In defence of working class existence as choice

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We read and reviewed David Ranney’s “Living and dying on the factory floor”, which was about his decision to put his academic career on hold and his subsequent experiences as a factory worker. [1] The following thoughts relate to this decision, which used to be widespread within the left. Today taking on working class jobs for political reasons is either ridiculed as an artefact of political militancy or criticised as a potentially manipulative act of privileged and educated middle-class politicos who try to convert the workers.

I want to look at my own decision to remain a low-paid manual worker from various angles. The text is not strictly biographical, but looking at the subjective side of the decision is personal. It is not an account of experiences in five dozen or so jobs, although it contains descriptions. The text is not a ‘salting’ or organising manual, it looks more broadly at aspects and difficulties of material survival, intellectual satisfaction, political strategy and revolutionary morale, including the danger of self-righteousness.

The text picks up issues raised at the end of the article “Profession and Movement”, an article that looks at the wider consequences of professionalisation within the left e.g. in terms of pursuing an academic career or becoming a professional organiser of one sort or the other.

“You cannot simply proceed in a professional career and be ‘revolutionary’ in your free-time. We need our own structures as a material alternative to the ‘profession’; we need commonly organised living arrangements, collectives and (social) centres which would allow us a different way to approach ‘work’: to kick a shit-job if necessary; to work for a low-wage, because the job is politically interesting; to stir up a workplace collectively.” [2]

It is difficult to create such a social and political environment for a working class existence because, in the end, for most of us, ‘becoming or remaining’ a worker is less of an active choice, but an outcome of a social process. I would argue that instead of being individual victims of this process who try to struggle for individual niche-solutions we should try and find collective ways to deal with it. The aims of such a conscious and collective effort would be to share and discuss more of your decisions about work and life with a clearer political strategy in mind.

I started working in construction in my teens and continued to work in what is generally labeled as ‘unskilled’ or ‘semi-skilled’ manual work until today, around three decades later. I left school out of choice, though not as a result of an elaborate political decision. It was a mixture of general anger towards the system and self-preservation. Coming from a family scarred by World War II and influenced by generally socialist ideas, together with the increase in neo-Nazi attacks post-1989 and the Gulf War in 1990/91, solidified the idea that ‘the system’ is still alive and killing. The system also killed in other ways, as I lost three friends and lovers to heroin during that time. At school the selection process, between those who were willing and able to cooperate and those who were not, intensified. I felt that I had to draw a line and guard myself against these forces that make us weak and destroy our relationships: competitiveness, privileges, corruption, and arse-licking.

As there was little chance to just ‘drop out’ where I lived, as there was no big sub-culture in this small shithole of a town, I decided that I would sell them my body, but not my brain, personality or creativity. To carry building materials and sweep sites felt like self-defence and a big ‘fuck you’ to those who want to get into your head. The refusal of a career is not mainly a subjectivist act of politicos. Most of the colleagues I met refused to advance to supervisory positions or white-collar jobs – while many dreamt of a way out through self-employment or the lottery ticket.

Although I worked with them, my co-workers didn’t actually figure much on my political horizon – a lot of them were recent migrants from East Germany or so-called Russian-Germans, most of them pretty conservative and in favour of the war in Iraq. I quickly learned that ‘workers’ are no holy cows. Many of my local antifascist comrades were car mechanics, brick layer apprentices, nurses or painter and decorators, so unlike today it didn’t feel too weird to do manual labour. And although we made a lot of jokes about the proletarian culture of CP antifascism in the 1930s this was more of an excuse to be rowdy and to take the piss, rather than a serious reference to the working class as a political subject. Still, it felt good to be somehow part of a tradition and historical class force. In 1992 we travelled from the West to the East to demonstrate in Rostock [3] after the fascist attacks. Apart from Berlin I had never been to the East before and had never seen such huge and dismal concrete tower-block estates. Local unemployment had just increased from virtually zero to over 20 percent. Thousands of mainly West-German black-block antifascists walked through the working class areas and shouted ’Shame on you!’ to everyone around. Something felt wrong to me in this situation. .

Apart from practical antifascism I was more into Tupamaros (a left-wing urban guerrilla group in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s and Red Army Faction. However, even with all that teenage fanaticism and despite RAF’s last and beautiful attack against the prison construction at Weiterstadt in 1993 [4], it was clear that armed struggle doesn’t lead anywhere. I started reading more about historical efforts to fuse direct attacks on bosses and state with a mass base amongst ‘the people’. I was impressed with the neo-Maoists of the Gauche Proletarienne in France: they not only realised that the uprising of 1968 would have to spread from the universities deeper into society, they even followed through on the personal implications to ‘go to the people’, not to preach, but to learn from them. This seemed much more radical and equal than what our local Trot group did, which is to stay outside the class, to both idealise and patronise ‘the working class’. But then there were no Maoists around, who would most likely have done the same thing. Still, I felt that the revolutionary moral was right: who the fuck are we to teach anyone? To be a revolutionary means to cut your ties and to be on an equal level with the working masses.

I started looking for politics similar to the Gauche Proletarienne in Germany and stumbled across groups like the Proletarische Front or Arbeitersache [Workers’ Cause] which were active in the 1970s and political writers such as Karl Heinz Roth. These groups, although there were still flirting with Maoist jargon, were largely influenced by the ‘Workerist’ currents in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Class composition’ replaced ‘the people’. I was intrigued by the concept of workers (self-)inquiry: finally an approach that allowed you to combine the subjective and moral attitude of ‘being with the people’ with an intellectual and empirical effort to understand what the working class really is and how we can organise struggle under specific conditions – modern capitalist conditions, not Chinese mountain paths. All of a sudden everything became interesting and relevant! My construction site, the collaboration between local university, local industries and the British army base – and the new migration from the East. As a local group we were now able to target the construction of a local detention centre not only with our hatred against the prison system, but with the strategic insight that it serves to re-structure local class relations. Migration raids on local construction sites could be explained as an attack to divide and spread fear. We could draw links between the prison, the raids and working conditions on site in our leaflets to workmates.

The only group who shared the historical approach of Italian Marxism of the 1970s and who expressed similar feelings towards the way the left dealt with the phenomena of neo-fascism in general and the attacks in Rostock in particular was Wildcat. To join the collective was important on many levels: only as part of a collective effort can we reconcile the existence as worker and the refusal of careers with the desire for and necessity of intellectual work; only as part of a collective effort can we stop material hardship and shift-work isolation from grinding us down. In this sense the collective was my university and family.

After coming across the concept of workers’ inquiry and hanging out with people who shared this perspective, ‘going to work’ changed drastically for me. I left the construction job in the small local company. I was curious to know what bigger sites looked like and how things were organised in more modern industries. I signed up with an agency and worked on shopping mall construction sites, suspension bridges, in bike and carpet factories, in glass manufacturing plants. Everything became illuminated. Where do my colleagues come from and what do they think? What type of machines are used and why? How do the bosses justify and enforce hierarchies? How do we cooperate with each other and based on this, how can we stir shit up? What is the history of the industry and how it is organised globally? Of course the question of social change was the main driving force behind the curiosity, but even on a solely sociological/scientific level I never got bored of starting new jobs. It’s still my main hobby. The reasons and focus for ‘staying in the working class’ shifted. It was now less of a subjective response to the system’s attempts to get hold of your mind and soul. ‘Working class’ became more of strategic location: let’s be in places where potential mass power and social productivity clashes the hardest with the collective experiences of impoverishment and systemic oppression, either through personal bullying or through their mechanical apparatus.

Another element is perhaps more spiritual. Physical work and having to cooperate under shitty conditions brings the best and worst in people. You meet a lot of arseholes for sure! But you also develop a certain love for people and their fucked-up-ness. It means tons if a tough guy full of toxic masculinity tells you about his worries about his trans-daughter while sitting together in a maintenance dock under an oily freight engine at 5:50am. Or when a face-tattooed welder talks about the15 years he spent in an East German prison after his shift in a hostel room that you share with five others. Of course there is a lot of superficiality in relationships, as well, but it still means something if, as in my current job, 500 sisters and brothers call you ‘brother’ every week. I am sure these things exist in better jobs, too, but I guess the higher you go the more status and ambition gets in the way.

There are a lot of things you learn over time even in un- or semi-skilled jobs – basic construction skills, repairing things, driving weird vehicles, using the right cleaning chemicals etc.. Working in call centres, car factories, on refuse trucks etc. gives you an idea about how real the threat or promise of ‘total automation’ is. It is still easier for men to get into these jobs – or to not feel out of place there. Still, the main thing you can learn is less about the technical know-how, but more about how to cooperate with people you don’t know and you might not even like. To get tuned into what is necessary to do, to react to what others are doing without many words, as the other guys might not even understand what you are saying. When you live with people or work with them in political groups you can often tell if people have learnt how to ‘cooperate’ without many words. Those with working class experience tend to tune in better.

The other thing you learn on the job is how to understand the meaning of what people are saying – and to assess the difference between what people say, think and do. Unlike more professional and self-conscious office or academic environments, in working class jobs, people say outrageous things in particular when it comes to the relation between men and women or racism. People use the wrong language and might have weird or incoherent explanations for stuff. Over time I learnt how best to respond and disagree without shutting things down (or to shut things down if necessary). I would say that having mainly worked in manual jobs also helped me to integrate more with workers in Delhi, where I stayed in workers’ colonies for two years. Of course you’re still a privileged whitey from the north-half of the globe, but knowing what it’s like to sweep streets or stand at assembly lines means that you actually share quite significant experiences, despite differences in conditions. It felt easier to tune in.

Up to this point all this might just be existentialist bullshit and just an individual way to cope under the current system, amongst a million other ways to cope individually. I might as well have gone straight edge. We all just cope, the question is whether our life choices have a collective and strategical sense. The most joyous collective moments I had was with comrades who shared a similar working life, who worked in jobs where they wanted to organise themselves with their co-workers. To come from work, to share experiences and conversations you had with people at work, to plan next steps, to discuss leaflets and newspapers for the workplace. To read some theoretical or empirical stuff relevant to your work and discuss it. To cook meals for comrades on the late-shift. To talk about the risks and potential of bigger actions! That was always the most fun thing to do, even if the outcome was often modest! There is a certain beauty and holistic spirit when your work-life is part of your collective strategy. I never really understood why all revolutionaries wouldn’t want to live that way!

There are of course political differences: a lot of revolutionaries would question whether there are (still) ‘strategic’ or particularly interesting industries and workplaces and whether working there yourself is the best way to interact and intervene. Others question whether there can be something like a revolutionary morality and individual agency at all – are we not all just part of the multitude? Fair enough, that’s a separate debate. One reason why the ‘centrality’ of work is up for debate is the fact that during the period in question – from the early 1990s to the 2000s – the working class was pretty invisible as an acting force. While working in large and often unionised workplaces for nearly three decades, from car factories to railways to refuse collection, I only took part in two token one-day strikes, one consisting of a building workers’ march for social security, the other one was a similarly boring symbolic picket about railway reforms. This is a rather sad balance sheet, but I don’t think it is uncommon, at least not for workers in western Europe and the US. Given this period of defeat and restructuring it is not surprising that ‘joining or remaining within the working class’ was not too attractive an option.

Then there are material and psychological constraints which might prevent us from just taking any odd low paid job. Here things have changed a lot over time. In Germany in 1991 you still got 100% sick-pay and to go on the dole three, four months a year was no problem. In the UK in 2019 things look different. Things are fine if you are young and physically fit, but what about when you get older? Will academic or better paid jobs not give you more time for the political and theoretical struggle? I would say from the early 1990s up to the mid-2010s even with minimum wage jobs I always had enough money to take two months off a year, to travel or to spend more time on other stuff. I felt that comrades who pursued a professional career either as academics, journalists, ‘professional organisers’ actually had less time for political (or other) activities, although they might earn more money – perhaps because there is more fear of leaving a job temporarily or to spend time on things that don’t add to your profile. Because in the end the CV counts. I also felt that I had more ‘intellectual freedom’ to write and research what I wanted outside of academia. Being part of a bigger collective meant that we managed to have access to similar sources as academic researchers had. Perhaps if you are interested in researching stuff that requires spending a lot of time in historical archives or laboratories you will have trouble doing this while being a minimum wage manual worker – these spheres are actually quite exclusive. Otherwise I still think that much of the stuff that we managed to write as a collective or as ‘worker intellectuals’ was actually better than comparable academic texts. If your day-job doesn’t suck your brain dry, but only your muscles, you might have more capacity and urge to write the stuff you want.

Again, individual choice has an impact on groups and the left in general. I remember that even in Wildcat there was a shift at some point in the late 1990s when more people started to get computer-programmer jobs, because they were better paid and allowed a more flexible lifestyle. The collective might have benefitted from that, but the sprit and direction of the meetings changed. When many of the comrades were working in hospitals, factories or construction sites there was more eagerness to make these experiences a central part of discussions and to come to some practical conclusions. This is true for the left in general: the atmosphere today is either pretty individualised (“I work freelance”) or unconsciously competitive (“I just applied for this or that grant/position/funding” – “Oh, me, too”) or instrumentalist (“You are gig-economy workers? Great, I support your struggle (and I’m researching you for my PHD”).). All this cannot be treated merely as betrayal or expressions of corruption – the justified individual desire to be acknowledged as an intellectual or political being has to be addressed.

Did I ever doubt my decision or are there any negative results? I mean the whole thing is no one-way ticket to proletarian hell, it’s not necessarily an irreversible decision for life. Being part of a political movement gave me skills which would still allow me, even without formal qualifications, to sell myself for bigger money to academia, to the unions, to the alternative lefty circus. Ex-militants are the most highly skilled managers. But certain things can’t be undone. Let’s start with the psychological impact. To slave away, get up earlier, lift heavier and come home more knackered than most of your comrades, only to go to the next political meeting where people seem to have all the time in the world tends to make you a bit of a self-righteous bastard. I definitely became too judgemental and subjectivistic: why would I expect anyone to change their life quite fundamentally and go against the grain of wider society during a historical period that gives you little hope that fundamental change is coming anytime soon? Self-righteousness and lack of time doesn’t make you the best friend. There is some physical damage, too, things start to ache. There are some worries materially, old age and all – after three decades of work there is little money, no assets and little to expect in terms of inheritance. I still feel that there will always be comrades to help out, though. In the absence of collectives, working class life tends to encourage couple-hood. You become dependent on your partner materially and emotionally. Things can become pretty conventional, e.g. in terms of who is taking on the main responsibility for child-care and stuff.

Despite having had the privilege to be part of a political collective I think I missed out on the student experience: to be with loads of other young people who were the same age, to start a new phase of life together. Being in a concrete builder apprentice class is definitely less interactive, flirtatious and sociable. And there might have been certain things to learn at university which are more difficult to learn yourself or with your friends. Musical theory, archeology, machine engineering amongst other things. Perhaps my main doubt concerns the wider political organisation. I feel that if there had been a form of organisation which was neither purely syndicalist like the IWW nor a pretty loose collective such as Wildcat, moving from job to job and meeting interested workers could have fed into something more structured. Although opportunities for ‘long-lasting organising’ were pretty rare, I met dozens of workers interested in struggles and debate. To engage them in a wider organisational process and to keep in touch even after the job finished would have been great. But then unfortunately there was and there is still no bigger political organisation that I think would make a productive contribution towards revolutionary change. Still, there is a melancholy desire for a proletarian party in a living and unorthodox sense.

The current UK radical left is pretty middle-class, or rather ‘precariously professional’. This might explain the attraction towards the Labour Party as a seemingly easy way to bridge the gap between intellectuals and ‘the workers’. It would need a separate analysis and article to address the limitations of this type of politics. To re-ground revolutionary politics within the class will need more than organising campaigns, food kitchens in working class areas or tenants unions. It will need two main steps: a collective debate about where tendencies of self-empowerment and unification are already existing within the class – e.g. in concentrations dominated by migrant work – and the decision of organised cores of revolutionaries to practically engage with these tendencies as workers. Part of this debate must be the question of our material, intellectual and spiritual reproduction as workers.

We are currently writing a book about the last six years of working class political experiences in west-London in which we hope to make all this more concrete. Stay tuned!

[1]
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2019/11/26/living-and-dying-on-the-factory-floor-by-dave-ranney/

[2]
https://libcom.org/blog/profession-movement-19052014

[3]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rostock-Lichtenhagen_riots

[4]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weiterstadt_prison_bombing

3 thoughts on “In defence of working class existence as choice

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