The Infinity of the Silent Strike

Concluding this first tranche of essays on the crowd, Illan looks at the 'catastrophe' and infinity of the general strike.

image_5_hole-800x847-283x300We know from Burke that it is the noise of the crowd or throng which leads to the expe­ri­ence of the sub­lime. The cacoph­ony of the many, gath­ered in their dis­charged state, draws us like a mag­net. But the crowd in strike has a num­ber of very dif­fer­ent dynam­ics to our open, closed and occu­pa­tion crowds. Let us begin with this ques­tion of the crowd’s noise. The brief spell of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Syn­di­cal­ism in France between 1886 and 1914 pro­vides a use­ful start­ing point for think­ing about the func­tion of noise and silence.1Canetti begins this:

Within the actual strike it is essen­tial that every­one should abide by the under­tak­ing not to work. Spon­ta­neously from within the crowd itself there springs up an orga­ni­za­tion with the func­tions of a state. It is fully con­scious of the short­ness of its life and has only a very small num­ber of laws; but these are strictly kept. Pick­ets guard the entrances to the place where the strike started and the work­place itself is for­bid­den ground. The inter­dict on it lifts it out of its every­day triv­i­al­ity and endows it with a spe­cial dig­nity. In its empti­ness and still­ness it has some­thing sacred. The fact that the strik­ers have taken over respon­si­bil­ity for it turns it into a com­mon pos­ses­sion and, as such, it is pro­tected and invested with a higher sig­nif­i­cance.2

The crowd appears at the picket, gath­ered by a sim­ple refusal to work. While the absence at the heart of the refusal is filled with demands and deter­mi­na­tions, these can never fill the fun­da­men­tal lack. The ‘laws’ which Canetti tells us emerge, cir­cle around the sanc­tity of this absence. The space of work becomes sacred, a cathe­dral emp­tied by the refusal of labour.

The dream is of the city of labour grad­u­ally falling silent, as the fur­naces and machines are unmanned. The cacoph­ony of labour is con­trasted to the silence of the strike. In the early days of syn­di­cal­ism, a sim­ple pic­ture was described.

The rev­o­lu­tion would involve noth­ing more dif­fi­cult than a national agree­ment to cease work on a par­tic­u­lar day. The work­ers would declare a Grand National Hol­i­day…. With one accord they would leave their fac­to­ries, shops and fields, don­ning their Sun­day best for a stroll along the boule­vards or for a pic­nic en famille in the Bois de Boulogne. As the fur­naces died out and the machines ground to a halt, the cap­i­tal­ists would at last real­ize that only labor was truly pro­duc­tive; faced with the man­i­fest deter­mi­na­tion of their for­mer employ­ees not to serve them any longer, they would have no choice but to sub­mit with the best grace pos­si­ble. As paral­y­sis spread, as press, trans­port and other ser­vices failed, the gov­ern­ment would be faced with… iso­la­tion…; they would be forced to capit­u­late.3

The silence of the machines seem to fill the space, welling up to the brim of the fac­tory, before spilling over. Strikes are catch­ing, whether they are sym­pa­thetic or in sol­i­dar­ity, they are con­ta­gious. The silence flows from one site to the next, fill­ing the city with the absence of din and the pos­si­bil­ity of talk. The great plea­sure of walk­ing in the new Boule­vards, the chirpy ‘grand hol­i­day’ with one’s fam­ily clad in ‘respectable’ clothes – this is an every­day utopia of speak­ing with one another.

In this sim­ple image of over­throw, the city in silence becomes a way of imag­in­ing the power of labour. With­out it, even the politi­cians would be left giv­ing orders to no one as their min­ions deserted them. How­ever, the city’s silence is not the absence of noise. Silence, like with­drawal, is a much more com­plex phe­nom­e­non. ‘Rather than being that which thwarts lan­guage, silence is that which opens the way for language’s potency… speech is born from silence and seeks its con­clu­sion in silence…. Silence then is required for the intel­li­gi­bil­ity both of what is said in dis­course and of dis­course itself as dis­course.’4The crowd falls silent before the fiery ora­tor. In the silence of the work­place the voice of organ­i­sa­tion, nego­ti­a­tion and argu­men­ta­tion emerges. Silence opens the pos­si­bil­ity of re-humanising the work­ers. No longer machines, they recover life and lan­guage. But it is not sim­ply a mat­ter silence as the pre­cur­sor to speech. Merleau-Ponty remarks that ‘we should be sen­si­tive to the thread of silence from which the tis­sue of speech is woven’.5 Silence is not sim­ply lack, but like lack it is some­thing which we try to fill in.6 In a group, in con­ver­sa­tion, in a crowd we need to fill silence, to break it and assuage our dis­com­fort. The fac­tory is never com­pletely silent, it is filled with the faint cries of the picket or the echoes of the space itself. What is impor­tant for us here is the man­ner in which the shift of sound from the every­day order of din to the eeri­ness of the workplace-in-strike is a rup­ture. The work-place with­out work, tears the order of neces­sity. In the silence of a strike, life is imag­ined with­out the neces­sity of toil.

The early syn­di­cal­ist image of the arms folded in with­drawal is soon over­taken by a sec­ond more noisy idea. The syn­di­cal­ists saw that the sys­tem of cap­i­tal would not sim­ply roll over. The folded arms gives way to the dichotomy of the picket – Rid­ley remarks that the image of the Commune’s bar­ri­cades in 1871 would still have been a rel­a­tively recent mem­ory to those set­ting up the CGT in 1895. The picket, like the bar­ri­cade, is a bor­der­ing prac­tice. As such it is always in need of polic­ing. The picket man­i­fests the bor­der between the pro­fane world and the place made sacred by its workless­ness (inop­er­a­tiv­ity). The crowd’s pres­ence is man­i­fested there beside but not in the place of busi­ness. The noise and pres­ence at the picket is held in ten­sion with the silence and absence in the space of work. How­ever, it is the absence that holds the strike together. The crowd that gath­ers holds this other-place out as its tal­is­man. It is well estab­lished that a strike that does not gar­ner suf­fi­cient num­bers to prop­erly dam­age pro­duc­tion is eas­ily defeated. The strike can thus be mea­sured in its hush, in its trans­po­si­tion of noise from one form to another – from the noise of labour to the din of voice.

The picket-border sig­ni­fies a divi­sion, but like all bor­ders it is not sim­ply the divide between inside and out­side. The picket is not in oppo­si­tion to the place of labour. Rather the picket, in syn­di­cal­ist thought, is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the war of work­ers against the forces of cap­i­tal. But we should lis­ten care­fully to Canetti’s diag­no­sis half a cen­tury later. With­draw­ing from the work­place ‘lifts it out of its every­day triv­i­al­ity and endows it with a spe­cial dig­nity.’ This still and silent sacred­ness comes from the ‘fact that the strik­ers have taken over respon­si­bil­ity for it [thereby turn­ing]… it into a com­mon pos­ses­sion’.7 In the every­day course of activ­ity, work is directed and com­manded. In the ordi­nary course of busi­ness, the occu­pa­tion (in the sense of labour) by the work­ers of the work­place is in fact a sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of the owner’s pos­ses­sion of the work­ers, his con­trol and direc­tion. Only by leav­ing the work­place together and thereby refus­ing the owner’s con­trol, do the work­ers take pos­ses­sion of the work­place. This is occu­pa­tion reversed.

One of the cru­cial insights of the syn­di­cal­ists was to refuse the­ory. They defined them­selves against the ‘sci­en­tific’ social­ist who prof­fered a deter­mi­na­tive account of his­tory wherein the pro­le­tariat would come to power by force of his­tor­i­cal neces­sity. Syn­di­cal­ism under­stood that a new world would not just be born because cap­i­tal­ism was already impreg­nated with the seeds of social­ism. In the absence of his­tor­i­cal pre­de­ter­mi­na­tion, they prof­fered the process of edu­ca­tion. How­ever, edu­ca­tion was not the sim­ple trans­fer of knowl­edge from an expert the­o­reti­cian to the une­d­u­cated masses. This is why, aside per­haps from Sorel or de Man,8 in whom we still find a slight dis­dain and dis­com­fort with the masses, there are few ‘the­o­rists’ of this syn­di­cal­ism. The syn­di­cal­ists held that edu­ca­tion came in the process itself. The strike was the man­ner of both shift­ing from cap­i­tal­ism to social­ism or anar­chism, but also the way to learn about this shift. Each strike, with its pick­et­ing crowd tak­ing pos­ses­sion of the silent means of pro­duc­tion, is thus the means and end of the process.

Unlike a nor­mal strike, the gen­eral strike does not make spe­cific demands. Each eco­nomic or polit­i­cal strike is tied to par­tic­u­lar strate­gic gains: The work­ers want to rest for one or two days each week; They refuse to work after eight hours of labour; They want the suf­frage to be extended to all men irre­spec­tive of the quan­tity of pri­vate prop­erty they own. Each strike is thus a noisy affair, wherein demands are addressed and refused. How­ever, the gen­eral strike is silent. It makes no spe­cific demand. It does not address itself to the sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion, but rather stays quiet.

Par­ties, as a rule, define the reforms that they wish to bring about; but the gen­eral strike has a char­ac­ter of infin­ity, because it puts on one side all dis­cus­sion of def­i­nite reforms and con­fronts men with a cat­a­stro­phe. Peo­ple who pride them­selves on their prac­ti­cal wis­dom are very much upset by such a con­cep­tion, which puts for­ward no def­i­nite project of future social orga­ni­za­tion.9

The silence of the gen­eral strike is the open­ing of an ‘infi­nite’ demand. Sorel insists that ‘all that is best in the mod­ern mind is derived from this ‘tor­ment of the infi­nite’.’10 Infin­ity is some­thing which must be grap­pled with at each moment. The gen­eral strike makes an infi­nite demand.11

The silent void at the heart of the gen­eral strike is a trans­po­si­tion of the sacral­is­ing silence of the work­place which has been taken into com­mon pos­ses­sion. It is born from the real­i­sa­tion that each demand – which is noth­ing other than a symp­tom of the struc­ture as a whole – may be met or nego­ti­ated away. A strike attached to par­tic­u­lar demands sim­ply enters the fray as a nego­ti­at­ing tac­tic, it becomes one among many ways of fram­ing politico-economic ratio­nal­ity. How­ever, a strike with­out demand aside from the utter refusal of the sys­tem of labour itself pro­vides no point of trac­tion. Sorel insists that we must con­sider the infi­nite absence of the gen­eral strike as a ‘cat­a­stro­phe’. The gen­eral strike is not a ratio­nal plan for the shift from cap­i­tal­ism to social­ism,12 but an escha­tol­ogy. In his ‘Let­ter to Daniel Halvey’ which opens the Reflec­tions on Vio­lence, Sorel sit­u­ates this in pessimism.‘The pes­simist regards social con­di­tions as form­ing a sys­tem bound together by an iron law which can­not be evaded, so that the sys­tem is given, as it were, in one block, and can­not dis­ap­pear except in a cat­a­stro­phe which involves the whole.’13 Pes­simism for Sorel is a reflec­tion upon the dire con­di­tions and the pos­si­bil­i­ties pre­sented in the imme­di­ate future.14 In a struc­ture with­out cracks, escha­tol­ogy – the study of the end of days – becomes a pow­er­ful way of gen­er­at­ing imme­di­ate resistance.

But there is a cer­tain roman­ti­cism in all of these reflec­tions. The infi­nite silence at the heart of the strike is itself a reflec­tion upon the roman­tic sub­lime. Burke tells us: ‘All gen­eral pri­va­tions are great because they are ter­ri­ble: Vacu­ity, Dark­ness, Soli­tude and Silence.’15 Infin­ity is itself a source of the sub­lime, for Burke. Even Sorel’s phrase the ‘tor­ment of the infi­nite’ is a reflec­tion of roman­tic ideas of being there before death in anguish. Later in 1911, Barré would use the phrase to dis­cuss Chateaubriand’s 1802 novella René.16 How­ever, we must be care­ful here. An easy asso­ci­a­tion with roman­ti­cism is prob­lem­atic. For one, syn­di­cal­ism under­lined the col­lec­tive nature of power, rather than the lonely roman­tic hero stand­ing sub­limely out against the grey banal­ity of the world. The flip side of this is that this entire dis­course on strikes is marked by a thor­ough roman­ti­ci­sa­tion. Sorel in par­tic­u­lar was not a par­tic­i­pant in the labour which he sought to analyse. Talk­ing about the grey real­ity of strikes and labour in terms of silence and the sub­lime cer­tainly seems to be out of place. The point, how­ever, is not to engage in some sort of descrip­tive soci­ol­ogy of strikes, nor is it to some­how sug­gest their util­ity or oth­er­wise at our cur­rent con­junc­ture. Rather I am point­ing to a cer­tain imag­i­na­tion of the city, of the crowd and of labour.

Details of the Crowded Sovereignty Porject can be found here, along with all previous posts.

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