“First we win power and then we shall create a society worthy of humanity!” That is the realism of power and can do no more than reproduce power.

Changing the world without taking power

Domination and violence are two very different things. Domination is power over other people. It can be achieved via violence (hard domination) or by more subtle, non-violent methods. The concern of this blog is not violence per se. Domination, in my view, is at the root of the problems of our unraveling human societies, both the civilized ones, and the few others civilization is in the process of destroying. If someone asked me if violence can legitimately be used in the transformation of a domination-based society to an autonomous, power-sharing society, I would say that I see violence as a weapon of last resort, but never excluded on principle. So hang onto your vintage Hebrew slingshots, Ewok bamboo spears, halberds and scimitars, and your great granddad’s inlaid kris. They may be needed yet. But while blood baths regularly attend dominator struggles, I predict they will play only a minor role in creating the world of power-with.

Egalitarian tribes are known to have used a variety of graduated strategies against the occasional human who got out of hand. If all else failed, expulsion from the tribe or assassination were the options that remained. A powerful disruptor cannot be allowed to permanently damage the life of the tribe or imperil its viability. In a tribe where power-sharing and the cultural and personal habits and customs that go along with it – in other words, the cultural traditions of egalitarian sharing going back centuries or more – are strong, when the war chief turns despot in full view of everyone and is eliminated, things can go back to normal… with the tribe wiser for the experience.

We do not live in that kind of culture, nor do we have the habits of power-sharing deeply ingrained in our being. We are the captives of another system. Hard domination dates back to late Neolithic and beginning of the Bronze Age, about 6,000 years ago in the Near East; soft domination likely existed long before that. All we know now is domination. All of us civilized have lived lives of being dominated and dominating others. And that is the main reason why eliminating a passel of especially egregious dominators almost never works. It simply substitutes one set of dominators for another.

A thousand years ago, when the robber baron on the hill took half of the villagers’ chickens and winter food for himself and raped one girl too many, a few strong young men gathered in the woods to plot a rebellion and train in combat. One dark night, they marched up the hill to the castle, spiked the baron’s goons with pitchforks and tossed him and his family over the ramparts. The villagers cheered – until they realized that the boys up on the hill raided the baron’s wine cellars, stole the rest of villagers’ chickens and not a few pigs, and were living it up in style, attended by the remaining servants. When approached, they refused to leave the castle. Dominators who out-dominate the current dominators become the new dominators.

Fast forward to the twentieth century, that recent hotbed of revolutionary movements. To explain the trap of the ages-long and tragic efforts of trying to eliminate the dominators only to install new ones, I cannot possibly do better than quoting liberally from a small book by John Holloway called Change the world without taking power. Holloway is a (post?) Marxist concerned with capitalism as well as domination, and – a rare thinker, fully having absorbed the failures of revolutionary days gone by – clearly sees the futility of taking the power road. When he speaks of power, he means power-over (aka domination). When he mentions the state, he means the modern locus of domination. In a few instances, I have substituted the word “domination” for his “capitalism.” My concern is not with a 200 hundred year old economic system but rather with the pervasive millennia old system of domination within which all human relations have become embedded. (The book’s original text can be read here. And an expanded edition is about to be published next month.)

What can we do to make the world a better, more humane place? What can we do to put an end to all the misery and exploitation? There is an answer ready at hand. Do it through the state. Join a political party, help it to win governmental power, change the country in that way. Or, if you are more impatient, more angry, more doubtful about what can be achieved through parliamentary means, join a revolutionary organisation, help it to conquer state power, by violent or non-violent means, and then use the revolutionary state to change society. Change the world through the state: this is the paradigm that has dominated revolutionary thought for more than a century.

The state paradigm, that is, the assumption that the winning of state power is central to radical change, dominated not just theory but also the revolutionary experience throughout most of the twentieth century: not only the experience of the Soviet Union and China, but also the numerous national liberation and guerrilla movements of the 1960s and the 1970s. If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed. The apparent impossibility of revolution at the beginning of the twenty-first century reflects in reality the historical failure of a particular concept of revolution, the concept that identified revolution with control of the state.

For over a hundred years, the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channelled into building the party or into learning to shoot guns, for over a hundred years the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratised and militarised, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of “betraying” the movement that put it there. “Betrayal” has been a key word for the left over the last century as one government after another has been accused of “betraying” the ideals of its supporters, until now the notion of betrayal itself has become so tired that there is nothing left but a shrug of “of course”. Rather than look to so many betrayals for an explanation, perhaps we need to look at the very notion that society can be changed through the winning of state power.

‘First build the army, first build the party, that is how to get rid of the power that oppresses us’. The party-building (or army-building) comes to eclipse all else. What was initially negative (the rejection of domination) is converted into something positive (institution-building, power-building). The induction into the conquest of power inevitably becomes an induction into power itself. The initiates learn the language, logic and calculations of power; they learn to wield the categories of a social science which has been entirely shaped by its obsession with power. Differences within the organisation become struggles for power. Manipulation and manoeuvering for power become a way of life.

The struggle is lost from the beginning, long before the victorious party or army conquers state power and ‘betrays’ its promises. It is lost once power itself seeps into the struggle, once the logic of power becomes the logic of the revolutionary process, once the negative of refusal is converted into the positive of power-building. And usually those involved do not see it: the initiates in power do not even see how far they have been drawn into the reasoning and habits of power. They do not see that if we revolt against domination, it is not because we want a different system of power, it is because we want a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

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

The only way in which the idea of revolution can be maintained is by raising the stakes. The problem of the traditional concept of revolution is perhaps not that it aimed too high, but that it aimed too low. The notion of capturing positions of power, whether it be governmental power or more dispersed positions of power in society, misses the point that the aim of the revolution is to dissolve relations of power, to create a society based on the mutual recognition of people’s dignity. What has failed is the notion that revolution means capturing power in order to abolish power. This, then, is the revolutionary challenge at the beginning of the twenty-first century: to change the world without taking power.

But how can we change the world without taking power? Merely to pose the question is to invite a snort of ridicule, a raised eyebrow, a shrug of condescension.

Reality and power are so mutually incrusted that even to raise the question of dissolving power is to step off the edge of reality. All our categories of thought, all our assumptions about what is reality, or what is politics or economics or even where we live, are so permeated by power that just to say ‘no!’ to power precipitates us into a vertiginous world in which there are no fixed reference points to hold on to other than the force of our own ‘no!’. Power and social theory exist in such symbiosis that power is the lens through which theory sees the world, the headphone through which it hears the world: to ask for a theory of anti-power is to try to see the invisible, to hear the inaudible. To try to theorise anti-power is to wander in a largely unexplored world.

I invite you to visit with me this unexplored world in the next installment.

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