Chuffed but Gutted: Owen Jones - The Almost Autonomist
Owen Jones appeared yesterday on Novara Media. For those readers from outside the UK, Novara Media is a “autonomous media collective” based in London that currently manifests itself as an hour long radio show on weekly at 1PM GMT on Fridays on Resonance FM but that in the near future hopes to expand to internet TV. It provides really excellent analysis of political conditions, interesting interviews with leading left-wing writers and thinkers and excellent analysis of events as they unfold. Worth tuning in every week or subscribing to their podcast. Their archive is also really worth listening to - all their shows are on their website.
Jones is a commentator for the Independent newspaper and a writer who is also a member and activist on the left of the Labour party. During the programme, Owen outlines his reasons for supporting the Labour party and mainstream unions. What interests us here is how much he concedes and shares with the analysis of the presenters of Novara, an analysis which finds much of its basis in the stream of Italian autonomist Marxism which began in the mid-1960s - detailed in a number of previous shows. Perhaps unknown to him and certainly not in theoretical terms he would endorse, Owen ends up on much the same page about the way in which the working class now looks, yet still believes in the mass organs of working class born and constituted by and for a composition of the working class that no longer exists. The question is: why?
Italian autonomist Marxism has a long and complicated history that flows from the early theory of Operaismo in the 1960s (workerism in journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia), through to the larger organisations until the mid-to-late 1970s (Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio especially) to Autonomia Operaia and then “post-Workerism” that includes analyses made famous by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in works such as Empire and Paolo Virno’s (superior) Grammar of the Multitude. One continuity between these brands of Italian Marxism is the idea of analysing “class composition”, understood as centrally important to organising the working class against capitalism1.
In its workerist period where it was most cleanly articulated, class composition called for attention to the close relationship between what they called the technical composition of the working class and its political composition. The technical composition - the way in which work was organised, the flow of the working day, the manner in which communication was allowed on the shop floor - resulted in a particular political composition of the working class - the manner in which they would struggle against the working conditions imposed upon them by capital. As Wright points out, this characterisation can sometimes appear rigidly mechanistic, but this was related to another classical workerist analysis, the so-called “Copernican inversion” instituted by the Operaist theorist Mario Tronti. Just as Copernicus had inverted the relationship between the Earth and cosmos, Tronti that the ruling classes respond to working class struggle, which is primary, rather than the other way around. Previously Marxists had written history from the perspective of capital - the point was to read it from the perspective of the living labour subjugated by capital, to which capital responded by changing. Thus the technical discipling of one era of the working class is the result of their struggle in the preceding era. This leads to an alternative history of the struggles between classes which can be extended to the digital sphere.
This means that careful attention was paid to the way the working class as they actually existed and struggled against capitalism in their day to day lives. This meant that this understanding of that life was to be finally the task of the workers themselves, with only the help of theorists and left sociologists - the idea of the ‘worker’s enquiry’ was central to workerist and then autonomist analyses. Since this early period analysts working in the tradition have paid close attention to the changes in the way work is composed, offering a series of new understandings that operate under the unstable, sometimes over wrought but provocative categories of post-Fordism, immaterial labour, affective labour, precarious labour, the Multitude, the cognitariat and so on. What is centrally important here though is that if the working class is to struggle, it must be understood as it is now. The problem with the political organisations of the day, the early workerists theorised, was that they had a view of the working class that was radically out of date, so they were totally unable to respond to its needs. The mass organisations of the unions and the Italian communist party (the PCI) could no longer represent in their idea of the working class, the new ‘mass worker’, partially formed by unskilled migrant labour and forced into an accelerated rate of production, that directly much of its rage against the idea of work itself. The figure of the proud skilled worker collecting their just reward and the unions promoting the dignity of work that flowed from this were out of date for the situation the real working class found itself.
Jones’ first book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class is sometimes taken as a rather nostalgic book, pining for the days prior to Thatcher. However, as is clear from his Novara interview, Jones is rather more astute in his analysis of how class reproduces itself today. As Jones says, more people are now employed in call centres than were employed down the mines. The class composition of the working class has profoundly changed, which Jones seems to admit “If the miner was one of the iconic jobs of post-war Britain, then today, surely, the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any”. For the autonomist Marxists, these changes result in the need for a different approach to political organisation, the germs of which emerged in the Italian experience of the ‘movement of 1977’. Some post-autonomist theorists - such as Hardt and Negri - have been rather over enthusiastic about the political possibilities of this type of communication worker as being intrinscally collaborative and ‘communistic’ - something that has been heavily criticised. Those influenced by the autonomist tradition have published extremely detailed analyses of call centre work - the most famous being Kolinko’s Hotlines. Indeed, the best moments of Chavs are the descriptions of daily work that could well flow from one of these organisations.
So, the problem with Jones’ analysis is that on one hand he agrees with the idea that the working class has fundamentally changed in the UK under the conditions we might call “post-Fordism”, but that the organs of the working class must look to are still the organs of the period preceding it. Owen repeats that the times where working people clustered around a similar place, all doing the same job and therefore represented by the mass union have concluded, but then looks to the same things now to do the same job now. It is frustrating - why praise the organisational innovation of UKUncut then claim unions could do anything approaching this? When Jones’ details the numerous defeats for the Left inside the Labour party, he then places the burden of proof on the person who claims that maybe the Labour party isn’t the best place for a genuinely left wing project. Yet surely that burden should be on Jones to explain why now given all the preceding history, the Labour party could work out this time, especially given its current formation. Perhaps those attempts outside the Labour party would had had more success without these kind of arguments being produced? Despite all his pessimism of the current state of the Left, Jones believes the situation that preceded (say) the smashing of the unions by Thatcher can be restored. How when the form of work that allowed their formulation no longer exists as he himself admits? The same goes for the terminal decline in the membership of political parties as such, including the Labour party.
In short, Owen would be better served following the arguments of his own work to the logical conclusion, genuinely “starting where people are” as workers and abandoning hope in the mass organisations of the working class that serve a class that no longer exists. Come on outside Owen - the autonomia’s lovely!
The best history of the early development of this period is Storming heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright. Wright’s book strikes a remarkably pessimistic tone - this review by one of the subjects of the book Sergio Bologna being an interesting counterpoint alongside an afterword to the Italian edition by participants. He has also written shorter articles on the subject and interviews ↩
Novara returns to Resonance FM this Friday at 1pm.
On The Figure Of The Troll
Language is a plastic thing. One cannot be too precious about new and different uses of words once held in one context. Indeed the plasticity of language is one of the key engines of the innovation and diversity of internet culture. However, recent discussion of the word troll and its slippage into a term to mean only “vicious abuse online” is concerning. I am of course here not defending those who use online fora to send threats of sexual assault to women, or perpetuate misogyny. Strategies need to be developed to prevent these abuses. However the conflation of trolling solely with abuse seems to be indicative of a wider tendency regarding online discourse. Often the cry of “troll” is the response to every and every even reasonable critique - the fear of the powerful of the mob.
Trolling even in its classic form - the taking of a different identity (more often than not maintaining a position the troll does not hold) to deliberately stir up trouble and cause (often deliberately) intractable arguments in online communities - can of course be offensive and abusive. Its often not fun being trolled. The whole point is to make people angry. It is not entirely harmless, but it is not uninteresting either. The lulz (the humour derived from trolling) is often radically im/amoral.
But as DSG pointed out a while back with groups like Anonymous there is increasingly a fluidity between lulz based disruption and economic and political disruption in the service of politics. This phenomena cannot be avoided. For many net natives trolling is the first taste of rebellion.
At its best trolling was a disruption of online communities where certain cultures, belief and practices have become so entrenched as to be naturalised and unexamined. It can be creative, cunning, smart. A troll knows the communities it trolls. She knows their push buttons, she must understand how to simulate membership of the community effectively to gain trust. They know where the levers are and how to use them. They must understand technologies of anonymity and evasion. These skills can be respected - they are a craft of sorts.
The troll is often an organic sociologist of online communities. At the same time calling out a troll is difficult precisely because the best trolling would be so subtle that it would be indistinguishable from at least some of the dynamics within the community itself - a newbie not understanding the culture and posting something stupid. More interestingly perhaps, for an online community to recognise a troll it requires a certain level of self-consciousness amongst members as to their own dynamics. To understand the troll is to understand internet communities. Maybe trolls were the first to do so in the age of usenet and BBS.
An example: persistently tweeting “your a dick” at Richard Dawkins. To explain the joke is perhaps to make it boring but the reason why this works as a troll of internet based atheists is because that community are fans of Dawkins and sticklers for proper grammar and this causes them to get mad. Its pointless, but its also subtly quite funny. It understands better the structure of this community than most commentators on the subject and does so entirely organically. As Biella Coleman says of Anonymous “our weirdness is free”. Acts like trolling especially when done in groups are the organic unpredictable and self-made popular culture of the internet. We build it for ourselves.
The taking of the word troll to mean simple abuse is a symptom of the increasingly flattening corporate space of the internet. Facebook asks for your real name because it thinks your real name is the only identity that can be. Rather than the properly anarchic early days of internet communication, where people were permitted to fashion identities and build communities as they saw fit, wildly innovative in their dynamics, it speaks of an increasingly controlled and administrated cybernetic sphere. These innovative spaces naturally were eventually only colonised by capital as is the ongoing dynamic online - the vampire incapable of innovation. Is not the shock comedian or reactionary columnist - taking the art of trolling at its most superficial and banal level mainly for advertising hits - the attempt at the corporate mainstream media recreation of the troll?
The troll is disruptive, and disruption cannot be permitted in an internet that values clear and clean communication - only clear and clean communication can have advertising data extracted from it - only clear communication can create the metric on the self as a consumer that will then later be sold to the highest bidder - only clear and clean communication ensures the smooth operation of the online space as a sphere of marketing and sales. The figure of the troll rightly understood is one nightmare of this space.
The MET arrest someone for chalking on steps at the University of London Union. Total cops required? Two van loads.
Please re-blog widely.
TW: Violent arrest.
The Speed of Future Thought: C. Derick Varn and Dario Cankovich Interview Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek authors of the #accelerate Accelerationist Manifesto
What do you think will be the content of the “post-capitalist planning” called for in the Manifesto. How would this be significantly different from schemes, not only of GOSPLAN but also of Technocracy, Inc or Italian Futurism?
Our conclusion that post-capitalist planning is required stems from the theoretical failures of market socialism as well as from our own belief that a planned system can distribute goods and resources in a more rational way than the market system. This differs from previous experiments with such a system in rejecting both the techno-utopian impulse of much recent writing on post-capitalism, and the centralised nature of the Soviet system.
With regards to the former – we valorise technology not simply as a means to solve problems, but also as a weapon to wield in social struggles. So we reject any Silicon Valley-ish faith in technology – a problem that the liberal left often falls into. On the other hand, we reject any discourse of authenticity which sees technology as an aberration or as the source of contemporary problems – a problem that the proper left often falls into. The question has to be ‘how can we develop, design and use technology in a way which furthers leftist goals?’ This means thinking how infrastructures, data analytics, logistics networks, and automation can all play a role in building the material platform for a post-capitalist system. The belief that our current technologies are intrinsically wedded to a neoliberal social system is not only theoretically obsolete, but also practically limiting. So without thinking technology is sufficient to save us, we nevertheless believe that technology is a primary area where tools and weapons for struggle can be developed.
With regards to the centralised nature of planning, it should be clear to everyone that the Soviet system was a failure in many regards. The issue here is to learn from past experiments such as GOSPLAN, and from theoretical proposals such as Parecon and Devine’s democratic planning. Particularly inspiring here is the Chilean experiment, Cybersyn, which contrary to the stereotype of a planned economy, in fact attempted to build a system which incorporated worker’s self-autonomy and factory-level democracy into the planned economy. There remain issues here about the gender-bias of the system (the design of the central hub being built for men, for instance), yet this experiment is a rich resource for thinking through what it might mean to build a post-capitalist economy. And it should be remembered that Cybersyn was built with less than the computing power of a smartphone. It is today’s technology which offers real resources for organising an economy in a far more rational way than the market system does.
It has to be recognised then that communism is an idea that was ahead of its time. It is a 21st century idea that was made popular in the 20th century and was enacted by a 19th century economy.
What’s Left? On Left For Dead
This article discusses the piece Left For Dead which has been doing the rounds on Twitter this morning. Judging by the shares the article resonated with quite a few people. The one element that we will not consider here are those regarding the SWP and the People’s Assembly. We will concentrate rather on some more historical and philosophical issues.
Much of the piece appears to be a disaggreement with the use of the term The Left as a means with which to categorise and sift political movements under such a broad category - a heuristic. Such a claim is a mistake and an ethical one at that: “intelligent and pleasant human beings are neatly categorised alongside Stalin, Mao and Harriet Harman”. “The USSR was left wing, as are both China and Cuba. If that sentence incensed you, good. Direct your fury at the terminology, not its critic.”. The Left is a “hopelessly nebulous definition”. It is an insult to lump “Diggers, Luddites, Chartists, Communards, Suffragettes, Black Panthers, Stonewallers, Zapatistas, Pussy Rioters, Occupiers” in with mass murderers and so on.
The problem remains however that there is a definative family resemblance between all these items. This uses the term used by Wittgenstein against pre-ordained and fixed categorisations of resemblance between things:
"Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ "—but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that….And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. . I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family."1
For example, the Black Panthers were influenced by Marxism as much as Stalin, the Communards took ideas from the Left as much as the USSR, some of the Suffragettes formed part of the socialist internationals that were criticised by Lenin and so on. There are shared patterns between Blair and Bakunin, shared normative/ethical commitments, shared methodologies of thought, shared histories on which both parties reflect - ideas such as shared ownership (the idea of the state as a shared ownership is still within this category), freedom, solidarity and so on. There is not a definite set of parameters with which we can define The Left, but a family resembalance between all these that is more than plausible and makes the whole notion less nebulous. While it is of course true that “Before the 1780s, “the left” did not exist, yet the world was not one of unquestioning obedience to authority”, it is difficult not to think of The Left as a crystalisation and reinforcement of those struggles which certainly accelerated them by providing certain clear poles of attraction and a tradition of thought.
The denial of the fact that movements implicated in awful violence against innocent people - more often than not the very people they fought for - were of the Left appears to be a dodge of questions crucial to ask in order to not make the same mistakes these movements made.
The interesting question is surely, for example, how did the animating pursuits of the Russian revolution - doubtless right - end with the reopening of the same prisons as the Tsar? How did it come to happen that workers working to preserve the movement of the revolution rode against workers attempting to preserve the movement of the revolution (as with Kronstadt)? These are the hard questions and not limited to the obvious legacy of Russia, which still apparently dominates the imaginary of the Left - even when the concept of the Left is being attacked. To not recognise the danger in the ideas we hold to also create horrors or simply lose appears a more significant failure of thought and ethics than to group people within the same category.
There is nothing new here. And yet it still resonates. Yet this still makes it difficult to say that the piece is “provocative” as a result. Since the split between anarchists and the mainstream of Marxism the question of authority and structure has been posed and re-posed. Myriad left-communists, anarchists, autonomists, left-Marxists and so on have made the point that the current structures of the Left are utterly inadequate strategically and tactically. Anarchists polemicise against Leftism continuously. A piece like Solidarity Federation’s Fighting For Ourselves makes these points clearly. Even a figure like Lenin spends much of his famous What Is To Be Done? criticising the revolutionary inadequacies of other patterns of Left wing organisation. The invention of the vanguard party was a solution to what he saw of the percieved inadequacies of the economism of “trade union consiousness”.
Criticism of the Left, criticism of the organisations of the Left, self-criticism in the service of advancing the goals of that pursue “the total emancipation of humanity” through tactical consideration and so on are a constitutive part of much of the Left. It is difficult to see what this piece adds, unless, of course, these structures were originally believed in? And yet, this piece has been widely shared and resonates enough for this piece to be written.
In this respect the references to Toni Negri and Felix Guattari’s Communists Like Us, published in a wider collection New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty is quite telling. This text was written at the start of the 1980s. It criticises the traditional organisations of the Left, including the centrality of the factory bound worker and the classic social democractic organisations of this subject. It calls for a unhierachical struggle that recognises singularity and plurality. It makes some poor calls - saying that, for example, the German Green party was a possible vector for liberation. It is very much a text of its time, as is this text before us.
While the piece opposes unity as a “false idol”, it seems to oppose its own structures insomuch as it recognises a more fundamental unity, the unity of class and believes this to be actionable. “There are not seven classes, only two”. This rather undercuts the thurst of rest of the piece that is opposed to the idea of unity. All that is required is the recognition that we are a class against our enemy “One is our enemy, and one is us. What more unity do we need?”. But is this not complicit in the same flattening that the piece thinks so problematic - the flattening of the whole of the world into to homogenous undifferentiated blocs? Indeed, while we are inclined to agree that this is the dynamic of class society examining the dynamics within individual classes seems a neccessary requirement. What differs between these and calls for Left Unity in general? They seem structurally identical. Presumably one needs a unity of shared ideas to agree to “smash the left”? Why does the piece claim we don’t need unity but then claims we need to educate people on the historical continuity of struggle? Why call for fresh movements than call for picket lines and barricades - hardly new actions - indeed those of the historical Left.
Thus, the piece appears to have some trouble shaking off the habits of thought it criticises. This is in part because it is difficult to think of ideas of unity and difference without considering some philosophical issues regarding them. This is not an attempt to vaguely academise or abstract these sort of debates, but it appears to us that they often reach an impasse that will not be passed without examination and discussion of their terms, which is the work of living philosophy. The discussion of how to balance unity and diversity is not restricted to the debates of the Left. Which is to say though the tools of using some ideas from philosophy to clarify our political conceptions (as Guattari and Negri did in the late 1970s with talk of rhizomes and singularities) we should recognise that these questions will likely never be adequately closed and remain live for the rest of human history. Plato’s Parmenides, one of the founding documents of the Western philosophical tradition begins with a discussion of the One and the Many. Not to mention the vexed structure/agency problem and the battles between humanism and anti-humanism and notions of individuation and the nature of individuals. Yet, as with Wittgenstein, the purpose is not to entangle ourselves in new metaphysical problems but rather “help us work ourselves out of confusions we become entangled in when philosophizing”2. The end of philosophy of course being “the point is to change it”. This piece is certainly a contribution to this methodology.
What this piece represents is a certain mood in the process of UK basd “anti-austerity” struggles. It is clear that the structures avaliable right now of organisation are radically inadequate. So much was clear for Negri and Guattari writing in the late 1970s. Better now to suggest experiments beyond what currently exists, experiments which may well be flawed and finite. Rather build something new than exhaust ourselves by attempting to attack structures which are of no use to us which appears to be implicit in calls to “smash the left”. This appears as hand-waving as calls to “smash the left”. Yet at least this piece establishes in polemic style where we are at. And perhaps what we can decide is the starting point for the next steps.
9 to 5 (1980)