Crack Capitalism

“Crack Capitalism”, argues that radical change can only come about through the creation, expansion and multiplication of ‘cracks’ in the capitalist system. These cracks are ordinary moments or spaces of rebellion in which we assert a different type of doing. John Holloway’s previous book, “Change the World Without Taking Power”, sparked a world-wide debate among activists and scholars about the most effective methods of going beyond capitalism. Now, Holloway rejects the idea of a disconnected array of struggles and finds a unifying contradiction – the opposition between the capitalist labour we undertake in our jobs and the drive towards doing what we consider necessary or desirable.

Bella Caledonia interviewed John ahead of his appearance at the Big Tent Festival this weekend.

BC: I’m interested in history, so I wanted to ask you about your immediate history with the publication of Change the World Without Taking Power (2002) but also before that your involvement in the journal Common Sense (1987-2003) in Edinburgh in the 90s.

In an editorial in #10 the editors write:

“The producers of Common Sense remain committed to the journal’s original brief – to offer a venue for open discussion and to juxtapose written work without regard to style and without deferring to the restrictions of university based journals, and they hope to be able to articulate something of the common sense of the new age before us. Common Sense does not have any political programme nor does it wish to define what is political in advance. Nevertheless, we are keen to examine what is this thing called “common sense”, and we hope that you who read the journal will also make contributions whenever you feel the inclination. We feel that there is a certain imperative to think through the changes before us and to articulate new strategies before the issues that arise are hijacked by the Universities to be theories into obscurity, or by Party machines to be practised to death.”

I wonder if you could say something about this struggle to work within and outwith the academic world? How does that work for you?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: The other side of universities being converted more and more into edufactories for the rapid production of skilled but uncritical labour power is that critical thought and interesting discussion are migrating. The important events and debates are increasingly taking place outwith the walls of the universities – in the Big Tent, of course, but also in countless other political-theoretical events and meetings. Certainly there are still some critical spaces within the universities, and for those of us who work or study in the universities, it’s really important to turn every space into a critical, anti-capitalist space. The best way of doing that is probably to think of ourselves as working in-against-and-beyond the universities. I think this was the idea behind Common Sense, and we take it up in the journal I’m involved in now in Puebla, Bajo el Volcán. The whole discussion catalysed by Change the World has illustrated this for me: I’ve discussed the book in lots of university settings, but probably even more in meetings with groups of activists. More and more, universities are turning into obstacles to serious thought and discussion, but it is still possible to break through these obstacles.

BC: There seems to be a continuity between ‘Common Sense’ and ‘Crack Capitalism’ and the thread (perhaps imagined or projected) seems to be a belief in the everyday. Again quoting an editorial (#5) the authors write:

In classical thought, and more especially in Scottish eighteenth century philosophy, the term ‘common sense’ carried with it two connotations: (i) ‘common sense’ meant public of shared sense (the Latin ‘sensus comunis‘ being translated as ‘publick sense’ by Francis Hutcheson in 1728). And (ii) ‘common sense’ signified that sense, or capacity, which allows us to totalise or synthesise the data supplied by the five senses (sight, touch and so on) of a more familiar kind. (The conventional term ‘sixth sense‘, stripped of its mystical and spiritualistic suggestions, originates from the idea of a ‘common sense’ understood in this latter way). It is in this twofold philosophical sense of ‘common sense’ that our title is intended.

Is this thread real?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: For me the continuity is very real and very important. I started to leave Edinburgh and move to Mexico nearly twenty years ago now, but the discussions of those years with Richard Gunn and Werner Bonefeld and the others involved in Common Sense remain as a very important basis for what I’ve written since then. This includes things that were perhaps left unexpressed then but hung in the air, such as the connection between Richard’s emphasis on the democratic common-sense aspect of Scottish eighteenth century philosophy and my argument in Crack Capitalism that the only possible way of thinking of anti-capitalist revolution is to see that being an anti-capitalist revolutionary is the most ordinary thing in the world, simply part of everyday life.

BC: In Change the World Without Taking Power  (2002) you seemed to have captured much that was important and vital in the anti-capitalist movement. What’s your analysis of what happened to the vitality of that movement? Has it dissipated?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: Certainly the open displays of the anti-capitalist movement are less obvious than before, but this can change very quickly. In many places there is a real feeling of anger just coming to the boil, but then watched kettles are difficult to predict.

Also the obvious events, although important, may not be as important as the hidden transformations underneath. If you go and throw stones at the leaders of the G8 at the weekend, but then report for work on the Monday, this may be less effective as a force for change than if you stay at home and transform your unemployment or your precarious semi-unemployment, or indeed your retirement, or employment, into the creation of activities that go against-and-beyond capital in possibly less spectacular but more profound ways. In other words, the dissipation of the vitality of the movement that you mention may be the absorption of anti-capitalism into the textures of everyday life. Is this what is happening? It is hard to know, but to some extent I think it is.

BC: In Change the World Without Taking Power you write: “The aim of this book is to strengthen negativity, to take the side of the fly in the web, to make the scream more strident.”

In Crack Capitalism you seem more positive. There is a contradiction in that the intervening period seems to have been characterised by an increase in reactionary forces. Can you help make sense of this?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: I don’t think Crack Capitalism is more positive. I see it as an attempt to develop the scream. It is in part a response to all the people who said in lots of meetings “yes, you’re absolutely right, we must change the world without taking power, but what do we do?” In the new book I give an answer: crack capitalism. And then I try to understand what this means.

BC: At the Big Tent Festival (2010) we are trying to give a platform to a group from Edinburgh who are actively supporting Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Can you give us some update on the situation there and on the Mexican authorities repression of these autonomous communities?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: I feel that the situation with the Zapatistas is a bit like what we’ve just seen in more general terms. They are certainly less visible than they were some years ago, and there are very few statements coming from the leadership, but in terms of what they’re doing in their communities, developing their own systems of education, health care and administration, they are moving forward very strongly and quietly. To talk to the young Zapatistas who have grown up in the Zapatista movement is an amazing experience: they are so articulate, self-confident and so clear about the significance and importance of what they are doing.

BC: In Crack Capitalism you write: “Now. There is an urgency in all this. Enough! Ya Basta! We have enough of living in, and creating, a world of exploitation, violence and starvation. And now there is a new urgency, the urgency of time itself.”

This is one of the aims of the festival to try and focus on the reality of this urgency, this material, ecological state of omnicide that won’t wait for theory or revolution…or cracks? The experience of many is that capitalism doesnt crack it absorbs and regurgitates revolt and it innoculates itself against change. Is your thesis that the cracks are having an impact? How will we know when we are progressing? The banks collapsed and yet the bonus culture remains. The housing market collapsed yet Location Location Location is still being broadcast. Mainstream society yearns for ‘things to return to how they were two years ago.’

JOHN HOLLOWAY: Pessimism is easy, but it doesn’t help us very much. I think theory is really a question of hope against hope, of finding some glimpse of light in a very dark night. I don’t think our cracks are adequate, but I think they’re the only way forward. That is, the only way forward is through a multiplicity of spaces or moments of refusal-and-creation. That our revolts are constantly being re-absorbed into capital is clear, but we move faster than capital does, we are always a step ahead. The only way I can imagine revolution is through the creation, expansion, multiplication and confluence of these cracks, these space or moments of refusal-and-creation.

BC: You are described as an ‘Autonomist Marxian’. For those people born after the death of ideology who will assume that this is a Doctor Who character, can you describe what this means?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: For me the decisive point is the somersault or inversion that comes in Italian Marxism in the 1960s and is expressed particularly clearly in an article by Mario Tronti called “Lenin in England”. This insists that, instead of putting capital in the centre of our analysis of capitalism, we should start from working class struggle and understand capitalist development as a response to that struggle. I’m not sure that I would describe myself as an autonomist Marxist, but I do think that we (as creativity, as non-identity, as working class, as question, as creativity that does not fit) are the centre and that capital depends on us. The dominator always depends upon the dominated: this is what makes revolution thinkable.

BC: You are described as a Marxist but you read like an anarchist. When you look back at the anti-globalisation movement it does seem dominated by an anarchist ethos. What does this tell us? Is the very lack of leadership what made it fail or part of its success?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: I don’t think it is a question of looking back at the anti-globalisation movement, but of looking forward. But certainly one of the good things about the movement of recent years is the blurring of lines, the breaking down of the old rigid distinctions between anarchists and communists, amongst others. I think the lack of leadership makes it difficult to judge the success or failure of the movement, but it probably has an important impact in terms of the strength of diffusion of the movement. If you are not led but have to find your own way forward, it is likely to be a much more profound process than if you simply follow a leader or a party line.

BC: Without giving away the end of the book it does end with an idealist moment. Do you have any sympathy with the people who find it frustrating that whilst you can find ‘cracks’ in every subversive act what we really need is to stop the ‘shock doctrine’ that is about to be imposed? How do we convert ‘moments of rebellion’ to practical opposition?

JOHN HOLLOWAY: I think that the fact that the earlier book, Change the World without taking Power ends by saying that we still don’t know how to do it was very frustrating for many people, but what can we do? We can write a programme, create a Party and pretend that we know how to make the revolution, and that will be very reassuring for many people, but I think it’s better not to pretend. And of course moments of rebellion are practical opposition. And the book does not end with an idealist moment – but of course people will have to read it to see that.

BC: Thank you.

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  1. Sean says:

    Excellent interview with a really interesting writer.

    I read ‘Change the World without taking Power’ and enjoyed it (I don’t remember feeling any anti-climax at its conclusion; that we need to find out for ourselves how to go forward). I’ll definitely grab a copy of Crack Capitalism when I’m not so skint.

    And cool to see Holloway lived in Edinburgh!

  2. Mhairi McAlpine says:

    I agree a really interesting interview and one which gives me a place to look for postive change.

    Having been that person at the G8 (admittedly going on childrens picnics rather than throwing stones), then going to work on the Monday, I can identify the sense of disconnection.

    With the looming graduate unemployment figures I wonder if this is perhaps a source of potential radicals. People with time and energy that have been sold a pup, promised a glittering career as CEOs with all the confidence that comes with that given a choice of living from hand to mouth on diminishing benefits, on low paid menial jobs or in unpaid interships.

    Eventually people will work out that if they are going to starve what every they do within the rules of the system, then their best chance of getting fed is challenging the system.

  3. Joss Winn says:

    Thanks for doing this interview. I thought you’d like to know that all 24 issues of Common Sense are now online here:

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Joss
      thanks – what a great piece of work, thanks for making it happen. How did it happen? Was it part of a study?

      1. Joss Winn says:

        It wasn’t part of a study, although we will write something about the journal’s history and significance.

        I was initially looking for a couple of articles that Richard Gunn wrote and offered to digitise them all if people sent them to me. You can read more about it here:

        and here:

  4. Ian Hamilton says:

    In the west we have solved the problems of production but done nothing for the problems of distribution. I disagreed with Jimmy Reid and Tommy Sherridan on socialism. That merely puts more power in the hands of our rulers.

    For a start would you please read The Spirit Level which clearly identifies the problems. It also shows the countries which have gone some way to solve them.

    Some people enjoy the power of making money. They should be encouraged and their earnings capped by tax. The toys and trappings of power are all they need. A few will seek tax havens but that is merely another problem which can be solved. Perhaps the solution is to say, ‘Good riddance’. They destroyed their own banking system.

    Ian Hamilton

  5. Pingback: Common Sense |

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