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<nettime> With Friends Like These, the Precariat Can Be Revolutionary
Alex Foti on Tue, 30 Jun 2015 00:07:38 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> With Friends Like These, the Precariat Can Be Revolutionary


dear friends, what you think of this? it got bounced by jacobin. one
of the editors had asked me to write about the precariat, but in the
end they didn't like it. since in this piece i start to flesh out
a theory of the precariat which is closer to what movements have
in mind and hopefully more relevant than standing's (his merits
notwithstanding) please tell me if you find it worthy of interest.
best ciaos, lx

With Friends Like These, the Precariat Can Be Revolutionary

by Alex Foti, essayist and activist



âThe Insurrection came but the Revolution did notâ



What are we to make of the aftermath of 2011? Is the rebel fire
spreading from Athens to Madrid, Tunis to Cairo, New York to Oakland,
and more recently Frankfurt, Baltimore, Milan, harbinger of portentous
transformation?



In Europe, people who enjoy reading besides clashing with riot cops, are
reading à nos amis, a modestly titled, albeit immodestly written essay on
how to do the revolution now in the EU and all over the world, drawing from
the experience (and the mistakes, Ãa va sans dire) of the failed
revolutions of 2011. They started as popular insurrections, overthrew
regimes, yet smashed neither State nor Capital, and didnât achieve
fundamental transformation of social and economic relations, thus leaving
room open to counter-revolution and regime restoration by reactionary
forces in several countries.



Coupat and his friends at Tarnac have produced a mind-blowing revolutionary
treatise whose influence is unparalleled since the publication of
Hardt&Negriâs Empire (2001), which in turn had a strong impact on the
antiglobalization movement. The authors of the new radical manifesto,
although steeped in Autonomous Marxism of the 1970s type, consider the
latter and their followers as ideological adversaries, because of their
willingness to deal and compromise with the official political sphere for
radical ends. Those who previously wrote The Coming Insurrection, in Our
Friends expand its scope from France to the whole world, but remain
staunchly separatists from what they consider a fundamentally rotten
capitalist society where mendacity and confusion rule.



They argue (quite convincingly, I must say) that the Left is presently dead
for all transformative purposes. The Social Democratic and Communist
remnants that act in its name, in the west and elsewhere, are actually
obstacles to the complete destruction of government power, because they
depoliticize the masses with their repeated attempts to institutionalize
social movements. In a vein similar to Naomi Klein, they argue that
neoliberalism uses ecological catastrophe as a way to discipline society
and impose hierarchy and inequality, so their thinking is both resolutely
environmentalist (they inspired the ZAD, the eco-communal redoubt near
Notre-Dame-des-Landes that lost a young activist, killed by police during a
demo to block the airport project sponsored by French Socialists) and
post-apocalyptic: the revolution is not here yet, but ecological and social
disaster already is.



The book is opened by an âACABâ graffiti, not to leave any doubts that the
book stands squarely on the side of every street fighter across the planet.
Every chapter is opened by a revolutionary graffiti on a wall of each of
the countries touched by anti-authoritarian and/or anti-austerity
insurrections (Greece, Turkey, France, Spain, Italy, Libya, Tunisia,
Brazil, Mexico, the US etc) laying down the basic philosophical points the
authors want to get across. In a nutshell, doing the revolution means to
undo logistical power and break all illusions that society needs to be
âgovernedâ. Since politics is the continuation of war by other means (the
opposite of Clausewitz, but as Machiavelli would have agreed), Our Friends
is far from seeing conflict, even internal conflict, as a sign of
disharmony and failure, and military power as something not to shy away
from in the pursuit of revolution. In fact, class struggle not only is the
engine of history, but we feel happiest when in struggle, to quote Karl
Marx. The movements of 2011 failed when they opted for process over action,
for democratic assembly rather than revolutionary party, for liberal rights
rather than communal counterpower (e.g. Tahrir, Plaza del Sol, Oaxaca, No
TAV). Itâs Situationist and Anarcho-Communist, even if it sounds Leninist:
there is widespread usage of ideological expressions such as the Party and
the bourgeoisie, but the party is an invisible one and its ultimate aim is
to disappear once government power is finally neutralized.



For being a pretty good blueprint on how to start a revolution today
(wisely, they refrain from detailing any kind of utopia, although they seem
to have a fondness for a collective return to the age of childhood),
Europeâs must-read political text lacks a fundamental dimension: the
revolutionary subject, as Toni Negri, Mario Tronti, and all of operaismo
remind us. They actually argue it is a particular historical situation that
makes men and women revolutionary, rather than political activism or
ideological indoctrination, but they are singularly blind to the two points
that all 2011 revolutions had in common: they expressed the right to the
city as they seized the main squares of political and financial capitals
around the world, and, most importantly, they were all activated by
disenfranchised young people. The revolutionaries have been unemployed
banlieusards and indebted educated youth sharing the same condition of
social and existential precariousness: in a sentence, the revolution was
made by the precarious generation. Furthermore, radicalized precarious
youth were critical in giving the movement its dynamic, open-ended
character, and its lively and popular communication style, attracting
increasingly larger sections of mainstream society into its orbit.



Thus, the point I want to make here is that the precariat is the
revolutionary subject, the social actor that will be the gravedigger of
neoliberalism before it kills us all. In fact, to use the style of old
leftist propaganda: the precariat is the class that will overthrow
neoliberal oligarchy and destroy digital oligopoly.



The rise of precarity: a society of permatemps



In the 1990s and 2000s, precarious labor spread to all industries and
industrial nations, as a whole string of generations (X, Y, Z) fell for the
allure of employment flexibility and into the pitfall of income insecurity.
As productivity grew remorselessly through digitization and automation,
profits surged for a handful of digital companies and financial
corporations, while precarization kept wages in check, causing the share of
capital on income to rise and the share of labor to decrease in a dramatic
fashion with respect to the Fordist past, as Piketty has shown. In other
words, precarity is the true driver of inequality.



The precarity of labor shows in the data. Using a narrow definition of
precarity â someone having a short-term job â we see that the share of
temporary employment has climbed to about 15% of the total working
population (2012, OECD data) in North America, France, and Germany. In
Europe a quarter of the people aged 15-39 in dependent employment presently
work precarious jobs, and in Southern Europe, the share is usually higher,
not counting huge youth unemployment, affecting around 40% of young people
in Italy, 50% in Spain and Portugal, 60% in Greece.



Considering that 15% of European employees work under short-term contracts
and that their total number is over 115,000,000 (early 2013 data from
Eurostat), we can estimate there are at least 17 million precarious workers
in the Eurozone. Most are permatemps, and have been working short-term jobs
for years.



The emergence of a precarious population is particularly striking amongst
new hires. As of 2013, in France 83% of new jobs were short-term, two
thirds were positions lasting less than one month, and the number of temps
reached a record-breaking 4.4 million, up from 2.5 million in 2000. In the
same year, the US Department of Labor reported the country had more
temporary workers hired through temp agencies than ever: 2.7 million.
Nearly 20 percent of US employees work part-time, with 7.5 million of them
underemployed, forced to work shorter hours despite a preference for more
hours.



As the latest ILO report confirms, precarization of the labor force has
increased since the Great Recession, while precarious workers and
households have grown poorer. In Europe, between two-thirds and
three-fourths of all jobs created since the Great Recession are precarious
and insecure. According to the OECD, the 2001-2011 decade saw the incidence
of precarious work growing for the most active sections of the labor force.
At the end of the decade, it affected 27% of German employees under 40; for
France, the proportion was 23%; for Italy 20%. In the Peninsula, the rise
in youth precarity has been particularly dramatic: one in two young workers
are precarious. In fact, in 2001, less than 25% of employees under 25 had
precarious jobs, while in 2011, the percentage had risen to nearly 50%,
more than 53% in the case of young women. France (55%) and Germany (56%)
also have more than half of their youth in precarious jobs. Spain has the
record share of young people affected by labor precarity (more than 60% of
workers under 25). These four countries are also those where the movement
discourse on precarity emerged in the early 2000s.



As the latest ILO report confirms, precarization of the labor force has
further increased since the Great Recession, while precarious workers and
households have grown poorer. In Europe, between two-thirds and
three-fourths of the jobs created since the Great Recession are precarious
and insecure. In fact, at each recession since the onset of neoliberalism
in the late 1970s, temporary, part-time, and free-lance employment has
expanded inexorably to give life to a new social class, the precariat,
which is different from the old working class, with its social-democratic
unions and parties, and the old middle class, with its liberal associations
and democratic parties.


Contrary to what Guy Standing (the precariat is the sum of all those at
risk of job insecurity) and Andrew Ross (the precariat is the sum of
service labor in the North and informal labor in the South) argue, in the
view of the EuroMayDay organizers and SanPrecario creators, including
myself, the precariat contains all the younger generations living under
advanced capitalism who are working as temps, interns, part-timers, as
free-lancers and contractors, and all of the jobless youth, either because
they are unemployed (temporarily or not) or have decided to stay out of the
workforce altogether (NEETs).



Here comes the One Big Precariat



So the precariat is the sum of people working precarious jobs in dependent
employment and formally independent employment, as well as experiencing
unemployment. We can distinguish a service precariat (viz. the successful
minimum wage campaign âFight for $15â initiated by fast food workers) and a
knowledge precariat (the GESO struggle in Ivy League universities in the
mid-90s, for instance), but whatâs important is to recognize the emergence
of the precariat as a class in itself (or in the making, as Standing
argues), a class that is in the process of becoming a class for itself
through the social mobilization occurring against austerity and inequality.
At the risk of caricaturing, Ford is to Walmart what the industrial
proletariat is to the service precariat. The precariat is a recombinant
class made by children of wage- and salary-earners shut out of meaningful
social and professional advancement. The precarious are todayâs equivalent
of plebeans and proletarians. They are the class that nobody wanted to name
because it was a condition lived in shame. Now that temps are the norm, and
perms the exception, the time has come to acknowledge the makers of
contemporary digital and financial wealth. Indeed, the precarious are the
ones having children and reproducing society, at decreasing rates since the
cost of housing and daycare has gone to the roof. They have nothing but
shall be all.



Precarity is both exploitation and liberation. It deprives young workers
out of their labor and welfare rights, but leaves them uncommitted to the
work ethic and discipline of their forebears. Precarious people express
themselves outside work, establishing communities of scope and support.
But with the crisis the exploitative element in flexible jobs is
increasingly apparent: the precariat must flex its muscle and fight for its
rights, for it has interests that are at odds with those of traditional
blue and white collars. Fundamentally, the Left sees the precarious as
lacking a fundamental quality to make them full-fledged workers and
citizens: steady employment. Precarity is thus perceived as a lack thereof,
rather than as a new condition that calls for new types of organization and
conflict. Unions have been slow in organizing service labor, because itâs
the province of young people, single mothers, minorities and immigrants,
while unionism has been conceived as a white working-class affair since its
19th century origins. No matter, for the precarious have bypassed unions
and parties and gone straight to the heart of the state, by being at the
vanguard in the barricades and acampadas that have rocked the world since
2011. In fact, it is hard to explain the success of Podemos in European and
local voting, and the election of squatter and housing rights activist Ada
Colau as mayor of Barcelona (two in her staff are former EuroMayDay
organizers:), without their continuous reference to the problems created by
labor precarity and the financial abuse committed by the âcasteâ, in a
crisis that has caused mass evictions and mass youth unemployment. Spain is
a country where one in four workers is precarious, and half of the
countryâs young are unemployed. Indeed, the near totality of the political
cadres of Podemos, as well as the activists behind the urban coalitions
achieving success in Barcelona and Madrid, belong to the precarious
generation.



Precarious politics: reform or r/evolution?



Podemosâ dazzling growth in Spain poses the problem whether the precariat
should veer toward reformist populism and âOccupy the Stateâ, to quote the
sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo, or toward revolution, as Our Friends forcefully
argues, and âSmash the Stateâ. Some would also include in the debate the
hopes raised by Syrizaâs electoral boom and accession to government in
Greece, although the latter is a more traditional federation of leftist
parties, very similar to Izquierda Unida that Podemos run against and
squarely defeated, before challenging successfully the Popular/Socialist
duopoly on power, and particularly the conservative PP, the staunchly
Catholic and pro-austerity party of the current prime minister, many of his
parties colleagues being tried for financial fraud.



The issue of European revolution poses itself today in a way similar to the
debate that opposed Marx and Bakunin during the First International. Faced
with the failure of the 1848 revolutions, the two giants of communism and
anarchism battled over whether a united Europe should be born out of a
transnational federation of revolutionary communal entities (anarchists),
or as a confederation of socialist nation-states, each previously conquered
by a revolution led by the party of the proletariat (marxists). Itâs
interesting to note that both considered some sort of United States of
Europe the final outcome of their very different revolutionary projects.



Today, the precariat is split over the following issue: should it seize
power in one nation-state and bargain with the forces of austerity
commanding the EU, like Syriza has done in Greece and Podemos seeks to do
in Spain, or should it build a trans-European anticapitalist movement
against the Troika that is capable of overthrowing the eurocracy, as
(Black) Blockupy has tried to stage in Frankfurt against the European
Central Bank in March, with Europeâs anarchoautonomous networks extending
into the MayDay demo in Milan, characterized this year by NoExpo riots in
the wealthy areas near the city center, making the news headlines, and
triggering internal debate, as well as a moral-majority style reaction in
the city and the rest of the county against âirrational violenceâ.



Since 2001, the MayDay Parade in Milano has acted as a rallying point for a
whole generation affected by precarity to fight for new rights and forms of
solidarity on and off the job: students, immigrants, queers, ravers, temps,
part-timers, social centers, radical unions, autonomists, anarchists, and
all kinds of creative teams and ecologist collectives have given life to a
spontaneous celebration of what has become Italyâs (and to some extent
Europeâs) Precarious Workersâ Day. Participants have been in the tens of
thousands since the mid-2000s. Each year a different theme links all the
various wagons and trucks that bring the parade and its carnival of
revolution to life. Last year it was against Renziâs Jobs Act, this year it
was about the encroachment of free labor in young peopleâs lives, and
against Expo Milano 2015, the World Fair crewed by voluntary and temporary
labor, which was decreed would open on May Day (it ends on Halloween).
Italyâs politicized precariat, which had organized a successful national
strike (#scioperosociale) in the fall, saw this as a major affront, and for
the first time in over a decade, the parade was not peaceful. Thousands
threw bottles, rocks and firecrackers at the riot police and carabinieri, a
barricade was set alight, and two dozens of luxury cars where torched in
the area around Cadorna North Station, where the rich Milanese live. The
nominally leftie mayor rode bourgeois outrage and spearheaded a petty
bourgeois reaction to the actions of MayDay demonstrators, by leading a
counterdemonstration to erase all political writings from city walls on May
2.



Surely, it takes more than a May Day riot in Oakland, Montreal, Milan or
Istanbul to start a revolution, but no revolution was ever done without
rioting. Non-violence is successful at reforming the State, not at
overthrowing it. Street clashes and property damage are communication acts
that bespeak of the existence of an angry and young social opposition to
oligarchy. However, as Our Friends argue, a hooligan can be the obverse of
a pacifist: being always right, sticking to oneâs principles, means also
being always wrong, in the sense that making violence/nonviolence a
strategy rather than a tactic is bound to play in the hands of the
adversary.



So what does the precariat need to overcome neoliberalism: reform or
revolution? Looking at the lesson of the Great Depression and its
successful fight against inequality through labor conflict and social
regulation, one would argue in favor of the former, for nefarious
nationalist forces are waiting in the wings of declining liberalism, just
as they did in the 1930s and 1940s. However, one could argue that
capitalist civilization is so financially and morally bankrupt that only
revolution can protect the socialization of rights and resource, and defeat
European fascism and Sunni salafism. In Europe, it feels like all venues
for political reform are closed, no matter what is done at the national
level. If movements do not bring the conflict to Brussels and lay siege to
the European Council, and its executive arm, the European Commission, I
fear no political victory in individual European nation-states will amount
to much change in the way the European Union is governed. In Europe, a
reformist strategy would be to apply so much political pressure from below
that EU governance is altered, particularly in its anti-social monetary and
financial arrangements. Conversely, a revolutionary strategy would entail
seizing the European Parliament and turning into a counterpower against
Council and Commission. For that you need the equivalent of a European
Self-Defense Force, which would be some kind of transgender volunteer army
ready to fight in the name of freedom, equality, ecology. It would start to
recruit and operate publicly once the first European city has been
liberated, so itâs not a bunch of secretive comrades plotting
assassinations like RAF or the Red Brigades did back in the days, but a
militia-like organization like the Black Panthers or the International
Brigades in their eras. If that sounds crazy (and it is), look at what ISIS
has achieved through militant recruiting in the service of eschatological
reaction, or, conversely, what YPJ and YPG have managed to do in Kobane on
the opposite side of the political spectrum, by inflicting the only serious
defeat Daesh has suffered so far, in the name of a non-sectarian,
non-misogynistic, egalitarian political worldview.



A European civil war is unlikely at the moment, but the scenario could
change if strongly nativist forces (usually bankrolled by Putin) get to
rule major countries in the EU, particularly, but not exclusively, France
(Italy is also in danger), and Merkel finally wrecks the Union to teach a
lesson to Greece and Southern Europe on the euro's unreformability.
Anti-immigration hysteria would then be given free rein and create
political tensions difficult to imagine (for a paradoxical scenario, read
Houellebecqâs latest novel). The precariat is inherently multi-ethnic and
will have to face down the mortal threat posed by xenophobic movements if
these take power. Presently, the socialist-christian-liberal EU fortress is
threatened from all sides, as migrants drown by the thousands in the
Mediterranean sea, and anti-European racist parties are on the rise
everywhere. If the euro collapsed and the European Union disintegrated,
nobody knows what could happen. Ukraine already means the threat of war for
Europeans, and Russia is on the wrong side. Today, nationalism threatens
Europe externally and internally. Rabid nationalism plunged Europe in two
world wars, today it could cause a civil war opposing Christian Europe to
Mongrel Europe. If the EU collapsed on Greece and migrant, it's likely that
the precarious will have to take sides: revolution or reaction. But for
now, a united populist front led by the precariat against oligarchy seems
the best bet to shelve neoliberalism and reform capitalism. Until the next
major crisis. Not that our friends would agree.




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