Ramor Ryan: Your previous book, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today quickly became one of the quintessential texts of the new anti-Capitalist milieu. In it you contend that the possibility of revolution resides not in the seizure of state apparatuses, but in day-to-day acts of abject refusal of capitalist society, and ask how we can reformulate our understanding of revolution as the struggle against power, not for power. Ultimately, you assert that revolution today must be understood as a question, not as an answer. How do you build on this thesis in your latest work Crack Capitalism?
John Holloway: To my delight, Change the World stirred up a lot of discussion, both horrified criticism and cries of delight. But the reaction that made most impact on me was the one that said “Great, we know you’re right, we don’t want to take power, we don’t want to enter into the dirty logic of political parties, but then what on earth do we do?” In the new book I propose an answer – crack capitalism, create cracks in capitalist domination in as many ways as possible and let them expand and multiply and flow together. But of course it’s an answer that is really a question: still the question is how do we do it and do these cracks have any chance of survival? The important thing is to look around and see where we are already, to see the millions and millions of different ways in which people are already creating cracks, breaking with the logic of capital and creating spaces or moments in which different social relations prevail. The Zapatistas are the most obvious example, or the movement in Argentina in 2001/2002 or the MST in Brazil, but there are millions of examples of people just walking in the opposite direction, against the stream, individually or collectively. So many dignities. What the book tries to do is think from those many dignities, to think how we can understand them as the starting point for revolutionary change.
RR: You focus on social movements, not political parties or political leaders, as the place where the answers will emerge to the question of what a revolution will look like today. You have asserted that “At the heart of the social movements of recent years, at least in their more radical variants, is a drive against the logic of capitalist society.” Can you elaborate on this idea with particular focus on social movements in Latin America?
JH: Yes, I think there is an almost universal and highly contradictory drive against the dynamic of capitalism. Anti-capitalism is the most common thing in the world, though people do not necessarily think of it in those terms. The problem with political parties is that they channel anti-capitalist anger back into a capitalist form, the form of the state. I think it is important to give this anti-capitalist anger an anti-capitalist form of organisation, a form of organisation that helps people to express their anger and their desires, that is based on the mutual recognition of people’s dignity. This is an extremely important tradition in the anti-capitalist movement, from the Paris Commune, the soviets in Russia, the anarchist councils in Spain, the asambleas barriales in Argentina, the communal councils of the Zapatistas with their mandar obedeciendo, the cabildos in Bolivia, and so on. When the organisation gets turned towards the state, as in the case of Bolivia or Venezuela or Cuba, it is not that the revolutionary push just disappears, but it is difficult to maintain the momentum, simply because the state is a form of organisation that was constructed to subordinate social conflict to the dynamic of capital, it is a form of organisation that separates leaders from led, and that excludes people. The state may be the adequate form for bringing about change on behalf of the people, but it cannot be the organisational form of change by the people, and that is what a real break with capitalism requires.
RR: Born in Ireland and raised in Scotland, you have lived in Latin America for the last 19 years, based in Mexico. How has the lived-experience of Latin America impacted your work?
JH: It’s hard to know. I moved to Mexico three years before the Zapatista uprising and I think that for me, as for many others, the uprising was like a flash of lightning that made things fall into place, that gave a new sense and force to what I had been feeling and thinking already. It was the great Zapatista announcement that here was a new way of organising against capitalism, of talking against capitalism, a new grammar of anti-capitalist revolution. And then the argentinazo of 2001/2002 was enormously important in being a sort of urban zapatismo. And of course the constant interaction with colleagues and students who are immersed in memories of revolutionary struggle and in trying to find new ways forward. It is often horrifying, but always an extremely stimulating place to live and think.
RR: Your work has spawned considerable debate in Latin America, particularly irking supporters of the regional left-leaning governments (for example, Chavez in Venezuela , Evo Morales in Bolivia or the FMLN backed government in El Salvador). They argue that by taking political power they are more effectively ‘changing the world’. Do you think there is a conflict of interest between social movements
and political parties? Is the electoral victory of left parties impacting negatively on the grassroots social movements?
JH: I’m all I favour of combining with people and going together as far as we can. I certainly don’t think we should start off with definitions and exclusions and “we’re not going to work with them because they’re members of a political party”. Left-wing parties include all sorts of people who are there because they genuinely want to change things. And on the whole (though not always) I think it’s probably better for the left to win elections (I would rather have Chávez or Evo or Dilma or Christina Kirchner to the right wing alternatives, and I think AMLO would have been less disastrous than Calderón here in Mexico).
That said, that is not our politics, that is not where important anti-capitalist change is going to come. There are just too many forces that pull governments back in to the logic of capitalist accumulation and that means that their interests are opposed to ours. The real issue is that progressive governments are progressive governments and we, on the other hand, are the left that dare not speak its name but must and are beginning to: we are the anti-progressive left. Not of course in the sense of being against change or the emancipation of social creativity, but in the sense of being opposed to the destructive Progress that is at the core of capitalism. Nearly all the great struggles of recent years, perhaps especially here in Latin America, have been against
Progress – the extension of the línea 12 of the Metro in Mexico City, the construction of the paper mills in Uruguay, the building of Walmarts in Cuernavaca and Puebla and lots of other places, the mining of lithium in Bolivia, the destruction of the Amazon in Peru, and so on. Left-wing governments champion Progress, that is the problem.
RR: You have argued that the “social movements are not organized as parties: their aim is not to take state power.” During the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras and more recently in Ecuador, social movements have come out strongly in support of the Presidents under attack. What do such mobilizations reveal about the relationship between social movements and state power?
JH: (You might add Kirchner’s death a few days ago, and what does that tell us?) Of course it’s a very complex relationship. Right-wing attacks on left-wing governments, as in the case of Honduras or Ecuador or the coup attempt in Venezuela a few years ago are very clearly attacks on the people those governments claim to (but do not) represent, so that it makes a lot of sense to mobilise to defend them, but not uncritically. The response of the CONAIE in Ecuador to the attack on Correa a few weeks ago seemed to me excellent, where they used their defence of the President to criticise his failure to really implement measures of change.
RR: The Zapatistas have served as one of the most poignant examples of a movement that created a thriving autonomous zone without forming a political party or seeking electoral mandate, existing outside and beyond the established political scenario and creating a ‘crack’ in the capitalist system. But the Mexican State appears to have managed to contain and wear-out the Zapatista initiative. Critics (from the left) argue that considering the failure of the Zapatista example, to effectively expand or multiply in Mexico 16 years after the initial uprising of ’94, that this must this be now understood as an example of the impossibility of attempting to build a revolution without deposing the existing state power. Could you comment on this?
Ramor Ryan is a Chiapas-based Irish writer, and author of Clandestines: the Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006). His next book, Zapatista Spring, will be published by AK Press in Spring 2011.