Capital, Hope, and “a Moment of Terrible Social Intensity”: a Conversation with John Holloway

As 2020 drew to a close, the Movements of Movements project convened a series of conversations about the challenges and opportunities facing the left.[1] During a year with few historical parallels and to better understand the conjuncture, two project members, Moodliar and Meyer, reached out to John Holloway who has devoted a considerable amount of work to understanding the relationship between the rule of capital and the grounds for hope. In the resulting interview, one that takes a conceptual turn, a series of distinctions are evoked to clarify the contradictions that emerge in practice – social movements versus movements-in-opposition, the working class versus the proletariat, “the end of history” versus “shattering the continuum of history,” state violence versus righteous rage, capital and hope.

Born in Dublin, resident in Mexico City, Holloway is best known as a movement thinker who has grappled with the theory of state in capitalism and has gone on help us understand the meaning and potential of global movements to transcend the rule of capital. Meyer, a resident of Brooklyn, is a lifelong activist, author and educator working within the black liberation and global peace movements. South African-born Moodliar is managing editor of Socialism and Democracy and Boston-based activist.[2]

Suren Moodliar: We’ll have several detours in the conversation along the way to hope, but our starting point has to be Change the World Without Taking Power.[3] It is no exaggeration to call it “a seminal text.” It inspired activists, provoked whole seminar series, generated counter books, and prompted many repetitions of the phrase, “change the world without…” Can you take us back to the context in which you wrote that book?

John Holloway: The moment in which it came out was pretty important. The book itself was something that I had been working on for years. I was involved in the old debates of the Conference of Socialist Economists in Britain, in the ’70s and ’80s, around the state, and really developing the idea, which also connected with the German State Derivation Debate.[4] So the central question there was how we understand the state as a capitalist state. If we understand the state as a capitalist state, then it seemed to me obvious that means we can’t think of changing the world through the state. I just took that for granted as being obvious.

By the time I finally formulated all this into a book, it was 2002 – a very lively time. Especially in Latin America, especially in Argentina. The book was published in Spanish in Argentina, just after the uprising of December 2001 and the whole movement that stretched into 2002. So it just connected perfectly there with all the discussions that were going on, and also connected obviously with the whole Zapatista and post-Zapatista alter-globalization movement.

In that sense, the timing was very fortunate, I think. And partly because of that it sparked off loads and loads of discussions. It was translated into 11 languages, I think. When I first finished the book, I thought, “Well, maybe a few of my friends will understand what I’m trying to say.” But the reaction was just fantastic.

Suren: I appreciate the context of the alter-globalization movement, events in Argentina, and so on. But this was also the time when the Pink Tide seemed to be coming in. There were many state-based projects, including most spectacularly, the Bolivarian project in Venezuela, one which seemed very credible. What was the chemistry between these two – those taking power and those seeking change without taking power?

John: I think with Venezuela there really was not so much of a connection. My contact in Venezuela is the absolutely fabulous cooperative known as CECOSESOLA [Central de las cooperativas de Lara, Cooperatives of Social Services of Lara State], which has existed for nearly 50 years. They are a center of cooperatives and their main activity is what they call, peculiarly, “a festival of consumption.” But their festival is actually the organization of a popular supermarket each weekend, where food is provided to the community. This is in the town of Barquisimeto – a huge proportion of the town’s population go there every week.

The amazing thing is that if you go there and visit them, you discover that they spend a big part of their time just sitting around in circle, with children. They discuss their problems, personal problems, communal problems. And in this way, they’re trying to build a different world.

Their argument, which was really a critical argument already at that time of the Bolivarian government was that “if you really want to change things, you can’t just bring in a decree that now there are going to be lots of cooperatives.” You need a process of years and years of work together, developing different social relations, different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking about things.

I suppose the three things that had a big impact in Latin America were the whole movement in Argentina, which was just amazing, the War of Water in Bolivia in the 2000, and—all the time— the background of the Zapatista movement here in Mexico, which has just been an amazing source of inspiration.

Matt Meyer: I’m curious as to whether you’ve had contact with the folks in Venezuela who helped develop the First Eco-Socialist International. I am not aware of them particularly citing you, but there’s no question that part of the conversations among the eco-socialists has been along similar lines. Obviously in Venezuela they have a Ministry of Eco-socialism, but those who founded the International are grassroots folks who led the movement to get rid of Monsanto, as well as the movement being called “Trueke”—bartering and trade—mainly rooted in the Afro-Venezuelan centers of the country.

It seems to me fairly inevitable that some of concepts which you have put forward, like the idea of ceasing to “create” capitalism, are integrated into that mindset, whether because of an overt understanding of those concepts or just because of the evolutionary way in which it’s become clear that the state is not necessarily the only, or perhaps the major, way of making revolution.

Social Movements versus Movements in Opposition

Suren: To follow up on that, you famously challenged the idea of social movements as an emancipatory category, preferring instead the idea of “movements-in-opposition.” You’ve described the anti-privatization water movement in Bolivia in very positive terms. Can you say a little bit more about the distinction between social movements and the oppositional movements?

John: It is not so much a distinction. There’s a question of vocabulary in conceptualization. It’s really in the last 20 to 30 years that the notion of social movements has arisen. And I think to some extent, initially it was a conscious attempt to get away from the language of class struggle. This may be wrong, but the idea of the social movements suggests an infinite number of movements struggling against particular injustices.

But the peculiar thing is that if you’ve got an infinite or this huge number of disparate movements, then you’re in fact killing the notion of hope. Because [these movements form] a permanent thing. Of course, you’re going to win one struggle, lose another. You’ll lose most of them and you’ll win some of them, and it’ll go on and on. There is no longer any revolutionary perspective. There’s no longer any perspective, except in the most general terms. There’s no direct fighting against capitalism as a coherent social system.

If you look at all of these movements, they’re not social. I mean, they’re social movements in one sense, but they’re actually movements of resistance. They are movements that arise from some sort of aggression, which can be understood normally as a capitalist depression. So they are in fact movements of resistance, and in the best, most active cases, they’re movements of resistance and rebellion. What really annoys me is the degree to which this notion of social movements has become established: convenient enough, but actually very destructive, both theoretically and politically.

Suren: If one looks at Alain Touraine’s overall trajectory, he first began to write extensively about social movements after looking at the 1968 student movements, and then discovered movements like Solidarity in Poland or the Corsican nationalist movement. In that period he also developed the idea of the sociological intervention, in which he brought together movement activists of various parts of the movement, and seemed to have an intuition that by understanding the interaction between the activists in different parts of the movement, we get an overall sense of their developmental potential, and their transformational capacity.

Of course, by the late 1990s, he almost arrives at the end of history, and as you say, at the end of Hope. So I find your argument about the way in which social movements were conceptualized very helpful. Although I do want to recognize that there are many sociologists who still use the vocabulary and see it in emancipatory terms as well.

John: That’s right. It’s quite difficult to avoid the vocabulary completely, and of course, as you’re saying, many sociologists and students do want to do something radical. The easiest way to think about it is that if we focus solely on social movements something important is lost.

Suren: This brings me to another dichotomy, the proletariat against the working class. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

John: I take this from Katherina Nasioka, a PhD student of mine whose thesis was later published as a book. She focused on the uprising in Oaxaca in 2006, and the uprising in Athens, and Greece as a whole, in 2010. She’s Greek herself and her argument is that the best way to understand what was happening is as a result of the proletariat against the working class.[5]

If you look at Greece, especially at that time, there were very big conflicts within the radical left. There are few who don’t want to be called left, the radical anti-capitalists or rebels on the one hand, and the powerful structure of the trade unions, still dominated by the old Communist Party, on the other.

In that context, I remember there was one occasion in 2011 when the organized workers, the “working class” in that sense, actually physically defended the Parliament from an assault by the rebels. I have another Greek former PhD student, Panagiotis Doulos, who says that we probably shouldn’t attach the name “rebels” to the opposition. We should think of them as some “movement without name” against the organized and named working class.

“A Moment of Terrible Social Intensity”

Matt: It seems to me we’re stuck in some ways, in part in the naming of things. Because parts of what they’re talking about are old left versus new left and newer left. Some of this may just be different ways of attacking the problem. But part of it is a conceptual one: whether social movements can be a form building more radical or revolutionary movements.

As we’ve talked about the “end of history” and the end of hope, you’ve written about “shattering the continuum of history,” which I think is a much more interesting concept. In fact, it’s not about the end of history, it’s about the end of conceptualizing things in a particular way, especially about (re)creating capitalism in a particular way and replacing it by something else.

John, you’ve written some years ago that we want a moment or we need a moment of terrible social intensity. Are we at that moment today? Have we reached that moment? If we have, if this is that moment, then what do people need to be doing to shatter the continuum of history and build new forms?

John: The easy answer is I don’t know!

I would say we’re possibly on the edge of such a moment. Okay, this is silly, but you remember the musical West Side Story and the song “Something’s Coming!”? It’s only at the beginning, but kind of on the edge. Something’s going to happen, maybe something good, but we don’t know what.

I think there are moments when you can actually feel that. In Argentine in December 2001, you could really feel kind of an excitement and tension and anger in the air. I also happened to be in Athens in 2011, just before the occupation of the squares began. Are we in that moment now? It is always fairly hard to judge. What I would say is that yes, but probably not within a week.

I think that it is very likely, or very possible rather, that within one or two years we will be in a really explosive situation in different parts of the world. And I suspect different cities of the world in particular. I think that we’re in a situation of suspense at the moment. It’s just not clear how things are going to come out. It’s not just the US; it’s not clear what’s going to happen with the whole situation of capitalism in the next couple of years.

One real possibility is that we’re in a situation rather like the 1930s, but possibly much worse. We might see a period of huge unemployment, of real impoverishment, of growing nationalism, of a growing push towards the possibility of war. How do we prepare for that? How do we think of that? That’s really the question you’re posing.

I suppose in terms of anger, there’s kind of a reasoning that says we should win periods of great anger, but there are also historical experiences which suggest that we tend to lose in periods of great anger. If we think obviously of the 1930s, but also just back to 2008 and all that followed, I think that led to a huge upsurge in social anger throughout the world. But that social anger was then expressed in the rise of people like Trump, Johnson or Bolsanaro.

It may be that what’s going to happen… is a surge of social anger. How do we say that this anger is ours? Is it anger against capital? This anger has to come in our direction…. How do we intervene in an angry world?

It may be that what’s going to happen over the next couple of years is a similar and much greater surge of social anger. How do we say that this anger is ours? Is it anger against capital? This anger has to come in our direction. How do we do that? How do we intervene in an angry world, an angry and also fairly diffuse world? I don’t have a clear answer at all. Obviously we try to make the connections between people’s anger and the failure of capital. I suppose that is what’s happening at the moment, in a way, with the pandemic.

But it seems really important to say: “look, this is the failure of a system.” It’s the failure of capitalism, that’s what we’re living now. Lots of people are saying that I suppose, but how do we use that, and think in terms of change through that. Obviously, I don’t think it’s a question of electoral politics. Maybe one could use some electoral politics in terms of opposing things, but not in terms of proposing things.

Matt: As part of reconceptualizing and rethinking or rebuilding revolution, are there ways that blow apart old and sometimes false dichotomies? Are there tactical, strategic, and sometimes philosophical conceptions of violence and nonviolence, for example, which need to be reworked, the idea of only being able to make revolution one way and not the other. How can we not get stuck in dogmas, in old dichotomies, possibly like violence/nonviolence.

The recent piece that you wrote about the world post-COVID speaks a little bit to hope beyond the current crises.[6] Part of what you wrote says: “Well, what do we do with the capitalists? Maybe we should just hang them by the nearest lamppost. Or maybe just forget about them. Yeah, better to just forget about them.” What is your thinking about getting past these dichotomies?

John: I’d forgotten about that thing! But yes, people got annoyed with that.

I think it’s what I was saying a moment ago. We have to start from or at least certainly respect people’s anger. The Zapatistas have this fantastic phrase, La Digna Rabia—Righteous rage! And that seems to me absolutely the right way to think about it. We have to think of change, we have to think of movements, not starting from rational argument but in terms of respect for the anger that people feel.

From that anger, I suppose my feeling is that the best way, without wanting to be completely pacifist, would be to say that violence seemed to be a mistake. It was and is the wrong way to express our anger for two reasons.

Firstly, because we’re just not very good at it! We’re not violent people. If I took up and matched guns against the Mexican state, obviously I would lose. I mean, it’d be ridiculous.

And the other thing is that it’s not part of the society we want to create. Whereas I wouldn’t rush to condemn somebody for being violent—it’s not a kind of principled pacifism—but the important thing really is to find how to express our anger in dignified, worthy, righteous ways. And that is something else. That is not shooting people, and it is not hitting people.

Capital & Identity

Suren: John, you have also considered the challenge of identity politics. Respect and dignity are at the core of this form of politics. In talking about “a many-headed Hydra,” which expresses itself in the traditional race, class, and gender kinds of distinctions, you written that we need to go back to the notion of capital and see it as a transitory phenomenon. How may we conceptualize capital in order to transcend it and how this relates to your critique of identity?

John: This really goes back to my involvement in the state derivation debate in the 1970s. The question there really was: how do we derive the particularization of the state from the nature of capitalist social relations? In other words, the question is, how do we derive the existence of the political as something distinct from the economic? How do we conceptualize this from the base, from the nature of capitalist social relations? That leads us then to the idea that capital is characterized by this separation into the political and the economic. In other words, when we are talking about capital, we’re talking about the totality of social relations.

Capital is not just an economic category. It’s a way of talking about the totality of social obligations and saying that this totality of social relations has a certain structure, a certain form. This is how Marx analyzes things in Capital. It’s based on the fact that richness or wealth exists in the form of commodities. When I talk about the importance of capital, I’m not talking just about the importance of the economic, okay? There is importance in trying to understand the structure and dynamic of social relations in society.

If we lose the overall concept of capital, if everything dissolves into a multitude of social movements, then the idea of a fundamental transformation of society gets lost completely.

Secondly, what I’ve been thinking more and more about over the past year or so is that this concept of capital is crucial for thinking about hope. We tend to think of capital as a form of domination, which of course it is. But the idea of an overall structure of society is crucial for thinking about hope. We need this in order to understand that yes, we really can transform society as a whole. If we lose the overall concept of capital, if everything dissolves into a multitude of social movements, then the idea of a fundamental transformation of society gets lost completely. And I think that is what’s been happening with many contemporary protest movements.

There is a loss of the concept of capital. There are fewer and fewer students reading Capital, for example. Fewer are understanding or using that language. It may be that more students are working on social movements, or women’s movements, or studying gender; I don’t know. But there is a loss of this overall concept of a social structure which can be transformed.

Identity comes into it because I think that these losses are part of the growth of particularistic politics, divorced from some sort of conception of a universal or totalizing structure. Whereas if we think about political capital, then we’re thinking of society as being antagonistic, constitutively antagonistic, to things that don’t penetrates into all of us. If political capital penetrates into all of us, then it’s silly to think that we have some sort of identity separated from that antagonism. Does that make sense?

Matt: I think it’s not a coincidence that these contradictions have emerged so strikingly at a time when we talk a lot about the nonprofit industrial complex, the “professionalization” of social change. We talk a lot more about social change and a lot more about individualized or personalized depression, and a lot less about revolution—a lot less about liberation.

John: I think that’s right.

Dual Power

Suren: In thinking about how we oppose Capital as a whole, you’ve proposed anti-power. Where does the historical notion of dual power fit in, if at all? In other words, how can we go about building another form of power within the capitalist society, in order to transcend it?

John: You’re asking where the notion of dual power fits in?

The notion of dual power, I suppose, is usually associated with the traditional state-centered idea of revolutions. It’s a situation of dual power in Russia in 1917, no? How should we think about it at this moment? I suppose, I don’t know. If we’re talking about cracks, for example, then we have to talk about the development of more and more attempts to create spaces or times that go against capital. There are different ways of developing things. Do you call that a situation of dual power? Perhaps.

Suren: My question is a bit of an anachronism in that we hardly talk about dual power anymore. However, there are many projects, especially here in the United States, which don’t quite reject electoral politics but are involved in building regional networks and systems of power as it were. There is some coordination between political projects and more community-based cooperatives, like Cooperation Jackson or Cooperation Humboldt.

John: I think that these questions are definitely important. It connects with something that we’ve been discussing here—the increasing use of alternatives. But in Mexico and Latin America, instead of talking about revolution people are talking about the construction of alternatives. The construction of alternatives obviously could be seen in terms of dual power. And when we go on creating alternatives, we are creating a different world.

On the one hand, I find the growth of all these movements trying to do things in a different way quite exciting. But I also find it disturbing in the sense that some of these are not actually alternatives at all. But some of what is developing are in fact movements against capitalist organization or capitalist imposition. We have to theorize this way and understand a certain negative grammar. Negative grammar may say, okay, these are exciting movements, but they’re movements against—movements against capital, rather than just movements for the creation of something else. We must wonder, why? Why insist on this negative grammar?

I think it’s a little bit like raising a flag. What are we trying to do? If we’re writing a thesis or a book, if we’re organizing around something, we want to raise a black and red flag on top of it! Sometimes we don’t want to say it and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to say it. But perhaps it’s important for us to at least have that flag in our minds!

I suppose that comes back to question of dual power. We must understand dual power as part of a fundamental antagonism, and not just the proliferation of different things. Because the proliferation of different things is fairly easily integrate-able back into capital.

Suren: So we must keep in mind the idea of a break; the antagonism has to be central even when deploying the euphemistic term “alternative”?

John: I think so, yes. It’s a kind of protection, giving “alternatives” some clear direction against capital.

Suren: Against the totalization of capital, you’re proposing “many worlds.” How are these many worlds supposed to relate to one another? What are the forms of communication and negotiation that have to happen between these many worlds?

John: It’s not me who’s proposing the many worlds, it’s the Zapatistas who say “we want to create a world of many worlds.” And the Zapatistas are extremely important in all these discussions. This growth of emphasis on alternatives, for example—certainly in Latin America, is very much connected with Indigenous movements. But the way I understand the Zapatistas is that they saying “absolutely not.” We are anti-capitalist. They’re far too diplomatic and far too clever to simply say “we are not an alternative.” But especially with the EZLN Sixth Declaration in 2005, they say explicitly for the first time: “We are Anti-Capitalist.”[7]

There are two new communiques which came out in October 2020 that are absolutely astonishing, brilliant. They’re saying: look, we’re going to go to all the continents of the world, to set sail in April. This isn’t a question of an Indigenous movement, they assert. We need every color, every people from all over the world to think about breaking with the catastrophe that we’re living. It seems to me they’re breaking completely with this kind of “alternative” picture.[8]

The Zapatista idea of a world of many worlds is terrific but it’s not now. In order to get to the world of many worlds, we have to break with a single capitalist imposition of a logic of destruction. We must think about how we would organize or build organization and interconnection between different worlds or different communities. This thinking and organizing may be growing, with many different experiments. But some things will have to be left for when it comes.

Hope

Matt: So what should we do now, as we look towards the edge of the cliff we’re on now?

John: I am trying to write a book on hope. My starting point in all this was Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope,[9] which took me into Marx and all the discussions. He starts off saying that when he comes back to Germany after the war, after exile in the States, that now is the time to learn hope. My argument is that in this situation we are again in a time to learn hope. We’re no longer in the same context as Bloch. He was still thinking in terms of a traditional concept of revolution led by the Communist Party. Today, there aren’t any significant revolutionary parties in the world. Things seem to be getting darker and darker in many ways. And yet there’s a real need for hope.

People actually relate to this idea all the time. It’s the one cliche that is used by every single politician. For us, the only way we can think about hope is by thinking about the crisis of capital, the crisis of the existing system. How do we connect hope to our notion of the crisis, and what this crisis means?

We want to think of hope in relation to crisis. There has to be some way in which a breakdown of the system is part of the transition to a different world. I think possibly that’s what we’re living or what we’re going to be living in the next few years. We must figure out how to think about this in a way that isn’t Armageddon-ist. It does seem to me likely that we will be in a social crisis within a year or two that we just have no experience of. We don’t really have a clear conception of what it might mean politically and socially to have that level of great crisis in the current world. On the one hand, that prospect is very frightening but on the other hand, perhaps not. Perhaps we have to think of hope in that context.

Notes.

1/ “Movements of Movements Conversations,” The Movements of Movements Project, accessed May 13, 2021, https://movementsofmovements.net/movement-spaces/conversations.

2/ Matt Meyer is Co-Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association. Suren Moodliar is a coordinator of encuentro5, a Boston-based movement-building center.

3/ John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, (London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2005).

4/ John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, eds., State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Edward Arnold, 1978).

John Holloway, Katerina Nasiōka, and Panagiōtēs Doulos, eds., Beyond Crisis: After the Collapse of Institutional Hope in Greece, What? (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2020).

5/ John Holloway, “A Cascade of Angers — My COVID 19 Fantasy,” Daraja Press (blog), June 17, 2020, https://darajapress.com/2020/06/17/john-holloway-a-cascade-of-angers-my-covid-19-fantasy.

6/ “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona,” Enlace Zapatista (blog), May 10, 2010, https://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/sdsl-en/.

7/ “Sexta parte: Una Montaña en Alta Mar,” Enlace Zapatista (blog), October 5, 2020, http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2020/10/05/sexta-parte-una-montana-en-alta-mar/.

8/ Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 1. MIT paperback ed, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, [1954] 1995).

 

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