Creating commonwealth and cracking capitalism: a cross-reading (Part II) - John Holloway, Michael Hardt.

What follows is the latter half of a two-part exchange between the authors regarding some common themes raised in their work. For part 1 see issue 14.

Originally published in September 2012.

June 2011

Dear John,

I think you’re right that walking so closely together can sometime make us trip and stumble when reading each other. A kind of irritation arises when, after having agreed so much with the other’s argument, we come across a point or argument that sticks out and that we can’t accept. Part of our task here is to clear up the seeming conflicts that are merely due to misunderstandings or terminological differences (no small task) and clarify the important points on which we disagree.

I appreciate how much the term institution sits poorly with you and thus I am grateful that you work through it so tenaciously in your letter until you finally arrive on a formulation where we do, in fact, agree. You can accept a mandate to institutionalise if that is always accompanied with a simultaneous process of subversion. Yes, institutionalise and subvert – a good motto we can share.

But, of course, our views of this do differ so let me return to them a bit more. As you note, Toni and I come to the discussion of institution from our preoccupation with the need for organisation. Revolt comes first but spontaneity is not enough. Rebellion must be organised in a revolutionary process. On these basic points I think we differ little. The contrast comes, as you say, in where the accent falls and, in particular, the extent to which the stability of organisation is emphasised.

On the molecular level I’m not convinced that our difference in emphasis is very significant. I understand that notions of habit, custom, and repeated practices seem restrictive to you and you fear they can blunt innovation. I insist, however, that forms-of-life only exist through structures of repetition. Our lives and bonds to each other are supported by innumerable habits and repeated practices, many of which we are not aware. This is not only a matter of the time we have dinner each night and when we go for a walk on Sundays, but also how we relate to each other and maintain both intimate and social bonds (Marcel Proust’s novel seems to me the classic investigation of how a life is constituted by complex webs of habits and repeated practices). Such institutions do, as you suggest, link the present to the future but not necessarily in the way you fear. You worry that social habits restrict us to repeating the social and organisational forms of previous generations. I am more oriented toward what Spinoza calls prudence: regarding the future as if it were present and acting on that basis. This is not only how we act today against the industries and practices that will create by 2050 catastrophic CO2 levels but also the way we constantly create a perspective of duration in our relations with each other. This is also true with regard to love. Love is not only an event of rupture, shattering, and transformation but also a bond. I continually return to those I love. That does not mean that love is a static, fixed relationship. Love is innovation, you rightly say, going beyond. Yes, but there is also a ritual to love, returning to the beloved and repeating our shared practices. In the context of those rituals the innovations of love emerge. Institutionalise and subvert, as you say, or repetition with difference. In any case, at this molecular level I understand that you and I approach the question of institution from different perspectives but I don’t see great consequence to our differences.

At the molar level, in contrast, I think our differences are more significant. Toni and I put the emphasis on institution or, really, on creating new institutional forms in order to develop an alternative governance. I think you can accept and even be comfortable with some version of this project. Some of the greatest successes of the EZLN in Chiapas, for example, have been their creation of institutions of an alternative governance. Caracoles, Juntas de buen gobierno, and the myriad norms and procedures that govern Zapatista communities are excellent examples of the kind of experimentation with new, democratic institutional forms that we are advocating. My sense is that you are generally supportive of this level of Zapatista institutional practice. Here too the slogan institutionalise and subvert works well: all practices should be submitted to a constant force of critique, walk forward questioning (this is a translation of a phrase popularised by the Zapatistas. The Spanish is: ‘preguntando caminamos’ - the ed.).

Our differences come out more clearly with regard to established institutions of which we are critical. Like you, Toni and I are critical of the official trade unions and their traditions but for us that does not position us in complete opposition to the entire union movement. Small segments of the union movement continually try to move out of the tradition and in new directions: for periods (sometimes brief) portions (often small minorities) of the FIOM in Italy, SUD in France, and the SEIU in the United States, for example, have sought to chart new directions. Our inclination is to enter into dialogue with these syndicalist elements while at the same time subverting their traditional logics, both inside and outside their institutional structures. Does institutionalise and subvert make sense to you also in this context? Or, rather, here is another way of approaching the same question in terms of your book: can and should “doing” be organised and, if so, what relation would these organisations bear to the history of organised labour? How would you characterse the syndicalist practices of doing? I’m attracted to the idea of constructing “soviets of doing” but I fear that idea would horrify you.

Our differences are probably most pronounced with regard to the so-called progressive governments in power today, especially those in Latin America. As you know, Toni and I, like you, are critical of all of these Leftist parties and governments, from Argentina and Brazil to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. And like for you too our hopes and inspirations are linked primarily not to the governments but the powerful social movements that created the possibility of their electoral victories. But we do not regard these governments solely as antagonists. Here too I like the dual stance of your slogan, institutionalise and subvert. I would say, in other words, that the advent of these governments creates a new (and in some respects better) terrain of struggle in which the movements need to continue the struggles against neoliberal practices, economic paradigms based on extraction (including reliance on oil, gas, soy monoculture, and the like), racial hierarchies, and many others. I sense that the kind of critical engagement with which Toni and I feel comfortable seems alien and even dangerous to you. This is probably a real difference between us and I’m not sure there is much to say about it.
(One small clarification: You are perplexed by a passage in our book in which Toni and I seem to be proposing that the UN institute a global guaranteed income. Your instincts are right that we are not proposing this. The passage comes in a paradoxical section of our book in which we attempt a thought experiment about how capital would reform if it were able to act rationally in its self-interest. We try to follow through the logic of capitalist reform, we say, all the while knowing that such reforms are impossible and the logic will eventually collapse.)

This might be the right time to bring up another question I had reading ‘Crack Capitalism’, which is probably related to the issue of institutions but in different frame. A primary antagonist in your argument is abstract labour and, if I understand correctly, the conceptual processes of abstraction more generally. I don’t think I share your opposition to abstraction. Let’s start with abstract labour in Marx by way of exchange value. In my reading of the opening pages of ‘Capital’ in which Marx details how the exchange value of a commodity obscures and takes precedence over its use value, just as abstract labour takes precedence over concrete labour, this does not imply a symmetrical anti-capitalist project pointing in the opposite direction. In other words, a political project to affirm use value over exchange value sounds to me like a nostalgic effort to recapture a precapitalist social order. Marx’s project instead, as I see it, pushes through capitalist society to come out the other side. In the same way I don’t see abstract labour as the antagonist. It’s a simplification (but an important one, I think) to say that without abstract labour there would be no proletariat. If the labour of the bricklayer, the joiner, the weaver, the agricultural worker, and the autoworker were each to remain concrete and incommensurable, we would have no concept of labour in general (labour without regard to its form of expenditure, as Marx says), which potentially links them together as a class. I know this must sound to you like I’m turning around and affirming the tradition of working class organisations now, but I’m not or, at least, not uncritically. In fact, abstraction is necessary for us to argue against the corporatist structures that have plagued that tradition. Such abstraction too is what made possible the domestic labour debates in social feminist circles in the US and the UK in the 1970s and 80s, recognising as work the unwaged domestic activities and practices of care that continue to characterise the sexual division of labour. Abstract labour, then, as I understand it, is not a thing but an analytic, a way of grasping the continuities across the worlds of labour.

In part I think what I just wrote might obscure the issue because you and I are using the terms differently. My guess is that you are using abstraction (and abstract labour) to name the processes and structures of exploitation by which capital measures and expropriates the value produced by our labour and exerts command over our lives. And, in contrast, “doing” serves for you as the self-organised, autonomous labour that we could create a space for in the cracks of the capitalist order. Ok, that can work for me. In fact, your argument in this regard corresponds well with and complements our argument in Chapter 3 of ‘Commonwealth’ about what we call the crisis of capitalist biopolitical production, the emerging composition of labour, and the new possibilities for autonomy from capital.

But, I suppose that even though I was trying to move away from the question of institution it sneaks back in here again. Yes, I want to appreciate each doing in its singularity but I also want to grasp what is common to the myriad doings across society (is this a logic of abstract doing?) I want organisation. Try to wash out of your mouth the bad taste of my proposition earlier for creating soviets of doing. How are doings organised and what is the form of their organisation?
It’s not so easy to move away from the question of organisation and institution. It keeps coming back. I guess that’s an area where we still have work to do to understand our differences.

Best, Michael

October 2011

Dear Michael,

Lots and lots of stimulus here, agreement and disagreement, lovely.

Let me go straight to a sentence that slips unobtrusively into your argument but that I suspect is an important key to our differences. You say, in the context of the discussion of abstract labour: “Marx’s project instead, as I see it, pushes through capitalist society to come out the other side”. But I do not want to push through capitalism to come out the other side: I want us to get out now, while there is still time, if there is still time. There must be some kind of way out of here (as Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix put it) – though of course there may not.

This is Benjamin’s emergency brake (Walter Benjamin’s comment that: “Marx called Revolutions the locomotives of world history. But perhaps it is totally different: perhaps it is the people in these trains reaching for the emergency brake.” - the ed.) We are on a train heading for disaster, rushing toward the total annihilation of humanity. It no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to think of coming out the other side. We need to pull the emergency brake, stop the train (or, jumping metaphors, capitalism is an over-ripe, rotting apple, or a zombie, already dead but marching on, destroying all). Not progress, then, but rupture. Here, now.

I suspect that much of your argument in your and Toni’s trilogy rests on the view that pushing through capitalist society will take us to the other side. Certainly you say that capital is on a path of destruction (p.306), but that is not quite the same as saying that capital is a path to destruction, as I would. Your formulation suggests that its course can be altered, whereas my feeling is that breaking with capital is a necessary precondition for stopping the rush to destruction. You follow your statement about capital being on the path of destruction by proposing a reformist programme for capital as a way of moving towards a transition to a different society, whereas I see capitalism as being already in an advanced stage of decomposition, with all sorts of projects for alternative societies overflowing its banks, and suggest that we should throw all our energies into those overflowings or cracks.

This helps to situate our differences on institutionalisation. We meet happily on the ground of institutionalise-and-subvert, but I feel that within this tension we lean in different directions. You put your emphasis on the importance of institutionalisation, whereas I want us to throw our weight on the side of subversion, of constantly moving against-and-beyond. Institutionalise-and-subvert is not, for me, “repetition with difference”, as you suggest, but a repeated process of rupture, of breaking, negating.

Of course it is not just a question of breaking. Revolt is not enough – that is the shared starting point of our exploration. What then? Communise. This is the word that I am drawn to more and more. Break and weave social relations on a different basis. Obviously it comes close to your Common Wealth, but I feel it’s important to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns, in terms of our doings. The problem, as always, is the material production of life. If we scream against capital but are not able to live in a way that breaks with capital, then we won’t get very far with our revolt. In order to break capitalist social relations we need the support of new productive forces, not in the old orthodox-Marxist sense of technology but rather in the sense of a new weaving of human activity. So absolutely YES to your soviets of doing, which you think will horrify me. Doing-against-labour means for me a collective or communising movement of self-determination which has at its centre a self-determination of our own activity – our own productive force. Perhaps the movement creates new institutions, but only as the water in a stream rests for a moment in pools and then flows on. I think that would be my answer to your final question, “How are doings organised and what is the form of their organisation?” If we think of doing as a movement of communising self-determination, then we can hardly lay down what form it should take. At best, we can look at past and present experiences and draw suggestions from them.

We differ on the issue of abstract labour. I understand abstract labour as the substance of the social bond that is money. In other words, the fact that we exchange our products as commodities abstracts from us, takes away from us, control over our own activities. Abstract labour (and therefore money) is the core of the negation of social self-determination, and therefore any struggle for social self-determination must be a struggle against abstract labour (and money). To say, as you do, that there would be no proletariat without abstract labour is true, but who needs a proletariat? I imagine you agree that the proletariat’s existence is the struggle against its own existence as proletariat. To say that “a political project to affirm use value over exchange value sounds to me like a nostalgic effort to recapture a precapitalist social order” seems to me completely wrong. It could well be so, but for me it is the essence of the struggle to create a communist or anti-capitalist society. If you do not see the struggle as being to create a different sort of creative activity (a doing liberated from abstract labour) and therefore a different sort of product (a use value liberated from value), does this not bring you very close to Leninism, which, of course, was blind to the distinction between abstract and concrete labour, with disastrous results?

There’s much more to be said. On the progressive governments, for example: it is not that I regard them solely as antagonists. It is rather that the organisational form which they have adopted (the state) integrates them into the generality of capitalist social relations and turns them, tendentially at least, against movements that are directed against capitalism. Look at Bolivia in the last couple of months.

But rather than go on and on, I want to end with a quandary. A dilemma perhaps for both of us, but I suspect we lean different ways. You say near the beginning of your letter “Revolt comes first but spontaneity is not enough. Rebellion must be organised in a revolutionary process.” I’m fine with the first sentence, it’s the second that makes me pause, wonder, feel shocked, wonder again. Rebellion for me is a massive and explosive confluence of discontents and other-doings, the dramatic coming together of so many puncturings of capitalist social relations. In order to avoid being swamped by a re-surging of capital, there must be a communising (or a confluence of cracks) so strong that the social nexus of money is shattered or rendered irrelevant. If you like, the rebellion must organise itself in such a way as to gather sufficient momentum to break capitalism completely. Organisation is crucial, but not an organisation: it has to be an organising that comes from below, a communising. Is that what you mean when you say “Rebellion must be organised in a revolutionary process”? I wonder.

A pleasure.


October 2011

Dear John,
Some misunderstandings persist. It’s clear, for example, that we understand abstraction and abstract labour in very different ways. And the paradoxical passage in Commonwealth in which we conduct a thought experiment about capitalist reform to demonstrate its impossibility comes up again in this letter and leads you again to think that such reform is our programme. But really such misunderstandings are minor and I suspect that even when they loom large in our eyes they matter little to our readers.

What strikes me most strongly reading over our correspondence, though, is the common theoretical and political terrain we share. We meet happily, as you say, on the terrain of “institutionalise and subvert” – as well as “subvert and institutionalise” (since the process certainly works both ways). But then, you add, we move in different directions or, at least, put the accent on different sides of the equation. This difference comes out most clearly, I think, when we express apprehensions about the formulations of the other. I am often on guard against placing too much faith in spontaneous revolt because on its own it fails to create lasting alternatives, and thus I insist on constituent processes. You instead fear more the fixity of repeated practices and institutional structures, and thus you privilege rupture and movement. I found particularly interesting in this regard the apprehensions expressed in our brief exchange about love. But even such differences of emphasis should not be exaggerated since we clearly share each other’s preoccupations to a large degree.

I’m happy, then, to leave off our correspondence here, with the hope that we can take it up again when the movements, and we too, have taken a few more steps forward.

All the best, Michael

John Holloway is a Professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla in Mexico.

Michael Hardt is professor of Literature at Duke University in the USA and has published several books, including ‘Empire’ and ‘Commonwealth’, with Antonio Negri.