No greater hatred should be felt for a traitor to a nation than for a traitor to the common good, or for someone who abandons salvation in general for the sake of their own salvation and advantage.
– Cicero / Francesco de Miranda1
Over the past ten years, while the British state tamed its subjects and borders with the violence of supposed anti-terror legislation, and the economy peaked, crashed and burned, some workers at the very bottom of the pile have fought for and won better wages. The workers who have gained these increases have been intimidated by both the contractors and the unions, and by police at the borders, in their workplaces and in their homes. Frequently from a situation of sleeplessness, poverty and near homelessness, they have faced sell-outs and backroom deals, racist abuse, sexual harassment, arrest and exile – and nonetheless, won. This is an account of the militancy of cleaners in London, and that militancy’s roots in a very global struggle.2
In office blocks and institutions across London, workforces are cleft in two. On the one hand, salaried white collar so-called ‘in-house’ workers, directly employed by the hospital, bank, school or university with, generally speaking: union representation, nationally agreed pay deals (if state employed) and a full pay package, including pensions. On the other hand, there are the cleaners, caterers, porters, security guards and maintenance workers, the employment of whom is outsourced to multinational specialist contractors. The cleaners are most likely to be the lowest paid of all the workers in the building, usually earning the minimum wage. They will have no union representation and no benefits beyond their immediate pay. This situation has become so widespread, that it is often regarded as an inevitable part of capitalist organisation. But it is not natural, even under capitalism. It is historical.
In the 19th century, the increasing globalisation of industry caused capitalists to rely more and more on vast communication networks, to facilitate everything from stock transfers to mail order services. The concomitant rise in the number of clerical labourers meant that there were too many clerks to be housed in the factories. Instead, they were pushed into new office buildings. The high land price meant that the blocks grew upwards rather than outwards. Behold, the tower block, filled with typists. In the 1930s this rising new labour cost was dealt with in two quite old ways: on the one hand, the employment of women on lower wages and on the other, automation of jobs. Thus lines and lines of female office workers, typing away at computers.3 But there were some jobs which remained – and remain – cheaper for the capitalist to have performed by a living body than a dead machine. In factories, cleaning work had generally been undertaken by the extant workforce. The nature of the work, which required the use of the whole body, and movement across the factory floor, was similar to the labour of other workers in the factory. But office work was sedentary; it was more productive for the capitalist to leave the office workers at their desks, and employ a separate workforce to clean the building. Thus the offices became divided into two kinds of work: computing, and cleaning. An amalgamation of the great machines which have come to dominate so much of 21st century life; and beside them, a form of work which still falls outside of computerisation. We still await the machine which cleans every detail of an office more cheaply than a human, or indeed an office which cleans itself.
But in order to understand the persistence of low wages in the cleaning sector, we need to see how negotiations led to wage increases in nationalised industry after the Second World War, to the detriment of non-industrial, non-nationalised work. After the war, the Labour government maintained wartime emergency laws which threatened strikers with imprisonment. For many militants, this was the real ‘spirit of ’45’. But in spite of this, large numbers of workers continued to take industrial action. They agitated not to build the NHS or a welfare state (in contrast to the warfare state), but for wage increases and a shorter working week with no loss of pay. The post-war deal in the UK was thus, from the start, not about greater social provision by the state, but about national agreements for more money and less work.4 But these national agreements only extended to those industries which became nationalised, where the increased wages took the form of topping up low pay with a range of ‘state benefits’. Workers who were dispersed through non-nationalised sectors such as hotels, restaurants, and, of course, office blocks, had their pay regulated through the Wages Council. The two-tier workforce thus became part and parcel of a post-War ‘social contract’: low wages all round, but with full unionisation in big industry. Wherever these two tiers worked side by side, the national division of the working class became a division within the workplace itself. And this division became increasingly dominated by a racial divide: the explicitly racist rhetoric and policies of post-war governments, and in many case trade unions as well, served to keep the working class polarised.
The low waged workforce, however, was not only taken from the pool of workers migrating around the world, but also from the many women moving out of unpaid domestic work in the home, as wives and mothers, and into the offices and factories. Faced with the new situation of waged work, women organised on a new and greater scale. In the same year as the Equal Pay Act,1968, the government made huge cuts to the Civil Service, including the outsourcing of 4,000 cleaners. This led to one of the first cleaners’ strikes, organised largely by a woman called May Hobbs, a cleaner from East London. In the early 1970s, Hobbs and the Cleaners Action Group won several high profile victories, demanding that the government promise of fair wages be upheld.5 The situation for the contract companies in the UK radically changed in the early 1980s. Under the new Conservative government, Wandsworth Council dealt with a strike by the rubbish collectors by outsourcing the entire workforce, a strategy which was soon followed by councils across the country, in a wave of ‘privatisations’ which became synonymous with Thatcher. The Fair Wages Resolution was roundly abolished, and many cleaners found their wages cut almost immediately by 10 percent. In March 1984, 92 cleaners at Barking Hospital were outsourced to the mega-contractor Crothalls, meaning a 35 percent wage cut, reduced holidays and no sick pay. They went on strike; a large police presence helped the scab workforce enter the building. The Barking cleaners, despite months of fighting, were all sacked.
But new legislation from above was not the only change. From below, the class was also changing, as many political activists were forced to flee to the UK from the military regimes backed by the new global agenda. Those from South America formed the Latin American Workers’ Association, or LAWAS. With the support of groups like LAWAS and the hospitality branch of the T&G union (also known as the international branch), migrant workers in department stores and hotels across London, and not only those workers from Latin America, won several victories in the 1980s. The Cleaners Action Group of the 1970s was formed by May Hobbs, a white working class woman from an antagonistic Hoxton underground long since paved over. Hobbs took cleaning jobs as a young mother, and organised with others she knew from East London. LAWAS was refounded by Ernesto Leal, a communist from Chile who was tortured and sentenced to exile in 1976, and given refuge in the UK with the support of the labour movement. Both Leal and Hobbs were born in 1938, and embody the transformations in the cleaning sector, and the new militancy which accompanies every recomposition of both capital and the class.6
A Global Circuit of Resistance
Twenty years ago, the Wages Council was abolished, clearing a path for the contractors to massively undercut the wages of unionised public sector workers. In that year, 1993, the cleaners at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, were outsourced. Four years later, the introduction of the national minimum wage ensured a constant supply of low paid workers, circumventing union negotiations on the lowest level of pay. Most importantly, it created a legal and illegal wage. For years, the lowest paid work has been taken by migrant workers who couldn’t complain about the breaching of the national regulation for fear of deportation. Thus in a very real way, the border police ensured profits and productivity despite ostensible regulation.
These low wages for migrants in the UK followed a downturn in wages across the globe. The international alliance of rich states that worked through the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO realigned the global composition of the working class. Structural Adjustment Programmes were the order of the day to force nation states in the Global South, often only a generation after decolonisation, to evolve a far more aggressive free market without any state-subsidy for the lowest paid workers – forcing millions to choose between resistance or migration, and often both. From the burning barricades at the gates of Nigerian universities to the water-wars of Bolivia, intense class warfare thrust millions of workers into the international labour market. The economic boom in the UK in the 1990s was built on the back of such state terror and wage repression, and the militancy of the 21st century relies on this migrant workforce as much as the future of capital does. The hand of capital plunged itself into the pool of labour, dispersing waves of resistance across the globe.
One man who suffered this maelstrom was Alberto Durango, a Colombian worker who has taken a leading role in the struggle in the past years. After years in the school student movement, Alberto moved to the banana plantations in Uraba where, in 1995 alone, around 1,000 people were murdered by right wing paramilitaries in the pay of the state and landowners. Tens of thousands of workers and sympathisers fled the region that year. One day, two men with guns walked up to Alberto and asked if he knew where Alberto was. He said ‘I’ll just go get him.’ He left the plantation and fled to England to stay with his aunt. He didn’t return to Colombia even to visit for ten years. In 2002, he was cleaning the London offices of the energy giant Enron. When Enron crashed, all thirty cleaners who worked in the Enron offices were laid off. Alberto and the other workers got in a taxi and drove out to the contractor’s suburban headquarters, where they began negotiations for a proper redundancy deal. Caught between falling profits and zero-hour contracts, Alberto and his comrades nonetheless started to win.
Image: Alberto Durango as a child in Colombia, 1972. (3rd from the left). His father was an industrial unionist, his mother worked as a housewife
Around the same time, the ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign in the USA was being hailed internationally as a success story of trade union organising for a new age.7 In the UK, a group called London Citizens attempted to emulate Justice for Janitors’ successes and set up the campaign for the London Living Wage. The Living Wage is a minimum wage calculated by the campaign as the amount necessary to be able to live in London, above the poverty line. In the following years there were some extraordinary victories. As London Citizens had its roots in East London, this was where the campaign started, and by late 2002 the campaign had established itself at five London hospitals, and organised demonstrations led by local churches. Strike action in spring 2003 started to bring in the victories: at Whipps Cross, Homerton, and Mile End hospitals, and soon this moved to Queen Mary’s University in Mile End.
Much of the organising by both Citizens and the T&G union, was done by young activists brought over from Brazil, Canada, Australia and the US to promote the campaign. Many were veterans of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. After the ebbing of this wave of struggle, many of the new activists turned to labour organisations as a way to stay engaged in a global politics of resistance. The new activists at T&G thus found themselves agitating alongside cleaners who, a decade earlier, had inspired and even to some extent initiated the protest movement against the WTO and IMF, in which the activists had cut their teeth. And in this sense too, the tactics of groups protesting against the dismantling of the British welfare state today, not least the student movement, who find it necessary to work outside of trade unions and political parties, can trace its political heritage to the rebellions in Lapas and Calabar.
Raids and Repression
The organisers were good. With Barclays and Goldman Sachs eventually promising the Living Wage, by 2007, the alliance of London Citizens and the T&G had the punch to negotiate a zonal agreement across Canary Wharf, and could claim to have won a victory for around 5,000 low paid workers.8 But the Living Wage agreements ultimately had to be made up by the companies in other ways, which usually meant either sacking workers or cutting their hours. Alternatively, contractors were simply put under pressure from their main employer to cut costs even while maintaining the workload, which manifests as increased surveillance and speed-ups. No amount of academic papers on the positive effects of the London Living Wage can get beyond the most basic tendency of the capitalist employment relation: pay as little as you can for as much work as possible.9
And while above ground in the glimmering city the success stories from the London Citizens press office began to rack up, within the subterranean struggles of the Tube cleaners the story was far more grim. Inspired partly by the struggle in the City of London, cleaners on the Tube network stepped up their own campaign for wage increases.10 In 2007 and 2008, hundreds of Tube cleaners went on strike, trying to force the contractors to follow through on promises of the Living Wage. But in 2009, the contractors, it seems, had had enough. The global financial crash had smashed its way into the contractors’ profits. The employers collaborated with the police and the UKBA to make several high profile raids on workplaces, attempting to strike fear throughout the sector, and as reprisal for gains that had been made. In January, two Nigerian organisers in London, Clara Osagiede and Mary Boakye, were suspended by the global outsourcing contractor ISS, and over 50 cleaners sacked following checks on National Insurance numbers. The raids and repression then spread through the City. In March, repression continued against six union activists who had been sacked at the global risk and reinsurance company Willis Group the year before. In April, only days after the cleaners at SOAS gained a recognition agreement, the most prominent Unison activist was suspended. In May, Alberto Durango was arrested on suspicion of working without papers.
Support came from many unions and organisations, but not from the T&G, now called Unite. It was becoming clear that Unite was turning its back on a movement which had got too militant, and which supported all migrant workers, not just the well behaved ones. Then in June SOAS management, along with the contractor, ISS, called all the cleaners to a meeting. Once everyone was in, they locked the doors, and immigration officials jumped out from behind the curtains. Eight people were deported that same day. In July, seven cleaners were detained after a raid at Willis. In September, Unite kicked the Latin Amercian Workers Association out of its offices, not long after the death of its founder, Ernesto Leal. His comrades remembered him thus.
Hasta la victoria siempre, comrade Ernesto Leal. Every victory of our association will be dedicated to you, whose great heart rewarded us with your experience and steadfastness. We will keep on fighting, true to our class principles.11
By Spring 2010, it was clear that Unite was systematically undermining the South American cleaners’ organisations. Long disputes carried on at UBS after Alberto was fired and blacklisted, and at UCL, the rivalry between Unite and LAWAS was played out bitterly.
Abandoned by Unite, the workers close to LAWAS decided to join the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, who had just gained official certification from the government certification office. Industrial Union 640, the international code for cleaners in the IWW, became a force to be reckoned with – not only by employers, but also by the IWW itself. Over the next couple of years, the sizable new branch became a centre of IWW activities. After a few months in the new union, however, a split emerged, in which the non-cleaners were excluded from the branch, and were taken up by the IWW General Members Branch instead. Simultaneously, some of the militant organisers left LAWAS.
Although the split arose around the first real industrial challenge the branch had to face – at the Guildhall in the City of London – the new workers being recruited into the IWW were unaware of the bitterness growing in the branch. The reasons for this bitterness were that on the one side, some cleaners felt that the non-cleaners were of a different economic class and shouldn’t have a say in how the cleaners ran the campaigns. They felt that LAWAS was becoming more like a human rights organisation, and less like a democratic workers movement. On the other side, some of the excluded LAWAS members considered the split to be a top-down affair, targeted mainly to exclude the voices of loud women in the branch. And these were not the only organisational troubles.
Simultaneously, the political tactics of the cleaners also came into conflict with more purist anarchists in the IWW, for the cleaners’ campaigns still held onto the principles of the London Citizens days, building broad support – including with members of Parliament. Over 2011 and 2012, the Guildhall dispute continued for many months, with the internal wrangling in the union as a constant background to the militant efforts of the workforce.
In summer 2011, the cleaners of Senate House in Bloomsbury, who were demanding the living wage, built for strike action.12 In some ways it was a traditional Living Wage campaign, but this narrative was broken when the workers at Senate House decided to also demand that months of incompletely paid wages be finally paid. With only one day’s notice, they organised a 40 person strong wildcat strike. After the first hour, the workers were told to get back to work immediately if they wanted to avoid any reprisals. After the second hour, management said they were willing to negotiate if the workers returned to work. After the fourth hour, a temporary office was set up to register and deal with each workers’ back pay issues. Over the next fortnight, the workers received over £6,000 in unpaid wages. This militant action spurred on the confidence of the cleaners, and showed that the threat of strike action was real. In the autumn, the branch prepared for an official strike – and management caved in to the Living Wage demand.
In summer 2012, after a year of arguments inside the IWW, a number of activists in the cleaners’ branch broke away. Starting at John Lewis, they formed a new union, the Independent Workers of Great Britain. But while workers’ organising through the IWW and IWGB began to turn the tide away from the years of raids and suspensions, Unison started to mimic Unite in turning on the cleaners in Bloomsbury. When the Senate House workers proposed a new campaign for the local Unison branch, demanding three things – sick pay, holidays, and pensions – the idea was vetoed by a few members of the committee, clearly under the influence of the paid bureaucrats in the union. After months of organising a campaign outside the union (the ‘3 Cosas’ campaign), the workers ran an electoral slate to retake control. The regional officials in Unison attempted at every stage to disrupt the election by smearing candidates and trying to have them disqualified. But the election went ahead nonetheless, and it seems that the slate won – because a month after the end of the vote, the election was ruled null and void by the leadership. Incensed by the victory being stolen from beneath their feet, the cleaners and their allies decided to leave the Unison branch and join the IWGB.13
The IWGB is not a South American workers’ group however, and nor are all of its members outsourced workers: those involved are more than aware of the changing landscape of class struggle in the UK, of the vast array of languages spoken – from Yoruba to Czech to Arabic – and the complex systems of exploitation which cut across differences of speech, race and gender. And the members are more aware than any of their critics that with their independence from the mainstream trade unions come serious problems of finance and legality. But the IWGB now has over 400 members across London, almost all of whom are outsourced cleaners, and with this wider support the University of London branch took strike action in November this year.
Not only did the strike effectively prove the necessity of the outsourced workers to the functioning of the building, and the ability of the union to withdraw that labour, but the picket lines on the gates of Senate House also evidenced that the union of outsourced workers could invoke a vitality of which the larger unions have been surely drained. The strike succeeded: on the evening of the second day, the University management announced that all outsourced workers would receive great sick pay and holiday pay. Astonishingly, however, management attempted to circumvent any loss of face by claiming that this was due to negotiations with Unison, absolving any connection between their submission and the IWGB strike. Unison, of course, quite joyfully collaborated in this duplicity.
Antagonism towards that fragment of capital which goes by the name ‘leaders’ has become part of the fabric of what it means to be militant in the metropolis over the past years, and the conflict between the University of London workers and traditional union leadership has become a well defined thread, woven between those of anatagonism to police and patriarchs. Each thread can be picked out, but viewed from a distance – and certainly from the standpoint of authority itself – the blend is surely unmistakable.
The attempt by a group of militant students to stage a sit-in at the University of London’s Senate House building, partly in support of the workers’ demands, and the subsequent violent eviction of that sit-in by the Metropolitan police, spurred on a series of protests calling for ‘cops off campus’, which have gained much attention. Of equal importance, the outsourced workers’ successes thus far are putting pressure on the mainstream union branches in the University of London to act with a strength which might replicate similar gains. In the context of a national pay dispute affecting all in-house staff at the universities, it is significant that it is the supposedly weaker tier that has met with some success. How great these gains will be is yet to be seen, as the University of London IWGB branch gears up for three more days of strike action at the end of January 2014. As far as I am aware, this has been the first strike in a university by outsourced workers who do not belong to one of the two major unions – and unlike the London Citizens years, the workers now have the capacity to organise for lasting victories.14
Words provided one treat them
Not enemies – Ghosts
Which have run mad
In the subways
And of course the institutions
And the banks. If one captures them
One by one proceeding
Carefully they will restore
I hope to meaning
And to sense.
– George Oppen.15
Emilse, one of the militants at Birkbeck, University of London, told me about the ghosts, the fantasmas that populate middle management; when she spoke of the need to abolish the cleaning sector as it stands, she said we need to stop this ‘narco-trafficking’ of cleaners. That word, narco-traficante, picked from the lexicon of her native Colombia, is perhaps more revealing than it might at first seem, for out of a world of sleeplessness, forged documents, false names and invisible people, perhaps the global cleaning industry really isn’t so far from an exchange circuit of ghosts and narcotics. Robinson, a militant at Senate House, told me that after he moved to London, ‘for four years I only existed, I didn’t live.’ Just as for Emilse the cleaning industry is like a circuit of ghosts and drugs, for Robinson it is a half-life, a zombie existence.
But in cleaning, the living do outnumber the dead. Cleaning is labour intensive; the wage bill is often more than 80 percent of the contractor’s balance sheet. This means that the contractors have to compete with each other almost entirely through limiting the wages they pay their employees. This has four main consequences. The first, which is more obvious, is that the firms attempt to keep the majority of the workforce on the minimum wage, and without benefits. The second is that they attempt to dispense with supervisors, a layer of workers who will not function on the minimum wage. A third is that they try to cut costs on advertising by hiring through word of mouth. Finally, the managers attempt, in various ways, to withhold wages from the workers. All in all, this means they end up with a workforce of migrants who accept the low wages through the intimidation of immigration police, but who come from the same communities, and are only slightly supervised at work itself. This makes for a volatile workforce, especially since migrant communities, as I hope I’ve shown, are often born out of histories of courageous resistance. This is the crisis the cleaning sector faces, made even more explosive by the decrease in the number of undocumented workers since the financial crisis.16 The demands these workers are making are a very real threat to the contractors’ profit margins.
Yet there is another crisis the cleaning sector faces.17 Cleaning is part of the valorisation process of the modern bank and university. The consumers have to see, smell and feel the value adhering to the product. In the marketised Higher Education sector, where substance is increasingly void of all but surface, presentation is everything. And why is it that cleanliness is a sign of value? Because it requires work – tiring, back breaking, repetitive labour. Because it represents resistance defeated. Shiny objects are an essential, not a dispensable, part of the contemporary capital; polish is competition manifest. Every university could become covered in filth and dirt, but the lobbies will remain clean – until, that is, the production of a living-dead becomes less desirable than polished floors. Whether these crises will end with the abolition of cleanliness or of cleaners is yet to be decided.
Richard B lives and writes in London
1 This was the strap line to ‘El Colombiano’, the first Bolivarian newspaper, which was printed in London in 1810. It is an excerpt from Cicero’s On Good and Bad Ends. Francesco de Miranda printed the quotation in the Latin: ‘Nec magis est vituperandus proditor patriae quam communis utilitatis aut salutis desertor propter suam utilitatem aut salute.’
2 My thanks to all the people who have spoken to me about the cleaners’ struggle and related politics, and those I have also fought beside, especially Emilse, Robinson and Sonia. As I first became involved in supporting the cleaners’ struggle while a student in Bloomsbury, it is with these comrades that I have spoken the most, and the details of the following text inevitably reflect this – not however, I believe, to the detriment of the analysis. Many thanks also to Liz Maxwell, without whom this piece would certainly not have been written.
3 For an argument relating to the development of computers as result of class struggle, see George Caffentzis, ‘Marx, Turing Machines, and the Labor of Thought’, in Letters of Blood and Fire, Oakland 2013, http://libcom.org/library/george-caffentzis-letters-blood-fire
4 See the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation, How Labour Governed, 1945-1951, Direct Action Pamphlets no.5 [http://libcom.org/history/how-labour-governed-1945-1951], and also any decent history of trade unionism from the period.
5 See May Hobbs’ short memoir, Born to Struggle, 1973, some of which is available at: http://libcom.org/history/housing-cleaners-struggles-london-1960-70s-may… There ought be a reprint of this inspiring little book. Also see Sheila Rowbotham’s comprehensive and rich ‘Cleaners’ Organizing in Britain from the 1970s: A Personal Account’, in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 38, 2006 – which also covers the events around the film Nightcleaners. If anyone reading this knows what became of May Hobbs, I’d be very keen to hear from you!
6 For this period, Jill Sullivan, The Brush Off, 1977 (War on Want ‘Low pay unit’); Transnational Information Centre, Beyond the Pail, 1986 (funded by the GLC); Jan Paul, Where There’s Much There’s Money, 1986; Gelmira Salazar, Cleaning the London Underground, 1987. All the above pamphlets are available in the Bishopsgate Institute.
7 It’s worth noting that this campaign has had quite wide reaching consequences for the organisation of contemporary US labour, as the subsequent upheavals in the SEIU led to the split in the unions and the formation of the ‘Change to Win’ federation. See http://www.seiu.org/a/justice-for-janitors/justice-for-janitors-20-years-of-organizing.php and Steve Early, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, Chicago 2011.
8 A much more detailed history of this period can be pieced together if one scours back issues of The Commune (http://thecommune.co.uk/?s=cleaners) and in The timeline of this period is covered in Jane Wills, ‘Making Class Politics Possible: Organizing Contract Cleaners in London’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32, 2008.
9 For example, Jane Wills and Brian Linneker, The costs and benefits of the London living wage, 2012, http://www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/livingwage/pdf/Livingwagecostsandbenefits.pdf
10 The history of the Tube cleaners’ struggle has been admirably chronicled in Tubeworker, http://www.workersliberty.org/twblog
11 See the obituary for Ernesto Leal in The Commune, November 2009, http://thecommune.co.uk/2009/11/15/tribute-to-ernesto-leal-and-more-unit…
12 I recall an activist meeting one summer evening in Bloomsbury when, after arranging shifts for flyering and putting up posters, we all left quite quickly to join the throng in Tottenham.
13 There is an ongoing argument on the Troskyist Left about the consequences of these developments. See: http://maxwatsonunison.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/iwgb-two-small-unions.html http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/983/letters http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2013/09/30/3-cosas-independent-unions-and-transforming-labour-movement http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12321 http://mdbergfeld.com/2013/07/start-with-solidarity-the-pop-up-union-at-sussex/
14 The University of London cleaners’ disputes are chronicled on two blogs: http://bloomsburyfightback.wordpress.co.uk/ and http://3cosascampaign.wordpress.com/ There is also an insightful piece of academic writing by Julie Hearn and Monica Bergos, ‘Latin American cleaners fight for survival: lessons for migrant activism’, Race and Class, vol 53, no. 1, 2011, pp. 65-82.
15 From ‘A Language of New York’, 1965. Oppen, an American communist, spent the 1950s in exile from McCarthyism in Mexico. Having once been a promising young modernist poet, Oppen wrote no poetry through the late ’30s, nor during his time in the US army in the Rhineland, nor in Mexico. The poem is a reflection on the political situation of New York in the explosive years of the early ’60s, where Oppen had settled and begun to write again.
16 The innovations in immigration law are often the most direct expression of the ruling class’s attempt to control developing proletarian resistance. In this case, it was the implementation of penalties for employers, not just threats to workers, in 2006, which had the eventual consequence of making ‘undocumented’ workers an increased liability in the instability of 2008-9. Coupled with this was the better (or equally malign) prospects of jobs in developing to countries, to which many ‘undocumented’ workers moved or returned.
17 The problem of automation and the twin facets of crisis, which cut the class struggle both ways, are explored in Peter Linebaugh’s ‘Crisis in the Auto Sector’, whose title I have pilfered.
Aesthetic Education Expanded is a series of 12 articles commissioned by Mute and published in collaboration with Kuda.org, Kontrapunkt, Multimedia Institute, and Berliner Gazette. It is funded by the European Commission. A central site with all contributions to the project can be found here: http://www.aestheticeducation.net/
The series looks at the contemporary afterlife of the project of ‘aesthetic education’ initiated in the 19th century, from the violent imperatives of training and ‘lifelong learning’ imposed by capitalism in crisis to informal projects of resistance against neoliberal pedagogy and authoritarian repression.
Expanding the scope of the aesthetic in the tradition of Karl Marx to include everything from anti-austerity riots and poetry to alternative and self-instituted knowledge dissemination, the series encompasses artistic, theoretical and empirical investigations into the current state of mankind’s bad education.
Aesthetic Education Expanded attempts to open up an understanding of what is being done within and against capital’s massive assault on thought and action, whether in reading groups or on the streets of a world torn between self-cannibalisation and revolt.