CrimethInc.’s “Work”: A Failed Attempt at a Post-modern Critique of Labour?

CrimethInc.’s “Work”: A Failed Attempt at a Post-modern Critique of Labour?

By Anarchisme ou Barbarie

The following piece was originally developed as the fifth and final part of a series of talks on the subject of anarchist critiques of work. It first came into being in the form of a talk given to the FAU-IWA chapter in Bielefeld, Germany in July 2012. Back then, CrimethInc.’s new book, “Work”, was selected as an example for post-modern critique of labour, partly due to the widespread popularity of CrimethInc. within German-speaking anarchists.

The release of a CrimethInc. book on wage labour in 2011 came as a bit of a surprise to many anarchists. To understand this surprise, a short look at the group itself may be necessary.

Introduction

CrimethInc. is a comparatively young collective, being founded somewhere in the late 1990s and being on the radar of the wider public since about 2001. The collective labels its political ideas as a unique philosophy named “crimethink”. These ideas are rather popular among English-speaking anarchists and are also gaining popularity within the German-speaking anarchist community (CrimethInc.’s major works are also available in German).

When it comes to theoretical influences on CrimethInc., one can see a rather strong Situationist influence; though it is unclear to what extent Situationist ideas were actually understood in their depths rather than imitated in its surface appearances[1]. Further than that, the collective’s theoretical roots remain largely unclear, especially since CrimethInc., as a matter of principle, actively rejects citing sources and references while advocating plagiarism as a subversive course of action. References to anarchist classics that are widely read in the US like Goldman or Kropotkin cannot be found within the crimethink philosophy, maybe apart from some rather diffuse references to insurrectionists like Bonanno. Rather than approaching the philosophy from a theoretical perspective, it might be more fruitful to employ a subcultural point of view. The fact that CrimethInc. came out of the US hardcore scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with its individualist and spontaneist ethos, is pretty obvious. This subculture tended towards trying to achieve social change by individual action. Examples for this are straight edge, DIY or dumpster diving as forms of political activity, but also other individual behaviours, like bodily hygiene[2].

Before the publication of “Work” in 2011, the aforementioned individualism characterized all of CrimethInc.’s politics. Formal political organization, class struggle, or bothering in any way with the issue of wage labour were completely rejected. Instead of these, an individual dropping-out of society was advocated. People were expected to follow the CrimethInc. way by abandoning all earthly belongings, traditional social relationships, and to go wandering through the world, living hand-to-mouth. Political organization and long-term struggle should be replaced by random encounters with like-minded people wherever one currently happened to end up. Society as a whole was expected to change as soon as more people followed this model, until the collapse of capitalism due to mass non-participation. How a post-capitalist society was supposed to look remains largely unknown; pre-2011 CrimethInc. tended not to bother with questions of social organization and economics, despite some diffuse hints at anti-modernism, with vague allusions to primitivism.

This political approach was met with criticism from various sides, especially from anarcho-syndicalists. The assumption that everyone was able to remove themselves from capitalist society by way of dropping out or non-participation, or that such a removal from a world-encompassing social system was even possible, has been widely rejected as having no basis in reality[3]. In this context the social structure of the CrimethInc. collective (white, young, middle-class, predominantly male) was problematized and it was mentioned that CrimethInc.’s positive advocacy of homelessness and poverty as ways of life appeared as a possibility only to people who themselves never lived in poverty. In this context, a rather infamous CrimethInc. quote was “Poverty, unemployment, homelessness – if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right!”[4]. In general, the strong focus on subculturalism and lifestyle was the major point of most critiques of CrimethInc., in addition to the aforementioned anti-organizational attitude. CrimethInc.’s political inefficacy was largely attributed to these factors that also made CrimethInc. en passant a rather self-contained, elitist enterprise. This is a general problem of subculturalist political approaches, but one that CrimethInc. provides an especially clear-cut example for. Another point of criticism was the absence of any analytical perspective on society. In the publications that predate “Work”, there is rarely any thought given to the workings of capitalist societies. Instead, these texts focus strongly on surface phenomena of consumerism and the personal relationships of the activists to said consumerist surface phenomena, without using these thoughts for an analysis of society’s structure or internal mechanisms[5].

CrimethInc.’s Analysis of Capitalist Society

czarLooking at the aforementioned history of the collective, the publication of “Work” in 2011 can be considered a political turnaround. CrimethInc. Flip-flopped on some of its prior core positions and declared wage labour as well as analyzing the functions of capitalism to be important issues. Like most CrimethInc. Books, “Work” is a mixture of theoretical discussions and narrations of the authors’ lived experiences, divided into a long part about the structure and functionality of capitalist societies and a very short one outlining CrimethInc.’s concepts for anti-capitalist resistance.

The book starts with an attempted definition of the concept of work which basically defines all activities connected to exploitation as work. On one hand, this concept tends to be a bit hazy, on the other hand it allows an account to unpaid activities like reproductive labour as well[6]. After trying to debunk some alleged myths about wage labour, like necessity, security, and others[7], society is analytically divided into three groups: exploiters, exploited, and those who are excluded from economic activities[8]. The rest of the analytical section of the book is divided into many short chapters that either discuss singular aspects of capitalism or narrate personal experiences of the authors. Many of the revelations discussed in this part might seem banal to experienced anarchists, like the fact that capitalism is an ever-changing, global system with the capability to integrate resistance movements and re-purpose them towards the modernization of capitalism. Despite this, there are also some fresh ideas to be found, like the framing of capitalism as a collective hallucination (though this might come with some ableist connotations), but these ideas are usually not well thought-out. For example, the aforementioned collective hallucination is then thought to be the same as a social structure or relationship for some unknown reason, thus abandoning the analytical possibilities of the new term. At the end of this rather unstructured line of reasoning, the book arrives at the conclusion that capitalism constitutes a social system in which the private property of capital forms the “social landscape”[9].

A rather large portion of the book is dedicated to looking at various actors within capitalist society. Here, at least some attempt at a structural analysis of capitalism can be perceived, though innovation remains scarce. For example, the chapter on business tycoons and politicians states that these people are not inherently evil, but that the structures of capitalist societies leave them only with limited options, and that state and government have the dedicated function of social control, enacted in a symbiotic relationship between state and economy. Further discussed actors are bosses (considered useless and a hindrance to workers), superstars (perceived as some kind of creativity symbols and the only ones allowed to be creative under capitalism), middle management (a link or transmission between exploiters and exploited), and “professionals” like doctors, lawyers, and professors who are thought to symbolize the monopolization of knowledge[10]. It is interesting that at this point, despite the prior absence of cited sources, the authors cite sociologist C. Wright Mills on the topic of the service economy[11], without ever contextualizing, using or referencing these quotes again during the course of the book. Instead, the next chapter moves straight on to the next phenomenon.

After discussing actors, the next few chapters are concerned with different forms of work or activity. In this context, labour relations like self-employment or factory work, institutions like police and military, and social phenomena like homelessness are put side by side, without any apparent attempt to contextualize or systematize them.

“An act of consumption is always an act of placing oneself within society which leads to subcultures and resistance movements often adopting certain consumption patterns as parts of their identity”

Self-employment is considered self-exploitation and the burdening of employees with entrepreneurial risks. In addition, the self-employed are seen as having a stronger internalization of market logic than wage laborers and are considered to be more flexible. For these reasons, the authors believe that the future of capitalism lies with self-employment[12].

The chapter on industrial work starts with a brief history of industrialization and the connected social upheaval, including the stabilizing influence of Fordism[13]. Fordism is perceived as having had several functions: On one hand, increasing efficiency and disciplining the workforce by means of a strict workplace regime, and on the other hand integrating the workers into consumerist society, thus opening new markets for industrial products. Since the 1960s, Fordism is in the process of being abandoned in favor of more flexibles modes of production. In this context, CrimethInc. declares unions en passant to be obsolete, since the exploiters are not thought to have any use for them under post-Fordist conditions. At this point, it becomes clear that CrimethInc. imagines unions solely as yellow unions, whose function is the discipline and control of the workers. And even this function of unionism is only thought to be available in Fordist factories. Militant or anti-capitalist unions are apparently not even conceived as a possibility by CrimethInc., much less as the historical and social reality they are[14].

The introduction of a general, state-run system of education is primarily seen as a byproduct of industrialization, with the purpose of providing a skilled but malleable workforce. In current times, it is also thought to be providing a temporary refuge for youths who are unable to find paid employment. This chapter also briefly references phenomena like debt and the decreasing employment value of college degrees[15].

The following chapter concerns itself with the service industry, which is considered a largely superfluous industry by the authors, since it is conceived as being mostly limited to activities exclusive to capitalism, like advertising. This perspective is not only overly narrow (since it completely ignores industries like healthcare, education, food, and so on) but also comes with a good-sized portion of disdain for service workers, who are basically considered too stupid to realize the futility of their activities (the thought that the workers rely on wages for their survival does not seem to occur to the authors). On the plus side, there are also a few paragraphs dedicated to problems of workplace organizing. These problems are the fragmentation of the service industry into many small companies, the typically short duration of employment, and the internalization of entrepreneurial behaviour by the workers. These problems are then further illustrated by two narratives of successful workplace struggles. These narratives emphasize the need for organization in the workplace, somewhat contradicting the previous chapters, with a well-working organization being able to employ illegal actions like sabotage and theft successfully in the struggle. Interestingly, successful organization in the service industry was declared impossible in the previous chapters[16].

The chapters on reproductive and sex work largely stop at stating that these segments are as integrated into capitalism as everything else. There is no in-depth discussion of the connections between capitalism and patriarchy[17]. While the chapter on the security sector largely disappoints by only stating the obvious (the purpose of police and military is violently preserving the social order), the chapter talking about the function of the (US) prison system is slightly more interesting. The purpose of this system is seen as twofold, social and economic. The social purpose is once more preserving the social order, while the economic purpose is providing cheap labour and keeping wages in check. Though nothing new, this is at least an accurate, albeit rough description of the prison-industrial complex in the USA[18].

With the chapters on religion and the judicial system, we once more get the same reasons for their existence we get for basically every aspect of contemporary society: Stabilization and legitimization of the capitalist social order and its standards[19].

Doing a complete turnaround on positions previously held by CrimethInc., the authors consider a life outside of capitalism not possible, since capitalism is a global social and economic system[20]. We see here elements of the CrimethInc. collective abandoning the former core belief of dropping-out of society. This turn comes slightly surprising and is not explained by any line of reasoning, but nonetheless is a political improvement over its previous positions.

Production and consumption are once again discussed in dedicated chapters. The chapter on production conveys nothing new besides the statement that private property with regards to the means of production needs to be abolished[21]. The consumption chapter is slightly more differentiated. Here, it is stated that in the past, people had to only meet a small fraction of their needs via the market, which they have now to do for almost everything. At the same time, participation in society requires more and more consumer goods, which, according to the authors, excludes more and more people from social participation. An act of consumption in this context is always an act of placing oneself within society which leads to subcultures and resistance movements often adopting certain consumption patterns as parts of their identity. This leads the authors to reject strategies like ethical consumption due to their inability to tackle the root of the problem[22].

The role of investments and debt is seen as manifold. The primary purpose is seen as enabling the market to expand by transcending the boundaries of the material economy. Another important function is the integration of increasing parts of the population into consumerism, along with a disciplinary function, i.e. forcing indebted consumers into deep dependency from wage labour in order to repay the debts. The only practical solution the authors see is mass non-payment of debts, since a mass movement of non-payment cannot be subdued by use of violence[23].

The final chapter of the first part deals with reformism, which mostly deals with state-instigated destruction of resistance movements by use of “divide and conquer” strategies. For example, the state managed to split the US-based animal rights movement into a reformist and a radical part (the latter including, among others, the ALF). While the reformist elements of the movement primarily advocated veganism as a consumer choice, radical animal rights activists faced severe state repression and increasing political isolation. These processes lead the authors to reject reformism as a counter-productive and dangerous strategy[24].

Proposed ways of resistance

The second, much shorter part of the book attempts to discuss ways of anti-capitalist resistance. This part does not dish out detailed instructions on how to resist, but outlines more general ideas on future courses of action. This includes another rejection of reformism, a call to adapt strategies and tactics to changing circumstances on a regular basis (with a fresh emphasis on spontaneism and subculturalism), a call to “fight where you stand” instead of dropping out and the demand to find forms of struggle and narratives that are likely to gain popularity. Other recommendations include the distribution of resources in an anti-capitalist fashion, a preference towards radical solutions and to be prepared for long-term struggle[25].

Conclusions

It can be stated that in this book, at least some parts of the CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective undertake a complete political turnaround and start trying to develop a complete analysis of capitalism. Despite getting many fundamental things right (like the immutable pyramid shape of Capitalist society which makes upwards social mobility for everyone an illusion), the book is mostly content with only scratching the surface and, in many aspects, re-inventing the wheel. None of the chapters goes beyond what can be read elsewhere in usually better quality.

The old, anti-organizational attitude of CrimethInc. can still be found in this book. All forms of organization that transcend small, spontaneous affinity groups are rejected, especially unions (which is slightly off-putting since labour struggles are extensively discussed in the book). This attitude makes it difficult to impossible to steady the momentum gained from social struggle and to enable long-term political activity. This makes it highly doubtful to believe that social struggles can be fought successfully using approaches advocated by CrimethInc., including the slightly adapted approach presented in “Work”. The glorification of subculturalism has also to be seen skeptically, since subcultures tend to be exclusionary towards people who might share anarchist political views, but sport different cultural tastes than the members of the subculture, which needlessly alienates potential comrades and reproduces hierarchies.

Given the high popularity of CrimethInc., especially among younger activists, it is, in our opinion, of high importance to find a political language that makes it possible to successfully approach young people, without abandoning essential tenets of anarchism or drifting into an “anarchism light”, as CrimethInc. is heavily prone to do.

References


[1] W., “Rethinking Crimethinc.,” Anarkismo, September 4, 2006, http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=3664.

[2] “‘Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness’ – Washing… and Brainwashing,” Libcom.org, January 11, 2006, http://libcom.org/library/cleanliness-godliness-deodorant-crimethinc.

[3] W., “Rethinking Crimethinc.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] For an extensive critique of the early CrimethInc. see, for example, http://libcom.org/library/crimethinc-comments-ken-knabb

[6] CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective, Work pp. 17-18, 2011.

[7] pp. 21-38.

[8] pp. 41-43.

[9] pp. 45-51.

[10] pp. 55-83.

[11] p. 85.

[12] pp. 87-89.

[13] “Fordism” is the paradigm of standardized, industrialized, mass production and mass consumption by semi-skilled workers paid “living wages”.

[14] pp. 91-97.

[15] pp. 99-103.

[16] pp. 105-117.

[17] pp. 119-125.

[18] pp. 127-147.

[19] pp. 257-264.

[20] pp. 157/158.

[21] pp. 165-169.

[22] pp. 171-174.

[23] pp. 201-211.

[24] pp. 315-321.

[25] pp. 339-364.

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