Change The World Without Taking Power: Commentary

I was jazzed when I read Holloway's piece, Change The World Without Taking Power. However, the warning light was still flashing on my B.S. meter. I thought he'd missed something of the big picture because of the dialectic emphasis. Opposition + friction = scream, & all that. He still sees unresolved dichotomous opposition as the source of all movement (pure Engels), but went beyond most purely dialectical (or is that "transcendental"?) treatments by suggesting a primary place for negation, or refusal as that which opposes alienation or exploitation. Hence, the implication is that it is power itself which needs refused, not taken or seized and turned in a different direction. I like this tact, no matter how it is arrived at. Juxtaposing a little Vaneigam, the conclusion I arrived at is that our everyday struggles are power relations, social relations waged with power (instead of without it), just as much as they are mediated by production or property. They are inextricably tied, the one not only allows but demands the other. So went my thinking. Negation and autonomy are not meant to resolve any contradiction: they are meant to avoid the imposed opposition altogether. Hooray for transcending transcendentalism! My confusion with the piece lays in how we get from subjective scream to objective refusal (which is its cure), and not be even more annihilated in the process, generating more screaming or certain death.

In the later piece on dignity (Dignitys Revolt), we see Holloway pinpoints this refusal. Scream = dignity. Dignity = insubordination. Dignity is the refusal to conform: "dignity, the refusal to accept humiliation and dehumanisation, the refusal to conform" is placed at the center of the revolution. But refusal to conform to humiliation and dehumanisation is not total refusal of power, just opposition to this power. The solution for the Zapatistas and for Holloway is the establishment of direct democracy. Here lies the conundrum: in any democracy, conformity is the rule. Even with consensus, power is delegated. Self-managed democracy, against neo-liberal "reforms" but still within the market economy despite portrayals of village autonomy, is the reason the Zapatistas have not already been bulldozed into the earth and John Holloway remains as tolerated by all as David Graeber (that is, not perceived as too radical). After all, democracy is "truth, justice, and the american way"! Who but Lex Luther could possibly have a beef with that?

I respect that for the Zapatista, "national liberation" is liberation from the nation. I'm not saying that Zapatismo is a bad thing, just that it is not enough. It is not the revolution against power. It is a political accommodation to power, a "political articulation":

    "Asking we walk' becomes a central principle of the revolutionary movement, the radically democratic concept at the centre of the Zapatista call for 'freedom, democracy and justice'. The revolution advances by asking, not by telling; or perhaps even, revolution is asking instead of telling, the dissolution of power relations."

I'm sorry, but in establishment thinking, asking permission is an acknowledgment and praise of power relations. It is the "May I!" correction by the third grade teacher to the child who asked "Can I?" From the child's point of view, ability is the point, not the permit. From the child's point of view, the teacher or parent either represents an obstacle to his/her desire and is asked politely to stand aside ("can I?"), or to nurturing parents, asked "is it safe?". The "can I" formulation is in fact grammatically correct. This distinction between "please step aside" (or "is it safe?") and "first obtain the necessary permit" must be drilled in, such that the permit is required in every case, whether one has capability or not. This is how we learn respect, order and authorization.

The authority does not expect the request for permission for that which would in every case be denied, such as "may I beat up my sister?", may I break your casserole dish?" "may I stick my finger in the light socket?". The child is only expected to ask permission for things which s/he would 'normally' be granted. Wise, beneficent and tolerant parents accept ignorance in their children, which makes the permit even more important, for their own safety and protection. The child comes to develop an inner scream whenever the topic of desire comes up. Otherwise, transgression is predictable and the self-fulfilling prophecy of "naughty children" as well as "ignorant children" is assured. At what point do we grow up? Do we ever? What the Zapatista's have done is merely reverse the power relation. The parent, recallable at any time, must now obey the children. (This is Marcos' own metaphor). The delegated leader is the community slave, a true public servant. Leadership through obedience. Hence the "sub-" in "subcommandante". Again, power thrives. It is state power which is refused, not power itself. Democracy restricts individual desire just as the need for permission destroys the child and establishes the adult. Is this how we teach dignity? Or is that just another source of hypocrisy generating another scream?

Children do not form committees and toil over decisions. With both "watcha wanna do?" and "watcha doin?", if the answer doesn't look attractive, they hesitate. Children do not need organized into action. Children mimic. They cannot imagine that others (particularly other kids) would engage in behavior which is not pleasurable. They model the behaviors they see around them in terms of play. The fact that others are doing something is reason enough to engage. It must be a game. It becomes play. We don't like to admit it, but we adults mimic as well. We've just learned well to expect consensus (approval) from those around us before we engage. Without approval, we sublimate our own desires, or forget them altogether and "go with the flow". Play is made impossible. We can always scream in private; we've mastered the silent scream even in public while others only see our synchronized swimmer's smile. Power is at its most powerful in democratic situations.

Democracy, freedom, justice: "The demands they make (work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace...) are not demands limited to the indigenous: they are demands for all" simultaneous autonomy and integration into the national apparatus. All demands are expected to be granted in exchange for mountain grown coffee made by authentic indigenous/Mexican peasants to assuage the guilt (which is the same as to enhance the status) of wealthy norte americano leftist yuppies. This is spectacular autonomy: 'Don't tread on me and I won't create a spectacle in front of the liberal media. May I go back to my room now and finish my homework?'. Or is that "cage"? After all, isn't autonomy the dignified conformity found in self management? Don't fuck with Juan Valdez else he might scream. He's busy providing you with autonomous, organically grown and politically correct coffee! Give him his dignity. But by all means, don't isolate him. The message of democratic obedience must be allowed to resonate across the land.

This is the very notion which produced norte americano hemp & indigo farmers independence from Britain and allowed them to jointly conquer the world once appropriate market shares could be sorted out in the mid nineteenth century with the "war to abolish slavery", in some circles known as the fourth and fifth (or is that sixth?) anglo/french wars! What comes around goes around.

Be that as it may, I think Holloway presents us with a very good definition of class struggle in terms of all of our inner antagonism and potential dignity. Also, my presentation of Zapatismo is extreme, even surreal, and has very little to do with their every day lives. Every thing they do is not put to the vote. Leadership is only invoked in relations with the outside world which itself can only imagine politics and its articulations. Contradiction is not so much found in the Zapatistas, but in our interpretation of them. This is where Holloway's presentation falls short. His own dialectic bent prevents him from seeing anti-power as the negation of power, of a world outside of political articulation, an anti-political existence where creativity doesn't equate to self-management. His emphasis, direct democracy, is neither the solution to class antagonism nor the negation of power. We are all still waiting for the magical "complete transformation of society". At least the Zapatista are experimenting.

"If a child of five years can be a child, as children of five years should be, with that we are on the other side.... We, the Zapatista children, think that our work as children is to play and learn. And the children here do not play, they work." Marcos

Again a simple dream, possibly to some a reformist dream, but one that is totally incompatible with the current direction of the world, in which the exploitation of children (child labour, child prostitution, child pornography, for example) is growing at an alarming rate. This dream of children being children is a good example of the power of the notion of dignity: the consistent pursuit of the dream would require a complete transformation of society.

A society based on dignity would be an honest, mutually recognitive society, in which people 'do not have to use a mask ... in order to relate with other people'. - Holloway

 


Back