Book Review: Lines of Work

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by JF

In the introduction to Lines of Work (Black Cat Press 2014), Scott Nappalos places the volume of first-person workplace testimonials, many familiar to readers of Recomposition blog and some previously unpublished, in the tradition of the Johnson Forest Tendency and Stan Weir, whose mid-century accounts of American work located, rather triumphantly, the seeds of a future society in the cooperative productive relations of the present. “Working class experiences of story telling” Nappalos writes “have not been taken seriously enough among those of us who try to organize and build a better society.” And it is not simply the circumstances depicted in Lines of Work which nurture and develop class consciousness, Nappalos maintains, but the experience of story telling itself, and I would add, the experience of reading such captivating stories of everyday hardship, struggle, and above all, faith in the liberatory potential of the working class, no matter how concealed beneath its daily debasement.

From the reader’s standpoint, it is an emotional experience to read these earnest and often unpolished accounts, from such disparate fields as nursing, finance, education, the supposedly extinct North American factory, day labor, and predictably enough, a healthy dose of service work. The pervasive pathos is one of fatigue, bitterness, anger, and oftentimes desperation. Though the authors are primarily politicos ideologically dedicated to workplace organizing, most of the low end jobs, including the worst paying and least rewarding, and almost always in small shops, seem taken out of economic necessity instead of any overarching organizational strategy. The predictable grumbling of Paul Mason’s “graduate with no future” is matched in intensity by the grumbling of stomaches underfed and over-caffeinated. Most notably, a contributor named The Invisible Man, a déclassé college graduate driven to low wage factory work and day labor, plumbs this abject position in a nuanced handling of class, race, and nationality in Canadian society, demonstrating simultaneously the importance of a racial analysis to workplace struggles, and the limits of solidarity based on race and nationality.

On the higher end of the job spectrum, in traditional middle-class bulwarks such a nursing, teaching, and “white collar” office work, the comparatively higher wages bring along endless days of overwork, debilitating stress, and sleep deprivation sufficient to find one dozing off behind the wheel, like P. Barbanegra, whose “Who Dismisses the Teacher?” is a must read for radicals seeking meaningful work in education. And throughout all jobs, the daily perils of sexual harassment, bullying, precarity, time theft, the forfeiture of youth to wage labor, all of which are, on top of it all, met with no little or no mass resistance, are voiced with a sense of despair difficult to exaggerate. When mounted, struggles are isolated, piecemeal, and not the stuff of the labor history their initiators no doubt came up on. Minor victories are briefly savored, as they must be, before the sobering reality of the struggles to be waged kicks in, and often the pink slip is not far behind.

To the astute reader, none of these phenomena may be news. But the reader of Lines of Work actually feels them, right along with those whose very lives are daily sacrificed in the crucible of the new economy. This is the subjective aspect of the working class experience which is too often missing from “objective” analysis of the present. From the raw and visceral reaction invoked by Abbey Volcano’s epic punk styled “Pissing Blood: Work Sucks”, in which the reader can almost experience the seething contempt for petty-bourgeois non-profit professionals felt contemporaneously with… well… pissing blood, to Nappalos’s  “No eres un loba”, a (literally, for this reviewer) tear-jerking paen to an angelic patient withering away beyond all help in his oncology unit, the impact on the reader is a sucker-punch unlike anything a hundred jobs or analyses of contracted social reproduction reports could deliver. And it is invaluable for understanding the roots of struggle, especially for those of us who pride ourselves in objectivity at the expense of a distance from its tangible roots. This work offers a glimpse at the human core of struggles, in all its frailty, contradiction, but above all, potentiality, with an emotive inkling toward the commonalities we all share. If, as Nappalos maintains, the telling of the story develops and hones the consciousness of the worker, the encountering of a story told as well as these tales are told inspires in the reader an intangible feeling of solidarity irreducible to words, and more interested in action, anyway.

A divergence from JFT and Weir is of course that a good amount of these jobs — finance, food service, clerical work, manufacturing bullets for imperialist wars — are not the seeds of a future society but a blight on the present one. There is no straight line from these jobs to a libertarian communist society, nor are most of them (except for the bullet factory, really), strategic “choke points” of capital, as the present theories of circulation dictates that we seek out. A revolutionary struggle would be waged to eliminate these jobs, not to make them cooperative. And an occupied Starbucks would inconvenience a few yuppies into crossing the street to another one, as a chain-wide shutdown would send these declassed flocks to Dunkin Donuts, and a miraculous industry-wide action would cause them to dust off the Kerik at home, and so forth. But  I would like to advance the controversial hypotheses that not only is this not the point of workplace struggle, but that class struggle itself is nothing mysterious, nothing theological which we must await to come. It is all around us.

“These are my skills” exasperated barista Liberte Locke laments. “I have honed them. This is my body, I am responsible for it. Given those two things I can’t understand why the large profits go to bosses living in luxury, and the pain, effort, and sacrifice is coming from those in poverty that already have to do everything else for themselves on top of going to work.” If this sounds simplistic, it is. Because, so is the root of struggle. The private ownership of the means of production, necessitating a worldwide class of workers with nothing to sell but their labor power, yet nonetheless dependent on commodity exchange, is actually quite easy to understand, and is felt by all in its thrall in some way or another. It is often something grasped emotionally, prior to cognition. Even the notorious statement “that’s just how it is” contains the admission that “that’s…how it is”.

When crisis prevents its suppression in masses of desperate people, the maelstrom of emotion this relation evokes can assume horrifying forms if channeled into nationalism, anti-semitism, and the like. It is above all a feeling, as inchoate as incessant, temporarily dulled with drugs, alcohol, Facebook, and the like, but never silenced for good. Workplace struggle gives this inchoate material an explicit form, and for tantalizing moments, points it to the inversion of the relationships which define our society. Surely its tempting to titter at a Erik Forman’s claim that in getting a fired worker re-hired, he and his Starbuck’s comrades had “pulled off a Copernican inversion, putting workers at the center of the small universe of our shop.” But that experience is just as real as the fact that the subjectivities it creates will populate the struggles to come. Never mind that for anyone who has ever been fired from a job they need to pay their bills, speculation about the interstellar relationship between the sun and the Earth pales in comparison.

Another novelty of Lines of Work, which makes its appeal visceral to the working class reader, is the large portion dedicated to dreams, and their colonization by the wage relation. Awaking from a work dream only to find one’s work day only beginning is perhaps one of the banal horrors shared most widely by the entire worldwide proletariat. The haze of the sleepless nights of “clopening” (closing followed by opening — be thankful if you’ve never heard the term), misty morning commutes hours before the sun rises, drugs and alcohol used more for medication that recreation, the disorienting experience of 50+ hour work weeks doing what had once been two or three jobs, or the perhaps equally hazy landscape of self doubt and improbable possibilities which accompanies having no job at all  — this misty mise-en-scene, which forms the backdrop of much of Lines of Work, can in many ways map itself onto the struggles of the present, in all their confusion, contradictions, and fatigue. Yet, with it, struggles bloom, no matter how small or ostensibly defeated and with no further impact.

At this point my clever reader might have begun to suspect that I am effectively defending this work against imagined critics, or more selfishly still, defending myself for finding it so important. This book of course corresponds with the release of End Notes #3, required reading for all in the communist milieu lest they find themselves sitting out long, dense conversations of the present moment, and on the face of it, these two works are written about different galaxies. End Notes heralds the collapse of the “classical workers’ movement”, the obsolescence of the worker identity, and the replacement of “class consciousness” with “consciousness of capital” among the increasing strata of the global proletarian thrust out of the cycle of expanded reproduction and forced to rely on informal economies or simply die. (See End Notes #2: “Crisis in the Class Relation”, End Notes #3: “The Holding Pattern”.) Drawing heavily from Mason, they find the struggles of the previous cycle (2009-2011) populated by the graduate with no future, the urban poor, and (somewhat undermining their thesis) the organized worker. The graduate with no future and the urban poor have no investment in the worker identity, and to the degree that the shrinking rolls of organized labor have been deployed in these struggles (in the US at least), their role has been reactionary.

The portrait End Notes offers, especially with regards to the proletariat as increasingly “the class that is produced by capital without producing capital”, is a compelling answer to the crisis of social reproduction staring us all in the face, whether through austerity programs, overwork, unemployment, and the palpable decline of the durability of “consumer durables” — and, on every page of Lines of Work (“Crisis in the Class Relation”) . Further, as noted above, the available jobs are not those which one would readily craft an identity around — indeed, the proud “genius” of the Apple Store is more of a punch-line than a potential militant. If the point of the End Notes critique is that we should look beyond the worker identity to see where the class is organizing itself in a way which lays the foundation for struggles ahead, then this is of course noted. But most of us still have to work somewhere, formally or informally, and these relationships, productive or unproductive of value, still condense the class relation into concrete sites of struggle, which need not serve as the end of the struggles themselves, but as sites of radicalizing workers and potentially igniting broader conflicts. And to be fair, the archetypal baristas of Lines of Work would loathe to call themselves such with pride. But so too do they seek to organize their workplaces, build worker power and solidarity, and take control of the means of production. But the reader of End Notes would ask: on what grounds? Against what? And toward what?

This is where Lines of Work runs into a little trouble. While it is not fair to hold writing such as Lines of Work, often empirical testimonials of workers written in their scant free time, to the Olympian theoretical standards of the international ultraleft jet set, the glimpses of theory the latter offers are a bit troubling, as they could be applied to practice beyond the particular shop. “[W]hat’s going to save us isn’t theory, analysis, or insight” writes Nat Kelly, a cashier reflecting on termination, “but power”. No objections here to the need for the class to seize power, but what informs that power besides theory, analysis, and insight? And how is power conceived? David Meuller’s aspirations for nonprofit work, which he had once believed to be a force for developing “the abilities that might be more useful for the revolution” run aground on the fact that non-profits have a boss with control over how the work is conducted–with no real concern for how nonprofit work itself, with or without a boss, can figure as a reactionary stopgap in the crisis of social reproduction, serve the disciplining of the class, and generally abet capitalist accumulation in myriad ways. Likewise, Frank Edgewick, concierge, writes “The question is to build our struggle so that we can continue to run the economy, but now for our own benefit rather than theirs.” And throughout, the specter of syndicalism — regardless of the industry, whether it should exist, or what kind of struggle would create a society in which it could exist — dominates the horizon.

All of this is not to discount the work (or lump together theoretically unconcerned workplace scrappers with heavy hitters like Nappalos and JOMO, whose respective  theory pieces on care work are among the best of their kind), but to suggest that a more robust theory of the moment is needed in order to inform these struggles and prepare them for the next level. And not just for the theoretically inclined of the volume, who work tirelessly to this effect — for every would-be workplace organizer. This means a vision of what society is and what it needs be, beyond bosses and workers, justice and injustice, freedom and unfreedom, coupled with an analysis of the conditions under which we can reasonably strive to get there. What workplaces would we actually need in a communist society? Which should be eliminated? How are these struggles waged differently? Does our poverty come from the increasing wealth of a greedy boss? Is some sad manager making $1/hr more than us (or making less than us due to working salary) on the other side of “the class line”? When does a struggle for self-management by workers become reactionary? Is self-management under capital even a “radical” concept, or simply the internalization of the value form, and a barrier to future struggles?  What are the forms adequate to uniting these struggles across industries at moments of upsurge, and smashing the barrier between the site of production and “the squares” which defined Occupy? These questions are not idle speculation or theorie qua theorie, but carry weight in the form struggles take, present and future. If Lines of Work, as I claim, represents through stories of struggle and basic recounting of working class life, the seeds for the great “ruptures” over which theorists often puzzle, it is just as important that those on the trigger points of these struggles develop themselves theoretically as much as possible in order to inform the direction they may take. While this may raise hackles of “vanguardism”, that is precisely what every author in Lines of Work is — an aspiring vanguardist, seeking to instigate amidst otherwise disquieting calm a battle against capital on the front lines in their own front yards.

And just maybe, as the anonymous author of “Credit Crunched”, a proletarianized “white collar” worker in finance, seems to suggest (in the unvarnished and unabashedly working class voice which defines Lines of Work and makes it so damned fun to read), our present fetishism of pure novelty will give way to a situation more familiar than we had originally guessed:

Finally, I’ll just make a few theoretical points. One of the big trendy theories at the time, and to a lesser extent still, is the idea of ‘post-fordist cognitive immaterial labour’, a radically new form of work, even one with latent communist potential  (Negri & Hardt etc). Frankly, I think this is bollocks. This job was very much cognitive labour (mental arithmetic, writing emails etc), it was very much ‘immaterial production’ (we had to deal with people on the phone, show the right attitude, write emails in a specific company voice etc). But yet, it was basically a production line. Work came in, passed along a chain from sales to admin to underwriting, back to sales and to accounts and admin again, with each stage doing a fairly standardised set of tasks before passing it along the chain. So for me, the boring old Marxist emphasis on the relations of production still trumps the fashionable emphasis on the content of concrete labour. Another fashionable idea at the time I was working there was the idea of ‘faceless resistance’: small, invisible resistances like sabotage.Now this stuff is great. I think the guy changing the clock to allow himself to get a later train was brilliant. But I wouldn’t fetishise this stuff. I think there’s a danger of making a virtue of necessity. In our weakness, it’s easy to try and present this kind of individual, covert action as something sexy and radical, when really it does little, in itself, to change the  balance of power in the workplace.

This is the real test of theory in its finest form, and this is the challenge workplace scrappers and organization builders alike must take up. Interestingly enough, End Notes #2 conclude on a similar yet divergent note–in “Sleep Worker’s Enquiry”, a code worker who codes in their sleep contemplates the real subsumption of the psyche itself, and concludes the theoretically rich volume with a pessimistic note about the possibility for so-called “immaterial” workers to struggle at all. (The contrast between these two accounts deserves a space of its own to be unpacked.) With regards to Lines of Work, it almost felt counterproductive to be critical of this volume at all, because of the strong affinity I feel with the actors in each story, and with their incessant striving to develop the revolutionary potential of the working class right now, in the present moment, in the struggles that exist all around us, and not at some time to come. At the most basic level this work is an anthem to the fact all too often neglected, that class struggle is based on human beings and the relationships we build with each other. Struggles which disavow the irreducibly interpersonal, human basis of communism either lose by losing, as the saying goes, or lose by winning.  Revolutionaries who believe in the power of the working class to remake the world should take the testimonials of Lines of Work seriously, and synthesize them with our understanding of the present moment and the means by which we may escape it.

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