Utopia and Actuality – The Chances of an Alternative

Brian Holmes

What are the chances of helping to set up an alternative economy, and with it, an alternative society, in our own lifetimes? That’s the big question of Oliver Ressler’s video series. Memory, the utopian imagination, and the great cultural “maybe” are not enough. What matters is the pragmatically possible. The truth of the apple is in the tasting.

The following will be a short exercise in the paradoxes of futurology. The point is to think about what’s inexorably ahead. And the paradox is this: human beings are made in such a way that our thoughts and beliefs about the future can change it.


“There is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher used to say in the eighties, while creating the onrushing wave of neoliberalism. Oliver Ressler was confronted with that saying in December of 2003, when it was used as the title of an exhibition in Geneva that brought his videos on alternative economies together with the imposing maps of World Government developed by the French group Bureau d’Etudes. In response, he mounted another show a few months later in Graz, entitled “There Must Be an Alternative.” But as a deeper response, in tune with all his previous work and with the times, he went to South America with Dario Azzellini to make a quite beautiful feature-length film called Venezuela from Below (67″; 2004). The film explores the country’s poor neighborhoods and rural areas, but also its state-run oil company and its revolutionary redistribution policies, interviewing a wide range of figures in the attempt to understand how a charismatic military leader can become an effective channel for extremely diverse, highly self-conscious efforts to collectively exit from a disastrous situation.

Contemporary Venezuela illustrates exactly what is wrong with really-existing capitalism. A resource-rich country, it is the fifth-largest oil producer in the world. Nonetheless, the percentage of people living beneath the poverty line went from somewhere around 35% in the mid-seventies, to over 70% by the early nineties. A corrupt inner circle of oil managers, a transnational financial oligarchy and a shrinking middle- and upper-middle class lived on a par with US standards, while the rest of the population fled the countryside to founder into urban misery. In 1989 a hike in transportation fees sparked off an immense riot by the poor of Caracas, who could no longer bear the impossible deadlock of their daily lives. The death toll from the repression is unknown, but estimates range up to 3,000 individuals. At that point, what appears from a first-world perspective as a wildly optimistic statement became a simple and immediate reality. There had to be an alternative. It emerged as early as 1992, in the form of an attempted rising by a reform-oriented movement from the lower ranks of the military, led by Hugo Chávez Frías. This demonstration of a will to reverse the disastrous situation in the country gained enormous popularity both for the new leader and for the broader reform movement, making possible an electoral victory six years later, followed by the drafting of a new constitution. The increasingly leftist, redistributive and cooperativist policies of the new government set the stage for the innovative social process that Ressler recently went to document, and to learn something from.

What does Venezuela tell us about the chances to help set up an alternative economy in our lifetimes? First, that they concretely exist, at least on the edges of the world-system. Second, that there is a role for artists and intellectuals in helping to make those possibilities understood in the centers of accumulation. In effect, it is almost shocking how little comprehension there is of the Venezuelan process in the so-called “advanced” countries. How penetrating a critical mind do you have to possess, after the example of Chile in 1973, to realize that only an alternative movement which is able to arm a significant fraction of the population – and ideally, which is able to begin from the popular ranks of the army itself – can stand a chance in the face of the local oligarchy’s capacity to stage paramilitary coups backed up by all the logistic, communicational and financial power of the United States? This is one of the things the film helps us grasp, by recounting the coup attempt that effectively took place in Caracas in 2002. Another is that so-called revolutionary movements, under current conditions, are far more diverse and self-contradictory than the old clichés would have it. The theme of an ongoing need for a “revolution within the revolution” – which echoes musically inside the film as it echoes throughout Venezuelan society – is perhaps the most important message that Ressler and Azzellini’s work conveys.

It’s obvious that the shocking degree of inequality generated by contemporary hypercapitalism will produce more situations of social transformation on the edges of the world-system. However, not all the processes of social change will be as familiar to Northerners as the more-or-less Marxist revolution of Venezuela, with its appeals to the Cuban model and its inspiring cooperativist innovations. How are the coming revolts and social transformations going to be understood, if they take place, for instance, in Muslim countries, or under the influence of other religious doctrines? The complex evolution of the Iranian revolution, and of its relations with the West, is the model here. There will be increasing possibilities, in the years ahead, for an active minority of open-minded people to serve as interfaces between the self-blinded Western societies – convinced of their legitimacy despite the destructive effects of their economic system – and faraway others who can no longer stand to live beneath the future that has been created for them. And the extent to which distant upheavals can be perceived as positive or necessary will affect the chances for alternative economies to emerge inside the centers of accumulation, or on their immediate fringes.

European Scenarios

But how about the effects of hypercapitalism on the Old Continent? Must there be an alternative here? No one can ignore the techniques that have been developed for social control within the centers of accumulation. The chances for any sweeping process of change in this part of the world look slim. After all, a new constitution has already been drafted for the European Union – and it’s neoliberal. Whether or not it is ratified by the member states (and there’s some doubt about that now in France, as I write), the course that the transnational elites have set for the region is clear. It’s a matter of maintaining competitive positions amidst the general race to the bottom that free-market trading on a world scale creates. This means that European industrial capital will constantly seek both to raise the level of plant automation, and to relocate basic manufacturing processes from the old heartlands toward the southern and eastern border regions, in search of cheaper labor and laxer environmental regulations. But it also means that the educated strata of the European populations will increasingly be groomed for highly sophisticated kinds of cultural-informational production, which can only be carried out (and consumed) at the upper echelons of the worldwide division of labor. Meanwhile, the underclass of the major cities – comprised both of immigrants, and of nationals who didn’t get through the education system – will keep growing. But these two groups, immigrants and lower-class nationals, seem fated to neutralize each other, thanks to the development of neofascist movements that serve to legitimate the continuing exclusion of migrants from access to social rights. All these divides can only fuel mounting tensions. Whether on the edges of the EU where the classical forms of industrial exploitation are most intense, or at the urban frontiers between the classes where the inequalities are most glaring, the social conflicts will be managed like so many isolated pressure-cookers, with the national or central states intervening, economically or even militarily, whenever the boiling pot threatens to explode. Under such conditions, why even bother thinking about alternative economies, alternative societies?

The reason why is the tremendously open nature of social communication within the current paradigm. Control under the liberal model isn’t personal, it’s statistical. Rarely do they come knocking at your door at night. That kind of atmosphere isn’t considered encouraging for the cultural-informational innovation that the economy depends on. Instead, complex balances are continuously monitored, thresholds of tolerability are continuously gauged. State intervention, whether it comes in the form of repression or of aid, is conceived as action on an environment, concerted action on a social tissue. The more neoliberalism inexorably advances, that is to say, the more the state disengages from any concern with the well-being of the entire population, the more the aim of this kind of intervention is simply to avoid spiraling cycles of violence. Such a conception of government is extremely cynical, for sure; but it leaves a great deal of leeway for divergent and dissident behavior, as long as violence is avoided. The rise of all kinds of postmodern activism in Europe over the past ten years has made this clear. The current perspectives for an alternative society involve the creation of experimental social formations within the interstices left open by the modes of social control under neoliberalism.

In effect, the current model of capitalist development leaves two wild cards within reach of those who don’t agree. One is free time, including both unemployment and the relative freedom of the flexworker who has escaped direct surveillance by a boss; and the other is a generally high level of public education, permitting the uncontrolled development of complex discourses, as well as the operation (and hacking) of complex machines. The immediate attraction of this situation, for many, is the opportunity to engage in subversion: i.e. the tossing of semantic monkey-wrenches into the shallow and easily ridiculed systems of capitalist values. But one could also take a more long-term view. The kinds of dissident networks that have arisen over the last ten or even twenty years – bringing together, say, squatters, marginal figures from academia or the arts, formal NGOs, splinter unions, renegade technologists, innovative community organizations – could also be considered as vectors of a self-education process, able to cultivate forms of knowledge which are autonomous from both the market and the state. Already, these networks have been able to contribute significantly to the critique of neoliberal economic principles, and to the circulation of news from faraway lands like Venezuela. And the critical role that can be played by such transversal networks is likely to become even more apparent over the next ten or twenty years, as public education, cultural production and scientific research is increasingly cut back, functionalized and privatized, in the attempt to surmount one of the major contradictions of contemporary capitalism: free access to knowledge in a system which is increasingly based on its commodification.

Let us suppose, then, that the dissenting networks are going to continue growing. What will they achieve in our own lifetimes? Today, a workable set of alternative principles for the organization of the developed societies does not yet exist. If there is to be one, then it must emerge in the future. But the point is not to simply wait for a crisis of the economy, in hopes that disaster itself will provide the solution. What the experimental activist networks are doing now is creating the problem in advance: deliberately problematizing the dominant assumption that competition and hyper-individualism are the only basis for social relations. And this activist approach resurfaces among the contemporary utopians. When Christoph Spehr talks about free cooperation, when Nancy Folbre talks about caring labor, when John Holloway talks about changing the world without taking power, they are all proposing productive activities which question the dominant relations, not only through analysis and intellectual critique, but also through the very form and nature of the activity. One could say the same about all the most effective kinds of postmodern protest and dissent. The deepest form of subversion is this materialist way of thinking toward the future, of engaging with its unanswered questions. The foretaste of an alternative society, or the actuality of utopia, lies in the pursuit of such concrete experiments.

from: Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies, kuda.org (ed.), Revolver – Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2005