John Holloway and Marina Sitrin discussed the new social movements in
MS: Our last interview/conversation was in 2004. In that we focused a great deal on the question of state power, and on not taking it in particular. We grounded most of the conversation in the autonomous social creations that have been and are taking place in
JH: Yes, I think it is a good place to start. These are not miserable times. Perhaps that is the most important point. Friends write to me from
I say “reflection”, but they are also a response to the rise of social struggles, a very complex and contradictory response. In all cases, they represent the attempt to statisfy the struggle, to give it a state form, which means of course to de-fuse the struggle and channel it into forms of organisation compatible with the reproduction of capital. In some cases the “left” governments are openly reformist and repressive (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay), in other cases (Venezuela, in particular), there seems to be a genuine attempt to push the state form to the limit, to open it out into real forms of popular control. How far that can be done from within state structures and from within a leader-dominated organisation I doubt very much, but certainly the trajectory of the Venezuelan government has been much more interesting than what one would have expected.
So the real importance of the “left” governments is NOT the faÃ§ade but that behind the faÃ§ade the continent is fizzing.
MS: It’s the fizzing of the continent, and where the fizzing is located, that I want to talk more about. I agree that the real inspiration in
JH: No, I don’t think they open up spaces for the movements. Or possibly they open up spaces for what the movements want to do, but push them into a different way of doing it, into a way of doing things that blends into the system. In the best of cases, there is an expropriation of a revolution: the government carries out many of the aims of the movement, but it does it on behalf of the movement, telling the movement in effect to stay at home or convert itself into the loyal supporter of the government. This is very much the feeling I got in
Is it better, then, to have a left or a right-wing government, or does it not make any difference? I think that, on the whole, it is probably better to have a left government, though not always. In the case of
MS: So, how do we do this? What does that look like? I know it is a question that people in the various movements are asking themselves and one another. Even before the elections of “left” governments, many people were questioning how to continue organizing based on their own space and time. Now the questions appear even sharper. What do you see as some possible paths? For example, in the 1990s the group HIJOS in
JH: I think that’s always a difficult question. It’s one thing to say that we can’t change the world through the state – that seems to me fairly clear. But it’s very difficult to say that we will have no relation at all with the state. I am a professor in a state university and probably many of the people reading this (if there are any) receive some sort of income from the state. So it is not a question of purity – there is no purity in a capitalist society. It is a question of how we deal with the implications of our contact with the state, how we avoid falling into the state as a form of organisation. One important issue is whether movements should accept any form of state funding or subsidy. The Zapatistas (for whom I obviously have an enormous admiration) take the line that they will accept absolutely no subsidy. Given the situation in
MS: How does one fight against this intervention and expropriation? One of
the challenges that I see is that the state is determining the framework of the conversation. In
JH: In this interview you are setting the agenda with your questions. If I didn’t like the questions (but I do, I do – I like them very much), I wouldn’t just ignore the question, I would reply in a way that sought to re-impose my agenda. A conversation is always two-sided. If you tell me that you’re going to nationalise gas on our behalf, then I say “Excellent, but if it’s on our behalf, then let us administer it.” The issue is one of form, isn’t it, rather than content, the how rather than the what of politics. That is surely what we have to push all the time. The central problem with Evo and with ChÃ¡vez is not so much what they’re doing as the way that they are doing it, the organisational forms involved.
In other words, our relation with the state is not just against, and not just beyond, but against-and-beyond. The only autonomy we can have is an autonomy that moves against-and-beyond, with as much emphasis on the beyond as possible – getting on with our own project, but understanding that project as a movement against-and-beyond. There is no pure exodus, only contradictory movements of rupture.
MS: Where do you see these ruptures? These ruptures that are also creations? The against and beyond?
JH: All over the place. I think it is a question of opening our eyes and seeing the World not in terms of domination but in terms of insubordination. The against-and-beyond I see as refusal-and-creation: “No, we are not going to do what capital requires of us; we are going to do what we consider necessary or desirable.” This is what the Zapatistas are saying: “¡Ya basta! Enough of being oppressed, we are going to get on with our own project, create our own Juntas de Buen Gobierno, our own system of health and education. And we are going to radiate and resonate outwards, we are not just going to be a closed autonomy, but a crack in the system of domination, a crack that spreads.” But of course there are loads and loads of other examples. Sometimes it is because the state just isn’t there that people have no alternative but to take matters into their own hands. That has been the case in El Alto in
Perhaps it is all about setting our own agenda. The core of capitalism is that it is a system of command over what we do. To rebel is to say “no, we shall determine what we shall do, we shall set our own agenda.” In other words, within the against-and-beyond, we want the beyond to set as much as possible the direction and pace for the against. Obviously this can be very difficult in practice, but the great problem of the left is that we let capital determine the agenda most of the time, and then we follow behind, protesting. In the Otra CampaÃ±a, for example, the repression in Atenco meant that the government effectively regained control of the agenda when Marcos decided to interrupt his tour of the country. Certainly the struggle against the repression was and is crucial, but it is very important for us not to lose control of our own rhythms of struggle. This is something the Zapatistas have been very good at, on the whole, and it is a point emphasised for example by the MTD Solano, one of the most impressive piquetero groups in
Once one begins to focus on these against-and-beyonds, these cracks in domination, then one’s image of the world begins to change. We begin to see it not (or not just) as a world of domination but as a world full of refusal-and-creations, full of dignities of all kinds.
MS: Many academics, especially those writing in the English language, have been critically writing about the horizontal movements in
JH: 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 ChÃ¡vez 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
MS: Many reading this conversation are already inspired by the movements growing across the globe, especially in Latin America, and will likely, or have already, begun to think, ok, so how do I move against and beyond the state? What does that mean and what could it look like? Should I go and spend time with autonomous movements? What do you say to people who ask these sorts of questions?
JH: There’s no recipe, is there? Certainly I meet lots of people who have spent time in Zapatista communities and I’m always very impressed by them and what they’ve learnt. But I think the central point is probably the Zapatista principle of starting from where we are, to fight to transform where we are: not only to build the Movement (though that may be important), but to try to set our own agenda in whatever we are doing. In Marxist terms, to struggle for use value against value, creative or useful doing against abstract labour. And very important, to look around and recognise, to learn to see all the ways in which people are already struggling against and beyond capital, struggling for dignity in their everyday lives. The most terribly destructive idea on the left is the idea that we’re special, that we’re different. We’re not – everybody rebels in some way: our problem is to recognise rebellion and find a way of touching it. The most profound challenge of the Zapatistas is when they say “we are perfectly ordinary people, therefore rebels”: that is perhaps the most important thing – to understand the everyday nature of revolution.
Perhaps a more practical answer: there’s a wonderful new book coming out by the Trapese Collective called Do it Yourself (Pluto Press, London, sometime soon) with a very practical guide to what we can do, setting up community gardens, organising social centres, organising without leaders, taking charge of our own health and education, and so on.
MS: What is one of the most inspiring moments that you have seen/felt in the last year? What made it so inspiring?
JH: Two answers.
The first is not a moment but a whole lot of moments, when I’ve been invited to all sorts of meetings of autonomous groups in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, here in Mexico and the experience is often just overwhelming, meeting the people involved in the struggles and seeing their commitment and enthusiasm and the way in which different social relations are really already a reality for so many people, and seeing especially the young people and the depth of their understanding and their capacities – in Guatemala, for example, I met a fourteen-year-old from the countryside who was doing regular radio broadcasts on topics such as the proposed Free Trade Agreement. The reality is running so far ahead of any theoretical reflections we make.
The second is just a few days ago, a short concert of music from
John Holloway is the author of Change the World Without Taking Power (Pluto Press, 2002) and co-author of Zapatista! Rethinking Revolution in