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(en) Mexico, Puebla de Los Angeles, Alt. Media, How to Change the World Without Taking Power

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 3 Apr 2005 08:24:11 +0200 (CEST)

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One evening recently, an U.S. correspondent with a lengthy
left-wing lineage sat down to dinner with two old comrades.
Luis Cota had been a charter member of the long-defunct
Mexican Communist Party and visited Moscow several times
where he was enrolled at Patrice Lamumba University during
the Brezhnev years. Pedro P. is a 40-year veteran of the
Cuban news agency Prensa Latina who travels on the left are
encyclopedic. He had visited with Lenin's mummy four times
(once each with Mao's and the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov's),
he recounted.

The table talk turned to perspectives for the left in Latin
America, a continent where Washington's fetish with
deconstructing Iraq has allowed a handful of social
democrats to slide in under the radar and occupy the
presidencies of their respective countries. The comrades
touched glasses to celebrate the trade treaty just forged
between Cuba and Venezuela, the ALBA, the anti-ALCA.
Companero Chavez would soon be financing an Al-Jazeera-like
24 hour news network to combat CNN lies, the Prensa Latina
man confided.

The U.S. reporter, whose work has often focused on the
Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, had just been invited to
speak at the University of Puebla by the Irish radical
scholar John Holloway and wanted to know if the two old
Bolshies had read his controversial screed "Change the World
Without Taking Power: the Meaning of Revolution Today."

The mere mention of Holloway's name had a curious effect on
my dinner partners. Their garrulousness lapsed into frozen
silence as if they had just been doused with a bucket of ice
water. "Ufff Holloway!" gestured the Cuban in disgust,
making bye bye signs with his small hands. Luis had not read
the book but did not hesitate to label it as "treasonous" ­
he had heard that the CIA had financed its publication.

The object of all this old left virtupativeness is a
soft-voiced radical scholar who first made his bones at
Edinburgh University debunking Marxist shibboleths. Having
taken refuge in Latin America, he is now in residence at the
Universidad Autonoma Benemerito de Puebla de los Angeles,
the UAP, where his latest volume of dense Marxian critique
has ignited an unexpected fire fight between the
state-oriented left and those who yearn for a
less-hierarchal, more anarchistic structure such as embodied
by the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.

With nine books under his belt ­ four have the word "state"
in the title, and "globalization" and "revolution" get one
each (he is working on a tome with the Talking Heads-like
title "Stop Making Capitalism"), Holloway touched a vein
with his 1998 "Zapatista! Re-inventing Revolution" but seems
genuinely amazed at the buzz "Change the World" has stirred
up. Since its publication in 2002, young radicals have been
cramming it into their backpacks when they march off to
confront the Global Monster on the barricades at G-8 summits
or World Trade Organization conclaves or else wedging it
firmly under their arms as they descend into the Lacandon
jungle to help the Zapatista autonomous municipalities build

"This is a very difficult book ­ I am surprised and
gratified by the interest of young people" the author
marvels over coffee at the Institute of Social Sciences, a
lone radical enclave in a once-left university scarred in
recent years by scandalous corruption. Housed in a creaky
old colonial building painted a bright yellow, the Casa
Amarilla, Holloway's institute draws aspiring scholars from
Argentina and Italy, the U.S. and the U.K. to sit at the
Guru's self-effacing feet and reflect on the new realities
of the revolution.

Casa Amarilla is a lonely outpost in a city that suddenly
finds itself on the frontline of global capitalism. An old
and moneyed metropolis dominated by churches and gargoyles,
Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico's fourth largest city two
hours east of the capitol, is now temporary home base for
the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA in its Spanish
acronym), an unsigned hemispheric trade treaty, and seeks to
become its permanent headquarters (Miami and Panama City are
in the running) when and if the scheme to extend NAFTA's
dubious benefits all the way to Tierra del Fuego ever
becomes a reality.

Global deals are being cut everyday in the backrooms of the
glitzy Americas Center here where North American Free Trade
Association commissions often meet to iron out kinks in that
11 year-old one-time beacon of corporate globalization.
Indeed, Puebla is the gateway to the global south ­ the
official departure point for Mexican president Vicente Fox's
grand stratagem for opening up resource-rich southern Mexico
and Central America to transnational exploitation, the Plan

Given the landscape, John Holloway may be the most
subversive soul walking the streets of Angelopolis, as the
neo-liberal set dubs the city. The ogre who armed (at least
theoretically) the wild-eyed mobs of anti-globalization
rioters forever threatening to tear down the gates of Davos
or loot the vaults at the World Bank, turns out to be a
kindly, sad-eyed academic with a shock of silver hair
plastered to his forehead, a sort of thinking man's Naomi
Klein, who makes a point of not having all the answers. "How
to change the world without taking power?" he asks, "we
don't really know what that means" Or again:" Change the
World without Taking Power? It sounds absurd but we have no
other alternative."

Holloway's book is a difficult slog for this reporter who,
in his revolutionary salad days, preferred to take target
practice rather than ponder Hegel in socialist study groups.
I confess I often utilized the volume, which is studded with
indecipherable nuggets like "the negation of the negation",
to combat chronic insomnia.

Why has so theoretical a manifesto captured the imagination
of a movement that is grounded in action and reaction, the
stuff of the street and the barricades and the infamous
black blocs?

"Why, that's just it, isn't it?" Professor Holloway parses,
"people have been very active and now want to think about
what they are doing. This is an on-going process ­ the book
did not really launch this debate. These issues have been
discussed for the past decade, ever since the Zapatista
rebellion I suppose ­ but the Zapatistas too pulled together
ideas that had been floating around for ten years before that."

"John, what do you mean when you say there is no alternative
to changing the world without taking power? How does this
fit into the developing left alignment in Latin America?"

"Well, there is no alternative. I mean, everyone knows that
Capitalism is disgusting and disastrous. Although no one
talks much about the Revolution these days, everyone knows
we need one. But what will we do with this revolution? Take
state power again? The error stems from a fundamental
misconception of the role of the state in sustaining
capitalism. Substituting one state power for another just
repeats the same problems over and over again and eventually
exhausts the revolution. This is the old way of thinking
about revolution and it doesn't work anymore. We have to
find a new way. There is no alternative."

For John Holloway, insurgent social formations in Latin
America are that other way ­ the Zapatistas in Chiapas,
sections of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, the
"piqueteros" at the nadir of the "Argentinazo" three years
ago whose cry "que se vayan todos" (that all those who
govern should leave) inspired "How to Change the World
Without Taking Power." But central to answering the question
asked in the book's title is its corollary: with what will
we replace those who have left i.e. what do we do with power
after we have taken it?

In Holloway's equations, "power" is a word with two terribly
distinct meanings ­ "poder hacer" in Spanish (the Spanish
edition of "How To Change The World" has outsold the
original English version) or the power to create, to do, vs.
"poder sobre", "power over", the power of domination and
subjugation which stifles the power of the people to create.
We know what to do with "power over" ­ overthrow it. But the
organization and use of the power to do requires articulation.

During the first years of the Zapatista rebellion, the very
act of rising in rebellion itself empowered the rebels and
helped them to realize that they already had the power and
did not need to take the state to get it. The location of
power was not always apparent to the Zapatistas­ at the
beginning of their rebellion, they talked about marching on
Mexico City to overthrow the government. But after the "mal
gobierno" ("the bad government") failed to honor its pledge
to enact the Indian rights legislation the rebels had been
battling to achieve for years, they turned their back on the
state and begin constructing their own autonomous
infrastructure, one they could control through the
leadership ethic of "mandar obedeciendo", literally
"governing by obeying the will of the people", that is, to
serve rather than to rule.

If the Zapatistas had not existed, we would have had to
invent them to show the world another way, concedes Holloway.

All over the Americas, from Vermont to Venezuela and Peoria
to Patagonia, the Zapatista model on one hand, and that of
the democratically elected strongman Hugo Chavez on the
other, is being counterpoised by activists and scholars as
they peer into the future. Such juxtaposition may be
overstating the Zapatistas' weight. The Mayan rebels really
did not rise up to save mankind but rather to sort out
strategies for their own best survival.

Theoretically obtuse as it is, Holloway's salvo has set off
a storm of criticism from the state-oriented or old left,
which dismisses the Irishman as an anti-Marxist interloper.
Although the electoral triumphs of Brazil's Lula, Kirschner
in Argentina, and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, and the
aggrandizement of Venezuela's Chavez would seem to point to
the primacy of taking state power, Holloway issues a
caution. When a Lula or a Chavez take the power of the
state, they suddenly find themselves trapped in alignments
that force obeisance to the World Bank and the White House
from which they cannot break away. Their promises begin to
sound hollow as transnationals reap fortunes at the expense
of the people whose progress is pretty much straight down hill.

Given the probability of such a scenario, John Holloway
suggests that the Zapatista model will prosper. "When people
are disillusioned, they begin to look for the real
solutions. Building a party that's a little more to the left
isn't one of them."

On the other hand, the author of "How To Change The World"
has to concede, the future of the polemic is hardly assured.
"Hugo Chavez is a formidable opponent. He has oil and oil
money and the support of international Trotskyists. He could
pull it off. The possible election of Andres Manuel Lopez
Obrador as president of Mexico would greatly bolster the
cause of the state-oriented left."

John Holloway's thesis is not much endorsed by Latin
American left leaders who are closest to taking power. "What
an absurd idea! We are fighting to take state power because
we want to change things. How else can you make these
changes?" exclaims Evo Morales, leader of Bolivia's coca
farmers and the Movement Towards Socialism which is only a
hairsbreadth away from the presidency of his country.

Morales's bitter rival, Felipe Quispe, "El Mallku" ("The
Condor"), leader of the powerful Aymara peasant movement, is
not much more supportative. Rather than ignoring the state,
El Mallku seeks to build one,­ Tahuantinsuyo, the mythical
Inca promise of unifying the Indian heart of Latin America
into one nation. "We will take power and throw the white
man's constitution out and make our own state." Quispe, an
advocate of the old Maoist theorem that power grows from the
barrel of a gun, is building an Indian army to take state power.

Others are not so sure about where power lies. Ecuador's
venerable indigenous coalition, the CONAIE, took state power
in alliance with a junta of young military officers and then
went on to back the coup leader Lucio Gutierrez in his
successful bid for the presidency, for which the Indians
were assigned two seats in the cabinet. 200 days later,
feeling used and abused by Gutierrez, CONAIE founders Luis
Macas and Nina Pacari resigned in despair. "We were in power
but we had no power" Pacari later complained to researchers.
As the former CONAIE chairman Leonidis Ica explained to this
correspondent during a congress of Amazonian Indians last
spring, "we made a mistake about where power was to be
found. Now we know," he laughed as he took his place at the

In Cochabamba Bolivia, Oscar Oliviera is still the
coordinator of the Committee to Defend the Water which in
2000, after discovering that the local water supply was
being privatized, filled the central plaza with a 100,000
angry city dwellers, stood off the military for weeks, and
drove the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco, California
from the land in one of the first successful resistance
campaigns mounted by the growing anti-globalization
movement. Today, Oliviera considers that changing the world
is viable without taking state power.

"The state is out of date, its like old medicine ­ it
doesn't work anymore and it has no credibility and it is
billions of dollars in debt to international capital. What
power does it have? Who would want to take it when we have
the power right here? That is what we learned in the plaza
of Cochabamba five yeas ago."

The prospect of changing the status quo without seizing the
reigns of power is not just limited to Latin America. While
the two most gargantuan once-upon-a-time state oriented left
regimes, Russia and China, now locked in a love frenzy with
savage Capitalism, may be a bit cool to Holloway's project,
the scholar sees increasing international acceptance of his
constructs. A recent first-time visitor to the World Social
Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, he organized a workshop with
speakers from five continents sounding off on how to change
the world and was gratified by the resonance for his ideas
in such far-off frontiers as Africa and Thailand.

Several years ago, when proponents of this new
non-hierarchal approach to making revolution happen sought
to mount a public debate at Porto Alegre, they were
marginated and silenced by the state-oriented left in the
guise of Lula's Party of Labor goons. This year, Holloway
reports, he was offered a classroom that accommodated 600
activists. "1500 showed up."

CounterPunch Weekend Edition April 2 / 3, 2005 A Visit with John Holloway
How to Change the World Without Taking Power By JOHN ROSS

John Ross has just been awarded the 2005 Upton Sinclair
Award (an "Uppie") by the San Pedro California chapter of
the American Civil Liberties Union for his latest cult
classic "Murdered By Capitalism--A Memoir of 150 Years of
Life & Death on the U.S. Left". "The Wal-Martization of
Mexico" appeared in a truncated form in the March issue of
The Progressive.

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