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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Iraqi Freedom Congress in Japan

It was my great pleasure to hear Suhad Ali and Amjad Al Jawhary of the Iraqi Freedom Congress (IFC) speak in Osaka last month. Although the presence of the left in the ongoing sectarian violence sweeping Iraq is negligible, the IFC has at least attempted to bridge ever-deepening sectarian chasms in the name of classic social democratic ideals (freedom of speech, freedom of women, a free press, opposition to discrimination, and so on). Much of the IFC's activity is by now outside of Iraq, not surprising given that 15% of Iraq's population has become refugees in Jordan, Syria and other states. I had seen a representative of the IFC speak in Tokyo about two years ago, and she was based in Australia at the time. So it was refreshing to hear direct perspectives from Suhad Ali who is a young university student in Iraq (in one of Mosul or Baghdad...can't remember).

The topic of the evening was 'standing in solidarity with Iraqi women' and so Suhad's speech focused on the plight of women in Baghdad, who are daily confronted with a snaking civil war waged by sectarians whose only commonality may be there desire to control and subjugate the women of Iraq. Below, I reproduce some of my notes from the talk, which are by no means complete and do not give justice to the descriptions of internecine mayhem that Ali and Jawhary were able to give the audience.
It was made obvious during Suhad Ali's speech and Jawhary's subsequent remarks that there is no excuse (and has never been) for supporting either the anti-imperialist faction in Iraq, which is dedicated to establishing the men's society over all of Iraq, nor the imperialist faction of the coalition which has effectively functioned as a patron of the worst fundamentalist Shiite militias in the country i.e. the Badr brigades and SCIRI, even tolerating Moqtada Al-Sadr's imposition of Islamic dictatorship in Najaf and other parts of the south, not to mention the coalition's tight relationship with the 'progressive' fundamentalist Al-Sistani (who has declared "that men and women should not mix socially, that music for entertainment is prohibited and that women should veil their hair") and which, by embracing the social forms that bourgeois democracy should in its classical form abolish, has done much to restore and reinforce the twin barbarisms of the tribe and Islam across Iraq. There remains perhaps no alternative to the current impasse than critically supporting left elements in Iraq as well as the diaspora. Perhaps it will fall to the diaspora to organize itself in retaking the cities from which it has been expelled.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Notes on an ongoing workplace struggle (Part 1)

1. Modern information economy workplaces can be effectively divided between two models. One, the American and European model in which engineers, writers and other employees have separate cubicles, and come together for meetings or collaborative projects. This model maximizes the creativity of the individual worker and the potential for creative intellectual inventorship based on experimentation. Both models are historical forms etched by post-fordist workers, who refused traditional organizations of work not only in terms of the border of overtime and worktime, but also rearranged the spatial organization of the workplace and disaggregated the assembly line into individualized laboratories. Nowadays, in many workplaces, workers confer and communicate mainly via e-mail, with face-to-face consultation becoming an exception.

In Japan, the scene is a bit different in that generally the post-fordist technology economy does not confront an antagonistic technological proletariat, one not only productive of new technologies but also constantly undermining (and therefore advancing) the parameters of their control while re-thinking the traditional organization of the workplace. Instead, Japanese engineers, technical writers and office workers are grouped into large offices with few partitions. The Japanese office resembles a hall arranged in desk islands, which are always horizontally organized and of low height, providing the supervisor(s) an infinite purview of the workers, their activities and tasks. Any computer screen is potentially subject to review at any moment. E-mail has mostly replaced face-to-face interaction, simultaneously bringing with it the potential for 'silent antagonism', unseen affinities between wage workers that develop over certain circuits with the potential for a larger resonance and even an explosion of dissent.

Despite the development of e-mail as a weapon for workers, the situation does not escape the description of 'soft totalitarian control'.

2. The traditional Japanese unions (Sohyo/Rengo) in the post-war period operated with few exceptions as part of the social democratic project and were widely embraced as an intermediary for negotiating the value of the worker's labor as variable capital for capitalists. This is not exceptional in the history of unions. Unions are always interior to the development of capital, actively involved in restraining uncontrolled strike activity which poses a threat to the union's position as mediator between capitalist and worker. The Rengo union's dominance in the late 1960s amidst the collapse of the new left set the stage for Toyota-style management's society-wide reorganization of the workplace from the 1960s on up. Management/worker cooperation and acccord became a fundamental element of the work experience (Rengo worked/works with what is essentially a no-strike policy).

‘Social cooperation’ was (is) an environment characterized by corporative unions (and therefore a splintered working class) and a ‘civil society’ that became more and more impossible to stand outside of. Any critique not made in relation to the well-being of the company (and in many cases the nation) became a non-critique. Any proposal without a counter-proposal was not a proposal. 'Refusal' was an unpopular word. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, despite the increased rate of exploitation and the increasingly integrated nature of production and consumption within society, there were no negative struggles on the level of say, Fiat in Italy, in which the relation between the organization of work, the factory and daily life were confronted.

Given the historical plight of the working class, the average worker's experience with workplace struggle was not widely rooted in the power of withdrawing labor from the labor process (striking, shirking, sabotage), but in:

a) quitting their jobs; permanently withdrawing their individual labor, which can be replaced, but
temporarily damages productivity. For instance, t my workplace, five senior employees quit within a space of three months, giving the effective experience of a strike since the upcoming labor shortage will make the training of new employees incredibly difficult and bring productivity down by 60%. Their abandonment of the workplace wound up setting the stage for the current struggle, in which the remaining employees criticize the workplace and work conditions as inadequate and incapable of providing 'staying incentive' for veterans.

b) making requests (but not demands) to the boss in a direct way (usually forced into individual consultations) or in a collective way, almost always with the mediation of a union. Unions are rare among tech workers, who are normally compensated with relatively large salaries in order to balance the enormous amount of overtime that the company demands. However, grievances are not 'aberrant', and seen as an important ingredient of chouwa, the balancing of worker/management interest.

The idea of making 'demands' to a company on the other hand, is terrifying to most workers, who expect that their performance (jitsuryoku) will determine their salary and have been conditioned to accept that the lows of a firm amidst its highs are temporary, or even result from the performance of the firm's employees, the obligation to resolve the crisis lying with them. Critically, if the worker cannot make a demand, she cannot posit herself as different from the firm as labor to capital, and therefore can't make the second step towards revolutionary individuation, the positing of the self as separate from the worker, and at some point a critical confrontation with her position as social labor.

3. In view of points 1 and 2, the modern Japanese workplace and its social setting can be said to combine the barbaric impositions of early capitalist factory organization in the prohibition of cubicles and offices in favor of splaying workstations before the eyes of the supervisor, and mediation-based organization that integrates the worker into the body of the firm. However, the modern tech enterprise is caught in its own contradictions since the efficiency improvements offered by e-mail and network messaging enable the establishment of e-mail links between disgruntled employees in sections otherwise disparate and incommunicado, who may have very different contract scales and conditions, but share a workplace.

There is also a tendency to develop collective think pads, most often message boards in technological (thus intellectual property) workplaces, which ostensibly serve as places for the development of new technologies and ideas, but these places are always at risk of being overwhelmed by their potential use as instruments of discussion and exchange. The workers can subvert and re-work collective means of communication intended for the development and coordination of capital to discuss contradictions and inconsistencies in the workplace, or to convey dissent, even if that is done in vague ways. The supervisors can destroy the forums that they have created, or delete individual postings, but in doing so reveal their repressive role, risking an open confrontation. Every posting therefore has the potential to chip away at the organization of the workplace, having an always-accessible longevity that can be used as a gathering pole for those who are fed up. Some emails go out, some responses come in, a gathering is organized, a group coordinates itself...

4. The nefarious side of the 'timelessness' in intra-workplace digital communication, which replaces the shop room floor as a venue of discussion, is the unfortunate dulling of real-time antagonism in the workplace, which should move from: question, response--> exposure of contradiction-->confrontation-->activity-->potential rupture. Any worker prepared to begin a workplace struggle must be conscious of getting trapped in a struggle in the open, undivided and hierarchical space of the workplace, i.e. the open forum of the supervisor. Premature confrontation in this space risks the passivity of workers who have never considered speaking up, but much worse is the trap of a simmering confrontation that does not come to boil.

5. Once the stage is set for a collective struggle (even if it is partial and uneven), it is vital to argue against the ingrained concept of the 'company as life boat', i.e. that 'selfishness' or 'excessive demands' could bankrupt a company or harm its interests leading to other workers suffering. Any company is part of a wider division of labor that includes parent companies connected via capital investment to the company in question, not to mention factories, distribution, and other connections. Most capitalists who are trusted by banks to manage workers and dispose of capital can take out additional business loans or re-organize the workplace to accommodate worker demands. In the event of bankruptcy due to the price of labor power rising to unprofitable levels, most countries have unemployment laws which mandate payment to layed off workers (in Japan's case, a comparatively high payout in unemployment insurance). Overcoming the pretenses that cover management's constant tendency to impose austerities during crises is the first hurdle in separating the individual self-consideration from the company, the recognition that there have been past social struggles waged to provide the safety net for those in the future, and that this safety net creates the possibiliity of standing radically outside what one is inside.

Next I'll consider how how workers can effectively organize conflict in a way that defies the attempts by supervisors and capitalists to capture it in individualized contract changes or by the assignment of mediation to a trade union (which would paralyze it).

(Parts 5-10 coming next week)

関西公園・Public Blue

By [AHA]
70 min. 2006
Video Documentary
 関西公園ラディカル文集・Kansai Kouen Radical Text Library

(English follows)

* 「関西公園~Public Blue~」とは
ドイツ、アメリカ、日 本のスタッフの協力で 制作されたドキュメン タリーフィルム。

* 主宰者から一言
私たちは「関西公園」という野宿者の抵抗・コミュニティ ーについてのドキュメ ンタリーを制作した。
弾圧、テントの強制撤 去といった大阪の状況 に反対し、今年(2006年1月30日)の 靭公園と大阪城公園の行政代執行を中心に、野宿・支援者たちに自分たちの想い や自己認識・情勢理解を語ってもらっ た。

ま た、公園住人である野宿者や寄せ場「釜ヶ崎」で暮らす日雇い労働者、そこで表現する活動 者の声を拾いながら、テ ント小屋や寄せ場を撮影した。カメラはいくつもの映像と位相を織り交ぜな がら、「物語」を進行 している。 「関西公園~Public Blue~」は、近代資本主義という状況下でもっとも過酷に搾取される人たちからの声を聞き取ることで、都市に住む野宿生活者の「経験」がスクリー ンを見るひとたちの間 で共有され、私たちの前に明確な形を帯びてくる。公園の排除が迫るにつれて公共空間そのものが喪失し、野宿・支援者の想いは記録 され、言語化される。


* 上映のおねがい
「関西公園~Public Blue~」の上映会をしませんか?
この映像を通して、大阪にお ける強制排除、資本主 義の実態や公共空間の喪失といった問題を考えていきたい方、募集します。 もちろん、単にビデオ として楽しむのも大歓 迎。 上映に協力してくれる方は 、主宰者に声をかけてください。
どうぞよろしくおねが いします。

Everywhere in parks and on the river banks of Osaka rivers, one sees blue tents or barracks covered with blue plastic tarps, at times scattered throughout park areas, sometimes lined up in rows, or united to form small communities. The term homelessness only insufficiently describes the situation of these 「nojyukusha」, the campers in the rough. These squatters are the daily inhabitants of public space. But just as Japanese society has traditionally little known nor appreciated public space as a public forum, likewise are squatters and homeless people, who live in these spaces, disrespected.

The video essay Public Blue was produced in collaboration with Nojyukusha (squatters) and supporters in Osaka. Public Blue follows their political action against an impending eviction and sketches impressions of the Japanese understanding of the public and the political. Used now as a tool during the struggle against evictions of tents in Osaka, the documentary also becomes a vehicle of articulation for those who are living on the outside of Japanese society. 関西公園・Public Blue has recently debuted in Japan and Europe.
DVDs and VHS will shortly be available for sale and showing at low prices. Contact kansaikouen@hotmail.com for further information.

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