Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2014

John Holloway’s hippie Marxism

Filed under: autonomism — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

John Holloway

For me, one of the more fascinating aspects of the autonomist left is its failure to critically examine its own record. Even the anarchists, whose rejection of state power overlaps with the autonomists, can be quite astute in coming to terms with their mistakes. Some of the best critiques of the black block can be found on anarchist websites, for example.

As one of the most visible of the autonomist theorists, John Holloway has never mentioned a single shortcoming of the movement he speaks for. In the sappy romantic film “Love Story”, there’s a phrase that sort of evokes the autonomist stance: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Just substitute the word autonomism for love and you’re good to go.

Hollaway held court recently at roar.org. Despite the website’s commitment to the autonomist cause, the interviewer asks some tough questions even though it starts off relatively easy by allowing Holloway to make the basic case for “liberation” amounting to a kind of counter-culture:

In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.

These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.

I’d love to probe him on the question of water, something that is in many ways a far more critical resource than oil. What would autonomism bring to the table in Detroit, where poor people are having the water cut off? Distributing buckets to the victims of austerity so that they can collect raindrops for future use? Ultimately the only way that water can begin flowing again as a public utility is if there is a political struggle to reverse the austerity drive that makes the poor and working people pay for the city’s economic woes. In the most extreme example of water exploitation, you need only look at the West Bank where the Palestinians are being robbed of water as well as their land. The problem, one among many, is that the Palestinian Authority is a tool of the Palestinian elites that makes concession after concession. Would anybody advise the people of Hebron to “to open windows onto another world” when they are surrounded by the walls of separation and Israeli border guards?

When pressed to define himself in relationship to new leftwing parties like Podemos and Syriza, Holloway at least makes the concession of saying that he would vote for them even though they would ultimately disappoint:

Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.

This is really a fantastically ultraleft outlook, reminiscent in some ways of the DeLeonist Socialist Labor Party that used to lecture the left on the futility of marching against the war in Vietnam or women gaining the right to abortions. Short of communism, everything involves what he calls a “conciliation” with capital, even the Paris Commune. Given a choice between a leftist government in Mexico that would confront the USA around a host of questions, including the miserable free trade agreements that have led to mass emigration, and the Zapatista localized self-help projects, he apparently would opt for the latter. I guess he doesn’t want Mexicans to dirty their hands with a state power that enforced laws that distributed land to the landless as Emiliano Zapata fought for. I’ll take the original Zapatista movement, thank you very much.

In reply to the final question about combining initiatives from below and the use of state power to benefit the poor (a perspective the interviewer appears to defend), Holloway reveals how utopian and foolish he is:

Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.

To start with, there is no rage against money. Instead there is rage about not having any. People can’t pay medical bills, their kid’s education or their mortgage and this guy is focused on non-commodified social relations? I think there is a class bias in Holloway’s bogus Marxism. It would certainly appeal to a white 25 year old college graduate who is living in a squat and working in a tattoo parlor or selling marijuana until he or she settles into a respectable job as we all do at one time or another. There is something quite romantic about the “change the world without taking power” business even if it is limited to the far left fringes of today’s hipsterdom. At least in my days, we knew what to call it—being a hippy.


  1. Been having this same debate with my “Liberal” friends for years.Sitting in circles ,beating on drums,shouting together, does not in my mind get it done.My stock question has always been,it’s Friday the revolution came,what do we do Monday 8AM?

    Comment by Larry — September 30, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

  2. It is also interesting to look at how autonomist and anarchist notions of the “shared economy” idealized by people like Holloway, have been exploited in the service of venture capital opportunities like Uber and Airbnb. The shared economy is based upon a rejection of capital as a medium of exchange, as noted by Holloway, but it has been expropriated as a public relations gimmick to return workers to a 19th Century independent contractor status, with the contractors assuming all the risk and service provider raking almost all the profit, as with Uber.

    So, to take your 25 year old college graduate analogy a step further, by the time he or she is 35, they could end up being a venture capitalist creating a “shared economy” company where the workers who are “sharing” by providing the service, find themselves without health insurance, social security payments by the employer and no coverage by minimum wage laws.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 30, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

  3. Holloway does at one time discuss ‘the right to be lazy’—he has a sort of anti work bias it appears . I’m sort of down with that though agnostic (sometimes i work, squat but dont work doing tatoos etc. (i did do some part time work to get through college in sales (but i won’t say what)—-but you have to walk your talk. Supposedly he is a sociologist in puebla (and i climbed the high mountains —sleeping beauty or something —-5000 meters but easy- between there and mexico city—my vacations in mexico of course were powered with the us dollar—once i had $220 at first, tho i lost 200$ in the first week (people put me up somewhere in the sierra madre after they picked me on a forest road, and went through my socks when i was asleep, and that’s not all they did—they were essentially illegal loggers on huichol territory); another time i had 20$ so i could only stay 4 mos; but i had a guitar which i eventually sold. I did meet quite a few cops in mexico city and on the US border—sortuh funny (a small jail cell in laredo, but they didn’t know what they were talking about, and eventually let me out (after i slit my wrists and hung myself up—but i was actually joking but it worked). i’m sort of a botanist but they don’t knw their botany. (one of the cops did leave me a joint on the floor for the road). good to go. i got hassled also in texas so i only went through there one more time (this time via juarez, with no id either—i was jumping trains at the time (and i don’t reccomend it—some not good people on there; but, be prepared). Funny he is termed an autonomist—-i only knew about the autonomen in berlin who were pretty hardcore when i heard of them. but perhaps autonomist refers to real radical like meichael hardt of duke. (it is in durham nc—which is partly a gheto—and while they don’t live by selling marijuana, their endowment comes in part from big tobacco (the indian givers gave that in exchange for giving potatoes and corn (ie obesity and heart disease), in exchange for getting the trail of tears.

    Comment by ishi — September 30, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

  4. Like Holloway, Mao had it right – it’s all about “cultural” revolution. The taking power vanguardistas will never get that bottom up transformational change is driven by the micro-economy not the macro-economy. It’s all about Shannon Hayes and radical homemakers not Karl Marx and radical politicos. They cannot understand Holloway’s brilliant double entendre “taking power.” Taking power is not just the taking “of” state power but the collective power of society’s hierarchical structure to “take” – appropriate – the commonly created wealth, including the commons of the natural world. The capitalist economic system controls not just the means of production – labor – but the means of survival, i.e. food, shelter, information, safety, community etc. This control of the means of survival ensures that all people, not just labor, exist in a relation of colonial dependency not only to the state but more importantly to the capitalist economic system. This is what Holloway means when he says that “wage labor is the complement of capital, not its negation.” It is this colonial dependence that greatly limits the political options of revolution based solely on taking power. As countless “revolutions” have show, taking state power without addressing the underlying economic dependency relationships – i.e. ownership, private or state – greatly limits the capacity for transformational change of those hierarchical economic relationships.

    “Without taking power” is the revolutionary idea of creating an alternative to the capitalist taking economy. It is the collective power of people to “do,” to create their own means of survival through, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid. By collectively creating an alternative economic system that meets people’s survival needs, people can break the relationship of colonial dependence not just on the state but more importantly on the capitalist economic system. Only by creating new horizontal economic relationships can we truly change the world without taking power. And, that is what finding the cracks in the capitalist economic system is all about. Creating a parallel horizontal economic system in the same time and space as the hierarchical capitalist economic system. This is what David Graeber et al. call the egg-shell theory of revolution. Once the colonial dependency on the hierarchical economic system is broken not only the state but capitalism itself simply “withers away.” Gandhi was saying something similar when he posited that effective political action must be based on a constructive program. Taking state power is essentially an obstructive program – it tries to change hierarchical economic relationships from the top down (as such it is much like reform). Unless revolution is based on a bottom up constructive program, the collective power to meets peoples basic survival needs, taking power alone cannot transform hierarchical economic relationships into horizontal ones.

    Comment by Ed Lytwak the unrepentant hippie — September 30, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  5. “Taking state power is essentially an obstructive program – it tries to change hierarchical economic relationships from the top down (as such it is much like reform). Unless revolution is based on a bottom up constructive program, the collective power to meets peoples basic survival needs, taking power alone cannot transform hierarchical economic relationships into horizontal ones.”

    While I generally agree with this, it ignores the fact that there is a need for the state, or something like it, to provide social support and minimum environmental standards to make this possible. Or, to put it more bluntly, the evolution of society in this direction is much more likely in a social democratic society, the kind so blithely dismissed by Holloway, than under neoliberal ones. In a neoliberal society, the prospect of “market colonization” of this horizontal economic relationship is an ever present danger as the participants lack the resources to resist the encroachments of capital.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 30, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

  6. What people need is self-governance not the state. Self-governance is direct and participatory not representatives elected to rule for and over us. As such it functions best at the local, community level. What we now call the “state” should function not as governance institution but as a means for communication, coordination, solidarity and mutual aid. For example, minimum environmental standards should be determined locally not by a far removed state. Fracking is an example of how environmental standards are administered by a state that is in effect the merger with corporate/financial/oligarchic interests, aka neofascism.

    Comment by elytwak — September 30, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

  7. “What people need is self-governance not the state. Self-governance is direct and participatory not representatives elected to rule for and over us.”

    Indeed. But it is more likely to emerge from a neoliberal system or a social democratic one? The answer is fairly obvious, I think. Unless you believe that people without social protections in a system of regressive taxation are more likely to create this sort of system than people who start with things like health care, access to education, social security and unemployment insurance.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 1, 2014 @ 2:17 am

  8. Your use of “emerge from” indicates to me that you are not considering alternatives like the creation of entirely new forms of self-governance. As Occupy and other horizontal movements have demonstrated humans have little or no experience in self-governance in a medium or large social setting. Human society has lived under hierarchical governance systems since the transition from hunter gatherers to fixed settlement agriculture approximately 12,000 years ago. Human are socialized to accept hierarchical governance – the rule of hierarchical authority – as the “natural” and only form of governance. Quite frankly, most humans do not have a clue what self-governance means. A good number have figured out that it begins with yourself, and others understand the concept in the family. But when it comes to even modest size gatherings – e.g. assemblies – its pretty clear to me that humans are just beginning to learn and experiment with what it means to be a self-governing society. I do believe that any transition from the current hierarchical system of governance to horizontal ones is going to be a very messy affair indeed. The key is not to think about one size fits all forms of horizontal governance. Like the Zapatistas say, “one world in which many worlds fit”

    Comment by elytwak — October 1, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

  9. “Your use of “emerge from” indicates to me that you are not considering alternatives like the creation of entirely new forms of self-governance.”

    Actually, I’ve given them a lot of consideration, and seen them in practice. But “governance” doesn’t feed people, it’s doesn’t provide health care for them and their kids, it’s doesn’t provide them a place to live. There have been non-hierarchical, horizontal movements in the shells of societies ravaged by neoliberalism, places like Argentina, Mexico, Greece and Brazil, for example, but they survive, at best, on the margins.

    Why is that? Could it possibly be because the resources in these societies have been oligopolized in the hands of a few, rendering it difficult to sustain a horizontal movement on what little remains? My belief is horizontal movements are more likely to endure in a society where people have some pre-existing level of social support. On this question, you have been consistently silent.

    Venezuela and Bolivia are important in this context. For all their failings, the leaders in these countries have periodically tried to use the government as a means of supporting less hierarchical forms of social organization, as a means to channeling resources to the poorer segments of society so that they more freedom to decide how they want to live. But the Holloway approach dismisses the significance of these efforts, recasting them as yet another insufficiency of government and electoral politics that will some day prompt people to reject the state.

    Perhaps, but people do have to eat in the meantime.

    “As Occupy and other horizontal movements have demonstrated humans have little or no experience in self-governance in a medium or large social setting.”

    And I thought that Marxist vanguardists were the only ones who blamed people for their political and social failures. But it does serve as a convenient excuse to avoid challenging issues regarding the inability of people in horizontal movements to recognize that they cannot change the world in a vacuum.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 2, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

  10. Ecologically speaking, the “margins” are often the most important habitats and I’ve always felt that human society needs to return to a more natural model. The margins are what Holloway calls the cracks. What about the Zapatistas, they not only feed but provide education, medical care, self-governance and community. Of course transition societies and movements are going to be a hybrid of the old “pre-existing level of social support” and the new horizontal structures. The idea that new social relationships appear fully actualized is part of the myth of changing the world by taking state power. The essence of Holloway’s change the world without taking power is that the means for change need to prefigure the ends. I don’t know of anyone in horizontal movements who feel like they are operating in a vacuum. That concept – operating in a vacuum – is only for those who still see the world through the frame of the old ideologies, i.e. capitalism, Marxism, democratic socialism, anarchism. One of the real beauties of horizontalism is that it has moved beyond – and largely rejected – political ideology, just as it has moved beyond trying to change the world though taking power. Back to the Zapatistas, it could be argued that they have changed the world – not just there own – more in 20 years than all of the hierarchical revolutions in history. For many like myself they are both a model and inspiration.

    Comment by elytwak — October 2, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

  11. My problem with horizontality apart from the distracting images the word evokes (so many horizontalists seem to lack humor) is that all this anti-hierarchical thinking so often verges on obliging everyone in society to pass judgement infallibly every day on every matter of governance anywhere that requires a decision.

    This is physically impossible in societies of millions or billions. It is a cognitive impossibility. Only computers allow us to handle untold masses of data, and even then no individual human being understands all the implications of all the data. Even in very small groups (e.g. a typical Occupy Wall Street encampment) the daily standups tend to draw fewer and fewer people until only leaders and their followers are really participating.

    When the occupation itself breaks up, nobody knows what is left and who is doing what. Only the Farley files of the former, alleged, and soi disant leaders, heroes, and wise observers tell the story. Competing heroes tell competing stories and bid for power in undocumented fragmentary networks with no regulation or governance at all.

    This will happen in Hong Kong if it isn’t happening already. It’s probably the thing that guarantees the ultimate triumph of the Chinese state.

    Non-hierarchy has worked well for surprisingly large groups over surprisingly long spans of time–certainly for social groupings larger than the primitive human band of what? 140 people or so– but the flip side of assigning people domain authority in society (i.e., hierarchy) is that we can delegate work without all of us having to stand around and supervise. Hierarchy also permits standardization and performance measurement, which can in turn place raw human behavior under criticism and lead to changes.

    That is one of the things that makes hierarchically organized societies scalable and enables, e.g., capitalist society (and even more, we hope, socialist society) to throw masses of resource purposefully at tasks and get results.

    Human nature isn’t absolutely fixed–evolution is going on all the time, as also are the processes of extinction, about which Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn–but some components of human nature are more or less fixed relative to the time span of history (standing at present at around five thousand years). So I think some form of hierarchical organization and some sort of state will be with us for a very long time. Our task is to find a way within that to a) keep from going extinct, and b) work successfully toward collective goals and end the destructive insanity of billionaire capitalism (i.e. capitalism period).

    I do not believe that any sort of revolution either of consciousness or the means of production will lead directly to–what is implied but seldom explicitly stated in these discussions–biologically new human speciation within history. This strikes me as a highly operatic idea, characteristic of the turn of the last century. “Socialist man” will never be a literally new and radically “more advanced” species of the genus homo. (The whole concept of an “advanced species” is of course a terminally woolly one–begging indulgence for the sake of brevity, as this is a mighty distraction.)

    What we do not know–and must not limit through class-based prejudice and anti-intellectual common sense–is what the practical potential of our species is within the current genotype (more or less and as it were). That is the task of criticism.

    Socialism, I believe, has an evolutionary implication–does any other species live in a history?–but it is closer to being the flowering of an extant species through the unique medium of historical development than it is to being the qualitative transformation of one species into a “higher” one.

    Comment by Ed Grimond — October 3, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

  12. Maybe a better term than “hierarchy” would be something like “functionally differentiated.” The kleptocracy of ruling classes, which has always crept into large-scale social organizations reflects an entirely negative form of hierarchy which I–or course–reject.

    Comment by Ed Grimond — October 3, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

  13. “My problem with horizontality apart from the distracting images the word evokes (so many horizontalists seem to lack humor) is that all this anti-hierarchical thinking so often verges on obliging everyone in society to pass judgement infallibly every day on every matter of governance anywhere that requires a decision.”

    19th Century anarchists gave this a lot of thought, and advocated confederational forms of decisionmaking and social organization, as did more contemporary ones like Ward and Bookchin. There is a rich literature on the subject. Of course, these confederations, like any social system, have their flaws, but it is worth noting here because they were designed to balance individual involvement with the need for prompt action. They did not “oblige everyone in society to pass judgment infallibly every day on every matter of governance anywhere that requires a decision.”

    Indeed, some of the concepts associated with these anarchist theories have been coopted by capitalists to improve corporate performance, But that is a subject for another day.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 6, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

  14. Interesting. I like Holloway’s take on things. To answer your challenge, Louis: what autonomists have to offer Detroit is not a solution to their present water trouble, but a solution to how to change the system so that their kids are not faced with the same crap over and over on an increasingly impoverished planet. Water this year must be obtained by whatever means are at one’s disposal, including working through government. But the challenge to you, tossing it back! :-), is this — how else do you propose to create a whole different future than opening up cracks where one’s being and doing is different? How do you propose to change the system so that people are not robbed of access to water ever again? Holloway says that you cannot get rid of power-over by the underdogs grabbing power-over for their own purposes. I’d like to hear a coherent argument that shows it wrong.

    Comment by vera — November 24, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

  15. I read all the various exchanges here around Holloway’s ideas. So I have one more comment. It seems to me what Holloway is saying more than anything is, examine power and its uses. See how taking power over other people “for good cause” has backfired time and again. Consider that the really lasting changes like, for example, modernity, were not instituted politically but culturally, iteratively, by people changing how they lived, how they behaved. Look at the history of the Populists, how they self destructed by reaching for political power. Consider how the marijuana legalization movement went the cultural route for a long time before doing the political thing. Once the people lead, the politicians will follow.

    Out of the indignados, Podemos arose. Will it achieve radical changes? No, but it may do a bit of good. Meanwhile, the real hope is in the grassroots, what they do below the radar, culturally, person to person to person. And the questions of “the state” — well, it runs things now. The questions is, can the grassroots learn to run things better, here and there, in the cracks? If they can, then the state will recede, because, frankly, it’s an unwieldy, expensive, top heavy and bludgeony way to do stuff. But while it functions, well, let it carry on. Shrug. The interesting stuff is happening in the interstices, out of view.

    Comment by vera — November 25, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

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