Chasing the Tornado
Review by Uri Gordon
These books all convey an ongoing process of self-assessment by today’s emancipatory networks. However, each one also displays a completely different variant of writing-as-activism. Michael Albert’s The Trajectory of Change adopts a very didactic approach, attempting to identify “problems” in an allegedly unitary “movement” and sort them out. Starhawk’s Webs of Power, on the other hand, combines very personal writing with theoretical reflections that are only gently presented as advice to activists. While Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power could just as well be written without a coexisting struggle to address—it is an entirely theoretical work in critical Marxism—it nevertheless captures (and will inevitably impact) the thinking of activists who read it. Each approach, as we shall shortly see, has telling results.
A minor point to bear in mind is that all three books were essentially completed before the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. While the authors still had the time to add some post-September 11th material, they were limited by the lack of clarity surrounding the full repercussions of these events and thus unable to take full account of the qualitatively different landscape of struggle we now face.(2) This might seem to be a significant limitation but only from a narrow point of view that would assess these books solely in terms of immediately relevant debates. With Holloway such an approach is pointless, and even some of the very concrete issues that Albert and Starhawk address remain timely despite changing circumstances.
The Trajectory of Change
You get the drift. While making generous use of the first person plural—“we need,” “we mean”—it is clear that Albert believes he is addressing an audience rather than collaborating with his equals. An audience, moreover, that seems to be composed in Albert’s imagination of stereotypically young, dreddy, campus activists who may have been very cute and doing a nice job of learning about the world, but now need someone to teach them what real activism is all about.
But the problem goes deeper than that. Throughout the book the reader will notice an underlying wish to steer “the movement,” streamline it, give it a push in the right direction. This betrays not authoritarianism (here Albert is beyond suspicion), but an almost brute insensitivity to the most basic logic of activism today. In a nutshell, Albert makes the crucial mistake of adopting a mechanic rather than organic understanding of anti-capitalist networks. This consists in the double error of assuming that there is a movement with clear boundaries and structures, and that it is possible to discursively act upon it rather than with it. As a result, most of what he says is completely out of tune with how activists think and operate, and with the values inherent in both. Who exactly is this ‘we’ that is going to ‘design movement agendas’? The quarrel here is not that Albert might be imagining steering committees and vanguards, but that in an organic struggle like this one, the very idea of “designing” agendas makes no sense. Today’s movement agendas aren’t “designed,” but rather evolve in the gradual fruition of a collective consciousness, formed by a million trial-and-error experiences. Albert should apply the logic of direct action to discourse as well as struggle. For example, in direct action, when we want something to happen or stop happening we do not appeal to anyone to do it, but rather make it happen ourselves and, likewise, if activists believe that struggle should go this way or another, they do not preach about it to others but rather mount actions or initiatives that display such a direction and hope that others are inspired and follow suit. This is precisely the way in which the Zapatistas, Reclaim the Streets and many others have so successfully made their impact on the evolution of resistance, often on a global scale, while at the same time living up to their ideals of decentralization and autonomy.
It seems that Albert never really got around to clicking with this basic dynamic. His efforts to re-invent the wheel are thus patently out of tune with what is going on in the activist world—even in the United States, to say nothing of movements in the global South. One example is his call for a unifying anti-globalization coalition, which he denominates the “Solidarity with Autonomy Movement.”(4) This would be some kind of umbrella organization that would stand for the sum total of everyone’s agenda and enable thorough coordination (of course with a representative board and a budget). This idea betrays either ignorance or (worse) a dismissal of the fact that activists in every continent already have what are probably the most innovative and efficient structures ever seen, all based on the network model: Peoples’ Global Action, the Direct Action Network, Indymedia, NoBorder and many named and nameless others. It is networks like these that have been behind every significant piece of anti-capitalist organizing and action, South and North, for the past decade—bringing together everything from millions-strong peasant movements to affinity groups of six. And such structures provide exactly the kind of “solidarity with autonomy” that Albert is after without needing a unified platform.
Why is Albert so out of touch? A clue may be found in the essay “My Generation,”(5) in which he expresses concern about veterans of the 1960s inability to bequeath their experiences to the young activists of today. And so he goes into a lecture on the need to avoid sectarian positions, asceticism, “lifestyle politics,” etc. So here is the key: at heart, Albert is a veteran moved by the hope that “this time around we can get it right.” He badly wants this cycle of struggle to be successful, to “win” (whatever that means), and so he understandably puts his persuasive force behind what he thinks is right.6 However, having a different formative experience as an activist leaves Albert precisely in “his generation” and out of touch with the very different logic of today’s struggles. Albert’s political agenda also remains, to risk a proverbial anarchist accusation, that of a 1960s liberal. While he occasionally talks of questioning basic social structures, his short-term suggestions are in no way pregnant with such a project. In fact, for Albert “change is a combination of a sequence of reforms or limited victories that string together . . . until, ultimately, we win basic alterations.”(7) This is coupled with the almost colonial discourse of “bettering the lot of suffering constituencies,” and the limited notions of “raising the social costs” of elite actions, so that one can mount demands that they “agree to implement.”(8)
If this is objectionable, Albert’s response to the post-September 11th scenario is simply odd: he asserts that the attacks and ensuing war have changed nothing essential about the basic logic and conditions of dissent. So all he can recommend is business as usual, with the added anti-war agenda. There is no mention of the prospects for intense repression, nor of public paralysis and manufactured social fear. In fact, Albert even thinks that “despite flag waving patriotic media, way more people than before 9/11 are now seriously open to discussing world affairs and activism.”(9) A closer look at the author’s subsequent writing in Z might absolve such statements as stemming from a momentary lapse of perspective.
Webs of Power
One of the many interesting threads that runs through Starhawk’s communications is the development of her position in the violence/nonviolence debate—for a time the most heated topic surrounding summit protests. Writing after the International Monetary Fund/World Bank blockades in Prague, she puts herself squarely on the principled nonviolence side of the dichotomy with statements such as, “this is a violent system [but] I don’t believe it can be defeated by violence” and, “as soon as you pick up a rock . . . you’ve accepted the terms dictated by a system that is always telling us that force is the only solution.”(10) But after the Quebec City FTAA protests the picture is different. In the article “Beyond Violence and Nonviolence”(11) she acknowledges the validity of arguments for “high confrontational” (no longer “violent”) struggle, and maintains that couching the debate in the terms she herself earlier used is constricting, at a time when “we’re moving onto unmapped territory, creating a politics that has not yet been defined.” By Genoa, Starhawk is prepared to declare her sisterhood with the black bloc-ers, who represent “rage, impatience, militant fervor without which we devitalize ourselves.”(12) Hence she argues for flexibility, diversity of tactics, and above all solidarity and a collective assessment of the appropriate level of confrontation for each action. These conclusions—as close as activists have come to solving the dilemma—are reiterated on the basis of a very deep treatment in the essay “Many Roads to the Morning” in the second section of the book.
Other essays in the second part address diverse topics such as ecology, direct democracy and cultural appropriation. These discussions are recommended reading and it would be impossible to do justice to all of them. So I’ll be nasty and comment only on what I find to be the weakest part of the book: the penultimate essay, “What We Want: Economy and Strategy for the End Times.” Here, Starhawk unfortunately sacrifices the attack on capitalism’s basic relations for the sake of portraying a non-existent unity of purpose in the “global justice movement” (whoever coined that term deserves a pie in the face). As a result, she slips into essentially reformist/regulative positions which resemble the NGO agenda of the International Forum on Globalization. Most of the nine principles she cites as “common ground”(13) would have any attentive anarchist up in arms (and Starhawk says she is one(14)). Saying that “people who labor deserve to be paid enough to live with dignity” only makes sense if one assumes that there is someone paying them and one does not demand the abolition of wage labor. Asserting that there is a “sacred” realm that should not be commodified or touched by the market “however it is organized” is accepting that some things can be commodified and that a market rampant enough to potentially encroach on these areas can be allowed to exist. Talking about “businesses and enterprises” having to be “responsible and accountable” to “communities” is to capitulate to the most insidious capitalism-with-a-human-face jargon (“enterprises”?! for Goddess’ sake!). That “democratic enterprises” would “encourage input” from all levels and “favor” self-management and worker ownership is still a far cry from insisting on worker and community controlled production. And invoking, of all sources, Hawken, Lovins and Lovins’ Natural Capitalism to demonstrate the practicality of green technology is hardly entering into a worthy alliance. Here the devil is not, as Starhawk says, in the details but rather in the very fundamentals: it is simply false to present such controversial proposals as matters of agreement. Nor can she fall back on construing them as merely “minimal” demands while at the same time insisting they are “commonalities, deep principles and imperatives.” On any consistent anarchist reading such a program would only serve to rationalize, ameliorate, and thus delay the overthrow of a system that remains obscenely exploitative at its base.
But this is really the only major slip.
Starhawk’s response to the post-September 11th scenario, for example,
is much more encouraging. Far from dismissing it as Albert does (though
unfortunately she does assume a similarly didactic style here), a very
short time after the event she is already clear that the repercussions
would be potentially shattering for radicals. Acknowledging that a major
shift in our thinking is necessary in order to respond to war and social
fear, she recommends several steps. Some of these reflect processes
that have subsequently been happening (continued opposition, open organizing,
exposure of the real aims of the war), but others are still only developing
(new strategies and street tactics, and above all a new political language
that can combine and go beyond existing forms of resistance).(15)
If and when these come to fruition in the future, Starhawk will probably
be there to help articulate them.
By reformulating the theoretical premises of Marxism to accommodate a globalized capitalist system and a decentralized anti-authoritarian resistance, Holloway is in effect attempting a thorough libertarian revision of Marxism—as a tool for socio-analysis and as an indicator for action. Some readers might at this point chuck the book across the room, muttering something about “narcissistic Marxist intellectuals trying to get out of the hole they dug themselves into.” But a more patient approach is in order here. Not every Marxist is automatically authoritarian or insincere, and activists today can actually find much of value in the libertarian elements of this tradition, particular in the young Marx and the Frankfurt School.
The bulk of material in the earlier chapters of this book is indeed drawn directly from this tradition.(17) Hence the articulation of capital accumulation in terms of the conversion of doing into done and of power-to into power-over (chapter 3); the centrality of the concept of fetishism (chapters 4 and 5); the critique of the “scientific” mainstream of twentieth century Marxism (chapter 7); and the emphasis throughout on the negative character of social struggle (embodied in Holloway’s pet concept of “the Scream”). The clear drawback is that readers familiar with these ideas will find little new in the first 140 pages, with Holloway’s occasional attempt to put this old (and excellent) wine into new skins sometimes verging on the comical.(18) But if we look at this part of the book as an introductory text, then it does a good job of presenting these concepts clearly and accessibly. Importantly, these ways of conceptualizing social dynamics and struggle will resonate with contemporary activists, as will Holloway’s clear rejection of both reform through the state and seizure of state power.
The book really becomes interesting, however, in its closing chapters. Here Holloway makes an honest attempt to tackle the question of the revolutionary subject—which now has to be posited afresh in view of the post-structuralist critique of definitional class categories. Accepting the post-structuralist premise that all acts of identification are oppressive, he takes a bold step further by constructing revolutionary subjectivity around the refusal of identification, the struggle against the social process of class identification and its material basis:
This fundamentally anti-fetishistic stance of the “critical-revolutionary subject” renders it indefinable, since its act of struggle consists precisely in escaping the oppressive categories imposed upon it. Here Holloway seems to be attempting a brave synthesis of post-structuralist and Marxist concepts, combining the former’s critique of oppressive identity-construction with the latter’s insistence in the tractability of domination to (in the last instance) material social relations. Some reworking is still needed here (Holloway’s insistence on using the term “working class” is one problem—understandable but also resolvable—as is his retaining of the “us against them” logic which he earlier rejects), but this is overall a very powerful conception. It reflects discourses employed today in many struggles, gives an important place to ubiquitous, everyday-life forms of resistance (from absenteeism to culture-jamming) and—most importantly—points distinctly towards the dissolution of all power relations in society rather than their reconfiguration.
The latter aspect can, of course, be easily defined as an anarchist position. But while Holloway hints at this connection when he defines anarchism as the set of approaches that fall outside the state-oriented, reform or revolution dichotomy—which his own project clearly does as well—he refrains from explicitly using this term to describe what he has to say, or from giving anarchism any further attention.(20) The objection might be raised that by doing this he is denying due credit to a 150-year tradition that has aimed precisely at “changing the world without taking power.” But there is a good reason for this: the label anarchist is not exempt from the struggle against identification. Holloway is deliberately avoiding this label and any other, as do indeed many contemporary activists, even if their visions and organizational models could be defined as anarchist by an observer. Maybe some self-defined anarchists will be offended by the lack of credit, but on further reflection they might understand and let that which does not matter slide.(21)
Holloway goes on to develop his notion of anti-identitarian struggle in the next two chapters, which are also highly original. First he provides a cogent critique of some elements in autonomist Marxism, including the first (as far as I know) critical Marxist engagement with Hardt and Negri’s important but highly problematic Empire.(22) He then ties his concepts to Marx’s analysis of crisis in Capital, in reference to the economic crises of the 90s and the crisis-managing role of today’s “bubble economy.”
Those who begin the book with the hope of receiving a blueprint, a how to “change the world without taking power,” are left with a question instead. Having initiated and explored his revision of Marxism for today’s struggles, Holloway is satisfied with opening up the possibility of revolution in the last chapter and leaving its meaning for today vague. He does, however, at least provide an indication:
This is a conception which again will be familiar with many readers. A mature understanding seems to be shaping in this call-it-what-you-want movement of ours: the need to complement resistance to power with the investment in new non-hierarchical, non-commodified spaces of everyday living—social structures that can deepen and expand until they can replace current ones.24 This is probably as close as we can come to a transformative strategy that remains coherent and immediately practicable under any conditions. In more than one way, Holloway has hit the nail on the head.
2. The extent of the systemic reconfiguration that the attacks would excuse, in terms of both power and ideology, was delineated for us only later. In this sense the historical marker can be identified not as September 11, 2001 but as January 29, 2002, with Bush's “Axis of Evil” speech.
15. The current Zapatista initiative around the Basque conflict is probably the most inspiring response to date (see http://chiapas.indymedia.org). For perspectives from Western Europe see a discussion paper circulated at the recent European conference of Peoples’ Global Action (http://global.so36.net/en/2002/08/240.shtml).
17. As a foray into this dazzlingly rich literature see Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1844 ); Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1944 ); Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964 ); Ernest Bloch, The Principle of Hope (3 vols.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1959). Holloway's use of material stemming directly from contemporary struggle is limited to a few citations from Subcomandante Marcos' communications. For a very good selection of these see Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon (New York: Seven Stories, 2001).
18. One amusing aspect of Holloway's style is that he takes the multi-hyphen form, invented by translators as a way of dealing with German composite nouns, and makes it his own. This gives rise to nouns such as “can-ness, capacity-to-do,” “doing-in-the-service-of-the-expansion-of-capital,” or “I-and-we-ness.” Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, 28, 58, 105. Is such second-hand jargonizing really necessary when writing in English?
24. In this context, see also Jared James, Getting Free (http://omega.cc.umb.edu/~salzman/Strategy/GettingFree/Complete.html) and B. A. Dominick, An Introduction to Dual Power Strategy (http://www.rootmedia.org/~messmedia/dualpower/dpintro.htm)