Book Launch: The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: the art of organising hope in the twenty-first century, by Ana Dinerstein

This is the paper I will be presenting at the launch of Ana Dinerstein’s new book at the University of Bath, 17th April, 2015.

I must apologise for not being John Holloway. I am as disappointed as you are that he is not able to be here today. John’s work has been very important for Ana and for myself and for other people in this room. However, I am delighted to have been asked to be John’s late replacement and speak at the launch of Ana’s book.

I have known Ana for 20 years. We edited a book together, The Labour Debate, in 2002. It is great to see how Ana has developed ideas we had in that book in this new publication, and brought them to life. I am thinking, in particular, of the idea  ‘anti-value in motion’.  Ana’s book confirms my view that a ‘critique of value’ is the most explosive and dynamic methodology in the social sciences.

Teeming with radical scholarship, this book reports on the explosion of rage and hope against the injustices of neoliberal politics and policy at the end of the twentieth century in Latin America. At the heart of the book lies the concept of autonomy and the way in which it has been used by  movements of protest and resistance – Marxists, anarchists, feminists, libertarians, citizens, workers and indigenous peoples – to imagine alternative utopias beyond the limits of the law, the state and global capital; while, all the time challenging the ideologies of left-wing parties and trade unions. If Latin America has been a laboratory for experimenting with neoliberalism, the book reveals Latin America as a laboratory for resistance against neoliberalism and a place where revolution has sought to reinvent itself (Dinerstein, 2014: 26).

Ana’s work is influenced by John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power (2002), a development of Holloway’s ‘Open Marxism’ brought into very concrete focus through his encounter with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas Mexico in the 1990s.  What emerges from this book is an attempt to reinvent the concept of revolution, theorised not by capturing the power of the state; but, rather, ‘dissolving the relations of power, to create a society based on the mutual recognition of people’s dignity’ ( Dinerstein 2014: 17; Holloway 2002: 20). Ana  argues that Holloway’s work is nothing less than ‘a turning point in the theoretical activity of revolutionary thinking’ (page). Faced with this revolution in the theory of revolution she argues we  can no longer think about progressive politics in terms of reform or revolution (18); but, rather, as a process of ‘change and becoming’ (18), based on grassroots mobilisation for radical change (18). She points out the forms of grassroot imagination have already appeared in Latin America as horizontalism, self-management, direct democracy, anti-bureaucracy and, above all, the rejection of the state as the main site for political change.

But how can you avoid the power of the state on a continent where the left has been capturing state power through the Presidencies of Chavez, Morales, Rafael? [and before that Allende?] all of whom adopted indigenous and leftist campaigns as the basis for anti-neoliberal, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist social policies. These anti-strategies formed a core part of their neo-developmentalist strategies, that included pluri-national constitutions and Communitarian Socialism. Ana argues that the result of these policies may have been a reduction in income inequality, better education and health systems and welfare, but the extent to which these governments constituted a break with neoliberalism is debatable; and that they might more accurately be regarded as a continuation of neoliberalism, particularly in relation to the way in which natural resources have been exploited in these countries.  In other words these governments have not fully engaged with the emancipatory movements on which they relied for electoral success.

The result has been, she reports, since 2006 a new wave of protests in Latin America by indigenous and non-indigenous people: a key feature of the indigenous protest has been the emergence of the concept of buen viver against the policies of developmentalism. What is important in Ana’s work is the way in which she makes connections between the struggles of indigenous people, informed by their cosmological view of the world, and populations that have been directly exploited by Capital. She conceptualises indigenous people, as having not been fully subsumed by Capital, by which she means people who have not been subordinated to the process of valorisation: she refers to this process of non-subordination as ‘real subsumption by exclusion’. This process of subsumption by exclusion has been an important part of the process of making the Latin American working class and industrial society.

In these cases, autonomy means different things for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples: for non-indigenous people it means freedom, democracy, refusal of work, struggles against poverty, misery and the state. For indigenous people autonomy refers to the struggles over land and territory rights, as well as the desire for self-government based on customs, traditions and cosmologies: to be revolutionary for indigenous people is not to change (52). Most especially Ana argues that identity for indigenous peoples is not a negative concept, but forms an essential aspect of their struggle against colonialism: to be a Maya or a Zapatista; although this ability to self-define is not the same thing as identity which is always imposed (52).

She finds the theoretical link for these different versions of autonomy in the connection between Holloway’s Open Marxism and the Zapatistas rejection of the state as a locus for radical transformation (25): so that autonomy is both emancipatory (non-indigenous) and decolonising (indigenous).

Alongside autonomy as the organising principle of these movements of protest, Ana suggests the concept of prefiguration as a pedagogic device through which autonomy can be achieved, what she refers to as ‘the process of learning hope’ (16). The desire of these forms of resistance is not to achieve the ‘ideal society’ but through the process of struggle in and against the law, state and capital as well as the struggle against colonial oppression to produce what she call excess ( 28): the capacity for human life to overflow the limits imposed by capitalist and colonial regimes of domination. She substantiates the politics of hope through situating it within the work of Ernst Bloch who described hope as the ‘human impulse to explore what is Not Yet’ (30). Despite her Marxist credentials Ana is not afraid of taking on Bloch’s controversial idea that hope is anthropological ‘ a genuine feature of what makes us human’ (page). She understands Bloch’s anthropology as a dynamic conflictual contradictory dialectical process by focussing on the concept of the ‘Not Yet’ and the way in which it offers the possibility of conjuring up concrete utopias out of the conditions that are already present in the world, however oppressively capitalist and colonial. Ana is clear:

‘These spaces are not, however, ‘liberated zones’ but deeply embedded in the capitalist/colonial dynamics. It is precisely because they are embedded that they can confront value with hope, thus producing radical change’ (197).

In this way Ana means to overcome the sterile debate between those who favour the concept of autonomy and those who argue about the importance of the centrality of the power of the state. Ana’s elegant solution is to focus on the prefigurative possibility of autonomy without avoiding the problem of the state, while all the time making the link between indigenous and non-indigenous struggles (32).

Ana offers us a framework by which we might imagine our own concrete utopias. This framework can also be used as an analytical device for research: to set alongside already existing movements of resistance to consider their revolutionary capacity and potential, e.g., student protests in Chile. She refers to this framework as ‘Autonomy in the Key of Hope’, with four distinct registers of hope: negation, creation, contradiction and excess. Negativity, as we have already seen, is encapsulated by the Blochian concept of the Not Yet; Creativity is the creation of a new form of society, understood as the commons or communitarian economics (43); Contradiction is promoted through the invention of a new subaltern de-colonialising commonsense (44) or by the notion of the multitude, or out of the contradiction that forms the substance of the commodity-form through which human life subsists only ‘in the form of being denied’ (48); and, finally, excess, by which she means that which gets beyond contradiction, as the overflow between human capacity and the restrictions of abstract labour (49), i.e., the product of humanity’s subversive energy (50). And all of this with plenty of space for danger and disappointment along the way, including the recuperation of radical ideas and their translation into the logics of capitalist power (63-69).

Ana provides an empirical case study of each of these registers in the key of hope from specific movements of struggle in Latin America. These are Argentina experiences of  dignified work and the movement of popular justice in Argentina in 2001/2 ( creation);  a review of  the Zapatistas armed uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, challenging and reinventing revolutionary traditions in the 1990s (negation); an account of indigenous popular movement  2004-5 and the creation of the plurinational state in 2009 in Bolivia (contradiction),  and, finally, an exposition of the landless workers movement (MST) from the 1980s in Brazil  with the development of ‘territories of hope’ through popular agrarian reform and the democratisation of land ownership (excess). The elaboration of each key with reference to specific case studies is a presentational device as these registers of hope are inextricably interconnected.

A defining feature of Ana’s work is the way in which it is conceptualised and brought to life through Karl Marx’s labour theory of value, reinterpreted through Holloway, Gunn and Bonefeld’s concept of Open Marxism. Excess is derived from Open Marxism’s account of the limits of abstract labour as a practice and principle of human activity, or doing. The possibility of human creativity or doing is subordinated to the production of value, through the forms of abstract labour and money; but given the nature of human capacity perpetual subordination is  impossible due to the mismatch between doing and the value form, which cannot persist without a remainder (184). The dialectical dynamic that forms the core of the Not Yet is the conflictual nature of the commodity form, between use value and exchange value, where human life exists as the resource rather than the project and, therefore, is always in conflict: as class struggle. In this way the categories of capitalism, law, money and the state, are attempts to contain this contradiction as capital seeks to realise itself as surplus value. For example, the state is a political form of the social relations of capital: this means that the specific form of the capitalist state, and its relationship with the market with which it is so closely associated, is derived from class struggle. The capitalist state is not the site in which class struggle takes place but the form of the state is the outcome of class struggle (Clarke 1991, Holloway and Piciotto 1987). That is to say ‘the State is not a State in capitalist society but is the capitalist state’ (153). Ana makes the important point that these capitalist categories are not facts of nature but formal abstractions:  ‘the constant subordination of life to the rule of value’ (187). The real material basis of hope for Ana is that this realisation that value is always contingent on the condition of class struggle. Autonomy in this sense is the struggle in and against the law of value (187): it is a real abstraction.

It at this moment that Ana introduces a negative concept of value based on the notion of the Not Yet: ‘anti-value in motion’, as the substantive basis through which hope might be materialised. Value and the Not Yet are always to be realised, so too with anti-value, ‘hope is also unrealised materiality’ (190). As Ana puts it:

‘Value requires to be socially validated and attains concreteness only through money. Hope is an emotion of the cognitive kind that guides action and is only materialised in concrete utopia…’  (190).

Value and hope are conceived within the value form but they move in opposite directions. Value and hope are confrontational and contested as a Not Yet realised materiality, to be achieved hopefully in the ‘recovery of our power to do’ (191) which is what Ana means by excess. So anti-value in motion is the production of excess through the politics of autonomy (187).

Professor Mike Neary

University of Lincoln



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