Cracking the looking-glass: Perception, precarity, and everyday resistance
Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008
“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.”
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