Thus capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other.(Marx 1978, 33)
To my friends in the union movement I say this: Every worker needs a successful company. To the business community I say this: No company is successful without an engaged, energised and motivated workforce.(Howes 2014)
This post was meant to be short and to the point – but it has really run away from me. The point of it is to use Paul Howes’ speech as part of a broader critique of the common-sense of the Left in Australia: that some kind of ‘capitalism with a human face’ is possible and that a set of policy options, specifically a jobs plan, could achieve this goal(Žižek 2000, 63). I want to show that Howes’ speech is the truth of such a claim and such a claim is both impossible and undesirable. Simply put such arguments fail to take into account the profound global crisis of capitalism. Thus the future such proponents imagine is a mystification. There is little chance of normality ahead of us, if by normality we mean the relative growth, prosperity and stability of capitalism in Australia post-WWII in both its social democratic and neoliberal forms.
This critique is aimed not only at the mandarins of the ALP nor the cretins of the centre-left commentariat but also at activists and the Far Left who continue to parrot such positions even if they add a radical gloss. There are no greater fools than those supposed anti-capitalists who believe that tailing social democratic illusions is a step on a torturous road to proletarian enlightenment. The truth is such a road never reaches its destination: it’s an endless illusion.
In discussions with comrades the use of various social democratic demands and slogans is often justified by an argument that goes this is where ‘the workers’ are at and we want to connect with ‘the workers’. However to my knowledge there is never any research that actually establishes this is what workers want, no mass investigation, no discussion groups, no militant inquiry: no one ever asks them their thoughts. Rather such an understanding is an assumption built on an ideological image of the working class that exists only in the minds of certain socialists. On the flip side these comrades who are workers themselves sublimate their own rebellious desires whilst hunting this ideological figment.
I also want to be crystal clear. My argument isn’t that we shouldn’t resist sackings, restructuring or privatisations or that we shouldn’t attempt to increase our wages and reduce our work. Far from it. My argument is against the idea that we can organise politically, focused on the state, to coordinate the generation of more employment as part of a return to some form of social democracy. Such a goal is neither possible nor desirable.
The Truths of a Faceless Man
On 5th February Paul Howes the (then) National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union addressed the National Press Club and called for a Grand Compact between capital and labour as the central plank of a new approach to making the Australian economy globally competitive. Central to his speech was an argument calling for the unions to attempt to cooperate with business and the Abbot government and a critique of both unions and business for putting sectional interests above the national interest.
It was rejected by both the ALP and much of the union leadership and scolded by the usual voices of the Far Left. However it is worth more serious attention. The speech was reproduced on the front page of Working Life(a major mouthpiece of the unions) and Howes is a contender for future ALP leadership. Since then Howes has resigned from his position and has headed off to the corporate world (a not so uncommon journey – see Martin Ferguson). This doesn’t however nullify that the speech itself remains crucial as an example of a real material problem. At the time of writing Howes remains ‘deputy chairman of Australia’s largest industry super fund, AustralianSuper, a member of the Labor Party’s national executive, vice-president of the ACTU, director of the Chifley Research Centre and the McKell Institute and represents the Asia Pacific Region on the executive committee of the IndustriALL Global Union’(Massola and Lucas 2014). This speech is an important intervention on the level of national mainstream politics by an important member of the political class.
Those of us committed to emancipatory politics should study this text as it reveals in full light the contradictions of (post?) social democracy and of capitalism itself. This is especially useful since the imagination of the Left is so firmly welded to social democracy. The key contradiction it expresses is as follows – as much as we as workers are dependent on wages we are dependent on capital thus as much as unions work to represent the conditions of workers in capitalist society then union officials, who are doing their job, are compelled to become concerned about the nature and health of capitalism. Opposed to this emancipatory politics wages that the mutual presupposition of labour and capital can be broken through workers’ self-activity against their condition of being workers. [i]
The standard response by the Left was to explain the actions of Howes as one of betrayal: which let’s admit it has been the explanation that they have provided for pretty much everything for as long as I can remember and probably longer. The paradigmatic example of this faulty logic comes unsurprisingly from the pages of Red Flagand in the blustering prose of Tom Bramble (one can only assume that it is written in a style the author believes matches with some clichéd image of how ‘workers’ speak – it is almost laughably bad) who describes Howes as ‘the worst kind of traitor to the labour movement’ (Bramble 2014). I can never really decide the point of such an article: is it an attempt to recruit new members, it is suggesting unions would be better if the leadership was replaced by erstwhile members of Socialist Alternative, or is it a critique of union bureaucracy on a whole hoping to built some ‘rank and file’ alternative? (It fails to be successful at any of these tasks.)
But if we examine the speech in detail it actually tells us something far more important.
Howes’ speech can be understood as a retort to Employment Minister Eric Abetz speech to the Sydney Institute in which the latter called for employers to take a stronger stand against labour asking ‘why can’t employers band together and just say “no”’ (Abetz 2014) ? Howes carries out five manoeuvres: a critique of corruption in the unions; a celebration of the Accord; he periodises the current moment; he identifies a problem; and he poses a solution. I wish to focus on the last three.
- The period: we live are after the mining boom, the contradictions in the Australian economy are rising and therefor so is the threat of increasing unemployment. ‘There is nowhere to hide.’
- The problem: Neither unions nor business act in the national interest. Australia’s IR system is a ‘see-saw’ where unions and business attempt to rewrite the rules each time either the ALP or the Coalition win the election. This see-saw leads to instability which discourages investment.
- The solution: Labour and Capital can work together to provide a stable investment environment and lead to improvements in productivity. This grand compact involves setting national priorities and an ongoing and stable framework. The main goal is national competitiveness. (2014)
It appears to me that the model that Howes is pushing forward is some version of the Asian Development State (in a very loose way). ‘A Grand Compact in which unions, business and government create an industrial engagement pursuant to agreed national goals’(Howes 2014). As Rob points out it also appears that the response from the government was to launch a Royal Commission into the unions – so in other words ‘fuck you’.
What is so important is that Howes admits that the global economic crisis exists and that it is impacting Australian society. This represents a major break with the standard line of the ALP/Unions/Left – who have previously argued that any impacts of the global crisis were mitigated by the Rudd government and/or the actions of Coalition governments can be explained as being ‘ideological’ and have nothing to do with new economic challenges. One of the weirdnesses of our moment has been seeing the Left attempting to tactically undercut conservative arguments by arguing that capitalism is going swimmingly. Everything gets blamed on the bugbear ‘neoliberalism’ – a term now used to mean such a wide variety of phenomena that it often becomes meaningless.
What Howes is doing is crafting a plan for capital accumulation on the level of society. Trade unions represent workers within the workplace in relation to wages and conditions and represent workers to the state in the setting of conditions that regulate the sale of wage-labour and conditions of employment.
To do this workers must have jobs…
The only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist…
All of us who have nothing but our labour-power to sell and/or are generally reliant on the income of someone else and carry out crucial but unwaged labour (i.e. the working class) can only really survive in capitalism via wages (of course there are lots of attempts and experiments to escape this). Equally the loss of a job can really throw your life into crisis (after a few euphoric moments of freedom ‘Hallelujah I’m a bum, Hallelujah bum again!’). Unemployment makes our lives as we live them untenable and is often accompanied with an overwhelming loss of social status and standing.
The lose of a wage profoundly impacts our ability to borrow and pay debts – and debt has become a fundamental way the majority of workers pay for many of the necessities and joys of life. As the Reserve Bank of Australia document consumer debt levels in Australia hovers just under 150% of income and the majority of this is made up of mortgage debt(2013, 47). Being unemployed means not only the absence of a wage, but also the absence of the ability to borrow or to borrow at normal interest rates. This means a standard of living far lower than average. For someone who loses their job and has these debt levels unemployment can mean ruin.
The two decades of the mining boom has meant that the vast majority of workers in Australia have not faced unemployment as an ongoing dilemma (and indeed the problems has been too much work!) but this boom is ending. The end of the boom has resulted in lower jobs growth and some spectacular plant closures and sackings exacerbated by the Federal government that expecting lower income and prioritising investment in infrastructure is pulling funding and subsidies from specific companies.
Workers in Australia also face the impact of rising unemployment globally. The global crisis of capitalism has unsurprisingly created a substantial increase in unemployment:
In the fifth year after the outbreak of the global financial crisis, global growth has decelerated and unemployment has started to increase again, leaving an accumulated total of some 197 million people without a job in 2012. Moreover, some 39 million people have dropped out of the labour market as job prospects proved unattainable, opening a 67 million global jobs gap since 2007. Despite a moderate pick-up in output growth expected for 2013–14, the unemployment rate is set to increase again and the number of unemployed worldwide is projected to rise by 5.1 million in 2013, to more than 202 million in 2013 and by another 3 million in 2014. A quarter of the Increase of 4 million in global unemployment in 2012 has been in the advanced economies, while three quarters has been in other regions, with marked effects in East Asia, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Those regions that have managed to prevent a further increase in unemployment often have experienced a worsening in job quality, as vulnerable employment and the number of workers living below or very near the poverty line increased.(International Labour Organisation 2013, 9)
In a capitalist world unemployment anywhere impacts on all as workers compete for a dwindling supply of jobs. The development of Freelancer and Amazon Mechanical Turk are just two ways that workers are being organised on a global level to compete against each other. The traditional social democratic strategy of attempting to mitigated these pressures through racist anti-immigrant protectionism is neither desirable nor effective (Curthoys and Markus 1978).
What determines unemployment? The dominant approach pre-crisis ultimately saw unemployment as a problem of the unemployed themselves (and much of this thinking continues today). Whilst this approach existed before Keynesianism, after Keynesianism’s fall from grace it took the form of considering labour as ‘human capital’(Foucault 2008). Given the assumed rationality of the market unemployment can only be explained by labour either pricing itself out of the market or lacking any desired skills and abilities. This is why most often solutions to unemployment are aimed at changing the behaviour and aptitudes of the unemployed (the Right offer discipline, the Left offer training). If we fix the unemployed the argument goes we will fix unemployment.
Of course the idiocy of this is that for central banks (also pre-crisis), which are the major planners of contemporary economies, zero unemployment is never a goal. Rather price stability is the main aim of monetary policy. To do this central banks don’t desire unemployment to drop below 5% – the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment as (Papadatos 2012, 124). Indeed until very recently the concern for the Australian state was that unemployment was too low.
Well this was at least the approach before the global crisis: now unorthodox monetary policy has taken centre stage.
Since the crisis mainstream thought has shifted and quite correctly unemployment is understood as a product of growth and growth has become the focus of policy – especially since the unemployed and the masses generally have started to move politically. Within this context there are two mainstream strategies: either creating an environment conductive to business investment through reducing regulations and costs or stimulate business investment through fiscal and monetary policy (more of the latter less of the former). The first was a continuation of neoliberalism and took the form of the austerity; since it’s failure a new post-neoliberal alternative has been more overtly argued for (especially by the IMF) which focuses on stimulating growth through increasing the money supply and expenditure on infrastructure construction as well as structural reforms(International Monetary Fund 2014a, b). As I have argued else spending on infrastructure is capital’s Plan A in Australia
It is in this context that Howes steps forward on the Australian stage. His speech is a paradigmatic example of the left-wing of capital: a Left strategy for capital accumulation. What Howes is articulating is the truth of any demand for ‘jobs’.
Employment is determined by capital and capital only employs people to the extent that they can be put to work to realise profit.
Labour-power is not purchased under this system for the purpose of satisfying the personal needs of the buyer, either by its service or through its product. The aim of the buyer is the valorization of his capital, the production of commodities which contain more labour than he paid for, and therefore contain a portion of value which costs him nothing and is nevertheless realized [realisiert] through the sale of those commodities. The production of surplus-value, or the making of profits, is the absolute law of this mode of production. Labour-power can be sold only to the extent that it preserves and maintains the means of production as capital, reproduces its own value as capital, and provides a source of additional capital in the shape of unpaid labour (Marx 1990, 796).
(This quote is from Volume 1 of Capital where Marx is not yet dealing with capitalism as a totality and is focusing almost exclusively on commodity production – we can say in other capitalist enterprises that don’t generate surplus value workers are only employed to the extent they can be put to work to realise profit and thus valorise value.)
The amount of people employed depends on the level of investment and the organic composition of capital. Employment by the state is only one step removed; as it is dependent on being funded via taxation it is dependent on the general health of capital accumulation. Thus to demand jobs necessarily means demanding capital.
But we must go further. The demand for jobs made by the left-wing of capital and its socialist followers downplays how much workers must be made to be workers to accept jobs. It assumes we all happily march off to the office or the cash-register. We must always remember that for us to exist as a workers we must be made ‘vogelfrei’ – free from any way of surviving outside of wage-labour (Marx 1990, 896) . Thus so-called primitive accumulation remains a permanent feature of capitalism breaking down any non-commodified forms of reproduction and further entrenching our dependence on the wage. So too multiple forms of control, of biopower, and ideology are needed to regulate us socially and individually so we can and will work(Virno 2004, Althusser 2008). And of all it is built on the bedrock of reproductive labour in the home(Fortunati 1995).
Howes then is acting entirely consistently with his role as a high-ranking trade union officialwhen his solution calls for a compact with capital, which in practice means that unions play the role of reinforcing the subordination of labour to capital in the hope that this will facilitate a level of capital accumulation that can provide stable employment and relatively decent conditions.
How should we responded? On a number of levels.
Firstly we should point out how the reception of Howes arguments demonstrates the contemporary powerlessness of union officialdom. Capital has only been willing to welcome labour via unions into the fold in the face of threating upsurges in struggle (Panitch and Gindin 2013). Both the post-war compromise and the end of this compromise via the Accord followed on from heightened levels of class struggle. The realists in the unions who want to offer reasonable cooperation at the bargaining table are no longer invited nor needed.
Secondly the crisis is much deeper than what Howes thinks. The end of the mining boom is an impact of a global crisis of capitalism. Capitalism was only saved by a historic level of state intervention. It now limps along propped up by unprecedented levels of unorthodox monetary policy and attempts at stimulation. As the recent emerging market crisis shows capital still prefers to find profits in speculation rather than production (not that the two can be separated in any meaningful way) and this itself is generating only shaky returns – and the news from China is grim. Where is the capital Howes is attempting to attract? This is actually not going far enough – Howes’ argument relies on the possibility of a future, a future of capitalist normality that is increasingly improbable if not impossible. This is before we even consider the mind melting ecological implications. (No Future! Utopia Now?)
Ultimately of course even when capitalism is doing well it can’t solve the problem of unemployment – as unemployment is both a necessary condition and a necessary product of capitalism’s functioning. Capitalism requires a reserve army of labour to both provide a pool of workers to facilitate capital’s growth and also to compete for jobs to put downward pressure on wages. Equally capital’s dynamic nature constantly sees as a general rule the growth in the ratio of technology to workers (of fixed capital to variable capital) and thus works to cast workers back into unemployment just as it sucks them up into work.
Thirdly since a demand for jobs as a political project means in practice the submission of labour to capital then it means our demobilization and defeat. A comrade from Wollongong told me how when Hawke came to power not only did he address a mass meeting of steel workers telling them that he had ‘no magic wand’ to fix unemployment but the funds that were given to BHP to save jobs by making it more competitive were spent restructuring the plant and sacking people. (And of course there is a capitalist truth to this as competition between firms compels them to transform their processes of production – another way that capital is bound in a way that limits to a minimal level its ability to concede to our demands).
This leaves us in a difficult point. As Australian unemployment may increase (the unemployment rate is trending upwards even as the seasonal adjusted March’s unemployment rate is lower than February’s), as many people may be thrown into misery, to call for jobs no longer makes any sense(Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014). (Leaving aside of course that the point of communism was always to abolish wage-labour.)
Once again a Left tied to the mast of the shipwreck of social democracy opens its mouth to speak and drowns a little more as the water of reality rushes in.
Unemployment for All! Not just the Rich!
I was looking for a job and now I found a job…and heaven knows I’m miserable now.
But as always demands for #fullcommunism remain abstractly correct and practically useless. Despite their insights and radicality ideas that can’t address the immediate concerns of our lives have only limited value. Equally calls from the Left for workers facing plants closing down or job losses to ‘Fight’ or demand ‘Workers Control’ leave a bad taste in my mouth. Whilst these calls are also abstractly correct I find demands for action unpalatable when they come from those who won’t have to do the fighting. As much as I would like to see an increasing in collective and antagonistic struggle it is entirely understandable that workers who are facing their entire lives being torpedoed attempt to salvage as much dignity and money as they can and prepare themselves for the real challenges ahead.
To survive today we need money – the common way to access this is through wage-labour. Capitalism is the vampirism of our creativity. Capitalism in crisis increasingly shifts more people from being exploited to being expendable. We are seemingly caught in a web of dependence and exploitation. How do we develop a Plan C?
A few important points of orientation: let us remember that the relationship between capital and labour is inherently antagonistic even when it doesn’t take an overt and organised form; let us practice a sensitivity to the way that class composition has radically changed over the last four decades; let us keep an attentiveness to the centrality of work outside of wage-labour for capital (reproductive labour in the home still mainly performed by women, the externalisation of productive activity to the endpoint users, the crucial role the ‘general intellect’ now plays etc.) and the power and struggles of those who perform this labour(cf.Federici 2012, Marazzi 2011, Virno 2004). It is often the struggles of those exiled outside of the wage where we find some of the most serious attempts to challenge the poverty of wagelessness and also to refuse capitalist work.
Wollongong-Out-of-Workers (WOW) was one of the most important and radical expressions of the self-activity of the unemployed in Australia’s post war history. I highly recommend that readers take the time to read the work of Nick Southall (2006, 2011) who was a participant in the organisation, has taken extensive pains to document and explore these struggles and remains a committed communist and is a dearly loved friend.
As part of the cycle of struggle of the early 1980s incredibly militant action was carried out in the struggle for ‘jobs’. But interviews with key WOW militants reveals a more complex and nuanced position. Here Nick is interviewing Gillian Pope
NS: How important was the right to work for WOW?
GP: It was really important, in the context of the youth at one level, but in the context of all the people being kicked out of their jobs and companies just dumping people of all ages, families, kids, that knew nothing about welfare and weren’t given a point in the right direction—those kind of unemployed people—that those people should have the right to work, the right to work in the kind of jobs that they had done. For the jobs their kids weren’t going to get. Not so much necessarily for me because I didn’t like the hours you had to work. I didn’t like the way you were treated, just because you were young, or some sort of underling.
NS: When you were active in WOW did you want a job?
GP: Sometimes. At times. But I wanted the kind of job that was doing something meaningful. That’s why I liked going down to Canberra when we had the welfare centre going. I was more interested in that than delivering the food for the food co-op. Because I thought politics was the level you could really be doing something and change things. Not just for yourself. So, I thought that was a socially worthwhile job and we were totally justified in being paid by the government to, in drawing the dole, to do that kind of work, if they couldn’t provide us with decent jobs. I thought we had good intentions and integrity and that we were actually trying to do something with the money we were getting. It was a whole lifestyle thing, not something you just went and did sometimes. It was full on. So, I felt we were doing work.
NS: Did WOW encourage work refusal in any way?
GP: I think WOW encouraged people to not be pushed into things that they didn’t want to do. I think WOW encouraged people to create work rather than look for jobs that were on the job market. WOW backed people up in their basic human right to choose. For instance, how they dressed. Just because they dressed in a certain way, they were refused j obs. They were expected to cut their hair, take their earrings out, remove this, do this, change. Those people had every right to refuse to do that just to get a job waitressing or something like that. So, I think WOW encouraged people to speak their mind, stand up and not to be intimidated by authority. But, we weren’t telling people to refuse work. It was a hard world and a lot of WOW’s members were really young people and they learnt how to get things out of the system. (2006)
Southall a key participant in WOW frames an understanding of the demand for a Right to Work and the refusal of work as follows
The 1980’s saw a number of Right to Work marches in Australia organised by left political organisations, trade unions, employed and unemployed workers, including the 1982 march from Wollongong to Sydney. Right to work struggles also included a wide variety of activities and tactics to fight sackings and to campaign against unemployment by creating jobs. WOW and other labour movement activists saw Right to Work marches and campaigns as part of a working class fight-back against capital. Yet, the demand for ‘the right to work’ can be viewed as reactionary and outdated; reactionary because it can be seen to embody the capitalist work ethic and outdated because much labour is now socially unnecessary. The call for full employment often reveals the attachment of social democratic and trade union leaders to the basic structures of capitalism and demands for the right to work can glorify capitalist work. The right to work is not a satisfactory demand in isolation from critiques of such things as the nature of work, the duration of jobs, their pay and their role in the global division of labour. Marx analyses the tendency of capital as towards the reduction of the necessary labour of society. Yet this tendency does not result in a reduction of commodified labour, as capital increases surplus labour and imposes labour as a form of control of the working class, as a reaffirmation of capital’s power. The potential exists for a materially abundant, pleasurable relaxed work era as new technology has developed that could largely replace the realm of necessity by the realm of freedom. However, because capital continues to impose the linking of income to work that valorises capital, a diametrically opposite outcome is produced: intensified damaging precarious work and the immiseration of unemployment. (2011)
The other important lesson is that the majority of the labour movement did decided to participate in a plan for jobs – The Accord. This led to a historic defeat for the class and is the model that Howes follows. In this sense Howes isn’t a rat or a traitor but a faithful inheritor of the mainstream of modern union officialdom.
So too the struggle of feminists for Wages for Housework raised the desire for delinking income from wage-labour and commodifiying the necessities of life. These struggles reveal the double mystification of the wage. That not only does the wage make the relationship between capital and labour appear to be a fair deal when it is actually exploitation but also it hides the reality that work outside of wage-labour is crucial to capitalism, necessary for its functioning. ‘For as soon as we raise our heads from the socks we mend and the meals we cook and look at the totality of our working day, we see that while it does not result in a wage for ourselves, we nevertheless produce the most precious product to appear on the capitalist market: labor power’(Federici 2012, 31)
But the feminist struggle for wages for housework didn’t simple demand jobs – rather it refused the double blackmail of wage-labour and unpaid labour. This refusal was understood as part of the struggle against capital on a whole, of the struggle of the working class against being reduced to the working class. ‘Our power as women begins with the social struggle for the wage, not to be let into the wage relation (for we were never out of it) but to be let out of it, for every sector of the working class to be let out’(Federici 2012, 37).
Now some may point out that such struggles were defeated – and the result has been that capital has instituted the very demands of these struggles against the class. Housework is now waged – in the form of the service industry. But what do we have apart from defeats? And such defeats don’t reduce the lessons these struggles have generated.
The Strategy of the Party of Utopia
Left Flank writers Elizabeth Humphries and Tad Tietze recently wrote that ‘Workers would be best served by starting a conversation based around how to secure their collective interests, whether or not they are part of a union’(Humphrys and Tietze 2014) But what are our interests?
There are our interests as workers at work (pay, length of the working day, safety, bullying etc.) our interests for our lives outside of work (time and space for family and friends, places to live, dignity, etc.) and our interest in a life against being reduced to a worker (against the alienation of work, the domination of the state, the rule of life by things and their prices). It would be easy to construct a hierarchy of these needs – first we struggle for our conditions as workers, tomorrow we struggle against work – but these interests and needs are bound up together. They are inseparable. Struggle then is also tied up in these multifaceted needs. The error of Howes is the ‘trade unionist’ error of only seeing workers reduced to what capital wants them to be: mere embodiments of wage labour who fit into the machinery of capital. Just as insurrectionism invents an inverted mirror of this with workers being pure creatures of heroic revolt unconcerned about day to day living (Badiou 2009, 26-27). Our wager is that the everyday and the existential experiences of being workers can become the stuff of radical transformation.
The knock on effects of the end of the mining boom will probably be a slow down in growth across the board – and thus either job losses or at least reductions in hiring. The rightwing of capital is politically dominant in Australia and is implementing a plan to facilitate capital accumulation through infrastructure development. This will involve cuts to state spending, privatizations and thus job loses to finance this plan (though different jobs will be created on infrastructure projects). It is entirely sensible for us to resist these changes. Such struggles are entirely different than trying to get capital to create more jobs – but share a similar problem. Companies where workers win victories will see their share prices plummet and their credit ratings undermined. They will struggle to borrow and struggle to compete. Successful struggles against privatization and job cuts in the public service won’t just limit the state’s ability pay debts but will probably in themselves cause a drop in confidence from lenders and decline in the state’s credit rating – credit ratings always being a form of moral judgment(Lazzarato 2012).
It’s been a long time since we have won any victories – but if we did these victories would intensify the crisis of capital (because ultimately the crisis of capitalism is the working class.) Capital may respond to struggles by fleeing – can we be in a position that when a company threatens to leave our response is ‘fuck off’?
The idea that there is some kind of future normality where we can have our cake and eat it too is an illusion. Even trying to defend our conditions today we are propelled to attempt to think about and enact radical alternatives to capital.
It is not always advisable to compose Zukunftsmusik for the struggles to come but we can look at the material conditions of our present and at least open the discussion of their implications. Thus if we follow Liz and Tad’s suggestion of trying to develop spaces for workers’ conversations (as the first step to generating the organisational forms that we need) in these spaces it is useful to dispel the ideological mystifications of jobs plans and the like sold by Howes and the leftwing of capital (and parroted by most of the socialist sects) and start at least discussing the possibilities and viabilities of alternatives.
If the solution to wagelessness can’t be found in employment it perhaps can be found in contesting the conditions of the wageless (a struggle that must be led by the wageless themselves). This would mean both opposing income management, job training and other forms of monitoring and monotony and also creating outlets for self-guided creativity and production, community workshops, collective resources – a commons. Could this be coupled with struggles to reduce the working week to free up time for what ever we like – including the space to construct commons? (And to sleep in, to eat long lunches, to wander, to be lazy.) We are dependent on wages because we lack – thus to address this we need to confront how we can decommodify what we need to live full lives. Communism is the great freeing of creativity, and considering the grey and brutal failure of ‘real existing socialism’, then its probably not the worse thing to be actively involved in the imagining, the practical and lived imagining, of a better and other mode of being.
Struggles in Europe have posed the demand for a guaranteed income(Fumagalli and Mezzadra 2010). Is this the solution? These questions can’t be answered on paper but can we start to ask them in the new struggles. How are we to live?
In Australia the struggles in the workplace and the attempts to build social alternatives have often been separate endeavors – reproducing the very splits that constitute capitalist society. What ways can we act that these different endeavors to reduce our exploitation, to increase our power and create lives worth living resonate with each other?
Some readers will remark but what about political power? How can you start to do this without confronting the state? What about property? How can we communize that which is already privately owned? And they would be right. Any of these attempts would propel us to have to develop news forms of deciding, organizing and defending ourselves, would have to pose attempts to communize and reorganize wealth.
It is impossible to imagine even small forms of resistance without having to think in someway about complete social transformation. And vice versa the inability or unwillingness to think through complete social transformation works to make it hard to imagine even small forms of resistance and struggle as capitalism looms in our lives like an unchangeable and inescapable reality which we must adjust ourselves to.
Those of us committed to emancipatory politics are numerically small and politically scattered. As we engage in struggles, in the life of the class, part of what we can do as equals and from within these struggles, is challenge and question to social democratic mystifications that we will encounter.
If unemployment increases you can be sure that all the actions taken to save capitalism, to increase the power of capital, will be clothed in the aim of creating jobs. Every sacrifice that will be imposed on us will be justified in the name of job creation. And if we remain stuck in a condition of being dependent on the wage how can we resist this blackmail? Rather to answer the challenge, to simply fight to keep what we currently have, we are compelled towards the difficult, maybe exhilarating, maybe even unpleasant, task of having to make everything different.
On that note a shameless plug –
May Day Forum – A Worker’s Inquiry
To our friends and comrades
Our lives are dominated by work, but our experiences as workers is most often ignored by mainstream politics and the media
This year the May Day Group wishes to hold a worker’s inquiry. We hope to gather with fellow workers to discuss as equals the nature of our conditions and the possibilities for collective action.
How do we as workers respond to the massive changes we see around us in our working lives, and in the relationships between ourselves as workers, our trade unions, the owners of big business, and the government. This workers inquiry is an attempt to start a conversation from the grass roots. What are our individual working lives like? How are they changing? How can we respond most effectively in a collective manner?
To explore these issues we will pose the following questions as starting point for our day of discussion
- Theme: Life and work
o How would you say that work shapes your identity?
o How does work impact on living a life you would like to live?
o How much of your life outside of work feels like work?
- Theme: The Working Day
o What does your work day look like?
o What relation do you and your workmates have with a union if any?
o Does casualization impact at your workplace? In what ways?
- Theme: Work, Organisation & Struggle
o How does management impact you during your workday?
o Are there things that workers in your workplace do to create a sense of dignity?
o What should we do? What can we do?
Ultimately all of us would like to see how we can build a better world. That world may be a long way off. But the journey starts from the lived experience of each of us
Saturday 3rd May 1pm Kurilpa Hall174 Boundary Street West End Qld 4101
(Images produced by Redback Graphix)
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[i] An aside – this is what is wrong with the critiques of unions which focus on their non-revolutionary nature. Unions are not revolutionary. Their purpose is a vehicle of collective action of workers within the confines of capital. A job some do better than others. It makes a lot of sense as a worker in capitalism to be a union member and an active unionist. But we shouldn’t expect unions in and of themselves to be anti-capitalist. Rather at some point we are going to have to go beyond unionism. But lets face it what this going beyond looks like none of us know and it will probably be a complex and contradictory process, or set of processes that is profoundly different in different contexts. Struggles by unionised workers will probably be part of these processes, just as the inertia of elements of union structures will probably work against such processes.