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(en) The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books - "Chasing the Tornado" - by Uri Gordon

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 14 Oct 2003 12:30:50 +0200 (CEST)


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Reviews of:
1) The Trajectory of Change - By Michael Albert
2) Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising - By Starhawk
3) Change the World Without Taking Power - By John Holloway
In the ever-ticklish relationship between practice and
theory, a significant role has always existed for what we
can call, for lack of a better name, “movement
literature.” Locke’s Two Treatises, Burke’s
Reflections, Paine’s response in Rights of Man, Marx
and Engels' Manifesto, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done
and Debray’s Critique of Arms—these are only the
most famous examples of works that were deeply rooted in
their authors’ concrete political activity and which
reflected and influenced ongoing processes of social
transformation.(1) Not surprisingly, the current upsurge of
anti-capitalist struggle is also accompanied by a great bulk
of such literature, with the three books reviewed here being
merely a selection from the most recent crop. Two of the
authors, Michael Albert and Starhawk, are veteran
American activists and the third, Holloway is an involved
academic closely following the Zapatista rebellion.

These books all convey an ongoing process of
self-assessment by today’s emancipatory networks.
However, each one also displays a completely different
variant of writing-as-activism. Michael Albert’s The
Trajectory of Change adopts a very didactic approach,
attempting to identify “problems” in an allegedly
unitary “movement” and sort them out.
Starhawk’s Webs of Power, on the other hand,
combines very personal writing with theoretical reflections
that are only gently presented as advice to activists. While
Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power
could just as well be written without a coexisting struggle
to address—it is an entirely theoretical work in critical
Marxism—it nevertheless captures (and will inevitably
impact) the thinking of activists who read it. Each
approach, as we shall shortly see, has telling results.

A minor point to bear in mind is that all three books were
essentially completed before the September 11th attacks
on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. While the
authors still had the time to add some post-September 11th
material, they were limited by the lack of clarity
surrounding the full repercussions of these events and thus
unable to take full account of the qualitatively different
landscape of struggle we now face.(2) This might seem to
be a significant limitation but only from a narrow point of
view that would assess these books solely in terms of
immediately relevant debates. With Holloway such an
approach is pointless, and even some of the very concrete
issues that Albert and Starhawk address remain timely
despite changing circumstances.

The Trajectory of Change
Michael Albert’s collection is the most disappointing
of the three. The articles—most published previously on
ZNet and in Z Magazine—are all aimed at tackling
alleged weaknesses of “the movement” in the
United States: slowly expanding participation, defeatist
attitudes, activist-ghetto mentalities, and an
over-emphasis on confrontation rather than
alternative-building. Albert doubtlessly has good
intentions, and deserves appreciation for being prepared to
face up to such problems (however exaggerated) and offer
concrete suggestions (however flawed). But the main
issue I take with this book is, to risk a cliché, the
author’s major attitude problem. Most striking at first
is Albert’s style, which I am sorry to find didactic and
patronizing and which I suspect will alienate many activist
readers. Take the following typical passage:

We need to design movement agendas that inspire
widespread interest and provide means for widespread
ongoing participation. We need movement focuses that are
diverse and multiple, that are local, national and
international, and that are continuous, not just annual or
bi-annual events.

So which way forward for anti-globalization?

The anti-globalization movement needs to highlight what
it is aiming for. We need to clarify our alternatives for
international relations and also what we mean by a
cooperative and just economy.(3)

You get the drift. While making generous use of the first
person plural—“we need,” “we
mean”—it is clear that Albert believes he is
addressing an audience rather than collaborating with his
equals. An audience, moreover, that seems to be composed
in Albert’s imagination of stereotypically young,
dreddy, campus activists who may have been very cute and
doing a nice job of learning about the world, but now need
someone to teach them what real activism is all about.

But the problem goes deeper than that. Throughout the
book the reader will notice an underlying wish to steer
“the movement,” streamline it, give it a push in the
right direction. This betrays not authoritarianism (here
Albert is beyond suspicion), but an almost brute
insensitivity to the most basic logic of activism today. In a
nutshell, Albert makes the crucial mistake of adopting a
mechanic rather than organic understanding of
anti-capitalist networks. This consists in the double error
of assuming that there is a movement with clear
boundaries and structures, and that it is possible to
discursively act upon it rather than with it. As a result,
most of what he says is completely out of tune with how
activists think and operate, and with the values inherent in
both. Who exactly is this ‘we’ that is going to
‘design movement agendas’? The quarrel here is
not that Albert might be imagining steering committees and
vanguards, but that in an organic struggle like this one, the
very idea of “designing” agendas makes no sense.
Today’s movement agendas aren’t
“designed,” but rather evolve in the gradual fruition
of a collective consciousness, formed by a million
trial-and-error experiences. Albert should apply the logic of
direct action to discourse as well as struggle. For example,
in direct action, when we want something to happen or stop
happening we do not appeal to anyone to do it, but rather
make it happen ourselves and, likewise, if activists believe
that struggle should go this way or another, they do not
preach about it to others but rather mount actions or
initiatives that display such a direction and hope that
others are inspired and follow suit. This is precisely the
way in which the Zapatistas, Reclaim the Streets and
many others have so successfully made their impact on the
evolution of resistance, often on a global scale, while at the
same time living up to their ideals of decentralization and
autonomy.

It seems that Albert never really got around to clicking
with this basic dynamic. His efforts to re-invent the wheel
are thus patently out of tune with what is going on in the
activist world—even in the United States, to say nothing
of movements in the global South. One example is his call
for a unifying anti-globalization coalition, which he
denominates the “Solidarity with Autonomy
Movement.”(4) This would be some kind of umbrella
organization that would stand for the sum total of
everyone’s agenda and enable thorough coordination
(of course with a representative board and a budget). This
idea betrays either ignorance or (worse) a dismissal of the
fact that activists in every continent already have what are
probably the most innovative and efficient structures ever
seen, all based on the network model: Peoples’ Global
Action, the Direct Action Network, Indymedia, NoBorder
and many named and nameless others. It is networks like
these that have been behind every significant piece of
anti-capitalist organizing and action, South and North, for
the past decade—bringing together everything from
millions-strong peasant movements to affinity groups of
six. And such structures provide exactly the kind of
“solidarity with autonomy” that Albert is after
without needing a unified platform.

Why is Albert so out of touch? A clue may be found in the
essay “My Generation,”(5) in which he expresses
concern about veterans of the 1960s inability to bequeath
their experiences to the young activists of today. And so
he goes into a lecture on the need to avoid sectarian
positions, asceticism, “lifestyle politics,” etc. So
here is the key: at heart, Albert is a veteran moved by the
hope that “this time around we can get it right.” He
badly wants this cycle of struggle to be successful, to
“win” (whatever that means), and so he
understandably puts his persuasive force behind what he
thinks is right.6 However, having a different formative
experience as an activist leaves Albert precisely in
“his generation” and out of touch with the very
different logic of today’s struggles. Albert’s
political agenda also remains, to risk a proverbial anarchist
accusation, that of a 1960s liberal. While he occasionally
talks of questioning basic social structures, his short-term
suggestions are in no way pregnant with such a project. In
fact, for Albert “change is a combination of a sequence
of reforms or limited victories that string together . . . until,
ultimately, we win basic alterations.”(7) This is
coupled with the almost colonial discourse of “bettering
the lot of suffering constituencies,” and the limited
notions of “raising the social costs” of elite actions,
so that one can mount demands that they “agree to
implement.”(8)

If this is objectionable, Albert’s response to the
post-September 11th scenario is simply odd: he asserts
that the attacks and ensuing war have changed nothing
essential about the basic logic and conditions of dissent.
So all he can recommend is business as usual, with the
added anti-war agenda. There is no mention of the
prospects for intense repression, nor of public paralysis
and manufactured social fear. In fact, Albert even thinks
that “despite flag waving patriotic media, way more
people than before 9/11 are now seriously open to
discussing world affairs and activism.”(9) A closer
look at the author’s subsequent writing in Z might
absolve such statements as stemming from a momentary
lapse of perspective.

Webs of Power
It is an impressive (and somewhat worrying) fact that
Starhawk’s personal announcement e-list has more
subscribers than those of the North American and
European networks of Peoples’ Global Action put
together. But then again she has always had an uncanny
(magical?) way of putting her finger on the pulse of
anti-capitalist struggle and saying something relevant (if
seldom uncontroversial). Many readers will have thus
already encountered the dispatches that form Part One of
this book, covering the two-year period from Seattle to the
immediate aftermath of September 11th. These short
pieces combine personal action reports with reflections on
key debates related to each. Starhawk’s very intimate
insiders connection with the development of activism in the
North, progressing as it (unfortunately?) did from one big
mobilization to another, provides a very different reading
experience to Albert’s markedly self-distanced writing.
Another contrast is between Starhawk’s very personal
and narrative writing in this section—by itself not
without political significance—and Albert’s didactic
and patronizing style. Starhawk is telling her own stories
and sharing her own thoughts and emotions, without
pretending to have the entire picture or full answer.

One of the many interesting threads that runs through
Starhawk’s communications is the development of her
position in the violence/nonviolence debate—for a time
the most heated topic surrounding summit protests.
Writing after the International Monetary Fund/World Bank
blockades in Prague, she puts herself squarely on the
principled nonviolence side of the dichotomy with
statements such as, “this is a violent system [but] I
don’t believe it can be defeated by violence” and,
“as soon as you pick up a rock . . . you’ve accepted
the terms dictated by a system that is always telling us
that force is the only solution.”(10) But after the
Quebec City FTAA protests the picture is different. In the
article “Beyond Violence and Nonviolence”(11) she
acknowledges the validity of arguments for “high
confrontational” (no longer “violent”) struggle,
and maintains that couching the debate in the terms she
herself earlier used is constricting, at a time when
“we’re moving onto unmapped territory, creating a
politics that has not yet been defined.” By Genoa,
Starhawk is prepared to declare her sisterhood with the
black bloc-ers, who represent “rage, impatience,
militant fervor without which we devitalize
ourselves.”(12) Hence she argues for flexibility,
diversity of tactics, and above all solidarity and a collective
assessment of the appropriate level of confrontation for
each action. These conclusions—as close as activists
have come to solving the dilemma—are reiterated on the
basis of a very deep treatment in the essay “Many
Roads to the Morning” in the second section of the
book.

Other essays in the second part address diverse topics
such as ecology, direct democracy and cultural
appropriation. These discussions are recommended reading
and it would be impossible to do justice to all of them. So
I’ll be nasty and comment only on what I find to be the
weakest part of the book: the penultimate essay,
“What We Want: Economy and Strategy for the End
Times.” Here, Starhawk unfortunately sacrifices the
attack on capitalism’s basic relations for the sake of
portraying a non-existent unity of purpose in the “global
justice movement” (whoever coined that term deserves
a pie in the face). As a result, she slips into essentially
reformist/regulative positions which resemble the NGO
agenda of the International Forum on Globalization. Most
of the nine principles she cites as “common
ground”(13) would have any attentive anarchist up in
arms (and Starhawk says she is one(14)). Saying that
“people who labor deserve to be paid enough to live
with dignity” only makes sense if one assumes that
there is someone paying them and one does not demand the
abolition of wage labor. Asserting that there is a
“sacred” realm that should not be commodified or
touched by the market “however it is organized” is
accepting that some things can be commodified and that a
market rampant enough to potentially encroach on these
areas can be allowed to exist. Talking about
“businesses and enterprises” having to be
“responsible and accountable” to
“communities” is to capitulate to the most insidious
capitalism-with-a-human-face jargon
(“enterprises”?! for Goddess’ sake!). That
“democratic enterprises” would “encourage
input” from all levels and “favor”
self-management and worker ownership is still a far cry
from insisting on worker and community controlled
production. And invoking, of all sources, Hawken, Lovins
and Lovins’ Natural Capitalism to demonstrate the
practicality of green technology is hardly entering into a
worthy alliance. Here the devil is not, as Starhawk says, in
the details but rather in the very fundamentals: it is simply
false to present such controversial proposals as matters of
agreement. Nor can she fall back on construing them as
merely “minimal” demands while at the same time
insisting they are “commonalities, deep principles and
imperatives.” On any consistent anarchist reading such
a program would only serve to rationalize, ameliorate, and
thus delay the overthrow of a system that remains
obscenely exploitative at its base.

But this is really the only major slip. Starhawk’s
response to the post-September 11th scenario, for
example, is much more encouraging. Far from dismissing it
as Albert does (though unfortunately she does assume a
similarly didactic style here), a very short time after the
event she is already clear that the repercussions would be
potentially shattering for radicals. Acknowledging that a
major shift in our thinking is necessary in order to respond
to war and social fear, she recommends several steps.
Some of these reflect processes that have subsequently
been happening (continued opposition, open organizing,
exposure of the real aims of the war), but others are still
only developing (new strategies and street tactics, and
above all a new political language that can combine and go
beyond existing forms of resistance).(15) If and when
these come to fruition in the future, Starhawk will probably
be there to help articulate them.

Change the World Without Taking Power
John Holloway’s text is the deepest and most
challenging one among those reviewed here. One of the
things that makes it so interesting is the author’s
attempt to simultaneously negotiate two agendas: rescuing
Marxism for contemporary radical (“negative”)
politics and rescuing it from itself (i.e. from its
hegemonization by authoritarian currents).

The Marxist tradition has produced a framework that has
often limited and obstructed the force of negativity. This
book is therefore not a Marxist book in the sense of taking
Marxism as a defining framework of reference. The aim is
rather to locate issues that are often described as Marxist
in the problematic of negative thought, in the hope of giving
body to negative thought and of sharpening the Marxist
critique of capitalism.(16)

By reformulating the theoretical premises of Marxism to
accommodate a globalized capitalist system and a
decentralized anti-authoritarian resistance, Holloway is in
effect attempting a thorough libertarian revision of
Marxism—as a tool for socio-analysis and as an
indicator for action. Some readers might at this point chuck
the book across the room, muttering something about
“narcissistic Marxist intellectuals trying to get out of
the hole they dug themselves into.” But a more patient
approach is in order here. Not every Marxist is
automatically authoritarian or insincere, and activists today
can actually find much of value in the libertarian elements
of this tradition, particular in the young Marx and the
Frankfurt School.

The bulk of material in the earlier chapters of this book is
indeed drawn directly from this tradition.(17) Hence the
articulation of capital accumulation in terms of the
conversion of doing into done and of power-to into
power-over (chapter 3); the centrality of the concept of
fetishism (chapters 4 and 5); the critique of the
“scientific” mainstream of twentieth century
Marxism (chapter 7); and the emphasis throughout on the
negative character of social struggle (embodied in
Holloway’s pet concept of “the Scream”). The
clear drawback is that readers familiar with these ideas
will find little new in the first 140 pages, with
Holloway’s occasional attempt to put this old (and
excellent) wine into new skins sometimes verging on the
comical.(18) But if we look at this part of the book as an
introductory text, then it does a good job of presenting
these concepts clearly and accessibly. Importantly, these
ways of conceptualizing social dynamics and struggle will
resonate with contemporary activists, as will
Holloway’s clear rejection of both reform through the
state and seizure of state power.

The book really becomes interesting, however, in its
closing chapters. Here Holloway makes an honest attempt
to tackle the question of the revolutionary
subject—which now has to be posited afresh in view of
the post-structuralist critique of definitional class
categories. Accepting the post-structuralist premise that
all acts of identification are oppressive, he takes a bold
step further by constructing revolutionary subjectivity
around the refusal of identification, the struggle against the
social process of class identification and its material basis:

Class struggle, then, is the struggle to classify and
against being classified . . . the unceasing daily antagonism
(whether it be perceived or not) between alienation and
disalienation, between definition and anti-definition,
between fetishization and de-fetishization.

We do not struggle as working class, we struggle
against being working class, against being classified. . . .
Struggle arises not from the fact that we are working class
but from the fact that we are-and-are-not working class,
that we exist against-and-beyond being working class, that
they try to order and command us but we do not want to be
ordered and commanded, that they try to separate us from
our product and our producing and our humanity and our
selves and we do not want to be separated from all
that.(19)

This fundamentally anti-fetishistic stance of the
“critical-revolutionary subject” renders it
indefinable, since its act of struggle consists precisely in
escaping the oppressive categories imposed upon it. Here
Holloway seems to be attempting a brave synthesis of
post-structuralist and Marxist concepts, combining the
former’s critique of oppressive identity-construction
with the latter’s insistence in the tractability of
domination to (in the last instance) material social
relations. Some reworking is still needed here
(Holloway’s insistence on using the term “working
class” is one problem—understandable but also
resolvable—as is his retaining of the “us against
them” logic which he earlier rejects), but this is overall
a very powerful conception. It reflects discourses
employed today in many struggles, gives an important
place to ubiquitous, everyday-life forms of resistance (from
absenteeism to culture-jamming) and—most
importantly—points distinctly towards the dissolution of
all power relations in society rather than their
reconfiguration.

The latter aspect can, of course, be easily defined as an
anarchist position. But while Holloway hints at this
connection when he defines anarchism as the set of
approaches that fall outside the state-oriented, reform or
revolution dichotomy—which his own project clearly
does as well—he refrains from explicitly using this term
to describe what he has to say, or from giving anarchism
any further attention.(20) The objection might be raised
that by doing this he is denying due credit to a 150-year
tradition that has aimed precisely at “changing the
world without taking power.” But there is a good reason
for this: the label anarchist is not exempt from the struggle
against identification. Holloway is deliberately avoiding
this label and any other, as do indeed many contemporary
activists, even if their visions and organizational models
could be defined as anarchist by an observer. Maybe some
self-defined anarchists will be offended by the lack of
credit, but on further reflection they might understand and
let that which does not matter slide.(21)

Holloway goes on to develop his notion of anti-identitarian
struggle in the next two chapters, which are also highly
original. First he provides a cogent critique of some
elements in autonomist Marxism, including the first (as far
as I know) critical Marxist engagement with Hardt and
Negri’s important but highly problematic Empire.(22)
He then ties his concepts to Marx’s analysis of crisis
in Capital, in reference to the economic crises of the 90s
and the crisis-managing role of today’s “bubble
economy.”

Those who begin the book with the hope of receiving a
blueprint, a how to “change the world without taking
power,” are left with a question instead. Having
initiated and explored his revision of Marxism for
today’s struggles, Holloway is satisfied with opening
up the possibility of revolution in the last chapter and
leaving its meaning for today vague. He does, however, at
least provide an indication:

Revolutionary politics (or better, anti-politics) is the
explicit affirmation in all its infinite richness of that which
is denied . . . not just the aim of creating a society based on
the mutual recognition of human dignity and dignities, but
the recognition now, as a guiding principle of organization
and action, of the human dignity which already exists in the
form of being denied, in the struggle against its own denial.
. . . [This struggle] is inevitably both negative and positive,
both scream and doing . . .[for example,] strikes that do not
just withdraw labor but point to alternative ways of doing
(by providing different kinds of transport, a different kind of
health care); university protests that do not just close
down the university but suggest a different experience of
study; occupations of buildings that turn those buildings
into social centers, centers for a different sort of political
action; revolutionary struggles that do not just try to defeat
the government but to transform the experience of social
life.(23)

This is a conception which again will be familiar with many
readers. A mature understanding seems to be shaping in
this call-it-what-you-want movement of ours: the need to
complement resistance to power with the investment in
new non-hierarchical, non-commodified spaces of everyday
living—social structures that can deepen and expand
until they can replace current ones.24 This is probably as
close as we can come to a transformative strategy that
remains coherent and immediately practicable under any
conditions. In more than one way, Holloway has hit the nail
on the head.

Conclusion
This recent crop of movement literature reflects—with
all its strengths and limitations—a collective process of
assessment and reconfiguration that has been taking place
in anti-capitalist networks in the North. The capacity for
self-criticism and revision is perhaps one of the strongest
attributes of the current wave of resistance, and it will
hopefully carry us through this difficult stage. As I am
writing, activists everywhere are struggling to cope with a
changing landscape of struggle. For the past year, a
process has been taking place which the books I am
reviewing here simply could not reflect. Resistance is quite
successfully being diffused, through social fear and the
manufacturing of new enemies, as well as outright
repression. Also gaining strength are processes which
seek to co-opt the emancipatory energies created by social
movements, and steer them into reformist strategies and
vertical modes of organization. Both dynamics might result
in the collapse (or, more likely, domestication) of the
resistance. Or we could be encountering, very soon, some
surprising and inspiring initiatives. Perhaps our second
wind is closer than we think. Maybe it lies somewhere
between a cool April night under the dignified sky of the
Canary Islands and a hot June day on the sun-baked
asphalt just outside Evian. . . .

Notes

1. This phenomenon is by no means limited to progressive
political movements—one might easily include Mein
Kampf in this list.

2. The extent of the systemic reconfiguration that the
attacks would excuse, in terms of both power and ideology,
was delineated for us only later. In this sense the historical
marker can be identified not as September 11, 2001 but as
January 29, 2002, with Bush's “Axis of Evil”
speech.

3. Michael Albert, The Trajectory of Change (Cambridge,
MA: South End Press, 2002), 21.

4. Ibid., 69-73.

5. Ibid., 105-112.

6. Ibid., 113.

7. Ibid., 41.

8. Ibid., vx and elsewhere.

9. Ibid., xv.

10. Starhawk, Webs of Power: Notes from the Global
Uprising (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers,
2002), 58-9.

11. Ibid., 93-100.

12. Ibid., 123.

13. Ibid., 239-241.

14. Ibid., 93.

15. The current Zapatista initiative around the Basque
conflict is probably the most inspiring response to date
(see http://chiapas.indymedia.org). For perspectives from
Western Europe see a discussion paper circulated at the
recent European conference of Peoples’ Global Action
(http://global.so36.net/en/2002/08/240.shtml).

16. John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking
Power (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 8-9.

17. As a foray into this dazzlingly rich literature see Karl
Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (London:
Lawrence and Wishart, 1844 [1977]); Max Horkheimer and
Theodore Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New
York: Continuum, 1944 [1999]); Herbert Marcuse, One
Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964 [1991]); Ernest
Bloch, The Principle of Hope (3 vols.) (Oxford: Blackwell,
1959[1986]). Holloway's use of material stemming directly
from contemporary struggle is limited to a few citations
from Subcomandante Marcos' communications. For a very
good selection of these see Marcos, Our Word is Our
Weapon (New York: Seven Stories, 2001).

18. One amusing aspect of Holloway's style is that he
takes the multi-hyphen form, invented by translators as a
way of dealing with German composite nouns, and makes it
his own. This gives rise to nouns such as “can-ness,
capacity-to-do,”
“doing-in-the-service-of-the-expansion-of-capital,”
or “I-and-we-ness.” Holloway, Change the World
Without Taking Power, 28, 58, 105. Is such second-hand
jargonizing really necessary when writing in English?

19. Ibid., 143-4.

20. Ibid., 12.

21. Cf. David Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” New
Left Review 13, January–February 2002,
http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR24704.shtml

22. Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power,
160-175.

23. Ibid., 212-3.

24. In this context, see also Jared James, Getting Free
(http://omega.cc.umb.edu/~salzman/Strategy/GettingFree/Complete.html)
and B. A. Dominick, An Introduction to Dual Power
Strategy
(http://www.rootmedia.org/~messmedia/dualpower/dpintro.htm)






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