P2P Theory: What’s the right approach to the state in the p2p transformation ?

A contribution by Theodoros Karyotis:

“The “state” in the thought of many political thinkers (Castoriadis preeminently, but also Bookchin, Holloway etc) is not just a generic term for a structure of large scale governance. On the contrary, it signifies a model of governance where power does not reside in the intended political community, but in a separate political class that exercises it on society from above. This can be by divine right (theocratic state), brute force (dictatorship) or ritualistic electoral appointment (western-style democracy). In all cases, with more or less individual liberties, with more or less (manufactured) consensus, a state perpetuates the domination of a class over another, since power is removed from the subjects it governs.

Now I don’t think that anyone (apart from some obsolete 19th century theorists) can argue that the reproduction of the full complexity of social life can be ensured by an arrangement of disconnected and dispersed horizontal structures. We urgently need a scheme of governance built from the bottom up, not representing the interests of the people (as the left wing parties would have it) but including these very people in the power structures, from the local to the global, in a way that avoids power concentration, ensures economic equality and promotes education in political participation for all.

So if we agree that state and governance are two different concepts, we are all on the same page, and Michel´s vision of “transformed and democratic state, modelled on the greek democratic cities” would be an ideal we all share -only since power would be immanent to society and not removed from it, it wouldn’t be called a state anymore. I hope you understand this is not nit-picking.

Now I think we can all agree on the necessity of this -the real issue is how we get there. The two roads that have been proposed is a) the “radical restructuring” (to use Restakis’ term) of the existing state institutions in order to make them more inclusive and decentralise power and b) the creation of institutions antagonistic to the status quo built from the bottom up that will compete with the state for legitimacy and efficiency (and would have to eventually confront the state).

A new and exciting example of road a) is Podemos party in Spain (SYRIZA is a similar case, but not as exciting anymore). A successful and well-documented example of road b) is the Zapatista autonomy in Mexico.

Now obviously there are many disadvantages to the path of autonomy, first and foremost that the existing power (class-gender-ethnicity-you name it) structures are deeply ingrained in peoples’ consciousness, and even if we educate ourselves to overcome them, the powers that be will not allow the creation of competing power institutions, legitimized as they may be in the eyes of society. And of course it will be a long process before this autonomous power structure can take over all the functions that are important for our reproduction, which are now managed by the state. (We would definitely need to create collective instruments of accumulation and distribution of surpluses in order to build the bridges David Harvey speaks about -that is the subject for another discussion). So the time scale and effort required by the path of autonomy seems intimidating.

So why go the hard way, and not take a), the easy way there? Simply because historical experience shows that when you try to reform the state, you end up being reformed by it. SYRIZA in Greece is a good example of this: It started as off as a small radical left coalition with an ambitious reform plan, and in order to come closer to power it had to revise its reform program, appease the media and the powers that be and move itself towards the space previously occupied by social democracy. By the time it reaches power (if it is finally allowed to govern) there will be nothing new and ambitious in its reform program anymore, and the party will have to make do with a moderate plan of saving the middle classes from total annihilation by stimulating growth and creating jobs – the exact opposite of really creating an alternative to capitalism. The reason is simple: Capturing state power is not enough to capture real power. So when you set out to capture state power you end up captured by state power.

Here is an article I co-wrote recently that goes a bit more into depth on that issue:

We have more historical precedents: Half of Latin America is governed by governments that started out as “progressive” and are now becoming more aggressively neoliberal that their predecessors. Ecuador, despite the interesting FLOK program, has one of the most aggressive extractivist policies in Latin America, and several hundred indigenous leaders are in prison accused of terrorism, simply for having stood up to protect their commons. In Bolivia there is also extreme criminalization of the social movements, and the government is pushing forward aggressive neoliberal projects such as the TIPNIS highway. Shall we talk about Brazil? The only interesting experiment in “dual power” is Venezuela, but there they also have the boon and curse of extractivism in the form of fossil fuels: Displaced populations, destroyed environment. As idealistic as the path of autonomy may seem, I think that it is more feasible than teaching -even through perfectly well-meaning and well-thought-out programs such as the FLOK- the language of commons and participation to these post-colonial behemoths that have been speaking for centuries the language of plunder, exclusion and genocide.

So I am not trying to condemn all attempts at reforming or radically restructuring existing institutions, but I think our time and energy is best spent on strengthening our bottom-up powers and building our parallel institutions that speak the language of the commons, of equality and participation. At the same time we can keep using strategically the existing institutions, but with a confrontational and transcendental mindset.

A very inspirational project that sums up what I am advocating is the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (http://cooperativa.cat/en/), a large-scale experiment in self-sufficiency and autonomy in Catalonia. They implement commons-based and needs-driven economic instruments, trying to integrate as many aspects of socio-economico-political life within the scope of the project, thus leaving gradually less and less of their lives in the hands of the state and the market. At the same time they are using loopholes in the existing legislation to fortify their projects, while promoting active political and economic disobedience. So when I speak about autonomy, I don’t mean that we should act as if we are in a political and social vacuum, as if there were no constraints on our political becoming. Instead I think that we should preserve our radical independence from existing power structures, while using them strategically to trace a path within, against and beyond the state and the market. A similar strategic use of existing institutions would be the experiments in libertarian communitarianism, where local government is seen as an accessible and meaningful locus of power to contend -with municipal power being the stepping stone rather than the horizon of political action.”

Source: The networked labour mailing list, October 2014

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