Paris is Burning

Don’t know how I have managed to get to age 26 without watching this flick! Amazing absolutely fabulous wonderful.

A movie about expressing our humanity. About fashion and rich life while being poor. About coming together as queer people and showing our beauty, forgetting the world and just being. Then you go back out into the world and feel your alienation all over again.

They teach us about voguing, about categories of the balls, about family – real family. They show us what it means to struggle to survive, and not just survive but be yourself while having 3 strikes: 1. Being black 2. being a man 3. being gay. (I would add a 4th as well – being poor.)

And while many of these women believed that when they got a sex change their lives could be better, Pepper LaBeija had some words of wisdom:  “A lot of kids that I know they got the sex change because they felt ‘Oh I’ve been treated so bad as a drag queen, if I got a pussy -excuse the expression – Ill be treated fabulous. But women get treated bad. You know they get beat they get robbed they get dogged so having a vagina doesn’t mean you’ll have a fabulous life, it may be worse.”

 

RIP Beauty Queens ❤

Between seeing the majestic works of art on the runway, and hearing words of wisdom and survival, I just had to pause and look up each of the participants and realized, to my sadness, that most have passed away. They each had their hopes and dreams, and their life lessons.

Venus Xtravaganza – She wanted to be a “rich white woman” taken care of. She wanted to fall in love and live the American dream. At age 23 murdered during the making of the film, strangled in a hotel room and discovered 4 days later.

Octavia St. Laurent – Wanted to be famous, not necessarily rich, but known for her beauty (and beautiful she was!). Died at age 45, AIDS and cancer.

Pepper LaBejia – Mother of the house LaBeija. Took in young queers who were struggling, homeless, and/or cutoff from their families. Died at age 55, complications due to diabetes.

Ninja – also the mother of her house. She was on of the best voguers by far! Wanted to be known for dancing, live in Paris and make it burn! She died of AIDS at age 45.

Dorian Corey – She was an old school drag queen, still a part of the scene and a judge at the balls. She wasn’t as lively or excited as the younger ones, she had lived a tough life and still spread words of wisdom. She said when she was younger she wanted to be a star, but then as you get older you settle for just leaving a mark on the world. Then she realized just by surviving you have left a mark because of the difficulties. Died from AIDS. Interesting side story, after her death a mummified body was found in her closet. People say it was a victim she killed in self-defense during a break-in.

On Miley Cirus and why Identity Politics are academic

Oh My G, did you see Miley Cirus at the VMAs? I mean dancing around with sad teddy bears, sticking her tongue out, twerking? What does she think she’s black?!

So yea, I wasn’t super excited about her performance either. It was pretty silly, not super classy. Not sure what she’s doing up there, but I am okay with not liking it, I mean I hate her music so what difference does it make to me?

What is getting under my skin is the academic nonsense I keep seeing on Facebook. I read this article along with the comments fb activists are posting, and am like, really?

First of all, is she really “acting black” by twerking in a unicorn suit, or jumping around stage with sad teddy bears? And why can’t she have black people on stage with her without using them as props or for “street cred”? Her taking aspects of Hip Hop like twerking or a grill doesn’t offend me. I’m not sure you gotta be black to do those things.

Which brings me to.. Second of all, Miley is a young artist coming into her own, and although she may kinda suck, why isn’t she allowed to pull aspects from Hip Hop music? No one owns hip hop, that’s what’s so great about it. The culture that comes out of it is ours, all of ours, well no not all of ours, I don’t think it belongs to the capitalists or the white supremacists but the rest of us. I don’t get the sense that she is being a hipster, and those aren’t even the critiques of her. The critiques are:

“blackness is not a piece of jewelry you can slip on when you want a confidence booster or a cool look. And playing at being poor — while earning a profit by doing so — is just distasteful…(as is) the role you play in the appropriation of someone else’s exploitation.”


So by twerking is she really doing all that? I mean damn the woman is one 20 year old white girl. Are we now calling her responsible for the exploitation of black people, is MC white supremacy?

And here I get to my point on identity politics. None of these folks have put up a positive critique of MC. Instead she is responsible for some of the most racist acts by twerking and having black backup dancers.

Instead, why don’t we place MC in society and not isolated her from it. She is one individual person, an artist on top of that. Maybe she is mimicking hip hop culture because she is inspired by it, and? But MC is not white supremacy. White supremacy is a sum total of social relationships. It is the history that has lead us to today, it is the ever changing and ever expanding social division along lines of race where certain kinds of workers (race) get access to certain benefits due to their race, and this keeps them from uniting, and it keeps the cost of labor down (and free at times) for those who make money off of our exploited labor. If we want to attack it, we don’t do it by smashing on performers who “act black”, we do it by organizing. MC is not in a position to exploit black people’s labor. She is claiming some of the legacy of black music that has come before her, but she is not doing it to oppress or exploit black people the way capitalists do.

Which brings me to my final point: identity politics are academic. Academics would leave us in the realm of ideas not action, i.e. identity – MC is a white girl, stop acting black. End of story. And as we continue down the path of identity politics, no one is dark enough, no one is poor enough, no one is oppressed enough to do anything about anything.

So I ask you, what do you really want from MC? Do you want her to kill herself? Would that be better for the world, would white supremacy no longer exist if we just killed off all the MC’s? Or would you rather her stop performing in this way and stick to “white culture”, whatever that means? Am I not allowed to twerk or dress hip hop because I am chicana? And whose permission do I need to get before I do?

Identity politics leaves everyone helpless and uplifts no one. It makes some people feel righteous in smashing on individuals instead of organizing. You don’t want to live in a world where white supremacy exists? Then get off ya high horse and do something about it.

Reblogged: Building a Solidarity Network in Houston

This is from the gathering forces blog, by LBoogie. These kinds of projects are important for mapping out the political economy of the South, and seeing where the class is and how it moves. There is an ongoing attack on the class’s ability to reproduce itself, which also helps us focus on where and how militants should be struggling. The South is paving the way for the rest of the country, yet while there is an economic crisis the city of Houston still claims to be doing great. As we investigate we see that this attack on the working class has sunk its teeth deep into the working class here long ago, allowing for the continuity of exploitation here in ways that are not as steady in the rest of the country. This makes Houston an attractive place for capitalists and, thus, the job market continues strong, but at the expense of the class. SWDN (Southwest Defense Network) is taking up one task of defending workers’ rights to housing.

I am posting this on my page because I want to keep track of these projects in order to develop my own understanding of where Houston and the South in general is.

********************

*This post reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Southwest Defense Network as a whole*

Last October, a handful of Unity & Struggle members living in Houston, TX, together with other Houston-based organizers, started a solidarity network, the Southwest Defense Network (SWDN). [1] Since then our work has grown and we have been learning a lot about the economic and political dynamics in the city.

In many ways, Texas (and the South in general) represents a future that the rest of the country is rapidly headed towards. At the same time, the contradictions grow sharper every day, representing a potential for offensive struggles among the working class that have not been seen in other parts of the country in decades. This post is an attempt to pull together an objective picture of what’s happening with the working class in Houston, specifically in the area we are working, and to lay out some of the strategic reasons why we have chosen this as one organizing project among others.

What follows are some basic background notes on the situation that are intended to lay the groundwork for future thinking about the strategic and tactical issues that will be raised in this work.

WELCOME TO HOUSTON, TX

According to most economic reports, Texas is a booming state, among the top in terms of job creation. It has an unemployment level that has consistently been lower than the national average. It is home to some of the most profitable national and multinational corporations. The number of new businesses relocating to or setting up shop in Texas is growing rapidly. It is a vital hub in the manufacture, import/export, warehousing and distribution of commodities. For the last decade, exports from Texas have grown at a faster pace than the rest of the country (its top export markets being Mexico, Canada, China and Brazil). [2]

The population of the state has exploded, growing by over 20% in the last decade alone. The city of Houston has grown by over 1 million people in that same period. Growth among communities of color fuels almost 90% of the state’s growth, and the majority of that is among Latinos. [3] Texas has the 2nd highest overall birth rate in the country but this growth is also happening due to a massive wave of immigration from other U.S. cities and other countries. Between 2000-2010, Harris County (in which Houston is located) had the largest absolute growth of immigrants compared to all other U.S. counties. [4] The majority (61%) came from Central America, with sizable numbers also coming from the Middle East, South/Southeast Asia and Africa.

This trend is only expected to continue and it contributed to Texas becoming a “majority-minority” state in 2004, which means there are fewer whites than people of color overall. The breakdown of the state is approximately 48% white, 35% Latino, 11% Black, and 5% Asian, Native American and other. Like most of the U.S., the vast majority of people (86%) live in urban areas. [5]

These racial dynamics are expressed in important ways geographically. This is a majority non-white state but the state political structure remains governed by a white oligarchy through the Republican Party. Most people of color reside in North, East and Central Texas and the border region with Mexico – regions where the largest cities are located. White folks in cities in these parts of the state reside mostly in the suburbs. Yet they still control most of the urban political structure, with some notable exceptions where Latino and Black patronage networks have made inroads into official power. [6] Suburbs around Houston look like militarized white enclaves, with gated and high security housing developments patrolled by police and private security, keeping out the riff-raff workers and poor from the city.

Like much of the rest of the country, the inner cities are being gentrified at a rapid rate, which especially affects historically Black and Latino neighborhoods such as Second, Third and Fourth Ward in Houston. As a result some cities are seeing a huge outward movement of poor people of color to the suburbs, pushed out of the inner city. [7] Despite these changes, strict dividing lines between city and suburb remain intact.

The red dots show white people, blue is Black, orange is Latino/a, green is Asian, and yellow is other, according to maps of 2010 Census data by Eric Fischer. Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-segregated-cities-census-maps-2013-4?op=1#ixzz2VmCRhRjP

The red dots show white people, blue is Black, orange is Latino/a, green is Asian, and yellow is other, according to maps of 2010 Census data.
Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-segregated-cities-census-maps-2013-4?op=1#ixzz2VmCRhRjP

Houston reflects these dynamics of expansion and division seen in the rest of the state, as shown by the map above. Houston is known as “Millionaire City” for the rapid growth in number of millionaires living here (10% growth each year on average). Only New York City has more Fortune 500 companies headquartered within its city limits. [8] Houston has the 3rd largest manufacturing sector in the country (in terms of gross metropolitan product) [9], with 4,000 manufacturers employing close to 250,000 workers. For the last four years, the city’s industrial employment has grown almost three times faster than the national economy. [10] The energy industry (specifically chemical and petroleum production) makes up the most significant portion of manufacturing, but other significant sectors include industrial machinery and equipment manufacturing, high-tech (computer & aerospace) and medical research. [11] The Port of Houston is the #1 most active port in the country, contributing about $178 billion in revenue to the state. [12]

In other words, the capitalists are doing extremely well in Houston, despite the ongoing economic crisis. But this prosperity, bragged about by Texas politicians and capitalists, depends on a super-exploitation of workers. Almost 20% of the city lives below the poverty level. [13] The job creation is mostly low-skilled and low-wage work. On the whole, Texas has the highest rate of workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage (over 11%). [14] This has an important impact on the labor market here, contributing to the frequency of wage theft, dangerous working conditions and retaliation against workers.

Further, this economic boom is made possible by an almost complete lack of investment in the reproduction of the working class. While Houston workers are producing at outstanding rates, they are subject to a deep and ongoing material de-development, in all senses that that is possible. Marx described this contradictory relationship between worker and work in “Estranged Labour”:

“It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.” [15]

In infrastructure, education, public health, and social services, Texas ranks near or at the bottom in terms of quality and funding. Of all 50 states, Texas spends the least on mental health care, prenatal care, and health insurance for women. It ranks at the bottom in terms of education spending and the number of people with a high school diploma. Whereas nationally, school districts on average spend around $11K per student, Texas schools spend only $8K per student. [16] That difference didn’t stop the state from cutting $5 billion in education funding two years ago. [17] Meanwhile, the state ranks highest for number of executions and the percent of children living in poverty.

Texas also ranks highest in amount of carbon dioxide emissions and toxins released into water. [18] Bourgeois commentators and academics are increasingly noting this and related infrastructure and ecological problems. One recent engineering report gave a failing grade to Houston in almost all areas of infrastructure. [19] The report indicated that the infrastructure is extremely outdated, with no plans in place by the city to replace or improve it. Further, it is not equipped to handle the population growth expected in the coming decades.

MORE THAN JUST NUMBERS

These are more than just numbers. They reflect significant political tensions and contradictions. The capitalists have only been able to delay the explosion of these issues into a full-blown crisis for the short-term. For instance, the consequences of the lack of investment in education – namely, the creation of a large number of workers with none of the skills or training necessary for jobs in many of the key industries in the state – are temporarily mitigated by the influx of better-educated workers, particularly from the Northeast, Midwest and California. In the last decade alone some 300,000 people with Bachelor’s Degrees have relocated to Houston. [20]

These workers, taught in better funded schools in other regions, can fill the high-skilled jobs that Texas-educated workers are unable to do because of lower-quality education. Furthermore, there has been a continuous migration of skilled and semi-skilled workers moving to Texas who have a very different experience with job protections and unions, even as these rapidly erode in places up North and in California.

Debates around the water crisis and immigration reveal how short-term solutions will not permanently prevent the broader social and political crisis. Texas is experiencing the worst drought in its history and is unprepared in infrastructure to sustain the water resources needed by both urban and rural areas. A recent debate at the state level demonstrated that the political establishment has no viable plan for dealing with the water crisis. Further, rightwing Republicans at the state level are increasingly coming up against capitalists who are concerned about the lack of long-term development of infrastructure capacity in the state. Additional pressure comes from the increasing number of high tech firms whose political and social culture are at odds with the rising white populism and mass austerity politics of the Republican Party.

A proposal was made to tap into the state’s Rainy Day Fund (which is drawn from surplus oil and gas taxes) to direct several billion dollars towards new water projects. Republicans, the majority, were split between a rightwing Tea Party faction which opposed the bill on the basis of ideology – they do not want to see any government spending regardless of source or need – while Gov. Rick Perry sided with business interests in supporting the spending – arguing that if the state does not tackle the water problem they will lose business. The Democrats, the minority, meanwhile opposed the spending for water, arguing that any emergency spending should go towards education. Ideology is pitted against the needs of capital, with a dose of useless political maneuvering. [21] The problem is real though; agriculture has taken a huge blow because of the drought and finding sustainable water supplies has not kept up with the pace of the growing needs of the state’s expanding cities and industries.

With immigration a similar dynamic is at play. Business in the state has exploded in no small part due to the availability of undocumented labor to work at low wages (or, as we’ll see below, no wages at all) and no benefits. The capitalists recognize this free input and actively encourage its expansion, despite their political rhetoric to the contrary. They support policies around detention and deportation only to the extent that it disciplines immigrant workers, but not if it interrupts business.

Meanwhile, the changing demographics of the state has ignited an anti-immigrant white populism, based on racial ideology and the real competition for jobs that capital creates between immigrant workers and U.S. born white workers. This populism is behind the proposals for draconian bills similar to SB-1070 in Arizona.

While the political establishment attempts to maintain the votes and direct the political energies of its white constituents, it must strike a balance with the opposing needs of business for cheap labor. In other words, there is a serious contradiction between what is needed to reproduce capital and the growing crisis in work and living conditions that will eventually impede this reproduction.

Texas is not the exception though. This reflects a national trend that most of the rest of the country is moving towards under the guise of austerity. As W.E.B. DuBois noted over a century ago, as the south goes, so goes the nation. In this historical moment of crisis, the capitalists are turning a profit only through the most aggressive forms of underdevelopment and disinvestment in working class communities, and there are currently very few organizational or ideological obstacles in the region preventing them from carrying out such plans.

Texas is a right to work state with a solidly rightwing political establishment and culture that has effectively sidelined worker organizing for decades. On the job organizing is extremely difficult because workers can be (and are) fired at will. The capitalist attack on the few protections and benefits workers have has been brutal and largely successful.

This ideology is reflected in the militarization of even routine protest far beyond what is typical in the other regions of the country. There tends to be a massive police and private security presence at all public political actions (even press conferences) held by unions and non-profits. The number of police usually matches the number of protesters, and their presence is overblown given the conservative political character of most protests. With some notable exceptions (i.e. some of the undocumented workers we are meeting), this atmosphere contributes to a deep sense of isolation, powerlessness and fear about fighting back among workers.

These sentiments are compounded by a lack of organizational experience. The types of common left political cultures one sees in NYC, Chicago or the Bay Area – such as a familiarity with revolutionary traditions, visibility of left parties and organizations, frequent political events and protests/actions, etc. – are virtually absent here. The low educational level among many workers reinforces a low level of political development about even basic political ideas.

Unions have a very small presence in the state as a whole (only 5.2% of workers are union members), and where they do exist they are business unions. [22] There are signs that some of the larger national unions see Texas as a major battleground state to try to revoke the right to work laws during the next decade, which could mean more offensive campaigns in the future, but at the moment there are only defensive struggles being waged (and lost, usually).

There is some non-profit presence in working class communities, but the non-profits and the unions both function as get-out-the-vote machines for the Democrats. The changing demographics of the state, in addition to its lucrative business presence, have contributed to a growing push by the Democratic Party to turn the state blue. In the last five years they have begun directing large sums of money to the local party offices and into setting up their own non-profit organizations (such as Battleground Texas) across the state in order to erode the Republican majority.

WAGE THEFT IN SOUTHWEST HOUSTON

That is the political context SWDN finds itself working within. The SWDN organizing is focused on a region in Houston known as the Southwest, which is a microcosm for this double-sided dynamic of expansion and disinvestment. This region is actually made up of a series of neighborhoods or areas. Since the Southwest, like everything in Houston, is very geographically spread out, focusing on a select number of neighborhoods is the only way to make the work manageable. We are focusing on a mainly Latino neighborhood called Gulfton, a Black neighborhood around south Fondren St, and a mixed Latino and Black area in Sharpstown. Thus far our organizing work has focused on wage theft and housing issues within these areas.

The Southwest is exceptional in that it is the most ethnically diverse and racially mixed area in Houston. It includes the city’s large Asian, Arab and African population. The Black and Latino population here mainly represent the low-wage sector of the working class. Low wage jobs in healthcare, retail, the public sector, construction, warehousing and service sectors predominate. This contrasts to other areas in the city that are home to sizeable numbers of skilled workers, such as the Eastside where many port workers live.

This area of Houston is very young. We don’t know the average age, but based on experience since many of us live there, much of the Southwest is significantly younger than other areas. However, as a whole Houston is a young city with a median age of 33. [23]

The Southwest has a large first generation and even larger second generation immigrant population. Depending on the neighborhood, anywhere from ¼ to two-thirds of the population was not born in this country. One of the features of the Southwest then is a strong immigrant petty-capitalism. The area is filled with small shops and businesses. Despite the typical urban planning of Houston (and the South) the area has a very rich social life of food, clubs, grocery and other stores.

But most immigrants enter the lower rungs of the division of labor. The lower rungs of the working class are more likely to be subject to things like wage-theft and dangerous working conditions. Houston and Texas in general is a major wage theft state, with few laws and zero enforcement concerning these cases. An estimated $753.2 million in wages are lost every year due to wage theft among low-wage workers. [24] This is a significant source of additional profit for bosses and reflects a key way in which employers in Texas have been able to stay afloat amid the worst downturns of the ongoing economic crisis.

The type of wage theft SWDN is most frequently contacted about occurs among Latino male construction workers and “back of the house” restaurant workers whose wages have been outright stolen or who have been paid less than they were promised. While this is probably the most pervasive type of wage theft – it’s common because employers see these workers as vulnerable due to immigration status and high employee turnover – it is not representative of all types of wage theft here. For instance, many workers in these same industries are routinely denied overtime pay. Domestic workers and childcare workers are regularly paid under the legal minimum wage or are paid with bad checks. And restaurant owners frequently cheat their “front of the house” wait staff out of tips earned.

Employers are also able to pocket extra money through avoiding what few laws there are to ensure safe workplace conditions. In the construction industry, where half of all workers in Texas are undocumented, 1 in every 5 workers requires hospitalization at some point because of on the job injuries. [25] In what seems to be a pretty representative example, SWDN met one restaurant worker who had been denied safety equipment while being exposed to toxic cleaning chemicals on the job. The exposure resulted in respiratory problems and expensive medical treatment. He got fired for being out sick and his employer stole two days of wages while refusing to assist with his medical costs. [26]

The workers we’re meeting do not have the means to deal with the expenses resulting from these types of injuries. In the areas we are focusing on (and this holds true for much, though not all of the Southwest) about 50% and probably more earn a household income of less than $30K. While rents have gone up on average 7-10%, income has dropped on average approximately 20% according to census data. [27]

Wage theft and dangerous working conditions are not the only problems the division of labor produces for this layer of precarious workers. Many have little formal education and few skills, so they are easily replaceable and/or are constantly trying to flee shitty job situations in search of better gigs in other workplaces. The frequency of job turnover affects the development of informal workgroups on the job as well as workers’ willingness to stay and struggle rather than get the best deal they can and leave.

With wage theft in particular, it is common for workers to be fired for bogus reasons in order for the employer to justify the stolen wages or the worker quits in frustration over the situation. This means that wage theft struggles less frequently begin as on the job organizing and instead involve workers fighting to track down previous employers to get back their wages.

One way that SWDN orients to this volatility in employment is to treat it as an inroad to meet current workers who can continue to struggle on the job beyond the wage theft case. For instance, in the case of the restaurant worker mentioned above, one strategy was to fight for his back wages and medical compensation, while making contacts among current employees who could then struggle around workplace conditions and safety issues like what he had faced with chemical exposure.

THE CRISIS IN HOUSING IN THE SOUTHWEST

The other main area of work that SWDN is involved with concerns housing issues. In general, labor and housing issues are very immediately connected. The cost of living is relatively low (although it is going up in most areas) but it is tied to the low wages most workers earn in the Southwest, so even here housing constitutes the largest expense most have. This means housing is the most prominent tool employers can rely on to discipline workers and prevent collective fight-back against the kinds of employment conditions described above.

Housing takes on some specific features here. The Southwest has an extremely high concentration of apartment complexes, which is Houston’s answer to public housing, a more familiar sight in places like NYC or Chicago. Houston, like much of the South, has on average cheap land prices. Urban planning, as a result, is largely in the hands of the individual private developers. Most of Houston is zoned commercial and residential so there are few restrictions on where commercial, rental and single family homes are built.

Houston saw an explosion in housing with the oil boom in the 1970s. Young skilled workers moved to the city in droves to fill the jobs in the energy and technology sectors. Entire neighborhoods were literally built overnight in the Southwest in the form of large multi-family apartment complexes. By the 1980s, the oil bust reversed this trend and apartment managers began abandoning many of these same complexes. Many of the complexes began to deteriorate and this abandonment has basically continued until the early 2000s. [28]

More recently, the trend has to been for real estate sharks to come in and flip and sell the complexes every 2-3 years. They do some minor surface renovations to “improve” the complex and justify raising rents, then sell at a profit of $1-2 million for the owner. The property management changes just as rapidly and the tenant turnover is high because of the changing rents and rental policies, but the overall deteriorating condition of the complexes remains virtually unchanged. It is not uncommon to find some complexes 25-50 percent unoccupied, with apartments literally abandoned with smashed out windows and doors.

With this pattern there is little reinvestment in the residential housing (and often commercial space) in the Southwest, as is generally true for Houston. There are so few barriers for developers to building new that it is not worth it to reinvest in the existing stock. A significant portion of the apartment complexes and homes are literally falling apart.

The housing crisis is mitigated by the expanse of cheap land available in and around Houston, which has meant the city can keep building outwards and upwards at low-cost and without repairing the existing housing stock. Much of the expansion in building (with notable and important exceptions) occurs outward, in the outer ring of the city. This has several consequences. First, this affects tenant organizing possibilities. People grow accustomed to picking up and moving out of a bad complex rather than staying and fighting because it is so easy to find relatively cheap housing elsewhere. Second, the growth of the outer ring also increases the strain on infrastructure. Infrastructure gets developed in patchwork style and much-needed improvements in older areas never get made.

Despite the growth of the city overall, population density per square mile is relatively low, averaging 3,000 people per square mile, for a big city with a lot of urban land and commercial buildings empty. However, the Southwest is an exception in terms of density. Southwest Houston has a population density of approximately 9,000 people per square mile, the same as Baltimore or Washington D.C. [29]

This density plus the lack of investment in housing translates into devastatingly poor living conditions. It is extremely common to meet tenants dealing with bedbugs and other pest/rodent problems; burst pipes, with the water turned off for days or, what’s worse, openly flowing sewage on the grounds around apartments; broken appliances or non-working air-conditioning (which is a serious health issue in a city that regularly breaks 100° in the summer months); and mold and mildew problems. We met one tenant whose toilet went unrepaired for a month, so her family would use the bathroom in plastic bags then dispose of them in the public garbage bins in the complex.

The working class in the Southwest not only faces increasing rents and falling wages. Capital gets back even more of those wages in many ways. A common example of this are towing rackets in some of the complexes. The management has a deal with towing companies to come into the complexes and tow away cars, even if they have parking stickers. Another thing is the high concentration (even for Texas) of parasitic pawnshops, cash advance and title loan companies operating in the Southwest. Further, it’s not clear how many people use them but it seems common for tenants to depend on surety bonds to pay for security deposits or avoid eviction. Surety bonds basically involve a tenant paying a non-refundable fee to a creditor, who then guarantees the deposit and/or rent to the apartment complex.

In other words, everyone has their hands in the pockets of the working class. This problem is compounded by the state attack on the social wage. Despite the boom, budget cuts are flying across the board. Texas recently passed legislation to require drug testing for people receiving TANF. [30] This is a budget cut in another form by decreasing the number of people eligible to receive financial/medical assistance from the state.

Finally, the police – along with some private security – have a heavy presence in the complexes, some permanently. The reign of police and security terror against Black and Latinos is open and well-known. While the predominantly white suburbs are militarized to keep people of color out, the Southwest is militarized to keep people on lockdown. Houston has no official stop-and-frisk policy as in NYC but many complexes work with the Houston Police Department (HPD) through “zero-tolerance” programs and “trespass affidavits.” These give HPD free reign to enter and search apartments, to harass and detain visitors and residents, and to carry out random drug searches with canine units.

Like the rest of the country, this contributes to the massive incarceration of Black and Latino men which changes the character of these communities and places particular pressures on women to reproduce the family under increasingly difficult conditions. Many Black and Latino workers we’ve been meeting talk about being stopped by the police, arrested on bogus charges and getting stuck with expensive court cases to fight the charges. It’s also common for folks to get evicted or pay substantially more in housing costs because they have a criminal record. At one predominantly Black complex that SWDN has been working in, the majority of the male residents are either under the age of 21 or over the age of 50 – a reflection in part of an entire generation of black men swallowed up by capital and white supremacy.

Many complexes also carry out their own policies of open discrimination and harassment that reinforce racial divisions. One complex solicited its majority Latino residents to contact the manager if they saw “teenagers of Afro-American descent or any other suspicious people” on the premises. [31] SWDN has also encountered a large complex that enforces a curfew on its residents.

OUR WORK SO FAR

This post assumes the reader knows some basic details about what a solidarity network is and does. [32] However, it seems helpful to lay out a general outline of the importance of a solidarity network in the Southwest and what SWDN’s work has consisted of so far. [33]

Like the rest of the country, what little Left presence there is in Houston is fairly isolated from the working class. There are almost no living connections to the historical traditions of struggle. The dividing lines between workers run thick and many express feelings of isolation and distrust in neighbors and co-workers. The level of political development among workers is extremely low when compared to places like NYC or the Bay Area. This necessitates a strategy to engage workers based on what is concretely happening in their lives. There are some mass organizations that attempt to provide a practical outlet to workers, but they generally offer no political education or opportunity for workers to take the lead in their own struggles.

Yet the atmosphere is changing. The experience of mass austerity, the Occupy movement, the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the response to Trayvon Martin and other police/security murders, direct action among a leftwing layer of the immigrants’ rights movement, and more are in some ways changing the political vocabulary and sense of what is possible here. The massive migration into the city means workers are arriving with connections to struggle elsewhere. And, as discussed in the previous sections, the rapid development of the city is unsustainable, possible only at great cost to workers, some of whom are growing openly defiant and interested in some kind of collective fight-back.

Given the large numbers of working poor in the city, it is necessary to help organize with this critical layer. To join and build the existing mass organizations, which are almost exclusively non-profits, would only lead to the trap of reformism or riding the waves of struggle with no continuity and no development of new militants. Further, these organizations do not carry out direct action fights against the oppressive conditions people face. At the same time, militants cannot remain isolated, working only within the form of revolutionary organization. The solidarity network therefore functions as a kind of intermediate level where people can organize around some basic unity of ideas and coordinate their activity at a broader level. [34]

The solidarity network as an organizational form presents an opportunity to fulfill some of these key tasks – connecting trained militants with a layer of the most conscious elements among proletarians as well as developing concrete struggles among a specific layer of Black and Latino proletarians in the city.

In SWDN, our most consistent activities have been flyering and meeting up with people in response to campaign inquiries. We flyer inside the apartment complexes in the three specific areas in the Southwest mentioned above, leaving flyers on doors and handing them out to tenants we see on the property. We also put up posters at bus stops, crosswalks and telephone poles around the complexes. Initially we were more randomly choosing complexes to start flyering in these areas.

As we have talked to people and gathered more information about what kind of problems people are experiencing, we have been able to begin to target specific complexes and build our presence there. Most people we encounter are very open about sharing their experiences, and the conversations we have reflect exactly the nature of their work. We have also developed a survey that we have begun canvassing door to door with as a means to making more contacts. [35]

Closely tied to the flyering is our contact work, or our concerted effort to build relationships with workers we are meeting as well as other organizers/organizations in the city. The contact work serves not only to put us in touch with workers who we can build campaigns with, but it is a central element to a longer-term strategy of building up a network of contacts and organizers across the Southwest. Out of what we hope can be semi-permanent committees and block captains can develop support for different organizing projects in the Southwest, as well as new organizational forms and spaces for the development of political perspectives about the work we are all doing. Overall, this would immensely contribute the level of resistance in the Southwest, creating qualitative changes in the neighborhoods that will then take on their own development. A new foundation of social struggle would open up new possibilities in a Southern city not always so easily grasped at this time.

For instance, we have been in touch with and have offered support to someone who is hoping to build an IWW chapter in Houston in the upcoming years, a project that is much needed here. We are in the beginning stages of developing a circle of contacts in two particularly bad apartment complexes. Long term, these relationships could form the nucleus of a tenant’s committee that maintains an active presence in the complex and/or takes up fighting around other issues.

We plan to put on various public events as a way to meet people and build relationships. We are planning an informational about the network. We are working on a “Know Your Rights” workshop for tenants and workers who want to organize but whose situations, for different reasons, we have not been able to take on right now as campaigns. We are conceiving of this not in the standard fashion of bourgeois individual rights but instead something more along the lines of Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer. The workshop will focus on the historical development and analysis of housing under capitalism, with a component that looks at current tenant law and strategies with regards to collective organizing and direct action.[36] We’ve also done social events like parties and potlucks, as part of a strategy to build up the general political ecology among the similarly-minded Leftists in the city by creating collective and open spaces for discussions around organizing and important political questions facing Houston and Texas more broadly.

Lastly, an important part of our work has been building our capacity as a bilingual Spanish-English network. SWDN started out with half of its organizers being either bilingual/fluent or at least proficient in both languages. We make all our materials available in both languages. This has been key given the large Spanish-speaking population in the Southwest, and is evidenced by the high number of calls we have received from Spanish-speaking Latino workers.

CHALLENGES AND POSSIBILITIES

What follows are brief notes trying to get at some particular challenges and possibilities that SWDN is facing so far in our organizing.

First, while it is too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about the meaning of this, we are noticing a gender distinction in the types of calls we are receiving. The vast majority of our calls initially were wage theft or labor problems made by men, specifically Latino men in the construction and restaurant industries. More recently we’ve received an influx of calls about housing-related problems, almost all of which have been from women, specifically Black women. We have speculated some about why this happens.

On the one hand, it could result from the pervasive social roles assigned to women and men; namely that women take care of the home (even if they also work waged jobs outside the home) while men bring home the money (even if their spouse/partner also has a job). On the other hand, it could reflect levels of consciousness and political development in the class, bringing to light what types of workers are moving and ready to fight back at this moment. Once we can more confidently identify and understand this dynamic, we see it as an important component to incorporate into our organizing strategy and perspectives.

Second, the material division between Black and Latino workers is pervasive. There is at times a sense of competition and distrust between the two. In several complexes where we have been developing relationships with Black tenants, there are complaints that Latino tenants are treated better, pay less in rent or get repairs made quicker. There are comments that Latino workers are quicker to accept poor housing conditions, making it harder for Black tenants to fight back. Often, in the majority Black complexes, the maintenance crew is all Latino, so there are often rumors that maintenance is stealing from residents.

Third, while the housing and labor problems translate into a large volume of calls to SWDN, we are facing challenges when it comes to converting meet-ups into campaigns or getting campaigns beyond the first one or two public actions. Part of this problem stems from a general trend among workers to orient towards the network as a social service rather than an organizing campaign in which they are a leading member. It equally has to do with the precarious conditions in which people work and live. This makes it necessary to move quickly on potential campaigns before circumstances change for a person, as well as minimize formalistic ways of organizing.

The role of the militant is especially important in preventing this dynamic. In SWDN we have a practice of communicating very clearly with prospective contacts about how the network organizes and the role that worker will need to play in their own campaign. At the same time, we see ourselves as playing an intervening role in the individual’s battle. We want the contact to take the lead in their own campaign, but we do not blindly follow the course they want to take. Instead we push for certain principles (i.e. direct action, collective decision-making) in practice.

The challenge to campaign-building also stems from a pervasive “individualism” among some of the workers we are meeting. They are not always won over to the idea that their individual problem is actually a social problem, tied to the experiences of their co-workers or neighbors. So at times they accept the first shit offer that management brings to the table, preferring to move out or get another job to improve their situation, without reflecting on the larger political implications of staying and fighting.

This is not to say that the workers we are meeting do not have a sense of this problem. The way this gets expressed in some ways reflects the division of labor and what layers of the class have more recently been active. For instance, many Black workers we are meeting express a deep cynicism about the state of the Black community and whether things can actually change. Many Latino workers, especially undocumented workers, express a sense that things are bad because people are not fighting back. Recently at a meeting with an undocumented worker who wanted to organize against a former boss for stealing his wages, we asked him why he thought bosses steal wages? He summed up the entire problem by saying, “Because they can.” He captured in one sentence the lack of power that workers have today and the reason why building working class organizations and struggling for what is ours is so important.

Additionally, as has already been alluded to, this problem of campaign building results from the general precarity of the situation of many workers in Southwest Houston. Needing to relocate for work, needing to care for sick family members, needing to pick up additional jobs or hours at work, dealing with legal issues in the court system – these and other issues make for an instability that diminishes some workers’ ability to see their campaign through to the end.

Nevertheless, as the Southwest is a testament to immense social disinvestment there is present a thinly veiled social anger that can be seriously explosive in Houston. The Southwest is an extremely concentrated area of the working poor whose specific needs will play an important role in the complicated division of labor in Houston.
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End Notes

[1] For more information about the network, visit our blog athttp://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/ or find us on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/SWDNetwork

[2] “Texas Economy Moves from Recovery to Expansion.” Southwest Economy, First Quarter 2012. Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, page 4. Accessed online: http://www.dallasfed.org/assets/documents/research/swe/2012/swe1201b.pdf

[3] “Minorities Drove Texas Growth, Census Figures Show.” Texas Tribune, Feb. 18, 2011. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/2011/02/18/minorities-drove-texas-growth-census-figures-show/

[4] “Refugees and Immigrants in Texas.” Houston Demographic News blog, Jun 13, 2012. Accessed online: http://houstondemos.blogspot.com/2012/06/refugees-immigrants-in-texas.html

[5] “Texas in Focus: A Statewide View of Opportunities.” Window on State Government blog. Accessed online: http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/tif/population.html

[6] “21 Maps of Highly Segregated Cities in America.” Business Insider, Apr 25, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-segregated-cities-census-maps-2013-4?op=1

[7] “Poverty Takes Root in Austin’s Suburbs.” Austin American-Statesman, May 19, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/poverty-takes-root-in-austins-suburbs/nXwt2/?icmp=statesman_internallink_textlink_apr2013_statesmanstubtomystatesman_launch

[8] “Houston Facts and Figures.” City of Houston website. Accessed online: http://www.houstontx.gov/abouthouston/houstonfacts.html

[9] “Manufacturing Generates $57.6B gross product in Houston.” Houston Business Journal, Jun 11, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2012/06/11/manufacturing-generates-576b-in.html

[10] “America’s New Manufacturing Boomtowns.” New Geography, May 15, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.newgeography.com/content/003707-americas-new-manufacturing-boomtowns

[11] “Houston First in Nation for Manufacturing.” Manufacturers’ News, Inc., May 19, 2009. Accessed online: http://www.manufacturersnews.com/news/story/houston-1st-in-nation-for-manufacturing

[12] “The Economic Impact of the Port of Houston.” Port of Houston website. Accessed online: http://www.portofhouston.com/about-us/economic-impact/

[13] “State and County QuickFacts: Texas.” United States Census Bureau website. Accessed online: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48000.html

[14] “Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers: 2010.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor website. Accessed online: http://www.bls.gov/cps/minwage2010tbls.htm#3

[15] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour.” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Accessed online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm

[16] “Texas Drops Close to Bottom Among States in Student Spending.” Dallas News, Feb 22, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/headlines/20130222-texas-drops-close-to-bottom-among-states-in-student-spending.ece

[17] “Strain for Teachers Runs Deeper Than Budget Cuts.” New York Times, Oct 4, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/us/budget-cuts-and-new-policies-put-strain-on-texas-teachers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[18] “Texas is on the Brink, Legislative Study Group Says.” Texas Tribune, Feb 14, 2011. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/texas-legislature/texas-legislature/texas-is-on-the-brink-legislative-study-group-says/

[19] 2012 Report Card for Texas’ Infrastructure. American Society of Civil Engineers. Accessed online: http://www.seinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/Infrastructure/Report_Card/2012%20Texas%20Report%20Card%20FINAL.pdf

[20] “The Third Coast.” Wall Street Journal, Nov 1, 2012. Accessed online: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052970204712904578092951334042918-lMyQjAxMTAyMDAwNDEwNDQyWj.html?mod=wsj_valetleft_email See also “The U.S. Cities Getting Smarter the Fastest.” New Geography, Aug 09, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.newgeography.com/content/003007-the-us-cities-getting-smarter-the-fastest

[21] For more information on the debate, see “House Debate Over Water Bill Could Spur Bigger Fight.” Texas Tribune, Apr 29, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/29/house-republicans-divided-ahead-water-bill-debate/ . See also “Water, Water, Not so Fast.” Off the Kuff blog, May 1, 2013. Accessed online: http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=52652

[22] “Union Membership Drops Slightly in Texas, U.S.” Houston Chronicle, Mar 19, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.chron.com/business/article/Union-membership-drops-slightly-in-Texas-U-S-3419053.php

[23] “Houston Tops Our List of America’s Coolest Cities.” Forbes, July 26, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2012/07/26/houston-tops-our-list-of-americas-coolest-cities-to-live/

[24] “Houston, We Have a Wage Theft Problem” Report by Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, May 2012. Available online here: http://downwithwagetheft.org/resources/houston-wage-theft-report/

[25] Build a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State. Workers’ Defense Project. Accessed online: http://www.workersdefense.org/Build%20a%20Better%20Texas_FINAL.pdf

[26] See the Southwest Defense Network blog for the following two posts about this worker’s situation: http://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/why-is-saltgrass-stealing-wages/ and http://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/why-is-saltgrass-stealing-wages/

[27] “Mapping the 2010 U.S. Census.” New York Times. Accessed online: http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/map

[28] “District 68 History.” Houston Firehouse 68 website. Accessed online: http://www.firehouse68.com/district-68-history/

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Senate Passes Unemployment Drug-Testing Bill.” Texas Tribune, Apr 11, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/11/senate-passes-unemployment-drug-testing-bill/

[31] “Notice at Houston apartment warns against ‘adolescents of Afro-American race’.”The Grio, Nov 21, 2012. Accessed online: http://thegrio.com/2012/11/21/notice-at-houston-apartment-warns-against-adolescents-of-afro-american-race/

[32] For further reading about what a solidarity network is and does, this is by far the most accessible resource available to date: Building a Solidarity Networkhttp://libcom.org/library/you-say-you-want-build-solidarity-network or in Spanish: Guía para tejer una red de solidaridad http://www.alasbarricadas.org/noticias/?q=node/18055

[33] Since this post was written, a new tenants’ campaign has started in one complex and two other potential campaigns are being worked on. There wasn’t time to include information on these developments but you can check out the SWDN blog for further updates and info.

[34] More on what is meant by intermediate level can be found in this essay: http://miamiautonomyandsolidarity.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/the-intermediate-level-analysis/

[35] The content and use of the survey has been shaped by discussion about Marx’sWorkers’ Inquiry: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/04/20.htm and this helpful summary of the use of the workers’ inquiry by later militants: http://thecommune.co.uk/2011/05/16/the-workers%E2%80%99-inquiry-what%E2%80%99s-the-point/

[36] Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer is accessible online here: http://www.libcom.org/library/labor-law-rank-filer-building-solidarity-while-staying-clear-law

Walk in the Sky

Man on Wire is a movie about a man, Philippe Petit, who walk a tightrope connected to both of the twin towers in NYC back in 1974. Inspiring, I made a music video to Bonobo’s “Walk in the Sky” song, taking footage from the movie Man on Wire. 

Notes on Dialectics – Hegel’s Preface to the First Ed. of The Science of Logic

Notes on Dialectics is a book on the Marxist (Hegelian) dialectic by CLR James. I am reading the first part and putting my thoughts here. I will be writing about it in sections and hopefully be able to make some sort of synthesis at the end. This is the second reading and in this part he is looking into Hegel’s larger Logic, from The Science of Logic, the Preface. For notes on the intro you can read here.

James tells us that what Hegel provides us with in the Preface is a new way of organizing thoughts, not a new way of thinking, “But knowing what you do when you think.” (p13)

Hegel quotes from the Preface:

  • “On the other hand, the period of fermentation with which creation begins seems to be past. At its first appearance such a period generally wears an aspect of fanatical hostility toward the prevalent systemization of the older principle; it is also, partly, fearful of losing itself in the wilderness of particulars while it shuns the labour required for scientific development, and in its need of such a development grasps, at first, at an empty formalism. The demand for the digestion and development if the material now becomes so much the more pressing. This is a period in the development of an age, as in the development of an individual, when the chief business is to acquire and maintain the principle in its undeveloped intensity. But the higher requirement is that the principle should be elaborated into systematized knowledge.”

The way ideas become absorbed: first appearance followed by hostility toward the older principle, abstraction of a new principle, filling in, and systematization, “being, essence, notion.” (p14)

  • “But it is the nature of the content and that alone which lives and stirs in philosophic cognition, while itself originates and determines the nature of philosophy.”

James tells us this is the key to the dialectic and therefore marxist thinking. “Thought is not an instrument you apply to a content. The content moves, develops, changes and creates new categories of thought, and gives them direction.” (p15) That to use the dialectic in understanding the labor movement, we see the movement of labor and its expression.

James says, “The labor movement takes certain forms, Commune, the Second International, and Third, unions, CIO, IWW, etc. These are (1) international above all. But (2) they express this essential internationalism in national form. It is an international movement that takes national form, each form being peculiar to the nation; but the basic laws are international because labour is an international “object”.” (p15) But as labor moves and develops new forms of activity, say the International, other organization can not be thought of without considering the International. He says, however, “You can, of course, like labour bureaucrats, refuse to recognize this. But their thoughts and actions are governed by it never the less.” (p15)

Each new category develops philosophical thought, or “philosophic cognition”, but these are not static, and continue to move and change themselves. The thought of the First International, we can not simply attach it to the Second International. The form is the same, and although there are similarities or a relation between them, they are not the same. We must expand our understanding of these categories to consider them.

“But it is from conforming to finite categories in thought and action that all deception originates.”

Notes on Dialectics – Introduction

Notes on Dialectics is a book on the Marxist (Hegelian) dialectic by CLR James. I am reading the first part which covers The Preface to the First Edition of The Science of Logic and putting my thoughts here. I will be writing about it in sections and hopefully be able to make some sort of synthesis at the end. This is the first reading over the Intro.

Intro

We start with a piece from Lenin’s article On the Question of Dialectics, where he breaks down some basic ideas of dialectics.

  • Unity of opposites, and their “self-movement”

    Dialectic

    Dialectic (Photo credit: tpholland)

  • “Development is the “struggle” of opposites.”
  • Two conceptions of development
    • i. as decrease/increase, repetition
    • ii. development as a unity of opposites

CLR James quotes on the dialectic and using it to look at the labor movement:

  • “..I recognized early on that the Logic constituted an algebra, made to be used in any analysis of constitution and development in nature or in society.” p8
  • “So that when we [JFT] worked on the Logic we were able to understand its movement by testing this movement against the history of the labour movement and, conversely, the movement of the Logic enabled us to understand and develop for contemporary and future needs the history of the labour movement.” p8

James breaking down Hegelian terms:

  • Substance is objective reality, p8
  • Subject is Mind, consciousness, thought, p8
  • “The next stage in the development (evolution) consists in the gathering strength of one of the opposites so that it overcomes the other, embraces it, and itself becomes the basis of a new stage in the Substance, in which the Subject, equally developing, is able to distinguish the new unity of further opposites.” p9
  • unities of Imagination? p10 *(I will have to develop this as I continue)
  • Actuality – the concrete; “the new developing reality faces an opposition with which it must engage in mortal struggle.” p10
  • Truth – “Truth can only be where it makes itself its own result. Truth, in our analysis, the total emancipation of labour, can only be achieved when it contains and overcomes its complete penetration by its inherent antagonism, the capital relation.” p10

What does James say about the labor movement?

It begins in 1789 because labor finds conscious expression, it is self-aware. In Capital, we know that labor movement is the history of labor and proaction itself, but here he is discussing the movement of labor in its conscious expression.

In looking at the Internationals, we look at the movement of consciousness (Subject) and reality (Substance). For the First International, we see widespread rebellions in Europe at the time, theory rooted in activity and the consciousness of the class on the rise. The Second International, “moves away from its marxist origins”, Eduard Bernstein saying, “The movement is everything”. The social democrats begin moving away from international struggle and begin supporting their states. The Third International, shifts back toward proletariat revolution. James says Lenin starts the Third with a opposition to the Second. Later, James says, “Stalinism is not an accident” referring to truth, explained by Hegel:

“In the course of its process the idea creates the illusion, by setting an antithesis to confront it; and its action consists in getting rid of the illusion which it has created. Only out of this error does the truth arise. In this fact lies the reconciliation with error and with finitude. Error or other-being, when superseded, is still a necessary dynamic element of truth: for truth can only be where it makes itself its own result.”

Labor v Labor Power

I presented on labor and labor-power today, after reading Capital Volume 1. Here’s my panel:

1. Labor as Life Activity

Labor in itself is simply our way of interacting with the world around us. As we interact with the world around us, we act upon it and it acts upon us. Through the satisfaction of one need, new needs emerge and we create the basis for further creation. We continue to learn how to work on the world and it continues to present new ways of interacting with it. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we create the world around us instead of simply using it as a means of survival.  In Estranged Labor, Marx explains that this interaction is what constitutes our species being. That through our conscious activity we make labor the object of our will.  Marx says, “In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being.” And while he says other animals also produce, what sets us apart is we produce universally, not just to satisfy a need, but as an expression of our humanity, as conscious activity.

 

2. Labor as estranged labor

But through the development of the capitalist mode of production, our relationship with production changes. We are stripped from our species being when we lose access to the means of production.

First, through a dofl we no longer create all the things we need, nor in a way that is true to our creative capabilities, instead our labor is as one sided as our needs are many sided, so in order to have access to the things that we need, we must produce commodities, privately and independently, which then can be exchanged for other commodities. Now the objects that fill up the world around us are alien to us, they are used against us as our living labor is appropriated for the expansion of dead labor. “Capital, is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks.” p342

The gives commodities the dual characteristic of being both useful things and exchange values, which also means labor itself is split between being concrete and abstract. Although commodities are only products of labor, they are now treated as things outside of ourselves, as if they possess value inherently. This value is actually just congealed labor time, or snlt, which disregards the specific types of useful labor expended upon them. They are used against us because we no longer have access to the means to create for ourselves but need to have access to them somehow.

Through this process of separation from the means of production what we are left with is the ability to labor, but with nothing of our own to labor on, we must labor in the manner in which capitalists set out for us. This ability to labor, is what Marx calls labor-power, and is what we sell to capitalists in exchange for access to the means of subsistence. We no longer labor to express our humanity, but like animals, we labor for our immediate needs. Marx calls this process alienation, “in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.” (estranged labor)

We are now set out into the world as “free workers” who sell our labor-power to capitalists who in turn put us into action however they please. This is because when we lost control over the means of production, we also lost all control over the labor process itself, as well as the products of our labor.

This split between labor as labor-power and labor as activity means that in return for our labor-power, we receive a wage. This wage represents the amount of time socially necessary that it takes to reproduce the worker. During the time we labor, however, we are creating new values more than what we need to reproduce ourselves., and therefore more than we get in return. Through this process we are reproducing ourselves as commodities. We are creating the things that negate our own activity and reproduce us as labor-power. They are the material form of our alienation.

Marx says, “the process of the consumption of labour-power is at the same time the production process of commodities and of surplus-value” (279).

So as we labor, we are reproducing our relationship to capital. Labor is our means to a wage, and capital is simply our labor estranged from ourselves (someone else owns and controls the products of our labor). The more we create, the more estranged we become from these things.

As we work our day is split then between the time it takes to reproduce ourselves, called NLT, and everything else that the capitalists gets in the form of SV, during SLT.

Marx says, “What distinguishes the various economic formations of society — the distinction between for example a society based on slave-labour and a society based on wage-labour — is the form in which this surplus labour is in each case extorted from the immediate producer, the worker.” p. 325

The wage is that form because it is based on the worker being separated from the means of production. Yet, the wage hides this split between SL/NL: Both NL and SL take place simultaneously so all labor appears as paid labor.

 

3. Manufacture and Machinery

Now stepping back into the historical development of labor and labor power we can look to two periods of capitalist development in order to see how labor and labor-power are changed materially through a change in production itself. The first is manufacture, where we will see a development of a division of labor that creates the “specialized worker” and relegates the worker to one aspect of production instead of participating in all. The next development is machinery in which human bodies become extensions of machine driven production. Marx explains, “In manufacture the transformation of the mode of production takes labour-power as its starting-point.  In large-scale industry, on the other hand, the instruments of labour are the starting point” (492).

a. Manufacture/dofl

Prior to manufacture each stage in the development toward capitalism finds the production process as it is. In manufacture, however, we see a rearranging of the production process, through creating or expanding a division of labor in order to speed up and expand production. This happens in two ways, yet we see the same consequences.

i. two ways of dofl

The first way this happens is when several handicrafts are combined under the roof of one capitalist. One example Marx gives us is the production of carriages. Different handicrafts previously participated in this production processes. A wheel maker made wheels, a carpenter made a frame, a tailor the upholstery, etc. In manufacture however, all these different craftsmen work in one building, moving the product from one worker to the next, speeding up production and allowing for a growth in the number of commodities produced.

One of the main consequences of this is the following: “The tailor, the locksmith and the other craftsmen are now exclusively occupied in the making of carriages; they therefore gradually lose the habit, and therefore the ability, of carrying on their old trade in all its ramifications.” p453 This is the specialized worker, but we will return to this in a moment.

Another way manufacture develops is breaking up work that used to be done by one workshop. This could be something simple like needles or paper, where the workers involved carry out all aspects of production. Under manufacture the production of these things are split up into “isolated functions carried out side by side” 456. This happens over and over until “it becomes the exclusive function of a particular worker.” p457

 

iii. specialized worker/collective worker/cooperation

Marx says, “In manufacture, as well as in simple cooperation, the collective working organism is a form of existence of capital.  The social mechanism of production, made up of many individual specialized workers, belongs to the capitalist.  Hence the productive power resulting from this appears as a power of capital.  Manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but creates in addition a hierarchical structure amongst the workers themselves. While simple cooperation leaves the mode of the individual’s labor for the most part unchanged, manufacture revolutionizes it, and seizes labor-power by its roots… Not only is the specialized work distributed among different individuals but the individual is divided up and transformed into the automatic motor of a detail operation.” 481

As we can see, both processes mean this creation of the “specialized worker” who performs one aspect of production repeatedly. These workers have been divided up, now they are relegated to certain body parts and the functions of those parts. This has allowed production to expand under one capitalist due to the deskilling of the labor force. This means production can take place much quicker and at a much larger scale than ever before. On top of that, the collective worker now working together under one roof unleashes new productive forces given to the capitalists for free. This productive power, marx says,” developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital. The socially productive power of labour develops as a free gift to capital whenever the workers are placed under certain conditions, and it is capital which places them under these conditions.” p451

Yet production is still limited to the skill and pace of the workers themselves, and manufacture comes up against these limits.

 

b. machinery

Then with the introduction of machinery, productive forces are taken to a whole new level. Instead of the worker and the division of labor being at the center of production, workers become appendages of the machines they work with and the machines set the pace and organization for production. Raya in Marxism and freedom, “the perverse nature of capitalist production is such that man is not master of the machine; the machine is master of the man. Through the instrumentality of the machine, which expresses itself in the ticking of a factory clock, it has indeed become immaterial what the skill of man is so long as he produces a given quantity of products in a given time.” p105 [?]

Machinery takes the expansion of capital and the subsumption of labor further than manufacture could have. This is because, Marx says, “The concept of the productive worker therefore implies not merely a relation between activity of work and its effect [labor and product] but also a specifically social relation of production, a relation of historical origin stamping the worker as capital’s direct means of valorization.” (p? appendix) In other words, it is not because production itself changes, nor the products of labor, but more specifically the relationship between labor and capital.

 

c. absolute/relative sv&real/formal subsumption

In order to understand the real subsumption of labor to capital we must discuss the development in terms of relative and absolute SV. Prior to the machinery, subsumption was only formal. The relation between labor and capital was still that labor was the driving force of production because,

“the only way capitalism can continue is by seizing the industries that weren’t previously capitalist, where hcrafts predominate, and through the production of absolute SV (the absolute lengthening of the working day (WD)).  The other is through revolutionizing the Instruments of Labor in order to produce relative SV.” 646

This is where real subsumption comes in. With the introduction of machinery, labor is no longer the starting point for production, machines are. This meant more and more labor could be squeezed from the worker as the machines set the pace and skill for production. Relative SV can now be achieved.

However…

“From one standpoint the distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears to be illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute, because it requires the absolute prolongation of the working day beyond the labour-time necessary to the existence of the worker himself. Absolute surplus-value is relative, because it requires a development of the productivity of labour which will allow the necessary labour-time to be restricted to a portion of the working day. But if we keep in mind the movement of surplus-value, this semblance of identity vanishes. Once the capitalist mode of production has become the established and universal mode of production, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value.” p. 646

 

4. Political economists, Ricardo, Utopian socialists understanding of L/LP

Before Marx had introduced the split between labor as activity on the one hand, and labor-power as exchange value on the other, Socialists at the time used Ricardo’s theory of labor to investigate the world and how to overcome capitalism. Ricardo could not see that when we get a wage we are not actually paid for our activity, but for the potential to create value by laboring. Since we are divorced from the means of production it has meant the development of this separation in order to get the things we need to live, which are also products of other people’s labor.

Without having the split between labor and labor-power they were unable to see why the more the worker created the poorer they became.

If we were paid for our actual labor as the activity, as Ricardo saw it, the value we create while we work means the capitalists get nothing. He thought that instead value was created through the means of production, which we know is not true, but lead USs and PEs to think that the exchange between workers and capitalists was an equal exchange. For socialists it meant bargaining with capitalists, instead of rebelling, it meant an increase in productivity appeared to give the worker more free time since she could now create more in less time. Instead we know that an increase in productivity actually lowers the value of LP meaning the more we create the poorer we become.

 

5. Versus Marxism

What is important about the split between labor and labor power isn’t just that Marx gives us a new idea of capitalism. Capital is not just about giving us a look behind the curtain, so to speak, or shattering the appearances that capitalism tries to uphold, but a look at the possibility of what production and thus humanity could be like. This is entrenched in his method, and this method is exactly what he provides to us here that is so special about Capital. It is a look at how to reunite us with the means of production, and thus our species being.

Yet there is no master plan. Marx is not a utopian socialist, and instead made a very significant break from them. At the time that Marx comes out of, utopian socialists were limited to Ricardo’s theory of labor which saw the activity of labor and its exchange-value, labor-power, as one. This lead to contradictory understandings of how value was created and the relationship between workers and capitalists. What Marx did was unite labor and revolutionaries, intellectual work with the activity. He saw in the labor movement the negation of capitalism, and tells us that capitalist production creates its own negation in the working class. With this, Marx has given socialism a footing in class struggle.

In the German Ideology he tells us, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”