[OPE-L] Critique of Holloway on State Power

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Apr 11 2005 - 09:25:10 EDT

Knowing that John H. is a member of OPE-L, M. Junaid Alam
<alam@lefthook.org> asked that I bring the following article
that he wrote for Zmag to the attention of the list.

John and others:  would you like to comment on this article?

In solidarity, Jerry


 Taking Power Seriously: A Response to John Holloway                                                    by M. Junaid
April 10, 2005

John Holloway, well-known left intellectual and author of the popular
polemic Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution
Today, recently offered a concise presentation of his strategic vision on
revolutionary change at ZNet. In his essay there, he strongly rejects the
idea of approaching or seizing the state as an instrument for achieving
social change, and encourages the notion of multiplying various kinds of
incipient rebellions that bypass the state as the most fruitful path to
human self-determination.
In advancing his thesis, however, Holloway fails to take stock of
important current political developments or ground his definition of
capitalism in a concrete context. As a result, he makes a number of
simplistic assertions and leans on certain false dichotomies about the
state and the process of revolutionary change. By examining these flaws, I
think it is possible to show that Holloway's concept of "changing the
world without taking power" is, unfortunately, trapped in a narrow
framework where premises hang from a ceiling of intellectual defeatism and
conclusions crash into walls of political paralysis.    Holloway's
broadside against taking power is stern and unequivocal: he warns that
"focus[ing] our struggle on the state" or "tak[ing] it as a principle
point of reference" "leads us in the wrong direction." He writes, "The
state...is a form of social relations…developed over several centuries
for the purpose of maintaining or developing the rule of capital."
Therefore, "we have to understand that the state pulls us in a certain
direction." How? "It seeks to impose upon us a separation of our struggles
from society"; it "separates leaders from the masses"; it "pulls us into a
process of reconciliation with reality, and that reality is capitalism, a
form of social organization that is based on exploitation and injustice,
on killing and destruction." Worse, it "also draws us into a spatial
definition of how we do things," one which not only "makes clear
distinction between the state's territory and the world outside," but also
"has no hope of matching the global movement of capital." These then are
Holloway's most salient points against state-centered struggle.   The
fundamental problem with all these concerns is that they could be raised
anywhere. For instance, Holloway posits struggle within the state as a
"reconciliation with reality," as capitulation, because after all the
state represents the "reality of capitalism." But is the "reality of
capitalism" not everywhere? Private institutions, organizations, cultural
mores, and the entire general social milieu are all thoroughly penetrated
and profoundly shaped by capitalism. Indeed, that is precisely why all
these elements must be resisted and contested in the first place. What
occurs vis-√ -vis the state in particular, however, is not a
"reconciliation" with the reality of capitalism, but a confrontation with
the reality of capitalism by forces opposed to capitalism in its most
important arena of control.    Turning to the issue of leaders becoming
separated from masses, nothing about this process is exclusive to the
state either. Leaders can betray, deceive, or abandon whoever they are
tasked with representing in any social situation where money, power, and
politics is involved - the workplace, the sports club, the university, the
union, and so on. The difference is only that the stakes are higher when
the state is involved. This cannot be invoked as an excuse to abandon
social situations in general or the state in particular, since that would
amount to total inaction. Leaders must be held accountable through
concrete organizational mechanisms, and masses must themselves stay
conscious and vigilant: it is this interplay which determines in the end
how effectively and faithfully any leaders represent those who choose
them.   The objection that taking on the state apparatus confines oneself
to certain parameters of struggle - "spatial definitions" - could also be
invoked in any other scenario. To struggle is necessarily to place oneself
in the specific arena where struggle is being waged - preferably at its
highest, sharpest level. This is true whether one is speaking of physical
terrain on a military battlefield, ideological terrain on a political
battlefield, or national terrain on a state-centered battlefield. One is,
in fact, always "drawn" into "spatial definitions" no matter what one
does. The question is only whether one chooses the space of concrete
struggle, or the space of empty retreat.   On this score, to condemn
state-centered struggle because it has "no hope" of combating "global
capital" is to merely tinker with words, since capital is only global in
the sense that it plants itself in every nation by negotiating access
through state permission. Global capital is resisted partially when one
state demands to set the terms of national development; it is resisted
more forcefully when a bloc of states demand the same; and it is resisted
not at all when the state has acquiesced to capital's demands - because
revolutionaries there decided to let the state fall into right-wing hands
by refusing to be "drawn into spatial definitions," or rather, by
accepting the spatial definition of defeat.   Ultimately, Holloway's
sweeping assertions about flaws in state-centered struggle are misleading
for two reasons. One, the same kinds of flaws exist in any other sphere of
struggle. Two, and most important, state-centered struggle does not create
flaws in movements, but rather reveals them. For as we have seen, the only
difference in regards to the state is one of degree: because the power of
capitalism is so deeply entrenched within the state, the true strengths
and limitations of any movement are exposed in confrontation with it.
Avoiding confrontation may allow a movement to hide its weaknesses, and it
may lead to some short-term self-glorification, but it will also avoid
solving the actual problem. The viability of any revolutionary movement is
determined by how effectively it is able to confront the system exactly in
that arena where the system has been crafting the injustices that gave
rise to the movement in the first place. It is not clear why Holloway
believes the answer is to abandon the arena altogether, instead of working
on new ways to address the flaws of the movement which are revealed within
it.   What would be most instructive in examining Holloway's case for
changing the world without taking power, however, is to look at a movement
that has taken power and is carrying out change: the Bolivarian Revolution
in Venezuela. Here is a living, breathing example of social struggle,
where it is possible for us to examine in real terms and without
theorizing what actually happens in a genuine revolutionary process.
What has the revolutionary government of Hugo Chavez Frias accomplished?
It has undertaken a land reform program placing hundreds of thousands of
hectares of idle land in the hands of small farmers and the landless poor;
it has made education free for all from elementary through university
level, offering students free daily meals; it has created special banks to
assist women, small businesses, worker cooperatives, and farmers; it has
locked into place the nationalization of the oil industry; it has
organized vaccinations and community campaigns to increase literacy,
training 1.3 million people to read; it has enlisted the previously
unemployed to repair sanitation and transportation infrastructure; it has
established 300 free health and dental clinics in slums where medical care
has never been seen before; it has introduced price controls on 160 basic
foodstuffs and 60 essential household goods, subsidizing food markets in
poor communities.    It is unfortunate - though perhaps not surprising,
given the implications for his thesis - that Holloway fails to even
mention this most remarkable development in his article. For what the
Venezuelan example illustrates above all is that the anarchist notion of
the state as intrinsically negative - a notion Holloway expresses most
openly when he writes, "Betrayal is already given in the state as an
organizational form" - is untenable as any sort of universally applicable
position. Indeed, it would take a fanciful imagination to pretend that
Chavez, who has played a decisive role in improving the lives of millions
within his country, has "betrayed" the revolutionary process.    It
follows from the reality in Venezuela that Holloway's previously-discussed
reasons for abandoning state-centered struggle are not sustainable either.
Chavez did not "reconcile" himself to capitalism, he used state power to
help break capitalist political control and declare the path of
revolution; he was not defeated by "spatial definitions," but seized upon
the spatial definition of the historical narrative of Simon Bolivar to
animate and excite the national imagination; he was not crushed by "the
global movement of capital," but snatched it by the throat, prevented oil
privatization, and pumped $3.7 billion dollars derived from
state-controlled oil revenues into social investment in just one year.
Thus we see that the conquest of state power was not only not a barrier,
it was an essential part of carrying out and defending the concrete
improvements made on the ground.    The Venezuelan example, then, deals a
blow to the anarchist shibboleth of the state as inherently reactionary.
But it would be a serious mistake to think that it vindicates the equally
erroneous vangaurdist shibboleth that posits people as subjects to be
trained by an enlightened state leadership. Caught between these false
dichotomies of "good people/bad state" versus "bad people/good state",
Holloway not only adopts the anarchist end of this view, but wrongly
dismisses all state-centered struggle as lying on the vangaurdist end. He
writes: "The state oriented-argument can be seen as a pivoted conception
of the development of struggle", whereby, "First, we concentrate all our
efforts on winning the state," and "then...we can think of revolutionizing
society." This description, aside from being a caricature of the way most
socialists conceive of revolutionary change, is very far off the mark in
explaining what has happened in Venezuela.    For while it is undoubtedly
true that holding state power has helped Chavez mount a strong defense of
the revolutionary project, he did not simply do this overnight, nor did he
do it by himself. The Chavez government would neither be in power nor have
the political strength to carry out any of its policies even while in
power had there not been an intense, dialectical process of engagement
with the people who comprise the backbone of the revolution. Time and time
again, it has been the active mobilization of the people from the slums -
those who have felt that it is their government under attack - which has
thwarted the right-wing forces of the oligarchy, media elite and
embittered sections of the middle classes still aiming to unseat the
revolution.    Through a constant process of support, feedback,
initiative, pressure, frustration criticism, and, most importantly, mass
demonstrations, it has been the masses who have propelled the revolution
forward, strengthening and consolidating it every step of the way. In just
a period of a few years, the revolution has fought and won a wave of
battles: a short-lived right-wing coup, ratification of a new
constitution, judiciary reform, two national legislative elections, two
presidential elections, a business-led oil industry sabotage campaign, an
attempted referendum recall, a viciously dishonest corporate-owned media -
and, of course, the United States.    Throughout all this, the government,
which certainly did not start out by declaring itself socialist, was
forced to either start meeting the expectations of the people or risk
finding its basis of support disappear. It had to answer concretely the
demands and concerns of supporters like Juan Blanco, who complained
shortly after the opposition launched its debilitating national strike in
December 2002, "The assistance we get is very small; we do not even feel
it. I ask, what is the goal of the revolution - where are we headed?" To
which Chavez has now supplied the answer we are all familiar with: "I am
convinced, and I think that this conviction will be for the rest of my
life, that the path to a new, better and possible world, is not
capitalism, the path is socialism."    It is unfortunate that Holloway, in
accepting the framework of false dichotomies about state and people,
necessarily rejects the state and the electoral arena as a site of social
struggle. It robs him of the ability to see that the construction of
socialism is a process and not one of absolute, fixed immovable forces;
that in this process the state can be a vehicle for change precisely to
the degree that the people are pushing for change through the state. The
great strength in this approach, in the context of a revolutionary
program, is that it constitutes an active, positive initiative in which
concrete, visible gains can be made, defended and referenced. The poor can
be fed, schools can be built, children can be taught, the sick can be
treated - in the assets of the state lies the active, real basis for
cultivating the soil from which the flowers of humanist values may
blossom.   But by dint of his ideological disposition Holloway is forced
to look to the negative - "rebellions" and "insubordinations," the central
focus of which is "people saying no to capitalism, no, we shall not live
our lives according to the dictates of capitalism, we shall do what we
consider necessary or desirable and not what capitalism tells us to do."
He calls for "multiply[ing] and expand[ing] these refusals." The
underlying problem with this approach is that saying no only goes so far
no matter how many times one repeats it. It is intrinsically a negative
demand and implies a program of only reflexive reaction, not positive
action.    Moreover, it turns out that often times "doing what we consider
necessary" actually coincides with "the dictates of capitalism" because
capitalism is a totalizing force. Holloway, in describing capitalism as
"not (in the first place) an economic system, but a system of command,"
proposes we break this control through refusal: "To refuse to obey is to
break the command of capital." But this is misleading because the means of
enforcing the "system of command" is rooted in the "economic system"
itself. The state commands, coordinates, develops, defends, and
appropriates a vast amount of capital, and, in so doing, sets the basis
for its further ability to regulate a wide array of social relations and
organizations upon which people depend in their everyday lives.    In this
sense, then, capitalism is not so much "a system of command" but a system
of tenuous consent - people must work within the system in order to eat,
to live, to buy things, and to maintain their position in society.
Therefore to "refuse to obey" in the immediate sense is not to "break the
command of capital" but rather to break one's connection to the social and
support structure made possible by capital; it is to become isolated,
atomized, individuated, and assigned to oblivion. This process is
accelerated by the fact that, if a "refusal" turns into more militant
forms of insubordination with any sign of creating "trouble," the state
unleashes its energies and either marginalizes and demoralizes the
movement or crushes it ruthlessly.   The only way to change this situation
is to translate the idea of resistance into positive action aimed at
building an alternative society. Naturally, this requires an economic
basis - a project which cannot be achieved by any kind of magic, by NGOs,
by "civil society," or by any other scattered, isolated, nebulous group
hovering and floating about on the margins. It can only be achieved by a
broad democratic mass movement which understands, among other things, the
necessity of controlling that hub which has been responsible for
overseeing the theft of our labor and channeling the wealth we produce
upwards and in ways designed to control and fragment us: the state.    The
goal of this control should be twofold: to remove what is destructive and
to reenergize what is productive for the ascending movement of human
liberation. It is impossible to speculate in the abstract what in the
state would warrant removal and what would warrant renewal; one might make
broad references to decreasing armaments, eliminating advisory boards for
corporations, reorienting research away from environmentally hazardous
chemicals and toward cures for the ills those chemicals have caused,
increasing funds for public education, transportation - and so on.    The
guiding idea, however, should be to dethrone power without principle and
coronate principle without power. That is to say, we must strive for the
empowerment of our humanist principles as well as the disempowerment of
unprincipled power. It is this dual process which will help break apart
the old array of social relations and open up the path to genuine human
development and solidarity among humankind.    M. Junaid Alam, 22, is
co-editor of the leftist youth journal Left Hook, and attends Northeastern
University in Boston. He can be reached at alam@lefthook.org.

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