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Requiem for a Dream? Hope and Hopelessness Today

John Holloway[1]

Where are the dreams of yesteryear?

May 1968, fifty years ago. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with their song “Chicago” and its repeated refrain “We can change the world, we can change the world”. That was just a dream some of us had. A generation of fools

December 2008, almost ten years ago. The murder of Alexis, the students take the streets, turn the world upside down and a different world of desire and possibility takes its place. “A revolt of the gift against the sovereignty of money. An insurrection of anarchy, of use value against the democracy of exchange value. A spontaneous rising of collective freedom against the rationality of individual discipline.”

Summer 2011, the summer of the indignados and the occupies, of the dreams that would not fit in the ballot boxes, the dreams that would not fit into this world.

January 2015. The government of hope is elected here in Greece. July, a few months later: dancing in Sintagma after the great OXI. A mockery. One of the worst jokes of recent history.

Just seventy years ago: the civil war. So many killed, because they believed they could create a better world.

Why? What was the point? Where have all the dreams gone, in this world of growing inequality, this world of Trump and Tsipras, both assassins of hope, which one worse than the other, this world of wars and refugees, this world where Money is the only king?

Is it not time to sing a requiem for the dreams? To let them go, to accept that the world is never going to be the place we dreamed of? Is it not time to bow low to Lord Money and say goodbye to the subjunctive of dreams and accept the indicative, that the world is as it is and that we must live with it? Now that the generation of 1968 is dying, should we not just say goodbye?

 

2. Hope and hopelessness touch us deeply in the universities. Hope is a way of thinking. It is not just “I hope, I hope, I hope Greece will win the World Cup, I hope to wake up tomorrow and find that there is no poverty any more”. No, hope taken seriously is what Ernst Bloch called a “docta spes”, a learned or scientific hope. A way of thinking that moves critically, self-critically, against-and-beyond the world as it is, a way of thinking that has a different grammar.

 

Perhaps the two central elements of this grammar are historicity and latency. Historicity: the understanding of the present organisation of society as being a historically specific form of organisation, unlikely to last for ever. It follows that the key elements of this society are also so many historically specific social forms: money, commodity, state. Critical thought, then, is negative, a moving against these forms of social relations that present themselves as eternal, unbreakable. To think is to think-against, to think against-and-beyond these forms that hold us entrapped.

We are caught in a logic, the systemic dynamic of capital, that is pushing us towards our total self-annihilation, through destruction of the natural environment necessary for our survival, through nuclear war or in some other way. In this situation there is only one scientific question that remains to us: how do we break this logic, how do we break this system, how do we get out of here? Our social science, then, is not a science of society, but a science against existing society.

The answer, if it exists, must have to do with the second element I mentioned: latency, the existence of a force that is not always visible but is pushing beneath the surface against capitalism and towards the creation of a different world. Bloch saw this in terms of the present existence of the world that does not yet exist but could exist, and explored the present manifestations of this Not-Yet in all aspects of life from fairly tales to dance to architecture to religion: this constant push to create a different world, against-and-beyond that which exists. Arundhati Roy expresses this beautifully: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe.” That is what we must do: listen very carefully to hear the breathing of the unborn world, of the world that is not-yet. Listen to the rebellions, the refusals, the insubordinations, the dignities, the other-doings that are pushing against-and-beyond, towards another world.

 

3. But what if the breathing stops? What if we can no longer hear the breathing of the unborn world? What if it has been killed inside the womb? That would indeed be a crime against humanity, the crime of Tsipras, of Trump, of Merkel. But not just them, we are all complicit. We too in the universities are complicit in so far as we exclude from our thought that cry of refusal and hope that opens towards another world. We are all part of an educational system that says over and over again: learn how the world is, because there is no other world. Leave your dreams outside when you come in to the classroom.

 

But what if the unborn world has been killed? Perhaps it made sense to talk of creating another world a hundred years ago, but maybe the moment has gone and it is now too late, maybe the dream no longer has any basis. Perhaps we have to accept that revolution is dead, that there is now no way out of a world ruled by money. A science of hope is at the same time a science of fear, of the fear that there is no longer any hope.

The notion of the unicorn was a beautiful idea in the middle ages, but surely there came a point when even the most romantic students of nature had to accept that the unicorn does not exist. Is it time then to sing a requiem for the unicorn, a requiem for the dream of an emancipated world?

Only it does not work that way. Probably the believers in unicorns did not say openly that they did not exist, they just started to talk of horses. The unicorn gradually became a dirty word, a taboo in serious scientific discussion. Is this happening to us? Perhaps. Revolution and communising have become taboo words, to be replaced by democracy[2] and the very nebulous “common”. Capitalism is replaced by neoliberalism. The concept of capital as the dynamic of destruction which holds us entrapped is forgotten, the important thing now is thinking from below. Movements of resistance and rebellion are now “social movements”. Worst of all, left-wing thought becomes a complaint about how bad the system is, rather than thinking about how we get out of here.

But perhaps they are right. Maybe there is no way out of here, all the exits have been closed.  Maybe if we are academics and have worked on Marxist theory for fifty years, we are just afraid to say “We got it wrong, it was all a mistake, that was just a dream some of us had.”

 

4. It is rage that drives us forward, it is rage that will not let us accept that the dream is dead. We read of the refugees who drown in the Mediterranean, or of the migrants who die of asphyxiation packed into lorries taking them across the Mexican-US border; we see the obscene inequalities in the world, with millions living on the edge of starvation; and a profound anger rises up inside us telling us that we cannot accept a world like that, that this is a wrong world, an untrue world. We know that these are not isolated horrors, that there is a systemic connection between them, that they grow out of a society based on the pursuit of profit, a world ruled by money. Our rage is not just a multiplicity of separate rages, it is an anti-systemic rage, a rage against the way in which society is organised, a rage against capitalism.

 

It is our rage that pushes us back to hope, to the refusal to accept the world as it is. Just as we need a docta spes, a learned or scientific hope, so we need a docta rabia, a science of rage. Far from leaving our rage outside the classroom, the role of science is, or should be, to give confidence and force to our rage. We live in a world of increasing anger, but at the moment that anger is going the wrong way, locking us into the system that is destroying us rather than breaking down the walls. We have to think that rage, turn it against the system that enrages us, understand that our hope is a hope-in-rage, and try to ensure that rage becomes the rage of hope.

It is our rage that will not let us accept that the unborn world is dead, although so much tells us that she is. It is rage that cries in desperation “listen, listen, listen, surely we can hear some breathing still?”

The rage and the desperation are crucial, but we know that they are not enough. Hope walks on a knife-edge of anguish. Is it too late, are the doors closed? Is it not better to accept, to bow low to the power of money, of capital, to say simply “that is the way things are”? We do not want to be just the morally upright losers of always. We want to know that our hope is not ridiculous. We want to win.

But how? There is no revolutionary party, no revolutionary army ready to lead us to victory. And if there is one thing we have learnt from the experience of Syriza, from Venezuela, from Bolivia, it is that institutionalised hope is a disaster. A political party cannot lead the way out of capitalism through the state, simply because the state is so tightly integrated into the reproduction of capital that there is no way that it can do anything other than promote capital accumulation.

 

5. How, then?

 

Is there really no way we can get rid of these people, is there really no way we can get rid of this system that is killing the potential of so many people, ruining our lives?

Two answers. There are two reasons why I still think that we can win, that we can still get rid of capitalism, and that the revolt against capital should be the basis of our thinking. Both of them are right, both of them inadequate, but sufficient to keep the door open.

Refusal, insubordination, misfitting, creating cracks in capitalist domination, walking in the wrong direction, crying “here no, here no! here we will not follow the logic of capital, here we will not obey the rule of money, here we shall do whatever we consider necessary or desirable, here we shall live with dignity”. The university is structured to make a contribution to the production and reproduction of capital, but here in this room at this moment, we are walking in the opposite direction, we are saying that there is only one scientific reflection: namely, how do we get out of this headlong rush towards the destruction of humanity, or, in other words, how do we stop making capitalism? In this sense we are trying to create a crack in the university as part of the system of domination. Of course tiny, of course contradictory. But when we look around, we see that the world is full of these cracks, these dignities, these refusals, these pushes towards self-determination, stretching from tiny cracks like this meeting to the creation of social centres and community gardens and the wonderful adespotes skoiles whom I saw the other night to the magnificent creation by the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Kurds in the Middle East of ways of living that go against-and-beyond capitalism, and that in the most difficult circumstances.

I see no other way of thinking of revolution today than as the recognition, creation, expansion, multiplication and confluence of these cracks, these dignities. This has been the basis of the explosion of autonomist politics in all the world in recent years.

And yet. And yet it is not enough. After years and years and years of struggle, capital is still there. Capital is still there, still attacking, still destroying the world. We must celebrate our struggles, celebrate our achievements, but the moment in which we stop saying “But it is not enough”, the moment in which we positivise our vision, our struggles are lost. Because it is not enough: capital is still there.

There is a feeling, after what we might call the autonomist push of the last twenty-five years or so, that there is a crisis of autonomist politics. Not in the sense that it is not essential, but in the sense that it is not enough. The Zapatistas speak of the need to go on the offensive, but it is not clear what this means. It is certainly NOT a military offensive, NOR is it a question of combining autonomous struggle with state-centred struggle because that simply does not work. An alternative is perhaps to focus on what the Zapatistas call the Storm, la Tormenta, by which I understand the crisis of capital.

 

6. The world is still ruled by money, and with increasing arrogance. We seem to be the losers of always.

 

In a situation not so very different, Marx made a suggestion. He said, “Don’t just focus on our own struggles and the power of capital that confronts us. Try to see the fragility of capital and, more than that, try to see that it is our resistance that constitutes that fragility. Look at capitalism not as a system of domination but as a domination-in-crisis, and understand that we are the crisis of capital.” Our struggles, even when they seem to be defeated without trace, enter into capital as a chronic, progressive and possibly fatal illness, and it is important that we should recognise it.

I understand Marxism not as a theory of domination but as a theory of crisis, The theory of crisis can be understood in two ways. Most obviously it is a theory that explains how awful capitalism is, how there is no possibility of a stable, gentle capitalism. But, more important than that, it is a theory of the fragility of the system, and, for that reason, a theory of hope. And that is what we need at this moment, when capital seems to be celebrating a total victory over humanity.

The fragility of capitalism is its own greed, its own insatiable thirst for surplus value. Unlike earlier forms of domination, capital cannot stand still, it has to intensify its exploitation constantly, and with it its dominance over every aspect of human life. We are all aware how the logic of capital pushes and pushes its way into every aspect of our existence. But in the intensification of exploitation and domination, it inevitably bumps into the resistance or simply inadequacy of humans. This inadequacy and resistance builds up to the point of crisis, when the rate of profit falls and it becomes clear that capital needs to restructure, to impose greater discipline, in the workplace and in society as a whole, to restructure the technological basis of production, to eliminate inefficient capitals and so on. Marx analyses this in terms of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, but the core of this tendency is the incapacity on the part of capital to exploit the workers sufficiently  and impose its domination on all the world to maintain the rate of profit in the face of the rising costs of technology. In other words: We are the crisis of capital. Capital must For capital, the problem with pushing through the restructuring is that it means taking on a battle against strong resistance to push through these changes that will hurt working class and humanity as a whole, and also other capitalists. Above all, perhaps, there is a fear that people will realise that capitalism is a terribly stupid system, a dreadful way of organising society, as happened in the early years of the 20th century and then between the wars, as perhaps has been happening in Greece in the last few years. This is where hope becomes so important; in crisis there is a battle between the realisation that capital is a failed system and the view that there is no possibility of changing it. The absence of hope breaks the confidence of revolt: what is the point when there is no way out? And this disillusion can easily turn to bitterness and racism.

After 1917, fear drove capital into the realisation that, through the states, it was possible to postpone and manage crises. This is the Keynesian solution: the states intervene to create more money and so maintain profits, but the profits are not based on a real exploitation, a real production of surplus value, they are rather a bet on surplus value that has not yet been produced. And when the surplus value produced continues to be insufficient, then you create more money and the fiction is expanded. In this way capital avoids the confrontation that it fears, or rather it tries to administer it, choosing certain places (like Greece in the last few worlds) as places to promote the confrontation in a limited way and at the same time to learn lessons about how it could be managed on a world basis.

And so, from the 1930s onwards, politics comes to be dominated by the postponement-and-management of crisis, principally through the expansion of the money supply. The New Deal and fascism were early attempts to postpone-and-manage the crisis, but in fact it was the Second World War that brought the restructuring capital required and, with its seventy million deaths, created the base for the so-called “golden age” of capitalism.

Since the 1970s, when crisis reappeared, and after the uprisings of 1968 throughout the world, capital has again sought to get itself out of its difficulties by the massive and unprecedented expansion of debt. The postponement of the crisis brings with it the rise of finance and of the banks, but also great costs and risks. The whole system becomes much more volatile, and the fear is constantly present that the ever-growing bubble of debt, that is, of fictional capital, might collapse. The whole system nearly collapsed in 2008, but was rescued by a massive new wave of debt, which has continued to grow ever since, in spite of all the austerity policies imposed throughout the world, and most fiercely here in Greece. Many commentators argue that a financial collapse on a far greater scale than 2008 is almost certain to happen in the next few years.

The growing violence of capital throughout the world, then, is an expression not of its supreme power but of its desperation. We are the cause of that desperation.

Perhaps we can think of the present situation in terms of a boxing match. We know that we are badly battered and think that the fight is all over, that our opponent will win an easy victory. But then we look more closely and see that he is wobbling on his legs and is close to falling, and we know that the fight is not over yet, that we can still win.

 

7. To see that capital is desperate gives a confidence to our rage. We rage not against an unjust, oppressive, obscene system that will last forever, we rage against a failed system, a form of social organisation that has proved its uselessness, its unviability, a system that, with our help, is on its way out. It is time to say goodbye, time to say, “move over, capitalism, make way for a world that has some meaning”. Capitalism has failed as a system which claims to secure the reproduction of human life, and it is very probable that this failure will become much more evident in the years to come. We must continue to build alternatives, not just as escapes, but with the confidence to say to capital “get out of the way, we’re coming through”.

 

Possibly we are moving into a world of growing chaos, a world in which it happens more frequently and in more parts of the world that water does not come out of the tap, money does not come out of the bank machines, internet connections break down, certainly a world of more unemployment and less state support. Instead of calling on capital to come back, we have to think of a politics of transition, in which we say “go now, capital, you have failed, we shall take over”.

This sounds easy and we know that it is not, we know the forces stacked against it. We know too that our attempts to create something else will always be contradictory, because at the same time as we say “go away, capital”, we also know that it still dominates the world and we are still dependent on it for our existence. There is no purity here. At the same time as I give this talk against capital, I know that I depend on my salary which comes from a capitalist university. The same if we set up some alternative project for living in a different way, we still have the problem of how we deal with the interface with the capitalist world that still exists. The way forward is not obvious, but the desperate situation of capital tells us that we are not defeated yet. In fact, TINA: there is no alternative, we must create and are creating another world. Our dream is alive and well, and this is no requiem.

 

Reference:

González Cruz, Edith (2017), De la Revolución a la Democracia, Tesis de Doctorado, Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla
[1] Text of a talk delivered in the Panteion University, Athens, 25 April 2018.
[2] Ver González Cruz 2017.

 

 

 

Translated from English to Turkish: Oğul Köseoğlu

 

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