For me, one of life’s deepest mysteries is the tendency of the autonomist subgenre of Marxism to adopt the most cocksure belief in its own rectitude when the rest of the left—particularly the “statist” Marxism it wants to knock into a cocked hat—is filled with doubt, insecurities, and a deeply felt need to salvage its reputation and reject dubious inheritances from the past. What, you were expecting me to say it was the origins of the universe or what happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Surely, you know me better than that.
I doubt that you can find anybody who exemplifies this tendency better than John Holloway, the author of “Change the World Without Taking Power” that I scrutinized a decade ago. Jerome Roos, the owner of the roarmag.org website who is to Holloway as Michael Albert is to Noam Chomsky, threw a bunch of softballs his way last April. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this snippet of prose strikes me as sufficient to induce sugar diabetes:
Walking into the botanical gardens of Cholula, we therefore immediately understand why Holloway invited us to meet him here. A beautiful small oasis of peace and quiet, the garden — which Holloway proudly tells us is the creation of his compañera — is like a crack of life inside the flattened landscape and dehumanized social universe that is today’s neoliberal Mexico; a dramatically globalized “emerging market” where an unholy alliance of U.S. interests, business power and state-sponsored violence have left the average citizen buckling under a wave of murderous organized crime and criminal levels of inequality. The garden also provides a colorful background to Holloway’s incredibly friendly and soft-spoken character. Just speaking to him about the general things of life, one would almost forget that this kind and humble man is known as one of the most militant anti-capitalist thinkers in the world. Indeed, Holloway doesn’t appear even the tiniest bit like the kind of person who would refer to the riots in Athens as a “very productive and fruitful development.”
Well, crack of life, is it? I guess you can say the same thing about 90 percent of the homes that celebrity professors live in. As far as the “kind and humble” stuff is concerned, anybody who ever refers to me in this fashion should rot in hell—not that I would have such a worry to begin with.
I’ll give credit to Roos for one thing. He mentions my name to Holloway, which if uttered three times in a row would have the effect of materializing me in Holloway’s beautiful small oasis, like Beetlejuice.
ROAR: There is this critique, expressed by “unrepentant Marxists” like Louis Proyect, that if you don’t take power, power takes you. What would you respond to such a form of criticism?
JH: I think if you do take power, power takes you. That’s very straightforward. I mean it’s very difficult to take positions of power at least in the sense that it’s usually used as ‘power over’. Inevitably you fall into the patterns of exercising power, of excluding people, of reproducing all that you start off fighting against. We’ve seen that over and over again. If you say ‘we are not going to take power’, I suppose one of the arguments is that if we don’t take power, then the really nasty people will take over, that by not taking power we are leaving a vacuum. I think that’s not true: we have to think in terms of capitalism as a ‘how’ and not as a ‘what’; as a way of doing things. The struggle against capital and the struggle to create a different world — for a different ‘how’ — is about a different way of doing things. It doesn’t make sense at all to say that the best way to achieve our ‘how’ is to do things in the way that we are rejecting. That seems to be complete nonsense. If we say that the struggle is really to create a different way of doing things, different ways of relating to one another, then we have no option but just to get on with doing it, and to do everything possible to resist the imposition of the ‘how’ that we reject.
Hmmm. I wasn’t aware that I was making such a criticism. I don’t tend to engage in cryptic oracular utterances like “if you don’t take power, power takes you.” The one thing you will never need is a guide to Louis Proyect. A Zizek or a Holloway I will never be. Whew.
Who knows? Maybe Holloway never read my critique, based on his observation (similar to Roos’s) that “one of the arguments is that if we don’t take power, then the really nasty people will take over.” To start with, I find it distinctly odd to hear a self-described Marxist speaking in terms of “really nasty people” when we should be speaking in terms of class, historical agency, and all those other old-fashioned concepts.
I guess it comes as no surprise that Roos is arguing along the same lines as Holloway. In a piece titled “Autonomy: an idea whose time has come” written on June 23rd, he puts forward some ideas that I must take issue with. Since the article is 10,000 words long, I will have to avoid succumbing to the author’s longueur. After all, brevity is the soul of wit.
Roos’s article is designed as a reply to Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, academic “Leninists” who, according to Roos, fault the protests in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt and elsewhere for a “lack of centralized leadership and the fetishism of horizontality that define these movements risk condemning them to an ephemeral existence with limited influence on concrete political outcomes.”
Roos’s opening gambit is to amalgamate the various Occupy movements, including the most recent ones that do not use the name, with the Zapatistas in Mexico:
It is a critique that the Occupy movement is very familiar with, of course. First, the mainstream media and political establishment chastised the protesters for failing to articulate any clear demands; then the institutional left joined in, criticizing grassroots activists for refusing to organize themselves into a party and to aim for state power. It is a similar line of critique as the one that has been leveled at the autonomous Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, the spontaneous popular uprising in Argentina and the leaderless alter-globalization movement in Europe and the United States, all of which helped to animate the world’s most important anti-capitalist struggles around the turn of the century.
I don’t know about the “institutional” left but I completely identified with the “horizontalism” of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its refusal to articulate a typical set of demands. That being said, I did have a problem with the movement’s inability to develop contingency plans and to think through the need for a nation-wide coordinating group that could have capitalized on the energy and, just as importantly, the funds that poured into the movement. I still rue the failure of the movement to convene a national conference to announce the formation of the Occupy Party that would have run someone like Chris Hedges or Glenn Greenwald for president. Wouldn’t you have loved to see Greenwald ripping Obama a new one at a debate?
It is clear that Roos would have adamantly opposed taking such an initiative, pointing to a number of politicians who have “talked left, and walked right” as Patrick Bond has described the ANC in South Africa.
In fact, most of the organizers behind the grassroots movements of the past two years recognize that moving through traditional party structures and state institutions is likely to do their movement more harm than good. This is ultimately a strategic consideration as much as it is a moral or ideological one. Look no further than Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, to see what happens to revolutionaries — in this case a former member of various Marxist guerrilla groups during Brazil’s military dictatorship — when they take state power. Or look at the Papandreou dynasty in Greece. Or the Miliband family in the United Kingdom. The examples are endless.
One does not quite know how to respond to this. Does anybody in their right mind think that the Miliband brothers became corrupted through their participation in the Labour Party? This is like saying that Donald Trump became a scumbag after one too many appearances on Bill O’Reilly’s show. He was a scumbag to begin with, just as the Miliband brothers were New Labour ideologists early on. It is not as if they decided to give up their commitment to their father’s socialist beliefs in the process of running for office. They dumped them overboard the minute they launched a career in the Labour Party. Anybody who has read Ralph Miliband understands that he would eventually have about as much use for Labour as Ralph Nader has for the Democrats.
Roos is particularly dismissive of the governments in Latin America and Central America that do not live up to his lofty expectations. Well, that’s what happens when you traffic in idealism. Nothing can. But I was particularly amused by his reference to Sandinista misdeeds: “the Sandinistas of Nicaragua repaying Somoza’s odious debts and selling their land for a nickle and a dime to the Chinese.”
This was not always the agenda of the FSLN, needless to say. In the 1980s, using the power of the state they embarked on a radical social program that provided health care, literacy programs, and food allowances for the very poor. It was the first time in their lives that farmworkers could work the land cooperatively without the haciendero cheating them out of their wages and evicting them from their land. It would be too much of an intellectual burden for Roos, a dreamer of the absolute, to come to terms with Sandinista Nicaragua before the USA forced it to “cry uncle” so it is understandable why he would sweep it under the rug.
After subjecting every left-of-center government to his merciless bullwhip, Roos finally gets around to defining what it means to go beyond capitalism. As might be expected, it is nothing less than a kind of hipster counter-culture that has always defined autonomism:
In this sense, we have to recognize that a revolutionary society is already in the making as we speak — whether it be through the production and distribution of free open-source software or through the occupation of bankrupt factories and the resumption of production under workers’ control; whether it be through the formation of direct democratic rural communes and urban neighborhood assemblies, or through the creation of cooperatively-run alternative media collectives and open-source academic journals — everywhere around us there are signs that this world is already pregnant with a new one.
Right. Open-source academic journals. I have little use for the dogmatic Marxism of my youth but if anybody had told me in 1967 that I was jeopardizing my economic prospects by joining a group that was fighting for open-source academic journals, I would have said “No thank you” and went on my merry way. And more importantly, the idea that “rural communes” could exist in a place like Brazil without “armed bodies of men” to protect them is absurd. Just read the article on the role of the cops in Brazil protecting the pistoleros working for the plantation owners in the June 2013 Harper’s by Glenn Cheney to understand how foolish this sounds. Workers and farmers need an army and police that can protect them against counter-revolutionaries. This was one of Marx’s key insights from the Paris Commune. It is too bad that some can ignore them at their own peril.
Most of the rest of the article is filled with the same kind of vaporous nonsense, with this being typical:
From the construction of barricades and makeshift field hospitals to the impromptu gatherings of citizens cleaning the streets the morning after a riot; and from the emergence of fully-functioning non-monetary mini-societies within the tent camps, replete with kitchens, media centers and libraries, to the spontaneous emergence of neighborhood assemblies, working groups and mutual solidarity networks — the protesters self-managed it all.
I don’t know how to tell this to Roos, a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, but Egyptians are rising up because they lack sufficient food to eat and gasoline to keep their cars functional. “Non-monetary mini-societies” are not the answer for the upwards of fifty million people in the economically active population.
Socialism has had a troubled past but it is within socialism that strategies and tactics can be developed in order to take power away from the rich and use the state to better the lives of working people. As old-fashioned as that may sound, there is no alternative.