In the current crisis, social reproduction can become a crucial field for the construction of a collective form of social power.
Building Power in a Crisis of Social Reproduction
- Issue #0
SYRIZA took power through elections—not so much on the basis of a movement that could embolden or depose it. Now it is back to fighting power for many Greeks. But beyond the taking and fighting of power, there is the question of building power.
How do we build lasting relations and infrastructures for struggle and change? How can can we think of building power—in social networks, in the everyday, in organizations, in institutions—in the midst of the ongoing European debt crisis? It starts with the question of social reproduction, of how to gather forces and generate resistance constructively and sustainably.
The context of crisis and generalized vulnerability opens onto a myriad of struggles around social rights, resources and survival, all of which put life at their center. Everyday life, bodily survival, collective life: the problem of human needs touches most in the crisis, and colors any form of engagement—and not just the employed workers who can still go on strike.
All of this goes to the heart not only of the crisis, but of the long-term tendencies towards precarity, welfare retrenchment, structural unemployment and surplus population. The politics of reproduction addresses this issue and makes it a site for the construction of collective power.
To build social or collective power sustainably and concretely, we must clear some pathways for thinking approaches and strategies within this domain. And we must ask: how do struggles around reproduction relate to the politics of representation, particularly in view to contemporary electoral openings within the crisis?
Social reproduction in the crisis
The viewpoint of social reproduction is central to the question of building power today. Social reproduction is a broad term for the domain where lives are sustained and reproduced. It relates to the ways we satisfy our needs and to the often hidden material basis for pursuing our desires.
Now the problem of reproduction touches the lives of millions with urgency. The breakdown of the integrating mechanisms of welfare and neoliberal management has opened the way for new approaches to thinking about how we sustain our lives, individually and collectively. It involves the crisis of certain institutions and structures—state, market, family, waged labour—as well as singular modes of community and relations of interdependence.
In the present conjuncture, it is clear that taking power is the same as administering the crisis—unless it is done on the basis of a genuine form of social power. Social reproduction can become a field for building this form of social power.
This is the opening of a new cycle of struggles around social reproduction. These struggles happen at different levels: at the level of social relations of care, at the level of spaces and inhabiting, at the level of production and distribution of resources, and at the level of institutions.
In this conjuncture it is clear that taking power is the same as administering the crisis—unless it is done on the basis of a genuine form of social power. As more and more people are no longer fully integrated into capital and the state, social reproduction can become a field for reorganizing social relations, for building social power.
Those attempting to profit from the crisis know that this situation is not without risks and opportunities. The opportunities are well known: crisis legitimates the destruction of welfare and support systems, creating unemployment to drive down wages, privatizing public assets and commons to increase profits in the great competition game. Crisis is good for new rounds of primitive accumulation (commodifying the not-yet commodified), for reshaping and domesticating productive forces while realizing further “transitions” into the logics of inequality, debt, finance.
But those administering the crisis locally or translocally need to play the reproduction card cleverly if they are to keep face and at the same time profit from the situation. One aspect of this is to impose or maintain a certain level of scarcity and chaos—just enough to legitimize tough change, maintain labor supply and avoid rebellion.
The “art” of managing the crisis from above attempts to combine mechanisms that individualize, isolate and create competition, with controllable forms of cooperation and community. These strategies, however, are always half-hearted and weak.
This in turn requires certain strategies to keep people alive and docile: either by putting them on the drip-feed of charity (through food banks or NGO support, for instance) or by making them self-organize their survival through neo-communitarian policy frameworks like the Big Society in the UK, as well as through precarious forms of employment and entrepreneurship.
This domestication of the social is accompanied by the reinforcement of conservative family policies (like nuclear paternalism, patriarchal laws and domesticated labor) as well as policing and repression (in the form of gag laws and the criminalization of protest and self-organization). The “art” of managing the crisis from above attempts to combine mechanisms that individualize, isolate and create competition, with controllable forms of cooperation and community.
These strategies, however, are always half-hearted and weak. When we organize and build infrastructures from below, our relations, knowledges and capacities to manage are much stronger because they are shared.
Common strategies from below
Under certain conditions, collective projects to reorganize how we meet our needs can provide alternatives more powerful than charity, communitarianism and individualized survival. Starting from a shared need, these conditions include the emergence of murmurs that discuss alternatives in the streets, squares, homes and workplaces; the building of shared relations of conversation and trust; and with this the creation of spaces for meeting and finally for organizing. Struggles that address everyday ways of sustaining life can build power in sustainable ways—rather than just relieving misery—for a series of reasons.
First, by building autonomous circuits of self-reproduction, such struggles ensure the collective power needed to sustain a fight for change. Being able to temporarily opt out of dominant forms of access to resources—be it via labor strikes, road blocks or boycotts—generates a huge increase in collective bargaining and blockading power. These are powerful antagonistic or agonistic agents vis-à-vis the state and market because, by allowing people to partially withdraw from hegemonic circuits of self-reproduction, they provide the basis of an actual oppositional power.
Only with strategies of care and self-reproduction—from mutual legal aid over collective kitchens to strike funds—can social movements engage in sustained blockade, protests and strikes. The Black Panther Party’s 15 years of highly popular militant activity must be related to its combination of self-defense strategies and survival programmes, which allowed it to work and resist in the context of the violence and social disintegration inflicted on black communities.
When embarking on a defense of welfare rights, social struggles often subvert this statist horizon, and end up producing concrete political projects that supply and care even where the state does not. The Spanish indebted homeowners’ movement PAH, for instance, which has done much campaigning for the right to housing, has also occupied many empty bank-owned buildings and reclaimed them as communal housing.
In Greece, the creation of solidarity clinics responded to a withdrawal of state-guaranteed health provision, but in the process it has become a powerful experiment in the provision of free healthcare, in a way that often overcomes the classical hierarchies and separations between doctors, nurses and patients, and develops new notions of health.
Struggles around sustaining life in common are contexts where alternative visions for institutions and mutual support structures are built. In a time that clamors for alternatives, they also produce new political imaginaries.
Such struggles around sustaining life in common are contexts where alternative visions for institutions and mutual support structures are built. In a time that clamors for alternatives, these struggles also produce new imaginaries, demands and knowledges around the social management, supply and organization of collective care and provision. Despite their clear limitations—the lack of resources and a clear legal basis make it difficult to provide for all those in need, let alone for society as a whole—they function as laboratories that can become the basis for new claims on institutions.
The retrenchment of welfare and employment gives way to the development of solidarity economies, which build collective resilience by creating new ways of distributing and sharing resources. This means not just the creation of local instances of social reproduction, but also of translocal networks of trade and exchange. This is important not just from a geopolitical point of view, but also from an ecological perspective. It implies the emergence of new visions and practices of economy beyond the capital-E global capitalist one.
Most recently, the debate over Greece’s place in the euro illustrated the importance of such forms of collective distribution. It was clear that both Grexit and continued Eurozone-enforced austerity would spell more death and misery—as well of the strengthening of church and NGO-based charities and ethnicity-based fascist food distribution programmes.
The possibility of Grexit depended to a very large extent on the strength and resilience of local self-reproduction, as well as larger and smaller translocal trade networks and geopolitical agreements, from the trade of olive oil to the import of cheap petrol.
The politics of care and solidarity
Within the framework of collective management and mutual support, the politics of care and solidarity are key elements. Relations of interdependence come to be negotiated in a collective setting and can thus be politicized beyond patriarchal and paternalistic models. Social reproduction struggles provide alternative survival and care spaces to the traditional and biological family, and can create deep and lasting relations of trust and support.
The ways in which the people of the PAH are welcomed and practice mutual aid and counseling, for example, provide strong emotional support and friendship. The ways in which piquetero communities in Argentina accompanied their fight against the state with collective infrastructures such as community gardens, health centers and social spaces allowed for the creation of strong networks of support. Such networks, with their range of formal and informal relations, allow for the building of systems of care and kinship whose collective memory is also one of struggle for equality.
Struggles around social reproduction allow for a renegotiation around what is considered work, or what is valued as such.
Struggles around social reproduction allow for a renegotiation around what is considered work, or what is valued as such. When the wage becomes secondary in the face of self-organized infrastructures, reproductive and domestic work can come to be seen for what it is: crucial life-sustaining labor that runs across all domains. The social organization of work can come to be subverted via a growth of cooperativism, counteracting the individualizing pressures of entrepreneurship and building other pacts and cultures around the wage.
All these are forms of building power which go beyond the classical trade union movement’s limited perspective on wages and welfare as mediators of social reproduction. After its early-twentieth-century attempt to become a broad social movement with sports clubs, soup kitchens, choirs, housing provision, adult education, and so on, this movement became happy to merely organize waged workers and let the state care for the rest.
The politics of reproduction, on the other hand, proceeds through a broader form of social composition, which aims to build relations in many different domains of life. By bringing together individuals and breaking down narrow separated units of family and community, it builds those basic relations of conviviality, trust and common struggle that make up social forces.
The playing fields of social power
Building power is a process that articulates different social forces towards the capacity to intervene in a given dominant order. This means enacting decisions and creating effects at any relevant level (from blockading a road or eviction to blocking a law or trade agreement).
Power is the moment when an articulation of forces becomes performative, that is, capable of creating effects in a given context. As such it passes through struggles and the development of a series of “minor” powers: the power to decide, to articulate, to negotiate, to create effects, and so on.
Social reproduction is a strong factor in the question of building power, as a practical horizon concerned with the sustaining of relations, spaces, forms of organizing and institutions.
Social reproduction is a strong factor in the question of building power. Struggles in this sense can take different forms and exist across different playing fields—they can be to do with small care networks or communities, with housing or healthcare, with resources, spaces, infrastructures and also institutions.
Social reproduction is not a label but more of a practical horizon, in this sense, one that is concerned with the sustaining of relations, spaces, forms of organizing and institutions. This focus on instances that last through time and provide continuity, that build power, is not meant to suggest that campaigns, actions or projects are not important for fighting power and building movements.
Below, we share a diagram of social reproduction as divided according to pragmatic fields in order to evaluate the tactics and interplay of different forms of struggle within each field. This diagram should not be taken as a sociological map but rather as a tool that can be useful in orientating our thinking around building power.
We propose to visualize the basic terrain of social reproduction struggles as constituted by four overlapping fields:
- The non-organized social of informal relations: the extended family, friendships, informal communities, loose networks;
- The inhabiting social, where the organizing principle is space: neighborhoods, homes, social centers, assembly spaces, distribution points;
- The organized social, with protocols and formal divisions of work: unions, associations, institutions, clubs, cooperatives, organized networks;
- The representational, whose organizing principles are governance and mediation: institutions, welfare and legal systems, parties, the media.
If we were to visualize the relations between these domains in a diagram, they would look something like this:
The horizontal axis that runs across this diagram is formal (left) vs. informal (right) relations, while the vertical axis is embodied (bottom) vs. representational (top). Few initiatives sit exclusively in one domain or the other; rather, these are four tendencies in which specific initiatives partake to different extents.
According to the general political and social conjuncture, initiatives might veer more towards one or the other strategic terrain, or indeed breach out into all directions. Similarly, there may be few or many transversal connections across struggles in these fields, at different moments.
Let us first go into each domain and then analyze some broader principles of orientation.
1. The informal social:
This is the field of individuals and groups engaging in unstable, temporary and ad hoc relations. The power that lies in this domain is that of encounter and relation, of affective contagion and of forming networks. Encounters, social media and meme-like expressions allow for the creation of an empathic, contagious power starting from individuals that are not connected by organizational bonds and outside the sphere of established media.
The mobilizations of the post-2011 era are largely based in such compositional power, stemming from relatively spontaneous social media-based calls for mobilization that did not come from existing organizations and had no representational claims. The rejection of representation and the imminent claims for the elites to step down gathered masses of bodies in the streets and squares, eventually leading to the building of inhabiting power.
2. The inhabiting social:
This is where the politics of care, of feminist as well as family and community-building politics starts from, where “grassroots” or “radical” practices in the sense of being locally rooted are strongest; where there is work on terrain and space, in neighborhoods and workplaces.
This domain requires the creation of common spaces and times of conviviality and debate, and also a capacity to overcome the compartmentalization of populations into ethnic groups or of social activities into the political, and leisure or entertainment. This field involves struggles for land, housing, neighborhood organizing, squatting and food production, as well as the neighborhood assemblies that develop or demand forms of local self-determination.
Assemblies, camps and occupations created the space-times for social relations to deepen and take on an everyday dimension from which specific working and discussion groups emerged.
Continuing the story of the 2011 protests, we may say that they developed their relational power towards a powerful compositional power via the use of space. Assemblies, camps and occupations created the space-times for social relations to deepen and take on an everyday dimension from which specific working and discussion groups emerged. Those groups, incipient forms of organizational power, we may say, allowed for transversal relations between different actors to assume continuity on the ground.
Space is a crucial factor here, for enabling meetings and socializing as well as the production, storing and distribution of resources. It also becomes a common asset to care for and defend. The affective power of the imaginaries and slogans produced in these spaces then flowed back into the non-organized social, and became ways in which individuals, for instance, could signal their desires and indignation on social media, vastly strengthening the non-organized contagion of affects and ideas by shaping them from embodied experience, and transforming them from mere sentiments to statements explicitly referring to the material, collective power under construction in the squares.
However, the collective power constructed in the squares always threatened to dissipate into a cacophony, or to flounder under police pressure and the exhaustion of the participants.
3. The organized social:
This is where the capacity to mobilize and organize is channeled into the creation of systems of production, distribution and management of material as well as immaterial goods and symbols. It encompasses the institutional layer on the one hand, and the spatial layer on the other, as it draws strongly on sites.
Organization happens through the establishment of organized networks (like the PAH, the Genuino Clandestino food network or the Refugees Welcome web platform), or through the construction of formal organizations (like cooperatives or unions). In many cases, the building of formal organizations is a necessity to gain certain forms of legal and symbolic recognition as official interlocutors of institutions, and in order to increase the consistency and continuity of the social power that is being built.
In many cases, the building of formal organizations is a necessity to gain certain forms of legal and symbolic recognition, and in order to increase the consistency and continuity of the social power that is being built.
While the passage into organization can be necessary to give consistency and duration to a movement, it often negates some of its spontaneity and richness. Organizations starting in a context where few spatial, face-to-face connections have been made rarely become more than proselytizing gatherings of the already-convinced, or business-like representatives of the self-interest of their members.
Within the organized social, very specific protocols and demands come to be developed which can interpellate the state for change. By providing practical examples of alternative organization and incipient institutionality, this domain plays a powerful role in giving consistency, legitimacy and bargaining or mediatic power to social movements in matters of social reproduction.
If enough power is built on this level, alternative organizations come to appear highly plausible and can give way to claims on institutions and higher functions of management—thus this domain can be a stepping stone towards electoral processes. When this is based in grassroots social power that links the organizational to the inhabiting and relational domains, it can give way to profound transformations at the institutional level.
4. The represented social:
This is the playing field of capital-P politics and of representation, territory, media and parties. It is in dialogue with the organized social (unions and the like) as well as networks (think tanks, alliances). If such forms of politics develop from alternative organizations and institutions as built through social movements, they can operate through an understanding of the need for counter-hegemony, the electoral wing of a social power.
However, they can also turn on their constituencies, and the question of how to maintain the autonomy of the other levels is crucial, as well as the capacity for listening in relation to movements at the three other levels.
While the high stakes of power and the complexity that representational politics must face up to will tend to inhibit change, this does not mean that innovation in this domain is impossible.
This is the challenge currently faced by the municipal movements in Spain—one more easily approached via the territory of the city and its inherent links to the inhabiting social, as well as local organizations and networks—and by new parties such as SYRIZA and Podemos, or whatever might follow in their footsteps. It is a level often scorned for being inherently fraught by the radical left.
While it is true that the high stakes of power and the complexity of interfaces and interlocutors that representational politics must face up to will tend to inhibit change, this does not mean that innovation in this domain is impossible. The interplay between municipal, regional, national and international politics is something we are bound to learn much about in the coming months and years, as social power in different contexts builds towards this level.
Building power across different domains of struggle
While politics in these fields can be communitarian and exclusive, patriarchal, clientilist, and so on, we are interested in the ways in which they can form the basis for building and sustaining power and the collective capacity to resist.
The four domains stand in different relations of tension, as they stand for different modes of creating relations, and are linked to different resources and tactics.
Struggles around social reproduction can take place on all levels of this diagram: at the levels of self-production, self-supply and auto-reduction; at the levels of building organizations to defend interests and manage resources; at the level of building networks or alliances and developing forms of collaboration and communication; and at the level of contesting for representational power within institutions that can distribute social wealth from either the bottom up or the top down, and which command the socially legitimated use of violence.
The closer to the “ground” these struggles are, the more they have to deal with anti-repression campaigns and self-defense. The closer to the spheres of representation they are, the more they have to deal with mediatic attacks and seduction into the games of top-down power, and navigate the contradictions between the state as a workplace and provider of useful public goods, and the state as the monopoly of violence and caretaker of capitalist accumulation.
We have to understand these organizational-compositional tendencies as playing fields with their own strategic merits. The social is a field of forces wherein these tendencies push and pull, and the more intelligence movements build at multiple levels, the more likely it is that large-scale change can be sustained.
Of course the configuration and thus relevance of each domain for producing change varies in every local and historical context, and sometimes—for instance in situations of urgent self-defense—very one-sided organizing can be needed. But since social power is organized across all these fields, the abandonment (or dominance) of one field tends to limit the ability of the social power to resist.
Since social power is organized across different fields, the abandonment (or dominance) of one field tends to limit the ability of the social power to resist.
Further, single actors or strategies can be useful and powerful at given moments, but cannot hold together the tensions on different levels over a long time: society changes, so must its compositional strategies. While no meta-organization can hold these domains and their initiatives and dynamics together in homeostasis or harmony in the long run (the “revolutionary” ideal) we must learn to ask how this balance of forces can be sustained from within the social.
It appears to us that the current crisis opens a scenario wherein social power can be built in ways that encompass and articulate relational, habitational, organizational and institutional-representational power.
Strategizing is always situated. The question “what is to be done now” is often posed in an abstract sense, suggesting that we all need to rally around one strategy, and start from the same point of action. However, for strategy to be concrete, the group of people who strategize need to start from their concrete positions within networks, spaces, organizations and institutions, and ask what connections exist and what can be made, and what resources and capacities we have, and what can be built.
Situating initiatives and analyzing conjunctures
Most political groups, spaces, movements and organizations are focused on building one form of power, while they might draw on the tactics of others. Their strategic horizons might coincide, but the ways of composing relations, of building consistency, communication and coordination within these fields differ significantly.
Under what conditions and how does it become possible to establish transversal connections across the social? Of course, any answer must be situated as there is no general formula. We can however say that in the scenario of crisis, cracks appear across the dominant logics of all domains, opening spaces for new struggles and alliances. High capacity for dialogue is required in order to build social power through strong heterogeneity.
Under certain conditions—often to do with the absence of strong positions across the fields—single initiatives can also come to grow into the different domains, building a certain level of hegemony. In such scenarios of unitary struggle, where few organizations have or claim hegemony, the logics of sectarianism and leaderism tend to be strong.
The growth of multifaceted initiatives, however, is not mutually exclusive with a scenario of transversal power, nor does it necessarily hamper heterogeneous social power. The challenge for such initiatives is to find ways of coexisting with other struggles without absorbing or quenching them, to maintain high levels of internal and external heterogeneity and dialogue.
Some examples of mapping specific initiatives onto this diagram might look as follows (of course, their positionings change and are subject to debate—this is the purpose of such mapping):
Here, building power for us means reading situated and historical context in a way that allows us to understand the interplay of forces and the compositional strategies that can strengthen overall social power and resilience. It means valuing the potential of social reproduction to transform relations at different levels, and moving towards a transversality of struggles, overcoming isolationism as well as sectarianism.
This means adopting a somewhat more pragmatic, dialoguing and tactical approach that lets go of moralism, purism and identarianism. It does not imply getting rid of antagonism between actors in different fields or within one field. The question is rather how to make disagreements and contradictions productive, respecting the relative autonomy of struggles at different levels.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/building-power-crisis-social-reproduction/
Next Magazine article
Theses on a Unionism Beyond Capitalism
- Erik Forman
- December 9, 2015
Spaces for the Left
- Michael Hardt
- December 9, 2015