Thursday, 20 October 2011

Is it necessary for a liberatory politics to be conducted at a distance from the state?

by Anton Scholtz

Zapata’s blood
Wasn’t spilt in vain
So now the most poor wage war
To reclaim their name
So now the most poor wage war
To reclaim their terrain.
On January 1st of ’94 they became known as
The Zapatista movement
And they have a saying,
It goes something like this:
Everything for everyone, and nothing for ourselves
Everything for everyone, and nothing for ourselves.
If we are to ever successfully conceive of a truly emancipatory form of politics, it is absolutely necessary that this be conducted at a distance from the realm of the state. The following essay shall argue that if we wish to envisage a liberatory form of politics and resultant social reform, we must be prepared to accept that this cannot be achieved through the use of the state as a vehicle for radical change. This is primarily due to the fact that once you accept the logic of the state (and thus the logic of power) as the only means of change, this logic of power is merely reproduced instead of being challenged and ultimately, overthrown. It is evident that there are other alternatives in terms of power (despite what we are often made to believe), alternatives which offer a more just, dignified and equal world for all who live in it. This type of change is the change which is initiated from the ground upwards, by ordinary people, and forces the state to engage with its citizens outside the parameters of its own power. It is therefore fundamental to this discussion to rethink the question of power and where it may be said to reside. This essay will argue the need for a liberatory politics conducted external to the sphere of state power and will draw on some of the key theoretical debates surrounding this issue. An analytical discussion of the Zapatista movement in Mexico will be used to supplement the theoretical discussion with a sense of practicality. 
Throughout the history of revolutionary thought, there has been a general trend in the perceptions of how to achieve radical social change- that is, that it must be done using the state as the central vehicle for the transformation (Holloway, 2002: 11). Whether the approach to social change emphasized gradual ‘reform’ or the more rapid process of ‘revolution’, both of these views find the state to be what Holloway (2002: 11) calls “the centerpiece of the revolutionary process”. From this perspective, known as the state paradigm, anything external to the power of the state is useless in terms of trying to institute change in society. Resulting from this paradigm are three classifications of types of revolutionary thought in the Marxist tradition- Revolutionary, Reformist and Anarchist (Holloway, 2002: 12). All three schools of thought are completely dominated by the state paradigm at the centre of all discourse and debate and “the historical failure of a particular concept of revolution” can thus be attributed in part to the overemphasis on the need to control the state as a central tool in the revolutionary process (Holloway, 2002: 12). As such, it is important to ask whether the securing of state power is really the only means to radically reform society and improve the quality of life for the people who live in the deep shadow of daily subordination to an uncaring and unresponsive form of political power.

Perhaps the central critique of the state paradigm of revolutionary thought is the fact that it largely ignores the realities of the greater social environment of which the state forms part. By emphasizing the state as the only means for change, one is isolating the state from the complex “web of social relations” which exists around it (Holloway, 2002: 13). If the state is examined in this regard, it is clearly limited in its agency (Holloway, 2002: 13) because it becomes clear that the state is only one power amongst many others which surround it and provide some kind of balance. According to Holloway (2002: 13), the states’ potential for agency is drastically limited by “the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is part”. Many revolutionary thinkers have made the mistake of misunderstanding the power relations which surround the state as merely a small part of the greater network of capitalist social relations (Holloway, 2002: 14).
Holloway (2002: 14) argues that revolutionary theory tends to view the state as the central agent for change inside national frontiers; the main problem being associated with this then is that capitalist social relations are by no means geographically bound in the globalizing age because the relationship between worker and owner is now mediated through money. The agency of state is therefore over exaggerated into a potentially autonomous actor when it is in fact locked into a global web of interactions which stretch far beyond the power of the individual state (Holloway, 2002: 15). 
At this point of the discussion it is important to clarify further the position occupied by the sovereign nation state within the new world order. Hardt and Negri (2008: 83) argue that in the globalizing age, national sovereignty is displaced by the “supra-national power” which they call “Empire”. This does not mean that the nation-state has lost all significance in the face of the global order, but that it has been dislocated from the “position of sovereign authority” (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 80). Empire thus refers to the new form of supreme authority which has overthrown the superiority of the nation state and replaced it with a system which is unrestrained by national borders (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 80). As such, the various supra-national institutions which underlie the existence of Empire are so far removed from the people on the ground that they do not and can never be said to be representative of the people, resulting in a “democratic deficit” in which citizens are increasingly isolated from any form of popular representation (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 83-84). Therefore, if one takes democracy to mean the existence of a sovereign authority which represents its people, Hardt and Negri (2008: 85) argue that democracy, in the age of Empire, is unrealizable. It is important to emphasize here that democracy as such may be unrealizable from the perspective of the state; this is however, not to say that it is unrealizable from the perspective of citizens of the state. 
It is therefore clear that a liberatory politics must function at a distance from the state in order to achieve a different, more inclusive form of power. Hardt and Negri (2008: 86) are convinced that there is a need to search for new forms of democracy which are better suited to the times in which we live. Much of what we know about power relations between the state and its citizens is based on a contractual logic which is long outdated because of its paradoxical nature- the contract only serves to translate the weakness of some into the power of others, there is no equality in the realization of this contract (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 86). As such, there should be an emphasis on the notion of a more direct form of democracy in society, one which is able to replace the inherent futility of so-called “representative” democracy which represents only a select few and has proven to have failed in the aims which it set out to achieve. 
Another deep-seated notion which is problematic in this regard is the issue of power itself- once people become familiar with the physical conquest of power (usually by political party or militaristic means), they become initiated into the very logic of power itself (and corrupted by it) and in so doing become exactly what they initially set out to destroy (Holloway, 2002: 15). This could be seen as one of the primary reasons for the failure of various forms of representative rule. When the world is seen through what Holloway (2002: 16) calls “the prism of the conquest of power”, a hierarchy of struggles is established which places central importance on activities contributing to the revolution in some way. This hierarchisation is a reflection of the party organisational structure which subordinates all forms of class struggle to the ultimate aim of gaining control of the state at all costs (Holloway, 2002: 17). 
From this point it is significant to examine the very logic of power and the one-sided narrative which it tends to produce. Holloway (2002: 17) argues that “the struggle is lost from the beginning” once the logic of power infiltrates the revolution and all other concerns are set aside for it. This is because, ideally, the fundamental purpose of a revolution is to challenge the very existence of power relations altogether (Holloway, 2002: 17) - it is not to set up new relations of domination and subordination as we have seen with so many attempts at revolution throughout history. An emancipatory politics therefore concerns itself with dissolving the societal relations of power altogether so as to strive for a society built on “non-power” relations where all forms of hierarchy and inequality are abolished (Holloway, 2002: 17). Holloway (2002: 18) argues that social relations should not translate into power relations and if we are to avoid the reproduction of power in society as we know it today, we must abandon the logic and reasoning (the “realism”) of the dominant notions of power and state-centricity at all costs if we wish implement radical social reform. As such, the central aim of such a liberatory political project is not to capture or overthrow the state in order to implement change, but revolves instead around conceptualizing different, more inclusive ways of doing politics from the ground up (Holloway, 1996: 1). 
But how are we to realistically envision such an alternative conception of politics? Hardt and Negri (2008: 86) argue that one possible answer lies in the hope of what they refer to as the “multitude”, which is different to the concept of the “people” in that it defies representation on any level (and is immeasurable) due to the democratic deficit which, as has already been established, is one of the defining characteristics of Empire. This “multitude of intelligent monsters” with “monstrous intelligence and co-operative power” is said to be a dynamic and influential social as well as political agent and highly capable of democratic self-organisation (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 87). Hardt & Negri (2008: 88), like Holloway (1996, 2002) argue that democracy (and thus power) as it exists now can never be reformed through control of imperial institutions and therefore the only way to reclaim true democracy is by way of a revolution. The post-revolutionary “democracy of the multitude” thus represents a clean break with all classical forms of governance as it is said to be an absolute democracy, meaning that it has no limits in the sense that all concepts of previous power relations are completely dissolved (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 88). Through the exercise of “counterpower” this vision of a new form of politics is realized (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 88). This echoes a similar vision to that of Holloway’s (2002: 17) concept of “non-power” relations. The multitude essentially expresses a wish to govern itself
While the concept of the multitude as developed by Hardt and Negri (2008) is extremely useful to a discussion of alternate forms of power, it must be noted that it appears to be a fairly abstract concept at times. It is never fully asserted by the authors of Empire what, or rather who, constitutes the physical manifestation of the multitude. It is certainly not limited to the world’s poor, the “wretched of the earth”, as Balakrishnan (2000: 3) suggests about its constituency. While Hardt and Negri (2008) define the multitude largely from a sociological perspective, it is also necessary to supplement this conception with a more political definition. Politically, the multitude is a much broader, all-encompassing entity which unites all those who are disillusioned with the politics of the state and the rigidity of statist thinking. It represents the cries of those who are convinced of the existence of power beyond the limited scope of the state, and thrives on the possibility of a society where all voices speak in the same volume. It is the roar of a people who demand action and organize amongst themselves, fighting for more of a say in the governing of and control over their own lives, a precious freedom from domination and oppression by those who talk but never listen. In short, it is as John Holloway (1996: 1) says, hope, which ensures that individuals fragmented by the state come together and arise in the form of the multitude. It is also, as will be argued below in the case of the Zapatista movement, an immediate assertion of equality and dignity in the broadest sense conceivable. 
In the jungles of Southern Mexico in 1994, a new social movement emerged which voiced the grievances of the indigenous Mexican population and attempted to gain recognition of their plight at the national level (Ruiz, 2010: 160). At the forefront of this movement was the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) which formed the organisational core of the movement in addition to other organisations which formed part of the same struggle (Ruiz, 2010: 160). On January 1st of the same year, the Zapatista movement seized control of the town of San Cristobal and other towns in the southern state of Chiapas (Holloway, 1996:1). On the surface, the movement arose in response to two pressing issues in Mexican society. First was the demand for profound reform in terms of the attitude of the Mexican state toward the indigenous and rural poor. Second, the movement was initiated as a form of resistance to rampant corporate globalization and the pursuit of state-initiated neo-liberal policies which ensured that the market became the “central regulator of socio-economic life” and saw the aggravation of already existing inequalities in Mexican society (Ruiz, 2010: 163). A deeper reflection on the character of the Zapatista movement, however, reveals that there is much more to their struggle than simply placing demands on the state for reform or for material improvements- they struggle for a more just, dignified world. 
The very essence of the Zapatista struggle, and something which many people find difficult to comprehend, is the fact that they wish to transform the present condition of the world without seizing state power (Holloway, 1996: 1). The movement saw through the apparent futility of the use of the state or any other established political institutions as a means of bringing about change, as characterized by the belief that “the seizure of the state is not the seizure of power” (Holloway, 1996: 2). The Zapatista are avid in their contestation of the centralization of decision-making and political power. The rejection of the state is thus fundamental to the core of the Zapatista movement; members are even advised that they should surrender all hopes to one day hold any form of political office (Holloway, 1996: 2). The type of politics articulated by the Zapatista is one of listening, not just talking; a less technocratic manifestation of politics based on mutual recognition and an unwavering respect for dignity and humanity (Holloway, 1996: 3) in a world which so often seems to have forgotten that these and other values exist to the benefit of all people, not just a select few. 
Perhaps the most important concept at the heart of the Zapatista movement is that of !Ya Basta!, which is best explained by Holloway (1996: 3) as “the negation of oppression, which exists in the depths of all of us”. The Zapatista are of the firm belief that the !Ya Basta! lives inside every person and as such their aim is not to recruit members to their struggle, but rather to convince other people to express their !Ya Basta! and take up their own struggles for freedom and justice in ways of their own choosing (Holloway, 1996: 3). What Hardt and Negri (2008: 93) refer to as a “legion” residing in every person as the “basic foundation of the multitude” is clearly a parallel to the manifestation of the !Ya Basta! of which the Zapatista movement speaks. Their idea of struggle is therefore much broader than traditional notions of resistance to state power and embodies a genuine spirit of humanity. 
The structure of the movement itself is indicative of its ultimate aims- the movement is not arranged in a top-down, vertical fashion but rather works according to a more horizontal configuration which emphasizes the sameness of all members. All decisions are made through a process of collective decision-making and an emphasis on “lead by obeying” whereby leaders are expected to obey the members and regard one another as true equals (Holloway, 1996: 2). As such, the Zapatista movement can be said to be highly internally democratic. This is also emphasized by a “politics of dignity” which recognizes and sympathizes with the struggles and oppression of women, children and the elderly which is well reflected in the fact that it was a woman named Ana Maria who led the occupation of San Cristobal in 1994 (Holloway, 1996: 3-4). It is evident that the political project pursued by the Zapatista is in line with the concept of absolute democracy as articulated by Hardt and Negri (2008: 88). The spirit of !Ya Basta! coincides with the notion of the democracy of the multitude, a democracy “not only of equal individuals but of powers equally open to cooperation, to community, to creation” (Hardt & Negri, 2008: 95). It is through the central, collective narrative of longing for a common, dignified life that the Zapatista wage their struggle and realize a form of power which resides far beyond the capacity of the state. 
One of the key phrases in Zapatista discourse, that of ‘preguntando caminamos’ (asking we walk), is valuable when examining the core ideals which underlie the movement (Holloway, 1996: 3). “Asking” here refers to the Zapatista promise to listen, communicate and cooperate with all members of the movement so that every opinion is heard and given equal weighting. “We walk” is arguably indicative of a compelling struggle to resist the power of external forces, especially the state, in determining the path which the people must walk (Hallward, 2009: 17). It is a declaration of collective self-determination to stipulate the course of their own history (Hallward, 2009: 17), uncorrupted by the technocratic tongues of the state.

In conclusion, it is without doubt evident that any political project wishing to be truly emancipatory must be prepared to function at a distance from the state. Due to the nature of the modern sovereign state within the global relations of power (Empire), Hardt and Negri (2008: 95) affirm that the impossibility of achieving democracy in any traditional sense of the term should compel us to move forward, away from the controlling clutches of the state. There is no other way forward but for us to engage in struggles to exercise our autonomy from the state and exert a sense of political agency in any and every way possible. The logic of power, as perpetuated by the state, is unequal and uncaring, but the Zapatista movement is a triumphant testimony to the belief that another form of power is possible if we can envision it and act. Any liberatory political project should also aim principally to be more humane by embracing values such as dignity, hope and love at their core because this is in direct opposition to the cold, mechanical and bureaucratic logic which is so characteristic of the state.

Reference List

Balakrishnan, G. 2000. Hardt and Negri’s Empire. New Left Review 5.
Hallward, P. 2009. The will of the people: Notes towards a dialectical voluntarism. Radical Philosophy 155.
Hardt, M & Negri, A. 2008. Globalisation and Democracy in ‘Reflections on Empire’. Polity: Cambridge.
Holloway, J. 1996. The concept of power and the Zapatistas. Common Sense no. 19.
Holloway, J. 2002. Beyond the State in ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’. Pluto: London.
Ruiz, CC. 2010. The struggle towards rights and communitarian citizenship: the Zapatista movement in Mexico in Thompson, L. and Tapscott, C. (eds) ‘Citizenship and Social Movements: Perspectives from the Global South’. Zed Books: London.