Can We Change the World Without Taking Power?

A lot of our understanding of revolution is in terms of the capture of state power. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of doing so: One, you may join a party, raise to power, and change the ways of doing things. This is a reformist tendency. Two, you capture the state power through violent means and then change the state structure. This is a revolutionary approach. In both these approaches, we find that power and state are intrinsic to the way society could be changed. If one were to look at the experiences of the twentieth century, the revolutionary governments across the world — more specifically in China and Russia — or the reformist governments that have gotten power through elections as elsewhere, we find that they have led to a terrific disappointment in terms of how they have changed our world. 

John Holloway, a Marxist sociologist and philosopher, in his work Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today provides an important critique of the present-day understanding of revolutions in terms of state and power relations. He interrogates four key issues: the state, the nature of power, fetishisation, and the meaning and relevance of revolution. Holloway premises his thesis on the critique of capitalism. He believes that we are all living in a dreadful capitalist society, and there is a dire need to create a more human society. Therefore, he writes, “revolution, in the sense of radical social change, is more urgent than ever.”

Holloway argues, “there is simply something wrong with the whole idea of trying to transform society through the state.” This failure is due to fact that the state is not just a neutral institution, but a “specific form of social relations that arises with the development of capitalism”. And that social relation excludes, separates and fragments people from power. Therefore, our struggle must not focus on the state and on taking state power. 

In Holloway’s view, we must develop our structures and ways of doing things. He propounds his arguments with a reflection on the concept of “SCREAM” — an enthusiasm for changing the world. Holloway writes, “Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.” It is the starting point of theoretical reflection of revolution, born out of rage, and not from reason. He adds, “Our scream is a refusal to accept” — the unacceptable. It is a refusal to accept the inevitability of increased inequality, exploitation, violence and misery. The scream “implies an anguished enthusiasm for changing the world”, the problem is “how we can do it.” 

Holloway, further, attempts to make an important distinction between the Leninist “counter-power” — the capture of state power, or the power to command — as opposed to “anti-power,” the power to do things, or our creative power. For this purpose, Holloway redefines power in terms of “power to” rather than “power over.” In his opinion, power means one’s capacity to do things. The scream is not just rage, but of hope. The scream implies doing. This “doing” implies being-able-to-do, and it negates an existing state of affairs. Power is merely the ability to do. It is “can-ness” — the capacity to do. It is the “power to” show our resentment, join together, and march under a common banner of being-able-to-do. To Holloway, this power is social power, as one’s doing of things depends on the doing of others. For example, we inherit language, technology, and knowledge from others. This is collective power, as “our doing is always part of the social flow of doing.” At this point, we realise that there is no clear division between the doing of one person and the doing of another. However, there are no clear distinctions, no divisions, and no identities. 

Under capitalism, this social flow of doing is broken. And one of the biggest contributors to it is the concept of ‘private property.’ It is the power of the capitalist to command the doing of others. “Capitalism is the process of breaking the social flow of doing, breaking our power to do, and transforming it into power over others,” writes Holloway. He also critiques past revolutions as mere institutions of “power over” authorities, which have not changed the structure of power itself. 

Holloway criticized Leninist “counter-power” that is based on conquering state power to change our society. Lenin noted: First, we win power; then, we create a society worthy of humanity. He argues, “For us, trying to think about how to change society means having confidence in our own form of action.” No matter how much lip service is paid to the movement, the goal of conquest inevitably leads to the “instrumentalisation of power.” The struggle has an aim — the capture of state power. And all those aspects of the struggle that do not contribute to the end goal are given secondary status. This leads to the hierarchisation of struggles. This hierarchy further impoverishes struggles, as it is a hierarchy of ‘self’ and ‘ourselves’. Holloway notes, the notion of the capture of state power misses the point that the aim of revolution is to have no such power relations. Thus, we need to rethink how to change society without taking over state power. 

It is at this point, Holloway introduces us to Zapatistas and their renewed vocabulary on revolution. The Zapatista uprising in Mexico in January 1994 has been of enormous importance for two reasons: One, they rebelled at a time when there was no longer any space for revolt in modern society. Two, they also had proposed to rethink the whole concept of rebellion. 

In one such instance, when the dialogue between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in San Andrés, Chiapas, the negotiation was not seen as a symmetrical process between two sides. It was asymmetrical in two ways: First, they weren’t going to negotiate. They sought ‘time’ in responding to the government. And the time to them was not “clock,” but their ability to talk to everyone in Zapatismo and responding. This shows us that their concept of politics is inherently anti-hierarchical. Second, they had asserted themselves with their insistence on wearing their traditional attire and using their language. 

The fundamental break from traditional revolutionary approaches lies in the centrality given to the idea of dignity. Holloway writes, “Dignity speaks in the first words of the Zapatista uprising: Ya Basta! Enough!.” The Zapatistas claim that they rebel because they can no longer live in humiliation as they have for five hundred years. And the revolt is the revolt of dignity and not of power. It is dignity, not just of revolutionaries, but of ordinary people. This emphasis on dignity forms the basis of the Zapatismo vocabulary of revolution. And it invariably rejects the taking over state power. 

While reading Holloway, the Italian sociologist Antonio Negri notes that Changing the World Without Taking Power is “a beautiful but strange book.” And this feeling sustains throughout. Holloway, through his thesis, asks how we can formulate our understanding of revolution as the struggle against power, not for power. He does not seek to understand revolution as an answer, but only as a question. “There is nothing fixed to which we can cling for reassurance,” he writes. “Not class, not Marx, not revolution, nothing but the moving negation of untruth.” For Holloway, the central aim of a social revolution is to “make the world anew, to create a world of dignity, a world of humanity, but without taking power.” 

Disclaimer: I do not, unfortunately, present a critique of the book, for there are many as highlighted by several political philosophers and social scientists — more specifically from the far-left scholarship.

Where There is No Caste: Utopia

In the winter of 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, visited India. When they arrived in Mumbai, King told reporters, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.” King was fascinated by the non-violent struggle of Gandhi against the British and had long dreamed of going to India. The couple stayed back in India for an entire month. One afternoon, King and his wife visited a high school where the children belonging to Untouchable castes were taught. The school principal made an introduction: “Young people, I would like to present you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” King was appalled at the comparison. He never expected himself to be addressed as untouchable for he was an alien to the system. When King began to think about the reality of the lives of 20 million African Americans he was fighting for, he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is untouchable.”

Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in her bestselling book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, introduces caste as a guiding framework to analyse racial hierarchy and stigmatization that holds African-Americans at the bottom of the ladder. Caste is broadly divided into seven parts, each addressing the broad contours of caste, and the interplay between caste and race in the United States. Her work is lyrically absorbing with its brilliant use of anecdotes, allegories, and metaphors about “an old house.” Throughout her work, Wilkerson uses words such as ‘dominant caste,’ ‘middle caste,’ ‘disfavoured caste’ or ‘lowest caste’ instead of, or in addition to, ‘white,’ ‘Asian or Latino,’ and ‘African-American’ to refer to the American caste system. 

Wilkerson defines caste as the “architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions” for sustaining social order. A caste system “is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of the other,” she writes. In her thesis, Wilkerson notes that the caste hierarchy is “not about feelings or morality”, but it is about power, resources, authority and respect — which groups have it and which do not, who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not.

To understand caste and its implicit use of unconscious ranking of human characteristics “used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species,” Wilkerson draws stark parallels between the “tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquishing caste system” of Hitler’s Germany that exterminated millions of Jews, lasting 12 years; the “lingering, millennia-long caste system of India” that continues to stigmatize Dalits — the former untouchables — even to this day; and the “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the US,” that has been dehumanising the African-American community for centuries.

Wilkerson, in her work, analyses the interplay between race and caste in the United States. For this purpose, she explores the writings of Ashley Montagu, Gunnar Myrdal, Allison Davis, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others. Allison Davis, an African-American social anthropologist, in his path-breaking work Deep South (1941) that examines the parallel between the African-Americans under the Jim Crow South in the United States and Dalits in India. Social economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his 1944 comprehensive report on race in America titled: An American Dilemma concludes that “the most accurate term for American society is not race, but caste.” 

Drawing from their works, Wilkerson contends that “caste and race coexist in the same culture” and they serve to reinforce one another. In the American caste system, the signal of rank in the form of one’s colour and appearance are known as race. And in the language of race caste as the underlying grammar defining it. The race is what one sees — the physical traits with arbitrary meanings — and caste is the “powerful infrastructure” that holds each group in its place. In Caste, Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars of caste” — divine will, heritability, endogamy, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, terror as enforcement and cruelty as means of control, and inheritance of superiority and inferiority — that underlie the working of caste across societies. She illustrates these features using the examples from India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.

In the “tentacles of caste,” Wilkerson describes various ways in which caste permeates in a society that is infected by it. She goes on to address the “unconscious bias” embedded deep within one’s culture and its function of perpetuating caste. And the role of lower castes as “scapegoats” of the caste system. Wilkerson notes, “As scapegoats, they are seen as the reason for societal ills.” She, further, adds that the “caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries” that builds up as a result of scarcity in societies. In another chapter, Wilkerson talks about the inherent “narcissism” that sustains the caste system.

The dominant caste acts as “the sun around which all other castes revolve” and these castes are ranked in “descending order by their physical proximity” to the dominant caste. “Caste behaviour,” Wilkerson writes, “is essentially a response to one’s assigned place in the hierarchy.” And the culture enables one to take instructions from dominant castes — follow them, revere them, and not argue with them when they are wrong. Although Wilkerson’s work elaborates on race in terms of the caste hierarchy, she doesn’t explicate on the class privilege in terms of one’s inheritance of intergenerational trauma and post-memory among African Americans.

Wilkerson uses the most enduring caste framework, India’s, consisting of four varnas — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra — and Dalits, former untouchables. However, jatis, the subset of varna, represent the sustained harsh reality of Indian society. These jatis are not rigid. And some jatis, as shown by several Indian social anthropologists, have climbed up the ladder and several others have slipped down. The postcolonial scholarship on caste has further shown us that the British colonialism has imposed a certain rigidity in the structuring of caste as it exists today. 

What captures most of Wilkerson’s attention is the textualized division of caste in its purest form of hierarchy, division, and the normalised stigma — varna. Through this caste framework, she opens up a debate on what constitutes caste in our society. Wilkerson writes, “caste is the powerful institution that holds each group in its place”. When we apply this understanding to our day-to-day living, we see caste everywhere.

In my childhood, I attended a boarding school in Kadapatti — A temple town for the caste crusader, Basava, in southern India. On Sundays and other holidays, we, as children, would stand behind the windows of an unknown neighbourhood, peep through the tinted glasses, and stare at the Television watching dramatic Kannada movies, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and the Cricket World Cup. As young as nine-years-olds, we knew our positions, roles, and the functions as we huddled through those tinted glasses. When I look back, I understand that the mere notion of “peeping through the tinted glasses” and “owning a Television” shows us the caste structure — and the roles and behaviours it elicits.

Caste, in its truest sense, is one’s inability to accept the other as ourselves. And this form of caste exists everywhere. It is exactly this inability that enables the rich to look at the poor-in-tatters with a certain disgust. In a rural Indian household, the women — all their lives — are taught that their role is restricted to the four-walled kitchen. In international society, the third-world is looked down upon by developed countries. And the transgender community still faces perpetual stigma in South Asian societies among others. Wilkerson’s very appropriation of caste into western societies — the tendency to define caste in western terms — might blur harsh lived-realities of caste in India.

In the modern capitalist system, a new form of legitimised caste structure has emerged. A factory has a certain structure with foremen, supervisors, the board of directors, and the executive heads — each playing their roles, in their institutionalized hierarchy, with a scalar chain of command. In his Annihilation of Caste (1935), Ambedkar (whom Wilkerson calls the Martin Luther King, Jr. of India) wrote, “caste does not bring about the division of labour; it brings about division of labourers.” The caste roles enable the blue-collared employees to be treated in a certain manner as opposed to that of white-collared employees. It enables the watchman of an organisation ought to behave in a certain manner — and salute the ones that come through those gates. These caste behaviours are inevitably defined and structured in terms of one’s socio-economic and political power.

 What Wilkerson does not, however, delve deep into is the modern manifestations of caste in our society. But, she commences a debate on the term “caste” and its varied existence in human society, with Nazi Germany, America, and the Indian variant of caste as merely some of the many forms. As Wilkerson notes, “Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but how we process information.”

Caste is against humanity. It divides humans based on their, arbitrarily, presumed worth. It does not just assume that all humans are not born equal, but, caste provides the basis for our behaviour, rules of engagement, and encourages stigmatisation of the other. Wilkerson’s Caste enables us to rethink our complacency towards the perpetuating caste in our societies in various forms it exists. 

 In Wilkerson’s thesis, the caste framework helps one to understand “racism” and the “racial stigma” against the African Americans in the United States. She concludes her important essay on caste by helping us to recognise caste and then enabling us to dismantle it. It is possible, Wilkerson writes, to create a “world without caste [that] would set everyone free” for it requires both individual bravery and enormous collective will of dominant castes.

Review: Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind

Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2001

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