Global capital is producing it’s own grave-diggers

Karl Marx is at his most prophetic and poetic when writing about the big contradiction of capitalism:

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.

or

a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Marx was no doubt overly optimistic – and simplistic – in his thinking that capitalism, by creating an impoverished class of people, will lead to that group organising, rising up and overthrowing the system to create something new and better.

But if the last few years have shown anything (and I’m talking about Brexit and Trump, yes, but also the rise of European far right parties and religious extremism) it is that global capitalism has created anger and discontent that cannot easily be controlled.

 

Name me a village where a Nobel prize was won

brooklyn-nyc-4ea28a2f“Some cynic said to me, name me a village where a Nobel prize was won.” I heard Professor Ricky Burdett of the LSE’s Cities Institute say this on an excellent piece of radio on London’s development the other day and it got me thinking about the city and the countryside.

The city – as a major, heavily populated and diverse conurbation – is routinely lionised as the place for creativity, innovation, revolution. Yes, there are major problems to deal with – slums, overcrowding, pollution etc – but, the argument goes, cities are a melting pot for the creation of new ideas.

This praise for the city tends to go hand in hand with criticism of the countryside, often as conservative and backward looking, as Burrett’s Nobel prize comment implies.

Cities are of course wonderful  for all the reasons cited, but at the same time the countryside needs defending. I don’t know if any Nobel prizes have been won by villagers, but that’s beside the point. (Nobel prizes are won by individuals often  in universities who may or may not live in city itself.)  There are other goods that come from people living in rural areas:

It offers vital space for reflection. Cities are places of investment and innovation, they are places where things are made to happen. The countryside offers time for thought and reflection. Frederic Gros’s book, The Philosophy of Walking, shows how thinkers like Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau used the time and space of walking in the wild to think deeply.

 It is less consumerist. The city is awash with commerce – fast paced living where acquisition and new experiences are endlessly consumed. So many of these, from the latest purchase to meals out, are transitory experiences. What Karl Marx said of capitalism is most accurate of all in its depiction of the city: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Much of life in the countryside is different: slower, with less intense but perhaps deeper experiences llike walking, gardening, being home, and so on.

It’s home to experiments in different ways of living and organising.  With such overcrowding and inequality, it is said – by David Harvey In Rebel Cities and Mike Davies in Planet of Slums among others – that the city is likely to be the site of resistance and revolution.  But at the same time, rural areas have often been places for new movements to emerge too. To name a few: the low ;impact living movement is a network of people trying to live off the land and off grid. ‘back to the landers’ in the ’60s and ’70s were aiming for self-sufficiency as an alternative to capitalist development; the landless peasants movement in Latin America, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the network of self governing villages in Southern Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

 It tends to create tighter bonds of community. A big area of discussion for city builders is how to create a sense of community in large and often transitory city neighbourhoods.  In the countryside, by contrast, communities are often well established and connections between individuals are strong because they are so frequent: through schools, social activities, work, travel, meeting regularly, people see one another so regularly in different contexts that multiple tight bonds develop easily and quickly.

None of this is to say that the countryside is better than the city or that it doesn’t have its problems. Just as the city as its good and bads, rural areas do too. But it is to say that the countryside can offer, among other things, non-consumerist spaces for reflection and experimentation – and for that reason we shouldn’t just talk about cities as the places for progressive ways of life.

What disgruntled workers might do instead of strike

Yesterday the TUC predicted that workers will get increasingly angry in the coming months, with the economy slowly getting back on track yet workers not seeing the benefit.

The argument is a classic one with much precedent in political thought and practice – if you oppress people they will, in the end, resist. Zizek refers to it as ‘the return of the Real’. Foucault says ‘where there is power there is resistance’ and Hardt and Negri say ‘It is completely obvious that those who are exploited will resist’.

The TUC is predicting organised strikes, with unions leading the way, in a campaign for better conditions and pay for workers.

Political thought and practice for centuries, however, also indicates that this is an optimistic prediction.

Even if you ignore the fact that traditional unions have fewer and fewer members, or that unions in the private sector are very different from the public sector, its notable that resistance is often more complex and difficult to identify than this.

Sometimes resistance to oppression is through union led strikes, aimed at better conditions. Often not.

Here are three ways that this resistance may play out instead.

1. Dissipation. Nietzsche points out that in Ancient Athens the desires and passions of those who might refuse the system were channelled into ‘agonistic’ processes that enabled them to contest and argue without endangering the system. It had the effect of dissipating disorder.

Today, many workplaces provide employee engagement channels , which dissipate resistance through formal processes for gathering workers’ views, offering elements of devision making power and trying to make the organisation feel ‘theirs’.

This kind of absorption of resistance is a likely outcome of much resistance, meaning change will be minimised.

2. Resentiment. For many, resistance to oppression is often individualised, not conscious and therefore hard to identify. It results in unconscious, unarticulated and generally negative actions. It’s a bit like what Nietzsche calls ‘resentiment’ – a kind of seething, unarticulated sense of injustice that occasionally manifests itself.

At work it might mean simply being bad workers – spending time on Facebook, talking, going slow, pushing break times, recalcitrance, etc.

Outside work, people like Zizek have pointed out that racism and far right politics are easy responses to oppression, where an ‘other’, rather than inequalities in workplace, are blamed by indigenous workers for their problems. Similarly, events like the riots in Paris or London could well be complex examples of people resisting the everyday sense of inequality they face.

With less and less union influence and reach, these different forms of largely unhealthy resistance are likely to be more and more common.

3. Events. Occasionally bigger acts occur, when those who feel excluded assert their right, together, to be included.

These are momentous and rare occasions. Sometimes they are in the workplace; often they are something much bigger.

This what Ranciere calls ‘politics’ and Badiou calls an ‘event’.

We have seen these events in the Arab Spring, for example. In the UK this has not been much seen; the seeds of it may have been in Occupy. It requires more than trade union organisation for a tactical end like better conditions; it is a collective action, by the people, in the name of a bigger goal.

Mass action for workplace democracy, more equal pay, or decent jobs for all, for example.

Whether this will be the outcome of the current oppression remains to be seen; certainly, it’s something very different from the vision of our unions.

The point is that workers may be well be fed up, feel oppressed and seek to resist – whether that’s conscious or unconscious.

But the TUC’s prediction that this will take the form of strikes for better conditions is optimistic at best; this might happen, but we are far more likely to see opposition dissipated and resentiment grow, with the tiny, tiny chance of a political event.