A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse
What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.
At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be? For me, the person who has asked this most effectively is the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein. He argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.
Already by the time of the French Revolution, Wallerstein notes, there was a single world market, and increasingly a single world political system as well, dominated by the huge colonial empires. As a result, the storming of the Bastille in Paris could well end up having effects on Denmark, or even Egypt, just as profound as on France itself—in some cases, even more so. Hence he speaks of the “world revolution of 1789,” followed by the “world revolution of 1848,” which saw revolutions break out almost simultaneously in fifty countries, from Wallachia to Brazil. In no case did the revolutionaries succeed in taking power, but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution—notably, universal systems of primary education—were put in place pretty much everywhere. Similarly, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism. The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism.
A quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor”—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line.
Revolutions are thus planetary phenomena. But there is more. What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate. Before the French Revolution, the ideas that change is good, that government policy is the proper way to manage it, and that governments derive their authority from an entity called “the people” were considered the sorts of things one might hear from crackpots and demagogues, or at best a handful of freethinking intellectuals who spend their time debating in cafés. A generation later, even the stuffiest magistrates, priests, and headmasters had to at least pay lip service to these ideas. Before long, we had reached the situation we are in today: that it’s necessary to lay out the terms for anyone to even notice they are there. They’ve become common sense, the very grounds of political discussion.
Until 1968, most world revolutions really just introduced practical refinements: an expanded franchise, universal primary education, the welfare state. The world revolution of 1968, in contrast—whether it took the form it did in China, of a revolt by students and young cadres supporting Mao’s call for a Cultural Revolution; or in Berkeley and New York, where it marked an alliance of students, dropouts, and cultural rebels; or even in Paris, where it was an alliance of students and workers—was a rebellion against bureaucracy, conformity, or anything that fettered the human imagination, a project for the revolutionizing of not just political or economic life, but every aspect of human existence. As a result, in most cases, the rebels didn’t even try to take over the apparatus of state; they saw that apparatus as itself the problem.
It’s fashionable nowadays to view the social movements of the late sixties as an embarrassing failure. A case can be made for that view. It’s certainly true that in the political sphere, the immediate beneficiary of any widespread change in political common sense—a prioritizing of ideals of individual liberty, imagination, and desire; a hatred of bureaucracy; and suspicions about the role of government—was the political Right. Above all, the movements of the sixties allowed for the mass revival of free market doctrines that had largely been abandoned since the nineteenth century. It’s no coincidence that the same generation who, as teenagers, made the Cultural Revolution in China was the one who, as forty-year-olds, presided over the introduction of capitalism. Since the eighties, “freedom” has come to mean “the market,” and “the market” has come to be seen as identical with capitalism—even, ironically, in places like China, which had known sophisticated markets for thousands of years, but rarely anything that could be described as capitalism.
The ironies are endless. While the new free market ideology has framed itself above all as a rejection of bureaucracy, it has, in fact, been responsible for the first administrative system that has operated on a planetary scale, with its endless layering of public and private bureaucracies: the IMF, World Bank, WTO, trade organizations, financial institutions, transnational corporations, NGOs. This is precisely the system that has imposed free market orthodoxy, and opened the world to financial pillage, under the watchful aegis of American arms. It only made sense that the first attempt to recreate a global revolutionary movement, the Global Justice Movement that peaked between 1998 and 2003, was effectively a rebellion against the rule of that very planetary bureaucracy.
In retrospect, though, I think that later historians will conclude that the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper than we now imagine, and that the triumph of capitalist markets and their various planetary administrators and enforcers—which seemed so epochal and permanent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—was, in fact, far shallower.
I’ll take an obvious example. One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years. It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.
The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.
Clearly, an antiwar movement in the sixties that is still tying the hands of U.S. military planners in 2012 can hardly be considered a failure. But it raises an intriguing question: What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power?
The thought first occurred to me when participating in the IMF actions in Washington, D.C., in 2002. Coming on the heels of 9/11, we were relatively few and ineffective, the number of police overwhelming. There was no sense that we could succeed in shutting down the meetings. Most of us left feeling vaguely depressed. It was only a few days later, when I talked to someone who had friends attending the meetings, that I learned we had in fact shut them down: the police had introduced such stringent security measures, canceling half the events, that most of the actual meetings had been carried out online. In other words, the government had decided it was more important for protesters to walk away feeling like failures than for the IMF meetings to take place. If you think about it, they afforded protesters extraordinary importance.
Is it possible that this preemptive attitude toward social movements, the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle? What if those currently running the system, most of whom witnessed the unrest of the sixties firsthand as impressionable youngsters, are—consciously or unconsciously (and I suspect it’s more conscious than not)—obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense?
It would explain a lot. In most of the world, the last thirty years has come to be known as the age of neoliberalism—one dominated by a revival of the long-since-abandoned nineteenth-century creed that held that free markets and human freedom in general were ultimately the same thing. Neoliberalism has always been wracked by a central paradox. It declares that economic imperatives are to take priority over all others. Politics itself is just a matter of creating the conditions for growing the economy by allowing the magic of the marketplace to do its work. All other hopes and dreams—of equality, of security—are to be sacrificed for the primary goal of economic productivity. But global economic performance over the last thirty years has been decidedly mediocre. With one or two spectacular exceptions (notably China, which significantly ignored most neoliberal prescriptions), growth rates have been far below what they were in the days of the old-fashioned, state-directed, welfare-state-oriented capitalism of the fifties, sixties, and even seventies. By its own standards, then, the project was already a colossal failure even before the 2008 collapse.
If, on the other hand, we stop taking world leaders at their word and instead think of neoliberalism as a political project, it suddenly looks spectacularly effective. The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.
Debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.
How did they pull it off? The preemptive attitude toward social movements is clearly a part of it; under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in “security systems” of one sort or another: the fact that the United States, which lacks any major rival, spends more on its military and intelligence than it did during the Cold War, along with the almost dazzling accumulation of private security agencies, intelligence agencies, militarized police, guards, and mercenaries. Then there are the propaganda organs, including a massive media industry that did not even exist before the sixties, celebrating police. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor” of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. Economically, most of this disciplinary apparatus is pure deadweight.
In fact, most of the economic innovations of the last thirty years make more sense politically than economically. Eliminating guaranteed life employment for precarious contracts doesn’t really create a more effective workforce, but it is extraordinarily effective in destroying unions and otherwise depoliticizing labor. The same can be said of endlessly increasing working hours. No one has much time for political activity if they’re working sixty-hour weeks.
It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. The combined result is a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other realms they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible.
Work It Out, Slow It Down
Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with utopian visions. Or even blueprints. They just need to be kept in their place. The theorist Michael Albert has worked out a detailed plan for how a modern economy could run without money on a democratic, participatory basis. I think this is an important achievement—not because I think that exact model could ever be instituted, in exactly the form in which he describes it, but because it makes it impossible to say that such a thing is inconceivable. Still, such models can be only thought experiments. We cannot really conceive of the problems that will arise when we start trying to build a free society. What now seem likely to be the thorniest problems might not be problems at all; others that never even occurred to us might prove devilishly difficult. There are innumerable X-factors.
The most obvious is technology. This is the reason it’s so absurd to imagine activists in Renaissance Italy coming up with a model for a stock exchange and factories—what happened was based on all sorts of technologies that they couldn’t have anticipated, but which in part only emerged because society began to move in the direction that it did. This might explain, for instance, why so many of the more compelling visions of an anarchist society have been produced by science fiction writers (Ursula K. Le Guin, Starhawk, Kim Stanley Robinson). In fiction, you are at least admitting the technological aspect is guesswork.
Myself, I am less interested in deciding what sort of economic system we should have in a free society than in creating the means by which people can make such decisions for themselves. What might a revolution in common sense actually look like? I don’t know, but I can think of any number of pieces of conventional wisdom that surely need challenging if we are to create any sort of viable free society. I’ve already explored one—the nature of money and debt—in some detail in a recent book. I even suggested a debt jubilee, a general cancellation, in part just to bring home that money is really just a human product, a set of promises, that by its nature can always be renegotiated.
Labor, similarly, should be renegotiated. Submitting oneself to labor discipline—supervision, control, even the self-control of the ambitious self-employed—does not make one a better person. In most really important ways, it probably makes one worse. To undergo it is a misfortune that at best is sometimes necessary. Yet it’s only when we reject the idea that such labor is virtuous in itself that we can start to ask what is virtuous about labor. To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others. A renegotiated definition of productivity should make it easier to reimagine the very nature of what work is, since, among other things, it will mean that technological development will be redirected less toward creating ever more consumer products and ever more disciplined labor, and more toward eliminating those forms of labor entirely.
What would remain is the kind of work only human beings will ever be able to do: those forms of caring and helping labor that are at the very center of the crisis that brought about Occupy Wall Street to begin with. What would happen if we stopped acting as if the primordial form of work is laboring at a production line, or wheat field, or iron foundry, or even in an office cubicle, and instead started from a mother, a teacher, or a caregiver? We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.
It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.
At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.
Even those running the system are reluctantly beginning to conclude that some kind of mass debt cancellation—some kind of jubilee—is inevitable. The real political struggle is going to be over the form that it takes. Well, isn’t the obvious thing to address both problems simultaneously? Why not a planetary debt cancellation, as broad as practically possible, followed by a mass reduction in working hours: a four-hour day, perhaps, or a guaranteed five-month vacation? This might not only save the planet but also (since it’s not like everyone would just be sitting around in their newfound hours of freedom) begin to change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be.
Occupy was surely right not to make demands, but if I were to have to formulate one, that would be it. After all, this would be an attack on the dominant ideology at its very strongest points. The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system. That’s why they cling to them even as they are effectively destroying everything else. It’s also why debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.
All this might still seem very distant. At the moment, the planet might seem poised more for a series of unprecedented catastrophes than for the kind of broad moral and political transformation that would open the way to such a world. But if we are going to have any chance of heading off those catastrophes, we’re going to have to change our accustomed ways of thinking. And as the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.
This article is an excerpt from The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, by David Graeber. Copyright © 2013 by David Graeber. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
“There is a growing sense throughout the world that capitalism isn’t working; and that the cracks we create in it may really be the only way forward.”
San Andrés de Cholula, Mexico, 03/04/13
On the outskirts of Puebla and at the foot of the giant Popocatépetl volcano lies the sleepy Mexican town of San Andrés de Cholula. It is here that, on a sunny April afternoon, we meet John Holloway. Often referred to as “the philosopher of the Zapatistas”, Holloway — who is a Professor of Sociology at the Autonomous University of Puebla — is widely known for his anti-statist conception of revolution and his intellectual support for autonomous anti-capitalist movements around the world. The publication in 2002 of his influential book, Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, unleashed a veritable firestorm of both praise and criticism from fellow radicals and helped to provoke a period of profound introspection in Leftist circles on the meaning and necessity of revolution in the post-Cold War context of globalized financial capitalism.
For Holloway, it all starts with the Scream: a resounding roar, a ‘NO! Ya Basta! Enough already! We won’t submit any longer to the brutalizing logic of capitalist domination!’ It starts with this Scream, but it does not end there. After the refusal to participate in the reproduction of capitalist control, we open up time, space and resources for a possibly endless range of “other-doings”; for different ways of acting and being within the world. Taken together, these different refusals and other-doings constitute what Holloway calls the “cracks” in the capitalist system; the ruptures in the prison walls from which humanity collectively pushes its dignity and will to survive outward, until one day the walls cave in altogether. These cracks can occur in different dimensions (in space, in time and in terms of activity and/or resources), and at different levels. “It may be the garden in which we find ourselves”, Holloway tells us, “or it may be a good chunk of the state of Chiapas which is now self-governed by the Zapatistas.”
In this conceptualization of revolution, then, the traditional Marxist objective of taking state power becomes a hopeless endeavor. Holloway reminds us that the modern state essentially evolved in symbiosis with capital, leaving its institutional DNA imprinted with the same internal contradictions that bedevil the capitalist system as such. Taking state power with the objective of bringing about radical social change, then, is bound to reproduce the same logic of capital accumulation that the revolution was originally meant to overthrow. “States don’t make much sense,” Holloway says. “So we have to think in terms of something from below, creating our own forms of organization and interaction.” Rather than participating in the reproduction of the capital relation, in other words, our goal should be to undermine capital at its very root: by refusing to continue reproducing it through our own labor, and by rendering the capitalist state superfluous through the construction of alternative forms of self-organization from the grassroots up. In this sense, as Holloway once rightly boasted, “we are the crisis of capital — and we are proud of it!”
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.”
And yet it all makes perfect sense. In a way, Holloway’s personal character and mental lifeworld already seem to be light-years beyond capitalism. Here, there is no professorial pride, no academic arrogance, no intellectual vanguardism; just a sense of humility combined with a genuine desire to change the world — without taking power. It is for this viewpoint (the impossibility of bringing about revolutionary social change by taking state power) that Holloway is best-known. In this respect, the 2002 publication of Change the World without Taking Power was remarkably well-timed. Its main ideas dovetailed perfectly with the autonomous Zapatista uprising of the preceding decade (Holloway had moved to Mexico in 1991, three years before the Chiapas rebellion began); they resonated very strongly with the claims and objectives of the Global Justice Movement that had been rocking the United States and Europe ever since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the bloody Genoa G8 protests in 2001; and the publication of the book coincided exactly with the ongoing popular uprising in Argentina during that country’s devastating financial meltdown in 2001-’02.
When Pluto Press published Crack Capitalism in 2010, Holloway’s decision to write a book about the many creative forms of anti-capitalist contestation once again proved to be remarkably well-timed. Coming on the heels of the global financial meltdown of 2007-’08, Crack Capitalism prefigured exactly the type of social struggles that were to transpire in the coming years. By 2011, the mass mobilizations of the indignados in Spain, the enormous anti-austerity protests in Greece, and the global resonance of the Occupy movement had made it unmistakable that autonomous forms of horizontal self-organization and direct-democratic models of decision-making had largely replaced the traditional Left as the main source of resistance to the capitalist onslaught on our human dignity — and, indeed, on our very lives. Where a decade ago a book like Change the World without Taking Power could still be considered “controversial”, today the core ideas of Crack Capitalism are all but taken for granted by a new generation of activists and politically-engaged citizens involved in anti-capitalist struggles around the world.
It was for this reason, and many more, that we decided to sit down with John in his adopted home country of Mexico and ask him for some of his views on recent developments around the world — from the role of the state in the ongoing European debt crisis to the meaning of the Greek riots, and from the legacy of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the ability to use the state as a crack, to the powerful lessons the Zapatistas can teach us about the different temporalities of revolt in the 21st century. We are very grateful to John for his time and for his permission to reproduce the full transcript of our conversation below. As always, pregundando caminamos.
ROAR: What do you think the current capitalist crisis tells us about the nature of the state and the future of state-oriented revolutionary action?
John Holloway (JH): I think one thing that is striking about the state in the current crisis is really the degree of closure. Perhaps it’s not that we didn’t know it, but I think it’s been very striking just how the state doesn’t respond to protests and protests and protests. I suppose we can see this in Greece and Spain with their massive protests, both of the more traditional Left and of the more creative Left, if you like. The state just doesn’t listen: it goes ahead anyway. So I suppose one thing that’s become clear in the crisis to more and more people is the distance of the state from society, and the degree to which the state is integrated into the movement of money, so that the state even loses the appearance of being pulled in two directions. It becomes more and more clear that the state is bound to do everything possible to satisfy the money markets and in that sense to guarantee the accumulation of capital. I think that’s become much clearer in the last four or five years. And if that means absolutely refusing to listen to the protests, if it means letting the rioters burn down the cities, then so be it. The most important is really the money markets.
If you think of Greece in 2011 and the extraordinary demonstrations there, in which so many buildings in the center were burned down – the state just carries on regardless. I think it’s very interesting and possibly very important in terms of future directions, because the power of attraction of state-centered politics and protests really depends upon the state having some sort of room for negotiation with the trade unions and with people protesting. If the state feels there is no longer any room for negotiation, or simply gets into the habit of saying ‘we will absolutely not negotiate’, then that closes down the margin for state-centered Left politics and pushes people more towards the idea that, really, trying to do things through the state is absolutely hopeless. So perhaps we can hope that non-state oriented politics will become more and more common and more widespread throughout society.
ROAR: Isn’t that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing for a while already, especially in 2011 with the Occupy movement?
JH: Yes, absolutely, and all over the world. Sometimes people say we are entering an age of riots. A closure of the state means no negotiations, meaning that any kind of protest is pushed towards rioting. What that means in terms of how we move forward, I’m not quite sure. It can be a very productive and fruitful development.
ROAR: As a refusal?
JH: Yes, as a refusal. As a kind of total breakdown of the old way of doing things, which perhaps brought a few little benefits but really didn’t take anybody very far. And I think that more and more people are being forced to reinvent their politics or reinvent their ideas about politics, both in terms of protests – but also I think in terms of creating alternatives. If the system has no room for us, if the system simply leaves 50% of young people unemployed, if state benefits are cut back, if the state absolutely refuses to negotiate, if the police become more repressive, then I think we are forced not only to think of creative forms of protest but also ways of how we actually survive and how we actually create alternative ways of living. And we see that very much in Spain and in Greece, where things are going in that direction. I think what the crisis is also telling us is that that‘s the way to go, but that we haven’t gone far enough yet. We’re not yet in a situation where we can just tell capital to go to hell and survive without it. That’s really the problem. But I think that’s the direction we have to go in.
ROAR: The cracks in capitalism seem to flourish in times of crisis. We saw this in the popular uprising in Argentina in 2001-’02, as Marina Sitrin powerfully portrayed in her book Everyday Revolutions, and we’re seeing it in Southern Europe today. Is there a way to perpetuate such cracks beyond the economic ‘hard times’?
JH: I don’t know. First I don’t think times necessarily get better and secondly I’m not sure that we should worry too much about perpetuation. If you look at Argentina, there was clearly a sense in which things did get better. Like the economy, rates of profit recovered, a process in which a lot of the movements of 2001 and 2002 became sucked into the state. But the problems have obviously reappeared somewhere else. If you look at Spain and Greece, firstly there are no short-term perspectives of things getting substantially better. Secondly, if they did get better, then the crisis would move on somewhere else. And the search for alternative ways of living moves on.
I think there is an accumulation of experience, and also an accumulation of growing awareness that spreads from one country to another, that capitalism just isn’t working and that it is in serious problems. I think that people in Greece look to Argentina and recognize the importance of the experiences of 10 years ago. And I think that people in Argentina – even if things have improved economically for them – look to Greece and see the instability of capitalism. The failure of capitalism is showing up again in another place. I think there is a growing sense throughout the world that capitalism isn’t working. There is a growing confidence perhaps that the cracks we create or the crazinesses we create may really be the basis for a new world and a new society, and may really be the only way forward.
What I don’t like about the idea of perpetuation is that it suggests a smooth upward progress. I don’t think it works like that. I think it’s more like a social flow of rebellion, something that moves throughout the world, with eruptions in one place and then in another place. But there are continuities below the discontinuities. We have to think in terms of disrupting, bubbling movements rather than thinking that it all depends on whether we can perpetuate the movement in one place. If we think in terms of perpetuation in one place, I think it can lead us into either an institutionalization, which I think is not much help, or it can lead us into a sense of defeat, perhaps, which I don’t think is right.
ROAR: What’s wrong with institutionalization? You engaged in a debate with Michael Hardt on this issue, where the position that Hardt and Negri take is that institutionalization per se is not a problem, as long as it is part of the constituent movement; the self-organizing element of rebellion. What’s your view on this?
JH: I think institutionalization is not necessarily damaging. It may or may not be, but we should not focus on that, we should think much more in terms of movements. The danger is that we start thinking in terms of institutionalization at the point at which movements are beginning to fail. Institutionalization can be a way of prolonging their life, but then they turn into something that’s not very exciting and not very interesting. If we think of institutionalization in terms of parties, I think that can definitely be harmful. That is what is happening in Argentina at the moment. If you start thinking that you have to start preparing for the next elections, with luck we may win 1.5% of the votes, and maybe five years after that we’ll win 4% of the votes, or whatever. Once you start going in that direction I think it really is destructive; it’s a way of binding movements into the destructive boredom of state politics.
If you think of institutionalization in terms of the World Social Forum, which has been taking place in the last week or so, then it doesn’t do much harm, but that’s really not where the heart of the movements lies either. It can be useful to have meeting places and it can be useful certainly to create links between movements in different parts of the world. And I think it’s very important to overcome, in practical terms, the national orientation of movements. But institutions aren’t really where it’s happening.
ROAR: Last month we witnessed the passing of Hugo Chávez. There are those, like Dario Azzelini, who have praised Chávez for his support in the creation of tens of thousands of cooperatives and communal councils, arguing that the Bolivarian Revolution really empowered the popular base. To what extent is it possible to mobilize the state as a crack within the system of capitalist domination?
JH: I think it doesn’t work. I think that all revolutionary movements and all movements of radical change are profoundly contradictory. If you look at Venezuela, it’s very interesting because on the one hand it’s very much a state-centered movement, but on the other hand I think there are lots of genuine movements that really aim at transforming society from below, from the neighborhoods. I think with Chávez there was an awareness of that contradiction, and in lots of ways a genuine attempt to strengthen the movement from below and to strengthen the communal councils. But when you try to promote that from above, from the state, of course it’s contradictory. In some cases it has led genuinely to the strengthening of communal movements, sometimes very much in tension with the state structures.
I think that the strength of Chávismo over time is really going to depend not so much on the state organization but on the strength of these communal movements. So no, I don’t think that you can think of the state as being an anti-capitalist crack, simply because the state is a form of organization that excludes people; it is a form of organization that dovetails very easily with the reproduction of capital and derives its income from the accumulation of capital. But I think that even in those countries where the movement for radical change is dominated by the state like in Venezuela, Bolivia or even Cuba, to some extent, pushes in different directions continue at the same time.
ROAR: Have you always had this view about the impossibility of state-based revolutionary action?
JH: I think it was probably always my view. In a way it goes back to the old debates on the state, the so-called state derivation debate in the 1970s, where the emphasis was on trying to understand the state as a capitalist form of social relations. And I think I always took it for granted that of course, if you think of the state as a capitalist form of social relations, then obviously you can’t think of using the state to bring about revolution. We have to think in terms of anti-state forms of organization. So in that sense when I came to write Change the World without Taking Power, I thought I was saying something that was very obvious. I think it has always been my view, but when I came to Mexico and with the Zapatista uprising, then of course it got a new shape, a new impulse.
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.
ROAR: You have written that the transition from capitalism to the future world is necessarily an interstitial process, much like the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This directly contradicts the orthodox Marxist view that revolution is by definition a dramatic top-down transformation of society occurring in a very brief period of time. If this traditional view of revolution is outdated, how would you describe the interstitial process that replaces it?
JH: At first sight, the interstitial view contrasts with the traditional view that ‘we take power and we will bring social transformation from the top-down’. But in reality even that is still an interstitial concept because there was this idea that the state corresponds with society – that they are coterminous – which is obviously nonsense. State and society don’t have the same boundaries. Given that there are some 200 states in the world-system, and given that we won’t overthrow all these states on the same day, even if we want to focus on state power we will have to think interstitially. In this view, it’s just that we are thinking of states as being the relevant interstices, which seems ridiculous. What that means is that we are trying to take control of a form of organization that was constructed to promote the reproduction of capital. Everything in the last century suggests it doesn’t work.
We have to think of interstices, but in terms of our own forms of organization. States don’t make much sense. So we have to think in terms of something from below, creating our own forms of organization and interaction. We do it at the scale that we can: sometimes it’s just a little thing, like this garden we’re in. Sometimes it’s bigger, like a big chunk of the state of Chiapas now being self-governed by the Zapatistas. The question then becomes: how can we promote the confluence of these cracks?
There is this idea that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was an interstitial process, but that the movement from capitalism to communism or socialism cannot be – and that’s clearly wrong. If we think of communism, or the society that we want to create on the basis of self-determination, it has to come from below and not from the structures that deny its existence. This means an interstitial process in two temporalities, which are nicely expressed by the Zapatistas. First comes: ‘Ya basta!’ – we cannot accept this, not in terms of our survival, not in terms of our mental health. If this continues it will mean the destruction of humanity. We have to start now and break now. In this sense, the process is not gradual. It is here and now that we must create something else. But then comes the second Zapatista slogan: ‘We walk, we do not run, because we are going very far’ – a recognition that it’s not just a question of a one-day transformation of society; it’s a question of creating a new world.