José Saramago’s Death at Intervals (2008) tells the story of Death going on Strike. In Saramago’s imagined country ‘since the beginning of the new year, or more precisely since zero hours of the first day of January’ that there is ‘no record of anyone dying’ (2008:3). This new state of affairs leads the country not as we may imagine to a perpetual celebration (though there was at first a ‘collective joy’ (p.3)) but rather to a kind of state of emergency. ‘What emergency’ you may ask ‘can the suspension of death possible arouse?’ The author crafts for us a series of economical, political, religious, cultural and philosophical crises that the Death Strike overcasts for example we read of hospital corridors being filled with diseased and injured bodies as the wards can no longer accommodate them and the consequences of these (inability of the system to care for them), we hear the voices of indignant funeral companies asking for state relief (they are threatened with bankruptcy as demand for funerals soars to zero level), the Church having to account for this phenomenon as the suspension of death and not its obliteration (a necessary account for as the Churches foundation relies on the doctrine of life after death, without Death the Church is in danger of loosing its legitimacy and popularity), and we also follow the emergence of an underground racket which offers a transfer services to relatives of fatally diseased/injured people to neighboring countries where Death is not on strike so they can die. Death one day decides to bring to an end to its Strike Action. She communicates her change of plans after seven months via a letter in a violet envelope to the Director-General of Television. She informs him that death will resume its work. Death after a seven month truce will now sending out purple envelopes to individuals with the announcement of their death.
The French thinker George Sorel in Reflections on Violence (2004) distinguishes between two types of General Strike, namely the political and the proletariat general strike. The political strike where those politically ‘marginalised’ desire to gain power, and , ‘… [invert] the relation[s] of domination…’ (Hamacher:1146) and achieve better working conditions, redistribution of goods etc., without dismantling the State and its apparatuses (law, police, etc) and consequentially not undoing themesleves from the perpetual violence that the structure of the state engenders. Implicit in this discussion is the understanding that the State is amongst other things a violence production machine. The discussion is much more sophisticated than I let here and for further information you may want to consult Sorel himself or Hamacher’s excelent discussion (1992). The second type of General
Strike, the Proletariat General Strike Sorel suggests aims nothing less than the dismantling of the state and its aparatuses. In this figuration of political activity, we have strikers agonising not over their embetterment, gaining better pay or better working hours, but rather they throw themeselves into action or withdrawal from the state with no end predetermining their strike – the strike is their only aim. As Sorel points out any predetermined aims that we may project onto such a political action (an action that potentially may paralyse and then dismantle the state) can’t be justified on any grounds. Consider his words:
There is no process by which the future can be predicted scientifically, nor even one which enables us to discuss whether one hypothesis about it is better than another; it has been proved by too many memorable examples that the greatest men have committed prodigious errors in thus desiring to make predictions about even the least distant future’ ( Sorel:124)
So a Proletetariat General Strike becomes in his eyes a certain way of acting in the world where a class(the proletariat) takes it upon itself to dsimantle the oppressive state and its aparatuses –in this state of action nothing is decided in advance or more precisely nothing is decided based on pre-cooked ideological supositions -as precisely the application of already established suppositions is what the state and its aparatuses have been in the business of ‘providing us’ in the guise for example of security, efficiency and futurity. We may say that what Sorel provides us in his landmark book is not so much how does a Proletariat General Strike comes about – his books is not a DIY manual of how to achieve the dismantling of the State but rather – a speculative reflection of how this Proletariat General Strike will look like. The Proletariat General Strike is a state of action we can say where the future is not propagated, where the formula of means justify ends (i.e. use of violence for the security of populations) is rejected, where things (including structures or the rebuilding of structures) remain unstable and even precarious, and we may even say that this Proletariat General Strike is something like reconfiguration process – where the dismantling of the State and its Aparatuses and the ‘rebuilding’ of a different socialiaty, economic and cultural world or existence, takes place because of this figuration of strike being enacted and through it. You may have guessed by now that for Sorel and others, like the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, who embraced Sorel’s thought[i], saw the Proletatriat General Strike as the trully radical political action. As an anarchist myself I see why this maybe the case and why it is an attractive proposition; it appears to be a of action that if is succesful it will sustain us in a permanent state of turbulence and perpetual renewal- it will be an a-static way of being in the world.
But there are of course limits to Sorel’s celebrations of the Proletariat General Strike. We can for example contest that the proletariat (if we can still hold this name at the present) is not the only group or formation of collectivities that is contesting the figuration of the state and its aparatuses, precarious workers, the unemployed, sex, gendered and racialised minorities have been and continue to be stake holders in this contestation. We may also argue that at in our times, our neoliberal times, the subject of the Proletariat General Strike is not indistinguishable from the neo-liberal subject[ii] that curtails our times. If we inhabit a neoliberal time and mentality, and if the subject has been turned into an enterpreneuer[iii] (a micro-manager of everything from his/her time to hi/ser emotions) then the undoing of the operational principles of neoliberalism (efficiency, security and investment in futurity (emotionally, socially and economically) it may precisely require to recognise ourselves as part of the ‘structure’ that needs undoing or dismantling. We may need to consider to what extent the demands (and sometimes commands) to respond to political action, to protestation, sustain the enterpreneuarial subject of neoliberalism. These demands at times of crisis, our times, become prolific and continuous. Such demands ask from us to be constantly ready to respond to the production of asaults that the State is producing. Demand for response, requires us of course to be more and more enterprenereural (to invent different ways of responding (to capitalise on our inventiveness) and to also manage our life in such ways as to be able to constantly rerspond to these political demands).
This is not to say that protestation and resistance are the wrong ways of dismantling the State, I would not know what is right or wrong, but rather to remind ourselves that everything we may be doing may be both working for the state (sustaining a certain neo-liberal subjectivity) and simultaneously draining out of us immense amounts of resources which we could use in reconfiguring the present differently (and certainly not as a response to the State)
In turning to a historical/theoretical depiction of the practice of the General Stike (Sorel)[iv] so as to understand better the practice of the generalisation of a strike we have observed that perhaps not all that the ingredient of who an a General Strike that Sorel saw being present when such an action takes place may mapped to our present. I have briefly complicated the claim of a General Strike being called upon by a particular class, I have also I hope complicated our subjective implications and collaboration with the owners of the means of production, and moreover with turning ourselves into mini neoliberal enterprises. But despite the criticisms, Sorel’s template of the Proletariat General Strike, holds a vital and invigorating lesson. Actions, political actions that desire to make a different world, may require to leave behind any methods that use an ideology that makes claims to a futurity aside. Sorel’s thought call upon us to Strike not for our pensions (an investment into a future) but for our present, for freeing ourselves from the shackles of what is to come, of how is to come or of how we ought to bring it about. Saramago’s Death goes on a General Strike – she withrdaws death from everyday life. And in doing so she creates chaos-chaos to the operations of government, capital, culture and church and human affairs. In doing so she also tells us that in suspending the future or more precisely a hope for a better future (life after death in this case) we may begin to disentangle ourselves from all those structures, ideas or even practices that disable us from living for the present. if acting for the present is all there is…and if that maybe dissapointing-in the absence of a future- or in the absence of a future as we imagined it to be (with secure investments,and eternal love and friendship, or even familiar constant forms) – to free ourselves from what is to come may be all we’ve got… and dancing.
This is dedicated to all those that participated at the Open Birkbeck What is a Strike? workshop on 15th of June 2011. Thanks to Adriana Eysler for providing me invaluable information on precarity.
[i] Walter Benjamin’s (2004) ‘Critique of Violence’ in Bullock, M and Jennings, W M (eds) Walter Benjamin:Selected Writings Volume 1, 1913-1926), (Cambridge MA:Harvard University Press) indepted to Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (2004) (Mineola, New York Dover Publications), see Hamancher (1992) ‘Afformative Strike’ Cardozo Law Review 13:1113-1157).
[ii] For readings on the operation of neo –liberalism see Wendy Brown (2006) ‘American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism and De-Democratisation’ Political Theory vol.34(6):690-714; David Harvey (March 2007) ANNALS, AAPSS:610; Lauren Berlant at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlOeWTa_M0U.
[iii] See Michel Foucault (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); Fabienne Brion at http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2011/06/fabienne-brion-governmentality-citizenship-and-dangerousness/;Ariana Bove at http://www.generation-online.org/other/acop/acop_technology3.htm
[iv] A practice that has been in operation over the last 48 hours in Greece (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/jun/28/greek-general-strike-austerity-debate), a practice that is hoped to be emulate in the UK)