that, what is very clear, is the way in which the political measures taken by different states seem to be a combination of genuinely wanting to reduce the impact of the pandemic and yet also take advantage of the pandemic to increase state control over society. I think that is true everywhere, in terms of the degree of surveillance that has been developed.
Moreover, I think that the question of obedience to those state measures is obviously very much an issue at the moment. I see the acceptance of security measures — vaccination, face masks, social distancing — as social solidarity. We do it not just to protect ourselves, but we are also protecting people around us. And that seems to me a very important aspect. The last thing is that this crisis is leaving us in an extremely unpredictable situation. There is an awful lot of frustration from people wanting to get out; wanting to escape this feeling of being closed in. People suffered enormously over the past two years. They have suffered poverty, loss of income, they have suffered in terms of health and because of the loss of their loved ones. I think there is huge frustration there which may express itself in very big eruptions of social discontent. This is already expressing itself, particularly in Europe, in explosions of social anger. But it is really hard to foresee just how far those will go and what their significance will be.
You related your discussion of the coronavirus pandemic to the ecological crisis, an issue which many intellectuals and politicians are trying to resolve by means of the state. You criticized this approach in one of your articles, published in ROAR Magazine. How can we face the ecological crisis without relying on the state?
That is obviously a huge question. We have just seen COP-26 a few weeks ago. I don’t think that the climate crisis can be solved within capitalism. It is hard to be absolutely sure. If we think of Marx and his discussion of the different Factory Acts passed by the British government in the 19th century and capital, he is saying there, really, that capital comes up against its limits in terms of the destruction of the labor force on which it depends. It manages to solve its self-destructive tendency, Marx argues, by accepting the reduction of the working day. I think we are in a situation now in which the future of capitalism — and of course the future of humanity — is threatened by the destruction of the natural environment. Is it possible to solve that problem within the framework of capitalism? I think probably not. In a society in which the driving power is the pursuit of profit, it is just not going to be possible to solve the climate crisis. In other words, we are in some ways being confronted more urgently than ever with the question of how on earth do we get rid of capital? How do we get rid of money, if we think that money is the dynamic of profit?
I think what we are looking for is very much part of the Kurdish movement, the Zapatista movement, and the many other movements that challenge the logic of capital: it is to take this situation into our own hands, and not to depend on the state but to really develop our own practices, our own ways of developing different relations to nature and other forms of life. And that obviously is central in the whole idea of eco-socialism and eco-feminism. I think that has to be a central part of any struggle to transform the world. It is not just getting rid of capital but also transforming our relations to other forms of life.
In your book “Change the World Without Taking Power,” you redefined many concepts, such as “doing” vs. ” labor,” “power to” vs. “power over,” “knowledge to” vs. “knowledge over,” as well as the concept of revolution. You continued to develop these themes in your book “Crack Capitalism.” I would like to know what political and philosophical influences inspired you to rethink revolution as a process which must be undertaken without taking state power or winning elections, and the importance of that in the revolutionary practice?
Oh, I would like to say something before answering your question because I might forget to say otherwise: Change the World Without Taking Power has been published in Arabic in December. For me it is very exciting!
Wow, that is great news! I think it will be read by many people, especially by people from Rojava, northeast Syria. As far as I know your works are not yet available in Arabic. This is great!
I think it was a combination of things. In the 1970s, I was involved in the debates around the state in Britain, which were influenced by all the struggles taking place at that time but also by the German state derivation debate. This was concerned with the question of how to understand the state as a particular form of the capital relation. From this came the conclusion that you could not possibly use the state to overcome capitalism. They said from the beginning: “We don’t want to take power.” It is not a question of conquering power, it is a question of making the world anew. And this obviously fitted in perfectly with the theoretical debate that we had been having in Britain.
Has Open Marxism played a role in that?
Yes, I think so. For me, Open Marxism is really about trying to open the categories of Marxism, and to understand those categories as conceptualizations of struggle. It is really a question of understanding the commodity not as a thing, and not just as a form of domination, but also as a form of struggle. The same is true for money, if you think of it as a constant struggle to push us into a certain way of acting, a certain way of behavior. Just the imposition of money on our daily lives kills thousands and thousands of people each day, it kills them either because of violence, hunger, suicide, or whatever.
So, the idea of Open Marxism is trying to understand that these categories are categories for struggle. So, we think of the state as a struggle that comes from above to impose certain ways of acting upon us. To think of the state means that we also think of anti-state; the movement in the opposite direction. Or to think of the state means really to think in terms of the opposite; assemblies, communes, collectives that move in the opposite direction.
The state as not just this thing outside us; the state is the struggle that comes from above to impose on us certain forms of behavior and organization. So the commune is a movement in the opposite direction. It is the movement of resistance, rebellion against the state.
In other words, the purpose of Open Marxism is to invoke contradiction within these categories..
Yes, contradiction, but we prefer to talk about antagonism because contradiction can be understood in non-social terms. We say that all these categories are antagonistic.
Is it enough to go beyond state power? Can domination and hierarchy thrive in a stateless society? Murray Bookchin, Abdullah Öcalan and David Graeber, among others, argued that even in stateless society hierarchy and domination can exist. Can a stateless society be a guarantee our freedom?
There is no guarantee of anything [laughs], that is the problem. What we know is that the state is an oppressive form of organization, and we know that the state depends, for its existence, on the reproduction of capital accumulation, because that is where it gets its money from. If you have a big number of state officials who are not producing anything, then for them to survive there has to be an income, an income coming into the state, and that can only come from capital accumulation — which means that the state has to promote capital accumulation.
Since we are talking about the state, David Graeber once said that your book “Change the World Without Taking Power” is widely read by many anarchists and attractive to them. Although you identify yourself as a Marxist, what do you think of that? As a Communalist, I am also more attracted to your work than the work of other Marxists.
[Laughs] No, I don’t define myself at all. But, yes, of course I come from a Marxist background. I think Marxism is very important. Firstly, because it says capital depends on us. We think that we are just the victim and oppressed, but in fact capital depends on us. Secondly, I think this is what the labor theory of value is about: it says that value is produced by us, and therefore capital depends on us. It opens up, then, a way of understanding capitalist development as the constant struggle of capital to overcome its dependence on us. We may think that we are losing, or have been losing for the past over 30 or 40 years or more, but there is also a sense in which capital is losing, and that the existence of capital is becoming more and more fragile and this is what was expressed in the financial crisis in 2008, and what is also being expressed in a complex way in the coronavirus crisis.
Since you have mentioned fragility, is that why you were influenced by Theodor W. Adorno, who gave us tools for negation and going beyond the system?
Yes, I mean in terms of theoretical influences I suppose two big influences on me have been Ernst Bloch, the philosopher of hope, and Adorno, because of his view that at the center of society there is a force of non-identity which identity can never capture completely. In other words, we are never contained. We misfit, we overflow all the categories of thought and all forms of social organization. This is expressed for me by the Zapatistas when planning their arrival in Spain on their recent trip: “We are going to Spain and the first thing we will say is: ‘You did not conquer us because we resist and rebel. And we have always resisted and rebelled,'” and for me this is the idea of Adorno.
However, I don’t think Adorno thought in these political terms. But if we think of any category, we can always say of that category: “You did not conquer us.” So, we can say to money: “You think you have conquered us, you think we are completely subordinated to the rules of money but no you did not conquer us, we resist and rebel.” Identity encloses us, defines us, but for that reason it is always an untruth simply because we do not fit into any definition, we always overflow. There is in any movement a contradiction between identitarian and anti-identitarian tendencies, an inner tension that is crucial for the movement. If the Kurds defined themselves just as Kurds, they would not be the force they are. The same if the Zapatistas saw themselves as just indigenous, or if the women’s movement defined itself in terms of women, of the movement for Black liberation just in terms of Blackness. It is what Raoul Vaneigem calls the “poetry of overflowing” that is all important. You see that resistance and rebellion in so many different ways in everyday life, when we say: “We will not live according to the logic of money. We will try to live according to the values that go against and beyond the capitalist concept of value.”
In “Crack Capitalism,” you tied-up abstract labor with male domination. Does that mean any revolt against capitalism must be feminist as well, and women must play a significant role in the revolt?
I think so, yes. Capitalism pushes us all the time into different categories. It pushes us into classes, but also pushes us into genders and says to us: “Because of your physical characteristics you must behave in a certain way.” I think I understand anti-capitalism as being a revolt against classification, therefore, a revolt against genderization. Yes of course, that means the revolt of women against their categorization in gender terms seems to me very important.
Now, Bookchin has always insisted that the left should take its guidance from Ernest Bloch’s “Principle of Hope” or else fall into the trap of nihilism and pessimism. You are also influenced by Bloch; how can Bloch’s writings be a guide for our leftist movements in these dark times?
Yes, for me Bloch has been an enormous influence, although of course there are many things I disagree with. I started reading Bloch, and really from Bloch I got into Marx, and everything else. The idea of the Principle of Hope is really to think of the world from the perspective of hope. That means to think beyond where we are, to open up a possible future — that has to be at the center of our thoughts.
Since you have mentioned “Change the World Without Taking Power” and “Crack Capitalism,” I hope there is a third book coming. I see it as the third in the trilogy, which is called “Think Hope in Hopeless Times.” I thought I had finished it last August, but it will take another couple of months.
Hope is limited by money basically. Because, if you think of hope,— this kind of striving to go ahead, trying to break out from where we are and create a different world — then the limit that we hit all the time is money. How are you going to do it if you don’t have money? But money forces us all the time into certain ways of behaving. Just because we need to eat, we need money, unless we cultivate everything ourselves. So, we come up against an enormous force of money as a form of organizing society. So, if you want to take hope seriously, the real question is: “Can you possibly think of hope breaking the power of money?” When I finish the book, of course I will have the answer [laughs].
I would like to move on to Kurdish issues now. How did you find out about the Kurdish struggle and the Rojava revolution (now called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria)?
Azize Aslan has been very important in my education. Of course, I knew of the movement before that from my general reading, and hearing about it from friends. Then I was invited to a conference in Hamburg in 2015 which was tremendously exciting for me. After that, Havin Guneser visited Puebla — where I am based — a few times and talked about the movement. So we had plenty of time to discuss, and then Azize came to us to do her doctorate over four years ago. That has been a terrific experience; learning from her and about the organization and its contradictions.
In your opinion, what do you think have been the main achievements of, and the main challenges faced by, the Rojava Revolution?
The obvious achievement, I suppose, is just to have moved the whole ground of revolutionary anti-capitalist thought and anti-capitalist organization. The Rojava revolution has shown that by not only saying: “We don’t want to conquer the state,” but by actually putting anti-state organization into practice on a fairly large scale over the past nine years. This anti-state organization is a form of communal organization. It is the revolution that they have achieved, and are achieving in terms of the position of women, and the leading role of women in social transformation. It is the importance that they attach to transforming the relationship between humans and nature.
It really takes the challenge of changing the world into new terrain. It opens up a way of thinking about changing the world which, of course, is related also to what Zapatistas have been saying and practicing for 28 years in public, but it is on a different scale; for starters, it is more urbanized. The extraordinary thing is being able to carry on with doing that in such a difficult situation of constant military aggression. This seems to be amazing.
What are the challenges? Firstly, it is to keep going in those dreadful conditions. The other challenge is not to fall into issues of identitarian thought and organization and this brings us back to the discussions of Adorno. The big challenge is not to fall into an identitarian defense of the movement. In other words, not to fall into some sort of Kurdish nationalism. I suppose one of the exciting things for me about the movement is that it has gone far beyond the Kurdish nationalism that was one of its initial motivations — and still is, I am sure — but it has gone much further than that. With the attacks on the region, the danger is that it gets pushed back into nationalist self-defense which would be understandable, but it would mean a loss of its amazing creativity.
As someone from the movement, I think one of our strengths is this universalist aspect, and that we have moved beyond our own identity.
As far as I know, you are against the party — or the “vanguard” — in organizing the people. In fact, in the Kurdish movement, there is also a cadre or leadership system which organizes the people, and in some cases, they are potentially put above society (by reason of their knowledge or commitment to the revolutionary cause) which goes against ideals of the Kurdish movement’s philosophy. How can this leadership organize people without producing other forms of hierarchy and domination?
I think the most important thing is to recognize the problems, to recognize the contradictions, and say exactly what you have been saying, that is: “We are in a contradictory situation, and how do we deal with it?” The worst thing would be to pretend that the contradiction does not exist. Yes, we live in a capitalist world, this means also all sort of contradictions in terms of organization, of how we think of it, and how we react.
For the Zapatistas this has been a constant issue as well. Obviously, in the first years, Subcomandante Marcos emerged as this figure who was known as and appeared to be the leader, and over the years they have tried to find ways of going against that. Firstly by saying he is not a “Comandante,” but is a “Subcomandante” under the order of Comandancia, then by withdrawing him from public view, saying hat he would not appear in public interviews any more, and eventually, by changing his name, killing him metaphorically — Marcos is dead now, Galeano has taken his place. Marcos is called Galeano now, and he is no longer the main spokesperson of the Zapatistas, now it is Moisés.
But they said very early on: “We have got a problem because we are organized as an army which is necessarily hierarchical. And the society we want to create is anti-hierarchical. So we are an army which wants to top existing and that is our aim, and the aim of our organization. The hierarchy exists but how we do we overcome these hierarchies?” And so they went to strengthen the power of local communal organizations. But I think the problem is there, and I think it is important to recognize it and to constantly think how to strengthen the communal base against hierarchy.
You wrote the foreword to “Sociology of Freedom” by Abdullah Öcalan; what did you think and feel about the ideas in that book, and your thoughts about Öcalan’s other writings?
The first thing that I felt when I was invited to write the foreword, was: “WOW! What an honor!” It was really an honor! I was, and still am, very moved by that. The second thing I felt was: “Yes, I would love to do it, but I cannot do it by simply saying how wonderful he is.” Yes, of course he is wonderful, but at the same time I think about it in some way as a conversation with his ideas. The third thing was that to read the book was really a kind of discovery for me, a discovery in terms of being taken into a whole different way of thinking and a different world of knowledge. For example, he refers a lot to the Sumerian civilization and my ignorance there is dramatic.
It was terrific to be brought into a different world of knowledge — a different world of knowledge that is also part of where he is geographically — and a different way of thinking. Gradually, as I went on reading, my respect for him grew more and more. It seems to be very convincing, very coherent and amazingly rich.
But also, I became aware of certain differences where I would want to say to him in conversation: “Okay, I don’t entirely agree with this and that.” I recognize that there were two points. One especially was the question of patriarchy. This has been a growing issue in the recent years — the idea that capitalism is a form of the patriarchal system. I suppose I want to say, yes, we have to get rid of patriarchy but if we want to understand the dynamic of destruction in which we are living, we have to focus on capital rather than patriarchy. Patriarchy tells us about the form of domination but it does not tell us, for me, about the dynamic of domination, and does not tell us about the vulnerability of domination. That is why I tend to say, yes, capitalism is and has always been patriarchal, but if we want to think about the possibility of transforming society, then we have to focus on capital and its dynamic, fragility and vulnerability.
The other issue is the question of the market. It is central to Marx’s argument that the source of capitalist destruction is that the fact we exchange commodities, that is we relate to one another through the exchange of commodities. Whereas, as I understand, Öcalan is in favor of the market, but it is kind of a small-scale local market; not the market organization of society. I think we have to go beyond the market entirely. If you have a market, you will have money, if you have money, then you have capital, if you have capital, then you have catastrophe.
Despite the existence of fascism, dictatorship and Islamism in the Middle East, do you think that Öcalan’s ideas can help the people of the Middle East solve their political and social problems?
Absolutely! Yes. It seems to me the Middle East is in a cycle of violence and destruction. If you think in terms of state politics, it is very hard to see a way out. Öcalan and the Kurdish movement really break with that. The way out has to be a complete rethinking of society and completely rethinking of social organization, and that seems to me a huge message of hope for the world, and particularly for the Middle East.
If you meet Öcalan in person, what questions will you ask him?
[Laughs] It would be amazing; this is how my foreword finishes up, with this dream of having chai together with Öcalan. First of all, I would feel very nervous, and I would be a bit afraid of asking him questions. I think one question I will probably ask him is how he feels about his relation to the movement, which is obviously a very complex question. When I was in Hamburg in 2015, we were taken to a Kurdish household on the first day. It was lovely but with the picture of Öcalan on the wall, and Öcalan is such a figurehead, that goes against what he is obviously saying.
If you are talking about a form of organization that is communally based, you don’t want any saints. My question would be how does he see that? How does he see that in relation to the movement? We (or you) don’t want any sort of saint; I don’t mean at all to disqualify his importance and the importance of his thoughts which are obviously enormously important, enormously rich. It is just that there is a clash, a conflict between a leader who is out of sight and locked in prison, and the movement that is growing on the basis of the communal organization. What would he think of that?
Cihad Hammy is originally from Kobanî. He studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Hamburg. He has published several articles on Kurdish politics.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/hope-hopeless-times-holloway-interview/