Thursday, September 02, 2010

Review: Crack Capitalism

[John Holloway. Crack Capitalism. New York: Pluto Press, 2010.]

I'm pretty sure I've observed before that it makes me wary when I like a book of political theory -- not just agree with it or find it interesting, but like it. "Like" can mean a bunch of different things, I suppose, but in this case it means that there is significant resonance between major elements of this book's approach and my own political sensibility. That goes a bit deeper than just tallying up points of agreement at the level of politics-as-explicit-propositions. Despite this resonance, however, I also have some serious questions about the analysis advanced by this book.

John Holloway is an Irish-born academic who has lived and worked in Mexico for almost twenty years, and who writes his work in tight conversation with the political theory and practice of the Zapatistas. His earlier book, Change The World Without Taking Power, has stimulated a great deal of discussion, both favourable and scornful, in the global justice movement and the left more broadly. He regards Crack Capitalism as the "daughter" of Change The World [10].

The Method of the Crack

The argument in this book revolves around two central points. The first is an observation of how struggle against capitalism is currently happening and how it should happen. He argues for taking action that breaks with the logic of capital, that refuses to have our every moment and our every effort mobilized in the service of profit and control and then uses that moment of refusal to build something that works otherwise, something that reflects our humanity, our desires, our impulse towards sociality. He argues that such moments happen all the time:

In some cases, this is direct and un-theorised: the friends who form a choir because they like to sing, the nurse who really tries to help her patients, the car worker who spends as much time as possible on his allotment. In other cases, it is part of an understanding that the rule of money is the centre of a whole system of social organisation, a system of domination that we call capitalism: in that case, the refusal to let money determine our activity is part of a conscious rejection of capitalism and understood as part of the struggle against capitalism... [21]

This continuity between revolt against the logic of capital that is everyday and untheorized with that which makes its anti-capitalism explicit is central to his politics. He argues, moreover, that such cracks have validity all on their own, whether they expand and grow or whether they disappear after their moment has passed -- that moment of human dignity is good enough reason for having acted that way. Yet he advocates an approach to social transformation that seeks to create resonances between cracks that begin in different particularities, that seeks to grow the cracks, network the cracks, and to struggle in confrontational ways against the violent pressures of capitalism to close the cracks and reduce all that is to the service of accumulation. This approach relies on all of the ways that all of us already revolt against capital without realizing it, and all of the ways that people work together to carve out spaces of dignity.

I quite like this part of the analysis. I think seeing the importance of everyday acts and their continuity with those things more often recognized as resistance is crucial. It is grounded in what is already happening and in theorizing ways to expand that. It is centrally about struggle which will truly liberate, which seeks to reweave the social flow of doing on the basis of our whole selves and our full desires, rather than moments of liberation which will be recaptured and re-reified in a new oppressive totality as with struggles which seek to take power from above. I'm wary of where this understanding could go if taken up in sectarian or fundamentalist ways, but as a loosely held starting point, I like it.

Doing Against Labour

The other central point is based on a particular re-reading of Marx. For Holloway, the method of the crack and everything else in his theory rests on Marx's insight into the dual character of labour, which he argues was regarded as hugely important by Marx himself but which has largely been neglected by subsequent theorists. In presenting this point, he uses constructions that those who read his earlier book will be familiar with, in which human beings whose lives are limited by oppressive and exploitative forms of social organization constantly exist within, against, and beyond those social relations -- constrained yet never quite fitting, disciplined but always rebelling. For Holloway, it is the dual character of labour that is the original example of this. That is, human doing which is creative and whole and directed by our desires and wishes and needs and knitted into an organic social flow of doing is, in capitalism, forced to become labour -- that is, work that is alienated, that is controlled by bosses and, more importantly, by the tyranny of value and the need not to starve. The social flow of doing is broken, and relations among people are transformed, both in discourse and in actual practice, into relations among things. Yet unalienated doing is constrained in the form of abstract labour, but it constantly strains against that containment. From this particular kind of subordination, which was both the essence of primitive accumulation in the early years of capital and which is the essence of the everyday violence of capitalism today, he trace the ways in which other forms of violent reification have taken hold, from gender, to a reshaping of the experience of time, to our relationship with nature.

I am less invested in this central point, though I'm sure Holloway would see it as the more important one. His understanding of the self existing within, against, and beyond oppressive constraints has always resonated with my own everyday experience and felt like a useful tool for understanding both the importance and the limitations of the ways in which our lives are shaped by social relations (which is often talked about in the reified language of "identity") so this particular way of using that approach feels pleasing to me as well. And it feels familiar. I know that feeling of alienated labour in my own everyday life, and I know that feeling of unalienated doing resenting, resisting, pushing against, sneaking around, leaking through, existing in tension with the alienation which constrains it. The larger theoretical use to which this is put feels, however, like it might be putting elegance ahead of messiness -- and in most places, Holloway is very attentive to the messiness of reality. So I guess what I'm wary of is hanging an entire approach to social transformation on an idiosyncratic reading of the work of one dead white guy, especially when I'm not convinced that many of the valuable things in this book are as dependent on this one point as it seems to claim. I'm not dismissing the point or the argument, but I'm holding it somewhat tentatively.

Affinities and Questions

There are lots of other bits and pieces that I like. I like the exhortations against sectarianism and purity politics, and against what one might call "correct line politics," even though Holloway does not use that exact term. I like its embrace of uncertainty. I like his skillful, at times even lyrical, writing. I like the emphasis on tools that give us insight into many diverse struggles but that are not premised, even implicitly, on forcing those struggles to adopt our language, our practices, our tools. I like that in seeing the ways in which experiences/categories shape and bind us, the book does not (usually -- there are a few exceptions) just dismiss the categories and by implication those who inhabit them and derive (limiting but real) strength from them, but seeks to open the categories, to go beyond, to be this-and-more. I like the emphasis on the everyday and its continuity with more visible forms of resistance. I really like the emphasis on critique that sees its role as unearthing the role of human beings and what we do in every and any phenomenon -- not abstract structures, not things, not "forces", but us. I like the way that this creates opening for transcending the supposed opposition between "individual" and "social." I like the emphasis on the importance of the particular. I like his skepticism of the state forms. I like the willingness to take seriously aspects of struggle usually neglected in marxist theory, such as gender and sexuality.

But, like I said, I have questions too.

For instance, take the last point in the paragraph above. He does treat things like gender oppression and sexual oppression as integral to capital, rather than just including them in a laundry list that is peripheral to the analysis a la the Trotskyist group that operated on campus when I was an undergraduate. I respect this and see it as a strength of Holloway's work. However. I agree that a big part of the history of the last five centuries has been the emergence of a totality -- the knitting together of social relations into a whole where before it was fragments and partiality and local relations. I agree that changes in relations of production have played a huge role in that, and that preexisting oppressive social relations (e.g. patriarchy) and oppressive social relations co-created with capitalism (colonization, white supremacy) have been transformed by and have also transformed relations of production. However, I am not convinced that the energy and logic of every single one of these can be reduced to the struggle of the dual character of labour. It is important, yes. It has an influence on all of these other oppressions, yes. But I just do not buy a single pivot point. I do not buy that there are no other oppressive logics, no other sources of energy driving the oppressive character of social relations.

I am also wary of Holloway's emphasis on negativity, which I think he inherits from the Frankfurt School. I see some value in it, some liberatory potential. But this emphasis on negativity, on rejecting the oppressive now and refusing to constrain in advance the self-determination in the liberatory tomorrow, means that the social spaces the book calls "cracks" are spaces of danger as well as opportunity. This aspect is dangerously undertheorized in the book. On the one hand, I agree that for self-determination to merit the term, we can't foreclose it, we can't impose on those who exist and create that space. I also appreciate that the book acknowledges that cracks are not pure spaces, not places that offer some kind of magical escape from oppression. Holloway writes,

Where capitalism treats people as means to an end, or as abstractions, or as groups which can be labelled, the push towards mutual recognition [in cracks] means the refusal to accept sexism, racism, ageism and all those other practices which treat people not as people but as the embodiment of labels, definitions, classifications. Although not always observed in practice, the rejection of these forms of labelling has become a universal principle in anti-capitalist movements throughout the world. [39-40]

Even leaving aside the unwarranted optimism about currently existing movements, the combination of leaving the content of the cracks in capitalism largely untheorized because of commitments to self-determination and negativity, and an admission that we strive towards rejecting these oppressive practices but do not always succeed, feels to me like a recipe for reproducing oppression and covering it with a vagueness that we won't talk about or can't talk about or deplore but feel we can get away with not challenging. After all, oppressive practices that are happening but that are organized such that it is extremely difficult to register it in discourse is increasingly a way that such relations are perpetuated now, under neoliberalism, as in the "racism without racism" that David Theo Goldberg writes about.

There also seems to be an element of resisting the urge to define cracks in some kind of formal way while still retaining the right to know them when you see them, which waves a similar kind of red flag for me in that it potentially helps to organize our perception of and response to oppressive practices in ways that are not necessarily useful. I can imagine, for example, some sort of rural compound populated by fundamentalist Christians who reject capitalist social relations and are largely self-sufficient, but who are explicitly and virulently patriarchal. I suspect Holloway would argue this is not really a crack based on the quote above and some of the surrounding material, but it isn't clear to me, given how it is currently theorized, that this has any more of a basis than just not liking that particular grouping. Such a space could quite conceivably reject the logic of capital but still be horrendously oppressive. In contrast, I can imagine some sort of rural, vaguely anarcho-inspired, hippyish commune that says all the right things, is explicitly against all forms of oppressive nastiness, but that through various cultural practices and material barriers is a pretty unfriendly place for people of colour and not very supportive of everyday political work of/in communities of colour. I can imagine, moreover, such a place being regarded by broader left-ish publics as a genuine crack, and worthy of forms of solidarity and cooperation and admiration that the compound above is not. I'm not saying anything about how these two hypotheticals should be regarded and responded to, just pointing out that the book's minimalist approach to the content of spaces that break in some respect with the logic of capital and try to do things differently but that (by the book's own admission are likely to) reproduce oppressive practices and relations in other respects is basically to avoid the issue, which is unhelpful.

So. The point I'm making is that cracks and their potentially oppressive contents are undertheorized and I can see ways in which that undertheorization and the ways in which it is justified could be ways to escape dealing with that oppression, even given an acknowledgment that imperfections are inevitable.

There are also some tensions in the theory that deserve more attention. For instance, there is no question that the book opposes sectarianism and puritanical politics, and encourages ways of work that avoid them. Yet there are also passages in which florid language about refusing to compromise with the state, and about the centrality of the revolt against labour rather than of labour, sounds pretty sectarian and puritanical. Again, this is an inevitable tension, and one that can only be resolved in the course of doing things. But I would still like to have heard more of what Holloway had to say about navigating such tensions in practice.

I also feel a faint anxiety that this approach would lead to us -- meaning people struggling against capitalism and other oppressions in diverse ways and under diverse banners -- to miss something, in the sense that its rejection of the state form and its rejection of dissident theorizing that is done from the standpoint of the totality might cause us to overlook something. I fundamentally agree with both of those stances, but I think it is probably good that people in revolutionary traditions that do not accept them will continue to challenge them.

I want to end on a more personal note. On my August trip to southern Ontario, one of the many social occasions in which I participated involved spending some time with folks with whom I used to do political work. As tends to happen on these occasions, two of these old comrades (both of whom identify as anarchists) got into a variation of the same argument they always get into when we get together. In this case, the focus was another individual in the community who has had lots of success recently mobilizing people around particular issues though whose politics are still pretty unformed. One of my comrades was pointing out some very real dangers in terms of reinforcing oppressions that can result from populist mobilizing among relatively privileged people that lacks political grounding, but at moments it sounded like he was saying that only people who have fully formed analyses should do anything at all. The other was enthusing about the importance of getting people in motion and figuring it out as you go along, but at moments sounded like he was saying that having a solid and grounded analysis was not just not necessary to start acting but was actively harmful. Personally, I thought this iteration of their argument was one of the more productive ones, for reasons I won't go into. But all of this is leading to the point that even as we were engaged in our drunken disputations, it occurred to me that Crack Capitalism might provide a basis for them to find the common ground that I know exists: It emphasizes that not only is it okay for all of us to rebel starting from where we are, but that we all do already, in ways small and large. It emphasizes that we do not need some sort of correct line to get in motion. At the same time, it also sees grounded critique and analysis not just as important but as integral to any effort to expand and multiply the cracks in capitalism. All of this ties into one of Holloway's favourite political maxims, the Zapatista slogan which is translated variously as "Asking we walk" or "Walking, we ask questions."

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

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