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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Recent correspondence

Received a nice letter from my friend L (who works with Bustan outside of Jerusalem) in which she enclosed some heirloom seeds native to Israel. I've already got buds in the vegetable boxes, and am particularly looking forward to the dinosaur gourds
and the green jade bush beans!

A few months ago, I had a reply from Phoenix Insurgent, my comrade from Phoenix, replying to my article on worker subjectivity. I think his comments draw out some interesting points. My objective with the piece was to consider some of the directions in which workers grate at the production process in tech industry workplaces. Within that, I wanted to theorize a way to make a break with the traditional confrontation which tends toward a trade union model of struggle, and consider the impact of 'dragging one's feet' or a collective groan which does not make particular demands. He writes:

When I was working for the post office, we were replaced by computers and my entire section was laid off, leaving only a small cadre of old careers doing the work of what used to be a large workforce. We were union, of course, but the union did nothing but lie to us (which wouldn't surprise me now, but then was a source of frustration). Their interest was in defending the careers, who represented the backbone of the union, particularly financially - even though there were permatemps at the site that had been temps for several years.

Anyhow, the point is, there was a lot of cynicism and sarcasm and general shit-talking about the bosses and our obvious fate, but it did nothing. Those of us on the chopping block withdrew some labor, but as the computers came online, our slowdown was undermined by forced early outs (going home early). The careers were protected from this because they had guaranteed minimum hours in the contract that didn't apply to us permatemps. We were hauled into one joint meeting with both careers and permatemps that resulted in no serious challenge to the boss, partly because the shop steward stood right next to the him and lied about the looming layoffs. When the terminations came, we were fired in shifts right before the weekend, so it was very difficult to let anyone know what was happening.

It seemed to me that the divisions in the workplace became impediments because we didn't articulate clear demands that could be defended through solidarity (whether through the union or not). A strong demand that no further automation take place, perhaps backed up by direct action against the computers and a broader work slowdown, would have gone a long way towards defending our jobs, which were already pretty flexible in terms of hours and generally well-compensated with night differentials and such.

I think our inability to act clearly and together towards clear goals was a limitation that allowed management to go forward with their program, eliminating our jobs and, of course, eventually those of the careers as well. Without clear goals, no solidarity could take place with the careers, because they didn't see that our position was just their advanced by a year or two.
Your story keys into the struggle of workers worldwide against redundancies doesn't it? Automation is used as a weapon by managers in order to save on labor costs, meaning that people lose their jobs, and therefore their means to carry on living. PI makes the case that working towards clear goals among employees would have increased communication within the workplace and lead to a broader solidarity. I would say that I agree with this.

One of the contingent factors of the struggle at my own workplace is that we are constantly on computers, we are emailing each other and some people even use instant messaging. This is not live communication, but it does enable a general 'feeling-out' of where we all are at as the day passes, and so we haven't needed to make particular demands. During the more intense periods of confrontation, meetings with management were almost always collective as well, so there was very good communication among workers, only hobbled by a deep sense of trepidation at somewhat important moments. Had our conditions mirrored those of you workplace, I think drawing up demands would have been essential. Thus, some of the points outlined in 'Notes on an Ongoing Workplace Struggle' could not apply to any workplace.

Separate from the question of demands, you raise the question of sabotage and that strikes me as problematic. Let's think about worker opposition to automation. Any wage laborer is prima facie subjected to the conditions of capitalist society, rent, work, wages and so on. Most jobs are worked in order to maintain a person and/or her family. Is the mailroom of a post office not a miserable job? I don't know myself. But it would seem so, and if it is, then by all accounts the workers should be delighted that automation has been introduced to make their roles obsolete. Except that they are not, because their continued subsistence is premised on receiving the wage which the machine obviates. We are stuck at a fork in the road. For the workers to recover themselves they can either oppose the automation, and demand wages on the anti-social terrain of capital, forfeiting a critique of their workplace for a continuous wage. Or they can attempt to attack the workplace socially; we saw this a lot at the end of the 1960s and particularly the 1970s where welfare payments and state spending compensated workers whose jobs were obviated by automation. With this in mind I would claim that the communist effort should be aimed at increasing the level of social struggle around the workplace, such that labor is not trapped on capital's terrain. If anything, the terrain of struggle for precarious and temporary workers is less the workplace than the unemployment office. By building a safety net they critique the organization of society, which automates only to impoverish. If the workers go to war with automation, they will set the stage for new problematic ideologies in my view.
Next, I received a comment on the blog a couple weeks ago from a passing dissident Iranian, who posted a curious rant in Persian. L had her grandmother translate a summary into English for me:
Iran as an official entity is being inflicted by all these hardships and woes because of their father's sins/mistakes that for turning to Islam.

Iran wasn't originally a Muslim country and all the problems they are facing in their government is a result of their mistake of accepting Islam.

Hizbollah has insulted and hurt Iran and everything they (Hizbollah) says is a lie. Those in power in Iran's government are idiots for listening and becoming pawns of Hizbollah. Hizbollah only got ahead and took advantage of Iran because of all the hardships Iran was going through.

Everything going wrong in Iran should really be blamed on Mohommad because he was a disturbed person. (Then there was a long serise of really harsh curses and cussing out of Mohommad and Islam and the Iranian government)

Ristalah is twenty times worse than the devil and the lowest of animals...(not sure what a lot of that paragraph was about).

The Arabs try to say that the kailah e fars (persian gulf) is really the kaligh e arab and belongs to them. There is a big dispute about this. Iranians are upset and outraged about this but meanwhile their actual ruler is Arab (Muslim?) and they don't care about that.
People who are from foreign languages are welcomed and invited to spread this all over. (then it ended with some Arabic).
Well.............I do not think all of modern Iran's problems stem from Mohammed's personal issues. Obviously things run much deeper. Among other things, the discussion could not continue without a meditation on Iran's position as an imperialist prize and the role that the Shah's dictatorship played in that.

Iran is now however at the forefront of the ideological war with the west, it is an imperialist power of its own and uses the anti-semitic critique of Israel to unite European and middle Eastern reactionaries into new alliances. Iran is also the chief sponsor of proxy wars against middle Eastern regimes allied to the west and of course Israel, where Iranian money funds the northern and southern fronts. The conflict between the Iranian government and other Arab regimes, Israel, the West etc. is thus rooted in geopolitics and clothed in the evangelical ideology of fundamentalist Islam.

Lastly, Anonymous writes:
sphinx I have read your blog for a long time
thanks for this post: but I am waiting
for you to give us a long coherent argument, why a communist should "support Israel" (and what do we mean here),
instead of just reposting Liberal, right-wing, etc. articles?
(esp. for those of unfamiliar with the "antigerman" current and related views.)
To which I responded:
Hi Anonymous.

I do think communist solidarity with Israel is an essential element of breaking with many of the problematics that anti-imperialism and flawed analysis of capitalist phenomena have brought into anti-capitalist movements. It is a place to insert oneself that provokes, that suddenly unwinds all the previous assumptions and challenges fundamental assertions. That said, it is a problematic position that ultimately deserves its own super cession. However, an overcoming like that is not visible at all on the left, in fact the opposite is true, that discourse around Israel is getting more and more irrational.

I'll write more in detail in a longer post that I'm working on right now about the rockets in Gaza and the boycott movement.
And back:
thanks for your reply. I'll look forward to the longer piece.

to put very crudely the question your very interesting and attractive formation creates for me: how to reconcile the position you sketch with a consistent internationalist position?

and what do we make of this here in the states, where (unlike say on the European left, where I understand leftist pro-Islamism/antisemitism is common and visible) there is widespread anti-Muslim and Arab sentiment, widespread approval of Israeli policies, and a massive fundamentalist Christian movement inculcating its followers with militant apocalyptic Zionism?

the emotional force of your images is directed obviously against the selective attention to murder on the left, but again, versus the US media what can this mean? versus the editorial page of every local paper in America?
Of course these are important considerations. I am working on a longer piece right now that I hope to have done by the end of June that will clarify my own position, the extreme danger that inter-imperialist conflict represents for the population of the Middle East, and the role that the anti-semitic critique plays in this maelstrom. I will attempt to address the question of why communists should have solidarity with Israel, and also: what could this position mean after the massacres in Beirut, Gaza and elsewhere during the second Lebanon war? Such a position is incidentally the very antithesis of the frothing mania of a Jerry Falwell.

In the meantime, anyone interested in the fundamentals of a communist position that calls for solidarity with Israel is invited to read this interview with Stephen Grigat, and visit the anti-deutsch project.

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