Communism-Lite

Eugene Holland, Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike

University of Minnesota Press, 272pp, 20.50, ISBN 9780816666133

reviewed by Benjamin Noys

The provocation of Eugene W. Holland’s book is most immediately obvious in its use of the oxymoron in its title, but more shocking is the sub-title’s invocation of ‘free-market communism’. What on earth could the free-market, beloved of the doyens of capitalism, have to do with communism? Holland aims to provide the answer. Of course, recently we have become used to communism being back on the theoretical agenda, with the rolling road-show of the ‘Idea of Communism’ conferences organised by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, and the steady stream of publications that have resulted. The ongoing financial crisis has given a sense of the fragility of capitalism, and the desire to explore alternatives. Holland’s book is a contribution to this moment, but certainly one coming out of left-field, although whether it is ‘left’ politically seems, on the face of it, a more open question.

The inspiration for Holland’s deliberate provocation of a ‘free-market communism’ is the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, especially their co-written books Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari aimed to challenge the usual forms of regular thinking, dictated by norms of sense and representation, which they regarded as instances of ‘State-thinking’. Although Holland is not as dismissive of the State as some of the more anarchist formulations of Deleuze and Guattari, he is aiming to unsettle our usual understandings. This is why he chooses his provocative formulation, arguing that ‘free-market communism’ allows us to synthesise the ‘bottom-up’ complexity of markets with a communism freed of the State. Of course, the problem is: when we think outside of sense do we just indulge in nonsense? One friend’s response to reading the blurb for Holland’s book was precisely that it was ‘arrant nonsense’.

Certainly Holland is enamoured with the capacity of markets to coordinate activities, to spur innovation, and to generate complexity. He has recourse to familiar examples of ‘bottom-up’ activities that seem to generate or incarnate collective ways of working, such as the Internet, ‘freeware’ and, less conventionally, jazz improvisation. So far so typical, and not so far from the ideologues of capitalist innovation. Yet Holland is also a reader of Marx, and aware that although capitalism is not synonymous with markets it does crucially depend on the fact that the majority of us have to sell our labour because we lack any other way to survive. His conclusion is that if we remove the labour market we can re-tool the market in general for communist ends. In this way he remains true to Marx’s point that we have to work with capitalism as we have it to create communism, rather than return to dreams of face-to-face pre-capitalist communities. Communism is not simpler than capitalism, but more complex. That said, Holland is far more accepting of the market than Marx and the communist tradition. This raises the question, to which I will return, of just how much of the ‘bad new’ (to use Brecht’s phrase) we can and should keep, and what we should destroy.

The other difficult question, which Holland directly confronts, is how this ‘free-market communism’ is to be achieved. To simply knock-out the labour market leaving everything else intact seems an unlikely proposition. In his conclusion, Holland tries to sketch possibilities through various instances of the cooperative and ‘fair trade’ movements, although he also notes Marx’s prescient caveat that it is unlikely that such endeavours can challenge capital if kept as the activity of ‘private workers’. Holland is disarmingly honest in admitting that these now global cooperatives may not replace capitalism, but hopes they will. His true solution is the ‘slow-motion general strike’, which suggests an avoidance of both the ‘punctual’ model of the revolution and the alternative of piecemeal reform.

This is a model of social change predicated on developing the elements of ‘free-market communism’ already present and disengaging from the State. In particular, Holland stresses the need to seek out new modes of self-provisioning, what are often called the ‘commons’, and suggests a long duration of struggles that open out of the ‘gaps’ in capitalism. This emphasis on the sustainability of struggle is, I think, crucial. Often protests and movements emerge suddenly, but then disappear all too rapidly. Holland also resists the idea that we should speed-up capitalism to rupture it, instead arguing that we tease out alternatives. This is a patient and reasonable communism, but all too reasonable.

The difficulty I find with his proposals is that they appear to avoid questions of the difficulty of challenging existing social arrangements and the violence that would result from such challenges. This ‘stealth’ model of social change risks underestimating the necessity of antagonism to struggle, which does not necessarily entail apocalyptic fantasies of final confrontation. Also, the actual detail of how a global challenge to the labour market might come to be articulated is left, still, rather vague. We may not be totally dominated by capitalism, but an awareness of its powers to recuperate and destroy ‘alternative’ experiments suggests a healthy degree of caution is required.

Holland is honest enough to admit that this ‘free-market communism’ is a pretty minimal definition of what communism might be. It seems to suppose that it is an easy enough job to shed the capitalist skin and that then communism will be released in the comfortingly familiar form of market exchange shorn of its negative features. Marx himself, and I would agree, thought matters were not as simple as this. Leaving the market as the dominant form does not deal with all the alienations communism challenges, and leaves the possibility of capitalist regeneration or mutation ever-present.

The desire to struggle now, and make immediate gains, is certainly something Holland is right to respond to. In fact, he usefully embraces a diversity of struggle, and in this sense his book is admirably open-minded. At the risk of appearing cynical, however, I’m unconvinced markets are the best social form for our existence, and sceptical that capitalism will give up its domination so easily.