Review of “Workers Inquiry and global class struggle: strategies, tactics and objectives”, Richard Ovetz (ed), Pluto Press, 2020.
With even the quickest, most cursory look out of our socially isolated windows, we can see the ways in which the world and the way it’s organised is an almost constant state of change.
Despite decades of apparent Capitalist success in rolling back working class collectivity and organisation at the point of production, it would be wrong to erase the agency and role of our struggle against capitalist command and accumulation in this process of change or at any point in the history of Capitalism
The tradition of workers Inquiry was and is a political project to make visible this power of the working class but also to map out how that power works in the real world organisation of capital. It’s a tradition that starts from Marx’s basic survey that was barely circulated in 19th century France to the work of dissident Italian Marxists such as Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Romano Alquati and Antonio Negri who through their journals “Quaderni Rossi” and “Classe Operaia” in the 1960s and 1970s used the newly developed tools of post-war social sciences in an inverted sense, not to make capitalist management of the working class more efficient and to enhance exploitation but to understand the changes to Italian capitalism and how workers could and were already resisting their exploitation.
A new collection of essays titled “Workers enquiry and global class struggle” seeks to carry on this tradition. The essays seek to illustrate that “not only that class struggle has never ceased or gone underground during these (past) decades of defeat but also that workers have been experimenting with new forms of organisation, strategies and tactics that can be found inside, outside or in conflict with unions” across different national and international contexts.
It also stays faithful to the central idea of workers enquiry and the traditions of “Operaismo” from which it draws much inspiration that Capital is not the dynamic, transformative force as it’s portrayed but that it’s reacting to the struggle against capital and work of the proletariat: Capital can’t merely impose its will on us and its actions to shift investment and re-organise production (especially in the years of the neoliberal turn) can’t be fully understood without this insight.
The essays cover various countries, industries and various political and institutional contexts. Essays on logistics and transport workers in Turkey and Argentina chart the successes of workers with significant potential leverage over production. The essay on Italian warehouse struggle focuses on the mainly immigrant workforce and the ways that racism, gendered oppression and the border are used as a central means to ensuring exploitation and control and supressing wages (despite this the essay illustrates the ways workers overcome this through “alternative” union organising and community solidarity.)
Other essays look at newly industrialised areas in the global south like car workers in India and general workers organising in China both inside and outside official unions. Similarly, the chapter on South Africa analyses a situation where workers are organised into State integrated unions and have to create new unions that will actually fight.
Education sectors in the United States and Mexico that highlight two different ways that ruling class and Capital repress our struggles. Through choking our struggles through legal and bureaucratic means in the US and through brutal, extra-legal violence committed by the State or it’s agents in the case of Mexico.
The chapter on the UK is noteworthy as it’s written by a very interesting project called Notes from Below who are one of the most interesting groups using the political tools of workers enquiry to analyse class composition in the UK. NfB have a special interest in platform capitalism and the “gig economy”, understanding how precarious, disconnected and isolated workers with little interest from most mainstream unions use technology and social media platforms to organise and fight against their precarity. This chapter as well as other workers inquiry projects on their website and also the recently published “Class struggle on Zero Hours” by the Angry Workers brigade give a very complete picture of class composition of the British working class and what the possibilities are for its recomposition into forms that will challenge post-Brexit capitalism.
However, beyond providing a mere presentation of essays and inquiries that have already been completed. The editor Richard Ovetz has also set out the methodology and goals of a workers inquiry to encourage worker militants to engage in their own inquiries that go beyond mere questionnaires or small scale opinion polls.
He emphasises that a workers inquiry need to be carried out by workers themselves or with non-worker collaborators, to examine their own current class composition by analysing the organisation of work and how changes in that organisation fragment collective forms of work and struggle for the goal of decomposing workers power and that these inquiries are carried out to understand workers potential to recompose their power for disrupting and overcoming capitalist relations by understanding capitals weakness and choke points and knowing workers own points of power and weaknesses.
“Workers inquiry and global class struggle” lives up to this goal of inquiry not merely for documentation or intellectual curiosity.
What it does do is point to a dynamic, live tradition of workers using their collective knowledge of their workplace to map the terrain of capital, their workplaces and their place in the national and international division of labour from the perspective of workers and their struggle. Workers knowledge of the quantitative nature of the work and the qualitative experience of it must inform the forms of struggle of those same workers for there to be any kind of recomposition of workers power to fight for a life worth living.
Capital has an entire industry of planners and researchers to understand and forward its interests as a class, the WI tradition has sought and continues to seek to build a culture of planning and research in our hands and for our struggle.
Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle Strategies, Tactics, Objectives is available from Pluto Press.