With left parties on the rise in Spain and Greece, John Holloway reflects on his influential 2002 thesis: can we change the world without taking power?
Interview by Amador Fernández-Savater. Translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.
In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.
Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.
But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”
Firstly, John, we would like to ask you where the hegemonic idea of revolution in the 20th century comes from, what it is based on. That is, the idea of social change through the taking of power.
I think the central element is labor, understood as wage labor. In other words, alienated or abstract labor. Wage labor has been, and still is, the bedrock of the trade union movement, of the social democratic parties that were its political wing, and also of the communist movements. This concept defined the revolutionary theory of the labor movement: the struggle of wage labor against capital. But its struggle was limited because wage labor is the complement of capital, not its negation.
I don’t understand the relation between this idea of labor and that of revolution through the taking of state power.
One way of understanding the connection would be as follows: if you start off from the definition of labor as wage or alienated labor, you start off from the idea of the workers as victims and objects of the system of domination. And a movement that struggles to improve the living standards of workers (considered as victims and objects) immediately refers to the state. Why? Because the state, due to its very separation from society, is the ideal institution if one seeks to achieve benefits for people. This is the traditional thinking of the labor movement and that of the left governments that currently exist in Latin America.
But this tradition isn’t the only approach to a politics of emancipation…
Of course not. In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.
These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.
The rejection of alienated and alienating labor entails, at the same time, a critique of the institutional and organizational structures, and the mindset that springs from it. This is how we can explain the rejection of trade unions, parties, and the state that we observe in so many contemporary movements, from the Zapatistas to the Greek or Spanish indignados.
But it isn’t a question of the opposition between an old and a new politics, I think. Because what we see in the movements born of the economic crisis is that those two things come to the fore at the same time: cracks such as protests in city squares, and new parties such as Syriza or Podemos.
I think it’s a reflection of the fact that our experience under capitalism is contradictory. We are victims and yet we are not. We seek to improve our living standards as workers, and also to go beyond that, to live differently. In one respect we are, in effect, people who have to sell their labor power in order to survive. But in another, each one of us has dreams, behaviors and projects that don’t fit into the capitalist definition of labor.
The difficulty, then as now, lies in envisioning the relation between those two types of movements. How can that relation avoid reproducing the old sectarianism? How can it be a fruitful relation without denying the fundamental differences between the two perspectives?
Argentina in 2001 and 2002, the indignados in Greece and Spain more recently. At a certain point, bottom-up movements stall, they enter a crisis or an impasse, or they vanish. Would you say that the politics of cracks has intrinsic limits in terms of enduring and expanding?
I wouldn’t call them limits, but rather problems. Ten years ago, when I published Change the World without Taking Power, the achievements and the power of movements from below were more apparent, whereas now we are more conscious of the problems. The movements you mention are enormously important beacons of hope, but capital continues to exist and it’s getting worse and worse; it progressively entails more misery and destruction. We cannot confine ourselves to singing the praises of movements. That’s not enough.
Could one response then be the option that focuses on the state?
It’s understandable why people want to go in that direction, very understandable. These have been years of ferocious struggles, but capital’s aggression remains unchanged. I sincerely hope that Podemos and Syriza do win the elections, because that would change the current kaleidoscope of social struggles. But I maintain all of my objections with regard to the state option.
Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.
Could it be a matter of complementing the movements from below with a movement oriented towards government institutions?
That’s the obvious answer that keeps coming up. But the problem with obvious answers is that they suppress contradictions. Things can’t be reconciled so easily. From above, it may be possible to improve people’s living conditions, but I don’t think one can break with capitalism and generate a different reality. And I sincerely believe that we’re in a situation where there are no long-term solutions for the whole of humanity within capitalism.
I’m not discrediting the state option because I myself don’t have an answer to offer, but I don’t think it’s the solution.
Where are you looking for the answer?
Whilst not considering parties of the left as enemies, since for me this is certainly not the case, I would say that the answer has to be thought of in terms of deepening the cracks.
If we’re not going to accept the annihilation of humanity, which, to me, seems to be on capitalism’s agenda as a real possibility, then the only alternative is to think that our movements are the birth of another world. We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.
If we think in terms of state and elections, we are straying away from that, because Podemos or Syriza can improve things, but they cannot create another world outside the logic of capital. And that’s what this is all about, I think.
Finally, John, how do you see the relation between the two perspectives we’ve been talking about?
We need to keep a constant and respectful debate going without suppressing the differences and the contradictions. I think the basis for a dialogue could be this: no one has the solution.
For the moment, we have to recognize that we’re not strong enough to abolish capitalism. By strong, I am referring here to building ways of living that don’t depend on wage labor. To be able to say “I don’t really care whether I have a job or not, because if I don’t have one, I can dedicate my life to other things that interest me and that give me enough sustenance to live decently.” That’s not the case right now. Perhaps we have to build that before we can say “go to hell, capital.”
In that sense, let’s bear in mind that a precondition for the French Revolution was that, at a certain point, the social network of bourgeois relations no longer needed the aristocracy in order to exist. Likewise, we must work to reach a point where we can say “we don’t care if global capital isn’t investing in Spain, because we’ve built a mutual support network that’s strong enough to enable us to live with dignity.”
Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.
And there are a great many people dedicated to this effort, whether out of desire, conviction or necessity, even though they may not appear in the newspapers. They’re building other forms of community, of sociality, of thinking about technology and human capabilities in order to create a new life.
John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico. His latest book is Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2010).