It’s all about where you’re at: some fragmented thoughts on the current state of things

This autumn, there’s been a few gatherings of the anti-state/libertarian left, including the Plan C Fast Forward event, the bookfair and the Afem conference. The Angry Workers of the World gathering in Liverpool attracted much less attention than most of these, but it sounds like it produced some worthwhile discussion: the minutes have now been made publicly available, and they represent an interesting attempt to sketch out a rough map of “where we stand” today. I think this kind of public circulation of discussion documents is a good habit: there are lots of tactical conversations about organising that need to be kept private, but there’s no reason for broader conversations about strategy and theory to be hidden away, and making them public is a good way to involve people who, for whatever reasons, can’t make it to physical gatherings at certain times and places.

In that spirit, here’s a few comments on some points raised that I found interesting, and questions that seemed worth raising. By its nature, this post will necessarily be quite fragmented and conversational, so feel free to skip it if that’s not your thing; equally, if you do find this sort of discussion interesting, please add your own points and write your own responses. The more voices involved in this kind of conversation, the better.

“In this sense any ‘political strategy’ would first have to analyse the objective constrains of the ruling class: What is their financial/material clout in terms of redistribution? Do they have a believable vision of ‘progress’, which would benefit wider parts of the ‘middle-class’ and proletariat? Are they able to maintain a divide-and-rule strategy, which pitches certain segments of the proletariat against others?”

At the risk of stating the obvious, a few points on this: Our ruling class are definitely doing a very good job at implementing a divide-and-rule strategy. In terms of having a believable vision of progress, mainstream politics seems considerably more bankrupt. However, to say that there’s no plausible vision of progress coming from the mainstream parties is definitely not to say that a renewed reformism is impossible: the Yes campaign in Scotland, along with things like the Kshama Sawant campaign in Seattle and the Fight for 15 campaign, offer glimpses of what a politics that offers plausible promises to make things better while keeping capital and the state might look like.

Also, while looking at the options available to the ruling class, it’s worth bearing in mind the growing strength of various “insurgent conservative” movements, whose leadership may not be drawn from the traditional elite but whose agendas are broadly compatible with existing social hierarchies. Based on the evidence of the last few years, it seems like discontent with the status quo is at least as likely to be funneled into movements like the Tea Party, UKIP, Svoboda or Hong Kong’s Civic Passion as it is to take on any kind of progressive form.

“Another example from tenants struggle in Poznan in Poland confirmed that as soon as issues of social struggle are detached from workplaces and proletarian existence and are framed as problems of ‘city citizens’ or ‘territory’ they tend to focus mainly on the political terrain, e.g. in negotiations with the local council.”

It would be good to have some more expansion on what this point means, as without having the context available it reads a bit like the kind of narrow workerism that discounts proletarian experiences outside of the workplace. Without knowing the details of what happened in Poznan, I think there are certainly examples of social struggles outside the workplace that managed to stay firmly on the ground of class struggle, from the struggle against the Poll Tax to contemporary SolNet fights against landlords.

“A comrade brought up the question whether the ‘political form of communist/revolutionary organisations’ is equally determined by changes in the social production process as more immediate forms of workers struggles are. We briefly discussed the relation between a ‘skilled industrial basis’ and council communist ideas or the fact that the classical CP was a bridge organization between ‘democratic struggles of a declining peasantry’ and a small industrial working class and that as soon as the peasantry got proletarianised most of the CPs turned into ‘mainstream’ parties.

In some senses even organizational forms of small collectives like wildcat Germany might be based on a material basis of the past”

This is an interesting point, and if previous revolutionary high points, from classical syndicalism to Italian autonomia, were reflections of a certain class composition, then it does seem to raise the question of what a “call centre workers’ communism” would look like. Of course, this is the sort of question that can only be answered in the context of the actual movement that would produce it.

Beyond that, I think it’s worth reflecting on the implications of what it means for political groups to reflect the conditions that form them. The paradox of Mark Fisher is illustrative here: as the author of Capitalist Realism, he’s done a lot to draw attention to the ways our worldviews are inevitably shaped by neoliberalism, but whenever he ventures to suggest practical conclusions, his answers – better electoral candidates, more airtime for communist ideas on television, a general long march through the institutions – are always ones that are thoroughly acceptable in terms of capitalist realism, and the idea of direct action is written off. While we can and should aim to have a bit more imagination than Fisher, we’ll never be able to think in ways that are entirely separate to the conditions we exist in. This point raises serious question for the conception of revolutionary groups as being organisations that exist to keep the memory of past high points alive and then jump in with the correct ideas at moments of crisis. Most existing groups might have been a bit paralysed by the events of August 2011, but then a group that existed in permanent readiness for the events of that summer would be seriously out of step with the conditions of day-to-day life before and since.

“We talked at length about the experience (of three of us) of having been organized within The Commune, a libertarian communist organization and our problems to convince other comrades that a deeper understanding of the composition of the working class is necessary – which was denounced as sociology. In some senses the pluralist approach of The Commune prevented a deeper discussion. At the same time a pluralist formal approach attracted (individual) people who are isolated in their towns, which is a good thing. A ‘proletarian exchange’ about concrete conditions and struggles within a ‘politically pluralist’ frame-work might be helpful, but The Commune was not that place, the exchange was mainly about ‘historical positions’.”

This is an interesting topic, and it would be good to see a full write-up/autopsy of the Commune experience at some point. Like everything else in this society, political organisations are just created by people doing things, but it’s easy for them to appear as some mysterious things that appear, grow, shrink and collapse of their own accord, so publicly discussing what it actually means to be in an organisation is a good way to demystify them. In particular, discussing the Commune experience might be worthwhile as, while the Commune itself seems to have largely disappeared, the “pluralist”/regroupment model, based on the premise that none of the traditional organisational forms are fully adequate for today’s conditions and that we need to be experimenting with something new, continues to be attractive – the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (which may now also be defunct), International Socialist Network and Plan C all broadly fit into this category, so it would be interesting to discuss what members of these groups, and similar projects, could learn from the experience of the Commune.

“We discussed the usage of technology not only in terms of immediate ‘productivity increase’, but as a weapon against workers militancy, such as ticket machines replacing ticket offices in the London Underground. Currently, technology as a weapon seems less a weapon, given that mainly the bosses take the initiative today, e.g. replacement of cash-out tills with self-check-out is not due to mass militancy of supermarket workers. We discussed the claim that nevertheless automatisation is a weapon in class war, given that workers’ jobs are cut, while management jobs, which could similarly be automated, are saved… Also warehouse jobs are much less automated then they technically could be, just because labour is cheap. A comrade working in an IT department also said that the announced large-scale rationalisation of programming work did not take place and much of the work retained quasi-artisanal character.”

This raises the question: where and how could automation (along with the other great capitalist weapon of relocation, closing industries down and moving them to another country) be used in future? What technology would be used to break concentrations of workers’ power in warehouses, the catering/hospitality/service sector, or care work? Are there “hard limits” where human labour will always be needed so automation is not possible? Equally, is there work that needs to be done in a particular place, so worker militancy can’t just be defeated by closing workplaces down and moving them elsewhere?

“In times of austerity and crisis of social integration the state will rely more and more on proxy-wars, both externally, in order to back up its own army operations or to cover them politically in times where the mass of people would not back a ‘war’; and internally, by trying to operate via community middle-men and infiltration, rather than large-scale police operations, which might escalate things.”

In this context, is it worth asking about the “real” reasons behind Tommy Robinson’s sudden conversion to “anti-extremism” in late 2013, given how compatible the Quilliam foundation’s message is with this kind of state strategy?

“Politically organized ‘islamophobia’ did not get major boost after Rigby, IS beheadings or Rotherham: for the EDL demo in Rotherham around 1,400 EDL and NF members attended, but started to beat each other and EDL demo stewards up. For the following demonstration in London only 400 members showed up.”

This statement is broadly true, but needs to be qualified – it is true that the EDL has not managed to become a serious force in national politics as a result of any of these events, but they did lead to boosts in fascist activity on a local level (when’s the last time before Rotherham that the NF managed to do anything of note?) The far-right might not be a significant factor in the big picture, but in assessing any local situation, whether or not fascists target known “red” faces is quite an important question – it would be good to where the post-Woolwich effect led to a lasting boost for the right and where it was purely temporary, and how people feel this has affected the situation where they live, what actual difference it makes on the ground.

“The current scandals are a serious crack in one of the cornerstones of the austerity regime.

– Atos was not able to stem the work-load of the disability benefit tests themselves, they had to sub-contract NHS units; the public campaign seriously damaged their company reputation

 

– The management style of Bridgepoint equity firm, which owns Care UK came into public criticism through the Care UK strike”

In this context, is it worth considering workfare as a form of outsourcing, in which the task of disciplining the unemployed is shifted from the state to private businesses? Following from this, is it the case that, contrary to standard liberal/leftist ideology, privatised services might actually be more responsive to public pressure than public ones? It is notable that most campaigns against austerity have been unsuccessful, but it is substantially easier to pressure a company out of co-operation with a specific government policy than it is to pressure the government – Atos and workfare campaigns are worth thinking about in this respect.

“So far the left has mainly criticized the outsourcing to these companies on a moral ‘anti-privatisation’ level. It would be good to analyse more closely the cracks between ‘public and private sector’ and the workers’ condition and experiences within these companies.”

The Care UK strike is worth considering here, as the left are very keen to sell it as a “political” strike against privatisation rather than just boring old material conditions, and it would be interesting to know how far this is actually reflected in the views of the workers themselves.

“If we see it as a ‘historically new situation’ then it is not surprising that one of the main divisions within the working-class is one between generations (not necessarily of age, but between people hired 10, 15 years ago and those who are hired now). The pay gap between younger and older workers has risen by more than half since 1997, with those in their 50s in 2014 earning 2.6 times more than workers aged 18-21”

It’s worth noting that Labour have already started to use this material reality in an attempt to sell their pro-voting narrative (as repeated by Armando Iannucci at the end of this article), it would be worth keeping an eye out for further examples of the clash of generations trope (see Unity and Struggle’s critique of Ultra for some discussion of an ultra-left variation on this theme).

“There is a similar situation when it comes to the introduction of the Universal Credit, which has only been implemented in a dozen job centres or so. Also the ‘job match’-online program does not seem to be as effective as they had thought. But here regional differences and differences between job centres seem considerable. People are put under considerable pressure to let the job centre check their activity on the ‘job match’ site. In other situations the job centre agents are over-whelmed by the amount of applications people send them as proof of their job search and ask them to stop sending emails to their account.”

I’m sure I can’t teach Edinburgh Claimants anything about this, but it is worth looking at the way the benefit regime is implemented in order to identify concrete possibilities for resistance, such as not ticking the box giving access to your information, using Universal Automation to sabotage the discipline of jobseeking, and so on.

“Various bigger corporations (Nestle etc.) and local institutions (Camden council) have decided to pay their core staff the ‘living wage’. The trade unions present these examples as a role model behaviour for their various campaigns (‘Britain needs a pay rise’ etc.). We don’t have any major insights in US campaigns like ‘$15now!’ in Seattle, which are sold as major working class successes by the UK left, but we heard that the campaign was well funded and based on a kind of ‘simulation’ of workers’ protests and electoral politics – but that many workers who took the campaign for face value and stuck their neck out were left hanging dry.”

On this subject, it might be worth asking the Recomposition collective for more information, as people like Nate Hawthorne have written good pieces of analysis on the possibilities for a new reformism and the Fight for Fifteen campaign.

“We started discussing about the attempts of trade unions to address the unemployed / low wage sector through ‘community unions’, e.g. in the case of UNITE in Liverpool. Comrades described the community branch as a front organization for the Labour party (or mediated through Peoples’ Assembly and TUSC, which operate within the UNITE branch), with a top-down approach, e.g. if you are unemployed and pay lower membership fees to the union you don’t have any voting rights and no union representation in a (legal) dispute. In Edinburgh UNITE community union offered 3,000 pounds grant to the Claimants Union, but asked them, e.g. to put the UNITE logo on their placards.”

On this, I think it’s worth thinking seriously about the relationship between Unite and claimants’ self-organisation – is it possible for us to use Unite’s resources for our own ends, or is this just a standard bit of leftist self-delusion? Unite Community support for the Atos and Boycott Workfare campaigns seem like examples of situations where Unite joined in after the agenda had already been set by claimants. Is it worth £3000 to put a logo on your placards? Is it possible to take union funding and still take actions that clash with that union’s politics, like opposing workfare when it comes from Labour as well as the tories? What will be the future for Unite Community if Labour get in and Unite no longer want to embarrass the government?

“The Amazon strikes or disputes are interesting, in the sense that other people now know about the working conditions in one of the modern low wage companies. At the same time the focus on ‘bad conditions’ at Amazon ignores the fact that compared with the situation at other companies are not really better.”

This is a purely anecdotal piece of information, but seems relevant: when the Metro published a piece about Amazon creating 1000 new jobs with a starting wage of £7.39 and rising to £8.90, several of my (very low-paid) co-workers commented on it and discussed how much they’d like to get into a job with that level of pay. On the other hand, one of my most “political” co-workers had heard some of the horror stories about their warehouses in Germany.

“The LCAP model seems good, but difficult to implement, also because you deal with the most vulnerable people.”

On this point, it would be good to consider the differences between organising social sector tenants and private rental tenants. The SeaSol model is inspiring – especially because landlord abuse is really widespread, it’s a subject that comes up in casual conversations with friends a lot – but has limits, such as the difficulty of integrating new people into the group, and the danger of reverting to a “militant service provider model”. In real terms, does it just become activists doing favours for their friends, and can it spread beyond certain subcultural limits? On the other hand, a case could certainly be made that activists taking up their friends’ material issues is still considerably more useful than a lot of “political” activity.

“many hard fought struggles remain single events (wildcat strike at Scottish gas plant during Independence campaign, Tyneside Safety Glass dispute) or need moralistic media attention in order to reach the wider public (Care UK strike)”

On this topic, it’s worth thinking about what practical actions we can take in solidarity with strikers (it’s looking like the Care UK dispute may finally have been resolved in the time between the AWW publishing their piece and me getting around to finishing off this response, but the issues are still worth thinking over for future disputes). Leftists have been keen on pushing solidarity protests at Bridgepoint outlets to spread dispute, is this effective or just activist do-something-ism? If not, what would be more useful – how do we spread struggle among other groups of care workers?

“many of the disputes at these boundaries affect ‘public services’ (care work, transport etc.); while the answer of the mainstream left is re-nationalisation without further content, strikes in these areas can lead to a politicization: what is the relation between the proletarian interest as ‘wage workers’ and the wider proletarian interest as people depending on ‘services’ – this relation will have to overcome the rather inter-class category of ‘service-users’; one small example of the potential described above might be the ‘off campus’-protest which forged an alliance between striking cleaning staff at London university campus and students, which went beyond mere show of ‘solidarity’”

The RMT revenue strike is a fascinating example in this respect, but it’s unclear whether the rhetoric really amounted to anything in practice. Another notable example would be the call for a sanction strike in the DWP, first pushed by the Civil Service Rank & File Network and then taken up at PCS conference, although it’s yet to be seen whether anything will actually come of it.

“The revolutionary milieu exists in the shadow of these two political and material tendencies. The most genuine elements of the milieu try to weather the storm by ‘anti-political’ direct action solidarity activities (SolNets, IWW), an understandable response of mistrust towards ‘statist politics’, but finally insufficient when it comes to detecting tendencies which could break through the material divisions within the class and the trap of political representation. In the long run this ‘apolitical’ position will fall on our feet: a debate which puts the daily proletarian experience in context of an historical critique of the ‘state’ (also in terms of ‘the law’ or ‘the formal trade union’) will be fundamental.”

This is not intended in any way as a criticism, but rather as a neutral observation: to me, this sounds like classic anarcho-syndicalism, and especially like the core of the IWA criticism of “neutral” apolitical syndicalism. How does this differ from the perspective set out in Fighting For Ourselves or the anti-state tendencies within the IWW, as articulated in pieces like No Politics in the Union? Come Off It!, Wob the State or Wobblyism? If you agree with their ideas, how far do you feel the practice lives up to it? Finally, a recommendation: if you’ve not encountered it already, Lines of Work by Recomposition is an amazing look at daily proletarian experience from a revolutionary perspective, and essential reading for anyone wanting to develop theory that starts from our daily lives, and the workplace in particular.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, Racism, Strikes, The left, The right and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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