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(sup) The Invisibility of Struggle: An Interview with John Holloway
Stevphen Shukaitis <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Fri, 19 Sep 2003 21:25:41 +0200 (CEST)
A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
While the French pour onto the streets in their millions to protest against
a political system that can place a fascist leader on the throne of power or
the Argentinean people can overthrow successive governments because the
leaders have abused their power, the voices that we hear are not those of
the people, they are the voices of the bourgeois intelligentsia who proclaim
themselves the leaders of a disparate movement that has no leaders. So it is
no wonder the anti-globalisation movement has a bad name. It is being badly
called by people who do not understand the impetuousness behind the
protests, demonstrations, occupations, vigils and insubordinate actions,
people who tell us it is a movement without a plan or a strategy, people who
are looking after their own selfish interests.
The reality is that this is not an anti-globalisation movement at all, it
is, in the words of John Holloway, author of “Changing the World Without
Taking Power,” a "movement against invisibility" - a movement that we are
all part of because we are all involved in many different struggles "visible
in so far as they are considered to impinge upon power politics". According
to Holloway "all rebellious movements are movements against invisibility"
and this is a struggle of non-identity, of the invisible, "of those without
voice and without face". At a simple level it is about our own dignity and
the "refusal to accept humiliation, oppression, exploitation,
John Holloway, author of Change the World without taking Power and co-editor
(with Elo’na Pel‡ez) of Zapatista: Reinventing Revolution in Mexico (both
Pluto), talks to BLUE.
BLUE: What is your background?
JH: I was born in Dublin, but my family migrated to the midlands of England
when I was twelve. I taught in the Politics Department of Edinburgh
University for a long time and then decided to make a move to Mexico about
eleven years ago, where I work in the area of sociology in a research
institute in the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.
BLUE: Where do you live?
I live in Puebla, a city about 120 kilometers from Mexico City.
BLUE: How did you get involved in this kind of research?
JH: I started working on Marxist theory and particularly the Marxist theory
of the state a long time ago. That led me to the conclusion that it's
necessary to see the state not as a thing or an instrument, but as a form of
social relations or a process of forming social relations. This means that
struggles against capital or against the capitalist state must take a quite
different form, must aim at forming social relations in a quite different
way. In other words, social change can not come about by taking state power
but only by developing a quite different concept of power. This tied in very
much with the experience of the Zapatista movement since 1994, and this led
me to want to develop my ideas about these issues.
BLUE: What are your influences?
JH: Since coming to Mexico (or rather since January 1, 1994), I have been
very much influenced by the Zapatista uprising. In terms of theory, Marx,
Ernst Bloch and T.W. Adorno have influenced me a lot. Also I see what I do
as developing very much out of the approach which a number of us in
Edinburgh (Richard Gunn, Werner Bonefeld and others) developed over a number
of years and which we call "Open Marxism" - there are three books with that
title and also the journal "Common Sense".
BLUE: Can you describe Change the World's primary message?
JH: The horrors of capitalism today mean that we must think of revolution or
radical social change. But the old idea of making revolution through taking
state power was a disaster. So it is necessary to liberate the idea of
revolution from its association with the state, to think of changing the
world without taking power. But this seems ridiculous and impossible. It is
precisely because we do not have any easy answers that we must think about
what this means. The book does not give any recipes, but tries to take the
BLUE: Who is it aimed at?
JH: Anybody who feels shocked (at least occasionally) by the horrors of
capitalism and is willing to admit that they don't know the answers.
BLUE: Do you think it will influence the way people think about their lives?
JH: Oh yes, of course, it should change their lives completely. An important
aspect of the argument of the book is that power-over is the transformation
of doing into being, that our struggle (the struggle of power-to) is the
struggle of doing against being, in other words that our struggle is
necessarily anti-identitarian. Trying to think like this has lots of
implications for the way we think about our lives.
BLUE: How important is language? We ask this because the lexicon of words
used by people actively involved in struggle is changing, away from the
words used by Marxists, etc and by politicians and the corporate media.
JH: I think language is very important indeed. This is a very important
aspect of the Zapatista revolt. The Zapatistas have tried to move away from
what they see as the tired language of revolution and to develop a new
language of revolt, and I think they've been very successful at it. The
meaning of words does not stand still. Words which excited people thirty
years ago now seem stale. But it is more complicated than that. It is not
just a question of inventing a new language, because the old concepts
(surplus value, exploitation, capital and so on) tell us a lot about what it
is that we are revolting against and what are the possibilities of change.
It is very important not to lose those concepts, but they must be re-thought
and re-phrased all the time. I suppose that is partly what the book is
BLUE: What is the role of imagination, of storytelling, of song and ballad?
JH: Obviously you're thinking of the Zapatistas again. Yes, I think the role
of imagination, storytelling and so on is very important: not so much as a
way of getting a serious message across in popular form, but above all
because the language of revolt is basically different from the language of
domination. Domination is serious and boring, revolt has to be fun.
BLUE: We must go beyond the relationship each of us has with power if we are
to change the world, but one of the obstacles many people are struggling
with is removing hierarchy, domination and specialism from society. For
example much of radical thought is dominated by the bourgeois
intelligentsia. They control the means of production and access so the
voices of the disempowered cannot be heard. In the western world these
people can also be found in government, academica, media and in NGOs, they
control access to funds and actively prevent anyone else from getting access
to funds that would set in motion projects designed to empower and educate.
What is disturbing here is that many of these people claim to want to change
the world, when it is clear they are careerists trying to build or to keep
their careers. As an academic how can you see this changing?
JH: Yes, academics are people who have shown themselves successful at
operating within a certain framework of thought. But this framework of
thought is not neutral: it reproduces the same separation of subject and
object which is the basis of capitalist power. For the academic who wants to
change the world, it is a question of trying to break out of this framework,
but this, of course, appears irrational or irrelevant to other academics, so
all the career pressures are against doing it. This does not mean that there
is no space at all, or that all academics should give up their jobs (and do
what?), rather it means that for an academic (as for anyone else), struggle
is always struggle in-and-against being an academic. Or, more generally, for
anyone, struggle is always struggle against-in-and-beyond our own identity.
How to ensure that the voice of those without voice is heard, that the face
of those without face is seen? All struggles are struggles against
invisibility and inaudibility. Partly it's a question of fantasy and
imagination: the Zapatistas cover their faces so that people will see them.
Partly it's a question of just working away in the way that you in
Bluegreenearth and many others are working: to develop new forms of
communicating and expressing our thoughts. But these will only really come
to life if seen as part of a wider struggle.
BLUE: We are starting to see a rejection of party politics and parliamentary
democracy but, as in France, it appears this is leaving a vacuum which now
saw those with the vote having to choose between a man many despise (Chirac)
and a man many abhor (Le Pen). What do you think is the short term answer to
this because reform of the political process is not on the power agenda and
many of those who want a change in the way decisions are being made in their
names are unsure what kind of alternatives need to be built?
JH: The success of Le Pen in France certainly show the dangers inherent in
the widespread rejection of party politics. But I think that rejection is in
general very healthy and very important. It is a way of saying that the sort
of society we want cannot be achieved through the state and the political
parties (which in reality are nothing more than extensions of the state).
People are developing other forms of activity which aim to change things
without going through the state. Certainly at election time, or in the eyes
of bourgeois politics, this appears to leave a vacuum, but I think that if
you look at the upsurge in protest all over the world in the last few years
and at the sort of initiatives that people are developing (often in very
experimental or contradictory ways), then you see that the apparent vacuum
is actually very full.
BLUE: You say there are three ways out of the dilemma (p74). Given your
experience and your knowledge of the way the world is changing, which do you
JH: The dilemma in question is that the more horrific capitalism gets (and
certainly since September 11 last year), the more urgent radical change
becomes and yet the more impossible it seems to be. I suggested that there
are three ways out: to give up all hope of radical change and just focus on
living with as much dignity as we can (which is a limited solution, but only
very limited and very contradictory, because dignity is not an individual
issue, but means fighting against the whole social system which is based on
the denial of human dignity): to shut our eyes to what is happening and go
on intoning the old dogmas of revolution-by-taking-power, which seems to me
hopeless; or thirdly, to go as far as we can down the apparently impossible
road of changing the world without taking power, knowing that this road has
to be invented in the process of walking on it. I think that this last is
the only option, and the book is an attempt to do that.
The rest of the interview is available at www.dualpower.net, or by going
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