The precarious – Stockholm after the Gothenburg riots

This is another text from the ‘From Thoughts to Action’  newssheet that was distributed during the European Social Forum in 2008. The group described here, ‘Stockholm United Commuters’ is one of several groups that grew out of the Stockholm autonomist Marxist reading group, together with Kvinnopolitisk Forum, PiratByrån, and others. It gives a good description of how the autonomous movement shifted towards class struggle after Gothenburg, the influences from Marxism, and the forms of struggle that developed as a result.

No one likes to hang out at offices after the working day is done, but when we found ourselves squatting the lobby of the biggest commuting contractor in Stockholm we felt that staying late hours at the office need not be so bad after all. This was during a conflict over union representation that started in the subway, but after taking it to the streets we went one step further and took it to the contractors’ headquarters. The union representative brave enough to speak out about safety hazards in the Stockholm subway got fired, and we as part of the extra-parliamentary left as well, as daily commuters, saw it as an attack not only on the unions but as a threat to our physical safety as commuters.

So we decided to join the struggle under the name ”United commuters of Stockholm”. Since the leadership couldn’t be found in the subway we went to their headquarters. After a few weeks of recurring demonstrations in-house at the HQ we went down again into the subway underground, but this time as a strong collective. We opened up the turnstiles and gave commuters the option of bypassing the bosses and capitalists by paying the ticket money directly to the people driving the trains instead, in support of their upcoming strike. This way we tried to make it possible for people both to imagine and take part in a direct organization of commuting by the people, for the people. It was a success, to say the least.

In just a few hours we raised hundreds of Euros in support of a non sanctioned strike and convinced them to break the law (by passing the turnstiles without tickets) to support it. One of the subway company bosses accidently described exactly what we were trying to do:
-This conflict has turned into a hockey game, and everybody’s cheering for the underdog. And now people from the stands have charged the rink and started fighting”.
This was one of our first experiments with reinventing forms of workplace struggle and it was some of the greatest times we have had to date. It climaxed with a political strike that put the Stockholm subway to a grinding halt. Of course we didn’t win all of it, but the form of struggle that we participated in inventing is hopefully just the start. But to really understand how we ended up there it’s necessary to start a bit earlier:

Summit hopping vs. turnstile hopping

There is no need to repeat the common history of the altermondiale movement in general, but a few words to realign the experience some of us had coming out of the ”summit-hopping” years and bring us up to date. After the wounded in Gothenburg and the murdered in Genoa there was a feeling among us that the space and potentials that erupted with the Seattle events had come to a halt. The summit struggles had a rejuvenating effect on the ability to visualize a critique of capitalism as a totality, but the potential for struggle needed to base itself in the particular and local. With inspiration from Marx and the Operaisti we turned to militant inquiry (a kind of methodical documentation and analysis) to sketch up where the points of desire, rupture and conflict were to be found in our day to day-lives. We found that most of the people that organised within our movement shared the same fluid – in every sense of the word – situation. Most of us had been employed in three or more different jobs in the last year, almost no one had a permanent lease but moved around in different forms of short-term or semi legal housings and the common spaces that intertwined all our lives were commuting, part-time studying and recurring bouts with the unemployment agency.

These are of course some of the features commonly associated with the term ”precariat” – the new fluid subject of immaterial production, affective exploitation and 24/7 subjugation. The theory behind the precariat seemed in line with what we had been discussing even though some of the conclusions as to the liberating aspects of this development seemed premature. We don’t agree that Marx’s’ labour theory of value is rendered obsolete or that the suggestion that the means of production are now already in the hands of the working class, albeit”virtually”. But even though the concept of the precariat seemed irking for clearer definition it opened up new ways to think about workplace struggle and our place within it. The basis for rejecting or accepting this new concept must be the concept’s accuracy and, as this is Marxist theory, its utility.

The starting point for organizing ourselves is always the general features of the people involved. Since we only worked in jobs with a high rate of turnover, our workplace structural power, either in terms of rigidity due to labour laws or by the means to build a strong workplace unity, were all but nil. But in similar terms to the”social factory” we could find other points where our ”associational power” (”the various forms of power that result from the formation of collective organisation”) could come to the fore. We started talking about generalizing concepts where possibilities of collectivity could be found.

A goal: more free time and dole

If locality/location was earlier the main prerequisite for resistance in the factory, the office or the universities (all of these modelled on the prisons) this now seemed less of a possibility for us. Our workplaces never brought enough people together for long enough time to start forming a collective. The places where we most frequently met up with others with the same living conditions, were the unemployment agencies and on short courses in the universities where social subsidies could provide us with short moments of rest between bout of shitty jobs. So we started organizing there. In Sweden unemployment nowadays means being forced to sitting up to eight hours a day applying for the few jobs that are listed, that you’ll never get. So we went there to discuss different ways of escaping the drudgery of these disciplining structures in society. Where were the loopholes, how did you wrangle out some free time or more dole? We opened up our own infrastructure for unemployed people and offered the legal assistance, union experience and cheap coffee as a way to break out of the personal isolation of unemployment. In the same way we found out that some parts of the university seemed to gather most of the people there, not as a way to further promising careers, but as a short term answer to unemployment. We then staked out a part of the university as a haven for those that felt alienated from the ”further yourself” philosophy and searched for a community of likeminded to collectively elaborate means to get by. We organized lectures about things that actually interested us, scanned workbooks and organized protests against the lockdown of the university (which after a short bout of media attention was opened again).

Conflict was another organizing principle. Most of us experienced on a recurring basis the same conflicts on the jobs we had. The six month probation employments (a usual form of employment among precarious in Sweden) never seemed to get prolonged, but luckily the bosses we’re not in tune with labour laws. Again and again the same recipe of internet defaming, activist blockades (with a hint of”we’re just getting started”) made sure that we could squeeze severance pay from the bosses we met. A sort of informal union pledge”If you show up for my blockade, I’ll show up for your” worked well for the short struggles that ensued. Using a common signifier for all those struggles made sure that the threat value of the singular struggle was multiplied. When the bosses looked for information on the internet about the impolite youths blockading their front steps, they found several reports of earlier conflicts and figured that they were up against a much larger group than they had thought.

Get it free- all together.

Desire/Needs became the third organizing principle. We all needed or wanted free commuting, free culture or… well, what do you want? The same problem of individualization came to the fore. If one of us went to the theatre to ask for free enjoyment with respect to her precarious life it would probably have little effect. But we found, as others before us, that if you ask around on the internet how many people are feeling inclined to see a theatre, and then march up together to watch it without paying, this is a whole different matter.

These are of course just tentative concepts that we’ve come to use to better describe and think about our political activities. We hope that by putting those out they could echo with some of the concepts and struggles developed by other activist collectives around Europe and perhaps together we could overcome the temporary standstill that the European left seems to have suffered after the slowing down of the altermondiale movement. If there is a future for us, it resides in the concrete and day-to-day struggles that make up our lives under capitalism and our search for lives beyond it. Nostalgia for struggles passed does us no more good than passive utopism, waiting for a wave of struggles yet to come. We have to reinvent our forms of community and our ways of organizing and we have to do it as a joint effort. Hopefully this text can be steps towards making this happen. Please get in contact with us and describe your own experiences. We are just getting started.

San Precario


~ by swedishzine on June 14, 2009.

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