by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein
On 17 April 2019, Plan C Bristol has held a public debate with Argentinian critical theorist Ana Cecilia Dinerstein as part of the local group’s monthly events series. Dinerstein’s recent work has focused on combining Open Marxism and decolonial feminism, and her best-known book is The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope (2015), on grass-root social movements in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. She has theorised “The Art of Organising Hope” as a collective practice of social critique from below, contributing to a dialogue among experiences from different areas of the world which attempt to create autonomous forms of life in common, in, against and beyond the existing society. As Plan C is part of these attempts of organising autonomy, we propose here this text by Ana, which was originally written as the opening of the Alternative Summit TAOH: New Narratives for Europe, held in Ghent in November 2018.
For many years we have been told over and over again that there is no alternative, that there is nothing that we can do about what hurt us. A paralysing discourse that has created hopelessness. Yes, hopelessness is socially constructed, and the social imaginary of hopelessness draws on ideas such as pain, sacrifice, fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, danger. Creating a sense of hopelessness is a very efficient way to quickly implement irreversible structural economic changes, even if they degrade living standards, worsen working conditions, and generally spread fear and unhappiness. It facilitates demobilisation and inward-looking attitudes that detach us from other and from the real world that we desperately need to change. The message ‘sacrifice today because otherwise you will not have any opportunity in the future’ (!) offered by the managers of capitalist-patriarchal-coloniality is not an appealing political promise! Or is it?
Pierre Bourdieu tells us that the neoliberal utopia has managed to see itself as the scientific description of reality. But this is, of course, the close reality of la pensée unique… Subcommander Insurgent Marcos calls it ‘the inevitable’. Let me quote:
‘The inevitable’ has a name today: fragmented globalization…theendofhistory,theomnipresence and omnipotence of money, the substitution of politics for police, the present as the only possible future, rationalization of social inequality, justification of super- exploitation of human beings and natural resources, racism, intolerance, war.’
The Art of Organising Hope (TAOH) detests the inevitable’s violent discourse and has been set out to explore and reach out for our potential, with others and recover the POLITICAL power to dream and prefigure, collectively, alternative possibilities.
Fear and hopelessness have short legs, and there are extraordinary moments in history when governing by fear reaches a cul-de-sac. At such breaking points, often marked by economic, financial or political crisis (or all of the above), fear can give way to another equally important human emotion: hope. I believe that we are at such moment although this is not obvious and visible to all, but we know…
This is the reason why TAOH is so important, because we must discover a new language to name our actions so that we can appreciate them as significant politically.
The present is a fascinating moment in radical politics. While the horrors of our time war, death, violence, rape and hunger, magnify dramatically, ‘utopia’ has returned in subtler forms. We are not in Kansas anymore. There has been a major shift in grass-roots movements’ politics, demonstrating that the struggles against the ineffectuality of policy, the failure of representative democracy, the brutality of power and the alienating character of the economy are now mainly struggling for a breathing space from where to conceive of and organise social life alternatively.
A very important date for this sea change in grassroot resistance and collective action is the 1st of January 1994. Nothing is foundational, but some events mark important shifts in the way we think and experience both power and resistance. On the 1st of January 1994 the poorest of the poor and the powerless people in the world, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Mexico, organised in the Zapatista movement, said NO to the most powerful and rich people in the world organised in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Chiapas, of course, has an strategic role in the global economic restructuring in the capitalism of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey) and it is incredible how it has become the epitome of significant capitalist contradictions: while an abundance of natural resources makes it one of the ‘world’s paradises’ and brings unmatched settings for the development of life, Chiapas also constitutes one of the most hostile environments for human life (as Ceceña and Barreda tell us). Subcommander Insurgent Marcos describes how, as soon as you enter Chiapas, you realise the misery that neoliberal global capital causes. I quote:
‘Chiapas loses blood through many veins: through oil and gas ducts, electric lines, railways; through bank accounts, trucks, vans, boats, and planes; through clandestine paths, gaps, and forest trails. This land continues to pay tribute to the imperialist: petroleum, electricity, cattle, money, coffee, banana, honey, corn, cacao, tobacco, sugar, soy, melon, sorghum, mamey, mango, tamarind, avocado, and Chiapaneco blood all flow as a result of the thousand teeth sunk into the throat of the Mexican Southeast’.
In the Zapatista’s declarations, communiques and documents, hope is portrayed as the opposite of globalisation and as a rejection of conformity and defeat. YA BASTA! (Enough is enough!) means NO to the rule of money over life, means NO to Mexico entering the NAFTA agreement with Canada and the US, because the new NAFTA entailed the expropriation of the indigenous land (ejidos)from the indigenous people to put them on sale. Zapatistas argued that NAFTA was a dead sentence to the indigenous of Chiapas and said that globalisation was a war against humanity. YA BASTA was exemplary and resonated around the world as a genuine possibility to change the direction of the wind, to see things differently, to hope again.
TAOH belongs to this movement. Innumerable collective actions today are not just dedicated to make demands to governments but also to developing concrete alternatives in urban and rural territories. These are enriched by traditions of resistance, but bring the new into play, as they are prefiguring, i.e. anticipating, a better future in the present.
The Zapatistas were/are not naïve. They knew what they were doing and the impact of their actions. Above all, they know that the only way to deal with power is to disempower it, discursively, politically and collectively. The deconstruction of the powerful means also the possibility of empowering ourselves. This is important for TAOH because, while we do not ignore the force of the violent dictatorship, the humiliating power of debt, the devastating effect of hunger, the disciplining force of the police, we can and should learn hope. We must educate our hope, as Bloch says, so that we can think about ourselves as those who constitute social reality rather than those who react to a reality created by others. The creation of reality as THE reality in underpinned by struggles over the meaning of reality. But what defines us as humans is the capacity to project ourselves into the world, to share, to choose how to live, to aspire, dream, organise, to activate and use our intuition and emotional intelligence and of course our imagination to do the best we can to live with dignity.
But mine, as you know, is not a religious discourse! Far from that, hope is a category of struggle, an emotion and a tool to radically change the demarcation of legibility of reality, that is the way we read reality, rejecting the reality that is imposed to us from hegemonic power, in many ways, including being hungry. Hunger says Martinez Andrade, must be taken seriously!
The main problem is to naturalise capitalist- patriarchal-colonial society as “our society,” as “the world we live in, as the only viable model of collective human life. Such naturalisation is wrong because capitalist-patriarchal-colonial society is a ‘form’ of society among many (existing, imagined or not yet imagined). If we don’t recognise this, we feel despaired, sad, hopeless, and we will not know why.
By normalizing the violence which is inherent in capitalist, colonial and patriarchal society, the (real) illusion that reality is only what appears in front of us is sadly confirmed. For once possibility of the alternative is eliminated from the horizon, we can only operate within the very partial and limited scope of either fantasy or probability. This creates self-limitation and self-repression in our views of the world.
Take for example President Trump. He is doubtless the American Ubu Roi: Like Jarry’s character Ubu Roi, he loves power, shouts, swears, farts, screams, hits people, hates women, loves war. Both Trump’s and Ubu Roi’s realities is quite ‘absurd’ but we accept it as ‘our’ reality. Moreover, Trump, Putin, Asaad and Bolsonaro, just to mention some of the exponents of the world crisis, are delusional if they believe that they can continue playing the game ‘who has it bigger’ for a while and that the world will be still here, waiting for them to go ahead with their adoration for power and war, crimes, humiliations, hatred. Or the ‘democratic’ governments of UK and Europe, who pretend that they have nothing to do with the wars in the Middle East? They look like characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s Heart-telltale, remember?: ‘Oh God! What could I do? I foamed –I raved –I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder, louder, louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled.”
Their hypocrisy is utterly dystopian. They probably think that utopia is dead (as in URSS is over) so they can do as they pleased. But TAOH has changed the question of utopia. We are not asking any longer whether we should hold utopia or not because is becoming increasingly clear to most people in the world that utopia is indispensable today. It is no longer an option but a necessity. Yet, this begs a question: where is utopia? TAOH is not about creating a new paradise on our minds and draw a plan that will take us there so: what kind of utopia are we talking about?
TAOH suspects of abstract utopia because abstract utopia is an imposition that requires us to make adjustments to fit in. It is as if I buy a lovely dress that I like as my ideal dress but it is too small for me. So, I would need to go on a diet in order to fit into the lovely dress. That would make me unhappy, as unhappy as many revolutionary dreamers of the past who dreamt an abstract ideal outside herstory and context and forced themselves to be the subject of such revolution, which was not always right for them.
Today, we are relying on the political subjectivities that have emerged from the centre of the capitalist crisis and the crisis of utopia, and which relate to this particular moment of struggle: we see that this radical subject is plural, prefigurative, decolonial, ethical, ecological, communal, antipatriarchal, anti-identitarian and democratic. Our utopias should demonstrate those qualities, too. Their utopias are concrete utopias, that is, praxis- oriented activities, as Ruth Levitas put it.
The main difference between abstract and concrete utopia is that abstract utopia is a ready-made utopia, while concrete utopia is of an anticipatory kind ‘which by no means coincides with abstract utopia dreaminess, nor is directed by the immaturity of merely abstract utopian socialism’ (Bloch, 1959/1986: 146). We can read how Marx refers to the Paris Commune 150 years ago ‘The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du people … They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant’ (Marx, 1871).
Concrete utopias offer an experiential critique of the world as it is. They are open and contain the not yet within them! The Not Yet is a central notion of Bloch’s philosophy. Bloch looks at humanity in a remarkable way, by placing the not yet at its centre. This means that humanity is unfinished, it is a possibility, humanity has to engage with the challenge to become. It is not yet in possession of itself and it “is something that has yet to be discovered” (Traces, 18)’.
This ‘discovery’ of the not yet is what we are doing right now here with TAOH. The task to become is not contemplative or passive. It is praxis. Concrete utopias belong to the realm of the really possible. Reality is not real if it is not open, without the dimension of the not yet. Bloch is adamant ‘There is no true realism without the true dimension of this openness’ (Bloch, 1959/1986: 237–238). But we must decolonise this openness. The struggles of indigenous, women and other subaltern subjects of resistance differ from mainstream forms of mobilisation in the North.
How we understand these differences is important for TAOH. The particular features of indigenous resistance, for example, do not simply refer to cultural differences or differences in the historical background or the context of production, but to a differentiated positioning of indigenous peoples vis-à-vis the state, the law and capital. Coloniality is embedded in the power they resist and confront. As a praxis-oriented activity, concrete utopia challenges Eurocentric abstract critical theory, for the latter is detached from the decolonial experiential-critique put forward by subaltern subjects mobilising around issues of social reproduction and for social justice (in the Global South and non-western world). Concrete utopia attacks the Eurocentric episteme that prevents critique from becoming a critique without borders.
What TAOH does is to challenge the existing demarcation of reality, how do we understand reality and operates within the space that is not yet, with no expectations or having decided a priori the principles to would guide it. The occupation of a space and the creation of the alternative economy, the struggle for an alternative gender, the need to decolonise politics, the creation of an alternative pedagogy, the search for dignified form of work beyond decent, all these concrete utopias do not criticise society form outside, they are critique. And remember: the absence of ‘facts’ or ‘conditions’ for change does not constraint TAOH because the opposite is true: TAOH makes apparent how constraining the reality represented by ‘facts’ is! The Sem Terra (Rural landless workers) in Brazil ventured beyond the fact that they were condemned to hunger and the fact that the land was not theirs. They cut the wire, the venture beyond the wire and occupied the lands in order to feed themselves and implement their dream agrarian reform. They changed the facts. They thought: we are hungry and if our reality does not correspond to the facts, well ‘too bad for the facts!’ (Bloch with Hegel).
TAOH also contends the accusation of unrealisable utopia usually made to TAOH movements and contests the demand that we should be more explicit about the alternative that we are creating. We don’t know! All we know that we cannot keep on going like this. Should it not be the powerful who should explain what is it exactly what they are defending and how is their capitalist-colonial- patriarchal going to be fixed?
But if we don’t have a ‘plan’ to follow, how is praxis guided? Bloch proposes that praxis is guided by ‘educated hope’(docta spes), which mediates between reason and passion. It is a question of learning hope… we must engage with what is becoming as we are doing right now, this is where we belong! Clearly, it is not fortuitous that one of the key features of hope movements is the development of their own pedagogies and knowledges. From there, we can think better about political organisation.
To say NO is not enough and every NO contains in itself a yes, an affirmation of what does not yet exist. They go together. We negate in order to spark hope. The process of organising hope is then affirmative, but in no way positive or merely ‘optimistic’. We must then distinguish clearly between positive and affirmative praxis. While the former accepts reality as it is, affirmative praxis negates by means of affirming life in, against and beyond capital-patriarchy-coloniality. Without this distinction between positive and affirmative praxis, and without the need to connect negation and affirmation, negativity becomes an abstract critique, detached from the real movement of struggle, without historical specificity.
Too many times I have been asked: oh, yes, fantastic, yes, but tell me: how is it possible that a group of people running an autonomous school in Chiapas or the TAOH summit in Ghent, to put a couple of examples, can produce any change at all? Well, my first response to this is that TAOH -generally speaking, is not about doing isolated experiments in lovely communities to change life styles. TAOH is primarily political action and as such is about experimenting with other forms of sociability and subjectivity around work, leisure, love, food, education, land. TAOH is aware of both how difficult is to say NO and how dangerous is to say NO: We desperately need to destroy money as the abstract form of reproduction of life but at the same time, and while we are doing so, we need money in order to live. We want to be as far as we can from the power of the state but at the same time we need the welfare state to survive. TAOH is about navigating these contradictions. Change takes place as a result of this. And, to be sure, Bloch tells us that hope must be unconditionally disappointable. Why? Because, he says, it is open in a forward direction, in a future- oriented direction’ (Bloch, 1998: 340. TAOH is aware of this. We have in front of us the possibility of an unknown future and this is problematic because it is all uncertain. We don’t know whether we will be able to do what we want. There is contingency and there is power. So for Bloch hope is not confidence. Hope is critical. However, he writes ‘hope still nails a flag on the mast, even in decline, in that the decline is not accepted, even when this decline is still very strong (Bloch, 1988: 16–17).
We know well that governments and other powers of the state, the law, the rules of the economy, cultural norms and common sense will try to ‘translate’ TAOH into something else, repress it, ridicule it, minimise it. They have to do this in order to create order because TAOH is disruptive. But translation is a process of struggle: what can be translated and what is left outside. Here lays I think the key issue about TAOH: what we are doing when we create an alternative form of being with others differently, that is, we are reading reality different, venturing beyond ‘the wire’, inhabiting the symbolic and territorial space that was forbidden. We have been told: you can’t go there, as if we were kids, and this is what TAOH does: it goes there… What is there?
There is what I call the beyond zone of collective action, a zone where reality can be drawn differently, where we allow ourselves to think differently, where the parameters of legibility of reality are wider and there is possibility! ‘Possibility’ is a key concept in Bloch’s work and it is not the same as probability. Most of things we dream of are not probable (i.e. there is no objective indication that they might happen soon). But we cannot say that they are impossible. Who would dare to say that to eliminate hunger in the world is not possible? It might not be probable but it is definitely possible.
The idea of possibility is important because, as Bronner (1997) writes, possibility expresses a vision about realising something which is not yet anywhere’… We cannot rule things a priori because they are not feasible. Nothing is feasible until they are feasible. Now: to dismantle the welfare state seems unfeasible but in the UK is happening at a fast speed! Utopia is always concrete and possible. And hope is not an illusion or a wish or an idea, but a dimension of reality.
In judging TAOH some might ask: “What did you achieve with that?” My response: cause- effect does not work here. We are doing something that has a bearing. But most importantly it is not possible to measure the success of TAOH by mainstream standards, that wold be strange as we are altering the mainstream ways of measure success, as part of the alternative.
Bloch talks about the future as if you would be watching the sun rising at dawn. What happens when we do that? We are situated at a point in time where ‘the singular characteristics are not yet because the sun which radiates its light on everything has not yet rise; it is still dawn, but no longer dark… (Bronner, 1997: 177). Now, right here, right now, is no longer dark!
TAOH has created a new temporal, spatial and political space, a true encounter, packed with what Spinoza called ‘joyful passions’ which are essential to human survival. Joyful passions are the opposite to sad passions, which encourage misery, distress, sadness… the world of the powerful, the place for hatred (Kaminsky on Spinoza 1998: 327–328).