John Holloway on the Revolt of Doing Against Labour

“In this article I suggest that the key to understanding autonomies is the revolt of one form of activity against another. I relate this revolt to Marx’s concept of the dual character of labour, and suggest that the rise of autonomist politics should be understood as an expression of the crisis of abstract labour.”

* Article: Cracks and the Crisis of Abstract Labour. John Holloway

The following are excerpts of one of the noteworthy articles from the Special issue of Antipode on Autonomy

Excerpts from John Holloway:


“The core of autonomies is a negation and an alternative doing. The very idea of an autonomous space or moment indicates a rupture with the dominant logic, a break or a reversal in the flow of social determination. “We shall not accept an alien, external determination of our activity, we shall determine ourselves what we shall do.” We negate, we refuse to accept the alien determination; and we oppose to that externally imposed activity an activity of our own choice, an alternative doing.

The activity that we reject is usually seen as being part of a system, part of a more or less coherent pattern of imposed activity, a system of domination. Many, not all, autonomous movements refer to the rejected pattern of activity as capitalism: they see themselves as being anti-capitalist. The distinctive feature of the autonomist approach, however, is that it involves not just hostility to capital in general, but to the specific life activity imposed by capitalism here and now and an attempt to oppose capital by acting in a different way. Against capitalist activity we set a different activity that seeks to follow a different logic.

There are two different sorts of activity here: one that is externally imposed and experienced as either directly unpleasant or part of a system that we reject, and another that pushes towards self-determination. We really need two different words for these two types of activity. We shall follow the suggestion of Engels in a footnote in Capital (Marx 1965 [1867]:47) by referring to the former type of activity as labour, the latter simply as doing. Autonomies, then, can be seen as revolts of doing against labour.

The option of doing has a very strong emotional and ethical appeal. We dedicate our lives to activities that we enjoy or that seem to us to be important. It is morally satisfying and personally fulfilling to reject the logic of money or the requirements of capital and devote ourselves to creating a more just world, a world that takes as its starting point not the maximisation of profit but the struggle for a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity.

The difficulty is that our attempts to act differently run against the dominant logic, the dominant social synthesis. The labour that we reject is part of a tight social weave, a cohesive logic of capital. This logic governs access to the means of survival and of production. To reject this logic and opt for a different sort of doing means that we will have difficulty in getting access both to what we require for living and also to what we need in order to undertake whatever creative project we have in mind. To opt for doing is to opt for exclusion: exclusion from a logic that is clearly destroying the bases of human existence, but a logic that at the same time is the basis of human reproduction.

Our alternative doings always exist on the brink of impossibility. Logically, they should not exist—at least according to the logic of capitalism. But they do exist: always fragile, often ephemeral, often with lots of difficulties and contradictions, always in danger of disappearing or, worse, being reintegrated into the dominant logic, being transformed into a new element of the political or social system. They should not exist, and yet they do, and are multiplying and expanding.

We can think of these spaces or moments of other-doing as cracks in the system of capitalist domination. They are not really autonomies, because they do not in fact rule themselves: they are pushes in that direction. They are pushes against, because they push against the logic of capital, so we need a negative rather than a positive concept: cracks rather than autonomies.

The problem with “autonomy” is that it lends itself easily to an identitarian interpretation. “Autonomies” can be seen as self-sufficient units, spaces to which we have escaped, spaces in which we can construct or develop a distinct identity, a difference. In a world based on the negation of autonomy or self-determination, autonomy in a static sense is impossible. Self-determination does not exist: all that exists is the constant drive towards self-determination, that is to say, the drive against-and-beyond the negation of self-determination, and as part of that drive, the creation of extremely fragile spaces or moments in which we live the world that we want to create.

The crack is a negative and unstable concept. The crack is a rupture of the logic of capitalist cohesion, a break in the fabric of domination. Since domination is an active process, the cracks cannot stand still. They run, extend, expand, do or do not join up with other cracks, get filled up or papered over, reappear, multiply, extend. They break through identities. Necessarily, then, the theory of cracks is critical, anti-identitarian, restlessly negative, a theory of breaking-and-creating, not a theory of self-sufficient units.

There are cracks in capitalist domination all over the place. Today I shall not go to work because I want to stay at home and play with the children. This decision may not have the same impact as the Zapatista uprising, but it has the same core: “No, we shall not do what capital tells us, we shall do otherwise, do what we consider necessary or desirable.” The most obvious way of thinking of these revolts is in spatial terms (“here in Chiapas, here in this social centre, we shall not submit to capital, we shall do otherwise”), but there is no reason why we should not think of them in terms of time (“during this weekend, or this seminar, or for as long as we can, we shall devote all our energies to creating relations that defy the logic of capital”). Or again, our defiances may be thematic or related to particular sorts of resources or activities: “we shall not allow water, or education, or software, to be ruled by the logic of capital, these must be understood as commons and we shall do them according to a different logic”. And so on, and so on.

Revolts against the logic of capital exist everywhere. Often the problem is to recognise them, but the more we focus our mind on cracks, the more our image of the map changes. The map of the world is not only a map of domination, it is also a map of revolts, of cracks opening, reaching, running, joining, closing, multiplying. The more we focus on cracks, the more a different image of the world opens up, a sort of anti-geography that not only reverses the signs of spatiality but challenges dimensionality itself.

Only by starting from there can we think how the world can be changed radically. Revolution can only be the recognition, creation, expansion and multiplication of such cracks: it is difficult to imagine any other way of changing the world radically.

Obviously these cracks or spaces-moments of negation-and-creation face enormous difficulties, deriving from the fact that they are not autonomous spaces but attempts to project against-and-beyond the logic of capitalist rationality. They are threatened by repression or cooptation by the state, by the internal reproduction of patterns of behaviour acquired in the society that we reject, and perhaps most powerfully and insidiously of all, by the corrosive force of value, the rule of the market. Seen from the perspective of the social totality, they should not exist. From the perspective of capitalist rationality, they are logical impossibilities, absurdities, madnesses. And yet there they are; a growing revolt of doing against labour.

These cracks are anti-systemic movements, movements against the cohesion or coercion of the social system. If we understand that system as being capitalist, then they are anti-capitalist movements, whether or not they use the term “capitalism”. They are not the only form of anti-capitalist struggle, but they are a form that has grown greatly in importance.

An important question that arises is whether the most important anti-capitalist theory, Marxism, is relevant for understanding these movements. Many activists reject Marxism as irrelevant to their struggles and see it as being closely tied to the forms of struggle that they are rejecting, the old anti-capitalist struggle of trade unions and of reformist and revolutionary parties. And very often, Marxist analysis seems to wander in a world of its own, far removed from the recent wave of struggles against capitalism. The question of the relevance of Marxism, then, is an important one both for these movements and for Marxist theory.

The cracks (or autonomies) are revolts of doing against labour, of one form of activity against another. Human activity has a dual, self-antagonistic character. The dual, self-antagonistic character of human activity, or as he called it, the “dual character of labour” is the central theme of Marx’s work. Any theory of the cracks, of the revolts of doing against labour, must start here.”


“The indications of the crisis of abstract labour are plain to see: the decline of the trade union movement everywhere in the world; the weakening or practical disappearance of social democratic parties with any commitment to radical reform; the collapse of the Soviet Union and other “communist countries” and the integration of China into world capitalism; the defeat of the movements of national liberation in Latin America and Africa; the crisis of Marxism not just within the universities but above all as a theory of struggle.

All this is widely seen, even by the “left”, as a historic defeat for the working class. But perhaps the defeat should be seen rather as a defeat for the labour movement, for the movement based upon abstract labour, a defeat for the struggle of labour against capital, and possibly an opening for the struggle of doing against labour. If that is the case, then it is not a defeat for class struggle, but a shift to a more profound level of class struggle. The struggle of labour is giving way to struggle of doing against and beyond labour.

The movement of useful doing against abstract labour has always existed as a subterranean and subversive current in-against-and-beyond the labour movement. Since the movement of useful doing is the push towards socially self-determining creativity, its forms of organisation have been typically anti-vertical and oriented towards the active participation of all. The councilist or assemblyist tradition has always stood opposed to the state- and party- centred tradition within the anti-capitalist movement. Now, with the crisis of abstract labour, this tradition is flourishing again, in new and often imaginative forms.

Since useful doing is simply the manifold richness of human creativity, the movement tends to be somewhat chaotic and fragmented in character, a movement of movements struggling for a world of many worlds. From this perspective it is easy to fall into thinking of the struggles as being disconnected, the struggles of so many different identities, the struggle of and for differences. However, this is not the case. Although useful-creative doing is infinitely rich in its potential, it always exists in-against-and-beyond a common enemy, the abstraction of doing into labour.

To understand autonomies from the perspective suggested here, as cracks in capitalist domination, that is, as cracks in the fabric of cohesion woven by abstract labour, helps us to see that these movements are not just a fashion, not a sign of the weakness of class struggle, not a mass of fragments, but the push towards humanity that constitutes the crisis of abstract labour. Hence their importance: our movements are the crisis of abstract labour, and on the outcome of this crisis the future of the world depends.”

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