What is to be done? (haha….)

9 February 2005

Ok, so I wrote an email to aut-op-sy this morning setting down my thoughts on struggles over income in South Africa. A bit of background on that: autonomists for a long time have put the demand for ‘citizenship income’, i.e. income that is delinked from wage labour, as one of their central planks. The struggles in South Africa haven’t been ones waged by autonomists, but potentially they put the same question on the table – how do we afford to live? And not just to live, but to live ‘as humans’ (remember the classic comment from Cecilia and others in Tafelsig in 2001: “We are not animals”). In another language, this is posing the demand for “zoe” (i.e. a full life) against the reality of “bios” (i.e. bare life). Put yet another way, we cannot cease to be workers (i.e. governed by the capitalist demand for ever more labour) without re-organising income so that it exists apart from wage labour. Secondly, if we have such non-wage income, we don’t want it to be administered by the state (which is, after all, a moment of alienation and a collective capitalist), so we need to create a non-fucked-up non-state public sphere.

On to the email:

Reading Virno’s comments about the importance of creating non-state public spheres led to some thoughs (how unusual! acclaim all my friends ;)). First, a bit of background:

The ‘community’ struggles in South Africa from 1999 onwards have largely been around protecting sources of non-wage income. One aspect of this is the struggle against the commodification of goods such as water, electricity and housing. These struggles have erupted largely in areas where historically these goods have been available (council rental housing, unmetered or non-prepaid water and electricity provision to households), and have taken the form of defending practices (non-payments, forms of ‘self reduction’, illegal connections, reinstatement after eviction) that are crucial to particular life strategies in these townships.

These struggles erupted at a time when wage struggles across both the private and public sectors were suffering terribles defeats. In a way it seems like they beat ‘us’ in the workplaces, and the socio-economic effects of that erupted in the ‘communities’ (i.e. poor townships, the historic ‘labour dormitories’ created by Apartheid city planning). Those of us looking to a form of struggle beyond the valorisation of the worker-identify saw something positive in this shift – the struggle was now no longer about a wage, but rather about income. And income is something that is potentially not tied to productivity deals and others mechanisms of capitalist ‘equivalence’.

Recently, there have been a wave of struggles – mostly below the radar screen – that have demanded ‘service delivery’. These struggles have included road blockades, land invasions and the occupation of empty housing. These struggles can be understood as a new front in the campaign over income. Very often the people involved in these struggles are people who have been living in backyards, paying rent to do so, etc. In other words, by demanding housing from the state, they are demanding a form of income…

Ok, one more thing on these struggles over non-wage forms of income: they are mostly targetted at the state. Now, if we understand the state as a collective capitalist, i.e. enforcing the rule of the social relation called capital, then its not so difficult to understand the state’s response to these income demands: the state attempts to restrain and restructure income demands within the needs of capital – i.e. it sure as hell wants (in Harry Cleaver’s words) income to be “money as command”. That’s why they’re building houses, but in typical “labour dormitory” style, why they are providing water, but through pre-paid meters, etc etc.

Ok, so… I think this little summary of struggles over income in South Africa naturally leads into the question of non-state public spaces. My understanding is that certain of these have been crucial as the breeding ground for these struggles – specifically, the “street” (rather than the neighbourhood) is a crucial unit of social interaction and sharing (of both information and material goods), and it is out of this collectivity, as well as friendship and family networks, that the collective struggles over income in the post-1999 period have been built. As Thiago pointed out recently, however, just because something is a non-state public space doesn’t mean that its not pathological… and again, as Thiago has pointed out, theorists for capital haven’t ignored the way that non-state public spheres can be harnessed in capital’s interest – the magical ability of the poor to survive on next to nothing is something that fascinates capitalists in our age of infinite flexibility. 😉

So… I guess what I’m saying is that these two goals (maybe two fists?), the creation of a non-state public sphere, and the demands for sources of income besides the wage, are not necessarily linked. In fact, linking the two seems to me to be kind of fitting together two pieces of a puzzle, without which liberation is impossible. Especially, since, as John Ross says about the Zapatistas: “we have to understand that creating autonomy is a fiction unless you have some way of financing it”. Certain experiments in combining these two fists exist, such as the Zapatista autonomous areas in Chiapas, and (from what I hear) some of the piquetero experiments in Argentina. I’m not sure exactly where I want to end up with this comment, but I have a feeling that studying these two struggles is a worthwhile enterprise, maybe a way of keeping a focus on what is necessary for autonomy (or exodus) today.

P.S. I’ve had various thoughts related to this – e.g. how the private household, and the family, is managed (also through gender) to atomize and make safe for capital the use of income. Just not had enough time to finish thinking these things through, yet.

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