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<nettime> Precarity and n/european Identity
Kernow Craig on Sat, 9 Oct 2004 18:25:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Precarity and n/european Identity

(Some material that may be of interest in the lead up to, and hopefully 
beyond, the ESF. An interview exploring the emergence of a new, immanentl= 
y flexible yet radical social subject - the precariat...)

Precarity and n/european Identity:
an interview with Alex Foti (Chainworkers)


This interview took place in July 2004 at the Mill Squat in Amsterdam, 
during the period it was liberated from the destiny of selling 
'traditional' Dutch parephenalia to tourists. Merijn Oudenampsen and Gavin 
Sullivan from the Greenpepper magazine spoke with Milano-based organiser 
Alex Foti - formerly of the Italian flexwork syndicate ChainWorkers 
(www.chainworkers.org) - about precarity, european labour conflict, and 
the spread of new syndicalist modes of subvertised collective action 
across Neuropa. Alex Foti is guest written editor for the upcoming 
Precarity issue of the Greenpepper Magazine and will be part of the 
PrecarityPingPong! launch and critical debate during the London ESF at 
Middlex University, White Hart Lane Campus, Tottenham on 15 October 2004 
between 3:00 - 5:00 pm. See www.greenpeppermagazine.org for details.


GreenPepper: Alex, can you introduce yourself, and the Chainworkers?

Alex Foti: I am a union and media activist from Milan, Italy and have been 
part of the ChainWorkers CreW since it's inception in 1999 - 2000. Most 
noteworthy, we are associated with the MayDay parade - which this year 
reached its fourth edition, bringing around 100,000 temp workers, 
partimers freelancers and other types of non-standard workers onto the 
streets in a joyful (but angry) expression of dissent around sub-standard 
conditions of work and living.  This year the MayDay parade took the form 
of a major picket line throughout the shopping arteries of Milan. In fact, 
within the city limits of Milan, no major chain store or retail outfit was 
open for trading - either because they had become scared by the campaign 
we had developed in the months prior to MayDay, or because of the flying 
pickets that 2000-3000 people did in the morning prior to the start of the 
MayDay parade. This year, the parade was a EuroMayDay parade because it 
was done together with sisters and brothers in Barcelona, and organised in 
assemblies that took place throughout Milan, Barcelona, Rome, and (most 
crucially) Paris - with the participation of the Intermittents: the temp 
stagehands and part-time actors that recently blocked the Cannes film 

GP: You have been organising around the theme of precarity. Yet here in 
the Netherlands we do not really know of this concept. The idea of 
precarious labour, ie, dangerous working conditions - is somwhat 
popularly circulated, but the idea of precarity in itself and the 
precariousness of life has not yet reached northern Europe. Could you 
explain what is meant by the term precarity?

AF: In the radical left nowadays there are two major interpretations of 
the concept. One is existential precarity.  That is, that life is 
precarious in times of global war. Either you are a body subject to bombs 
and military conflict or you are a prisoner whose habeas corpus is 
violated in Abu Ghraib or some other Western prison. Wherever there is 
total domination there is existential precarity.

Precarity is also, however, the condition of being unable to predict one's 
fate or having some degree of predictability on which to build social 
relations and feelings of affection. The diffusion of intermittent work 
and the attacks on the welfare state have resulted in a widespread 
increase of existential precarity across Europe - affecting increasing 
numbers of the population even in the wealthy countries like Holland. A 
clear example of this precarization is witnessed by the incredible rise in 
the use of psycho-pharmaceuticals and anti-depressants. Work hours have 
increased all over the territories - in Europe, the USA and Japan. What is 
noteworthy is that in Europe, working times have increased. Working on 
Sunday, Saturday, ungodly hours and night shifts - which previously only 
involved a small percentage of the workforce - has now expanded and 
increased. This is precarity: being unable to plan one's time, being a 
worker on call where your life and time is determined by external forces. 
And, of course, if you have a sub-standard contract you do not have a full 
social citizenship. That is what Mayday is all about: claiming social 
rights for an emergent subject that is crucial to neoliberal production. 
Neoliberal production is postindustrial - it's service, information, and 
knowledge-based and we want to get into that. This is at the heart of the 
accumulation process that is taking place today in Europe and in all 
advanced capitalist countries. So wherever there are neoliberal chains of 
production in the five continents, there is going to be precarity - 
peripheral in terms of rights, but central in terms of the financial web 
of the creative value produced.

We have been concentrating on two types of workers: Chainworkers (being 
workers in malls, shopping centres, hypermarkets, and in the myriad of 
jobs of logistics and selling in the metropolis) and what we call 
Brainworkers (cognitive labourers; programmers; freelancers who possess 
individual value on the labour market but do not yet have a collective 
force or a subjectivity with social rights - that is, they might make 
above-standard wages but if they lose their job they are thrown into 
poverty). Chainworkers, on the other hand, are always on the verge of 
social exclusion. They are collectively unorganised, but they could 
organise. What we've been working on is establishing solidarity.  That 
is where media activism comes into play - by supporting strikes, picket 
lines, sabotage, boycotts on the part of taylorised proletariansed service 
workers, and at the same time agitating university researchers, teachers, 
workers in the information industries and advanced service sectors.

GP: The main idea of precarity, then, is this interminable lack of 
security. Is precarity then simply defined negatively - as a situation 
marked by the absence of 'jobs for life' ?

AF: Exactly. While existential precarity is what attracts interest in the 
issue - because it is lived on the bodies and minds of everybody - we 
think precarity has more to do with a position in the labour market. It is 
a post-class discourse, if you like. Previously in this society we were 
used to blue-collars and white-collars so to speak. Now what we see is a 
transition to a more unstable social configuration based on service and 
knowledge labour. In old classist terms, this class exists ex se but not 
yet per se. That is, it has a clear role in social production, but it 
doesn't yet have representation of it's collective needs - needs of 
social aggregation, access to standards of sociability, housing, access to 
knowledge, open source forms of organising, union rights and bargaining 
rights all around the table. What we have seen is that creative workers do 
not perceive themselves as workers anymore. The reversal of the new 
economy exposed the myth that talented people would be protected forever 
from market fluctuations.

This is what we have to focus on: to fight against exclusion and 
inequality and bring in a new radical subjectivity and identity in 
creative productive distribution processes in which social relations and 
transborder exchanges are absolutely vital. Especially in terms of the 
polity on which we want to base our social claims and agitation. We think 
in Europe today, at the juncture of a global crisis of neoliberalism, 
there is space for radically organising Eurowide. Euromayday is a first 
step in this process.  The migrant struggles are another example of a 
struggle that is articulating itself on a wider scale. The basic human 
rights are being written right now and we want basic rights for temps, 
part timers and migrant labourers to be included on the European 

GP: The classical labour movement also agitates around similar issues: 
full employment, worker's rights, social services, social exclusion, and 
temporary work. What distinguishes your political agenda (or the radical 
activity around precarity) from that of the classics?

AF: Full employment is already here. Everybody is working 100% of the time 
e - either when they work or when they consume, and display signs, body 
signs, visual signs, choices. The fact that you wear a particular sneaker 
or that you write a composition, an email, or mime that becomes an ad. An= 
d of course, during the daytime you produce for wage labour. Your data is 
capital for market research. Your biometric data is capital for biotech 
firms. We are 100% of the time part of the [re]production of capital. In 
this sense, full employment has already been negatively overcome. I mean, 
what we need to do is to find ways of social representation that are 
different from the social democrats and the union parties. Because if 
Seattle really marks a transition to a new kind of politics - a 
participatory politics, a biopolitics if you like, in which the old 
distinction between political work, union work and cultural work is 
dissolved - then that world is over.

I think that the future lies in developing forms of self-management of 
conflicts federating themselves across borders and across wider political 
spaces - from the regional to the transcontinental. As in, a way of 
expressing political and social claims independently - in the political 
forms of working with existing radical parties and existing radical unions 
and associations - yet as an autonomous force. Radical organisations are 
too stale and backward looking to see what the social mobilisations are 
that society is asking from us. In France, Spain, and Germany wee see 
massive amounts of people protesting against welfare cuts and European 
monetarism (the total right wing European construction made by banking 
concerns that is keeping social spending low and interest rates high).

All of this activity needs a new form of organisation. I personally think 
that Anarcho-Green is our output and destination. I think that now that 
the cold war is officially over on the European continent, we can merge 
Libertarian, anti-Racist, and Transgender social activism together to 
create new radical identities that can bring Eastern European and Western 
brothers and sisters into a new political project capable of opposing 
fascist Bushism. I mean, this is the task at hand and social conflict is 
spiralling. Others possibilities are, of course, the peace movement, the 
open source information movement, the alternative global fair-exchange 
movement etc. But we need to pose ourselves the question of power and the 
institutional interface. This is vital at this stage.

GP: One of the things that I noticed in the manifestos that were 
circulating throughout EuroMayDay this year were new words that we do not 
know in Northern Europe - like flexicurity. Could you explain what you 
mean by flexicurity and how that word is activated alongside precarity.

AF: Yes. In fact, in one sense flexicurity means we do not want to go back 
to a 'job for life' - the system of the previous generation. We 
accept the flexibility inherent in the computer-based mode of production, 
but we want to disassociate from the precarity that is implicit in this 
forced (Faustian) bargain. In the Netherlands, flexicurity is the reality 
- since in Holland, by law, you cannot discriminate between a part-time 
worker and a full-time worker in terms of the hourly wage paid. So if we 
could extend this principle, which is a minimal social claim, all 
throughout the EU.  The fact that part timers cannot organise themselves 
because they can be fired is, in fact, wage discrimination (with a union 
discrimination attached). We could also build ointo this claim a demand 
for a European minimum wage, ten euros per hour, all across the union. 
These are the staples - the building blocks of a more advanced, 
solidarious, less darwinist society - that could become the 'European 
model' as opposed to the neoliberal model or to the Chinese or the 
nationalist capitalist model. Fuck it! I did not choose precarity for 
myself as a destiny. But I think that out of that condition, our 
generation - the post cold war generation - can fight for a socially 
progressive shift. In Spain it is already happening. In the UK it will 
happen. In Italy it will happen. A shift that can posit a new radical 
left.  Just as the thirties and the forties were times of social 
experimentation with radical identities, this is the time to invent new 
forms of cultural imagery. A new imagery of conflict, a new imagery of 
picketing, a new imagery of social activism. Of course, the media you 
develop is essential to this task.

GP: As you mention, the theme and discourse of precarity has become a very 
important organisational vehicle in Italy, Spain and France - with lots of 
people on the streets for EuroMayday this year, quite a great deal of 
material being written and circulated about it, and conferences being 
organised on the topic. But material conditions in Southern Europe are 
quite different than those in Northern Europe or the Netherlands ?

AF: Fragmentation and individualisation of service labour is the norm all 
across advanced capitalist countries - be it Japan, the Netherlands, the 
UK or Spain. What is different, and specific to Holland, is that the 
unions were more moderate and in the 1980s struck a bargain to regulate 
flexibility. Nevertheless, we still see a pressure on the long-term 
unemployed and a desire to cut benefits all across the board. So I don't 
at all agree that this is only a Southern European problem.

What is most striking about Southern Europe is that the welfare state 
there is more backward and traditionally less developed. There is more 
importance attached to the family and corporatist ways of integration etc. 
But the tendency toward the reduction of welfare services is universal, 
and Maastricht is a system designed to keep social spending low. We see 
that even Germany and France cannot respect these restraints. If we don't 
act now, we're looking at a future of precarity for all Europeans. Because 
the idea is to make us a new Asia or a new America - not a new Europe.

OK. I am inviting Dutch brothers and sisters to think about it. 
Neoliberalism is still very strong. Bolkestein is a neoliberal whose 
commissioners mission is to make Europe safe for the US and other global 
corporations. We are the new workforce produced by neoliberalism. 
Neoliberalism is managing and governing the construction of Europe. So we 
are the only credible adversaries and the only guys and girls that can 
actually block the system of exchange and the flow of information. If 
young people stop working in Amsterdam, Amsterdam shuts down. No bars can 
operate; no tourist hotel can operate; no fucking newspaper can be ever 
produced; no theater play can operate. Amsterdam is a factory shut for 
business.  This is what Amsterdam says to the world, it's image brand and 
sociability, which occurs through bodies and minds of thousands of young 
temps, precarious freelancers coming from all over the world. This is what 
precarity is - it's both a condition of exploitation and an opportunity.

GP: Precarity as a word to describe the existence in advanced capitalist 
economies of a fragmented workforce seems very useful and it has 
undoubtedly been used really effectively in the Euromayday events this 
year, which, as you have said, have seen tens of thousands, or hundreds of 
thousands of people demonstrating around the theme of precarity. Yet you 
also mention that there are lots of different types of workers within and 
under the banner of precarity - extending from unrecognised migrant and 
feminine labourers towards creative workers working in design and media 
industries etc.

How useful and effective do you think the concept of precarity can be in 
linking people together who have vastly different incomes? Precarity seems 
to be different than blue-collar or white-collar; it seems to be bringing 
together lots of different types of people from very different social 
strata. Do you think this is a limitation on how useful the concept might 
be in creating and organising this new radical subjectivity?

AF: It's a crucial objection and I want to answer with an example that is 
unfolding before our eyes which is the intermittent struggle in France 
initiated almost a year ago. What happened was that there was a reform of 
the unemployment benefit system that excluded thousands of people from 
maternity leave and other livelihood necessities, especially during the 
wintertime when the art and culture festival scene is more dormant. What 
happened then was that these people started blocking all festival 
productions across France and decided to sabotage the 8 o'clock TV news, 
breaking into the studios and reading communiques, eventually forcing the 
issue onto the whole of the cultural intelligence, a much higher class 
than the intermittent themselves who were mostly stagehands and part-time 
workers. We have to remember that for every festival there are a thousand 
workers setting up the stage and that they are cultural workers too. So we 
saw that film directors and major actors and actresses joined in soidarity 
with the intermittent cause.  And as a result, eventually public opinion 
started to take an interest. From a discussion on their specific system of 
unemployment benefit, it quickly became a discussion on the system of 
unemployment benefits itself. And from a specific discussion about a 
certain cultural sphere, it sooned transformed into a national discussion 
on the place of knowledge and culture in French society and what kind of 
rights should be allocated to this sector. In Cannes we saw (Jean-Luc) 
Godard giving their press conference and Micheal Moore solidarising with 
them. Now the intermittent cause is known to readers form Sydney to 
Singapore and New York. What we see here is that from a very specific 
conflict - through networking and criss-crossing social classes and roles 
in the production process - the elites and the non-elites, exploited 
migrants and middle class women, all collectively produced a general shift 
and movement against precarity.

So precarity rallies different people. As Milanese and Mayday people we 
think that certain young people, women and migrant workers have a special 
stake here because they are the social categories being most aggressed by 
precarity. From another point of view, I think that service industry and 
knowledge industry - technicians, programmers, cashiers and retailers, 
sellers, cultural operators, truck drivers and pizza delivery boys are 
crucially important. These two very polarised categories are statistically 
the two sectors that seen the highest growth of employment during the last 
twenty years of neoliberalism.

GP: So, you don't see this as a phase of pan-capitalism, where the 
breakdown of the welfare states and social rights are withdrawn as long as 
the economy is in crisis? Don't you think that when the economy booms 
again, politicians will be able to circulate around more money, and that 
salaries will rise etc.?

AF: This system is structural. The sociologist Manual Castells, looking at 
the last twenty years, saw the precarization of one quarter to one third 
of the labour force in advanced capitalist countries as a structural 
feature. It won't go away with an expansion. If anything, the expansion 
will simply lure a segment of the knowledge class into the bourgeoisie. 
But as soon as the boom subsides, there are new additions and the pool of 
precarious workers will enlarge itself. That's what we've already seen. 
Italy started in the 1980s with ten percent of precarious workers, a 
million and a half black market workers. Nowadays, we have seven million 
precarious workers (contingent, freelance and temp) and four million black 
market workers.  That's almost half of the total workforce! And it won't 
go away. Unless - and this is vital for us - we strike on the workplace, 
we picket the workplace and we manage to get the money : not from the 
state but from greedy corporations. This is really what organising is all 
about, that is where the money is.

Who benefited from the Dotcom boom? We know: Amro Bank benefited, Nina 
Brinks benefited, Enron and other guys that where just tricking the 
accounts. These guys were not making the money; everybody was falsifying 
the accounts to accumulate financial wealth. Now we see what was behind it 
all. You see, the problem is, if you keep everybody under the poverty line 
- as Wal-Mart is doing with it's workers - the system collapses. You have 
to resort to forge and fraud to keep up the system, to keep up financial 
wealth because you are not selling. Man, this is really a great recession 
what we are seeing. So nothing will happen unless we organise. There is no 
easy way out of this system. This is structural. This is historical. It 
requires a major social shift otherwise it is going to become Brazil all 
over the world. Already, Holland is a very unequal country - more so than 
Sweden and Germany. There are very rich elites commanding major amounts of 
global income. This is what Mayday is about - beating neo-liberalism on 
it's feet and on it's territory: global chain stores, global banks, global 
nodes of finance, global media conglomerates: Murdoch, Berlusconi, Gates.

GP: Many precarious workers are working in areas where there is no 
self-organisnig activity. What kind of methods are you using to experiment 
with organsing traditionally unorganised people in these new economic 

AF: We started trying to merge subvertising (as a way of communication) 
with traditional forms of anarcho-syndicalism - that is, the picketline, 
the direct action, from breaking the chainstore glass to blockading the 
delivery vans that run to the fastfood joints, handing out flyers on the 
motorways and at every autogrill. We thought that since young workers were 
taking the brand of the neoliberal rules of work or the 'new flexibility' 
so to speak, and they have no memeory of class struggle, we have to make 
it attractive. I am speaking about it but I am not the one doing it. You 
know, its our graphic designers Karen and Zoe - who are behind the 
EuroMayDay website and the ChainWorkers webzine. So, it is to speak in a 
lingo which changes across time. I mean, youth language changes, youth 
aesthetics change, fads and fashions change. To market an idea of radical 
union activity, to look if it is possible to make radical unionism 
attractive to the masses. So we built a website, we created merchandising, 
we have a board game called Precariopoly, the netparade in which anyone 
could join (which rallied 20 000 people alone - almost as large as the 
actual MayDay). You know, traditional leftist organisations tend to 
dismiss this kind communication as beside the point. But today people form 
their identities through media before reality. So if you have an 
attractive medium, as we have managed to develop, you have a powerful tool 
of organising and activitation. Through the website people have started 
connecting us and little by little we have built a network in Lombardy 
that became national and then transnational. It is about being focused and 
unafraid to market oneself to the unconverted. Because it is easy to 
convince the Anarchists, the Communists, Zapatistas, Situationists etc. 
The hard part is talking to the people that are suffering with their 
bodies but they have no way out because they have no cultural system of 
reference that enables them to rebel against a very repressive system. If 
you read about Wal-Mart, if you read what Mike Davis has to say about 
Wal-Mart or even what Business Week has to say about Wal-Mart. It is a 
system based on prison labour - this is the model of work and production 
in the department stores and big retail industries.

GP: You were saying before that the idea of organising around the theme of 
precarity is not to demand the mundane existence of the workers of the 
1960s and 1970s. But you are using terms like 'fuga' or 'exodus' to talk 
about escaping from the whole production system. In what way do you think 
working around these issues will capacitate people to get out and not be 
working all their lives, having these shitty jobs?

AF: Being a labour agitator is already a better job [laughter] but sorry
if I am joking. The point is, over the last twenty years there have been
many ideas of escaping - for example, Deleuze and Guattari. But what we
have seen, and Empire is clear about this, is that there is no external
dimension to this system nowadays: it is either war or trade. There is no

Although every individual does not define him/herself according to the job 
they do. I mean, you are an activist, you are a lover, you are a father, 
you are a moslem, a jew, a stamp collector. But you are not a worker, as 
in the 20th century. Yet paradoxically you work a lot more than your dad 
did. That's the point. You work a lot more than a car assembly operator in 
the 1960's and the 1970's. All the struggles to have paid vacations, to 
have the weekend off, to have universal healthcare etc are crumbling. Even 
in the Netherlands, where there is universal healthcare, if you are an 
undocumented migrant (and there are thousands) you are not going to have 
it. If you are a mentally diseased person you are going to end up homeless 
and you are not going to have health coverage. Exclusion is everywhere.

So you are thinking you're cool in this niche, in your social work 
identity. But in fact, you are doing a favour to system of neoliberal 
capitalism because you are not confronting power relations on the job 
where they matter most. And increasingly, given the absence of public 
social spaces, what is the last public social space left on earth? The 
work environment is where people meet, discuss, share, talk about 
politics, sex, lives, whatever. So we are talking about access but we are 
there the whole fucking time talking about something else - being 
elsewhere, with the internet, with our minds, but we are there. And with 
your cell phone, you are always a call away from your boss, when you are 
eating, when you are fucking ... and you have got to go because there is a 
call.  This is precarity.

We have to emancipate ourselves from the fiction that we are not subject 
to class domination. Because we fucking are! What new forms do class 
domination take? It is not Lenin, it is not Rosa Luxemburg, it is not 
Trotsky. It is something else that together we are fighting and 
discovering through our conflict.  This is what I regard as autonomy, 
another good concept=85

by Merijn Oudenampsen and Gavin Sullivan

Interview circulated in the lead up to the launch of the Precarity Issue 
of Greenpepper Magazine during the European Social Forum, London.  The 
launch features a critical debate between activists from different groups 
across Europe on/around the theme of precarity. It will be held on 15 
October 2004, 3:00 - 5:00pm, at Middlesex University, White Hart Lane 
Campus, Tottenham. London N17 8HR (exact room to be confirmed). For more 
information see www.greenpeppermagazine.org or email 
contact {AT} greenpeppermagazine.org


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