Is Power Always Bad?

Woman´s power Courtesy of CEBimagery common license

It is said that when hundreds of thousands of Argentineans marched in 2004 with lit candles to the Ministry of Justice after the kidnapping of Axel Blumberg, an engineer student at the University of Buenos Aires and the son of a millionaire textile merchant, the response of the autonomist movement was to call for assembleas (popular assemblies) in order to address the issue of crime.

What exactly assembleas should do in this situation is unclear. The view in itself must have come about as pretty naïve after Blumberg was found brutally beaten and shot by his kidnappers. Even more disturbing, however, was that it came against the backdrop of a surge in kidnappings in the country after the economic meltdown in 2001.

It might have been easy for many autonomists to dismiss the issue as an upper class phenomenon; that those marching for justice in the streets were rich people afraid of the poor taking their privileges away by kidnappings, burglaries and petty crimes. By 2004, however, kidnappings had become more commonplace. Not only would members of the upper class fear being abducted, but the fear spread to anyone who could be expected to pay a ransom. The fright of “delinquency” is omnipresent in Latin-American countries, and the drug trade is haunting the slums and working class areas on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and other Argentinean cities. The State has been unable to solve this problem, and the police, with its strong ties to the mafias, is even complicit in the drugs and arms trade.

Autonomists in the Argentinian Rebellion

In 2001 and 2002, Argentina saw a large-scale popular rebellion which has been termed the first anti-capitalist uprising in the 21st Century. As the country plunged into an economic crisis, popular assemblies were formed in the city of Buenos Aires, factories were occupied and taken over by fired workers and the unions of the unemployed were virtually in control of large territories of the country. Many of these movements were deeply inspired by ideals of horizontalism, direct democracy and self-government: Ideals that resonated with the politics of the autonomists.

By the time of the Blumberg-case, however, the autonomist movement was decimated. Since the 2001 and 2002 manifestations that lead to the downfall of five consecutive governments, autonomism in Argentina had been struck by a series of blows – the most important of which was the election of and popular support for, the Peronist president Nestor Kirchner. The saying that the autonomists could only call for assembleas in face of the widespread kidnappings and violent assaults might be interpreted as an irrelevant response to a socially isolated movement. However, it seems more symptomatic of its inability to deal with the concrete political issues that was a concern for large sections of the population.

As the autonomist theoretician Ezequiel Adamovsky, who also was an active member of popular assembly movement in Buenos Aires, asked lamentedly “why is it that, being the Left a better option for humankind, we almost never succeed in getting support of the people? Moreover, why is it that people often vote for obviously pro- capitalist options – sometimes even very Right-wing candidates – instead?” His answer was that the Right is able to respond to the problems that the libertarian Left is incapable of responding to, such as violence and power. “Leaving aside circumstantial factors, the perennial appeal of the Right lies in that it presents itself (and to some extent really is) a force of order.”

The failure of libertarian socialists to advance concrete proposals in times of social crisis that respond to the concrete worries of large sections of the population is not exclusively true for Argentina in 2001. It has been seen time and time again. This incapability might be attributed to a lack of politics on these specific issues, but I believe that the problem is even more fundamental than that. Libertarian socialists are, with their many aversions towards having or taking power, unable to formulate a positive politics on almost every important social issue of today. To the extent that libertarian socialists even formulate a politics, it is normally based on undermining, disrupting or destroying “power.”

The Power Issue

I, myself, identify as a libertarian socialist, and put myself in a radical tradition that is fundamentally different from the authoritarian socialists that came to power in Russia or Eastern Europe, or the parliamentary socialists (Social Democrats) that have been attempting to take power through general elections. I want a libertarian socialist society.

Therefore it may seem a bit odd that I chose to write an article on the need to take power. For is not power something we as left-libertarians are supposed to be against? Does not the word itself mean things like coercion, oppression, domination, command, exploitation and obedience? And didn’t the “taking of power” by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 or the establishment of the People’s Republic in China in 1949, lead to all the subsequent horrors of the Communist tyrannies of the 20th Century? Is not power therefore something we should try to get rid of? Is not the free society all libertarian socialists yearn for, only attainable through destroying power – and not by taking it?

At least this is what many libertarian socialists believe. One of the foremost theoreticians of this idea today is John Holloway. In his book, Change the World Without Taking Power, Holloway argues that every socialist movement that ever tried to take power never managed to realize their visions of a communal, cooperative and free world. Instead, these movements betrayed their original ideals by integrating “the logic, habits and discourse of power into the very heart of the struggle against power.” What is the trajectory of Social Democracy and Communism, if nothing but the ultimate proof of the proverb that power always corrupts?

Taking State Power

Holloway’s project in Change the World is commendable, as he starts out with a critique of the idea that we have to take state power in order to change society – an idea which has defined the major tendencies of the Left for more than a century.

Both reformist and revolutionary socialists have, according to Holloway, “failed completely to live up to the expectations of their enthusiastic supporters.” Although the communists, once at the helm of government, may have increased levels of material security and reduced inequality, they “did little to create a self-determining society or to promote the reign of freedom which has always been central to the communist aspiration.” Social democrats, on the other hand, have a record that in practice “has differed very little from overtly pro-capitalist governments” and “has abandoned any pretensions to be bearers of radical social reform.”

Challenging and crucial as this analysis might be, Holloway makes a grand leap from denouncing the idea of taking state power to condemning power as such:

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 into the struggle against power. What starts as a scream against power, against the dehumanisation of people, against the treatment of humans as means rather than ends, becomes converted into the opposite, into the assumption of the logic, habits and discourse of power into the very heart of the struggle against power.

But is power essentially something negative? Does it always have to corrupt? And does “taking power” necessarily have to mean taking state power?

Power-to and Power-over

According to Holloway, doing – or quite “simply can- ness, capacity-to-do, the ability to do things” – constitutes the basic form of power. Holloway calls this form of power a “power-to” or “power-to-do.” For Holloway, power-to is something inherently good. Not only does it realize our distinctively human abilities to project-beyond reality as we see it here and now, it is also “inherently plural, collective, choral, communal.”

Now, the turning of power into something bad happens when somebody in some way starts to appropriate and control the doing of others. In this process, power-to is turned into what Holloway calls power- over, and these two become the opposites of a dichotomy. Whereas power-to is defined by a sort of liberating and harmonious social flow that unites the doing of each and everyone of us, power- over arises from the breaking up of the collective by a process of separation.

The exercise of power by the ones who have appropriated the doing of others – that is to say, the capitalists – is not based on brute force, but rather on the fact that the individual workers have no other option than to work for someone in order to earn a living. “The doers have now won freedom from personal dependence on the rulers,” writes Holloway, “but they are stilled held in a process of subordination by the fracturing of the collective flow of doing.”

Capital is not based on the ownership of people but on the ownership of the done and, on that basis, of the repeated buying of people’s power-to-do. Since people are not owned, they can quite easily refuse to work for others without suffering any immediate punishment. The punishment comes rather in being cut off from the means of doing (and of survival). Moreover, for Holloway, organized violence, police, armies and prison guards are outsourced to another agent, the State, whose role is basically to ensure that the capitalist’s property rights are kept intact.

A Flawed Dichotomy

Useful as the concepts of power-over and power-to might be when it comes to differentiate between exploitation and non-exploitation, it is not helpful in understanding how power actually works in society – and even less how it should be dealt with in a free society.

For what, after all, is power-to? For Holloway it is just an abstraction of the essence of doing something, and hardly a reality at all. Importantly, Holloway’s concept does not describe or imply a way of organizing society. He stops and does not ask the crucial question: Have societies solely based on power-to ever existed? I believe what he would find would be quite disconcerting. Collective forms of doing, or “social flows of doing,” have always been organized in certain ways. Every social organization has its proper modes of production and its own institutions.

By saying that communities based on power-to never have existed in the past, I am not saying that they cannot exist in the future. I merely point out what Holloway failed to mention: That the social flow of doing always has been united in a particular institutional way, and that these institutions have been part of a structure that distributes power to certain individuals in a certain setting (being an elderly in the tribal community means nothing special if it were not for the council of elders). With this in mind, however, one may very well ask oneself whether a society solely based on power-to is at all possible.

A pure and power-free social flow of doing is an illusion. In today’s society the decision makers are capital owners that have power over their workers. But let us face it, even in a considerably better world somebody would have to make decision regarding production and distribution, and they would rely on somebody listening to and executing these decisions. 

If Holloway did not involve himself only with an abstract discussion of power, he would have been forced to consider the various answers in the socialist tradition to where such power should be located. Proponents of workers councils think economic power should be placed in the hands of workers representatives, advocates of workers collectives believe that the individual work place should be the locus of decision-making, and Social Democrats put their faith in a strong national assembly to regulate the market economy.

Looking closer at real life experiences further reveals the blemish of the distinction between power-to and power-over. Take a look at the unemployed worker’s movement in Argentina, where several communities of the so-called piqueteros – who blocked the main roads to Buenos Aires during the rebellion in 2001 and 2002 – have been organized in a libertarian way. With a strong emphasis on horizontalism and direct democracy, all decisions are made in assemblies where every member of the community is eligible to participate. Let us for the sake of the argument say that one of these communities discusses whether to receive unemployment benefits from the state or not. Some of the members believe that the community needs these benefits in order to survive, whereas others think that it will lead to an unhealthy dependency on the state and in turn undermine their struggle. Through a vote – or by arriving at a compromise (consensus) – the community ends up deciding that they should not accept the unemployment benefits.

This decision, however, is only relevant as long as the individual members of the community are willing to follow it. If a sizable portion of the community accepts state benefits anyway, it will undermine the power of the assembly. The intention of deliberating benefits and other issues in the assembly is to give everyone an equal share of the community’s power, but they can only do so in a democratic fashion as long as the assembly has power-over the acts of its individual members. In our case this means that the members of the unemployed workers community are willing to accept the assembly decision, even though they disagree with it.

Power-to and power-over are inextricably intertwined. Human beings live in collectives, and they only have power-to-do things as long as they have organized their collectives so that someone (preferably everyone, organized through participatory institutions) has power-over what is going on in that collective. To assume the dissolution of power-over is simply to assume the dissolution of society.

Disruption or Empowerment?

Since the social transformation Holloway is talking about has to shake off its ambitions to take power, he has to look elsewhere, and what Holloway turns to instead is an “anti-politics” of “anti- power.” This “anti-power” lies in “the dignity of everyday existence,” in “the relations we form all the time, relations of love, friendship, comradeship, community, cooperation.”

From one perspective this certainly sounds sensible. The time and energy we spend on the people we love is often spent at the expense of the time and energy we use to be industrious labourers and mindless consumers. The comradeship, community and cooperative projects we value are radically at odds with the egoism and competitiveness of the market-place.

Still, even the most cynical of speculators at the London Stock Exchange has a family she loves and wonderful friends in financial circles. Multinational corporations like Microsoft rely heavily on internal cooperation in order to succeed economically, and community organizations thrive in many of the most advanced capitalist countries. In fact, a realtively recent OECD report showed that the Nordic countries – with low working hours (consequently more time for family and friends) and strong traditions for community participation – are among the most competitive of all capitalist countries. As such Holloway’s “anti- power” is more disruptive than subversive.

Holloway is aware of the co-opting abilities of capitalism and insists that for “the scream to grow in strength, there must be a recuperation of doing, a development of power-to. That implies a re-taking of the means of doing.” But how is it possible to re-take the means of doing without taking power? Somebody has control over the material and financial resources today, and unless we get hold of these resources or otherwise undermine the grip that these resources have on society, it will be incredibly difficult to change the world.

These are significant shortcomings of Holloway’s theory which stops him at seeing how seemingly powerlessness can sabotage, annoy and frustrate the powerful and limit their rule, but not on how they can change the world. He does not discuss, nor propose, a single way of actually changing society. By dismissing the whole idea of taking power, (remember the words “we who do not have power and do not want to have power”) Holloway has dismissed alternatives where people together hold power. What Holloway has formulated is a theory of the disruption of the powerful – not of empowerment of the disempowered. He shares this in common with theoreticians of the autonomist movement in general.

Taking Power the Democratic Way

As I stated earlier, I share Holloway’s dreams of a communal, cooperative and free world – a world in which people together control their “doing.” I also identify with a specific strand of libertarian socialism called communalism. So, in searching for an empowering alternative to Holloway’s “anti-politics” of disruption, what is communalism’s take on taking power?

First of all, communalism maintains that power in itself is not necessarily something negative. The power-structure of capitalism – in which those who control its most important asset, capital, are the ones who control the rest of us – is inherently exploitative and oppressive. But that is not the same as to say that power in itself is inherently bad. Power should be understood as a neutral phenomenon, which exists in any society, whether we like it or not.

Furthermore, we have to understand how power is always a mix in between “power-to” and “power-over.” A communal, cooperative and free society will have to be based on institutions that distribute decision-making powers in a democratic way. Democracy, in turn, is based on the principle that the majority holds “power-over” the minority in decision-making processes. If not, democracy would ultimately break down. Just as the autonomist movement in Argentina of 2001 and 2002, we believe that these institutions have to be directly democratic assemblies. But such assemblies are essentially irrelevant if they do not have political authority, that is, if they do not have “power-over” other institutions such as schools, hospitals, industries and more.

In addition, such democratic institutions have to be in control of the use of violence in society. If there is anything the Argentinean experience shows us, it is how dangerous private organizations based on violence (e.g. mafias) are for libratory movements, as they often contest for power in the very same neighborhoods and regions as such movements do. This does not mean that a democratic polity directly could control the use of violence, such an idea is plainly absurd, but it rather has to have authority of the organizations that is established to ensure the safety of everyone. History is filled with examples of how this could be done democratically – through militias, people’s jury’s, elections of policing forces and more – but such examples are often left out of the purview of libertarians who naively reject the necessity of sometimes using physical force.

Such direct democratic power is fundamentally different from state power, because the latter is based on the decision-making powers of a minority. The proverb that power corrupts basically implies that power in the hands of a minority corrupts, as politicians tend to accumulate more powers in their own hands, ensure privileges for themselves once elected in government and to run away from their former ideals as the harsh realities of statecraft dawns upon them. Taking power for communalists, then, does not mean taking state power, but rather hollowing out the power of capital and existing state institutions through a dual power strategy.

It is in such a strategy that Holloway and the tactics of autonomists comes in very handy. Holloway’s strength is in showing how capitalists depends on the rest of us, and that we as ordinary workers potentially holds the power that others have attributed for themselves. We are the ones that grow the food, work the production lines and ensure in other ways that the whole economic system works smoothly – this gives us enormous latent powers. The weakness of Holloway and autonomism in general, however, is the inability to formulate a politics on how we can not only disrupt the powerful, but also create liberatory and democratic forms of power.

The Argentinean crisis in 2001 opened up a vast space normally shut for libertarian socialists. This was, as others have pointed out, a crack in the capitalist system where the faith in the market and the financial institutions withered away, and disillusionment with the state and parliamentary “democracy” was widespread. Libertarian socialists, however, have not been able to utilize this space. An underlying reason for this is the extensive aversion for “power” in left-libertarian milieus. If we are not able to develop a form of libertarian socialism that can give answers to issues such as the fear of violence and “crime” – answers that have to involve the use physical force and “power-over” – we will always be exiled to the fringes of the political scene.

Editorial Comment

This is an edited and shorter version of an article that was first published in Communalism issue #2. The full pdf-version can be downloaded from here: