Bringing back the state to revolution

A further critique of the Occupy Movement

by Salud Sakdal and Benedicto Algabre

A spectre is haunting the neoliberal world order. The IMF-WB, the G7 leaders, the economists and their allies in the semi-colonial states have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise the Occupy Movement worldwide.  But it is the anarchistic tendency within the Occupy Movement that needs exorcising. This is not a shot at sectarianism. It is about going back to the painful split between the anarchists and the Marxists whose stakes back then are being repeated in the discourse and practice of the current Occupy Wall Street and similar movements. Today, more than ever, we need to sharpen the line separating the revolutionary road to social change and the pseudo-pro activism of the post-political activists who insist on challenging everything with the effect of leaving things exactly the way they are.

Currently, the anarchists and post-anarchists are very active in organizing campaigns against globalization and neoliberal capitalism. Self-identified “anarchists” have often taken centre stage at protests directed at state-like international institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Leonard Williams provides a profile of this new- generation anarchists who join the Occupy movement: “Today’s anarchists (particularly those profiled in mainstream media coverage of major protests) are primarily a group of young people noted more for their cultural apparatus and their penchant for direct action. Very few of them seem to refer to such theorists of anarchism as Bakunin, Proudhon, Goldman, or Rocker; even fewer perhaps have bothered to study their classic works.”[1]  But anarchism unites these diverse movements. As David Graeber, one of the gurus of the Occupy Movement avers, “Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of most of what’s new and hopeful about it.”[2]

But their basic tactic remains the same – the principle of direct action.  Anarchists understand direct action as a matter of taking social change into one’s own hands by intervening directly in a situation rather than appealing to an external agent (typically the government) for rectification. It is a do-it-yourself atomizing, Nike-like version of postmodern politics based on people power, with a lack of interest in operating through established political channels. By ignoring the power of the state, such politics miserably fails to address the brutality of the former, including its creation of new camps for homo sacer, and its gross violation of human rights worldwide. The said disposition may be dangerously true  for the Occupy Movement that does not advance beyond the slogan: “We are the 99 percent.” So what if we are the 99 percent? How do we seize power  from the 1%?

Today, the post-anarchists (who have updated their arguments via poststructuralist theories of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and Hardt and Negri), are the true heirs of the Proudhonists who called themselves “anti-authoritarians” back then, i.e., repudiated every form of authority, every form of subordination, every form of power. The primitivism of Zerzan, certain ecological movements, ontological anarchy, anarcho-feminism, anarcho-syndicalism are some political ideologies that  resonate with post-anarchy. They romanticize the classic anti-authoritarian orientation in their political tactic. Such position is echoed in the declaration of Subcommandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatistas: “This intercontinental network of resistance is not an organising structure; it has no central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist.”[3]

In another occasion, Marcos declared: “Yes,  the  moment  has  come  to  say  to  everyone that we neither want, nor are we able, to occupy the  place  that  some  hope  we  will  occupy,  the place from which all opinions will come, all the answers, all the routes, all the truth. We are not going to do that.”[4]

Isn’t this what the Occupy Movement and anti-globalization movements are all about? As Naomi Klein points out, the movement has a “decentralized, non-hierarchical structure.” Instead of “forming a pyramid … with leaders up on top and followers down below,” it “mirrors the organic, decentralised, interlinked pathways of the internet… a network of hubs and spokes … [of] hundreds, possibly thousands of ‘affinity groups’…”[5]

WE ARE EVERYWHERE! This is the slogan of the 16 May (M16 ) 1998 Global Street Party  in thirty cities located in 5 continents coinciding with the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Birmingham , England, and the following week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meetingin Geneva. The same slogan animates and unites these diverse political groups and movements.

For instance, John Holloway’s celebration of Zapatismo as an alternative to the assumed obsolescence of Leninist politics points to the “newness of Zapatismo [as a]  project of changing the world without taking power. ‘We want to change the world, but not by taking power, not to conquer the world, but to make it anew’.[6]

By rejecting the Marxist instrumentalist definition of the state, which defines it as am instrument of class rule, Holloway grossly forgets the structuralist version of Marxism that embeds the state in the wider economic and social web of cause and determinations.[7] Like Bakunin, Holloway misrepresents the Marxist standpoint on the seizure of state power.  Falsely generalizing from the failure of socialism and the bitter experience from Stalinism, Holloway wants to exorcise the so-called “state illusion” among Leftists that has captivated the minds of revolutionaries. By state illusion, Holloway “mean[s] the paradigm that has dominated left-wing thought for at least a century.” Allegedly, state illusion puts the state at the centre of the concept of radical change…” as understands revolution as the winning of state power and the transformation of society through the state.”[8]

Peter Marshall’s Demanding  the Impossible: A History of Anarchism neatly summarizes the split between Marxism and anarchism: “Anarchism differs from Marxism however in its scrupulousness about the means required to reach such a society — it rejects political parties and the parliamentary road to socialism as well as the establishment of any form of workers’ State. It stresses that means cannot be separated from ends, and that it is impossible to use an authoritarian strategy to achieve a libertarian goal.”[9]

The contemporary anarchists thus repudiate Vanguardism and Party discipline. But how would they gain ground? Or is the question misplaced since the autonomists do not want to seize power but only exercise it? John Holloway rants against the Marxist-Leninist view of state by arguing that “[t]he fervour of those who fight for a different society is taken up and pointed in a particular direction: towards the winning of state power. ‘If we can only conquer the state (whether by electoral or by military means), then we shall be able to change society. First, therefore, we must concentrate on the central goal – conquering state power.’ So then the young are inducted into what it means to conquer state power. They are trained either as soldiers or as bureaucrats, depending on how the conquest of state power is understood. ‘First build the army, first build the party, that is how to get rid of the power that oppresses us.’  Party-building (or army-building) comes to eclipse all else. What was initially negative (the rejection of capitalism) is converted into something positive (institution-building, power-building). The induction into the conquest of power inevitably becomes an induction into power itself learn to wield the categories of a social science which has been entirely shaped by its obsession with power. Differences within the organisation become struggles for power. Manipulation and manoeuvring for power become a way of life.[10]

For Holloway, “The struggle is lost from the beginning, long before the victorious party or army conquers state power and ‘betrays’ its promises. It is lost once power itself seeps into the struggle, once the logic of power becomes the logic of the revolutionary process, once the negative of refusal is converted into the positive of power-building. And usually those involved do not see it:  the initiates in power do not even see how far they have been drawn into the reasoning and habits of power. They do not see that if we revolt against capitalism, it is not because we want a different system of power, it is because we want a society in which power relations are dissolved.”

Everywhere in Holloway’s liberal rhetoric is Foucault’s anti-micro-fascist warning, which actually says  that fascism is everywhere and anywhere but in the state!  Casting suspicion on the Marxist instrumentalist theory of the state, Holloway further echoes Hardt and Negri’s attempt to argue that the Empire is everywhere and therefore the nation-states are no longer the locus of genuine struggle. Capitalism is now deterretorialized and the state is very unlikely to embody its pristine form. Todd May’s postanarchistic politics summarizes this “new” meaning of anarchism.  May’s recommendation is that we not look in those two places so as to blind ourselves about the ubiquity of power’s operation. If capitalism and the state were the sole culprits, then eliminating them would by itself open up a utopian society. But we ought to be leery of such simple solutions. One of the lessons of the struggles against racism, misogyny, prejudice against gays and lesbians, etc. is that power and oppression are not reducible to a single site or a single operation.