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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Field Notes

Class Power on Zero-Hours


Class Power on Zero-Hours
(AngryWorkers, 2020)

AngryWorkers want you to build an international revolutionary organization guided by the axiom “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” and they have a plan. Six years ago the communist grouplet relocated from London to a western industrial suburb called Greenford, where they found a dizzying array of industrial and logistical facilities central to keeping Greater London running. Greenford, they discovered, “typified one of capitalism’s main contradictions: that workers have enormous potential power as a group, especially if they could affect food supply into London, at the same time they are individually weak.” AngryWorkers set up shop and organized tirelessly inside and outside the union structure in a number of industrial workplaces, in community campaigns against austerity and their own solidarity network, and through the WorkersWildWest newspaper which they distribute at factory gates at the crack of dawn. None of these practices are new, and some may seem better left in the 20th century. But AngryWorkers’ new book Class Power on Zero-Hours (London: AngryWorkers, 2020), a sustained reflection on the past six years of this organizing, reveals their praxis to be even more timely than authors could have known.

Class Power recounts the group’s organizing experiences and the lessons they have drawn from them, while underscoring the necessity for coordinated working-class rebellions throughout global logistical networks, and the imperative for the UK left to change courses following the defeat of its social democratic ambitions in the figure of Jeremy Corbyn. By sheer coincidence the book hits shelves as the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically heightened social dependency on services like Amazon and Instacart, and thrust logistics workers’ struggles into the open as increased exploitation and dangerous working conditions add more fuel to the fire across the supply chain. Simultaneously a new generation of self-proclaimed socialists in the United States are reeling from the electoral defeat of Bernie Sanders, just as Corbynites were as Class Power was headed to press, and vow in great numbers to exit the US Democratic Party in search of more radical and unmediated forms of political participation. May this wonderful book fall into their hands, and those of all searching for direction in a moment of great transition, when few things are certain beyond the surety of heated struggles to come.



Getting Rooted

AngryWorkers delight in having found a base of operations of which many London leftists have never heard, and consistently contrast their experiences in Greenford with vogue theories of “post-industrial” societies and “immaterial labor” which thrive among urban intelligentsia. A far cry from post-industrial, Greenford is home to a highly-concentrated international proletariat largely hailing from Africa, South Asia, and Eastern Europe and thrown into fraught relations of cooperative labor at similarly heterogeneous points of production. AngryWorkers argue that places like Greenford represent the return of large concentrations of workers in space, following capital’s decades-long restructuring of productive relations away from large centralized factories that could serve as proletarian strongholds. Accordingly, they argue that Greenford and places like it present Achilles’s heels of capital in its present composition, begging concerted communist organizing. One nearby office park, which AngryWorkers dubs the “crown jewel of a workers’ vanguard,” boasts 40,000 workers laboring in 1,500 businesses ranging food production, custom printing, tech, transportation, laundry, waste processing, hospitality, and studio film production, alongside a hospital, international student housing, a massive supermarket, and all kinds of cafes and other working-class haunts. “We have to contrast the strategic joy of engaging with this potential jewel of a working class movement,” they write, “with the stale and often airy Labour party politics and internal power-fights that many London lefties prefer to get involved with. We ask ourselves: what the fuck?!”

The group suggests that anyone can simply walk around a place like Greenford with their eyes and ears open and learn a lot about the world they live in. But the treasure trove of thick descriptions and practical wisdom which fill Class Power’s nearly 400 pages is largely derived from years of full immersion in Greenford life, and purchased at great exertion of time and energy of a small group of dedicated militants. To get rooted in Greenford, AngryWorkers took up in crowded proletarian neighborhoods, labored for years on end in low-wage warehouse, factory, and transportation work, and merged their social lives with the dense local networks that crisscross thousands of shops drawing on temp workers, zero-hour (no work guaranteed) contracts, and other ingredients for high turnover. “You can do a lot more than you think,” they remark, “when your ‘political life’ and ‘normal life’ isn’t so divided.”



Getting to Work

“As an organization we take on a responsibility,” they write. “The responsibility to help turn the global cooperation of workers, which is mediated through corporations and the markets, into their own tool of international struggle.” While the group scorns programmatism, their model is tripartite, combining intensive workplace organizing, solidarity networks and other community engagement, and regular distribution of print propaganda which collects grievances and other seeds of potential workplace campaigns, reports on strikes in similar workplaces or nodes on the same supply chain, and conditions of daily life outside the factory. This final item has provided much of the raw material for Class Power, and demonstrates laudable efforts to move beyond the same old jargon and sloganeering and write for an audience far removed from the Facebook International. Above all, the honesty and self-critical stance from which they evaluate their organizing provides a wealth of practical reflection for organizers in a variety of settings.

For starters, AngryWorkers intend the solidarity network model to ground them in Greenford’s proletarian life and begin to tap the networks that traverse workplaces and neighborhoods. Class Power recounts a number of these campaigns, introducing the reader to Senegalese kitchen workers, Bulgarian apple pickers, Moroccan factory works, Somali bus depot cleaners, Punjabi truck drivers and construction workers, Sundanese hotel workers, and Polish tenants, united by their common status as highly exploited laborers and tenants, often victimized by more affluent and better-rooted members of their own “communities.” As a kind of organizing first principle, they opt to avoid a formal organizational name or “brand” identity, concerned that a clear organizational identity could become a fetish object, obscuring from its participants the material reality that their collective activity constitutes the group’s power.

The group narrates its initial trouble getting over the hump of making contacts. Film screenings and open hours at community centers fail to attract workers, they change tacks and set up at working-class cafes, including a McDonald’s. This pivot attracts far more interested workers, who bring with them rich social networks traversing the region, replete with experiences of exploitation upon which campaigns could be built. Predictably enough the solidarity network runs into problems typical of the model, namely their inability to transcend the “service” model which nonprofits and social workers have conditioned working people to expect in place of direct-action and empowerment. They also have trouble getting workers to stick around after their campaign has been won. Nonetheless, they rack up back wages to the tune of £25,000, and along with local efforts against library closures and the demolition of a working-class community center, demonstrate in practice the remarkable heterogeneity of Greenford’s proletariat and the invisible lines of interconnectivity that run throughout neighborhoods and workplaces. In their critical reflections, they wonder if a more formal structure would have proven more effective and sustained better over time. It is an open question with the solidarity network and all of the AngryWorkers projects, and it is a question that can only be addressed in practice.

The centerpiece of their strategy is workplace organizing, which lands AngryWorkers comrades in refrigerated warehouses, prepared food assembly lines, labyrinthine distribution centers, auto transportation across the so-called “last mile” between warehouse and the consumer’s home, and even a shop manufacturing 3D printers, which they discover to be a full 180 degrees away from the feel-good techno-utopianism of “open source” ideology. Their guiding praxis seeks to identify and encourage worker militancy, rather than recruit people to a group or a particular political standpoint. Once a comrade has taken root in a shop, they begin to identify grievances and potential seeds of struggle. While this comrade plays it tight to the vest, slowly building the trust of workers and not making their politics known, comrades on the outside distribute literature outside the shop, and stories from these various workplaces appear in WorkersWildWest.

All the while, the comrades on the inside toil under arduous, bleak (a recurring adjective in Class Power), and near-dystopian conditions. They take months and even years to build the basis for a single campaign, all the while engaged in punishing daily regiments. In the refrigerated “chill” warehouse, for instance, the comrade stuck in there all day must sort boxes and trays of food at a fast pace, with their forearm adorned with a computer console that gives orders and connects to a finger-mounted scanner monitoring productivity! If they sink below the required pace, they receive a text message warning, followed by loss of work. All this, on temp wages. When they are finally fired for organizing a slowdown, after the better part of a year in these conditions, they don’t seem too sad to go. Tellingly, the biggest obstacle facing their organizing efforts was the high turnover, and the propensity of the ablest would-be militants to simply quit in search of better conditions and pay instead of working long-term to build worker power in the shop. And who can blame them?

In this work AngryWorkers draws inspiration from the present syndicalism renaissance, in particular the organizing of Italy’s SI Cobas,1 militant unionists in the logistics sector whose actions AngryWorkers publicize in their factory newspaper as potential inspiration for English workers. They are appreciative but more critical of the en vogue approach championed by labor expert Jane McAlevey, author of No Shortcuts (Oxford University Press, 2016), who they argue correctly points for a need to break with top-down “service unionism,” but does not sufficiently break from the binary—and often hierarchy—of “organizer” and “worker” inherent to professional labor organizing. By contrast, the AngryWorkers call quite rightly for the abolition of waged union jobs and professional organizing altogether. At the same time, they draw influence from “class unions” like the IWW, who they partner with in a number of campaigns, but question the use of conflating unions with broader political organs of a working-class offensive.

Above all, their calculus of workplace strategy is guided by an aversion to allowing unions, or any organization, to become a fetish object standing above the power that working people wield when they take action in concert. These motives are understandable to any critically-minded person who has engaged with a contemporary labor union and suffered its vapid sloganeering, quasi-military hierarchy, and mystification of “the union” as greater than the struggles of its members—all while leadership acts as the left wing of management, enriching itself and perhaps a tier of the highest-waged workers at the expense of everybody else. Yet it is perhaps the greatest strength of the AngryWorkers’ praxis that they do not merely abstain from union participation on principle, but experiment with the union itself as a potential site of struggle.

As astute observers of contemporary capitalism, AngryWorkers believe unions “essentially exist to manage the relationship between labor and capital rather than overcome it,” as one member working at a food production facility writes. “But rather than rely on left-communist dogma,” they continue, “we wanted practical experience within the big unions to see how things actually operated.” Thus begins a multi-year experiment working as a rep in a rotten company union which scarcely masks its pact with management against the workers. Taken in sum the worker-cum-rep’s experiences surely do not contradict “left-communist dogma” about the structural role of unions in capitalist society. Simultaneously, however, they provide a nuanced account of how union offices can be used as a strategic point of leverage for building extra-union worker power.

For instance, under the cover afforded by the union rep position, this worker was able to openly collect and socialize grievances, distribute literature, network with more militant workers, and help organize a number of protests demanding pay increases—all to the chagrin of the union and its partners in management, who aren’t immediately able to clamp down. Similar conclusions are drawn from another comrade’s account of working as a rep in “last mile” delivery, who concedes the decision to give union office a whirl arose in part when “our efforts to create independent structures didn’t go too far.” Far be it from me to ever endorse the star-crossed endeavor of “union reform,” but these accounts, far too detailed to do any justice here, provide valuable reflections for workers in a unionized shop wondering where they can find the best possible leverage. Like all questions addressed by the AngryWorkers praxis, the answer is not an easy one.



Getting Acquainted

In the course of their struggles AngryWorkers have produced an immense body of writing for the purposes of agitation, debate, and to deepen their own understanding of the complex social world in which they are taking action. The best of it recalls Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England or the propaganda tracts by the enigmatic writer and illustrator known only as Prole. In contrast to the odd journalist or photographer who slums it for a short stint to document the lives of poor downtrodden workers, AngryWorkers are attentive not just to the obvious deprivation but to the potential power workers wield in daily cooperation and resistance. And in contrast to the sectarian, they are not simply looking for recruits, or to “colonize the factory” as many New Left groups attempted in the 1970s. They seek instead to identify working class initiative where it already exists and help generalize it across shops, supply chains, and entire regions. Thus when they engage with the contradictions of working-class life which emerge from divisions of productive and reproductive labor riven by race, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, language, and other factors, it is with a view to how these real differences can be overcome to constitute the class as a fighting force.

In two particularly profound lines of inquiry, originally composed for their propaganda and excerpted in Class Power, AngryWorkers examine “the crisis of the working-class family” and the particularity of women’s experiences in the gendered division of factory labor and bearing the brunt of austerity at home. Lengthy testimonials from three women speak to a diversity of backgrounds—the young Hungarian woman who seeks above all freedom from her hometown, the Irish mother who struggles to balance the impossible calculus of work and care for her autistic son, the Punjabi mother of two who lives precariously from visa to visa and has not seen one of her daughters in six years—grounded at once in a common condition of hyper-exploited labor. As bourgeois feminism enjoys its day in the sun, these working women’s voices demonstrate at once the complexity and necessity of approaching gender analysis from a perspective grounded in the work and home lives of working-class women. This method, AngryWorkers clearly state, is distinct from considering “class” as one particular form of “intersecting” modalities of oppression. Class, instead, is the basis of exploitation, and the very real and often devastating particularities of exploitation along lines of race, gender, citizenship, and so forth are, to pluralize a famous dictum from Stuart Hall, “modalities in which class is lived.”

These stories and other investigations AngryWorkers undertake paint a complex and visceral portrait of gender and working-class family life as immiserated by crushing austerity while rendered evermore necessary by a deepening harshness of life outside. An inquiry entitled “The Crisis of the Working-Class Family” builds on their analyses of gender and workers’ living arrangements to explore the family as a stopgap for the near-impossibility of survival on working-class salaries. The working-class family, they argue, is largely a necessity arising from the impossibility of being alone, and is accordingly packed into whatever tight living quarters workers can muster, which is often collective living with extended family or workmates, where the specter of the exploitative sub-landlord is never far. Simultaneously they argue that the heterosexual couple, defined by the desperate need to keep “romantic love” afloat, has become the sole outlet of emotional expression in search of rich expression, especially for men. The combination of these elements, they argue, renders working-class families combustible compounds defined by frustration, desperation, and strife, which episodically erupt into violence, most often men against women. While it is difficult to read these passages without feeling claustrophobic, it is simultaneously powerful to read the concepts of social reproduction, gender, and the family analyzed through the lives of real working-class people and in relation to their raison d'etre, surplus value production.

Another welcome intervention comes around the question of automation and its relationship to low-waged work. “The whole spiel about ‘full automation’ is bollocks,” they write in a discussion of the labor-intensive “chill” warehouse. “Here we are, using thousand-year-old technology…wheels!…to help us do the bulk of the work, while being controlled by 21st century high-tech. We are cheap, so why replace us with robots, which would have difficulty fitting the big banana boxes into the small cages anyway?” This example is a common theme throughout the book, as high-tech enables companies to juxtapose automation technology with disposable low-wage workers, whose resiliency and low cost or commitment make them a cheaper option than full automation. Importantly, the onus of discipline still rests on the human element. In the same passage, they continue:

But low-tech also means that the command of work is not transmitted through a big technical apparatus, which we might hate but at the same time admire and accept. Instead, the command of capital is primarily transmitted through the strained vocal cords of the dumpy managers, who stand and scream at the end of each line: ‘Andranik, stop talking to Preeti, get a move on!’

Elsewhere, they include a photograph of three workers struggling against a giant crate, with the caption: “Who needs a forklift when you have three men to move a ton of cabbage?”

As a textual whole, Class Power calls to mind the eccentric genius which strikes the first-time reader of Capital, and while lacking the lengthy mathematical interludes, Class Power compensates with extensive histories of supermarkets, food distribution, and West London itself, interspersed with hundreds of pages of workplace writing at once baroque and immanently practical. The characters who emerge are complex yet immediately recognizable—the pissed off temps whose excessive drinking sends an organizing meeting off the rails, immigrant workers who vote for Brexit to flip the middle finger to the status quo, the self-styled “rebels” who chicken out when the time comes to take risks, and perhaps above all, the authors themselves. The book’s authorial voice episodically changes from plural to singular as individual yet unnamed and ill-defined workers step forth to recount their particular experiences before once more dissolving back into a faceless we. All the while the text preserves a loose sense of narrative style and a breezy, bathetic, shit-talking sensibility which makes the collective author the kind of person the reader would want to have a beer with and maybe listen to a multi-century history of capitalist agriculture in the process.



Getting Together

By way of a conclusion, AngryWorkers provides something rare among groups who do not simply reproduce the received texts of the 20th century: a clear account of how their daily activity connects with the global communist revolution. “There is no lack of revolutionary anger,” they write. “What we haven’t seen is a section of the working class that focuses on the real centres of power—the grain baskets, manufacturing centres, ports, power plants—with the aim and a plan to take them over. It might take a few more waves of struggle for such an organized force to emerge,” they write, but insist nonetheless on the guiding question: “So what are the bare necessities during a revolutionary transition?” What follows is a detailed account of how strategic working-class takeovers throughout the social division of labor could simultaneously build revolutionary momentum and ward off counterrevolution or stagnation, the latter most likely to arise from hunger caused by interruptions of food from the countryside and abroad. “The communisation-fun,” they tease, “might last three days max before you start getting hungry.” Here the true prize of their years in Greenford reveals itself: a practical and strategic understanding of the social division of labor necessary to reproduce the infrastructure of an area as complex as Greater London, an understanding which can serve as the basis for theorizing a revolutionary offensive.

This is not to say that their plan—or anybody’s plan—could be followed to the letter in a moment of revolutionary transformation. Nor do they intend this text to be treated in the manner of those who still thump the Transitional Program onto the table as it approaches its centennial. Instead, rooted in their own practical-critical investigations into current compositions of class and capital, they have created an arc which few of us dare to consider in conversation, much less commit to publication, between the challenges facing small bands of organizers attempting to get a toe-hold in strategic centers of production and circulation, and the bare requirements of going all the way. It is a perspective far removed from fighting injustice, sticking up for the powerless, speaking truth to power, purifying oneself from the evils of capitalism, and inching toward a vanishing horizon of socialism through piecemeal electoral gains. Instead, it poses a simple question: how do we build the power it will take to win?

Class Power on Zero-Hours is not without its shortcomings, but like all great works, its weaknesses are simply the underside of its strengths. For instance, in their practical analysis of the local working class, AngryWorkers return time and again to the abstraction of “the community,” meaning cross-class networks bounded by common language, nationality, and faith. They correctly argue that these communities are led by petty bourgeois “leaders” whose interests—expressed in exploitative employment, housing rental, citizenship schemes, for-profit language classes, and so forth—are opposed to the interests of their “community’s” working people. The AngryWorkers theorize this relation as a basis not only for exploitation in the present but for authoritarianism in the future, an idea borne out in their workplace organizing and solidarity networks, where they encounter coercive “community” relations that prevent workers from standing up to their bosses and landlords. They have therefore identified a central contradiction facing the contemporary revolutionary left, and one which runs many organizers’ revolutionary praxis aground, as they embrace the abstraction of “community” and thereby lend their support to cross-class alliances which lead nowhere.

Unfortunately, in formulating this practical analysis, AngryWorkers do not take seriously enough the powerful objective forces which give these community leaders their strength. When workers complain of racism in the factory, the group is quick to offer alternative explanations more directly tied to the shop’s division of labor. While AngryWorkers do not dispute the reality of racism and xenophobia, and document extensively the sick mischief such chauvinism causes among the working-class, they appear to not consider the color line itself a worthy basis of struggle. This is doubly frustrating as their own theory, expressed by their masterful critique of social democracy, decries placing the abstraction of formal “unity” ahead of unity produced by taking contradictions like the color line head-on. The group’s aversion to advancing race or nationality as the basis of struggle is understandable given how decoupled the two have become in middle-class left analysis. But the fact that “anti-racism” has become a lucrative industry for building university and non-profit careers that don’t challenge capital in the slightest, makes it all the more necessary to carve out a strategic, working-class anti-racism that takes the color line head-on in pursuit of the strategic lines AngryWorkers draw so deftly.

A more obvious criticism, which surely dawns on the authors, is that their individual campaigns have largely come to naught, especially weighed against the group’s cyclopean labors. Over the years their small core has attracted a rotating lineup of comrades from across Europe and even South Asia, but the arduous work and scant unambiguous victories seem to have made retention in their Greenford cadre about as difficult as at the local factories themselves. One chapter, recounting an arduous multi-year organizing effort, concludes: “Things didn’t work out this time, but that’s the class struggle folks! Better luck next time!” As this sentiment recurs in various forms throughout their innumerable efforts, the reader gets the sense that the core comrades are possessed of a certain disposition which makes them as suitable for this work as they are rare among the contemporary revolutionary left. Unfortunately, “better luck next time!” might be enough for a core of stone militants, but the breakneck pace and dizzying array of campaigns which this small group took on in a short time seems like a recipe for burnout, especially absent the galvanizing effect of tangible wins.

Similarly, it is both a strength and a weakness of AngryWorkers that they attribute their failures thus far to a lack of capacity or unfortunate turns of events. Ultimately their scrupulously detailed critical reflections are less concerned with why things didn’t work and more occupied with how they could have gone differently. This is a sign at once of great optimism of the will, and also perhaps of a dose of stubbornness. To these critiques, I’m sure, the authors will reply: all of this is true, and that’s why you should join us to effect the shift from quantity to quality!

Accordingly, Class Power concludes with an invitation to comrades around the world—any town where there are at least two—to begin practical-critical investigations of nearby workplaces and infrastructure strategic to working-class insurrection, take up occupations there whenever possible, build solidarity networks, and to generalize this practical-critical work with the similar efforts of groups all over the world. Not all readers (present company included!) will be willing to cast aside whatever they’re doing and take up employment at physically punishing low-waged labor in these strategic sites. But some will, and the AngryWorkers are clear that important work remains outside the workplace, to agitate, organize in solidarity networks, support the comrades inside, and help build more generalized networks of shared practical knowledge. To this effect, the group has been organizing video conferences, necessitated in part by COVID-19 quarantine, and has continued a dizzying output on their website.2 They are offering literature and flyer templates and practical advice to anyone seeking to pick up the torch in their own town. If you are on the fence, don’t take my word for it—reach out to them!

Class Power on Zero-Hours is a difficult book to review, given its immense wealth of practical information and its scrupulous recounting of the high price its authors paid to earn it. Moreover, Class Power is simply a multiplicity of books—not just in its immense length, but in the rich variety of its content. What might be a throwaway paragraph to one reader might grab someone with experience in commercial trucking as the most poetic and damning description of their lives they have ever read. Same for exploited tenants, women harassed by their bosses, perennially stymied workplace militants, migrant workers anxious about the ascendant right, and so forth. It will be a different book to practically every reader, and will engender vibrant discussion that grounds strategic horizons in the lived experiences of working-class people. Accordingly, this reviewer strongly suggests the formation of study groups wherever possible, among workers already struggling around the COVID-19 crisis (wherever their time allows), organizers who find their terrain of struggle turned upside down, and everyone wondering how best to join the fight. “It can sometimes be frustrating and depressing when you’re on the front lines of the class war,” the AngryWorkers conclude, “but on the whole, it’s exhilarating and purposeful and gives us the means to live how we want.”

  1. For English writing by and about SI Cobas, visit https://libcom.org/tags/si-cobas.
  2. Angry Workers of the World: Precarious and Unruly, https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com.

Contributor

Jarrod Shanahan

is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues