In November 2019, the collection Open Marxism 4: Against a Closing World, edited by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein, Alfonso García Vela, Edith González, and John Holloway will be published by Pluto Press. In this interview, we asked Ana Cecilia Dinerstein and John Holloway (editors) and Werner Bonefeld (author of the foreword) to comment as Open Marxists on the political developments of the last two decades. Werner Bonefeld is a professor at the University of York and the author of Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy, The Strong State and the Free Economy, as well as the co-editor of The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory, among other works. Ana Cecilia Dinerstein is Reader in Sociology at the University of Bath, UK. Her publications include The Labour Debate (2002, co-edited with Mike Neary), The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and Social Sciences for an Other Politics: Women Theorising without Parachutes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). She has created a field of research called ‘the global politics of hope’, which connects critical theory with the autonomous praxis of social movements. Professor John Holloway teaches in the Postgraduate Degree of Sociology at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico. His best-known books are Change the World without Taking Power and Crack Capitalism.
1. Between 1995 – the year Open Marxism Vol. 3 was published – and 2019, many landmark events and important processes took place. First are the global justice movement and the emergence of the Zapatistas as an inspiration for libertarian anti-capitalist groups worldwide. Then, following the 2007 financial crash, we saw a worldwide wave of social unrest – from the Arab Spring to Occupy, etc. What is your view on these autonomous movements? Are they producing change and of what kind?
Werner: I can’t answer this question in a direct way and with any kind of certainty. It supposes the veracity of a global justice movement, which was followed by a wave of social unrest in the form of the Arab Spring and Occupy, and then asks whether any change occurred as a consequence of their daring, and by asking which one, it assumes that change did really occur and that the change is a really existing one that can be identified and measured. Writing this, what comes to my mind is a slogan from the former German Democratic Republic. It characterised itself with legitimising intent not only as socialist but also as really existing. The slogan ‘really existing socialism’ implied that by proclaiming its existence one could not quite believe that it really existed. It seemed as if one had to pinch oneself in wonderment: it really exists!
Now then, the movements that you mention did really exist and, in our darkened times, it seems as if one also has to pinch oneself to be reminded that they really did exist. Salvini, a Right-wing demagogue who speculates on drowning people for political gain, and by all accounts does so quite successfully, is the really existing symbol of the nationalist undercurrent that at first appeared hidden in the anti-globalisation movement that peaked in Genoa in 2001 but that soon asserted itself powerfully especially after the financial crash in 2008. Italy first. America first. Mexico first. Germany first. Exit and Brexit. And so on. If you put Steve Bannon’s critique of the globalising elite into the context of the late 1990s / early 2000s, he too would seem to articulate key concerns of powerful elements in the then justice movement which proclaimed for the national state as means of anti-globalisation. I remember reading a book at that time by a famous German Marxist philosopher in which it was argued that capital retreats once the (national) state asserts itself. Salvini and Bannon are not important. What is important is the time, the context of our condition, that makes them important and allows them to be heard and, in the case of Salvini, to catch votes with every dead immigrant who floats in the Mediterranean Sea.
But let us return to the justice movement of a time that has seemingly gone. The premise of the demand for justice is injustice. What does it really mean to achieve justice in an unjust world? What I am saying here is not meant to belittle the movements that you referred to. These movements were the result of courageous people standing up for justice, whatever this significant concept might in fact mean. What really is a just wage or a just working day? What does it mean to struggle against finance, resist the movement of coins, combat the movement of interest rates, fight price movements, and resist poverty in a mode of social reproduction that entails the ‘pauper’ in its conception of wealth?
What is needed is a praxis that does not play the game of political economy. What is also needed is a praxis that does not play the game of moral outrage and does not dress itself up in self-congratulatory chic. There is no time for heroes anymore, nor for normative celebrities. There is however time for a praxis that politicises experiments in new social relations, that is, new forms of social reproduction which come under the name of the commons. What is needed is a practice of politicised commoning. Whether this leads to anything is uncertain. Clearly, uncertainty is the very essence of a praxis that is about the establishment of a new humanity of communist individuals, a humanity in which wealth is not money but freely disposable time.
In the cold society of economic necessity, golden chains are preferable to rusty chains, and poor relief is therefore a must. Yet, although golden chains might make a difference, chains they remain. Poor relief is the practice of justice in an unjust society. This much is certain.
The movements that you refer to were laboratories of uncertainty. Whether they achieved anything time will tell. It would be false however to hold them up as glorious examples of a better past. They were neither glorious nor are they passé. It would be wrong also to read them as innately progressive. First, because the multitude that they represented involved also the lamenters, the moralisers, the normative celebrities, the pseudo-activists, the self-righteous, the nationalists, the anti-imperialist ringleaders of the imagined blood and soil of the so-called subaltern nations, and those who proclaim without further thought that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Second, there should be no progress. The present conditions should not be progressed – the demand for justice in an unjust world is premised on the progress of a world that ought to be stopped in its tracks. At the very least, let us express solidarity with the feminists in Iran, the anarchists in Palestine, the libertarian communists in Israel, the autonomists in Italy, the syndicalists in Russia, and the communards wherever they might reside.
Ana Cecilia: I agree with Werner in that we do need to develop a praxis that tackles the roots of the problem. However, unlike Werner, I think that social struggles are inevitably mediated by social, political and economic forms such as the law, money, and the state. Thus, the question is not ‘what does it really mean to achieve justice in an unjust world?’, as Werner enquires, but ‘in what ways can our struggles over the form of mediations transform them as well as produce an excess that cannot be translated into the language of political economy?’. I disagree with Werner’s Adornian belief that we cannot fight the system because it is mediated. We can only struggle over mediations (inevitably) but our struggles can create alternatives that do retain their negative critique within them. Attempts to create new forms of social relations and practices in direct opposition to the prevailing capitalist, colonial and patriarchal relations require rehearsals of other possible ways of living in common, and I emphasise the word ‘possible’. How could this be otherwise? Sometimes, the utopian element of present struggles is ignored as a result of what I call the critical theorist’s ‘fear of positivisation’, that is a fear to affirm alternatives because they will be inevitably appropriated by the state. But this is a symptom of the problem with critical theory today: that it is not trying to engage with the reality of present struggles against and beyond the world of money-capital.
Of course, I appreciate that some strategies of social movements today do lead to the positivisation and further appropriation (and then deradicalisation) of resistance… and we must be aware and point to that problem. For example, while the struggle against and beyond money can take many forms, today we see that the proposal for Universal Basic Income (UBI) is expanding in the UK. The celebration of UBI as the utopia for the Left is most concerning. I have written a couple of articles and blogs expressing my critique of the demand for UBI combined with automation (as Srnicek and Williams do) or the idea of fully automated luxury communism (see Bastani’s book). This means not only playing the game, as Werner says, but bowing to the master! It is not clear to me in what ways UBI, wrongly understood as a ‘transitional’ demand, could in any way be a solution to the problem of the subordination of human life to the money form! Many call this proposal a ‘realistic utopia’ but I call it a ‘bad utopia’. I think it would be important to return to a thorough discussion of ‘money’ in connection to capitalist work. The question of what money is has disappeared from the horizon of the Left and it is now only discussed in small Marxist circles. This is a real problem because the argument for UBI is based on very liberal and misconceived values, such as ‘the citizens’ right to an income’. Let us think: what is the real predicament that we are facing? Is it the lack of money? Or the dependence on money for human existence? I believe the latter. Calls for UBI disregard how much people are struggling against money at the grassroots.
Instead, if we fight for self-management, of course we will have to deal with the state, as it happened in Argentina in the 2000s. Yet this will be a different experience, because we will not focus on the state… we will open a space for the creation of alternative realities after cracking capitalism (as John argues). Every crack takes you to the ‘beyond zone’ of movement organising, and it is there that we can engage in the ‘art of organising hope’. However, this inevitably takes place within, against and beyond capital, not outside it.
I don’t minimise the struggle for a better NHS either. I want my son to have health care. Yet, I cannot call the defence of the NHS ‘revolutionary’ or reformist. The struggle over the form of state and the economy should try to push and transcend the parameters of legibility imposed by those social, political and legal forms. The question is: will the struggle over the forms of mediation, say the law or the institutions of the state, take us to a critique of capital or not? I am not sure. To respond to the initial question in a nutshell: some of the movements have produced and are producing changes for they have opened spaces for critique and possibility. The rest is process, political struggle, we can’t tell… To me, all we can do is opening ‘fronts’ of spaces of political possibility. When that happens, everything else starts moving, changing, fluctuating, being exposed, including power, elites in power, the law, the institutions, policy, the state, everything.
John: Anger flows through the world and it is growing. The way in which that anger is expressed is all-important. At the moment, it seems that much of the anger is pushing us towards extinction, towards human self-annihilation: Trump, Bolsonaro, the rise of the Right almost everywhere, the racism of Brexit, and so on and on. So what do we say? To say ‘don’t be angry’ makes no sense: of course we must be angry in a world driven by exploitation, by money. How then do we intervene in the flow of anger, how do we express our anger? The crucial distinction is between the identitarian anger that blames the ‘other’, on the one hand, and what the Zapatistas call a ‘digna rabia’, a righteous rage, on the other. How do we express a digna rabia? By working towards a process of collective self-determination, by creating cracks in the texture of domination, spaces or moments where we push with all our strength towards a different society, one that is not structured around money and profit. Can we do that through the state? I think not, simply because the existence of the state is so bound up with money and the reproduction of capital that it is hard to see how it can function other than as a killer of hope, as experience has shown us over and over and over again. Digna rabia can only be a process of refusal-resistance-rebellion – and experimentation: there is no highway to revolution, the only paths are the ones we make by walking them.
To come back to your question: the Zapatistas, the Arab spring, the Occupies were and are attempts (always contradictory) to express a rage with dignity, a digna rabia. What have they achieved? I do not think there is a clear answer: they were and are interventions in the global flow of anger, keeping open the possibility of a non-capitalist future, of creating a different world. What becomes of those interventions depends not just on the particular movements but on the general flow of anger. What is all-important for us is how do we strengthen movements such as those, how do we push our shared rage forward in a way that destroys capital rather than destroying humanity?
2. In fact, far-Right populism, racism, antisemitism, and other forms of xenophobia have emerged as an alternative that many people seem to find more attractive than leftist anti-capitalist projects…
Werner: I think my earlier reply touched on many of these issues already. Still – it has been argued quite powerfully that neoliberal globalisation amounts to a new form of capitalism that is characterised as a financial capitalism. This capitalism is defined as one that extracts financial profit directly out of the personal income of the workers, the middle classes, and, in the case of Greece, a whole nation. Financial capitalism is said to engage in financial expropriation – which has also been analysed as accumulation by dispossession. By and large, this literature agrees that financial capitalism is the outcome of the Washington Consensus. These contentions are supported by sophisticated analyses and intricate arguments about the power of financial wizardry by the few, the so-called 1%, whose proportion of the population might or might not have grown in size over the last two hundred years. Nevertheless, what I have summarised here, however crude and simple, is the gist of a well-trodden contemporary argument, which is prominent among left-wing authors and commentators.
If we read my summary backwards and add a few characterisations, what reveals itself does not look so good anymore: a certain type of capitalism is the outcome of a Washington-based bargain. This kind of argument suggests that capital is in fact controlled by the powerful and that therefore it is not the fetish-subject that Marx talked about in his Critique of Political Economy when he analysed capital as a real abstraction that manifests itself behind the backs of the social individuals. Moreover, the idea that capitalist development is the result of a consensus reached in Washington reduces the emergence of financial capitalism to a conspiracy. Whereas Marx had argued that there is a logic that holds sway in the concept of capital as a crisis-ridden monetary system that is founded on dispossessed labour, the conspiracy theory of capitalist development holds that contemporary capitalism results from a consensus between finance and military power. They conspired to expropriate workers! They conspired to make money out of money for the sake of more money. They conspired against productive capital to the detriment of the employment prospects of the class that lives by wages. The conspirators are rootless cosmopolitans who nestle everywhere for sake of monetary gain!
One political outcome is captured by a slogan that is particularly en vogue in left wing circles: government must make money its servant so that it is put to work for growth and jobs rather than being used for the selfish purposes of the merchants of greed. Another political outcome is the slogan that globalisation is a suckers’ paradise, one in which the promise of opulence for the many brought about by a well-functioning national labour economy is crushed by a few cosmopolitan peddlers of misery. This kind of analysis opens up the Pandora’s box in which the elements of racism (“British jobs for British workers”) and antisemitism lie in wait. Finally, this critique of money and power supposes that capitalism could in fact work in the interest of the many if only the (bad) capitalists were not in charge. The idea that the capitalists corrupt capitalism is not only a strange one, it is also very widespread. Every political party lays claim to the notion that it knows how best to govern capital in the national interest, from the far Right via the political centre to the traditional left, and whatever the shortcomings in government, the guilty party can always be easily identified by xenophobic projection, antisemitic tropes, or racist denunciation.
Ana Cecilia: What I see with the rise of the Right is the putrefaction and bankruptcy of the lie of liberal democracy. This is not the first time that this pseudo-democracy has been in a critical state. We can see now that fascism is not an exception but the norm. The far Right is now taking its place, as in the first decades of the twentieth century in Germany and Italy. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, coloniality, patriarchy are not new. Millions are disenfranchised and living in inhumane conditions. There is a vacuum. Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini… they are occupying this space. But I don’t mean that we must strengthen liberal democracy. My point is that this is an opportunity to start dismantling all the lies and tell the truth: it is not about individual leaders. Yes, they are horrible characters, playing the game ‘who has it bigger’ while the world is collapsing, drowning in its own vomit… but it is not them. It is the crisis of capitalism, coloniality and patriarchy. The ‘rise of the far Right’ is somehow overrated. The Right, authoritarianism and state violence are always deployed because it is almost the norm that the political form of capital – the state – must adapt to economic oppression and inhuman reforms. When it comes to the North, everybody seems surprised. But what do you think has been happening in Mexico, where people are disappearing on a daily basis, like in the case of the forced disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa five years ago? Where women are being killed just because they are women in what we call femicide? Or the assassination of journalists and trade unionists in Colombia?
I don’t think that people find the Right attractive. The system forces us to like power. Voters want to support candidates who have power and, of course, Trump has power, he is the most powerful person in the world and he loves to show off, he talks about it, and he is like a Roman Emperor… He has created a social imaginary of hatred and uncompassionate ideology, the worst of all, but let us remember that half of the USA did not vote for him, and half of Brazil did not want Bolsonaro, and more than half of Argentina did not vote for Mauricio Macri.
We are facing a deep crisis of the Left, a left that has not produced any self-criticism since its ‘official crisis’ and is now lost at sea, a left that has no alternative narrative to that of the Right, a hesitant left that needs to re-read Marx’s work in a different light and try to understand as soon as possible the new subject of resistance, which is in my view female, decolonial, indigenous, precarious, ethical, autonomous and democratic! Or perhaps the ‘left’ must be buried as a modern project and we need to reinvent it following other examples such as the Zapatistas. Their ‘revolution of dignity’ – as John Holloway has called it – has not only transformed the meaning of revolution but also produced many epistemological, theoretical, practical, and cultural openings. It is very rich and tremendously important. But critical theorists – with exceptions – continue missing or diminishing this revolution, they have not read enough, they don’t understand it because it comes from indigenous people. This is the crisis of the Left.
John: Yes, it feels as if we are losing the crisis of capital again. We lost the crisis of 1929 and the 1930s: the rise of the Right, fascism, the slaughter of millions in the war. I think 2008, like 1929, has had an enormous impact on people’s lives and expectations, the growth of obscene inequalities, police repression, militarisation, the rise of the Right. But 2008 was not so much a crisis of capital as an attempt to postpone and regulate the crisis through massive support for the banks. It is very possible that a much more severe crisis will come within the next few years and if anger continues to flow towards racism and nationalism, then the outlook is grim.
I think that part of the problem has been the channelling of discontent through the state which, by definition, is a racist, xenophobic institution that distinguishes between ‘citizens’ and ‘foreigners’. This illusory hope-through-the-state is often associated with the concept of ‘neoliberalism’: if the state would change its policies away from neoliberalism, all would be well. But the problem is not neoliberalism, it is not the policies chosen by governments, but the dynamic of capital itself. The choice is not between neoliberalism and a fair capitalism, because such is impossible. The choice is between capitalism and humanity. The experience of ‘left’ governments is that they have not been able to change the dynamic of capital significantly, with the result that they implement the policies that they initially condemned. Greece and Brazil are the most glaring examples, but there is little reason to think that Corbyn or Sanders would be any better. After so many failures by ‘left’ governments, it is impossible not to ask if there is something structurally wrong with the idea that left parties can bring about significant change. I am not saying that they cannot bring about small changes that will improve life and there may well be good reasons for voting for Corbyn or whoever, but we must be aware that any left government will and must promote capital accumulation and that means taking us closer to extinction. Experience over the last fifteen years or so suggests that disillusion with left governments can easily feed the rise of fascism.
3. In the last months, social movements in the UK and elsewhere – particularly the Women’s Strike and the Youth Strikes in defence of the environment – brought to centre stage the current crisis of the capitalist form of the social reproduction of life. What are your thoughts on this?
Werner: For these movements to succeed, it is essential that they refuse to become a piece of the politics they have to leave behind for the sake of achieving their own purposes. It is important also that they refuse to take the bright side view, according to which the impending environmental breakdown can be stopped without a change in social relations. For them to succeed, thought is required as a preventative against a false praxis. Finally, what is required is experimentation in new social relations that do not humanise nature and that do not naturalise humankind but that, rather, recognise the environment as the foundation of human life. Let us demand the impossible – let us demand solar panels without price tags, let us plant trees in the commons of our new society, and let us demand the right to happiness and enjoy our humanity not as a means but as a purpose for its own sake. Let us demand the democracy of the free and equal and politicise the commons. Whether the impossible comes to pass is quite uncertain, and here lies the challenge.
Ana Cecilia: My work on the ‘art of organising hope’ shows that movements and people are not demanding the impossible but the improbable. Big difference. We must take this seriously but there can be disappointment… we must navigate contradictions. Werner is right: the role of the movements is to move from the Anthropocene to the Capitalocene (as Jason Moore names it). It is not ‘humanity’ killing the planet, it is capitalism. This is a great opportunity to offer a full critique of capital and the entry point of such critique is the ‘environmental crisis’. This is good, because it is something that everybody can empathise with and relate to, and it can enable us to discuss new issues such as environmental crisis and coloniality.
As an example, the Wretched of the Earth collective wrote an open letter to Extinction Rebellion earlier this year in which they ask the latter to remember that the crisis at hand cannot be resolved through science and technology only but requires us to listen to those who are already living in a non-destructive way in this planet and have been suffering oppression for centuries. The Wretched of the Earth told Extinction Rebellion that ‘without incorporating our experiences, any response to this disaster will fail to change the complex ways in which social, economic and political systems shape our lives – offering some an easy pass in life and making others pay the cost’.
The facts that Bolsonaro continues devastating the Amazon or AMLO has expansive destructive plans for the Chiapas region are not simply bad policy from irresponsible politicians. It is not only about demanding the impossible as Werner suggests. It is also about understanding that, as Luxemburg once explained, economic expansion and the resulting devastation of the environment is not a defect of global capitalism, but an inherent feature of a destructive system. I wrote about this in The Conversation: ‘She taught us that war, colonialism and unsustainable extraction from nature are products of global capitalism. The result is the loss of irreplaceable natural wealth and people struggling for food, water and shelter in the developing world. A proper reading of the environmental crisis as well as capitalism today must be decolonial or will fail to get to the root of the problem altogether’.
John: Great that there are movements of protest everywhere against the destruction of the conditions for human and other life. But, as both Werner and Ana point out, it cannot just be a question of changing policies or changing our daily habits (important though this may be). We have to say clearly that it is our current form of social organisation that is driving us towards extinction. This ‘current form of social organisation’ is capital, money. We must demand what seems to be impossible, the abolition of money and the construction of other ways of relating – commoning, communising.