Change the World without taking Power


How ridiculous! Or is it?

John Holloway

1. The anguish of the world has intensified.

Since September 11th, capital has celebrated its orgies, showing a violence and arrogance surpassing anything we have experienced in recent years. More than ever, it seems that the dynamic of capitalism is leading with terrifying speed to the destruction of humanity. More than ever, it is obvious that a radical social transformation is desperately urgent.

And yet, the more urgently social change is needed, the more impossible it seems to be. The terrible power of capital has made itself evident in recent months, both its military power and its power to convince people of its cause through the media. There seems to be no hope.

For many, being on the left becomes a prolonged moan. What else, when capitalism is so awful, when there is no hope, when dreams are dead? Left-wing analysis focuses on criticising capitalism, on telling us how awful it is, as if we didn’t know already. We sink easily into left-wing melancholy, comfortable Cassandras predicting the downfall of humanity, knowing that nobody is listening.

But no, it cannot be like that. We see the horrors of capitalism, the bodies being dragged from the rubble of Palestine and Afghanistan, the millions of children living in the streets of the world, the 35,000 children who die each day of curable diseases, the obscenity of a world in which, in 1998, the assets of the 358 richest people were more than the total annual income of 45% of the world’s people (over two and a half billion). We see all that and a scream grows inside us, a scream so intense that there is no option: we cannot abandon hope for a different world. No matter how hopeless the situation, no matter how much we know that our hope is hope against hope, we have no choice: we must try to understand the world through the eyes of hope.

We have no option but to ask: how can we change the world? The horrors of the world force us back to that hoary old question of revolution. Lenin’s old question (a hundred years old this year) is still there: what is to be done? Or better, what should we do? Many of us prefer to forget about the issue, or simply to assume that the old answers are valid. But the old answers are not valid, and the question is still there. The fact that we do not have an answer makes it all the more important to discuss the matter.

2. We cannot change the world by taking power. We have a whole century of experience to tell us that it does not work.

For most of the last century, efforts to create a world worthy of humanity were focussed on the state and the winning of state power. The main controversies (between ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries’) were about how to win state power, whether by parliamentary or by extra-parliamentary means. The history of the twentieth century suggests that the question of how to win state power was not very important. In all cases, the winning of state power failed to bring about the changes that the militants hoped for. Neither reformist nor revolutionary governments succeeded in radically changing the world.

It is easy to accuse all the leaderships of these movements of ‘betraying’ the movements which they led. So many betrayals suggest, however, that the failure of radical, socialist or communist governments lies much deeper. The reason that the state cannot be used to bring about radical change in society is that the state itself is a form of social relations that is embedded in the totality of capitalist social relations. The very existence of the state as an instance separated from society means that, whatever the contents of its policies, it takes part actively in the process of separating people from control of their own lives. Capitalism is simply that: the separating of people from their own doing. A politics that is oriented towards the state inevitably reproduces within itself the same process of separating: separating leaders from led, serious political activity from frivolous personal activity. A politics oriented towards the state, far from bringing about a radical change in society, leads to the progressive subordination of radical opposition to the logic of capitalism.

The idea that the world could be changed through the state was an illusion. But, for many, revolution is so tightly identified with the notion of taking state power that the failure of changing the world through taking power means that there is no longer any possibility of revolution at all. The great merit of the Zapatista uprising – and the reason it has played such a key role in the current upsurge of struggle throughout the world – is that it breaks with that identification. The Zapatistas say that they want to change the world, to make it anew, but they reject the idea of taking power.

But how can we change the world without taking power? The very idea seems ridiculous. Perhaps it is ridiculous, perhaps we should get used to the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism, no hope at all. And yet it is difficult to accept that our children or grandchildren must live through the destruction that that means. We push on, then: how can we hope against hope, how can we think the ridiculous which is so urgently necessary, how can we change the world without taking power?

3. To move forward at all, we need to distinguish between two meanings of “power”.

Any idea of changing the world must start from activity, from doing. Doing, in turn, implies that we have the capacity to do, the power-to-do. We often use ‘power’ in this sense, as something good, as when a united action with others (a demonstration or even a good article) makes us feel ‘powerful’. Power in this sense is rooted in doing: it is power-to-do.

Power-to-do is always social. Our capacity to do something always depends on the doing of others, no matter how individual our activity appear to us. I sit here at my computer and write this article. It feels like an individual act, yet I know that my doing depends not just on the writing of many others who have influenced my ideas, but on the doing of the people who made my computer, of those who installed the electricity in the house, of those who are generating the electricity, of those who developed the domestic use of electricity and so on, and so on. Doing is always part of a social flow of doing across space and time, in which the doing of others is the means of my doing, and in which my doing receives social validation through its relation to the doing of others.

The question of the social flow of doing is crucial, because power-to is transformed into something very different, power-over, when this flow is broken. This happens with capital. In capitalism, capitalists appropriate what has been done and say “this is mine!” With this, the social flow of doing is broken. By taking from us that which has been done, capital separates us from the means of doing (and therefore from the means of survival). To live, we are now forced to go cap in hand to the capitalist and offer to sell to him our power-to-do (now power-to-labour, labour power). We are individualised, cut off from the sociality that gives meaning to our lives, social validation to our doing.

Power-to is transformed into power-over. Those who have seized the done now control the doing of others. They now appear as the Doers of society, and those whose doing is controlled by others become invisible, without face, without voice. Power-to-do no longer appears to be part of a social flow, but exists in the form of an individual power. For most people the power-to-do things becomes transformed into its opposite, powerlessness, or, at most, the power-to-do things determined by others. For the powerful, power-to-do becomes transformed into power-over, the power to tell others what to do – and therefore also a dependence upon the doing of others.

We can say, then, that in present society, power-to exists in the form of its own negation, as power-over. Power-to exists in the mode of being denied. This does not mean that it ceases to exist. It exists, but it exists as denied, as invisible, in antagonistic tension to its own form of existence as power-over.

Why is this distinction between the two meanings of power important? It explains why we do not want to “take power” – a term that does not make any distinction between their power and ours. But the fact that we do not want to “take power” does not mean that we are “powerless”. It is just that our power is fundamentally different from capitalist power. Capitalist power, power-over, is a movement of separating, of separating the done from the doing, of separating the doers from the sociality of doing, the doers from one another, and so on. Power-to, on the other hand, is the opposite movement, a movement of uniting, a movement of making direct and explicit the connection between our doing and the social flow of doing as a whole. Class struggle, in other words, is crucially a-symmetrical. Our struggle does not match theirs. In this sense, the notion of “class war” is misleading: war suggests a conflict between two armies, one army being more or less the same as the other, more or less the mirror image of the other. But if we think of our struggle as being the mirror image of capital, then we simply reproduce capital within our own struggle. Changing the world is not a question, then, of taking power, but of winning control of the social flow of our doing. For the same reason, it seems to me better not to speak of our power as a counter-power to capital (a term which leaves open the idea of a mirror image), but rather as anti-power, something quite different from their power.

4. What makes it all more difficult is that when capital breaks doing, when it separates the done from the process of doing, it fragments every aspect of our existence. The separation of the done from the doing and from the doers means that people relate to one another no longer as doers, but as owners (or non-owners) of the done (seen now as a thing divorced from doing). Relations between people exist as relations between things, and people no longer exist as doers but as the passive bearers of things.

This is what Marx refers to as alienation or (later) fetishism, and is variously referred to by other authors as reification (Lukács), discipline (Foucault) or identification (Adorno). All of these terms make it clear that power-over cannot be understood as something external to us, but that it reaches into every aspect of our existence.

Doing is converted into being: this is the core of power-over. Whereas doing means that we are and are not, the breaking of doing means that the ‘and are not’ is torn away. We are left just with ‘we are’: identification. ‘We are not’ is either forgotten or treated as mere dreaming. Possibility is torn from us. Time is homogenised. Existence is torn from constitution and given a solidity, a duration, as though that which exists (capitalism included) did not depend on its constant re-constitution. We are trapped in a world of duration, a world which simply “is”. The future is now the extension of the present, the past the preparation for the present. All doing, all movement, is contained within the extension of what is. It might be nice to dream of a world worthy of humanity, but that is just a dream: this is the way things are. The rule of power-over is the rule of ‘that is the way things are’, the rule of identity. The idea of making a radically different world seems absurd. Doesn’t it?

Power-over sinks into the depths of our selves. We, as doers separated from our own doing, re-create our own subordination. As workers we produce the capital that subordinates us. As university teachers, we play an active part in the identification of society, in the transformation of doing into being. When we define, classify or quantify, or when we hold that the aim of science is to understand society as it is, or when we pretend to study society objectively, as though it were an object separate from us, we actively participate in the negation of doing, in the separation of subject and object, in the divorcing of doer from done.

Fetishism screws our anguish to a pitch of unbearable intensity. The concept points to the way in which capitalism dehumanises us, so that revolution is desperately urgent, but if we are so dehumanised how can we even think of revolution?

It is not difficult to reach highly pessimistic conclusions about present society. The injustices and the violence and the exploitation scream at us, and yet there seems to be no possible way out. Power-over seems to penetrate every aspect of our lives so deeply that it is hard to imagine the ‘revolutionary masses’ once spoken of with such confidence. In the past, the deep penetration of capitalist domination led many to see the solution in terms of the leadership of a vanguard party, but surely we know by now that this is no solution at all, that it simply replaces one form of power-over with another.

The easiest answer is pessimistic disillusion. The initial scream of rage at the horrors of capitalism is not abandoned, but we learn to live with it. We do not become supporters of capitalism, but we accept that there is nothing that can be done about it. The problem is that disillusion is an acceptance that what is, is, a falling into identification; an active participation, then, in the separation of doing and done, in the reproduction of the power which horrifies us.

5. The only way to break the apparently closed circle of power is by seeing that the transformation of power-to into power-over is a process which necessarily implies the existence of its opposite: fetishisation implies anti-fetishisation.

Most discussions of alienation (fetishism, reification, discipline, identification and so on) treat it as though it were an accomplished fact. They treat the forms of capitalist social relations as though they were established at the dawn of capitalism and will continue until capitalism is replaced by another mode of social organisation. In other words, existence is separated from constitution: the constitution of capitalism is located in the historical past, its present existence is assumed to be stable. Such a view can only lead to a deep pessimism.

If, however, we see the separation of doing and done not as an accomplished fact but as a process, then the world begins to change. The very fact that we speak of alienation means that alienation cannot be complete. In the words of Ernst Bloch, “alienation could not even be seen, and condemned of robbing people of their freedom and depriving the world of its soul, if there did not exist some measure of its opposite, of that possible coming-to-oneself, being-with-oneself, against which alienation can be measured” (Bloch 1964 (2), p. 113).iIf separation, alienation (etc) is understood as a process, then this implies that its course is not pre-determined, that the transformation of power-to into power-over is always open, always at issue. A process implies a movement of becoming, implies that that which is in process (alienation) is and is not. Alienation, then, is a movement against its own negation, against anti-alienation. The existence of alienation implies the existence of anti-alienation. The existence of power-over implies the existence of anti-power-over, or, in other words, the movement of emancipation of power-to.

That which exists in the form of its negation, that which exists in the mode of being denied, really exists, in spite of its negation, as the negation of the process of denial. Capitalism is based on the denial of power-to, of humanity, of creativity, of dignity: but that does not mean that these cease to exist. As the Zapatistas have shown us, dignity exists in spite of its own negation. It does not stand on its own, but exists in the only form in which it can exist in this society, as struggle against its own negation. Power-to exists too: not as an island within a sea of power-over, but in the only form in which it can exist, as struggle against its own negation. Freedom too exists, not in the way that liberals present it, as something independent of social antagonisms, but in the only way it can exist in a society characterised by relations of domination, as struggle against that domination.

The real, material existence of that which exists in (and against) the form of its own negation, is the basis of hope.

6. The possibility of changing society radically depends, then, on the material force of that which exists in the mode of being denied. But is this all just fancy words, or does it really exist as a real force?

The material force of the negated can be seen in a number of ways.

Firstly, it can be seen in the infinite number of struggles which do not aim at winning power-over others, but simply at asserting our own power-to, our own resistance against being dominated by others. These take many different forms, from open rebellion to struggles to gain or defend control over the labour process, or the processes of health or education, to the more fragmented, often silent, assertions of dignity (by children or women) within the home. The struggle for dignity, for that which is denied by existing society, can be seen too in many forms that are not overtly political, in literature, in music, in fairy tales. The struggle against inhumanity is ubiquitous, for it is implicit in our very existence as humans.

Secondly, the force of the negated can be seen in the dependence of power-over upon that which it negates. Those whose power-over lies in their capacity to tell others what to do always depend for their existence on the doing of those others. The whole history of domination can be seen as the struggle of the powerful to liberate themselves from their dependence on the powerless. The transition from feudalism to capitalism can be seen in this light, not just as the struggle of the serfs to free themselves from the lords, but as the struggle of the lords to free themselves from their serfs by converting their power into money and so into capital. The same search for freedom from the workers can be seen in the introduction of machinery, or in the massive conversion of productive capital into money capital, which plays such an important part in contemporary capitalism. In each case, the flight of the powerful from the doers is in vain. There is no way in which power-over can be anything other than the metamorphosis of power-to. There is no way in which the powerful can escape from their dependence upon the powerless.

This dependence manifests itself, thirdly, in the consequent instability of the powerful, in the tendency of capital to crisis. Capital’s flight from labour, through the replacement of labour by machines and by its conversion into money, is confronted by its ultimate dependence upon labour (that is, upon its capacity to convert human doing into abstract value-producing labour) in the form of falling rates of profit. What manifests itself in crisis is the force of that which capital denies, namely non-subordinate power-to-do.

7. Revolution is urgent but uncertain, a question and not an answer.

Orthodox-Marxist theories sought to win certainty over to the side of revolution, arguing that historical development led inevitably to the creation of a communist society. This is fundamentally misconceived, because there can be nothing certain about the creation of a self-determining society. Certainty can only be on the side of domination. Certainty is to be found in the homogenisation of time, in the freezing of doing into being. Self-determination is inherently uncertain. The death of the old certainties is to be welcomed as a liberation.

For the same reasons, revolution cannot be understood as an answer, but only as a question. It is a question, but not a silly question. When we open the newspaper, turn on the television, look around us, see the beggars in the streets, we know that it is not a silly question. It is a question, because the only way we can now talk about revolution is to say that we do not know the answer. It is a question too because it can no longer be seen as telling people what to do but only as asking and listening. As the Zapatistas put it, “Preguntando caminamos.” Asking we walk.


Bloch Ernst (1964) Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie (2 Bde) (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp

Note :

This argument is developed much more fully in my book, Change the World without taking Power, Pluto Press, London, 2002 (ISBN 0745318630 for paperbacks and 0745318649 for hardbacks). To order, visit the Pluto website:

John Holloway is a professor in sociology in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. He has written widely on Marxist theory. His recent books include Change the World without taking Power, Pluto Press, London, 2002 and Zapatista! Reinventing revolution in Mexico (edited with Eloína Peláez), Pluto Press, London, 1998.

i Adorno makes the same point (1990, pp. 377-378): ‘Greyness could not fill us with despair if our minds did not harbour the concept of different colours, scattered traces of which are not absent from the negative whole.’ But he immediately gives the point a pessimistic, reactionary twist quite different from Bloch by adding ‘The traces always come from the past and our hopes come from that which was or is doomed.’ The different colours do not come from the past: they come from present resistance.