Saturday, September 15, 2012


Theoretical weekends has arrived right on schedule and I have another piece that I have not yet read yet, but looks somewhat interesting to me.  Have fun, enjoy,  and as Abbie used to say revolution for the hell of it....and forget about that decent job already....

The following is from A Tribe of Moles.

Work, Production and The Common: A Provocation

Questions of decent work and employment have been central to the social antagonisms and political convulsions of postapartheid South Africa. In the wake of the 2007 Polokwane conference, leadership changes and policy shifts in the ANC have focused on the failures of Thabo Mbeki’s agenda of economic liberalisation in making employment a foundation of rights, stability, and inclusion. Labor struggles have constantly reminded the country’s rulers of how democratisation is supposed to be not just a procedural and constitutional matter, but also the fulfillment of popular demands of redemption of work, which past racial domination turned into a largely oppressive reality but unions tried to rescue as a condition of solidarity and empowerment. Social movements have, finally, made the “dignity of work”, and even the “right to work” a central ethical-political component in their demands for redistribution and recognition. In the age of Jacob Zuma and the New Growth Path, “decent work” is for many on the left shorthand for worker-friendly, socially sensitive state developmentalism, as an alternative both to neoliberalism and to repressive government-driven capitalist accumulation.

Underpinning desires for “decent work” is “job creation” as an alleged, unquestionably progressive outcome and yardstick against which the quality of postapartheid democracy is supposedly to be measured. The centrality of “decent work” and “job creation” in South African discourses of emancipation raises, however, also decisive problems, which are all the more urgent as such concepts tend to largely escape critical scrutiny. At an immediate level, definition is an issue: under which conditions does work become “decent”? How does the creation of jobs not imply the reproduction of poverty and inequality? For sure, these are not problems for employers, liberal reformers, and assorted free marketers. Once “job creation” becomes the pinnacle of emancipative imagination, it becomes easy for them to argue that a bad job is better than no job at. In this way, the labor market is naturalised as an objective law of social advancement, redistributive claims become pathological symptoms of “dependency”, and social conflicts are threats to prosperity and the expansion of employment. As the definition of “decency” ceases thus to be a matter of political contestation, the subsequent, consequential step is to assert that it is up to market conditions and the characteristics of the job itself to determine how “decent” it is allowed to be. To see where this road can lead, one needs look no further than Newcastle (KwaZulu-Natal) and the recent clothing industry disputes, where globalised employers presented their workers with the stark alternative: either work or decency.

It is more difficult to understand why “job creation” and “decent work” hold such a powerful grip on the imagination of actors – activists, unions, social movements – that call themselves radical and reclaim their descent from Marxian legacies. Left traditions variously infused with Marxism have, in their social democratic as well as Stalinist variants, glorified production, waged employment, and the workplace as the objective repositories and necessary conduits of proletarian consciousness and modern forms of revolutionary or progressive organising. The process has effaced the many ways in which Marx theorised the emancipation of human activity as liberation from work, expressed his horror at wage labor, and insisted that under capitalism there is no such thing as “decent” work. Far from seeing it as the foundation of anticapitalist politics, Marx regarded wage labor as capital’s condition to exist and saw the refusal of work as the basis of anticapitalist subjectivity. As Mario Tronti commented, “Workers have no time for the dignity of labor … Today, the working class need only look at itself to understand capital. It need only combat itself in order to destroy capital.” In this path, often interrupted by the manifold institutionalisations – unions, parties, governments – of Marxian critique, liberation lies in the subversion, not the glorification, of employment and wage labor.

The critique of employment as a vehicle of emancipative imagination is more urgent than ever in these days of global crisis of neoliberalism, when all sorts of horrors are perpetrated in the name of “job creation”: for the purpose of investment and competitiveness corporate taxes and public programs are slashed, all in the name of job creation; the systematic degradation of employment conditions and the roll-back of workers’ power and guarantees are justified, in the name of job creation; extreme social inequalities are normalised and naturalised, in the name of job creation; the most reactionary right-wing governments (think France’s Sarkozy with his call to “rediscover the worth of work”) have sought and found popular legitimacy, in the name of job creation; the most viciously xenophobic, racist, chauvinist, proto-Fascist political identities pursue, and are often given, respectability, in the name of job creation (and claims of national jobs for national people).

Confronted with this impressive discursive slide, where the dignity of work is upheld to reinforce the centrality of the labor market in determining the measure and reward of life, indeed the very meaning of being human, the left’s concerns with “decent work” have fallen quite short of a convincing alternative narrative or a radically oppositional recasting of desire. Having failed to contest the multitudes’ meanings and values on the terrain of work and production, traditional left forces have rather fallen back on the state as the ultimate guarantor of fairness, development, and decency. And from the state the left has received further injunctions to rely on employment, and employment only, for any meaningful social inclusion and security, with no other considerations attached as to the conditions and remunerations of work, or the measures that can at least limit a complete domination of employment over life. Thus, developmentalist regimes usually praised by progressive forces (such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia or India’s “Employment Guarantees” programme) have lured the poor with minimal social provisions into exploitative, underpaid, when not semi-servile occupations. In South Africa governmental parlance does not even refer to “jobs” (a concept too ridden with implications in terms of rights, stability, expectations, and contestation) anymore, preferring “employment opportunities” instead. At the same time, the centrality of “job creation” has here been decisive in undermining struggles for decommodification and redistribution, as witnessed by the past rise and rapid decline of proposals for universal basic income.

We cannot think of the global decline of the twentieth century socialist and nationalist left(s), themselves a major factor in the neoliberal hegemony of the past forty years, without questioning the ways in which they have idealised employment and unquestioningly associated it with progress. Within this broader devastation in the terrain of political power relations and public discourse, the left’s attachment to “decent jobs” only reveals a comprehensive failure of imagination, of which the acceptance by progressive forces of a subordinate role in a game of which capital is writing the rules is consequential. It is indeed revealing how the official left has responded, throughout the past century, to movements that radically criticised wage labor, capital, and the nation-state (from anticolonial opposition to proletarianisation to the refusal of work in industrialised capitalist countries) with policies aimed at using the nation-state to manage capital for the purpose of creating wage labor!

These issues, and the depth of the collapse of the left they indicate, are for us serious enough not to be answerable by just tinkering with definitional diatribes, or trying to define the mix of ingredients that makes capitalist employment “decent”. It is time to ask, is “decent work” still a valid tool to criticise capitalism and oppose the disciplining of multitudes by market forces? Or is it time to finally realise that today employment-based claims and identity lead not to emancipation, but to renewed subjugation, repression, and reaction? Should we start placing liberation from, and not through capitalist work at the core of new languages and grammars of politics, which uncompromisingly break with the legacy of the twentieth century left(s)?

There is a politically compelling factor in these questions. If the myth of employment as the flag-bearer of emancipative narratives is over, that is not only due to right-wing hegemony and left-wing decline as abstract ideological discourse. It is also because social antagonisms in this turn of the century are demanding everywhere decent life regardless of the conditions and status of employment. The most powerful struggles we have been witnessing over the past decade have placed on the agenda matters of decommodification of water, housing, land, education, and basic services independently from the market. From Greece to Egypt, precarious workers have not merely seen their subjectivity thwarted and mutilated by the lack of a stable job but, by being central to vast movements against austerity policies, they have indeed placed their own precariousness at the core of a radical politics of claims and political possibilities. These conflicts may well be, and often are, recuperated by an imagination that subordinates the legitimacy of such claims to how productive of commodities individuals and communities are. They also, nonetheless, reveal a profound gap between how livelihoods and reproduction are imagined, respectively, from the standpoint of capital and ordinary people. It is a gap, harbinger of political potentials, between how the multitude lives and how capital imagines it should live, or between the sensuous, multifarious manifestation of desire and its continuous subordination to the labor market. In practice, such struggles put on the agenda the question of the societal distribution of power and resources as a matter not, in Michel Foucault’s terms, of self-entrepreneurship or of abstract constitutional rights, but as forms of life conflictually reclaiming autonomy from capital, the nation-state, and wage labor. Current modalities of social antagonism can no longer be understood under worn-out slogans opposing public/state to private/business control of resources as such dichotomies obscure the significance of forms of life centered on a common substance (which includes social cooperation, cognition, and affect/desire) which exists independently of business and the state, and becomes the potential for a radical critique of both.

We say, it “becomes” so. It is in fact also important to clarify that forms of life and their common are especially central to social antagonism and the subversion of market discipline as capital, in the convulsions of its current structural crisis, seeks in the living – meaning the basic conditions of reproduction, from water to the genetic code, but also living social cooperation and the Marxian “general intellect” – new opportunities for enclosures and profit. But, contrary to wage labor, which exists as a source of value only because capital creates it through processes of abstraction and measurement, the living is a source of production and value that exceeds capital, and is capable of signifying its own existence in such terms. Capital’s attempt to colonise and incorporate the living is therefore open to the continuous possibility of contestation that emanates from such a significational gap, a point well captured by postcolonial theorists discussing the “incommensurability” and “untranslatability” of capital’s values and norms for the lives of its subjects.

We believe that decisive to reinventing a politics of social antagonism is to give words and political sense to such gaps and untranslatability as conditions of autonomy. With this task in mind, we address another question: does the irrelevance of employment to a politics of liberation mean that production-related struggles are no longer worth fighting for? Our response is an emphatic “no”, but on condition of profoundly redefining what we mean by “production”. In other words, “production-related” can no longer simply mean “workplace-based”. Workplace struggles are, for sure, still important in affirming the autonomy of life and the common from the dictates of the market, for example through demands for wages and benefits that are impossible to meet in terms of productivity, therefore subverting wage labor from within. But struggles for production especially imply for us the production of social relations and political possibilities that emanate from the power of the common as it manifests itself across the social and the everyday. They hint, in other words, at the production of subjectivity and the refusal of the modalities of subjection along which capital and government want to align conducts and values. We are referring here not only to subjectivities premised on waged employment and the consumption of commodities but also to their correlates in the institutional sphere: liberal democracy and the idea of the individual rooted in property and market relations as the only legitimate carrier of socio-political agency.
A radical critique of liberal democracy is central to our recasting of production struggles as it underlines the connections between capital’s domination of life and the ways in which domination operates in the guise of individual freedom within market exchange and competition. To this idea of freedom as a mere technology of government and subjection, to which the discourse of citizenship and the constitutional rights of liberal democracy give a normative expression, we oppose the power of singularities (individuals, movements, communities) as a capacity to multiply social and political possibilities expressing the autonomy of the common. A democracy of the common is thus crucial to reclaiming from capital the productive forces of forms of life.

In sum: a critique of employment-based views of emancipation and of “decent work” as a terrain of social contestation; a radical redefinition of production-based struggles from the standpoint of forms of life and the common; an uncompromising reassessment of liberal democracy as a mode of expression of political subjectivity: these are the core elements we bring to this debate. It is a small bet in a broad and hugely important gamble. Is an anticapitalist project still possible as the radical reinvention of political possibilities? Or are we stuck with a left imagination that, in the name of development and “decent work”, abets renewed subjugation and continuous corporate signification of desire, of which the public discourse of Zumaism and the ravenous chattering of the tenderpreneurial bourgeoisie are, respectively, clearly discernible echoes in today’s South Africa? As capitalism flounders in the tides of its global crisis, the time to raise these questions has never been more appropriate. Now we must seize it.

a tribe of moles

No comments: