Capitalism – crisis and critique (defunct)

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John Holloway’s ‘Crack Capitalism’

May 12th, 2011 · 2 Comments · general

This is a brief summary of the Leverhulme Lecture John Holloway gave on the 11th of May at Leeds University. The lecture focussed mainly on the ideas developed in his book, Crack Capitalism.  John spoke for over an hour (though it didn’t feel like it!) so this summary will no doubt do some violence to what he said but hopefully others there will correct these brief impressions and perhaps fill in any important gaps I have left. In due course a video will be made available on-line. He structured his talk round a number of key points and this is a set of notes on the ones I can remember and that made a particular impression.

Generally John avoids prescription but there are two things he was adamant about. Our understanding and action has to start from a concept of capitalism and from struggle rather than seeking domination. The two are related.

We look for enemies. We look for who is to blame so we have a target and adversary. We blame the government because they run the State; we blame the corporations, the capitalists, the bankers, or empire, or patriarchy. But all this is to miss the point. Behind all of these is the impersonal system that is capitalism. It is a system that has a life of its own, controlled by nobody, not State institutions and apparatus, not corporations, and not capitalists. Certainly some massively benefit more than others and some have more sway than others but the system that is capital holds all in its strangling embrace. Behind all our bogey men is the totalising (but not totalitarian) impersonal force of capitalism.

So it is necessary to understand what we mean by capitalism as an impersonal system. The key thing here is that it is a system that structures the social relations that make up society. John spent some time on this. We can understand the system fundamentally in terms of the social relations and social cohesion it produces, seen as a triumvirate of equivalences – capital, money, labour. It is this system that engulfs us in a “tsunami of social determinations”. We are obliged to work and live within the money economy to survive. This reduces (or attempts to reduce) our social relationships to monetised relationships and transforms our activity into labour that reproduces the system and provides the engine of capital accumulation. But there are cracks in capitalism that allow us to push against this current and take some opportunities and the responsibility to say “no”, to refuse to fit into the pattern of capitalist social relations. We can engage in different types of doing that are within, against and in some instances beyond capitalist social relations and the spaces we can do this in are everywhere, in many respects quite everyday and ordinary. These possibilities are the result of a fundamental weakness in the capitalist system: it depends on us and our labour to meet its need for accumulation and to reproduce the form of social cohesion the system requires. It is dependent on those it dominates. This is the key to the possibility and actuality of our resistance.

Living in the cracks in social relations and activities that deny and resist the social determinations of capitalism is not the old failed agenda of trying to take control of the state in order to build a new society from the top. It is not a project to seek domination via the State. Resistance and change need to start on the ground by subverting the forms of social relationships that the system depends on. John gave many examples of cracks in capitalism, spaces where literally or metaphorically signs at the edges announce that capitalist social relations are not welcome and do not operate here. He instanced, among others, the Zapatistas, the  Really Open University and the students taking the MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University he is currently working with. Other excellent examples are the Social Science Centre at Lincoln and the Roundhouse Journal.

The cracks and their forms of relations and activities are fluid and dynamic. To some extent they come and go. But there is evidence of proliferation and confluence.

This, I think, is the gist of John’s argument. The questions from the predominantly student audience were impressive and homed in unerringly on what John himself admitted was a potential weakness in his position. Early on in his lecture John characterised capitalism as a dynamic and developing system driven by the necessity to handle its dependency on labour and its disrupting potentialities. Resistance tends to be neutralised and absorbed, even sometimes commodified and swallowed into the system of capitalist relations. The problem of this feature of the capitalist system seemed to be the context of nearly all the questions. One question was concerned that the many instances of cracks would not necessarily join up and coalesce into a total transformative movement to overcome and replace capitalism. Just as likely would be that they would remain isolated and fail ultimately to be transformative. How would the ‘confluence’ that John alluded to occur? Surely it would need some sort of organised cohesion, some forms of overarching leadership? John’s response was to say that institutions do not work. Inevitably hierarchical and vertical structures and relations develop. Distinctions begin to be made between roles, between part-time and full-time, more or less committed, and so on. Gradually forms of domination and distinction emerge and solidify reproducing in many respects the forms of social relations that were being resisted. But how, if not through organisation and leadership will the confluence of cracks occur? John gave as an example the forms of communication and transition that occurred with the Zapatistas – resonances and echoes created and transmitted through poetry, art, theatre, and forms of non-hierarchical democratic dialogue. No one mentioned the internet at this point, a form of communication that has developed its radical (and to some extent repressive) potential enormously in recent years.

John was asked what his attitude is towards more conventionally ‘reformist’ approaches, for instance the attempt to institute some sort of financial transaction tax to finance welfare measures and/or pay for public services. John’s answer invoked his earlier reference to resistance within, against and beyond. There are different forms of resistance which individuals will be more or less comfortable with. But the bottom-line for him is that capitalism stinks and needs to be completely dismantled. His response echoed that of Slavoj Žižek – of course no one can object to feeding the poor but we should be fundamentally concerned with and focussed on the system that produces and reproduces their poverty. Reformism ultimately supports and reproduces the system of repression and indignity.

One questioner made the powerful point that cracks as characterised are often instrumental for the system. One of John’s examples of a space where relationships and actions do not conform to the pattern of capitalist relations is the family. But historically and still today the family is crucial to the functioning and reproduction of capitalism.

To summarise John’s answers to all the questions, he consistently stated that there are no guarantees, that the possibility of change is uncertain, even that it may be too late. But the hope and potential for change rests in autonomous struggle, not the acquisition of the power and institutions of state. It is the practice, proliferation, propagation and confluence of other ways of doing that resist and subvert the social determination of capitalist relations that we should engage in, promote and nurture.

[This post has been published on the Really Open University (links to post) web site. If you wish to comment or discuss the lecture you may wish to visit the post there where it will probably get a larger readership. Of course, if you prefer, please comment here!].


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