Commentary: On Class Power on Zero Hours by Angry Workers Collective

The Angry Workers Collective has done us a great service in two ways. First they decided to live in West London where there is a great deal of industrial activity and root themselves there by getting jobs in local workplaces, establishing “solidarity networks” that could offer material support for local struggles, and establish a newspaper that featured struggles in the community and local workplaces. They have also done us a service by sticking at it for six years and then writing Class Power on Zero Hours that offers a comprehensive description and analysis of their work and a theoretical/strategic perspective based on how their approach could lead to revolution and a new society. I particularly liked the fact that the description of their work and organizing experiences, as developed by a “worker’s inquiry” on specific workplaces, was not separated from a detailed analysis of the industry these workplaces were a part of.

An important emphasis of the book and their work was on “food in capitalism.” aw believes that revolution must aim to “takeover, defend and transform the essential industries.” Included in these industries are agriculture, food processing, and distribution. While traditional industrial analysis would separate farming, food processing, warehousing, supermarkets, fast food, and other methods of distribution into separate industries, aw treated all of these as a part of a food supply chain and saw their task as organizers to organize along the chain. They are rightly critical of much of the left who fail to see that capitalism has revolutionized these as an integrated industry so that the work in the supermarkets and fast food joints is integrally linked to that of the warehouse drivers, food factory workers and the farmers. As they put it, “If we think about social revolution we have to think about how integrated our food supply is globally and how the centers of food production will be focal points of working class insurrection.”

While thinking of food production in this way is a real advance in industrial analysis, they tend to gloss over a few other important aspects of food. They point out correctly that the revolutionizing of food production and distribution and increasing productivity has led to real improvements in peoples’ lives. Yet, there is an important contradiction that needs to be a part of any vision of revolution. The vital nature of food to sustain human life is contradicted by the necessity of capitalism to treat food as a commodity to be bought and sold as a way to accumulate capital, profits and to grow the system. Food as a use value (food security) often runs up against food as an exchange value. One manifestation of this is that some food simply isn’t safe. Another is that people go hungry. In addition there is mounting evidence that the revolutionizing of the food industry is contributing to both global warming and to habitat destruction that is in turn generating a series of viruses. These attacks on food security, in my view, need to be a part of a perspective on organizing workers in the industry. While aw talks of the need to take over and transform essential industries, the emphasis is on takeover with little perspective of the meaning of transformation.

There is a need for more thinking about the transformation problem. aw seems dismissive of groups trying to resist the capitalist revolutionizing of food production. Yet there are examples of how, if food was seen not as a source of profit but as a human need and right, farming and food production/distribution could be done quite differently.

But there is something even more fundamental at stake here. aw’s work in the Greenford community on London’s West Side and their workplace efforts at places like prepared food factory, Bakkavor, and the Tesco Supermarket warehouse was motivated by a specific view of capitalism and a revolutionary strategy to replace it. It is difficult to summarize their views and there is no substitute for comrades reading the concluding chapters of Angry Workers’ book. But here is what I got out of their concluding chapters. They argue that a series of strikes at large workplaces in essential industries can make visible the links between different segments of the working class and lead to insurrection aimed at taking over these industries. The objective is to take over and transform these workplaces as building blocks for a new society. This process should occur by region (like England) until it encompasses the world.

This strategic outlook on revolution is based on their conception of the nature of “capitalist power” and the contradictions that can weaken the system. Capitalist power is based, they argue, on exploitation at the workplace; but it has two contradictions that can overcome that. One is that exploitation is based on violence or oppression, which people will tend to resist. The other is that capitalist power depends on “making us think we can’t produce this world by ourselves.” The power of capital is instituted “(most) importantly through company and state management. Capital is able to get millions of people to work together by hiding the need for global cooperation and dividing the people who work together along racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of hierarchy at the workplace. (For this reason) strikes that take place in the heart of exploitation are crucial.”

I have a different view. I believe that the power of capital is based on its ability to force workers to sell their capacity to work as a commodity. The contradiction is that labor is both a commodity under capitalism but at the same time can be a meaningful creative and purposeful activity. That is the fundamental division under capitalism—the divide in the category of labor and it is through this division that all other divisions are made possible—mental versus manual labor; race, gender, ethnicity, temp vs. permanent workers, native vs. migrant, etc.

I would further contend that the power of capital is its ability to turn everything in society into a commodity. The commodity form hides the dual character of all of life’s needs—including food, housing, healthcare, education and even a healthy environment. Struggles against capitalism should be focused on its commodification of everything.

Because Angry Workers see capitalist power mediated by the company and state as more important than the commodity form itself, they see the strike in essential industries which reveals connections between various sections of the working class as the basis for revolution and they connect that to a strategy of insurrection and takeover of essential industries.

While the strike can be effective, other kinds of resistance both at the workplace and in the community also threaten capital’s power if the contradiction between use and exchange values is brought into focus. Contradictions are not confined to the workplace. The commodity form governs all of social existence. The commodity labor power is central to this. To grow and accumulate capital, all aspects of life in capitalist society must be reduced to commodities. Because the system must grow through the accumulation of capital, because it must use dead labor (machines that increase productivity), and because only living labor can produce value, the global system reaches points where the amount of value the system is able to generate is not sufficient to meet basic human needs. It is at such points that the commodity form itself can most clearly be challenged.

Revolutionaries working in production and living in working class communities have an important role that includes recognizing implicit challenges to the commodity form and making these explicit by drawing the lessons from such challenges in terms of a vision of a world without commodities. I saw many examples of such challenges in Class Power on Zero Hours. But I will illustrate my point with a few of my own experiences.

In my book Living and Dying on the Factory Floor I describe a wildcat strike I was part of in a shortening factory. At a point when the strike had become weakened we were summoned to an arbitration hearing that required a train ride from the factory to the downtown Federal office building. We took a beating at that hearing for reasons spelled out in the book and coming back to South Chicago on the train we knew the strike was lost and we were silent and sad. Yet, a man named John Logan broke through the silence and said: “If I knew what was going to happen when we started this I would still have done it. These are the proudest days in my life.” I was on the edge of tears as I looked at him until another worker began laughing. He explained his mirth. “There ain’t no justice,” Lawrence laughed. “There’s just us.” We smiled the rest of the way home.

I get very emotional when I tell this story because John expressed the human side of labor as his pride in being a human being, exposing the contradiction between labor and labor power. For all of us, that pride became what the strike was all about. In the course of the struggle, the contradiction between that and our treatment as commodities by the company, the union and the government became quite clear. We lost the strike but the whole contradiction between labor as a human activity and labor power as a commodity was out of the box. And Lawrence saw that the resolution to this contradiction would not come through government institutions like Federal arbitrators or unions but was contained within “just us.”

I have seen instances of challenges to the commodity form both at the workplace and the community many times.

Another example: a foreman at a chemical plant whistled at us when we were sitting in the lunch room (part of a shop floor protest) and yelled: “Get back to work!” One of the workers yelled back at him: “No estamos perros, cabron!” (We are not dogs, asshole!) We continued to sit until the matter was resolved but, after that, whenever the foreman tried to tell us what to do, everyone began barking.

Another: When public funds were withdrawn from community mental health centers in Chicago, there was a militant effort to demand their reopening. A Vietnam Vet who was part of the demonstration said to me that he had ptsd bad and the closed center was a need for him. Healthcare, however, was seen by the politicians as a commodity that they couldn’t afford. The contradiction was exposed.

Revolutionaries, including myself, who were involved in these struggles lacked the perspective, the number of people, and the organization to move these forward. Perhaps we can do better this time around.

In summary, I don’t believe that insurrection and takeovers can be the basis for a new society unless the commodity form is destroyed in the process. That means the elimination of money, and wage labor. The working class needs to see how this can become a reality through their own acts of resistance and the recognition that these acts not only challenge capitalism but also point at directions toward a new society.

Revolutionaries need to be able to see the revolutionary challenge in such things and record them (possibly in a newspaper like awww). But they also have to have discussions explaining the status of labor power, food, healthcare as a commodity. If we are able to stay in one place long enough, we can build relationships where drawing such lessons is natural and adds to worker consciousness. If this is not done, we will never get beyond takeover even if there is a large-scale insurrection. Instead we are apt to see a manifestation of Hegel’s “unhappy consciousness” (retrogression) where the slave becomes the master.

Dave Ranney is the author of Living and Dying on the Factory Floors: From the Outside In and the Inside Out (2019) and New World Disorder: The Decline of US Power (2014).

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