When the dead, happily,
leave the factories
time swallows them
just like that...
(From a song by Soul Bisontes)
Far from futile and usually biased idealisms, we must continue to consider work as one of the major scourges of human civilization. Even in the West, where there apparently (1) are no blatant forms of extreme exploitation akin to slavery, work remains like a poison running through society, sickening and weakening the best parts of it. Perhaps, in this case, could we speak of ”consensual slavery”.
It is a fact that the advances in the situation of the workers that occurred during the last century have for a good while been undermined by neoliberal policies with the result of a patent degradation of their working conditions, but such advances never occurred in the case some types of factories and workshops, as well as in construction, which by no means ceased to be very harsh and dangerous occupations during all that time. Although it is accepted with resignation (and even with pride by some naive workers), the salary paid for a job of this kind is not by far worth the sacrifice performed by the worker. However, it should be noted that the hardship and physical exhaustion that the worker suffers over the years are but a part of his many difficulties. While unions have nothing to say about it, work is also related to a systematic erosion of the potentialities of the mind, because beyond the obvious economic interests that motivate exploitation there is also an intention to train the individual through the precariousness, insecurity, the lengthening of the time, flexibility, reduced wages and other abuses that end up converting the worker into a being useless for real life, but perfect for the simulation in which he has to survive.
So while there is a complex system ready for it, is with work that a continued division of the resourses of the working class' inner life is most efficiently produced in it, exposing it to the continuing burden of an external reality that knows nothing of the imagination, desire, or anything other than the gross materialism of the urgent need, promoting increasingly predesigned and miserabilist behaviours which are activated and strengthened through the garbage that the mass media extend to infinity in the collective imagination. Thus, the labor movement has been depleted of a considerable number of sharp minds, spoiling the efforts of many earlier generations. Meanwhile, life in the workplaces is becoming more and more a mere shadow of the old dream of working class solidarity, so that despite the rhetoric of a few deluded, one just need to examine a little his daily existence to see to what extent the idea of the worker as a revolutionary subject has gone beyond the utopian to fully pass into mere chimera. Still valid, therefore, perhaps more than ever, a necessary awareness of her own misery by the working class. Thus, after more than 50 years, nowadays such words gain relevance:
The struggle of the proletariat for socialism is not simply a struggle against external enemies, capitalists and bureaucrats, it is equally or even more, a struggle of the proletariat against itself, a struggle of consciousness, of solidarity, of creative passion, of initiative taking against darkness, mystification, apathy, discouragement and individualism that life in capitalist society continuously awakes in the heart of the workers. (Cornelis Castoriadis) (2)
In this context of alienation and aggression, it is logical that despair paves its own way wherever it can; it is therefore inevitable that some extraordinary situations arise that suddenly break this dynamic, situations that usually have an ephemeral character, but that we for that matter should not stop regarding them as seeds of a broader impulse towards rebellion. We are not referring to conflicts and protest movements that are more or less assumed by the system and obviously channelled by unions, such as protests for better wages or against the threat of being fired. Rather, these are activities that would normally not be considered as especially subversive from a radical point of view. In fact they occur so routinely that have been stripped of all political sense. However, I think that they actually could be interpreted as a kind of sabotage even if not as obvious as the willful destruction of machinery or stoppage of production through the action of picketing; or at least they do not have a very accurate utilitarian nature and they use elusive as well as unpredictable means.
To illustrate what I mean, I offer below a series of real examples collected at a given moment of my experience in the trade of carpentry:
June 2001. Two workers are assembling the porch of a detached house on the outskirts of Seville. The building is slap-up and also has a fairly large garden and swimming pool. At one point the bungalow owners and the construction manager have to go away, leaving the two carpenters alone. For the next hour, they prefer to be swimming in the pool then to keep working. When they leave the water, they find that they left the water quite dirty and pass another good deal of time cleaning the rests of sawdust and dust.
July 2001. The heat is unbearable in the shop, everywhere piles of finished furniture ready to be sent to coating and then to their final destination:a hotel under construction in South America. It causes a fight between two comrades that slowly and unexpectedly rises in intensity and, without reason, one of them decides to throw a bucket of water on the other one. As a chain reaction, more buckets appear and a real water battle takes place. The result is fun, a considerable relief from the heat and that a lot of finished furniture are being damaged with water (the wood swelling due to moisture).
August 2001. A group of carpenters is responsible for adding a large wooden platform to a new attraction of the amusement park in Seville. The work is done in full sunshine as the construction company has not provided any roof for the workers. Around the area occupied by that work, the activity of the amusement park is going on as usual and the visitors are very numerous that day. After the lunch break the 7 members of the gang decide, although there are still three hours of working time, to go to the other side of the fence and explore for free what the park has to offer. Nobody pays much attention to them despite the fact that they are dressed in workwear (quite dirty ones in some cases). They get on several attractions and finish by occupying the two rear rows of a water wagon. A photograph is being taken of them while diving.
December 2002. A group of carpenters from a Sevilla workshop carries out the renovation of a luxury hotel in Lausanne (Switzerland). They are subcontracted by another company and their situation in that country is irregular. They have been there for a couple of weeks and many problems have arised around the realization of the work during that period. One day, after finishing the day, they go together (there are eight including the manager) to the hotel where they stay when suddenly it starts to rain heavily. The workers decide, partly for sheltering from the rain, partly for getting up to mischief, to take a large plastic from a trash barrel and wrap themselves in it: it all takes the form of a large worm. Then start running down a steep street, crying with one voice: ”The Spaniards are coming! The Spaniards are coming!”, to the shame of the manager and horror of the many pedestrians passing by.
While these are examples could be taken lightly as mere hooliganism, analyzed in depth we can ascertain that they are behaviors that are unacceptable within the normal dynamics of work and its environment. However, such situations tend to occur quite often. The fact is that despite his intensely alienating situation, or precisely therefore, the manual worker shows a more pronounced tendency, with respect to other workers, to engage in serious misconduct in relation with the labor code. It is not so unusual that a simple joke between comrades turns into a not easily controlled tumult, or that a motive as simple as boredom or excessive heat engender circumstances which at times take the form of a small rebellion, thus breaking the miserable normality of work and opening a breach in the clocked time. Where earlier there was a compliance with the authority of the employer and the demands of production, we now find behaviors that connect directly with aspects of life that attack the alienation of labor head-on. The problem is that these experiences usually have a limited impact on the individual and the interpretation of his basic situation. They are, so to speak, cases of sabotage that are not carried to their logical conclusion, since they usually do not imply a clear cognition of the transformative power of such situations from the side of those who experience them, even if that doesn't prevent them from being realized with real passion and if they sometimes are of a very similar cruelty as the one children show in their games and mischiefs. And well, in the same way as the child mocks the adult who looks after and educates him, so does the worker with whoever treats him in a manifestly paternalistic way. The worker becomes, in the mentality of the employer, a selfish and treacherous being, because unlike the clerk who incurs laziness, carelessness or negligence in his work (a fact that is almost accepted in society for those who have gained access to that privileged status), the worker who breaks with his obligations does it knowing that it seriously violates a number of binding rules for his social class: he is being paid for his time, so every minute that he steals from his work day is a fraud to the employment that he has so kindly been granted by those above him. When a worker does not fulfill his role for being disabled he becomes unnecessary and is more or less sustained by society, but when he does it openly and without other apparent reason than his own whim, then he enters into a gray zone of social reality that is adjacent to criminality and deserves the contempt of those around him. His irregularity scares society.
In short, we might interpret these actions in many ways, but we can not extract anything of a revolutionary program from them. They are, in any case, samples of the need to find remnants of vitality in a space as dead as a workplace is, and so do we have to see them: gems of reality created by a group of individuals, albeit of very ephemeral nature. During the moment that they last, the worker may become conscious of his inner desire to be free and he can may even sense the possibilities to disrupt the functioning of society, but little can be done in practice if this consciousness fades into daily, individually experienced despair. But in the meantime, until this consciousness leads to a leap to collectivity, they serve as valuable experiments, initiation rituals in a reality beyond the limits and made in the same belly of the Leviathan that work presupposes.
Seemingly, because it is not so that there are no jobs in Western countries that cannot be considered as pure slavery, since they are hidden from public view due to a legislation prohibiting it (sweatshops of immigrants for example). It is not the case in many Asian countries or of the Middle East where child labor and other terrible abuses are openly accepted by society.
Cornelius Castoriadis. La experiencia del movimiento obrero. Vol.1. Tusquets Editor, 1979.
(Published in Salamandra #17-18, 2008)