Political Economy of Labour Repression in the United States: An Interview with Andrew Kolin

Andrew Kolin’s Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States (Lexington Books, 2016) successfully demonstrates how labour repression is organic to capitalism; something that is central to the very constitution of the capitalist economy and its state. Traversing the history of the United States, the book is a survey of the evolving relationship between capital and labour and how repression has been (re)produced in and through that evolution – something that is structurally manifest in the institutional exclusion of labour. However, by presenting it as an expression of class struggle, the book refuses to deprive labour of its agency. It does not view labour as passive or even merely reactive. It suggests that insofar as the political economy of repression is composed through capital-labour interactions, it is contradictory and provides moments of escape or liberation from repression.

Pratyush Chandra and Pothik Ghosh talk to Andrew Kolin. Professor Kolin teaches Political Science at Hilbert College. His books include The Ethical Foundations of Hume’s Theory of Politics, One Family: Before and During the Holocaust, State Structure and Genocide and State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of G.W. Bush.

Radical Notes: Why is the book called “Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States”, and not the “History of Labor Repression in the United States”? Considering it is a rather comprehensive survey of labour history in the US, how do you explain your choice of the title?

Andrew Kolin: Although the book provides an historical survey of labour repression in the United States, the underlying theme is to consider the causes of labour repression, which coincides with the rise of American capitalism and its cycles. In considering the political economy of labour repression, the dependent variable over time is labour’s institutional exclusion from the state and the economy. The independent variable is the class struggle between capital and labour during various economic cycles.

Labour Repression

Radical Notes: Reading through the book, one gets a sense that perhaps the logic of capital-labour relations, or rather conflicts, has determined the course of the American history. Is this reading correct? Can it be justifiably claimed that the American state is a product of this logic?

Andrew Kolin: Prior to the Civil War, capital was in conflict with slave labour in the south and wage labour in the north. After the Civil War as industrialisation accelerated capital sought to maximise control over wage labour at the workplace. The great strike wave of the latter part of the 19th century was labour’s response to capital’s efforts to homogenise labour at the workplace. The extent to which capital could increase control over labour was determined by the economic cycles of American capitalism. Crushing strikes did not end class conflict, but only temporarily displaced it. During the Great Depression and with the New Deal, the goal was to have the state mediate class conflict. This worked fine until the 1970s when economic decline set in and the social welfare state was diminished. Starting in the 1980s, the state was no longer concerned with mediating capital and labour, and clearly focused, instead, on supporting finance capital.

Radical Notes: Although the book is mainly about the post-revolutionary institutions, what we find interesting is the way you discover their roots in the very operation of colonialism and waging of the anti-colonial struggle. How would you summarise the role of the politics of labour — its various segments, especially, waged, indentured and slave — in the American Revolution and the building of post-revolutionary institutions, both democratic and repressive?

Andrew Kolin: Property owners understood the need to mobilise labour in order to make the democratic revolution possible. The American Revolution allowed property owners to sever economic ties with Great Britain making it possible for them to put in place policies that supported economic expansion within North America. Most significant was that the well-to-do and labour worked together toward creating a democratic revolution. This in turn created responsive state governments that responded to the needs of the many, that is, until there was a realisation that the system of government should be reframed to better represent the interests of the propertied elites. The constitutional convention established a state structure that severely restricted labour from having a direct role in policymaking. What followed was that states working with property owners made it legally possible for the rise of the corporation. This was enabled by moving away from corporate charters, which were under state control, to the idea of the corporation as an independent legal entity with due-process rights.

Radical Notes: A crucial lesson that seems to come out from your analysis of labour repression in the US is that the tapestry of labour forms and technological changes that we find is actually capital’s mode of coping with the challenges that the working class poses. Do you agree?

Andrew Kolin: Labour repression past and present has been expressed by the organisation and reorganisation of the workplace, for purposes of controlling the labour process. The goal is to increase the production of surplus-value by speeding up the pace of work through technological innovation.

Radical Notes: How do you think segmentation, engineered through the mechanism of institutional inclusion-exclusion, has shaped the officialdom of the labour movement, or what many call, “labour aristocracy”?

Andrew Kolin: Institutional exclusion has divided labour into reform and radical segments. The AFL, under the leadership of Gompers and Green, and even the more progressive ‘CIO’ Lewis accepted capital’s monopoly of control over the workplace. This, in turn, forced labour leaders to function in partnership with capital toward the goal of achieving workplace harmony. Nonetheless, labour’s rank and file has been more progressive than its leadership, engaging in strikes and various forms of labour unrest without the support of labour leaders.

Radical Notes: Do you think the involvement of immigrant, semi-skilled and unskilled segments of workers time and again played a significant role in radicalising the American labour movement whenever it found itself mired in reformism and status quoism? What has been the impact of rank-and-file activism in the US?

Andrew Kolin: Looking back through the mid and latter parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was immigrants, semi-skilled and unskilled labour segments that were the force behind many of the great strikes. They were also heavily involved in creating the socialist and communist parties. These labour segments also fought against the greater imposition of technology at the workplace. Many of the major accomplishments of organised labour came from these rank-and-file activists. They supported not only the formation of the CIO, they agitated for many of the eventual New Deal reforms, which did result in better wages and working conditions.

Radical Notes: Throughout the history of labour repression and class struggle in the US that is narrated in the book, we see an interesting cyclicity of offence and defence, conflict and compromise. Can you see significant moments of leap in the history of the labour movement in the US that had the potential to radically break out of this cyclicity?

Andrew Kolin: Although the mainstay of labour repression has been labour’s institutional exclusion, labour has been successful in achieving a number of reformist demands. And even though radical labour segments have been oppressed, one finds within the capitalist economy the existence of non-capitalist enclaves in the form of public and worker ownership. The future challenge for organised labour is to increase the scope and scale of worker-based ownership, the basis for building a more radical form of economic democracy.

Radical Notes: Neoliberalism and the dominance of finance capital seem to have finally liberated capitalism from hurdles like democratisation and the impact of institutionalised/ territorialised working-class politics. What are “the limits of labor repression and possible options for the liberation of labor” today? What forms of organisation and working-class activities do you see emerging today that overcome the “legal boundaries” defined within and by the political economy of repression?

Andrew Kolin: There are two trends to consider in assessing the possible future limits of labour repression, one is the built-in feature of US capitalism—it cannot solve its problems. The persistence of the cyclical nature of American capitalism along with class struggle between capital and labour create the social effects pointing to an overall limit to a capitalist economy. A second trend is the existence on a limited scale of worker-based economic democracy. If it is to continue to grow, one can expect the appearance of an economy without labour repression. For example, key features would be that all goods and services would be produced by worker-managers. Companies would sell products for profit in a competitive market, in the absence of a class-based economic system. Each company would be owned and controlled by labour. Investments for expansion would be created by a tax on the company’s capital. Through a national fund, money would flow into the economy to public banks. The labourers in the banks would decide which projects were viable investments. Companies would be mandated to set aside monies to deal with modernisation and capital improvements. Since labour would monopolise decision-making the workers could reshape the companies or opt to leave but they could not make the companies sell capital in order to generate income. Minimum wages would have to be determined to be living wages. A company that could not pay workers a living wage would have to file for bankruptcy. All workers would be provided with a broad range of social services. This economic model has been put into practice at the Mondragon company in Spain. In the United States, there are no formal legal obstacles against labour forming a worker-based company.

Radical Notes: The ascendancy of Donald Trump and his politics of reactionary spectacle has often been ascribed to the rightward ideological shift of large sections of the White working class. How accurate is this ascription, and how would you explain this in political-economic terms? Also, in that context, how exactly do race relations currently function to segment and regiment social labour in its totality in the US? In your opinion, how has race historically functioned, if at all, in enabling and/or constituting what you call the “political economy of labor repression” in the US?

Andrew Kolin: I argue that this interpretation of a White, reactionary working class is incorrect. An interesting article appeared in the Washington Post on June 5, 2017, ‘It’s time to bust the myth: most Trump voters were not working class’. The authors cited the research findings of the American National Election Survey, which released its 2016 survey data. The conclusion was that over two-thirds of Trump voters came from the better-off half of the economy. Mainstream labour leadership supported the candidacy of Hilary Clinton. Trump did attract more working-class voters from the industrial belt, more out of desperation and a rejection of Clinton’s neoliberalism. As to the issue of race and the labour movement, the AFL had put in place policies that prevented people of colour from becoming union members. Racial tensions were heightened when people of colour were used as strike-breakers. Radical labour segments have been far more accepting of non-White workers. Recently, there have been some hopeful signs of mainstream labour breaking with its more racist past. Since the Sweeney era, the AFL-CIO has been more active in recruiting workers of colour. The AFL-CIO has supported the strikes of minority workers working for minimum wages as well as those seeking to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour. Organised labour is well-aware that its future is dependent on reaching out to and organising non-White workers.

The University Worker Issue 2

Meeting on Working Class Politics (April 19-20, 2014), New Delhi

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society. Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)

The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present. Karl Marx, To Domela Nieuwenhuis (1881)

The question of working class strategy has generally been reduced to issues of consciousness raising and particular organisational manoeuvrings to homogenise and hegemonise the self-activities of the working class. In fact, in programmatic terms, it is nothing more than competitive sets of reactive tactics that always claim to respond to the onslaught of capital. So even the question of class as a subjective force becomes irrelevant, leave aside its revolutionary character, rather it is just an arena for competition among various ‘working class’ organisations to present themselves as the most and even sole authentic class representatives negotiating with capital. Ultimately, the most astute negotiator should win. But then successful negotiators must be those who are most comfortable in dealing with capital.

But history confirms that every time such expert leadership has proclaimed their mastery over the working class, the class itself in class struggle has moved ahead and the question of lag between the ‘spontaneous’ consciousness of the working class and repositories of “revolutionary wisdom” is time and again raised. In fact, both leaders and capital tend to compete and collaborate in competition to harness and ‘productively’ channelise the energy and creativity of the working class, to teach it to behave coherently – for capital this means a process of successful subsumption and for self-proclaimed leaders a successful organising under their leadership.

However, it is in the solidarian relationship that develops among workers during the course of togetherness in their everyday confrontations with capital and its agencies that we find a self-consolidation of class energy and creativity happening. This is what is called a political recomposition of the working class. It happens through a refusal to submit itself to the mechanics of the technical composition – how capital (re)organises and imposes work to keep on appropriating surplus value, to subsume evermore labour by technological innovations. But it is important to remember, “[i]t would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working-class.” (Marx) Hence, it is the assertion of the autonomy of labour (political composition) and capital’s evermore intensified campaign to subsume it that constitute class struggle. It is the working class that acts to which capital reacts.

When in our January meeting we discussed the introduction of electronics and micro-electronics in the production process, it was mainly to understand how today the terrain of class struggle itself has been transformed. If we do not take these changes into account, any talk of workers’ politics and its revolutionary transformative character will be a useless doctrinaire discussion on class strategy. We recognise that technological change is not a linear process, to which other social variables and components must adjust. Technology itself is contradictory – it is a class struggle. Marx noted a long time back that capital innovates evermore “automatic system”. It is exactly this automatic system that has continued being central to the struggle between capital and labour. Today this system has acquired a global dimension – not constituted by individual “self-acting mules” aided by separated individuals or groups of individual workers but via networked machines and workers toiling in diverse spacetimes.

The technical recomposition of the working class around new inventions/technologies poses a crisis for existing political forms in the working class movement. These forms either become outmoded or co-opted, or have to transform themselves to contribute in the emergence of a new political composition to reassert the autonomy of labour.

We met thrice in Sevagram to discuss the evolving character of class conflicts and workers’ self-activisms, how they reflect upon various congealed organisational forms and their claims to class radicalism and politics. Our next meeting is in Delhi, April 19-20 (2014). We propose the following broadly defined agenda to continue our discussion:

1. Changes that have occurred with the incomparable leap in productive forces associated with electronics. What is a radical transformation today?

2. Changes in the composition of the working class in these forty years.

3. Appropriate forms of organisations and modes of activities from local to global levels.

For details, contact radicalnotes@radicalnotes.com

Nanni Balestrini’s “FIAT” (1977)

I never bothered with politics before Fiat. Now I was seeing students handing out leaflets in front of the Fiat gate. And they wanted to talk with the workers. Which seemed kind of strange. I said to myself: What the hell, these guys with all the free time they have for balling and fooling around, they come and stand in front of the factory, which has got to be the most disgusting thing there is. I mean really the most absurd and disgusting thing there is. They come here in front of the factory, for what? I was kind of curious about this, but I finally just figured they were crazies, missionaries, thickheads. So I wasn’t interested in what they were saying.

This was in Spring. In April. I’d never been to any of the meetings the students used to have. Though I did go to the May Day celebration once. A workers’ holiday was something I couldn’t even conceive of. This has got to be some kind of joke, a holiday that celebrates work. The workers’ feast-day, the workers celebrating work. I couldn’t figure out what either meant – a workers’ holiday, or a holiday celebrating work. I could never figure why work had to be celebrated. Anyway, when I wasn’t at work I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Because I was a worker, I mean a man who spends most of the day inside a factory, and so the rest of the time all’s I could do was rest up for the next day. That holiday, though, just for the hell of it, I went to the May Day celebration to hear some assembly, some group or other I wasn’t familiar with.

And I saw all these people wearing red ties. Red flags. They were saying things I already knew about, more or less. It’s not that I’m a Martian or something. What I mean is, I knew what they were talking about even if I didn’t understand them. The boojwa was standing in front of all the spiffy bars around the piazza. The petty boojwa was there too – farmers, small businessmen, priests, people with their little bank-books, students, intellectuals, jobbers, clerks, and other kinds of kissasses. Listening to the union speeches. And there, in between the unions standing in the middle of the piazza and the boojwa in front of the bars all around the piazza, was that mob of workers, a different race. And there between the boojwa and the workers was that big fat display, the car, FIAT.

A holiday, in other words, a fair. I listened to the union leaders. Brothers! We mustn’t just say these things outside here today, we must say them – and do them – tomorrow inside the factories. And I thought, okay, this guy’s right. What good’s a holiday? You make a lot of noise only when they let you stand around holding your red flag in the piazza. We have to do this in the factory, too.

I went about my own business then, and saw another demonstration. People yelling MAO TSE TUNG HO CHI MINH. Who are these guys, I asked myself. More red flags, more protest signs. But all this was still new to me. I was still in the dark. A few weeks later I dropped in on a student meeting in a bar just outside Mirafiori. But by that time I’d already spent a few days stirring up trouble in the factory. I was in Fiat shop number 54, Body Division, on the Model 500 line. I’d been there a month, counting from the day after I passed my physical to get into Fiat.

There were two thousand of us at the physical exam, everybody got a number, and they asked us shit ass questions. Prepared questions, the same questions for everybody. But there were so many of us that those poor bastards asking the questions went pretty fast. They looked you in the face and shot a couple of questions at you. You answered something and they told you to move to the next room. So you went to the next room. In the next room was a guard holding a list, calling us twenty at a time then taking us to another room where they were giving the physicals.

The first exam was an eye check-up. Look here, close your eye, look up, read that – this kind of stuff. Then hearing, to find out if your ears worked. Raise your right leg, raise your left leg. They checked our teeth, nose, eyes, ears, throat. What with all these tests it got to be two o’clock. At two they told us we could go to eat. We had to go to this morning session on an empty stomach. Couldn’t eat anything, couldn’t drink anything. Because they wanted to do a blood analysis. Some managed to get the blood test over with by two o’clock. Others didn’t. The ones who had to come back in the afternoon for the blood test weren’t allowed to eat at two. They starved from the night before.

Outside you could smell the stench coming from where they were doing the blood tests. Inside were thousands of test tubes filled with blood, all over the place. Blood-soaked cotton swabs everywhere. On one side a pile of blood-red cotton three and a half feet high. It hurt when they took your blood because they weren’t watching where they stuck the needle. They just stuck it anywhere, pulled it out, then put the test tube to one side and threw the blood-soaked cotton to the other side on top of the pile.

From there we went to another room where the nurse handed us a glass. There were just two bathrooms where you could go inside and piss. We all formed a circle and started pissing in our glasses. We laughed, said we were making beer. We put the glass up on top and the nurse asked us our name, then wrote it down on a sheet of paper under the number of each person’s glass.

Next day, the general physical. You had to lift a weight. They had some machine with weights attached. To check how strong we were. They spent two hours on this test because there were two thousand of us, and they had to put all two thousand of us through it. Not everybody got to take it that day, so they had to come back the next day. Six, maybe seven hours, just for this test. After you passed it you had to wait your turn for the general hysical. You stripped naked.

You stood there naked in front of the witch doctor. He asked you questions, sitting there in his white smock. What your name was, how old you were, if you’d done military service, if you were engaged. Then he made you march. Go forward, come back, raise your arm, lower your arm, squat down, show me your hands, show me your feet, now the bottoms. Then he checked your balls, to make sure you had them. Say thirty-three, cough, breathe, and all this kind of crap. A whole day to take this exam, because it took a quarter-hour for each person, and there were two thousand of us.

Then the witch doctor said to me: Have you ever had an operation? It was damn obvious I’d never had an operation, since I didn’t have any scars, thank God. Yeah, I say, on my left ball. How did it happen? The guy was scared because he hadn’t noticed it before. I said to myself, now I’ll give this doctor a chance to show his stuff. It’s from playing soccer, I answered. I got kicked in the balls and they had to operate.

Really? Alright then, you’ll have to come for a check-up tomorrow. Another guy said he had broken his arm, so he had to come back the next day, too. What this did, I think, was screw it into the worker’s head that he had to be healthy, whole, etc. etc., whatever fucking good this does. Because the fact is they took all of us, even the ones who couldn’t hear, or who wore glasses, or were lame or had an arm in a cast. Everybody, I mean everybody, down to the last man. A paralytic’s maybe the only one they wouldn’t have taken.

We went for the check-up the next day. They sent me to a room with another witch doctor, though this one wasn’t even wearing a white smock. All he had was a nice blond secretary who waggled her ass back and forth across the room. She brought him my chart and he sat down on a stool. He had me pull down my pants and underwear, then he felt my balls. Where did you have the operation? On this one, here. Pull your pants up. I pulled them back up, he didn’t say anything to me. The nice nurse gave me a card saying I had to report to Fiat two days later.

Two days later all the guys who had passed the physical were there at Fiat. I mean all of them. Some guy from Personnel came over right away. Or maybe he was in public relations, or a psychologist, or a social assistant. Nobody knew who the fuck he was. So he comes over and says: Friends! Welcome to Fiat, both from me and from the management who’s hiring you. Wonderful, terrific. Everybody claps. The Personnel Office, he says, is available to Fiat employees who have children, social problems that need solving, and other such things. If you need money ask us. So a few guys from Naples say: Yeah, I could use about ten thousand lire. No, not like this, not now, you have to ask for the loan when you’re working. If you have real needs. For now you’ll have to take care of such things on your own. Then when you’re working you can ask for a loan.

Then they bumped us downstairs from the offices into Fiat, into the factory itself. Some other whosit, some clerk, took our numbers away and gave us new ones. A dressing-room number, corridor number, locker number, shop number, and line number. They kept us there practically half the day doing all this. Then we went into the big boss’s office, the Body Division engineer. We went in three at a time, he was obviously asking everybody the same questions, the same spiel, using the same words every time for everybody.

I welcome you to Fiat. You already know what Fiat is, in Italy Fiat is everything. Maybe you’ve read some bad things in the Communist press, complaining about our assembly line, but they’re all lies. Because the only workers here who don’t get along are the lazy ones. The ones who don’t want to work. Everybody else works, they’re happy to work, and they feel good working. They all have cars, and Fiat also has nurseries for the children of its employees. Then too, if you’re a Fiat employee, you get discounts at certain stores. All he did was apologize to us.

This guy too, like the others, didn’t ask any specific questions. He didn’t say anything that would apply to us individually, or personally. It’s obvious that they treat their office-workers personally because there are fewer of them. But we were a mob, a flood. Not just two thousand of us, but twenty thousand newly hired workers all told. The monsters were arriving, the dreadful workers. And so for two months they were asking everybody the same questions, doing the same job.

So that even the guys doing this job were being pushed around by Fiat. I mean, this mob of workers entering Fiat had reduced even the clerks, even the doctors, to the level of the working class. What was happening really had nothing to do with selection, it was just a way of passing on a concept of organization, of discipline, a pecking order. Otherwise they wouldn’t have taken on even those who weren’t there, I mean the ones who were really sick, who were really in bad shape. But they took everybody, because they could use everybody. Everybody was okay for that kind of work.

And this guy, the engineer, says: I’m your colonel, and you’re my men; so we have to respect one another. I’ve always stood up for my workers. Fiat workers are the best, they produce more than anyone else . . . and all this kind of bullshit. So I start getting a little pissed at this, and I start thinking: Things are going to get pretty messy with this here colonel. Then he explained to us how it’s stupid to sabotage production because aside from being canned on the spot we’d also be reported to the police. He pulled out an article of the penal code that said we’d be reported to the police. He was starting his terror tactics. I thought to myself: This here colonel needs to be taught a good lesson.

Then the bosses introduced themselves to each of us. They had already split us up. Up till then we had been a mob, now they divided us, four or five on each line. I was going on the 500 line, so they introduced me to my boss. The foreman. Then my foreman introduced me to the floater. These are the workers who know how to do all the jobs on the line. If you have to go take a crap or piss – when they let you go, I mean, because you have to have permission – the floater steps in and takes your place. Or if you’re feeling sick, or make a mistake or something. The floater steps in, the joker, the one who can do everything.

They introduced these guys to me and had me stand near the line. There were still two hours left to go before quitting, so the boss had me do small operations, meaningless stuff. The assembly line looked like easy work to me. The way the line moved, the way all these guys worked. It didn’t look like too much trouble. The next day, they grab me and take me to my position, another place, another line. They introduce another boss to me, the next day, when I’m supposed to start working. This guy calls a floater and tells him: Take him over there. Anyway, I ended up where I was putting large ring-plates on the 500 model. I had to center them on the engine, put two bolts in, then tighten them with some gizmo.

I took the ring-plate, while the body of the 500 was moving down overhead and the engine coming from another direction, and I set the ring-plate in place. It weighed about 22 pounds. I got the plate from some other place where a guy was setting them up, then I put it on top of the engine and put two bolts in it. I drilled in the two bolts with this automatic air-wrench, fast, brrrr brrrr, then the whole thing moved off while another one arrived. I had twenty seconds to do it in, I had to catch the rhythm of it. The first few days I couldn’t get the knack of it, so the floater helped me. For three days, he helped me.

On a Fiat line it’s not a matter of learning anything, but just getting your muscles used to it. Getting your muscles used to the strain, using those movements, that rhythm. Having to put one of those jobbies in every twenty seconds meant you had to develop movements faster than your heartbeat. I mean, like a finger, the eye, anything, you had to move it in tenths of a second. Mandatory operations in a fraction of a second. The operation of selecting the two washers, the operation of selecting the two bolts, then all those movements, were all operations the muscles and eye had to perform on their own, automatically, without my having to decide anything. All I had to do was keep up the rhythm of those movements, repeating them in order, the same ones over and over. Until you’ve spent three or four days getting that rhythm, you just can’t hack it.

Once I started getting used to doing it myself, the guy that was helping me left me alone. I realized that here inside it was in their interest to increase the operations we did. A lot of the new people, some were working half a day, some one day, some three, some worked a week, then they left. Especially the young guys, a lot of them left right away, after seeing the kind of shit slave work that was involved. Who the fuck wants to stay on here? And so they left. Then there was a bunch of others taking sick leave every day. Since there were less workers than were supposed to work on the line, they had to make each of us do a lot more operations. If they didn’t they’d have to keep on a lot of those guys, who weren’t doing them any good because they were never there. So they stuck me with an extra operation. I started getting pissed off at this, and ended up hurting my finger a little.

My fingernail got a little crushed, but not so it hurt all that much. I put some grease on it, though, black grease, on my finger, so that it looked like black, clotted blood. The nail was a little black, and the finger was black. I called the floater over and told him I had to go to the infirmary. The foreman came over and said: You want to go to the infirmary? Yeah, I hurt my finger. But you can’t go to the infirmary for something like this. Well, I’m going anyway. No you’re not. Then another boss came over, the 500 boss. What I mean is, there’s a boss for the Body Division, then a boss for the 500 model, a boss for the 850 and one for the 124. And each of these, the 124, the 500, and the 850, has its own lines. The 850’s got four or five lines, the 500 has six or seven lines, the 124 has two or three.

The 500 boss came over and said to me: Listen, I’ll make you a proposition. You decide whether you want to go see the doctor, go to the infirmary with that finger, or if you want to stay here. If you want to stay here, I’ll put you on an easy job. If you decide to go see the doctor and the doctor refuses to treat you, I’ll put you on the heaviest job around, in fact I’ll get you suspended from work. So I take him up on this and say: I want to go see the doctor. So he writes me a note, because you have to have a note to go up to the infirmary. We’ll see, he threatens me. I went to the infirmary and as I was walking in I saw a worker leaving, with his arm all bandaged where he had cut himself. You going home? I ask him. No, they wouldn’t let me. What, with that cut on your arm, they wouldn’t let you? No.

That really pissed me off, and I said to myself: Okay, even if there’s nothing wrong with this finger, I’m going to get myself ten days. What’s going on, anyway? That guy had really hurt himself and they tell him: No, you have to work. Are we all crazy, or what? We at war? What’s this, Vietnam? All these people bloodied-up and wounded, do they still have to work? I walked into the infirmary, and there were more wounded men arriving then, too.

That infirmary was always packed, really, it looked like an army hospital. What with all these workers constantly coming in with a crushed hand, or a cut somewhere, or with something broken. One guy there had a dropped hernia; he was screaming. They called an ambulance and took him to emergency.

I started bluffing as soon as I got there. I checked and felt my finger, making sure when I was supposed to scream. When they touched my finger I started cursing in dialect, in Neapolitan. The guy who checked me was from Turin, and it had a certain effect on him. Because if I cursed in regular Italian it might look like I was acting, but when I cursed in Neapolitan the guy didn’t know whether I was acting or not. Mannaggia ‘a maronna, me stai cacando ‘o cazzo, statte fermo porco dio! – this is the kind of stuff I said. But I have to examine you, he said, so keep still. What still? I hurt my finger, it’s broken, right here. And he says: I want to see if it’s broken; I don’t know that it’s broken. I do, though, it feels broken; I can’t even move it.

A doctor comes over, the one who had looked at the guy with the hernia. He says: Alright, give him a slip, six days. Six days, he says, then if it’s still hurting you we’ll put you in the hospital. He gives me a slip, and I walk out. I go to the boss and say: He gave me six days. And the guy starts turning black with anger, thinking: This prick fooled me; he’ll have six days sick leave, at Fiat’s expense. Because MALF had to pay me for them. It’s not like the sick-pay they have now, INAM, the Istituto Nazionale. INAM doesn’t pay for the first three sick days; but with MALF you used to get paid from the first day on. Getting that sick-pay was a great way of gypping Fiat, and in fact they later got rid of it.

So I go home. At home I made sure I didn’t wash the finger that was all black and greasy. Never washed it, didn’t move it, either, and I was careful not to lean it against anything. After six days it had swelled up a little. Which is exactly why I never moved it, to make it swell. If you move your fingers, the fingers get limber. But if you smash your finger and then never move it, the finger gets really swollen, it gets bigger than the others. Not all that swollen, but enough so’s you can see it’s a little bigger. And it looks smoother, too, because you haven’t let anything touch it.

After my six days I go back. I say: Look how the finger’s got all swollen; and it feels like it hurts more than before. But can’t you work with it? No, we work with our hands. If I have to pick up a bolt, or have to get my gun – I mean the thing that secures the bolts, we call it a gun – I have to use my hands. Now either I watch what I’m doing, watch the bolts I have to grab, or else I watch that my finger doesn’t touch anything. But the way it is now I’d have to watch what I’m doing and watch my finger. But this is impossible, because if I do, then after three hours of fast banging against one thing and another I’ll end up a nervous wreck, I’ll go crazy, I’ll throw something at somebody’s head … I just can’t do it.

The doctor guesses that I’m bluffing, and makes me a proposition: Which do you prefer? To go back to work, or to be sent to the hospital to recover? I say to myself: I’ll have to tough this out, because I know sending me to the hospital just costs them more money. And he can’t justify putting a worker in the hospital just for a finger, he can’t do it. He was trying to bluff me, thinking: This guy wants another three or four days off, so I’ll threaten him; he’ll rather go back to the factory than into the hospital. Once you’re in the hospital you’re obviously screwed, I mean you can’t have any fun, you just stay inside, that’s all. I say: No, then, I’ll go to the hospital; because as far as I’m concerned my finger still hurts, it’s not healed. So he says to another guy: Give this one here a hospital pass. I turned green, thinking: The prick fooled me. But I kept my mouth shut, though I almost said I’d go back to work. I stretch my neck trying to see the pass, and I saw he was writing me up for another six days. I don’t say anything. I get the pass and leave. Neither of us says anything. I didn’t even have to say, Okay I won’t go to the hospital. We both knew we had each other by the balls.

And so I got myself twelve days paid sick-leave. I felt happy. Because I had managed to beat out the job, beat the system, making it work to my advantage. Except that those days I wasn’t working I didn’t know what the fuck to do with myself all day. I sort of hung out around the Valentino, where all the whores and faggots were. I just walked around, you know, screwed up really, I was bored, I didn’t know what to do with myself even if I’d had money. Fiat was paying me almost 120,000 lire a month. They paid you an advance every fifteen days, and out of my first advance I gave 40,000 lire to my sister, who I was staying with.

So I had 10,000 lire left, 10,000 lire that I just pissed away in a couple of days. Partly because I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Going from one bar to another, buying newspapers, Playmen, comic books….I went to the movies, I didn’t know what else to fucking do. I ate up that money without knowing what the fuck I was doing. Like I was resting up, because I felt so tired out by a shit job. Which is pretty absurd, I mean really absurd. Because during those twelve days of paid sick-leave I realized that I didn’t even know how to rest up from work, and that I didn’t know what to fucking do in Turin.

After those twelve days of sick leave – which anyhow I got at Fiat’s expense, because I didn’t give a shit about them – I got back inside the factory. They started me out tightening mufflers, and I decided to fuck up my new floater. See, when you have to learn a new operation, the floater’s right there to teach it to you. And I wanted to fuck this guy up because all floaters are scabs, people who’ve been working there for three, maybe ten, years. He was showing me what to do: Got that? brrrr brrrr brrrr. Now you do the next one. So I went brrrrrrr and slowed down. I pretended the gun ran down on me, that it was jammed near the bolt. I called the floater: Come here, quick. I can’t do it, see?

Christ Almighty! Christ Almighty! the guy started saying. He was Turinese, the kind they call barott, they come from farmer stock around the outskirts of Turin. They’re still farmers; they own land, which their wives work. They’re commuters, very tough people, thick-headed, with no imagination, dangerous. Not fascists, just thick-headed. Communists is what they are – Bread and Work. I, at least, was a hopeless case, because I didn’t care much about politics. But these guys thought work was the ultimate thing, work was everything to them, I mean everything, and they showed it the way they acted. They stayed and worked for years, for three, maybe ten, years. So that they got old fast and died young. Just for those few lire that never go far enough anyway – only a thickhead, a lackey, could do it. You spend years in this prison of shit, doing a job that totally destroys you.

Anyway, this guy suspects that I’m just fucking him up, so he leaves his place and stops the line. The bosses come over. Whenever a line stops, a red light goes on where the line stopped and all the bosses come over. What’s the trouble? This guy here doesn’t feel like working. No, that’s a lie! I am working, it’s just that I can’t handle this yet because I’m still learning. I’m not half as smart as you; you’ve been here ten years, obviously a guy like you can learn everything right away. I wanted to make him squirm. Look, I said, you’re a smart guy, it’s ten years you’re working here, so you understand everything, but for me it’s a little hard. I just got back from being sick, too, so how can I work with this finger?

Then the boss says to me: Listen, it looks to me like you’re just trying to goof off. You better remember that here at Fiat you have to work. No goofing off. If you want to goof off go see your friends on via Roma. I tell him: Look, I can’t say as I have any friends on via Roma. Anyway, I come here because I need money. I’m working, but I still haven’t learned.When I learn, I’ll work. You want to give me six days to work into the job or not? What do you mean six days? the boss says, You’ve already been here a month. A month, right, but I was working at that other position, not here. So now I need another six trial days, and the floater there is supposed to stay with me all six days. If he doesn’t, I won’t do a fucking thing.

I was supposed to tighten bolts, nine of them, on the mufflers. I had to stand there for eight hours holding the gun; the engine passed in front of me, I tightened the bolts, then it went on its way. Another worker put the muffler in and set up the bolts, all I had to do was tighten them. It was easy enough, but I had to stand there for eight hours holding that gun up over my arm or on my shoulder, an air-gun weighing twenty-eight pounds. See, I don’t like jobs where I have to use just one hand, or one arm, where I can’t use both at once. Because they make one shoulder get thicker than the other. You get deformed, one shoulder one way, the other shoulder another way, one muscle bigger than the other. It deforms you, it really does. But if you do those kinds of gymnastic movements where you’re moving everything at the same time, now that doesn’t bother me. But the acrobatics I had to go through on this job really pissed me off. Putting that motor on my shoulder, the noises ratatatataratatara tat tat tat – I couldn’t stand it any more.

I had already decided to break with Fiat anyway, to make trouble for them. At this last confrontation with my floater the bosses from all the other lines all came over at the same time. The workers had stopped because my floater had already stopped the line. So they were all standing there looking at me, while I was looking at the bosses. So I threaten the boss, the floater, even the big boss, that other guy, the colonel, because he came over too. Look, I say, Fiat doesn’t belong to me, get that in your heads. I didn’t want it, I’m not the one who made it, I’m here to make money, that’s all. But if you get me all pissed off, if you start breaking my balls, I’ll bust your face in, every one of you. I’m saying this to them in front of all the workers. I had threatened them openly, but they couldn’t take any risks, because they didn’t know what I was up to, whether I was serious or not. So the big boss tried the old paternalism.

You’re right, he tells me in front of the workers, but work is something important, it’s something you have to do. Obviously you’re a little nervous today, but there’s nothing we can do about that. This isn’t a hospital. Go take a rest, he says, moving closer to me. Go on sick leave, he says, standing next to me in front of all the workers, and don’t break balls for people who want to work. He was getting back at me, in other words. He gets back at me then cuts the conversation short: If you want to break balls go on sick leave, go fuck yourself for all I care, just don’t break balls for people who work and want to work. There’s no room here for fuckups, or crazies, or weaklings who don’t want to work. Meanwhile the line was starting up again, and the workers weren’t watching me any more. 

Courtesy: Libcom

Anti-Rape Movement: A Horizon beyond Legalism and Sociology

Bhumika Chauhan, Ankit Sharma and Paresh Chandra

The project of systemic transformation does not allow one the liberty to pick and choose battles, points of entry, like commodities in the market place. A premise that is fundamental to such a project is that a single dominant principle structures this system; to us that principle is the labour-capital contradiction. This being our basic assumption, the move to an essentialised, sociologically specified understanding of class, where the “labour” of the “labour-capital” contradiction is embodied, for all times and all spaces, in a group of people (male workers; upper caste workers; white workers) is far from obvious. On the contrary, what follows logically from the assumption is that each moment (social, political, geographical, temporal) necessarily exists in a world structured by this fundamental contradiction. And if ours is to be a working-class intervention, then what is decided a priori, is only the optics that we make use of, not the moment that we choose for our intervention. Certain locations can take strategic precedence over others, but these too are decisions made in history.

Assuming thus, when we approach the “women’s question,” (constituted of a continuum of issues/sites that often seem discrete and unconnected – e.g. production, reproduction, sexuality, sexual violence etc.), the question only indicates the moment of intervention, but our project remains the same – of working-class revolution; so does the structuring principle of this system – the labour-capital contradiction. This moment, at which we intervene (the context being the recent anti-rape struggles), has already been shaped by utterances, interventions that have preceded ours, and even as we at Radical Notes formulate our own position (what we think to be a working class intervention on this question), we will necessarily have to engage with these prior utterances – at least those that we think to be useful, and others that we think to be woefully counterproductive. Later on in this essay, we will respond to recent interventions made by Maya John[1] and Kavita Krishnan[2].

This is not the first time that this question has been taken up in the manner in which we seek to raise it, nor is ours an “original formulation” (none are, to be honest). Roughly forty years ago, Marxist-Feminists like Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa among others were faced with the same question and very handy theorisations that they developed are still to be properly registered within the movement in India.

One of the earliest among these theorisations comes in a pamphlet from 1974, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’[3], authored by Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa[4]. The said pamphlet emerged from the Wages for Housework movement (1972) in Italy and the United Kingdom. The movement (and this pamphlet) was an attempt to respond to the women’s question without falling in line with the various varieties of liberal feminisms (which seemed to ignore altogether questions of labour and exploitation). But at the same time, the movement had to ensure that it did not echo another kind of Marxism that functioned with an essentialised understanding of “working class,” was unable to break with forms produced by past experiences, which were now ossified, and had foreclosed altogether many sites from ambit of conscious working-class intervention; these Marxists advised the women of the ‘70s to enter waged labour, which they deemed a precondition for “working-class-ness,” in order to fight for a more advanced capitalism, waiting always for the liberation to come that was socialism. We enact a farce in repeating those Marxist-Feminists, but then we are encountered by a farcical repetition; we find ourselves in a place very similar to the one that the above mentioned movement faced; admittedly Krishnan seems to embody both sides of the problem we just mentioned, and admittedly Maya John has chosen the right direction, though she has begun on the wrong step.

I

In her critique of John’s position on patriarchy Krishnan emphasises a manner of understanding sexual violence that fails to go beyond continual evocations of notions like “gender power”. Despite invoking the idea of women’s reproductive labour, she makes no concerted attempt to make this concept of power unfold in relation to capitalism, reproductive labour, etc. As was the case with the liberal feminists of yore, “misogyny” and “patriarchal attitudes” do still remain materially ungrounded ideological constructs in her theorisation.

In continuity with this same manner of thinking, which is unable to identify the materiality that unites diverse moments of struggle, diverse ideological forms, Krishnan goes on to argue that there is a need to “enrich our understanding of the intersections of class, caste, and patriarchy”. After ostensibly arguing that the women question is an important part of working class politics, and after accepting the specific division of male and female instituted by capitalism, Krishnan uses the notion of ‘intersection’ as if these identities/issues occupy specific grounds and intersect only at certain moments. In a single sentence the falseness of her welcome-to-Marxist-analysis is revealed, for any such analysis would assume that class does not simply intersect with gender, it structures the very terrain on which the struggles of all these identities (caste, gender, etc.) are played out. Even though Krishnan will evoke modes of production when trying to understand the relation between capitalism and patriarchy, such a manner of approaching the question will never be operative in the political-strategic programme that she envisages. In that programme womanhood is one identity, class another, all to be addressed by the good leftist organisation – nothing is to be excluded. In the words of Laclau, another sophisticated anti-Marxist, she envisages her politics as the attempt to resolve “a variety of partial problems”. Her attempt is not to identify how a fundamental contradiction in the system structures all other moments of struggle, but to form an aggregative alliance of identities.

A working-class organisation necessarily assumes the key role that the labour-capital contradiction plays. Class-struggle structures the very terrain on which historically specific moments of struggle occur; in order to catalyse the self-organisation of the working class the task becomes to try and understand these moments of intervention keeping in mind the relation between the generality of class-struggle and specific historical determinations. It is in this manner that the working class (with the help of its organisations, that are produced and dismantled in the struggle) analyses itself, and the forms of segmentation instituted by capitalism, so as to recompose itself as a conscious collectivity. In such recomposition, segments of the working class, say working class women, necessarily declare their autonomy, but only in order to transcend autonomy. To transcend this autonomy is to overcome the gendered segmentation of the working class, and this is the manner in which the gender relation and its transcendence get played out in the terrain of class-struggle. But Krishnan takes a different standpoint.

Krishnan asks, “Do working class women not seek the freedom to move freely in the public space without fearing rape; the freedom to marry in defiance of caste and community norms; the freedom from domestic violence?”

From the very manner of speaking one can glean that this is the position of an organisation trying to rationalise its interventions to its Leftist interlocutors by asserting: “Don’t’ you see? This is a working-class issue too, not only a middle class issue”. As if their intervention was predicated upon a working-class understanding of the issue, as if their interventions were not made at a moment and in a manner that would facilitate their image construction in front of an evidently “conscious” middle class. A look at Liberation’s track record will bear this out. They jumped into the anti-corruption campaign, probably drawn by its effervescence. As they entered, they appended what they thought to be working-class demands to their agenda, maintaining throughout the form that had already been instituted by the Anna brigade. The same has been their attitude towards the anti-rape struggle. In fact this recent intervention roots out any doubts about the bad faith that governed their intervention in the anti-corruption campaign. The terms of the struggle had already been decided by the middle-class subjectivity of the petty-bourgeoisie and the dominant segments of the working class.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find even a glimmer of whatever one could possibly associate with working-class politics in Krishnan’s now famous speech, or any of her writings. Prior to this last article, in which John forces her to engage with the discourse of working class politics, in all her utterances Krishnan has been absolutely true to her liberal-feminist mould.

An example: The tactics deployed by the ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ campaign[5] addresses the bourgeois-democratic state and there is nothing in their articulations to indicate that their demands (e.g. Justice Verma Committee Recommendations, etc.) are formulated as a moment of a larger process that would lead to the dismantling of the system in its totality. Think also of the ‘Take Back the Night’ – like politics that Krishnan is implicitly defending in her recent essay. Can such a tactic be anything but merely symbolic unless it is grounded in the working class struggle for the right to the city, night and day? When we ask almost in the same breath for diverse kinds of legalist measures in the name of generating  a safe city that will allow the state to intrude and monitor the everyday life, for whom are we claiming this night really? Certainly not for those who sleep on these streets. And is not the form of reclamation important? If the working class were to reclaim control over time and space, as we at Radical Notes have asserted repeatedly[6], it could only take the form of an occupation that seeks to dismantle the state, dismantle the very manner in which time and space are structured today. To reclaim the night in the manner in which these campaigners conceive of it, is to affirm the right of the state to adjudicate claims. Is not this always already a compromised form of politics – one that has absolutely no relation with the revolutionary aims of the working class? This really is the question that the “revolutionary-Leftist” defenders of these struggles must answer.

Another example, this time from Krishnan’s article: Charging John of misreading Friedrich Engels, Krishnan suggests that Engels actually argued that ‘…the relationship between the working men and women was more likely to be based on mutual equality and love than those among the bourgeoisie.’

Let us quote something rather out of place here. Kafka once wrote, ‘The belief in progress is not the belief that progress has already happened.’ Krishnan, in her attack on John, seems to deny that the working class is living a dehumanised life. Krishnan could turn around and say that she was merely responding to John’s over-emphasis, and that her utterance had a context. John was arguing that the working class is unable to live a good life (of relationships, community, of socialising, etc.) that the “middle class” (analytically, a rather dubious term that both Krishnan and John deploy) enjoys. Strange for an intervention concerning the women’s question, in her response, Krishnan underplays the gendered segmentation of the working class. If the working class is more likely to form relations of love and be happy in them, it probably has fewer reasons to fight; if the present is good and has greater possibilities (likelihood) of goodness, why raise the question of impossibility – which is revolution? The social democratic underpinnings of Krishnan’s position are never clearer than here. The fact that the working class is internally segmented is the single greatest problem that defers revolution. Like all good social democrats of the past (including CPI(ML)-Liberation’s unacknowledged role model CPI(M)), Krishnan too tries to play down internal segmentation.

It is in her response to Maya John that Krishnan, for the first time, puts forth the claim that the anti-rape movement (presumably in the manner in which it was envisaged by her organisation) had revolutionary aims. Though she may now argue that rape is a working-class issue and while she may even theorise the role of the reproductive labour of women in capitalism, her theory is not a theory for practice. She does not tell us what such a conceptualisation of women’s labour means for the struggle of the working class, nor do the above-mentioned campaigns bear out her claims. This is probably why she and her organisation seem unable to distinguish between raising the issue of sexual violence and rape as a working-class issue, and the populist-opportunist attempt to take the middle-class position on this issue to the working class.

II

Maya John does try to develop a coherent understanding of what would the shape of a working-class intervention on this question be. Her dismissal of the so-called dual-system theory is an aspect of this attempt. But even John, though she establishes the political-economic grounding of patriarchy in the capitalist mode of production, seems unable to move on to the political-strategic wisdom that can be extracted from this insight. In order to develop what this wisdom may be, we can begin with certain problems in John’s essay.

John seems to imply the “image of subjugation” and the ideology of female inferiority emanate from the materiality of those situations of subjugation in which the working-class woman is placed. The “middle-class” woman, insofar as she does not occupy these moments, is deemed inferior because she too has to carry the burden of this image – she is not actually subjugated. According to John, a working-class man attacks a rich woman because at that moment he finds her in the same position as that of the working-class woman (‘vulnerable’, ‘out in the street’ as opposed to in the protection of her household, etc.), and finds her more attractive, presumably because of having internalised certain norms of beauty, etc.

A simple enough criticism of such a position is that John is unable to comprehend the material moorings that ideology develops. Another equally pertinent criticism is that John fails to see the materiality of the subjugation of that middle-class woman who does perform reproductive labour, and in doing so reproduces her family’s middle-class status.

The problem perhaps begins with the categories deployed. So long as the term ‘middle class’ is used to refer to struggles and subjective positions that attempt to protect privilege, we are fine. But the category becomes dubious once it is used without qualifications, to refer to a group of people, because then the phenomenological appearance of the fact begins to shape theorisation and we end up reducing class merely to a sociological fact, which it is not. Greater complications enter when we deal with gender and the matter of the woman’s reproductive labour. Who is a middle-class woman, first of all? Is she the wife of a petty bourgeois man? Does she not do housework, and does she not rear ‘his’ children? Or, is the middle-class woman a woman in a petty bourgeois occupation? Is she then a small business owner or a subsistence farmer? There surely aren’t many of those around. Is the middle-class woman a woman in a mid-level pay grade with some degree of control over her work process? Even if that were so, she does not escape sexual discrimination and harassment outside and inside the house. Inside the house, she too has to perform her domestic duties or at least sexual ones (‘bad sex’). One must then decide where to draw that line in the quantity of wage and control over work (productive and reproductive) beyond which the difference becomes qualitative. Is it possible that John’s overemphasis on the category of “middle-class-ness” precludes the very possibility of a working-class intervention by not allowing one to recognise the fact the middle-class woman too is, in material fact, a worker?

Even more important is another oversight on Maya John’s part. She asserts again and again that the problem with ‘feminism’ is that it is stuck on the question of male-female equality, whereas at the heart of all battles lies the question of liberation, which is the question of the working class. What John fails to grasp, is the possibility of the question of gender inequality becoming a moment in the struggle of the working class. Unfortunately, in her theorisation the women’s question becomes another question added serially to the list of issues that a working-class organisation raises (in this her theorisation bears an unfortunate likeness to Krishnan’s). Insofar as it is a working-class organisation it will raise the women’s question for working-class women. This John argues by asserting (rightly) the significance of the internal segmentation of women along class lines. While this is an important moment in theorising a working-class perspective on the women’s question, the next important moment is to explore how the working class itself is segmented along gender lines. It is right that the middle-class woman while battling her inferior position as a woman through middle-class or bourgeois struggles (as is the case with most gender-sensitisation campaigns) maintains her class privilege, in that being not only an agent but also an agent of capital. But something more interesting emerges when we look at this from another angle.

More generally, by accumulating the wife’s unpaid (sexual and non-sexual) labour through the husband, capital converts the husband into its agent at that specific moment, and the struggle against such subjection, which is the cause of segmentation of the working class, is the core of the struggle of the working class. In the particular case of sexual violence and rape that forms the context of the current debate: in treating the upper-class women as an object for sex, and for subjugation (when he gets the chance), the working-class man is effectively perpetuating a subjective attitude and an objective relation of social power that extends, even originates with his treatment of working-class women. The working-class woman enters this debate on sexual violence towards an upper-class woman by asserting that this attitude toward women (even when we use the word attitude, let us not forget the materiality of all ideology) keeps the working-class segmented; the working-class man exploits women and, in that, reproduces the capital relation and forms of segmentation capitalism institutes. The reconstitution of the working class into a class-for-itself demands that the “male-ness” of the male-worker be thoroughly deconstructed, and this constitutes the feminist moment of working-class struggle. At each moment in which the working-class man acts assuming the inferiority of women, he acts as an agent of capital, and a working-class women’s struggle questions him at these moments, and attacks his metamorphosis into an agent of capital.

III

The problems that we have enumerated, mostly follow from misunderstandings, from blocks/limits to thought that are direct results of limits to working-class experience that capitalism institutes. Capitalism, as we pointed out, institutes and reproduces forms of segmentation within the working class. This segments experiences of struggle too, where each segment mistakes its own interests for the interests of the class.

Krishnan’s position is, in a sense, one that emerges from and conceptualises a particular experience of struggle – an experience of those who are more embourgeoised, having greater control over their work, having greater share of value. It is such a class segment that generalises its experience and seeks alliance of other segments, which are lower on the hierarchy created by unequal apportionment of value. This alliance assumes this unequal distribution, and in that assumes/reproduces the capital relation itself, and is futile, if not counter-productive, for the struggle of the working-class in its entirety. It is this class segment that has managed a share in the spoils of battles the working class lost, and asserts repeatedly that the present is not that bad and can be improved – it is this that defines their position even if they use the language of militancy.

John’s problems too emerge from the same fundamental issue of experience. If the social democrat (of the Krishnan variety) asks the lower segments of the working class to ally with those higher up (the middle class), a position that can be drawn from John’s essay is that the working class man and woman have to ally (side-stepping the question of man-woman equality), and wage a struggle against those within the working class who consume a greater share of value. While this struggle is necessary, in seeking such unity (alliance) John does not take into account the materiality of the segmentation that capitalism has instituted through the division of production-reproduction and waged and unwaged.

IV

At the cost of repetition, but for the sake of clarity, we will try once again to establish what we think the working-class position on this question to be.  The project of the working class, in the final analysis, proceeds not through provisional alliances between segments of the working class, but through the intensification of struggle between these segments. For this, we return to the conceptualisations of the Marxist-Feminists we had begun by naming.

What is significant for us in responding to the women’s question from a working-class perspective, or, which is in effect the same thing, to understand gender relations as structured by the labour-capital relation, is the position of the working-class women (in asserting this we agree with John; but we hope to repair some of her oversights). Almost all women play a part in the reproduction of society since almost all do housework (housekeeping, reproduction and socialisation of children) and cater to the sexual needs of men [society]. This sexual subordination cuts across class. But the ‘working-class’ woman becomes even more important for capital since she not only provides her labour-power for waged work, she also reproduces the working-class man’s labour-power, as well as his children. In this hers is ‘the determinant for the position of all other women.’ (James and Dalla Costa, 1975, 21)

‘The very unity in one person [the working women] of the two divided aspects of capitalist production presupposes not only a new scope of struggle but an entirely new evaluation of the weight and cruciality of women in that struggle’. (James 1975, 13)

Hence the need to thoroughly examine the nature of reproduction and reproductive labour of the working-class woman.

Under capitalism, the factory became the locus of the socialisation of production and those who worked in the factory (or office) received a wage. Those who did not work in the factory were excluded from the socialisation of production. Moreover, while the man moved out as ‘free’ wage-labourer and formed bonds with other workers, the woman was confined to the isolation of the home. But let us not be fooled: the social factory too is a centre of production and reproduction. It is capitalism’s separation of production and reproduction that makes the reproductive labour (of women) appear external to the rule of capital. This separation is one of the most fundamental means that capital has for segmenting the working class.

This becomes easier to see when we realise that labour-power and capital are not things but social relations. If the physicality of wage is not over-emphasised it becomes apparent that in the same way in which wage hides the appropriation of surplus value produced by the factory worker, the lack of wage removes from sight the fact that the very same wage that the factory worker receives, also hides the exploitation of the woman who produces labour-power at home. To put it briefly: ‘When women remain…outside the socially organised productive cycle’, they are assumed to be ‘outside social productivity’ (James and Dalla Costa 1975, 32).

Furthermore, it is generally believed that a housewife produces only use-value, and therefore is not exploited per se. Even those who recognise the exploitation of women at the factory, see only the oppression of women at home, not the exploitation. But, as many Feminist-Marxists have argued, when we understand the reproductive sphere of capital as the social factory, the real nature of women’s work is exposed. Unwaged housework done mostly by women produces that most important commodity of all: labour-power. Even though the woman produces it, it gets embodied in the man. The workingman uses its exchange-value to earn his wage, while the capitalist uses it to produce surplus value. Hence, domestic work contributes not just use-value but surplus value as well. And in the process, the woman is reduced to being the slave of the wage slave.

Capitalism positions women in the sphere of reproduction where their labour (and toil) is rendered invisible. In that, women’s labour, as housework is excluded from socialisation, and the individual woman is effectively isolated from her workmates. This is what James and Dalla Costa identified as the reason for the drudgery and unending nature of housework. The work she does is devalued and goes unacknowledged; the cost of labour power that the capitalist has to pay diminishes with the exclusion of the cost of the labour power of women. From here the demand for “wages against housework” begins to seem a powerful one, not so much because it helps labour in the domestic arena to be recognised, rather because it provides a formidable ground to contest the most important hierarchy or segmentation within the working class – between the waged and the unwaged.

An aspect of reproductive labour, which is important for the present discussion, is the woman’s positioning as a passive receptacle for the frustrations and desires of the working-class man. The frustration caused by working in the factory and the ‘hunger for power that the domination of the capitalist organisation of work implants’ finds the woman as an outlet, especially at sexual moments of the man-woman relation (James and Dalla Costa, 42). This ‘passive receptivity’ of the woman is productive for capital because it provides a safety valve for the social tensions it produces in its workers. Rape and sexual violence is an extreme manifestation of this safety function. In addition, capitalism ‘[enlists] the uterus for the production of labour-power’, destroys the ‘physical integrity’ of the woman, reducing her emotional, sexual, creative needs for its own reproduction (James and Dalla Costa, 42-3). All this works to restrict women’s sexuality to procreation and male gratification. Moreover, the passive receptivity of the woman is productive also in the role it plays as the motive force behind household work. Her need for pleasure is repressed, and creativity in work made impossible; all that remains for a woman is to throw herself into her ‘duties’. To put it another way, it is the denial of the woman’s personal autonomy, her needs and frustrations, which forces her to sublimate her energies into housework, or as has already been argued, into the production of labour-power.

So, even ‘bad sex’ and the struggle against it, becomes a moment of class struggle.From the perspective of working-class women, the sexual mutilation of male and female workers is to be seen as means, and a form of exploitation, and by trying to free sexual creativity the women’s movement (for reproductive rights and sexual liberation) is destroying the safety valve available to capitalism, and is thus integral to class struggle. The women of the 1970s envisioned many ways in which their sexual demands become class demands. For the housewives among the Wages For Housework movement, the demand to abolish the nightshift was not just a work demand (made in support of the husbands) but also a sexual demand – for sex is for the night, during day there is housework.

These sexual demands are not merely those of sexual freedom that may play straight into the hands of capitalism (especially its “amoral” neoliberal, consumerist moment). These demands are made with the knowledge that if demands are not integrated within the larger working-class struggle, they are co-opted, that specific demands need to posit a utopian future, through the generalisation, continuous radicalisation of movement. For instance, for the Wages For Housework movement, the problem was not housework per se. The task was not to make housework more efficient or institutionalised and recognised by capital – technological innovation and wages for housework would not in fact end isolation – but to sharpen class contradiction by greater subversiveness in the struggle (ibid 36). The demand was not to simply socialise domestic labour, as in communal canteens, but to integrate this demand into a practice of struggle against the organisation of labour, against labour time, so as to destroy imposed work altogether. Otherwise we only have the ‘possibility at lunchtime of eating shit collectively in the canteen’ (ibid. 40), while women are merely taken out of the kitchen and put in the factory.

The working-class woman must struggle against capital from the specificity of her location. So housewives go out to factory meetings, neighbourhood meetings and student assemblies not as mothers or wives but as women who produce labour-power, who are unwaged workers of capital, as a powerful contingent within the working class which is questioning not just the externalised strategies of capital but also its internalised agencies. Because they work in the sphere of reproduction, they know its workings; these experiences have to articulate with other moments of working class experience. From her specific location the working-class woman struggles against the imposition of capitalist work at home and in the factory. It is only in this manner that the working-class woman will transcend her place as an appendage to the male workers’ struggle.

There is no a priori principle of working-class politics that decrees that women’s autonomous struggle, especially at the moment at which it attacks the conversion of the male worker into an agency of capital, is not as important for the working class as fighting ‘capital’ in its more recognisable forms. It is the task of this autonomous struggle to destroy this line of segmentation in the working class.

‘The working class organizes as a class to transcend itself as a class; within that class we [women] organize autonomously to create the basis to transcend autonomy’ (James and Dalla Costa, 43).

NOTES


[1] John, M. 2013 May 8. ‘Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape’. Radical Notes.  http://radicalnotes.com/2013/05/08/class-societies-and-sexual-violence-towards-a-marxist-understanding-of-rape/ Accessed on May 20, 2013.

[2] Krishnan, K. 2013 May 23.  ‘Capitalism, Sexual Violence, and Sexism’. Kafila.  http://kafila.org/2013/05/23/capitalism-sexual-violence-and-sexism-kavita-krishnan/ Accessed on 23 May 2013.

[3] Dalla Costa, M. and S. James. 1975. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.

[4] The authorship has recently come under dispute.

[5] ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ http://bekhaufazadi.blogspot.in/2013/02/peoples-watch-over-parliament.html. Accessed on 23 May 2013.

[6] Ghosh, Pothik. 2012 December 28. ‘Delhi Gang Rape and the Feminism of Proletarian Militancy’. Radical Notes. http://radicalnotes.com/2012/12/28/delhi-gang-rape-and-the-feminism-of-proletarian-militancy/ Accessed on 25 May 2013.

Nagpur: A Leaflet for the 20-21 February all India workers strike

Issued by a workers journal, Parivartan ki Disha, Nagpur
on Feb 12, 2013, Translated from Hindi

Make the nationwide general strike on 20, 21 February a success through your own initiatives!

Central Trade Unions have called for a countrywide general strike on 20-21 February. Workers from all central institutions and industries like Banking, Coal, Transportation, Postal, Shipping, Ordinance (Defense), Steel will observe this two-day all India level strike by organizing rallies against anti-worker policies of the government. Unions have demanded that the price-hikes should be controlled and concrete measures should be taken towards employment generation, contract workers should get wages and benefits equal to permanent workers, every citizen should get pension, and minimum wages should be at least Rs 10,000 per month. We support these demands of the unions and appeal to the workers and common masses to give the strike a massive support. However, we would like to underline the fact that there is an established opinion among union leaders and workers that a general strike of unionized workers in the organized sectors is enough to ensure a 100% success of the strike. But is this understanding correct? Without the participation of millions of unorganized workers (those who are not members of unions) in our struggle, in our movement and in our strikes, can our movement attain its aims and objectives? We the workers should give serious thoughts to this question.

The Call for a Strike and Today’s Situation

Last year on Feb 28 there was another one-day countrywide strike on the call of the unions. What did we achieve from that strike? There was a hope among union leadership that the strike would pressurize the government to agree to bring the unions to table to discuss their demands, but this hope proved to be false. Whether the government is that of UPA or of NDA, or of any party or alliance, Indian government itself is a big capitalist, an investor. Indian government is itself selling capital to foreign capitalists by taking it out from the public industries, for investing in other countries for more profit. In this situation, for unions to think that workers’ interests would be protected if their mother parties form or join the government is very distant from the reality. Today throughout the globe the slowdown of capitalist production and distribution has plunged the system into a deep crisis because of its own contradictions. The efforts of the G-8 and G-20 countries to come out of this crisis have taken the forms of new economic policies, new labour policies that establish contract system, outsourcing, foreign investment, divestment, privatisation, multinationalisation etc. Capitalist governments everywhere are indulging in deception, fraudulent practices and measures in order to provide oxygen to their respective economies. In this situation, to differentiate between the American and Indian governments and support the latter is purely a bourgeois point of view. In the same manner to differentiate between foreign capital and national capital and take the side of national capital against foreign capital is anti-working class since the colour& character  of both the foreign as well as national capital is same—to exploit workers in every possible way.  On the contrary, we must adopt a working class position and advance on the basis of a long-term working class understanding. Today to say that the working class should follow the ideals of Gandhi, Vivekananda or other saints (as some unions have said this in their leaflets) will amount to a gross neglect of the specificities of the changed reality. Could anyone have imagined 100 years back that India would attain such a high level of production, which it has attained through the capitalist mode of production?

The need for a new approach to the question of Struggle, Movement and Organisation

What did we achieve from the 28 Feb 2012 strike? If nothing, then why not? How are we being deprived of even the minimum that we had? Are the tactics that we are adopting to regain them correct? What are the new means that need to be invented to attain our objectives? There is a growing need to give priority to a discussion on these questions.

Today, union leaders are formulating our demands and calling for strikes. When we formulate our own demands in a collective manner and take our own measures to attain them, then whether the strikes will be for one or two days or indefinite will not be decided beforehand. Then our struggle and movement will not be limited to slogan shouting at factory gates or street-corners. Then our struggle would generate a massive workers unity, long-term movements and revolutionary organisations. The beginning to “Take your own initiatives – be organised – implement on your own” must be made at our own workplaces – we will have to start thinking of struggles and movements on the basis of our self-activities on the everyday questions.

False Unity, Real Unity

As long as we accept the present relationship between capital and labour, we will have to deal with the problems generated by their contradictions. More and more exploitation, attacks on workers to gain profits – all these are necessary for capital, they are its compulsions. Capitalist production process has itself arrived at its final stage. Worldwide depression, inflation, unemployment, outsourcing, contractualisation, increase in the amount of work, increase in the working hours, shutdown of the newer companies before they could attain their maximum capacity are all symptoms of a moribund capitalism. In order to save ourselves from destructive wars, to save environment, humanity and all other species it has become extremely necessary to remove this inhuman capitalist production system by establishing a collective production-distribution system or socialism that is based on associative collectivity of workers-producers – their control and management.  Present organisations and unions are associated with political parties who are entrenched within the capitalist parliamentary system. These organisations and unions do talk about workers but they are ever ready to establish secured positions for the leaders in the present society and within their own organisations – they reproduce the distance between leaders and general workers. The unity among today’s unions and organisations are enforced from above, and thus are unstable and illusory. On the other hand, struggles and movements initiated by workers themselves would generate workers organisations (factory committees, workers councils etc) promoting a true unity with a commitment towards revolutionary transformation. A strong, long-term unity is possible only on the initiatives of the workers themselves.

The need for a struggle based on the unity between permanent and temporary workers

The capitalist class in India has achieved two goals in the general interest of capital by implementing the new economic policy. By employing cheap contractual labour in place of permanent workers, they have, on the one hand, subsidised the production cost, and on the other, they have intensified intra-class competition and discrimination on the basis of permanent and temporary categories. Permanent workers look down upon temporary contract workers instead of recognising them as equals, thus fragmenting the workers unity. Hence, in order to intensify the struggle against their exploitation and oppression by capital through their own initiatives, establishment of a unity between permanent and temporary workers is extremely necessary. In this regard, permanent workers will have to take the initiative. In 2011-12, workers of Maruti Suzuki Manesar led a heroic struggle on the basis of such unity between permanent and temporary workers and despite an intensive crackdown by the management, government and police on the workers after the July 18 incident the struggle is still on – on the basis of this unity.

Learning from the struggle of Maruti Suzuki workers, during the upcoming Feb 20-21 strike, let us build workers committees uniting workers across all segmentations and divisions – permanent-temporary, men-women etc. Let us build our struggle on our own initiatives on the principle of “Do not demand, but implement’, and continue it even after the strike! Only then we will be able to pressure the government and the capitalist class to concede. Only by a continuous struggle based on our own initiatives beyond any ritualistic confines can we make this two-day strike successful.

Video: National Protest Day in Support of Maruti Suzuki Workers (Delhi), Feb 5

Maruti Struggle: National Protest Day (February 5)

As you are well aware, we workers in Maruti Suzuki India Ltd., Manesar, Gurgaon are waging a struggle against the exploitation and injustice heaped on us by the company management, state administration and the government. Our only crime has been that we have dared to raise our voice for the demand of formation of Union and against the illegal practice of contract workers system.

Since 18th July 2012, after the unfortunate incident in the factory premises as part of a management-woven conspiracy, we workers have been continually facing the brunt of repression. The company-management has at once terminated the jobs of over 1500 contract workers along with 546 permanent workers. They have, with the help of the state administration, heaped fabricated cases ranging from arson to murder on 211 of our fellow workers, while 149 workers, including our entire Union leadership, continue to languish in Jail for the last 6 months. Keeping aside all legality, workers and our families have continuously faced brute police atrocities.

We have chosen the path of struggle against this repression and injustice. In the past 6 months, even when faced with various state administrative blockades and repression, our spirits are unfazed and our movement is raging on. One of the reasons that we are able to sustain this struggle is also the solidarity and support that we have continued to receive from various workers organisations-trade unions and pro-people forces. But to take the struggle forward, we require more support and solidarity from your side.

In this stage of the struggle, we have decided that on 5th February 2013, Tuesday, there be a all-India day of solidarity action, demonstrations in our support and on that day itself, a memorandum also be sent addressed to Chief Minister of Haryana. We not only hope but trust that we will get your full solidarity once again. Against the nexus of company-management and state power, the protest of our pro-justice and class unity shall reach the deaf ears of those in power.

With revolutionary greetings,
Imaan Khan, Ramnivas, Omprakash, Mahaveer, Yogesh, Katar Singh, Rajpal
Provisional working Committee
Maruti Suzuki Workers Union

For the memorandum on 5th February 2013:
Address/Ph. No./Fax No. of Sh. Bhupinder Singh Hooda
Sh. Bhupinder Singh Hooda
Chief Minister, Haryana
Office: Room No. 45, 4th floor, Civil Sectt., Chandigarh, Haryana.
Ph No. 0172-2749396/2749409 (O); 2749394/2749395 (R)
Fax: 2740596; EPBAX Ext. 2401, 2402
Residence: Kothi No. 1, Sector 3, Chandigarh

MARUTI SUZUKI WORKERS UNION: Condemn state repression on Justice Rally

Friends,

We from the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU) and our families continue to face not only an exploitative company management but also continous state repression since we started our agitation demanding justice and legitimate rights of workers.

This morning, Imaan Khan, one of the members of the Provisional Working Committee, MSWU, was picked up by the Haryana police while a Press Conference was underway, from outside the union office of Sarva Karmachari Sangh in Civil Lines, Gurgaon near Puspanjali Hospital.

This press conference and other such programs are being organized as part of the week-long ‘JUSTICE RALLY’ through the villages and cities across Haryana from 21st January 2012 to culminate in a Dharna in Rohtak on 27th January.

Also today morning, one of the teams of the state-wide jattha which started from Rewari yesterday and were starting from Dharuhera today, was also harassed, intimidated and finally forcibly picked up by the police from Bilaspur- all 20 workers’ cycles were dumped into police vehicles and dropped off to a village in Jhajjhar. When the workers valiantly resisted these repressive tactics by laying on the ground and holding on to each each, the police used force to remove us and gave threat of arrests and torture if we enter Gurgaon.

Before this, on 22nd and 23rd January, police tried raiding our Union Office and threatened workers and their families of further arrests and torture if we dare to continue with our agitation. Besides our 149 fellow workers who continue to languish in jail for the last seven months, non-bailable arrest warrants against 66 more workers have been slapped on whom police repression is continuous. 546 permanent and 1800 contract workers have been terminated from our jobs.

We strongly condemn this continuous use of brute police force on workers and our families and anti-worker stance of our elected representatives, which is showing how nakedly the state is working to maintain the injustice and exploitation by the management of Maruti Suzuki company. It is our democratic right to protest, and we demand the immediate release of Imaan Khan, MSWU Provisional Working Committee member, and stop to further harassment by the police on our justice rally for Rohtak 27th January.

Ramnivas, Omprakash, Mahavir, Yogesh, Katar Singh, Rajpal

on behalf of Provisional Working Committee

MARUTI SUZUKI WORKERS UNION

For Amendments to Laws in Order to Create Safe Workplaces

As one month passed since the young physiotherapist was brutally raped in Delhi while traveling in a private chartered bus, working women who are frequently at risk on Delhi’s roads as well as in their workplaces, have been consciously raising the issue of how much more needs to be done to ensure safe and conducive work atmosphere for women. Nurses from across big hospitals in Delhi such as AIIMS (Delhi) held a peaceful protest rally in order to keep alive the issue of safety for women.  

Anxious about the daily risks they face while commuting to work as well as when at work in hospitals, women nurses strongly believe that existing laws regulating workplaces need to be re-assessed. Many of these nurses complain of harassment by patients’ visitors, as well as male hospital staffers. However, they felt that such sexual harassment was made worse by the fact that most of them were in highly exploitative work contracts. The simple fact that many private hospitals force their nursing staff to work extra shifts, do overtime, etc. and do not at the same time provide for something as basic as transportation to their women employees, is indicative of the conscious ways in which hospital managements’ are putting their women work force at continuous risk.

Many nurses employed across Delhi-NCR hospitals also complain that hospital bouncers are often used to physically and verbally intimidate nurses who speak out about unsafe and exploitative work conditions. In recent strikes in hospitals like Asian Institute of Medical Sciences (Faridabad) and Sharda Hospital (G. Noida), such private (male) security guards entered the nurses’ hostel attached to the hospital and physically threatened many nurses who were on strike. In such cases, the local administration and local police station have proved to be very lax in their response and are, more often than not, seen washing their hands off dangerous situations where the safety of working women is constantly at risk.

In this light, nurses and other working women are pressing the Government to properly regulate, or basically, to conduct a regular safety audit of workplaces across the city. Regulation of work hours/shifts given, creation of a safe atmosphere in and around the workplace, provision of written work contracts for all (even contractual and daily-wage) employees including women etc., are the need of the hour. It is through regular safety audits that the Government can assess whether such essential work conditions exist in workplaces or not. Moreover, in the light of how unregulated private transportation is in the Delhi-NCR region, working women across the city strongly feel that it should be made mandatory for all employers (private offices, hospitals, factories, etc.) and not just for owners of call centres to provide company transport. It is also necessary that better managed and more accountable public transport is brought in so as to replace various modes of private transport—a measure which will go a long way in ensuring safety of women commuters.

Lastly, the issue of regulating the functioning of police stations is also of major concern to women across the city. It is necessary that lodging of FIRs and placing of police stations under CCTV surveillance becomes a non-negotiable demand. It is extremely troubling that many women (including those who face sexual harassment at home and/or workplaces on a daily basis) are still afraid to file complaints with the Police, or have been turned away by police stations. Such negligence is a serious problem that has to be addressed immediately.

Maya John                                                                                       Ms. Tangama

Convenor, Centre for Struggling Women (CSW)               Vice President, Nurses’ Welfare Association

Contact: 9540716048, 9350272637