Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Short Introduction to John Holloway

From a pamphlet by the Church Land Programme

John Holloway is a communist philosopher whose work is often described
as being rooted in the autonomist or libertarian traditions.

Holloway was born in Ireland and was involved in important
debates and struggles in Britain. He wrote, for instance, about workers'
struggles at the Nissan car factory in Sunderland in the 1980s. He now
lives in Mexico where he has also been politically engaged, most famously
with the Zapatista movement. His 2002 book Change the World Without
Taking Power became very influential in the struggles against corporate
globalization that had moved around North America and Western Europe
after the huge protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in
November 1999.

Holloway's work has always taken the view that the central form
of oppression is that which comes from the power of money, of capitalism,
and the drive to constantly use money to make more money even when
this makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Although it is clear that
our struggles today are not only struggles against the mania to put profit
before people it is clear that struggle against the logic of capitalism is very
important to many of our struggles today. For instance Abahlali
baseMjondolo have long insisted that the social value of land must come
before its commercial value. The struggles of mineworkers for a fairer
share of the money that is being made in the mines, or for collective
ownership and control of the mines, is another example of a struggle
against the logic of capitalism. This commonality provides a useful point
of engagement with Holloway's work.

Holloway's work has also always stressed that struggle begins
from ordinary women and men and their ordinary acts of refusal to accept
the logic of oppression. This can take the form of day to day ways of living
that challenge the logic of oppression (like people living on occupied land,
making their own connections to water and electricity or holding
meetings based on equality, mutual care and respect for dignity) or more
explicit forms of politics (like marches, road blockades, land occupations
etc.). And Holloway's work has always stressed that the spaces in the
cracks in the system in which people can live or relate to others, even if
just for a while, according to a different logic to that of capitalism, are
where the roots of resistance are nourished.

All of this makes Holloway's thought very different to the forms of leftism
that see the people as ignorant and argue that they need to be led by
enlightened activists with the right ideas. This form of politics is always
authoritarian and in South Africa the intersection between top down
approaches to thinking about progressive politics and some NGOs has,
along with being deeply authoritarian and grossly disrespectful of the
thinking of grassroots militants, also often been clearly racialised. For
these reasons some people have described it as a politics rooted in
contempt for ordinary people.

However Holloway's stress on the ordinary politics of ordinary
people is completely different to this politics of contempt. There are real
points of connection between Holloway's commitment to looking for
politics in the ordinary lives of ordinary people and what Abahlali
baseMjondolo have called a living politics. These connections could
provide another useful point of engagement with Holloway's thought.
Holloway has also always stressed that oppression is not
something that comes only from one class of people and that all we need
to do is to support the oppressed against the oppressors. He argues that
we are all damaged by oppression and that the logic of oppression is also
found amongst the oppressed. He is clear that not all forms of rage against
oppression are dignified or emancipatory.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has always stressed the need for healing within
oppressed communities as well as society as a whole and has often
organised on that basis. And of course the movement has always warned
that the anger of the poor can go in many directions some of which can be
emancipatory but some of which can be very dangerous. The movement
has also been open about confronting the logic of oppression when it
emerges in struggle. This is also a point of connection that could,
potentially, open up a useful line of discussion.

Holloway's engagement with the Zapatistas in Mexico led to a
new focus on dignity, the nature of power and the idea that an
emancipatory politics is worked out in action. He defines dignity as the
refusal to accept humiliation and dehumanisation. We all know that in
different kinds of struggles across South Africa people have constantly
asserted their humanity as the basis for their rebellion. This politics, of
insisting on the recognition of everyone's humanity and of using our
shared humanity as the basis for a demand for respect, has often been
ignored by the left. But it, together with the language of dignity, and
political practices aimed at affirming the dignity of the oppressed, has
been central to some of the strongest emancipatory politics to have
emerged in South Africa.

Holloway uses the following quote from the Zapatistas to explain what it
means to found a politics on dignity:

'Then that suffering that united us made us speak, and werecognised that in our words there was truth, we knew thatnot only pain and suffering lived in our tongue, werecognised that there is hope still in our hearts. We spokewith ourselves, we looked inside ourselves and we looked atour history: we saw our most ancient fathers suffering andstruggling, we saw our grandfathers struggling, we saw ourfathers with fury in their hands, we saw that not everythinghad been taken away from us, that we had the mostvaluable, that which made us live, that which made our steprise above plants and animals, that which made the stone bebeneath our feet, and we saw, brothers, that all that we hadwas DIGNITY, and we saw that great was the shame ofhaving forgotten it, and we saw that DIGNITY was good formen to be men again, and dignity returned to live in ourhearts, and we were new again, and the dead, our dead, sawthat we were new again and they called us again, to dignity,to struggle'.

There is a serious problem with the way that this statement leaves out the
equality of women, which has to be central to any emancipatory project.
But the idea that the right to rebel is rooted in a shared humanity and the
dignity that should come with being human is one that is very familiar to
some of our struggles.

Holloway has argued that around the world left wing movements
have often taken state power and then run the state in ways that are
similar in some ways to the regimes that they had defeated. In South
Africa we know the truth of this bitter reality all too well. Apartheid was
defeated but evictions, transit camps, authoritarian traditional leaders,
exploitation at work, an unfair distribution of land and gross political
repression all remain part of our society. Holloway's response to this
problem is based on the intellectual work done in the Zapatista movement
where, he says, revolutionaries had to learn to stop telling people what to
do and to learn to listen. He explains that the Zapatistas concluded that
the point was not to capture the power of the oppressors in the same
structures set up by oppression but rather to share power throughout
society. This requires the oppressed to build their own power via their
own self-organisation.

Holloway's position is not that the state is always an equally
oppressive structure no matter which group has captured it. He is clear
that some states are much better than others and that struggles over the
control and nature of the state have been important. But he draws a
distinction between what he calls 'the politics of poverty' and the 'politics
of dignity'. He argues that the 'politics of poverty' leads to a politics that is
aimed at making change through the state via technocratic measures
decided on by experts. It uses a top down system now in the hope that it
will create a more equal society in the future. But the politics of dignity is
rooted in immediate respect for the intelligence and agency of ordinary
people. It begins from an immediate commitment to equality.

In South Africa people have supported the 'No Land! No House!
No Vote Campaign!' and struggles against Ward Councillors and local
party structures for a range of different reasons. But in some cases there
has been a clear argument that struggle should be about building the
power of the oppressed rather than in trusting that someone else will
represent the oppressed in the party or the state. And of course Abahlali
baseMjondolo has always been very clear that what the movement has
called 'a living solidarity' requires struggling with, and speaking with, and
being with, rather than acting and speaking for the oppressed. These
arguments connect clearly to important themes in Holloway's work and
this point of connection between the work done in our own struggles and
Holloway's thought could also open up a useful discussion.

We all know that there are little groups of activists who think
that they have the answer for everyone but that the real political problem
is that the people won't listen to them. But anyone who has been involved
in a genuine people's movement knows that dogmatic theories about how
to struggle have very little to do with reality. Struggle has to be worked
out on the ground. It is thought, as S'bu Zikode said, on the ground,
running. This is also an important theme in Holloway's work and
something that is rooted in his engagement with the Zapatisats who
famously said that they 'shit on all the vanguards of the planet' and,
instead, walk, together, while asking questions. The idea that the path is
made by walking is another point of connection between Holloway's
thought and our own struggles.

Further reading

The Red Rose of Nissan, 1987

The Concept of Power & the Zapatistas, 1996

Dignity's Revolt, 1997

Going in the Wrong Direction or Mephistopheles: Not Saint
Francis of Assisi, 2005

Against & Beyond the State: An interview with John Holloway,

The Politics of Dignity & the Politics of Poverty, 2010

An Interview with John Holloway, 2012