Photo: Paul Sakuma
The Double Barricade and the Glass Floor
“Work during the mornings, “insurrection” at night.”(1) Such are the diurnal terms in which the contradictions of the 2008 Greek uprising manifest – night against day, insurrection against work. The formula appears in a communiqué issued by “fellow precarious workers in the occupied ASOEE,” the Athens University of Economics and Business. These precarious workers were able to interrupt the economy and the business class at the level of ideology, at the level of their reproduction in the university, but the economy as site of value-production remained relatively untransformed. It is a pithy crystallization of what the writers of Theorie Communiste have called, in their analysis of the Greek uprising, the glass floor – namely, the limit-condition of the current cycle of struggles, in which the sites of social reproduction separate out, as target and object of attack, from production proper, and in which those peripheral to the working class proper confront capital as circulation or reproduction, as storefront and trade-union office, prison and university, as riot cop and shopping mall, but not at the point of encounter between capital and labor in the workplace.(2)
This is not, as some would have it, a result of bad strategy or weakening resolve. It is not (as this or that cadre group might have it) the result of an unwillingness to submit to the tedious, prosaic task of radicalizing workers and democratizing the labor movement, but rather the symptom of a radically restructured capital-labor relationship. If the postwar period – captioned somewhat unsatisfactorily (especially in the case of Greece) by the designators “Fordism” and “Keynesianism” – saw the subsumption of workers not only as labor power but as purchasing power, “treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness, in their new role as consumers,” something else begins to happen during the crisis of the 1970s.(3) The producer-consumer submits to new (and newly repressive) disciplines in the advanced capitalist countries: fragmented, decentralized, colonized by rhetorics of self-management and participation, flexibilized, rendered part-time and pushed into industries devoted to the sale, distribution, management and circulation of commodities (including labor-power). This reordering of the working class as in-itself – the reordering of what Italian operaismo might call its technical composition – renders its conversion into the proletariat, as revolutionary self-consciousness, nearly impossible. The restructuring dislocates the working-class from its own self-realization and self-abolition by way of the revolutionary seizure of the means of production.
Essentially, what we see in the advanced capitalist countries during this period is a growth of industries related to the circulation or realization of commodities, or industries designed to manage the encounter between capital and labor. Capital depends more and more on erstwhile unproductive spheres that accelerate and direct flows of capital and labor from site to site, quickening their turnover and reproduction. The expansion of finance is the central manifestation of this shift, but even the supposedly miraculous effects of information technology seem to have mattered less as a way to increase productivity than as a way to decrease the costs of circulation and administration. Circulation no longer shrouds production in the mystifying forms of false equivalence, but penetrates it, disperses it laterally, and submits it to complex mediations. The “hidden abode of production” is not so much invisible as inaccessible – covered by a glass floor. And in the “noisy sphere of circulation” the noises we hear are those of the riot. Separated from its being qua worker, the insurrectionary proletarian consciousness erupts into the only possible site of contestation left for it.
The restructuring under discussion here is neutralizing for two kinds of struggle. On the one hand, the progressivist or social democratic stream which imagines a better wage-share, better working conditions, and a diminution of the vicissitudes of exploitation and domination meets its match here, in the expansion of difficult-to-organize jobs in the service sector, part-time work, and the speed at which complex forms of circulation can shift capitals from place to place, decimating the slower, localized forms of resistance.
But the situation is little better for those radicals who would uproot capital, decapitate the state, and break the spine of the market, starting with the workplace. The penetration and dispersion of production by increasingly complex forms of circulation and instruments of reproduction means that we find nowhere, ready-to-hand, the use-values which might form the minimum base of subsistence for a future, decapitalized society. The notion that one might maintain the basic forms of capitalist production as use-value with a different form of distribution – and consequently, the assumption of a certain political neutrality to productive forces and capitalist technology – was always erroneous, and often disastrous (in the case of Russia, for instance) but today the impossibility of separating some non-capitalist set of use-values from the value-form itself is rendered completely impossible in the advanced capitalist countries. The project of the “seizure of the means of production” finds itself blocked or faced with the absurd prospect of collectivizing Wal-Mart or Apple, workplaces so penetrated to their very core by the commodity-form that they solicit nothing less than total destruction or total transformation. This is different than France in 1871 or even 1968, different than Russia in 1917 or Spain in 1936, places where the industries of the means of subsistence were ready-to-hand and expropriable, where one might find, in some reasonable radius, the food, clothing, housing and medicine that could form the basis of a future society liberated from the exigencies of value. Today, perhaps, we realize what was true all along: we must destroy almost everything and start from scratch. Hence, riots. Hence, the direct conflict between the state and those portions of the proletariat peripheral to the working class proper. Hence, the uprising in the universities, where there exists almost nothing a future society would need, where, because nothing is there, everything is.
Theorie Communiste and some of the Greek ultra-left groups would term the current economic and political manifestations a “crisis of reproduction.” It’s a useful phrase since it effectively cuts through the debates about whether the current and past crises result from underconsumption, profit-squeeze, overaccumulation or undercapacity. The crisis of reproduction occurs not only in the realization of commodities and fictitious capitals – the salto mortale from production into the market – but also within the underexamined outside of the capital-labor relationship: the place where one chain of M-C-M´ meets another, where money and commodity capital must fight their way back into the workplace and their rendez-vous with labor-power, and where labor-power must be molded, shaped and forced into the site of production. It is here that the banks and the prisons and the universities and the welfare-to-work offices come into play. It is here, also, that the falling rate of profit originates from capitalists unwilling to invest in less and less profitable productivity-raising technology, preferring to compete against each other, via complex financial instruments, for a larger share of a stagnant or slowly increasing mass of values. And it is here that people are forced to fight. Students confront such a crisis of reproduction directly, as the cost of job training (tuition) increases, and as the value of such training decreases. The banking crisis, therefore, finds its complement in a university crisis, and if the recent events in California universities are but a pale shadow of recent political encounters in Argentina or France or Greece, it is not, as I would argue, because they are exceptional. The glass floor operates here as well. The rest of the paper is a close reading of events in California by way of the analytic of the glass floor.
Because the crisis of the University of California affects, however unequally, all of its groups– staff, students, faculty – there has been significant effort put into keeping the current mobilization from becoming merely a “student movement,” and many activists have specifically sought to build a “student-worker” movement. It is thus a perfect testing ground for the glass floor, present here first of all in the uneasy compound of tactics and vernaculars drawn alternately from the labor movement and student activist culture. Between the picket-line, the walkout, the teach-in, the strike, the sit-in, the occupation and the march, the contradictions of the glass floor manifest. Most of the major actions of the fall of 2009 involved, on the one hand, student strikes or “walkouts” (often with faculty participation) and worker strikes by some unions. But the groups often had different orientations to the space of the campus, with the unions picketing at the entrance to campus in order to block access while the students filled up the space behind them, emptying the buildings and treating the open spaces of the campus according to logics of political assembly and discourse – teach-ins, speak-outs and the like. One remained uncertain whether the goal was to shut down the campus by emptying it out or by filling it up, whether the object of attack was a geographical zone or the social relations, the rhythms of work and study, that took place there, whether the properly militant stance took place inside or outside the campus.
These two orientations to space originate, in part, from the different structural positions that students and workers occupy with regard to the university’s place within the regime of value. The picket line treats the campus as a factory, as workplace, as site of production or exploitation – and understands that its geographical encirclement negates such production. The “walkouts” and, later, the occupations of buildings, treat the university as a relay point within the circulation and formation of future labor power, as a sorting mechanism that reproduces the value of labor by including some and excluding others, and that legitimates class society through a process of certification and ideological training.
These are by no means clear distinctions – students often work in the university; grad students, for instance, are both students and workers. These are rather abstractions, real abstractions, which individual actors inhabit equivocally. And they produce, in their dialectical interplay, combinatory orientations – most notably, the division between those who would preserve the university and those who would refuse it altogether. Most of the student-worker movement remains, at present, largely reactive – if not conservative, then preservative. It aims to preserve what is soon to be lost – jobs, education, classes. It aims to save public education. The preservative spirit is seen first and foremost in the reluctance of students and faculty to lose valuable class-time, and the alternative proposals to turn the days of protest into “teach-ins” (the in here opposed to the out of the walkout) where the formal relationship between teacher and student is, in some sense, preserved. The self-positioning of the students inside the university might seem conservative, then, in relation to the unions and their pickets – which hold up a more traditional figure of negation. But the picket, by the same measure, encircles the campus as a thing to be preserved, and the demands of the unions are, by and large, reactive: they are against current austerity measures, and not for progressive wages and benefits, which the labor movement is too weak to win, given the numbers of unrepresented workers and the throngs of unemployed. Furthermore, the very fact of the absence of a wage makes it much easier for students (inasmuch as they struggle as students) to refuse their own subjectivization, since the question of their present means of subsistence is often not directly put into question. Their contestation refers to a future. But if their refusal is vouchsafed by the preservation of the campus workers as workers, then it is merely a game, a destruction vouchsafed by the continuance of brutal systemic exploitation elsewhere. Each group contains the necessary strategic truth of the other group. The glass floor, in this respect, is more a hall-of-mirrors in which the students meet themselves coming, as workers. Or it’s a mobius-strip in which exit and entry, inside and outside, preservation and refusal, fold into each other.
These dynamics undergo a shift as tactics become more militant. If we take as our case study the dramatic occupation of Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley on November 20 (which I choose not because it is the most fitting case, but because I know it best), the first thing one notices in looking back over the events of the day is the ambiguity of the barricade – in other words, the ambiguity of the inside/outside distinction – where the latter is both a police mechanism, an enforcement of the rule of property by the police, and a weapon in the hands of militants. While the occupiers barricaded themselves into the second floor of the building – using chairs, u-locks, tie-downs and their own hands to deny the police entry – scores of riot police set up a perimeter around the building, first with police tape and then with metal barricades, which they defended with batons, rubber bullets and the threat of arrest. The double barricade and the double siege – the occupiers besieged by police themselves besieged by close to a thousand sympathetic people – renders in very clear terms the topology under discussion here.
We can think of the first moment – the occupation of the building and the locking of its doors – as primarily an act of refusal, an attempt to establish an outside within the administrative regime of the university, its ordering of space and time according to an economic logic. But unless the removal of this or that space from the property-form spreads, it becomes quickly reterritorialized. The police are the agents of this reterritorialization, but just as often the limits are self-imposed as an action collapses under its own gravity, leading to bargaining, concessions or a simple lack of will to continue. The outside becomes an inside, and the act of self-subtraction converts into this or that preservationist form of belonging. To survive, a new outside needs to be set up, new forms of refusal need to take root, and this is precisely what happened outside Wheeler. There was a hidden passageway, formed from solidarity and affection, that connected those inside the building to their comrades outside. The police were there to interrupt this relay – to prevent those gathered outside from storming the building and expanding the struggle, and for a moment, they remained weakened by the two fronts. It was they who were under siege and not the occupiers.
If the earlier topological figure disclosed a division between those who would turn their back on the university, and those who would preserve it, the occupation of Wheeler represents an involution of this topology. The line of demarcation – the picket – converts into the barricades around the building, now on the inside of campus. And, as fire-alarms are pulled and the buildings are emptied of students and workers, throngs of supporters turn their back on the university, not by leaving it, but by defending a newly-interiorized outside. The students and workers who gather in front of the police belong to their unbelonging. When they barricade the exits and entrances of the libraries (in order to prevent the occupiers from being brought via tunnels, into other buildings, and from there packed into police vans) they cement their own refusal, disposed spatially both in an outward and an inward direction: theirs is a form of exit that stands in place, a refusal that is also an affirmation.
These actions only survive by continuously pushing their own outside in front of them, by opening up spaces of rupture, and continuously beckoning and transcending not only the repression of the police and the rule of property but also forms of settlement, stasis and compromise that can emerge from inside the action. Still, against the repressive countermovement of the police, just as important are the alternate forms of belonging or community that fill in the space left by the expanding outside. In fact, they must fill in this space if the outside continues to grow: the oranges and sandwiches thrown, over the riot-helmeted heads of the police, to the masked occupiers on the second floor window; the cups of soup and energy bars passed out to those assembled in front of the barricades; the spontaneous redecorations of campus; the text messages and twitters; the chants. To the extent that people, in the space opened up by the rupture, learn to provide for each other, they fend off the moment of repression. But they can do so only in the context of an expanding rupture, lest they fall back into idle lifestylism.
The peripherality of the student to value-production – the fact that the university is not immediately necessary to capital; that its blockage or interruption will not bring the economy to a grinding halt – is part and parcel of her power, a weakness which is also a strength. Because the object of sabotage or interruption is something she has paid for – or gone into debt for, or something to which she has devoted unpaid hours (unpaid job training, in other words) – the militant action is, at the level of immediacy, always self-abolishing, whatever the demands for future integration might say. This explains in part why the student demands are so infrequently self-reflexive – in the Wheeler occupation, the occupiers’ first demand was for the university to rehire 32 laid-off custodians. The students appeared in their demands only in a request for amnesty – itself a self-abolishing demand. In this sense, students seem quite naturally to occupy a non-place, a place of refusal, that is dependent upon the continued integration of others – the custodians, who are presumably, here, the real proletarians. In a sense, this peripherality of the student, her inability to speak for herself or win something for herself – and her dependence upon a value or good produced elsewhere – is the truth of the subjection of the working class as a whole in an era of falling profits and rising unemployment, in which the prospect of wildcat strikes and workplace expropriations seems to recede. The fact that she finds, nowhere, the means of self-reproduction – that her activities produce neither food nor shelter nor any other necessity immediately – is a condition increasingly generalized among the working class as manufacturing declines and service-industries grow. Along with the unemployed and the marginally employed and the lumpen-proletariat, the students hold the truth of the working-class’s subjection to capital: their inability to do anything other than destroy that on which they depend, given the conditions of capitalist production in both value and use-value terms. The dialectic described here, the dialectic within the university – or within the sphere of social reproduction – must become the dialectic between reproduction and production itself: the dialectic of destruction and communization, exit and attack.
Students, along with informal and part-time workers and the unemployed (and I don’t mean to ignore the profound differences between these positions), are ideally placed to open up the moment of rupture, but they are poorly-positioned to provide the back-filling means of self-reproduction which would allow more people to turn their back on the workplace and ward off a repressive state response. Without the establishment of forms of mutual aid, care and active solidarity, the necessary destructive interventions in the sphere of circulation can lead either to massive repression or, as we have witnessed in other parts of the globe, to famine and epidemic conditions in which brutal hierarchies must, by needs, reassert themselves. Against these limits, future resistance to capital might appear more and more as a series of flanking maneuvers on an imaginary plane – a plane that is less geographical than relational – opening up the empty-space of the proletariat’s essential non-identity and expanding it into those areas of capital that can be taken and decapitalized: housing, for instance, or certain areas of food production. In this sense, the dialectic of inside and outside is best thought of not in terms of space but as temporality, a sequence of rupture and reconstitution, rupture and reassembly, not just or not only within the university, but between the sites of social reproduction and the sites of production.
Jasper Bernes is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.
1. Fellow precarious workers from the occupied ASOEE. “Reality is an Illusion. Normality is Beyond Us.” A Day When Nothing is Certain: Writings on the Greek Insurrection. http://www.occupiedlondon.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/A-day-when-nothing-is-certain-printable.pdf.
2. Théorie Communiste, “Le Plancher de Verre,” Les Émeutes en Grèce; Senonevero, 2009. English translation: http://www.riff-raff.se/wiki/en/theorie_communiste/the_glass_floor.