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What a way to make a living: Class Power on Zero Hours

If you have a strong interest in workplace organising and/or ongoing debates about revolutionary working-class theory and strategy, then you may well have already encountered the Angry Workers, a small and very dedicated crew based in West London. If you’re not familiar with them, and feel like catching up on their lessons from the last five or six years of living, working, organising and fighting, then their new book, Class Power on Zero Hours, is an ideal place to start.

Written and published by AngryWorkers
ISBN: 9781527258341
Class Power on Zero-Hours

Packed in between the two covers (which, on a graphic design note, use a very nice shade of bold pink), there are nearly 400 pages, broken down into three main sections: one introducing their general approach and organising model, another taking a deep dive into workers’ inquiry and their workplace experiences, and then another drawing out their strategic conclusions at the end.

In putting forward their own approach to class politics, based on the fundamental importance of workers’ self-organisation, their criticisms of other approaches come out quite sharply: the electoral “democratic socialist” approach, based on trying to mobilise working-class people as individual citizens and voters rather than a collective force, comes in for a in-depth shredding. The observation that “the only thing that Corbynism was able to renationalise was the fringe left” is an unforgettable one. Similarly, ultra-left/post-left communisation or insurrectionist approaches that start off by more or less uncritically accepting claims about automation and the end of manual labour get some sharp criticism for taking the bosses’ hype at face value.

As befitting a book so heavily focused on the workplace, the strategies that come in for the most in-depth examinations are union ones. Rather than adopting a dogmatic position based on some dead theorist or another, their criticisms of TUC trade unions like the GMB or USDAW are based on extensive experience with taking up rep positions and trying to see how far those bodies can be used to increase workers’ confidence and militancy – and, importantly, seeing the very real limitations of those organisations up close.

As well as exploring the dead-ends of TUC union structures, they also have an interesting critical look at “Syndicalism 2.0” and unions like the IWW and UVW, as well other examples like SI Cobas in Italy and Workers’ Initiative in Poland. This section is of real value to anyone with an interest in these kinds of base/grassroots union projects, as they don’t set out to diss or promote these groups for the sake of it, but rather to carefully explore what makes them successful among the specific groups of workers and workplaces where they’ve been able to take hold, and what the limitations are that make it hard for them to spread further.

There’s also an interesting critique of the influential advice offered by the well-regarded organiser Jane McAlevey and her book No Shortcuts – the Angry Workers suggest that her reliance on winning over “organic leaders” is still one shortcut too many, as such leaders will often tend to be those at the top end of hierarchical divisions within the working class, and any organising project that relies too heavily on them will find itself in trouble when they get bought off.

This point brings me on to another of the book’s great strengths, the way that they use a class composition/workers’ inquiry approach to examine the divisions and hierarchies that exist within the working class. The book is certainly not intended primarily as a contribution to the ongoing “class vs idpol” wars, but in its close attention to the complexity of the actual composition of the working class at a specific moment in time, it serves as a damning critique of both poles of the debate. On one hand, they criticise “the traditional form of class politics, which [assumes] a (formal) unity as a precondition to struggle” without taking full account of the divisions and different conditions that pose a barrier to unity; on the other, it’s equally far from the simplistic approaches, often imported from the US via the internet, that treat things like “white privilege” or “antiblackness” as fixed, ahistorical categories.

While it’s a very workplace-focused book, the observations it makes about these hierarchies, who gets to take on the “confident, charismatic leader/spokesperson role” and who often doesn’t, may well have a lot of relevance for those of us stuck at home thinking about the composition and dynamics of our local community mutual aid whatsapp or facebook groups.

I was going to say that this is the most impressive book to come out of the UK anti-state communist milieu since… but then, on reflection, it’s hard to think of anything comparable. If I was going to compare Class Power… to anything published in recent years, then the closest comparison would probably be Hinterland by Phil Neel. While the Angry Workers don’t quite have Neel’s gift as a great prose stylist, both books share a defiantly unfashionable approach that’s unlikely to win many fans among trendy electoral crowds, a focus on logistics and “hinterland” areas like Greenford, and a real dedication to showing how the “big picture” of capital and crisis can be traced out through a close examination of our day-to-day experiences.

One criticism to point out, which can hopefully be fixed in future editions, is the lack of an index, which would certainly be helpful when attempting to find discussions of specific subjects within a large and extensive book.

But in closing, I want to recommend this book with an unlikely compliment: while sat around my house reading it in quarantine, I found some part of myself itching to get back to the workplace, grabbing brief chats with colleagues in the kitchen and complaining about the job or the latest bullshit from management. No small achievement.

~ Cautiously Pessimistic

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