Contribution to debate on ‘social strikes’ and ‘directional demands’

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Comments on Plan C Leeds text: “On Social Strikes and Directional Demands” [1]

By AngryWorkersWorld

Dear comrades,

We want to contribute to the discussion on ‘social strikes’, based on a text written by comrades from Plan C. We hope that our thoughts are also relevant for the wider debate within the Blockupy / Transnational Strike network. Please read the following rather as a spontaneous reply…

*** What we liked

We agree with the article’s emphasis on the necessity for a debate about ‘political strategy’ and the criticism of comfort and fire-fighting politics. We also share your questions regarding the ‘social strike’: how can limitations of single disputes be overcome and their social isolation (from other spheres of working class life) be broken down. It is good that the article emphasises that a strategical look at changing working class conditions – in the search for potential power – has to be combined with various forms of material support. 

*** What we criticise

We feel that the article is kinda stuck in a ‘post-anti-glob’-movement type of perspective according to which:

a) the ‘political movement’ is the main subject and the arena between public protest and governmental politics is the main ‘field’ of political engagement, e.g. through directional demands; 
b) ‘neoliberalism’ is mainly seen as a policy, less than a contradictory phase of capitalist development and class struggle;
c) working class struggles are mainly seen as a ‘leverage’, and not as a political process themselves, which have to overcome the material and political divisions within the class, in order to change ourselves and the world

Due to this perspective we think that the text fails to provide concrete strategies, assuming that our political goal is to support the development of working class struggles which can fundamentally challenge the existing mode of social (re-)production. The suggestion of ‘social strikes’ and ‘directional demands’ remains too abstract and does not relate to the actual problems and potentials of ongoing struggles, visible and invisible ones. Being stuck in the ‘political field’ leaves the article being either arbitrary or opportunistic towards proposing engagement with parliamentary politics, e.g. regarding the Green Party. Below we will address some of the more concrete points of the article, whose weaknesses we see as an expression of the problematic political starting point described above. 
     
* Syriza and Podemos being a result of an impasse of the anti-austerity struggles

“I’ve already suggested that we see the electoral turn as, in part, a response to the impasse that horizontalist movements found themselves. But this impasse might look a little different once the Plan B+ electoral projects have collided with neoliberal governance and run into an impasse of their own. I think the focus will then swing back to extra-parliamentary action around the problem of leverage.” 

If we look at the mobilisations in Greece, Spain, but also Egypt, we can see that they were a cross-class alliance, composed as much of aspiring precarious professionals as of impoverished proletarians. The mobilisations were focused on the state and political demands (‘real democracy’). The ‘working class issues’, as collective problems of poverty, unemployment, weak positions towards the various bosses, were addressed only marginally. In this sense Syriza and Podemos don’t mainly express an impasse of the movement, because a) certain aspirational segments of the movement arrived where they wanted to arrive, which is in power; and b) the movements imploded in the vacuum of the ‘political field’, because there is only so much proletarians can do as ‘poor citizens’ facing the state. To suggest that the movement just needs more ‘leverage’ to face the political powers again sounds instrumentalist. In contrast we think that to a certain extent the movements themselves were impasses for proletarians to discover their collective (re-)productive power to change things. Also in this regard we find the text’s assumption that ‘left governments’ automatically ‘open spaces’ for working class movements rather un-historic and ignores the fact that e.g. the struggle against austerity in Greece has turned much more into a ‘national/nation state affaire’ since Syriza took over. [2]

* Social strikes as strategy

“In particular the social strike brings out three functions that will be required from any set of practices able to play a role equivalent to the twentieth century strike. These are making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles.”

As we said before, we disagree with the perspective on workers’ struggles as ‘leverage’ for the ‘political movements’, but we agree with the quote above. Unfortunately this part of the text remains too abstract and borrows too much from ideological hypes e.g.:

“The idea of a social strike, as it was originally developed, obviously relates to the concept of the social factory, the idea that the sphere of production has escaped the factory and seeped into the rest of society.”

Yes, the big manufacturing centres shrank in Western Europe and North America and relocated elsewhere. But to assume that society turned into one big factory largely ignores the re-concentration (and therefore segmentation!) process affecting many other jobs, e.g. the concentration of care work in mega-hospitals and care centres, of food production in ready-meal factories, of bank branch work in call centres, of retail shop work in distribution centres – not to speak of central sorting offices, mega-stores, mega-prisons, mass campuses and so on. The concentration goes hand in hand with a separation from the ‘rest of society’ and therefore with becoming invisible. We see big box type of entities spread out in suburbs and countryside, but we know fuck all about what people are doing in them. We click an online button and someone brings us our Sainsbury’s ready-meal. In this sense we think that the text’s dichotomy of ‘visible production work’ and ‘invisible reproduction work’ is incorrect – also historically, when he says:    

“The second problem with a strategy of disruption returns us to the problem of visibility. Simply put those sectors with the most leverage, the ability to cause the most disruption, tend to become the most visible and so those whose needs are most attended to. This obviously risks reinstating the invisibilities of the 1970s.” 

The relationship between male and female workers’ struggles in bigger workplaces and struggles in the reproductive sphere was dynamic and mutually influencing – if not without conflicts. For us, the main aim is not to look for new ‘workers concentrations’ mechanically, but try to understand how these potential places of collective power relate to the more individualised spheres of proletarian existence. This requires strategy and to lay the blanket ‘social factory’ on top of it won’t help us too much to develop it. 

The paragraph about the social strike should be developed with a deeper analysis of ongoing strikes in the UK and beyond, of their limitations and potentials, of the role of the trade unions etc. The examples given by Plan C comrades seem a bit random (an organised creche during a TUC march or socialist clothing banks). If we don’t analyse in concrete how ongoing disputes can develop power on their own terrain and beyond, how we can honestly call for a ‘social strike’? Facing a vast sea of often rather isolated and divided working class conditions, we run the danger of freaking out and proposing abstract short-cuts back into the ‘political field’ through the proposed ‘directional demands’. 

* Directional Demands

“In short directional demands aim to provide a direction of travel rather than simply describe the wish for ‘full communism.’ They need to make sense within existing conditions while pointing beyond them. Indeed they need to make better sense of the current situation and the potential it holds than conventional politics does. They need to play a compositional role, I.E. link different sectors or interests together or indeed produce a new subject of their own. And their fulfillment, or indeed movement towards their fulfillment needs to leave us, the working class, the multitude or whatever, in a stronger position, able to better articulate what we want and better able to exercise the power to get there. The Universal Basic Income (if framed correctly) could provide one example, a Debt Jubilee or Universal Expropriation (a residency restriction on housing), could provide others. Developing a program of Directional Demands is a way of addressing the electoral turn while leaving room to go beyond it.”

The idea of ‘directional’ – or how they used to be called ‘transitional’ – demands as a vehicle to unify the working class and give direction to struggles is as old as the political left. We largely think it is idealistic to assume that struggles, which are isolated by the material division of labour (intellectual/manual, regional, gendered etc.) and state repression, can be ‘united’ under the largely discursive umbrella of a common demand. If the working class is not able to break down the material barriers and hierarchies during actual struggles, it will not develop the power to impose any type of well-meant demands. BUT once workers actually discover their existence as social collective producers, then such a demand will only serve to reign things in and to focus the attention away from the possible fundamental change of how we live together. 

This does not mean demanding ‘full communism’ in a vacuum. It means focusing our attention on how certain segments of the working class and certain new forms of struggle will be successful enough to attract other workers and galvanise struggles. The actual demand these workers raise is only a small part of what might lead to a generalisation. We can imagine a wave of struggles against zero-hours contracts or against minimum wages. People are pissed off everywhere, we feel it every day. What people don’t lack are some lefties who are demanding £10 per hour. It needs workers with some basic and initial objective power vis-a-vis their company, who make the big leap to go beyond their company or sectorial boundary and address other workers directly. This leap might need support of the lefties bashed above, if they know their shit – if they know about the already existing lines of social (re-)production and experiences which can help to expand the dispute…

Wages for Housework is always the common example of the power of such revolutionary demands: it was not ‘realistically expected’ – as professed by the creators themselves afterwards – but was more of a prevocational stunt to ‘made visible’ the wider social system’s reliance upon women’s unpaid work. We do not underestimate the power of this: the Wages for Housework campaign highlighted the immense importance of this work within capitalist value production and squarely situated the basis of women’s relegated status and continuing oppression, as well as forming a sort of nucleus for organizational political efforts. But the limits were clear: it cemented women’s position in the home rather than somehow challenging it and did not question the wage relation itself as the main basis of our exploitation. A more general criticism could also be the limitations of a demand that is largely discursive i.e. about making something visible or political as the starting point for uniting a mass of people, rather than concrete conditions and divisions.

Having said this about the question of demands in general, we want to say a few words about the demand for a universal basic income in concrete:

“However demands are only granted if there is the leverage, or threat of leverage, to make that demand seem the least worst option for capital’s managers. The demand for a basic income, for example, still doesn’t quite make sense to the person on the street despite it fitting with a whole series of technological and social trends. That’s because those trends haven’t been made into a key political problems yet.”

The debate about this demand is not new either and there has been valid criticism [3], which we will only summarise:

a) the starting point of the demand, the individual income, does not question the main contradictions of working class existence and therefore the power of capital: we consume individually (“the person on the street”), but produce collectively; the individual income is a fetish behind which the social existence and inter-dependence is hidden; the income seems like a ‘fair share’, but hides our social exploitation; there lies the difference between a wage demand by striking workers and an income demand as political strategy   

b) contrary to what the article claims, the issue of a universal income has already been made into a “key political problem”: the Universal Credit is discussed widely; the Green Party’s proposal and its potentially negative impact on working class income, too. In this way a lefty proposal for a basic income degenerates to a mere quantitative haggling with the political class about the amount workers are supposed to live on.

* Developing working class strategy – Some suggestions for further debate

We fear that up to this point our criticism sounds just like a re-iteration of the stale debate between ‘programmatic communists’ and ‘social movement activists’ or between ‘melancholic workerists’ and ‘populist post-autonomists’ – feel free to add further pigeon holes to it. We would like to break out of this impasse by suggesting that we focus the strategic debate on interesting ongoing struggles and/or developments within the working class:

a) The situation in the US

We think that we can learn loads from the current developments and the experiences of comrades in the US – mainly about the difficulties of re-composition of a segmented working class. 

– The 2006 (hispanic) migrant workers movement and nation-wide strike revealed the productive under-belly of the US-regime; the state managed to respond to the movement by offering ‘regulation’ for some workers and further illegalised many others
– ‘Occupy’ put the question of a ‘common’ interest and horizontal organisation back on he agenda, but at the same time revealed that the ‘99%’ assumed by the mainly white and middle-class activists does not reflect the problem of social power and divisions; [nevertheless] a lot of debate and organisational efforts within the radical left came out of it, e.g. about the question of ‘race and class’ or  ‘syndicalism and political organisation’
– The revolts after the Ferguson murder practically attacked state power and revealed the structurally racist character of the US state and labour market, while at the same time refused to be represented by the black bourgeoisie and political class. The riots were less ‘race riots’, but riots of urban poverty
– The mobilisations by fast-food, warehouse and minimum wage workers emerged from a similar proletarian background and brought the invisible low-wage sector out in the open – they could give clout to the class at a time when the riots are repressed. At the same time we see the involvement of traditional unions like the SEIU and representatives of the political class (Seattle $15 now), which are in close dialogue with the very state that is under attack
– The simultaneous wide-spread hunger-strikes and revolts in US prisons since 2013 have put into question the racial divisions amongst inmates and the social isolation imposed by the jail system.
– The recent strikes in the ports and by oil workers demonstrated that the industrial working class has changed, but still possesses the power to halt the countries economy. There have been interesting minoritarian efforts to build links between the revolt against state violence and these strikes.

We can see that within a span of less than a decade or so the basic elements of a re-composition have emerged – the question of new forms of organisation, the question of proletarian violence, of class internal hierarchies and of economic collective power. We have to think about ‘strategy’ in this framework and together with local comrades. [4]   

b) The logistics workers’ struggles in Italy and the strikes at Amazon

The article engages with the emergence of the logistics sector, but we think largely in an external way, seeing the sector as ‘potential point to disrupt circulation’. While that is true, in order to develop strategies we have to engage closer with what is happening inside.

We saw workers in a very precarious condition (migrants whose right to reside is attached to shit jobs) using their structural power as warehouse workers, backed by activists from social centres and migrant support networks. Here the social reproduction aspect played a big role, e.g. through occupying living space for laid off workers. Their main form of struggle are blockades, their main framework the rank-and-file union SI COBAS. While the first waves of struggles were successful, we can see that the tactic of blockading might run into the impasse of police and legal repression. While the COBAS claim to be based on workers’ self-organisation, the union work heavily depends on full-time activists/delegates. We think we can learn a lot from the situation: about the potentials and difficulties of workers’ struggles depending on a political scene, about the problems of formal union structures as legal entities, even if they are ‘rank-and-file’.

The strikes and organising efforts of Amazon workers are similarly interesting: the strikes in Germany are the focus of public attention through well-funded campaigning, but materially weak, because only a minority of (permanent) workers take part. The union Ver.di is a big player and definitely not a rank-and-file structure. Left activists have started organising support networks, but their relationship with workers largely depends on Ver.di officials. There have been rank-and-file meetings with worker activists from Germany and Poland, but it seems difficult to come to a common strategy, last but not least because the distribution centres in Poland are set up in competition to the ‘striking ones’ in Germany. 

c) The situation in the UK

We think pre- or post-election times are probably the worst times to debate working class strategies. What we would need is a process of open debate and analysis within the milieu about the weaknesses of the regime and the problems of the struggles of our class. Instead of proclaiming victories of this or that struggle or to merely present the ‘organising activities’ behind the sign-boards of our individual organisations we need a self-critical look at things.

We’ve tried in the near past to gather some material and preliminary strategical thoughts about the situation in the UK. [5] We can understand that people are put off by the amount of empirical material and we see that our political thoughts might got lost in them.The following are rather random examples of current tendencies within the class composition which we find important to debate:

– We need a list of current struggles for higher pay in the low-wage sector. We have to debate each particularity, e.g. to which extend is the individual struggle dependent on funded campaigns. Which kind of struggles have been successful ‘on their own accord’, and what are their potentials to engage other workers.

– Behind the backs of many, the changes in the benefit system have clearly created a two-tier situation regarding EU-migrants, which has immediate impacts on working class reproduction (e.g. many young Polish workers with kids either leave them with their family in their home country or bring older relatives over for childcare) and on the shop-floor (if you are factually excluded from housing benefit, you will be way more careful to rock the boat)

– While proposing ‘alliances’ between public sector workers and public service ‘users’ seems like an important step, we can also see the problems with an ‘inter-class’ approach when it comes to ‘users’. For example, the attempts by the RMT to appeal to the ‘users’ of London Underground in order to make their strikes more popular have largely failed. The particular conditions of ‘proletarian users’ of public services have to be more clearly addressed, mainly through proposing practical forms of solidarity (the tube workers being able to use their particular position to support other proletarian struggles).

– Behind the ‘outsourcing scandals’ (Atos, Capita, G4S) we can see the objective limits of the regime’s strategy. But how does that play out in the day-to-day cooperation between ‘public sector workers’ and their ‘privatised’ fellow-workers? The left got stuck in a largely defensive positions to ‘stop public sector job cuts’, but may be new impulses come from the opposite site, the more precarious privatised fringes.

– Another major challenge is an analysis of the relation between crisis, state policies and changes of ‘communities’. During antifascist, anti-EDL actions the left tends to address proletarians from other ‘backgrounds’ as ‘community members’, at the same time we can see how these communities a) become more important for day to day survival/reproduction but b) due to their class character they increasingly become patriarchal structures of isolation and extra-exploitation. In the face of stark state-induced islamophobia and racism, how can we attack our various prisons of ‘communities’?

– In terms of our own practice, we would need an open-debate about ‘strategies’ which have been developed over the last years: the concept of ‘individual case direct action’/solidarity networks; the concept of ‘workplace organising’ etc. While we understand the focus on ‘practical work’ also as a healthy response to ‘abstract Politics’, we nevertheless encounter a strange separation between ‘material support’ and ‘political analysis’. We need an organisational form which allows us to reflect on the experiences of the class, mainly through organised practical engagement. In this sense we endorse the effort the article makes to address the question of this separation.

Last, but not least, although we are fairly busy with our workers’ newspaper in West-London – which was somehow a political strategic decision – we would like to engage in a debate about these wider conditions, e.g. at a national meeting. We are also happy to question our own strategical move to start a ‘political workers’ paper’ in a small area of this country. Be in touch. [6]

angryworkersworld@gmail.com

—–

[1]
http://www.weareplanc.org/on-social-strikes-and-directional-demands/#.VUs7BGRViko

[2]
“So what’s a Plan C approach in relation to this? I don’t think it can be the adoption of the ultra-Leftist pose of all knowing disinterest. We can’t just declare Plan B’s failure in advance and then abstain from involvement in events. We simply don’t know what the possibilities of the present are and can’t know how much a Plan B electoral strategy can achieve. Particularly as Syriza and Podemos are trying to pioneer Plan B+ strategies, by acting in relation to movements and so increasing their space for maneuver. What we do know is that the way it plays out will significantly affect the field upon which we have to act. We therefore need to act now to make that field as favourable as possible.”

“2015 will continue to be the year of the electoral turn. There’s probably no escaping this even if we want to. What this means is that whilst we participate in its unfolding – testing its limits and remaining vigilant to the new spaces it creates – we can also use it as a year of experimentation. Treat this as an open call. How might a Social Strike framework be put into practice? What are 21st century capitalism’s new weak points? How can we make use of the new electoral entities and the openings they create? Most importantly, with the traditional strike tactic (and with it the old Left) increasingly disarmed, what do we need to create in order to build leverage?”

[3]
http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/zirkular/48/z48e_wel.htm

[4]
For example:
http://www.unityandstruggle.org

[5]
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/discussion-paper-and-minutes-meeting-on-crisis-and-class-struggle-in-the-uk-liverpool-september-2014/

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2014/05/18/never-mind-the-bankers-some-thoughts-on-the-uk-crisis/

[6]
http://www.workerswildwest.wordpress.com

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