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(en) The Commoner #6 - Olivier De Marcellus Commons, communities and Movements : inside, outside and against capital II. (2/2)

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Date Fri, 31 Jan 2003 05:53:19 -0500 (EST)


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An ethnological perspective on our society : Godbout and
modern gift exchange12

Traditional marxism oversimplified things. Since history
happened one stage at a time (and with one
«revolutionary subject ») the « primitive communism » of
the indigenous was just a sympathetic anachronism. And
capitalist society worked by capitalist rules. Period.
As an empirical antidote, and as an inspiration for
political imagination, the work of Jacques Godbout and
the MAUSS (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste des Sciences
Sociales) is extraordinary, and complements Dejours and
Holloway. The three lines of inquiry all recognise the
contradictory complexity of society. Nothing is ever
definitively black or white. Rather there is a permanent
array of battles and skirmishes between opposing
principles going on in any particular social arena.
The MAUSS school runs back to the founder of french
ethnology, Marcel Mauss, who discovered the central role
played by gift exchange and its rules in traditional
indigenous societies. Later, Godbout and other
researchers of the MAUSS started exploring the
important role and specific forms that gift exchange also
has in modern societies. Traditional societies being small,
everyone was in some way related or knew each other.
Modern societies conserve traditional forms of gift
exchange with family and friends, but have also developed
the new practice of « gifts to strangers », which - together
with the development of the State and the market - is a
form of social relations which seems to have developed as
societies got larger and more anonymous (buddhist
compassion or christian charity being examples of its
earlier forms). The gift to strangers includes all kinds of
associations and social activities belonging neither to the
State nor to the market : volonteer work, charities, giving
blood, self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous,
certainly many forms of  political activism and solidarity
work (although Godbout has apparently not studied them)
and - as a particularly enlightening extreme case - the gift
of body organs. The monetary value of all kinds of unpaid
work in Canada (offered within family relations or as gifts
to strangers) was evaluated as 34% of GNP in 1998, and
has been rising since the eighties. In moments of crisis,
(Godbout studied a disastrous winter « blackout » in
Quebec) the practices and principles of the gift to
strangers can actually become much more effective and
important than - and even partially suspend the rules of -
market or State.
In fact, Godbout's empirical studies gradually led him to
the conclusion that the essential social ties are exterior to
market and State, despite the huge place they take in our
lives. This is of course quite obvious in a sense, since
people do usually derive all sense of their social value
from their relations with family and friends, the sphere of
society still governed by the rules of gift exchange. (Even
the most hardened capitalist will typically become an
alcoholic or kill himself when he realises that the
sacrosanct « profit motive » has taken over his relations
with his children or his fifth wife.) And when people invest
heavily beyond the family it is in good works, activism, to
« give » their life for their country, etc. (unless of course
they prefer power over others to reciprocal relations).
For Godbout, social links are essentially elsewhere, since
both market and State are institutions which avoid,
short-circuit, the creation of person-to-person social
relations. The objective of gift exchange, on the contrary,
is precisely to create and maintain them. The right to
benefits from the State short-circuits the necessity of a
social tie with the lady behind the counter. In the market,
individuals meet in order to simultaneously, exchange
objects of equal value, which allows them to immediately
« exit » the relation. The rules of traditional gift exchange
are exactly the reverse. People extend the free exchange
of gifts of unequal value over the longest possible time in
order to maintain and strengthen the social relation.
Personally, I first experienced this kind of exchange with
peasants of Haute Savoie, just outside super-capitalist
Geneva. We would bring old bread for the rabbits. After a
certain time they gave us? a rabbit ! A bit later, that
motivated a gift of chocolates, which in turn provoked an
invitation to a gargantuan dinner, etc., etc. The
remarkable thing about systematically giving more than
you have received is that it assures social exchange just as
efficiently as equivalence, plus you have the pleasure of
receiving, of giving, the growth of friendship and
confidence in its strength.13
For Godbout, Market and State are based on a rupture
between producers and consumers14. Both involve the
constitution of an apparatus (be it a public service or a
private enterprise) which administers a separate body of
public (or clients). Social networks (communities), on the
contrary, don't have publics. They only have members,
and they administer themselves by autoregulation. These
networks are caracterised by « jumbled hierarchies, vague
frontiers and a great redundancy of elements »15, a
definition in which the anti-globalisation networks, for
example, will certainly recognise themselves. Whereas of
course, a traditional political party or a union definitely
have a distinct « apparatus » which administers their
particular public.
Thus, the Market functions according to the principle of
equivalence, the State according to the principle of rights
and equality, and social networks according to the
principles of gift and indebtedness.
Of course - and that is the great political interest of this
perspective for me - things are not so simple. All three
principles are present in any sphere, even if they are not
its organisational principle. People defend rights and
equality in private enterprises that in principle only
recognise individual market relations. They also develop
gift governed social relations among employees.  In the
State sphere, a school teacher or a nurse who has a solely
bureaucratic, administrative relationship with her
« public » - who has nothing personal to « give » - is
generally a rather unhappy and unsuccessful one.
We are inherently social animals, always subverting State
and market by creating real social ties. At the theater,
the actor exchanges his performance against the price of
the ticket according to the law of the Market. But for the
performance to be worthwhile he must « give » something
more. If he does, the public doesn't just pay for the ticket,
it applauds. And the actor in return offers a curtain call
that isn't in the contract. And of course all these
exchanges can degenerate into empty, commodified
rituals !
Our social networks and activities are constantly in
danger of being corrupted by market type motivations and
practices or coopted by the State. Professionalisation, for
example, can transform a social movement into a new
area for profitable careers and individualistic competition
- or it can be incorporated into a state bureaucracy as new
rights and benefits. Of course these are good to have, but
as social strength and cohesion they are already half dead.
Perhaps that is why the different forms of paternalistic,
statist socialism (from the USSR to the Mitterand years)
have so generally left societies so unarmed and
individualistic. The muscles of community naturally
whither if they aren't used.
Similarly, on an individual level, gifts can be offered not
for the relation, but to provoke a countergift, to dominate,
etc.
So, it is not pushing Godbout too much to conclude that
we are not living under a solely capitalist regime. We live
also - and even essentially - by creating social relations,
that is to say outside the spheres of capital and State,
according to the deep rules of civilisation shared with all
the savages of the planet. And there is a constant,
molecular struggle going on throughout society. People are
constantly deciding which kind of principle they are going
to respect. Better and stranger yet, the specific invention
of modern, large societies, the gift to strangers, is the
most absolute and most disinterested form of gift, since it
does not normally allow for a gift in return, thus
approaching a situation of commons, or at least a
communist attitude. In this case, the giving, the
identification of the donor with the unknown receiver, is
its own reward.
Godbout goes very deep. Understanding the heart of the
gift relationship, brings him to analyse both its dark side
and its huge emancipatory potential.
A first, almost trivial, problem is the fact that accepting a
gift means creating a relation. So, if the relation is
unwanted or dangerous, gifts must be either refused or
immediately reciprocated, which thus de facto transforms
the exchange into an instantaneous, market-like one,
leaving both sides « quit », literally ready to quit each
other.
Another obvious problem can arise from the necessity of
each time giving more. Unregulated, this can lead to the
ruin or to the humiliation of one of the parties. This is one
of the forms of domination that can arise from gift
exchange. Nothing is more demeaning, in a family or for
the unemployed, for example, than being the object of
« charity » to which one cannot reciprocate. Similarly, on
a global scale, the South not only gives hugely more than
it receives, but is also made to appear as the constant
recipient of « Aid » and as having a huge « Debt » ! Here,
capital's falsified accounting manages to manipulate
reality and to use our sensitivity to gift relations against
us.
Deeper still, Godbout analyses what is essentially
dangerous about accepting gifts. Accepting a gift
endangers identity because one thereby accepts part of
the donor's identity, of his creation and being. For this
reason, for example, even within families children can
prefer to refuse too much help from their parents. To feel
that they exist, they must « make it on their own », prove
their autonomous identity. The paradigmatic study for
Godbout concerns the gift of organs, in which the gift
poses materially, bodily, the question of who is finally
who. This is such a problem that the identity of the donor
is generally hidden. Medical personnel minimise the
problem, talking of organs as simple pieces of hardware
(hearts are « pumps », livers are « filters », etc.), but
interviews with the recipients reveal that the gift creates
a strong and sometimes troubling relation with the donor
(even though he is usually both dead and anonymous).
Finally, Godbout examines the most positive possible
development of the gift relationship : a mutual and
positive sense of indebtedness, but a debt which neither
side feels obliged or wants to extinguish. « The two (or
more) partners are constantly both givers and receivers (?)
In this situation, which escapes linear temporality and the
usual gift logic of « always more », it is no longer a matter
of giving more, but of giving as much as possible, it being
understood that in any case, the situation of indebtedness
is impossible to overcome and that this is not a problem
for either partner.
On the contrary : this situation is considered desirable
and privileged.»16 Anyone who has had the good fortune
of such friendships knows how much ! « In that situation,
both partners no longer return the gifts, they give. It is a
state of mutual confidence which authorises an
indebtedness without guilt, disquiet or anxiety. This
situation is caracterised by the fact that the debt becomes
free, and even without obligation : indebted and free.
This state of mutual indebtedness between two persons
can be extended to a much larger network which, taken to
an extreme, includes the cosmos or God. « It gets lost in
the universe » says a woman in an interview. I can never
give as much as I have received, but I give in turn so as to
be part of this universe. (?) Its a confidence in the
universe which is the opposite of the fear of « being had »,
the fear of giving more than one has received.17 »
Giving is « literally a fundamental social experience in
that by giving we experience the foundations of society,
that which links us to it beyond institutionalised,
crystalised rules such as the norm of justice. We feel it
pass through us, and this creates a particular psychic
state.18 » No doubt the feeling of small babies that are so
delighted to give and take back the very same object
again and again. This seems silly to silly adults, but the
baby has already understood that what is important in
exchanges is creating relations, not the object exchanged.
At the same time they are demonstrating to themselves
that they have come into a benevolent social world where
you don't have to hang on to things, because things given
come back again. « Why do we give ? If what precedes is
admitted, the answer is simple : to connect oneself, to
link oneself to life, to make things circulate in a living
system, to break solitude, to be again part of the chain, to
transmit, feel that one is not alone and that one is part of
something vaster - and in particular of humanity - each
time that one gives to an unknown person, a stranger
living on the other side of the planet, who one will never
meet. »19 This is a much more interesting, positive
analysis of charitable giving than thinking that it is
« just » a way of giving oneself a good conscience. Well of
course it can be, but why does it make feel people feel
better ? Leftists probably look down on charity giving
because it is uncomfortably similar to their own practice.
Godbout concludes that giving is the experience of a
non-individualistic identity. Against the dominant
utilitarian, neoliberal paradigm of an « economic man »
motivated by self interest, the urge to take and
accumulate, he goes so far as to say that, fundamentally,
people are more interested in giving than receiving. Note
that this is not because they are moralistically
self-sacrificing, but on the contrary because giving (ie,
identifying with others) is finally a better way of « having
life more abundantly » than receiving. In fact, as we have
seen, giving can even become threatening, a form of
domination or possession of the person who recieves. 20

Commons and communities in workplaces

The post '68 movements of the North organised mostly
outside of work simply because they were incapable of
seriously challenging the control of social democracy in
the workplace. Radicality found niches for itself in aspects
of society less tightly controlled and which were more in
crisis : housing and urban struggles, the situation of
women, counter-culture, anti-psychiatry, ecology and of
course solidarity (sometimes to the point of projection)
with the vibrant anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles
elsewhere? even further « outside ». 21
But today, thank God, the social democratic « deal », the
trade-off between alienation and consumption, is off.
There is perhaps an historic opportunity to go back
« inside » to?.  To do what ? To take up the working class
struggle in the same perspective as before ? Perhaps not !
Perhaps from where we are coming from we can see
workplace struggles a bit differently?. as also struggles of
communities, trying to establish commons of different
sorts, trying to live communist values here and now -
struggles for « dignity » and dignified social relations just
as much as the zapatistas', even if they are disguised as
humble, « realistic », wage struggles !
Although the people involved in these struggles may think
that they are just defending jobs or wages, they will
typically say, off the record, that the most important thing
gained through their struggle was better relationships in
their community (dignity, comradeship, recognition of the
social value of their work),  some minimal  common space
of liberty or autonomy. Isn't that what people involved in
almost any big strike or struggle usually say after winning
or losing the specific battle ? Isn't that what makes us all
continue, generally losing year after year, but always much
happier doing that than accepting society as it is ?
 I would like to even maintain that, tendentially,
commons can be - and are - established anywhere (also
inside a public service or a private enterprise), as soon as
a community (of struggle) forms within or outside them to
oblige them to provide real (or better) goods or services to
the larger community and/or to allow the community of
people working there to have more acceptable (ie
horizontal) relations between themselves. This can
include hospital workers organising for better work
conditions and treatment of patients, bus drivers striking
for decent work conditions or inhabitants of a quarter
organising to oppose the shutdown of a post office, as
much as squatters sharing unoccupied housing (all current
examples from Geneva, a well known hotbed of class
struggle!).
To defend public services as they are is to start half
beaten, because there are enough things badly wrong
about them (bureaucratisation,  hierarchical
centralisation, destruction of peoples' liberty and
autonomy, etc.) that the privatisers can make a half
convincing case of scrapping them. But if we view public
services as a slightly degenerated form of commons
(administered by the State, with all the shortcomings of
that, rather than as much as possible controlled by
communities), we have the correct perspective in which to
defend and improve them. Like a union in Geneva that
actually had the courage to launch an enquiry with
patients and families of old peoples' homes on the subject
of their mistreatment at the hands of the personnel
(obviously over-stressed by neo-liberal management). Of
course, in this perspective it would not be a case of
mobilising once for some kind of reform of management,
but of exercising power permanently as a
patient-personnel community.
Whereas public services can no doubt be easily accepted
as forms of commons, it is paradoxical to argue that
commons can exist within private enterprise, since
commons are by definition social wealth available to all.
However, perhaps even there we can find traces of them.
For one thing, there are the spaces, goods or time won (or
stolen) from the boss and shared by the employees -
generally negligeable quantitatively (though absenteism
reached 18% at FIAT in the '70ties), but important
socially. At another level, one could maintain that work
that subjectively is really done as a service to the
community -and not just as a way to make one's living - is
done as a contribution to the common wealth, even if
people have to pay to profit from it and the person who
does it can't find another framework in which to do it than
a commodified relation. After all, people pay at least
something to access the commons of culture that are
entrusted to libraries or schools, and librarians and
authors are paid to offer them. Similarly, all kinds of
workers, tradespeople, etc., strive to « do the job right »,
according to the standards of the profession, despite the
corrupting influence of their submission to capitalist
logic. Isn't the saleswoman who takes time to give really
good advice (including maybe that the cheaper model is
actually better) placing herself in a logic of community
and - in a way - of commons ? I have in mind two cheese
shops. The owner of one seems to be the personification of
penny-pinching petite bourgeoisie. The man in the other
obviously has a kind of sacred mission to defend that
glorious diversity of local cultures that is french cheese.
But I never had the obvious reaction of talking to him
about WTO !

Workplace communities vs capitalist command
structures : insights from Christophe Dejours'
Psychodynamics of Work

Reading Dejours makes one acutely aware of the
paradoxical nature of the « refusal of work » which was a
reference for many of us after '68, of the enchanting slogan
« La vie est ailleurs ! ». Not only did most of the
movement abandon workplaces, but struggles that did
take place on the job tended to concentrate on refusing
and disorganising work, seen exclusively under its
negative aspect. Magnificent communities were organised
in workplaces, but they were (at least according to a
certain ideology) more about organising absenteism and
sabotage than more human ways of working. Dejours'
vision is less one-sided, illuminating at once the positive
and negative aspects of work.
Work at once by definition involves suffering and is a
factor of health and fulfillment. Work, even under
capitalist command, is essentially social, cooperative and
creative.
Work is inseparable from suffering because « work
inevitably means experiencing failure - in terms of one's
know-how, technique and control of the work process. 22»,
but this suffering can lead to destruction and illness or,
surmounted, be at the origin of intelligence, ingeniousness
and self-fulfillment.
Work always calls for ingeniousness because it is
impossible to plan and prescribe everything. There is
always something unforseen that forces workers to
improvise and to disobey prescriptions. This of course is
to be hidden from the hierarchy and shared (if there is
mutual trust) with colleagues. The hidden organisation of
real work is constructed by the community of workers and
implies solidarity, mutual recognition and cooperation.23
It involves collective debate in which workers justify and
finally coordinate the various deviations from prescribed
procedures. The debate isn't only technical, it inevitably
also involves intuition, feelings, ethics. It constitutes what
Dejours calls an « internal public space » (internal
because inside a « private » enterprise), but which one
might well also call a « commons ». Dejours stresses that
« this public space does not take the form of a forum or a
« quality circle ». It takes more the form of ordinary
convivial spaces, such as the dining room, cafeteria,
cocktail or lounge area. » Thus, the most important (but
also the most autonomous, the most potentially
subversive) part of work takes place during the breaks !
To me, these observations from factories obviously call up
my experience of scientific conferences and debates.
There too, everyone knows that the important thing is the
discussion in the corridors outside, where people who have
confidence in each other exchange information of how they
really work ... and « cheat » with the rigid norms of
academia.
More disquieting is the comparaison with activism. There
too, the serious discussions rarely happen in the public
debates or meetings. In fact there is not much discussion
even in the regular reunions of activist groups. Most
people are afraid to voice their questions about the
« official », « consensual » way of doing things in such
settings. The real discussions usually happen before or
after, between close friends (and that doesn't necessarily
mean the whole group) over a drink or a joint. As though
our activist « work » was also organised by some sort of
« management » that we can't question directly.
Ridiculous idea. The biggest problem is probably that we
are afraid of saying something «politically incorrect», that
shows our ignorance, or simply something silly. Dejours
quotes Arendt to say that « the right to be wrong » is
essential for the functioning of a real « public space ».
Perhaps our first struggle in activist circles should be
« For a commons of naive remarks ! »
To return to workplace communities, their negative
potential can surface in the « collective defense
mecanisms » against the psychic pain iinevitably involved
in work. From this point of view, the question is no longer
how can work lead to pathology, but how do most working
people manage to stay more or less normal ? As we have
seen, collective defense mecanisms are not necessarily
progressive or positive - such as when workers prefer to
not use helmets or other safety gear that remind them of
risks. Such « macho » mecanisms and attitudes have to
become second nature, maintained on and off the job, thus
also damaging their private relationships.
Unfortunately, management enormously increases
suffering at work in its efforts to maintain control. To
maintain its domination, capital has constantly
reorganised production, expropriating the knowledge of
the workers by automation, fragmenting tasks (and
thereby making them boring and meaningless), dictating
and controlling production from above, breaking up
workplace communities that become too strong,
organising competition in place of cooperation.
 « Work is not simply an individual experience. We always
work for someone. Working always means encountering
others in social relations, or in other words, relations of
domination and servitude. Under what conditions do men
and women who work agree to cooperate with each other ?
What conditions allow us to ward off the violence
threatening to emerge from the social relations of work ?
? work offers what is perhaps the most ordinary
opportunity to learn about living together (in Aristotle's
sense) and democracy. But it can also give rise to the
worst - the instrumentalisation of human beings and
barbarity. 24»
For example, Dejours studied the disastrous degeneration
of a work community in a nuclear power plant, after an
attempt by management to enforce more strictly the
prescribed modes of operation25. The pressure of the
hierarchy silenced all discussion of the necessary
distortions that workers introduced. The ingenious ways
of « cheating » with the rules where no longer recognised
and appreciated by colleagues. « Cheating », which had
been the essential source of interest, pleasure and
recognition in their work, became « a pretext for warnings
and sanctions. What had been the noble part of the work
and what had implied a real technical and human
responsibility for workers » was transformed into an
occasion for conflicts, de-structuring cooperative
relationships and triggering generalized secrecy and
suspicion. The diverse expressions of pleasure at work
were the first things to disappear, since the pleasure of
the use of a cunning solution could no longer be shared.
Cooperation and solidarity whithered, followed by
conviviality in common relationships, celebrations and
beer bashes. People stopped eating together or even
greeting each other. The situation continued to
degenerate with growing frictions and even hatreds,
culminating in vengeances and sabotage? Management
reacted by not by questioning its organisational methods,
but by attributing the problems to the immaturity or
irresponsibility of the workers.
Today, both in public services and private sector jobs,
suffering at work has been enormously increased by the
new forms of work organisation that globalisation has
managed to impose worldwide. A double turn of the screw
that has caused a véritable epidemic of work related
illness all across Europe. This includes suicides and
violence at work, pathologies of stress and overwork and a
massive increase in psychic harassment of all kinds. A
growing number of men and women are being destroyed,
pensioned off as invalids permanently unable to work.
The new conditions combine on the one hand a new round
of speed-ups : the hunt for « lost » time, control by
computers, by zero stock, client pressure and other such
super-Taylorist torture techniques. On the other hand, the
demands for autonomy and more interesting work  voiced
after '68 have been turned against workers by the new
notion of « competence ».This requires workers to show
initiative and intelligence to accomplish their job (and
with a beguiling smile for the client to boot !), without
necessarily giving them the means to do it in normal
conditions or real recognition for their efforts. Finally,
workers have all the disadvantages of being independent
combined with all those of being dependent on a boss. The
ideal form or this is when work is « outsourced » to
nominally independent workers, in fact even more at the
mercy of the boss than when they were salaried and
unionised.
One of the essential aspects of these new work forms is
individualisation and the organisation of « all-out
competition between individuals, teams, between
departments. Goals contracts, the individualised
evaluation of performances, competition between agents
and the growing lack of job security are leading to the
spread of underhanded conduct between peers and the
destruction of solidarities »26 For instance, bosses have
always harassed certain employees, what is different is
that now fewer mates show solidarity. Sometimes they
may even be relieved to see that it is someone else who
will be sacked next? The kind of defense mechanisms that
people tend to put in place in these circumstances, tend
to make them withdraw, isolate themselves and thus
further weaken themselves, individually and collectively.
Dejours had always considered that the mobilisation of
workers intelligence and zeal, real work, was
fundamentally based on their free will and sociability.
However in recent years his field studies forced him to
admit that their is another possible motivation : fear.
The fear of unemployment first of all27. Fear of getting
sacked provokes a general precarisation of the workforce
with multiple effects : First an intensification of labor and
suffering at work. People no longer miss work, even when
they are sick. And when they get too sick, they are
sacked. The ill health provoked is thus « exteriorised »
from the firm. Second, collective resistance to suffering,
domination and alienation is muted. Third, a defensive
strategy of silence and insensibility sets in. Not only there
is « nothing to be done » about the suffering of colleagues,
but thinking about it makes it more difficult to « hold
out » oneself. Fourth, individualism grows. It's every man
for himself.28
Other fears and sufferings undermine employees : the fear
of becoming incompetent with respect to the constant
restructurations, computerisation, etc. ; the fear of not
being able to hold out ; the frustration of being
constrained to work badly (with respect to traditional
standards) or unethically (with respect to colleagues or
clients), of one's work no longer being recognised and
appreciated.
In these ever harsher conditions, unions (and leftists) have
remained strangely resistant to taking suffering and
subjectivity (a « petty bourgeois » preoccupation)
seriously, thus encouraging « virile defense mecanisms »
and leaving the initiative to managers, who have
constantly refined the professional techniques of
manipulation. Dejours imputes part of the drastic fall in
union membership to the fact that unions haven't
addressed these most urgent needs of their
membership.29

Faced with an offensive of this nature, people must rebel
or be crushed. And many seem quite ready to rebel - even
in the Swiss haven of « work-peace »30. Our small
collective (Collectif Travail Santé Mondialisation -
CTSM31 started working on this theme in Geneva in the
last months and drew an impressive response. Not
entirely coincidentally, two successful struggles
concerning work conditions were organised at this time by
hospital workers and bus drivers.
Although many collectives react to pressure by developing
inadequate or destructive defense strategies, others on
the contrary strengthen their solidarity to fight back.
« The present evolution of the organisation of work is not
inevitable. It depends (as always !) on the will - and the
zeal - of the men and women who make it function. If work
can give rise to the worst in the human world, as it does
today, it can also give rise to the best. » « If  the goal of
political action is in fact to honor life and not to bid for
power, or better, if the struggle against domination has as
its ultimate objective the celebration of life and not the
enjoyment of power or the promotion of consumeristic
individualism, then the action and the struggle should be
aimed at making the organisation of work a priority in
political debate. »32
A first step could perhaps be to reflect seriously on the
strange alienation of activists (such as myself) with
respect to our own workplaces. All of  us activists finally
work somewhere, sometime, be it as professionals,
students, in alternative schemes or for Manpower. Why do
these so rarely seem to be the right place or right time to
get involved, politically speaking ? (Personally, I work
with school teachers, a very clear case of workers who
suffer from the absence of an « internal public space » of
debate and cooperation concerning their work!)
And even granted that we have good reasons to continue
our engagement with activist groups « outside »? if the
goal of political action is to celebrate life? how does that
reflect on our activist communities ? How often do they
ignore the suffering or the fulfillment of their members for
the sake of activist « productivity » ?

On the idea that alternatives are already there, being
formulated in the struggles.

Certainly the alternatives can come from nowhere else.
We don't want technocrats (of right or left) to planify any
more generalised disasters. After the irrationality of
planified socialism, we are now measuring the
irrationality of planified capitalism. The world scale
deliriums of the IMF/WB or of the US government's oil
policy of course, but also of the supposedly rational,
« competive » behavior of markets. After years of
supposedly record profits, suddenly huge parts of industry
are on the verge of bankruptcy ! Technocrats are
incapable of planifying rational, social alternatives even
at the level of a single enterprise. Take the pre-privatised
Swiss postal service, for example. Management just
announced that all letters would be sorted in 3 places
instead of 18 and affirms that this will « save » 200 million
euros a year. Of course this is total bluff. No one can
really measure what it will cost society to fire a several
thousand people, make others travel for hours to their
delocalised  and even more stressful jobs (with all the
social and ecological consequences), abandon the sorting
centers built just a few years ago and build new ones (with
hi-tech solutions produced by quasi-slave labor in Asia).
All this to make letters take longer to get there, which is
fine because faxes and email are the future anyway ! It is
more and more apparent that the only real long term plan
for capital is constant destruction and reconstruction. By
war if necessary, if not by « progress ». Whereas, if one
started from ordinary people's needs and common sense,
the alternatives might be to stop subsidising junk mail,
have separate boxes for local and distance mail and to
leave the actually very efficient present system as it is.
That said, it is would be a little too simple to say that all
popular demands represent alternatives ! We must learn
to distinguish between adaptations to the present
situation and system and demands that really are
tendentially alternatives. An increase in wage is more an
adaptation, especially if it only corresponds to a new
round of futile consumption. An increase which decreases
differences in wages is already more of an alternative, as
is changing hierarchical social relations at work. Reducing
work time always seems good, but it does depend a little
on what people do with the time that has been freed,
doesn't it ? Investing the essential of one's energy outside
of the wage relation (squats, counter-culture) may seem
even more directly alternative, but  if it's finally just a
sort of alternative consumption one might conclude that
it's really only an adaptation.
If we are ready to abandon the idea that some enlightened
revolutionaries can define « an » Alternative (as opposed
to myriads of communities groping their way towards
diverse alternatives), then we must think more about how
we can discuss, within and between communities, what
kind of steps go in the right direction. Maybe we could
learn to refer to basic characteristics of healthier social
(ie non-capitalist) relations : for instance, does the
demand or practice involve more or less inherent use
(rather than extrinsic exchange) value ? Community
control ? Competition, hierarchy, social or environmental
costs, violence of some kind?
 Communities and local control are basic because nothing
more favors the irresponsibility and impotence of the
majority and the power of the few than larger, globalising
processes. After all, it was (at least according to Braudel)
long distance trade that first let the capitalist cat out of
the bag. Local exchanges long remained under the control
of the community. People will care more about creating
toxic wastes when they stay nearby. They will be more
sticklish about how their food is produced if they see it
happen. They will be more responsible if they can see the
results of their action (or inaction) on others.
Of course, some demands of particular communities (like
defending jobs in arms production or the nuclear industry,
or defending a neighborhood in danger of being chosen for
a refugee center) are not acceptable at all. But
community control doesn't mean necessarily deciding only
locally or in favor of local interests. It is also about
communities learning to think for themselves globally. A
modern phenomenon such as the gift to strangers or the
worldwide networks of resistance and solidarity of which
we are a part seem to indicate that such a development is
possible. The survival of humans seems more and more to
depend on the bet that they are capable of extending the
kind of social relations that are usually restricted to
« communities » in networks beyond the horizon and
around the world. That is what political solidarity was
already about when people joined the international
brigades in Spain. The anti-globalisation movement is
certainly a brilliant new example of this. Not only
« teamsters and tortoises » in Seattle, but indigenous and
peasants and punks and sweat shop workers (and even
more « organised » workers !) are starting to realise that
they have the same enemies and many diverse but in
some way similar dreams. Hopefully, we are also realising
that our divisions (men/women, north/south, ethnic, etc.)
and other reactionary aspects of our lives and
communities - that may have seemed quite all right 'till
now - are just too useful to the enemy and harmful to
ourselves to tolerate any longer. Personally, I don't think
there is a conflict between community and larger
solidarity. The day we will have straitened out our local
communities, we will have the strength to move
mountains, and no problem dealing with wider relations.

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