by Sarita Pillay
It is an all too familiar narrative. The gutsy and radical revolutionary movement which seizes control of the state in a bid to liberate the people. Or perhaps it’s the more reserved yet equally idealistic social-democratic party which looks to state-reform as the liberatory panacea. These are the two revolutionary protagonists. One of them (it doesn’t matter which) gains control of the state and the people rejoice. But very soon the masses are overcome by a sense of betrayal (Badiou, 2006)(Holloway, 2002). The revolution fades into obscurity and the very system which was opposed is recreated in a similar form. It is a narrative which could be applied to virtually every state in the globe. A narrative of failed liberatory politics.
Liberatory politics can be interpreted as a politics of emancipation, a politics of self-determination, dignity, participation and equality – for all. A state can be defined as “an institutional structure charged with exercising authority within a definable jurisdictional purview” (Rasmussen, 2001). Max Weber adds the state’s perceived legitimacy as an authority, along with its monopoly over force, to its definition (Rasmussen, 2001). This essay will look to argue that it is necessary for a liberatory politics to be conducted at a distance from the state, drawing largely from the arguments of Holloway (2002) and Badiou (2006). Liberatory politics which looks to utilise the logic of the state or considers the state as a tool for change when in the right hands – is setting itself up for liberatory failure and the familiar "betrayal" of the masses (Holloway, 2002) (Badiou, 2006). It is necessary then for a liberatory politics to abandon viewing the state (and state power) as its point of departure, as the focus of its march towards change.
“Betrayal”: The flaws of state-focused liberatory politics
Empirical evidence alone could convince one of the failings of the state-based attempts at liberation. From radicalism to reformism, the attempts to capture a state and liberate a people have fallen short, or failed (Holloway, 2002). In recent decades, it’s the reformist approach which has characterised attempts at emancipation – from the social-democratic parties of the so-called West to the liberation parties of the Global south – gaining control of the state was viewed as the means to change society (Rodger Gibson, 2011). But a familiar pattern ensued in these attempts, where “the means of hierarchy and centralisation quickly came to supplant the ends of a liberated party free from oppression and exploitation” (Rodger Gibson, 2011). It would be unfair to call these state-based liberatory politics unprecedented failures, some liberatory concessions were made (largely material), but they remained limited liberations (Rodger Gibson, 2011). South Africa is a perfect case in point: the ANC framed itself as the liberation party of the country’s previously subjugated black majority – where liberation was based on equality, freedom and dignity. Although there have been numerous liberatory concessions, in the form of access to amenities and services, many South Africans express dismay at the half-cooked liberation that they’ve been served. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies on the earth, and the inequality is still highly racialised. Freedom remains a limited, and often unrealised, concept for the country’s poor majority.
In his assessment of the proletarian party, Badiou (2006: 263) attributes this familiar failure to the contradictory nature of liberatory parties, which are “simultaneously free in relation to the state, and ordained to the exercise of state power”. Despite promoting an “ideological rupture” from the state, despite being “free” as evidenced through its theme of revolution - the social-democratic, communist (or liberation) party is inherently flawed in its pursuit of emancipation (Badiou, 2006: 263). This is because the party is organised in a centralised, hierarchical and disciplined way, obsessed with taking state power – “It bears the thematic of the new state” (Badiou, 2006:264). This centralisation sees the emergence of what Badiou (2006: 273) calls, “the left”, those who position themselves as “the only ones able to provide ‘social movements’ with ‘political perspective’”. The liberatory politics becomes a politics of some. Is it not hierarchy and differentiation which liberatory politics looks to oust? Irrespective of whether the state power is won by reformist or radical means, this fundamental and detrimental tension remains at the heart of the liberatory party (Badiou, 2006: 264).
“…it [the party] becomes the site of a fundamental tension between the non-state, even anti-state, character of politics of emancipation, and the statist character of the victory and duration of that politics” (Badiou, 2006: 264).
Badiou (2006) would probably agree with Holloway (2002), who sees the state as a key component of a system of differentiation, inequality and ignominy. By framing an emancipatory politics entirely on capturing the state, its logic of power is accepted and in all likelihood recreated in an alternative form. Holloway (2002) explicitly extends this “betrayal” beyond just the liberatory party to any form of liberatory politics (including the radical revolution) which looks to gaining state-power as the most important step towards change.
The core of what Badiou (2006) says can be understood by Holloway’s (2002) argument against state-focused liberatory politics and its absorption of the state’s logic of power. Holloway (2002: 12) sees the state’s inherent conception of power as “power-over”, of giving some the power over others. Power-over is also a power of inequality. For the people within the state, the state’s power-over is their capacity not to do (Holloway, 2002: 13). Liberatory politics, on the other hand, is arguably driven by the logic of what Holloway calls (2002) a people’s “power-to”. A state-focused liberatory politics is confronted by the tension of attempting to enable a power-to, by utilising a system of power-over. It is essentially an impossible feat. In a state-based system people are a passive done-to, in a liberatory ideal, they are active doers. Even when state-focused liberatory politics claims that seizing the state is the first step in a two part change (“we’ll seize the state, then change the system”) the “dynamic acquired in the first phase is difficult, or impossible, to dismantle in the second phase” (Holloway in World Social Forum, 2005). Liberatory politics cannot occur by accepting (even “temporarily”) the power-logic of a state, instead it requires a complete rupture with the “power-over”, “a rupture with the representative form of politics” (Badiou, 2006: 289).
“Power lies…in the fragmentation of social relations” (Holloway, 2002: 31). Fundamental to this “power-over” characteristic of the state is the fragmentation of social relations – the processes of identification and classification (Holloway, 2002: 30). Holloway (2002: 30-31) sees the state as a cog in a system of “shattering” social relations. Due to its close ties to concepts of capital, a material fragmentation of social relations is at the core of the state (Holloway, 2002: 31). Here, social relations are fragmented by separating the “done” (product) from the “doing” (worker) and classified through things (Holloway, 2002: 31). This identity is pervasive – it dictates conceptions of self and how people relate to each other. Liberatory politics cannot oppose a capital form of production, but accept the state, because the state itself is part of a system of differentiation. Is it not equality that the liberatory politics strives for?
The state is exclusionary in its nature, not only does it establish those who have “power-over” through fragmenting social relations, the state is also spatially exclusive. As the earlier definition of the state showed, it is spatially limited. Holloway (2002: 31) argues that liberatory politics which focuses on gaining state-power tacitly accepts this spatial exclusivity, and with it the classification of citizens and non-citizens. Is liberatory politics not about freedom, equality, dignity, for all? By accepting the state’s logic of classification, the liberatory project recreates elements of that which it opposes. By prioritising the state as the site of liberatory change, the liberatory movement also inevitably takes on a nationalist character (Holloway, 2002: 15-16). The obsession with the nation-state as the centre of social transformation ignores the fact that the "system" that needs to be overturned extends beyond borders (Holloway, 2002: 15-16). The liberatory politics becomes short-sighted– limited by the logic of the state’s spatial constraints. What of the “for all” in liberatory politics?
There is another short-sightedness that Holloway (2002:14) identifies within a party-focused liberatory politics: an underestimation of the network in which the state is embedded. The state is positioned in a web of social relations, and the way which work is organised is central to this web (Holloway, 2002: 14-15). The web is dominated by a capitalist system, where any movement contrary to this system will see an economic crisis ensue and capital take flight (Holloway, 2002: 14). State-based liberatory politics is limited within a capitalist system - which limits the extent of real change. Bolivia is just the latest of countless examples of this throughout history. Despite the radical shift in the state’s politics and ownership of natural gas resources – efforts for change are restricted by an overarching global capitalist system (Kaup, 2010). It is still bound to contracts exporting gas, and the state still relies extensively on the capital and presence of international energy corporations (Kaup, 2010). State-based liberatory politics idealistically isolates the state from its social environment – but is soon constrained by the realities of a greater state-based capitalist network. Liberatory politics becomes a shadow of its former self, a politics of concessions, a politics of betrayal.
In Holloway’s (2002) view, the conquest of state power by liberatory politics becomes an obsession with power. The conquest of state power becomes the driving force of the emancipatory movement, side-lining (and relegating) other sites of social emancipation (Holloway, 2002:16). Here, liberatory politics becomes hierarchical, any action and thought other than the conquest of state power is deemed frivolous (Holloway, 2002:17). This hierarchy of the struggle extends to a hierarchy of lives, and people (Holloway, 2002:17). This is a familiar plot, an echo of a system of hierarchy and distinction, of a politics that was hoped to be escaped, not relived.
“Dignity” and “Power-to”: A liberatory politics at a distance from the state
Liberatory politics is about freedom, equality, dignity, for all. Holloway (2002) and Badiou (2006) show how by occurring close to the state, liberatory politics limits its ability to realise its goals. Liberatory politics falls to a politics of differentiation, of hierarchy, of inequality, and power-over. If it’s a limited liberation you seek – focus on the state. If it’s a failed liberation you seek – focus on the state. That much is clear. But if it’s a true liberation you seek, what then is the answer? Badiou (2006) and Holloway (2002) would say what is required is a liberatory politics conducted at a distance from the state.
Badiou (2006) proposes that the Paris Commune of 1871 best illustrates a true type of liberatory politics, breaking with the recurring pattern of a “parliamentary destiny” (Badiou, 2006: 272). Bakunin (1871) also admires the liberatory alternative presented by the Commune, calling it a “bold, clearly formulated negation of the state.”
“This time, this unique time, destiny was not put back in the hands of incompetent politicians. This time, this unique time, betrayal is invoked as a state of things to avoid and not as the simple result of an unfortunate choice. This time, this unique time, the proposal is to deal with the situation solely on the basis of the resources of the proletarian movement.” (Badiou, 2006: 272).
For Badiou (2006: 287) the Paris Commune did something unique, something which “the left” and its centralised political logic failed to do – “it destroyed the political subordination of workers and people”. The Paris Commune succeeded in the absolutisation of the political existence of the previously inexistent worker (Badiou, 2006: 288). The Paris Commune did not recreate a system of political subordination. Instead, the Paris Commune created its own system of politics - where everyone was equal and involved in political decision-making, where elected leaders were open to retraction and social measures were debated and decided (Badiou, 2006). This was a politics of non-compromise and non-negotiation with the state. This was a politics of its own terms, of a bottom-up liberatory logic. Badiou sees this as evidence of the possibility of “another world” – a changed world: “it exists in the observation that political rupture is always a combination of subjective capacity, and an organisation -totally independent of state- of the consequences of that capacity” (Badiou, 2006: 289). This can be understood as the “power-to” of the previously inexistent, and an organisation derived from that capacity – completely independent of the state.
Like Badiou (2006), Holloway (2002) believes that “power-to” (or “subjective capacity”) of the previously inexistent can only occur with liberatory politics at a distance from the state. The state is not a “thing” to be seized; instead, it is a set of social relations, a way of doing things which needs to be changed. For Holloway, liberatory politics is about a movement with an alternative understanding of “power” – where “power” is self-determination, power-to, and actively building alternative social relations (World Social Forum, 2005). This is a liberatory politics beyond the state-logic, free of fragmented social relations and a top-down determination by others (World Social Forum, 2005). Further, this alternative liberatory politics is focused on “revolution now”, of realising the society we want to create – not of capturing the state as a means to change society. For Holloway (1995) dignity is fundamental to the alternative liberatory politics – enabling “power-to”, self-determination and the defragmenting of social relations.
“Dignity is to assert one’s humanity in a society which treats us inhumanely. Dignity is to assert our wholeness in a society which fragments us. Dignity is to assert control over one’s life in a society which denies such control.” (Holloway, 1995)
Holloway (1995) points to the contemporary Zapatista movement, Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), in southern Mexico as an example of a successful liberatory politics. The Zapatistas strive for the liberation of the indigenous people of the Chiapas Highlands (Carlsson, 1995). “The Zapatistas are less bent on seizing power than they are in breaking down the authoritarian social relations which have frozen Mexican politics for so long” (Carlsson, 1995). The Zapatistas see themselves as armed with “the truth” of their situation, their country and themselves – Holloway believes that this “truth is dignity” (Holloway, 1995). Their dignity undermines the legitimacy of a system of fragmented social relations (Holloway, 1995). Dignity is an assertion of self, as well as an assertion of all. It asserts one’s legitimacy, and asserts politics as a politics of listening, where everyone is equal (Holloway, 1995). It was mentioned earlier how state-focused politics becomes obsessed with state-power, trivialising politics which is contrary to this goal. Dignity, on the other hand, enables the respect of the politics of all – of the young, the old, the children, women and men (Holloway, 1995). Dignity is emancipation now. “Dignity is to live in the present the Not Yet for which we struggle” (Holloway, 1995). Is this not the essence of liberatory politics? Is this not an equality and power-to, for all?
It is through creating their own space, outside of social relations dictated by the state, that the Zapatista movement is able to create a breathing liberatory politics. The politics of listening sees the movement driven by the principle of “mandar obeciendo” (“lead by obeying”) – of a deliberative collective decision-making (Holloway, 1995). The movement has distanced itself from state structures and its associative form of power. All members of the movement’s Front of National Liberation had to renounce any aspirations they might have had to hold state office (Holloway, 1995). It is not only a relational and personal liberation that this movement enabled – it extended to structural and material liberation. In the 38 provinces in which the movement asserted control, they set up parallel structures to governance built on participatory democratic ideals and the rotation of leaders (Rodger Gibson, 2010). Decisions are made through village assemblies and efforts are made to avoid heirarchisation at points of decision making (Rodger Gibson, 2010). The movement has also set up its own mode of production and exchange, external to capitalism and its constraints (Rodger Gibson, 2010). There is no one dictating what liberation is, it is viewed as a continuous process, a project rather than an end (Rodger Gibson, 2010).
In both of these alternative forms of liberatory politics a common theme emerges. A liberatory politics which occurs at a distance from the state has the opportunity to enable emancipation at its most fundamental levels: social relations and the person. This is arguably an element of liberation which state-based liberatory politics, in the logic it adopts, oftentimes abandons. State-based liberatory politics may make liberatory concessions, but these are largely material and at the expense of the core “power-to” at the heart of ideals of liberation.
“Too good to be true” – The issues with state-distant liberatory politics.
Liberatory politics at a distance from the state appears to be a politics with the true potential for liberation. Some key questions, however, need to be directed at the theories put forward by Badiou (2006) and Holloway (2002). Where, in all of this, does the state’s monopoly of violence come into play? Is it not idealistic to envision a liberatory politics outside of the state-logic functioning unhindered and unchallenged within the state? The Paris Commune fell at the hands of a rampaging French army, after all. At a debate between John Holloway and Alex Callinicos at the World Social Forum in 2005, this very point was made to Holloway by a member of the floor. He/she pointed out that liberatory politics is always susceptible to state repression and violence (World Social Forum, 2005). The floor-member used the example of state-repression directed against the Argentinazo in Argentina, once the biggest unemployed people’s movement in the globe (World Social Forum, 2005). A blooming liberatory movement was stifled by the wrath of state violence. Although liberatory politics occurring independent of the state is ideal, it takes one bout of state violence to break. Holloway acknowledged this issue – he sees the unlikeliness of this liberatory movement defeating the state in open conflict, and he sees the unattractiveness of the movement seizing the army and police (recreating a hierarchy of power) (World Social Forum, 2005). He proposes an armed resistance instead, where rebellion is integrated into the community (World Social Forum, 2005). Although this serves as a deterrent, it is arguably little use in the face of a state-facilitated violent onslaught.
There is another questionable aspect of this type of liberatory politics, it may be manageable at a highly-localised level, but to what extent can it spread and still be effective? A bottom-up liberatory politics is feasible at village, and district-based levels. But when this politics encompasses a greater area, how are non-heirarchisation, dignity and power-to equally maintained? Holloway is similarly aware of the challenge of co-ordinating direct democracy beyond a local-level (World Social Forum, 2005). He proposes an approach of self-education and experimentation as a means to finding the way forward (World Social Forum, 2005). Although this explanation may satisfy those involved in a liberatory political experiment or those optimistic about an alternative liberatory politics– it does little to allay the criticisms of Holloway’s detractors. But it cannot be simply brushed off – the feasible scope of liberatory politics beyond the state is untested in contemporary politics.
Finally, there is an irreconcilable issue at the heart of liberatory politics– and that is the question of centralisation. Stalin attributed the failures of the Paris Commune to its lack of centralised organisation (Badiou, 2006). Badiou (2006) and Holloway (2002) would blame centralised organisation for the failure of liberatory politics. This issue is highlighted by Calliniscos: “Combining centralisation with self-organisation is not easy. But without a degree of centralisation we will be defeated” (World Social Forum, 2005). The highly-centralised consolidated state system is a significant hurdle to the proliferation of decentralised liberatory politics. However, in adopting a centralised organisation, the very essence of non-heirarchisation and equality of the liberatory movement is undermined. Unless it becomes like the state, liberatory politics will always be limited in its scope. When it becomes like the state, liberatory politics will always be limited in its realisation. This is the irreconcilable issue of liberatory politics.
Conclusion: The necessity of an alternative liberatory politics
If a participant in liberatory politics were to be offered the following options: Would you choose a liberatory politics that’s scope and lifespan is undetermined, but it’s guaranteed to stay true of the logic of liberation? Or would you choose a liberatory politics that recreates elements of the system it chose to conquer, but is pervasive? I believe he/she would choose the former. “Ya Basta!” is the phrase which drove the beginning of the Zapatista movement, “Enough is enough!” (Holloway, 2002). The participant in liberatory politics is tired of the “betrayal”. The Paris Commune and the Zapatista movement show how liberatory politics at a distance from the state offers self-determination, equality and dignity – a politics of and for the people. It is necessary for liberatory politics to take place at a distance from the state. It is a necessity in a world where the state-based liberatory politics has failed. Liberatory politics at a distant from the state is an experimental politics, a liberatory project. It faces the possibility of state-repression, it faces the difficulty of co-ordination at a large scale – but it enables the core of a liberatory movement: an oppressed people’s power-to. Does it work?
As Holloway said, “The only way to find out is to do it” (World Social Forum, 2005).
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Carlsson, C., 1995, The Faceless Face of the New Mexican Revolution, Processed World Magazine (33), http://libcom.org/library/faceless-face-new-mexican-revolution, Date Accessed: 7 September 2011.
Holloway, J., 2002, Change the World Without Taking Power, Verso: London.
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Kaup, B.Z., 2010, A Neoliberal Nationalization? : The Constraints on Natural-Gas-Led Development in Bolivia, Latin American Perspectives, 37: 123-138.
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World Social Forum, 2005, A debate between John Holloway and Alex Callinicos: Can we change the world without taking power?, at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, http://libcom.org/library/debate-between-john-holloway-alex-callinicos-%E2%80%9Ccan-we-change-world-without-taking-power%E2%80%9D- , Date Accessed: 5 September 2011.