Translation of post by Jorge Moruno, originally published in Público, 3rd November, on the forthcoming European general strike on the 14th of November.
#14N – Recovering Ambition
Strikes are older than Methuselah: literally. The first one recorded in history dates from the rein of Ramses III, and took place coincidentally on the 14th November 1152 BC, when workers protested the non-payment of back wages. Since then there have been infinite episodes of different expressions, by different actors throughout history: in 29 BC among the workers who were building Herod’s Palace, the tailors of Constantinople at the end of the 15th century or in England, where from 1549 until the end of the 18th century an ordinance punished strikers with the pillory, and in the case of a second offence they would have an ear cut off.
Our collective imagination regarding the strike continues to be fed by the idea that comes from the origins of the labour movement. Some authors locate it at the beginning of the 19th century, with the irruption of Luddism as a pre-industrial backlash, when numerous attacks on threshing machines took place in England because they left workers without jobs and lowered their wages. But during the French Revolution workers already took part in strikes, although the guild form, which later led to the guild journeyman, and bread riots, still predominated at that time. The implementation of the second industrial revolution, that of electricity, which small workshops first thought would democratise their access in light of the unequal position held by steam factories, turned out to produce as a consequence what came to be called the proletariat. The mass transfer from the country to the city, together with a growing division of labour in the latter, gave rise to the unnamed class of those who bear children –proletarii- , ‘the working class of the 19th century’, in the words of Engels.
If the 18th century it can be expressed as the country cramped into the cities –in Spain somewhat later-, at the beginning of the 21st century we can say that it is the workers piled up in the connected metropolis. The feudal serf, who worked the lands with the labour of his body, gave a part of his product to the lord. The proletarian uses his hands to work with the instruments of another and is obliged to give part of his time to the owner. The first gives, the second is given to. The precarian [precario] of the 21st century has to give at the same time as he is given. Not only does she put her arms to work like the labourer, and not only does she have to give over a part of the usufruct like the serf: she now has to give it all in body and spirit, in time and life.
The labourer of the 19th and 20th century was torn from the rural community and gradually moved to form part of the community of labourers. In the 21st century it is a matter of eliminating any trace of being ‘we-the-community’ to become ‘entrepreneurs’; whether on our own account, or on account of another, so that we look for the new form of community, so we can relate to one another, in the idea of the firm. Previously, communication, understood as the basis for creating communities and culture, remained the monopoly of life outside of work. Now, communication is included in work itself. Work that extends over life, beyond the time of the working day, thereby creating a reality in which the community that gives shape to culture springs directly from business communications. For this, and other reasons, the Economy minister Luis De Guindos declared a while ago in front of a forum of businessmen that “the labour market has to be brought to heel [in the original, domesticado].”
When the imperative of the entrepreneur is also demanded of any wage labourer; when the risk but not the benefits are democratised; when social communication inside and outside the firm is the bedrock of the knowledge economy; the core of the strike must focus on the direction that this communication is taking. The strike is won or lost in its capacity to communicate, to transmit powerful sensations and emotions that provoke, in the public sphere, an emancipatory publicity that replaces the present insistence of “there is no alternative”. Figures on the energy usage of industrial estates matter little when public perception does not depend on this factor. What it is does not matter as much as what it is thought to be, and for this reason, we must tear the monopoly of communication away from the business culture of the firm.
Demonstrations and pickets have as their goal the communication of a force in which acts and words go together so as to become power –potency- [potencia]. A necessary potency, without which rights do not exist, is to be found today additionally in other spaces and other forms.
Firstly, in the eyes of all those people whose work is to look for work, those precarious and irregular persons of every kind, disinherited of the support provided by the community, the workers’ strike seems distant from their material reality. In Madrid, the Oficina Precaria [literally, ‘Precarious Office’] has proposed the initiative of #14N without fear (#14N sin miedo), where one can anonymously fill out a form to denounce those firms that hinder or frustrate the right to strike and send pickets to these firms. To make sure this does not end up as a declaration of intent or mere social complaint, it needs to be given proper support, through co-ordination with the range of collectives, waves, assemblies and unions, together with a subsequent meeting at a social summit.
Secondly, one should consider the possibility of widening participation in the 21st century strike to all productive forces, and not merely those who demonstrate in line with strict working hours. There are sectors, who may not be in the majority but are central nonetheless, whose minds will not stop in a sit-down strike. The mobile phone should also be thought as the model for the new assembly line; the rapidly growing area of virtual consumption, and social networks, can also be other fields where production-communication operates.
From a wide angle, a great step has been taken in co-ordinating the general strike with other countries in Europe; we have to walk the path together against social exploitation through financial debt, if we want a Europe from, by and for the peoples who live in Europe. Closer up, we still have not found the appropriate responses to questions that appear clearer every day. We are still not able to supply a different narrative which combats the enslaving hopefulness of “let’s see if this gets sorted out” through divine inspiration, the cynicism of “it doesn’t make any difference, look out for yourself”, and fear: “don’t create a fuss – those at the top say it gives a bad image”.
Taking up the baton of Gramsci, we have to recover the sense of ambition normally considered on the left as something pejorative. To dethrone minor and petty ambitions and to those that are lofty, freeing them from opportunisms; given that ‘it all amounts to whether ambition is raised after creating a desert around oneself, or if raising oneself has as its condition –consciously- the raising of an entire social stratum’
The time of need moves more quickly than the time of alternatives, but given the magnitude of the problem we are faced with, Machiavelli alerts us that ‘if one waits for the difficulties to come along, the remedy is difficult because the illness has become incurable’. It is the time of political ambition, of liberating the extraordinary from the everyday, as Pericles understood greatness; the moment of political action that draws into light what is radiant, as Democritus conceived it. Today more than ever the words of Kropotkin hold weight: enough ‘ambiguous words’ about the ‘right to work’ -which the elites already destroy- and let us lay claim politically to ‘the right to well-being. Well-being for everyone.’