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Just do it – don’t think about it

Review by Phil Sharpe

The fact that theory is reduced to nothing more than a expression of practice is a denial of the significance of theory. But theory, and a particular world outlook, is how we understand, motivate, explain and interpret our practice. Practice cannot be understood outside of the significance of theory and its ideological content, something which is denied by John Holloway.

The starting point for John Holloway is that of a spontaneous negativity that expresses the “scream” of what is wrong with society. This is contrasted with theoretical reflection, which represents an objectivity that modifies and dissipates the scream into something we study rather than articulating the beginning of change: “The more we study society, the more our negativity is dissipated or sidelined as being irrelevant. There is no room for the scream in academic discourse,” claims Holloway. (p3)

In this one assertion, Holloway rejects the approach of establishing an object of study. This is considered to be inherently contemplative, passive, reflective, and an approach that reduces the subject to an expression of static being. Holloway’s approach is not located in terms of an independent material world as the basis to understand human practice and thought. Instead his starting point is the negativity of feelings, consciousness, and sensations, which are so powerful and important, and therefore take precedence over the material world:

“ ‘We’ are here as the starting point because we cannot honestly start anywhere else. We cannot start anywhere other than with our own thoughts and our own reactions.”(p4) Thus feelings, emotions, and intuitions are dynamically contrasted to a static objective material world because negativity is a subjectivity that continually challenges an unsatisfactory objectivity and its materiality. The objective is what is limited and restrictive because it represents an artificial construct of otherness and pseudo independence from the subjective. This is why negativity, and its scream and feelings, are a challenge to the objective, because emotions and feelings, and the practices they represent, are spontaneously trying to transcend the limitations of the objective: “What we feel is not necessarily correct, but it is a starting point to be respected and criticised, not just to be put aside in favour of objectivity.”(p5)

Holloway’s standpoint of the subject and its expression of negativity is connected to a gap and contradiction between what is and the uncertain potential for what could be: “We quite consciously start from the subject, or at least from an undefined subjectivity, aware of all the problems that this implies. We start there because to start anywhere else is simply an untruth. The challenge is to develop a way of thinking that builds critically upon the initial negative standpoint, a way of understanding that negates the truth of the world.”(p8)

This starting point of the primacy of the subject is not only flawed but results, ultimately, in a philosophical justification for the status quo of globalised capitalism. For in order to locate the negativity of the subject we have to establish its relation to the object, not in terms of an idealist equation of the object as the product of the subject but instead showing the object having its own materiality, independence and objective actuality. Therefore the subject cannot define the objective as no more than the alienated expression of its own projections. Rather the objective as material processes, laws and tendencies, such as the law of value, express the development of the productive forces, and show the historical materialist necessity and basis for an alternative to capitalism. Precisely because the law of value has an objective material expression means that it can be subjectively understood, and on this basis the material content and objectivity of the law of value shows the importance of negativity, the real and material development of the gap between what is and what could be. Unless capitalism, and its conceptual expression as the law of value, is expressed as an objective material product of history, the role of the subject and its negative expression cannot be understood. For the negativity of the subject is an expression of the material problems of the capitalist mode of production.

Hence Holloway’s idealism, in terms of the primacy of the subject as negativity, is actually an expression of an apologetic materialism. Implicitly he accepts the primacy of the objective for understanding the role of the subjective in relation to the material content of negativity, but explicitly he denies the primacy of the objective in this relation.

The theoretical importance of this explicit denial of objectivity is to reduce the objective to the needs of the spontaneity of the subject. This means to gloss over the material development of the class contradictions of capitalism, and therefore results in arguing for revolution as the realisation of the subject rather than the objective transformation of social relations by the conscious activity of the working class. This would show the subject acting in accordance with objective material necessity to overcome alienation and exploitation.

Instead to Holloway, the subject acts to realise the negativity of consciousness, or overcoming the angst of the scream, which means transcending the alienation of consciousness at the level of feelings. But this action is not connected to overcoming the alienation generated by the objective material conditions of capitalist social relations. This is why Holloway conceives of revolution as primarily a subjective act rather than a process of objective transformation of what is into something qualitatively different of the what could be of a different social system.

To Holloway, revolution of a Leninist type had the organisational aim of constructing a new state power, but this was to control an alienated objective entity rather than transcend it:

“The idea of changing society through the conquest of power thus ends up achieving the opposite of what it sets out to achieve. Instead of the conquest of power being a step towards the abolition of power relations, the attempt to conquer power involves the extension of the field of power relations into the struggle for power....For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.” (p17-18)

But the degeneration of the Russian revolution was not located in the exercise of power, but was instead located in objective material conditions, such as isolation, backwardness, civil war and bureaucratisation. Control of the state under these conditions became alienating and an accommodation to the logic and imperatives of a world economy dominated by capital.

The main problem of the October revolution was not the taking of state power, but rather that the accountability of the state to the working class was undermined by the decline of soviet democracy in conditions of the polarisation of the civil war and chronic economic problems. It was this objective situation that generated and reproduced the alienating problems of the state.

Holloway’s view maintains that the alienating logic of capital is omnipotent. In doing so, he denies the emancipatory role of revolution, which means that accommodation to capital is the only alternative to the supposedly inherently alienating subjectivity of revolutionary activity.

So the question of emancipation is limited to the subjectivity of consciousness, which is not connected to the possibility of the subjective transforming the objective. Instead the objective is considered to be too powerful and not conducive to change, and so the illusion of change is maintained by denying the importance of the objective and its material content. Thus Holloway accepts that struggles can be oppositional, although they are not necessarily anti-capitalist, but all struggles have given up on revolution. So what is a strategic problem of low expectations and sometimes low morale of oppositional groupings is in an idealist way turned into a virtue by Holloway and given the merit of rejecting the struggle for power and being for anti-power:

“Social discontent today tends to be expressed far more diffusely, through participation in ‘non-governmental organisations’, through campaigning around particular issues, through the individual or collective concerns of teachers, doctors or other workers who seek to do things in a way that does not objectify people, in the development of autonomous community projects of all sorts, even in prolonged and massive rebellions such as the one taking place in Chiapas. There is a vast area of activity directed towards changing the world in a way that does not have the state as its focus, and does not aim at gaining positions of power.....It is rarely revolutionary in the sense of having revolution as an explicit aim, yet the projection of a radical otherness is often an important component of the activity involved. It includes what is sometimes called the area of ‘autonomy’, but it is far, far wider than what is usually indicated by the term. It is sometimes, but not always, in open hostility to capitalism, but it does not find and does not seek the sort of clear focus for such activity that was formerly provided by both revolutionary and reformist parties.”(p21)

In similar terms Economism in the Russian revolutionary movement of the early 20th century turned the spontaneous limitations of the working class - trade union consciousness and adapting to bourgeois ideology - into a virtue which showed the creativity of the working class. Consequently, Economism encouraged the connected view that the working class was right to emphasise economic demands and right to supposedly reject political struggles such as the task of overthrowing the Tsarist government. Holloway shares this objectivist logic concerning an automatic relation between social being and required class consciousness. Capitalism will generate the negativity, angst, and scream, that spontaneously leads to struggles, but the same spontaneous logic of these struggles is not revolutionary.

This is why it would be wrong to go against the limits of spontaneity by trying to develop the consciousness of struggles through attempting to realise their objective potential by. This would mean linking the subjectivity of the struggles to the strategy of revolution, which is the actual content and possibilities of these struggles. Instead, to Holloway, it is necessary to keep struggles at their particular, local, and spontaneous level, because automatically some greater logic of anti-power and anti-capitalism will become apparent. This means it is an artificial imposition to try and make and turn spontaneous struggles into conscious struggles against capitalism in terms of showing the possibility of a revolutionary alternative of opposing power structures. For this aim of developing the subjective in order to transform existing material conditions apparently goes against the spontaneous negativity and dynamism of these struggles.

To Holloway the feasibility of anti-power represents the invisible, automatic, and objective logic of the negativity of the subject, and therefore the dynamism of spontaneity has no strategic problems, but rather the spontaneous potential for real change can be realised even if this is not inevitable. But the very strategic question facing spontaneous struggles is that they try to avoid the question of power. But this question becomes an urgent one if the subjective is to realise its objective potential and transform material conditions. So even when the struggle tries to be self-limiting, and restricted in scope, the spontaneous struggle will be faced with questions of power, as is happening in present day Argentina. It will be necessary to develop alternative structures of power if the objective potential of the subjectivity of mass upheaval is to be realised. Therefore the question will be increasingly posed about how to transform a spontaneous struggle into a conscious struggle for power, because the alternative will be a serious defeat and the unrealisability of even the initial limited aims of the struggle.

Holloway’s emphasis on spontaneity is philosophically located in the view that the primary condition to explain being is not an independent material world, but is rather the relation between scream and reality, or the contradiction and angst between the limitations of what is and what could be:

“Our foundation, if that word is relevant at all, is not abstract preference for matter over mind, but the scream, the negation of what exists. Doing, in other words, is central to our concern not simply because doing is a material precondition for living but because our central concern is changing the world, negating that which exists. To think the world from the perspective of the scream is to think it from the perspective of doing.”(p23)

Holloway in idealist terms differentiates between material conditions of existence and doing. Doing as negativity and the expression of scream is dynamic and primary, and the material conditions are essentially secondary and passive. But, as Marx pointed out in the German Ideology, we do not act on the basis of an abstract doing, but rather we act to change the world in relation to its objective material and historical content and context. Therefore activity in an epoch of the low level of the productive forces is socially different from activity in the context of a high level of productive forces. In contrast, to Holloway, activity as doing acquires a transhistorical and over-general quality as an attempt to transcend and negate the objective limitations of alienation. The question arises: if human spontaneous activity always had and has this quality of challenging alienation why has it not overcome alienation? Holloway cannot answer this question because his idealism does not allow for this type of clarity.

In strategic terms Holloway can only postulate an endless repetition of struggle as being able to ultimately transcend alienation. This glosses over the tendency of spontaneous struggles to have alienating limitations and qualities that undermined the possibility of universal human emancipation. These embrace the tendency to gravitate towards reformist aims and restricted trade union type demands and the related acceptance of capitalism. Holloway glosses over this because to him the alternative of transforming spontaneous struggles into a conscious struggle for political power is a worst alternative and has more alienating qualities.

He arrives at this conclusion because the negativity of doing is inherently correct and so will spontaneously arrive at a logical goal of anti-power. This logical process has apparently been undermined by the conscious and reflective role of theory, as expressed by the elitism of revolutionary organisation and its aim of power. To Holloway the role of theory should be self-limiting, and to passively express the spontaneous logic of practice:

“It means rather that we should understand theory as part of practice, as part of the struggle to change the world. Both theory and doing are part of the practical movement of negation.”(p23-24)

Consequently, the problem with the Leninist conception of theory as a guide to practice is that it represents a conscious imposition of theory onto practice. For Holloway this is to negate or nullify the spontaneous logic of doing, or to impose artificial aims onto the process of negativity. The result is new forms of alienation based upon the domination of practice and doing by theory.

For Leninism, however, the acceptance of alienation is based upon accommodation to bourgeois ideology, which is linked to acceptance of the limits of spontaneity. This is why emphasis on negativity is inadequate, because it is not sufficient to oppose in practice the limits and problems of existing society. Instead the potential of negation is consciously developed by theory and its elaboration of an alternative to capitalism as an expression of the possibilities of practice. Hence revolutionary practice cannot be automatically or objectively created out of its own logic. It requires a conscious development of unity with theory, and so practice when it is guided by theory becomes principled, consistent, and opposed to the opportunist acceptance of capitalism.

This approach is contested by Holloway, because for him theory is nothing more than the passive expression of objectively and automatically correct practice and doing which are in a mechanical relation of correspondence with the omnipotent premise of negativity. For negativity has its own logic of inherent correctness and potential for realisation: “Human doing implies projection-beyond, and hence the unity of theory and practice.”(p24)

This is based upon an almost classical economistic standpoint that what occurs in the workplace, in the capital-labour relation, has a spontaneous creative tendency to establish what could be beyond existing society:

“The imagination of the labourer is ecstatic: at the commencement of the labour process it projects beyond what is to an otherness that might be. This otherness exists not only when it is created: it exists already, really, subjunctively, in the projection of the worker, in that which makes her human.”(p24)

Thus the scream is related historically to the process of doing and its historical movement as what could be:

“To take doing, rather than being or talking or thinking, as the focus of our thought, has many implications. Doing implies movement. To start from doing-as-going-beyond (and not just the busy-bee doing as reproduction) means that everything (or at least everything human) is in movement, everything is becoming, that there is no ‘being’, or rather that being can only be a frustrated becoming. The perspective of the scream-doing is inevitably historical, because the human experience can only be understood as a constant moving-beyond (or possibly a frustrated moving beyond). This is important, because if the starting point is not screaming-doing (doing as negation) but rather the word or discourse or a positive understanding of doing (as reproduction), then there is no possibility of understanding society historically: the movement of history becomes broken down into a series of snapshots, a diachronic series, a chronology. Becoming is broken down into a series of states of being.” (p25)

This comment once again suggests that there is an inherent tendency within the production processes of all societies to go against and transcend alienation. In other words, subjectivity as dynamic doing can spontaneously overcome the alienating inertia of static and objectified being and the passivity of theory. This approach cannot establish the relation of alienation to historical development, and so does not show why it is capitalism that uniquely creates the historical objective conditions for a historical transcendence of alienation. The inability to answer this question is related to the one-sided conception of the relation of theory to practice. For what is absent in Holloway is a conception of the importance of ideology and above all of ideological struggle between bourgeois ideology and socialist ideology.

Hence Holloway cannot explain how ideology has actively expressed the class struggle, and shows why the negativity of doing does not have any inherent tendencies of realisation. Instead the fact that theory is reduced to nothing more than a expression of practice is a denial of the significance of theory and its reduction to being a servant of practice and doing. But theory, and a particular world outlook, is how we understand, motivate, explain and interpret our practice. Practice cannot be understood outside of the significance of theory and its ideological content, something which is denied by Holloway.

Practice has a conscious, crucial, and dynamic theoretical aspect, and therefore theory and practice are in a dialectical unity rather than one being reduced to the other. It is because practice has a crucial theoretical aspect we cannot consider that negativity can be spontaneously realised without the crucial role of consciousness. Rather practice is connected to theory and the role of ideological struggle. And if bourgeois ideology is hegemonic then this will obstruct the objective possibility for subjectivity to be realised as the negativity of what could be. The mechanical approach of Holloway, that reduces being to doing, avoids the importance of theory and ideological struggle against capitalist forms of thinking and consciousness.

What Holloway does not allow for is that doing will generate theoretical questions about how we understand doing and its significance. These questions cannot be spontaneously resolved in terms of the imperatives of doing, but instead require protracted reflection and interpretation. Practice is becoming, but this is not mechanically expressed by theory as a moment of practice, but rather practice and doing will necessitate reflection about practice if practice is to continue to have validity and importance as an expression of transformation and change. In other words, we continually test the results of practice, and so theoretical interpretation is inseparable from practice and doing. But if theory was nothing more than the summation of practice it could not provide the necessary procedures of verification and critique of practice.

In order to show that practice is effective, it is necessary that theory is not a passive upholder of practice as doing, but instead shows any possible limitations to practice and outlines potential alternatives. So if practice and doing is to realise its best results, it will continue to be reflected upon, or made part of an active process of theory.

In contrast, Holloway’s spontaneous conception of practice as doing and automatic negation of what is means that theory has a minimal, or even superfluous role in the process of transition from what is to what could be. Theory is almost a hindrance, because it is considered inherently static, and so cannot adequately express or facilitate realising practice as practice. Hence practice requires its own independent spontaneous creativity in order to realise its inherent imperatives of what could be, and the negation of what is. Holloway does consider this process of transformation as a conscious act: “Subjectivity refers to the conscious projection beyond that which exists, the ability to negate that which exists and to create something that does not yet exist.”(p25-26)

The conscious refers to the spontaneous imperatives of subjectivity to realise the negativity of the angst of the scream and doing. Hence our everyday activity and experiences has its own automatically and spontaneously generated logic to realise the aspirations of negativity. Thus spontaneity generates its own necessary consciousness and related practice as doing and becoming in order to move forward the process of overcoming the angst of negativity. In this context theory is almost a static obstacle to the development of a spontaneously generated negative consciousness of what is necessary to realise what could be.

But this approach brings us back to the important strategic question: if subjectivity has its required spontaneous consciousness of negativity why has capitalism not been transcended by an ever-objectively stronger international working class? Holloway cannot answer this question because he effectively rejects the important role of theory in relation to opposing bourgeois ideology and its objective material role in upholding capitalism and discrediting anti-capitalism.

So even if we accept that practice and doing spontaneously generates the oppositional content of negativity and the aspiration of what could be, nevertheless this negativity is at least partially negated by the role of bourgeois ideology. This is precisely why theory is crucial for challenging and attempting to overcome these ideological limitations and problems in relation to the task of facilitating transforming spontaneity into conscious revolutionary practice. Negativity cannot automatically or consciously realise its own imperatives, and so theory is still necessary as a facilitator of the realisation of the potential of this negativity. Consequently, it is theory which makes negativity conscious of its subjective potential to transform the objective.

Change the world without taking power by John Holloway Pluto Press

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