Hope is an invitation to work together, to develop alternatives

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INTERVIEW WITH ANA CECILIA DINERSTEIN. The name of this project – The Art of Organising Hope – refers to the subtitle of a book by the Buenos Aires born Ana Cecilia Dinerstein (The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope). In it, she explored how alternative practices and discourses were successfully developed at a time of hope in Latin America. We visited Ana Cecilia in Bristol – she works as a Professor of Sociology, at the British University of Bath – to discuss the book and our plans.

The art of organising hope
“Hope is not just the ability to fantasise, but a tool for taking alternative realities seriously so that they might actually become possible. With hope, we can make concrete preparations for alternative ways of organising our societies – alternatives that are already awaiting in the present, but which are simply not thought possible yet. We cannot abandon hope, because our capacity to dream and aspire collectively is our only way to make a truly better world. But hope is something we must learn. The art of organising hope is this process of learning hope and rejecting discourses based on sacrifice, pain, danger, fear and uncertainty. There are unexpected moments in history when governing by fear reaches a cul-de-sac. At such breaking points, often marked by economic, financial or political crisis, fear can give way to hope.”

“The Argentinean Piqueteros are a great case of hope against fear. I worked with this movement of unemployed workers (the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados, MTDs) that emerged in the mid-nineties at a time of harsh neoliberal reforms. They became celebrated for their courage, resistance, community action and influence on labour policy. My PhD (1997-2001), which analysed 100 years of crisis and resistance in 21st century Argentina, ended with a chapter on the roadblocks and how this new form of action put physical and symbolic limits to the power of abstract money-capital. This was a time of financial speculation and privatisation, when factories were closing. People were becoming unemployed, poorer. When the financial crisis of 2001 hit the country, it was clear that the IMF played a significant part, with seven million people becoming poor in one year time. Some towns just withered away, they became ghost cities, because the main source of income, the oil company, closed its doors. The Piqueteros fought back by blocking the roads in each locality and changed the rules of the game. They offered a concrete utopian alternative that reshaped the relationship between individuals, society, the rule of money, value and the state. In my research, I tried to understand how the lack of a job did not mean that the subordination of life to money-capital was ended, because the unemployed still needed money for their social reproduction. In a situation of unemployment, there is an intensification of the subordination of life to the rule of money and not the other way around. The unemployed become an unrealised labour subjectivity that is abandoned by capital. This idea of ‘the lack’ is in tune with Ernst Bloch’s notion of the ‘not yet’. The subject cannot realize herself as a person because she is ‘unemployed’, because the system of money classifies her as excluded. But in reality she is not excluded from anywhere, is she?”

Social reproduction and its crisis
“We are in the midst of a possibly terminal crisis of capitalism. In theory, capital always goes back to labour, because value is created by labour power, but in practice the development of financial capitalism – which is in no way a deviation from ‘normal capitalism’ but its new form – has become detached from its own bases. It is now a volcano about to burst. Millions of people are suffering and struggling for water, for food, for a home. In Latin America, the crisis of capitalism is referred to as a ‘crisis of civilization’. Here, in Europe, and despite our difficulties, we are still a privileged minority.”
“The identity of the working class is related to those who have a job, who work for a wage and are ‘exploited’ at work. Some time ago, Marxist Feminism and Autonomia Operaia in Italy brought about a debate on unpaid work and social reproduction. Marxist feminists keep questioning Marxism, asking: how do we theorise the social reproduction moment and gender in capitalism? How do we understand women’s struggle within this framework? We are broadening the notion of social reproduction. It’s not just about reproducing life by procreation, and the role of women in it and at home but it is about all the institutions that exist in society that sustain life: schools, education, health care, housing, culture…”
“The focus on production prevents us from understanding that many of the struggles that people face today, concerning housing, energy, food, land, education, climate, are also labour struggles and class struggles. Why? We can’t consider production without social reproduction. If you look at the world in a productivist way, Marxism does not work today. Lots of unemployment. But: production is just one aspect of the totality, Marx talks about this totality. The analysis should not start with ‘work’ but with the question: Why do we work? When we think about where the relation between capital and labour starts, where do we start the analysis? Why would a worker work hard if she doesn’t need to? She works because there is something prior to that, which is dispossession. It’s a circle, an ongoing process. The wage we get has to be high enough in order to reproduce ourselves, but not so high that we would not go back to work. Otherwise capitalism would not work! We go to work in exchange of a salary because we are dispossessed and need money to survive. So dispossession (the conditions to force people to work) is first? In fact it is production-social reproduction. There is no beginning or end to this process.”
“Now we are experiencing a process of a proliferation of different forms of work and labour: people are working, but they are also taking care of their children, partners, family members. Men and women help their friends building houses. In a text I wrote with co-author Frederick Harry Pitts I called this ‘the politics of social reproduction’. So what is the ‘working class’? Who is the ‘working class’? We can’t forget that it is the state that needs to provide social reproduction. Of course, in most West-European countries the state does this, but in other places around the world, where the welfare state is missing or it is weak or there is only fragmented World Bank policy, this welfare is not solid. Neo-liberalism has caused the state to abandon social reproduction, and as a result of this many people struggle to survive, struggle to combine work with realizing other parts of their identity. For instance, homeless people fall out of the scope of the trade unions. A man or woman with no home cannot go to work everyday normally. So who will represent the homeless? I think the answer is that they are part of the working class, without its identity, but they do not have a job and have not solved the problem of social reproduction. Maybe they have started to represent themselves, in the same way the piqueteros have done in Argentina.”

Class consciousness
“We can see that class consciousness is still an important issue, but we must emphasise the social reproduction side of class resistance! The struggles for social reproduction and the class conflicts they bring about are part of The Art of Organising Hope. We are trying to find alternative forms of social reproduction to challenge money and value as a form of society. Since capital has become very abstract with financialisation, it is never clear who is the real enemy. It’s difficult to visualize and to conceive of. But our struggles with, against and beyond capital are mediated by the state. Margaret Thatcher introduced 14 pieces of legislation to regulate labour in the 1980s. Nowadays, to go on strike in Britain, a trade union needs to show an employer that it has organised a ballot and obtained 50 percent of the vote of union members in favour of the strike. Also, the employer needs to be notified 15 days in advance. Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to organize a general strike in the UK. Workers are not paid when they are on strike. This is not the case in Argentina or Brazil, where teachers can go on strike for months. This shows that despite the fact that neo-liberalism is a global phenomenon, the nation state, the law and money all shape our resistances differently.”

Despite the fact that neo-liberalism is a global phenomenon, the nation state, the law and money all shape our resistances differently.

Self-government and autonomy
“Latin American’s civil societies used to be much more mobilised than European’s. The level of welfare provision is lower and repression is higher. Journalists and union leaders in Colombia and Nicaragua are literally murdered. In Mexico, women are under constant lethal attack. In Argentina, there is a revival of authoritarianism under a democratic regime, and in Brazil right wing politics are disastrous. Now that European governments become increasingly oppressive, now that the welfare state is under attack and the far right grow bigger, people in Europe are starting to organise themselves too, engaging in autonomous principles. The strong Anarchist and autonomous tradition in both regions is re-emerging. In my work, I don’t adhere to the idea that autonomous movements can be ‘outside’. Autonomy does not really exist. What does exist is the principle, the search for, the struggle for autonomy, and this is always mediated by the state, this happens ‘within’ capitalist society and not ‘outside’ it. The state must produce order and will always try to incorporate autonomous movements. In addition to this, we need to be careful to give an account of different autonomous experiences that already exist, we must decolonise autonomy. For example, the autonomous experience of indigenous communities is crucially different from our own experience. When we talk about ‘creating’ new institutions, we need to bring coloniality to the discussion, because practices exist that have worked well for them, but that have been oppressed and side-lined for 500 years. Not everything needs to be ‘new’, some things can be rediscovered and re-imagined.”

Bloch and time
“My book deals with the struggle, the search for autonomy and the question how can we move beyond the contradiction with the state or without the state! The state is an unavoidable mediation. The state will always try to incorporate our resistances and alternatives in one way or another. It will try to ‘translate’ them into policy. But we must focus on producing what I call excess. Because beyond the contradictions and the disappointments, there are alternative practices, care, love, poetry, art, solidarity, that cannot be translated into the logic of power. Bloch came into it because his work helped me to establish a connection between movements, collective actions, social reproduction and hope. Bloch’s philosophy can be used to understand social movements in the global south too.

It is impossible to measure the alternatives by mainstream standards, precisely because the people who create alternatives are altering the way we measure success.

The whole idea of the ‘not yet’ is beyond the European culture. For example, Bloch has been the inspiration behind Liberation Theology: a new form of understating religion by Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru and Leonardo Boff of Brazil. Bloch inspired these priests to think that the realm of god was here, on earth, so ‘hope’ is not religious but political and can lead to liberation. One of the important things that I like about Ernst Bloch’s philosophy, and also Walter Benjamin’s, is the way they treat and alter the notion of time. In judging an alternative, people often ask: ‘What did you achieve?’ Well, maybe this question is wrong. We don’t have to think in terms of cause – effect. We are doing something that has a bearing. It might be changing the way we think, relate, love, care, live, perform… It is impossible to measure the alternatives by mainstream standards, precisely because people who create alternatives are altering the way we measure success, at the same time as they are organising the alternative. TAOH is already a success in the here and now. So we would need other measuring tools to appreciate the power of our actions, different from the mainstream and from power. In this, I like how Bloch refers to ‘non-contemporaneity’ and ‘non-synchronicity’. Bloch states: ‘Not everybody is living on the same time’. Brexit is probably a good example of this. Some people are living in a completely different time than their neighbours or colleagues. This notion of non-synchronicity is important for politics: those creating another way of living and reproducing life are inhabiting (habitando) a different time; a slower, more creative and more caring time than the speedy, isolated, individualistic modern time.”

Imagination and concrete utopia
“The word imagination has been trivialized. ‘I have a lot of imagination’ or ‘to let our imagination go’… These expressions are often used as empty signifiers. Again, I would like to come back to the notion of the ‘not yet’, because it opens a space from where to imagine. I want to change things in life that are not working, but we must start rejecting empty words and lies. For example, when someone gives a talk about reducing poverty by 2050, we need to learn how to say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you are talking about, this is abstract thinking and talking. How is this going to happen without tackling the conditions that create poverty?’ We are not creating castles in the air. They are. We are real. Many people are putting their imagination at work on concrete things. They try to build concrete better worlds for now and not for tomorrow. These are concrete utopias. This includes indigenous communities who speak about radical hope, and are inviting us to imagine how our world could be different, better and more just.”
“The terms creativity and imagination don’t necessarily suit everybody. Think of indigenous communities and their wisdom, centuries of using their oppressed cosmovision based on a particular understanding of their land, their plants and trees, their ancestors. Their imagination is different. It is not Eurocentric. We need to learn from each other. Hope is not a automatic and static emotion, we can mobilize it, but we need to learn it too.
“Many social movements involved in the politics of social reproduction are rejecting the politics of austerity, and the beginning of the end of the politics of fear. Austerity politics, after all, depends on fear. It relies on worries about the future to justify swingeing cuts and sacrifices in the present. Creating a sense of hopelessness is a very efficient way to quickly implement irreversible structural economic changes, even if they degrade living standards, worsen working conditions, and generally spread fear and unhappiness. The market ideology and the discursive ‘retreat’ of the state -key elements of neo-liberalism- are in crisis, and it seems that the powerful shot themselves in the foot, they went too far, leaving millions of people unprotected and adrift.”

The ‘other’ Critical Theory: Negation and Affirmation
“When we try to organize ‘hope’, we must think of alternative forms of social reproduction outside the world of money. On the other hand, we need it. But the problem is that money is not just a means of exchange as gold was before, a convention. It is the most abstract representation of the power of capital and therefore the form in which we reproduce ourselves as society. There is a real contradiction here, one that people are struggling with. In order to reproduce ourselves we need money, but in order to reproduce ourselves we must destroy money as command over human life. The art of organising hope is the art of navigating this contradiction in the best way we can and get new practices and organisations out of it, it is about being able to affirm and preserve life (including animal life and nature).
“In the book Social Sciences for An Other Politics: Women Theorising without Parachutes, written with 11 other female writers, we have formulated a deep critique of the notion of negation that overwhelms critical theory today and confuses affirmation with positive thinking that accepts the reality of today’s world. Sara Motta has a chapter in the book where she criticises Slavoj Žižek as the male and white ‘prophet of the negation’ that operates as a subordinator of other voices, and subordinates other forms of critique that seem not to count as philosophy! Instead of this negative, white, male, rational critique, she offers the critique of the female storytellers. It’s by telling stories that we weave communities. Our book Women Theorising without Parachutes is an invitation to discover that there are other forms of critique. We must say NO!, but what happens next? Many critical theorists today, like Adorno, fear positivisation. So they want to keep negation going, but this is difficult after the moment of saying NO! because once we say no, it comes the moment of affirmation: we must create, anticipate, organise hope as an affirmation. My point is that affirmation is a form of negation. For example: if I am forced into the role of an indigenous person, treated as ignorant and poor, I say: ‘No, enough is enough!’ But then immediately I say: ‘I am Ana Cecilia, I am a Zapatista, I am from Chiapas, I cover my face to be seen, I am silent to be heard, here I am,’ affirming my life as a human being since power has never treated me like that. So affirmation is a tool to negates the oppression and classification that power enforces on you. Of course, we should not positivize this identity to the point that it is naturalised and stops being an identity of resistance, an identity of struggle. It is an affirmation that contains in itself a negation. I think that without this distinction between affirmation and positivisation, critical theory becomes too abstract and not related to everyday life. Then it is not really a critique because it will not take our humanity and the conditions in which it exists seriously into consideration. According to Ernst Bloch, unmasking the political economy is not enough. This is why I am working on a critical theory of hope. Like Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes: ‘It’s about discovering what is out there’. What knowledges exist in the mountains, the fields, the villages, the highlands, the jungles, the cities, the farms. There is nothing wrong with European thinking. It is rich, it is interesting… But we do need to recognize that other voices have not been heard, that a line was traced and an abyss was created between European modern thinking and the rest.”

Hope movements
“I co-authored an article with my colleague Séverine Deneulin, titled ‘hope movements’. It is about how social mobilizations are now devoted to contesting development and creating alternative economic arrangements conducive to the pursuit of a dignified life. They don’t just criticize the current state of affairs, but they actively seek and experience new ways of living, inspired by what Bloch calls the anticipatory consciousness of the ‘not‐yet’ or the not yet conscious. So, we are talking here about another reality that lurks in the present but has not yet materialized, but which can already be experienced because the world is open and unclosed, because humanity must be conceived as unfinished possibility. In our article, we considered that the term ‘social movements’ was not completely adequate to capture these mobilizations. We proposed to name them ‘hope movements’ to inform the collective actions directed to anticipate alternative realities that arise from the openness of the present one.”

Hope as an invitation
“There are lots of clever, inspiring, responsible people in this world that are engaged in the art of organising hope. Hope here is not a wish or a fantasy, but an invitation to work together, to develop alternatives, going through the contradictions and confronting oppressions/repressions that will come from power. This can start with saying: ‘I don’t want to lose any more time accepting this or that lie’. At a time of policy failures, it’s the policy makers and the policy scholars who have to explain to me what are they doing to save humanity, because we need to create new narratives and practices as a matter of life or death. People are noticing that we live in a wrong society, and perhaps they are ready for change, even if they are unsure as how to think about this or how to act. And honestly, we also need more publically revered intellectuals to inspire us. Because we cannot expect new ideas from politicians anymore – and even if they do have some ideas, they will be always tied up to a traditional political party. We must continue mapping out the alternatives that are emerging at the grassroots, without forgetting that we must use certain criteria that indicates in what ways these alternatives are really overcoming the problem.”
“And why art? Well… in the old times, art was never about aesthetics, it was about surviving. And it still is. Art in the sense of finding creative ways to explore our potential, art in the sense of devising strategies, art as life. Without art, there can’t be life. I am really proud that you are using the idea of The Art of Organising Hope to bring people together from all over Europe, to engage in the global politics of hope.”

This interview is an edited summary of the original interview by Victoria Deluxe, 4th September 2018, Bristol (UK)

photo (c) Shauni De Gussem