0. Building Power

Page 2

The Rupture

Confronted with this weakness, we need to muster the courage of our own absurdity—the courage simply to say “No” and tell capital to go to hell.

No, No, No

No. Oxi. Simply that.

No, No, No. Three No’s. Three dates: July 5, 2015; December 6, 2008; September 15, 2008. Three ruptures.

Start from there, from the ruptures. The walls of the world are closing in upon us and we must fight to keep the windows open, the windows that open out to another world, other worlds, different realities: real worlds that exist in our refusals, our struggles, our dreams, our experiments, our ability and determination to do things differently.

Worlds in which people are not locked up in a stadium and repressed by police just because they flee from war, in which ports and airports and water are not handed to the rich so that they can become richer, worlds in which the future of humanity is not sacrificed to capital’s insatiable hunger for profit. Sensible worlds, obvious worlds, worlds not based on money, worlds that today are repressed and ridiculed, worlds that exist in the mode of being denied.

The worlds we want to create, and are creating, are worlds-against, worlds that go against the horrors of existing society, their grammar is negative. That is why we must start from No, from No, No, No.

Not an empty optimism, for each opening has been followed by a closing, each No has been followed by a Yes; but the No is never completely extinguished, the opening pushes back. Nothing worse than acceptance, nothing worse than the inane “well, they did their best, didn’t they? What more could they have done?”, nothing worse than the pathetic “courage of hopelessness” advocated by Žižek in a recent reflection on the Greek situation.

I. July 5, 2015

Watch a presentation of this essay at the Direct Democracy Festival in Thessaloniki.

The first No is that which still resounds in the air: the great Oxi of July 5, a night when all the world danced in the streets. An absurd, ridiculous No, a No of hope, a No of dignity.

Writing in 1795, William Blake imagined the reactions of the Kings of Asia to the revolutionary upsurge in Europe. He imagined the Kings calling on their counselors:

To cut off the bread from the city,
That the remnant may learn to obey,
That the pride of the heart may fail,
That the lust of the eyes may be quenched,
That the delicate ear in its infancy
May be dull’d, and the nostrils clos’d up,
To teach mortal worms the path
That leads from the gates of the Grave.

The prolonged period of negotiation between the Eurozone governments and SYRIZA was that: not just a negotiation but a humiliation, an attempt to kill the pride of the heart, to teach mortal worms the path that leads from the gates of the grave. The No of July 5 was a No to the humiliation: a flaring of the nostrils, a sharpening of the ears, an awakening of the lust of the eyes, a cry that shouts to the four winds “with no disrespect for the worms, we are more than that and there is more to life than the march to the grave.”

The great No of the referendum did not lead anywhere, perhaps it could not lead anywhere. The governments (including the SYRIZA government, joining now with the other eighteen) replied just over a week later: “Sorry (very sorry, in the case of SYRIZA), but we do not understand what you say, you are speaking the wrong language, using the wrong grammar. What is this word ‘No’? You are speaking Nonsense. You live in a world of make-believe. The Reality of the world is that the choice in the referendum was between YES and YES. The Reality is that there is no option other than conforming.”

The No of the Greek referendum remains the starting point from which we try to understand the world.

A No drowned, a hope smothered. And yet it remains our starting point, the point from which we try to understand the world. In that No we recognize ourselves, in that No we look for our humanity. That No is our language, our grammar. The great Oxi still resonates in the air, just as a kiss hangs in the air after the lovers have gone home. It resonates profoundly, filled with the echo of that earlier No, that earlier nonsense, the great rupture of almost seven years ago: December 2008.

II. December 6, 2008

The shooting of the 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6, 2008 provoked one of the loudest screams of No that has been heard in this century: No to police violence, No to discrimination against the young, against migrants, against women, No to a system built on frustration, on frustrating the lives and the potential especially of the young but of all, No to a system that dulls our senses, closes our nostrils, through unemployment and, sometimes worse, employment, No to a system built on the meaninglessness of money. No too to the stale traditions of working class struggle.

There were no demands made of the state, just a roar of fury against the state and all it stood for. Rage was interlaced with hope, but the relation was fragile and there was no institutional mediation. It was certainly not a hope that change would come through the next election, but there was an underlying hope that the world could be different, that it might be possible to bring down the world of capital and repression and injustice.

There was a hope, but a desperate hope, a hope tinged with despair. One of the many manifestos circulating in the streets of Athens in those days gives an feeling for the movement:

The revolt was, in fact, a revolt against property and alienation. Whoever did not hide behind the curtains of their privacy, whoever found themselves in the streets, knows this very well: shops were looted not to re-sell the computers, the clothes, the furniture but for the enjoyment of the catastrophe of that which alienates us—the phantasmagoria of the commodity. […]

The pyres that heated the bodies of the insurgents in the long nights of December were full of products of our labor liberated, disarmed symbols of a once powerful imaginary. We simply took that which belongs to us and threw it on the fires together with all that it signifies. The great potlatch of the previous days was a rebellion of desire against the imposed canon of scarcity.

This revolt was, in fact, a rebellion against property and alienation. A revolt of the gift against the sovereignty of money. An insurrection of anarchy, of use value against the democracy of exchange value. A spontaneous rising of collective freedom against the rationality of individual discipline.

(Flesh Machine/Ego Te Provoco)

This statement is not necessarily “representative” but it does give a feeling for the movement of December 2008 and the years that follow. It is a language that does not fit, a nonsensical language from a world of make-believe, the language of a world that does not yet exist, that exists not-yet in our revolts.

Years of marches and protests and riots followed, and violent repression too. The anger pushed beyond the protests to calls for a radically different society, rage led on to the search for other ways of living, through the creation of social centers, community gardens, factory occupations, local assemblies—both as ways of tackling immediate practical problems of survival and creating the basis for a different world.

Rage led on to the search for other ways of living, through the creation of social centers, community gardens, factory occupations and local assemblies.

But the protests and the experiments brought their difficulties and frustrations. The hundreds of protests, both by the traditional and the anti-authoritarian left, made no impact at all on government policy, already subject to the dictates of the Troika of creditors (EU, IMF, ECB). A particularly significant date was February 12, 2012, when hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets, more than fifty buildings were burnt down in the center of Athens, police cars were set on fire, tear gas was used far beyond the legal limits, the Parliament was surrounded by a police guard and the deputies voted to approve another package of austerity.

It was on this ground that the spectacular rise of SYRIZA took place. SYRIZA succeeded in giving these expressions of rage-and-hope a focus. “Vote for us and we shall really make things different, we shall break with the austerity policies imposed by so many governments, we shall stop the repression and the corruption.” Six years of rioting and creative alternatives had made little difference: the politicians had voted to accept the austerity measures. Now it was time to make that hope effective, to give it a realistic way forward.

The rise of SYRIZA was the result of the fact that the years of anti-state, anti-party militancy had not led to any clear results. Of course many of those who voted for SYRIZA had never taken part in the movement of 2008 or the riots and experiments of the years that followed; but many of those who had taken an active part certainly voted for SYRIZA in January of 2015.

SYRIZA’s rise was a result of the fact that the years of anti-state militancy had not led to any clear results.

SYRIZA inherited the legacy of those years of militancy and focused it, and in the process transformed it. It changed the grammar of the protests and brought it back to, or at least closer to, the grammar of orthodox politics. The protests of 2008 and after moved on the edge of impossibility and invention. They were a de-totalizing movement, an angry breaking of the system. The hope was always on the edge of hope-less despair, but it was a hope that refused to come to terms with the existing system, a hope that could only be an absolute call for a different world and a rejecting of this one.

The enemy was the world-as-it-is (what we might call capital, but many did not use that term) and there was no demand that could meaningfully be made of that world. If we think of it as a game, it was a game in which the rules either did not exist or were being invented in the process of playing. There was no possible dovetailing with the party-political system.

The rise of SYRIZA gave a definition to hope, but in the process it narrowed it down. The enemy now was not capital, but neoliberalism, understood as the dominance of a particularly aggressive form of capitalist politics. The demand was for the ending of austerity. The end of capitalism was set aside as being entirely unrealistic. As Varoufakis explained in a talk in Zagreb in 2013, the end of capitalism might be desirable in the long term, but the aim now must be to fight for changes within the system. This was to be a politics of the possible, a realistic politics. Hope was a central rallying-call, but hope was to be the realistic call for a change of politics and the ending of austerity.

SYRIZA gave a definition to hope, but in the process narrowed it down. The enemy now was not capital, but neoliberalism.

An important and inevitable consequence of focusing dissatisfaction-and-hope on the state was that it acquired a clear territorial element, which was not there before, or certainly not to the same extent. The riots and marches of the years after 2008 were directed against the Greek government and against the system: although the austerity policies were clearly linked to the pressures from the European Union, the struggle did not present itself in national terms. In the words of the pamphlet quoted, this was a rebellion of use value against value, not of Greece against Germany: the language of the riots is an international language.

Once SYRIZA came to power the conflict came to be redefined as one between Greece and the other countries of the Eurozone. The conflicts move from the cities to the state, from the streets to the closed rooms of inter-state negotiation. Greece itself is constituted in the transition, as a subject, as a concept. And with it, “the Greek people,” and indeed democracy itself, the rule of the Greek people.

This is not necessarily the result of a conscious decision by any of the actors: it is already inscribed in the existence of the state as a territorially defined unit. If we note that the rise of SYRIZA coincided in time with the rise of Golden Dawn, this is not to say that SYRIZA was to blame but simply that both are connected to the redefinition of the conflict in territorial terms, a shift that is truly frightening in its implications.

It is important to underline the importance of this transition, precisely because the implications are so enormous and because it is simply taken for granted and without question by the overwhelming majority of discussion, on the left as much as on the right. The movement from seeing the state as the enemy to seeing it as a possible site for change inevitably brings about a redefinition of conflict in terms of territorial or national conflict which can have fateful consequences. It is not just that the state does not work, that it bureaucratizes and demobilizes, but that it territorializes, transforms social conflict into national conflict.

The overwhelmingly negative grammar of 2008 was replaced by a positive, territorial grammar aimed at concrete change. Obviously both perspectives continued to be intertwined, but it was the realistic-positive definition of hope that was louder. Hence the great shock, the great joy of the referendum of July 5: the No was an echo of the language of December 2008. It did not share the same grammar as the SYRIZA government. It was a return to the nonsensical language of world of make-believe.

The result of the referendum did not point to any particular answer, did not lead anywhere definite. Even if many felt that Grexit, the departure of Greece from the Euro, was desirable, this was for many not really an alternative policy proposal (as it was and is in the eyes of some left-wing politicians) but rather a different way of throwing a rock through the window of a bank: an act of revolt.

The Realism of the SYRIZA government proved to be completely unrealistic.

The Realism of the SYRIZA government proved to be completely unrealistic. It led the anger-hope of the previous years on to the path of realism, but it did not go far enough to meet the real world. SYRIZA still dreamed of a fairer capitalism, and fought for months for a realistic dream that was mere phantasy.

This ended in the tragic-farcical reversal of the referendum and the total capitulation of the hope promised by SYRIZA to the reality represented by Angela Merkel and the other politicians of the European Union. “Grow up!” they said, “get real! There is no hope, just reality. There is no such thing as a fairer capitalism. Keynes is dead, long dead.” SYRIZA pushed to the limits of state action: they pushed their phantasy as far as they possibly could within the state-form, and failed.

After months of playing the game of negotiation and just when it looked, after the referendum, as if the Greek government might pull off a victory of some sort, Merkel and the Europeans announced “checkmate!” And the Greek government saw that it was so and fell to its knees. The endgame was lost. The endgame of what? Of the radical phase of the SYRIZA government certainly. Of the new left parties in Europe (particularly Podemos) probably. Of the euro and even the European Union very possibly. Of humanity, conceivably.

Checkmate. Yes, certainly, but if we remember, remember December 6, then it is very clear that we’re playing a different game. Your Reality has won just now, but ours is a different reality, a reality that exists in the mode of being denied. Our reality is the reality of the world that exists not yet, that exists in our potential, that which exists in-against-and-beyond the commodity-form, our reality is the rebellion of use value against value. (But can we eat it?)

To understand what is the “Reality” that confronts us and now stands triumphant, let us remember another date, another rupture.


September 15, 2008

A No of a different kind. Perhaps not a No of rage, simply a “No, it doesn’t work, capitalism doesn’t work.”

A rupture certainly. The collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank, the biggest bankruptcy in the history of capitalism, on that day brought panic to the world of finance and the world of politics. Lehman Brothers was followed the next day by AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, and more followed. Tim Geithner, later US treasury secretary, said “The United States risked a complete collapse of our financial system,” and Canada’s finance minister said afterwards that the world economy had hovered on the edge of “catastrophe.”

The collapse was eventually prevented by the Great Bailout of banks. Throughout the world there was a massive nationalization not of the banks themselves, but of the banks’ debts. Worldwide, about twenty trillion (20,000,000,000,000) dollars were transferred to the banks in order to keep them in business: the twenty trillion dollars of bank debt assumed by the states now became twenty trillion dollars of public debt, of sovereign debt.

Whereas previously it had become clear that the banks would be unable to pay their debts (hence the Lehman collapse), it now became clear that it was likely that at least some states would be unable to pay the debts they had now acquired. The massive amount of debt assumed by states made it necessary for these states to do everything possible to pay the creditors (the banks) by adopting policies of austerity, that is, by cutting welfare payments and selling off state-owned assets.

Thus, according to David McNally, writing in 2010, “In response to market reactions to its debt, Latvia has fired one third of all teachers and slashed pensions by 70 per cent, Ireland has chopped wages of government employees by 22 percent, the state of California has cut health insurance for nine hundred thousand poor children.”

Greece is not so special. The measures SYRIZA has been forced to accept are not very different from the reforms that are being implemented in most parts of the world.

Greece is not so special. The measures that the SYRIZA government has been forced to accept are not very different from the reforms that are being implemented in most parts of the world: labor reform (reductions in the rights of workers), reduction of pensions, cuts in the welfare systems, privatization of state resources previously considered to be of strategic importance, the open subordination of state decisions to the requirements of the banks, the hollowing out of democracy, and so on and on.

The Zapatistas have suggested that a terrible storm is blowing against the world and that the urgent task of theoretical reflection is to understand this storm and how to combat it. This was the theme of the seminar they organized in May 2015. Seen from this perspective, Greece is important because it is in the center of the storm, but what is happening there can be understood only if we try to understand the storm as a whole.

To speak of the present turmoil in terms of Greece against Germany or the Eurozone actively closes the possibility of understanding what is happening in terms of a deeper problem in the present organization of the world that affects Mexico or Puerto Rico or Detroit as well as Greece.

The problem is not (or rather, only superficially) Germany or indeed the Eurozone. The many analyses that discuss it in these terms take as their starting point what was the result of the transition from 2008 to 2015, that is, the positivization of the struggle that was part of focusing it through the state. By doing so, they feed easily into nationalist analyses and they fail to see the connection with the worldwide storm.

The problem is not this state or that state, but capital—that is, the way in which relations between people are currently organized: the subjection of human activity to the pursuit of profit (in other words, the subjection of use value production to value, of useful activity to abstract labor, of wealth to the commodity).

This form of organization is inherently antagonistic: it depends on the subordination of people’s activity to an alien logic, a logic that they do not control. The antagonism also signifies instability: capital depends on being able to subordinate us to its logic, to its demands. Our possible lack of subordination always stands as threat to capital, as potential crisis.

The collapse of Lehman, and the conversion of bank debt into sovereign debt, not only explains the intensification of capitalist aggression (the “storm”) in all the world, but also shows dramatically that this aggression is grounded in the fragility of the system, in the desperation of capital. Behind the aggressive stance of the European leaders (and now of the neoliberal SYRIZA government in Greece) is the question: “how do we ensure the reproduction of the capitalist system and our place within it?”

That has to be their preoccupation simply because their position prevents them from even imagining that there might be another way of organizing society, however much we scream at them the obvious: that capitalism has failed, that it is destroying the necessary preconditions of human life on earth, that we desperately need to organize social relations in a different way.


Capitalism is dying, but it is not yet clear whether we will all die with it, or be able to create something else before it brings us down. The near collapse of the banking system in 2008 and the attempt in the agreement of July 13 (and the corresponding measures in so many other countries) to impose a fierce restructuring of social relations in order to reduce the massive overhang of debt indicate, firstly, that capitalism as a system continues to be very unstable, and, secondly, that it is understood (at least by the capitalists) that we are the problem.

We are the ones who need to be restructured, remoulded. We are the crisis of capital. The important thing for capital to survive is to impose its discipline on the way that we work and the way that we live. For capital it is necessary that we should learn to obey, that the pride of our heart should fail.

Capitalism is dying, but it is not yet clear whether we will all die with it, or be able to create something else before it brings us down.

Capital’s problem is not just that it depends on us, but that it depends on the constant intensification of our subordination. That is the significance of Marx’s critique of value as a social relation. It is not just that money rules, but that the rule of money has a dynamic that forces capital to make us produce things more and more quickly, more and more efficiently.

Capital cannot stand still: in order to survive it has to constantly intensify its subordination of every aspect of human life to its logic. Unlike any other form of domination, it is constantly driven by its own inadequacy. Its difficulty in achieving the degree of subordination that it demands is reflected in the long-term growth of debt.

Debt is essentially a game of make-believe: it is capital saying “if we cannot make the workers produce the profits we require, if we cannot impose the submission that we require, then we shall pretend that we can: we shall create a monetary image of the profits we need.” Philip Coggan comments:

In the last forty years, the world has been more successful at creating claims on wealth than it has at creating wealth itself. The economy has grown, but asset prices have risen faster, and debts have risen faster still. Debtors, from speculative homebuyers to leading governments, have made promises that they are unlikely to meet in full. Creditors who are counting on those debts to be repaid will be disappointed.

The difficulty of reconciling the social pressures that arise from the humanity of humans with capital’s need to dehumanize us and make us into machines for producing profit is reflected in the ever-expanding breach between the creation of debt and the creation of wealth. This creates a fierce scramble, a vicious and bloody game of musical chairs as creditors fight to make sure that the debts are paid, debtors fight to try and push the burden of the debt on to other debtors and all together try to impose greater discipline, greater productivity and lower costs on the population of the world.

Neoliberalism is not a policy chosen by governments, it is simply the violence of the world in which they exist, the viciousness of the game that they play and must play simply by virtue of being states dependent on the reproduction of capital in their territories.

Neoliberalism is not a policy chosen by governments, it is simply the violence of the world in which they exist.

Any state, in order to secure its own existence, must try to promote the reproduction of capital within its boundaries: the fierce game of musical chairs between creditors and debtors that results from the enormous expansion of debt at the world level reproduces itself both within states as the competitive drive to provide the best conditions for capital accumulation, and between states as each tries to make sure that the roof (which is bound to collapse somewhere) falls somewhere else and not on it; that it should fall in this case not in Berlin or Frankfurt but in Athens and Thessaloniki.

The euro and indeed all monetary regimes are ways of playing this game: what distinguishes the euro from other currencies is that, having been created in the era of overwhelming debt, there is a specific aggressiveness written into its rules of functioning.

The violence of the capitalist game is not the same as it was fifty years ago, when the conditions created by fascism, the slaughter of about 100 million people and perhaps the fear of communism had created a space for some sort of welfare capitalism. It would seem that this is no longer viable, and certainly this seems to be the message being spelt out by the European politicians in the negotiations.

The negotiations were a long-drawn out lesson in which Merkel and Schäuble taught Tsipras what it means to lead a state in today’s capitalism. They had to explain to him patiently over and over again: “Keynes is dead, long dead. Forget about creating a benevolent capitalism or a fairer system. There is no room for that. As the leader of the state, you must implement aggressive, neoliberal policies in order to attract capital and satisfy the money markets.”

Their pupil was very slow, but at last he learnt, and now the SYRIZA government is committed to being a neoliberal government, just like all the others.

Grexit, the exit of Greece from the Eurozone, would probably make little difference in this respect. Its merit would be to prolong and magnify the cry of No to the capitalist attack, but as a policy its implications would be not so very different from those imposed through the negotiations. If Greece is to remain a capitalist society, and whether or not there is a default on the debt or part of it, it has to provide conditions that are attractive to capital and that almost certainly includes introducing labor reforms, cutting back on the welfare state, reducing pensions, privatizing state-owned assets and so on.

It is hard to see that Greece’s direct subordination to the money markets would be very different from the same subordination mediated through the euro. It could perhaps provide the basis for an alternative capitalist restructuring, but even if it did, there is little reason to think that this would be less aggressive than the Agreement of July 13, 2015. Greece probably does not have the natural resources to exploit that might provide a way of softening such a restructuring, as was the case in Argentina.

This third No is certainly a “No, it doesn’t work,” but it is also related to the earlier No’s in the sense that the chronic expansion of debt arises from people in all the world saying, often quietly, “No, we will not become robots, No, we are not willing to, or perhaps we are not capable of, satisfying the demands of capital.”

In that sense the near-collapse of the banking system is an expression of our strength, the strength of our everyday lives and habits, but it is an expression that is often difficult to recognize as such. The capitalists are right to blame us for capital’s crisis. We must respond: “Yes, we are the crisis of capital. And proud of it.”

The next time

Three No’s, each one followed by a positive reintegration into the system. The No of the referendum of July 5 was converted immediately into the Agreement of 13 July. The great No of December 2008 was gradually institutionalized and territorialized into the rise of SYRIZA. The near-collapse of the banking system in October 2008 was overcome through the conversion of the banking debt into sovereign debt and the implementation of austerity policies throughout the world.

Each positivization presents the image of hard reality: that is the way the world is, there is no other way. And yet the three No’s bear testament that it is not so. This world of capitalist reality is not only a catastrophe for humanity, it is also very antagonistic, very unstable, very fragile. Most commentators agree that the agreement between Greece and the Eurozone will not work: the government may succeed in introducing its measures of austerity, but it is very unlikely to be able to meet its debt repayment obligations.

It is also very unlikely that the austerity policies introduced in all the world will be enough to restore a more sustainable relation between debt and wealth creation: it is very likely that there will be more near-collapses, or indeed total collapses, of the financial system.

It is also clear that capital has not succeeded in its ambition of crushing completely the pride of the heart and that there will be many more explosions of rage-hope-dignity both in Greece and elsewhere. What we need is not the miserable “courage of hopelessness,” but the courage of our own absurdity.

The Greek experience suggests that the only way out of this is to tell capital to go to hell. There is no middle ground.

The Greek experience suggests that the only way out of this is to tell capital to go to hell. There is no middle ground. We must liberate our creative potential (our productive forces) from the domination of money, of profit, to the point where we can tell capital that we are not interested in it, that we do not need to attract it to our territory or area of activity, that we do not need employment by capital, that we are quite happy without it and that it should take itself off to hell.

NoNoNo_HeadThere are millions of people pushing in this direction in all the world, out of choice and out of necessity or a combination of the two. There are millions of cracks in the domination of capital, millions of experiments in other ways of living, in creating a common well-being that is not driven to profit. However, the Greek experience suggests that we are not there yet, that there is still a long way to go before we can say that we do not want to attract capital, that we do not need capitalist employment.

The drama of the past year confronts us with our own weakness. If we cannot say No to capitalist employment then we must attract capital. To do this, we must create optimal conditions for capital profitability. To do this we must adopt aggressive (neoliberal) policies to strengthen the rule of money and the subordination of people. The only way out is to say goodbye to capital. Can we do that? Interstitially certainly, but probably not completely.

The only way forward is to accept the contradictions that this situation entails, contradictions that cut through each and all of us, and at the same time to do everything we can to say No and No and No to the capitalist aggression and to liberate our creative potential to create ways of living in-against-and-beyond capital. There is no closure.

John Holloway

John Holloway is a professor of sociology in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. His books include Change the World without Taking Power (Pluto Press, London, 2002, 2019) and Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, London, 2010).

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Magazine — Issue 11