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.