The Prince and the Pauper

“The gen­er­al lesson learnt by polit­i­cal Eng­land from its expe­ri­ence of pau­perism is none oth­er than that, in the course of his­to­ry and despite all admin­is­tra­tive mea­sures, pau­perism has devel­oped into a nation­al insti­tu­tion which has inevitably become the object of a high­ly ram­i­fied and exten­sive admin­is­tra­tive sys­tem, a sys­tem how­ev­er which no longer sets out to elim­i­nate it, but which strives instead to dis­ci­pline and per­pet­u­ate it.”

— Karl Marx, Crit­i­cal Notes on “The King of Prus­sia and Social Reform. By a Prus­sian”


Every­one on the left has point­ed out that the riots in Lon­don are root­ed in capital’s assault on the work­ing class, couched in the ide­o­log­i­cal lan­guage of aus­ter­i­ty – and that this was the kin­dling sparked by the racist police bru­tal­i­ty that cul­mi­nat­ed in the mur­der of Mark Dug­gan. But our task – like Marx’s task, when he defend­ed the vio­lent upheaval of the Sile­sian weavers – isn’t to give a moral eval­u­a­tion of the riots, like school­mas­ters dili­gent­ly stack­ing the pros again­st the cons, but, rather, to grasp their speci­fic char­ac­ter.

In 1844 Ger­man linen weavers revolt­ed, smash­ing machi­nes, destroy­ing homes, loot­ing ware­hous­es, and demand­ing mon­ey from local mer­chants. When much of the left, includ­ing his erst­while com­rade Arnold Ruge, dis­missed the upris­ing as lit­tle more than a con­fused dis­tur­bance with no real polit­i­cal con­tent, Marx sought to find its deep­er sig­nif­i­cance, by relat­ing the par­tic­u­lar­i­ty of this event to the broad­er strug­gles of his con­junc­ture.

Today, with Eng­land in flames, we iden­ti­fy two rep­re­sen­ta­tive respons­es. The first recalls the enthu­si­asm of the Sex Pis­tols for “Anar­chy in the UK”: Mal­colm Har­ris cel­e­brates “grass­roots Key­ne­sians, increas­ing aggre­gate demand one bro­ken win­dow at a time.” This is a tra­di­tion inau­gu­rat­ed by Guy Debord, who wrote of the 1965 Watts Riots that loot­ing “instant­ly under­mi­nes the com­mod­i­ty as such.” At the oth­er extreme is the mot­to from “God Save the Queen,” which sees “no future” for the left. Owen Jones writes on a Labour Par­ty-themed web­site that the riots are a “cat­a­stro­phe,” trau­ma­tiz­ing and ter­ror­iz­ing mid­dle-of-the-road Lon­don­ers. He warns that the inevitable con­se­quence is a right-wing back­lash: the mid­dle class will turn again­st the poor, fur­nish­ing a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for state repres­sion.

While the­se extreme per­spec­tives might make for good music, they leave some­thing to be desired as polit­i­cal analy­sis. We hope we’re not alone in rec­og­niz­ing that more is need­ed today than spon­ta­neous indi­vid­u­al rebel­lions again­st the com­mod­i­ty form. But we also reject the defeatist fatal­ism that takes capital’s view­point and fails to work to build spon­ta­neous rebel­lion into orga­nized resis­tance.

Obscured by the focus on com­mod­i­ty fetishism or mid­dle-class ide­ol­o­gy are the ana­lyt­i­cal and strate­gic prob­lems. The first of the­se is the ques­tion of class com­po­si­tion. Where are the­se riot­ers sit­u­at­ed in the mode of pro­duc­tion, and what speci­fic form of activ­i­ty cor­re­sponds? The sec­ond is the ques­tion of the objec­tive con­di­tions for rev­o­lu­tion. Is the cur­rent his­tor­i­cal stage one that per­mits the per­for­mance of insur­rec­tion?

Refuse of All Class­es

Politi­cians and jour­nal­ists tell us that the only peo­ple riot­ing are crim­i­nals. But we all know that few par­tic­i­pants can be clas­si­fied as pro­fes­sion­al crim­i­nals – in fact, it’s been con­firmed that most of those arrest­ed have no pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions of any kind. All this talk of crim­i­nal­i­ty com­pels us to take anoth­er look at the his­to­ry of that alleged class of crim­i­nals, to see where it stands in the changed con­di­tions of the present.

The class which engages in crime and vio­lence, accord­ing to the clas­si­cal Marx­ist analy­sis, is not the pro­le­tari­at. Paul Hirst has skew­ered the “rad­i­cal soci­ol­o­gists” who inter­pret crim­i­nal deviance as the revolt of the alien­at­ed indi­vid­u­al, ignor­ing com­plete­ly the rela­tion­ship of this activ­i­ty to the mode of pro­duc­tion. Crime is the pro­fes­sion of thelumpen­pro­le­tari­at.

Though the con­cept of the lumpen­pro­le­tari­at is intro­duced in The Ger­man Ide­ol­o­gy, it’s Marx’s analy­sis of the rev­o­lu­tions of 1848 in The Eigh­teen­th Bru­maire of Louis Bona­parte that presents an assess­ment of the polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of the class. For Marx, the lumpen­pro­le­tari­at, a dif­fuse col­lec­tion of pick­pock­ets and pimps, has no essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic; it’s the “scum, offal and refuse of all class­es,” which is only con­sti­tut­ed as a class by the state – pulled togeth­er by the right-wing coup of Bona­parte as the pop­u­lar basis for his rule.

But the strange thing about 1848 was the alliances between dif­fer­ing class forces; though the pro­le­tari­at entered into an alliance with the bour­geoisie in Feb­ru­ary, it became clear by June that pro­le­tar­i­an demands couldn’t be met by the mod­er­ate bour­geois dic­ta­tor­ship. The insur­rec­tion of June rep­re­sent­ed the auton­o­my of the pro­le­tari­at from lib­er­al reformism, and it was at this point that the extreme right, Bona­parte as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the “finance aris­toc­ra­cy,” was forced to take advan­tage of the het­ero­ge­neous com­po­si­tion of the lumpen and the peas­ants to sup­press pro­le­tar­i­an auton­o­my. It was this mot­ley col­lec­tion of class­es he turned to for sup­port in his Decem­ber coup.

In fact, Marx’s entire descrip­tion of the lumpen­pro­le­tari­at was a polit­i­cal ges­ture; before June 1848, as Peter Stally­brass has point­ed out in a fas­ci­nat­ing ety­mo­log­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion, the term “pro­le­tari­at” itself “was not the work­ing class: it was the poor, the rag­pick­ers, the nomads.” In 1838 the con­ser­v­a­tive French writer AG de Cas­sagnac defined the pro­le­tari­at as a col­lec­tion of work­ers, beg­gars, thieves, and pros­ti­tutes. It was Marx’s inno­va­tion to rede­fine the pro­le­tari­at as the enabling con­di­tion of bour­geois soci­ety – the only class capa­ble of pro­duc­ing val­ue, and by virtue of this unique prop­er­ty the only class whose polit­i­cal pow­er could destroy cap­i­tal­ism. The lumpen­pro­le­tari­at was the excess gen­er­at­ed in the process of artic­u­lat­ing a new class.

The role of the lumpen­pro­le­tari­at in 1848 demon­strates two things: first, that class­es are con­sti­tut­ed by polit­i­cal process­es, and sec­ond, that class­es enter into con­tra­dic­to­ry alliances. In fact, the first rev­o­lu­tion in this wave, in Paler­mo, only kicked into gear when the squadre, a kind of embry­on­ic mafia, invad­ed the streets to join in the fight, trig­ger­ing a rev­o­lu­tion that ulti­mate­ly forced the Neapoli­tan King Fer­di­nand II to promise nation­al inde­pen­dence, reforms, and a con­sti­tu­tion. In Naples, where the dis­tur­bances spread next, it was the sur­pris­ing, though weighty, pres­ence of the laz­za­roni, the lumpen slum mass­es of the city, that tipped the bal­ance in favor of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, forc­ing the king to con­cede once again. The unex­pect­ed par­tic­i­pa­tion of the­se two total­ly dis­tinct groups of lumpen­pro­le­tar­i­ans sent the rev­o­lu­tion scur­ry­ing up the Ital­ian boot.

Where are we now? Well, work­ing-class insur­gen­cy in the fac­to­ry and the city forced cap­i­tal to inno­vate its pro­duc­tion process and invent new forms of social con­trol, like Haus­m­an­niza­tion. This ten­den­cy con­tin­ued and shaped the 20th cen­tu­ry; the post-war Key­ne­sian order per­mit­ted work­ers’ autonomous devel­op­ment as the motor of inno­va­tion, and incor­po­rat­ed pro­le­tar­i­an polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion in the form of social wel­fare and bureau­cra­tized unions to avoid the threat of orga­nized rev­o­lu­tion. We’re not con­demn­ing this as some kind of sell-out, but instead argu­ing that the polit­i­cal pow­er of work­ers’ strug­gle was so strong that cap­i­tal had to align its demands with labor. In fact, as Ser­gio Bolog­na has point­ed out, this kind of align­ment can be the foun­da­tion of new rev­o­lu­tion­ary forms. In Ger­many, the skilled and spe­cial­ized machine and tool work­ers who sup­pos­ed­ly stood to ben­e­fit from cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, “inex­tri­ca­bly linked to the tech­nol­o­gy of the labour process, with a strong sense of pro­fes­sion­al val­ues and nat­u­ral­ly inclined to place a high val­ue on their func­tion as ‘pro­duc­ers,’” were the ones who dis­cov­ered the “con­cept of work­ers’ self-man­age­ment” – which they real­ized in the “polit­i­cal-organ­i­sa­tion­al project” of work­ers’ coun­cils.

In oth­er words, labor was able to “co-opt” cap­i­tal­ist reformism. Though this allowed, for a cer­tain peri­od, the smooth func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal – as in the New Deal that lib­er­als wish we could return to – it also con­tained the risk of allow­ing work­ers’ pow­er to devel­op to the point of insur­rec­tion. Feb­ru­ary warms into June, but the threat of Decem­ber is not far away.

As Ger­ard Duménil and Dominique Lévy have argued, neolib­er­al­ism is a rul­ing-class assault on labor, an alliance between the man­age­ri­al class­es and cap­i­tal­ists led by finance. This assault suc­ceed­ed in increas­ing the rate of exploita­tion, by destroy­ing the wel­fare state and the uni­ty of labor. By now the clas­si­cal Fordist move­ment towards a skilled, edu­cat­ed, and afflu­ent work­ing class has been replaced with a move­ment towards sys­tem­at­ic unem­ploy­ment, pre­car­i­ous work, ser­vice labor, and glob­al slums.

The entire com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class has changed, and effec­tive alliances between dif­fer­ent class posi­tions will have to be deter­mined. First of all, it makes lit­tle sense to speak of a clas­si­cal lumpen­pro­le­tari­at in this new con­text. With the con­tin­u­al growth of a sur­plus work­force con­fined to the slums, alongside rapid changes in the qual­i­ties of labour-pow­er, we’re deal­ing with a mas­sive social stra­tum whose mem­bers play the lumpen crim­i­nal one day and the waged pro­le­tar­i­an the next. The tra­di­tion­al bor­ders are so blurred – with some employed work­ers sup­ple­ment­ing their income by engag­ing in tra­di­tion­al lumpen activ­i­ties like sell­ing bootleg videos, while some lumpens are pick­ing up casu­al jobs to sup­ple­ment their rev­enue from knock-off hand­bags – that the clas­si­cal lumpen­pro­le­tari­at is becom­ing more and more indis­tin­guish­able from the pro­le­tari­at. If any­thing, what was once the lumpen­pro­le­tari­at has now become anoth­er con­sti­tu­tive pole with­in the much broad­er com­po­si­tion of the pro­le­tari­at itself. You might even go so far as to say that nowa­days there is a lit­tle of the lumpen in every pro­le.

This is why we don’t say “farewell to the work­ing class.” On the con­trary. The­se shift­ing class posi­tions are cen­tral to the mode of pro­duc­tion – they play a fun­da­men­tal role in gen­er­at­ing and trans­mit­ting infor­ma­tion, and in repro­duc­ing the social and cul­tur­al inputs of the pro­duc­tion process. Alongside those of us who remain in man­u­fac­tur­ing, the­se var­ied class posi­tions con­sti­tute a new work­ing class.

The Eng­lish riot­ers are not just crim­i­nals; many are stu­dents, some are pre­car­i­ous work­ers, oth­ers are salaried pro­fes­sion­als. They have a high­ly het­ero­ge­neous com­po­si­tion– a strange bridg­ing of pro­fes­sions, skill lev­els, races, ages, and gen­ders. They are black and white, eleven year-old boys and fifty year-old wom­en, stu­dents at elite uni­ver­si­ties and high school dropouts, the chil­dren of pau­pers and a daugh­ter of a mil­lion­aire, the unem­ployed and skilled work­ers, immi­grants who just arrived and Eng­lish­men who have been there for gen­er­a­tions. There are life­guards, teach­ing assis­tants, graph­ic design­ers, den­tal assis­tants, and fork­lift dri­vers. Such an inter­sec­tion of class sec­tors is a new devel­op­ment in the strug­gle. In Sile­sia, every­one who revolt­ed was unit­ed by the fact that they all had the same job, were exploit­ed in the exact same way, and worked in the same place. In Watts it was race that tied every­one togeth­er. But in Eng­land, it’s not occu­pa­tion­al uni­ty, nor race, nor even a shared place, since the riots spread like wild­fire from neigh­bor­hood to neigh­bor­hood, city to city. The tra­di­tion­al lines that divid­ed peo­ple in the past – such as race, pro­fes­sion, skill lev­el, place, cul­ture – have already been super­seded here.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s a uni­tary respon­se. Small shop own­ers have had their prop­er­ty destroyed, res­i­dents have been intim­i­dat­ed. Not only are the­se con­demnable acts, they indi­cate a gen­uine obsta­cle to uni­ty and orga­ni­za­tion. But the­se prob­lems coex­ist with an expres­sion, how­ev­er inco­her­ent, of a pow­er that threat­ens the social order. It’s not impos­si­ble that as in Paler­mo, such apo­lit­i­cal and crim­i­nal acts enable pro­le­tar­i­an com­mu­ni­ty.

More than any­thing else, the riots sig­ni­fy refusal. There is a refusal to accept the non-com­mu­ni­ty the res­i­dents of the slums of Lon­don have been coaxed into accept­ing, the refusal to sub­mit to dai­ly search­es, the refusal to shut up and stay out of sight, a refusal to con­tin­ue pre­tend­ing as if they actu­al­ly own things, but most of all, a refusal to accept the iden­ti­ty that has been forced upon them. If the­se strug­gles fail to list con­crete demands, as in Spain, Greece, Cal­i­for­nia, and now in Lon­don, it’s not only a symp­tom of spon­tane­ity but also an indi­ca­tion that peo­ple have stopped think­ing that cap­i­tal can some­how improve their con­di­tion. They know that in this day and age, in this con­junc­ture, to put forth demands is to aban­don their auton­o­my by forc­ing them to speak the same lan­guage as cap­i­tal. A refusal to act as a trad­ing part­ner with cap­i­tal, a latent intran­si­gence: the­se peo­ple no longer think cap­i­tal has any future left to give them.

Lenin in Eng­land

So it’s clear that the cat­e­go­riza­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of class­es in the mode of pro­duc­tion is chang­ing, and it’s clear that the polit­i­cal alliances of class­es have changed. But do the objec­tive his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions allow for a suc­cess­ful alliance between the dif­fuse pop­u­lar class­es?

We are all famil­iar with an old idea on the left: once the foot of the cap­i­tal­ist has stuck itself most painful­ly into the work­ers’ neck, the work­er will revolt. This “immis­er­a­tion the­sis” has been revived today. But the suc­cess of capital’s cam­paign to increase and entrench extreme inequal­i­ty has led some to a more pes­simistic view: that cap­i­tal has suc­ceed­ed, has resolved its con­tra­dic­tions. It’s lit­er­al­ly too big to fail.

Our his­to­ry makes both of the­se views dif­fi­cult to main­tain. Peri­ods of pros­per­i­ty which per­mit work­ing-class devel­op­ment have often led to mil­i­tant strug­gle, but pros­per­i­ty can also coex­ist with retreat. In fact, the entire premise of “objec­tive con­di­tions” for rev­o­lu­tion seems to have dropped into the ash-heap of his­to­ry. Cap­i­tal has turned many of its con­tra­dic­tions into imper­a­tives for recom­po­si­tion and restruc­tur­ing.

The famous exam­ple of such devel­op­ment, impe­ri­al­ism, will have to be recon­sid­ered. There is no place in the glob­al order for the old nar­ra­tive of a “com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment” which will be dis­rupt­ed by “bour­geois-demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tions” car­ried out by indus­tri­al work­ers. The “Third World” is, in fact, specif­i­cal­ly and delib­er­ate­ly devel­oped by cap­i­tal, which retains the left­over social forms of feu­dal­ism and uti­lizes them to facil­i­tate glob­al cir­cuits of pro­duc­tion. The slum-dwellers of the world are not being devel­oped into indus­tri­al pro­le­tar­i­ans. Instead, they are dis­placed with gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and inte­grat­ed into economies that rely simul­ta­ne­ous­ly on dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing and sweat­shops.

This is why we prefer to speak, along with Louis Althusser, of rev­o­lu­tions that emerge from encoun­ters– just as cap­i­tal­ism emerged from the encoun­ter between the “own­ers of mon­ey” and the dis­pos­sessed peas­ants who had noth­ing to sell but their labor-pow­er. The encoun­ter that pro­duced cap­i­tal­ism was able to “take hold”; it estab­lished social phe­nom­e­na like the state that allowed it to repro­duce itself. The Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sent­ed the encoun­ter between a peas­antry pushed to the brink, a ris­ing bour­geoisie attempt­ing to break free of Tsarist restric­tions, and a pro­le­tari­at con­front­ed with the col­lapse of the social order.

What­ev­er the char­ac­ter of the par­tic­u­lar revolts, such encoun­ters are tak­ing place through­out the world. In Egypt, France, and the anti-cuts move­ment in Eng­land, the­se encoun­ters were rep­re­sent­ed as specif­i­cal­ly polit­i­cal. In all cas­es the mid­dle class was protest­ing again­st attempts by the gov­ern­ments to revoke priv­i­leges grant­ed by pre­vi­ous strug­gles. How­ev­er, the cur­rent riots, like the ones in the ban­lieues of Paris, recall Watts and LA. They have no polit­i­cal agen­da and are ori­ent­ed towards unfo­cused destruc­tion.

But the­se upris­ings reflect the knowl­edge that there is no iden­ti­ty between the demands of the pro­le­tari­at and the demands of cap­i­tal, as though cap­i­tal could offer them a bet­ter alter­na­tive if only they com­pro­mised and went home. We can mea­sure such social phe­nom­e­na by their rela­tion to the devel­op­ment of the class, not as stages in the fixed process of His­to­ry. The cap­i­tal rela­tion will con­tin­ue to exist until the pro­le­tari­at forces its non-repro­duc­tion. It might do this when cap­i­tal itself is quite strong, it might do this when cap­i­tal is start­ing to suf­fer under its own strain. At this point, a rup­ture with cap­i­tal and with mid­dle-class val­ues is a begin­ning step in the autonomous devel­op­ment of the work­ing class, which will have to leave His­to­ry behind.

The ultra­left ten­den­cy will call for us to cel­e­brate every excess, every error, to watch as the­se strug­gles sim­ply explode on their own. But the chal­lenge is to find a way for the­se encoun­ters to take hold, which is by no means organ­i­cal­ly con­tained in any ele­ment.

For Althusser, the case of Rus­sia also demon­strat­ed that the tasks set out by his­to­ry are accom­pa­nied by a void – the absence of a sub­ject that can auto­mat­i­cal­ly car­ry them out. It was this kind of sub­ject that Machi­avel­li tried to inter­pel­late when he pub­lished The Prince, aware that the peo­ple of Italy were suf­fer­ing from frag­men­ta­tion in city-states but lacked an agent to accom­plish nation­al uni­fi­ca­tion. For the Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion­ary encoun­ter to take place, it was nec­es­sary to align the urban pro­le­tari­at with the peas­antry to pro­duce a polit­i­cal sub­ject. The exis­tence of an orga­nized body that took on the task of “build­ing the par­ty” in times of retreat enabled this encoun­ter.

Before you shake your head and dis­miss this as left­over van­guardism, recall the words of the work­erist Mar­io Tron­ti in his reflec­tion on “Lenin in Eng­land,” in which he calls for “a new Marx­ist prac­tice of the work­ing class par­ty.” Tron­ti empha­sizes the neces­si­ty of “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary growth not only of the class, but also of class organ­i­sa­tion,” and warns that “if this ele­ment is absent, the whole process works to the advan­tage of cap­i­tal, as a tac­ti­cal moment of a one-sid­ed sta­bil­i­sa­tion of the sys­tem, seem­ing­ly inte­grat­ing the work­ing class with­in the sys­tem.” The dan­ger, after all, is that the dialec­tic of His­to­ry will reassert itself. An encoun­ter will also have to reck­on with the ele­ments of the old regime – which may have a stronger capac­i­ty for repro­duc­tion, as Althusser sur­mised of Rus­sia.

This sim­ple jux­ta­po­si­tion, Lenin in Eng­land, is now the fig­ure which rep­re­sents today’s polit­i­cal dilem­ma. On the one hand, work­ing-class activ­i­ty has not yet artic­u­lat­ed an orga­ni­za­tion­al form that cor­re­sponds to its devel­op­ment. On the oth­er, the par­ties which claim the lega­cy of Lenin cling to a struc­ture and prac­tice that total­ly ignores the trans­for­ma­tions in the com­po­si­tion of the class. Nei­ther the sec­tar­i­an ide­o­logues to the left, nor the com­pro­mis­ing par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to the right; the work­ing class will have to walk for­ward towards a new form.

New Weapons

In Empire, Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri wrote that the spon­ta­neous strug­gles of today “have become all but incom­mu­ni­ca­ble” (72); they emerge with­out com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each oth­er, and with­out uni­fy­ing their objec­tives. But it’s clear that today’s strug­gles are high­ly com­mu­ni­ca­ble, in a dou­ble sense.

First, they rapid­ly cir­cu­late from one place to anoth­er, from one neigh­bor­hood to anoth­er, one city to anoth­er, even one coun­try to anoth­er. It’s almost as though the mere news of an erup­tion is enough to ignite anoth­er some­where else, in spite of dis­sim­i­lar his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. This hap­pened on a large scale in the Mid­dle East, and now on a small­er, though more intense and con­densed scale in Eng­land. But what’s more, if we recall the sol­i­dar­i­ty between Egypt and Wis­con­sin, there are direct con­nec­tions between the­se strug­gles, as though they were all talk­ing to each oth­er.

Sec­ond, and this is clear in Eng­land, the­se strug­gles are mate­ri­al­ly ground­ed in com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Cell phones, the inter­net, pho­tos, and media have all been used to track police move­ments, sig­nal tac­tics, and spread infor­ma­tion. It’s no sur­prise that the main tar­gets of the loot­ings are more com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment. Of course, this isn’t the first time com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies has been cre­ative­ly turned again­st cap­i­tal. In Italy in the 1970s, pirate radio sta­tions like Radio Alice in Bolog­na or Onda Rossa in Rome were an advanced mod­el of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, link­ing indi­vid­u­al callers, dis­sem­i­nat­ing news, and coun­ter­ing state pro­pa­gan­da. But today there is no cen­tral­ized point of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, just dis­persed net­works that are far more dif­fi­cult to track. Infor­ma­tion moves faster, devices are mobile, and the media have expand­ed. The Ital­ian com­mu­nists toyed with video, but ulti­mate­ly reject­ed it since they found tele­vi­sion to be too sta­t­ic and pas­sive, as Bifo argued; video, how­ev­er, is no longer monop­o­lized by tele­vi­sion.

But the use of cap­i­tal­ist com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy again­st cap­i­tal goes well beyond sim­ple tac­ti­cal needs. First, such prac­tices are a way of cre­at­ing a new col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence. Just as in Italy, they have been used to con­struct a com­mu­ni­ty of resis­tance direct­ly opposed to the one imposed upon them by cap­i­tal. Sec­ond, it’s no coin­ci­dence that the riot­ers have cho­sen to appro­pri­ate, and cre­ative­ly rework, the prod­ucts of an indus­try that now leads cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment in much of the world. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions has not only become one of the most pro­duc­tive indus­tries, it has also come to play a fun­da­men­tal role in the repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself. With the restruc­tur­ing of the 1970s, which saw wide­spread flex­i­bi­liza­tion, decen­tral­iza­tion, and ter­ri­to­ri­al dis­ar­tic­u­la­tion of pro­duc­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion came to promi­nence as the pri­ma­ry means by which increas­ing­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed points of pro­duc­tion could be recon­nect­ed, the fac­to­ry linked to soci­ety, and pro­duc­tion to repro­duc­tion. As the hege­mon­ic pole of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions indus­try has become the very reg­u­la­tor of the cap­i­tal rela­tion.

What’s cru­cial to rec­og­nize today is that this appro­pri­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy in the streets of Eng­lish cities is tak­ing place at the very same time as a major strike at Ver­i­zon, waged by the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) and the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW). While the Democ­rats are wag­ing war on “lux­u­ry plans” like med­ical care and the cor­po­ra­tion makes $19 bil­lion in prof­its, the Ver­i­zon work­ers are chas­ing scabs through fields and turn­ing away cus­tomers.

This is an encoun­ter of two dis­tinct forms of strug­gle, unit­ed, despite their dif­fer­ences, by their com­mon assault on the same com­mu­ni­ca­tions indus­try. Insur­gents today will have to dis­cov­er the means to make this encoun­ter hold. They will have to look for cre­ative ways to bring togeth­er clas­si­cal forms of labor strug­gle like the strike with the­se new prac­tices that draw on the pow­er of vary­ing class posi­tions like the unem­ployed. One poten­tial way of bind­ing such dis­parate strug­gles has already been sug­gest­ed by the lab­o­ra­to­ry of polit­i­cal forms that was the Ital­ian expe­ri­ence of the 1970s. Auto-reduc­tion is the col­lec­tive refusal to accept price increas­es: faced with grow­ing unem­ploy­ment and a soar­ing cost of liv­ing, ten­ants refused to pay exor­bi­tant increas­es in their rents, “house­wives” and domes­tic labor­ers argued that the val­ue pro­duced by their unpaid labor freed them from the oblig­a­tion to pay their elec­tric­i­ty bills, and com­mut­ing work­ers decid­ed to ignore the uni­lat­er­al increase in their bus fares and sim­ply paid the old amount. It was, of course, in this last sec­tor, trans­porta­tion, that the move­ment gained sig­nif­i­cant ground. This was almost cer­tain­ly because of the increas­ing­ly impor­tant role the trans­porta­tion indus­try was start­ing to play in Ital­ian cap­i­tal­ism. As Ser­gio Bolog­naBruno Ramirez, and oth­ers have not­ed, trans­porta­tion not only con­nect­ed increas­ing­ly sep­a­rat­ed points of pro­duc­tion, it soon served as the essen­tial link-up between the fac­to­ry and the neigh­bor­hood, pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion. It’s no sur­prise that it became a high­ly con­test­ed site of strug­gle, unit­ing com­mut­ing work­ers, whole neigh­bor­hoods, and the trans­port work­ers them­selves.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions is a key pole of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment today in the same way that trans­porta­tion was when the auto-reduc­tions were first tak­ing place. Both the Ital­ian strug­gles of yes­ter­day and the ones begin­ning to devel­op today show the pro­le­tari­at force­ful­ly turn­ing the­se key poles of the cap­i­tal rela­tion again­st cap­i­tal itself. We’re auda­cious enough to imag­ine a mass move­ment which shows its sol­i­dar­i­ty with strik­ing work­ers by refus­ing to pay its tele­phone bills, while con­tin­u­ing to use the com­mu­ni­ca­tions struc­ture it has built with its infor­ma­tion and imag­i­na­tion. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of dis­rup­tion is in the Amer­i­can mem­o­ry; one of us spoke to a Ver­i­zon work­er on the pick­et line who grew up in West Vir­ginia, and still remem­bers the wild­cat strikes that turned the mines upside down. We may be see­ing a new glob­al cycle of strug­gle form­ing.

There is anoth­er Sex Pis­tols lyric, in “Hol­i­days in the Sun,” which cap­tures the lesson of the upris­ings today: “I was wait­ing for the com­mu­nist call.” We have no short­age of oppor­tu­ni­ties to make the call.


First pub­lished at jacobinmag.com.

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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