Interview with John Holloway



The experience of reading John Holloway’s bold, poetic style of autonomist Marxism is difficult to forget. He is best known for his two books ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’ and ‘Crack Capitalism’. The willingness to include everyday acts like playing with our children, or taking an extra half an hour to eat breakfast, or dancing, as resistance to market values is disorientating. His ability to synthesise these acts in a framework that values the collective, the grassroots, the radically negative, ‘the scream’, gives an expression to a sense creative rage and a desire for autonomy that few others have captured.

Now is not the time to present his thought – the conversation below will do that. In Thessaloniki University Holloway came to talk at the fifth Direct Democracy festival, organised by the Anti-Authoritarian Network (AK) – a network of direct democratic groups active in social centres, occupied factories, and diverse grassroots struggles across Greece. Between talks and concerts, a friend and I snuck off to have a long, meandering chat with Holloway about Syriza, parliamentary politics, antagonism, self-organisation, and a variety of other topics.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:




HR: In Greece and across Europe there has been a revival of parliamentary leftist forces. What effect do you think has this had on social movements and grassroots struggles? Before you answer though, we’d like to frame the question in a historical way-

YAN: -In 2008 Greece saw an increase in wide variety of struggles – neighbourhood assemblies, the occupied factory of Viome, innovative anti-privatisation struggles that attempt put water supplies under local control, movements against the environmental destruction caused by gold mining, the occupation and self-management of the national broadcaster ERT – but all of these have been going downhill in recent years. Not just by a little bit, but a lot. After the rise of Syriza, people placed their faith into parliamentarism, into another party, or ‘a party of another kind’ as Syriza like to call themselves.

We can see this approach failed on both a European wide, technocratic level, but also a local, grassroots level. The strategies Syriza used in the grassroots movements like occupied ERT implemented the same kind of top-down practice as it was before the resistance. When they reopened the station it was no longer a bottom-up institution but, exactly as before, a state news broadcaster.

HR: So, this anger of 2008, a creative anger, turned to hope, a hope that was placed in Syriza. This hope turned to hopelessness. Now today it seems that many people are not so much angry, but defeated and depressed. How do we make sense of all of this?

JH: I think you’re right – you have to historisise the question. Any question about social movements and left governments has been transformed by the agreement on the 13th of July. This agreement finishes Syriza completely as a left, an exciting left, or apparently exciting left movement. Logically it should also finish Podemos. I mean what’s the point? Syriza did that and they lost. They couldn’t. They were incapable. Not because of personal reasons. They were incapable because of what a state is, and what capital is.  They could not implement their promises. I think it would just the same with Podemos, or Die Linke, or if Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour election. I mean yeah, if these people win, fantastic, exciting – but things have changed since the 13th of July. That form of new, trendy, and exciting left party politics doesn’t work. And that’s what we’ve seen.

But the way you asked the question, yes, in Greece you had this surge of movements after December 2008, there was also a whole wave of movements throughout 2011 – throughout the world too. Here though, it’s not that they faded because Syriza rose, but the other way around, and that is the problem. Syriza rose because those movements faded. These were movements doing exciting things! Protesting on a scale not seen in Europe for years and years and years. If you think of demonstrations in Athens and all around the country. If you think of the 12th of February 2012, where they set fire to fifty buildings in the centre of Athens and they burnt I don’t know how many police cars. There were hundreds of thousands of people and it didn’t make any difference to the politics. There’s a real question to be asked: where do we go now and how do we do it? The really exciting thing is not just all the protest, but also the rise of movements like Viome, like the anti-mining thing in Skorkes, like the community gardens, like the social centres, like ERT 3, all those things.

In a way it seems to me that the great drama of the situation at the moment, is that, well, we know it is clear that left party politics won’t take us anywhere, but we are also clear that we are not strong enough either. I mean, what do we do? We’ve got all these exciting movements, but we need to eat, we need to live. And we’re not yet in a situation where we can just say to capital ‘go to hell. We don’t want you’. No we still need to get our money in order to survive. We still need employment. I think again one of the lessons of this drama is if you want employment, then you have to attract capital, if you attract capital then you must have austerity politics. You must introduce labour reform, educational reform, and everything else. And if you don’t do that then you won’t get employment. The real problem then is, what do we do?

Yes, there is a great danger of hopelessness and despair. There’s an enormous danger of the rise of a fascist right. One of the articles I’ve been reading that annoys me most is an article by Zizek where he talks about the “courage of hopelessness”. That we must have the courage to realise that there is no alternative. We can’t accept that! Because if there is no alternative then we are accepting the destruction of humanity. We know this is what capital means. So, what do we do? The only thing I think we can really say is, firstly, we don’t really know what to do. And this is a good thing, because it means we all have to discuss it. Secondly, I think the only thing we can do is keep going on with all these exciting community initiatives, but we need more and more and more of them.

HR: Massimo De Angelis has argued that, in the current crisis of reproduction the social fabric has been so devastated that capital, in order to continue, needs a ‘commons fix’. There is a risk that social movements aimed expanding the commons merely end up giving neoliberalism this fix, bandaging its wounds and helping it go on. What are the risks of the cracks in capitalism that you talk about being co-opted in this way, and how can they be guarded against?

JH: I think the risks are there all the time. One way of guarding against it is – really, this seems to me very important for discussion – is to think of these cracks or commons as being commons against capital. It’s not just about creating commons, it’s not just that we’re doing other things, but that we’re trying to live against capital, trying to make spaces against capital. And this is no guarantee, because all of these things are contradictory. But I still feel if we just put a red and black flag above what we’re doing and say ‘no, we are against this system that is killing us.’ Well, it’s not a guarantee but it’s helps. It keeps some sense of direction.

Also, all the structures that have been developed over recent years – the whole thing on horizontality, the whole rejection of hierarchy, the whole, I suppose, desperation and anger at seeing that the system just doesn’t work – these developments as well no guarantee – but we are learning how not to be reintegrated into the system.

HR: On this same issue of resisting, how central do you think antagonism and self-defence is to creating cracks in capitalism? You refer to Athens burning, for example, how central are actions like this for social movements?

JH: It’s fundamental that we understand that this is a world build on antagonism. But the antagonism comes from the other side. Class struggle comes from the other side. We on the whole would like a peaceful world. We would like to spend our days doing what we want to do. Going dancing. Going to the beach. Dedicating ourselves to writing or whatever. And they keep on attacking us and saying ‘No, you can’t do that. You have to go to work. No, if you can’t get a job then you have to accept social discipline.’ And they do that all the time, through money, through the police. So I suppose the antagonism is there, but the antagonism comes from them. Now if we want to, I don’t know, throw a rock through a bank window or a Starbucks window or whatever, I think it really depends on the situation – whether it helps bring us together, and to give us some direction. I suppose one… no…at times I feel that really violence becomes more and more attractive and more and more dangerous. After the negotiations I’m sure half the population of Europe would love to see Merkel strung up from a lamppost. I mean it would be a joy. But at the same time I don’t think at all we should go that way. I think no, because to go that way is to imitate their aggression and I don’t think that helps. It’s partly that we’re not very good at violence. I wouldn’t be very good at violence, but also I wouldn’t want to be very good at violence. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be able go and shoot someone. That’s not the sort of world I’d like to create. I think that’s my main… (pauses thoughtfully)

HR: Just a small point, I don’t want to go into it too much, with this rhetoric of violence – people called violent when they’re reacting to violence done to them, being called antagonistic when it’s coming from the other side… Well, how do you feel about this distinction between property destruction and violence against people? And the importance of conceptually separating these?

JH: I don’t know. I think there’s a distinction to be made. Though, in Greece we have the obvious case of the 2011 people fire bombed a bank and that led to the death of 3 people. Yeah, so of course there’s a difference between property and people. But it can cause consequences you really don’t want. And I think an awful lot depends as well on thinking about the movements of protest collectively. And whether these acts of violence are going to help create a social movement or not. Very often they don’t, but that depends a lot on the moment on the situation.

HR: If not violence then, you say it’s important to deepen the cracks in capitalism and strengthen the confluences between them, but how do you do this? How do you make the confluences between the cracks? In Viome…well, around Greece, you see all these cracks, but you almost don’t see the confluences-

JH: -here, what are we doing? We’re trying to create a confluence between cracks. That’s what the interview is. I think people do it all the time, they do it by talking to friends, by writing songs, they do it by writing books. I suppose, by giving interviews-

HR: -I was told, for example, there was some frustration with Viome. They tried to encourage others to do what they were doing, but it was difficult to spread this practice of having a self organised factory. The workers toured around, really focusing on education and outreach. Everyone supports what they’re doing, but it hasn’t spread yet.

JH: I think that’s difficult. All you can do, in a way, is try and work away all the time and create this confluence, and then it may or may not take off. And there, it is really unpredictable. If you think about Argentina in 2002, obviously there, yes, factory occupation after factory occupation after factory occupation. And there’s still what, about 200 factories occupied. And not because somebody said ‘this is the way it should be done’ – I suppose a confluence was created, yes, partly by workers going from one factory to another, partly, I don’t know, just because of the desperateness of the situation.

HR: A variety of unpredictable factors

JH: Yeah.

HR: You were saying before how we’re all compromised and this is something we have to know, to avoid purity, but how compromised is too comprised? Particularly regarding strategic alliances with people whose politics you may not agree with, but who you hope may further emancipation in a variety of ways. The debates between so-called ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ actors can become quite acrimonious. How do you define the limits of these contradictions, or how do you work with them?

JH: I don’t think you can define them. I think it’s just a question of being critical and self-critical all the time. I think it’s impossible to say really who is revolutionary and who is not. Was the Russian revolution revolutionary? I suppose for most of the 20th century most people would have said ‘well yes clearly it was a revolution against capitalism’, looking back now you could say, well perhaps the one thing that contributed most to the survival of capitalism in the 20th century was the Russian revolution. I don’t know. I think we all set our limits. We all have a sense of it. I don’t know. I think it’s just something you play out in practice.

HR: Let’s take the example of the struggle against the development of a gold mine in Chalkidiki. There was a very combative, local-led movement that Syriza effectively pacified. With the rise of Syriza, locals felt ‘oh we’ll organise with them’ – only that’s not how Syriza saw it, they introduced hierarchy, party structures aimed at merely influencing state policy, et cetera . The most combative elements were then excluded from the ‘coalition’. Many now say Syriza never had any real intention of closing the mine at all. Now people are starting again to self-organise their resistance. Operating more and more outside the local councils. So this raises the question, how do we relate to power structures? I know you say you have to just play it by ear, but…

JH: You have to play it by ear and you have to play it by time. It seems to me in the first six months of Syriza – of course they will try and push things according to how they see the world – but I think there was some degree of flexibility in that relation in the first six months. An awful lot of people, anarchists or people that don’t normally vote, I’m sure most of them voted in the referendum, and an awful lot voted for Syriza in the elections. And yes, there was perhaps room for doing things, or, it seemed to make sense to say, ‘well the existence of Syriza means less repression, more space for developing our social centre’. Then, after six months in this case, but it happens with all left governments, there is a turn around, and they become more repressive, and, it doesn’t make sense to talk to them anymore because they’ve become too bureaucratic, too hierarchical, too boring.

HR: But it was not prewritten, or they may have been useful allies a year ago, but not anymore?

JH: I don’t think of it as ‘useful allies’. I think, well people are confused, everybody’s confused. Okay, Lots of people thought that Syriza would be a real way of making important changes. A lot of the people supporting Syriza also had doubts about that. Within that system perhaps there were interesting things that could have been achieved. So, I don’t know. I think of ‘alliances’ or ‘strategic alliances’ as being the language of parties. I don’t see it in those terms. I just think, where are we? Partly, we are where we are and we have to work from there. Okay, I work in a university. It’s a state university. It doesn’t mean that I’m making a ‘strategic alliance’ with the state – no. It means, partly that’s where I happen to be, that’s where I get my money to survive, and you think well, from where I am, what can I do?

HR: There’s this potential conflict between the desire to destroy work and to support workers’ struggles. A potential one. For example, protestors against the gold mine find themselves clashing every now and again with the miners, who have organised road blocks in support of the time. These road blocks are not so many, and ordered by the bosses, but the situation at times almost looks like ‘anarchists against the workers’. The right-wing Greek media even called the protesters ‘left Thatcherites’. In the region, to divide local resistance the mining company go from village to village taking one or two people from each family, rather than allowing there to be any community. This has caused a lot of conflict and  broken apart families. There’s a long history of this type of conflict. To take just one example, the Hard Hat riots in New York in 1970 – where anti-development protesters were assaulted by builders. Well, how do you navigate these sorts of tensions?

JH: I’m not sure. Perhaps we have start from our own inevitable schtizophenia. I think it’s very important. There’s this whole tradition on the left to think of ourselves as pure and uncontradictory. We cannot be. We can be as anti-work as we like, but we still have to live. In capitalist society that usually means that we need money. And in order to get money we normally need employment – okay there are some other ways – and, if you’re someone who is anti-work and someone looking for employment, you’re self-antagonistic from the beginning. And with the cases you mention with that thing is really reproducing itself on a social scale, on a big scale. How do you navigate it? I don’t know, but I think really start from our own contractions.

HR: When you’re building counter-economies, building self-organised factories but you’re producing against capital, and you’re producing within a capitalist market. This is contradictory. How do you stop your own self-organisation succumbing to the logics of the market?

JH: It’s also a question of thinking it out and thinking that: our struggles is the struggle of use value against value, or the struggle of doing against abstract labour. To think, ‘I’m struggling to resist this totalizing movement of capital, this totalizing movement of value’. In order words, our struggle is a detotalizing struggle. Also, again my point about putting the flag above your door, on your roof.

You can think it out like this to help see some guidelines about where we’re going. And we can look at so many experiences that have been taking place and try and learn from them. There are lots of ways in which we can learn from, say Argentina – one of the most important examples in recent times. Of course, also from Greece in the last few years too. But there are movements all over the world that are coping daily with these issues. And trying to find their way.

HR: So look to them for the answers?

JH: Yeah, I think so, or look to them for the non-answers I suppose.

YAN: In the case of Argentina, it was a clear strategy by the World Bank to develop such self-managed companies in order to make sectors that were before unproductive back into the sphere of capitalism. Self-management – it’s a very neoliberal picture. And there’s a ministry for self-managed factories now…

JH: That’s right. I mean, well obviously the people involved in the struggles are very aware of this. They’re thinking about it a lot. There’s an issue already there in 2001/2 when they started to open collective kitchens. How can we be sure we’re not just taking on the role of the state? And they say well, well the answer is because we incorporate it into our struggle, into a broader struggle against capital. And the answer is there in the occupied factories. Okay, some just develop a new system of management and then merge into the market. But I think lots of them are very clear: ‘Okay we have these problems, how do we cope with them? How do we develop what we’re doing as part of an anti-capitalist movement?’

Yan: As far as I understand, in Viome they see it as a clear attack on capital. They say ‘we can’t have this solidarity production inside of capitalism. What we can do for the moment is spread the idea of organisation we have, but we will be successful or we will fail’. There’s no in-between, is what they say.

JH: The real issue is value. And how you relate to the market, how you break with capitalist value. You’re right – it’s not just a question of internal organisation. That’s important, the real question is how you relate to the world. And that depends on what world you have to relate to. In Argentina in 2001/2 the occupied factories were relating to a world of struggles, and of struggle through occupied factories. In the case of Viome, that environment of occupied factories just isn’t there, so it becomes more difficult.

YAN: Where do you see in Greece – this, what you said in this Kurdish conference in Hamburg, the Network for Alternative Quest – this “light in so much dark dark dark darkness”. Do you see it in Greece right now?

JH: Ah well everywhere. Wow! It’s still, even after the agreement, a very exciting place! In some ways a more exciting place. The anger, the bitterness. The feeling, peoples’ feeling that they’ve been let down – that there has to be some other way. The no, the no was AMAZING. The no has been the most exciting thing that has happened in world politics for several years. People were out on the streets. People were rejoicing. You can say, ‘oh well that all disappeared a week later’. But it’s not true! It didn’t all disappear a week later. And if you talk to people, everybody talks about the no. Everybody talks about that as being a really exciting moment. Everybody remembers exactly how they celebrated that moment. How they were surprised. How this great, big expression of ‘no. No, we won’t accept it’. Which I think didn’t mean ‘no, we think a different policy would be better.’ I think it simply means ‘no, we are going to voice are anger and our fury’ and even people bitterly disappointed after… still, there is this sense of, wow! I mean, for me, yes, that is absolutely central to Greece at the moment.

Okay, we’ll have to see how it goes in the next few months. It could become more and more of a nationalist thing, which would be awful, or it can become more and more, ‘well, we know it’s not going to happen through the parties – we have to realise that we’re the only ones who can make the change’. But it seems to me still open. It’s still exciting. It’s not just resignation, it is much more than that.

YAN: A lot of people I talk to they say that they don’t see any option in going to vote. They think maybe you could use this mood to build something new up. What do you expect in the upcoming elections?

JH: I don’t know. An awful lot of people won’t go to vote, that’s clear. Quite a few people will vote for Popular Unity – not necessarily because they believe in them, just as a way of saying ‘no’ again, ‘we don’t accept the way Syriza is going’. What’s going to come out of the election? I don’t know. People are saying Syriza is likely to have some small majority. But people are also telling me they think, ‘no, New Democracy will come out on top’. If Syriza comes out the biggest it’s clear it won’t have the majority to form a government. So, the most likely outcome I suppose is some sort of alliance between Syriza and New Democracy. But Syriza, or Tsipras, is for the moment saying ‘no way’. But I think that doesn’t mean very much. It’s very hard. Obviously the crisis is going to go on. They’re not going to be able to fulfil the agreement. Everybody knows the agreement is nonsense. That they’re not going to be able to pay their debts. Not going to be able to fulfil the terms of the agreements. It’s going to carry on. And there are going to be more explosions of anger once the new government tries to impose the privatisations and all that the agreement means. And of course people will be on the streets. And the explosion of anger could become very very horrible, or it could be very exciting. You don’t know.

Yan: Or it could be an implosion. People become more depressed.

JH: Yes, that could well be part of it.

HR: Do you think it’s important the outcome of the next election? Do you think it makes much of a difference either way?

JH: (pauses) I don’t know. I think if we see New Democracy winning we’re more likely to see a really strong movement of resistance. If Tsipras wins it will probably divide the resistance, as it has done. So in that sense, perhaps better for New Democracy to win. In terms of policies, there’s no real difference any more. It’s all decided.


Heathcote Ruthven

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One Response to Interview with John Holloway

    1. They could not have done anything else after NO vote but capitulate, the alternatives were not developed.

      Retreat and regroup is best strategy for left, and then campaign on a sensible Plan B for the next election after the one of 20th September.

      Some ideas for the next time around:

      Comment by Matt Usselmann on 10 September, 2015 at 5:42 pm

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