An afternoon reading in San Francisco
If it is possible to learn one thing from the various invocations of the "white working class" that were summoned after the election of Trump, the more the term is invoked, the less one actually knows about work, class, and race. The "white working class" exists as a kind of hobgoblin of bourgeois conscience, as a creature both hated and pitied, the racist who cannot help being one. It appears in a few soundbites and pull quotes gathered by journalists and a few stock photos of construction and factories. Against this spectacle of the working class, a hardhat and a few stereotypes about attitudes, there stands the tradition of workers' inquiry, the examination of the conditions, perspectives, trials and tribulations of the working class.
Workers' Inquiry is a mode of inquiry initiated by Marx, but most often associated with such disparate traditions as operaismo and various strains of Maoism. Viewpoint Magazine dedicated an issue to the concept, both past and present. One of the contributions to that issue, Jamie Woodcock's workers' investigation into a call center has since been expanded into a book, Working the Phone . I will say more about the book below, but first I would like to begin by discussing Andrea Cavazzini's Enquête Ouvrière et Théorie Critique, an examination on the history of worker's inquiry.
Cavazzini argues that the tradition of worker's inquiry necessarily overcomes the split between theory and practice, knowledge and action. Worker's inquiry were always both instruments of knowledge and political interventions. One must know conditions in order to transform them, and the very act of investigating, of asking questions necessarily transforms conditions by making them more manifest. It is not just a matter that the struggles and conflicts of work pass outside of what counts as knowledge, but the presentation of a capitalist totality, of capitalist relations as a totality necessarily obscures exploitation.As Cavazzini writes, "Society is considered as a totality but this totality is always already inhabited by a division that does not recognize a neutral and peaceful authority." Cavazzini turns to some unlikely sources to theorize worker's inquiry, demonstrating the intersections with Weber, Lukács, and even Adorno. Worker's inquiry confronts a false totality, a totality of capital presented without conflict and antagonism.
"Capitalist society is a therefore a false totality in two senses: first, it is false in so far as it is an incomplete totality, forever incapable of totalizing and reflecting upon its order; but it is also false in the sense that "the totality is false" in that it is an ensemble of false modes of life, heteronomous, that negate the autonomy and the completion of the subject, bringing together society under its single demonic force to accumulate."
The worker, the seller of labor power, lives the falseness of this totality, both senses of the false totality, occupying the strange position of conscious commodity. "In the self consciousness of the commodity there is a contradiction between the content of consciousness--which corresponds to being a commodity--and the form of consciousness, the form of the subjective position which transcends the condition of simple object as a capitalist commodity..."It is precisely this difference, the split between content and form, condition and possibility, that worker's inquiry drives a wedge into, comprehending the difference while drawing it out. It is the transition from the in-itself to the for-itself. Such a Hegelian, even Lukacsian, formulation is perhaps surprising for readers who accustomed to the connection of workers' inquiry, class composition, and ultimately different theoretical sources.
As something of a contrast to Cavazzini, Woodcock's book raises the question as to whether or not such an enterprise is possible today. His attempt to do worker's inquiry in a contemporary call center reveals to what extent the entire technological, economic, and subjective terrain of work has been transformed. Call center still involves a central contradiction of sort, but it is no longer between form and content, condition and subjectivity, the contradiction is between the quantitative and qualitative dimension of labor. Call centers, like all production processes are driven to maximize labor productivity, to complete as many calls as possible in a short amount of time, but the calls themselves, like all emotional or affective labor, involve an irreducible qualitative dimension, sales are generated by jokes, moments of chit chat, and personal connections. However, the force of this contradiction is not a revolutionary contradiction, just a permanent sense of tension. Moreover, the contradiction between commodity and subjectivity is itself mediated, or dissipated, by two factors: First, there are new management techniques, techniques that are the product of different and opposed inquiries into work, that attempt to manage morale, sprinkling work with games and "fun." The quotation marks are justified, and these games are more often things to be endured rather than enjoyed. If anything they tap into the way in which the contradiction of commodity and subjectivity is less explosive because it is constantly letting off steam. Woodcock recounts multiple examples of "slammin', scammin', smokin, an' leavin', the countless tiny acts of resistance from faking calls; extending the games and "buzz sessions" to the point where motivational activities became miniature wild cat strikes; or just disappearing from work. Resistance is everywhere, but it is dissociated from any contradiction of commodity and subjectivity to just become so many ways of getting through the day. Second, there is the precarity of work itself, or the way in which that precarity is combined with high turnover. Call centers are always hiring because people are always leaving, and while such turnover in manageable for the companies, as the work is perpetually deskilled, it is almost unmanageable for workplace organizing. Workers do not stay and even those who do feel like they might leave tomorrow, or the next day. Such a flux works against any solidarity.
Reading these two books together raises an interesting question: what becomes of workers' inquiry in less revolutionary times? Times when we are confronted with less of a contradiction between the commodity form and subjectivity than the countless frustrations of the commodification of subjectivity. What remains of workers' inquiry when the revolutionary force of that contradiction has been attenuated, to use Citton's term, by personal relations management, neoliberal ideology, and cycles of defeat (to name a few), leaving every worker to just figure out ways to get by? As much as workers' inquiry may have lost its revolutionary force, its connection to politics and the conjuncture is no less important.
I am reminded of a passage from Capital Volume Three where Marx writes:
"It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of state in each case."
And Balibar's comment on that passage:
"What seems very clear, then, if one looks at the actual text of Marx’s analysis, is not that there is a predetermined linking of forms, but rather an interplay of antagonistic strategies, strategies of exploitation, domination and resistance constantly being displaced and renewed as a consequence of their own effects. (Notably the institutional effects, which is why it is of crucial importance to study the legislation on the length of the working day, for this what the first manifestation of the “welfare state”, and it was a pivotal moment historically in the passage from the formal to the real subsumption of work under capital, from absolute to relative surplus value, or alternatively from extensive to intensive exploitation.) In this context, class struggle becomes as it were, the political basis (an unstable basis, in Negri’s terms, just as ‘non-identical with itself’ as labor) against the background of which it is possible to make out different variations in the economy which in themselves, however, have no autonomy."
Worker's inquiry must be a search not so much for the explosive kernel, the central contradiction, but for the various relays between economic exploitation and political domination. Find those relays in order to make them short-circuit. Here, by way of a conclusion, I would simply say that it might be a matter of tracing the path charted by Nanni Balestrini in We Want Everything, in which apolitical frustrations and annoyances become revolutionized. Perhaps it is that, and not a new Capital we need.