Stepping Out

It is a peculiar sensation to feel as if stepping back into one’s own life. The recent past appears to have been the experience of another person, someone else, not me. There was a sense of a second phase. But a second phase of what exactly, unclear. It’s not as if I’ve been idle. A couple of articles published, several Radical Walks planned, organised and completed, a few books read, many other books dipped into for a page or chapter or two, or just a browse through the index. Several long walks through city streets. An idea for a film, conversations with friends, strangers in the street, in shops and supermarkets, the world of work with meetings and PowerPoint presentations. A couple of enjoyable parties and one late night of intensity.

There are small changes. Some are consciously noted, others imperceptible. Unknown changes in the subconscious, revealed with strange distortions through dreams and nightmares and emotional states and responses. I lost my voice. Who ever I might have been writing for has gone; vanished in an blurred haze. Perhaps I was writing for that other person who for a while I imagined to be myself.

Friday evening. An anniversary of sorts of an event that took place long ago. At about quarter to seven I had a momentary lucid image of the place where this happened. I hadn’t been deliberately thinking about it. It was this date, this time. A memory was produced. I was taken aback but surprised that I wasn’t more perturbed by this off-chance coincidence of memory, time and place. Perhaps it was a small detail. It hit me later in down cast ways. It was unsettling.

I changed my living space around and tidied up. That felt like the end of something too. I decided to throw away a lot of stuff. What was it all? Much more than a few boxes of memorandums have been lost.

There is a restlessness. Flashes of extraordinary news that is becoming ordinary. Groups of workers take strike action; they are offered substantial pay rises. Amazon workers at the warehouse in Tilbury and elsewhere walk off their shifts. These are complex areas of distribution. The workers meet in large groups. The management tries to split them into smaller groups. The low paid jobs are mixed with highly skilled technical jobs. These can be browsed at the website.

How thick or thin is a webpage? Neither, it’s virtual. And yet there it is on the monitor screen. There it is as a means of shopping, a revolution in the means of communication, a technical development in the power of capital to distribute commodities. A means to speed up money-capital-money. This requires labour that can lift and shift boxes; it demands labour that can build automation, it demands labour that can construct software, that can mobilise resources to move an iPhone from China to Portugal, machine parts from the US to France, a pair of jeans from Bangladesh to China. The network is growing in width and depth with great complexity. It can all be scaled up, the server farms expanded, more fibre optic cable installed, servers and software to process billions and billions of transactions per second.

The labour to lift and shift and carry and stack and move and count and tick a form seems incidental. Machines and AI can do all this. But there is labour within the process which is cheap and therefore no incentive exists to automate that labour. High value expensive automated dead labour is intrinsically woven together with cheap and seemingly low-skilled and dispensable labour. Capital cannot separate these out because it is predicated by complex divisions of labour. The contradictions are not just between Labour and Capital but within Labour and within Capital.

Does anyone really think that they as a person are ‘unskilled?.

There too many flies in the house. As if something has died outside and lies rotting in the gutter or in one of the chimneys of the neighbouring terraced housing. I walked to the local supermarket in the evening breeze.

‘Do you sell fly spray killer?’ I ask a young woman who is kneeling on the floor putting bottles of cleaner onto the shelf. I didn’t mean for her to be interrupted like this.
‘Wait a minute’, she replies, standing up and walking to a different aisle. I follow her and we chat about the heatwave.
‘It should be here, but I think it’s sold out’.

She rests her finger on the shelf where the cans of fly killer should have been.
‘Ah, so it’s not just me. There must be a general fly problem’.
She laughs.
‘There has been a lot of people coming in today asking for it’.
Perhaps there are dead things everywhere.

She explains how to make a fly trap with a banana skin, a container and some cling film. I have a variation of this in the kitchen catching fruit flies.

She wipes her hands on her black trousers and looks at me and smiles. She returns to stacking the shelves, making sure that everything is priced as the supermarket wants it to be priced and everything is added to the shelves in the places they should be at. She has the air of someone who has been working a long shift.

She kneels on the hard floor of the supermarket again and starts adding bottles of cleaner to the back of the shelf. She stoops into the space. She is surrounded by boxes and a large steel trolley which contains all the goods she needs to sort out. For this she will be paid around £10 per hour, or 16p per minute.

There is nothing in this process that provides any sense of being human or creative. There is no expression of free will or self-determination or autonomy. She must do this lifting of the bottle, the movement of the bottle to the back of the shelf, the adding of another bottle next to the first one. She must do this because she is coerced to do this. No one does this as a result of their own free-will. It is to earn money in order to pay rent, buy food, pay the bills.

She will work on this process with different commodities and different shelves until her shift ends at 10.00pm. It’s now about 7 o’clock. In the next three hours she will move hundreds of commodities into their place and for this will be paid about £30. On which she will likely have to pay some tax. Her back will ache at the end of this shift. Her knees will be sore, her imagination numb.

There is great danger here for the ruling class and their representatives. They seem detached. Making the most catastrophic mistake of all; to believe in the words of corruption they speak and imagine their lies and dead promises are some sort of solace to the poor. The polarisation appears to be greater. It is glib to talk about millionaire politicians; but not when there is a general attack of Capital upon the living standards of labour.

The words of the right wing politicians are false sounds with no connection to the lives of millions of people. The words of the Labour Party leadership are muffled and confused. And yet the number of strikes continues to increase. Many of those strikes are relatively small but they are winning substantial pay rises and improved conditions.

We scan the past. What is this like? August 1889 when a huge dock strike took place involving thousands of workers. ‘But dockers cannot be organised, they are atomised, they work in large warehouses, it’s all unskilled, there are plenty who can do that work. The strikers can easily be replaced’.

Is this like 1911 when the Bermondsey Uprising took place? 15,000 predominantly women workers struck work. At first they lacked any real demands. The raw inarticulate belligerence was that they had had enough. A dock strike followed in 1912. There was a huge upsurge in strikes between 1910 and 1914. Group after group of workers who, it was claimed, could not be organised, and would not strike came out on strike.

Or is it like 1969, the Revolt of the Low Paid. Rumour suggests that the strike wave of that year was sparked by cleaners in Whitehall and the Ministries of the British state. Then teachers, civil servants, groups of workers who had never taken strike before, who it was argued would never take strike, came out on strike.

There are threads of all those earlier disputes in this. And some new ones too. The danger for the ruling class and their representatives is when the young woman stacking shelves at 7pm for 16p a minutes starts to question not just the politicians but the labour process itself and their particular place within it.

On their own no worker can do this with any successful impact. But when groups of workers begin to do this and the sparks jump across railway lines and are carried by lorries that carry commodities and the sparks bounce across the tables in the canteen and the sparks won’t go out when the management try to dampen the fire; why then, a movement of immense potential power begins to gestate.

There are a million grievances. For so long they have lacked any sort of collective voice. There are hidden shifts going on in the deep lava-like flows which no focus groups or research projects can penetrate. A revolutionary shift cannot be quantified. It’s not of that sort of dialectic. It’s a movement which seeks to clarify class and capital accumulation and alienation and immiseration, exploitation and oppression. It’s an abstraction of ideas but also a clash of things and people and a tension and conflict within relations between people.

This feeling of being unsettled has a certain dynamic. Like cadging a lift on a freight train. Once you get used to the sensation of moving at a faster speed and in a more precarious way then new sensations are noticed. Exhilaration, confidence. These too are powers.

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