“Class Power on Zero-Hours”—A response to comrades from Insurgent Notes, USA

Dear comrades,

First of all, thanks loads for having taken the time to read our book and to write down comments. We will respond to each individual contribution, although a response ordered by “topics” or “themes” would have been way more elegant. We would also encourage you to read two other responses we wrote to comrades from Organizing.Work and the Communist Workers Organisation (cwo) where we also address some of the questions you raise, in particular around the question of syndicalism.

*** John Garvey

“Kidding aside, the aww are not offering up recipes for anyone to follow. They’re telling a set of powerful stories that take very seriously the possibility that workers can free themselves and remake the world.”

Dear John,

We appreciate your emphasis on the story side of things and your cab driving memories were great and encapsulated a lot. At the same time we are stuck in a certain contradiction. Given our wealth of “first hand experience,” we can be good storytellers and people praise us for being able to talk about working class conditions in detail, opening doors for them to an otherwise perhaps alien, or even exotic, world. Our political proposals are often lost in this wealth of detailed descriptions. We agree that we have no “recipes for anyone to follow,” but we do have pretty straightforward suggestions: if you want to rebuild a communist working class organisation you have to:

  1. find organisational forms that bridge the gap between “marginalised/lumpenised” proletarians and industrial workers in strategically significant locations in your area;
  2. build collectives for self-organisation and analysis within the essential industries and amongst engineering workers in order to be able to
  3. intervene at the most advanced points of struggles where the material divisions between marginal, manual, intellectual workers are questioned. Part of this intervention is to
  4. prepare a pretty pragmatic plan for a takeover and violent defence of the means of production.

While this is not a step-by-step recipe, when we look at concrete locations like London or Seattle, there are also not so many different ways to go about it. This perspective, we think, is qualitatively different from most “base building” approaches or syndicalist strategies. More on that later when responding to Don Hamerquist.

“It seems that aww discount the significance of state violence when it is faced with a revolutionary takeover.”

The cwo comrades raised a similar concern. We guess we underplay the issue in reaction to the various insurrectionist tendencies that surround us. We stress that a working class revolution won’t smash the state militarily, but through the state’s dependence on social labour. A working class revolution would have to split the state-employed workers engaging in social labour from the repressive arm of the state; replace the productive “administrating” functions of the state by establishing new structures of decision-making; split the army along class lines, organise an armed defence of the means of production and put the remaining state armed forces into an economic and social chokehold. That’s all pretty vague, but a qualitatively different perspective than “civil war” or military insurrection.

“When aww discuss planning for a revolutionary transition, you make no mention of what Marx referred to as ‘reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc.’ ”

We don’t know if this is a question concerning the use of strike funds. In general we think that “mobilising material solidarity from other workers during a strike” is an important part of making the strike known and getting in touch with others. Cajoling workers into a strike by saying that the apparatus will pay them strike money if they turn up for the pickets tends to be less dynamic. If the question concerns a revolutionary transition, then we would think that it involves large scale reappropriation of whatever the working class needs—so no need for separate funds.

“I am inclined to believe that there is a need for a broad democratic affirmation of decisions made to take over and how to go forward during a revolutionary moment. I don’t think aww addressed that. Have I missed something?”

We mention it briefly in the last chapters by saying that we don’t want to speculate what kind of form these “democratic” structures will take, whether they are industrial assemblies or neighbourhood councils. The main points are: a revolutionary transition is not decided “democratically” in terms of a mass of individual workers deciding whether or not to takeover the means of production. We rather think that it will be an imposition by the productive working class and “insurgent proletariat” to enforce a radical reduction and equalisation of working time against the rest and perhaps even quantitative majority of society—“against,” meaning that a lot of people might remain passive and some even opposed to these measures. From then on, decisions might rather emerge from the new social relationships as “associated producers” rather than from “citizens” or a mass of individuals.

“Paul Mattick once argued that, given the increasing incorporation of scientific and technical knowledge into production, it made sense to think about more universities as factories. How does that sound to you?”

Perhaps two things: in some ways “productive knowledge” might nowadays be more removed from the factory shop-floor and the division between manual and intellectual labour more geographically stratified. A mechanic in the 1920s could see or imagine the work of an engineer perhaps more easily than a mobile phone assembly worker in China could see the developer’s work in Silicon Valley today. At the same time the working class is more “skilled” in general terms. More have had access to higher education, access to knowledge through the internet. When it comes to the university we think that it cannot really be compared to a factory as such, as students don’t really co-operate on a mass scale and don’t produce a tangible product that symbolises their co-operation. (We would also have to talk about students’ diverging class backgrounds and prospects.) This doesn’t mean that there are no links between factory and university—but we know little about this, partly because most science or engineering departments are less involved in the usual campus politics. For us all this will be a major focus of research in future: what constitutes collective productive knowledge today, and how is it stratified?

*** Don Hamerquist

“Ten years later, when we took a pause that proved to be a very long pause, there were very few factories left in the Chicago area (now they are essentially all gone) and the layer of class militants had been severely diluted by the changing circumstances of life inside and outside the factory.”

Dear Don,

That’s a big one—how can the working class come out of such a phase of factory closures and industrial relocations? Perhaps we are defeatist, but for us this shows mainly the limitations of “syndicalism,” the thought that the working class can slowly accumulate its forces. The power of local workers will always be undermined, but capital is forced to socialise labour on a higher and more international level—it’s just that workers’ struggles and we
ourselves haven’t been able to “globalise ourselves” to the same degree as social production has. We had a good discussion about this recently; some of our comrades took part in the Wapping printer dispute in 1986—please read the attached comments.

We also started a new series on “practical working class internationalism”; perhaps you guys can contribute.

“This experience left me with a solid antipathy to most talk about revolutionaries building a base in the working class and sto adopted a consciously different approach[….] Perhaps it is not the same in the United Kingdom, but here in this country there tends to be an opposition between ‘base-building in the class’ and ‘intervening’ in the most significant conflicts.”

This is really interesting and we haven’t got the insights into what is actually happening with the “base building tendency” in the United States. We have our doubts, but mainly because of the conceptualisation: workers as a mass of poor people that need organising or rather being organised; political groups that want to use this “organised base” as their source of power. At the same time we see the tendency as a step forward in terms of how it is attempting to break out of the leftist bubble. We do need more direct exchange with local comrades who actually know what is happening. We ourselves think that we have to “get rooted,” meaning, develop contacts to workers in many workplaces and areas where we live, prove ourselves as people who “know how to struggle” and, at the same time, connect this practical knowledge to an idea of how to create a better society.

“The problem that we discovered, and I think the Angry Workers did as well, is that these events are fleeting while the yoke of capitalist hierarchy is omnipresent. The issue becomes how can the momentary energy be generalized—maximized and extended; and when it inevitably subsides, how can the militants it has produced survive in an organized form that can impact an increasingly wider range of situations.”

Again a big one. We raise some questions at the end of the book: we were quite “informal” with all of the politicised workers and new comrades we met. We’re wary of ‘group identities.’ We informed everyone about what we were doing, e.g., writing a new issue of the newspaper, distributing leaflets, preparing a theoretical reading group, travelling to international meetings of the movement, etc. We invited people to take part in all this, but didn’t present it as the activity of “an organisation.” We didn’t ask people to join. Perhaps that was too lax and we should have insisted more that people participate in all activities that constitute “an organisation.” At the same time we are not voluntaristic: people’s lives are hard; they are pressed for time. An organisation, even when the actual struggle has subsided, has to provide some kind of “use value” for people. Either the get-togethers have to be enjoyable or “being in the organisation” contributes to making the material burden of life less heavy.

*** Gifford Hartman

“This allows ‘daily co-operation between workers,’ which is ‘the actual basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class.’ Amazon’s global network, bridging production and distribution in order to fulfil consumption, is the quintessential embodiment of this more recent, global development.”

Dear Gifford,

As you know, we would always emphasise the fact that “co-operation” of workers inside the factory, between companies, along transport and supply chains are the “organic” basis for self-organised struggle. And we have some historical evidence for this, such as the so-called “chess-board strikes” at fiat or various international solidarity actions of dockworkers. At the same time, there are various developments that put this “organic” cohesion into question:

  • We think that we are experiencing the peak of globally socialised labour. With an increase in transport costs and a levelling out of wage differences there will be less incentive for a very minute global division of labour. This trend is supported by “political protectionism” during the crisis. During the last 30 years of globalisation, workers haven’t really found many ways to make use of global supply chains for their own struggles. It is different if you co-operate with workers next door or workers on a different continent. Most “international” links remained dependent on political or trade union projects. You yourself know best that this requires a lot of conscious activity.
  • With peak fossil fuel and the shift from petrol to electric cars we see a sharp decline in the need for “complex co-operation” for the production of the most labour intensive consumer good of capitalist society. Electric cars don’t need gearboxes and complex engines. This will radically alter the main industrial bastions of the last cycle of workers’ struggle.
  • We tried to apply the concept of “productive co-operation” to growing “non-industrial” sectors. We called hospitals the “white factory,” the university “knowledge factory” and hoped that 5,000 workers at Amazon warehouses would develop a similar self-confidence and political consciousness as workers in similarly big factories before them. We haven’t seen a similar emergence of workers’ power in new sectors and this is not only due to the wider social atmosphere, but also because of a very different kind of co-operation, sense of collective self and creative power.

This leaves us with a blank spot. Of course, globally, “industrial production” has still been growing and “industrial workers” will still be at the centre of any social change. But the connections between workers will increasingly be based on more “willed” working class associations and organisation. Knowing the pitfalls of many “organisations,” not just the mainstream trade unions, means that we are still in a phase of experimentation and reconsideration.

“The sixth chapter offers a cautionary tale. When two aww comrades got positions as union representatives it allowed access to many more of their co-workers, but both examples of accommodation with ‘actually existing trade unionism’ ended in failure. The lesson from their empirical experience is that unions offer more impediments than solutions to workers’ problems.”

This assessment is not entirely correct. In the case of Bakkavor we might equally say that by promoting self-organisation outside of the trade union we didn’t get too far either. By becoming a union rep, supported by comrades from outside and by an individual union organiser, we managed to enforce a wage campaign against the rest of the union on the factory level and against management. Two thousand five hundred workers confirmed the wage demand several times despite the sabotage of the union body, some even took wildcat action, but the mass of workers didn’t push the union to call for a strike.

*** Dan La Botz

“As a person who has in different moments organized among immigrant workers, I found this claim very dubious. Their own accounts suggest that the collective was made up almost entirely of British people, and the reader gathers that probably there were few if any immigrants among them. […] Immigrant organizing is usually most successful when immigrants can build their own organizations where they speak in their own language to people who share their culture. Such organizations allow immigrants to then relate to the broader workers’ movement.”

Dear Dan,

You question whether we, as “British” people, are able to engage in successful “migrant organising.” Like most Londoners, and indeed, for many people who call themselves “British,” things are not so straightforward. One of us is a British Punjabi woman; one of us is actually German but speaks fluent Hindi. Two Polish comrades were obviously fluent in Polish. We had Spanish and Slovenian comrades, lived with Hungarians, had Romanian flatmates and colleagues. It’s true we didn’t have Gujurati and Tamil speakers amongst us—but we translated our factory newsletters into these main languages, giving people equal access to the information that was being shared from across the different company sites. The question of how they use this information and whether they organised themselves was, of course, up to them.

Does it matter if we are not “deeply involved in the communities and culture of these groups?” To be honest, it felt like a blessing not to be. These were conservative, religious “communities” that were ridden with class, gender and caste hierarchies that left those at the bottom both dependent and distrustful of the ones on top. Being “deeply involved” in these “communities,” as a woman especially, would have meant conforming to gender roles—being married primarily, to someone of the same religion and caste, and having children the next. This is not something I have ever been prepared to do, even within my own so-called Punjabi community. Does not having this mean you are not credible and automatically “unsuccessful” in any organising attempts?

Firstly, we would make a distinction between “immigrant organising” and “class based organising amongst different migrant groups.” The first wouldn’t work in west London because workplaces, even if there is a dominant language group, are all mixed. When racial and language divisions are already exploited by management, it makes little sense to dig deeper trenches by focusing on one language group in a workplace. Secondly, “successful immigrant organising” is almost always a by-word for short-term gains in pay and conditions, but what happens in the longer-term? Relating to a wider workers’ movement from a particular identitarian position surely creates more problems in the long-run? The important thing may be that people build their own structures—and we would not disagree—but doing this from a seemingly homogenous “cultural” position does little to challenge their reactionary elements in the first place.

And reactionary they were! The worker’s inquiry into the food factory talks about the devastating effects of an “intra-community” union structure that left most workers feeling powerless and unrepresented amongst the Gujarati-family controlled union, and nepotism and power consolidation amongst the men at the top. While Tamils felt especially aggrieved, focusing on them as a separate group would have ignored the deeper common feelings of distrust and abandonment of all workers. The wider union did not challenge this “community” structure because the branch could be used to showcase them as a “diverse and multicultural” union, never mind that it kept a stifling hold on any workers’ anger or potential action. In the beginning of course, this strategy of building a union inside the workplace used all the “community” levers—but where had it got us ten years down the road?

We take some time in the book to talk through these obvious barriers, and why we wanted the solidarity network in particular to try and break through these community and cultural strongholds, which act as middle-men and parasites, smelling a chance to exploit their identity positions for material gain. We don’t deny that language barriers are a massive hurdle. Of course, language barriers are huge. But cultural ones should be less of a challenge: people recognise first and foremost whose side you’re on, the bosses or the workers. In my factory, the Gujarati workforce knew whose side I was on. But language dependency forced them to rely on their Gujarati representatives, who they knew were on the side of management. Being an “outsider” can actually be useful in these situations, as you aren’t drawn into the low-level gossip that keeps workers afraid of transgressing cultural boundaries. In the appendix of the book we describe the degeneration of one of these “migrant workers’ organisations” in our area—the Indian Workers’ Association. Their approach led fairly quickly to a cross-class organisation that became a jumping-board for the middle-class elements into uk electoral politics. We can compare this to organisations like the early iww, which also had “language groups” but worked towards an over-coming, not confirmation of national community boundaries.

The more pertinent question would be how do we make it easier for workers who don’t speak the same languages to get together on a more solid “anti-boss” line rather than affiliating with their language groups and getting into all sorts of bad alliances? We tried to have translators present at all the meetings we arranged; we invited Punjabi workers we met through the solidarity network to talk to Punjabi women workers at a sandwich factory about their experiences; those same workers spread the word about the solidarity network in the local Sikh temples; we translated our written material as and when necessary; we tried to organise English classes for workers. But we refused to focus on workers as “immigrants” primarily, seeing this as a longer-term trap. This is definitely harder to do, but I guess this is where our dogmatism gets in the way of short-term “successes.”

Speaking of English classes, John Garvey raises the point in his piece. I did think long and hard about the quality of these lessons, which is why I initially enlisted a fellow communist English language teacher who saw the dual importance of such lessons. The idea was not just to learn grammar, but to have a space outside work where, women especially, could discuss their lives inside and outside of work. The “curriculum” would had been based on gaining confidence at work—role-playing how to speak up with managers, demand toilet breaks, arguing back if your holiday request was denied, and generally not being scared to challenge their immediate managers. However, the union again regained control of this initiative, bringing it in-house, and organising it together with management, no doubt as a way to pick off people who showed “potential” to fast-track them to more senior positions.

“While Angry Workers collective offers us these theoretical sections, we do not have a clear understanding of their political views. I think that this springs from the workerist character of this group that sees everything through the lens of labor. It is not a wide enough lens. One would like to know, for example, what they think about world politics. […] They don’t even have more than a few words to say about uk politics and Brexit was hardly mentioned.”

Firstly, there is some misconception about our supposedly “syndicalist” approaches, despite the fact that we spend a whole chapter of the book laying out our criticisms of “syndicalism” and the various traps that such strategies fall into. To be fair, the fact that we do “worker’s inquiries” could be construed as being tunnel-vision workerists, but our chapter on women’s lives, as well as local community campaigns to save the library and have social housing included in a revamp of the leisure centre may go some way to balancing out that picture. But yes, we focus on workplaces mainly as the place where we all come together, from different backgrounds, and are forced to co-operate on getting the job done. It is also the place where women meet in the largest numbers. While you could say that having two jobs—one unwaged and one waged—makes life harder overall, it also provides the necessary social space where confidence and collectivity can be forged to challenge other aspects of life. This is something that isolated labour at home just does not enable. We hope that our stories in the book connect these dots and justifies our focus on the place most likely to elicit collective action.

We were fairly strategic in our choice of jobs. We never worked in “tiny workplaces.” Even the ones with say, 100 workers, were linked to other local and international supply chains that warranted an interest in them. We tried to connect struggles between agricultural workers in the south of Spain with food factory workers in west London where their vegetables ended up. The claim that we are “intensely local” isn’t really accurate: we documented everything as we went along on our blog, we invited people internationally to take part and join us; we made sure our newspaper talked about struggles happening in countries where many workers had come from—India for example. We took part in international meetings and tried to find comrades in other places doing similar things, we were hungry for any kind of wider debate, but were often left wanting. Even now, criticisms of the book haven’t really engaged with the nuts and bolts of what we labour so long to describe: the composition of the work and workforce; the wider context of the work in global food production; the difficulties of rank and file organising in mixed workplaces where potential power is strong but workers are individually weak.

In terms of being even more “strategic,” such as having a national network of people working inside one company, we aren’t averse to the idea. The problem is do we find the people who want to do it? In the one workplace where we did organise a slow-down with our co-workers, there were three of us working there at the time. This made the work more fun, we managed to talk to more people between us, we had a wider reach as it were. And it’s true, that one of us working in a workplace of 1,000 was more intense and overwhelming at times. But things can be experimented—the problem is more about finding people who think it is worthwhile, who have the flexibility and yes, courage, to bring their personal and political lives together in this way. Some reviewers bought up the fact that it didn’t seem like we had children of our own, which gave us the flexibility required to do this kind of thing, as if this was somehow a bad thing. While some of us do have kids, it’s true that having 24/7 caring responsibilities is a definite barrier to political engagement—which is no doubt why we rarely see women with kids at political meetings, let alone be able to commit to the type of stuff we do. These structural limitations are difficult to solve on a small group level. But what is the point here? That because we don’t have families, our decisions to do workers’ inquiries is somehow inauthentic or not based in most peoples’ “real” experiences, so we shouldn’t do it?

As we said, it’s more of a problem to find fellow travellers who—while they could do this kind of thing—don’t. Is it lack of political commitment? Is it defeatism? Is it not proscribing to the “quick-fix” mentality that so many of us are looking for? The idea of collectives themselves is dying a death—working as a group, with shared work and plans, is seen as automatically limiting and Leninist by its very nature. Labelling any kind of shared work or program as “Trotskyist” seems disabling in the current moment.

You say we don’t have much to say on “world politics” in the book, it’s true. Having run to almost 400 pages already, we’re saving that for part 2! Ha Ha! We do have many articles on our website that deal with the more global picture though. The question of wider “politics,” in the uk at least, is normally defined specifically by uk parliamentary politics, which has sucked up the hearts and minds and guts of almost the entire “left” here, which explains why we didn’t want to go too near that limp carcass in the book… We do, however, talk about the impacts of the government’s “hostile environment” policies on our co-workers and the general social atmosphere, and we mention Brexit, but only to the extent that it wasn’t much of a discussion point at work, let alone the elections and Corbyn. We write about our main historical criticisms of “democratic socialism,” which touches upon many political issues. In our workers’ newspaper we published articles against the “Brexit vs. Remain” theatre and against climate change, arguing from a Heathrow airport workers perspective to refuse the “jobs vs. health/future” blackmail.

“Other elements of the program, harkening back to Peter Kropotkin or some anarchist of the opening of the last century, sound like a utopia from another time. The collective proposes reorganizing the entire society into groups of about 250 who will live in communal spaces like ‘former hotels, schools, office blocks, etc.’ ‘to manage distribution of food, childcare and so on.’ ”

We get a lot of flack for our idea that it would make sense to establish “domestic units” of around 250 people—people compare us with Pol Pot! These “units” have nothing to do with a “utopia from another time.” We don’t think that these units will be self-sufficient artisan idylls. They are pragmatic solutions in terms of distribution and of certain elements of care work—avoiding both the isolating character of the nuclear family and the anonymity of urban life. It is interesting that many people see this automatically as an attack on their freedom! Yes, we assume you would still be able to sleep and cook in your own room—but you might often prefer to go to the canteen and socialise. Yes, you can leave and hang out with other people outside your unit, there won’t be any barbed wire. For us the main question is how these “decentralised” units of care work, small-scale production and collective debate can relate to organically more centralised industries, such as energy production or certain manufacturing.

*** Dave Ranney

“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; […] 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. […] 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.”

Dear Dave,

Thanks for raising the “commodity question!” We agree, capitalism is based on the enforcement of commodity production and will only be smashed if we abolish commodity production. This in itself doesn’t tell us what commodity production is based on. How does a thing become a commodity? Through the exchange, through the market form? Through the fact that it has been produced by wage labour? How did the labour power become a commodity in the first place? Historically we can say that the commodity form only became prevalent once most people were forced to buy the things they need in order to survive. In this sense wage labour and the proletarian existence is a precondition for the spread of the commodity form. Initially the violent separation of the producers from their means of production pushed people into wage labour. But does that mean that the commodity form, property relations and therefore wage labour is primarily based on violence?

We think that the relative stability of the capitalist system lies not in the fact that it’s primarily based on violence, but on the expansion and the integration of conflict through permanent development. There is a historic relation between disappropriation—the fact that the product doesn’t belong to the producers and appears as an alien commodity—and the development of the social production process. The power of early artisans and skilled workers was broken by transferring their skills onto an apparatus—a machine—and by confronting them with a global trade system, based on cotton plantations and enslaved labour. A single artisan was able to claim “this thing is mine, I have produced it myself.” With the complex co-operation in an industrial system dependent on global supply, no single worker can say “this is mine.” The product belongs to the social power that combines the necessary labour, it becomes a commodity and someone else’s property not just by law or the threat of violence, but by the fact that the production process itself disappropriates the individual worker. This process is never uncontested. Industrial workers have historically claimed that the product of their factory is theirs—expressed in councilism or the co-operative movements. Capital reacts to this by smashing integrated industrial processes, separating workers from necessary knowledge or separating the various sequences of the production process through global supply-chains and outsourced departments.

In order to abolish the commodity form or property relations, it is not enough to declare that the product is not property of a private capitalist anymore, but of the nation or the workers’ state. If the production process itself is still structured in a way that takes the control away from workers, they will not “own” the fruits of their labour either. Department walls will have to be smashed, the intellectual labour freed from the universities, the nuclear family homes destroyed—meaning, the free association of producers established. This is why we start from the criticism of the social production process and from the double-character of workers’ co-operation: the capitalist production process separates us from each other, but depends on our co-operation. The main step to question the power of capital is the discovery of our co-operation as a weapon and the starting point to produce our lives differently. Only if we create this production of our lives collectively and consciously will the product not take the alienated form of the commodity.

This concerns the core of the capitalist mode of production and the main challenge for a communist revolution. This doesn’t mean that capitalist power and the enforcement of property relations are not increasingly secured by brute violence—and that we will have ways to deal with this. But given the current talk of “civil war” and the experience of the Arab Spring and Syria in particular, we think that the global proletariat is willing to take on the repressive apparatus and to “disrespect” the commodity form by looting, but not capable yet of imagining a collective takeover of the means of production. One of the reasons is the complex nature of global production today.


Thanks again to all of you and we hope to continue the discussion!

In solidarity,

Some AngryWorkers

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