August 14, 2010
Posted by nightsoflabour under Uncategorized
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Years ago, when I was doing my minor diploma in Sociology together with my major in Political Science, I was taught by one of the most important sociologists of my country. He had done path-breaking fieldwork in rural villages in the 1960s and 1970s and wrote on agrarian change. We were in the late 1990s and rural fieldwork was no longer popular in Turkey. The professor was teaching us Parsons whom I had found very boring and reading sentence by sentence New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time by Ernesto Laclau. And the title of the course was Sociology of Change and Transition! I wish he talked more about fieldwork, comparative studies and some ‘real’ theoretical issues on change…. Anyway, if I myself design a course like this, I would pose problems for my students. For instance, one question from my fieldwork: There are two migrant communities in the city, which rely on wastepicking (the object of my enquiry in the fieldwork). Whereas one community is reproducing itself as a kind of petty commodity producer (small family units which collect waste and sell it to recycling factories), the other one exhibits patterns of differentiation (proleterianisation and accumulation within the community). What kind of questions would you ask in order to understand the root causes of the difference?
This is the way in which I would formulate my question to my students but in the real fieldwork the differences emerged as a result of my investigation and their causes are cited below. I find this discussion relevant to the question formulated by Bhaskar and Levi Bryant I was engaging with in my previous post: Under what conditions are some tendencies/potentialities (of capital in this context) actualized and when are they inhibited?
The first wastepicking community A, started picking waste as family units in 1994 after their village was evacuated and they had to come to Ankara. Many of them set up warehouses in a squatter settlement in Ankara. Some of them were just collecting waste and selling waste to the warehouses in the area. Some of the warehouses started earning money, both thanks to family members who work and poorer wastepickers who sell to those warehouses. The warehouses could be considered as petty commodity production units (PCP), whose class position is ambivalent due to the oscillation between survival and accumulation and due to the fact that the producer is at the same time a worker.
Some members of the community A enjoyed especially significant customary rights in the city center. Thanks to high quality garbage provided by restaurants, cafes, bars and supermarkets they could get access to constant sources of income every day. The daily income was much higher than an individual wastepicker who had walk 8-9 hours in order to earn money. Moreover a recycling factory owner, gave advance money to most of the heads of families to buy their own trucks to transport waste paper, on the condition that they (wastepickers) would sell to his own factory. Ownership of warehouses, access to city center garbage and transport facilities put those family units into an advantageous position and gave accumulation possibilities. However such prospects were not actualised due to a number of reasons.
First of all, the organisation of economic and social life. The tribe is organised as extended family units and even though some families are more powerful than others, forced migration equalised those families in terms of wealth in the city. The income obtained from wastepicking is not low due to the huge amount of waste, but families are extended and daily consumption (food, rent, school for younger children) items are multiple. Moreover some money is saved for buying a house in the future or for the weddings. In the tradition of the community, when there is a marriage, the heads of all families give a high amount of money to the bride and groom so that they have the financial means necessary to set up their lives. In that sense money earnt is spent on consumption for family, rather than on investment for the business. Family in the community A is an important economic and social unit, which needs to be reproduced every day. Since each family works on its own, there is no chance to mobilise labour from within the community.
Second, the warehouses set up by those families were demolished by the local state police forces in 2004. Before this confrontation with the police, community A families had warehouses and some were also buying waste from outsiders, thus could have some chances to grow with additional labour force. But after the demolition of the warehouses, each family had to rely exclusively on the waste collected by family members. Also, they had to transport waste regularly every day with their trucks to the recycling factories, since they did not have any storage space. Had many families not owned means of transport (thanks to the recycling factory owner I mentioned earlier) some of those families could have depended on foreign warehouses, in order to sell their waste. In the recycling industry, one has to store or transport waste. This factory owner had given advance money to many of the families of the community A, on the condition that they would sell the paper to his factory. He created a large number of self-employed wastepicker families dependent on him, able to solve transport problem and provide very regularly waste paper to his factory. The latter’s possibility to accumulate, in turn, was seriously limited by the need to reproduce extended families and a direct intervention of the local state. The local state’s deliberate aim in evacuating the warehouses was to push the wastepickers to sell for a large recycling factory supported by local state officials. The wastepickers had only the trucks they could buy and had to keep it as a daily storage. In the absence of those trucks, they would need to depend on other intermediaries to sell their products (given that they are an established community rather than migrant workers who have better chances to travel to any neighbourhood where they can find a warehouse to rent or a warehouse to work in) or even become proletarians. But their PCP properties were preserved by those circumstances. Therefore the factory owner’s strategy of giving debt for buying trucks, contributed to the reproduction of family units as petty commodity production units. Every day, wastepickers leave their trucks at some strategic parking points before starting to work and then finish their job around 1 or 2 Am in the morning, put all the collected waste in the trucks and go back home. Next day, they go to the recycling factory to sell their waste and then come to work again around 4 or 5 PM. There is no intermediary agency (a warehouse) between wastepickers’ families and the recycling factories, which makes their income higher.
In community B, on the other hand, the organisation of economic and social life is completely different. Community members live in warehouses they rented in a neighbourhood close to Ulus, the second city center after Kizilay in the city of Ankara. This neighbourhood was very alive when it was occupied by car repair, maintenance and building material shops. Some small warehouses buying scrap metal, paper and plastic were in the periphery of this cluster of car repair and auto spare parts shops. In 2005, those shops were relocated to a different neighbourhood due to the urban regeneration plans of the municipal administration. Some wastepickers who were very poor and did not have transport to bring their waste to the factories and depended on intermediary agencies stayed. Some other small warehouses stayed as well. However, the municipality plans to build a shopping complex for urban regeneration did not materialise. New warehouse owners benefited from this opportunity and started recycling businesses. In 2006, a group of Kurdish migrants originally from Urfa (a south eastern city), who worked in the informal recycling industry in Istanbul came to Ankara. They rented some of the empty warehouses at a relatively cheap price. With the coming of relatives and setting up of new warehouses, by 2008, there were already 30 warehouses in the area, each of which employing, depending of the season and availability, 10-30 wastepickers. The majority of wastepickers came from Urfa and had tribal linkeages, as in the case of community A, which migrated from Hakkari.
In the community B, the population is only male, because only men come to the city to work. As opposed to community A, women work and stay in the villages in Urfa. In each warehouse one can see the warehouse tenant, an elder and respected member of a family, his brothers, cousins, nephews and different types of relatives as well as other workers who come from the same village (hemsehri). Here apart from the warehouse tenant and his first-hand relatives (his brothers) all other relatives and hemsehris are working as wage-labourers. Advance money is used, but not in order to make the worker dependent (given that he does not prefer working in another foreign warehouse), but when the worker needs, for instance, to send money to his village, to his parents. The limits of such paternalism, on the other hand, are obvious when the cars of the wage-labourer are taken by the police and when the wastepicker needs to pay the cost of a new car. Even though the warehouse owner is willing to help the wastepicker, he is reluctant to provide a new car all the time and subtract the cost of the car from his daily wage. Some of those workers are seasonal workers. Their dependence on the specific warehouse is due to the fact that they are hired and then protected by the tenant as a whole group of workers coming from the village together. They exhibit the characteristic features of seasonal workers. Therefore in some seasons of the year, there are a lot more labourers working for the warehouses.
Some of those warehouses (but especially a very large one) had important accumulation possibilities and they partly owe this accumulation to their capacity to mobilise labour rather than previous assets or capital. In other words, intensive exploitation of labour (including their own initially) lies behind original accumulation. Kinship networks whose origins are in the tribal relations in Urfa, provide the Iskitler warehouse owners the necessary resources to have this capacity to mobilise. The tribe (asiret), which had a strong “feudal and pre-capitalist” connotation in Turkish society, transforms, in the urban slums of Ankara, a resource to feed capitalist relations, by reproducing the young male wastepickers as wage labourers and by enabling gradually growing accumulation strategies. The moral rues of the tribe apply to the urban life in the same way it does to the community A and wastepickers work very hard without any tendency of escapism. The capitalist relations in community B developed via family and tribal relations, not despite them. In the community A, on the other hand, tribal relations with similar origin had different effects: The need to reproduce the family as a social and economic unit (together with other reasons cited above) blocked the use of money in further investment. Community A members had easier and better access to large quantities of waste in the city center than community B members who worked in other neighbourhoods. But this initial advantage could not transform into a means of accumulation. In community B, the individual wastepickers had to work many hours per day and still would not bring waste whose value would be equal to the waste brought by community A. But by mobilising a huge labour force, by devoting their time to work (with little family responsibility in the city), by reinvesting money into more trucks the Iskitler entrepreneurs transformed the spatial disadvantage into an advantage and their warehouses into accumulation units. Contrary to community A, the money to reproduce families in the villages was sent by the individual wage labourers. The warehouse owners, on the other hand, could use the surplus for re-investment. Some of the warehouse owners, even if they do not collect waste, work in the segregation, storage, package and transport of waste.
Community B warehouse owners enjoy all the advantages of working in the informal sector: Labour costs, apart from the wage paid, are almost none (wastepickers sleep in the big warehouses, no social security is required); rent of the warehouses is very low (300-400 lira per month); there is no license or legal permission to get (except for some amount of bribe to pat to the zabita who occasionally checks the area). Initial cost of buying a transport (vans or trucks) and its fuel can be considered as important items only. Given that some of the recycling factory owners come from this background, warehouse owners in the informal recycling sector remind the creative entrepreneurs of De Soto (2000) at first glance. However, this is not an opportunity everyone enjoys equally. Some warehouse owners can grow thanks to the labour force he mobilised and thanks to the many other small warehouses, which depend on his networks and transport to sell their waste. Therefore creative entrepreneurs are made possible by the emergence of a set of unequal class relations within the recycling sector.
A final issue, which was a disadvantage for the community A and an advantage for the community B is the relationship with local state authorities. The municipality police forces demolished the warehouses of the community A in 2004, which eliminated storage possibilities and contributed to the reproduction of the families and petty commodity production units. The neighbourhood where community B lives, due to the pending plans of the municipal government, was not intervened by any police while some of the warehouse owners were accumulating. Moreover, even though wastepickers occasionally experienced violence by the police, they were not subject to violence similar to community A, which worked in the city center, close to each other and were publicly visible. Community B workers usually worked in different neighbourhoods and dispersed from each other.
Such differences and their impact on accumulation opportunities do not mean that specific organisations of social and economic life are in general better suited to the development of capitalist relations. But under certain conditions (or better put, when interacted with certain social relations) some forms of social and economic organisation can create the consequence of adapting better to the development of accumulation. Such organisations effect the pace and form taken by capitalist relations. While capitalist relations transform social settings, the latter give to the former their specific color. But this “color” needs to be analysed, each time, historically and specified empirically.
Abundant labour and lack of necessity to reproduce family units immediately for community B are good resources for accumulation as long as there exist bricoleurs who use available materials for new ends. The story of a successful bricoleur in Community B, Apo, provides important insights about processes of accumulation in the informal recycling sector. His strategies not only invent him as a successful entrepreneur but also shape the specific social and spatial organisation of the wastepicking as an economic activity. Apo is the largest warehouse owner in the community B. He started his work with one warehouse and family labour in 2005. Then, he hired more labour by using his kinship ties (he is the eldest son of one of the major leaders of a tribe in Urfa). Initially, he had just one small truck to carry the waste collected every day to the recycling factories. Over time he developed two strategies: he started using his truck to go other neighbourhoods to work as an intermediary for those small warehouses or wastepickers who do not have sufficient means of transport. Second, he gave money to some of the relatives in the asiret so that they come, set up their own warehouses. Those relatives started bringing migrant labour from their regions. Apo contributed to the formation of many warehouses (in different size) in the region where community B lives and making sure, at least for an initial period, that they do sell their waste directly to him. In that way he made sure that he has a constant source of waste (plastic and paper mainly, but also scrap metal). Such strategy had immediate successful outcomes: The money was reinvested in the buying of two very large trucks for transport and Apo is now planning to open, in the future, his own recycling factory by buying the necessary machinery. The potential proletarians were transformed into petty commodity producers by Apo so that the latter could mobilise labour on behalf of Apo and so that the surplus created can contribute to the ability of Apo to invest and accumulate. Some of those warehouses, which depended initially on him, were also able to accumulate some degree of wealth and they started selling directly to the recycling factories, rather than to Apo himself. Apo was aware of this and constantly sought for other small suppliers in different parts of the city.
Apo’s strategy was similar to the recycling factory owner who helped the community A to buy trucks. In this warehouse-recycling factory relationship such strategy helped the accumulation of the recycling factory owner and helped the reproduction of the Turkozu families as PCP units. In the context of the relation between the warehouse owner and other warehouses, this strategy helped the accumulation by the former and reproduction and growth of the latter. Had the organisation of social life been different in the community A, the strategy of the recycling factory owner could also have helped some accumulation possibilities for some families. One strategy can be adopted to different contexts and generate different effects. It is difficult to weigh the role of the factors I am talking about (given that I am unable to test the outcome of what would have happened in the absence of X or Y) but comparative method still provides some insights in that regard.
The innovative strategy of the accumulators contributed to the perpetuation and increase of the petty commodity production units. One needs to be careful: There is not an inherent logic between PCP and accumulation. Under those historical circumstances, PCP helped the accumulation strategies of some individual entrepreneurs, and helped, some of the PCPs themselves to realise their aspiration for accumulation. The strategies of the accumulators coincided with the readiness of a mass of precarious, informal workers who were ready to work for those warehouses. It is correct that the recycling industry, which has developed in the 1990s and 2000s corresponds to a process of migration, urbanisation. However a large part of the workers interviewed for this study was already part of the proletarian workforce: Rural proletariat (seasonal rural workers), industrial proletariat (such as textile workers or construction workers). Some others were either self-employed or farmers cultivating their own land back in their villages.
In the case of community A, as a result of forced migration, families lost their land and started their urban life as PCP. This was a process of forced dispossession, which did not result in proleterianisation, but rather petty commodity production (involving use of family labour). De-peasantisation occurred as well since no family could continue rural activity due to state intervention. In the case of community B, most migrants were already rural proletarians (having nothing to sell but their labour-power, unemployed in some seasons and working as rural workers in others). Others who were in the same situation became self-employed warehouse owners and only a few could become real accumulators who are expanding their business (such as Apo). Therefore migration generated differentiation in this case: limited accumulation, continuation of PCP and proletarianisation (involving now both the rural and urban spheres). One needs to be cautious about the fact that the reproduction of the PCPs for Iskitler depends on the situation of the recycling industry (e.g. prices of plastic and paper) and on the ability to keep warehouses as places of residence and storage. If the urban regeneration plans are put into practice, the municipal administration will evacuate those warehouses and the warehouse owners wither look for a new place or may end up in becoming workers, because they are not settled in the city as the community A is and some do not have even transport.
Both communities A and B are enmeshed in capitalist relations of production and circulation. But the specific positions they hold in those relations, the degree of control they have over means of production differ. The possibility for accumulation was not actualised for community A and only partially actualised for community B (and we still do not know whether it will continue). Tendencies in the world of capital can be accelerated, inhibited or reversed. They have an extremely important temporal dimension. Change in capitalist society is not linear. The vocabulary of change for capital includes gradualisms as much as ruptures, bifurcations as much as reversals.
The recycling factory owner’s strategy aimed at making families dependent on his factory. However after his death his son-in-low took over the factory, wastepicking families started selling their waste to ITC, a very big company, which is supported by the municipal administration. Part of the violence exercised on wastepickers was to push them to sell their waste to ITC. A respected and wealthy member of the community A was appointed as manager to ITC and a compromise was reached between wastepickers and the municipality to sell part of their waste to the company.
 Most Community A families sell their waste to the ITC, one of the largest factories in which some members of the municipality administration hold shares.
August 14, 2010
Posted by nightsoflabour under Uncategorized
One of the themes, which underpin larvalsubjects’ discussion on objects is change (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com) From his point of view, which I do share, the enactment of positive change requires a fair understanding of the ways in which objects enter into exo-relations and the ways in which their endo-relations give way to specific local manifestations. According to Levi Bryant, we should not be surprised about the heterogenous nature of social reality, but rather how things, which are expected to tend towards greater entropy, come to form relatively homogenous entities or become stable.
Levi introduces the concept of endo-relations of objects and asks how endo-relations are organized to give way to the forms they assume (with the argument that objects can take different forms in different environments or by entering into new exo-relations). He conceptualizes objects as difference engines because objects’ powers of producing differences in the world at the level of qualities or local manifestations. The generative capacities of the objects can be actualized or not, depending on different circumstances and exo-relations.
One of the interesting examples Levi gives is the cane toad, which originates in South and Central America and is then imported to Australia because of its success in fighting pests. However, due to lack of natural predators in Australia, cane toad populations exploded and killed off other indigeneous species. Levi says that Queensland should be considered as a new set of exo-relations which make possible the emergence of new qualities of cane toad population (acting as almost like a plague rather than fighting pests).
Levi calls regime of attractions the exo-relations between objects. He prefers this term to context/setting/environment and argues that regimes of attraction are temporary and shifting networks of relations in which an object finds itself enmeshed. He says that it would not be possible for objects to enter into new relations if those relations were not external to the objects that are related. Local manifestations are the qualities and forms the objects take in a given regime of attraction. Those manifestations are multiple, because of the multiplicity of a powers, capacities and tendencies an object can produce.
How can this way of looking at things inform our understanding of initiating change? If we want to create a perturbation in a given regime of attraction, we need to first understand how objects are related to each other in this regime. In concrete terms, such understanding can be very difficult, because we may not immediately discern in what ways an object is related to another one, how many function(s) an object assumes, which effect(s) it creates…etc. For instance something, which functions as an impediment/constraint can become a facilitator in another sense. If we want to remove this constraint in order to enact change, we may end up creating a negative effect on something else in the broader set of relations. Or the same object can create a completely different effect in another regime of attraction due to its relation to other objects. The case of cane toad that Levi gives is illustrative of this point.
In the series of Dr. House (which I find brilliant in terms of the differential diagnosis method and recommend to all my students, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_House_episodes), the team cures an illness such as worms. After their cure, suddenly and unexpectedly lesions appear in the brain of the patient. The team discovers that the worms were fighting against a potential brain tumor and after their disappearance lesions, which were previously repressed grew very rapidly.
a) The (wrong) cure of worms creates a new symptom (lesions) and leads the team to think about the causality between worms and tumor. Thus the cure is for the wrong cause but approaches the team to the correct diagnosis.
b) Most significantly we learn that something, which is relatively harmful in general for the body organism assumed a healing function in treating the real cause of the other symptoms the patient has. (The patient will be given worms again in order to reduce the size of the lesions until the drug treatment becomes effective)
Such thinking is very useful to reflect on the complex relations in social life. However flexible and transient the exo-relations might be or however the generative capacities of objects can produce different local manifestations, as Levi points out but did not yet develop in depth (at least as far as I read the relevant posts in his blog), when objects enter into relations of dependency, they can become resistant to interventions that disrupt those tendencies. Then, asked Levi, how do you introduce entropy-resistant systems to produce change? The question is not only how to overcome resistance. The point is to find out a more or less accurate picture of the nature and multiple roles different objects and actors (or actants in the vocabulary of the actor-network theory in order to cover human and non-human objects) assume.
Let me clarify with a hypothetical example from the social life. Middlemen are petty traders who act as intermediaries between small peasant producers and urban traders. They have a negative connotation in development studies, because of the high profits they make as compared to the peasant who does the real labour of harvesting, soiling…etc. I will examine two hypothetical cases to approach the problem of middlemen in order to reflect on the main question of this post, the enactment of change.
CASE 1: Let us assume that three villages in the region X, village administrators have joined their forces and made the argument that middlemen exist because they exploit an opportunity presented by transaction costs: the peasants do not have means to travel to the city center. Therefore they introduced free trucks picking up peasants during the harvest time, perhaps once a day during a month or so depending on the type of agricultural product, in order to travel to the city. The administrators did also forbid middlemen in the village stating that they buy the agricultural products at extremely unfair prices. Peasants had a chance to travel to the city in order to sell their products at the market price rather than at the price, which was offered by the middlemen.
However, the anticipation of the village administrators failed to materialize. The peasants were not equipped enough to bargain individually in the market place. They were not prepared to deal confidently with traders in the city who were themselves used to sell higher quantities than the smaller amount offered by individual peasants. Ironically, several peasants who traveled to the city by the free transport provided by the village administrators ended up contacting a middleman in the city and selling their products to him rather than to large traders.
This brought about the following lesson: Middlemen were not solely exploiters of peasants (even though their activity of buying cheap meant extracting a great share of the value produced by the farmer and thus meant exploitation as well). They had built, over the years, a capacity to make reasonable calculations, find good contacts, had good communication skills, develop personal relationships both with peasants and large traders in the city. Yes, they abused their power vis-à-vis peasants by passing on price changes to the individual sellers, but they sometimes acted as buffer mechanisms against price fluctuations or market instability: even if there was a over-supply of goods, the middlemen could afford to buy and stock for a while those goods from the peasants, whereas individual peasants did not have this chance. Therefore middlemen were not only a solution to transaction costs. They responded to major problems in the market: a) information asymmetries, b) unequal distribution of trading and communication skills c) need for a buffer mechanism in times of instability. I am not saying that long-term projects taking into account those problems can not change the need for middlemen, but excluding simply the middleman in the short run was like cutting an important link in a large network and did not change the situation of the peasant for better.
CASE 2: three other villages in the same region took another path. Village administrators became precursors for the establishment of a peasant cooperative. The cooperative bought regularly agricultural products for the peasants. What the administrators did cleverly was to hire middlemen in the village as the managers of the cooperative. By doing this, they relied on the capacity and skills of the middlemen to bargain with the city traders. Since the quantity of the agricultural good was very high, the cooperative had the power to bargain. The multiple functions of middlemen as cited above were maintained, but this time, for a larger benefit of the peasants in a way to make middlemen win as well.
My two cases tell an important story about change, yet they are still very simplistic. Even a small village life and structure can be much more complex then it first seems, depending on tribal relations and tensions, political situation, resistance or propensity to collective action. The Case 2 could also not be successful due to different factors I did not add to the picture or the Case 1 could have been successful because peasants could have obtained an entrepreneurial culture over the years in their engagement with middlemen….etc. However, my aim was to point out to and underline a difference between the two cases in terms of approaching the social reality and offering solutions: in the first case the perception that middlemen exploited the peasants was very strong and they were replaced by free transport. In the second case, the positive effects of middlemen were recognized and used at the advantage of the peasants. The second case does not deny the negative effect of the middlemen in their relation with the peasants, but by putting middlemen into a new context/setting (manager of the cooperative) they shift the effect to something else.
The actual and potential effect of each of the elements in a regime of attraction has to be examined carefully for a new perturbation into the system. More intellectual energies have to be thus channeled to the concrete analysis of the concrete situations in contemporary world in order to accumulate and record thousands of experiences of successful change and failures. This can be one of the most revolutionary tasks of social sciences today and also of the communist laboratory as I imagine it.
August 11, 2010
Posted by nightsoflabour under Uncategorized
Certain types of political writing in the UK give me a deja-vu feeling: New Labour is a refined version of Thatcherism, David Cameron is a synthesis of New Labour and Thatcherism, crisis undermines free market ideology yet the new Keynesianism is a form of neoliberalism, government reforms create new forms of surveillance and construct the financial citizen or self-controlling Foucauldian subject…etc. Well, critique of ideology embellished and refined with a Zizekian rhetoric has become a substitute for proper, well-grounded political analysis. And our mere political responsibility lies in unveiling the fetishism of the market. As if everything around us reflects the unfolding of a neoliberal logic, which perpetuates itself. I am not against critique of ideology, but it is naïve to believe that action will be more revolutionary when ideology is decoded, given that ideology itself is a material production and fetishism of commodities is quite ‘real’.
In Turkey, the situation is not more promising. We try to conceptualise the rise of nationalism with Zizekian psychoanalysis without any need to do some fieldwork in the social base of the nationalist party; the recent attempt to change the Constitution by the governments is described with tragedy and farce metaphors and never ‘explained’.
Once upon a time, we had less technology, less empirical fieldwork and less access to information. Yet we had better political analysis. Look at, for instance, a fine piece by Sergio Bologna (http://libcom.org/library/tribe-of-moles-sergio-bologna) on class composition in Italy. Don’t you think we need to popularize political analysis by facts, figures, history, agency, strategy as much as films and jokes?
Here is a modest proposal to left-wing political analysts in the UK (where access to government documents is especially easy as compared to developing countries, development studies scholars would know how good data is a nightmare in the third world!)
Let us read documents such as Parliamentary Trade and Industry Committee Reports, relevant laws, parliamentary debates, reports of independent regulatory agencies (Financial Services authority’s report on financial crisis and new regulations for instance; sectoral reports on water, communication and electricity and gas markets by OFCOM, OFWAT, OFGEM annual reports), Green Papers, White Papers, statistics of Ministry of Health and Education…
One of my former bosses when I was doing part time work to support my PhD was a member of the House of Lords and I should say that he was bloody hard working, reading every single thing especially regarding the housing issues which was his specialty and then lobbying at the parliament. Yes, we need more boring reports to read in order to do good analysis, rather than making simply aesthetised sentences…(having said that, those reports can be more interesting than it seems)
Then let us try to take regular notes on the changes in different sectors, on the way in which the government set problems and developed strategies to tackle them, on how policy proposals were made, enacted, resisted and reversed. Doing this regularly is important given that patterns can be only identified in the long term and intuition can be developed by the accumulation, observation and analysis of facts in a time frame.
Then let us make a list of how the left-wing has reacted to the policies of the last three decades we do call neoliberalism and where it made mistakes, missed opportunities, intervened cleverly or failed catastrophically…I remember that I had made angry a trade unionist organizing NHS workers by asking him whether his union ever sat down and thought about the mistakes it made during the process by which NHS came to its current situation.
Meaningful strategies cannot be developed by pure rhetoric or by lazy last minute campaigns of resisting a specific policy. They can be developed by a dynamic historical analysis of facts and figures, identification of relations of forces in society in a given context and finding out a multiplicity of manoeuvres, bifurcation points, interventions. The knowledge of the empirical accompanied by good analysis and synthesis is a must for this. This is what former student of E. P. Thompson, historian Peter Linebaugh reminded while doing an inspiring reading of what he calls the five gates of Capital in the closing plenary of Historical Materialism Conference in 2008. He pointed out how Marx was waiting for the most recent reports of the Ministries in order to write.
August 9, 2010
Posted by nightsoflabour under Uncategorized
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The author of the brilliant Infinite Thought, Nina Power has recently written a comment article in the Guardian on the recent campaign of trade unions in England. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/29/right-to-work-recession-women-at-work. There was a facebook debate on the article. I cannot refer to all sides of the debate, because I really do not know how to ‘quote’ facebook (pages I would mention are from my own friends, so you may not see it). But I will refer to positions/arguments and I will quote more openly to Richard Seymour has written a blog post on the issue.
Basically, Nina does not object to the formulation of concrete political demands regarding work, but, by referring to political struggles of Italian workerism in the 1970s, she problematises why work is so much at the center of our political imagination and why we do no longer think of a refusal to work in capitalist society. The critiques suggest that ‘Refusal to Work’ is an untimely slogan given the rising problems of unemployment. This discussion offers an opportunity to elaborate two distinct yet interrelated questions: 1) How to formulate strategically meaningful slogans and campaigns on the left? 2) How to link immediate demands in a given context with a broader critique of capital and future socialist project? Such questions, I argue, can be better tackled if we take the concept of time more seriously.
What defines the time of left wing politics? I will put aside the broader theoretical engagement with Lenin, Bensaid, Benjamin, Osborne…etc. for another post. I will rather do quite a scattered and incoherent intellectual experiment and offer to think about four times of socialist politics, by referring to the example of Right to Work campaign.
A slogan, a campaign or action does not come out of void. As Marx reminds us, ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.’
We do select slogans and offer solutions on the basis of our own past experiences. Our familiarity with specific slogans, discourses and instruments determines our perception of what is strategically more powerful. The effect of past experiences is double-edged: On the one hand they are strategic resources we rely upon, we play with and adapt to new conditions. In that sense they do not lack innovation. As soon as we apply them to a new context, they become something else. On the other hand, as long as they are simply imitated without creative bricolage, they risk being ossified and limiting imaginative solutions. In other words, past can be both a resource and a barrier to present action.
Right to Work might have been a conservative slogan. This is not a reason why a socialist cannot use it. Sign is the arena of class struggle, says Voloshinov-Bakhtin. In Turkey Islamists have become successful in the 1990s by reincorporating the socialist slogan of Just Order of the 1970s. Social justice was enmeshed with religious motives and did no longer remind, in the collective memory, the politics of the left. Lars Lih showed beautifully, how What is to Be Done is a creative translation of Social Democratic Programme in Germany to the conditions of Russian socialism. One possible option of the trade unions, then, would be to make past experiences become strategic resources. But it is not only the unconscious or intended application of past strategic resources, which matters solely. We also have to evaluate seriously past successes and failures, remember which campaigns have become effective in the past and why. We have to pose problems for ourselves: Why has the 1984 strike failed? Could it have been otherwise? Why were does the success of Living Wage Campaigns lie? We have to train our minds to think strategically.
A strategically timely and meaningful slogan and campaign, if it targets a specific and urgent problem within the existing framework, is mostly a component of a common dialogical discursive framework shared by the bourgeois and working classes. Marc Steinberg shows how in nineteenth century textile workers used the language of classical political economy in order to demonstrate the value they create and justify why they expect wage increases and better working conditions. Right to work implies a claim to be inside rather than against capitalism, because in capitalism subjection to wage-labour is the only way of survival for those who do not own means of production. But Richard Seymour offers a militant application of this slogan. For him, right to work should also include ‘working less’ for the same wage in order to reduce the surplus value extracted by the capitalist. One of the contributors of the discussion, for instance, suggested that ‘decent’ work should be underlined in the campaign.
Even though I agree with a more militant application of the slogan, there is something much more serious regarding the issue: What types of work are we talking about? Shall we only adopt a defensive mode and fight against job cuts? Shall we only claim our right to work? Or shall we also push institutions and the government to implement incentives to create more work? In some emerging markets, governments undertake infrastructural investments and literally ‘create jobs’, as in the case of rural India. Are similar possibilities applicable to the British case? Does the structure of the British economy allow for the government to be act as a solution to unemployment? Do socialist economists make sufficient sectoral analysis to make such suggestions?
Some critics found Nina’s emphasis on refusal to work by Italian workerists of the 1970s untimely, because, they say, the most acute problem today is unemployment, the context is crisis, people risk losing their jobs and refusal to work can contribute to the conservative agenda of pushing women back home. I do agree with those critiques to a certain extent, given that the present time is important. We do politics here and now, people are losing their jobs now and we should say something about it now. But my agreement lasts as long as we do not get enslaved within the boundaries of the present. Present time is the most sinister of all times. If present indifferent to history is blind, present indifferent to future can only be short-sighted.
Even at the moment of its formulation, the strategic slogan rings the bells of its future death. All socioeconomic struggles are politically retarded, said Tronti (as referred to by Matteo in his intervention on the political in the HM). As soon as a sector has entered the orbit of law of value irresistibly, all efforts have a defensive side in the world of capital. For the law of value will discipline individual capitalists and will dictate job losses. Therefore, a good organization has to calculate what will happen if it fails or when it loses the battle. It has to anticipate what to do when the restructuring takes place. This is what I argued in the post on Organising as Craftwork (https://nightsoflabour.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/working-class-organiser-as-craftsman/). The organizer in my case study knew that the street wastepickers would be, at some point, transformed into proletarians and the recycling sector would undergo drastic transformation after a process of primitive accumulation. Even though the movement of wastepickers ‘resisted’ this proletarianisation in the present time, the organizers were trying to ‘prepare’ the workers for the future moment. They were aiming at a union, which would defend the rights of wastepickers when they become proletarians. The organizers considered the scavengers as proletarians in their seeds in order to guarantee that the movement continues to grow after change.
Another good example can be seen in the anti-privatisation struggles. In Turkey, there were many local struggles by workers who resisted privatisation of their factories and most of them failed. Most recently, tobacco workers resisted the fact that the state-owned institutions where they work shift their contract from the permanent status to an insecure, precarious status. Their union did not support them and adopted a more compromising attitude. A group of organizers, who foresaw that this resistance would fail at some point, launched a new association to organize workers with precarious contracts. Their aim was to make sure that all those workers who accumulated their experience of resistance and have politically socialized over months of struggle do not get dispersed.
What are the implications of those examples for the Right to Work Campaign? Organisers have to envisage a future in which people lose their jobs, there is more unemployment, migrant workers are blamed…etc. Therefore, right to work, right to decent work, right to less work…campaigns have to foresee a future where our claim to work is denied, where some types of work are moribund and others emerge. Many jobs were lost with privatisation but others emerged (call centres, wastepicking, informal sector work). Unions or other revolutionary organizations have to channel their energies into those areas of new, less secure work in order to gain strength. If I were to work for the campaign in the UK, I would a) commission Marxist economists to prepare an alternative plan for public spending including strategies to create employment and to raise revenues b) find out emerging forms of labour against the declining ones and start organizing people employed in those areas c)l aunch an association to bring together people who are in the process of losing their jobs and enhance legal assistance for individual cases.
Taking time seriously does not mean to find strategies compatible with the present time simply. It means thinking back and forth, being one step forward, in the way capital is. Still, we did not come to the end point. There is another time of socialist politics where Nina’s points make a lot of sense.
another concept of time
In present and near future, we were still in the time of capital. We struggle, but within the boundaries of capitalist time. We accumulate experiences, develop strategies. There is still another time, a time which is not born. Time of socialism. Socialism, which will also transform our very understanding of time, our very understanding of work. It is true that we are not the children of this time. Yet an immanent understanding means that this alternative time will be borne from within this one.
Nina says, in her article in the Guardian, ‘The Right to Work campaign, although vital, plays into this attitude that work is the ultimate mark of a man or, in more recent decades, a woman too.’ Later on in one of the discussions about her article, she reinforces her earlier point: ‘I do not think that it’s incompatible to argue for better working conditions, higher wages reform and at the same time wonder what we’re doing when we value work so highly.’ (emphasis is mine). I think Nina is definitely right and the immediacy and presentist attitude of campaigns should not miss this point. In this statement we do hear the distinct voice of the philosopher whose mind is trained to be ‘surprised’ at things which we take so much for granted. Yes, why do we value work so much in this society? The question can not be simply answered by the British moral attitude to work as Nina mentions in her article (an attitude which is also existent, for example, for the American working class as revealed by Richard Sennett, Michele Lamont..etc.). But taking the question one step further, perhaps we can formulate: ‘What is so strange in capitalist society which makes human labour so central?’ (so central that, as Nicole Pepperell and Sam Knafo argue, despite all technological advances and labour redundancies, new forms of work emerge in every historical period of capitalism)
It is because I take Nina’s question very seriously that I wrote the post on the Red Star. In Red Star Alexander Bogdanov offered a new concept of work and a new organization of labour in a post-capitalist society. (See previous post for details: https://nightsoflabour.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/mining-potentials-in-capitalism-thought-experiments-in-the-communist-laboratory/) In this new society, statistical agencies collect data, which are translated as shortage and supply of labour in each sector. Individuals can follow those live data in front of each factory and can ‘choose’ their work. They have different talents in their previous education in order to shift between different sectors. Their choices about where to work are added to the data regarding supply and demand of labour. Division of labour is the aggregate effect of free individuals’ choices. I also offered in other posts that automation of labour in certain areas should be used so that individuals have more time to philosophizing, hunting and painting as the famous Marxian utopia suggests.
Capitalist society constructs us as workers who sell their labour power, who can do other things only in ‘leisure time’. But socialist thinking requires a new understanding of work, a new understanding of time, where perhaps the very division between work time and leisure time will no longer apply. If Nina’s intervention is very important to remind us this post-capitalist vision, Red Star is a very important intellectual exercise to help us to concretize it.
I suggest past, present, near future and a new concept of time as four times of socialist politics informing our imagination and radical action and making redundant the dichotomy between the formulation of immediate political demands and questioning of the nature of capitalist work.