Work and the Politics of Refusal

A World Beyond Work

At the heart of recent discussions on work lies an enduring tension. We can sense that modern work isn’t working anymore, but we don’t know how to let go of it. The disintegration and degradation of wage labor through technological “progress,” increasing commodification and devaluation of reproductive work, steadily rising unemployment and precarious employment, and sustained attacks on the last bastion of permanent employment (the public sector) together with our desperate attempts to resurrect a corporatist corpse that won’t return, all point to the fact that modern employment “exists less and less to provide a living, let alone a life.” Marxist outliers (Andre Gorz, Ivan Illich, Antonio Negri, Zerowork) have been announcing a crisis of work for some time now, remarking how automation both reduces necessary labor time and degrades work without, however, releasing us from the obligation to earn money for a living. Today work persists in a zombie state despite the disintegration of working class culture and organizations and a continuous process of proletarianization. These conversations have returned in full force in recent years with the publication of Kathi Weeks’ groundbreaking The Problem with Work: Marxism, Feminism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries and a sustained interest in these matters in the Jacobin and even mainstream media.

In these debates, however, there remains an unreconciled tension between the obligation (of any self-respecting socialist) to celebrate work as a source of collective power and personal pride and the more futuristic desire to overcome work and even our self-understanding as workers for a more multivalent understanding of life. This is effectively the tension between Marx and his son-in-law Lafargue, between laborists and anarchists, between a politics of equality and one of autonomy. Of course, there can never be a satisfying answer to this problem because the dichotomy itself is a sectarian caricature. Much more interesting would be to stick with this tension as a provocation for a politics whose form and direction has yet to be decided.

How do we, at once, celebrate the types of cooperation, organization, and identities born out of wage labor and recognize that these are inadequate and insufficient modern inventions that have run their course? How can we advance the cause of wage laborers and fight for people to one day stop functioning as workers? An impossible (and scandalous) proposition such as this is the “refusal of work,” the Italian autonomist theory/practice, which claims that workers are able to produce and sustain value independent of capitalist relations of production and centralized power.

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This Courage Called Utopia

(wild bells) A warm Disordered welcome to Wanda Vrasti, who previously guested on the topic of the neoliberal tourist-citizen imaginary, and now joins the collective permanently. And glad we are to have her. Her academic writings thus far include Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: Giving Back in Neoliberal Times (which came out with the Routledge Interventions series a few months ago), ‘The Strange Case of Ethnography in International Relations’ (which caused its own debate), ‘”Caring” Capitalism and the Duplicity of Critique’, and most recently ‘Universal But Not Truly “Global”: Governmentality, Economic Liberalism and the International’.

It’s often been said that this is not only a socio-economic crisis of systemic proportions, but also a crisis of the imagination. And how could this be otherwise? Decades of being told There Is No Alternative, that liberal capitalism is the only rational way of organizing society, has atrophied our ability to imagine social forms of life that defy the bottom line. Yet positive affirmations of another world do exist here and there, in neighbourhood assemblies, community organizations, art collectives and collective practices, the Occupy camps… It is only difficult to tell what exactly the notion of progress is that ties these disparate small-is-beautiful alternatives together: What type of utopias can we imagine today? And how do concrete representations or prefigurations of utopia incite transformative action?

Javier Lozano Jaén

First thing one has to notice about utopia is its paradoxical position: grave anxiety about having lost sight of utopia (see Jameson’s famous quote: “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”) meets great scepticism about all efforts to represent utopia. The so-called “Jewish tradition of utopianism,” featuring Adorno, Bloch, and later on Jameson, for instance, welcomes utopianism as an immanent critique of the dominant order, but warns against the authoritarian tendencies inherent in concrete representations of utopia. Excessively detailed pictures of fulfilment or positive affirmations of radiance reek of “bourgeois comfort.” With one sweep, these luminaries rid utopianism of utopia, reducing it to a solipsistic exercise of wishing another world were possible without the faintest suggestion of what that world might look like.

But doing away with the positive dimension of utopia, treating utopia only as a negative impulse is to lose the specificity of utopia, namely, its distinctive affective value. The merit of concrete representations of utopia, no matter how imperfect or implausible, is to allow us to become emotionally and corporeally invested in the promise of a better future. As zones of sentience, utopias rouse the desire for another world that might seem ridiculous or illusory when set against the present, but which is indispensable for turning radical politics into something more than just a thought exercise. Even a classic like “Workers of the World Unite!” has an undeniable erotic (embodied) quality to it, which, if denied, banishes politics to the space of boredom and bureaucracy. It is one thing to tell people that another world is possible and another entirely to let them experience this, for however shortly.

Most concrete representations and prefigurations of utopia from the past half century or so have been of the anti-authoritarian sort. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: From #occupyirtheory to #OpenIR?

A write up of my comments at the #occupyirtheory event in San Diego. The event itself was both hope-filled and occasionally frustrating, not least for the small group of walk-outs, apparently ‘political’ ‘scientists’ lacking in any conception of what it actually means to engage in the political (note: this bothered me especially, but was a rather minor irritation in the grander scheme of things). Despite the late hour, there were between 40 and 60 people there throughout, and a number of very positive things have come of it. It looks like there’ll be some gathering at BISA/ISA to discuss further, and we’re pitching something for the Millennium conference on some of the themes addressed below, and there will of course be ISA 2013 too. In the meantime, there’s the Facebook group, the blog, and a mailing list. The term OpenIR is owed to Kathryn Fisher, and seems to several of us to be a better umbrella term for the many things we want to address in the discipline and the academy. I also just want to give a public shout-out to Nick, Wanda, Robbie and Meera for doing so much on this.

The #occupy practice/meme has antecedents. Physical manifestations of a ‘public’, horizontalism, prefigurative politics and more can be traced in all sorts of histories. One such lineage is the foreshadowing of Zucotti Park in recent struggles over education. Take the slogan in March 2010 over privatisation at the University of California, which was ‘STRIKE / OCCUPY / TAKEOVER’. Or Middlesex, where students resisting the dismantling of the Philosophy Department in that same year unfurled a banner during their occupation, one that proclaimed: ‘THE UNIVERSITY IS A FACTORY! STRIKE! OCCUPY!’.

I want briefly, then, to think about the space of the university in our discussions of #occupy. There have been rich and suggestive calls to re-politicise ourselves as academic-activists, to look again at our work and its claims, and to turn our abilities, such as they are, to projects of resistance and transformation. But we risk a displacement. When we talk of ‘the street’, or politics enacted in the reconfigured space of #occupy, or of the ‘real world’ that we must be relevant to, we already miss the university itself as that factory in which we labour. We are tempted by a view of ourselves as leaving ivory towers to do politics, instead of seeing those towers themselves as spaces of politics. As if our institutions and practices were not already part of the world.

Whether you see #occupy as transformational or nor, or whether you simply prefer a different vocabulary, I think a demand remains: a demand to politicise our own positionality. This politicisation can have many dimensions, but I want to suggestively highlight four, each being a sphere in which we should be diagnosing and transforming our own practices.

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#occupyirtheory, International Studies Association (San Diego) Edition

ISA 2012 is just around the corner, and it will doubtless be as hectic and awkward and joyous as ever. Robbie and I will be appearing at an event on #occupy and its relevance for IR on Tuesday at 7 in Indigo 204 at the Hilton Bayfront. We’ll be joining Lucian Ashworth, Lara Coleman, Nicholas Kiersey and Wanda Vrasti (all chaired by Jason Weidner) for what I’m sure will be an exciting roundtable discussion. More importantly, it will be brief, with most of the session given over to a General Assembly-style discussion of what IR can learn from #occupy, what #occupy might get from IR, and how we might take the spirit and organisational form into the discipline itself (or not).

The hope is that the slightly later starting time will allow people to go both to the various Section receptions and meetings (briefly) and to come to this, whilst still leaving reasonable evening time for food and the rest. Please do get involved over at Facebook (see also the #occupyirtheory group and #occupyirtheory blog) and let interested IR-types know. Readers may also be (should also be!) interested in a recent forum from the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies on ‘Occupy IR/IPE’, featuring Nick and Wanda (as well as Colin Wight, Michael J. Shapiro, Patrick Jackson and others), which I’ve parcelled together as a single pdf for your delectation here.

Hope to see you there!

Call for Contributions: The Global Political Economy of the 1%

Tim Di Muzio (Wollongong) is putting together an edited volume on The Global Political Economy of the 1% which Disordered readers might be interested in contributing to. The full call is here. Abstracts of 250 words or less are due by 30 April 2012 with first full drafts by 1 November 2012. Tim can be emailed with submissions or for more details here.

While the internationalized Occupy Wall Street movement faces many strategic and organizational challenges, one of its major accomplishments has been its ability to draw global attention to the massive disparity of income, wealth and privilege held by 1% of the population. Such attention comes amidst a relatively synchronized global financial crisis, a mounting first world debt crisis in parts of Europe and the United States and the intensification of neoliberal policies. While political science and sociological study has shed light on elites and the wealthy in the past, with some recent popular exceptions, there has been a dearth of research on the culture, politics, built environments and psychology of the global rich in the new gilded age.

To redress this gap in the literature, this edited volume calls for a more focused and engaged study on what could be called the global political economy of the 1%. Such a project could help shed light on the massive chasm between this elite class of wealth holders and the rest of the global working class – the majority of whom subsist on less than US$2 a day and increasingly live in informal settlements as the dialectic of dispossession and urbanization continues its historical dance. Of course, it should be emphasized that a global political economy of the 1% does not preclude (and nor should it) the unavoidable social relations between the 1% and the 99%. However, recent literature has already enriched our understanding of how poverty, unprotected workers, and the everyday life practices of the seemingly mundane impact upon the wider global political economy. So a keen, yet nonrestrictive, focus on the political economy of 1% and the global income/wealth hierarchy is welcome.

All abstracts will be accepted and reviewed with sincerity. Selections for inclusion in the volume will be evaluated on the basis of original content, coherence and consistency with the general theme as well as the necessity of creating coherent sub-themes. Sub-themes are suggested here to organize research questions but are not necessarily the themes of the volume (contingent upon contributions).

Topics and questions that could be addressed in such a volume include but are not limited to the following: The Usual Suspects: Identifying the 1%The Social Reproduction of the 1%; Culture, Consumption and the 1%; and Power, Resistance and the 1%.

Body Politics: Corporeal Suffering, Memes and Power/Resistance, with Special Reference to #Occupy, Tahrir Square, ‘Hunger’ (2008) and Rage Against The Machine

*some extremely disturbing images ahead* (and some humorous deployments of Impressionism and Leonardo DiCaprio).

Two weeks ago, Karin Fierke presented a paper at our theory workshop on self-immolation as speech act (part of a forthcoming book entitled The Warden’s Dilemma: Self-Sacrifice, Agency and Emotion in Global Politics with Cambridge University Press). She focused principally on Thich Quang Duc, the South Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself alight and burned to death, silent and still, in Saigon in June of 1963, and on Norman Morrison, an American Quaker who copied Duc’s example in November 1965 by combusting his own flesh outside the Pentagon office of Robert McNamara, then the United States Secretary of Defence implementing Operation Rolling Thunder, the rain of fire which infamously unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnams North and South than the total dispatched during the entirety of the Second World War.

This mimesis, an affinity not only of form but also of sacrificial politics, was cited as a mechanism for rupturing the symbolic order. Both Duc and Morrison engaged in a corporeal self-violence so forceful that it not only offended senses, but in fact extended a certain community. An act, substituting for speech, argument or manifesto, which forced itself on high politics and forged an international sensibility until that point lacking. One more contemporary dimension of that imitation and repetition is that many must have encountered the image the same way I did, which was via the front cover of Rage Against The Machine’s pugnacious, convulsively political eponymous debut in 1992. And not just the image, but a vague sense of the story imparted by sleeve notes (and lyrics today associated both with opposition to the media grip of Simon Cowell and with visions of the riotous encounter).

Self-immolation persists in a certain tradition of struggle, but the relevance of these themes – the body, sacrifice, the edifice of politics and protest, the circulation of images – has coalesced potently in the wake of recent events (on which more in a moment). Continue reading