The Labor Left after Politics, after Utopia

Extended version of talk delivered in Chicago (April 2013)

Introductory remarks

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to contribute today with some thoughts on such an intriguing issue like the relation between labor organization and movement and emancipatory, radical, left politics today.

It is obvious that the fight for improving the conditions of the working people stands on its own feet and it is relatively independent from the fight to overcome the dominant way of organizing the production. However, I think that the new conditions regarding the status of labor today questions pressingly this independency.

I will present some thoughts based on these new conditions and I will attempt a suggestion that may be helpful in connecting labor movement and radical politics which is the urgent point at issue.

I will focus on the conditions of labor of scientific manpower (mainly but not exclusively) in the developed world before crisis and on the new challenges we are facing after the outburst of the neoliberal revolution in Greece and in Southern Europe.

My thoughts of course do not claim a scientific status or they may sound trivial or naïve to the experts on the field. They are mainly considerations that came up through practical engagement in the context of the Greek left to deal with the problem of combining the revitalization of the domestic labor movement which is declining with radical left politics.

Old-new conditions (before crisis):

A constantly expanding phenomenon is the spatio-temporal multi-fragmentation of the working status. The new organizational patterns that are spreading steadily the last 20 years shape a working condition without specific boundaries: small, flexible, autonomous units pulverize the traditional crowed workplaces. Due to new technologies the pulverized working place is diffusing if not disappeared while the working time is also distributed over the whole day changing drastically the whole everyday life, its rhythms, the family relations, modes of sociability etc. The topic is huge.

Labor flexibility and the transformation of employee into free entrepreneur, owner of his own human capital, who signs contracts with other entrepreneurs invalidates the relation employer-employee which defined a familiar context of bargaining regarding the height of the wages, working conditions and so on taking into account the responsibility of covering the standard of living, other human aspects of the employee etc.

Now, we are all businessmen, we all carry our own ‘strategies of survival’ that do not enter into the bargaining, payments do not connect with survival, an employee may have three, four employers but none of them is obliged to bargain taking into account the basic needs of the employee etc.

Additionally, more and more the contracts are short-termed, one year you may have three contracts with a total income which is bearable, next year nothing, after six months something else and so on. Due to your temporariness, it is extremely difficult to invest and engage to a specific workplace and even more crucial for labor movement to build relations with others employees.

The temporal fragmentation of this kind renders insecurity for the future and inability to plan an adult life which is based on a minimum of stability. If you want to start a family you must be able to plan for two to five years, if you want to be creative and devote yourself on your work you need a stable environment so that your energy can be focused on it rather than seeking for your next job or jobs to sustain yourself, if you want to deploy fully your capacities in work but not only there you need time and peace etc.

Furthermore, this working status blurs the boundaries between working and unemployed people. The new model of employee is constantly in a gray area between full but short term job, part time job, no job, black labor, job that doesn’t allow you to sustain yourself etc rendering the in and out of the work not a transition but a permanent status. Your income does not necessarily relate to your gray area of work.

Based on this condition we – young and not so young members of SYRIZA – created a collectivity with the name “network of precarious employees and unemployed” in order to experiment on this new gray area of labor in which most of us were living without being able to use the traditional forms of trade-unionism. Similar initiatives were created by other groups mainly after the attempted murder in 2008 against a woman, immigrant, trade-unionist named Kouneva because of her involvement in building a trade-union of workers in cleaning companies.

All these attempts didn’t became mass organizations, they became relatively known through the internet, plenty of scattered employees were being informed for things they wouldn’t even listen otherwise (among them that they had some rights!) and they developed a rather marginal labor mobility and consciousness. However, they supported actively and decisively employees when the employers were violating their rights, they fought against the employer’s arbitrariness in many case and in very hard core situations covering the absence of official trade-unions and their indifference to deal with employees who were not their traditional basis. They were also present in square-movement as grass-roots organizations without the bad reputation of the official trade-unions, enabling the class issue to affect the course of this movement and today they are existent forms, a basis for developing something totally different.

So, before crisis there was a new spreading model of employee which was characterized by insecurity, instability, lack of workplace, lack of co-employees etc. This model signifies – among other things like the negative change of the balance of forces – the inability of capitalism to utilize the capacities of the working class, which is another symptom of its deep, structural crisis.

New-new conditions (after crisis):

Neoliberalism in Southern Europe destroys systematically the economies shaping a totally different situation. Today unemployment is permanent. If you lose your lob it is unlikely to find another one, your only solution is to immigrate either in the abroad to find a job or in the periphery of the country where the standard of living is cheaper. Families reunite in order to face the dramatic fall of income. The situation is critical, Greek society is rapidly dismantling within the last 3 years, official unemployment will soon be around 30%, youth unemployment is around 60%, working legislation is literally disappeared, salaries, pensions and other forms of people’s income are cut around 50%, the working conditions are fully subjected to the employer’s intentions without any sort of negotiating force on behalf of the employees, tax raise is mainly focused on low middle class and the poor, public sector is decaying because of the targeted cuts in public spending unable to provide elementary social protection, public health and education are severely and fatally hit and the catalogue of the disastrous neoliberal achievements could easily go on for long.

In general, the neoliberal revolution instantiates and deepens global capitalist crisis through its own effort to stop it. The capitalist crisis in the developed world renders the working population obsolete; today we workers are more than the capital can utilize due to its crisis. At the same time massive immigration from the war zones around Europe increases the available labor. Once again, technological advances threaten massively the working class rendering most of us superfluous in a way that changes entirely the questions regarding the future of the working class and of the labor movement.

In this context, there is no place for partial victory in a specific working section. Neoliberalism sweeps every resistance away. The working people are facing a total attack in every domain. The working conditions are depressing, the moral is miserable and the threat of unemployment lingers everywhere. The only reasonable demand at the moment is a total radical political overthrow of the government and the termination of the memorandum policy.

Our predicament is this: it is more probable to achieve a huge political change and open a path for the overcoming of capitalism so to speak rather than to achieve a moderate increase of salaries. The official labor movement and trade-unions are going to be extinct if they do not reorient their methodology towards in a broader horizon which is compatible with the general predicament of our time. The developed societies – like Greek and other societies in Southern Europe – will face sooner or later an existential deadlock: we cannot go back to the previous dominant paradigm. The previous status of labor will change. The traditional way of fighting for better working conditions, increase of wages and so on that shaped the traditional labor movement is vanishing. Nothing of what we know seems to work. With neoliberalism we are falling into an abyss of undignified life with no prospect and with unknown final outcome. Is there a way out? Is there a compass to give us direction? Is the labor movement in position to contribute to this urgent demand?

Additionally, in societies with huge unemployment the question of how the economy will develop in order to absorb quickly the superfluous labor is of extreme political importance for the balance of power that will determine the outcome of the neoliberal revolution. Here, the labor movement but also the working people in general face novel queries that coincide with the political struggle between neoliberals and radical left.

The neoliberal strategy is crystal clear: undignified income and working conditions, no restrictions (working, environmental, archaeological etc) for attracting investments, destruction of the country and its future etc. Is there another way? Is it possible to give a model of development that will impose both conditions in capitalist development in favor of the society and the people and at the same time will promote a rival way of production, fighting unemployment and reversing the disastrous course in a way that transcends the almost divine motto “private investments create jobs”? Is there another way to proceed without bowing to the logic of profit and competition that leads straight away to the working conditions of China?

This is a crucial point since the remaining official labor movement and the masses of the unemployed and desperate people may be prone to follow neoliberals at this point. The “private investments create jobs” becomes like a second nature to the people, people do not even consider the possibility of something different and the left must be very determined and inventive to break this spell.

The conclusion here is that today in countries or regions in which the neoliberal revolution demolishes the middle class pseudo-coziness of the “end of history” fairytale and the traditional trade-unionist systemic economic struggle, we need a different model of production that transcends the logic of profit and competition. I am talking about a detailed model that it can be launched immediately, it can be effective in covering people’s needs, and it can begin to expand positing new criteria transforming the dominant horizon of ideology. Social economy, clusters of small self-managed co-operatives together with public institutions of democratic planning and public companies in strategic sections of the production under social and labor control may be part of such a model – that needs to be concrete and operational – that will eventually shape a labor movement that not only demands from the employers but also takes responsibility for the course of the society.

The scientific manpower and its potential vanguard role

What would be a restructuring of the labor movement that would shape the subjective conditions for its contribution to this emancipatory process? The labor movement needs a drastic change of paradigm.

The key idea I would like to suggest to you today is that the superfluous scientific manpower of the developed world maybe the best candidate to take the role of the vanguard of the labor movement in a direction of radicalizing the horizon of its fights towards emancipatory politics.

Following Poulantzas’ methodology of classification, the new petit bourgeois class consists in scientific and technical professions in private and in public sector. Their basic characteristics are: i) they do not possess means of production, ii) they exercise administrative and managerial functions and other powers of the capital at the labor process in general, and iii) they are part of the collective worker. So, they are exploited by the capital and they are productive workers.

I know that traditionally the most educated part of the working class occupy administrative or managerial positions in the production and they perceive their interests as aligned with those of the employers and capitalists. However, in our situation the scientific manpower is characterized by some distinctive features that can be extremely valuable in class struggle.

Due to the fights of the people within the last century and the expansion of capitalism after the great war – and despite the systematic and determined efforts of neoliberals during the last decades – in European developed countries (maybe elsewhere as well) an “annoying” phenomenon took place. Members of the working class and the lower classes had access to education. Massive entrance in the universities may have been part of the plan for some time however the social inertia and the favorable balance of forces sustained it for long contributing to the expansion of the middle class and the better education of the working class.

Today, neoliberals cannot tolerate this disturbance anymore; this disturbance will be not last long enough for the next generations – given the new unfavorable balance of forces of the last decades that enabled the ongoing neoliberal revolution which destroys the phenomenon altogether – while the existing superfluous scientific manpower must be marginalized.

Even before the outburst of the revolution, European strategy for education within the last decades focused on the downgrading of the majority of the universities (keeping a few for the elites) through the modification of scientific education (based on standards according to the respective discipline) in vocational training (e.g. ability in operating the relevant software, following ISO regulations etc). This strategy aimed at transforming scientific manpower (which has the ability to rethink, control and influence the process of production) into operators that lack all these abilities. The technological advance of various kinds of specialized software rendered possible the detachment of the scientific means of production so to speak from the scientific manpower and their embodiment in them.

The situation is interestingly similar to the downgrading of the skilled craftsmen in the 19th century due to the advance of technology and of the organizational progress. It is crucial for our discussion to note that the most powerful trade-unions were those that were founded on former unions of skilled craftsmen and they appeared in industrial sections where the machines didn’t replace skilled manpower but there were a combination between manual labor and steam-power. Trade-unionism in more modernized industries of the time where the detachment was complete was insignificant.

I am not an expert, but maybe, the traditional idea that the vanguard of the working class is the industrial proletariat stems from the type of the skilled craftsman who knows, who is at the centre of the new productive process with a respectful role, who necessarily confronts the intentions of the owners because these are against his own identity, and who has the right and the expertise to lead a new self-managed organization of production and so on. The same features are valid in the case of the scientific manpower of today.

The existent scientific manpower is the “lost generation” the media talks of. However, history will judge whether they are lost or not. There is a window of opportunity for them and with them for all. They possess scientific means of production that allow them to be autonomous, active and creative in production. They have unfulfilled expectations and they invested effort and time in vain. They have abilities and capacities which are becoming useless. They have no future if things follow the neoliberal path.

So, they have the abilities and the urgency but more important they can acquire the required attitude needed to lead the fight of the people against neoliberals. Like the skilled craftsmen of the 19th century, the type of the scientific educated employee is the type who knows, who is at the centre of the new productive process with a respectful role, who necessarily confronts the intentions of the owners because these are against his own identity, who may be prone to feel that he has the right and the expertise to lead a new self-managed organization of production and so on. If there is any content in the notion of the vanguard of the working class, I think that the scientific manpower has the required features to play this role today in the developed world.

Moreover, another “strange” phenomenon is taking place quietly. There is an increasing tendency in scientists (mainly younger ones) in various domains to consider capitalism irrational, destructive and blatantly ineffective. Their attitude is not a hostile, ‘leftist’ one. It is more like a deep rational conviction based on a scientific way of thinking. The norms of the scientific communities, the criteria and the logic governing most of the scientific disciplines and so on do not comply (to say the least) with the logic of competition and short-term profit. Their scientific education cultivates the view that capitalism must be overcome even though they have no connection to the left. They are anti-capitalists even though they are not leftists. Anti-capitalism today is not an indication of ultra-leftism; it is a notion with broader extension than the left. Anti-capitalism tends to be the spontaneous ideology of a quickly increased part of the young scientific manpower. I think that this is an indication of the objective potentialities they bear.

Several theoreticians (Zizek, Ranciere) posit again well known criterion regarding the part of the people who may play a crucial role in the struggle against the existing order of things. The criterion is that the part of the people who has no proper part in the existing order, the part which is no part of the whole has the potential to overthrow the existing order that does not include it. They suggest that the excluded, those who do not belong to the existing social body like the ones who live in slums, those are the part of no part and they may have the potential to lead the fight against the existing order. What if however the order of things that we must change is not the previous one, the one of the post-war social contract? The post-war social contract is already being demolished by the neoliberal revolution.

The new order of things, the brave new world of the neoliberals which we must overthrow includes and promotes the status of a human being with no rights, no face, like the excluded of the previous order of things. People with no rights – like those in the slums or the illegal immigrants – is not an exception, it is the standard condition for the majority of the people according to the neoliberal ideal. If this is the new order of things, then the part of no part, the part that has no position in the new world, is exactly the type of people who although are no part of the elite are nevertheless educated capable of autonomous activity and hard to be disciplined (and they are the social support of democracy by the way). Those people are the part of no part these people are the ones who do not fit within the neoliberal order of things. They are facing extinction and for this reason they have nothing to lose.

How is it possible to actualize this paradigm-change in labor movement and in radical left, a change that utilizes at the maximum the objective conditions offered today through the scientific manpower for a new alliance capable to revitalize a radical labor movement and give flesh to a radical left plan?

How is it possible today in Greece and elsewhere to change the perspective of thousands of young scientists who are in depression because of unemployment and idleness, who wake up every morning having nothing to expect. How can we change the dominant question inside them? From the question “when will a money owner invest to gain profit so that I will find a job?” to a question “why am I not in charge of production why am I not ruling the country today and the whole world tomorrow?”. Instead of the dominant feeling of uselessness and pathetic dependency from the money owner the scientific manpower must develop the feeling of the usurpation of its right to rule the world by the money owners. How is this possible?

One first step the left could take would be to face its own imaginary self-image that prevents a paradigm change: from the industrial worker to the scientist as the imaginary core of the left and labor identity. This is difficult because it would cause huge changes in various levels and people are suspicious of changes in the left after the fall of the Soviet Union. The retreat of the left globally the last 20 years and the acceptance of capitalism as the unquestionable reality from the majority of the left and labor organizations posited to all of us who wanted to keep the vision of another society alive a crucial duty: to remain faithful to the previous forms since most of the changes ended up in acts of surrender.

It is time to admit that we no longer need to be just faithful but effective as well. It is not an act of treason to break with the traditional forms in order to remain faithful to the content, in order to be effective. Our history, our deep respect to our ancestors and the adoption of their visions should not be an obstacle in performing our own historical role, a role which will be assessed not by our faith in the forms of the past but by our effectiveness today. Radical left and labor movement should be open and ready to change in order to merge into something which is able to make emancipatory politics a historical agent in the new conditions of mass unemployment and capable to threaten globally the logic of capital, nothing less. Otherwise, emancipatory politics will remain just another partial if not marginalized identity among others.

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