[OPE-L] Marina Sitrin and John Holloway, "Against and Beyond the State"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon May 14 2007 - 08:18:40 EDT

Marina Sitrin and John Holloway, "Against and Beyond the State"

Against and Beyond the State: An Interview with John Holloway
From ZMag

John Holloway and Marina Sitrin discussed the new social movements in
Latin America, power, the state, and prefigurative politics, in February
of 2007. This is a continuation of a discussion that began in 2004, also
on the topics of power, prefigurative politics and Latin America.

MS: Our last interview/conversation was in 2004. In that we focused a
great deal on the question of state power, and on not taking it in
particular. We grounded most of the conversation in the autonomous social
creations that have been and are taking place in Latin America. Today, in
February of 2007, many people argue that much has since changed in Latin
America . I am thinking in particular about the 7 "left" governments now
in formal positions of power, from Bolivia and Venezuela to Ecuador and
Nicaragua, and the people who say that "now" the left has arrived. Has
there really been the shift that people are talking about? Is the
important shift in formal power, as most commentators address? Should this
even be the starting point of our conversation?

JH: Yes, I think it is a good place to start. These are not miserable
times. Perhaps that is the most important point. Friends write to me from
Europe sometimes and it is clear that they are thinking in terms of
Johannes Agnoli's argument, that it is important to keep subversive
thought alive especially in miserable times such as the present. But,
living in Latin America, it is very clear that these are not miserable
times. They may be awful times, frightening times (especially in Mexico at
the moment), but they are not miserable: they are exciting times, full of
struggle and full of hope. The importance of the rise of the "left"
governments is that they are a reflection of the strength of struggle in
the continent as a whole, and that is very important.

I say "reflection", but they are also a response to the rise of social
struggles, a very complex and contradictory response. In all cases, they
represent the attempt to statisfy the struggle, to give it a state form,
which means of course to de-fuse the struggle and channel it into forms of
organisation compatible with the reproduction of capital. In some cases
the "left" governments are openly reformist and repressive (Argentina,
Brazil, Uruguay), in other cases (Venezuela, in particular), there seems
to be a genuine attempt to push the state form to the limit, to open it
out into real forms of popular control. How far that can be done from
within state structures and from within a leader-dominated organisation I
doubt very much, but certainly the trajectory of the Venezuelan government
has been much more interesting than what one would have expected.

So the real importance of the "left" governments is NOT the façade but
that behind the façade the continent is fizzing.

MS: It's the fizzing of the continent, and where the fizzing is located,
that I want to talk more about. I agree that the real inspiration in Latin
America today is behind the façade of the "left" governments, with the
social movements. In particular I am thinking about the more autonomous
movements, from the Zapatistas and APPO (spell out?) in Mexico, to the
Coordinadora del Agua y por la Vida in Bolivia, to the autonomous
unemployed workers movements in Argentina, and the hundreds of now
recuperated and occupied workplaces, not only in Argentina, but also
Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile etc. What effect do you think the new
"left" governments have on these more autonomous movements? Do they open
up more space for the movements?

JH: No, I don't think they open up spaces for the movements. Or possibly
they open up spaces for what the movements want to do, but push them into
a different way of doing it, into a way of doing things that blends into
the system. In the best of cases, there is an expropriation of a
revolution: the government carries out many of the aims of the movement,
but it does it on behalf of the movement, telling the movement in effect
to stay at home or convert itself into the loyal supporter of the
government. This is very much the feeling I got in Bolivia, for example.
Certainly the Evo Morales government means a significant break with
previous governments, and it is implementing the demands of the movement
that brought down the previous presidents, but it is doing so in a diluted
form. And the social movements are given the option of either declaring
unconditional loyalty or being marginalised by the government. So there is
a real expropriation and dilution of the revolutionary movement. I think
this is probably true of any really left government, understanding by
"really left" a government that actually grows out of the movement itself.
In other cases, of course, like Argentina, the government does not grow
out of the movement, but simply offers a more liberal response to the
movement than previous governments.

Is it better, then, to have a left or a right-wing government, or does it
not make any difference? I think that, on the whole, it is probably better
to have a left government, though not always. In the case of Mexico, I
think that López Obrador would probably have been less repressive and
destructive than the Calderón government is proving to be. But there would
certainly have been a process of expropriation of the movement, of
converting a movement pushing towards autonomy into support for a
government claiming to act on behalf of the movement. The important thing
is to maintain our own logic and forms of organisation, whatever the
colour of the government.

MS: So, how do we do this? What does that look like? I know it is a
question that people in the various movements are asking themselves and
one another. Even before the elections of "left" governments, many people
were questioning how to continue organizing based on their own space and
time. Now the questions appear even sharper. What do you see as some
possible paths? For example, in the 1990s the group HIJOS in Argentina,
children of the disappeared, began to shift the discussion about the
dictatorship to one of community, breaking with the idea of
non-involvement (no te metas). HIJOS is a horizontal network that uses
direct action and self-organization. Over the past year the Kirshner
government has invited members of HIJOS to participate in legal processes
that will potentially hold many responsible for the murders during the
dictatorship. One of the catches is that they have to do it using
representatives, and decisions are made without having the time to consult
the group. The result is a challenge to the horizontal relationships and
self-organization they have created. Another example of these challenges
is in Bolivia, where the same autonomous movements who fought for a
constituent assembly now find themselves excluded for not meeting the
qualifications the State requires for participation. They cannot
participate in something that came from them. What to do? How do we
continue to create our own space and time?

JH: I think that's always a difficult question. It's one thing to say that
we can't change the world through the state - that seems to me fairly
clear. But it's very difficult to say that we will have no relation at all
with the state. I am a professor in a state university and probably many
of the people reading this (if there are any) receive some sort of income
from the state. So it is not a question of purity - there is no purity in
a capitalist society. It is a question of how we deal with the
implications of our contact with the state, how we avoid falling into the
state as a form of organisation. One important issue is whether movements
should accept any form of state funding or subsidy. The Zapatistas (for
whom I obviously have an enormous admiration) take the line that they will
accept absolutely no subsidy. Given the situation in Chiapas I think they
are probably right, but it does put some of their supporters in situations
of deprivation that are extremely difficult to maintain. The piqueteros of
Solano (for whom I also have enormous admiration) take the position that
they will accept the subsidies for the unemployed - since it is simply
taking back a small part of what they themselves, as workers, have created
- but that they must retain collective control over the money themselves.
Perhaps the important thing is not the content of the decision (whether to
accept money or not) but how the decision is taken - as a genuinely
horizontal decision constantly re-questioned - and therefore also the
struggle to retain genuinely horizontal-democratic control over the whole
process, a real mandar obedeciendo. That is how I would see the HIJOS
example that you mention. The Bolivian example is slightly different, I
see it more as part of the expropriation of the revolution that I
mentioned in the last answer. But then, of course the question is how to
fight against that expropriation.

MS: How does one fight against this intervention and expropriation? One of
the challenges that I see is that the state is determining the framework
of the conversation. In Bolivia the state is proposing certain things that
would potentially be good for the population and the population is invited
to participate in this. Do you participate? And even if you participate in
the most horizontal way, as a community or collective, the discussion is
one framed by the state. The state is now the beginning point of the
conversation. How can this really be horizontal if the agenda is
predetermined? So, for example, you are part of an autonomous community
outside Cochabamba in Bolivia, of which there are now many. These
communities may be discussing network-like relations to one another and
alternative forms of exchange. Now the government of Evo proposes
nationalization of resources in that community. How to continue to both
organize autonomously and respond to the state. Can both be done? How does
an autonomous community not have their path subsumed by what seems like
the good intentions of the state? Can there be a relationship to the state
that still allows autonomy? And, last, if the decision is to continue to
organize autonomously, and not allow the state's agenda to become that of
the movement or community, how does a community explain to other parts of
society, who see the intentions of the state as good, why they are
ignoring the state's agenda?

JH: In this interview you are setting the agenda with your questions. If I
didn't like the questions (but I do, I do - I like them very much), I
wouldn't just ignore the question, I would reply in a way that sought to
re-impose my agenda. A conversation is always two-sided. If you tell me
that you're going to nationalise gas on our behalf, then I say "Excellent,
but if it's on our behalf, then let us administer it." The issue is one of
form, isn't it, rather than content, the how rather than the what of
politics. That is surely what we have to push all the time. The central
problem with Evo and with Chávez is not so much what they're doing as the
way that they are doing it, the organisational forms involved.

In other words, our relation with the state is not just against, and not
just beyond, but against-and-beyond. The only autonomy we can have is an
autonomy that moves against-and-beyond, with as much emphasis on the
beyond as possible - getting on with our own project, but understanding
that project as a movement against-and-beyond. There is no pure exodus,
only contradictory movements of rupture.

MS: Where do you see these ruptures? These ruptures that are also
creations? The against and beyond?

JH: All over the place. I think it is a question of opening our eyes and
seeing the World not in terms of domination but in terms of
insubordination. The against-and-beyond I see as refusal-and-creation:
"No, we are not going to do what capital requires of us; we are going to
do what we consider necessary or desirable." This is what the Zapatistas
are saying: "¡Ya basta! Enough of being oppressed, we are going to get on
with our own project, create our own Juntas de Buen Gobierno, our own
system of health and education. And we are going to radiate and resonate
outwards, we are not just going to be a closed autonomy, but a crack in
the system of domination, a crack that spreads." But of course there are
loads and loads of other examples. Sometimes it is because the state just
isn't there that people have no alternative but to take matters into their
own hands. That has been the case in El Alto in Bolivia, where the
profound tradition of self-government was a major source of the strength
of the movement of rebellion in recent years - again not just an autonomy
but a crack in domination. Sometimes it is on a much smaller scale, a
group of people getting together and deciding that they are going to
dedicate their lives to what they consider important, whether it be
cultivating the land or creating am alternative café. Here in Puebla, we
have a wonderful Zapatista café, Espiral 7, which has become a focal point
of the whole movement against-and-beyond. But often it is on a much more
silent level, individuals or groups of friends deciding that they are not
going to shape their lives according to the demands of money, but that
they are going to set their own agenda.

Perhaps it is all about setting our own agenda. The core of capitalism is
that it is a system of command over what we do. To rebel is to say "no, we
shall determine what we shall do, we shall set our own agenda." In other
words, within the against-and-beyond, we want the beyond to set as much as
possible the direction and pace for the against. Obviously this can be
very difficult in practice, but the great problem of the left is that we
let capital determine the agenda most of the time, and then we follow
behind, protesting. In the Otra Campaña, for example, the repression in
Atenco meant that the government effectively regained control of the
agenda when Marcos decided to interrupt his tour of the country. Certainly
the struggle against the repression was and is crucial, but it is very
important for us not to lose control of our own rhythms of struggle. This
is something the Zapatistas have been very good at, on the whole, and it
is a point emphasised for example by the MTD Solano, one of the most
impressive piquetero groups in Argentina.

Once one begins to focus on these against-and-beyonds, these cracks in
domination, then one's image of the world begins to change. We begin to
see it not (or not just) as a world of domination but as a world full of
refusal-and-creations, full of dignities of all kinds.

MS: Many academics, especially those writing in the English language, have
been critically writing about the horizontal movements in Latin America.
They claim that the movements have failed due to not understanding class
and power (That they did/do not want to take it). Now these same people,
James Petras or Tariq Ali for example, are writing of the victory of the
left, ignoring in most cases what many people in the movements actually
desire or are creating. I see this as one-sided, narrow, and historically
inaccurate, taking us back to the frame of the 1960-90s. However, these
are the writings that most people trying to find out about what is going
on in Latin America read. Do you think this does damage to the movements?

JH: Yes, generally I'm in favour of a broad concept of comradeship, that
we should regard all those who say no to capitalism as comrades (at least
as comrades of the No, even if not as comrades of the Yes), but sometimes
it's hard to maintain. I agree that there's an extraordinary blindness to
what's happening, a sort of desperation to squeeze the struggles of today
into frameworks of thought constructed in the youth of the commentators.
It's as if they are wearing blinkers that simply will not allow them to
see. For them the victory of the left is Chávez and Evo and sometimes even
Kirchner and Lula and they don't see that these electoral successes are,
at best, extremely contradictory elements in a very real surge of struggle
in Latin America. I'm not sure that these writings have much effect on the
movements themselves, but they do spread their blindness especially to
readers outside Latin America. What we need of course is more books like
your own "Horizontality" to let people hear what is actually happening and
what people are doing and saying.

MS: Many reading this conversation are already inspired by the movements
growing across the globe, especially in Latin America, and will likely, or
have already, begun to think, ok, so how do I move against and beyond the
state? What does that mean and what could it look like? Should I go and
spend time with autonomous movements? What do you say to people who ask
these sorts of questions?

JH: There's no recipe, is there? Certainly I meet lots of people who have
spent time in Zapatista communities and I'm always very impressed by them
and what they've learnt. But I think the central point is probably the
Zapatista principle of starting from where we are, to fight to transform
where we are: not only to build the Movement (though that may be
important), but to try to set our own agenda in whatever we are doing. In
Marxist terms, to struggle for use value against value, creative or useful
doing against abstract labour. And very important, to look around and
recognise, to learn to see all the ways in which people are already
struggling against and beyond capital, struggling for dignity in their
everyday lives. The most terribly destructive idea on the left is the idea
that we're special, that we're different. We're not - everybody rebels in
some way: our problem is to recognise rebellion and find a way of touching
it. The most profound challenge of the Zapatistas is when they say "we are
perfectly ordinary people, therefore rebels": that is perhaps the most
important thing - to understand the everyday nature of revolution.

Perhaps a more practical answer: there's a wonderful new book coming out
by the Trapese Collective called Do it Yourself (Pluto Press, London,
sometime soon) with a very practical guide to what we can do, setting up
community gardens, organising social centres, organising without leaders,
taking charge of our own health and education, and so on.

MS: What is one of the most inspiring moments that you have seen/felt in
the last year? What made it so inspiring?

JH: Two answers.

The first is not a moment but a whole lot of moments, when I've been
invited to all sorts of meetings of autonomous groups in Venezuela,
Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, here in Mexico and the experience is often
just overwhelming, meeting the people involved in the struggles and seeing
their commitment and enthusiasm and the way in which different social
relations are really already a reality for so many people, and seeing
especially the young people and the depth of their understanding and their
capacities - in Guatemala, for example, I met a fourteen-year-old from the
countryside who was doing regular radio broadcasts on topics such as the
proposed Free Trade Agreement. The reality is running so far ahead of any
theoretical reflections we make.

The second is just a few days ago, a short concert of music from Veracruz
that I happened to find myself attending, and the musicians were amazing.
It suddenly made me feel that this is what communism is about, not because
it was free (it was), not because of the political content of the music
(there wasn't any), but just because it was a moment in which time was
suspended, in which creative or useful doing took absolute priority over
abstract labour, use value over value, enjoyment over obligation. Perhaps
we have to think of communism (or whatever we call it) not so much (or not
just) in terms of space as in terms of time, as the breaking of time and
the creation, expansion and multiplication of liberated moments.


  1.. "ZMag" -
<http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=41&ItemID=12786  2.. "a discussion that began in 2004" -

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