John Holloway: We have no answers; we have questions. Urgent ones

From Roarmag (01/05/2021) …

We do not know how to stop the planetary destruction caused by capital — but by asking the right questions we can find our way forward together.

We live in a failed system. It is becoming clearer every day that the present organization of society is a disaster, that capitalism is unable to secure an acceptable way of living. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a natural phenomenon but the result of the social destruction of biodiversity and other pandemics are likely to follow. The global warming that is a threat to both human and many forms of non-human life is the result of the capitalist destruction of established equilibria. The acceptance of money as the dominant measure of social value forces a large part of the world’s population to live in miserable and precarious conditions.

The destruction caused by capitalism is accelerating. Growing inequality, a rise in racist violence, the spread of fascism, increasing tensions between states and the accumulation of power by police and military. Moreover, the survival of capitalism is built on an ever-expanding debt that is doomed to collapse at some point.

The situation is urgent, we humans are now faced with the real possibility of our own extinction.

How do we get out of here? The traditional answer of those who are conscious of the scale of social problems: through the state. Political thinkers and politicians from Hegel to Keynes and Roosevelt and now Biden have seen the state as a counterweight to the destruction wreaked by the economic system. States will solve the problem of global warming; states will end the destruction of biodiversity; states will alleviate the enormous hardship and poverty resulting from the present crisis. Just vote for the right leaders and everything will be all right. And if you are very worried about what is happening, just vote for more radical leaders — Sanders or Corbyn or Die Linke or Podemos or Evo Morales or Maduro or López Obrador — and things will be fine.

The problem with this argument is that experience tells us that it does not work. Left-wing leaders have never fulfilled their promises, have never brought about the changes that they said they would. In Latin America, the left-wing politicians who came to power in the so-called Pink Wave at the start of this century, have been closely associated with extractivism and other forms of destructive development. The Tren Maya which is Mexican president López Obrador’s favorite project in Mexico at the moment is just the latest example of this. Left-wing parties and politicians may be able to bring about minor changes, but they have done nothing at all to break the destructive dynamic of capital.

The state is not the answer

But it is not just experience that tells us that the state is not the counterweight to capital that some make it out to be. Theoretical reflection tells us the same thing. The state, which appears to be separate from capital, is actually generated by capital and depends on capital for its existence. The state is not a capitalist and its workers do not on the whole generate the income it needs for its existence. That income comes from the exploitation of workers by capital, so that the state actually depends on that exploitation, that is, on the accumulation of capital, to reproduce its own existence.

The state is obliged, by its very form, to promote the accumulation of capital. Capital, too, depends on the existence of an instance — the state — that does not act like a capitalist and that appears to be quite separate from capital, to secure its own reproduction. The state appears to be the center of power, but in fact power lies with the owners of capital, that is, with those persons who dedicate their existence to the expansion of capital. In other words, the state is not a counterweight to capital: it is part of the same uncontrollable dynamic of destruction.

The fact that the state is bound to capital means that it excludes us. State democracy is a process of exclusion that says: “Come and vote every four or five years, then go home and accept what we decide.” The state is the existence of a body of full-time officials who assume the responsibility of ensuring the welfare of society — in a way compatible with the reproduction of capital, of course. By assuming that responsibility, they take it away from us. But, whatever their intentions, they are unable to fulfill the responsibility, because they do not have the countervailing power that they appear to have: what they do and how they do it is shaped by the need to ensure the reproduction of capital.

Just now, for example, politicians are talking of the need for a radical change in political direction as the world emerges from the pandemic, but at no point does any politician or government official suggest that part of that change in direction must be the abolition of a system based on the pursuit of profit.

If the state is not the answer to ending capitalist destruction, then it follows that channeling our concerns into political parties cannot be the answer either, since parties are organizations that aim to bring about change through the state. Attempts to bring about radical change through parties and the taking of state power have generally ended in the creation of authoritarian regimes at least as bad as those they fought to change.

Asking we walk

So, if the state is not the answer, where do we go? How do we get out of here? We come to a conference like this, of course, to discuss anarchist answers. But there are at least three problems: firstly, there are not the millions of people here that we need for a real change of direction; secondly, we have no answers; and thirdly, the label “anarchist” probably does not help.

Why are there not millions of people here? There is certainly a widespread growing feeling of anger, desperation and an awareness that the system is not working. But why is this anger channeled either towards left-reformist parties and candidates (Die Linke, Sanders, Corbyn, Tsipras) or to the far right, and not towards efforts that push against-and-beyond the system? There are many explanations, but one that seems important to me is Leonidas Oikonomakis’ comment on the election of Syriza in Greece in 2015 that, even after years of very militant anti-statist protest against austerity, it still seemed to people that the state was the “only game in town.”

When we think of global warming, of stopping violence against women, of controlling the pandemic, of resolving our economic desperation in the present crisis, it is still hard not to think that the state is where the answers lie, even when we know that it is not.

Perhaps we have to give up the idea of answers. We have no answers. It cannot be a question of opposing anarchist answers to state answers. The state gives answers, wrong answers. We have questions, urgent questions, new questions because this situation of impending extinction has never existed before. How can we stop the destructive dynamic of capital? The only answer that we have is that we do not know.

It is important to say that we do not know, for two reasons. Firstly because it happens to be true. We do not know how we can bring the present catastrophe to an end. We have ideas, but we really do not know. And secondly, because a politics of questions is very different from a politics of answers. If we have the answers, it is our duty to explain them to others. That is what the state does, that is what vanguardist parties do. If we have questions but no answers, then we must discuss them together to try and find ways forward. “Preguntando caminamos,” as the Zapatistas say: “Asking we walk.”

The process of asking and listening is not the way to a different society, it is already the creation of a different society. The asking-listening is already a mutual recognizing of our distinct dignities. We ask-and-listen to you because we recognize your dignity. This is the opposite of state politics. The state talks. It pretends to ask-and-listen but it does not and cannot because its existence depends on reproducing a form of social organization based on the command of money.

Our asking-listening is an anti-identitarian movement. We recognize your dignity not because you are an anarchist or a communist, or German or Austrian or Mexican or Irish, or because you are a woman or Black or Indigenous. Labels are very dangerous — even if they are “nice” labels — because they create identitarian distinctions. To say “we are anarchists” is self-contradictory because it reproduces the identitarian logic of the state: we are anarchists, you are not; we are German, you are not. If we are against the state, then we against its logic, against its grammar.

A movement of self-determination

We have no answers, but our walking-asking does not start from zero. It is part of a long history of walking-asking. Just in these days we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and the centenary of the Kronstadt Uprising. In the present, we have the experience of the Zapatistas to inspire us, just as they are preparing their journey across the Atlantic to connect with the walkers-askers against capital in Europe this summer. And of course we look to the deeply ingrained practice of councilism in the Kurdish movement in the terribly difficult conditions of their struggle. And beyond that, the millions of cracks in which people are trying to organize on an anti-hierarchical, mutually recognitive basis.

It is simply not true that the state is the only game in town. We must shout from the rooftops that there is another, long-established game: the game of doing things ourselves, collectively.

Organization in the communal or council tradition is not on the basis of selection-and-exclusion but on the basis of a coming-together of those who are there, whether in the village or the neighborhood or the factory, with all their differences, their squabbles, their madnesses, their meannesses, their shared interests and common concerns.

The organization is not instrumental: it is not designed as the best way of reaching a goal, for it is itself its own goal. It does not have a defined membership since its aim is to draw in, not to exclude. Its discussions are not aimed at defining the correct line, but at articulating and accommodating differences, at constructing here and now the mutual recognition that is negated by capitalism.

This does not mean a suppression of debate, but, on the contrary, a constant process of discussion and critique aimed not at eliminating or denouncing or labeling the opponent but at maintaining the creative tension that arises from holding together ideas that push in slightly different directions. An always difficult mutual recognizing of dignities that pull in different directions.

The council or commune is a movement of self-determination: through asking-listening-thinking we shall decide how we want the world to be, not by following the blind dictates of money and profit. And, perhaps more and more important, it is an assumption of our responsibility for shaping the future of human life.

If we reach the point of extinction, it will be of no help to say on the last day: “It is all the fault of the capitalists and their states.” No. It will be our fault if we do not break the power of money and take back from the state our responsibility for the future of human life.

(This is an adapted version of John Holloway’s presentation at the “Crisis of Nation States — Anarchist Answers” conference.)

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