Where is Power?


John Holloway

Behind the discussion of empire and imperialism lie certain assumptions about the location of power. For this reason, this paper focuses on the preliminary question “where is power?” But what do we mean by ‘power’ and, even more interestingly, what do we mean by ‘where’?

In a self-antagonistic society, all concepts (and all people) are self-antagonistic. In a society based on exploitation, all concepts are inevitably battlefields riven by the same binary antagonism between exploiter and exploited, master and slave.

We start from doing. Doing is the basis of any society, including societies based on exploitation. Doing implies power, the power to do, the capacity to do. This power is a social power. The doing of one person implies the (simultaneous or previous) doing of others. Doing is always is always part of a social flow of doing in which that which has been done by one person is the precondition of the doing of another and the doing of the latter is the development or reproduction of the doing of the former, in which the doing of one flows across time and space into the doing of another and there are no clear boundaries between the doing of one and the doing of another.

There is not necessarily any direct link between the purpose, time or location of one doing and the doing which it develops. When we write a book, we do not know where or when or by whom it will be read (if at all) or from where or when all the influences on our writing come. The social flow of doing meanders through time and space.

In capitalism (and indeed in any society based on exploitation, but it is capitalism that interests us here), the social flow of doing is broken. The done is taken from the doer, broken from the doing and appropriated by the capitalist. This constantly repeated breaking is the basis of capitalist society. Capitalism is based on a movement of breaking, a movement of separating which affects all aspects of human doing (all aspects of life). The separation of done from doing implies the subordination of doing to done. Since the done is the precondition of doing, the capitalist uses his possession of the done to command doing, and he commands doing with the sole purpose of increasing his done and therefore increasing his command over doing. Done commands doing. Power-to-do is transformed into power-over. That which is, the done, that which has been done, is separated from the doing which created it and commands (and denies) that doing. In other words, in a capitalist society, being (that which is) commands doing, doing is subordinated to being. Doing becomes instrumental to the accumulation of the done. What rules is the self-expansion of the done, for doing, like any servant or slave, is invisible, negated.

The subordination of doing to being implies a new spatiality. Capitalist space is in the first place a space of being, not of doing. The fracturing of the social flow of doing is also a fracturing of space, the transformation of the meandering space of the flow of doing into a compartmentalised space of being. Capitalist space is not a space of connections but above all of separations, of frontiers. States defined by frontiers play a central role in capitalist spatiality. The development of citizenship implies the classification of people as beings (not as doers) enclosed within certain frontiers. The organisation of the violence necessary to maintain the system of exploitation follows the same spatial organisation, the same pattern of spatial inclusion/ exclusion.

But capitalist space has, inevitably, another dimension. It cannot simply be a spatiality of being because capitalist being (accumulation of the done) depends on the harnessing (alienation) of doing as work. Behind being is a hidden dependence on work. Behind the fragmented-frontier spatiality, the space of capitalist power-over is bound to follow in perverted fashion the frontier-free flow of doing, and not just to follow it, but to organise and dominate it. Behind the obvious state-organised forms of capitalist domination there has always been a structure of capitalist command going beyond (and largely ignoring) state frontiers. Capitalist command has always had two spatial dimensions: on the one hand, an obvious spatiality of being in which the key figure is the state, and on the other, a more hidden global space of command over work. This global spatiality of global command is not, however, the same as the frontierless flow of social doing: it is based not on unalienated doing but on alienated work, doing organised for the purpose of expanding the done, accumulating capital. Capitalist space is based on a doing organised for a purpose alien to the doing itself, on an instrumentally organised doing. Even its global dimension is a spatiality of straight lines, of railway tracks, highways and airline routes rather than the meandering of free doing.

We have, then, two antagonistic forms of power, characterised by two antagonistic forms of space. On the one hand, the free, frontierless flow of social doing, on the other the fragmented, frontier-dominated and linear space of capitalist command.

In a capitalist world, obviously, our power and our space exist not as timeless truth but as resistance, opposition, as unfulfilled dream and as that upon which capital (as the perversion of our power) ultimately depends. There are many images of this space: the open-road non-instrumental journey praised by Marcuse and idealised by the road movies of Hollywood, the wandering images of romantic poems and novels, the flânerie of Baudelaire and Benjamin, the dérive of the situationists and surrealists, Machado’s ‘camino que se hace al andar’ (‘path made by walking’), the ‘caminamos preguntando’ (asking we walk’) and the intergalacticism of the zapatistas. It is above all a spatiality of self-assertion, of exploration, of non-instrumental creation.

We already have a preliminary answer to the question “where is power?” Our power is everywhere, without frontiers or straight lines. Capitalist power, prior to being in any particular place, lies already in the concept of a spatiality marked out by separations and highways. To accept without criticism the capitalist concept of spatiality (as is done in Leninist theories of imperialism or dreams of national autonomy) is already to enter on to the terrain of capitalist power, to concede the battle before it is begun.

What then do we say of the current controversies stirred up by the publication of Hardt and Negri’s Empire? Is capitalist power increasingly centred in the United States or is it an amorphous presence that permeates the whole society and cannot be located in one place?

The answer surely has to be in terms of the two-dimensionality of capitalist power. Capitalist power is a relation of command-over (and therefore dependence upon) the doing of people in all parts of the world. This relation is concentrated in money. The existence of money as the medium of exploitation means that the capitalist relation of exploitation is a-territorial and fluid. This has been true since the origins of capitalism.

However, the intensity of this a-territoriality is not constant. When the insubordination of doers intensifies, so too does capital’s hopeless flight from its dependence upon the conversion of doing into labour. Capital then transforms itself into its money form and moves more rapidly through the world. This is essentially what has been happening in the last twenty years or so. The rise of insubordination during the twentieth century, first in the wave of struggles associated with the Russian revolution, and then a second wave in the late 1960s and the 1970s, drove capital to seek refuge in the expansion of credit, an expansion which continues to this day. The expansion of credit is synonymous with the rise of capital in its money form and means therefore the ever more rapid movement of capital throughout the world, the basis of what is generally known as “globalisation”. In this sense we can speak of a progressive de-territorialisation of capitalist command.

The rapid movement of capital tends to increase rather than reduce the need for capitalist relations to be protected or enforced by organised violence. The growing deterritorialisation of capitalist command is accompanied by an expansion rather than a diminution of statehood. Nevertheless, the rise of money capital means that states exist in a new environment, in which their limitations, their interdependence but also the antagonism between them is clearer than ever. There is consequently a reorganisation of the political organisation of violence which is inseparable from capitalism. Part of the current reorganisation of political organisation is the frenzied struggle by the US government to maintain or expand the role of the US state.

There is thus no contradiction between the de-territorialisation of capitalist command and the increasingly belligerent politics of the US (and other) governments. Both are aspects of the flight of capital from insubordination, aspects of the protracted crisis of capital.

There is, however, a more interesting question than that of the crisis and reorganisation of capitalist power. To what extent does this crisis and reorganisation stimulate the development of our anti-power, in this case the development of our own spatiality? Probably the answer is contradictory. On the one hand, the reorganisation of capitalist power has led many to want to defend the old organisation of that power, to seek refuge in nationalism or other identitarian responses. On the other hand, the current wave of struggle for a different world indicates a very confident assertion of our own spatiality, in which struggle is not organised on an inter-national basis but simply knows no borders. A space which is conceived not in terms of borders or straight lines, but in terms of spectacles and anti-spectacles, shows and carnivals, events rather than institutions.

This is very important. For too long the left has tried to engage capital on its own spatiality, to organise on national lines and to conceive of change in terms of national states. To some extent it is impossible to avoid engaging with capital on its own terms, but if struggle is to open up any perspective of a different society, it must always be on an against-and-beyond basis, with the emphasis being as strongly as possible on the beyond, with the world of explicitly and consciously social doing always present as utopian star.