1968 and Doors to New Worlds

With the explosions of 1968 still reverberating, John Holloway talks of our fast-moving, unstable and polyphonic revolt against abstract labour, the activity that weaves capitalist domination.

1968? Why talk about 1968? There are so many urgent things happening. Let’s talk of Oaxaca and Chiapas and the danger of civil war in Mexico. Let’s talk of the war in Iraq and the rapid destruction of the natural preconditions of human existence. Is this really a good moment for old men to sit back and reminisce?

But perhaps we need to talk of 1968 because, even in the face of all the real urgency, we are feeling lost and need some sense of direction: not to find the road (because the road does not exist) but to create many paths. Perhaps 1968 has something to do with our feeling lost, and perhaps it has something to do with making new paths. So let us talk of 1968.

1968 opened the door to a change in the world, a change in the rules of anti-capitalist conflict, a change in the meaning of anti-capitalist revolution, a change therefore in the meaning of hope. This is what we are still trying to understand. That is why I say that 1968 contributes to making us feel lost and is also a key to finding some orientation.

1968 was an explosion, and the sound of the explosion still echoes, difficult to distinguish from the sound of subsequent explosions that took up the themes of 1968 – most important perhaps 1994 and the series of explosions that is the Zapatista movement. So when I speak of 1968, it is not necessarily with historical precision: what interests me is the explosion and how, in the wake of that explosion, we can think of overcoming the catastrophe that is capitalism.

1968 was an explosion, the explosion of a certain constellation of social forces, a certain pattern of social conflict. Sometimes this constellation is referred to as Fordism. The term has the great merit of drawing our attention immediately to the core question of the way in which our daily activity is organised. It refers to a world in which mass production in the factories was integrated with the promotion of mass consumption through a combination of relatively high wages and the so-called welfare state. Central actors in this process were the trade unions, whose participation in the system of regular wage negotiations was a driving force, and the state, which appeared to have the capacity of regulating the economy and ensuring basic levels of social welfare. In such a society, it was not surprising that aspirations for social change concentrated on the state, and on the goal of taking state power, either by electoral means or otherwise. Possibly it would be more accurate to speak of this pattern of class relations not just as Fordism, but as Fordism-Keynesianism-Leninism.

I want to suggest that there was something even more profound at issue. The danger in restricting ourselves to the idea of the crisis of Fordism (or indeed Fordism-Keynesianism-Leninism) is that the term invites us to see this as one of a series of modes of regulation which would then be superseded by another (post-Fordism or Empire or whatever): capitalism is then seen as a series of restructurings, or syntheses, or closures, whereas our problem is not to write a history of capitalism but rather to find a way out of this catastrophe. It is necessary to go beyond the concept of Fordism. Fordism was an extremely developed form of alienated or abstract labour and what was challenged in these years was alienated labour, the very heart of capitalism.

Abstract labour (I use the word that Marx used in Capital, because it seems to me a richer concept) is the labour that produces value and surplus value, and therefore capital. Marx contrasts it with useful or concrete labour, the activity that is necessary for the reproduction of any society. Abstract labour is labour seen in abstraction from its particular characteristics, it is labour that is equivalent to any other labour and this equivalence is established through exchange or its administrative analogies. The abstraction is not just a mental abstraction: it is a real abstraction, the fact that the products are produced for exchange rebounds upon the production process itself and converts it into a process in which all that matters is the performance of socially necessary labour, the efficient production of commodities that will sell. Abstract labour is labour devoid of particularity, devoid of meaning. Abstract labour produces the society of capital, a society in which the only meaning is the accumulation of abstract labour, the constant pursuit of profit.

Abstract labour weaves the society in which we live. It weaves the multiplicity of human activities together through the repeated process of exchange, through this process that tells us over and over again “it does not matter what you enjoy doing, how much love and care you put into it, what matters is whether it will sell, what matters is how much money you can get for it.” That is the way our different activities are woven together, that is the way capitalist society is constructed.

But the weaving goes much further than that: because this way of relating to one another, through the exchange of things, creates a general thing-ification, or reification, or fetishisation of social relations. In the same way that the thing we create separates itself from us and stands against us, negating its origins, so all aspects of our relations with other people acquire the character of things. Money becomes a thing, rather than just a relation between different creators. The state becomes a thing rather than just a way in which we organise our common affairs. Sex becomes a thing rather than just the multiplicity of different ways in which people touch and relate physically. Nature becomes a thing to be used for our benefit, rather than the complex interrelation of the different forms of life that share this planet. Time becomes a thing, clock-time, a time outside us that tells us that tomorrow will be the same as today, rather than just the rhythms of our living, the intensities and relaxations of our doing. And so on.

By performing abstract labour, we weave, we weave, we weave this world that is so rapidly destroying us. And each part of the weave gives strength and solidity to each other part of the weave. At the centre is our activity as abstract labour, but the empty meaningless abstraction of our labour is held in place by the whole structure of abstraction or alienation that we create: the state, the idea and practice of dimorphous sexuality, the objectification of nature, the living of time as clock time, the seeing of space as space contained within boundaries, and so on. All these different dimensions of abstract meaninglessness are created by and in turn reinforce the abstract meaninglessness of our daily activity which is at its core. It is this complex weave that is blown in the air in 1968.

How? What is the force behind the explosion? It is not the working class, at least not in the traditional sense. Factory workers do play an important part, especially in France, but they do not play a central role in the explosion of 1968. Nor can it be understood in terms of any particular group. It is rather a social relation, the relation of abstract labour, that explodes. The force behind the explosion has to be understood not as a group but as the underside of abstract labour, the contradiction of abstract labour, that which abstract labour contains but does not contain, that which abstract labour represses but does not repress. This is what explodes.

What is the underside of abstract labour? There is a problem here with vocabulary, and not by chance, because that which is repressed tends to be invisible, without voice, without name. We can call it anti-alienation, or anti-abstraction. In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx refers to anti-alienation as “conscious life-activity” and in Capital, the contrast is between abstract labour and “useful or concrete labour”. This term is not entirely satisfactory, partly because the distinction between labour and other forms of activity is not common to all societies. For that reason, I shall refer to the underside of abstract labour as doing: doing rather than just anti-alienation because what is at issue is first and foremost the way in which human activity is organised.

Capitalism is based on abstract labour, but there is always an underside, another aspect of activity that appears to be totally subordinated to abstract labour, but is not and cannot be. Abstract labour is the activity that creates capital and weaves capitalist domination, but there is always another side, a doing that retains or seeks to retain its particularity, that pushes towards some sort of meaning, some sort of self-determination. Marx points right at the beginning of Capital to the relation between abstract and useful labour as the pivot upon which the understanding of political economy (and therefore capitalism) turns – a sentence almost totally ignored by the whole Marxist tradition.

Within capitalism, useful labour (doing) exists in the form of abstract labour, but the relation of form and content cannot be understood simply as containment: inevitably, it is one of in-against-and-beyond: doing exists in-against-and-beyond abstract labour. This is a matter of everyday experience, as we all try to find some way of directing our activity towards what we consider desirable or necessary. Even within our abstract labour we try to find some way of not submitting totally to the rule of money. As professors we try to do something more than producing the functionaries of capital, as assembly line workers we move our fingers along an imaginary guitar in the seconds we have free, as nurses we try to help our patients beyond the incentive of money, as students we dream of a life not determined totally by money. There is an antagonistic relation between our doing and the abstraction (or alienation) which capital imposes, a relation not only of subordination but also of resistance, revolt and pushing beyond.

This is always present, but it explodes in 1968, as a generation no longer so tamed by the experience of fascism and war rise up and say, “No, we shall not dedicate our lives to the rule of money, we shall not dedicate all the days of our lives to abstract labour, we shall do something else instead.” The revolt against capital expresses itself clearly as that which it always is and must be: a revolt against labour. It becomes clear that we cannot think of class struggle as labour against capital because labour is on the same side of capital, labour produces capital. The struggle is not that of labour against capital, but of doing (or living) against labour and therefore against capital. This is what is expressed in the universities, this is what is expressed in the factories, this is what is expressed on the streets in 1968. This is what makes it impossible for capital to increase the rate of exploitation sufficiently to maintain its rate of profit and hold Fordism in place.

It is the force of doing, that is, the force of saying “no, we shall not live like that that, we shall do otherwise”, that blows apart that constellation of struggle based on the extreme abstraction of labour that is expressed in Fordism. It is a revolt that is directed against all aspects of the abstraction of labour: not just the alienation of labour in the narrow sense, but also the fetishisation of sex, nature, time, space and also against the state-oriented forms of organisation that are part of that fetishisation. There is a release, an emancipation: it becomes possible to think and do things that were not possible before. The force of the explosion, the force of the struggle, splits open the category of labour (opened by Marx but closed in practice by the Marxist tradition) and with it all the other categories of thought.

The explosion throws us into a new world. It throws us onto a new battlefield, characterised by a new constellation of struggles that is distinctively open. This is crucial: if we leap to talk of a new mode of domination (Empire or post-Fordism), then we are closing dimensions that we are struggling to keep open. In other words, there is a real danger that by analysing the so-called new paradigm of domination, we give it a solidity which it does not merit and which we certainly do not want. The relatively coherent weave that existed before the explosion is torn apart. It is in the interests of capital to put it back together again, to establish a new pattern. Anti-capitalism moves in the opposite direction, tearing apart, pushing the cracks as far as it can.

The old constellation was based on the antagonism between labour and capital, with all that that meant in terms of trade unions, corporatism, parties, welfare state and so on. If we are right in saying that the new constellation must be understood as having at its centre the antagonism between doing and abstract labour, then this means rethinking radically what anti-capitalism means, what revolution means. All the established practices and ideas bound up with abstract labour come into question: labour, sexuality, nature, state, time, space, all become battlegrounds of struggle.

The new constellation (or better, the constellation that showed its face clearly in 1968 and still struggles to be born) is the constellation of doing against abstract labour. This means that it is fundamentally negative. Doing exists in and against abstract labour: in so far as it breaks through abstract labour and exists also beyond it (as cooperative, as social centre, as Junta de Buen Gobierno), it is always at risk, always shaped by its antagonism with abstract labour and threatened by it. Once we positivise it, seeing it as an autonomous space, or as socialism in one country or in one social centre, or as a cooperative that is not in movement against capitalism, it quickly converts itself into its opposite. The struggles against capital are fast-moving and unstable: they exist on the edge of evanescence and cannot be judged from the positivity of institutions.

The movement of doing against labour is anti-identitarian, therefore: the movement of non-identity against identity. This is important for practical reasons, simply because capital’s restructuring is the attempt to contain the new struggles within identities. The struggles of women, of blacks, of indigenous, as long as they are contained within their respective identity, pose no problem at all for the reproduction of a system of abstract labour. On the contrary, the re-consolidation of abstract labour probably depends on the re-shuffling of these identities, as identities, the re-focusing of struggles into limited, identitarian struggles. The Zapatista movement creates no challenge to capitalism as long as it remains a struggle for indigenous rights: it is when the struggle overflows identity, when the Zapatistas say “we are indigenous but more than that”, when they say that they are struggling to make the world anew, to create a world based on the mutual recognition of dignity, that is when they constitute a threat to capitalism. The struggle of doing is the struggle to overflow the fetishised categories of identity. We fight not so much for women’s rights as for a world in which the division of people into two sexes (and the genitalisation of sexuality on which this division is based) is overcome, not so much for the protection of nature as for a radical rethinking of the relation between different forms of life, not so much for migrants’ rights as for the abolition of frontiers.

In all this transformation, time is crucial. Homogeneous time was perhaps the most important cement of the old constellation, the constellation of abstract labour, accepted by the left as unquestioningly as by the right. In this view, revolution, if it could be imagined at all, could only be in the future. That has gone. What was previously seen as an inseparable pair, ‘future revolution’, is now seen to be pure nonsense. It is too late for future revolution. And anyway, every day in which we plan for a future revolution we recreate the capitalism that we hate, so that the very notion of future revolution is self-defeating. Revolution is here and now or not at all. That is implicit in 1968, with the movement’s refusal to wait until The Party considered that it was the right moment. That is made explicit in the Zapatistas’ ¡Ya basta! of 1 January 1994. Enough! Now! Not “we shall wait until the next Kondratieff cycle completes its circle”. And not “we shall wait until the Party conquers state power”. But now: revolution here and now!

What this does mean? It can only mean a multiplicity of struggles from the particular, the creation of spaces or moments in which we seek to live now the society we want to create. This means the creation of cracks in the system of capitalist command, moments or spaces in which we say, “No, we shall not do what capital requires of us, we shall do what we consider necessary or desirable.”

Inevitably, this means an understanding of anti-capitalist struggle as a multiplicity of very different struggles. This is not a multiplication of identities, but the rapid movement of anti-identitarian struggles that touch and diverge, infect and repel, a creative chaos of cracks that multiply and spread and at times are filled up and reappear and spread again. This is the polyphonic revolt of doing against abstract labour. It is necessarily polyphonic. To deny its polyphony would be to subordinate it to a new form of abstraction. The world we are trying to create, the world of useful doing or conscious life activity is necessarily a world of many worlds. And this means, of course, forms of organisation that seek to articulate and respect this polyphony: anti-state forms, in other words.

From the outside and sometimes from within, this polyphony seems to be just a chaotic, dissonant noise without direction or unity, without a meta-narrative. That is a mistake. The meta-narrative is not the same as before 1968, but there is a meta-narrative, with two faces. The first face of this meta-narrative is simply NO, ¡Ya basta! And the second face is Dignity, we live now the world we want to create, or in other words We Do.

Perhaps we can conclude by saying that 1968 was the crisis of the working class as prose, its birth as poetry: the crisis of the working class as abstract labour, its birth as useful-creative doing. The intervening years have shown us how difficult it is to write poetry, how difficult and how necessary.

‘1968’ wasn’t just about Paris and the ‘French May’. ‘1968’ is a shorthand for a whole series of uprisings, insurgencies and revolutions that occurred across the planet over an explosive three-year period with no clearly defined beginning or end. In the United States, 1967’s ‘summer of love’ gave way to militant protests against war in Vietnam, uprisings in more than a hundred cities and a ‘police riot’ at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. In Mexico City months of political unrest were crushed only by the Tlatelolcho Massacre, when army and police murdered 200–300 people just days before the opening of the Olympic Games. During the Games, athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black Power salute on the winners’ podium.
In Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring ended only when Russian tanks rolled into the country. Nationalist residents of Northern Ireland’s second-largest city repelled both police and loyalist thugs and declared the autonomous area of Free Derry. There were revolts, strikes, occupations and all types of other political activity in countless other countries, including Germany, Pakistan, Bolivia, Spain, Japan, Poland, Belgium, Sweden, Great Britain, Brazil, Nigeria, Senegal, Serbia, Austria, Turkey, Hong Kong, Egypt and Lebanon. Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 opened up into the decade-long Autonomia movement.

Juntas de Buen Gobierno – ‘Juntas of Good Government’ – are the councils established by the Zapatistas in their autonomous municipalities

John Holloway is the author of Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today.

Translations of this article are available in Spanish here, French here (PDF) and Slovenian here.

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