Home > political-economy, politics > Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet (3)

Change the World Without Taking Power: A decade later John Holloway’s challenge still unmet (3)

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


Part 3: History as a hall of mirrors

What I find really interesting about Holloway is his determination to carry his argument to its final conclusion, no matter how it appears to conflict with decades of accumulated Marxist dogmas and even his own poor grasp of the basics of labor theory. His attitude can be best summed up by his scathing response to a critique of his book by Daniel Bensaid:

“Spit on history. History is the history of oppression told by the oppressors, a history from which oppression conveniently disappears, a history of Heroes, of Great Men.

Spit on history. History, even our history, is a history in which the struggle against oppression is invaded by the categories of the oppressors, so that it too becomes the history of Heroes, of Great Men, of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao.

Spit on history, because it is the great alibi of the Left, the great excuse for not thinking. Make any theoretical or political argument about revolution and the response of the Revolutionary Left is to bring you back to 1902, to 1905, to 1917, to 1921. History becomes a whirlpool, sucking you into the details of lives long dead. Present political differences become translated into disputes about the details of what happened in Kronstadt over eighty years ago. Anything to avoid thinking about the present, anything to avoid assuming the terrible responsibility that the future of the world depends on us and not on Lenin or Trotsky.”

Not to be misunderstood by his critic, Holloway adds this gem:

“Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead. Yes. First your cart: show disrespect for the dead, for they have bequeathed us a world unworthy of humanity, a world of exploitation and of mass murder in the name of democracy.

And then your plough: plough the bones of the dead into the soil of revolt. Plough their legacy of struggle into the ground to make it fertile. Honour the dead by showing them disrespect.

Do not build mausoleums, or monuments, or even put gravestones for the dead, just use their bones directly as fertiliser. The disappeared are the great heroes of communism: not just those who have been disappeared by state repression, but all of those unseen, unheard people who struggled to live with dignity in a world which negates dignity, the knitters of humanity. The history we need is not so much that of the great revolutionaries, but of those who did their washing and played with their children.”

If History for post-war Marxism has become a hall of mirrors in which we are continually trying to separate the real and reflected images of history, Holloway set out deliberately to smash all the mirrors in this great hall of mirrors.

The fetishistic character of the class (political) struggle

For sure it appears Holloway’s criticism of Marxism can easily be applied to Marx himself. Politics has always been a fetish form and Marx acknowledged this in his controversy with Bakunin. Whatever else is to be established, it is clear neither Marx nor Engels thought the proletariat was a political class. It follows from this that their social emancipation is not a political result. Since the proletarians are not a political class, the inevitability of communism cannot rest on the struggle between the bourgeois and proletarian classes. The class struggle is a political struggle; it is always fought on the terrain of the bourgeoisie. As long as the proletariat is fighting on this terrain, its struggle necessarily takes place in fetish forms that dominate bourgeois society. Marx’s reply to Bakunin suggests he and Engels were fully aware of the fetishistic character of bourgeois politics and the state, and made their recommendation in full knowledge of the fetishistic character of bourgeois politics.

We can arrive at no other conclusion than one that states Marx, despite knowing politics was a fetish form, advised the working class to fight for and within bourgeois politics. It wasn’t Engels alone who deserves the blame for this, it was both Engels and Marx who counseled against insurrection and recommended this path. Marxists who want to continue to praise Marx, but condemn Engels on this point are simply being dishonest. But, I think, the critics of Engels are being dishonest, not because Marx and Engels were wrong in their recommendation, but because these Marxists, really haven’t the slightest idea why Marx and Engels made their recommendation in the first place. Engel’s critics are being dishonest about their own ignorance.

Holloway argues that the Marxists obsession with state power: fetishises the state: it abstracts it from the web of capitalist social relations in which it is embedded. What he forgets is this is not just true of obsession with state power: it is also true of every site of proletarian conflict with capital. When workers enter into union negotiation with the company, they are fetishising the company, abstracting it from the web of social relations in which it is embedded. Marxists are only doing in theory, what the workers’ associations do practically and without the theoretical facade of bullshit Hegelian dialectical nonsense. This fact is brought home when, after the strike (or even without one), the company announces it is moving its operations from Detroit to Kentucky or even Mexico. Suddenly the workers learn that their assumption — labor negotiations are carried on in a bubble — is nonsense. Their struggle is revealed to be situated not in a few plants located around Detroit, or even in the United States, but is located within the world market in labor power — and this means their union also must not be confined, but must be global.

This truth only makes itself felt as capital materially assumes its final constitution. As Holloway notes, capital has the potential to establish itself as the dominant social relation globally from its very beginning. This is another fact of which Marx and Engels were fully aware — as they were aware of the limitations of the national state political form. Since capital has a global potential from its beginning, directly social labor bound up with capital must have this character as well. This global potential, I think, really does not begin to express itself in modern form until the close of the period ending with World War II.

Holloway never explains why, despite the fetishistic, limited, character of politics and the global character of capitalism, Marx and Engels made the recommendation to fight for and within bourgeois democracy. He never explains why this recommendation was right then, but wrong now (or always wrong, if he agrees with Bakunin). And he never offers a solution in his argument: if politics is not the path to communism, what is the path? If the class struggle does not directly bring about the demise of capitalism in labor theory, what does? These questions don’t distract Holloway from his single-minded pursuit; he doesn’t even appear aware that they hang on every accusation he directs to post-war Marxism. This, I think, is because Holloway shares in the expectation of post-war Marxists generally that the working class is a political class and that its social revolution is, in the final analysis, a political one. It is never clear in his book that Holloway, despite his criticism of the post-war Marxist obsession with state power in the face of a global capitalism, ever breaks with the notion of a political revolution, although, as we shall see, this is precisely the result of his argument.

The demise of capitalism in labor theory restated

I argued in the last part of this series that the class struggle plays a mediating role much like the competition between capitals. I meant by this that the degree of competition between capitals and the degree of struggle between capital and wage labor intensifies or accelerates the forces internal to capital that lead to its demise. I think this is supported by the textual evidence that I have referenced in the two preceding parts of this series and elsewhere, but let’s nail it down.

So what are the internal forces or contradictions that lead to the demise of capital? Marx is pretty clear on this. In Volume three, chapter 15 of Capital, he states:

“If, as shown, a falling rate of profit is bound up with an increase in the mass of profit, a larger portion of the annual product of labour is appropriated by the capitalist under the category of capital (as a replacement for consumed capital) and a relatively smaller portion under the category of profit. … Furthermore, the mass of profit increases in spite of its slower rate with the growth of the invested capital. However, this requires a simultaneous concentration of capital, since the conditions of production then demand employment of capital on a larger scale. It also requires its centralisation, i.e. , the swallowing up of the small capitalists by the big and their deprivation of capital. It is again but an instance of separating — raised to the second power — the conditions of production from the producers to whose number these small capitalists still belong, since their own labour continues to play a role in their case. The labour of a capitalist stands altogether in inverse proportion to the size of his capital, i.e. , to the degree in which he is a capitalist. It is this same severance of the conditions of production, on the one hand, from the producers, on the other, that forms the conception of capital. It begins with primitive accumulation, appears as a permanent process in the accumulation and concentration of capital, and expresses itself finally as centralisation of existing capitals in a few hands and a deprivation of many of their capital (to which expropriation is now changed).”

In brief, the fall in the rate of profit produces a tendency toward an increase in the size of the capital necessary to maintain profitability. And it produces a tendency for the centralization of smaller capitals under the control of bigger capitals. Capitals too small to be profitable on their own are lent out to larger capitals that can make use of this capital profitably. Says Marx:

“This process would soon bring about the collapse of capitalist production if it were not for counteracting tendencies, which have a continuous decentralising effect alongside the centripetal one.”

Based on this, I think, we can confirm that, in labor theory, the demise of capital is not produced by the class struggle, but by forces internal to the capitalist mode of production — internal to the process of accumulation itself. Leaving aside what Marx calls countervailing tendencies, at some definite point the concentration and centralization of capital must proceed to the point where no further concentration and centralization will further increase the mass of profits — producing the final collapse of capitalism. Capital collapses on its own and without more cause than those forces that motivate capitalist production, i.e., production for profit.

Ask a room full of Marxists what causes the collapse of capital, and not one in ten thousand would give you this answer. The Marxist argument goes something like this: “Yes. Capitalism would collapse, but they always come up with new ways to keep it alive. Since they always come up with new ways to keep capitalism alive, we must get rid of it by political means.”

The problem with this view is that is rests on assumptions that violate labor theory: either the working class has a class consciousness that emerges in its conflict with capital or crises, or it has an abstract, theoretically derived, “class interest” that can be represented by a vanguard party. As I have tried to show, neither of these two arguments hold water: each worker must come to her own understanding of the need for association through her own experience — there is no substitute for this. Not even the workers’ own association can stand in for the worker — she must consciously grasp the need for association and this association follows from her conscious understanding.

The anti-class struggle

In his book, Holloway tries to move the class (political) struggle from outside capital, where it sits in the Marxist argument, to inside the relationship. He is trying by this means to overcome the twin notions, to be found in post-war Marxism, of both an autonomous state and capital as an endlessly reproducing capitalist relation:

In so far as Marxism emphasises the regularities of social development, and the interconnections between phenomena as part of a social totality, it lends itself very easily to a view of capitalism as a relatively smoothly  self-reproducing society, in which whatever is necessary for capitalist reproduction automatically happens. By a strange twist, Marxism, from being a theory of the destruction of capitalist society, becomes a theory of its reproduction. The separation of class struggle from the laws of motion of capitalism leads to a separation between revolution and the reproduction of capitalist society. This does not necessarily mean that the idea of revolution is abandoned: it may indeed be given up (in the name of realism), but often it is simply taken for granted (in the way that class struggle is taken for granted in so much Marxist analysis), or relegated to the future. Thus, in the future there will be revolution, but in the meantime, the laws of capitalist reproduction operate. In the future, there will be a radical break, but in the meantime we can treat capitalism as a self-reproducing society. In the future, the working class will be the subject of social development, but in the meantime capital rules. In the future, things will be different, but in the meantime we can treat Marxism as a functionalist theory, in which the ‘requirements of capital’, a phrase which recurs frequently in Marxist discussions, can be taken as an adequate explanation of what does or does not happen. The emphasis on reproduction, combined with an analysis of reproduction as class domination, leads to a view of society in which capital rules and capital’s will (or requirements) prevails. Rupture, then, if the idea is maintained at all, can only be seen as something external, something that is brought in from outside.

If the class struggle is conceived as standing outside the capitalist relationship, the state appears as an autonomous actor able to operate independent of capitalist relations. On the other hand, capital appears as a smoothly self-reproducing system of relations. His solution to the errors of post-war Marxism makes sense except that capital is the absolute subordination of wage labor to the capitalist; by bringing the class struggle (the state) into the relation, Holloway is simply stating the class struggle itself rests on the absolute subordination of wage labor to capital. Even when the working class struggle reaches a very high level — as in Egypt, Greece, or Spain — it nevertheless moves completely within the absolute subordination of wage labor to capital. Wage labor cannot escape this subordination, no matter how hard it struggles against capital.

And this is the genius in Holloway’s book: When he encounters this complication, he does not hesitate, but turns the notion of class struggle on its head to make it fit its new position inside capitalist social relations:

“We do not struggle as working class, we struggle against being working class, against being classified. Our struggle is not the struggle of labour: it is the struggle against labour. It is the unity of the process of classification (the unity of capital accumulation) that gives unity to our struggle, not our unity as members of a common class. … There is nothing good about being members of the working class, about being ordered, commanded, separated from our product and our process of production. Struggle arises not from the fact that we are working class but from the fact that we-are-and-are-not working class, that we exist against-and-beyond being working class, that they try to order and command us but we do not want to be ordered and commanded, that they try to separate us from our product and our producing and our humanity and our selves and we do not want to be separated from all that. In this sense working class identity is not something ‘good’ to be treasured, but something ‘bad’, something to be fought against, something that is fought against, something that is constantly at issue. Or rather, working class identity should be seen as a non-identity: the communion of struggle to be not working class.”

Capital rests on the absolute subordination of wage labor. To be free of the absolute subordination of wage labor to capital, the worker must free herself from her position as wage laborer. In the final analysis, the worker does not fight against capital, but against labor itself. What makes the capitalist class a revolutionary class is that it hates labor. What makes it inconsistently or only relatively revolutionary is that despite its hatred for labor, its power ultimately rests on labor. The revolutionary subject doesn’t emerge carrying the banner of labor, but in the struggle against labor. The context of the class struggle, properly understood, is a conflict over the inconsistent hostility of capital toward labor — an inconsistency bred of the fact that labor is for capital also a source of wealth. For labor itself, labor is nothing but misery and starvation, not wealth.

Holloway reformulates our notion of class struggle in a manner that makes it a revolutionary weapon in Postone’s and Kurz’s sense of a struggle that becomes anti-class struggle, both anti-political and anti-economic. Seen from outside the relation, the class struggle is between the two classes over the division of the social product — a fetish form. Seen from inside the relation, this fetish form is revealed to be a struggle between the two classes over the abolition of labor itself. As the constitution of the proletariat matures into its final form, what previously appears as a struggle between classes, must mature into a struggle to put an end to all classes and — first of all — an end to the working class itself.

Holloway does not simply import the class struggle into the capitalist relationship, he inverts this struggle: reformulates it as the absolute hostility of the worker not toward the capitalist, but toward her own alienated activity. Says Holloway,

“It is only in so far as we are/are not the working class that revolution as the self-emancipation of the working class becomes conceivable. The working class cannot emancipate itself in so far as it is working class. It is only in so far as we are not working class that the question of emancipation can even be posed. And yet, it is only as far as we are the working class (subjects torn from their objects) that the need for emancipation arises. We return to the contradictory result already established: we, the critical subject, are and are not the working class. The conclusion reached is a non-sense only for identitarian thought, only if we think of ‘is’ and ‘is not’ as being mutually exclusive. The contradiction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ is not a logical contradiction, but a real one. It points to the fact that we really are/ are not reified; we really are/are not identified; we really are/are not class-ified; we really are/are not de-subjectified; in short, we really are/are not. It is only if we understand our subjectivity as a divided subjectivity, and our self as a divided self, that we can make sense of our scream, of our criticism.”

Communism and its premise

There is a conditionality to Holloway’s argument that he can only indirectly indicate, based on his highly abstract presentation, as an indefinite identity. We are, and at the same time are not, the working class. This conclusion implies a contradiction that is not logical but real. Which is to say, the hostility of the working class toward its own alienated labor is conditioned by the real development of the productive forces of society. The hostility of the working class toward its own alienated activity can be realized only insofar as the material for its realization already exists — i.e., only insofar as it is possible to put an end to this alienated labor.

I will examine this possibility in the final part of this series.


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