Friday, 16 October 2009

Anti-capitalism is still where it's at

John Holloway, for some time a prominent voice in debates in the global anti-capitalist movement, is about to visit this country. The Mexico-based writer and academic is speaking in London next weekend. Holloway became known in particular for his book 'Change the World Without Taking Power', which triggered some fascinating debate on the radical left.

Holloway, like Toni Negri and Michael Hardt (authors of 'Empire'), articulates ideas that are normally labelled 'autonomism'. His brand of radicalism was, and is, anti-systemic and influenced by Marxist concepts. Coming from a Marxist background, he has remained broadly revolutionary, but for him the meaning of this has changed profoundly. In a debate at the World Social Forum in 2005, he said 'Perhaps we can change the world without taking power. Perhaps we cannot. The starting point for all of us, I think, is uncertainty, not knowing, a common search for a way forward.'

This notion of changing the world without having to confront the question of state power is characteristic of autonomism - which is not merely a label to throw around as an insult, but a serious (if somewhat incoherent) body of ideas. It is a fairly obvious weakness, especially since the importance of strong state power to capitalism has been demonstrated conclusively by US imperialism and its military adventures in recent years. This has been accompanied, too, by growing authoritarianism in the domestic uses of the state, with new attacks on civil liberties and the increase of sureveillance.

I think we still need the traditional Marxist view that nation states need to be confronted collectively and, ultimately, overthrown. But it is easy to see why so many of those radicalised in the last ten years have held a different view. It's the ideas of Negri, Chomsky and Holloway that held sway at the time of the major mobilisations (Seattle, Genoa etc) and the giant social forums (Porto Alegre, Florence etc) earlier in this decade.

They continue to be very influential. This is linked to Stalinism and its collapse at the end of the Cold War, which was widely (but wrongly) seen as discrediting Marxism. The broader decline of an organised Left, the academic rise of postmodernism and the low levels of class struggle have also all served to promote the appeal of autonomism, while ensuring Marxists struggle to move beyond the margins.

If organised working class resistance to the system is weak, it is unsurprising if people question whether the working class can really smash the capitalist state and create a new world. If intelligent, politically conscious and humane people associate 'Marxism' with totalitarian states, we can expect them to search for apparently more democratic or libertarian alternatives.

We now have a crisis of the system like nothing seen since the 1930s. This has accentuated the political and ideological crisis of capitalism, but - due to the factors outlined above - anti-capitalist currents continue to be varied, often confused, and complex. The crisis doesn't lead to a simple transfer of people into the camp of revolutionary Marxism.

It is therefore vital that revolutionary socialists engage seriously with Holloway, those influenced by him, and everyone who is talking about capitalism being screwed but has different ideas as to why, what should be done, and what the alternative is (and, indeed, those who freely admit they simply don't know!). There are some welcome examples of this being attempted already, for example last month's event 'Money on Trial' in east London, which was organised under the Mutiny banner.

The recent debate about capitalism at SOAS also - like Mutiny - reached beyond the usual circles of revolutionary socialists, as indicated by the turnout of around 60 students. The 'Signs of Revolt' festival next month is another instance of Marxists getting in dialogue with those from other traditions (or none at all), all wanting to build up resistance to a system marked by war, inequality and ecological crisis.

The graphic art above is by Noel Douglas, one of the organisers of 'Signs of Revolt'.

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