Change the world without taking power review

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John Holloway
Change the World Without Taking Power

Pluto Press, 2002, pp. vi-237
ISBN 0-7453-1863-0 $24.95

Chris Wright and Suprina Hawkins

The blather of ontology, causality, identity, desire is utterly boring and therefore counterrevolutionary. The theorists who philosophize reality are watching for what happens next, are fixated upon interpreting “society” and will never act. In their arrogance they arrogate unto themselves the power to declare the death of the Subject. They are like umpires in a life and death game, a game of power, of dead labor (capital) against living labor. Umpires can call you out or tell you that you are safe or throw you out of the game, but they cannot transcend the game itself: they are arbiters of the game. Even ‘bad calls’ resonate for us as nothing more than acts of bad faith. No surprise here: the highest ambition of capital is to turn secret agents into revolutionaries and revolutionaries into secret agents.

We don’t need the scatology of bloodless umpires. We don’t need a theory of ‘society,’ but rather theory against ‘society,’ unfit for undead, loveless referees in search of virtual lives. For us, what is only ‘is’ because it denies our practical-critical activity. We zero in on capital’s contradictions, historicity and mortality in a quest for destruction, not deconstruction.

Change the World Without Taking Power overflows with theory against, moving from the scream to our screaming, which the hulking science of the Big House rules unscientific, irrelevant, impolite. ‘Class struggle’ becomes our practical-critical activity against the business of is-ness, against class-ifying us by our objectification. Class struggle is infused with the tension between classes as process and classes as objects. “We do not struggle as being working class, we struggle against being working class, against being classified.” (pp. 143-4) Capital’s abusive relation places us simultaneously in and against capital. Our alienation grounds the very possibility of revolution. In-and-against screams that we are the subject of revolution.

“Foul ball!” yell the umpires. “Now you introduce The Subject, too? But don’t you know that you are merely agents?” cry the secret agents. ‘Society,’ ‘capital,’ ‘reality,’ ‘structures’ are nothing but our doing, our creativity, turned against us, our alienated subjectivity.

This is a negative dialectic, dialectic at its finest rather than the false dialectic seemingly inscribed in tablets of stone, delineating laws of culture, society, and thought standing above historical human practice. Holloway’s dialectic is anti-matter: negating, antagonistic, uncertain and yet totalizing. Our very doing, our own human self-activity, our transforming of nature into a part of our own social metabolism implies negation and totality. Holloway critiques the whole attempt to set the possibility of revolution on the grounds of non-contradiction and positive theory, from Engels to Empire, with stops in-between.

In the process, Holloway raises the title as question: Can we change the world without taking power? Power exists as power-to and power-over, where the former indicates our doing and the latter indicates power as oppression, domination, exploitation. Power-over suffuses the antagonistic relation between capital and labor, but, posed in terms of revolution, power-over appears most glaringly in the state. ‘Theory of” sees the state as a tool whichever class controls it. Holloway annihilates this by showing ‘the state’ as a mode of existence of the capital-labor relation.

Holloway then challenges the notion of communism as an end. Using Marx’s idea that communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things, Holloway destroys any unitary notion of communism as ‘a society,’ a state of ‘being.’ This disrupts the whole notion of revolution, returning uncertainty to our struggle, returning our struggle to us, instead of making it the outcome some capital logic.

“You are outta here!!!” scream the umpires, from behind their Empires. But they are wrong. We are not “outta here.” “Here” is nothing but our moving antagonism, our struggle. Only we don’t usually see our power because our self-activity, as both alienated and potentially transcendent, does not appear to us directly, except as mediated by fetishizing forms which hide its content. Holloway makes fetishism the centerpiece of his approach to dialectic and critique. Our alienated self-activity becomes a process of struggle between fetishization and de-fetishization. In the end, we see that the umpires themselves are not only not “outta here”, they are in fact so “Safe!” that they lack negative purchase; no revolt against being, but only the aspect of being revolting.

Holloway’s book is not without problems, however.

Holloway does not adequately raise the content of the problem of organization. He could surely pose the question as rigorously as he poses everything else. The move from individual social acts to collective social acts involves our self-organization, including the organization of pro-revolutionaries. Holloway could at least pose some of the problems raised, but not resolved, by council communism, Left Communism, Marxist-Humanism, Operaist/Autonomist Marxism and the Situationist International. This failure deepens when he fails to counterpose an alternative content to communism.

Organization often becomes an oversight for pro-revolutionaries who have the organizational privileges provided by academia. The pro-revolutionary qua professor has a captive audience, an imperative to write and publish, and special access to multiple mediums. For the rest of us, the struggle is always for creating/finding commune-ity and sharing our ideas, often with people who see no reason to learn our lingo even when they engage with us.

The deeper failure slides by almost imperceptibly, like a shadow of the first problem. For a book which starts from screaming, and which reasserts the negative dialectic, uncertainty, alienation and fetishism, subjectivity, and objectivity as subjectivity in the mode of being denied, etc, Holloway shouldn’t be so… polite. Holloway encourages becoming impolite, screaming, but his style, overburdened with the passive tense and ‘being’ verbs he criticizes, encumbers his content. I am not complaining that Holloway writes badly, but once drawn the sword must finish its cut.

Should we not embrace that Mephistophelian polemical style made famous by Marx and the Situationists? Aphorism, epigram, inversion, détournement, bitchiness: all the blades with an edge sharp enough for the task at hand. Should we not invoke Valerie Solanis and scream that the revolutionary ontologist/secret agent is completely egocentric, trapped inside his desiring machine self, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, of love, friendship, affection or tenderness. He is a completely isolated unit, a rhizome, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the service of his desires; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he can"t relate to anything other than his own spectacular sensationalisms?

Polite, passive language interferes with sincerity, refusal, and a sense of commune-ity. Capital can afford politeness, passivity (and pacification) because it has the cop, the jailer, the judge, the psychiatrist and many others with which to be rude and imposing.

The gravest limitation of Holloway’s book is simply that his form does not convey the true rudeness of his content. Our words, like our theory and our organizations, must be prefigurative, destructive, negative, bitchy, impolite, incorrigible. Screaming, we listen.


Chris Wright and Suprina Hawkins


Add note on Holloway’s style as less pedagogic or philosophic than an attempt to break away from a language game to achieve an alterative communication-as anti-text (we might consider going into Foucault in order to discuss negations unconsidered(?) by Foucault) The annoyance is that this book is reviewed and read in particular circles that deny Holloway’s effort to the effect of more alienated activities (duh!)