Book Review: Eric Hobsbawm – How to change the world: reflections on Marx and Marxism

This is an excellent book, as with many Hobsbawm

Front Cover - How to change the world
How to Change the World by Eric Hobsbawm. Published by Yale University Press in 2011. Image taken from the publishers.

books. The title is a little offputting: I don’t like prescriptive-sounding books with only one author; I think somebody who is used to people shutting up and listening to them at length is the least likely to know how to make the world a better place. But it is Eric Hobsbawm and he is always very interesting to read, has a wealth of fascinating insights about the history of the left or history of the world from a leftist perspective. But actually (thankfully?) the title is a bit misleading. What the book offers is a history of Marxism, Marxism being an idea that was born out of industrialising capitalist europe, has been used as a toolbox by countless emancipatory movements of (and unfortunately too often for) the oppressed over the last 150+ years, has been used to legitimise some of the worst acts of humanity, and has struggled for its place in the last 25 years.

As Hobsbawm puts it in the introduction, when Marx died in 1883,

“there was little enough to show for his life’s work. He had written some brilliant pamphlets and the torso of an uncompleted major piece, Das Kapital, work on which hardly advanced in the last decade of his life. ‘What works?’ he asked bitterly when a visitor questioned him about his works. His major political effort since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the so-called First International of 1864–73, had foundered. He had established no place of significance in the politics or the intellectual life of Britain, where he lived for over half his life as an exile” (p3, 4).

But in the years since then the impact of his thought has been enormous, and often awful. So today, at time when popular movements have succeeded in escaping doomed strategies of various Marxist guises, yet also seem incapable of developing a strong enough counterpower to neoliberal hegemony (or the new variant of fascist demagogues) using alternative ideas on the left, a history of this sort can be very useful to help us figure out whether and how marxist thought can be a friend or foe.

The story begins with a brief sketch of some of the strands of socialist thought prior to Marx and Engles coming on the scene, before going on to tell us about the the context in which Marx and Engels lived and wrote much of their works. Reflections are given on particularly influential works through discussing their impact when ‘discovered’ and published later, often with adapted articles written by Hobsbawm at the times of the publications of certain new collections. Part two of the book goes on to discuss the trajector(y/ies) of the revolutionary theory and movement after the death of Marx. This starts with the meteoric rise of socialist parties in europe quite soon after his death and the formation and ultimate fortunes of the Second International, leading on the one hand to totalitarian dictatorships and on the other to bourgeoisification and support for their respective nations in the bloodbath that pitted worker against worker in World War I. From there, we are brought on a tour of anti-fascism, Gramsci, post-war resurgence in the anti-colonial independence movements and among the 60s movement in Europe and North America, and finally, decline. In all this, the book is made engaging because he doesn’t just describe Marxist theory, but what people did with it and how they changed its direction at different times throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. A true historian of ideas.

BUT there are problems with the book. Obviously any book on such a hugely influential subject has to be selective, but I think part of this selectivism is unfortunate. The biggest example is that the history stops in 1983. Although there is nominally a chapter on the years of decline for marxism 1983-2000 (followed also by the ‘comeback’ years 2000-2009), this chapter focusses mostly on events prior to 1983 which led to this decline rather than how marxist ideas coped and transformed with this decline. Arguably, the attempts of marxism to understand itself ‘at the End of history‘, without the anchor of ‘actually-existing socialism’, and at a time when Marxism did not have a hegemonic position within the radical left – the latter something not seen since 1930s Spain but which explosively re-emerged in 1994 with the Zapatistas – would be the most enlightening and promising in terms of emancipation and pedagogical re-invention. But you won’t learn much about this from the book.

Elsewhere, the role of Marxism in the post-WWII anti-colonial struggles and the movement of the non-aligned, while acknowledged, is underexplored. Its role in the movements against dictatorships in Latin America get barely a mention, and while its role in Greece and Portugal in ousting dictators is touched upon however briefly, the failure of these two post-revoluntionary countries to lead toward socialism or at the very least for the political landscape to take a similar leftist path such as those in Latin America would be a fascinating discussion but is unfortunately not taken up. Another topic that barely gets a mention is the Autonomia movement in 1970s Italy, a tendency which has since had an influence on leftist movements and theory proportionally far greater than other more classical schools. Of course, not everything can be included, but these kinds of exclusions mean that we are denied most the influences on Marxism from movements which are non-European, worker-led, and which creatively grapple with the contradictions of revolutionary ‘success’. As a consequence, we are left with a picture heavily influenced by the orthodox, the Euro-centric, the institutionalised, the educated, and the male. (Although in defence, there is a whole chapter if not two dedicated to Gramsci, and another to anti-fascism). For all his emphasis on the importance of history, this kind of selectivism leads to a standard of Marxism that is of limited use to changing today’s historical conditions (e.g. neo-liberal precarity, globalised divisions of labour, the importance of non-european repertoires of collective action in the global south above the European and american history of bureaucratic unions).

Another weakness is in his conclusions. I did mention that the prescritptiveness of ‘how to change the world’ is a bit deceptive. Still, Hobsbawm does pick out two main ‘conclusions’ from the historical narrative: (1) Marxism will(/should) continue to be of relevance; and (2) the importance of the Party. On both counts, the case for these conclusions has manifestly not been made. The only basis somebody could have for arriving at these conclusions from the book would be an implicit logic of, ‘well it is has been important in the past, ergo it shall continue to be important’. I would expect a bit more intelligence from an intellectual giant like Hobsbawm.

That being said, apart from these weaknesses – which admittedly would be difficult to address: how can one ‘comprehensively summarise’ such a large topic, and how can one ‘conclude’ anything concrete and definitive in an evolving history of our own making like this – the book is an absolutely fascinating read. Both because of Hobsbawm’s mastery of subject and his gift of being able to write in an accessible and engaging style, and because the subject itself is such an important one for the left. Of all books on Marxism that are not in graphic novel format, How to change the world is probably one of the most engaging and easy to read. For anybody finding themselves forced into struggle in these times, I recommend you acquire yourself a copy, but draw your own conclusions and don’t take his at face value.

Best of September

2016_09-dignity-cannot-be-imprisoned
“Dignity can’t be imprisoned” – banner drop in Korydallos Prison in Athens in solidarity with prison strike in US. Image from insurrectionnews.

The event of the month this month in my opinion is the prison strike in the US. I’m not getting great coverage of it here but the following articles are worth sharing: a good introduction piece here about slave labour and the prison industrial complex and the organising (or lack thereof) which led up to September 9th, although it was published on the first day of the strike so probably out of date at this stage and doesn’t really tell us anything about what happened. A more recent discussion article about reasons why women prisoners are not joining the strike in large numbers (yet!), most of the reasons rooted in patriarchal nature of grievances and tactics, and an exploration of ‘everyday resistance’ and how the movement might strategise around this. And finally a really useful summary of events day-by-day, and and most importantly with resources for how you can help. Support-wise, it is a bit US focused, but there are somethings there that people elsewhere can use. As I said, with lack of media interest it is kind of difficult keeping track of what is going on there. If somebody does have some good overview readings on the strike – preferably ones that don’t rely on the US dept of justice or other official sources for their info – then please do share.

On the same note, I haven’t come across any really good writings on the protests following the latest killings of black lives by police in the US, so please share if you have one or two to recommend.

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A huge demonstration against racism in Helsinki following a recent murder by militant far right group. Image by @yonatankelib.

The best thing I read this month came out just on the last day of September: a piece written by a group of militant organisers trying to organise among the low-wage immigrant working class in London. The focus of the article is about a text written in the 1970s by a US group – the Sojourner Truth Organisation – who had similar objectives, on the subject of how race and class intersect and the challenges this poses for collective consciousness. The London group discuss how the Sojourner Truth Org document is relevant and not in their context, what potential and problems there is for race-focused campaigns in London (such as Black Lives Matters in the US), and what are their principal challenges to organising with immigrant workers in racist UK.

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Although not as lively as the strikes that brought France to a standstill in June, the movement against the Loi Travail continues. Image liberated from Liberation.

And another late post is the transcript of a 1994 talk about similarities between Marx and Kropotkin, and their shared visions of moneyless, stateless communism. Fair play to the libcom library crew for digging this one out.

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Demonstration in Poland in June against restrictive abortion laws. Polish women are to initiate a work stoppage Monday 3rd October in response to recent proposals to further restrict and criminalise abortion – essentially a complete ban. Image shared from Lebedev’s notindependent.co.uk.

Elsewhere:

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Banner to commemorate Abdelssalam Eldanf. Shared from Struggles in Italy.
2016_09-ni-saoirse-go-saoirse-na-mban
Two YPJ (Womens Defense Units) soldiers take a break from defending Rojava’s experiment in autonomous democratic confederalism from both ISIL and Turkey to raise fists in solidarity with Irish campaign to legalise abortion. The sign reads in Irish “There is no Liberation without Womens Liberation”, above “Repeal the 8th”, a reference to the 8th amendment to the irish constitution outlawing abortion. Image shared from wsm.ie.

 

Book review: New Forms of Worker Organization – The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism

New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism

Edited by Immanuel Ness
Published by PM Press
new_forms_of_worker_organization
Image taken from the publishers, PM Press

The title and subject matter advertise themselves. The editor, Immanuel Ness, previously did a book on self-management factory councils as co-editor – both subjects could hardly be more grounded in emancipatory anti-capitalist activism by the very people most exploited by it. And then there is the forward by Staughton Lynd, all of which make it an easy sale. Nevertheless, I was kind of sceptical. It looked like the authors are researchers rather than union activists writing about their own struggles. And although the chapter layout tries to present a global reach by splitting the book into chapters on case studies from the Global South and then from the Global North, the latter looks it it is more or less confined to the Anglo-Saxon world – aside from one Chapter on Sweden’s SAC, the rest come from the US, UK, Australia, and the US again.

I started reading the Introductory Chapter, which starts by arguing that capitalism and labour struggles around the world today have more in common to 1910s and 1930s USA than any other heyday, and so he proceeded to sketch a history of the IWW, and competing ideas around autonomist and syndicalist unions. Not only is this most likely the other way around (i.e. He knows about subject X, therefore he frames the intro to make subject X relevant) but the whole thing seemed horribly Western-centric and Modernist – implying that the 3rd World has to develop out of poverty through catching up and emulating the 1st World in everything they do, even in how they do anti-capitalism. After reading the next two theoretical chapters on the Autnomia Operaia movement in Italy in the 1970s and on contemporary China, I was left with a thorough idea about about what the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base did not look like, but no idea what they did look like, and I understood all about the historical causes of the Tonghua Antiprivatisation Struggle, but nothing about the struggle itself. The whole thing just seemed opportunistic on part of a US academic and his network who wanted to make their areas of expertise appear relevant to real-world grassroots struggles.

I had previously read Ours to Master and to Own, a book which claims to be accessible and of interest to the Working Class, but in reality sticks rigidly to the form of academic writing, complete with theoretical framework sections, laborious citations, dry reporting style and cross-sectional researcher positionality, all of which serve to allow authors to convince other authors how much they know but just obstruct ordinary readers. (although, there is a lot to be said for that book, but that is for a different review). But then at some point I started to read the Chapter on mineworkers struggles in South Africa, written in a narrative style and searching for lessons to answer those dilemmas that the author as an activist is confronted with. And then there was revolutionary labour and community unionist struggles in Colombia and self-organised subway workers union starting to understand their power to cripple capital accumulation across all of Buenes Aires when they withdraw their collective labour. Both chapters written by people close to the struggle, and in the case of the Colombian Chapter, composed largely of threads of emails which tell the story as it unfolds in the words of union members and their supporters.

And it just got better from there. Chapters from Sweden and the UK tell enthralling stories of the 100 year history of Sweden’s syndicalist union and of the struggles, strikes, solidarity and splits amoung self-organised immigrant cleaners in the UK who set up an IWW local. But the keynote Chapter for me is that of Erik Forman, recounting his story of attempts to get their IWW union recognised in a chain of fast-food franchise restaurants in Minneapolis. This is the best Chapter, not only because the author is the closest to the struggle (working in the restaurant and one of the main initiators of the formation of the union) but moreso because it is written in a gripping, engaging style and because the adrenaline-filling episodes are interspersed with the author drawing on historical examples of union organising, his understanding of capitalism and the problems with mainstream unions and the challenges and dilemmas faced by alternative solidarity unions such as his.

With these case-focussed chapters taken in, the more theory-oriented ones on Australia, Italy, and the US, become much more relevant. I think I will go back and read them again to get a better idea of autonomist theory: how the Working Class rather than Capital can – and should – set the pace of capitalist crisis and why this insight is important. As a whole, what I have taken from this book is the suggestion that while the decline in union membership over the last two decades is usually lamented by the left, this might actually present an opportunity to relaunch a dormant class war as people confronting their circumstances are no longer channelled into impotent bureaucracies (and incidentally, the recent unionising and (by definition) wildcat strikes by uber and deliveroo workers (‘contractors’) in London seems to confirm this: they managed to organise strikes in under 24 hours in part because there was no official union on account of them not being legally employed). Also, most importantly, at a time when the capitalist class look they have won the battle ideas and weathered their worst crisis in history, this book shows (not argues) that the struggle for democratic control over the means of production is still as relevant as it ever was. In short, I thoroughly recommend this book, but maybe start with the middle chapters instead of the early ones.

Best of August

The civil war in Syria gets worse, with Assad seeing success with his strategy of starving territory back into control, and Turkey crossing the border. Yet again, the establishment media has done little more than regurgitate the official spin: that Turkey is responding to the ISIL terrorist attack on its territory by committing ground troops to the fight against them in Syria. When in fact, the bomb attack was in (Turkey-occupied) Kurdistan, at the wedding of a Kurdish political activist, which was used by Turkey as an excuse to implement a plan it had drawn up not to fight ISIL but to attack the autonomist project of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava, who are the most successful grouping gaining back territory from ISIL. And the US has gone along with it and finally ended the uneasy ‘temporary’ relationship with the Kurds, possibly because they don’t want Turkey getting closer to Russia, possibly because they too see the Rojava autonomist project as a threat, probably both. Either way, it shows that for the US and Turkey alike, fighting terrorism is less of a priority than imperialist hegemony. See this and this articles on the deal.

2016_08 Puerto Rican graffitti
Puerto Rican street art by La Puerta collective calling for a revolution against US colonialism. Image from ROAR.

Workers at two app-facilitated, conditions-destroying delivery companies in London have opened an important front in precarity-capitalism by organising wildcat strikes – not because they are radical anarchists who say fuck unions and class collaborationist process, but because they aren’t actually allowed to have a union, and as ‘contractors’ they don’t officially work there, so wildcat is the only way they can get together and strike. An important fightback against capital and the propaganda of the ‘sharing economy’. As Carlos Delclos from ROAR puts it, “Companies like Uber and Amazon Mechanical Turk privatized the [mutual aid]-style networking that allows these workers to earn a living, and then challenged governments to adapt their legal structures to their “no-benefits” employment scheme”. See these pieces on the Uber eats strike here and here, and this earlier one on the Deliveroo strike.

Also in England, following the disgraceful behaviour of Byron, a hamburger chain that exploited undocumented workers for years and then rounded them up and turned them over to the immigration police, a group in the National Health Service calling themselves ‘Docs not Cops’ is organising to make hospitals and health facilities no-immigration-police-zones and to refuse them access to medical data. A good article was posted on Novara about them. And Red Pepper ran this article damning the Chilcot enquiry for purposefully avoiding questions on the real motives for the war in Iraq, and the role of private corporations and lobyists in pushing the invasion agenda. Nice to see this, because I was getting fairly sick of hearing the media call the Chilcot report ‘damning’ and peddling its face-saving language (e.g. saying Blair ‘exaggerated’ the threat from Iraq, when in truth he made it up, etc).

2016_08 Pretoria protest
Protest by students at a formerly white-only school in Pretoria, South Africa, where a ban on afros is the trigger leading to outburst, but only the latest of a series of policies that has led students to connect the dots of institutional racism. “That is what forces us to realise that no matter how hard we work or how well we speak, we remain black. That is what forces us to realise that we are still niggers. That is what forces ‘coconuts’ to become conscious”. Photo from Daily Maverick.

Elsewhere,

2016_08 Chinese anti-racist protest in France
French-Chinese community in Paris organise and take to the streets to protest against violent, anti-Chinese  racist violence following recent murder. Image from Liberation.fr

And finally an excellent intersectionalist analysis queering marxism – looking at the many ways heteronormative society pushes LGBT*Q people into precarity. I usually don’t like overly materialist left-wing analysis because they tend to reduce form of oppression to just the economic impact, but this one does a great job.

Statements by Uber Eats strikers in London

An important front has been opened in the struggle against precaritisation as workers – ‘contractors’ – at two restaurant delivery companies have self-organised and launched wildcat strikes (wildcat by definition: as the workers are not legally employed, there is no legal process for calling strikes). Below two statements from the Uber-eats workers, which can be found on the United Voices of the World Union fb page. Anybody in London or England try to support these guys any way you can.

The first a by-now-out-of-date call to strike and for support, listing their main grievances; the second, demands for reinstatement of the first victim of the anti-union purges.

“***BREAKING NEWS***
UberEATS COURIERS STRIKE FOR LONDON LIVING WAGE
>> #UberEATSstrike rally Friday at 14:30 at Black Swan Yard SE1, in South London. <<
(Full details below)

– Couriers strike on Friday to demand London Living Wage of £9.40 per hour plus costs.
– Workers say they cannot live off ‘poverty wages’, and call for an end to considerable disparities in pay for peak and off-peak pay.
– Rates have been cut from £20 per hour in June to £3.30 per delivery or less on a commission-only basis during off-peak hours.
– Drivers will rally on Friday at 14:30 at Black Swan Yard SE1, in South London.

Couriers at the UberEATS food delivery firm have declared an all-day wildcat strike on Friday unless the company reverses pay cuts and implements payment rates equivalent to a living wage of £9.40 per hour, plus costs. UberEATS has drastically reduced couriers’ rates since opening in London in June. The company, which offers no guaranteed minimum income, pays £3.30 per delivery or less during off-peak hours and approximately £6.30 to £7.30 per delivery during peak hours, minus a 25 per cent transaction fee and costs.

Couriers say this pay structure causes vast pay discrepancies between peak and off-peak hours for the same work, and means different drivers are paid unequally for the same hours. Workers who joined UberEATS on the offer of £20 per hour have been dismayed by this rapid drop to insecure piece rates and are demanding a guaranteed pay equal to the London Living Wage, the minimum required to survive above the poverty line in the capital.

Couriers and supporters will assemble for a strike rally at 14:30 on Friday in Black Swan Yard at Bermondsey Street SE1, in South London.”

The first response of the management was to sack (‘de-acticvate’) the first leader they could see emerging. Naturally his re-instatement was added to the list of demands.

“Listen to the inspiring Imran Siddiqui explain how he has been “deactivated” (aka sacked) by Uber Eats in retaliation to his elected role as lead organiser and spokesman of the Uber Eats drivers who are currently on stirke and are asking to be paid a living wage.

Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association are human rights, however Uber would obviously rather violate their drivers’ human rights rather than pay them a living wage.

Uber might think that by taking out the leader the rest of the drivers will give up and get back to work, but Imran’s sacking has only hardened their resolve and the drivers are now more united than ever and gearing up for what is looking likely to be a protracted battle, and one that will only end in victory for the drivers!

We demand the reactivation (reinstatement) of Imran now!”

To watch the video follow this link.

The new world of precarious work and its right wing cheerleaders

A few years back I found myself in a training called “Career Development and Planning” (with the implicit subtitle ‘how to sell yourself’) where we were shown a video, which was a series of graphic presentations of various statistics and messages relating to a paradigm shift towards the New World of Work, set to a soundtrack evoking haunting optimism with MGMT’s do do do do-do do do do doooooo. The message was that the Generation Y workforce is an empowered generation who have through their technology-mediated consumer lifestyles acquired more skills and tools than workplaces can offer. The nature of work is being continuously transformed (supposedly through their amazing innovation) to the extent that:

“The top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. Using technologies that haven’t been invented yet in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet”.

The video would have us believe that this rapid rate of transformation is due to how the ‘Gen Y’ers’ use technology in their social lives to make everything they do ultra efficient, and that they are taking this approach with them into work. And here lies the rump of the emergent paradigm shift that supposedly ‘our Leaders’ are not ready for: this Generation Y workforce has also acquired certain expectations, four in particular, from their consumer lifestyle which they are demanding be incorporated into the new world of work in order to realise their ultra-high levels of productivity. These expectations are to Collaborate, Connect, Co-create, and Control/personalise their work.

That first time I was shown the video, the trainer started to tell us that we should have nothing to worry about in terms of the crisis. The recovery was coming, and when it comes, all those companies are going to be falling over each other to be a ‘talent magnet’ and to give Gen-Y the freedom to do some great work. The magical feel-good enchantment of MGMT was still lingering in the room, when one guy asked “what level of education would this apply to?”. And then like a riskless speculation orgy the bubble was burst when the trainer responded “well of course, this is aimed at higher end graduates from higher education institutions”. The frankness elucidated by this question was a welcome break from the self-congratulatory delusions that the training was trying to educate us to have. Neither the video nor the trainer thought it important to specify that when they referred to Generation Y, they actually were only referring to the upper middle class of that generation. Should we take it then that work practices of the lower 70% odd who don’t really matter, is their work practices the same old? Of course not, and there sits one of the most disturbing things about this sort of right-wing sentiment. Behind these declarations of emancipated self-management utopian labour paradigm – strictly for those who can afford it, mind you – is the reality of how ideological constructions of efficiency, and flexibalisation are used as a basis for an ongoing neoliberalisation of wage labour – this time for those who can’t afford it.

Capitalism in Marx’s day was characterised by a contradiction between the forces of Capital and Labour, materialised in the struggle between capitalists and workers over the labour process on the factory floor. At some stage came an innovation in the organisation of capitalism which has allowed the capitalist to excuse himself from the struggle: firms were put into the hands of ‘managers’ who’s wages would be tied to the profit rate of the firm, thus in effect enlisting the manager on the side of Capital. Freed from the immediacy of organising the firm, the capitalist was then free to manage his multiple investments, and with that came a new phase: finance capitalism. What is now happening with the current restructuring of work and the expansion in precarious labour is that workers themselves are being enlisted on the side of Capital – you are your own manager – internalising the contradiction between Capital and Labour – it’s your choice whether you want to reward or screw yourself, now or later. In this neo-liberated world of work you can personalise what short-term jobs you apply for, you can co-create ways to save money by working longer for less, you can connect with management because you are your own manager, and you can collaborate … wherever.

Well actually, somebody you cannot collaborate with so much is other workers. Union membership is plummeting in recent decades, and while one factor behind this might well be the way mainstream unions have been organising and arguably on the side of Capital, another undeniable factor is that Capital no longer concentrates workers in such a way that makes it easy for them to organise. In the European context, you can distinguish between three different groups of precarious workers – the graduates without a future, the informal and otherwise unprotected (often immigrant or under age), and the traditional working class. Although these latter two groups largely experience worse material deprivation and precarity is not a new condition, I’m going to focus more on the first group because in asking what hope is there for Labour resistance against Capital in this landscape the graduates without a future hold a particularly contradictory position.

Organisation faces a series of practical obstacles. Because many are unemployed, working in temporary positions, or have joined the self-employed race to the bottom, workplace unionising is not a valid route for obvious reasons. Worse, in the permanent state of short-term and underpaid contracts, any kind of labour activity is a bit of a non-starter, because as a self-manager you will be well aware that the shitty wages are compensated for by the experience you are gaining, which your next gig depends on – so don’t do anything to fuck this one up. But at a more ideological level, this state of precarity is often sold to Gen-Y’ers as temporary, and that in the future they will be rewarded for their hard work, which many manager-selves take to heart and expect to someday earn 6-figure salaries, possibly working as the financial fuckers of the future – the same class of people who made the crisis for everybody else. What hope is there for solidarity and class consciousness when you are grouped with these people?

A few years ago I was doing one of these stints in an investment bank (don’t ask me how I got in, all I know is they didn’t keep me very long). But there were around 50 to 60 interns there at any given time. When I was talking to any of them everybody had the same set of complaints about the life of the intern – shitty wages, getting screwed on rent because only cowboy landlords take short-term renters, not knowing what would happen next, working extra-hard because you need a good reference, having to continuously start from zero at each new place, being far away from loved ones, and in some cases facing the possibility of not being able to have children if things don’t pick up soon, as well as a host of issues specific to working at that particular bank. Almost everybody, even the finance prodigies shared some sort of story around some of these issues when going for a beer or having a cigarette. As I saw it, Capital was forcing us to screw ourselves at these jobs, which the company justified by saying there was no funds for full positions, only these legally obscure, sub-minimum wage internships for which they received external funding on a project-by-project basis. But my reasoning was that if you took away those 50-60 people (by legal re-classification or by strike) there is no way the bank could continue functioning without having to hire some new staff – US. In other words, acting as individuals on these once-off, semi-legal contracts led to us being classed as non-official participants, without any kind of employment rights, and therefore experiencing all these issues outlined above and ultimately undermining employment prospects for us as a category. To address any of this in whatever small way, we would have to be recognised, and recognise ourselves, as a collectivity rather than a set of one-off individuals.

Actually, in one way, the interns were organised – they had this informal elected position of coordinator, whose job it was to organise social events etc. I’m not dissing the importance of something like this for people whose lives are totally out of sync with the pace of the different places they have to inhabit short-term. Being able to quickly make friends and mutual support networks is a basic survival strategy. But I was hoping for more, and used to test the waters by from time to time suggesting couldn’t we organise other things apart from socialising, for instance all those things that everybody is always complaining about. I would only throw out these comments in small groups in a pub or at lunch to see what the general feeling was, but overall there was no appetite there – seeds would not take root in this soil.

So I spent about 6 months wondering how people could so strongly identify elements of a common class experience, but have no inclination for collective identification or organising around them. And what I was suggesting was far from radical – just interest-representation, not any kind of action. I would usually suggest the idea of having the coordinator or somebody else try to ‘liaise’ with management about certain intern-issues. All very corporate-friendly but still no interest in talking about the complaints that everybody faced beyond the context of social conversation. Until one evening one of the interns committed suicide. The management at the bank decided they needed to ‘address’ this and hastily called a meeting to ‘hear’ from the interns about how life was working there. This meeting took place less than 24 hours after the suicide so it lacked a clear sense of purpose or structure. And in my opinion this was the greatest aspect of it. Because after some caginess in the beginning, one-by-one the complaints started to be shared, and once that started, everybody started wanting to share their story. For the first time, WE talked about OUR working conditions, sometimes very specifically, sometimes more generally. Was this the start of something? Could the grads without future develop class consciousness and an understanding of the system that put us where we were? Would we be able to stand in solidarity with one another? Could we even start to think about the next step and stand in solidarity with informal and traditional working classes?

I don’t know what happened next because my time there came to an end soon after and I was on a Eurolines out of there. But I doubt much changed in the years since. The bank probably reframed the issue somewhere along the corporate friendly lines of one of the closing statements in the new world of work video: “So ask yourself, How easy do we make it for our Gen Y’ers to do great work? Are we embracing their ability to Control, Co-create; Connect, and Collaborate”. I imagine 95% percent of the interns there at the time have also moved on. I don’t know if many of them have retained this memory of almost-collective, but I’m pretty sure those lucky enough to have started their meteoric rise in the corporate and financial world won’t be looking back for notes on how to start building class solidarity.

It’s sad of course sad that it took a suicide for the bank to start paying any attention to how it exploits this underpaid unofficial workforce. But also sad that it took a largely insincere response to this suicide on part of management for us to finally take our thoughts on the experience of precarity from just coffee or beer talk to a semi-organisational forum and from peer-to-peer to we. While there are clearly practical barriers I would say it is culture which poses the greatest obstacle to pracarious organising as a first baby step to anti-Capital Labour. In one way I suppose the subjectivities created by new technologies and social media relations are not so conducive to collective-thinking. But more than that I think it is the right-wing shite that students are fed – sorry, educated – convincing them to self-identify as talent managers rather than workers. But then I suppose that makes sense as universities will teach people to side with Capital rather than Labour. The only way to confront this is through unlearning it in the university of life, the slow and difficult process that it is.