Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dig deeper for socialism (2010)


Book Review from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Crack Capitalism by John Holloway, London: Pluto Press 2010

John Holloway’s previous book, Change The World Without Taking Power, was relatively popular and the focus of much debate and discussion, at least in the relatively small circles where you find anti-capitalist activists. A lot has happened since the book’s publication in 2002, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Holloway’s latest, Crack Capitalism, which makes more or less exactly the same arguments.

Holloway’s main point is basically that of ‘autonomist marxism’ and there is one great island of strength in this, which readers might drag themselves onto if they don’t first drown in a sea of verbiage. It can be summed up in a paragraph. It is that the world’s workers create capitalism by going to work. Capitalism is therefore not a thing that stands outside and over and above us, but a social relationship that we create everyday through our daily activities. If we understand this, we can, if we want to end capitalism, merely stop creating it and do something else instead. In fact, according to autonomists, this is actually happening all the time – every time we refuse work, go on strike, call in sick, or even, if Holloway is to be believed, dig our gardens. The workers of the world are always resisting their exploitation, even if only in their own, small, personal ways, and even if they’re not conscious of exactly what it is they’re doing. The task is merely to extend and expand and ‘circulate’ the struggles. Holloway calls these struggles the ‘cracks’ in capitalism. What we need to do is find the cracks, and work hard to make them bigger. “The opening of cracks is the opening of a world that presents itself as closed,” says Holloway. This is a neat way of summarising a fundamental Marxian proposition about class struggle as the motor that drives change. The strength of the argument is that it puts the power and potential for change back where it belongs and where it in fact really lies: in our own hands. The weakness, however, is a very serious one. It is that it risks evading the real difficulties that remain.

According to Holloway, the ranks of the “anti-capitalist revolutionaries” are impressively large. They include the composer who expresses his anger and dreams of a better society through his music, the worker who bunks off work to go read a book in the park, the “gardener who creates a garden to struggle against the destruction of nature”, the friends who form a choir for no good reason except their love of singing, and “the young man in Mexico City who goes to the jungle to organise armed struggle to change the world”. The key to becoming fully human, says Holloway, “is simple: refuse, disobey.” If this didn’t happen, there would be no grounds for hope in a socialist future at all. But if it was enough, then surely capitalism would have collapsed long ago – in fact, could never have got off the ground in the first place.

Imagine, says Holloway, borrowing a metaphor from an Edgar Allen Poe story, that we are all in a room. We are all in it together – some sitting on a comfortable couch, others cramped miserably in a corner, perhaps; but in it together nonetheless. There are four walls, a ceiling, but no windows or doors. And the walls are advancing slowly inwards, threatening to crush us all to death. How would we respond to such a situation? No doubt, says Holloway, some would just refuse to see what was happening and distract themselves instead with the latest offering from Disney. Some would perhaps denounce the walls, but not propose to do anything about it, while others would look forward to and dream of a day when there were no walls. Then there are those like Holloway who would instead run to the walls and try desperately to find cracks, or to create them. In an unintentionally hilarious conclusion, which speaks against his whole argument, Holloway imagines these activists banging their heads against the wall “over and over again” until the wall comes crumbling down. Holloway, for all his straining after poetic effect, doesn’t seem to realise that, in the repeated encounters between a head and a brick wall, the wall very rarely gets the worst of it.

To take another of Holloway’s metaphors, and turn it against him, perhaps the cracks in capitalism are more like the cracks in mud than the cracks in a wall – one short spell of rain can wash them away without trace. To understand this and organise to counter-act it, to get to the stage where the class struggle of our side could conceivably counter, say, capital flight to the other side of the world, or the organised violence of state power, requires exactly the kind of big-picture thinking and dedicated, disciplined organising that Holloway dogmatically opposes.

We in the Socialist Party do not of course oppose most of the activities that Holloway places his hopes in. As individuals, some of us enjoy gardening, for example; and most of us are active in trade unions and similar organisations, even if we do not take up arms and head out into the Mexican jungle. But we do not flatter to deceive, nor dodge the most difficult questions. The problem we have to face is that, in the class struggle, the odds are nearly always against us, and that to build a socialist future, we need a mass organisation of people who know what it is they want and are prepared to work to achieve it. As Engels put it, “The period for sudden onslaughts, of revolutions carried out by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where the question involves the complete transformation of the social organisation, there the masses must be consulted, must themselves have already grasped what the struggle is about, and what they stand for.” Holloway’s work is in many ways an ingenious dodging of this immense task. But the task remains and will remain as long as capitalism does. It’s time we faced it.
Stuart Watkins

Red shoots

Editorial from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Are we beginning to see the red shoots of recovery in the class struggle? It certainly seems that way. The annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), held in mid-September, approved motions calling for ‘joint industrial action’, and union leaders have promised ‘street protests’ and a campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ to oppose planned government spending cuts. Two-day strikes on London’s Tube network have already taken place. And as the TUC met, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that America and Europe face the worst jobs crisis since the 1930s and an ‘explosion of social unrest’ unless governments tread carefully.

There’s no way of predicting with any confidence whether this expected ‘explosion’ will go off, or turn out to be a damp squib – it all depends on what millions of people think and decide to do. But the concern on the part of our bosses and rulers is real enough. The unions today may remain weak: membership has declined from 13 million in the early 1980s to just over half that today, according to the Economist, and membership is concentrated in the public sector (57 percent of public-sector workers are unionised compared with just 15 percent in the private). But, as the Economist points out, unions remain an important social movement. Its seven million members are a bigger force than, say, the four million who attend church at least once a month. Along with the concentration of forces in the public sector, this means unions can still ‘cause chaos’ – a transport strike prevents other workers getting to work, for example, and a teachers’ strike sends millions of parents home to look after their children. The Economist concludes from this that there is a vital need to keep the general public ‘onside’ in any conflict – they mean (as if it’s obvious) on the side of business and its government.

And that¹s the media’s job – to wage a propaganda war to make sure everyone’s ‘onside’, The tragedy is that their victory seems assured before the war is even begun. Why? Because alternatives to the system that got us into this mess are simply unthinkable. Even the most radical of the trade unionists, and leftwing commentary generally, did little but offer reforms that the propagandists will have no trouble portraying as unrealistic. If you accept the logic of capitalism, you play by its rules – and by its rules, savage government spending cuts are just necessary and inevitable. By its rules, to fight against cuts and for higher wages is as senseless as trying to shake fruit from a dead tree. Without a decent anti-capitalist argument, and an idea of what we are for, we¹ve lost before we’ve begun.

That’s why socialism is so important. Yes, it is, as we are often told, a ‘nice idea’. But when it takes hold of workers, it could become much more than that. It could become the fertiliser we need if the red shoots of recovery are going to take root, thrive – and blossom in a world beyond capitalism, a world fit for humanity.