Public sector outsourcing and class warfare Public sector outsourcing and class warfare

Public sector outsourcing and class warfare

An investigation into the ways in which outsourcing and the threat of outsourcing is used as a weapon of class warfare and labour discipline in the public sector, as well as possible tactics for fighting back.

The outsourcing of public services has become major news in recent years. The UK is now the second largest market for outsourced public services in the world and with the combination of ongoing budget cuts and the neoliberal demands for ‘efficiency’ and private provision outsourcing is a major consideration across the public sector. However a focus simply on numbers and statistics can overlook the impact of the threat of outsourcing as a weapon of class warfare and labour discipline.

My own experience of this comes from being an admin worker in an NHS department that went through a lengthy outsourcing review before being given a last minute reprieve a couple of months ago. Whilst not wanting to generalise too much from one experience, I thought it would be worthwhile sharing some of my conclusions about the effects of this process, it’s effectiveness as a form of class warfare and possible ways in which we may be able to fight back.

Outsourcing, job security and labour discipline
In an era of increasingly casualised and precarious working conditions most public sector organisations retain a degree of job stability that gives workers a degree of industrial strength. Permanent rather than fixed term contracts generally remain the norm whilst disciplinary processes follow a formalised format, with opportunities for challenge and appeal by the workers involved. Furthermore, whilst the major public sector unions have long retreated from pushing much in the way of workplace action in their role of ‘labour side representation’ they do play a role in ensuring processes are followed and limiting the arbitrary power managers are able to exert. As a result with the exception of major misconduct cases public sector employers lack the ability to hire and fire at will, giving greater power to workers to resist demands for ever greater workrates, longer hours, etc in the workplace.

Outsourcing and the threat of outsourcing undermines this job security. Public sector employees involved in an outsourcing may find themselves ‘TUPE’ transferred to the private company taking over the contract, transferred formally on the same contract and with the same protections as before for the first 12 months, but at high risk of having their terms and conditions challenged or being forced out in favour of workers on the new companies own terms and conditions (which are generally significantly worse). Alternatively, even TUPE transfer may not be an option; in my own case the outsourcing plan was to move the department to a centralised national location hundreds of miles away, with me and my co-workers offered possible redeployment to another department or, if that failed, being made redundant.

This means that consideration of outsourcing creates uncertainty for what were previously fairly secure jobs. As a result workers in departments being reviewed for redundancy are put in the position of being effectively forced to beg their employers for their jobs. Employers usually expect workers to show a willingness to ‘be reasonable’, to capitulate to their demands if they want to have any hope of remaining in their posts.

Monitoring, statistics gathering and the quantification of services
As part of a review the department is likely to come under intense and sustained monitoring to judge whether it is succeeding or failing, i.e. whether the department is meeting a serious of quantifiable targets to be measured against some aspects of its work deemed to be important. Such a process is contentious; most public sector departments’ work involve a variety of activities, and in order to quantify in such a manner an assessment has to be made as to the relative importance of these activities and the parameters within which these are defined which usually downplays or excludes aspects of the job. Furthermore, it leads to a concentration of all efforts on the areas of work being measured, investing all efforts into making the numbers look good and all but ignoring anything not on the sheet of targets.

As a result as part of the review a vast amount of time and energy can be spent on creating monitorable targets and on collating quantifiable data so that judgements can be made based on these. For example as part of the outsourcing review of my service we were obliged to spend many hours inputting information on our work into unintuitive programmes so that statistics and graphs on our work rate could be produced for the monthly report.

Unfortunately a consequence of building these sets of numbers, in theory to make the case for not outsourcing, is that it creates exactly the kinds of measurable outcomes which are necessary for outsourcing companies to seek to undercut and outbid. Outsourcing has most commonly taken place in areas where there are clear rates of output, clear targets which provide a template basic service which the company can then seek to provide as cheaply as possible. Where the work of the department is more complex, where a department carries out a variety of activities that it is harder to catalogue and measure it makes it difficult to frame their work in terms of a baseline service that an outsourcing company can look to provide as cheaply as possible. Thus outsourcing becomes harder for private companies to make a profit from and more difficult to tender, reducing its attractiveness.

There is therefore a paradox in that the creation of data and targets on service provision, one of the tasks that workers often spend many hours on as part of the outsourcing review and their attempts to keep departments in house is also key to making outsourcing a feasible option.

The threat of outsourcing as the ‘new normal’
Even where the decision eventually goes against outsourcing this decision is never final. Deciding not to outsource at this time, to this specific provider leaves the door open that at a later point, when a better bid is offered or when managers are once again dissatisfied the issue of outsourcing will be raised again, something that employers are often only too happy to point out. In my own case it was made clear that, whilst the decision had been made not to outsource this time it would definitely be reconsidered should the desired improvements in the numbers not be shown. Indeed, a team we work closely with whose own outsourcing review had only ended a few months prior were told the week after we were cleared that they were once again up for review.

This means that the disciplinary effects of an outsourcing review, which many workers and indeed the main unions are often willing to accept as a one off process, becomes an ongoing force creating ever present job insecurity. Demands for higher pay, better conditions and particularly every day demands for a less intensive and more pleasurable working life come up against the danger of outsourcing, the implicit threat by management that if you don’t play ball they can sell off the department to someone who will. Thus outsourcing either as an actual process or as a threat becomes a key part of undermining public sector work security and disciplining public sector workers.

Resisting outsourcing
The question therefore arises of how best to resist these forces. In my own personal case I do not feel I was particularly successful in this regard; in my department there was some open unrest, demands to see managers, etc but by and large we went along with the process. That we were not outsourced was in my case down more to luck than through our active resistance. Nevertheless I did see potential for resistance. For example such a collective threat acts to engender a sense of solidarity and collective interests, whilst direct managers who are also facing the threat of outsourcing cannot always be relied on by the hierarchy to effectively dampen workplace dissent.

One source that sadly cannot be relied upon for resistance is the mainstream unions. In line with their labour side representation role, the national policy of the big unions towards outsourcing is generally one of token opposition alongside activity around ensuring the outsourcing is properly carried out, i.e. that all the boxes are ticked before the outsourcing finally takes place. A common experience is for unions to come up with a series of excuses for not taking action – union density isn’t high enough, the moment isn’t right, we need to act professionally to prevent outsourcing, etc – before eventually stating that it’s too late and there’s little they can do. For example, during the recent campaign against outsourcing at Sussex University the UNISON branch offered token opposition to outsourcing whilst fighting tooth and nail against attempts at active resistance by workers (such as the pop up union set up for the purpose of taking strike action) before eventually announcing that the university had consulted with them to their satisfaction and they were no longer opposing the outsourcing. Thus whilst there are undoubtedly many good militants resisting outsourcing within unions their approach on a national scale is generally at best ineffective and at worst openly hostile to resisting outsourcing.

In terms of active resistance something worth considering is the ways in which workers are required to create the tools through which their work can be monitored and measured and how we could look to prevent the creation of the statistics and quantifiable units that outsourcing relies upon. Collective attempts to subvert, sabotage and neglect the collation of data necessary for outsourcing, to insist on doing the job rather than creating numbers regarding it and undermine attempts to package departments as something outsourced companies can run at a profit could be an important way to make outsourcing unviable.

There is room to play on the fact that, although a growing force, outsourcing remains highly unpopular. Whilst some outsourcing evangelists may close ranks in the face of vocalised hostility (for example the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex stating that he would outsource even if everyone on campus opposed him) many public bodies considering outsourcing are highly sensitive to negative responses and would like to do it as quietly as possible. In these situations publicity and a vocal campaign against outsourcing can be effective in convincing managers that it is not worth the hassle it creates,

More generally there is a need to recognise outsourcing as an ongoing issue people in the public sector are going to face and thus that we cannot simply kowtow to managers in the hope that it will go away. Building collective relations and resistance both by those in the public sector and, importantly, by those who have been outsourced is important if we want to counter the use of outsourcing as a tool of labour discipline and the class offensive it represents.

The new shock doctrine: ‘Doing Business’ with the World Bank

May 2nd, 2014

A yearly World Bank report encourages countries to undertake extreme deregulation.

One of the problems with neoliberal economic policy is that it’s tough to get countries to agree to it; especially democratic ones. It has often required quite extreme measures, such as invasion – the classic example being the US-backed coup against Chile’s democratically elected president – or debt bondage and structural adjustment led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Both are effective ways of forcing countries to deregulate their markets.

But neither of these methods has been very popular. It turns out that most people don’t like it when sovereign nations are invaded for corporate gain, as the global protests against the Iraq war made clear. And structural adjustment proved to be so damaging and inspired so many riots that the IMF was forced to step back from it – at least ostensibly – in the early 2000s.

To avoid these messy PR nightmares, the latest approach has been to get countries to impose neoliberalism on themselves.

Enter the World Bank. In 2003 the World Bank published the first Doing Business Report, which ranks the world’s countries based on the “ease of doing business” in them. For the most part, the fewer regulations a country has, the higher they score. The report has become the Bank’s most influential publication, and the ranking system is recognised as a powerful tool for compelling countries to initiate regulatory reforms, driving a quarter of the 2,100 policy changes recorded since it was launched.

Investors and CEOs use the rankings to decide where to move their money or headquarter their businesses for maximum profit. There’s even a handy iPhone app that jet-setting capitalists can use to redirect their investments on the fly. A new minimum wage law was just passed in Haiti? Better move your sweatshop to Cambodia! Higher taxes on the rich in Sweden? Time to shift accounts to Kenya’s new tax haven!

By providing a panopticon of knowledge about regulatory policies all over the world, the Doing Business rankings give investors an incredible amount of power. Countries are forced to respond by cutting regulations to make themselves more attractive to the barons of global capital, setting off a sort of global race to the bottom. A special “reform simulator” shows how each country can improve their ranking by, say, cutting corporate taxes or legalising land grabs.

The dark side of “doing business”

The Doing Business rankings are based on ten different indicators, most of which rest on a bizarre black-and-white morality: regulation is bad, deregulation is good.

Take the “employing workers” indicator, for example. According to this measure, countries are scored down for having laws that require minimum wages, paid vacation, and overtime rates. They also get docked for requiring employers to pay severance packages to retrenched workers. According to Doing Business, all of this counts as “red tape” that needs to be abolished. When critics pointed out that this stance runs against the basic labour rights enshrined in international conventions, the World Bank was forced to remove the indicator from the ranking system.

The “paying taxes” indicator is equally disturbing. Countries are punished in the rankings for having corporate income taxes, property taxes, dividend taxes, and even the financial transaction taxes that are so vital to preventing another crisis.

They are also punished for requiring employers to pay taxes for services like roads and waste collection; apparently Doing Business doesn’t stop to ask how states would provide these services without taxes, or how companies could perform in their absence. It’s no wonder that countries are now competing to offer tax haven services, to the point where the global tax haven network is facilitating illicit financial flows from developing countries, which were estimated at $859bn for 2010.

Then there’s the “getting credit” indicator. Sounds fair enough – businesses need access to credit, after all – but the name is misleading. In reality the measure is only concerned with making it easier for money lenders to recover debts. If countries have bankruptcy laws that, say, protect students who default on their loans, they get punished in the rankings. Countries are rewarded when they make it easier to liquidate the assets of defaulted debtors, even though this removes risk from lenders and can lead to dangerously inflated debt markets.

The “getting credit” indicator also ranks countries based on their credit registries. The more data a country publishes about each citizen’s credit history, the higher they rank. In other words, Doing Business seeks to extend the US credit score system – a powerful way to render citizens docile and obedient – across the entire world.

Another measure that deserves attention is the “protecting investors” indicator. This one rewards countries that make it easier for shareholders to sue company directors for “misusing corporate assets”. To be fair, this may succeed in reducing some forms of corruption. But it also pushes toward stronger “shareholder value” laws, which prevent corporations from doing anything that might compromise short-term profits, such as paying higher wages or giving back to the community.

Finally, there is the “registering property” indicator, which pressures countries to cut regulations on buying land. The Oakland Institute has shown that this has set off a rush of corporate land grabs in the developing world.

Pro-corporate ideology

The problem with the indicators is that they have no sense of balance. They don’t just want lower minimum wages, they encourage countries with no minimum; they don’t require more modest taxation, they press for zero taxation; they don’t ask for more streamlined trade, they want to abolish customs; they don’t demand fewer regulations on land, they want total freedom of purchase. Countries are rewarded for pushing to these extremes. There is no recognition that some regulations might actually be important to a fair society.

In addition, it quickly becomes clear that the Doing Business indicators are not actually against regulations as such; they are only against regulations that don’t directly promote corporate interests. Regulations that protect workers and indigenous communities are considered bad. But regulations that protect creditors and investors – and empower them to grab land and avoid taxes – are considered good.

The Doing Business rankings reduce economic policy to the shallow metrics of private gain. According to this flagship initiative of the World Bank – which is supposedly devoted to creating a world without poverty – nothing matters aside from corporate profit. The well-being of the people, the health of the land, the fairness of the society; none of these counts in the brave new world of business. Countries are compelled to ignore the interests of their own citizens in the global competition to bolster corporate power.

And here’s what may be the most disturbing element of all: The rankings not only inform investors’ decisions, they also determine the flow of development aid, as some aid agencies use them to give preferential support to countries that make progress in the rankings. Forget measures of health, happiness, and democracy. Forget gains in growth and employment. In the end what counts most is the “ease of doing business”.

The men behind the curtain

If you’re curious enough to look into the science behind the Doing Business rankings, you’ll find, as I did, that it’s actually not science at all. An official report published in June 2013 revealed that the system has not been peer-reviewed. Furthermore, it is based almost entirely on the papers of two of the economists who invented it, Simeon Djankov and Andrei Shleifer; hardly a sufficiently robust basis for such a powerful tool.

Who are these two men? Shleifer is the protege of Larry Summers, the Harvard economist who stymied efforts to regulate the US derivatives market and paved the way for the housing bubble and the financial crash. During the 1990s, Shleifer led the Harvard-based project – funded by the US government – to privatise Russia’s economy and establish the country’s first capital markets.

The project was dogged by controversy. A federal investigation found that Shleifer was both evading taxes and investing in the very markets he was setting up. Harvard was charged with breach of contract, while Shleifer and his associate Jonathan Hay – with conspiracy to defraud the federal government. Harvard settled out of court for $26.5m, while Shleifer had to pay $2m. The Harvard project was closed down in disgrace.

Djankov’s record is equally troubling. After serving as the World Bank’s in-house deregulation guru for 14 years, in 2009 he became the minister of finance and deputy prime minister in his home country of Bulgaria. Immediately after assuming power he went on an aggressive austerity spree – slashing taxes, capping deficit spending, and firing some 13,000 public employees. Barak Obama, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel lauded him for these reforms, and the rating agencies upgraded Bulgaria’s outlook. According to the accountants, Bulgaria had never looked better.

Then reality hit. Djankov’s austerity project made life so unbearable for most Bulgarians that protests swept through the country in early 2013. The demonstrators, who were supported by 92 percent of the population, managed to depose the government.

Djankov and Shleifer are ideologues who have caused a great deal of harm in the real world. They have both been publicly discredited, yet they continue to exercise tremendous power over economic policy through the Doing Business rankings. Why should we listen to these unelected technocrats? And who gave the World Bank the power to rank countries according to the narrow criteria of “doing business”? An increasing number of civil society groups are raising these questions, and a recent review ordered by World Bank President Jim Kim even recommends abandoning the aggregate rankings. It’s time to take the next step: abolish the indicators altogether, and put economic policy back in the hands of democracy.

Dr Jason Hickel lectures at the London School of Economics and serves as an adviser to /The Rules.

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What is Capitalism? By Peter Staudenmaier


In ancient myths of paradise, people lived in boundless plenty without work or want. The fruits of the earth were freely available to all and no labor was necessary. If life under capitalism is a far cry from paradise, it is nonetheless beholden to its own myths of work, prosperity, and progress. Understanding what the world was like before the rise of capitalism, and envisioning a different world beyond the capitalist reality we live in today, calls for an examination of its myths and the structures on which those myths are built.

Capitalism usually presents itself as an economic system, a way of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services, of wealth and welfare, of material gain and loss. But capitalism is more than an economic system, it is a form of society: A form of society in which the economic has taken precedence over the social. Under capitalism, economic necessities become more important than basic social relationships – finding a job and keeping it can be more pressing than creating a fulfilling life together with friends and companions and loved ones; figuring out how to pay the rent or maintain the mortgage or make sure there’s food on the table wins out over exploring what we have in common; worrying about who’ll take care of us when we’re too old to work gets in the way of taking care of each other here and now. What is best for me individually becomes more vital than what is best for the communities I am part of, than what is best for all of us.

When we find ourselves thinking this way, it is not because we are inherently selfish beings. That notion of natural self-interest and acquisitiveness is one of the major myths of modern capitalism. Human societies have evolved myriad ways of arranging their economic interactions, many of them based squarely on communal rather than individual standards of wellbeing. They aren’t always liberatory, of course, but they do indicate that capitalism’s peculiar preoccupation with concern for oneself over others is not built in to human nature. And most people don’t get all that far under capitalism, economically speaking, no matter how much we focus on our own needs and wants. Though the free market continually holds out the promise of a better life for all, the promise generally becomes reality for only a few.

Viewed in this context, capitalism is by no means historically inevitable. It isn’t part of the fabric of the universe and it isn’t a consequence of the laws of physics. It is not an innate attribute of human existence. It is not, as it pretends to be, the natural state of economic affairs. Capitalism is a social artifact, something created and maintained by people, by our actions and inactions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, whether malevolent or well-meaning. It arose in particular places at specific times under distinctive conditions. It has a history, though admirers of capitalism sometimes like to portray it as timeless. Like everything historical, it has both beginnings and an end. If we made it, we can unmake it.

That means understanding how it functions. To do this we can draw on both theory and practice, incorporating the lessons learned from critical analyses of the basic structures of capitalism as well as the legacies of organized opposition to those structures. We can make use of the insights generated by radical social movements throughout the long history of emancipatory struggles against capitalism. Many of these struggles were led by workers in class-based movements resisting the growing power of capital. Others were made up of peasants or artisans, and some were community-based movements defending popular institutions from encroachment by an advancing capitalist system. The participants in these struggles disagreed about how to make sense of the seemingly senseless society formed by the development of capitalism, but we can distill a series of key concepts from their experiences.

From the perspective of these oppositional movements and their assessment of a world transformed according to capitalist imperatives, the core features of capitalism as an economic system and as a society can be characterized as follows:

Commodity production and exchange. Commodities are the fundamental unit of capitalist societies, as the cell is the fundamental unit of the body. Under full-fledged capitalism a commodity can be just about anything – something useful and necessary, something harmful and pointless, something rare or common, something intangible and ephemeral. What makes an item or an idea or an action a commodity is not some intrinsic quality of the thing itself, but its status as an object of exchange. In its simplest form, a commodity is a good or a service that is produced in order to be exchanged. It is valuable not primarily for what it is but for what price it can fetch when bought or sold, what can be gained by exchanging it for other commodities.

Markets. The mechanism through which commodities are exchanged is the market, a forum in which buyers and sellers compete for advantage. Historically markets were subject to social constraints: typically located in circumscribed areas, limited to certain times of the day or week or year, tempered by ethical stipulations. Many human societies assigned markets a deliberately subordinate position in communal life and delineated clear boundaries within which markets were allowed to operate. This changed with the ascendance of capitalism. In an ideal capitalist world, markets and their competitive dynamic no longer heed social limitations but are ubiquitous and unfettered; they are everywhere all the time. Though championed for their supposed efficiency, markets are frequently models of extraordinary waste and inefficiency. In their capitalist form markets have a tendency to permeate all relationships and all dimensions of social life, extending far beyond the immediate economic realm and turning neighbors into rivals, colleagues into competitors, allies into adversaries.

Property as private investment. Through the processes of commodity production and market exchange, more and more aspects of human life and the natural world are reduced to assets that can and must be owned. Wealth comes from the earth and its creatures and from the work of human hands and minds, and there are countless forms in which it can be created, discovered, and shared. Capitalism imposes one form as paramount: private ownership of resources. In contemporary industrial capitalist societies this type of private property can take the shape of entrepreneurs who own a business, shareholders or investors who own a corporation, landlords who own real estate, speculators who own stock or trade debt and credit and abstract commodities existing only in notional form. The driving force behind this kind of ownership is profit.

Wage labor. Most people in capitalist contexts don’t own assets that earn profit, and have to sell their time and effort to others in order to make a living. Selling your ability to work in exchange for a paycheck is known as wage labor, the component of capitalism with which most of us are intimately familiar. A division of labor between groups of people doing different tasks is not peculiar to capitalism, but in combination with commodity production, the predominance of the market, and private ownership of economic resources, wage labor means that the people who actually produce the goods and services that keep the system running have little say in how the things they produce are made and distributed. Those decisions are normally the prerogative of owners, executives, and managers, whose directives are supposed to be carried out by workers. When the system works the way it is designed, products end up in the hands of consumers divorced from any connection with or knowledge of the producers or their conditions of work, from mass manufacturing to the provision of services.

On the basis of these intertwined core features, capitalism has achieved remarkable levels of economic innovation and equally remarkable levels of ecological and social destructiveness. What drives both its accomplishments and its devastation is a constant requirement for accumulation, for increasing returns on investment, for profits that can be put back into circulation in order to yield even greater profit. Ever-expanding material reward is the carrot that entices capitalist ambitions, accompanied by the stick of potential economic ruin. While its operations are baroquely complex and often inscrutable, its underlying principles are starkly straightforward. This accounts for capitalism’s conspicuous flexibility, the capacity to accommodate itself to widely different social and cultural contexts. It also accounts for the profoundly alienated relationships at the heart of capitalist society.

Because capitalism is built around recurrent crises, economic and otherwise, it has always sparked dissatisfaction and resistance. From anarchists to marxists, from cooperative movements to anti-colonial struggles, diverse groups and individuals have contested the regime of capital for generations. For those of us fundamentally opposed to capitalism, it is crucial to keep in mind the political ambivalence of discontent with capitalist norms. History is littered with false alternatives to an inhumane and unsustainable system. Stalinism, to choose one all too recognizable example, is not a compelling replacement for free market nostrums. Many populists and fascists also oppose capitalism, based often enough on the alluring but deceptive paradigm of hardworking producers versus parasitic financiers. There are numerous authoritarian and right-wing versions of anti-capitalist sentiment. We need to remember this if we don’t want to end up in a future that is even worse than the capitalist present. The challenge is to come up with a comprehensive critical analysis of what is wrong with capitalism and a plausible array of alternative social institutions that could supplant it.

A helpful step toward that goal is to ask questions without easy answers. What is it about capitalism that we oppose? Its outsize impact on our lives, our character, our bodies, our planet? Its privileging of multinational corporations and millionaires? Its cosmopolitanism and its corrosive effect on traditional mores? Or is it alienation and exploitation that we reject? And what are we working toward? A more smoothly functioning liberal state that will provide for all? Local self-sufficiency and regional autarky? Planning bureaucracies and legislated equality? Environmental enterprise and reduced consumption? Neighborhood markets and family farms and mom and pop stores? Or do we want a genuinely anti-capitalist alternative, structurally antagonistic to hierarchy and domination, to profit and property, whatever their scale or scope?

Beyond decisive questions like these, there are many other problems to be thought through and worked out. Capitalism is not as all-encompassing as it appears; non-capitalist relationships exist within and alongside the dominant economy and society. And as central as production is to economic endeavors, reproduction and care are what make our lives possible, while the pleasure of personal and collective creation for its own sake, regardless of utility, can make our lives worth living. Indeed the very notion of «the economy» as a separate sphere of social life is itself a legacy of the historical emergence of capitalism. Today’s shifting affiliations linking capitalism to white supremacy, to patriarchy, to racial and gender and other hierarchies are not an implacable constant but always in flux, with oppressive as well as subversive potentials. The crushing weight of capital distorts any image of a life after capitalism, but the possibilities of transcending its bitter strictures are entirely real. They are ours to explore, ours to construct, and ours to share.


Leadership and the myth of apathy

Leadership and the myth of apathy

Why aren’t we rising up? Whether the ‘we’ in question is young people, the British people, or the poor, this is a question asked an awful lot by both mainstream and leftist commentators. Austerity, job cuts, pay freezes, workfare, poverty, food banks, police brutality, political corruption – it’s all the rage, so why aren’t we all enraged?

There are two standard answers on the left: apathy and the lack of leadership. Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and ‘I’m alright Jack,’ or they just don’t have the right hero to lead them into battle. The left wing rabble rousers of the past are dead and gone and we need people to replace them and rally the workers.

The trouble is, both of these answers are wrong. Moreover, they play into a convenient myth that helps the pale, stale males of the authoritarian left sustain themselves while doing nothing at all to stop the world around us decaying into shit.

People are not apathetic

Well, sure, some are. Everyone knows at least one person who’s aggressively and proudly apolitical. They «don’t want none of that» if anything halfway substantial comes up in conversation, yet it always turns out that they’ve internalised the narratives of the right wing press on how immigrants and scroungers are to blame for everything.

These people do exist, but to tout them as an archetype for the public-at-large and that’s just wrong.

There’s a level of truth, as with any stereotype. But when the world’s full of problems and there’s no effective counter to the dominant narrative (we’ll get to that) then of course you take the answers available. Even if they’re racist, classist and built on a foundation of lies.

But speak to the vast majority of people, and they’re not apathetic. They have opinions on political issues. A great many have a fairly solid unconscious understanding of class and their lot in life. Where they have internalised ruling class ideology, they’re smart enough to realise and change their mind if you engage with them and talk to them.

This goes against the labels thrown around, particularly by crackerjack hacktivists such as Anonymous and batshit conspiracy theorists but also by some on the left, such as ‘sheeple’ and suggestions that everyone not already out on the streets protesting is brainwashed. In fact, they’re alienated, exploited and oppressed under capitalism and this kind of activist mentality is toxic and does nothing to advance the class struggle.

So what about the supposed ‘need’ for leaders?

Resistance doesn’t happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

But while this could be considered a type of leadership – a ‘leadership of ideas,’ for want of a better term – it’s not leadership in the sense that most on the left mean it.

When the left’s kind of leadership emerges it’s easy to recognise – it involves representation by prominent spokespeople instead of empowering people to act for themselves. It involves executive power concentrated in the hands of a few. It involves a division of labour between ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals.’ It involves a clear hierarchy with activity directed from above and disagreement of any kind condemned as ‘divisive’ or ‘sectarian.’

By and large, people don’t want this. When this kind of leadership emerges, if it fills a vacuum then it will attract people – at first. The vast majority of people will tire of being directed like pawns, treated as an expendable resource and having little to no say in decision making. This is not only why the leftist confessional sects such as the Socialist Party, SWP and so on have such a high turnover of membership, their cadres a minorrity next to their paper membership, but also why the fronts they set up lose momentum once the formulaic authoritarianism loses its novelty.

It’s also why movements which have arisen in the wake of the crisis have lacked this kind of hierarchical structure. UK Uncut and Occupy being the most commonly cited examples. In the fight against the Bedroom Tax, local groups acted for themselves and built up horizontal federations while the Trot fronts seeking to capitalise on the struggle floundered on the sidelines.

But there’s still a gap that needs filling. The Occupys of this world have their own flaws, the ‘tyranny of structureless‘ meaning that invisible hierarchies tend to emerge and those who seek to ‘represent’ others by imposing their own views on the collective don’t have to deal with formal representative democracy.

We need organisation and democracy, but it should be non-hierarchical organisation and direct democracy. Organisers should seek to give people the confidence to act for themselves, not merely to follow the organiser and keep them in their position for a long time to come. Officers should be mandated delegates with limited tenure, no executive power and the ability to be recalled by the mass. Democracy should mean making the decisions for ourselves, as in a strike ballot, rather than electing someone else to make decisions for us, as in a general election.

People as a broader whole are not apathetic, nor are they waiting for a leader. If we are led, then the destination is never freedom but a different kind of domination. If we want an uprising, then it requires hard work, patience, agitation and most importantly a desire to organise so that we can all fight for ourselves rather than being chewed up and spat out by any one of the myriad, toxic would-be leaderships that the authoritarian left has to offer.


Between the Ivory Tower and the Assembly Line Salar Mohandesi March 27, 2014

As aca­d­e­mics began to debate Nicholas Kristof’s recent attack on their pro­fes­sion, I was inter­view­ing a few of the lit­er­ally thou­sands of Amer­i­can rad­i­cals who left the uni­ver­sity for the fac­tory in the 1970s. Inspired by the new wave of autonomous work­ers’ strug­gles explod­ing across the US since the late 1960s – between 1974 and 1975, for exam­ple, there were were 9,000 coal miner strikes, 99% of them wild­cats – thou­sands of young rad­i­cals, many issu­ing from the stu­dent milieu, began to seri­ously rethink how their pol­i­tics related to the strug­gles of work­ers out­side the uni­ver­sity con­text. It was imper­a­tive, they argued, to forge stronger ties with work­ers. So they decided, in what was called “indus­tri­al­iz­ing,” or “col­o­niz­ing,” or some­times just “going to the peo­ple,” to get jobs in fac­to­ries, docks, mines, and even hos­pi­tals to help orga­nize at the point of pro­duc­tion. David McCul­lough, who was a phi­los­o­phy grad­u­ate stu­dent at Berke­ley, told me that in 1969 he “went to work as a wire­man at West­ern Elec­tric in Oak­land, CA, installing tele­phone cables in a cen­tral switch­ing build­ing.” After get­ting fired the fol­low­ing year for try­ing to “orga­nize a takeover of the union local from the com­pany men run­ning the union,” he moved to Detroit, where he worked in a steel mill, then at Chrysler.

It’s a stark con­trast to what many peo­ple have in mind today when they talk about going beyond the ivory tower. Today, crit­ics like Kristof gen­er­ally start by bemoan­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of the “pub­lic intel­lec­tual,” argu­ing that this noble fig­ure has become trag­i­cally sep­a­rated from soci­ety as as whole. Sequestered in a world apart, intel­lec­tu­als carry on an end­less dis­course about them­selves while the prob­lems of pub­lic life only grow worse. For these crit­ics, of which Kristof is only the most recent, the burn­ing ques­tions become: why have intel­lec­tu­als aban­doned the pub­lic? How can these intel­lec­tu­als reach beyond the con­fines of a spe­cial­ized field of knowl­edge to engage with a broader audi­ence? How can pro­fes­sional, qual­i­fied, and unbi­ased intel­lec­tual schol­ar­ship be redi­rected towards solv­ing society’s uni­ver­sal problems?

Leav­ing the ivory tower, for peo­ple like Kristof, means bring­ing knowl­edge and exper­tise to the pub­lic. For the indus­tri­al­iz­ers, it involved an entirely dif­fer­ent strat­egy. Although many of their efforts may have ended in fail­ure, and while I’m not call­ing for a new wave of “indus­tri­al­iza­tion,” their courage, can­dor, and com­mit­ment nev­er­the­less forces us to com­pletely reframe the ques­tion: in what ways can those of us formed in the uni­ver­si­ties reach out to work­ers on the “out­side” in a polit­i­cal, orga­nized, and strate­gic way?

The indus­tri­al­iz­ers framed this prob­lem in terms of labor, and directly con­fronted the ques­tion of orga­ni­za­tion. Remem­ber­ing their expe­ri­ence chal­lenges us to think with dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. Instead of talk­ing about indi­vid­ual intel­lec­tu­als and the pub­lic, we’ll have to think in terms of strate­gi­cally bridg­ing the gap between dif­fer­ent kinds of work­ers. Instead of try­ing to solve the objec­tive, impar­tial prob­lems of the “pub­lic,” we have to try to under­stand how to unite the dif­fer­ent seg­ments of a frag­mented work­ing class into a coher­ent polit­i­cal force.

Before we get there, how­ever, we have to change our con­cep­tual lan­guage. In fact, even defen­sive responses by left aca­d­e­mics, which point to the mate­r­ial con­di­tions pre­vent­ing knowl­edge work­ers from doing the kind of pub­lic engage­ment Kristof advises, often also accept the cat­e­gory of the pub­lic intel­lec­tual. To begin to make these ques­tions com­pre­hen­si­ble, we need to aban­don this cat­e­gory, and start think­ing again in terms of work, cap­i­tal­ism, and struggle.

Hand-drawn maps from those who would later con­sti­tute the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Work­ers Head­quar­ters (RWH), a Maoist group­ing that split from the RCP in 1977-1978, indi­cat­ing those areas in the United States where non-electrical machin­ery was being pro­duced. These mil­i­tants com­pleted lit­er­ally hun­dreds of these, for all major sec­tors of pro­duc­tion, to guide their shopfloor orga­niz­ing work, and to develop a mean­ing­ful polit­i­cal strat­egy for that work. (“Non-Electrical Machin­ery 1970.” David Sul­li­van U.S. Mao­ism Col­lec­tion TAM.527, Box 5, Folder 24; Tami­ment Library/Robert F. Wag­ner Labor Archives, New York University.)

Who Are These Intellectuals?

The social cat­e­gory of the intel­lec­tual is torn apart by inter­nal ten­sions, appar­ent in the aca­d­e­mic divi­sion of labor that pro­duces it. At one end, there are adjuncts. Paid by the course, which aver­age no more than two or three thou­sand dol­lars, adjuncts have prac­ti­cally no hope of advanc­ing their “careers.” As of 2007, 70% of instruc­tors at Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties were adjuncts or “con­tin­gent” employ­ees. Some make less than cus­to­dial work­ers, oth­ers are on food stamps. There are even sto­ries of PhD’s sleep­ing in home­less shel­ters.

At the other end of this spec­trum, there are the tenured full pro­fes­sors who make sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars a year, travel inter­na­tion­ally, and com­mand armies of research assis­tants and grad­u­ate stu­dents. These days, many are expand­ing their reper­toire by film­ing online courses. Whether they know it or not, these tenured pro­fes­sors, most of whom can afford to be the pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als Kristof calls for, rely on the labor of all these other knowl­edge work­ers: teach­ing assis­tants who grade, answer stu­dent emails, and make pho­to­copies; grad­u­ate stu­dents in the sci­ences toil­ing away in labs who will lay the ground­work for dis­cov­er­ies, but will never see them­selves attain the posi­tions of their men­tors; or junior fac­ulty who are pres­sured into tak­ing on end­less admin­is­tra­tive obligations.

The ten­dency to describe intel­lec­tu­als as a sin­gle coher­ent group papers over these expe­ri­ences of exploita­tion, and con­ceals the very real strug­gles that con­di­tion intel­lec­tual pro­duc­tion. The antag­o­nisms of the insti­tu­tions of knowl­edge are resolved into a myth of unity, in which all knowl­edge work­ers –  what­ever their labor con­di­tions, require­ments of social repro­duc­tion, and so forth – are part of a com­mon com­mu­nity, one whose pur­suits are so pure they tran­scend all differences.

The illu­sion of this com­mon com­mu­nity hides another real­ity: intel­lec­tual pro­duc­tion does not only hap­pen in uni­ver­si­ties. In fact, increas­ingly, most knowl­edge work is done out­side of them, with a great deal of research being con­ducted by pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions. More­over, var­i­ous forms of seri­ous research and schol­arly inquiry – beyond pub­lish­ing, web design, or media work – are actu­ally just done by peo­ple work­ing inde­pen­dently on their com­put­ers after their day jobs. Recent years, for instance, have seen the growth of com­mu­nity biol­ogy hack­labs, where the goal, in the words of Cory Tobin, LA Bio­hack­ers co-founder, is to pro­vide lab space “for peo­ple who want to learn biol­ogy for any rea­son.” The blur­ring of the bound­aries between the cap­i­tal­ist uni­ver­sity and the broader com­mu­nity have resulted in the increased polic­ing of knowl­edge; attempts to build mass pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al­ity are often vio­lently attacked, some­times with very real casu­al­ties like Aaron Swartz.

Even with all its con­structed bor­ders, the uni­ver­sity is still not a world unto itself. Entan­gled in finance, aero­nau­tics research, and so forth, the uni­ver­sity is struc­turally very much a part of the broader social world of pro­duc­tion. The Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, where I work, is the largest pri­vate employer in Philadel­phia, where the role of the uni­ver­sity as a pole of accu­mu­la­tion is per­haps only rivaled by that of the med­ical indus­try, which is in many cases closely linked to the university.

But per­haps the most impor­tant thing the uni­ver­sity pro­duces is a spe­cific com­po­si­tion of the pub­lic: accord­ing to the 2012 cen­sus, about one third of all Amer­i­can adults hold a bachelor’s degree, and well over half have taken some col­lege courses. Most of what many knowl­edge work­ers in the uni­ver­sity do revolves around teach­ing, not writ­ing clever arti­cles. They teach future office work­ers how to write clearly, they teach future lawyers how to read statutes, they teach future call cen­ter work­ers how to com­mu­ni­cate ideas in a con­vinc­ing man­ner. They don’t need to write New York Times arti­cles in order to share their insights with the broader pub­lic. Instead, they engage inti­mately with mem­bers of the pub­lic on a daily basis.

If uni­ver­si­ties are sites of labor and accu­mu­la­tion, aca­d­e­mics will have to strug­gle within them as work­ers of a par­tic­u­lar kind. This means win­ning for­mal con­tracts, set­ting lim­its on our work, fight­ing for bet­ter health care, get­ting a union. There are already some encour­ag­ing signs. Grad­u­ate stu­dents at NYU voted to union­ize by a blowout mar­gin of 620 to 10 – a real first at a pri­vate uni­ver­sity, since these insti­tu­tions do not legally con­sider grad­u­ate assis­tants to be employ­ees. As for adjuncts, 18,000 have already been union­ized through SEIU’s Adjunct Action. If the ben­e­fits aren’t imme­di­ately obvi­ous, a recent sur­vey showed that adjuncts pro­tected by a union make 25 per­cent more per course than those with­out one.

But strug­gling where we are has its own ten­sions. Uni­ver­si­ties don’t just employ teach­ers. The uni­ver­sity employs an end­less staff of librar­i­ans, cus­to­dial work­ers, secu­rity guards, cafe­te­ria work­ers, and all the other work­ers who keep the insti­tu­tion run­ning. Knowl­edge work­ers come into con­tact with these other work­ers every day. Yet, despite the fact that they all work for the same boss, the inter­nal divi­sions result­ing from these dif­fer­ent roles are quite pronounced.

An imme­di­ate polit­i­cal task, then, would be for knowl­edge work­ers to reach out to oth­ers who are involved in the pro­duc­tion, dis­sem­i­na­tion, or archiv­ing of knowl­edge, as well as those whose labor main­tains the insti­tu­tion, like cus­to­dial work­ers. And since uni­ver­si­ties are not islands, but are in fact tied to towns, neigh­bor­hoods, and cities, often in antag­o­nis­tic ways, unit­ing with other work­ers in the uni­ver­sity also means con­nect­ing with those work­ers who may not nec­es­sar­ily work there, but whose lives are closely tied to it: bar­tenders at the local bar, work­ers at the fast food restau­rants sur­round­ing cam­pus, or sim­ply those liv­ing on the bound­aries of the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity, always afraid an expand­ing cam­pus will expel them fur­ther out.

The fun­da­men­tal ques­tion, then, remains that of “link­ing up” with other work­ers out­side the uni­ver­sity in a coor­di­nated, strate­gic, and orga­nized way. Of course, this was pre­cisely the prob­lem faced by the indus­tri­al­iz­ers, who con­cluded that the exist­ing forms of social­ist orga­ni­za­tion had become com­pletely inad­e­quate, and new orga­ni­za­tions had to be built on the basis of this new strat­egy. It’s for this rea­son that we should return for a moment to their par­tic­u­lar solution.

Going to the People

In the 1960s and 1970s, mil­i­tants found work with the express aim of orga­niz­ing the work­ing class at the point of pro­duc­tion. Many, though by no means all, had been edu­cated in uni­ver­si­ties. Some were Trot­sky­ists, oth­ers Maoists, still oth­ers unaf­fil­i­ated. Some intended to reform unions by build­ing grass­roots cau­cuses, while oth­ers planned autonomous com­mit­tees to bypass them alto­gether. What­ever their dif­fer­ences – and there were many – nearly all felt that some kind of rev­o­lu­tion was on the near hori­zon, and that the work­ing class, espe­cially those work­ing in fac­to­ries, would be at the center.

A tem­plate for an inves­ti­ga­tion into work­places around Cleve­land by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union (RU), an Amer­i­can Marxist-Leninist orga­ni­za­tion that would later become the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Party (RCP). The RU, along with many other rev­o­lu­tion­ary groups, sent mil­i­tants into work­places across the coun­try through­out the long 1970s. (“Guide­lines for Inves­ti­ga­tion of Plants,” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union, Cleve­land 1973. David Sul­li­van U.S. Mao­ism Col­lec­tion TAM.527, Box 1, Folder 14; Tami­ment Library/Robert F. Wag­ner Labor Archives, New York University.)

It was through work­ing on assem­bly lines, in steel mills, or down in the mines that these rad­i­cals slowly became a real part of  work­ers’ strug­gles. Together with their cowork­ers they put pres­sure on bureau­cratic unions, formed oppo­si­tional cau­cuses, and went on strike. They fought for higher wages and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions; they com­bated racism and sex­ism in the work­place. And while some of these projects quickly col­lapsed, oth­ers, like Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­tic Union, exist today.

But despite many real vic­to­ries, indus­tri­al­iza­tion in the 1960s and 1970s came up against cer­tain lim­its. It was exhaust­ing, iso­lat­ing work, with a high risk of burnout. And while their respec­tive orga­ni­za­tions pro­vided a vital sup­port net­work, bit­ter party rival­ries made national coor­di­na­tion impos­si­ble. In some cases indus­tri­al­iz­ers worked at cross pur­poses, even denounc­ing each other. Miriam Pick­ens, a mem­ber of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Social­ist League who worked at Gen­eral Motors in Detroit for 30 years, recalls how “one Maoist in my plant orga­nized a cau­cus (a bit larger than ours) and in one of his leaflets claimed he was not ‘a Com­mu­nist, like Miriam and Lisa.’” To make mat­ters worse, many rad­i­cals began to indus­tri­al­ize just as the United States was start­ing to dein­dus­tri­al­ize, plac­ing the whole strat­egy on shaky grounds.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, how­ever, indus­tri­al­iza­tion may not have been the best way to artic­u­late the strug­gles of dif­fer­ent kinds of work­ers, as it was basi­cally premised on the idea that one sec­tor of the work­ing class took pri­or­ity over the oth­ers. Though this may have had some strate­gic effi­cacy at the time, such an assump­tion risked aggra­vat­ing divi­sions within an already frag­mented work­ing class, mak­ing it much harder to achieve class unity down the road.

Indus­tri­al­iza­tion, there­fore, did not exactly mean unit­ing dif­fer­ent work­ers – namely knowl­edge work­ers based in uni­ver­si­ties on the one hand and man­ual work­ers in the fac­to­ries, mines, and docks on the other. Instead, it tended to dis­solve the for­mer into the lat­ter. In some cases indus­tri­al­iz­ers tried so hard to become the work­ers they wanted to con­nect with polit­i­cally that they actively changed their appear­ances. “It is an irony,” Mike Ely of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union recalls, “that many com­mu­nist orga­niz­ers, includ­ing me, had ‘cleaned up’ in order to ‘go to the work­ing class’ — cut­ting our hair, ton­ing down our styles—to match cer­tain pre-conceptions of work­ing class cul­ture, and then found out, on arrival, that many of the more mil­i­tant work­ers were grow­ing their own hair out and smok­ing lots of weed.” But the prob­lem could be more seri­ous than just a mat­ter of appear­ances – a num­ber of indus­tri­al­iz­ers began to rec­og­nize that they could eas­ily end up sim­ply sub­sti­tut­ing their own con­cep­tion of mil­i­tancy for the work­ers’ self-organization.

In short, indus­tri­al­iza­tion gen­er­ally rested on a cer­tain con­cep­tion of the working-class van­guard. Few who went to the fac­to­ries, for instance, con­sid­ered them­selves knowl­edge work­ers, or work­ers at all; many believed they could only belong to the work­ing class if they found jobs in fac­to­ries. The true work­ers, those whose strug­gles really mat­tered, whose unions had real power, were in steel, coal, auto, or trans­porta­tion. While some indus­tri­al­iz­ers headed to post offices, hos­pi­tals, or found other ser­vice jobs, it was basic indus­try that tended to stand for all of the work­ing class. Dan La Botz of the Inter­na­tional Social­ists recalls:

We inten­tion­ally pro­moted indus­trial work over jobs such as teach­ing or social work, in which some of our mem­bers, myself included, had been involved. We pres­sured our mem­bers in those white col­lar pro­fes­sions to quit and get a job in auto, steel, tele­phone or truck­ing. In ret­ro­spect, we may won­der if this was the right deci­sion. Should we have attempted to build a polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion with a broader con­cep­tion of the work­ing class?


This kind of mass orga­ni­za­tion, which might have pro­vided a much-needed space for encoun­ters between dif­fer­ent kinds of work­ers to take hold, was never built. In this con­text, Perry Ander­son has recently remarked, even today’s resur­gence in rad­i­cal thought, exem­pli­fied by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of left­ist pub­li­ca­tions, has taken the form of a kind of “apo­lit­i­cal anti-capitalism.” I think we can more pre­cisely speak of a lack of strate­gic think­ing – the­o­ries, protest reports, and cul­tural cri­tiques abound, and cer­tainly have their place, but the “absent cen­ter” is solid, reflec­tive, par­ti­san strategy.

This may just be because many knowl­edge work­ers, although them­selves very much a part of the work­ing class, are often unaware of or unin­volved with the plu­ral­ity of strug­gles other work­ers are wag­ing all the time. In order for these knowl­edge work­ers to con­tribute their tech­ni­cal skills to the for­mu­la­tion of con­crete strat­egy, they have to first fully root them­selves in the dif­fer­ent strug­gles of their class. In the 1960s and 1970s mil­i­tants in the United States and abroad rec­og­nized how essen­tial this con­nec­tion was: even if they didn’t work at the fac­tory, they would go to the fac­tory gates, learn from work­ers, and share experiences.

When these mil­i­tants appeared at the gates, they put their spe­cific skills as knowl­edge work­ers to use, redi­rect­ing the tech­ni­cal com­po­si­tion of their labor to dif­fer­ent ends. “It’s been a sort of team effort,” a FIAT worker com­mented in 1970:

Usu­ally what we do is find out the facts of the sit­u­a­tion, write them out in rough form, and give them to the exter­nal mil­i­tants to print because they’re good at that sort of thing and they have more time than we do to work right through the night. We hope that later on we shall begin to do the leaflets our­selves, and already we are start­ing to do more of the work like typ­ing and so on, as well as some of the dis­tri­b­u­tion out­side the gates.

With the con­tem­po­rary dis­place­ment of such mas­sive, cen­tral­ized work­places along a global sup­ply chain – as well as our far more nuanced under­stand­ing of just how com­plex the work­ing class really is – this kind of orga­nized, col­lab­o­ra­tive strug­gle has become a lot more com­pli­cated than just chat­ting with work­ers out­side the plant. Engag­ing with other work­ers, who are often spread across a highly het­eroge­nous patch­work of pro­duc­tion and social repro­duc­tion, poses a real prob­lem. But per­haps this means that an orga­ni­za­tion that is struc­tured and coor­di­nated, while simul­ta­ne­ously flex­i­ble and cap­il­lary – one that ade­quately responds to today’s spe­cific class com­po­si­tion – is needed more than ever to make these kinds of encoun­ters happen.

Today there are many jour­nal­is­tic protest reports that do embed them­selves into the strug­gles of other work­ers, and this kind of jour­nal­ism is a real exam­ple of the par­tic­u­lar skills, expe­ri­ences, and con­di­tions of knowl­edge work­ers being applied to pol­i­tics. But there is nonethe­less a cer­tain struc­tural limit to this medium, which can only be pushed past reportage or com­men­tary by con­crete, col­lec­tive, and sus­tained orga­ni­za­tional prac­tices. As Ser­gio Bologna, who him­self worked at Olivetti and strug­gled within a num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions, com­mented in 1977: “we’ve had enough of ideology-merchants! Let’s set to work again as ‘tech­ni­cians,’ inside the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work of class composition.”

In a cer­tain way, we have to return to the expe­ri­ences of the indus­tri­al­iz­ers. Their guid­ing idea – that mil­i­tants, no mat­ter how rad­i­cal, would be inef­fec­tive if they weren’t anchored to the real strug­gles of other work­ers – has to be taken seri­ously. But the ques­tion for us today is not how we can sup­port the strug­gles of the most “advanced work­ers,” or how we can best recruit them to our van­guard par­ties, but how we can link up with other strug­gles out­side the uni­ver­sity in a way that pre­serves the dis­tinct­ness, rec­og­nizes the strate­gic value, and respects the spe­cific needs of all these dif­fer­ent strug­gles, includ­ing our own.

is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.


Why aren’t Europe’s young people rioting any more?

People protest in Madrid in 2011 against Spain's economic crisis and its sky-high jobless rate

People protest in Madrid in 2011 against Spain’s economic crisis and its sky-high jobless rate. ‘The frustration cannot find an outlet in mainstream parties, which strike many young people as far too timid.’ Photograph: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2008, in Athens, a «special security officer» shot dead a young student, igniting demonstrations, strikes and riots. Young people were at the forefront of the protests, in a country with a long tradition of youth participation in social and political movements. Several commentators at the time spoke of a «youth rebellion».

In late 2009 it became clear that Greece had been living through a period of false prosperity and was in effect bankrupt. The country fell into the tender embrace of the troika – the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank. Following severe austerity measures in 2010-11, there were again mass demonstrations and strikes, culminating in the «movement of the squares» – protests against the destruction of private and social life. Young people were again prominent, lending enthusiasm and spirit to the movement.

Then there was nothing. As economic and social disaster unfolded in 2012 and 2013, the youth of Greece became invisible in social and economic life. The young have been largely absent from politics, social movements and even from the spontaneous social networks that have dealt with the worst of the catastrophe. On the fifth anniversary of the events of 2008, barely a few hundred young people demonstrated in Greek urban centres. There was no tension, no passion, no spirit, just tired processions repeating well-known slogans. Where were the 17-year-olds from five years ago?

Similar patterns can be observed in several other European countries, though perhaps not as extreme. What is the youth of Portugal doing as the country’s social structures continue to collapse? Where is the youth of France as the country drifts further into stagnation and irrelevance? And, closer to home, where has the youth of Britain been while the coalition government has persevered with austerity?

The answer seems to be that the European youth has been battered by a «double whammy» of problematic access to education and rising unemployment, forcing young people to rely on family support and curtailing their independence. Uncertain about the future, worried about jobs and housing, the youth of Europe shows no confidence and trust in established political parties. Significant sections have already been attracted to the nihilistic ends of the political spectrum, including varieties of anarchism and fascism. The left, traditionally a home for the radical strivings of young people, has lost its appeal.

Take education. As the Greek crisis deepened, large numbers of students were forced to accelerate, or even interrupt, their studies. There are no relevant official indicators of these trends, but anecdotal evidence abounds, and fits with other aggregate statistics. In 2008, Greek households spent, on average, 17% of their disposable income on education, and low-income families more than 20%. This was already a high proportion, reflecting the importance traditionally placed on schooling in Greek society. As the crisis unfolded over the next five years, the proportion doubled, making education an unbearable burden.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that in 2011, 15% of people aged 15-29 were not in education, employment or training. In Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain this proportion was 20%, and the latest EU data indicates that in 2012 things became worse in the three southern countries.

Conditions are even harsher with regard to work. Youth unemployment in Europe is a little short of 25%, already a huge number, while in Greece and Spain it has reached extraordinary figures, in the vicinity of 60%. Collapsing youth employment is clearly not the result of more young people seeking jobs, since the number of young people in Europe as a proportion of the population is declining fast. Youth unemployment is rising because the economies of Europe are failing to generate significant numbers of jobs. For those under the age of 25, there are no jobs in the southern countries and few decent jobs in the north. Mass youth unemployment is the reality across Europe, and things are far from rosy even in Germany, the supposed winner of the past few years.

The double whammy appears to have sapped the rebellious energy of the young, forcing them to seek greater financial help from parents for housing and daily life. This trend lies at the root of the current paradox of youth in Europe. There is little extreme poverty, and the young are relatively protected and well-trained, but their labour is not valued, their dreams of education are denied and their independence is restricted. As a consequence, frustration has grown. Yet, it cannot find an outlet in mainstream parties, including the left, which strikes many young people as far too timid. Even in Greece, where the official opposition of Syriza – the party of the left – is preparing for government, young people are looking askance at a party that seems unwilling to take radical action.

Matters cannot continue indefinitely along these lines. Frustration is mounting among both young people and their parents. But if those who make policy refuse to acknowledge the problem, major change could be delayed for a long time. The result would be a massive accumulation of sullen anger across Europe, with unpredictable outcomes. Those who care for social development had better take notice.


Cupcake Fascism: Gentrification, Infantilisation and Cake by Tom Whyman

Eliza Koch

The Cupcake as Object

The cup­cake is barely a cake. When we think about what “the cake-​like” ideal should be, it is some­thing spongy, moist, char­ac­ter­ized by ex­cess, col­lapsing under its own weight of gooey jam, me­ringue, and cream. It is some­thing sickly and wet that makes your fin­gers sticky. The cup­cake is none of these things; that is, it pos­sesses none of the ideal es­sence of cak­i­ness. The cup­cake is neat, pre­cise, and uni­form. It is dry, po­lite, and low-​fat. It is defined by its shape, not its taste, and the cake-​cup limits any po­ten­tial ex­cess. The cup­cake is largely aimed at the sort of flat-​stomached people who think con­suming sweet things is “a bit naughty,” and who won’t even permit them­selves to go over­board on their binges. The cup­cake is vin­tagey and twee. It in­vokes a sense of whole­some­ness and nos­talgia, al­beit for a past never ex­per­i­enced, a more per­fect past, just as vintage-​style clothing harks back to an ideal­ized image of the 1920s through 60s that never ex­isted. The cup­cake ap­pears as a cul­tural trope along­side the drinking of tea and gin and the lisped strum­ming of ukuleles.

The con­stel­la­tion of cul­tural tropes that most paradig­mat­ic­ally mani­fest in the form of the cup­cake are as­so­ci­ated in par­tic­ular with in­fant­il­iz­a­tion. Of course, looking back to a per­fect past that never ex­isted is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cup­cake and its as­so­ci­ates market them­selves by ca­tering to these never-​never-​land adults’ tastes. These products, which treat their audi­ence as chil­dren, and more spe­cific­ally the chil­dren of the middle classes — per­fect spe­cial snow­flakes full of wide-​eyed wonder and pos­sib­ility — suc­ceed as ex­pres­sions of a de­sire on be­half of con­sumers to al­ways and forever be chil­dren, by telling con­sumers not only that this is OK, but also that it is, to a real de­gree, possible.

It’s an un­der­stand­able urge, given how ter­ri­fying and con­fusing the world is at present. But it is, of course, the wrong re­sponse. Infantilized pos­sib­il­ities stand in a strange re­la­tion­ship to what we might call pos­sib­ility as such. This is be­cause, to ac­tu­ally be alive and able to take up pos­sib­il­ities in a genuine way means being able to take a crit­ical and thus trans­form­ative stance to­wards one’s en­vir­on­ment; it is to really be a fully cog­nitive adult. Thus, the pos­sib­ility of al­ways re­maining a cog­nitive child must in­volve the elision of the ap­pro­priate ori­ent­a­tion to pos­sib­ility. Taking up this par­tic­ular pos­sib­ility (to re­main a child rather than be­come adult) means shut­ting the pur­suit of all other pos­sib­il­ities down.

Hence, we see how the re­strictive shape of the cup­cake, its cold and uni­form neat­ness, matches up with the in­fant­il­izing ele­ments of twee cup­cakey tropes: it is only pos­sible, as an adult, to re­main a cog­nitive child if you are a child without sticky fin­gers, drily con­forming to a pre­scribed set of rules.

“Keep Calm and Carry On”

Something be­came clear to me in the af­ter­math of the London riots in 2011, when I saw thou­sands of people take to the streets with brooms at the in­stig­a­tion of a twitter hashtag (#ri­otcleanup), and “clean up” the ef­fects of the anger of the ri­oters, which was already in the pro­cess of being dis­missed and de­mon­ized in the media as op­por­tun­istic looting long be­fore the po­lice would find a way to have their murder of Mark Duggan leg­ally de­clared as its op­posite. This real­iz­a­tion was that if you wanted to found a fas­cist reich in Britain today, you could never do so on the basis of any sort of ideo­logy of ra­cial su­peri­ority or mil­it­ar­istic im­agery or any­thing of the like. Fascism is, if nothing else, ne­ces­sarily ma­jor­it­arian, and nowadays ra­cism is very niche-​appeal (just look at how laugh­able every EDL march is, where the anti-​fascists out­number the al­leged fas­cists by a ratio of more than two to one). But you could get a huge mass of people to par­ti­cipate in a re­ac­tionary en­deavor if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cup­cakey im­agery, and per­suaded everyone that the bru­tality of your ideo­logy was in fact a form of nice­ness. If a fas­cist reich was to be es­tab­lished any­where today, I be­lieve it would ne­ces­sarily have to ex­change iron eagles for fluffy kit­tens, swap jack­boots for Converse, and the epic drama of Wagnerian horns for mumbled dit­ties on ukuleles.

Fascism is, prop­erly un­der­stood, a cer­tain sort of re­sponse to a crisis. It is the re­ac­tionary re­sponse, as op­posed to the rad­ical one. The rad­ical re­sponse is to em­brace the new pos­sib­il­ities thrown up by the crisis; the re­ac­tionary one is to shut these pos­sib­il­ities down. In bour­geois so­ciety, thus, fas­cism will al­ways mean the as­ser­tion of middle-​class values in the face of a crisis. Because this as­ser­tion must mean shut­ting cer­tain other emer­ging sets of pos­sib­il­ities down, it will al­ways in­volve a sort of vi­ol­ence, al­though this vi­ol­ence can of course be merely passive-​aggressive.

The 2011 riots were a sort of re­sponse to the present global fin­an­cial crisis, and one more rad­ical than re­ac­tionary. They were dir­ec­tion­less, yes, but they were the product of a summer of sim­mering ten­sion pro­duced by the aus­terity meas­ures the gov­ern­ment had im­posed as its own re­ac­tionary re­sponse to the fin­an­cial crisis, which threatened and still threatens to elim­inate the fu­tures of every young person in Britain, es­pe­cially those from poorer back­grounds — the ma­jority of the ri­oters. Against the pos­sib­il­ities thrown up by the riots (if nothing else, the pos­sib­ility of ex­pressing real anger), the par­ti­cipants in #ri­otcleanup passive-​aggressively as­serted the very same middle-​class values that in­formed the im­pos­i­tion of austerity.

There is no better ex­pres­sion of all this than in the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On,” which of course ad­orns everything cup­cakey (“Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake” is al­most as pre­valent a poster as its ur-​meme ori­ginal). The as­so­ci­ation is a pro­found one on many levels. The “Keep Calm” poster was ori­gin­ally de­signed as a pro­pa­ganda poster during WW2. It plays on sim­ilar ap­peals to vin­tage nos­talgia that the no­tion of “having a cup­cake” does. It ap­peals to an ideal­ized past that was never ex­per­i­enced by the longer-​afterer. It is also a past that never could have been ex­per­i­enced, since the “Keep Calm” poster was never ac­tu­ally used. It was re­dis­covered in 2000 and was quickly found to have a vast ap­peal based largely on how much the slogan co­hered with an ideal­ized image of the 1940s. In fact, the poster had never been used be­cause it was con­sidered by those who saw it at the time to be patronizing.

Thus the form of the slogan is a per­fect ex­pres­sion of the in­fant­il­ized subject’s ori­ent­a­tion to­wards reality. The same goes for the con­tent. The idea that the best re­sponse to any situ­ation is just to ac­cept ex­isting con­di­tions, swallow your anger, swallow your pride, and con­tinue as best you might is an ex­pres­sion of a sort of ideal Britishness, the “stiff upper lip.” But stiff upper lip is, dia­lect­ic­ally speaking, nothing more than a form of cow­ardice; less a level-​headed stoicism than a neur­otic un­will­ing­ness to con­front an un­just reality. Many of the par­ti­cipants in #ri­otcleanup also par­ti­cip­ated in an­other riots-​era hashtag, #OperationCupOfTea, which im­plored people not to go out ri­oting but rather, to stay in­doors and “have a nice cup of tea.” These nice white middle-​class boys and girls out early clutching brooms were all people whose in­stinctual ori­ent­a­tion to­wards a hos­tile world is to cover up, hide, and thus main­tain that world in its hos­tility without con­fronting it. Images from the #ri­otcleanup could only seem as if they were from a polit­ical rally, for the as­ser­tion of this cow­ardice as a polit­ical force.


There is now such a crit­ical mass of in­fant­il­ized sub­jects in our so­ciety that we see their tropes at work every­where, ag­gress­ively. Typically, any middle-​class man or woman up to their forties is an in­fant­il­ized sub­ject nowadays. This means a ma­jority of con­sumers. Thus every ad­vert­ising cam­paign launched by a major cor­por­a­tion and every gov­ern­ment public ser­vice an­nounce­ment proudly pro­claims that the ideo­logy of cup­cake fas­cism is ap­pealing to them.

It is every­where, from the most trivial ex­amples: a waste bin with a little pic­ture of a sad puppy on it and the line “It’s not my fault my mess doesn’t get cleaned up,” or a napkin dis­penser that says on it, “Please Only Take One of Me,” (this latter is, in­cid­ent­ally, some­thing I once saw in the House of Commons cafet­eria; even those in po­s­i­tions of what in some lights can look like ac­tual power are in the grip of in­fant­il­iz­a­tion). All the way to massive, block­buster in­stances of the phe­nomenon such as the re­cent Coca-​Cola #ReasonsToBelieve cam­paign which was full of such ob­vi­ously in­si­dious ex­pres­sions of cup­cakey pos­it­ivity as “For every tank being built … there are thou­sands of cakes being baked,” and “for every red card given … there are 12 cel­eb­ratory hugs.” The ad­vert also fea­tures a scene in which a man high fives a cat.

All of this has an ef­fect on our cul­ture that we can un­der­stand as being a sort of gentri­fic­a­tion. The cup­cake has al­ways it­self been a gentri­fying force: after all, the “pop-​up cup­cake shop” is the paradig­matic pop-​up shop. But what all these things do is as­sert the in­fant­il­ized values of an in­creas­ingly in­fant­il­ized middle-​class world on gen­eral so­ciety. This is how the passive-​aggressive vi­ol­ence of the in­fant­il­ized twee fas­cist mani­fests it­self: moving across the world with a cup­cake as a cow­catcher, shunting out everything that does not cor­res­pond to the values mani­fested within it; a much more ef­fective way of sweeping up the sort of (poor, working-​class, black) forces that in­formed the 2011 London riots than any broom. Not un­co­in­cid­ent­ally, #ReasonsToBelieve in­cluded footage of said riots labeled as an “ex­pres­sion of hatred,” to be con­trasted with the wave of love ap­par­ently un­leashed by a long-​overdue gov­ern­ment re­cog­ni­tion of gay unions.


It is in some sense a con­tra­dic­tion to think of cup­cake fas­cism as both an ag­gress­ively as­sertive move­ment vi­ol­ently im­posing a par­tic­ular set of bour­geois values on so­ciety and also the ex­pres­sion of a de­sire on the be­half of an in­fant­il­ized popu­lace to “go into hiding” from the world. But these two things only ap­pear in con­flict pending the as­sump­tion of the right per­spective on the matter.

Cupcake fas­cism as­serts it­self vi­ol­ently through some­thing the in­fant­il­ized sub­ject holds deeply as an ideal. This ideal is nice­ness. On the one hand, nice­ness is just what the in­fant­il­ized sub­ject thinks is lacking from the world she is hiding from. In the first in­stance, the problem these people had with the London ri­oters was that they were not being nice enough. If the ri­oters had just sat down with a cup of tea and talked their prob­lems through with their op­pressors, the in­fant­il­ized sub­ject thinks, then there would have been no need to re­sort to dam­aging private prop­erty. The sort of nice­ness I mean here is pre­cisely that em­bodied in the figure of the cup­cake: neat and pre­dict­able, un­dan­gerous and healthy, redolent of a per­fect past that never was. In a nicer world, everything would work as it should, the good and hard-​working would get ex­actly what they de­serve, and everyone would be­have properly.

This last as­pect of the in­fant­il­ized subject’s vision of a “nicer” world is the most telling, for on the other hand, nice­ness is also an in­junc­tion from above. “Just be nice!” is some­thing a parent or teacher would tell a way­ward child. The in­junc­tion to be­have prop­erly, to smile and get on with it, is pre­cisely a way of shut­ting down any form of so­cial res­ist­ance. People are con­di­tioned to be nice from the very start of school, and it is the ef­fect of an in­fant­il­izing gentri­fic­a­tion that this in­junc­tion is fur­ther spread by those who have most ef­fect­ively in­tern­al­ized it. These people are the middle classes. To be nice, to “be­have prop­erly,” is simply to be­have like an in­fant­il­ized middle-​class sub­ject. Thus every mar­keting cam­paign or gov­ern­ment public ser­vice an­nounce­ment that passive-​aggressively preaches nice­ness is really a vi­olent en­force­ment of re­ac­tionary values that serves to pre­serve a crisis-​stricken status quo.

The Radical Possibility and Cake

If we see the paradig­matic mech­an­isms of so­cial op­pres­sion op­er­ative today in the form of a cup­cake, then the clue to the over­throwing of these mech­an­isms ex­ists also in cake, al­beit of an en­tirely dif­ferent kind. It is pre­cisely in the truly cake-​like, the spongy and the moist and the ex­cessive and the un­healthy. Against the aus­terity of the cupcake-​form, we need to re­cap­ture, in our so­cial reality, a sort of joy: the joy of being open to genu­inely al­tern­ative possibilities.

Another way of looking comes when we ex­amine the way in which an in­fant­il­ized adult is pre­cisely not a child. A child cannot re­main a child; a child is on the way to be­coming an adult. When a child does child-​like things, it is in order to ex­plore the world in a way that equips it to one day con­front that world for what it is, as what the child will be as an in­di­vidual. So the child is open to pos­sib­ility. And the child al­ways has sticky fin­gers, and jam around its lips, and does things that no one would ever think are in its best in­terests. The in­fant­il­ized adult, by con­trast, be­cause it is neur­ot­ic­ally trying to re­main a child, must shut down pos­sib­il­ities. It cannot en­gage with the world in a way char­ac­ter­ized by the joy of pos­sib­ility. In order to ac­tu­ally live the pos­sib­ility of re­maining a child, the world that the in­fant­il­ized adult en­gages with must al­ways re­main “safe” and coldly uni­form: the cup­cake as op­posed to the messy and col­lapsing sponge-​cake.

Thus, if we want to be less in­fant­il­ized, we have to be­have more like chil­dren. If this seems like a paradox, it must mean that you are just not thinking about the matter dia­lect­ic­ally enough.

Originally pub­lished by Full Stop. Illustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.

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