Talking about a revolution with John Holloway

  • April 17, 2013

Autonomy & Authority

“There is a growing sense throughout the world that capitalism isn’t working; and that the cracks we create in it may really be the only way forward.”

ROAR founder Jerome Roos sat down with John Holloway in his adopted home country of Mexico to ask him for some of his views on recent developments around the world — from the role of the state in the ongoing European debt crisis to the meaning of the Greek riots, and from the legacy of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the ability to use the state as a crack, to the powerful lessons the Zapatistas can teach us about the different temporalities of revolt in the 21st century.

We are very grateful to John for his time and for his permission to reproduce the full transcript of our conversation below.


ROAR: What do you think the current capitalist crisis tells us about the nature of the state and the future of state-oriented revolutionary action?

John Holloway: I think one thing that is striking about the state in the current crisis is really the degree of closure. Perhaps it’s not that we didn’t know it, but I think it’s been very striking just how the state doesn’t respond to protests and protests and protests. I suppose we can see this in Greece and Spain with their massive protests, both of the more traditional Left and of the more creative Left, if you like. The state just doesn’t listen: it goes ahead anyway. So I suppose one thing that’s become clear in the crisis to more and more people is the distance of the state from society, and the degree to which the state is integrated into the movement of money, so that the state even loses the appearance of being pulled in two directions. It becomes more and more clear that the state is bound to do everything possible to satisfy the money markets and in that sense to guarantee the accumulation of capital. I think that’s become much clearer in the last four or five years. And if that means absolutely refusing to listen to the protests, if it means letting the rioters burn down the cities, then so be it. The most important is really the money markets.

If you think of Greece in 2011 and the extraordinary demonstrations there, in which so many buildings in the center were burned down – the state just carries on regardless. I think it’s very interesting and possibly very important in terms of future directions, because the power of attraction of state-centered politics and protests really depends upon the state having some sort of room for negotiation with the trade unions and with people protesting. If the state feels there is no longer any room for negotiation, or simply gets into the habit of saying ‘we will absolutely not negotiate’, then that closes down the margin for state-centered Left politics and pushes people more towards the idea that, really, trying to do things through the state is absolutely hopeless. So perhaps we can hope that non-state oriented politics will become more and more common and more widespread throughout society.

Isn’t that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing for a while already, especially in 2011 with the Occupy movement?

Yes, absolutely, and all over the world. Sometimes people say we are entering an age of riots. A closure of the state means no negotiations, meaning that any kind of protest is pushed towards rioting. What that means in terms of how we move forward, I’m not quite sure. It can be a very productive and fruitful development.

As a refusal?

Yes, as a refusal. As a kind of total breakdown of the old way of doing things, which perhaps brought a few little benefits but really didn’t take anybody very far. And I think that more and more people are being forced to reinvent their politics or reinvent their ideas about politics, both in terms of protests – but also I think in terms of creating alternatives. If the system has no room for us, if the system simply leaves 50% of young people unemployed, if state benefits are cut back, if the state absolutely refuses to negotiate, if the police become more repressive, then I think we are forced not only to think of creative forms of protest but also ways of how we actually survive and how we actually create alternative ways of living. And we see that very much in Spain and in Greece, where things are going in that direction. I think what the crisis is also telling us is that that‘s the way to go, but that we haven’t gone far enough yet. We’re not yet in a situation where we can just tell capital to go to hell and survive without it. That’s really the problem. But I think that’s the direction we have to go in.

The cracks in capitalism seem to flourish in times of crisis. We saw this in the popular uprising in Argentina in 2001-’02, as Marina Sitrin powerfully portrayed in her book Everyday Revolutions, and we’re seeing it in Southern Europe today. Is there a way to perpetuate such cracks beyond the economic ‘hard times’?

I don’t know. First I don’t think times necessarily get better and secondly I’m not sure that we should worry too much about perpetuation. If you look at Argentina, there was clearly a sense in which things did get better. Like the economy, rates of profit recovered, a process in which a lot of the movements of 2001 and 2002 became sucked into the state. But the problems have obviously reappeared somewhere else. If you look at Spain and Greece, firstly there are no short-term perspectives of things getting substantially better. Secondly, if they did get better, then the crisis would move on somewhere else. And the search for alternative ways of living moves on.

I think there is an accumulation of experience, and also an accumulation of growing awareness that spreads from one country to another, that capitalism just isn’t working and that it is in serious problems. I think that people in Greece look to Argentina and recognize the importance of the experiences of 10 years ago. And I think that people in Argentina – even if things have improved economically for them – look to Greece and see the instability of capitalism. The failure of capitalism is showing up again in another place. I think there is a growing sense throughout the world that capitalism isn’t working. There is a growing confidence perhaps that the cracks we create or the crazinesses we create may really be the basis for a new world and a new society, and may really be the only way forward.

What I don’t like about the idea of perpetuation is that it suggests a smooth upward progress. I don’t think it works like that. I think it’s more like a social flow of rebellion, something that moves throughout the world, with eruptions in one place and then in another place. But there are continuities below the discontinuities. We have to think in terms of disrupting, bubbling movements rather than thinking that it all depends on whether we can perpetuate the movement in one place. If we think in terms of perpetuation in one place, I think it can lead us into either an institutionalization, which I think is not much help, or it can lead us into a sense of defeat, perhaps, which I don’t think is right.

What’s wrong with institutionalization? You engaged in a debate with Michael Hardt on this issue, where the position that Hardt and Negri take is that institutionalization per se is not a problem, as long as it is part of the constituent movement; the self-organizing element of rebellion. What’s your view on this?

I think institutionalization is not necessarily damaging. It may or may not be, but we should not focus on that, we should think much more in terms of movements. The danger is that we start thinking in terms of institutionalization at the point at which movements are beginning to fail. Institutionalization can be a way of prolonging their life, but then they turn into something that’s not very exciting and not very interesting. If we think of institutionalization in terms of parties, I think that can definitely be harmful. That is what is happening in Argentina at the moment. If you start thinking that you have to start preparing for the next elections, with luck we may win 1.5% of the votes, and maybe five years after that we’ll win 4% of the votes, or whatever. Once you start going in that direction I think it really is destructive; it’s a way of binding movements into the destructive boredom of state politics.

If you think of institutionalization in terms of the World Social Forum, which has been taking place in the last week or so, then it doesn’t do much harm, but that’s really not where the heart of the movements lies either. It can be useful to have meeting places and it can be useful certainly to create links between movements in different parts of the world. And I think it’s very important to overcome, in practical terms, the national orientation of movements. But institutions aren’t really where it’s happening.

Last month we witnessed the passing of Hugo Chávez. There are activists and scholars, like Dario Azzelini, who have praised Chávez for his support in the creation of tens of thousands of cooperatives and communal councils, arguing that the Bolivarian Revolution really empowered the popular base. To what extent is it possible to mobilize the state as a crack within the system of capitalist domination?

I think it doesn’t work. I think that all revolutionary movements and all movements of radical change are profoundly contradictory. If you look at Venezuela, it’s very interesting because on the one hand it’s very much a state-centered movement, but on the other hand I think there are lots of genuine movements that really aim at transforming society from below, from the neighborhoods. I think with Chávez there was an awareness of that contradiction, and in lots of ways a genuine attempt to strengthen the movement from below and to strengthen the communal councils. But when you try to promote that from above, from the state, of course it’s contradictory. In some cases it has led genuinely to the strengthening of communal movements, sometimes very much in tension with the state structures.

I think that the strength of Chávismo over time is really going to depend not so much on the state organization but on the strength of these communal movements. So no, I don’t think that you can think of the state as being an anti-capitalist crack, simply because the state is a form of organization that excludes people; it is a form of organization that dovetails very easily with the reproduction of capital and derives its income from the accumulation of capital. But I think that even in those countries where the movement for radical change is dominated by the state like in Venezuela, Bolivia or even Cuba, to some extent, pushes in different directions continue at the same time.

Have you always had this view about the impossibility of state-based revolutionary action?

I think it was probably always my view. In a way it goes back to the old debates on the state, the so-called state derivation debate in the 1970s, where the emphasis was on trying to understand the state as a capitalist form of social relations. And I think I always took it for granted that of course, if you think of the state as a capitalist form of social relations, then obviously you can’t think of using the state to bring about revolution. We have to think in terms of anti-state forms of organization. So in that sense when I came to write Change the World without Taking Power, I thought I was saying something that was very obvious. I think it has always been my view, but when I came to Mexico and with the Zapatista uprising, then of course it got a new shape, a new impulse.

There is this critique, expressed by more old-fashioned Marxists, that if you don’t take power, power takes you. What would you respond to such a form of criticism?

I think if you do take power, power takes you. That’s very straightforward. I mean it’s very difficult to take positions of power at least in the sense that it’s usually used as ‘power over’. Inevitably you fall into the patterns of exercising power, of excluding people, of reproducing all that you start off fighting against. We’ve seen that over and over again. If you say ‘we are not going to take power’, I suppose one of the arguments is that if we don’t take power, then the really nasty people will take over, that by not taking power we are leaving a vacuum. I think that’s not true: we have to think in terms of capitalism as a ‘how’ and not as a ‘what’; as a way of doing things. The struggle against capital and the struggle to create a different world — for a different ‘how’ — is about a different way of doing things. It doesn’t make sense at all to say that the best way to achieve our ‘how’ is to do things in the way that we are rejecting. That seems to be complete nonsense. If we say that the struggle is really to create a different way of doing things, different ways of relating to one another, then we have no option but just to get on with doing it, and to do everything possible to resist the imposition of the ‘how’ that we reject.

You have written that the transition from capitalism to the future world is necessarily an interstitial process, much like the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This directly contradicts the orthodox Marxist view that revolution is by definition a dramatic top-down transformation of society occurring in a very brief period of time. If this traditional view of revolution is outdated, how would you describe the interstitial process that replaces it?

At first sight, the interstitial view contrasts with the traditional view that ‘we take power and we will bring social transformation from the top-down’. But in reality even that is still an interstitial concept because there was this idea that the state corresponds with society – that they are coterminous – which is obviously nonsense. State and society don’t have the same boundaries. Given that there are some 200 states in the world-system, and given that we won’t overthrow all these states on the same day, even if we want to focus on state power we will have to think interstitially. In this view, it’s just that we are thinking of states as being the relevant interstices, which seems ridiculous. What that means is that we are trying to take control of a form of organization that was constructed to promote the reproduction of capital. Everything in the last century suggests it doesn’t work.

We have to think of interstices, but in terms of our own forms of organization. States don’t make much sense. So we have to think in terms of something from below, creating our own forms of organization and interaction. We do it at the scale that we can: sometimes it’s just a little thing, like this garden we’re in. Sometimes it’s bigger, like a big chunk of the state of Chiapas now being self-governed by the Zapatistas. The question then becomes: how can we promote the confluence of these cracks?

There is this idea that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was an interstitial process, but that the movement from capitalism to communism or socialism cannot be – and that’s clearly wrong. If we think of communism, or the society that we want to create on the basis of self-determination, it has to come from below and not from the structures that deny its existence. This means an interstitial process in two temporalities, which are nicely expressed by the Zapatistas. First comes: ‘Ya basta!’ – we cannot accept this, not in terms of our survival, not in terms of our mental health. If this continues it will mean the destruction of humanity. We have to start now and break now. In this sense, the process is not gradual. It is here and now that we must create something else. But then comes the second Zapatista slogan: ‘We walk, we do not run, because we are going very far’ – a recognition that it’s not just a question of a one-day transformation of society; it’s a question of creating a new world.

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John Holloway

John Holloway is a Professor in the Posgrado de Sociología, Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. His most recent book is Crack Capitalism (Pluto, 2010).

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine, and a postdoctoral researcher in political economy at the University of Cambridge. For more on his research and writings, visit jeromeroos.com.

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