Factory without society. Around some problems concerning the transnational social strike

Fabbrica senza societàItalian

We would like to contribute to the debate started by Plan C and Angry Workers because we believe it is particularly important for the meeting towards a transnational social strike that will take place in Poznan next October. Of this debate, including the latest comment of Australian Left, we wholly share the necessity of a political analysis which could put on the table the concrete problems emerging from the struggles and their organization, and therefore the urgency of a discourse that could be up to these challenges. Therefore, we will not articulate our contribution around all the questions developed until now, but rather we will focus on some points that we consider particularly relevant: what is the problem of the social strike? How to think the relation between the struggles within single work-places and the transnational organization of the movements? How to face the problem of the enlargement of struggles and of the relation between the contemporary conditions of labor and its social dimension?

When the adjective «social» accompanies the world «strike», it aims to answer the questions of organization and of the accumulation of power, in an age marked by radical transformations of labor relations. In the last decades, these transformations have been described as the end of the factory regime and of the industrial labor – often regarded as the relic of a forgotten Fordist past – or rather as the extension of the factory to the whole society. While it tries to grasp concrete and long-lasting changes, this reading runs parallel to the capitalistic attempt to hide industrial labor by confining it to the places in Europe, Asia or in the Americas that have been regarded as the «peripheries» of the globe, so as to declare the numerical and political irrelevance of this kind of labor. To say that the whole life is put to labor, to argue that this condition is so general that it becomes universal, therefore, runs the risk of trapping within this metropolitan capitalistic enchantment also those parts of the movements that, in Europe, resolved to put labor and strike at the core of their political initiative. However, in order to avoid this risk, and the consequent risk of supporting the neoliberal imperative of individualization and self-entrepreneurship, it is not enough to reduce our initiative to the reversal of the one of the capital. It is not enough to declare the numerical relevance and the unquestionable importance of industrial labor in many areas of the world. Nor is it enough to make precarious labor visible, as if it was only a part of labor to which representation should be granted through a political/unionist identity, since this kind of identity already showed its limits. Rather, it would be necessary to acknowledge that, more or less far from the factories, hundreds of places that are not immediately concerned with material production –­ even though they support it and replicate the modalities and the intensity of its exploitation – have been built. Thus, instead of discussing the disappearance of the factory regime, we believe it is necessary to think how that regime was transformed, what its underlying social logic is, in which way the factory is connected with other working places.

To understand how the overall command over labor-force changed is crucial in order to understand who is the subject of the transnational social strike. Our question, therefore, could be formulated in the following way: what is the relationship between the factory and the social cooperation? If the factory is no longer the exclusive form of capitalistic command, what kind of exchange and clashes occur between the norms of the factory and the norms of social cooperation? This question is particularly important now that society does not compensate anymore the workers condition because the social dimension of the State was definitively erased. Between the social cooperation and labor there is a latent conflict, a rift which is not immediately the space of the political action of the movements, even if the task of the movements is that of pointing out that rift and turning it into the possibility of a political action.

We start therefore from an assumption: there is no identity between the factory and the social cooperation that could solve the problem of organization within and against the global chains of exploitation. With a simplified formulation, we may say that it is not that the factory was extended throughout society, but rather society entered the factory and thus wiped out the myth of its internal homogeneity. Even at the peak of the «Fordist past», the cooperation that is necessary for the valorization of capital was neither simply granted by the absolute and autonomous command of the factory, nor was it confined to the working place. It was rather supported by a universal mediation, namely by the guarantee of a «social» compensation of exploitation through the concession of rights connected to labor. Far from being the homogeneous place of labor cooperation and organization, today the factory is transformed by the disappearance of society conceived of as a process of recomposition and mediation of power relations. Now the capital imposes its command through the individualization and segmentation of social relations within and outside work-places. The «social» dimension of labor turns into a deprivation of social rights and benefits, and into a production of hierarchies among the individuals at work on a transnational scale. To say that the society enters the factory means therefore that social bonds are disarticulated into segments that are one beside the other and directly subdued to the domination of capital, which is not even partially neutralized or compensated any longer, as it was before. To say that the society enters the factory means that the social condition of the individual is not limited to his or her being a worker, both because the individuals are less and less linked to a single work-place, and because the position of everyone in front of the blackmail of the wage is no longer measured on a set of formally equal rights and duties, but on a differential scale of performances, benefits and sacrifices. From the point of view of organization, to say that the society enters the factory means that inside and outside the factory there are not already given processes of communication that could be turned into insubordination. The «social» is no longer a field of connection between the individuals at work, both because cooperation is the effect of a segmentation which enters the factory in the way of domination, and because the lack of a welfare State, together with the political conditions of exploitations, make it very difficult to point out common claims and field of struggles.  This is even truer, as every social benefit is still provided on a national level, whereas the organization of production develops on a transnational one.

We must therefore ask ourselves what it is meant by «global chain of exploitation». The point is not simply to acknowledge the transformation caused by outsourcing, and that a single commodity is now produced along a line which moves from Europe to near and far-East and return. The global connections of exploitation requires us to think how to create likewise constant connections among work-places that are the links of the same chain, but do not communicate and do not have already the power of breaking it. In order to be up to this challenge, it is important to understand the function of what we call «the new European logistics», which does not coincide with the infrastructure that support the distribution of raw materials and commodities on a continental scale, but rather with a specific way of organizing command and cooperation starting from segmentation and division. Consequently, the point is not only to find out some strategic nodes where the strike as a block of distribution should be turned into an effective block of more or less wide segments of production, but also to understand how the global connections of exploitation could be turned into a constant and systematic communication among those segments. And it is likewise important to think the relationship between social production and reproduction, most of all when the latter reconfigures the traditional sexual division of labor according to the new regime of mobility, thus creating new global chains of exploitation.

Thinking the relationship between the factory and the social cooperation, therefore, allows to highlight the hidden factory and to politically show what the factory hides. The adjective «social» should refer to the political organization of the strike. The point is to create a political communication between the working places and the places of social cooperation starting from the assumption that the capitalistic command exercised through wage acts on a transnational scale, and that its effects deploy inside and outside the working places, making the inside and the outside functional to one another. If the capitalistic command is imposed through a disarticulation of the social bond, the fact that the workers are concentrated within the same working place is not sufficient to allow industrial labor to recognize itself as the core of the working class.

In this frame, the problem of the transnational social strike cannot be solved through a division of labor according to which movements become the social support of traditional forms of strike organized by the unions. This would replicate a separation between the factory and the social cooperation which gives for granted both the capacity of the unions to organize labor, and the capacity of the movement to take the social cooperation away from capitalistic command, so as to connect what is otherwise disconnected. On the side of unionist initiative, instead, it is increasingly clear that also the most radical and successful industrial actions – like the ones of the logistic sector in Italy – run the risk of ending into limited and partial results, just because they are confined within a single productive sector, within a single category of workers, within a single enterprise, within a single national context. The global character of exploitation constantly neutralizes the effects of local industrial action, dramatically highlighting their limits. The problem is not simply the political idleness of those who regard as relevant only the struggles that occur in their backyard. The problem is that, even when they are successful, local industrial actions do not assume an exemplary character and hardly obtain a recognized symbolical meaning, thus gaining an expansive capacity. At the same time, the solidarity provided by the movements to the labor struggles does not solve the problem of their politicization, because it is confronted with the limits of enlargement and must be rethought under the light of the relationship between the working places and the space outside. The local initiative, mutualistic and communitarian, should be confronted with a society which is globally reconfigured as the lack of bonds. Beyond the function of support that the mutualistic structure could have for successful strikes, to speak of «socializing society» means to underestimate the fact that the idea of society as a possible place of recomposition of different interests supports the illusion of a social cooperation already freed from the capitalistic domination and the blackmail of wage which links it to production. The risk is that of pointing towards a recomposition that, instead of facing the existing contradictions, excludes them in order to establish its own homogeneity and hardly goes out of the borders of the already existing activism.

A «class recomposition» that images the working class as a unitary and homogeneous subject is not a feasible project today. The working class is a multitude crisscrossed by differences that are strategically relevant in order to attack the crucial links of the global chains of exploitation. The transnational social strike should therefore move simultaneously in two directions, so as to politically affirm both the general features of contemporary labor and the differences that crisscross it both inside and outside the factory and working places. Mobility and precarity seems to us the general features starting from which organization can be thought on a transnational scale. Mobility and precarity are at one and the same time the effect of the policies of Europe and its States, and what these policies are unable to completely govern, so much that they must impose their command over the movements of labor through violence. However, in order to materially create a shared space where the limits of capitalistic command could be unveiled, and where isolation could be broken by a communication able to trigger a continuous and expansive mobilization, it is necessary to politically affirm the differences that mark contemporary labor.

Towards this direction we believe it is strategically relevant to find out some common claims. These claims are neither a solution in themselves, nor solve the problem of the relation with institutions, even if they can unveil their limits. The possibility of finding out common claims has to be regarded as the possibility of producing political communication and organization across the borders, of creating a connection among segments that are otherwise separated by the capitalistic domination. To speak of a European minimum wage means to establish a relation among the struggles within the work places able to tackle the capitalistic command along the global chains of exploitation in each of their links. It means to look for a systematic political connection between industrial labor and the manifold figures of precarious labor that are aligned along the same production chain. It means to overcome the limits that national collective bargaining is facing everywhere, raising on a higher level. To speak of a European basic income and welfare means to acknowledge the way in which society entered the factory, to take back a share of social power against the segmentation and impoverishment of labor, starting from the unbreakable link between the precarity of labor – that is, wage – and the contemporary transformations of welfare systems. To speak of a European minimum residence permit for all migrants means to assume the movements of living labor as a point of power, rather than of weakness, thus reclaiming the practical possibility of escaping the global regimes of exploitation and the government of mobility.

These claims cannot be separated one from the other and cannot be conceived of as an exclusive of this or that segment o labor. Rather, it is their relation what would allow us to trigger an effective political communication across the borders of labor-categories, of work-places, of States. These claims can provide the field for a real connection between precarious, industrial and migrant workers and the mean for a politicization of the social strike on a continental scale. To affirm the European character of these claims means to attack the political conditions of exploitation at the level of European institutions, thus avoiding the confinement of struggles on a national level that, as the Greek situation shows, always runs the risk of being smashed by the financial command of the Union.

For all of these reasons we believe it is crucial that the meeting towards a transnational social strike will take place in Poznan: this choice acknowledges the centrality of a place that the capitalistic command conceives of as politically peripheral. Our bet is instead that of overturning this presumption, by pointing at places along the global chains of exploitation that are strategic insofar as the effects of the entrance of society into factory are there much more striking. Places where, in other words, the interlacement between the regime of wage, the government of mobility and the segmentation of the social bonds clearly reveal the global stake of our initiative.

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