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You are here: Platypus /Cracking the looking-glass: Perception, precarity, and everyday resistance

Cracking the looking-glass: Perception, precarity, and everyday resistance

Tim Sarrantonio

Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008

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“Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible.”
—Lewis Carroll
Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There (1871)

Let us assume, for a moment, the identity of Alice, the child protagonist of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” As we venture slowly through the mirror on the wall, we enter into a world that has been inverted. Yet when we glance back at the static and ordered room on the other side from whence we came, we notice cracks in the glass that serve as passage points between these two worlds. When we acknowledge these fractures in the mirror, our perceptions of what lies on either side suddenly shifts.

The purpose of this essay is to put forward a paradigm shift in regards to the progressive and radical left’s organizing in the United States. Using Alice’s looking-glass as a starting point, we will explore how our current organizing tactics need re-evaluation and how the idea of precarity can be fused into our everyday struggles against capital.

If we use the looking-glass as a metaphor for the struggles between capital and the working class multitude, we see that both sides are connected to each other but that the perception of each is different. Marxist economist Harry Cleaver defines the working class as “not only industrial waged workers but also a wide variety of unwaged workers, including housewives, children, students, and peasants whose work under capitalism consists primarily of the production and reproduction of the ability and willingness to carry out activities which contribute to the maintenance of the system” (Reading Capital Politically, p. 23). The things that working class people view as important, i.e. their perception of value, is drastically different than those who control the message of economic, social, and cultural value. Much working class struggle comes from these differing values of use versus exchange, where “What can I use this for” comes up against “How much can I get from this?” The looking-glass can show us both sides––where struggle and dialogue constantly shift the side of the mirror we find ourselves standing on.

Yet what of the cracks that we saw when taking on the role of young Alice? These breaks should be seen as individual points of resistance, and even though some are more expansive than others, each crack makes an impact upon the looking-glass. The larger cracks can be seen as strikes, protests, riots, autonomous zones, and other large scale forms of organizing and activism. The smaller cracks can be seen on an everyday level when an individual or group of individuals steals from their place of work, jumps a public transportation turnstile, finds a way to use services like electricity for free, or any of the other countless ways we may engage in daily acts of resistance.

The issue of changing perception reemerges once we begin to consider that we only recognize the existence of such cracks once we crossed through the looking-glass. As Deleuze and Guattari explain, “there is another type of cracking, with an entirely different segmentarity. Instead of great breaks, these are microcracks, as in a dish; they are much more subtle and supple, and “occur when things are going well on the other side” (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 198). Capital uses both a stick and carrot to create the illusion that the system is orderly and without deadly internal contradictions. The pristine/static side of the mirror shows us this intended order and proper organization. Yet the other side, the side where capital’s underbelly is exposed, reveals a world that is vibrant and full of creative expression.

Up until this point, we in the United States have mostly been viewing the cracks on an individual basis. Our struggles to break through to the other side and find that one final crack to bring down the whole looking-glass have been misdirected. Hence I am proposing a broad organizing framework based around precarity. The idea of precarity is a way of looking at the system as a whole without ignoring the multitude of movements and individuals struggling for a better and more equitable society. In fact, precarity can give theoretical direction to individual actions that may seem ineffective or pointless while broadening both the reach and scope of radical theory.

Precarity is, to quote Maribel Casas-Cortes and Sebastian Cobarrubias, “the labor conditions that arose after the transition from life-long, stable jobs common in industrial capitalist and welfare-state economies, to temporary, insecure, low-paying jobs emerging with the globalization of the service and financial economy” (Constituent Imagination, p. 115). Specifically, we are constantly wondering how we’ll pay our rent or mortgage, whether we’ll keep our job, how we’ll find a new job, if the public transportation system is working properly, whether the food we eat is safe, whether our friend or child will be sent to war, and countless other questions. Coupled with media that makes us question our security, our appearance, our social associations, and our politics we are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Organizing through precarity is embracing the myriad of personal and political struggles that occur through every moment of our lives; it is taking the looking-glass in as a whole.

While the debates about organizing across multiple constituencies have been going on in the United States since at least the Knights of Labor— the 19th Century labor union that attempted to organize across gender and race divisions—the intensification of pressure has been mounting. Precarity represents a way to not only connect with other activists already working locally and beyond , but a way to explain capital and its exploitation and oppression to those not inside the movement already. In a practical sense, precarity is embracing the connections that movements have with each other. It is embracing dialogue about our everyday lives and drawing inspiration from those complaints about work or our social options to aid with larger political questions. Percarity is connecting the cracks into a larger perspective, creating a broad movement based around what directly affects us, as opposed to the organization we belong to or the theorist we quote. It is drawing on the creativity of autonomous action, the diversity within our society, and the aspirations we all have for a better life. When we return to Alice, we come to understand that her world was one based in a dream. Yet, for us the looking-glass is very real. The dreams still exist and it is not only possible but essential that we start making them a reality. Only then will the ordered and static perception cease to exist. |P

One comment

  • Posted 10 years ago

    From the Old site

    Precarity?
    posted by anarcho-bolshevik on Tuesday Apr 22, 2008, 12:24 p.m.
    I’m not sure this makes much sense to me, outside of this being a return to the normalcy of pre-war capitalism. Or, even an acknowledgment by the left that the working class is screwed. The truth is that the only jobs that were ever “life long and stable” were post-war manufacturing, and that for only a generation. And some white collar jobs, also, post-war. Service workers never had anything but a precarious situation. Pre-war manufacturing jobs were just as fucked up as any job under capitalism. I think that life did not become more precarious for most folks, it just seems to me that leftist finally realized that manufacturing was not the only game in town. I guess what i’m saying is that this isn’t new and it wouldn’t have been new for workers in 1925 in a car factory, or 1965 in a hotel or 1995 in a restaurant. Capitalism has the power in ever aspect. But precarity seems nothing more than a fancy way of saying that we just discovered something that the working class has known for generations.
    – Precarity.
    posted by TGS on Wednesday Apr 23, 2008, 8:46 p.m.
    The inherent structure of capital is one that is precarious. That I will fully agree with. Yet what I think is missing from your analysis is an acceptance of the changing class composition of our society. Precarity does not ignore how “pre-war manufacturing jobs were just as fucked up as any job under capitalism.” It fully centers that understanding and expands it to a broader level, one where even those “life long and stable” jobs have been thrown into flux. Furthermore, I feel that your response ignores the shift from the actual power and resistance that the mass worker (i.e. Mario Tronti or Silvia Federici) had toward a composition where immaterial labor (i.e. Toni Negri) has become the predominant form of labor production. Finally, if your organizing framework centers on an analysis that has not updated the position and resistance of workers since 1925 then I’m not sure where to go with that. I’ll assume that’s an over-simplification on my part; I simply need an elaboration on what your post means for concrete organizing strategy.
    – there’s nothing that’s new under the sun
    posted by on Wednesday Apr 23, 2008, 9:17 p.m.
    What is the changing class composition? Working Class, Employing Class. What other classes are there? Which jobs were life long and stable? That’s the point that I think is an intellectual mischaracterization of reality. Most jobs have always been precarious? That is what being part of the working class has always meant. I’m not sure what in the world you are referencing regarding Negri/Tronti. My point is that the fundamentals of organizing haven’t changed for the entire history of revolutionary activity. Folks organize against their oppressions based on concrete struggles that they experiance on a day to day basis. They organize in ways that make sense. I’m not sure where “precarity” is anything more than a new way to describe what has always been the case, my guess, is that it makes lefties feel better to start something new….it’s like moving your tv and couch in your living room every once and a while. It makes the room feel better, but in reality, you still only have a tv and a couch.
    – RE: there’s nothing that’s new under the sun
    posted by TGS on Wednesday Apr 23, 2008, 9:47 p.m.
    Yes, folks do organize on concrete struggles on a day to day basis. That’s the central point of precarity as a framework of organizing, one which has not been embraced by most of Marxist theory I might add. The point of referencing Tronti/Negri/Federici (interesting you ignore the only woman mentioned) is that the analysis has been updated, reviewed, and re-applied to our so-called everday tv and couch movement. Precarity has gained traction in Europe for a reason – it resonates with people. There is a reason people update their theories and thoughts and actions – the situation changes. Immaterial labor for instance? I’d prefer a debate on the value of that then simple criticism and no alternatives, unless of course that would be strategically relevant at this moment.
    – RE: RE: there’s nothing that’s new under the sun
    posted by anarcho-bolshevik on Thursday Apr 24, 2008, 3:01 p.m.
    1. I’m not a marxist, so i don’t really care what anyone else accepts. 2. On Federici…are you seriously calling me a sexist? You don’t answer my question as to what any of this means. Throwing philosphers names around doesn’t help explain what you mean. Neither does calling someone sexist. 3. I’m sure precarity resonates, it’s a fancy way of saying the same thing. I’m still not sure what new you’re saying.
    – Assuming of course you own a couch or TV
    posted by TGS on Wednesday Apr 23, 2008, 9:48 p.m.
    Yes, folks do organize on concrete struggles on a day to day basis. That’s the central point of precarity as a framework of organizing, one which has not been embraced by most of Marxist theory I might add. The point of referencing Tronti/Negri/Federici (interesting you ignore the only woman mentioned) is that the analysis has been updated, reviewed, and re-applied to our so-called everday tv and couch movement. Precarity has gained traction in Europe for a reason – it resonates with people. There is a reason people update their theories and thoughts and actions – the situation changes. Immaterial labor for instance? I’d prefer a debate on the value of that then simple criticism and no alternatives, unless of course that would be strategically relevant at this moment.
    – RE: Assuming of course you own a couch or TV
    posted by anarcho-bolshevik on Thursday Apr 24, 2008, 3:17 p.m.
    The criticism of your article is not that it is “wrong.” But rather what it says about the left. I don’t see where any of this is remotely “new” or a “different” way of viewing the situation than the way a dockworker would look at his situation in 1912, or a farmworker today or a secretary in the 1960’s. What I’m saying is that your “theory” is fairly standard leftism, repackaged in a different name. Tell me, when were the jobs secure? Who’s jobs? When was college secure and for who? When was housing affordable and where? The lives of the working class has always been precarious. I have no debate with that. But to act like this is “new” is to fool ourselves that we have found “the way.” When we’ve always known the way…hard work, organizing, pushing the working class, confronting capitalism. If I’m wrong then tell me that, and how, don’t name drop philosophers or pretand that my not knowing “federici” is sexism. Come on, you’re better than that. Convince me.
    – An honest response
    posted by on Monday Apr 28, 2008, 5:29 p.m.
    What I like about precarity is that it attempts to view struggles in a way that pushes that insecurity to the forefront of the debate. Yes, we can point toward the struggles of countless amounts of workers but I’ve found that typical anti-capitalist analysis tends to assume the working class has a passive role in their own struggle. Either they (and that they needs to be updated) are too stupid or unwilling to struggle against capitalism. Yet they do, every single day. A precarity narrative in the United States must be different than one in Europe for the simple reason that you’ve pointed out – people have been living with the insecurity for a long long time. I feel that the idea of a “secure job” should be taken not as one single job for a person’s whole life (though those have existed, the auto industry being an example) but as a form of economic security that people enjoyed in the years after World War II. Was this uniform? Not at all. Was it racially and gender biased? Absolutely. But the economic situation we have now and the one in the years leading up to 1968 are different in substance and scope. I also feel that the idea of precarity isn’t standard leftism. What is standard leftism in the first place? To me, that would be the tired emphasis of solely looking at industrialized workers or attempting to use the same organizing techniques or analysis that existed before. Yet if we look at things like the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, the initial creation of Critical Mass or Reclaim the Streets, or Chicago specific examples of sustainable health such as the Pomegranate Health Collective, we see that standard leftism doesn’t really apply to these. Sure, they may have lost their viability or edge after time but the central focus of these sorts of actions is to a) expand the debate, b) update the debate to a current context, and c) start examining the reality of existence in regards to the theory of resistance. Is it repackaged leftism? Perhaps but I don’t personally think so. I think its fresh, I think it makes sense as an organizing strategy, and I think that it gives room for other explanations about our society. We can’t simply assume that the experience and organizing strategy that worked or applied to a worker in 1912 will work now. To assume that any attempt to redefine our current existence is pointless is defeatist and intellectually stagnant in my opinion. The central ideas of organizing around change might be the same (fight oppression, equality, creating social space) but the context has changed. We DO live in precarious times that were not anticipated beforehand. How would you organize a freelance graphic designer who doesn’t want to work at an advertising agency for instance? Or how would standard leftism confront things on a strategic level like brandalism, mocketing, or other forms of co-optation that have occurred within genuinely resistance subcultures? Or how can standard leftism effectively link the struggles of day laborers with those of students working at research universities? By saying its “capitalism”? Or just saying “solidarity?” That just won’t work. Precarity can guide in that but the real work is (as you said) on the ground. In conclusion, I will readily admit that I don’t have all the answers. Nor that the idea of precarity will “solve” everything. I DO think it brings in a way to view our society in a fresh way; one that draws in ideas of social capital, everyday resistance, immaterial labor (or whatever term is in vogue these days), an expanded consciousness about class, and a concrete organizing potential that can reach people who would never read Marx, let alone Platypus. I think that an important point in my personal experience is that people get interested and excited when talking about precarity, bringing in their own experiences that simply might have needed an easy term to apply to it. That has worked for me, it has gotten results here and in other places in the world, and I don’t think it should be dismissed as some fad. I encourage you to check out a much more articulate response than mine that I think engages what you’re talking about as well. The link is: http://www.journal.fibreculture.org/issue5/neilson_rossiter.html
    – lots of stuff on precarity
    posted by on Sunday Jul 13, 2008, 12:46 a.m.
    I used to be really excited about the precarity conversations and all that in Europe (I wrote the glossary entry in Constituent Imagination on the term, among other things). Personally I’m no longer enthusiastic about it. But for folk who are, you might find this useful: http://precariousunderstanding.blogsome.com/ It’s a blog some comrades set up to keep track of various things addressing precarity. There’s a lot on there that people into this stuff will find interesting. cheers.

    by admin on January 11, 2009 11:48 pm

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