The Prince and the Pauper

“The gen­eral lesson learnt by polit­i­cal Eng­land from its expe­ri­ence of pau­perism is none other than that, in the course of his­tory and despite all admin­is­tra­tive mea­sures, pau­perism has devel­oped into a national insti­tu­tion which has inevitably become the object of a highly ram­i­fied and exten­sive admin­is­tra­tive sys­tem, a sys­tem how­ever which no longer sets out to elim­i­nate it, but which strives instead to dis­ci­pline and per­pet­u­ate it.”

— Karl Marx, Crit­i­cal Notes on “The King of Prus­sia and Social Reform. By a Prus­sian”

Every­one on the left has pointed out that the riots in Lon­don are rooted in capital’s assault on the work­ing class, couched in the ide­o­log­i­cal lan­guage of aus­ter­ity – and that this was the kin­dling sparked by the racist police bru­tal­ity that cul­mi­nated in the mur­der of Mark Dug­gan. But our task – like Marx’s task, when he defended the vio­lent upheaval of the Sile­sian weavers – isn’t to give a moral eval­u­a­tion of the riots, like school­mas­ters dili­gently stack­ing the pros against the cons, but, rather, to grasp their speci­fic char­ac­ter.

In 1844 Ger­man linen weavers revolted, smash­ing machi­nes, destroy­ing homes, loot­ing ware­houses, and demand­ing money from local mer­chants. When much of the left, includ­ing his erst­while com­rade Arnold Ruge, dis­missed the upris­ing as lit­tle more than a con­fused dis­tur­bance with no real polit­i­cal con­tent, Marx sought to find its deeper sig­nif­i­cance, by relat­ing the par­tic­u­lar­ity of this event to the broader strug­gles of his con­junc­ture.

Today, with Eng­land in flames, we iden­tify two rep­re­sen­ta­tive responses. The first recalls the enthu­si­asm of the Sex Pis­tols for “Anar­chy in the UK”: Mal­colm Har­ris cel­e­brates “grass­roots Key­ne­sians, increas­ing aggre­gate demand one bro­ken win­dow at a time.” This is a tra­di­tion inau­gu­rated by Guy Debord, who wrote of the 1965 Watts Riots that loot­ing “instantly under­mi­nes the com­mod­ity as such.” At the other extreme is the motto from “God Save the Queen,” which sees “no future” for the left. Owen Jones writes on a Labour Party-themed web­site that the riots are a “cat­a­stro­phe,” trau­ma­tiz­ing and ter­ror­iz­ing mid­dle-of-the-road Lon­don­ers. He warns that the inevitable con­se­quence is a right-wing back­lash: the mid­dle class will turn against the poor, fur­nish­ing a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for state repres­sion.

While these extreme per­spec­tives might make for good music, they leave some­thing to be desired as polit­i­cal analy­sis. We hope we’re not alone in rec­og­niz­ing that more is needed today than spon­ta­neous indi­vid­ual rebel­lions against the com­mod­ity form. But we also reject the defeatist fatal­ism that takes capital’s view­point and fails to work to build spon­ta­neous rebel­lion into orga­nized resis­tance.

Obscured by the focus on com­mod­ity fetishism or mid­dle-class ide­ol­ogy are the ana­lyt­i­cal and strate­gic prob­lems. The first of these is the ques­tion of class com­po­si­tion. Where are these riot­ers sit­u­ated in the mode of pro­duc­tion, and what speci­fic form of activ­ity cor­re­sponds? The sec­ond is the ques­tion of the objec­tive con­di­tions for rev­o­lu­tion. Is the cur­rent his­tor­i­cal stage one that per­mits the per­for­mance of insur­rec­tion?

Refuse of All Classes

Politi­cians and jour­nal­ists tell us that the only peo­ple riot­ing are crim­i­nals. But we all know that few par­tic­i­pants can be clas­si­fied as pro­fes­sional crim­i­nals – in fact, it’s been con­firmed that most of those arrested have no pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions of any kind. All this talk of crim­i­nal­ity com­pels us to take another look at the his­tory of that alleged class of crim­i­nals, to see where it stands in the changed con­di­tions of the present.

The class which engages in crime and vio­lence, accord­ing to the clas­si­cal Marx­ist analy­sis, is not the pro­le­tariat. Paul Hirst has skew­ered the “rad­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists” who inter­pret crim­i­nal deviance as the revolt of the alien­ated indi­vid­ual, ignor­ing com­pletely the rela­tion­ship of this activ­ity to the mode of pro­duc­tion. Crime is the pro­fes­sion of thelumpen­pro­le­tariat.

Though the con­cept of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat is intro­duced in The Ger­man Ide­ol­ogy, it’s Marx’s analy­sis of the rev­o­lu­tions of 1848 in The Eigh­teenth Bru­maire of Louis Bona­parte that presents an assess­ment of the polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the class. For Marx, the lumpen­pro­le­tariat, a dif­fuse col­lec­tion of pick­pock­ets and pimps, has no essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic; it’s the “scum, offal and refuse of all classes,” which is only con­sti­tuted as a class by the state – pulled together by the right-wing coup of Bona­parte as the pop­u­lar basis for his rule.

But the strange thing about 1848 was the alliances between dif­fer­ing class forces; though the pro­le­tariat entered into an alliance with the bour­geoisie in Feb­ru­ary, it became clear by June that pro­le­tar­ian demands couldn’t be met by the mod­er­ate bour­geois dic­ta­tor­ship. The insur­rec­tion of June rep­re­sented the auton­omy of the pro­le­tariat from lib­eral reformism, and it was at this point that the extreme right, Bona­parte as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the “finance aris­toc­racy,” was forced to take advan­tage of the het­ero­ge­neous com­po­si­tion of the lumpen and the peas­ants to sup­press pro­le­tar­ian auton­omy. It was this mot­ley col­lec­tion of classes he turned to for sup­port in his Decem­ber coup.

In fact, Marx’s entire descrip­tion of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat was a polit­i­cal ges­ture; before June 1848, as Peter Stally­brass has pointed out in a fas­ci­nat­ing ety­mo­log­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion, the term “pro­le­tariat” itself “was not the work­ing class: it was the poor, the rag­pick­ers, the nomads.” In 1838 the con­ser­v­a­tive French writer AG de Cas­sagnac defined the pro­le­tariat as a col­lec­tion of work­ers, beg­gars, thieves, and pros­ti­tutes. It was Marx’s inno­va­tion to rede­fine the pro­le­tariat as the enabling con­di­tion of bour­geois soci­ety – the only class capa­ble of pro­duc­ing value, and by virtue of this unique prop­erty the only class whose polit­i­cal power could destroy cap­i­tal­ism. The lumpen­pro­le­tariat was the excess gen­er­ated in the process of artic­u­lat­ing a new class.

The role of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat in 1848 demon­strates two things: first, that classes are con­sti­tuted by polit­i­cal processes, and sec­ond, that classes enter into con­tra­dic­tory alliances. In fact, the first rev­o­lu­tion in this wave, in Palermo, only kicked into gear when the squadre, a kind of embry­onic mafia, invaded the streets to join in the fight, trig­ger­ing a rev­o­lu­tion that ulti­mately forced the Neapoli­tan King Fer­di­nand II to promise national inde­pen­dence, reforms, and a con­sti­tu­tion. In Naples, where the dis­tur­bances spread next, it was the sur­pris­ing, though weighty, pres­ence of the laz­za­roni, the lumpen slum masses of the city, that tipped the bal­ance in favor of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, forc­ing the king to con­cede once again. The unex­pected par­tic­i­pa­tion of these two totally dis­tinct groups of lumpen­pro­le­tar­i­ans sent the rev­o­lu­tion scur­ry­ing up the Ital­ian boot.

Where are we now? Well, work­ing-class insur­gency in the fac­tory and the city forced cap­i­tal to inno­vate its pro­duc­tion process and invent new forms of social con­trol, like Haus­m­an­niza­tion. This ten­dency con­tin­ued and shaped the 20th cen­tury; the post-war Key­ne­sian order per­mit­ted work­ers’ autonomous devel­op­ment as the motor of inno­va­tion, and incor­po­rated pro­le­tar­ian polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion in the form of social wel­fare and bureau­cra­tized unions to avoid the threat of orga­nized rev­o­lu­tion. We’re not con­demn­ing this as some kind of sell-out, but instead argu­ing that the polit­i­cal power of work­ers’ strug­gle was so strong that cap­i­tal had to align its demands with labor. In fact, as Ser­gio Bologna has pointed out, this kind of align­ment can be the foun­da­tion of new rev­o­lu­tion­ary forms. In Ger­many, the skilled and spe­cial­ized machine and tool work­ers who sup­pos­edly stood to ben­e­fit from cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, “inex­tri­ca­bly linked to the tech­nol­ogy of the labour process, with a strong sense of pro­fes­sional val­ues and nat­u­rally inclined to place a high value on their func­tion as ‘pro­duc­ers,’” were the ones who dis­cov­ered the “con­cept of work­ers’ self-man­age­ment” – which they real­ized in the “polit­i­cal-organ­i­sa­tional project” of work­ers’ coun­cils.

In other words, labor was able to “co-opt” cap­i­tal­ist reformism. Though this allowed, for a cer­tain period, the smooth func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal – as in the New Deal that lib­er­als wish we could return to – it also con­tained the risk of allow­ing work­ers’ power to develop to the point of insur­rec­tion. Feb­ru­ary warms into June, but the threat of Decem­ber is not far away.

As Ger­ard Duménil and Dominique Lévy have argued, neolib­er­al­ism is a rul­ing-class assault on labor, an alliance between the man­age­rial classes and cap­i­tal­ists led by finance. This assault suc­ceeded in increas­ing the rate of exploita­tion, by destroy­ing the wel­fare state and the unity of labor. By now the clas­si­cal Fordist move­ment towards a skilled, edu­cated, and afflu­ent work­ing class has been replaced with a move­ment towards sys­tem­atic unem­ploy­ment, pre­car­i­ous work, ser­vice labor, and global slums.

The entire com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class has changed, and effec­tive alliances between dif­fer­ent class posi­tions will have to be deter­mined. First of all, it makes lit­tle sense to speak of a clas­si­cal lumpen­pro­le­tariat in this new con­text. With the con­tin­ual growth of a sur­plus work­force con­fined to the slums, alongside rapid changes in the qual­i­ties of labour-power, we’re deal­ing with a mas­sive social stra­tum whose mem­bers play the lumpen crim­i­nal one day and the waged pro­le­tar­ian the next. The tra­di­tional bor­ders are so blurred – with some employed work­ers sup­ple­ment­ing their income by engag­ing in tra­di­tional lumpen activ­i­ties like sell­ing bootleg videos, while some lumpens are pick­ing up casual jobs to sup­ple­ment their rev­enue from knock-off hand­bags – that the clas­si­cal lumpen­pro­le­tariat is becom­ing more and more indis­tin­guish­able from the pro­le­tariat. If any­thing, what was once the lumpen­pro­le­tariat has now become another con­sti­tu­tive pole within the much broader com­po­si­tion of the pro­le­tariat itself. You might even go so far as to say that nowa­days there is a lit­tle of the lumpen in every prole.

This is why we don’t say “farewell to the work­ing class.” On the con­trary. These shift­ing class posi­tions are cen­tral to the mode of pro­duc­tion – they play a fun­da­men­tal role in gen­er­at­ing and trans­mit­ting infor­ma­tion, and in repro­duc­ing the social and cul­tural inputs of the pro­duc­tion process. Alongside those of us who remain in man­u­fac­tur­ing, these var­ied class posi­tions con­sti­tute a new work­ing class.

The Eng­lish riot­ers are not just crim­i­nals; many are stu­dents, some are pre­car­i­ous work­ers, oth­ers are salaried pro­fes­sion­als. They have a highly het­ero­ge­neous com­po­si­tion– a strange bridg­ing of pro­fes­sions, skill lev­els, races, ages, and gen­ders. They are black and white, eleven year-old boys and fifty year-old women, stu­dents at elite uni­ver­si­ties and high school dropouts, the chil­dren of pau­pers and a daugh­ter of a mil­lion­aire, the unem­ployed and skilled work­ers, immi­grants who just arrived and Eng­lish­men who have been there for gen­er­a­tions. There are life­guards, teach­ing assis­tants, graphic design­ers, den­tal assis­tants, and fork­lift dri­vers. Such an inter­sec­tion of class sec­tors is a new devel­op­ment in the strug­gle. In Sile­sia, every­one who revolted was united by the fact that they all had the same job, were exploited in the exact same way, and worked in the same place. In Watts it was race that tied every­one together. But in Eng­land, it’s not occu­pa­tional unity, nor race, nor even a shared place, since the riots spread like wild­fire from neigh­bor­hood to neigh­bor­hood, city to city. The tra­di­tional lines that divided peo­ple in the past – such as race, pro­fes­sion, skill level, place, cul­ture – have already been super­seded here.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s a uni­tary response. Small shop own­ers have had their prop­erty destroyed, res­i­dents have been intim­i­dated. Not only are these con­demnable acts, they indi­cate a gen­uine obsta­cle to unity and orga­ni­za­tion. But these prob­lems coex­ist with an expres­sion, how­ever inco­her­ent, of a power that threat­ens the social order. It’s not impos­si­ble that as in Palermo, such apo­lit­i­cal and crim­i­nal acts enable pro­le­tar­ian com­mu­nity.

More than any­thing else, the riots sig­nify refusal. There is a refusal to accept the non-com­mu­nity the res­i­dents of the slums of Lon­don have been coaxed into accept­ing, the refusal to sub­mit to daily searches, the refusal to shut up and stay out of sight, a refusal to con­tinue pre­tend­ing as if they actu­ally own things, but most of all, a refusal to accept the iden­tity that has been forced upon them. If these strug­gles fail to list con­crete demands, as in Spain, Greece, Cal­i­for­nia, and now in Lon­don, it’s not only a symp­tom of spon­tane­ity but also an indi­ca­tion that peo­ple have stopped think­ing that cap­i­tal can some­how improve their con­di­tion. They know that in this day and age, in this con­junc­ture, to put forth demands is to aban­don their auton­omy by forc­ing them to speak the same lan­guage as cap­i­tal. A refusal to act as a trad­ing part­ner with cap­i­tal, a latent intran­si­gence: these peo­ple no longer think cap­i­tal has any future left to give them.

Lenin in Eng­land

So it’s clear that the cat­e­go­riza­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of classes in the mode of pro­duc­tion is chang­ing, and it’s clear that the polit­i­cal alliances of classes have changed. But do the objec­tive his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions allow for a suc­cess­ful alliance between the dif­fuse pop­u­lar classes?

We are all famil­iar with an old idea on the left: once the foot of the cap­i­tal­ist has stuck itself most painfully into the work­ers’ neck, the worker will revolt. This “immis­er­a­tion the­sis” has been revived today. But the suc­cess of capital’s cam­paign to increase and entrench extreme inequal­ity has led some to a more pes­simistic view: that cap­i­tal has suc­ceeded, has resolved its con­tra­dic­tions. It’s lit­er­ally too big to fail.

Our his­tory makes both of these views dif­fi­cult to main­tain. Peri­ods of pros­per­ity which per­mit work­ing-class devel­op­ment have often led to mil­i­tant strug­gle, but pros­per­ity can also coex­ist with retreat. In fact, the entire premise of “objec­tive con­di­tions” for rev­o­lu­tion seems to have dropped into the ash-heap of his­tory. Cap­i­tal has turned many of its con­tra­dic­tions into imper­a­tives for recom­po­si­tion and restruc­tur­ing.

The famous exam­ple of such devel­op­ment, impe­ri­al­ism, will have to be recon­sid­ered. There is no place in the global order for the old nar­ra­tive of a “com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment” which will be dis­rupted by “bour­geois-demo­c­ra­tic rev­o­lu­tions” car­ried out by indus­trial work­ers. The “Third World” is, in fact, specif­i­cally and delib­er­ately devel­oped by cap­i­tal, which retains the left­over social forms of feu­dal­ism and uti­lizes them to facil­i­tate global cir­cuits of pro­duc­tion. The slum-dwellers of the world are not being devel­oped into indus­trial pro­le­tar­i­ans. Instead, they are dis­placed with gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and inte­grated into economies that rely simul­ta­ne­ously on dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing and sweat­shops.

This is why we prefer to speak, along with Louis Althusser, of rev­o­lu­tions that emerge from encoun­ters– just as cap­i­tal­ism emerged from the encoun­ter between the “own­ers of money” and the dis­pos­sessed peas­ants who had noth­ing to sell but their labor-power. The encoun­ter that pro­duced cap­i­tal­ism was able to “take hold”; it estab­lished social phe­nom­ena like the state that allowed it to repro­duce itself. The Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sented the encoun­ter between a peas­antry pushed to the brink, a ris­ing bour­geoisie attempt­ing to break free of Tsarist restric­tions, and a pro­le­tariat con­fronted with the col­lapse of the social order.

What­ever the char­ac­ter of the par­tic­u­lar revolts, such encoun­ters are tak­ing place through­out the world. In Egypt, France, and the anti-cuts move­ment in Eng­land, these encoun­ters were rep­re­sented as specif­i­cally polit­i­cal. In all cases the mid­dle class was protest­ing against attempts by the gov­ern­ments to revoke priv­i­leges granted by pre­vi­ous strug­gles. How­ever, the cur­rent riots, like the ones in the ban­lieues of Paris, recall Watts and LA. They have no polit­i­cal agenda and are ori­ented towards unfo­cused destruc­tion.

But these upris­ings reflect the knowl­edge that there is no iden­tity between the demands of the pro­le­tariat and the demands of cap­i­tal, as though cap­i­tal could offer them a bet­ter alter­na­tive if only they com­pro­mised and went home. We can mea­sure such social phe­nom­ena by their rela­tion to the devel­op­ment of the class, not as stages in the fixed process of His­tory. The cap­i­tal rela­tion will con­tinue to exist until the pro­le­tariat forces its non-repro­duc­tion. It might do this when cap­i­tal itself is quite strong, it might do this when cap­i­tal is start­ing to suf­fer under its own strain. At this point, a rup­ture with cap­i­tal and with mid­dle-class val­ues is a begin­ning step in the autonomous devel­op­ment of the work­ing class, which will have to leave His­tory behind.

The ultra­left ten­dency will call for us to cel­e­brate every excess, every error, to watch as these strug­gles sim­ply explode on their own. But the chal­lenge is to find a way for these encoun­ters to take hold, which is by no means organ­i­cally con­tained in any ele­ment.

For Althusser, the case of Rus­sia also demon­strated that the tasks set out by his­tory are accom­pa­nied by a void – the absence of a sub­ject that can auto­mat­i­cally carry them out. It was this kind of sub­ject that Machi­avelli tried to inter­pel­late when he pub­lished The Prince, aware that the peo­ple of Italy were suf­fer­ing from frag­men­ta­tion in city-states but lacked an agent to accom­plish national uni­fi­ca­tion. For the Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion­ary encoun­ter to take place, it was nec­es­sary to align the urban pro­le­tariat with the peas­antry to pro­duce a polit­i­cal sub­ject. The exis­tence of an orga­nized body that took on the task of “build­ing the party” in times of retreat enabled this encoun­ter.

Before you shake your head and dis­miss this as left­over van­guardism, recall the words of the work­erist Mario Tronti in his reflec­tion on “Lenin in Eng­land,” in which he calls for “a new Marx­ist prac­tice of the work­ing class party.” Tronti empha­sizes the neces­sity of “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary growth not only of the class, but also of class organ­i­sa­tion,” and warns that “if this ele­ment is absent, the whole process works to the advan­tage of cap­i­tal, as a tac­ti­cal moment of a one-sided sta­bil­i­sa­tion of the sys­tem, seem­ingly inte­grat­ing the work­ing class within the sys­tem.” The dan­ger, after all, is that the dialec­tic of His­tory will reassert itself. An encoun­ter will also have to reckon with the ele­ments of the old regime – which may have a stronger capac­ity for repro­duc­tion, as Althusser sur­mised of Rus­sia.

This sim­ple jux­ta­po­si­tion, Lenin in Eng­land, is now the fig­ure which rep­re­sents today’s polit­i­cal dilemma. On the one hand, work­ing-class activ­ity has not yet artic­u­lated an orga­ni­za­tional form that cor­re­sponds to its devel­op­ment. On the other, the par­ties which claim the legacy of Lenin cling to a struc­ture and prac­tice that totally ignores the trans­for­ma­tions in the com­po­si­tion of the class. Nei­ther the sec­tar­ian ide­o­logues to the left, nor the com­pro­mis­ing par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to the right; the work­ing class will have to walk for­ward towards a new form.

New Weapons

In Empire, Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri wrote that the spon­ta­neous strug­gles of today “have become all but incom­mu­ni­ca­ble” (72); they emerge with­out com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other, and with­out uni­fy­ing their objec­tives. But it’s clear that today’s strug­gles are highly com­mu­ni­ca­ble, in a dou­ble sense.

First, they rapidly cir­cu­late from one place to another, from one neigh­bor­hood to another, one city to another, even one coun­try to another. It’s almost as though the mere news of an erup­tion is enough to ignite another some­where else, in spite of dis­sim­i­lar his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. This hap­pened on a large scale in the Mid­dle East, and now on a smaller, though more intense and con­densed scale in Eng­land. But what’s more, if we recall the sol­i­dar­ity between Egypt and Wis­con­sin, there are direct con­nec­tions between these strug­gles, as though they were all talk­ing to each other.

Sec­ond, and this is clear in Eng­land, these strug­gles are mate­ri­ally grounded in com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Cell phones, the inter­net, pho­tos, and media have all been used to track police move­ments, sig­nal tac­tics, and spread infor­ma­tion. It’s no sur­prise that the main tar­gets of the loot­ings are more com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment. Of course, this isn’t the first time com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies has been cre­atively turned against cap­i­tal. In Italy in the 1970s, pirate radio sta­tions like Radio Alice in Bologna or Onda Rossa in Rome were an advanced model of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, link­ing indi­vid­ual callers, dis­sem­i­nat­ing news, and coun­ter­ing state pro­pa­ganda. But today there is no cen­tral­ized point of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, just dis­persed net­works that are far more dif­fi­cult to track. Infor­ma­tion moves faster, devices are mobile, and the media have expanded. The Ital­ian com­mu­nists toyed with video, but ulti­mately rejected it since they found tele­vi­sion to be too sta­tic and pas­sive, as Bifo argued; video, how­ever, is no longer monop­o­lized by tele­vi­sion.

But the use of cap­i­tal­ist com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy against cap­i­tal goes well beyond sim­ple tac­ti­cal needs. First, such prac­tices are a way of cre­at­ing a new col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence. Just as in Italy, they have been used to con­struct a com­mu­nity of resis­tance directly opposed to the one imposed upon them by cap­i­tal. Sec­ond, it’s no coin­ci­dence that the riot­ers have cho­sen to appro­pri­ate, and cre­atively rework, the prod­ucts of an indus­try that now leads cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment in much of the world. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions has not only become one of the most pro­duc­tive indus­tries, it has also come to play a fun­da­men­tal role in the repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself. With the restruc­tur­ing of the 1970s, which saw wide­spread flex­i­bi­liza­tion, decen­tral­iza­tion, and ter­ri­to­rial dis­ar­tic­u­la­tion of pro­duc­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion came to promi­nence as the pri­mary means by which increas­ingly dis­sem­i­nated points of pro­duc­tion could be recon­nected, the fac­tory linked to soci­ety, and pro­duc­tion to repro­duc­tion. As the hege­monic pole of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions indus­try has become the very reg­u­la­tor of the cap­i­tal rela­tion.

What’s cru­cial to rec­og­nize today is that this appro­pri­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy in the streets of Eng­lish cities is tak­ing place at the very same time as a major strike at Ver­i­zon, waged by the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­ica (CWA) and the Inter­na­tional Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW). While the Democ­rats are wag­ing war on “lux­ury plans” like med­ical care and the cor­po­ra­tion makes $19 bil­lion in prof­its, the Ver­i­zon work­ers are chas­ing scabs through fields and turn­ing away cus­tomers.

This is an encoun­ter of two dis­tinct forms of strug­gle, united, despite their dif­fer­ences, by their com­mon assault on the same com­mu­ni­ca­tions indus­try. Insur­gents today will have to dis­cover the means to make this encoun­ter hold. They will have to look for cre­ative ways to bring together clas­si­cal forms of labor strug­gle like the strike with these new prac­tices that draw on the power of vary­ing class posi­tions like the unem­ployed. One poten­tial way of bind­ing such dis­parate strug­gles has already been sug­gested by the lab­o­ra­tory of polit­i­cal forms that was the Ital­ian expe­ri­ence of the 1970s. Auto-reduc­tion is the col­lec­tive refusal to accept price increases: faced with grow­ing unem­ploy­ment and a soar­ing cost of liv­ing, ten­ants refused to pay exor­bi­tant increases in their rents, “house­wives” and domes­tic labor­ers argued that the value pro­duced by their unpaid labor freed them from the oblig­a­tion to pay their elec­tric­ity bills, and com­mut­ing work­ers decided to ignore the uni­lat­eral increase in their bus fares and sim­ply paid the old amount. It was, of course, in this last sec­tor, trans­porta­tion, that the move­ment gained sig­nif­i­cant ground. This was almost cer­tainly because of the increas­ingly impor­tant role the trans­porta­tion indus­try was start­ing to play in Ital­ian cap­i­tal­ism. As Ser­gio BolognaBruno Ramirez, and oth­ers have noted, trans­porta­tion not only con­nected increas­ingly sep­a­rated points of pro­duc­tion, it soon served as the essen­tial link-up between the fac­tory and the neigh­bor­hood, pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion. It’s no sur­prise that it became a highly con­tested site of strug­gle, unit­ing com­mut­ing work­ers, whole neigh­bor­hoods, and the trans­port work­ers them­selves.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions is a key pole of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment today in the same way that trans­porta­tion was when the auto-reduc­tions were first tak­ing place. Both the Ital­ian strug­gles of yes­ter­day and the ones begin­ning to develop today show the pro­le­tariat force­fully turn­ing these key poles of the cap­i­tal rela­tion against cap­i­tal itself. We’re auda­cious enough to imag­ine a mass move­ment which shows its sol­i­dar­ity with strik­ing work­ers by refus­ing to pay its tele­phone bills, while con­tin­u­ing to use the com­mu­ni­ca­tions struc­ture it has built with its infor­ma­tion and imag­i­na­tion. The pos­si­bil­ity of dis­rup­tion is in the Amer­i­can mem­ory; one of us spoke to a Ver­i­zon worker on the picket line who grew up in West Vir­ginia, and still remem­bers the wild­cat strikes that turned the mines upside down. We may be see­ing a new global cycle of strug­gle form­ing.

There is another Sex Pis­tols lyric, in “Hol­i­days in the Sun,” which cap­tures the lesson of the upris­ings today: “I was wait­ing for the com­mu­nist call.” We have no short­age of oppor­tu­ni­ties to make the call.

First pub­lished at

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.

is an editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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