Headcount

Maybe it’s just me, but the strikes in Britain have a touch of Life on Mars about them.

Foreign labour strikes spread to Sellafield | Politics | The Guardian

Unite official Kenny Ward told the crowd: “Over the last week your heroic actions here have inspired thousands in our county, hundreds of thousands in our country and millions across the globe.

“The fight started here at Lindsey – the fight against discrimination, the fight against victimisation and the fight to put bread on your table for your children.”

By which I mean, it is like a vivid evocation of a world that seemed to have disappeared. Or maybe a bit like looking at a star and knowing that the light you see was generated a fair few years previous.

What appears to the Unite official as discrimination -a preference for the labour power of foreign workers over local ones- is already well established in global relations of production. The sensation of discrimination is so intense in this case, among other reasons, because the workers can see the plant in front of them, because it forms part of the fabric of their local society, and because they can by their physical presence contest control over the means of production.

Yet there are maybe hundreds of millions of people who are beholden to precisely the same state of being ‘discriminated against’ in their work, only in their case the process forms part of what they are paid to do. But since their work has no essential physical product, since it can be performed nearly anywhere, is not anchored to any landmark buildings, and since most of the workers have no unions, there’ll be no strikes.

In the wider ‘knowledge economy’, trumpeted as the great hope for Ireland’s future, many jobs, right from the first day, require the worker to use his or her own labour power to develop tools, repositories of knowledge and expertise, it being implicitly understood that what they have developed will be transferred for use to their cheaper replacement workers somewhere else at the nearest opportunity. An office is set up in Bratislava or Mumbai, and redundancy beckons, after, if you’re lucky, a few years of depressed wages as your boss plays you off against your counterparts elsewhere. To talk of discrimination appears to imply that there is some sort of irrational preference in operation, on account of nationality, skin colour, gender, whatever, that contravenes the dominant liberal order. Yet the preference here is perfectly rational. It is not that the firm considers you as a lesser human being to your colleague and competitor in India. The firm is radically egalitarian: it doesn’t consider either of you as human beings at all. You are headcount.

In Private Property and Communism, Marx observes that ‘..private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us.’. So where I go to work, the tools I use, and so on, might appear to me in some respect, as mine, even though, under law, they belong to my employers, or their creditors. When the security guards come in to throw me out of the building, it might feel something like being thrown out of my own home, but in the application of the law, which is concerned with private property rights, what I feel is neither here nor there. The arrival of the guards is just a restatement of the established order.

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