Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review: Change the World Without Taking Power

[John Holloway. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, New Edition. London: Pluto Press, 2005.]

Holloway begins not with the word but with the scream.

He writes:

In the beginning is the scream. We scream.

When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.

The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on- the-mysteries-of-existence that is the conventional image of 'the thinker'.

This is an important beginning. I like many things about it. I'm not certain I like everything about it, but I like a lot.

It is, first of all, a grounding for what all action-and-theory must be, a demand that we recognize the ethical/political imperative of making what we do responsive not primarily to the beauty of the pretty word pictures that we might paint to ferret out fine details of the world, not to the pursuit of tenure or sales, not to the abstracted fine thinking of the abstracted fine subject, but to the fact that the way human doing is organized on this planet today causes untold death and suffering and is ultimately destroying life on earth.

It is also a powerful rhetorical device. By grounding theory in the scream -- not an imaginary scream, but the very real scream of the thousands that die needlessly every day, of the bashed queer, the hard working worker whose kids still go hungry, the raped woman, the migrant shot by vigilantes -- it is possible to cut through much theoretical hemming and hawing rather easily. How can you allow discourse to paralyze you or entrap you in irrelevance when the scream is very, very real, if only you stop refusing to hear it?

I have a vague unease about the implications of the metaphor of the scream, however. I applaud its foregrounding of urgency and its refusal to let us look away from the realities of suffering that need not be. But still I wonder. It makes me think back to a book I read years ago, The Demon Lover by U.S. radical feminist Robin Morgan. I do not remember Morgan's thesis in detail, and I know that there are aspects of her analysis and how she relates gender oppression to other oppressions that I would not necessarily agree with completely, but her relentless naming of the seeping of oppressive masculinity into supposedly liberatory politics has stayed with me. And I would not for a moment wish to attribute anything I say in the rest of this paragraph to Morgan -- rather, they are questions inspired by a hazy memory of a book read years ago. But still I wonder. Why pick the moment of trauma as the grounding for your theory? Why the moment of inchoate rage, the moment replete with possibility not only for liberatory resistance, but for abusive lashing out, of salving trauma from hierarchy above you by creating more below? Why not, rather, pick the moment that is no less hurt and no less angry and no less committed to struggle, but that has reentered the everyday, that is about picking yourself up off the floor and making dinner for the kids because they need it, about connecting with others and finding joy in spite of trauma, about survival, about affirming life despite the scream even while struggling against it? And I don't even know if anything underlies my vague concern about this metaphor, really, because Holloway is very explicit later in the book about the importance of the everyday; about the foolishness of seeing the militants as saviours and moments of visible militancy as the totality of struggle; about the fatal error involved in embracing the disciplining of life and the dismissal of the everyday by the puritanical, hierarhcical, grim ugliness of struggle that I think Morgan would associate with masculinist psuedo-liberation politics. In many ways, the argument that Holloway develops about power-to and power-over and the importance of the rich diversity of struggle is very much against this. But still I wonder what the metaphor carries into the work that might perhaps undermine its intent.

And who among us really need to be reminded of the scream, need to be told, even by our own inner voice, that it is where we must start? I do, certainly, and I won't pretend otherwise. But I wonder if the constant, deliberate return to the social, psychological, and theoretical moment of the scream is much more important for those of us who have privilege of various sorts, and perhaps many of those whose scream is rawest and most immediate to their lives might well see it as more sensible just to assume the scream and begin their theorizing some place else. If that is so, then what does that mean for the choice to start with the scream?

Perhaps these worries are abstract. Certainly, it is a powerful place to start, and I'm glad he starts there.

The obvious question, once you've got the scream firmly in mind, is what's next? You can actually find a brief summation of his argument here (in PDF format). You can find many responses to the arguments of the book here, some in English but many in Spanish and also a few in German.

A central distinction in the the work is buried in the English word "power." By that, we can mean some quite different things. We can mean "power-to", which at its heart is the simple ability to do things. Doing is at the heart of Holloway's work -- physical, embodied, social, human doing. Holloway stresses the social character of doing, that it is inevitably embedded in a flow of past doings and often contributes to a flow of future doings. Human beings have the capacity to do not just mindlessly as bees but to see something that isn't but should be, and to make it happen. He seems to see the essence of human potential in doing, not because it can produce things, but rather as an endlessly flowing social process of interacting, expressing self, constituting both "I" and "we".

Another way that we can understand "power" is as "power-over", the nasty side of the word, domination, expoitation, oppression, the bending of others to obedience. It depends on the power-to that exists within all of us to function -- however else they happen, death camps and bombings and call centres all happen because of people doing.

Holloway theorizes that what turns power-to into power-over is a break in the social flow of doing. A feature of capitalism, described by Marx as "alienation" and later as "fetishism", is that instead of people relating to people, the world tends to become seen and in certain respects to function as things relating to things. In other words, a social flow of doing in which doing is related organically and intimately in expressions of self and in healthy social relations with other human beings, that flow is broken. Doing becomes done. Doing which is social and expressive and projects human consciousness into the future becomes abstract labour which expends effort in the service of another to make things -- things which are disconnected from the doing which creates them, things which become commodities. Most human beings today have scant opportunity to truly do, in the sense of envisioning and acting to create that vision, and most doing does not flow organically from and into other doing but functions in the world as objects disconnected from the doing that created them, as done. The done is separated from the doers, taken from the people who produce it to be used in reinforcing their exploitation.

Holloway argues that this breaking should not be understood in the narrow sense that it might have been applied by Marxists of the last century, as something that happens exclusively to the industrial proletariat at the point of mass production. That is still important, but the disruption of doing extends throughout life, gets inside all of us and colonizes social spaces far and wide. This same dynamic is present in struggles of all sorts the world over -- in all of them you will find doing denied, fragmented, broken, whether that is in Chiapas or Caledonia or struggles for socialized daycare or against police violence or whatever else you can imagine.

He then goes on to explore what struggle might mean in such circumstances, including responses to orthodox Marxist analysis and strands of autonomist Marxist analysis. He describes a struggle that is not a uniform struggle between two extrenally existing objects (labour and capital) but rather a massive diversity of struggles over doing, rejections big and little of the indignities heaped upon us and projections big and little towards something different. He hypothesizes a struggle that is pervasive but never pure, a struggle that we can have hope in precisely because the done that is taken from us and used against us depends on our doing, but a vision of revolution that is as a question rather than as some sort of apocalyptic answer.

I like a lot of what Holloway has to say, and I certainly appreciate the passion and poetry in his theory, but I still have questions. I like the distinction between power-to and power-over, but I'm not certain I completley understand all of the implications of that distinction. On an interpersonal level it is easy -- I make a sandwich, that is power-to; I beat someone up, that is power-over -- but I am less clear what it means when we try to extend these things to more complex and more social kinds of things. And from my own experiences of life I can really identify with what he describes as the struggle between active, social doing and broken doing or abstract labour or "the done". That really resonates. However, I'm not sure I've entirely wrapped my head around how the obvious manifestation of this at the point of production can be seen as inherently behind the way it functions everywhere in society.

In particular, I have trouble with the way he talks about how the rich diversity of struggles he recognizes and values and supports relate to one another, and his theorizing of identity. He sees identity, the tendency for human beings to base themselves in "I am" rather than in "I do", as a product of the fetishizing influences of capitalism. Our doing is broken and it does not provide the scope for us to express and constitute self through the social flow of doing, so we think of ourselves as being static and confined to categories. I can understand this to a certain extent. I can accept that capitalist social relation permeate all other struggles, and the process of fetishization has become part of how we think about self and identity and must be a part of how we struggle from all of our diverse locations. But he seems to be going beyond that and positing capitalist social relations as the sole cause of the fragmentation of the social into isolated, static identities -- "I am" rather than "I am this and more than this" -- and as underlying all other struggles. Certainly I think it permeates all other struggles on earth today, simply because capitalist social relations do have a homogenizing, totalizing impact, but I think he's saying more than that. But, for example, limits on the doing of women existed in different forms before those limits became perfused with a capitalist character. I can accept that struggle against gender oppression necessarily entails struggle against capitalism, but I don't think that's all it requires. I can accept that identity as it currently functions tends to include fetishization and inherently limits who and what we are, though I think people who live oppression everyday are more likely to think of identity as "this-and-beyond-this" than those of us with privilege. But I'm not sure I accept as complete a rejection of "I am" as Holloway seems to be advocating -- avoiding essentialism, avoiding thing-ifying self, embody self as "this and more than this", sure, but I still don't buy identity as being solely created by capitalism and I don't buy identity as being entirely bad. Embracing both a rich diversity of struggle and an underlying unity is all well and good, but I think I need to hear a lot more about what that really means before I can be entirely comfortable with it.

I think I'm going to stop here. This has been surprisingly difficult to write, probably more because my head has been foggy than anything else, so I think I will let me reaction to the book stand as it is and perhaps return to topics that interest me at a later time.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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