From: John Holloway (johnholloway@PRODIGY.NET.MX)
Date: Fri Apr 15 2005 - 16:46:23 EDT
Jerry, Many thanks for this. I don't want to comment just now, but I'll be getting in touch with the author. John > Knowing that John H. is a member of OPE-L, M. Junaid Alam > <email@example.com> 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 > Alam > 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‚Ä¶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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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