We Are the Crisis of Capital: A John Holloway Reader

We Are the Crisis of Capital: A John Holloway Reader

by John Holloway


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We Are the Crisis of Capital collects articles and excerpts written by radical academic, theorist, and activist John Holloway over a period of forty years. Different times, different places, and the same anguish persists throughout our societies. The articles move forward, influenced by the German state derivation debates of the seventies, by the CSE debates in Britain, and the group around the Edinburgh journal Common Sense, and then moving on to Mexico and the wonderful stimulus of the Zapatista uprising, and now the continuing whirl of discussion with colleagues and students in the Posgrado de Sociología of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629632254
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Series: KAIROS Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John Holloway is a professor of sociology at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades in the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico. He has published widely on Marxist theory, on the Zapatista movement and on the new forms of anticapitalist struggle. His book Change the World without Taking Power has been translated into eleven languages and has stirred an international debate. His recent book, Crack Capitalism, takes the argument further by suggesting that the only way in which we can think of revolution today is as the creation, expansion, multiplication and confluence of cracks in capitalist domination.

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The State and Everyday Struggle


The last fifteen years or so have seen the rapid development of new forms of working class struggle around the state. The battlefront between the working class and the state has been extended far beyond what are sometimes thought of as the traditional areas of conflict — conflict over the regulation of wages and working conditions and tension with the overtly repressive part of the state apparatus. The growth, and especially the retrenchment, of the "welfare state" has brought an enormous growth in struggles over the state's role in housing, health, transport, education, etc. Many of these struggles have been fought outside of traditional working-class structures, with parties and trade unions often seeming peripheral at best. There has been a sense of developing new forms of struggle against the state, but often with considerable confusion about how to understand the state.

The development of new forms of working-class struggle is the counterpart of the development of the state itself. The growth of the "welfare state" and "state intervention" and the rise in state employment have meant an increasing permeation of the state in daily life. Over a quarter of the working population in Britain are now employed by the state and are in daily contact with the state as their employer. For many of these workers (especially those employed in the public service rather than the nationalised industries), the fact that they are employed by the state (rather than by an individual capital) is of fundamental importance for the nature of their day-to-day activity. But clearly it is not only state employees who are affected: workers not employed by the state come into much more frequent direct contact with the state apparatus than was previously the case. This is most obviously true of the various activities affecting the reproduction of labour power: education, health, social welfare, housing — all these bring the worker into constant direct contact with various parts of the state apparatus. This is also true of the immediate sphere of production. Although the immediate antagonist for workers employed by individual capital is still the individual capitalist, the relation between capitalist and worker is increasingly influenced by the state: through pay policy, the granting of subsidies and loans conditional on "good behaviour," planning agreements, safety regulations, etc. For more and more socialists, the state has become a problem of everyday practice.

Undoubtedly it is these developments that account for the great surge of interest in Marxist state theory in the last few years. For socialists brought by their employment or political activity into direct and routine contact with the various agencies of the state, an understanding of the state is a matter of direct practical significance for their everyday lives. Yet it is hard to see what practical support they can have drawn out of the recent debates on state theory. This is not only because of the language in which the debates have been conducted, a factor making even the best theoretical contributions fairly inaccessible; it is also because ofthe questions that the theorists have addressed: In what way is the state a capitalist state? What are the structural limitations on state action? How does state expenditure relate to the reproduction of capital? In what way is the development of the state determined by the laws of motion of capital? All these questions are very important, but their relation to the political practice of socialists working in and around the state is a very indirect one. The discussion of the role of state expenditure on social services in the reproduction of capital, for example, certainly has political implications of a general nature, but it is hard to see its relevance to the nine-to-five practice of a social worker. Again it is hard to see how the knowledge that the state is a capitalist state or the injunction to "smash the state" can guide the socialist teacher in her daily confrontation with her pupils. Much of the writing on the state has tended to approach the subject from above, trying to supply answers to the questions that bourgeois theory has failed to solve; or, insofar as it has explicitly discussed, the implications of the analysis of the state for working-class action, it has tended to conceptualise working-class struggle solely in terms of party strategy. Consequently, although the resurgence of Marxist state theory has undoubtedly received much of its impetus and support from the development of new forms of struggle (generally non-party struggle) around the state and from the concerns of the large number of socialists in daily engagement with the state, it does not seem likely that the work of the theorists has contributed very much to the development of those forms of struggle.

What we need is a theory of the state as the day in, day out class practice of the bourgeoisie. If state theory is to have any significance for those in daily engagement with the state, it must be able to throw light on the developing class practices implicit in the state and on the possibilities of countering them.

This essay does not aim to solve these problems; but it does aim to develop, in still rudimentary form, a framework within which we can begin to talk about the everyday practice of the state and the everyday struggles of socialists against the state.

The State as a Form of Social Relations

1. In order to answer this question — i.e., in order to understand the state as a form of everyday bourgeois class practice — we must try to build more explicitly on recent experiences of class struggle against and around the state. This is not to suggest an anti-theoretical position or a complete rejection of the last few years of debate about the nature of the state. On the contrary, the deficits of the recent accounts of particular struggles around the state underline the importance of developing much more explicitly certain concepts employed or implied in the best of the recent work on the state: namely the concepts of fetishisation and state form and the distinction between state form and state apparatus. The task is not to reject state theory but to draw out and develop the political implications of some recent developments. I refer in particular to the recent "state derivation" debate that developed in West Germany and has now been taken up in other countries. The German academics, true to their historical traditions, have been adept in theorising in highly abstract form the concrete struggles of others. Without always drawing out the political implications of their work, they have created a new framework for our understanding of the state, a framework that, if properly developed, can permit us to move toward an understanding of the state as class practice.

2. The starting point of the German debate was the critique of those theorists (in this case Offe and Habermas) who divorce the study of politics from the analysis of capital accumulation. However, instead of simply reiterating the connection between capital and the state, the contributors to the debate accepted the separation of the economic and the political and tried to establish, logically and historically, the foundation of that separation in the character of capitalist production relations. They argued that, in order to understand the "relative autonomy of the state"— or, better, the separation or particularisation of the state from the economic — it is necessary to derive that "relative autonomy" (particularisation, separation) from the basic structure of capitalist production relations: in order to understand the relation between two "things," it is necessary to understand their unity.

In Capital, Marx developed his critique of bourgeois political economy from the most basic forms of capitalist social relations. To understand the relation between the state and capital, it is necessary to extend that procedure to the critique of the categories of bourgeois political science. They too must be derived from the basic structure of social relations under capitalism. The attempt to derive the state from capital (the focus of the German debate) is not an attempt to derive the political from the economic but the separation of the political and the economic (and therefore to derive both the political and the economic in their constitutive separate existence — since it is just their separation that constitutes them as "political" and "economic") from the structure of the social relations of capitalist production, i.e., from the particular historical form of class exploitation. The task is not to develop an "economic" or "reductionist" theory of the state but to develop Marx's method in the materialist critique of political economy to construct a materialist critique of the political. The state, in other words, is not a superstructure to be explained by reference to the economic base. Like value, money, etc., it is a historically specific form of social relations. As a category of political science, the state is a form of thought expressing with social validity the features of a discrete form assumed by the social relations of bourgeois society: "The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms (value, money etc.). They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production" (Marx 1965, 80). The German debate is concerned with developing Marx's method in the critique of the value-form, the money-form, etc. to elaborate a materialist critique of the state-form.

A materialist critique is not only an analytical process; it is not just a question of piercing the state form and unmasking its content as capitalist state. It is also what Rubin calls a dialectical process (1978 [1927], 109 ff.), a process of deriving (logically and historically) the genesis of that form from the most basic forms of social relations. Indeed, Marx distinguished his method from the method of bourgeois political economists on precisely those grounds: "Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value" (Marx 1965, 84–85).

Accordingly, the task that the German theorists set themselves was not only to discover "what lies beneath" the state form (the fact that it is a capitalist state) but to derive that form (the existence of the state as a particular instance, separate from the economic) from capitalist commodity relations. The debate produced various answers but the most fruitful approach would seem to be that of Hirsch (1978), who derives the particularisation of the state from the fact that under capitalism the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class is mediated through the sale and purchase of labour-power as a commodity. It follows from the nature of this form of exploitation that the social coercion essential for class domination cannot be directly associated with the immediate process of exploitation but must be located in an instance separated from individual capitals — the state. The existence of the state as a separate instance is thus dependent upon the capital relation and its reproduction dependent upon the reproduction of capital. In this perspective, the existence of the political and the economic (for it is only their separation that constitutes their existence as distinct spheres) is but an expression of the particular historical form of exploitation (the mediation of exploitation through commodity exchange). The political and the economic are thus separate moments of the capital relation.

3. Where do the German debate and its subsequent developments take us? In what way does it provide a basis for theorising the state in a manner more adequate to the current phase of class struggle? One of the problems of the debate is that its political implications are never discussed openly by the authors. This, combined with the fact that the authors do not always make a clear distinction between "materialist" and "economic," has left their work open to various interpretations and developments (both by the "supporters" of this approach and by its critics, and indeed by the authors themselves in their subsequent work) that often obscure the significance of analysing the relation between the state and capital.

One such misunderstanding is to see the debate on the relation between capital and the state as being concerned solely with the "economic role of the state." Thus, for example, Poulantzas, referring to the debate, could praise "work on the state in Germany, where Marxist discussion of the economic role of the state is probably the most advanced in Europe" (1976, 81). A separate but related misunderstanding is the accusation of "economic determinism" or "economic reductionism": in this view the attempt to relate the state to capital is an attempt to "reduce" the political to the economic, which ignores the "relative autonomy of the state."

Both of these reactions to the German debate come from a perspective that bases its analysis of the political on the "relative autonomy of the state." While the latter response is a straightforward rejection of the "state derivation" approach, the former is far more insidious: instead of confronting the "state derivation" approach as an approach incompatible with its own premises, it seeks to casually integrate the approach by curtailing it to a specific area — "the economic role of the state." What both reactions have in common is a narrow conception of capital and of the relations of production. Capital is seen, if not as a thing, then at best as an economic relation, rather than as a historically specific form of the relations of class domination. But, as Marx pointed out: "Capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character" (Capital, vol. 3, 814). In analysing the state as a moment of the capital relation, therefore, we are analysing its place in the production relations of capitalism. This is very important, because it is the only way in which the development of the state can be analysed as part of the overall development of the capitalist mode of production.

However, to see the state as a moment of the relations of production is very far from "reducing" the state to the economic. Crucial here is the conceptualisation of the "relations of production." For Marx, the relations of production are not simply relations of the immediate labour process but are the relations constituted by the valorisation process, relations of a total process of social production. The relations of production are not distinct from society: rather "the relations of production in their totality constitute what are called the social relations, society, and specifically, a society at a definite stage of historical development" (Marx 1962a, 90). As Lukács has pointed out (1978, 20), Marx's starting point is the "sum total of relations of production"; it is only vulgar materialism (from the period of the Second International through to the Stalin period and its consequences) that made the relationship between the economy and other aspects of society a unilateral and direct causal one.

Many of the theories of the Marxist renaissance have sought to escape from the vulgar materialist heritage. This has not been simply a movement of ideas. All the new forms of struggle referred to in the Introduction called for an analysis that could relate them to the dynamics of capitalism as a total system, yet did not reduce them to mere epiphenomena incidental to the "real" struggle at the "point of production."

It is in this context that we must see the popularity of theories that emphasise the "relative autonomy" of the state, ideology, and much else from capitalist accumulation. In this view the notion of relations of production is limited to the narrow sphere of the direct production of commodities, what Marx called the "immediate process of production." Given this narrow concept of production (a concept derived from the vulgar materialists whom they criticise), the state is seen as external to the relations of production and the analysis is left with no way in which the development of the state can be grasped as part of the historical development of the capitalist mode of production.

The analysis of the state as a form of the capital relation, therefore, is not specifically concerned with the "economic role of the state," nor is it an attempt to "reduce" the state to the economic. Rather it is an attempt to analyse the place of the state in the relations between capital and labour, conceived of as a historically specific form of class domination with its own laws of motion.


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Table of Contents

Preface From Nouns to Verbs vii

1 The State and Everyday Struggle 1

2 The Red Rose of Nissan 37

3 Note on Marxism 66

4 In the Beginning Was the Scream 67

5 The Abyss Opens: The Rise and Fall of Keynesianism 76

6 Capital Moves 104

7 Dignity's Revolt 114

8 Zapata in Wall Street 154

9 Where Is Class Struggle? 179

10 Zapatismo and the Social Sciences 190

11 Zapatismo Urbano 201

12 Stop Making Capitalism 210

13 1968 and the Crisis of Abstract Labour 220

14 Go on Now, Go 228

15 Crisis and Critique 233

16 Rage Against the Rule of Money: The Leeds Lectures 238

17 Communise 268

18 Opening Speech 277

Index 281

About the Author 287

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