John Holloway: Critical thought against the capitalist hydra

John Holloway remains one of the most eloquent marxists of our times.  With intellectual roots in italian autonomist marxism, his insistence on reading Capital as a dynamic system of social relations of appropriation constructed through struggles against peoples’ efforts to autonomously and collectively control their creativity, remains powerful;  perhaps above all because his work allows us to see that we are Capital and its crises, and thus it is for us to destroy it.

We share a talk by John Holloway, presented to the Zapatista Seminar San Cristóbal de las Casas, May 7, 2015.  (Posted also on roarmag and the blog of the uk socialist party).

An honor, a joy to be here. I feel I want to dance, but I won’t do it, I’ll focus instead on what we were asked to do. I shall talk about critical thought and explain how to kill the hydra of capitalism. That’s what it’s about: we talk of the hydra not to frighten ourselves, but to think about how to defeat it. The myth of the hydra had a happy end and we too must reach a happy end.

By critical thought I understand not thought of catastrophe but the thought that seeks hope in a world where it seems that it no longer exists. Critical thought is the thought that opens that which is closed, that shakes that which is fixed. Critical thought is the attempt to understand the storm and more than that: it is understanding that at the center of the storm is something that opens paths towards other worlds.

The storm is coming, or rather it is already here. It is already here and it is very probable that it will get worse. We have a name for this storm that is already here: Ayotzinapa. Ayotzinapa as horror, and as symbol of so many other horrors. Ayotzinapa as the concentrated expression of the Fourth World War.

Where does the storm come from? Not from the politicians — they do no more than implement the storm. Not from imperialism: it is not the product of states, not even of the most powerful states. The storm arises from the form in which society is organized. It is the expression of the desperation, the fragility, the weakness of a form of social organization that has passed its sell-by date, it is an expression of the crisis of capital.

Capital is in itself a constant aggression. It is an aggression that tells us every day “you have to shape what you do in a certain way, the only activity that has validity in this society is activity that contributes to the expansion of capitalist profit.”

The aggression that is capital has a dynamic. In order to survive, capital has to subordinate our activity more intensely to the logic of profit each day: “today you have to work harder than yesterday, today you have to bow lower than yesterday.”

With that, we can already see the weakness of capital. It depends on us, on our being willing or able to accept what it imposes on us. If we say “sorry, but I am going to tend my garden today,” or “today I am going to play with my children,” or “today I am going to dedicate my time to something that has meaning for me,” or simply “no, we will not bow,” then capital cannot extract the profit it requires, the rate of profit falls and capital is in crisis. In other words, we are the crisis of capital: our lack of subordination, our dignity, our humanity. We, as crisis of capital, as subjects with dignity and not as victims, we are the hope that is sought by critical thought. We are the crisis of capital and proud of it, we are proud to be the crisis of the system that is killing us.

Capital gets desperate in this situation. It searches for all possible ways of imposing the subordination that it requires: authoritarianism, violence, labor reform, educational reform. It also introduces a game, a fiction: if we cannot extract the profit we need, then we shall pretend that it exists, we shall create a monetary representation for value that has not been produced, we are going to expand debt in order to survive and also try to use it to impose the discipline that is necessary. This expansion of debt is at the same time the expansion of finance capital, expression of the violent weakness of capital as a social relation.

But this fiction increases the instability of capital and in any case does not succeed in imposing the necessary discipline. The dangers for capital of this fictitious expansion become clear with the financial collapse of 2008, when it becomes clearer than ever that the only way out for capital is more authoritarianism: the whole negotiation around the Greek debt tells us that there is no possibility of a gentler capitalism, that the only path forward for capital is the path of austerity, of violence. The storm that is here, the storm that is coming.

We are the crisis of capital, we who say No, we who say Enough of capitalism!, we who say that it is time to stop creating capital, time to create another way of living.

Capital depends on us, because if we do not create profit (surplus value) directly or indirectly, then capital cannot exist. We create capital and if capital is in crisis, it is because we are not creating the profit necessary for capital’s existence: that is why they are attacking us with such violence.

In this situation there are really two options of struggle. We can say “Yes, all right, we shall carry on producing capital, we shall continue to promote the accumulation of capital, but we need better living conditions for everybody.” This is the option of the left parties and governments: of Syriza, of Podemos, of the governments in Venezuela and Bolivia. The problem is that, although they can improve living conditions in some respects, the very desperation of capital means that there is very little possibility of a gentler capitalism.

The other possibility is to say “Goodbye, capital, time for you to go, we are going to create other ways of living, other ways of relating to one another, both among humans and between humans and other forms of life, ways of living that are not determined by money and the pursuit of profit, but by our own collective decisions.”

Here in this seminar we are at the very center of this second option. This is the meeting point between Zapatistas and Kurds and thousands of other movements that reject capitalism and are trying to construct something different. All of us are saying “Right, capital, your time is past, now get out, we are building something else.” We express it in many different ways: we are creating cracks in the wall of capital and trying to promote their confluence, we are building the common, we are communizing, we are the movement of doing against labour, we are the movement of use value against value, of dignity against a world based on humiliation. It does not matter very much how we express it, the important thing is that we are creating here and now a world of many worlds.

But do we have strength enough? Do we have enough strength to say that we are not interested in capitalist investment, that we are not interested in capitalist employment? Do we have the strength to reject totally our present dependence on capital to survive? Do we have the strength to say a final goodbye to capital?

Possibly we do not have sufficient strength yet. Many of us who are here have our salaries or our grants that come from the accumulation of capital and, if we do not, then we shall have to go back next week to look for a capitalist job. Our rejection of capital is a schizophrenic rejection: we want to say a sharp goodbye to it, and we are not able to, or find it very difficult. There is no purity in this struggle. The struggle to stop creating capital is also a struggle against our dependence on capital. That is, it is a struggle to emancipate our creative capacities, our force to produce, our productive forces.

That’s what we’re at, that is why we’ve come here. It is a question of organizing ourselves, of course, but not of creating an Organization with a capital O, but of organizing ourselves in many ways to live now the worlds we want to create.

In the morning the comandantes asked us for provocative concepts. I suppose my talk can be summarized in three theoretical provocations:

Critical thought is not the thought that speaks of catastrophe but the thought that looks for hope inside the catastrophe.

1. We are the crisis of capital and proud of it. All thought about the storm starts from there.

2. The only way of defeating the Hydra is by ceasing to create capital and dedicating ourselves to the creation of other worlds based not on money and profit but on dignity and self-determination.

3. It sounds easy, we know that it is not. How do we advance, then, how do we walk? Asking we walk, asking and hugging and organizing.

John Holloway is a professor in the Posgrado de Sociología, Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla

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