John Holloway: Opening Speech

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be publishing a series of articles taken from my latest book, Elevate #10. This is the second such post, from the Elevate Festival’s opening ceremony, John Holloway’s Opening Speech. Enjoy.

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“My opening speech has a title. The title is: Opening Speech.” John Holloway laughs with our laughter, stepping away from the Elevate podium and swiping at the air in front of him, as if he’d just thrown a frisbee. But the title is no whimsy.

Nor is his decision to speak in German. “Mainly it’s a protest against Englishification,” he explains. “Not from a nationalistic point of view, but because of the social narrowness that is brought along with this Englishification.” John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico, so is well aware of the effects of a cultural hegemony.

Balancing the levity of the laughter, John Holloway justifies his carefully-chosen title. “A speech that opens is just what we need in this world, a world that is closing.” By that, he means a world where alternatives are being closed off and all of human activity is being funnelled through a shoot marked Capitalism.

I’m sure that John Holloway’s choice of imagery – opening and closing – is not coincidental. The British legal process of removing land from common use and passing it into private ownership is called enclosure. A better example of what John means by “a world that is closing” could not be found. Once land is privately owned, the alternative option of subsistence farming is impossible and growing food suddenly becomes a matter of access to capital, rather than skill or knowledge of farming.

John Holloway peers hopefully out at his three hundred friends in the Dom Im Berg audience, out at his unknown audiences on Austrian national television, on the internet livestream and in smartphones hashtagging on international social networks. “Maybe this is the speech that opens the festival that opens the world,” he suggests.
For John, the cause of the closure is clear. “A certain logic is being imposed on all aspects of life,” he says. “The logic of money, the logic of profit, the logic of closure.”

“In the countryside, this logic tells us that you can’t expect to live as your parents did, growing only the food that you need to survive,” John says. If you’re thinking that the last time your ancestors grew the food they needed to survive was the Middle Ages, then bear in mind that there are over 100,000 subsistence-level farms in the UK and it is estimated that 40% of the world’s population are small farmers, most of whom cultivate less than five acres (two hectares) of land.

But this new logic of closure means that, according to John Holloway, “to survive, you must farm mass production, or you must make way for motorways, for dams, for mines”. He smiles, wryly. “Or, even better, why don’t you just disappear altogether?” A third of the urban population in the developing world now live in slums, thanks to rapid urbanisation and migration from the countryside. This is in part due to the closure of traditional subsistence farming as an alternative to capitalist industrial-scale agriculture.

Many people would argue that industrial-scale agriculture is a necessary consequence of the massive growth in the world’s population in the last fifty years. This argument flies in the face of statistics that, while an estimated 70% of the world’s food production comes from small farmers, the overwhelming bulk of government subsidies and research funding goes to supporting conventional industrial agriculture. Indeed, Professor Hilal Elver, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, argues that small farmers are the only people who can feed the world, rather than just the wealthy nations. But, regardless of the validity of the increased population argument, it does not follow that dispossessed small farmers must live in poverty. That is a consequence of the logic of money.

“In the cities, the logic of money tells us that you can’t do what you want with your life,” John Holloway says. “You must earn a living and that means you must do something that increases profits; that increases the power of the wealthy.” This is the nature of capitalism; without redistribution, profits will aggregate in the hands of the owners of businesses. “And this is what is happening,” John continues, “an obscene concentration of wealth across the world; a huge growth in the power of the wealthy, in the power of money.”

The richest 1% in Europe own a quarter of the continent’s total wealth, and that figure has been rising steadily since the 1980s. In the US, the richest 1% own a third of the total wealth of the country, rising to levels of inequality not seen since the 1930s. As economic researcher David DeGraw says of the situation in the US, “It’s got to the point where 0.5% of the 1%’s wealth could eliminate poverty nationwide in this country.”

But back to John Holloway. “If you do not want to follow the rule of money,” he says, “if you want to do something else with your life, you are either mad or a criminal and should certainly be locked up.” Hand-in-hand with the rise of inequality in the US since the 1970s has been an astronomic rise in imprisonment of the general population, from less than half a million in 1970, to well over two million people today.

“The dynamics of money,” John continues, “are shattering the hopes and dreams of youth; dreams that are broken on the reality of unemployment – or, often worse, the reality of employment!” The laughter this time is not so warm; it bites with a harsh edge. I wonder how many people listening are living with the reality that the market logic of money demands unemployment. Full employment – by which I mean enabling the talents of all men and women on the planet – to capitalism means inefficiency.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the logic of money and employment are separable. Every living being yearns to pursue meaningful work, and most of us do, whether we are following the logic of money or not: the mother or father raising their kids at home, unpaid; the volunteer nurse travelling to West Africa to care for Ebola patients, unpaid; the sports fanatic updating within seconds the World Cup Final Wikipedia page, unpaid.

“It is not just that we live in a world of closure,” John Holloway warns, “but the enclosure is getting tighter all the time. Money cannot stand still. The rule of capital is faster, faster, faster.” The success of capitalism is predicated on year-on-year growth, which means that we must find ever more ways to exploit capital resources, whether that means fossil fuels or workers.

“This rule means out of the way to the people who are too slow,” John says. “Out of the way with the people who are holding things up; out of the way with the people who don’t speak English; out of the way with the protesters, into the prisons, into the mass graves. Out of the way with the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa in Mexico who disappeared a month ago.” The students were arrested by police after a protest, handed over to the Mafia, shot dead and their bodies set on fire.

John Holloway pivots his speech to optimism, inspired by the words of Ernst Bloch, author of The Principle of Hope, a book written in exile from the despair of Nazi Germany. John argues, like Bloch, that our future depends on hope – not on a silly, blind hope that things will just “turn out right” – but a hope founded and grounded in practice.

In Bloch’s day, hope was still bound up with the idea of the Party and winning control of the state for the workers. “But now the Party is over,” John says, waving encouragement to the flickers of laughter for his pun. “After the depression, this is what I needed!” He laughs, before delivering more depression. “Hope lies not in building a party and not in winning control of the state, because the state is an institution integrated into capitalism and cannot be used to overcome it.”

But if we don’t have Bloch’s state-building hope, then what hope do we have? John essays an answer. “Hope,” he says, “lies now in the millions and millions of us who say: No, we will not accept your destruction of the world, your guns and your wars. We will not accept the rule of the rich, the rule of money. Not any longer.”

John Holloway’s hope is not only rejection, but a rebuilding of an alternative to capitalism’s corruption of the state. “We shall do things in a different way and connect to one another in a different way,” John says. “We do not want your totality of death and we do not want any totality,” he adds, referring to the failed Communism of the USSR. “We saw in the last century what happens when one totality is replaced by another and now we say no.”

John Holloway’s alternative is alternatives, plural. “We break away from the totality of capital death in a million different ways,” he says. He urges us to rebuild the commons, to reverse the enclosures that have already occurred in our societies and to fight to prevent future enclosures. We will have to fight on almost every field: for our land rights, for our water supply, for the environment that we share with other forms of life. “We fight to open a gap between the future of capitalism, which can only be death,” John says, “and the future of humanity, which can still be life.” He takes a breath. Then adds, “If it is not too late already.”

“Ernst Bloch pinned hope to the power of the not yet,” John explains, “the power of that world that does not yet exist and therefore exists not yet; in our refusals, in our dreams, in our pushing against capitalism. We have to learn to listen to the leaders of this world that does not yet exist and sing their songs with our full voices.” He quotes Arundhati Roy, one of those leaders: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Three hundred people hold their breath and listen.

Out of the respectful silence, John Holloway closes his opening speech. “Thus, in my opening speech,” he says, “I want to open this world. My wish for the festival is that it will be an Opening Festival, that it sings the songs of the world that has not been born yet, that it sings these songs as loudly and as beautifully as possible.”
The rising of this opening audience to this opening speech for this festival of opening gives me a sniff of optimism that Elevate 2014 will jam a rubber sole against the slamming doors and prise a common crowbar into the cracks of capitalism.

Let’s make it happen.

What do you think?