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xiv

There can be no question that Marx saw far beyond the horizon of his century and that Capital, as the Economist (which Marx read faithfully) pointed out a few years back, remains startlingly contemporary even in the age of Walmart and Google. But in other cases Marx’s vision was limited by the anomalous character of his chronological niche: arguably the most peaceful period of European history in a thousand years. Colonial interventions aside, liberal London-centered capitalism did not seem structurally to require large-scale inter-state warfare as a condition of its reproduction or as the inevitable result of its contradictions. He died, of course, before the new imperialism of the late 1880s and 1890s led to zero-sum conflicts amongst the major powers for shares of the world market. Nor could Marx, even after the massacre of the Communards, have possibly foreseen the horrific price that counter-revolution in the next century, including Thermidorean Stalinism, would exact from rank-and-file anarchists, socialists, and communists: at least 7–8 million dead.7 Since the youngest and most politically conscious tended always to be in the front lines, these repeated decimations of the vanguard entailed incalculable consequences—ones that have been almost entirely ignored by historians.

—p.xiv Preface: Marx at the Chicken Shack (ix) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

There can be no question that Marx saw far beyond the horizon of his century and that Capital, as the Economist (which Marx read faithfully) pointed out a few years back, remains startlingly contemporary even in the age of Walmart and Google. But in other cases Marx’s vision was limited by the anomalous character of his chronological niche: arguably the most peaceful period of European history in a thousand years. Colonial interventions aside, liberal London-centered capitalism did not seem structurally to require large-scale inter-state warfare as a condition of its reproduction or as the inevitable result of its contradictions. He died, of course, before the new imperialism of the late 1880s and 1890s led to zero-sum conflicts amongst the major powers for shares of the world market. Nor could Marx, even after the massacre of the Communards, have possibly foreseen the horrific price that counter-revolution in the next century, including Thermidorean Stalinism, would exact from rank-and-file anarchists, socialists, and communists: at least 7–8 million dead.7 Since the youngest and most politically conscious tended always to be in the front lines, these repeated decimations of the vanguard entailed incalculable consequences—ones that have been almost entirely ignored by historians.

—p.xiv Preface: Marx at the Chicken Shack (ix) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
xvi

In the epilogue to my 2006 book Planet of Slums, I asked: To what extent does the informal proletariat, the most rapidly growing global class, possess that most potent of Marxist talismans, “historical agency”? Although I was not aware of it at the time, Eric Hobsbawm had asked exactly the same question in an interview given in 1995. (He is quoted at the beginning of the next chapter.) Neoliberal globalization over the last generation has recharged the meaning of the “wretched of the earth.” Hobsbawm’s “gray area of the informal economy” has expanded by almost 1 billion people since his interview, and we should probably subsume the “informal proletariat” within a broader category that includes all of those who eke out survival by day labor, “micro-entrepreneurship,” and subsistence crime; who toil unprotected by laws, unions, or job contracts; who work outside of socialized complexes such as factories, hospitals, schools, ports, and the like; or simply wander lost in the desert of structural unemployment. There are three crucial questions: (1) What are the possibilities for class consciousness in these informal or peripheral sectors of economies? (2) How can movements, say, of slum-dwellers, the technologically deskilled, or the unemployed find power resources—equivalent, for example, to the ability of formal workers to shut down large units of production—that might allow them to struggle successfully for social transformation? and (3) What kinds of united action are possible between traditional working-class organization and the diverse humanity of the “gray area”? [...]

—p.xvi Preface: Marx at the Chicken Shack (ix) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

In the epilogue to my 2006 book Planet of Slums, I asked: To what extent does the informal proletariat, the most rapidly growing global class, possess that most potent of Marxist talismans, “historical agency”? Although I was not aware of it at the time, Eric Hobsbawm had asked exactly the same question in an interview given in 1995. (He is quoted at the beginning of the next chapter.) Neoliberal globalization over the last generation has recharged the meaning of the “wretched of the earth.” Hobsbawm’s “gray area of the informal economy” has expanded by almost 1 billion people since his interview, and we should probably subsume the “informal proletariat” within a broader category that includes all of those who eke out survival by day labor, “micro-entrepreneurship,” and subsistence crime; who toil unprotected by laws, unions, or job contracts; who work outside of socialized complexes such as factories, hospitals, schools, ports, and the like; or simply wander lost in the desert of structural unemployment. There are three crucial questions: (1) What are the possibilities for class consciousness in these informal or peripheral sectors of economies? (2) How can movements, say, of slum-dwellers, the technologically deskilled, or the unemployed find power resources—equivalent, for example, to the ability of formal workers to shut down large units of production—that might allow them to struggle successfully for social transformation? and (3) What kinds of united action are possible between traditional working-class organization and the diverse humanity of the “gray area”? [...]

—p.xvi Preface: Marx at the Chicken Shack (ix) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
7

At a high level of abstraction, the current period of globalization is defined by a trilogy of ideal-typical economies: super-industrial (coastal East Asia), financial/tertiary (North Atlantic), and hyper-urbanizing/extractive (West Africa). “Jobless growth” is incipient in the first, chronic in the second, and virtually absolute in the third. We might add a fourth ideal-type of disintegrating societies, caught in a vice of war and climate change, whose chief trend is the export of refugees and migrant labor. In any event, we can no longer rely on a single paradigmatic society or class to model the critical vectors of historical development. Imprudent coronations of abstractions like “the multitude” as historical subjects simply dramatize a poverty of empirical research. Contemporary Marxism must be able to scan the future from the simultaneous perspectives of Shenzhen, Los Angeles, and Lagos if it wants to solve the puzzle of how heterodox social categories might be fitted together in a single resistance to capitalism.

—p.7 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

At a high level of abstraction, the current period of globalization is defined by a trilogy of ideal-typical economies: super-industrial (coastal East Asia), financial/tertiary (North Atlantic), and hyper-urbanizing/extractive (West Africa). “Jobless growth” is incipient in the first, chronic in the second, and virtually absolute in the third. We might add a fourth ideal-type of disintegrating societies, caught in a vice of war and climate change, whose chief trend is the export of refugees and migrant labor. In any event, we can no longer rely on a single paradigmatic society or class to model the critical vectors of historical development. Imprudent coronations of abstractions like “the multitude” as historical subjects simply dramatize a poverty of empirical research. Contemporary Marxism must be able to scan the future from the simultaneous perspectives of Shenzhen, Los Angeles, and Lagos if it wants to solve the puzzle of how heterodox social categories might be fitted together in a single resistance to capitalism.

—p.7 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
7

Even the most preliminary tasks are daunting. A new theory of revolution, to begin with, begs benchmarks in the old, starting with clarification of “proletarian agency” in classical socialist thought. In the first instance, of course, self-consciousness of agency preceded theory. The faith that “labor will inherit the earth” and that “the International will be the human race” did not rest on doctrine but arose volcanically from struggles for bread and dignity. Workers’ belief in their collective power to effect radical change, whose deep roots were located in the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, was amply ratified by the fears and nightmares of the Victorian bourgeoisie. (Although this is an obvious fact, not a small number of Marx’s critics have charged at one time or another that revolutionary agency was nothing more than a metaphysical invention, a Hegelian hobgoblin, foisted upon working masses whose actions were actually dictated by simple utilitarian calculation.)

—p.7 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Even the most preliminary tasks are daunting. A new theory of revolution, to begin with, begs benchmarks in the old, starting with clarification of “proletarian agency” in classical socialist thought. In the first instance, of course, self-consciousness of agency preceded theory. The faith that “labor will inherit the earth” and that “the International will be the human race” did not rest on doctrine but arose volcanically from struggles for bread and dignity. Workers’ belief in their collective power to effect radical change, whose deep roots were located in the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, was amply ratified by the fears and nightmares of the Victorian bourgeoisie. (Although this is an obvious fact, not a small number of Marx’s critics have charged at one time or another that revolutionary agency was nothing more than a metaphysical invention, a Hegelian hobgoblin, foisted upon working masses whose actions were actually dictated by simple utilitarian calculation.)

—p.7 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
21

Such an enumeration of capacities might be amended or extended in various ways, but Marx’s central premise remains: that the sum of these capacities acquired in struggle is a realistic potential for self-emancipation and revolution. The conditions which confer capacity, we should recall, can be either structural or conjunctural. The first arise from the proletariat’s position in the mode of production; for example the possibility, if nothing more, of organizing mass strikes that shut down production in entire cities, industries, and even nations. The second is limited to historical stages or episodes, and is ultimately transient: as, for example, the stubborn maintenance of informal control over the labor process by late-Victorian engineering workers and ship-builders which survived until the First World War and the adoption of new production methods. The conjunctural can also denote the intersection of unsynchronized histories, such as the persistence of absolutism in the middle period of industrialization, which led in Europe to the potent convergence of suffrage struggles and industrial conflict—not the case in North America.

—p.21 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Such an enumeration of capacities might be amended or extended in various ways, but Marx’s central premise remains: that the sum of these capacities acquired in struggle is a realistic potential for self-emancipation and revolution. The conditions which confer capacity, we should recall, can be either structural or conjunctural. The first arise from the proletariat’s position in the mode of production; for example the possibility, if nothing more, of organizing mass strikes that shut down production in entire cities, industries, and even nations. The second is limited to historical stages or episodes, and is ultimately transient: as, for example, the stubborn maintenance of informal control over the labor process by late-Victorian engineering workers and ship-builders which survived until the First World War and the adoption of new production methods. The conjunctural can also denote the intersection of unsynchronized histories, such as the persistence of absolutism in the middle period of industrialization, which led in Europe to the potent convergence of suffrage struggles and industrial conflict—not the case in North America.

—p.21 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
39

Meanwhile the mass craft occupations and the out-work economy continued to flourish alongside the factory system for most of the nineteenth century and into the next. The Great Exhibition of 1851, Raphael Samuel once pointed out, may have glorified the age of steam-powered machinery, but the sixteen acres of glass (300,000 panes) that clothed the Crystal Palace were blown by hand. Indeed, as factory production and imported grain displaced artisans and farm laborers, the “superabundance of labour … encouraged capitalists to engage in capital-saving rather than labour-saving investment”—a negative feedback loop that slowed the pace of mechanization while vastly expanding the ranks of sweated and casual labor. The development of the labor process under capital followed a logic of uneven and combined development even in the most advanced societies.

—p.39 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Meanwhile the mass craft occupations and the out-work economy continued to flourish alongside the factory system for most of the nineteenth century and into the next. The Great Exhibition of 1851, Raphael Samuel once pointed out, may have glorified the age of steam-powered machinery, but the sixteen acres of glass (300,000 panes) that clothed the Crystal Palace were blown by hand. Indeed, as factory production and imported grain displaced artisans and farm laborers, the “superabundance of labour … encouraged capitalists to engage in capital-saving rather than labour-saving investment”—a negative feedback loop that slowed the pace of mechanization while vastly expanding the ranks of sweated and casual labor. The development of the labor process under capital followed a logic of uneven and combined development even in the most advanced societies.

—p.39 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
44

Certainly, Marx acknowledged a “historical and moral element” in the constitution of wages, as well as victories for the “political economy of the working class such as the ten-hour day.” Likewise, the level of “necessary needs,” as Michael Lebowitz rightly insists, is “the product of class struggle,” not a fixed physiological minimum; and, in turn, the qualitative growth of the “standard of necessity” helps drive the economic class struggle forward.109 But Marx believed that such gains and the new needs they created would be cyclically eroded by crises, whose tendency was to become more general and destructive over time.

—p.44 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Certainly, Marx acknowledged a “historical and moral element” in the constitution of wages, as well as victories for the “political economy of the working class such as the ten-hour day.” Likewise, the level of “necessary needs,” as Michael Lebowitz rightly insists, is “the product of class struggle,” not a fixed physiological minimum; and, in turn, the qualitative growth of the “standard of necessity” helps drive the economic class struggle forward.109 But Marx believed that such gains and the new needs they created would be cyclically eroded by crises, whose tendency was to become more general and destructive over time.

—p.44 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
47

But solidarity, as noted earlier, is not directly endowed by factory relations of production; equally, class consciousness, as David Montgromery reminds us, “is always a project.” Workers in new industries or plants are initially atomized: a competitive situation that capitalists attempt to prolong through favoritism, piecework wages, and gender/ethnic divisions of labor. In the cases, common in nineteenth-century iron works and shipyards, where bosses “contracted in”—that is to say, allowed groups of skilled workers to bid on jobs and hire their own laborers—craft autonomy included a managerial dimension, leading at the extreme to co-exploitation of laborers and the unskilled. The Hobbesian factory or mill, as sociologist Katherine Archibald memorably argued in Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity (1947), might even be considered the default condition of industrial life.120 Accordingly, even the most elementary forms of solidarity must be consciously constructed, beginning with the informal work groups, defined by common tasks or skills, that are the nuclei out of which a plant society, or rather counter-society, is built.

—p.47 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

But solidarity, as noted earlier, is not directly endowed by factory relations of production; equally, class consciousness, as David Montgromery reminds us, “is always a project.” Workers in new industries or plants are initially atomized: a competitive situation that capitalists attempt to prolong through favoritism, piecework wages, and gender/ethnic divisions of labor. In the cases, common in nineteenth-century iron works and shipyards, where bosses “contracted in”—that is to say, allowed groups of skilled workers to bid on jobs and hire their own laborers—craft autonomy included a managerial dimension, leading at the extreme to co-exploitation of laborers and the unskilled. The Hobbesian factory or mill, as sociologist Katherine Archibald memorably argued in Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity (1947), might even be considered the default condition of industrial life.120 Accordingly, even the most elementary forms of solidarity must be consciously constructed, beginning with the informal work groups, defined by common tasks or skills, that are the nuclei out of which a plant society, or rather counter-society, is built.

—p.47 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
66

The national revolt began at the Pressed Steel (railroad) Car Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel in McKees Rocks, outside of Pittsburgh, where 5,000 workers from sixteen different national groups endured working conditions that would have appalled Czarist officials. According to the former coroner of Pittsburgh, “the Pressed Steel Car Company killed an average of one man a day at its works because of the speed-up system and the failure to protect machinery.” When the workers walked out in July 1909, the company’s president declared: “They’re dead to us. There are more than enough idle men in Pittsburgh to fill every vacancy.” The company immediately brought in armed strikebreakers, mounted state police, and the militia, panicking the small group of skilled American unionists involved in the strike. But, as Philip Foner explains in his history of the IWW, “a group of the foreign-born strikers … had experience in revolutionary and labor struggles in Europe. They realized early in the strike that only a vigorous, militant strategy would achieve victory.” They elected an “Unknown Committee” that synthesized the combined experience of the European veterans and kept the strike going despite mass arrests, a “Bloody Sunday” massacre, and evictions of strikers’ families. The company, which had dismissed the strikers as little more than ignorant “Hunkie” peasants, was actually fighting a sophisticated leadership of former Hungarian socialists, Italian anarchists, Swiss social democrats, blacklisted German metalworkers, and Russian revolutionaries. The Unknowns eventually affiliated the struggle with the IWW, which mounted a brilliant national solidarity campaign on the workers’ behalf, and in September the company capitulated.1

sick

—p.66 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

The national revolt began at the Pressed Steel (railroad) Car Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel in McKees Rocks, outside of Pittsburgh, where 5,000 workers from sixteen different national groups endured working conditions that would have appalled Czarist officials. According to the former coroner of Pittsburgh, “the Pressed Steel Car Company killed an average of one man a day at its works because of the speed-up system and the failure to protect machinery.” When the workers walked out in July 1909, the company’s president declared: “They’re dead to us. There are more than enough idle men in Pittsburgh to fill every vacancy.” The company immediately brought in armed strikebreakers, mounted state police, and the militia, panicking the small group of skilled American unionists involved in the strike. But, as Philip Foner explains in his history of the IWW, “a group of the foreign-born strikers … had experience in revolutionary and labor struggles in Europe. They realized early in the strike that only a vigorous, militant strategy would achieve victory.” They elected an “Unknown Committee” that synthesized the combined experience of the European veterans and kept the strike going despite mass arrests, a “Bloody Sunday” massacre, and evictions of strikers’ families. The company, which had dismissed the strikers as little more than ignorant “Hunkie” peasants, was actually fighting a sophisticated leadership of former Hungarian socialists, Italian anarchists, Swiss social democrats, blacklisted German metalworkers, and Russian revolutionaries. The Unknowns eventually affiliated the struggle with the IWW, which mounted a brilliant national solidarity campaign on the workers’ behalf, and in September the company capitulated.1

sick

—p.66 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago
93

Simultaneous with the last New York struggle, an even larger tenants’ strike broke out in the tenement (conventillo) districts of Buenos Aires, and by October 1907 an estimated 10 percent of the city’s population (about 120,000 residents) was refusing to pay rent to their landlords. The largely immigrant Argentine working class was the fastest growing in the world at the turn of the century, and Buenos Aires, which doubled its population in the decade after 1895, was an overcrowded boomtown where rack-renting was profligate. The more energetic of the country’s two labor federations, the anarchist Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA), had decided at its Sixth Congress in 1906 to encourage the formation of a tenant strike movement. The strikes a year later were largely unsuccessful in their immediate objectives, but, as James Baer emphasizes, were strategically important in mobilizing proletarian women and non-union workers for general strikes that were soon to follow.

sick

—p.93 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Simultaneous with the last New York struggle, an even larger tenants’ strike broke out in the tenement (conventillo) districts of Buenos Aires, and by October 1907 an estimated 10 percent of the city’s population (about 120,000 residents) was refusing to pay rent to their landlords. The largely immigrant Argentine working class was the fastest growing in the world at the turn of the century, and Buenos Aires, which doubled its population in the decade after 1895, was an overcrowded boomtown where rack-renting was profligate. The more energetic of the country’s two labor federations, the anarchist Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA), had decided at its Sixth Congress in 1906 to encourage the formation of a tenant strike movement. The strikes a year later were largely unsuccessful in their immediate objectives, but, as James Baer emphasizes, were strategically important in mobilizing proletarian women and non-union workers for general strikes that were soon to follow.

sick

—p.93 Old Gods, New Enigmas: Notes on Revolutionary Agency (1) by Mike Davis 5 months, 2 weeks ago