Chuffed but Gutted: Owen Jones – The Almost Autonomist

by ByStrategy

16 September 2013

Owen Jones appeared yesterday on Novara Media. For those readers from outside the UK, Novara Media is a “autonomous media collective” based in London that currently manifests itself as an hour long radio show on weekly at 1pm GMT on Fridays on Resonance FM but that in the near future hopes to expand to internet TV. It provides really excellent analysis of political conditions, interesting interviews with leading left-wing writers and thinkers and excellent analysis of events as they unfold. Worth tuning in every week or subscribing to their podcast. Their archive is also really worth listening to – all their shows are on their website.

Jones is a commentator for The Independent newspaper and a writer who is also a member and activist on the left of the Labour party. During the programme, Owen outlines his reasons for supporting the Labour party and mainstream unions. What interests us here is how much he concedes and shares with the analysis of the presenters of Novara, an analysis which finds much of its basis in the stream of Italian autonomist Marxism which began in the mid-1960s – detailed in a number of previous shows. Perhaps unknown to him and certainly not in theoretical terms he would endorse, Owen ends up on much the same page about the way in which the working class now looks, yet still believes in the mass organs of working class born and constituted by and for a composition of the working class that no longer exists. The question is: why?

Italian autonomist Marxism has a long and complicated history that flows from the early theory of Operaismo in the 1960s (workerism in journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia), through to the larger organisations until the mid-to-late 1970s (Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio especially) to Autonomia Operaia and then “post-Workerism” that includes analyses made famous by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in works such as Empire and Paolo Virno’s (superior) Grammar of the Multitude. One continuity between these brands of Italian Marxism is the idea of analysing “class composition”, understood as centrally important to organising the working class against capitalism (see note).

In its workerist period where it was most cleanly articulated, class composition called for attention to the close relationship between what they called the technical composition of the working class and its political composition. The technical composition – the way in which work was organised, the flow of the working day, the manner in which communication was allowed on the shop floor – resulted in a particular political composition of the working class – the manner in which they would struggle against the working conditions imposed upon them by capital. As Wright points out, this characterisation can sometimes appear rigidly mechanistic, but this was related to another classical workerist analysis, the so-called “Copernican inversion” instituted by the Operaist theorist Mario Tronti. Just as Copernicus had inverted the relationship between the Earth and cosmos, Tronti that the ruling classes respond to working class struggle, which is primary, rather than the other way around. Previously Marxists had written history from the perspective of capital – the point was to read it from the perspective of the living labour subjugated by capital, to which capital responded by changing. Thus the technical discipling of one era of the working class is the result of their struggle in the preceding era. This leads to an alternative history of the struggles between classes which can be extended to the digital sphere.

This means that careful attention was paid to the way the working class as they actually existed and struggled against capitalism in their day to day lives. This meant that this understanding of that life was to be finally the task of the workers themselves, with only the help of theorists and left sociologists – the idea of the ‘worker’s enquiry’ was central to workerist and then autonomist analyses. Since this early period analysts working in the tradition have paid close attention to the changes in the way work is composed, offering a series of new understandings that operate under the unstable, sometimes over wrought but provocative categories of post-Fordism, immaterial labour, affective labour, precarious labour, the Multitude, the cognitariat and so on. What is centrally important here though is that if the working class is to struggle, it must be understood as it is now. The problem with the political organisations of the day, the early workerists theorised, was that they had a view of the working class that was radically out of date, so they were totally unable to respond to its needs. The mass organisations of the unions and the Italian communist party (the PCI) could no longer represent in their idea of the working class, the new ‘mass worker’, partially formed by unskilled migrant labour and forced into an accelerated rate of production, that directly much of its rage against the idea of work itself. The figure of the proud skilled worker collecting their just reward and the unions promoting the dignity of work that flowed from this were out of date for the situation the real working class found itself.

Jones’ first book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class is sometimes taken as a rather nostalgic book, pining for the days prior to Thatcher. However, as is clear from his Novara interview, Jones is rather more astute in his analysis of how class reproduces itself today. As Jones says, more people are now employed in call centres than were employed down the mines. The class composition of the working class has profoundly changed, which Jones seems to admit “If the miner was one of the iconic jobs of post-war Britain, then today, surely, the call centre worker is as good a symbol of the working class as any”. For the autonomist Marxists, these changes result in the need for a different approach to political organisation, the germs of which emerged in the Italian experience of the ‘movement of 1977’. Some post-autonomist theorists – such as Hardt and Negri – have been rather over enthusiastic about the political possibilities of this type of communication worker as being intrinscally collaborative and ‘communistic’ – something that has been heavily criticised. Those influenced by the autonomist tradition have published extremely detailed analyses of call centre work – the most famous being Kolinko’s Hotlines. Indeed, the best moments of Chavs are the descriptions of daily work that could well flow from one of these organisations.

So, the problem with Jones’ analysis is that on one hand he agrees with the idea that the working class has fundamentally changed in the UK under the conditions we might call “post-Fordism”, but that the organs of the working class must look to are still the organs of the period preceding it. Owen repeats that the times where working people clustered around a similar place, all doing the same job and therefore represented by the mass union have concluded, but then looks to the same things now to do the same job now. It is frustrating – why praise the organisational innovation of UKUncut then claim unions could do anything approaching this? When Jones’ details the numerous defeats for the Left inside the Labour party, he then places the burden of proof on the person who claims that maybe the Labour party isn’t the best place for a genuinely left wing project. Yet surely that burden should be on Jones to explain why now given all the preceding history, the Labour party could work out this time, especially given its current formation. Perhaps those attempts outside the Labour party would had had more success without these kind of arguments being produced? Despite all his pessimism of the current state of the Left, Jones believes the situation that preceded (say) the smashing of the unions by Thatcher can be restored. How when the form of work that allowed their formulation no longer exists as he himself admits? The same goes for the terminal decline in the membership of political parties as such, including the Labour party.

In short, Owen would be better served following the arguments of his own work to the logical conclusion, genuinely “starting where people are” as workers and abandoning hope in the mass organisations of the working class that serve a class that no longer exists. Come on outside Owen – the autonomia’s lovely!

Note: The best history of the early development of this period is Storming heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright. Wright’s book strikes a remarkably pessimistic tone – this review by one of the subjects of the book Sergio Bologna being an interesting counterpoint alongside an afterword to the Italian edition by participants. He has also written shorter articles on the subject and interviews.


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