IWW four hour day

It has been a while since I’ve done any kind of ‘political’ writing—but a change in city and circumstances has meant a re-think of what anarchist class struggle means to me right now. My last attempts focused on political organisation, and the shift from activist, moral/ideological-based struggles to struggles based around shared material needs. While this still holds true in terms of my thinking, I would like to explore what the actual content of such a struggle involves, and draw on ideas from the current of thinking known as ‘communisation’—ideas that are really quite simple once stripped of their ultra-left prose.

All form and no play

There is a real tendency within the anarchist circles I’ve been apart of to fetishize the form of our struggle, as opposed to its content. In other words, we get so preoccupied with how we organise, and neglect thinking about what we are doing (or want to do) in any depth. Of course this is a big generalisation, but I know it to be typical because my own actions have been no different. My past thoughts and energy have often been around how struggle might be organised—from semi-closed, direct-democracy based collectives, to community assemblies, solidarity networks and anarcho-syndicalist initiatives. It’s a mindset that seems to hold to the idea: “if we just try a different form, or a variation on how we are currently doing things, then we will have more success.” Instead of a solnet, let’s try a community assembly. Instead of a community assembly, let’s try working within existing organisations.

This is understandable, especially in the context of low periods of mass struggle. When there’s not many anarchists around—let alone class ruptures on the scale needed to actually challenge capital relations—it’s probably inevitable that we focus on how we organise ourselves and our activities.

But I think this approach is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly (and for practical reasons), we don’t have the numbers to be worried about the form these small groups or networks will take. Secondly, it harbors an inward-and-outside position, in that it focuses on the activities of a small number of people while neglecting the shared material interests of our class as a whole—a sort of inverted Leninism. Finally, it relegates the content our struggles—what we do and why—to the background (or if not the background, it’s definitely not at the forefront of our thinking).

Beyond Resistance has been one space in which a change of focus has been possible. I don’t say this to focus on the form of our collective (here we go again); rather, an exploration of class struggle, material interests and capitalist patriarchy has meant what we are actually doing with our (limited) time has been important. As yet, this has not amounted to much outward action. But that’s not the point. I’m certainly not interested in building the movement—at least not in the framework I would have used in the past.

“Communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations”

This quote comes from Troploin’s carefully posed text, Communisation. In it, they explain what communism means to them, and in particular, how the content of struggle (or communisation, the revolution as being a communising process) should be at the forefront of any move towards revolutionary change. Here’s the quote in full:

We will focus on one point: because the vast majority of revolutionaries (Marxists and anarchists) regard communism above all as a new way of organising society, they are first of all concerned by how to find the best possible organisational forms, institutions in other words, be they fixed or adaptable, complex or extremely simple… We start from another standpoint: communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations. The way they relate to each other depends on what they do together. Communism organises production and has no fear of institutions, yet it is first of all neither institution nor production : it is activity

The passage relates to one of the main issues ultra-left and libertarian communists have noted with past revolutionary movements: “that a revolution is only communist if it changes all social relationships into communist relationships.” In other words, simply replacing the bosses with workers, and managing life and production as usual (albeit in more free and egalitarian ways) does not change the fundamental social relations between people. If we liberate our labour, as opposed to abolishing it, then “money, wage-labour, the enterprise as a separate unit and a value-accumulating pole, work-time as cut off from the rest of our life, production for value, private property, State agencies as mediators of social life and conflicts, the separation between learning and doing, the quest for maximum and fastest circulation of everything” remains intact. Instead, to be completely rid of capital, writes Troploin, “all of these have to be done away with and not just be run by collectives or turned over to public ownership: they have to be replaced by communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life.”

Endnotes elaborates on this concept further:

Those who developed the theory of communisation rejected this posing of revolution in terms of forms of organisation, and instead aimed to grasp the revolution in terms of its content. Communisation implied a rejection of the view of revolution as an event where workers take power followed by a period of transition: instead it was to be seen as a movement characterised by immediate communist measures (such as the free distribution of goods) both for their own merit, and as a way of destroying the material basis of the counter-revolution. If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organised by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself. By contrast, the revolution as a communising movement would destroy – by ceasing to constitute and reproduce them – all capitalist categories: exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the State and – most fundamentally – wage labour and the working class itself.” (Endnotes, # 2, 2010)

While these quotes might seem off topic, they actually help to frame the questions to come: if the content, or the nature of class struggle, is to take priority over its form, what should our activity in the here-and-now look like? Taking communisation and the importance of material interests into account, the question might be better re-framed as: what material interests can we struggle around that will create the space to rupture capital relations?

I want to make the point here that I do not believe the actions of myself, or my comrades, will result in social revolution. Call it cynical, but this activist mentality was jettisoned a long time ago. However this is not the same as defeatism, or to advocate idly waiting for the spontaneous ruptures of the working class to erupt. Instead, it is the realisation that the content and scale of struggle needed to challenge the capital-labour wage relation will involve activity much larger than our actions alone.

To work or not to work

So, what material interests can we struggle around that will create the space to rupture capital relations? If wage-labour (waged or unwaged), work as a separate activity of life, and the existence of a working class are central to capital’s reproduction, then it makes sense to place these at the heart of our struggles. Or more specifically, the refusal of work and anti-work struggles.

Kathi Weeks in The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, anti-work politics and postwork imaginaries notes how work can unite a range of material interests: “the category of work seems to me at once more capacious and more finely tuned than the category of class. After all, work, including its absence, is both important to and differently experienced within and across lines of class, gender, race, and nation.” She argues that as a result, “the politics of and against work has the potential to expand the terrain of class struggle to include actors well beyond that classic figure of traditional class politics, the industrial proletariat.”

As a way of struggling around these shared material interests, and to bridge the gap between a refusal of work and current work ethics, Weeks suggests two ways forward—the struggle for a guaranteed basic income, and the demand for shorter working hours without the loss of pay. Although it raises questions around how such a demand would affect those who are in reproductive or unwaged work, the second option is one I really like.

While organisng around wage increases or a minimum wage re-enforces the wage system and does nothing to question the nature of work, struggles for a shorter working day (without the loss of pay) opens up a potentially radical discussion about the nature of work itself. Not only would “a thirty-hour full-time work week without a decrease in pay would help to address some of the problems of both the underemployed and the overworked,” it also questions life as endless toil. The benefit of “focusing on these demands which I think distinguishes them from many other demands for economic reform, including the demand for a living wage is their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance. These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.” Struggling around a shorter day with no decrease in pay is “at once a demand for change and a perspective and provocation [and]  a useful reform and a conceptual frame that could generate critical thinking and public debate about the structures and ethics of work.”

The demand for a shorter working day is not a new one. We are all familiar with the struggle for the 8 hour day and the radicalisation this struggle caused. More recently, the IWW has demanded a 4 hour day for 8 hours pay.

Some will argue that slogans such as these will not feed a family on the minimum wage. When there is a vacuum in struggles around such basic (and much needed) reforms, it is indeed tempting to fill the void left by the unions and other ‘socialist’ organisations, and make reform the content of our activity. But we are not social reformers. If we are radicals in the true meaning of the word, then our activity should strike at the root of capital relations. Not only does the struggle for the minimum wage keep the wage system intact, it closes the door to the questioning of wage-labour itself—the very reason poverty wages exist in the first place. Yes, its no comfort to a hungry family, but neither is the continuation of capital relations—in the short-, medium-, or long-term.

It is also possible that the questioning of work, or more specifically, the demand for a shorter day without the loss of pay, places our organisng back on moral or ideological terrain—the very terrain BR has questioned in the past. The key would be to match the demand, which many will consider utopian, with the concrete, lived experiences of work—our shared material interests.

Anti-work struggles via the demand for a shorter working day. Utopian babble or the way forward? At the very least, it is a discussion worth having. And one not based on form.