Transcript of a talk I gave December 10th, 2011, as part of an Occupy event entitled “Economics Justice, Economic Resistance.”
I want to begin with two stories from the first weeks of the Occupy protests in New York City.
Think first of CNN’s Erin Burnett, who, in her segment “Seriously?!”, which covered Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park downtown, asked the question, “What are they protesting?” What did she decide? That “nobody seems to know.”
Or, to use our favorite whipping boy, Fox News, look to the outtakes from their show “On the Record.” The Occupy interviewee, dogged with the question of how he wants the protests to “end,” artfully finds ways to refuse the question. His response? “As far as seeing it end, I wouldn’t like to see it end. I would like to see the conversation to continue.”
By now, I’m sure we have each come up with our own way to respond to this feigned ignorance. Some try to add to the seemingly endless list of demands. Others gesture to the Trotskyite desire for a permanent revolution. Even others try to simplify things down to a few key points.
II. GHOST STORIES
Today, I would like to propose something much more profound:
We need to learn how to tell ghost stories.
Consider a conspicuous absence in labor history of Black workers in Jim Crow South. At first blush, it seems justified: there is a surprising lack of historical accounts of Black economic resistance “at the point of production” – ie: collective organization of Black workers within a formal structure like a union. But when we look closer, there was a whole network of collective resistance that intentionally avoided the strategies of outspoken, formal organizations preferred by white workers at the time.
Let’s look to the words of a frustrated employer remarking on the “servant problem” in the South
the washerwomen…badly damaged clothes they work on, iron-rusting them, tearing them, breaking off buttons, and burning them brown; and as for starch! — Colored cooks, too, generally abuse stoves, suffering them to get clogged with soot, and to “burn out” in half the time they ought to last.
Southern Whites were ready to blame such problems on Black inferiority. What Whites dismissed as unreliability and ignorance offers an indirect perspective into forms of resistance hidden from the eyes of their White employers. This resistance is often ignored by traditional working class history, but it plays an important part in what English labor historians had long called the “moral economy.”
The moral economy is describes the economic consciousness of working class people, as they face the humiliation of everyday work. Before the eighteenth century London, dock workers had the right to dip into tobacco cargoes for their personal use; farmers had access to “common lands of grazing and gathering wood”; shipwrights, caulkers, and other laborers in the shipbuilding industry took home leftover “chips” of wood. For years afterward, workers continued to take things from work. However, through commiseration with the legislature, merchants and magnates were able to make every one of these practices illegal. In response, workers continued the age-old practices, but now under the threat of unemployment, jail, deportation to the “New World,” or the gallows.
Jim Crow South is no different. Though, due to the nature of the work undertaken by Black workers, the “moral economy” was set on a different terrain. One Southern domestic worker declared, “We don’t steal; we just ‘take’ things — they are a part of the oral contract, exprest [sic] or implied. We understand it, and most of the white folks understand it.” To which one employer put, “When I give out my meals I bear these little blackberry pickaninnies in mind, and I never wound the feelings of any cook by asking her ‘what that is she has under her apron.”
The moral? Workplace theft is a strategy historically employed to recover unpaid wages and/or compensate for low wages and mistreatment.
III. WHAT MAKES A GHOST
What is it that makes strategies like pan-toting and slowdowns effective? They are partially, if not completely invisible. And when the bosses get wise, workers have to conceal or lie, or risk compromising the whole strategy.
Consider studies of tabacco workers in North Carolina. There was gendered division of work where men would pack baskets of tobacco, and women would stem the tobacco. If the black female stemmer couldn’t keep up, the men supplying the tobacco would pack the baskets more loosely. And on the factory floor, where sitting and talk were generally banned, women would sometimes break out in song. Why is this significant? Because “Singing in unison not only reinforced a sense of collective identity but the songs themselves — religious hymns, for the most part — ranged from veiled protests against the daily indignities of the factory to utopian visions of a life free of difficult wage work.” (Kelley)
These concealed actions can be compiled into a “hidden transcript” of resistance not meant to be seen or understood by employers. Think of knocking on your boss behind his back, or writing obscenities about the company on a bathroom stall.
It’s time for more ghost stories. We need to look to the stories that hide in the shadow. Shadows that heighten that which could not withstand the sharp tongues of public scrutiny. For, if dark lacquerware can draw out the ‘depth’ of previously dull soups, and architecture, which to a western eye would be simplistic, but conveys a strong presence through slight variation in hue and significant gradations of shadow and indirect light; then, what are the ghost stories we can tell about the resistance that hides in the shadows, today?
Do you do what philosopher and literary critic Michel de Certeau calls “wigging,” a complicated form of workplace resistance in which employees use company time and materials for themselves (e.g., repairing or making a toy for one’s child, writing love letters). One might imagine the beautiful example of a domestic who seizes time from work to read books from her employer’s library. Then you not only take back precious hours from their employers but resist being totally subordinated to the needs of capital, while taking back the body you’ve leased to your employer, and spends it on yourself or your family.
What would this mean for us? First, we should continue the Occupy practice of ignoring legislative victories. And firm up our refusal to sum up the movement in terms of policy changes, even those as important as “getting money out of politics.” Second, we need to stop describing the movement in the bureaucratic terms of the police and party managers who care only about clarity of organization, collective identity, and the ability to mobilize masses. Lastly, we should find out new ways to form informal networks of solidarity that help us win back our dignity, respect, and freedom.
So I leave you with a question, tonight: how do we forget about “telling it straight” and start to tell ghost stories about Occupy?
Douglas Rushkoff, October 11, NYT, “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it”
Robin Kelley, “Shiftless of the World Unite!”, Race Rebels