Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2013

Non-monetary mini-societies are not the answer: in reply to Jerome Roos

Filed under: autonomism — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

John Holloway

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.

May 17, 2012

The Hardt-Negri declaration

Filed under: anarchism,autonomism,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Michael Hardt

Antonio Negri

It was to be expected that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt would eventually weigh in on the protests sweeping the world, from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. Their Declaration can be read on http://www.scribd.com/doc/93152857/Hardt-Negri-Declaration-2012 and is well worth the trouble. (I found it impossible to print but that might have just been a problem on my own computer.) Even if you disagree with much of it (as I do), it is necessary reading because of their influence. Furthermore, I detect a positive evolution in their thinking—especially a willingness to reconsider the merits of state power, albeit in a highly qualified manner. Like someone saying that though broccoli tastes like shit, it might be good for you.

Published in 2000, their “Empire” was widely seen as a generalized expression of the nascent anti-globalization movement that had a preponderantly anarchist leadership (an oxymoron?) Although Hardt and Negri come out of the autonomist tradition, there is enough of an affinity between the two movements that it was possible for them to serve as spokesmen. Now, just over a decade later, the anarchist movement has new winds blowing in its sails. While David Graeber is rightfully seen as a kind of patron saint to the Occupy movement, I am sure—well, mostly sure–that he would not resent Hardt and Negri playing the role of elder statesmen. (Did I say statesmen? No insult intended…)

To start off, I was very pleased to see that Hardt and Negri take note of the particular dynamics of debt today, something that I have written about recently.  In my view, debt tends to isolate us and make struggle more difficult. Instead of confronting a boss as a unified group of employees, such as sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan in 1938, the battle is between the individual and the bank or collection agency. (In their words, “No longer is the typical scene of exploitation the capitalist overseeing the factory, directing and disciplining the worker in order to generate a profit.”)

Turning to chapter one, I found these words particularly illuminating:

Whereas the work ethic is born within the subject, debt begins as an external constraint but soon worms its way inside. Debt wields a moral power whose primary’ weapons are responsibility and guilt, which can quickly become objects of obsession. You are responsible for your debts and guilty for the difficulties they create in your life. The indebted is an unhappy consciousness that makes guilt a form of life. Little by little, the pleasures of activity and creation are transformed into a nightmare for those who do not possess the means to enjoy their lives. Life has been sold to the enemy.

Another feature of life today that Hardt and Negri get right is how much it is defined through security, such as cameras, cops and prisons:

You are not only the object of security but also the subject. You answer the call to be vigilant, constantly on watch for suspicious activity on the subway, devious designs of your seatmate on the airplane, malicious motives of your neighbors. Fear justifies volunteering your pair of eyes and your alert attention to a seemingly universal security machine.

The sections on debt and what they call “the securitized” are much better than the one that follows, titled “The Represented”. Like Zizek, another celebrity, they are utterly disdainful of bourgeois democracy:

So many of the movements of 2011 direct their critiques against political structures and forms of representation, then, because they recognize clearly that representation, even when it is effective, blocks democracy rather than fosters it. Where, they ask, has the project for democracy gone?

They hail the Spanish protestors for not getting involved in electoral politics:

The indignados did not participate in the 2011 elections, then, in part because they refused to reward a socialist party that had continued neoliberal policies and betrayed them during its years in office, but also and more importantly because they now have larger battles to fight, in particular one aimed at the structures of representation and the constitutional order itself—a fight whose Spanish roots reach back to the tradition of antifascist struggles and throw a new and critical light on the so-called transition to democracy that followed the end of the Franco regime. The indignados think of this as a destituent rather than a constituent process, a kind of exodus from the existing political structures, but it is necessary’ to prepare the basis for a new constituent power.

One is not sure why participating in the 2011 elections was identical to supporting the Social Democrats. While I am no expert in Spanish politics, it would seem to me that there is some use in challenging the ideological status quo through the kinds of campaigns that Syriza ran since 2004. Who knows? Such a party might be capable of getting elected if the people get “indignado” enough.

For Hardt and Negri, just as was the case in 2000 when they wrote “Empire”, politics is only effective when it is local, in a kind of post-Marxist tip of the hat to the late ward-heeling Congressman Tip O’Neill. And no other group exemplifies this purer approach to social change than the EZLN in Chiapas:

The clearest contemporary example of the communicative capacity of an encampment is perhaps the decades-long experiment of the Zapatista self-rule in Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN was renowned early in its existence for its novel use of the media, including electronic communiques and Internet postings from the Lacandon jungle. Even more important and innovative, though, are the communicative networks and political truths created in the Zapatista community practices of collective self-government.

The allure of Zapatismo, at least for me, wore off quite time ago. While the struggle was instrumental in helping the anti-globalization movement to get off the ground, it has failed to materially change the conditions of life for the poor in Chiapas. As I stated in a critique of John Holloway’s “How to Change the World without Taking Power”:

In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico”, we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate – five times the national average.

By contrast, Cuba’s medical system allowed its people to live longer than other Spanish-speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere, including Puerto Rico. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.

Back in 2000, Hardt and Negri were so deep into their anti-statism that they would have seen no benefit from Hugo Chavez or any other state leader attempting to devote the nation’s resources to the benefit of the people. The “national liberation” project was dead from the start:

The perils of national liberation are even clear when viewed externally, in terms of the world economic system in which the ‘liberated’ nation finds itself. Indeed, the equation nationalism equals political and economic modernization, which has been heralded by leaders of numerous anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles from Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, really ends up being a perverse trick…The very concept of a liberatory national sovereignty is ambiguous if not completely contradictory. While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude from foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are equally severe.

I was pleased to see that they now see some benefits in what they call progressive governments in Latin America. From the section titled “Progressive governments and social movements in Latin America” in chapter 3:

From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected, progressive governments have in many cases made great social advances, helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty’, transforming entrenched racial hierarchies regarding indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, opening avenues for democratic participation, and breaking long-standing external relations of dependency, in both economic and political terms, in relation to global economic powers, the world market, and US imperialism. When these governments are in power, however, and particularly when they repeat the practices of the old regimes, the social movements continue the struggle, now directed against the governments that claim to represent them.

So the basic approach outlined here amounts to critical support. In Bolivia, for example, one assumes that Hardt and Negri would find some merit in the election of Evo Morales while identifying with the protestors who “continue the struggle”. The only question, of course, is whether it makes sense for Bolivians to follow the example of the EZLN and Spain’s indignados, who tend to abstain from electoral politics.

These questions take on some urgency in light of the recent election results in Greece that prompted many leading Spanish leftists to write an open letter to Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras:

We want you, the members of your organization and the Greek citizens who, as political activists, trade unionists or participants in broad social movements, share the project of creating a common life truly based on freedom and solidarity, to know the hope with which we throughout Europe anticipate the possibility that, soon, a new Greek government of popular unity will confront the dictatorship of the financiers and bureaucrats who have hijacked Europe.

We see the current conjuncture in Greece as a turning point which could lead to a radical transformation of the European political and economic order. We need a new Europe, a Europe of and for its citizens and all its inhabitants, free of the brutal austerity policies that prioritize the payment of an odious, illegal and illegitimate debt, which prevents the human development of our communities. This is the call heard today throughout the squares of Europe, from Puerta del Sol in Madrid to Syntagma Square in Athens, squares scattered all over the European geography, liberated places that are the seeds and the constituent basis of the real democracy that women and men in Europe want to build together.

Would it make sense for the Greek left to hold Syriza at arm’s length? I think not. No matter the weakness of the leadership on one point or another, the election of Syriza holds out the promise that the Greek people will finally begin to turn back the monstrous austerity drive being imposed on it by Germany and its international allies in the big bourgeoisie. Class society will not be abolished in the ballot box, but we should never stand on the sidelines when issues of whether or not pensions should be slashed in half are at stake.

If Hardt and Negri remain hostile to what they call “socialist governments”, they do—for the first time, I believe—hold out hope for what Marx (and Lenin) described as the building blocks of true democracy, the Paris Commune or Soviet type formation:

Several twentieth-century’ socialist initiatives, for example, sought to spread power in a federalist manner by putting power in the hands of workers and constructing the means for workers to make political decisions themselves. Workers’ councils constituted the central proposition of all streams of socialism that, contrary to the authoritarian currents, consider the primary’ objective of revolution to be democracy, that is, the rule of all by all. At least since the Paris Commune, the workers’ council in its many variants, such as the German rat or the Russian soviet, has been imagined as the basis for a federalist legislative power. Such councils and the forms of delegation they institute serve not so much to represent workers but instead to allow workers directly to participate in political decision making. In many historical instances, of course, these councils functioned in a constituent way only for a brief period.

Of course, the Paris Commune is the gold standard for practically everybody on the hard left, from Marxists to autonomists to anarchists. Like the classless society, how can anybody object to it? The big difference appears to be over transitional formations like the “progressive governments” in Latin America or the USSR, even before Stalin’s rise.

There are also differences over coordinated political action through the medium of a revolutionary organization. Since Leninism has become so compromised, there is a tendency for some on the left to make a principle out of “localism” or what has been called “horizontalism”.

In a politically backward country like the USA, it matters little if you are a “horizontalist” or a dyed-in-the-wool Leninist. We are not in the ninth month of a pregnancy so your ideological affinities with Bakunin or Marx could matter less. What matters most is being effective and on this score the anarchists were a credible force early on.

However, in Greece such questions have a bit more urgency whether or not the country is in the fifth month or the ninth. By the time you get to the fifth month of a pregnancy, you have to be damned careful or else you will end up with a de facto abortion if you don’t take care of yourself.

Politics, especially electoral politics, does matter in such conditions. It matters that the KKE has taken such a suicidally sectarian position. It is, with all proportions guarded, akin to the position that the German CP took during the rise of Hitler, when it opposed the social democracy as “social fascist”. Leftists in Greece have an obligation to counter the bourgeoisie on all fronts, including the electoral front.

On May 13, the NY Times wrote about the support that Greeks gave Syriza. For some, the election was a chance to put a “progressive government” in power of the kind that Hardt and Negri gave critical support to:

But it is Europe, fearful of encouraging more policy slippage by Greece, that has been pushing the austerity line. And the danger of such an approach is growing by the day, he said.

“For whatever reason, the hard-liners in Europe are saying that we deserve it,” Mr. Hardouvelis said. “They have destroyed the political center here, and the possibility of creating another Hugo Chavez is not zero.”

For the moment, it seems unlikely that Greece will get the chance to see if Mr. Tsipras — with his talk of repudiating the country’s debt and opposing privatization — will become as radicalized as Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan leader.

But his message that Greece can stay in the euro and reject Europe’s budget-cutting terms has struck a chord, however contradictory that may seem.

While everybody can understand the need for the revolutionary movement in Greece to apply pressure to a Syriza government from the left, in accord with the formulations in the Hardt-Negri article, it should be obvious to all that such an outcome hinges on Syriza taking power. In revolutionary politics, the final outcome—communism—rests on the outcome of many, many skirmishes and battles along the road to the final conflict. As such, keeping an open mind about electoral politics and every other medium of struggle is imperative.

February 20, 2012

John Holloway’s lowered horizons

Filed under: autonomism,Greece — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

John Holloway

Last Friday John Holloway wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free titled “Greece shows us how to protest against a failed system” that encapsulates the weakness of autonomist Marxism.  Best known for his controversial 2002 “Change the World without Taking Power”, Holloway’s article addresses itself mostly to the liberating effects of rioting:

I do not like violence. I do not think that very much is gained by burning banks and smashing windows. And yet I feel a surge of pleasure when I see the reaction in Athens and the other cities in Greece to the acceptance by the Greek parliament of the measures imposed by the European Union. More: if there had not been an explosion of anger, I would have felt adrift in a sea of depression.

But when it comes to the concrete measures that can finally remove the stinger from the neck of the Greek people, he sets the bar rather low:

Behind the spectacle of the burning banks in Greece lies a deeper process, a quieter movement of people refusing to pay bus fares, electricity bills, motorway tolls, bank debts; a movement, born of necessity and conviction, of people organising their lives in a different way, creating communities of mutual support and food networks, squatting empty buildings and land, creating community gardens, returning to the countryside, turning their backs on the politicians (who are now afraid to show themselves in the streets) and creating directly democratic forms of taking social decisions.

You’ll notice that every single one of these measures amount to a kind of counter-culture that effectively accept the continuation of corporate/financial predation. It is as if somebody wrote an article in 1932 putting the best possible face on people in the American countryside going out to shoot squirrels because they lacked the money to buy meat. It also makes you wonder how tuned in Holloway is to the needs of ordinary working people. An unemployed father of six children who cannot pay his rent is not likely to be cheered by the advice that he and his family can go squat in an abandoned building. In general, what Holloway is offering is a kind of life-style that might be attractive—so to speak—to people who have not entered the work force to begin with but it is not the sort of thing that can rally the vast majority of Greeks who are wage slaves, past or present.

With respect to returning to the countryside, this is a “solution” that the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine finds quite acceptable:

Astoundingly, about 80 percent of Greeks own a home. It may be on family land on a distant island, but it is still a home. Zacharias, for example, lives on land that his grandfather bought decades ago with coupons from a newspaper promotion. Many of those who have lost jobs in the city therefore have rural homes to retreat to, though whether there is income once they get there is another matter.

The real consideration that does not seem to enter Holloway’s mind, however, is whether such a forced retreat to the countryside is consistent with the emancipatory agenda of Marxism. Freedom is not really about finding personal solutions to capitalist crisis, like going to live in the countryside until the storm blows over. When you stop and think about it, this is about as liberating as some college graduate moving in with their parents because he or she can’t find a job.

This leads us to the question of what this has to do with Marxism at all. The autonomist Marxists, particularly those roosting in the academy like Holloway, Harry Cleaver, and even Toni Negri, are all serious Marxist scholars having written oceans of ink over commodity fetishism, value theory, etc. What they don’t appear to understand is the political agenda of Marxism, which is to make a socialist revolution that will lead to working class power over the economy.

To some extent, they all reflect the spirit of the 1960s New Left that was oriented to “alternative” institutions, ranging from food coops to squats. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such initiatives but to turn them into the ultimate goal of radical politics is selling us short for as long as the bourgeoisie has its fingers on the trigger, no such institutions can last very long.

I first became aware of the ideological evolution away from politics in the direction of community-based institutions when reading “Globalization and its Discontents: the rise of postmodernist socialisms” in 1997. Authors Orlando Núñez (an FSLN leader), Boris Kagarlitsky (Kargalitsky would eventually disown the book), and Roger Burbach (a scholar/activist I retain great respect for despite this book) wrote:

The left has to accept the fact that the Marxist project for revolution launched by the Communist Manifesto is dead. There will certainly be revolutions (the Irananian Revolution is probably a harbinger of what to expect in the short term), but they will not be explicitly socialist ones that follow in the Marxist tradition begun by the First International.

Instead, they lowered their horizons as Holloway has:

In both the developed and underdeveloped countries, a wide variety of critical needs and interests are being neglected at the local level, including the building, or rebuilding, of roads, schools and social services. A new spirit of volunteerism and community participation, backed by a campaign to secure complimentary resources from local and national governments, can open up entirely new job markets and areas of work to deal with these basic needs.

It must be said, however, that Holloway probably would not be the least bit interested in securing “complementary resources” from local and national governments. Who would want to be tainted by money received from the evil state apparatus?

Back in 2003, before I began blogging, I reviewed John Holloway’s “Change the World without Taking Power”.  Now would be a good time to reproduce it here:

Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of “Change the World Without Taking Power”

As should be clear to even the most casual observer on the left, the Chiapas rebellion has become as much of a paradigm for the post-Marxist left as October 1917 was for an earlier generation of Marxists. The collapse of the USSR, the difficulties faced by socialist Cuba and an ostensibly brand-new way of doing politics in Chiapas put wind in the sails of ideological currents that never were committed to classical Marxism to begin with, including the autonomist and anarchist movements. In contrast to the anarchists, autonomism has positioned itself as retaining the emancipatory core of Marxism, while disposing of the dross. This is one of the central messages of John Holloway’s “To Change the World Without Taking Power”. We will assess this claim in due time, but first some background on the Zapatista left in general and how it took shape.

Although the Chiapas revolt grew out of Mayan resentment over unemployment, land hunger, racism and other injustices that face indigenous peoples everywhere in the world, it transformed itself very rapidly into a global movement that at time appeared as spokes radiating from Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop, just as an earlier generation rotated around the Kremlin.

The Zapatistas became hosts of a series of ‘encuentros’ (encounters) in Mexico and elsewhere, the first of which was held in Chiapas in August 1996, two and a half years after the start of their revolt. Some 3,000 guests from 43 different countries came together as part of an International Encounter Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity to discuss how to “change the world”.

With the armed revolt at an end, the EZLN had begun to explore nonviolent options. According to the August 5, 1996 Guardian, some high profile guests including Danielle Mitterrand (the wife of the French social democratic leader), Eduardo Galeano and Douglas Bravo were encouraged by this transition. Bravo was himself a former guerrilla fighter in Venezuela during the 1960s but became committed to a kind of “civil society” reformism that eventually led him to join the opposition to Hugo Chavez.

When asked what he expected from the gathering, Subcommandante Marcos said: “I haven’t a damn clue.” This led French intellectual Regis Debray to comment. “This is a return to the essential resistance.” Debray, like Bravo, was once part of the foquismo left in Latin America but in more recent years has become part of the French cultural establishment, serving for a time as adviser to President Mitterand whose wife shared Debray’s enthusiasms for heterodox leftisms.

These encuentros had a tremendously energizing effect on the post-Marxist left in the same way that Comintern conferences in the early 1920s had on people like John Reed. Unlike the Comintern, these gatherings adopted the discourse of the anti-globalization movement. Instead of hearing Bukharin presenting an analysis of the latest stage of imperialism, the delegations focused on ‘neoliberalism’, privatization and other symptoms of the underlying capitalist crisis. The search for solutions in Chiapas stopped short of obviously passé measures such as socialist revolution.

Even though the imagination-challenged Marxist movement tended to shy away from these gatherings, as early as the second–held in Spain in 1996–some stodgy participants were beginning to get impatient and think in terms of goals, even though this was the last thing on Subcommandante’s mind. As Gustavo Esteva writes in the collection “Auroras of the Zapatistas” (Midnight Notes, 2001), a tension arose between those “who fully enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share with others” and those who sought “a manifesto, an organization, a political platform…”

By 1998, the encuentros began to shift perceptibly toward becoming the anti-globalization movement of today (well, perhaps not post 9/11, but of a couple of years ago at least). Yale Professor David Graeber, who has become a highly visible opponent of Marxism and defender of this new way of doing politics (or rather not doing politics), claims that this movement was born in Barcelona that year:

The real origins of the movement, for example, lie in an international network called People’s Global Action (PGA). PGA emerged from a 1998 Zapatista encuentro in Barcelona, and its founding members include not only anarchist groups in Spain, Britain and Germany, but a Gandhian socialist peasant league in India, the Argentinian teachers’ union, indigenous groups such as the Maori of New Zealand and Kuna of Ecuador, the Brazilian landless peasants movement and a network made up of communities founded by escaped slaves in South and Central America.


One year later the Seattle protests erupted and the world’s attention became riveted on this new movement that apparently had its origins in Chiapas, Mexico. While some of the popularizers of this new movement put their message across in the mass media, a significant number were based in academia. At the University of Texas, Harry Cleaver synthesized autonomist Marxism and fashionable ideas about the power of the Internet in order to advance the idea that Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop represented something entirely new. He writes:

The rhizomatic pattern of collaboration has emerged as a partial solution to the failure of old organizational forms; it has –by definition– no single formula to guide the kinds of elaboration required. The power of The Net in the Zapatista struggle has lain in connection and circulation, in the way widely dispersed nodes of antagonism set themselves in motion in response to the uprising in Chiapas.

While it would be foolish to underestimate the power of the Internet, one might plausibly raise the question of whether technical-organizational dichotomies between hierarchies and networks get to the heart of the challenges facing the left. As we move into a period of deepening social and economic crisis punctuated by brutal imperialist adventures, the Internet will eventually become part of the political landscape just as the mimeograph was in years past. But technology can be no substitute for a careful assessment of the relationship of class forces on the ground and intelligent strategies and tactics based on that analysis.

A balance sheet on the progress made by the EZLN in overcoming historic injustices to the Mayan people must be made on the basis of tangible gains. It is doubtful whether the Internet can ever serve as a panacea for problems that nag away at the Mexican left, Chiapas included. While the telephone and mimeograph machine undoubtedly did a lot to empower the trade union and social movements in the USA, it was ultimately strategy and tactics that determined the outcome.

Turning now to John Holloway’s “To Change the World Without Taking Power”, we enter a terrain where such mundane matters seem to matter little. Taking Subcommandante Marcos’s refusal to specify goals or the methods necessary to achieve them as a starting point, Holloway has written a book that effectively inflates the Zapatista style of politics into a post-Marxist Communist Manifesto.

For narrow-minded technicians like myself who like to keep databases of such things, this is now the third new communist manifesto to occupy a place on my bookshelf alongside Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” (Zizek, “Nothing less than a rewriting of the Communist Manifesto for our time”) and Guattari-Negri’s “Communists Like Us” which purports modestly to “rescue ‘communism’ from its own disrepute.”

At first blush, all of these books seem driven by the need to proceed directly to something called communism without passing go. All the sordid business associated with what Bukharin called “the transition period” will somehow be leapfrogged by a monumental act of will, especially the bugbear of the autonomist movement: the state.

In chapter two (Beyond the State), Holloway argues that it doesn’t do any good for working people to create their own state: “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” Correctly observing that China and Russia failed to “promote the reign of freedom”, Holloway manages to avoid any reference to Cuba. Since Cuba defies any easy pigeonholing as a totalitarian dungeon, it tends to be swept under the rug in autonomist literature.

Holloway explains that Marxist assumptions about transforming society fail to take into account that “capitalist social relations, by their nature, have always gone beyond territorial limitations”. So, it becomes an exercise in futility to smash the capitalist state and replace it with a workers state of the kind conceived by Lenin in “State and Revolution” for to do so would simply re-introduce oppressive power relations, especially those refracted through a nominally socialist society’s ties to the outside capitalist world. Or, as the Who once put it in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Holloway expresses the same sentiments in a more polished manner: “You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.”

Far be it for me to even suggest that something as passé as Marxist dialectics can still have some value, it would appear to me that speaking in terms of power versus non-power cedes too much to formal logic. While it is true that a woman cannot be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, certain social phenomena have contradictory aspects. For example, when Father Gapon organized a demonstration to present a petition to the Czar, some 200,000 St Petersburg workers marched behind him with pictures of the Tsar, religious icons and church banners. Instead of dismissing this as a genuflection before Czarism, Trotsky saw the other side of the process: “Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St Petersburg, he merely released it and events completely overtook him.”

Oddly enough, despite a tendency toward cryptic formulations, Subcommandante Marcos himself can be quite specific on the value of power:

When we governed, we lowered to zero the rate of alcoholism, and the women here became very fierce and they said that drink only served to make the men beat their women and children, and to act barbarically, and therefore they gave the order that no drink was allowed, and that we could not allow drinking to go on, and the people who received the most benefit were the children and women, and the ones most damaged were the businessmen and the government…

The destruction of trees also was prohibited, and laws were made to protect the forests, and the hunting of wild animals was prohibited, even if they were from the government, and the cultivation, consumption and trafficking in drugs were prohibited, and these laws were upheld. The infant death rate went way down, and became very small, just like the children are. And the Zapatista laws were applied uniformly, without regard for social position or income level. And we made all of the major decisions, or the ‘strategic’ ones, of our struggle, by means of a method that they call the ‘referendum’ and the ‘plebiscite’. And we got rid of prostitution and unemployment disappeared as well as begging. The children had sweets and toys. And we made many errors and had many failures. And we also accomplished what no other government in the world, regardless of its political affiliation, is capable of doing honestly, and that is to recognize its errors and to take steps to remedy them.


In a certain sense, attempts to seize power and transform all of society along the lines described by the Subcommandante are doomed to failure unless humanity overcomes something called “fetishization” which functions in Holloway’s schema as a kind of tragic flaw, like Oedipus’s pride or Dr. Frankenstein’s mad desire to create life from the parts of dead bodies.

As most people are probably aware, fetish is a term that has its origins in anthropology. It is a charm or amulet that has magical powers for so-called primitive peoples. It is etymologically related to the word factitious, which means artificial. Freud and other experts on abnormal psychology have used the word to describe sexual attachments to objects like shoes and other garments. For example, according to the tell-all memoir of his mistress, President Salinas of Mexico had an Imelda Marcos-like fetish for charro suits, the silver-buckled outfits and matching sombrero, boots and spurs worn by mariachi singers. She reported that over 70 were hidden away in his closet.

Holloway uses the term in its Marxist sense, which he describes as a “central category” in Capital even though “it is almost completely ignored by those who regard themselves as Marxist economists”. As understood by Marx and by Holloway as well, it is tied up with alienation, especially that between the worker and the commodity he or she produces. He sees fetishization as the main target for those who would change the world: “Any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of humanity from the dehumanization of capitalism is necessarily directed against fetishism.” But Holloway takes Marx one step further. It is not simply the separation between worker and commodity; it is also by extension the separation between doing and done, and between subject and object. Thus, what begins as an attempt grounded in political economy to elucidate how capitalism appears to the ruled as a permanent system shades off into a kind of philosophical critique of Cartesian dualism:

Constitution and existence are sundered. The constituted denies the constituting, the done the doing, the object the subject. The object constituted acquires a durable identity. It becomes an apparently autonomous structure. This sundering (both real and apparent) is crucial to the stability of capitalism. The statement that ‘that’s the way things are’ presupposes that separation. The separation of constitution and existence is the closure of radical alternatives.

Leaving aside the question of how to translate this sort of thing into a punchy leaflet that will grab the attention of the average worker, it does not really convey what Marx was all about in philosophical terms. As a materialist, Marx saw human beings as part of the physical universe: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.” (German Ideology)

Within this context, ideas arise from social relationships: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour.” (German Ideology)

While expressed in somewhat different terms than Holloway’s heterodox views on “fetishization”, the notion ideas arising from material conditions conveys much more accurately Marx’s understanding of the relationship between humanity, ideology and class society. Historical and material conditions govern the way we think. In order to become free human beings unconstrained by bourgeois ideology, it is necessary to abolish commodity production, which is the substratum of bourgeois society. Struggles against “fetishism” are rather futile as long as commodity production is generalized throughout society.

For Marx, the only way to overcome alienation (and fetishism, by implication) is to change material conditions:

This ‘alienation’ (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’, and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. (German Ideology)

This is the reason that Marxists have historically targeted the state. In order to achieve a classless society, it is necessary to develop the productive forces to such a high degree that competition for goods becomes more and more unnecessary. As leisure time and the general level of culture increases, human beings will enjoy a level of freedom that has never been attainable in class society.

For a variety of reasons, socialist revolutions have occurred in backward countries where the development of productive forces has been hampered by a number of factors, including imperialist blockade, technological and industrial underdevelopment, low productivity of labor and the need to stave off invasions and subversion–in other words, the kinds of conditions that make a country like Cuba fall short of communist ideals. Notwithstanding Cuba’s difficulties, the revolution has made a significant impact on peoples’ lives, so much so that it earned the praise of James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, in May of 2001: “Cuba has done a great job on education and health and if you judge the country by education and health they’ve done a terrific job.”

Wolfensohn was simply recognizing the reality of statistics in the bank’s World Development Indicators report that showed Cubans living longer than other Latin Americans, including residents of the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Literacy levels were on a par with Uruguay, while the life expectancy rate was 76 years, second only to Costa Rica at 77. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.

While it is true that Cuba is enmeshed in a myriad of ways within the world capitalist economy, it did withdrew from the World Bank and its sister lending agency, the International Monetary Fund, in 1959. Despite the collapse of the USSR and continuing efforts to destroy the country economically by the USA, Cuba continues to develop its productive capabilities and raise the cultural level of the people.

Turning to Chiapas, the general picture is far less encouraging. In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico”, we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate – five times the national average.

While nobody can blame the EZLN for failing to make a revolution in Mexico, we would be remiss if we did not point out the obvious material differences between the two societies, especially in the countryside where poverty has traditionally been extreme. With its abundant natural resources, including oil and fertile farmland, it is not too difficult to imagine how much of a difference a socialist Mexico would have made in the lives of the poor.

For John Holloway, access to decent medical care seems far less important than “visibility”, a term that he sees as practically defining Zapatismo and presumably missing altogether in dreary Cuban state socialism. This is expressed through the balaclava, the mask that Subcommandante wore at press conferences and which has since been appropriated by Black Block activists breaking Starbucks windows in the name of anti-capitalism: “The struggle for visibility is also central to the current indigenous movement, expressed most forcefully in the Zapatista wearing of the balaclava: we cover our face so that we can be seen, our struggle is the struggle of those without face.”

While every movement certainly needs an element of mystique, it is doubtful that the Zapatista movement could sustain itself over the long haul using such symbols. Nor is it likely that it could succeed without linking up to a dynamic, rising mass movement in the rest of Mexico. Localized peasant struggles have a long history in Mexico going back to the 19th century. If you strip away the balaclava and Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop, you will find all the elements that ultimately frustrated the efforts of the original Zapata, namely the failure of a regional uprising to become part of a general assault on state power and the social and economic transformation of society.

To fetishize these sorts of incomplete and partial rebellions as a new way of doing politics not only does a disservice to the valiant efforts of the Mayan people, it also creates obstacles to those of us who also want to change the world but on a more favorable basis. For in the final analysis, it requires a democratic and centralized movement of the working class and its allies to take power in a country like Mexico.

December 6, 2011

German autonomen: morality police

Filed under: autonomism,black bloc idiots,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

(Second in the series of posts on the black bloc. The first is here: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/shining-a-light-on-the-black-bloc-part-1-italian-autonomism/)

Although clearly influenced by Italian autonomia, the German autonomen differed in two major respects. First of all, it made much less of an attempt to link itself with the Marxist tradition, even something as heterodox as Toni Negri’s “refusal to work” brand. Secondly, it was much more of a “scene” or a life-style and more particularly a kind of blend of the punk sensibility with ultraleft militancy—sort of half Sid Vicious and half Mark Rudd circa 1970. A rather unappealing mixture in my view.

The other major difference, of course, between the Italians and the Germans is that the latter group gave birth to the black bloc tactic that has become fairly ritualized ever since its introduction in the early 80s. The tactic had always been around in one form or another since the late 70s at least but it took German ingenuity to effectively patent it.

Ironically, it was the German cops who first coined the term referring to the “Schwarzer Block” in a raid in Frankfurt on July 28, 1981 against squatters and other “subversives”. The cops did not view the schwarzer block as a tactic, but as a group even if was ill-defined. In fact it was so ill-defined that charges were eventually dropped against those arrested.

But as pointed out earlier, the tactic predated its naming by the cops and its enshrinement as a permanent tactic by the autonomen. In the late 70s, a wing of the radical movement donned helmets, masks and black clothing when they went out to fight neo-Nazis and the cops. It should be mentioned at this point that such activists had little use for exploiting peaceful demonstrations. There was such a deep hatred toward the German state in this period that the black bloc tactic could summon thousands of activists into battle. Only a few years earlier the Red Army Faction, led by Baader and Meinhof, could count on support that the American Weather Underground could only fantasize about. Fully one out of four Germans supported their activities and one out of ten said they would hide an RAF member from the cops.

Despite his proud identification with autonomism, Georgy Katsiaficas’s treatment of the German movement is decidedly ambivalent in “The Subversion of Politics”. He views the widespread choice of black as a “style” preference rather than an indication of any kind of deep ideological affinity with anarchism:

The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior — symbols of a way of life which made contempt for the established institutions and their U.S. “protectors” into a virtue on an equal footing with disdain for the “socialist” governments in Eastern Europe. Black became the color of the political void — of the withdrawal of allegiance to parties, governments and nations.

In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the clash between “mods” and “rockers” in Britain a decade or so earlier, the German left became a battleground between the punkish black leather favoring Mollis (those who threw Molotov cocktails) and the more laid-back hippy types called Müslis, after the breakfast cereal.

The primary arena for struggle by the “molli” faction was defending squats. In places such as the Kreuzberg neighborhood of West Berlin, thousands of empty apartments and stores had become occupied by the autonomen and turned into both places to live and cultural centers embodying their values. On a much smaller scale the same thing happened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the same time.

Serving as morality police in Kreuzberg, autonomen activists punished any and all violators of the group ethos as Katsiaficas points out:

In response, autonomous groups seeking to preserve the independence and character of their neighborhoods intensified their attacks on yuppie entrepreneurs, leading to a widespread perception of the Autonomen as little more than neighborhood mafias (Kiezmafia). Seeking to create a “dead zone for speculators and yuppie-pigs,” groups waged a concerted campaign against gentrification in Kreuzberg. They vandalized upscale restaurants catering to professionals — in some cases throwing excrement inside — torched luxury automobiles costing in excess of $40,000, and repeatedly damaged businesses they deemed undesirable.

They were also as set in their ways about culture as the Taliban. When a small theater called Sputnik decided to show the film “Terror 2000″, a low-budget anti-Nazi satire, a group of activists sprayed the projectionist with teargas, and used butyric acid to destroy a copy of the film, which they considered “sexist and racist.” Afterward, they threatened to return and “destroy everything” if the movie was ever screened again.

Katsiaficas is rather mealy-mouthed when it comes to this incident, writing “I find it difficult to fault completely those who attack neo-Nazis and films like Terror 2000 in which gratuitous violence and sexual objectification reproduce within the movement the very values which it opposes.”

I wonder how he would react if some hard-core Albanian Maoists took it upon themselves to visit Dr. Katsiaficas’s office and spray him with teargas because they objected to his autonomist deviations. In general, I don’t think it is very useful for leftists to use violence to suppress ideas they find objectionable.

Apparently, the Kreuzberg autonomists had a big thing about “politically incorrect” movies. In a “Letter from Europe” devoted to the Kreuzberg scene that appears in the November 28, 1988 New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer reports on another incident:

The Eiszelt is a little theatre on the Zeughofstrasse that shows underground movies , and last spring it was showing a movie called “Fingered,” directed by a Lydia Lunch, which some Kreuzbergers considered pornographic and some sexist and some violent—although apparently not too pornographic or sexist or violent to have shown a few weeks earlier at a theater in town. Twelve masked men and women broke into the Eiszeit during the movie’s run to deal with “Fingered”. They destroyed the projector, and the film in the projector (which turned out to be some other movie), and then they emptied the cash register and fled.

Supposedly the cash receipts were funneled to either a lesbian feminist or anti-imperialist group, but nobody knew which one.

Mayer goes into considerable depth describing the events leading up to the excrement attack on the “upscale” restaurant mentioned in passing by Katsiaficas. You might get the impression from his use of this word that it was one of those joints reviewed in the NY Times with the $200 per person tasting menu. In actuality, the restaurant—called Maxwell—had much more in common with the sort of places opened up in Park Slope by a husband-and-wife team.

In the case of Maxwell, the husband was Hartmut Bitomsky whose values were decidedly opposed to the Style section of the NY Times. His wife Brigitte loved to cook and decided to open a place on the Oranienstrasse, a main drag in Kreuzberg where autonomist values had to be followed to the letter. Not long after Maxwell opened, the Bitomsky’s discovered that they were on a hit-list. They didn’t have to worry about their lives, but their right to open a restaurant was being decided by the morality police.

Twenty years before the Bitomsky’s opened Maxwell, Hartmut was occupying in protest the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin which he and seventeen other students renamed the Dziga Vertov Academy in honor of the Soviet documentary filmmaker. He was expelled for his efforts.

That did not prevent him from becoming a major figure in the left film world. He wrote what Mayer described as a book of “Marxist aesthetics” on film that was titled “The Redness of the Red in Technicolor” and began making decidedly uncommercial films in Berlin. Becoming obsessed with “German images” like forests, superhighways and blond braids, he reworked them into a film critique of Nazi totalitarianism. His best known work is “B-52″, a documentary on the bomber that the NY Times reviewer described as follows:

”B-52” has grimly detailed accounts of other broken-arrow accidents in Greenland and Spain. A tour guide talks about the Spanish one while showing off a portion of a bombshell at a museum, and a civilian investigator is seen still checking water samples in Goldsboro for signs of nuclear contamination more than 30 years later, mentioning ”a small piece of a nuclear weapon they were unable to recover.” There are horrific stories about the bomber’s use in Vietnam by veterans of that conflict. When Mr. Bitomsky isn’t being glib and uses his interviews to subtly tear down the wall of propaganda about the plane’s efficacy, ”B-52” is absorbing and clear.

None of the black leather clad morality enforcers cared about any of that. All they knew is that Maxwell typified the Schicki-Micki threat to Kreuzberg, a term that means Mickey Mouse chic. It can be likened to “gentrification” in New York and particularly the “yuppie” threat to the Lower East Side in the 1980s that the local counterparts resented even though they never threatened to drive any restaurants out of the neighborhood. In fact, I was friendly with a French chef named Bernard Leroy, who opened a restaurant on Avenue C, the Lower East Side’s equivalent of Oranienstrasse. (He also had a show on WBAI at the time, when it was still very listenable if not compelling radio.) In 1988, the very year that Mayer filed her report, the NY Times reviewed Bernard’s restaurant:

Slum chic may be the next fad in French bistros, what with the success of Bellevues, the Gallic diner on a tawdry block of Ninth Avenue near 37th Street, and now Bernard Organic French Cuisine, at Ninth Street and Avenue C, a scary, drug-plagued neighborhood that makes the Port Authority Bus Terminal’s environs look like Scarsdale.

The creation of the 31-year-old French-born Bernard Leroy, the year-old restaurant is packed nightly, testimony to the resoluteness of trend-seeking Manhattan diners. Mr. Leroy says he uses organic produce and meats ”as much as possible,” doing most of his shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket. He worked at restaurants in France before moving to New York 10 years ago and taking jobs at the caterer Glorious Food, the SoHo Charcuterie and La Petite Ferme. He chose the Avenue C location because, quite simply, ”I could afford it,” he said.

I believe that most local denizens welcomed Bernard into the neighborhood. Maybe that’s a function of their not having been indoctrinated into proper autonomist values. As far as I can remember, they were also big fans of Lydia Lunch, a resident of the neighborhood, as well.

Brigitte Bitomsky’s sole intention in opening Maxwell was to allow people to eat healthy food, like crisp vegetables and fresh fish with interesting spices, an offense in some eyes equal to nuclear power or gang rapes. The restaurant had one room with seven wooden tables and thirty wooden chairs, simple enough. Their mistake, however, probably was using linen tablecloths and napkins, which surely betrayed support for American imperialism.

They opened for business on Christmas of 1985.

In the summer of 1986, the Bitomsky’s figured out that they had become the “enemy”. After furious fighting between the cops and the “mollis” on May Day and in ensuing months, things had become polarized between the hard core left in Kreuzberg and just about everybody else. On one side you had the autonomen in black leather, on the other side you had people who drove SUV’s, Ronald Reagan, the neo-Nazis and Brigitte Bitomsky’s restaurant. People would stop Hartmut on the street and ask him about the ratio between wages and profits in the restaurant, or its “infrastructure”.

Late one night when there were only four customers in the restaurant, nineteen men and women clad in black leather and wearing Doc Martens stormed into the restaurant, started throwing beer cans and turning over furniture. The Bitomsky’s first reaction was to think that they were dealing with neo-Nazis. Some people who ran a soup kitchen down the street told them that they had been victims of the Redskins, a hard-core autonomist gang. They were advised to offer them payoffs, just as if they were characters in “The Sopranos”.

The Redskins came back on Sunday and instructed the Bitomsky’s that they were going to stand trial. They were denounced by an autonomist Vishinsky who demanded to know: “What are you doing in Kreuzberg? You are destroying the infrastructure of Kreuzberg”. Yes, the poached tilapia was certainly a threat to humanity.

Brigitte told Mayer what happened next:

It was hot, and August, and we had only four customers—plus Hartmut, sitting by the door, waiting, and, of course, the whole world watching. But they took us by surprise when they came. You see, we were watching for motorcycles and boots and bomber jackets, and this time it was different. There were only three of them, to begin with. Three men with dark sunglasses and woolen caps pulled low on their foreheads—and carrying buckets. Three men carrying three buckets full of shit and emptied the shit in my restaurant and then they vanished. At that moment, it was all over. We cleaned up and closed the restaurant for good. Who would ever want to eat at Maxwell again?

I will conclude with Kastiaficas’s insightful take on the blind alley that this movement had marched into. Keep in mind that he is one of the foremost defenders of autonomism in the academy, along with John Holloway.

No matter how heroic its members, the existence of an oppositional movement does not necessarily mean that a new psychological structure has emerged which stands in contrast to the unconscious structures of the old social order. By themselves, combativeness and a constant willingness to fight, are not revolutionary attributes — indeed, they are probably the opposite. Even at a moment when the Autonomen were the only public force in Germany directly to oppose the fascist wave of violence which swept across the country in 1992, fights broke out among those who went to Hoyerswerda to stop the pogrom. Internal dangers are all the more real since there are elements to the Autonomen containing within them the seeds of aggression and destruction. “Punk rules,” once a popular slogan, has counterparts today in equally absurd ideas: “Germany-all downhill now” and “Fire and Flames.” The pure nihilism present to some degree in the movement is expressed in a variety of ways. Indications like the combat boots and black leather jackets worn by many militants can be disregarded as superficial, but equally obvious characteristics of the scene merit attention: a scathing anti-intellectualism, an overt and often unchallenged “male” process of events, and random violent clashes among members of the scene. To put it mildly, the movement often fails to establish peaceful and supportive community, and it also contains a dose of German national pride. Both the Greens and the Autonomen have been widely criticized for focusing too much on the German movement’s needs and not enough on the international movement. On these levels, they have not broken with some of the worst dimensions of their cultural tradition.

When you keep in mind that these are the very people who are widely regarded as the inventors of the black bloc tactic, some deep thinking about its role in mass protests has to take place.

In a series of posts to follow, I will take a close look at what happened in Seattle in 1999 and other landmark battles involving the black bloc.

May 16, 2007

John Holloway’s complaint

Filed under: autonomism,Iran,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

John Holloway

With the resurgence of a Latin American left expressed mainly by elected governments challenging the capitalist system to one degree or another, there has been a corresponding decline of “autonomist” currents such as the EZLN and the more ideologically disposed supporters and members of the piqueteros and recovered factories movement in Argentina. It is understandably hard to get worked up over Subcommandante Zero’s latest communiqué when Hugo Chavez is changing class relationships on the ground.

Standing in the same relationship to the autonomist currents that Regis Debray once had with the rural guerrilla groups of the 1960s, British professor John Holloway has been forced to take stock of the situation in an interview conducted by Marina Sitrin, an American leftist who writes about Argentine autonomism.

Holloway is the author of “How to Change the World Without Taking Power” that I reviewed here. It basically argues that “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” It is good for workers to rebel in his view but not good to rule. Whenever I think about such arguments, I am reminded of how my mother’s Irish Setter loved to chase cars up our country road but would always return after a few hundred feet of barking wildly. I thought to myself at the time that the excitable hound wouldn’t know what to do with a car if she actually caught one. For Holloway, the working class is in the same situation as my mom’s Irish Setter.

Sitrin asks Holloway to respond to criticisms made by people who think it is good for workers to be in the driver’s seat:

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?

I imagine that the “frame of the 1960-90s” is a reference to the Cuban revolution, before the EZLN had become trendy. Now that the Venezuelan revolution is inspiring a new generation of radicals, it is a little bit more difficult to get people down to Mexico for some encuentro that produces nothing but rhetoric. It also suggests the general decline of autonomist and anarchist currents over the past 6 years as the mass movement has had to wrestle with the enormous task of forcing Anglo-American imperialism out of Afghanistan and Iraq. In such a dead serious situation, Black Block antics don’t have much traction.

Holloway’s reply is characteristically coy:

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.

I can understand the frustration of Sitrin and Holloway. “Horizontality” has got to be a hard sell when the competition has such a better product line. When you get your hands on state power, there are all sorts of things that you can do that are impossible for a purist, autonomist movement.

Take Chiapas, for example, which represents for Holloway kind of the same thing that St. Petersburg represented to John Reed in 1917. It embodies his deepest beliefs in what it means to change the world without taking power. However, when it comes to the specifics of changing the world, it is Cuban doctors who have had more impact than the EZLN:

Cuban health workers arrive to help in impoverished southern Mexican state

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Cuban health workers are in southern Chiapas state to help officials cope with a with a sudden spate of infant deaths at a rural hospital, the governor said Monday.

Cuban Deputy Health Minister Gonzalo Estevez is among four Cuban doctors visiting the state to advise officials on possible improvement in the health care system, state officials said. In an interview with the Televisa network, Gov. Pablo Salazar said the doctors were discussing the possibility of bringing “epidemiological brigades” to Chiapas.

Cuba‘s socialist government has made heavy investment in health a point of pride, and has sent thousands of doctors and nurses on missions to impoverished or disaster-stricken areas in Africa and the Americas.

Cuba’s health system, while short on medicines, specializes in preventative and neonatal care.

Salazar said the medical assistance is part of a broader agreement under which Cuba has already sent agronomists and other experts to his state.

Cuba has made a point of offering aid to nations with both friendly and hostile governments. Relations between Mexico and Cuba have been tense over the past year.

When it comes to recovered factories, a kind of ideological dividing line for the autonomists, there is evidence once again that there is no substitute for state power when it comes to getting things done.

Venezuela’s government seized the assets of the country’s largest paper product plant Venepal yesterday, after bankruptcy was finally declared last December.

The troubled company stopped production in September, 2004 threatening to sell off the plant’s machinery to pay off creditors. Workers at the plant who had not been paid for three months, organized a national campaign to encourage the expropriation of the factory, which culminated in yesterday’s official announcement.

The nationalization of Venepal was accompanied by a US$6.7 million credit, necessary to restart production. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the declaration to expropriate the factory after the National Assembly -with the support from opposition parties- declared Venepal to be of “public benefit and social interest” last Thursday – which is a legal prerequisite for expropriation.

I suppose that the autonomist current will not be persuaded by counter-indicators such as these. When you make a fetish over state power, or the lack thereof, you begin to become detached from the world of politics and enter the world of ethics. While there is little harm that can come out of autonomist politics, it seems unlikely that it will ever begin to impact social and economic relationships in a way that can demonstrate its superiority. In an odd way, the attraction to its supporters like Holloway is its very powerlessness.

I recently discovered that autonomism has sunk roots in Iran, where the working class movement has begun to assert itself after years and years of being on the defensive. Since the Iranian left has demonstrated extreme sectarianism over the years, it might not come as a surprise that the local autonomists reflect these bad habits as well.

In Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink”, there’s a review of trade union developments in chapter six that demonstrates the liabilities of a kind of autonomist politics, namely the council communism associated with Paul Mattick and Anton Pannekoek. In the most recent resurgence of shoras, or workers councils, the autonomists have tended to do everything they can to keep them from uniting nation-wide and from mounting a general political challenge to the Islamic Republic. They have also argued against trade union organizing, believing that such institutions are as tainted as the state–no matter who runs them.

The Iranian council communists are organized in Komiteye Hamahangi (“The Co-ordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisation in Iran”) and are led by Mohsen Hakimi, a Tehran intellectual. Malm and Esmailian write:

Not very strangely, the Komiteye Hamahangi activists – many of whom had experienced the revolution first-hand and then stagnated through the decades of political paralysis – have made a fetish of the shora institution which, in the hands of Hakimi, has been petrifi ed into a doctrine of council communism. Falling back on this early twentieth-century strand of western socialism, associated with the names of Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, Hakimi has reached the conclusion that the council is the only organisation the workers need. No mediation, transitional steps or organisational apparatus should stand between the workers and their goals. In the programmes of the committee, it is explained thus: “We – workers – establish our own councils. With the power of our councils, any interference by any employer in the fate of production is prevented. Our way is to have our councils take production into our own hands.”

To the activists of Komiteye Hamahangi, political parties are anathema. But more crucially, in the light of later events in Iran: trade unions are equally anathema. In council communism, they are considered not only bureaucratic obstacles wasting the energy of shop-floor struggle, but “capitalist organisations” complicit in the trading of labour as a commodity. According to the texts of Komiteye Hamahangi, the trade union is by defi nition a “bargaining unit”, a “mediator between workers and capitalism”, just another machine making “profits” on status quo. The only form of organisation permissible is an “anti-capitalist” one, whose activities will be restricted to propaganda, agitation and “support for strikes, workers’ control initiatives and the like”. Hence Komiteye Hamahangi has declared it of paramount importance to “reveal the dominant resolutions and strategies of ‘syndicalism’ [that is, trade unionism], ‘sectarism’ [sic], ‘social democracy’, ‘liberalism’ or in a word ‘reformism’ as a fundamental obstruction in the way of the working class struggle.”

In 2005, Hakimi wrote articles that sound like the Persian version of John Holloway’s purple prose. He referred to “life without the wage” as a “glimmer of light at the end of a suffocating tunnel–let us come together and burst that tunnel open.”

Fortunately, there are alternatives to Komiteye Hamahangi. There are Marxist activists in the labor movement who have drawn conclusions similar to comrades on Marxmail and elsewhere in the world where “vanguard” conceptions are being questions. After doing some reading and writing on Venezuela lately, they strike me as the counterparts of Causa R.

Known as Komiteye Peygiri (“Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers’ Organisations in Iran”), it was started by veterans of the Iranian left that had broken with illusions in Islamic radicalism and had decided to focus on organizing the working class, something that was sadly absent in the past.

Taking the point of view that there was no contradiction between the shoras and the trade union movement, they put forward the following demand:

Holding general assemblies during working hours and in the workplace should be recognised. We demand direct participation and intervention of workers’ representatives in tripartite meetings and in all matters relating to workers’ future. Such representatives should be elected in general assemblies through workers’ direct vote.

In a statement that reflected both a sober assessment of conditions in Iran as well as the need to press forward, they probably spoke for Marxists everywhere:

There is no revolutionary situation in Iran. As Lenin said, two conditions must be met for such a situation to arise: oppressors must be incapable of oppressing any longer, and the oppressed must refuse to be oppressed any more, and neither of these are present in Iran. It’s just sheer voluntarism on their [Hamahangi’s] part. What we can do is start from where we are, and gradually make the Islamic Republic accept our right to form trade unions.

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