RICHARD GUNN reviews John Holloway's In, Against and Beyond Capitalism

RICHARD GUNN  reviews John Holloway's In, Against and Beyond Capitalism

In, Against and Beyond Capitalism is John Holloway's third major book. The first two are Change the World without Taking Power (published by Pluto Press in 2002) and Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press 2010). In, Against and Beyond Capitalism is published by PM Press of Oakland in the U.S.A.

The book is short and, in many ways, summarises John Holloway's thinking. I have known John for many years and, of his writings, In, Against and Beyond Capitalism seems to me most closely related to the spoken voice. In part, this is because the book has its beginning in a series of lectures given in San Francisco in April 2013. But there is more. Time and again, the text draws on formulations which, in conversation, John employs. One such passage comes in the book's first section: 'we will not start', John insists, in his text and in conversation – by seeing ourselves as 'victims'. We shall not start there because, if we do, we define ourselves as 'bearers of... relations of domination' (p. 7).1 Instead, we start from our 'dignity' (p. 5). 'We are dignity' (p. 5: emphasis added): 'we will not accept the world of distraction, this world of disaster. What we will not accept is the negation of our own dignity' (p. 5). In Spanish: 'Ya Basta! Here and now, enough! We start walking in the wrong direction, here and now we start doing things in a different way' (p. 44). I have heard John say this, in conversations and in seminars. For a long time, I thought that his words were over-optimistic. Encountering the words in print, however, I feel their force.

This force is, I think, twofold. First, there is a political implication. If the world is filled with 'victims', the question that arises is: who will save them? And an answer suggests itself – an answer prepared by institutionalist politics and echoed in the journals of academe. Must the world not be saved by liberals? More specifically: must wars of liberal intervention not hold history's key? Here, I do not argue this point in detail: but, with John Holloway, I am fearsome about where this line of thinking leads.

The second force possessed by John's denial of victimhood is conceptual. With John, I have championed the view that Marxist thought is not a deterministic scheme. When Marx writes (as he writes in his 'Theses on Feuerbach') about revolutionary 'practice', his meaning is that such a practice is a seed-bed from which emancipation and self-determination may spring. Such a view of emancipation denies that history is a play of impersonal forces and human activity an afterthought or “mere seeming” at best. And, if our starting point is that we are 'victims', emancipation becomes an empty dream. The term 'dignity', which In, Against and Beyond Capitalism favours, points to a realm of freedom which determinism sees as impossible and which capitalism contradicts. An emancipated society is – to quote another of John Holloway's phrases – one where a 'mutual recognition of dignities' (p. 11) exists. The phrase summarises a line of thought which runs through Marx's works.

In this short review, I do not attempt to cover the range of themes that In, Against and Beyond Capitalism addresses. The book is itself a work of concentration, and a striking feature of it is the ease with which the demands of concentration and readability are combined.

What I shall do is to underline a passage where, I think, John's words are especially trenchant. They are, perhaps, especially trenchant in Scotland where, in left wing discussion, points about individuals' identity as Scots are frequently made. I shall let John speak for himself:

'We misfit' – he explains. We 'misfit' because we – none of us – coincide entirely with the social category to which we, as individuals, largely belong. What sort of social category? John means the sort of social category that multiculturalism or identity politics invokes. At one point in In, Against and Beyond Capitalism he gives examples. He imagines himself addressing a multiculturalist or upholder of identity politics in the following terms: 'Fine, OK, we are women or we are gay or we are black or we are Irish or we are indigenous: but we are more than that.” And if we don't say that, if we don't recognise how we spill over from our identities [or misfit our identities] then it does seem to me that our language becomes too easily integrated, it becomes, I would say, reactionary' (p. 33)

This passage, I would say, hits a number of commonly found nails on their heads.  Since we are in Scotland, I draw especial attention to the example of 'Irish' identity (John himself being Irish by birth).

To paraphrase John's words: if our identity is said to be national – if, say, it is said to be Scottish – we misfit (or we 'spill over from') the identity concerned. It's because we 'misfit', according to In, Against and Beyond Capitalism, that there is hope. Because no-one fits entirely comfortably into a category of existing society, a politics which aims towards emancipation is more than an empty dream. Alienation is never seamless. We exist in a contradictory way. A politics which attempts to cram individuals into identities – say, national identities – is a politics which endorses fixity and is without hope.

I leave a reader of this review with a vision. The anti-identitarian politics which John favours (and which I warmly endorse) is 'anti-institutional' (p. 33) and has a horizontal or horizontalist thrust. The Marxism which John Holloway favours is autonomist and has a grassroots character. Sometimes, Marxism may seem to see society and history in terms that are impersonal and large scale. In his three books so far published, John Holloway urges that such a reading is a mistake. Under capitalism, impersonal forces are given priority. The human task, his books argue, is to escape.

(c) RICHARD GUNN, September 2016