Shut Up and Listen!
Voices of the precarious and why the radical left should listen to them: in conversation with two workers at loose ends
by Lotta D. Classe for ajour magazin (Switzerland)
9 April 2018 (original post in German)
“I want to take my life back into my own hands,” says Davide, more to himself than to us. We are sitting around on the aluminum chairs at Limmatplatz in Zurich, sharing a basket of fries. Davide and Lausil are telling us about their lives. Last night was cold: one slept in an entryway, the other was able to secure an out-of-the-way spot in the vicinity of a squat. Davide tells of his backpack being stolen. His work boots, gone. His cellphone, on which he reached his children, gone. Since then, Davide has been paying nine francs a day to store a suitcase of clean clothes in a train station locker. “My head is full,” he concludes. “There are too many thoughts, too many worries.”
Then there is the other side of the coin: the young Moroccan woman who always made sure he had bread and a blanket when he was sleeping on a bench. Or the experience of having made it this far, and knowing he can start over again in the next city. And finally the awareness of his own abilities, as a worker and otherwise.
“The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.” If radical leftists were actually to draw upon this Marxist dictum, wouldn't they be passionate about the lived realities, struggles, and modes of consciousness among proletarians? Unfortunately, the world of many radical leftists consists only of their own “scene”—an activist activities calendar, the project of building up some tiny communist party, or a party subculture (the other kind of party). These cultural milieus do engage in active deliberation over gender norms and the privileges of citizenship, and that is no small feat. It's about time, however, to begin reflecting more on the depredations of class society and our own position within it.
Back to the conversation on Limmatplatz. Davide takes a few fries and starts into his story: “I started working when I was eight.” His father was a journeyman mason, and used to take him along to work. At home, the man beat his two sons and his wife, who ultimately decided to go it alone with the two children. Despite a turbulent adolescence, Davide earned his hospitality industry certification at eighteen.
Lausil speaks Italian very quickly. He is one of seven siblings. His mother looked after the kids, his father was a street sweeper. In a “Berberville” on the Moroccan periphery, Lausil’s family was among the poorest. After three years of school, Lausil’s brother sent him to the next town over to work in a garment factory. After ten years of work, he suffered from asthma and could barely sleep at night. A doctor explained to him that he couldn’t work there anymore. On a tourist visa, Lausil made it to France and then Italy. The garment factory was eventually moved to China.
As a “clandestino,” Lausil worked a year and a half in Italian agriculture. For a pittance, he picked tomatoes, apples, and strawberries bound for the shelves of European supermarkets. After naturalizing in the early 1990s, he wound up in the factories of northern Italy, making, among other things, Grissini crackers and packaging. Then, after the global financial crisis of 2007, his prospects were wiped out. Since then he’s been living on the street and looking for work. He first came to Switzerland in 2016; he already knows Zurich like the back of his hand, and knows where to go for most things. “Food, clothes, and showers are no problem here. But a place to sleep…that is a problem!” Recently, the airport had all the houseless people removed from its public areas. “Those private security guards are evil! Write that down! They threw everyone out—they hit a disabled person!” Lausil rages.
Davide and Lausil are telling their own stories of precarity, migration, and globalization. They are sharing their knowledge and experience from out of the multiverse of today's proletariat—you only have to ask. While the expert worker, with his intimate knowledge of the production process, may once have been the backbone of the workers' movement, today the more transient precarian is a prominent head on the proletarian hydra. It is not only production that has become decentralized and globally mobile. The knowledge of these other modern proletarians is just as transnational, as are their contact networks and experiences in struggle. They know from their own experience the realities of work and class composition in our globalized world, and are formulating an everyday critique of the status quo. Therefore: a radical left that abandons today's proletariat to the right and ignores the voices of its most precarious loses its sole legitimate constituency as well as its very meaning. Some aspect of middle-class privilege or subcultural custom seems always to stand in the way of radical leftists' taking proletarians outside their narrow milieu seriously, listening to them, and expanding their own political horizons beyond their cliques. For “movement activists,” Davide and Lausil don't seem that interesting, because they don't go to marches. But a revolution is not a revolution without them. The radical left should be interested in the lives of those in precarity, and it should learn to listen to them in order to find common fighting terrain.
Davide continues his story, recalling the seasonal jobs he worked after finishing school, in the vacation spots of the middle classes, where the sea was fantastic but the pay was crap. Toward the end of the nineties he moved to Munich, and worked as a cook and pizzaiolo. He stayed there twelve years, and learned the language. But after the labor reforms under the Red-Green government of Schroeder, paychecks shrank so he moved on: Paris, Germany again, and finally Austria, where he met the mother of his two children. The young Italian-Bosnian family had to scratch and scramble for income, with little time leftover to take care of the kids. When Davide’s wife’s father fell ill, they spent the last of their money on his treatment, whereafter she, also suffering bouts of depression, took the kids back to Bosnia. “Is there a god?” Davide mutters in closing.
“Dio non esiste!” exclaims Lausil. “Religion is only there to make money! It is an ideology.”
I ask him what he means. Davide furrows his brow, and Lausil launches into it: “I don’t want a lot. A little work, a place to stay, something to eat. What good is god for that?” He goes on to tell how he had spent time at a squatted social center in Turin and gotten to know the “no-global” activists there. He had talked a lot with a particular music teacher about god and the world. “The music teacher was a communist. He opened my eyes. The rich want to stay rich and hold down the poor.”
If we are seeking a path out of class society, an abstract and purely sociological understanding of the wage-dependent class is a dead end. If the working class is obtusely defined by its objective class status and its supposedly preordained “class interests,” it remains something schematic, abstract, and impactless. This conception misses the independent cultural life and autonomy of the class. It sees only automatons and can only conceive of class identity and class consciousness as something bestowed by some “revolutionary party” or other. Thus remains the working class an object of intervention, just as it is for capital. It is equally questionable to reduce class society to a matter of uneven wealth distribution. What can this produce besides toothless demands for a little redistribution? As radical leftists our work is built upon the self-organization of the oppressed and exploited; we need a different conception of the working class. Our point of departure should be that class is something that plays out among people. It is a relation among people and is based on a shared experience of the conditions of production. A conflict-laden relationship to bosses and management and the feeling of impotence in the face of the globalized economy are experiences shared by millions of people. Building on this experience, the exploited form themselves as a class again and again through their collective struggles, their collective sensibility, and their cultural identity. It is clear, listening to Davide and Lausil talk, that they are neither objects nor victims. They have acquired numerous proficiencies; they have migrated to improve their lives; they are both aware and critical of their place in society.
Translated by Antidote
All images via ajour magazin