Radicalism, nomadism and working-class communities

Submitted by martin on 2 September, 2003 - 2:01

Discussion notes on the working class in "globalised" capitalism

Lash/Urry discussion points 7: Radicalism, nomadism and working-class communities

Part of Lash/Urry's argument is that the diminished "capacities" of the working class arise from breaking-up of previously cohesive working-class communities. An almost exactly contrary view is presented in Negri/Hardt's book "Empire", where they hail "nomadism and miscegenation" as high examples of the "refusal" which is the inner subversive force within "Empire".

Below are some notes on this which a comrade sent to me some months ago, and my (tardy) comments.


I've just been reading your essay on "Empire" in the last journal. In many ways it is prescient of the arguments about imperialism that have emerged in the last two years on the left. It's very insightful as a result. In other ways, it is grossly unfair to Hardt and Negri. A few points come to my mind.

1. As far as the history of the twentieth century and the NSDAP's central role in it are concerned, both nomadism and miscegenation are forms of refusal in the "multitude." Perhaps you are perturbed by the label of "refusal" because it makes it sound intentional and politically deliberate, but why not see past that? Racial purity of "origin" and the "homeland" are made ideologically impossible when people are of mixed race and move around a lot. Take Brazil. It's impossible to mobilise civil society against the "great scourge" of ladino or mulatto rent-boys. It's only possible to mobilise against a clearly defined and unified group, such as the Indian street merchants. The notion of "homeland" is simply laughable to a person who has more than one experience of "home" too. Many Australians are so nationalistic and thus fall prey to the anti-refugee, pro-war stuff simply because they haven't been out of the country. Same with the putrid nationalism that is rampant in England (Ibiza is as far as many go).

2.You're ungenerous on the interpretation of the subversive possibilities in "desertion, exodus, nomadism, subtraction and defection." I think, from memory, the point Negri and Hardt are trying to make is that whilst in one sense dependence in capitalism is complete and goes unchallenged, the resources of hope for "dual power" now reside clearly in civil society. There is no ideological compulsion to identify one's personal concerns with those of the society as a whole in many areas of human life, such as, say, in former times, a man's or woman's overwhelming concern to marry. One's personal concerns have been cut free of larger social units in many areas of life.

I think you're ungenerous in another sense too. Take the present emergence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, much bigger than anything we've ever seen before. My understanding of it is that this is possible for precisely the reason that so many people have determinately richer personal lives that are simultaneously unconnected to the life of society as a whole, and, in the form of the shocking contrast that war or high level corruption provides, the mechanism of power is laid more bare than ever before. This is the political shock of jarred expectations. The depth of the lack of identification with the society as a whole and the abrupt realisation of that chasm between the personal life and the social life demonstrates, in my opinion, an example of a moment of clarity when people break through lies. To put it simply, (a) personal life is so much richer, (b) social life is so much poorer, (c) when someone purports to act in the name of "social life" (e.g. "democracy", "freedom", "human rights", (d) the lie is more transparent and (e) it brings people to their senses and they get out to demonstrate or they might simply refuse the mass media altogether, depending on their proclivities. I'm conducting a mental survey of how my friends have been behaving over the past few months as I write this.

3. I think you're right to demystify the "poverty is purity and joy" myth that Negri and Hardt underhandedly promote, and I remember once when I ran this view past you in so many words, along the lines of "the powerful are corrupt", you snapped back at me, "but only as much as the powerless." That was a brilliant comeback, I thought, and it caused me to rethink things in this area. However, I think you might be missing a well-developed psychological terrain here altogether in which - when there is a choice - one way to avoid the psychological pain associated with domestic tribulation (such as property and children and employment) is just to forego them altogether and develop other interests. The rhetoric the bosses use about the "flexibility" of casual work is thus psychologically reworked as my own "flexibility" to reject work that's not to my liking or doesn't command enough money (I'm a sole operator, I will stick on the dole, I will resort to easy criminality like drug dealing). People can do this when they're childless, so they just don't breed. Another example. The rhetoric the banks use about "home ownership" (not "house ownership", note) is thus reworked as an aggressive kind of tenant militancy and uncooperative behaviour (wrecking the house, breaking leases, stopping construction work, not paying rent, squatting etc.) and the aggressive spending of all money as "disposable income." I'm conducting a mental survey of my friends again.

You seem to miss these kinds of empowerment, or perhaps it's just that you equate them with the rationalisation of the losing side. You say something to that effect on p.40. For some reason you start talking about migrant labour and refugees as instances of miscegenation and nomadism. No reason for that given, and I think that's an oversight considering that what Hardt and Negri might mean is that mixed race people are constitutionally subversive in that they can't be classified and branded for the racist cause. But then you go on to say, "...are usually driven attempts to evade capital's depredations, rather than positive acts of subversion driving development, often expedients of poverty and misery rather than subversion". I don't know about your interpretation of what Negri and Hardt are trying to argue. I'm in two minds as to whether to interpret what you say here as some sort of rectitude or not.

Hopefully I'll hear back from you about what I think is the inhabitancy of a different mental world. I fear the mental world Hardt and Negri are talking about is possibly not trans-generational. They're certainly on to something, however, not just a fad. They're definitely on to something with the reworking of the idea of us all being workers (this is the hardest problem, I find, to get younger people to identify as workers). I may make some other observations as I finish your essay.

My response:

1. It is true, I think, that the conditions for revolutionary militancy are best created by "uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation... All that is solid melts into air..." Working classes which are migrant, within one country or across borders, are often more open to radical ideas than fixed communities. The nostalgia which Lash/Urry have for the old cohesive working-class community typefied by the pit village is misplaced. Such communities were typically quite conservative, even if in more recent decades they were conserving radical traditions (often Stalinist) laid down half a century or longer ago.

2. "Nomadism and miscegenation" will be correlated with more democratic politics with the causation running the other way, since more democratic politics generally makes for more nomadism (fewer barriers to migration) and more miscegenation (fewer ethnic/ racial taboos).

3. Just how they are refusal, however, remains unclear. The word "refusal" means deliberation. It is Hardt/ Negri themselves, in one of their many asides where they seem to kick away the base for what they have argued on another page, who comment that much of what they hail as "nomadism and miscegenation" is in fact the harassed flight of the persecuted or desperately poor. (Sorry, don't have a copy at hand to give the page number).

4. Nomadism and miscegenation create better conditions for radicalism. Whether those possibilities are realised depends on a host of other conditions. They do not constitute a radical challenge to capitalism, or even a positive democratic force, in and of themselves. Nazi Germany, the example cited, seems to me to bear this point out. It also proves it is not true that "racial purity of 'origin' and the 'homeland' are made ideologically impossible when people are of mixed race and move around a lot.... It's only possible to mobilise against a clearly defined and unified group...."

5. The German Jews were "nomadic". They were also highly integrated into German society, not at all "clearly defined and unified" as a distinct group. There had been a lot of miscegenation. The fact that they had to rummage through ancestral records and then compel the wearing of yellow stars in order to identify the Jews did not however deter the Nazis.

6. The Germans themselves were of mixed race and moved around a lot. They were one of the great migrant peoples of the 19th century. A greater proportion of the population of the USA can trace its origin back to Germany than to any other country. The Germans had also migrated very widely across central and Eastern Europe. In the territory of 1930s Germany, the Nazis' strongest area of electoral support was East Prussia, a segment of the country geographically separate from the rest and including a large Polish population. I don't have figures to hand for the Polish populations of East Prussia, or Silesia, or Pomerania, or for miscegenation, but it must have been considerable. Prussia itself was named after the Borussians, a non-German people.

7. Sadly, there are plenty of other examples to show that racism and xenophobia do not depend on some "natural" division of the population (skin colour or whatever) being clear in advance. I've just been reading Philip Gourevitch's book about the Rwanda genocide. There, there was no clear "ethnic" difference between Hutu or Tutsi, nor any clear difference in typical appearance. (The best guess was that Tutsi were supposed to have narrower noses). There had been a lot of miscegenation. Yet the Hutu chauvinists slaughtered Tutsi at a greater rate than the Nazis slaughtered Jews during the Holocaust. Gourevitch's book concludes with a story which shows how the genocide did not depend on any prior absence of mixing. At one Catholic girls' boarding school, a Hutu gang woke the girls up in the middle of the night and demanded they separate themselves into Hutu and Tutsi, so that the Tutsi could be killed and the Hutu spared. The girls refused, saying that they were all just Rwandans. The gang could not tell the difference between Hutu and Tutsi. So they killed all the girls.

8. Other examples. The major immigrant countries of today - the USA, Australia, Israel - are not the countries where radicalism is strongest, or nationalism is weakest. It is not at all true that "the notion of 'homeland' is simply laughable to a person who has more than one experience of 'home'..." Immigrant countries generally go in for more overt flag-waving, anthem-singing and nationalist bluster than countries with more settled populations. It is common for migrants to have a fervent nationalist attachment to their "new" country.

9. Moreover, we've found in campaign about asylum rights in Britain that it is common for black people in Britain, or people for whom English is obviously a second language, to have hostile attitudes to asylum-seekers. Often, precisely because they feel unsure about their status in their new country, they are the loudest to cry for the doors to be closed against new arrivals which might create disturbance.

10. Travel does broaden the mind. However, what the examples of Australia and Britain indicate is that travel of itself does not dispel nationalist prejudice. The statistics which I could find on a quick search are for the eight OECD countries sending most tourists abroad to other OECD countries. If we calculate the ratio of tourists sent to population, the league-table of internationalism runs as follows: 1. Canada, index 26; 2. Netherlands, 18; Germany, 17; 3. UK, 16; 4. France, 9; 5= USA, Italy, and Japan, all 3. Of course it is easier to cross a border from Canada or the Netherlands than it is from Japan or most of the USA, and France and Italy are less likely to "export" tourists because they are the world's leading tourist "importers"; but that is beside the point. People liable to be "so nationalistic and thus fall prey to the anti-refugee, pro-war stuff simply because they haven't been out of the country" (rather than for some other reason) are less likely to be found in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, or Canada than anywhere else. I don't have comparative figures for Australia to hand, but the fact that throughout Europe the stereotype figure of the backpacking student is an Australian must count for something. Whatever the roots of Australian or British nationalism, they are not lack of foreign travel.

11. In short, racism, nationalism, xenophobia are determined primarily by political and social conditions, rather than by demographic circumstances.

12. The other argument, if I have it right, is that "personal concerns have been cut free of larger social units" to a greater extent today, for example by the withering-away of "a man's or woman's overwhelming concern to marry". But this dissociation can paradoxically lead to political activism when people who have "personal lives [which are] so much richer" observe the reality of "social life [as] so much poorer" at the level of government actions like the Iraq war. She describes the bohemian milieu of people who live without family ties, on casual labour or easy criminality, spending as they go and squatting or defaulting on rent, etc. This is a species of "kinds of empowerment".

13. I have several doubts about this, and think maybe I've got the argument wrong, or missed the point.

14. The argument here seems to me to be the direct contrary of Hardt/Negri, not a drawing-out of a point in their argument. Hardt/Negri emphasise the invasion of the social mechanisms of Empire into every pore of "personal life". They write of "the totalitarian production of subjectivity". That, surely, is one reason why "refusal" is so significant for them. If "larger social units" are dictating our "subjectivity" in "totalitarian" fashion, then any sort of refusal is significant (and, yes, it's clearly deliberate refusal that is meant: casual dissociation is impossible). In fact, I think, one of the weaknesses of their argument is that here, as so often, they substitute the sweeping phrase for any careful empirical investigation. Actually a lot of people have a lot of autonomy and a lot of scope for casual dissociation from the governing powers. And that is not particularly subversive.

15. Not only over the Iraq war, there is plenty of evidence of the majority of the population becoming less deferential to, less respectful towards, more sceptical about, the governing authorities. Lash/Urry comment on it. In the USA, to the extent that opinion polls can be considered solid empirical evidence, there is a clear trend since Watergate. But doesn't the last 30 years in the USA (and other countries) also show that one way of that casual dissociation working itself out is through the depoliticisation of society - more and more people retreating into personal life, refusing or failing to vote, dismissing all politics as a swindle? Such people have come closer to making themselves prey in a crisis for right-wing demagogues than to any subversion of capitalism.

16. Richness of personal lives, poverty of social lives - or private affluence, public squalor, as J K Galbraith put it?
a) It is only some who have richer lives in contemporary capitalism. For the majority, probably, things are harder than they were 30 years ago (even if they have more electronic gadgets than then); for many, things are much harder.
b) Those who have the richest personal lives - the upper and upper-middle classes - do not "get out to demonstrate". Not at all. If they see public squalor, they respond by retreating into gated communities and organising crackdowns on the poor.
c) There is a section of working-class people who do have richer lives today in that they have access to much more education and travel; they have fridges, washing machines, microwaves, cars and so on; if young and childless, they probably have a fair bit of money to spend on entertainment, and a bigger-than-ever range of commercial entertainment to spend it on. But I think you must mean "richer lives" at more than the fridge, washing-machine and DVD level; and that sense of "richer lives" surely involves larger social units (education, entertainment, arts, and so on). It is not at clear to me that for that section of the population the contrast is between a personal affluence and a public squalor.

17. Bohemia has traditionally been more or less radical since its emergence in the late 19th century. But "empowerment"? I don't see that. And I don't think Hardt/Negri's writing about the working class being replaced by "the multitude" can really be taken as picking up on a new fact here. Actually their thinking here originates in the early 1970s, when after the failure of their ultra-"factoryist" orientation (in the name of which they had denounced groups which would end up organising "students in conflict with the family, lunatics, wretches, filmmakers...", etc., in short, bohemia), they resolved their strategic problems by simply redefining almost everyone as an element of the "socialised worker".

18. Besides, the new developments here, in Europe anyway, since, say, the early 1980s, are that bohemia has become smaller and less radical. The squatter population, once quite large in some cities, has been reduced radically. Students are more and more focused on getting their degrees, attending their graduation ceremonies, getting jobs and getting on the "housing ladder". Getting married, too: marriage rates are as high as ever, the change being only that divorce rates have gone up drastically. (Not all of them, of course; but a greater proportion of them than 20 years ago). Those who make the bohemian choice will still, of course, on average be more radically-minded than the career-oriented, but these days you get bohemian neo-liberals. Thirty or twenty years ago, selling papers on the streets, you used to be able to guess, roughly anyway, who might be interested and who wouldn't; today, short of knowing that the conspicuously prosperous won't buy, you can't.

19. The demonstrations against the Criminal Trespass Law in Britain circa 1994 are a sort of "exception that proves the rule". They were visibly very different from other leftish demonstrations over the last 20 years, including (alongside the usual left-activist core) lots of long-haired, ostentatiously-scruffily-dressed, "punky" young people. They were much more white and middle-class than other leftish demonstrations; at one point there were Criminal Trespass Law and anti-racist demonstrations on successive weekends, and, apart from the common left-activist core, the two demonstrations could have been in different countries so small was the overlap. Some of the bohemian constituency later turned up in Reclaim The Streets, but most of it has not been seen in politics since.