Changing the world with Hollowayism

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This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time. I am very interested in theories of social change. It is a tremendously important topic but one that is rarely discussed among the left and very much ignored in academia. John Holloway is one of those few authors that made a well-known contribution to the topic, but reading articles about and interviews with him, it always seemed Hollowayism is a perspective that I very much disagree with. That is why this book was on my to-read list for a long time: what better way to challenge your own perspective than to read something you think you very much disagree with. I still disagree with Holloway, but this is also one of the best books I have read in the last year.

It starts out brilliantly with the first two sentences, a paraphrasing of Goethe´s Faust: “In the beginning is the scream. We scream.” While you don’t realize it in the beginning, this already includes the main epistemological implications that are worked out in the rest of the book. The introduction is brilliant, it’s angry and not holding back:  ‘we need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we feel to be wrong’. While the book is quite complicated, with many difficult concepts being introduced and discussed, it is also written as accessible as one possibly could at this level of theoretical sophistication and still very poetic at times.

Holloway lays the foundation of his theory on revolution in his discussion on power. Holloway distinguishes between two kinds of power: power-to (potentia) and power-over (potestas). Power-to is something good, it implies activity; doing. It is always a social power, our doing is always part of a social flow of doing; our capacity to-do is always a result of the doing of others. Power-over on the other hand is something negative, it is the opposite of power-to and it is what we usually understand as power. It means being commanded, power then is our in-capacity to-do. When the social flow of doing is being fractured power-to becomes power-over. ‘Doing is broken when the powerful separate the done from the doers and appropriate it to themselves (28)’, or in regular Marxist lingo: we become incapable of determining our own lives when the capitalists appropriate the means of production and our doing is determined by value.

What distinguishes humans from animals is our ability to project beyond. Subjectivity is the conscious projection beyond that which exists, to negate that which exists and create something that does not yet exist. In capitalism the ability to project-beyond and to-do is appropriated by capitalists and as a result we are being dehumanized. There is an ´…inversion of the relation between people and things, between subject and object. There is an objectification of the subject and a subjectivication of the object: things (money, capital, machines) become the subjects of society, while people (workers) become the objects. Social relations are not just apparently but really relations between things (between money and the state, between your money and mine), while humans are deprived of their sociality, transformed into ‘individuals’, the necessary complement of commodity exchange (51)’. The scream is thus a reassertion of our subjectivity.

A protester stands next to riot police during a march in Chaparina, on the outskirts of Yucumo, Bolivia, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. Indigenous and environmentalist groups began the Aug. 15th march to La Paz in protest of the government’s planned highway that would cut through the nature preserve, Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure or TIPNIS, home to 15,000 natives. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

After this theorization of power the crucial part of the book is the discussion on fetishism. In a way this is an attempt to reclaim Marx from the Marxist orthodoxy. Fetishism refers to the ever-repeated rupture of the social flow of doing; as capital accumulates the done is constantly separated from the doers. As objectified subjects we face a world where our social relations are fetishized. Commodities, value and money ‘conceal rather than disclose the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers (Marx Capital Vol 1: 76, Holloway 49)’. Domination (power-over) in capitalism, that which separates the done from the doer, is impersonal. Fetishism however penetrates into the core of our being, into all our habits of thought and all our relations with other people. ‘In the process of being separated from our done and from our doing, we ourselves are damaged. Our activity is transformed into passivity, our will to do things is transformed into greed for money, our cooperation with fellow-doers is transformed into an instrumental relation mediated by money or competition (69)’.

This discussion on fetishism prepares the ground for Holloway´s critique of the Marxist orthodoxy and his central claim. In the Marxist tradition the class antagonism between capital and labour is seen as an external relation. There is the working class and there is capital and they are in an antagonistic relationship with each other: the capitalist own the means of production and appropriate surplus value from the worker, while the worker depends on the payment by the capitalist (the value of their labour power). The question of revolution is then largely a matter of organization in order to bring the means of production under workers’ control. To Holloway however the antagonism is internal, because the done is being separated from our doing (fetishism) we are all damaged and fragmented beings. What makes Holloway unique in his discussion on fetishism is that he sees it as a process rather than an established fact, which is a perspective he refers to as ‘hard-fetishism’. Hard-fetishism is the orthodoxy in Marxism and leads to a lot of problems, because if people exist as objects under capitalism, then how is revolution and criticism possible? Who then is not fetishized and has no ‘false consciousness? Holloway follows with an interesting discussion on how various Marxists authors dealt with this problem and how they all argued for different non-fetishized subjects: the deus-ex machina of ‘The Party’ (Lukács), a ‘substratum of outcasts and outsiders’ (Marcuse), the privileged intellectuals (Adorno and Horkheimer). This shows that if one then gives up on ‘The Party’ as the savior, hard-fetishism leads to a deep pessimism and a sense of impossibility of the revolution as the few outcasts and intellectuals are not going to pull it off.

If we understand fetishism as fetishisation-in-process, with every process (/every rupture) implying its opposite, it gives way to understanding life under capitalism as a constant struggle. Hard-fetishism is (false) certainty, anti-fetishism is uncertainty. And we do not need certainty to justify our struggle. Holloway then continues by discussing identity, borrows Adorno’s negative dialectics as we should see dialectics as a movement of negation rather than the logic of synthesis (172), and argues that we do not struggle as working class, but that we struggle against being working class. We have to fight against working class identity, but we should be united in the classification process and struggle collectively against-and-beyond classification. Yes, class in fact should also be seen as a process. The revolutionary subject, the ‘we’ in ‘we scream’, is indefinable. Or rather poetically: ‘we are not who we are, and we are who we are not’.

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“Property is a noun which is used to describe and conceal an active process of separating. The substance of capitalist rule is not an established relationship between a person and a thing (property), but rather an active process of separating us from the means of doing. The fact that this separating is continuously repeated does not, for us, convert a verb into a noun. The fact that it becomes a habitual separating does not in any sense make it normal, any more than the habitual beating by a man of his wife makes that normal or converts the verb of beating into a noun, or an established fact. To think of property as a noun, as a thing, is to accept the terms of domination.” – pg 209

All this is certainly highly appealing to me. I like seeing everything as a constant process and therefore a struggle. I like the understanding that we all struggle, that we are subject to the law of value (including the capitalists), but that this is not really a law but something that we can fight against, and that everyone does so in daily life, including the many people that do not see themselves as anti-capitalist. I am more than happy to move beyond identifying as ‘working-class’ and leave behind the glorification of the worker. It also gives space to the ‘personal’, but maintains that struggle should be collective rather than risk the individualist reductionism of so many other theories. All in all, it is an empowering way of looking at the world rather than the drop into pessimism that most of academia and the Frankfurt School provides (see Adorno’s resignation).

But while I love the discussion on fetishism and seeing it like a process rather than an established facts (‘hard-fetishism’), I am not sure about the primacy on the separation of done and doer on which Holloway’s entire theory is based. And perhaps it is this theoretical foundation that leads to the perspective for praxis that I disagree with. Thinking about it, my disagreement here is similar to my uneasiness with the basic Marxist theory on alienation. Alienation in this book is not discussed at length. Holloway takes over Marx his perspective, but then unlike most other Marxists theorists mostly discusses fetishism as a process with alienation being the result of the rupture between the doer and the done. But I have never really felt alienated because I am separated from the product of my labour. Capitalist culture is what I find alienating, the billboards and advertising I have to face every fucking day is offensive to me, and not being able to do what I truly want together with others. The alienation that I feel is the result of a world in which all labour (/doing) is restricted by the wishes of capital (and how social relations are determined through that). The less alienating parts of my life are merely a residue of that world and mostly the result of still living in a somewhat privileged position, which allows me to write what I am writing right now. It is labour (/doing) being restricted by the wishes of capital which leads to a world that I find very alienating, but just the fact that I am separated from my product (or even the ‘done’: the means of production) is not what alienates me; it is an important structural reason behind what leads to an alienating and fucked-up world but not the crucial element itself?

Later in the book Holloway discusses anti-power and the crisis of capital. Some of the insights are interesting. Anti-power to Holloway is the dignity of everyday existence and in the relations we form all the time: friendship, comradeship, community, cooperation, love (158). He then also takes over some of the premises of autonomist Marxism from Tronti to Hardt and Negri, which argues that capitalist development is the result from working class struggle rather than seeing the working class as an object of capital´s development. It rightly puts subjectivity to the working class rather than capital, as capital is of course the product of the working class and depends upon the working class for its reproduction. The twist that Holloway gives to this subjectivity should be negative rather than positive, as we also struggle against being working class. Furthermore, the relation between the working class and capital should again be seen as internal. Fetishism then becomes a two-faced process, it is not just us being penetrated by power, but power is also being penetrated by its opposition.

In the discussion on the crisis of capital there were quite some interesting insights, but ultimately I found it rather weak. I think this is where I find the idea of the relation between labour and capital being internal rather than external unsatisfying. Holloway argues against the orthodox view of crisis where crisis is the result from the objective contradictions of capitalism and sees crisis as the expression of the strength of our opposition to capital. Crisis is when the mutual flight of capital and labour (they both look for autonomy) hits an abrupt end and capital is forced to reorganize its relation with labour in order to restore profitability. Credit is then a way to avoid the conflict with labour. I liked the insight that in a way capital would like to restore financial stability and to be less crisis-prone, but this would imply a massive destruction of fictitious capital which would threaten the existence of capitalism itself as all this unresolved conflict would have to be dealt with. But to see the crisis of 2008 as an expression of the strength of our struggle seems completely ridiculous to me. Holloway’s perspective is rather weak as a theory of crisis and I would say other Marxist theories that take a more external look of the antagonism between capital and labour work better in analyzing the global economic system. Theories looking at the ‘objective contradictions’ of capitalism have their place, despite the weakness of downplaying (or ignoring) our subjectivity. But then my question is if that is really so bad? Do we really need a ‘holistic’ (?) theory from beginning to end that makes an attempt to reconcile agency and structure? Or is it just as fine to just have different theories for different occasions?

The last chapter is named ´Revolution?’ with indeed a question-mark. On the last page he admits to not having an answer: ‘How then do we change the world without taking power? We do not know’. I like how humble Holloway is, especially in the epilogue that is included in my edition. He does not know all the answers and he is respectful towards the militants of the past and present that have a different perspective. But still, it can be a bit too simple. Saying that taking or creating power is always that of conquering the state is a bit of a straw man. Not seeing any difference between any state (as a result of working class struggle) and saying that the conquering of the state (be it through parliamentary or extra-parliamentary means) always leads to catastrophe misses out on a lot of actual important differences that changed people’s lives and the world for the better. Holloway´s perspective of being against all forms of power leaves no room for nuance. What about people relying on their pensions, the destruction of social housing; what does Holloway’s theory have to offer them? What about the gigantic task of combating and controlling extractivism to save the world from catastrophic climate change that we face as humanity?

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While Holloway admits to not knowing how to change the world without taking power, the prescriptions implied in his theory basically come down to us having to break away from our dependence on capital and to reclaim our social flow of doing: to create self-determining  communities that are autonomous from capital’s rule. But this only makes sense for all-encompassing movements that are made up by cohesive communities that are ready to go all the way collectively. It provides beautiful theoretical power behind the struggle of the Zapatista´s, or some of the indigenous communities in Bolivia, and more recently; the Kurds in Rojava. But what does it provide to us in the West with our deeply fetishized lives? It is a nice theory to support squatted autonomous spaces or the Zones à Defendre (La Zads) in France, but that’s basically as much as Hollowayism amounts to. I liked this book a lot, but I am still not convinced by Hollowayism.

I could not help but wonder what the world would have looked like if a book like this was written a hundred years ago. Would it even be taken seriously? Or was this book not possible without first having the experience of the many attempts to change the world through conquering the state in the last hundred years? Or more critically, is this book not merely the result of the weakness of the global left nowadays, that there is still no strong convincing answer to the mantra of TINA, so that we become excited with this kind of theoretical sophistication that still offers no real alternative or clear path forward?


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