You're suddenly PINK?!?!
Photo from xinhua.net
Precarity and You
Precarity. Isn't that one of those French post-destructionalist things? I know, that's what I thought to myself when I first heard the term.
Precarity as a social critique and guide to activism and organizing developed in the interaction between European anti-globalization activists and the young workers that were their primary base constituency. The term has come into particularly common use in Italy and Spain, where it is now part of everyday political language. There indeed was a French context that gave precarity a major boost of public attention and debate as well; not a university colloquium, however, but the explosion of the banlieus in rioting.
Glass Sculpture by Silvia Levenson
Precarity takes many shapes, but they all cut one way. The concept of precarity first emerged politically from observation of the changing organization of work life under the sort of global neoliberal economic hegemony that has been realized in the past quarter century. Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter in Variantmag sketch out a bit of that background and hint at the potential dimension of the concept:
With the transformation of labour practices in advanced capitalist systems under the impact of globalisation and information technologies, there has arisen a proliferation of terms to describe the commonly experienced yet largely undocumented transformations within working life. ... Within the ambit of social movements and autonomous political groups, these new forms of labour organisation have been given the name precarity ... The term refers to all possible shapes of unsure, not guaranteed, flexible exploitation: from illegalised, seasonal and temporary employment to homework, flex- and temp-work to subcontractors, freelancers or so-called self-employed persons. But its reference also extends beyond the world of work to encompass other aspects of intersubjective life, including housing, debt, and the ability to build affective social relations.
While the idea may be European in origin, it is global in significance. A very early American commenter on the analysis and the related movement said of precarity's American applicability:
It seems to me that the Europeans are way ahead of Americans in addressing the newest challenges in the class struggle (but, then, what else is new?)... There seems to be a strong consciousness in Europe about the increasing precarity in labor, that is, the increase in workers’ dependence on work that is contingent/ temporary/"flexible" and/or increasingly insecure in other ways (e.g., there are major issues surrounding the increased necessity for migration). These, of course, are problems and challenges that are just as acute in the U.S.A. – in fact, possibly even more so, for a variety of reasons, such as the fact that, unlike in the advanced-capitalist European countries, when workers here become temps, they very often lose affordable access to healthcare.
Richard S of Commie Curmudgeon
Precarity and Hegemony
Let's take a step back for a second and consider for a moment how new economic classes, new social structures are formed. It is generally agreed that there are basically two elements to the formation of a new economic class. The first, objective condition is new developments in the nature of the workforce, in the relations and conditions of the process of production.
Glass Sculpture by Silvia Levenson
Unlike its predecessors of ancient despotism and feudalism which tend to stagnate, lasting unchanged in their social structures for eons, capitalism is dynamic, a constant swirl of creation and destruction. This is true of the technologies it creates, and leaves behind; the great industrial facilities, and communities, capitalism brings into being, and later abandons. So too it is with the social classes of capitalism, rising and falling. In the early years of capitalism, it created a vast class of small traders and producers, craftspeople, artisans and small holders, the so-called petit bourgeoisie. With the industrial revolution the dominant place in production of the petit bourgeois was usurped by the industrial proletariat, a vast class of people with nothing to sell but their labor power, organized and disciplined by the time clock and organized production of huge industrial enterprises. While earlier classes rarely entirely disappear, their roles become secondary or ancillary to the main engines of capitalism's dynamic process. So the proletariat eclipsed the petit bourgeoisie as producers and wealth creators, and now the precariat threatens to do the same to the proletarians.
Now we have entered a new phase, moving away from the huge fixed capital plants of the industrial era, to a more diffused and dispersed form of capitalism, less capital frozen in huge fixed assets, more fluid and constantly changing and in motion. This sort of capitalism requires a very different work force, one that comes into being as highly flexible, highly mobile, and in the process of production is subject to very different conditions than the industrial working class. For the industrial working class, it was the nature of work to be fixed and set for the indefinite future, for a lifetime. It is this contemporary form of capitalism with its centrifugal momentum that is the driving force in pushing the workforce into these increasingly dominant forms of precarity described above.
In the contemporary system of a globalized neoliberal hegemony, this dispersed, fluid, decentralized capitalism spreads this precarity everywhere readily. More people more stressed, more exposed, more precarious on more fronts every day. Are you one of them--one of us? This kind of unsettled, casualized and informalized work life, this "flexploitation" isn't limited to any age or race or gender demographic, although those factors decisively shape and define specific precarities. The first condition for the creation of a new class seems quite clearly to have been met. While the traditional centralized industrial proletariat continues to exist, it plays an increasingly lesser role in the overall forces of production, while the role of the contingent, precarious worker continues to increase.
The second element in class formation is subjective and political, the self recognition and class consciousness of those who are members of that class. It is perfectly possible for the first condition, the objective economic reality, of a class to exist, without this second aspect having been attained. Given that this class has been steadily growing from marginal numbers of generally young workers to a mainstream economic phenomenon, since the 70s or 80s, to this date such unawareness of itself has been the history of this class. It is only in the past couple of years, that due to the work of theorists such as Milan activist Alex Foti, there has begun to be recognition and self-awareness of this class of precarious workers as something new and separate from the traditional industrial proletariat.
It should come as no surprise that a class created by the diffusion and dispersal of capital takes longer to become self-conscious than the classes formed under industrial capitalism. As Karl Marx observed in the era of the formation of the industrial proletariat, the conditions of centralized fixed industrial capitalism socialized the proletariat, unified them in the process of production, made their character as members of a single class conspicuously obvious to industrial workers in their daily work lives. Because the essence of precarity is flexibility and mobility, because precarious workers are in general dispersed rather than brought together, becasue the forms and places of production separate rather than unify, the emergence of precarious workers conscious of themselves as a unitary class has been slowed. Nonetheless, this class consciousness has begun to emerge, as reflected in the 2005 Call of the EuroMayDay network:
Precarity is the most widespread condition of labour and life in Europe today. It affects everyone, everyday, in every part of life: whether chosen or imposed, precarity is a generalised condition experienced by the majority of people.
Precarious people are now the corner-stone of the wealth production process.
Notwithstanding this, we are invisible and count for nothing in the traditional forms of social and political representation or in the European agenda.
As precarious of Europe -- flex, temp and contortionist workers, migrants, students, researchers, unmotivated wage slaves, pissed off and happy part-timers, insecure temps, willingly or unwillingly unemployed -- we are acting so as to grasp the moment/our time and struggle for new collective rights and our individual and collective possibility to choose our future.
Second only to the dawning self-awareness and class consciousness in that call is the passage concerned with invisibility of the class of precarious workers: "Notwithstanding this, we are invisible and count for nothing in the traditional forms of social and political representation or in the European agenda." It is recognizing, organizing and acting to change this, as a matter of self-aware class consciousness, that fulfills the second element of class formation. The process is still in its infancy, but has begun. The first step is to find ways to deal with that invisibility, to make the precariat visible to its members as a class, with its own interests, its own challenges, and most significantly, its own forms of unity and means of self-expression and self-defense.
Pink Politics and MayDay
In an interview with Attitude Adjustor, Alex Foti discusses the emergence of this "precariat" as a self-conscious class and its general political and economic objectives:
It's not yet an identity but it's in the process of becoming at least a social subject aware of its potential, if an organization finally emerges addressing precarity from a generational angle (the European precariat is mostly a conflation of generation and class). Let's talk about part-time workers. Usually these workers have no control on their work time (they're supposed to do say 20 hours per week, but have to work 40 with no notice if managers require them to do so), and are paid per hour less than correspondent full-time workers. So clearly there are structural elements of precarity in part-time work. Also, since you work part-time you earn a partial income, and so the likelihood of moonlighting increases sharply. But there's no doubt that while involuntary part-time is the norm, there's a number of people that find flexible work schedules a plus for their individual freedom. In fact, we don't want to abolish flexibility even if we could. We want to impose social regulation on it through labor conflict, social agitation, media hacktivism. Most especially (and this is where we disagree with commie parties and unions) we want to fight for a new European welfare system (call it "commonfare") that provides the young, women, immigrants with basic income and universal access to health care, paid maternity leave and paid vacations, cheap housing and education, free, ubiquitous broadband and peer-managed culture. If such a new welfare system were to be built, then people could actually choose the level of flexibility they're comfortable with.
In the formation of the political expression of a class, that class will tend to reflect its form as it exists in the relations of production. Thus as industrialism organized the proletariat into a large, centralized, top-down controlled work force, so the proletariat in its turn created unions, parties and other institutions that were in their turn also large, centralized and usually top-down in nature. Given the conditions in which the precariat emerges it should be expected that the precariat will express itself politically in a manner that is flexible, dispersed, autonomous and networked.
Here's Foti from his seminal essay Demoradical vs Demoliberal on the organizational forms and tasks of the precarious working class:
In three words, it should be green, wobbly, pink, in order to be effective. It should lay out a cogent ecological program to reform society, a creative wobbly strategy to organize and unionize the weak and the excluded, a pink emphasis on non-violent action and gender equality, so to project a queer outlook on the world. It would have to speak to the young, women, immigrants. It would have to address the grievances of the service class, and put to good use the networking talents of the creative class. It would be transnationalist in orientation and multiethnic in composition, for a truly mongrel and mulatto Europe. It would be defiant with (but tolerant of) all forms of organized religion. It would be an obvious antagonist of the securitarian state favored by bushist tendencies. And it would challenge and confront without timidity, but also with cold-mindedness, either fascist, nationalist, xenophobic forces that are resurfacing in many corners of Europe.
The mayday network has to found a wobbly-like european organization federating all the exploited, recruiting from all gender/ethnic groups and organizing all net/temp/flex workers in one big SYNDICATE OF PRECARIOUS EUROPE. It would be a card-carrying organization with its own funds and subsidized agitators, but a very flat structure, with regional nodes and cross-national hubs. It would have an explicitly formalized internal democracy, which would appoint (and remove) people in executive functions. Yes, members would have to vote on important issues and strategic decisions, with regular online and face2face consultations. I believe global movements won't progress until they adopt the democratic criteria of public discussion and majority voting. If you say liberal democracy is a fraud, you have to show a radical democracy can actually function. The first transeuropean syndicate would be open to all jobs ranging from cleaners and programmers, to documented and undocumented people, to the flexibly employed and the permanently unemployed, to anybody believing that the best form of social solidarity is supporting labor conflict and opposing the interests of employers and the investing class. It would be unashamedly syndicalist and anticapitalist in its orientation, by supporting and organizing pickets, blockades, and wildcat strikes. The recent huge social rebellions in France and Denmark against precarity and workfare should remind the mayday network that the time to establish a networked organization is now.
On the party front, the issue of producing a recognizable radical political identity embodying a sense of historical urgency is a lot more complex and still immature at the moment. But it cannot wait any longer being discussed. As far as I am concerned, I see the need for reaping a distinctive political fruit out of the Seattle-Genova tree. My reasoning is this. If the radical left of 1968 and hippyism gave rise to modern political environmentalism, then the 1999-2003 ebullience should similarly produce a brand-new political label in the longer term. Greens were born out the turmoil of the 60s and 70s. And what new political constellation will soon appear on the sky, following the travails of the early XXI century? The PINK CONSPIRACY. In a larger context, women's emancipation and the end of the patriarchal family with its unequal gender roles, feminist movements, gay mobilizations, queer politics, full civil rights for GLBTs, the assertion of reproductive rights against papist reaction, and equality of access to political representation for women represent an epochal earthquake for western politics. In a movement context, the pink carnival of rebellion was the major innovative form of political expression emerging from the Prague-Goteborg-Genoa cauldron, next to, but separate from, the white overalls and black blocs, the two other distinctive youth expressions of the anti-globalization movement. Pink collars are the present of social work and pink movements are the future of social progress. Let's do a pink alliance of heretic dissenters in Europe! Who knows? It could be the answer to the generalized disaffection with existing political parties and the institutional representation they're supposed to carry out. In Copenhagen's municipal elections, a pink list got a percentage of votes in the two digits. As early political test, it sure is promising. Barroso and Trichet are in bad need of a pink slip: they must be fired and their policies overhauled in the face of widespread social opposition and unrest.
To date, the preeminent organizational expression of this new politics, which since Foti wrote "Demoradical vs. Demoliberal" has taken on "Pink" as its identity as much as "Reds" and "Greens" have adopted colors in the past, has been "EuroMayDay" and its organizing entity, the MayDay Network. Begun in 2004 in just two cities, Milan and Barcelona, by 2006 EuroMayDay involved events in 19 cities. This sudden and burgeoning success has brought its own criticism, that the MayDay Network is Eurocentric and the network and the event should be global, MondoMayDay. It is certainly true that eurocentrism is a problem that progressives and radicals need always to keep in their sight and be prepared to deal with. IMO, in this situation it is a bit unfair to the network organizers to level this ciriticism at this point in time. When the network proclaimed itself "Euro" less than three years ago that may well have seemed excessively ambitious, even grandiose. That the growth of the network and the event has outpaced anyone's expectations, and brought the idea of globalizing the event to the fore, could hardly have been foreseen.
Unfortunately this debate reached its most heated in the past few months, just as preparation for this year's event should have been getting underway, and seems to have slowed getting the Call to MayDay2007 out. This probably represents the first significant internal political problem for this emerging class and movement, and it will be intersting to see how it is resolved. It appears from the MayDay network website that the decision has been to designate the 2007 event EuroMayDay, but this is almost certainly the last EuroMayDay; either things fall entirely apart or all future years will see MondoMayDay organized. It may well be that the decentralized, autonomous character of the network and its constituent groups will allow individual events to proceed unfazed by this contretemps. We'll simply have to wait and see how things play out between now and M1.
Immigrants, Migrants, and Neo-nomads
Precarity theory recognizes mobility as a necessary characteristic of the flexible labor force demanded by contemporary capitalism. At the same time, a mobile labor force creates certain contradictions that will necessarily play themselves out in economic and social conflict.
Importantly, capital has always tried to shore up its own precariousness through the control of labour and, in particular, the mobility of labour. It is the insight of Moulier-Boutang’s De l’esclavage au salariat (1998) to identify the subjective practice of labour mobility as the connecting thread in the history of capitalism. Far from being archaisms or transitory adjustments destined to be wiped out by modernisation, Moulier-Boutang contends that labour regimes such as slavery and indenture are constituent of capitalist development and arise precisely from the attempt to control or limit the worker’s flight. In this perspective, the figure of the undocumented migrant becomes the exemplary precarious worker since, in the current global formation, the entire system of border control and detention technology provides the principal means by which capital controls the mobility of labour. ... [The migrants'] position becomes the social anticipation of a political option to struggle against the general development of labour and life in the contemporary world. Neilson and Rossiter
For this reason, precarity activists and theorists in Europe of identified strongly with the immigrant rights movement in America, and the fact that last MayDay featured major immigrant demonstrations in the US served to heighten that sense of solidarity. This also points to one of the main conflicts in almost all advanced capitalist countries, between nativist proletarian and petit bourgeois workers on the one hand, and the mobile and precarious migrant workers on the other. Over time this conflict will diminish, as the exigencies of modern, global fluid capitalism force all workers to become migrant/semi-nomadic in our existance in order to have the flexibility to maintain employment. In the meantime that conflict serves as the most dangerous source of nativist, xenophobic resentment and the possibility of reactionary extremism and possibly eliminationist politics emerging in advanced capitalist societies. It is necessary for precarity theorists to develop political and ideological arguments that convey to nativist workers the fact that both nativist and migrant workers are being exploited and abused by the same forces, and that our greatest hope is in finding solidarity in that shared precarity.
Creation and Recreation
With so much of the social base of the precarity movement in the creative, cognitive, and recreational industries, it should be no surprise that this movement is also characterized itself by a high degree of creative expression, even playfulness. How many movements only a couple years old have their own "patron saint?" But here is San Precario:
According to The Play Ethic, "Apparently San Precario can be seen in supermarket malls, in full benedictory pose, bemoaning the plight of flexible workers."
An example of the creativity of the movement was the creation by Milan precarity activists of a faux fashion label, Serpica Naro, which they actually registered with the 2005 Milan Fashion Week authorities, tent and all, until they were exposed as infiltrators immediately before the annual event. This was a most successful organizing foray in and of itself, reaching effectively to the thousands of temp, part-time and flex-time workers employed by the Milan fashion houses and Fashion Week.
Additionally, the movement was left owning an actual registered label in Serpica Naro, which it has now opened up as an open-source metabrand to advance experimentation in alternative economies:
The Serpica Naro label is therefore free to be used by all, as long as the creations connected to the label are freely reproducible, and the resulting products are issued in accordance with the same license. This makes the creativity, the ability, and also the capacity and the decision to not make use of practices which exploit workers in the production/distribution chain, available and sharable, as well as the necessity to reinsert the value of those who produce into the social. ...
There is a desire for a space, real or virtual, where one can go to find clothing in which one knows that everything purchased is produced by craftspeople, small producers or spinnerettes which guarantee production, respecting job security as much as possible. A space where free and nonprofit exchanges, be it of clothing or of ideas, are favoured and encouraged. A style which permits one to recognize oneself and to enter into contact with a network of relations which foresees the precarious in the spotlight.
Today, fighting precariousness does not only mean participating in the labour struggle, but also removing the neo-liberal yoke from one’s neck in order to experiment with diverse economies.
(Note: Serpica Naro is an anagram of San Precario. You'll also notice the Serpica Naro figure appears on the right of the Berlin 2007 MayDay banner shown above.)
69: The Pink Rebellion of Copenhagen
Photo by Claus Schmidt
We had it for over a hundred years. Built by the worker's movement [including my great-grandfather, at the time the Danish Socialist Party's organizer for the island of Samso -AG] it was a bookstore, a meeting house, a ballroom, a boxing ring. It grew disused and run down before we took it back, and the resistance used it as a base to fight the fascists from. Years later and it was empty again, 'til the city gave it to quiet a growing squatters movement. Now it became a concert hall, a soup kitchen, a bar, a place for those who wanted something different to go. A place to read books, make music, cook food and drink beer.
There was nothing perfect about Ungeren, it was full of faults and all the inconsistencies that trying to live free in capitalism entails. The market logic penetrates everything, even some supporters of Ungeren would claim that it 'nurtured creativity' to please the city council. But you can't express the value of a place like Ungeren in the logic of capitalism. The value of Ungeren was freedom, autonomy, a place that you could organise yourself; that's what made it fun, that's what made the people there the nicest people in all of Denmark, how can you sell that to a politician? Sound Tracks for Them
On March 1, 2007, the youth of Copenhagen's Ungdomshuset were evicted in the face of unprecedented street resistance, and on March 7, the Ungdomshuset, the building at Jagtvej 69, formerly the Folkets Hus, where Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg declared and organized the first ever International Women's Day, was demolished. Given to its occupants by the City Council in 1982, 69 was then sold by the City in 2000 to a dummy corporation, which subsequently transfered the property to the so-called "Faderhuset" an extreme right-wing religious cult whose leader Ruth Evensen has announced that "next we go after the homosexuals."
And so matters might well have ended, certainly would have ended in the US today, another victory for neoliberal market capitalism. But on March 31, with dozens of youth arrested during the street confrontations of March 1-3 still languishing in jail with no charges, some with no evidence against them, some 10-15,000 Danes, the population equivalent of 600-800,000 Americans, jammed the streets of Copenhagen--in support of "Free Spaces", with demands of "New Ungdomshuset Now!" and "Hands Off Christiania!" (Copenhagen's other major "free space.") From all over the country they gathered, with chartered busses rolling in from Aarhus, Aalborg, and Odense. Solidarity demonstrations spread around Europe, and, indeed, the world.
Photo by Claus Schmidt
Who could have imagined such mass opposition to another rather routine, and in the grand scheme of things, minor, victory for neoliberal hegemony? Well, Alex Foti for one, who even before the "Free Spaces" demonstration of M31 had already penned and published his analysis of the Danish events, The Pink Rebellion of Copenhagen. In it he pointed to specific conditions in Denmark, and the relatively advanced state of Pink politics and unity in precarity among Danes as key factors driving the power of the resistance to the neoliberal state and its parties:
Why in Denmark? Why there such a forceful rebellion of the city’s dissenting youth, promptly joined by the immigrant youth? How could a full-scale riot occur in a peaceful and wealthy European capital, with burning barricades and sustained clashes with the police, who had to bring in help from Sweden to put the situation back under control? Wasn’t consumerist European youth supposed to be only eager to discover the world, flying and chatting low-cost ? Wasn’t the younger generation deemed to be irreversibly post-ideological, much less attracted to radical politics? ...
The osmosis of activists into local politics and cooperative ventures has created a multi-level context, in which radical forces of all denominations can work in synergy if the situation requires, from the streets to the city to the parliament, with a tacit division of labor that respects political autonomy at all levels. The proliferation of networked autonomous struggles and alternative media networks combined with municipal representation has enabled a common political understanding of the connectedness of various forms of dissent and protest, and has encouraged experimentation with the possibilities of social radicalism in a European metropolis. This was not simply a rebellious episode : it will have far-reaching political consequences.
The socialdemocratic blunder made in Copenhagen with the shady sale to a homophobic and islamophobic Christian sect of the social youth center Ungdomshuset, worsened by the forced eviction (there had already been skirmishes in September, so it was clear Copenhagen’s youth was going to explode at the next provocation) makes one thing clear: ... European politicians, either socialdemocratic, liberal or conservative, increasingly look indistinguishable. They all share deference to financial markets, big corporations, have repressive and xenophobic instincts, and pander to firmly established interest groups and older generations. Even the mainstream Danish unions are realizing socialdemocrats are no longer reliable to defend the interests of employees, and when push comes to shove, they side with student protesters, as it happened during the general strikes and university occupations that rocked the country in the spring of 2006, when Rasmussen announced welfare "reforms" cutting benefits for youngsters and aged workers alike, which the socialdemocrats opposed only rhetorically. But it would be foolish to ascribe to a supposed Danish exceptionalism the extension and duration of the riots. Rather, by virtue of their socialist past and libertarian present, Danish movements are in a privileged position to fight against the sociopolitical consequences of both Atlanticist neoconservatism and European free-market liberalism. Copenhagen’s pink rebellion could be the harbinger of a more generalized youth insurgence in Europe, involving large sections of the so-called creative class of net/flex/temp workers.
Foti is quick to point out that while the Danish movement may be the most advanced and have the largest mass base at the present time, large nuclei have formed worldwide, that can mobilize in support of even the most extreme manifestations of this new movement, such as that represented by the Ungdomshuset resistance:
The harsh treatment of protesters, Andersen’s mermaid who went pink, and the 600 arrests of activists, have prompted a wave of transnational solidarity among the European youth with appeals, actions, boycotts, and occupations of Danish consulates, not only in nearby Malmö, Göteborg, Hamburg, Oslo, Helsinki, but also in Berlin, Munich, Leipzig and every single German city, as well as in Warsaw, Poznan, Budapest, Amsterdam, Venice, Milan, Athens, Salonica, Istanbul.
The events of M31 and the ongoing support and solidarity for the youth of Ungdomshuset both in Denmark and internationally buttress the case that Foti made in the immediate aftermath of the eviction and destruction of Jagtvej 69, now reconfigured as a symbol of Pink resistance to hegemony.
The next great test for the precarious workers' movement comes with Mayday, 2007. As outlined above, the question of Eurocentrism, perhaps untimely raised, has caused organizing to stumble coming out of the gate. If the events and organizing are nonetheless successful, it will be a strong indicator of the depth of support and resiliency that a nascent radical, even perhaps revolutionary, counterforce to global neoliberal hegemony will require.
Precarious workers of the world unite!
You have nothing to lose but your chain stores!
The precariat emerges as a self-conscious class at a time when a communications revolution is in full swing; the Ungdomshuset activists have successfully conveyed their story to both national and international audiences using blogs, social networking sites like MySpace, and most dynamically, YouTube. Characteristically the Ungdomshuset youth have overwhelmingly chosen the form of the music video to tell their story. Here's a representative piece, apparently put together by someone quite young, but movingly and elegantly done on a bare-bones budget.
A Tribute to Ungdomshuset
It should be anticipated, that as events roll forward, as the question of neoliberal hegemony becomes more clear, that peer-to-peer channels such as YouTube and blogs will be among the primary modes of communication of both theoretical and practical information for that resistance.