John Holloway is the author of Change the World Without Taking Power, a defining text for the anti-capitalist movement, which first appeared in 2002 after the movement had reached a peak.
The book was born of the upswing of a new radicalism, but its analysis shared many of the weakness of the anti-capitalist movement itself. Some years later, after several wars in the ‘Global War on Terror’, and the economic crash, it might be expected that Holloway would respond to the new context.
However, this new book, Crack Capitalism, is a disappointment in precisely this respect. Holloway evades the crucial questions facing the Left, and offers few solutions to the multiple crises of contemporary capitalism.
Holloway’s worldview, normally described as autonomist, has proved popular with many activists and those radicalised by the anti-neoliberal mobilisations and campaigns of the last ten years and more.
His focus on direct action, on a DIY grassroots approach to politics, has justifiably appealed to many in the movement.
What was lacking in the anti-capitalist movement was a serious sense of the concerted strategy needed to challenge the capitalist system. Holloway’s new book is ostensibly about precisely this problem, yet it is defined largely by a shortage of serious strategic thinking.
The model of anti-capitalist resistance offered is as follows. Rather than transforming capitalism into an alternative socialist society - through mass revolutionary action and the conquest of state power - we should instead make ‘cracks’ in the existing system.
On first glance at this beautifully-designed book you might assume ‘crack capitalism’ is a way of characterising the system, like ‘zombie capitalism’ or ‘disaster capitalism’, but in fact here ‘crack’ is a verb.
The phrase will undoubtedly be an appealing metaphor to many people wanting to confront the capitalist system, rather than just individual manifestations of it. And it has a pleasing ring of assertiveness and militancy about it.
By making such cracks in capitalism we open up alternative, positive spaces. At least that’s the idea. But Holloway fails to account for the extent to which capitalism has colonised space and commodified everything. This is, unfortunately, a recurring problem in autonomist writings, and Holloway struggles here to find a satisfactory solution.
Spaces opened up through resistance today can be closed down tomorrow. It is fanciful to think we can create alternative, autonomous spaces within the system, without challenging the centralised power of the state. Unless we challenge and confront that power, we continue to operate within an inherently chaotic, unequal and unjust society.
Autonomism can seem refreshingly radical, with its steadfast anti-authoritarianism and its rejection of hierarchies. Yet without a serious consideration of state power and how to confront it, the opportunities to obtain really radical change become closed down.
Ultimately, then, autonomism becomes instead a variant of reformist thinking. The fashionable academic jargon in Crack Capitalism fails to successfully hide the underlying weaknesses in the author’s perspective.
Holloway indulges a little too much in repetitive celebration of acts of ‘cracking’ or ‘breaking’ capitalism, yet there’s little explanation of how these acts can add up to something sustained and system-changing. Indeed, such vision is treated with suspicion, distrusted as some sort of totalising imposition.
Sections of the book echo the postmodernist’s antipathy to supposed grand narratives. This may resonate with many radicals’ instinctive opposition to authority but it is a dead end.
The disdain for a systemic perspective also highlights the weaknesses in Holloway’s strategic thinking. Strategy is all about the bigger picture, recognising that small acts are part of a larger struggle.
This requires being able to relate the specific tactics to the broader strategy, which involves such issues as prioritisation, timing and an assessment of the balance of forces. Where can we most effectively concentrate our resources? Which tactics are most appropriate at particular moments?
Holloway fails to develop the necessary strategic tools: he prefers celebrating localised examples to the more complex challenge of integrating tactics into a strategic overview.
All examples are apparently of equal value, which leads to some faintly absurd moments. For a page and a half, in the introduction, Holloway waxes lyrical about the massively diverse forms that ‘cracking’ the system can take.
The ‘gardener in Cholula who creates a garden to struggle against the destruction of nature’ sits, more than a little awkwardly, alongside ‘the people of Cochabamba who come together and fight a battle against the government and the army so that water should not be privatised but subject to their own control’.
Holloway seemingly sees no significant difference between the numerous examples he cites. There’s little sense, for example, that collective acts of resistance are qualitatively different from individual acts. Or that some forms of resisting may have greater political impact than others.
We have limited resources, so where do we concentrate them, and how do we decide this? These are the political questions facing activists all the time.
I suspect these weaknesses go a long way to explaining the appeal of Holloway’s outlook. This is feelgood anti-capitalism: it is all things to all people, and any of us can be as revolutionary as, say, the Zapatistas, just by doing something different.
His rather grating celebration of anything non-conformist or unconventional gives the appearance of being both edgy and inclusive, while failing to say anything very meaningful about who will change society and how they might do it.
There is a place for the organised working class, it’s true, but only because there is a place for everyone.
There’s little ambition to analyse and assess the particularities of capitalism today, and in the light of that analysis, outline a strategy for defeating it. It works as affirmation; it fails, sadly, as analysis.
There are plenty of scattered insights into contemporary work and economics, but these do not substitute for a consistent analysis of 21st century capitalism approached in a clear theoretical framework.
Sometimes the writing style is a little overheated. There are unfortunate moments where it’s as if Holloway aspires to be the anti-capitalist movement’s answer to Rhonda Byrne, author of bestselling self-help phenomenon The Secret. If we all just wish hard enough we can crack capitalism.
We’re promised a series of ‘33 theses’, but too many of them read more like hopeful affirmations. These ‘theses’ are dressed up in the kind of academic jargon that can give left-wing theory a bad name:
‘Cracks clash with the social synthesis of capitalism’, for example. Or there’s this: ‘Concrete doing overflows from abstract labour: it exists in-against-and-beyond abstract labour’.
More seriously, Holloway’s strand of autonomism is anti-capitalism like 9/11 never happened. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which barely figure here, decisively put the issues of state power and imperialism on the agenda. They became impossible to ignore for anyone on the Left, yet Holloway seems content to leave them out of his analysis.
The aftermath of the crash of September 2008 reinforces the acute weaknesses associated with any critique of capitalism that evades questions about state power. The crash has generated apparently intractable problems for nation states.
The bank bailouts, the attempts to resolve the Eurozone crisis, and austerity programmes pursued by national governments, are all reminders of the continuing central role played by competing nation states.
The current crisis is a sovereign debt crisis, in which national governments are naturally integral to any attempts at a resolution. The economic crisis is therefore a profoundly political crisis.
The best-known slogan linked to the author - ‘change the world without taking power’ contains a na√Øve unwillingness to challenge state power, and rings hollow today. In times like these we need to move far beyond the confines of Crack Capitalism and its failure to address difficult issues.
We need to develop an analysis that integrates the different elements, economic, political, ecological, geopolitical, of the present crisis, and a strategy for moving from the miseries of capitalism to a more just and equal society.
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