Think Crisis, Think Hope

This is the sixth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Think Hope

“Hope explodes, volcanically, with rage.” It just so happens that John Holloway lives next door to a volcano in Mexico, and can contemplate the aptness of his metaphor every day. “Revolutions for me are volcanic,” he says, “the burning lava is always just beneath the surface.”

It’s early Friday morning and John Holloway, Professor of Sociology at Puebla University, is sharing his ideas of hope and crisis. Two extra banks of chairs are pulled out, students perch on the floor, the balcony door is opened for ventilation, someone is sent to copy another thirty sets of workshop notes. The people of Elevate are eager for hope, it seems.

John begins by recalling recent expressions of popular revolution and rage, in Oacaxa 2006, Athens 2008, Cairo 2011, Istanbul 2012, Rio and Sao Paulo 2013. “Explosions of anger are at the same time explosions of hope,” he says. “People go out on the street and break windows because they actually believe things can be different.” This is a remarkable statement to make in a society where it seems that any form of protest is dismissed by government and media as “looters… criminals”, “the same game, the same trap, the same aim” and “wanton vandalism”. “These expressions of hope are expressed,” John explains, “not in the long term building up of the Party, but in these volcanic expressions of rage.”

But before you drop this book and rush out to smash some windows, you might want to ponder Greece.

Greece has suffered the most terrible consequences of the crisis of capitalism; at the same time it has the most militant anti-capitalist tradition in Europe. In Greece over the past few years, there has been action after action, protest after protest, against the imposition of austerity. And it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the imposition of capitalist aggression on the people.

“We need to re-learn hope, we need to think rage into hope,” John says. “It doesn’t make any sense to say you shouldn’t be angry – of course we should be angry!” But, starting from this rage, how do we think this rage into hope? The question reminds me of Deanna Rodger and the channelling power of her teenage creative writing workshop. For John, the answer is the Zapatista concept of digna rabia, dignified rage. Even this dignified rage, however, must find an echo within the world, as Ernst Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope. For us to have true hope, the world must at least be able to respond to our hope. Or, as John says, “We have to find the hopeability of the world.”
“Across the world,” John says, “we’re getting the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall and we’re getting no response.”

I have felt this frustration myself, as one of millions of citizens who participated in the global anti-war demonstrations of 2003: no response, only the endless bombing of Iraq. And again in 2011, as one of millions of Occupiers around the world trying to find an alternative to the excesses of capitalism: no response, only a multi-trillion dollar bail out of the richest in society. This total lack of response to democratic protest is an enormous challenge for hope and our struggle. “When governments are so distant from society that there is no response there at all,” John asks, “how do we think about the hopeability of the world?” The question is open and increasingly urgent: Can we even imagine the possibility of change in the world?

Hope explodes volcanically, but hope also ebbs – or is commodified and religionised. This ebbing of hope in the last twenty-five years, John calls The Great Disillusion. “The Soviet Union was horrible,” he says. “But it was, in spite of that, and paradoxically, a symbol of hope for many people.” Even if no one would want an alternative society like the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was at least proof that we could create something that was different. “Over the last years, there hasn’t been a reduction in anger, but there’s been a shrinking of horizons,” John says. “People no longer think of how to get rid of capitalism and this narrows our mind.”

John’s generation, anti-capitalist hippies in the sixties, over the course of the Reagan and Thatcher eras, became disillusioned with the possibility that capitalism could be opposed. This culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall and “the end of history”. Their view, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, has become: “Capitalism is the worst form of economy except for all those others that have been tried.” This disillusion was passed on as blind acceptance to their children. For their children, the question of questioning capitalism was never considered until the 2008 economic crisis and, more specifically, until the Occupy movement brought the idea that “capitalism is crisis” to the mainstream.

For most, however, the question is once again creeping away under the every day threat of austerity and poverty.

Chart of Inequality

Hope and Historicity

This generational difference hints at the basic Marxist point that capitalism is a historically specific form of organisation. “Marxists believed that we were able to go beyond capitalism and have a happy ending,” John says. “I think we can no longer believe that.” Instead, John follows German philosopher Walter Benjamin in characterising history as an express train rushing us towards our doom: “We are locked inside and we don’t know how to get out.”

But capitalism has only been around for a few centuries. “There is no reason to assume that capitalism will go on forever,” John says. “And yet, it is easier to think of the end of humanity than the end of capitalism.” With the newspapers full of runaway climate change, the Mayan apocalypse and nuclear holocaust, people talk a lot about the end of humanity. What they don’t do is talk about the end of capitalism.

Unlike the Marxists, John believes that the hope of a happy ending is not inevitable, but only possible. “To think hope is to feel the push of the world that is not yet,” John says, before adding, “this is Bloch or my Bloch.” Ernst Bloch wrote that hope depends upon the push of the world that does not yet exist. John’s been doing some hopeability research while here in Austria. “In the last ten years in Graz,” he says, “there are five social centres that did not exist before, there are the urban gardening projects – these are the pushes of a world that is struggling to be born.”

But, despite these nascent struggles and despite the fact that capitalism is proving itself over and over to be a disaster, we continue to lose the battles for hopeability. We get no response from government, or from the media or from broader society and, as John says, “we think of ourselves as the eternal losers, morally justified – perhaps there’s no way out”.

2014_23_10_Dom_Eroeffnung_Lupispuma_042

Think Crisis

Marx was in exactly the same situation, in a world of struggle. What Marx wanted to ask was how to go beyond hope and ground that hope in reality. “If we can only see that the system is weak or mortally wounded, then that will help us think how we can go beyond it,” John says. “What we want to find is some sort of fragility in the system that we can latch on to and think: We are not the losers in all this.”

John argues that crisis is a category of hope: only through crisis can we find a new way of doing things. The crisis of Fukushima led to the end of nuclear power in Germany, something that had been fought for by activists for decades. The economic crisis in Iceland resulted in a popular assembly to re-write the constitution. But, at first blush, the crisis of capitalism doesn’t seem very hopeful. Austerity disproportionately hurts the poorest in society, we are not “all in it together” and our protests are violently put down.

If we are the ones who suffer from crisis, then perhaps there is no way out, no way of turning crisis into hopeability.

But John has found a way out. “Capitalism is a system of domination and we refuse that,” he says. “Therefore we are the crisis of capitalism.” Our suffering is only apparent if we externalise the crisis. We must instead internalise the crisis and embrace the fact that, by being human and wanting to be free of this system of domination, we are throwing the spanner in the works. “Once we say that the banks caused the crisis, we’ve lost,” John says. “No: we are the crisis of capitalism, that is our pride.”

Huh? I don’t feel much like a crisis, John. But that’s just my perspective. John has other ideas.

I don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to a productive day of creating value as part of a capitalist economy; I wake up in the morning and start working on this book. But, according to John, I’m deluding myself; there is another way to look at my day’s work. “We create capital,” he says, “But because of the thingification of social relations, we don’t recognise that is what we’re doing.” Even this book creates capital value for someone out there, if only the printing and recycling companies.

As John says, the fact that we are the ones creating capital, “has to be understood as capital’s weakness”. All systems of dominance suffer from the dependence of the rulers upon the activity of the ruled, and capitalism is no different. If we can find a way to refuse capitalism, then we do become the crisis.

Furthermore, this dependence of capitalism on our labour is only sustainable through constantly renewed aggression. Constantly renewed aggression, however, will inevitably only provoke more of us into becoming the embodiment of crisis: strikes, protests, riots, occupations, refusals. “The class struggle,” John jokes, “is the struggle of the alarm clock – get up out of bed and create some value!”

I suppose the question now is why shouldn’t we just surrender to the aggression and the dictates of capitalism? After all, isn’t it the “worst form of economy, except for all those others that have been tried”?

The critical problem with capitalism is that, as John says, it is driven by its own inadequacy. A profit is never enough; capitalism demands greater and greater profits, as measured in economic growth. This demand drives a process of what John calls “totalisation”, the integration of all human activity into the pursuit of profit. Driven by its own inbuilt sense of inadequacy, capitalism will not rest until all human life and all planetary resources are funnelled through its profit motive. And then it still won’t be happy. The more capitalism dominates, the more capitalism must dominate. This is a basic factor of the way capitalism measures itself: in growth. Capitalism never says “that’s enough now”; economic growth of 0%, where things stay the same, is a disaster for capitalism. The aim of capitalism is growth on growth, year on year; the more capitalism dominates, the more it must dominate. And that economic growth represents another portion of the world funnelled into the totality of capitalism and swallowed up.

Debt is another expression of the incapacity of capitalism and the inadequacy of its domination. “We don’t generate enough surplus value for the system,” John explains, “so we create it in the hope that tomorrow we will.” The vertiginous rise of what economists call “consumer debt” in the last two decades is little more than a bribe or a white lie to cover the broken promise of capital growth. Most people simply don’t benefit from capitalism, but it can’t be seen to be that way, so we give them interest-free credit cards and zero deposit mortgages. “Debt expansion is the basis of an increasingly fictitious world,” John says. “This world is volatile, aggressive, fragile, random.” Debt is one of capital’s tools of totalisation, sucking more and more people down the funnel. If capitalism was a success on its own terms, then why do we have government stimulus packages, bank bailouts and subsidies for the automobile industry?

“We are pushing against the process of totalisation,” John says. “In universities, students don’t just want to learn; they want to think. Farmers don’t just want to use pesticides; they want a good relationship with their animals.” Revolution, therefore, can be seen as a process of “de-totalisation”, a movement against the centralising aggression of capital. To borrow a line from the Zapatistas: How can we create a world where many worlds fit?
Not without a fight is the answer. Remember the example of Greece? If you don’t do what capitalism wants, then be prepared for a fight. “The chronic inadequacy of domination,” John says, “pushes capital into fiercer, more violent measures to control human activity.” This aggression will naturally provoke a defensive reaction in us, the victims. “This defence is usually conservative defence,” John explains. “We want to go on living the way we were living before, even if we weren’t enjoying it much.” But this conservative defence can overflow into something else: the Zapatista movement grew out of a conservative defence against the Mexican government selling off communal land, for example. Now, the Zapatistas self-govern their entire region, almost independent from the government.

“The growing aggression of capital is something that that will go on for a long time,” John warns, “but capital is unable to subordinate us sufficiently; most people at some point will say no.” Indeed, John argues that capitalism, at some level, is antithetical to our very humanity. Capitalism’s drive of inadequacy bleeds into our every day lives as an insidious neuroticism, a feeling that we ourselves are inadequate: We are not beautiful enough, we are not intelligent enough, we are not working hard enough, we are not rich enough, we are not happy enough, we are not enough.

That might sound like reductive pop psychology, but one recent study among many has shown that an intervention as tiny as using the word “consumer” to describe ourselves instead of “citizen” is enough to make us more selfish, more miserable and less concerned about the welfare of our fellow human beings and the state of our planet. As the authors of the study say, “the costs of materialism are not localized only in particularly materialistic people, but can also be found in individuals who happen to be exposed to environmental cues that activate consumerism – cues that are commonplace in contemporary society”.

In other words, if such a small change to our discourse can have such a large impact on our well-being and our politics, then what kind of an effect will living completely submerged in the logic of capitalism have? What kind of effect is the impossible aspirational logic of advertising having on our natural altruism? What kind of effect is the acquisitive logic of consumerism having on our treatment of the planet’s resources? What kind of effect is the transactional logic of money having on our human relationships?

But the very toxicity of capitalism to humanity is a cause for optimism for John. “Our desire for love is the obstacle for capitalism,” he says. “We are the crisis of capitalism and that is the basis for hope.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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