The intersection between labor and environmental struggles can be constructed not least from the experience of suffering of the global working class. Why? How proletarian suffering is made natural in capitalism goes hand in hand with how the excessive exploitation of labor and nature is normalized. Thus, in the great ecological-economic crisis of our time, the working class can only advance to become a plausible and effective social force if we effectively tackle proletarian suffering, as Slave Cubela argues in his contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” advocating a communism of the body.
A real gift is painful because it means giving away something that you would have liked to keep. Genuine realization is similar: it hurts too, as reading Wolfgang Hien’s “The Work of the Body” clearly showed me some time ago. Finally, after reading this book, I had to admit to myself as a labor activist that I had been guilty of a huge ignorance, despite a decades-long preoccupation with workers and working classes. For it was Hien’s impressive study of the wounds inflicted by the labor process throughout the 20th century in Germany and Austria that first brought home to me the immense role that labor suffering had played and has been playing in two industrialized countries.
Just as important as this embarrassing admission were the follow-up questions I asked myself, above all: If Hien’s book pointed out the extent to which workers are not only shaped as subjects in the labor process, but also battered, did these deforming imprints possibly have far-reaching social consequences? Did workers shake off these experiences in their struggles and offer a kind of “unconditional” resistance? Or did work suffering have an effect on social resistance, not least because it exhausted and demoralized these people?
War of Production
While these questions were on my mind, I began to collect more and more reports about work suffering in our present. Example one: in 2016, WHO and ILO estimated that work-related illnesses and injuries killed nearly 1.9 million globally. By comparison, nearly 9 million soldiers died in the four years of the First World War. If we think about this comparison further, the question arises: Is a hidden war of production raging in the capitalist world of work in the 21st century, with similar losses among “work soldiers” extrapolated over four years?
Example two: Just how painful the neoliberal wave of work suffering must be can be seen in two disturbing phenomena: workplace suicide as well as workplace rampage. While workplace suicides have been reported from many countries for years, the phenomenon of workplace-related rampage, which is especially prevalent in the United States, is largely ignored publicly. Yet it is so widespread that it has become a figure of speech with “Goin’ Postal” following a spate of postal worker rampages in post offices beginning in the late 1980s.
Example three: The highly representative employee survey conducted by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health takes place every six years. If we take a look at the 2018 survey, it seems that subjectively the German working world was in excellent shape before the Corona crisis. Indeed, 90.7% of respondents are either satisfied or even very satisfied with their work overall. Just in response to the question: “Please tell me whether you have experienced the following health complaints during the last 12 months at work or on working days. We are interested in the complaints that occurred frequently,” the results are as follows: 49.5% complain of frequent pain in the neck and shoulder area, 47.8% frequently experience general fatigue, tiredness or exhaustion, 46.2% frequently have lower back pain as well as low back pain, 35.5% are frequently plagued by physical exhaustion, 33.6% by headaches, 29.5% by nighttime sleep disturbances and 25.9% by emotional exhaustion.
In short: If one follows the workers’ consciousness in Germany, then we do not have a ‘work suffering epidemic.’ But if one trusts the more incorruptible human body of the same workers, then the opposite is the case.
In order to contextualize these reports, all of which date from the pre-Corona period, and place them in a bigger picture, two indications should suffice. First, the COVID-19 pandemic related health, economic, and social crises worsened conditions in the world of work, as evidenced by the flight from work that spread during the pandemic, not only in the U.S. as evidenced by the “Great Resignation,” but even in China. Second, as distressing as these reports alone are, we are talking here predominantly about the labor world of the transatlantic colonial states. The labor fate of the global proletariat in the Global South, especially in the vast informal sector, about which one can learn much from Harsha Walia, Mike Davis or Jan Breman, is clearly worse.
The concept of industrial suffering work
One can now easily imagine that these and many similar reports did not allow the questions outlined at the beginning to come to rest. The result of my considerations is the concept of industrial work suffering, which I would outline as follows.
First, if Hien’s book emphasizes the importance of the labor process for the lives of workers, the concept of industrial suffering places this labor process at the center of his historical reflections. This may seem trivial, because after all it is common knowledge that “work is half of life.” However, as the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel remarked, just because something is known, it does not mean that it is recognized, and this also applies to human labor. For despite the vast amount of literature on work, where are those publications that, for example, explore the extent to which the neoliberal labor process is relatedtophenomena such as the historical rise of right-wing populism or the social repression of the ecology problem?
Second, if the labor process makes history, then the concept of industrial suffering claims that it does so primarily by shaping people. And this means above all: if workers have to live through suffering in their working lives, the concept of industrial suffering work assumes that this experience of suffering is decisive in shaping the subjectivity of workers. This is not to claim that this suffering affects all workers equally, for the very fact that they are individuals, and hence have different levels of resilience. So let’s consider the following: The capitalist production process as a process of exploitation tends toalways try to squeeze out a maximum of labor power for as little labor wages as possible. It follows that work suffering has the social epidemic dimension that we have already touched upon above. Even more: labor suffering becomes a historically relevant factor, because it shapes masses of subjects.
Third, the philosopher Karl Marx emphasized that it is important to see workers not only as passive beings at the mercy of their misery. The concept of industrial suffering work takes up this reference by considering labor suffering as a process in which workers are just as active as their so-called employers. In order to emphasize that workers remain subjects in their wage labor and the suffering they experience in it, I speak of industrial suffering labor, i.e. every labor subject makes independent experiences of suffering by constantly creating forms of dealing with this suffering, i.e. by psychodynamically “working” with and through suffering. This work with and through suffering can be very different: Conversations among colleagues, situational escapes in everyday work, anonymous acts of sabotage, spontaneous work stoppages, trade union activities, etc.
Fourth, the concept of industrial suffering work assumes that there is no work without linguistic attributions of meaning, i.e., a work-language nexus establishes itself in every human society. This nexus is of crucial importance. On the one hand, it stabilizes dominant relations of production by “explaining” to workers why they have to work the way they do. As long as workers remain trapped in the dominant labor-language nexus and thus uncritically internalize its concepts and narratives, they will hardly resist, but rather perceive their work suffering primarily as their individual failure. However, industrial suffering can turn against the dominant labor-language nexus.
In small conversations, workers manage to show empathy with each other and to encourage each other. In the process, these conversations become more intense and workers begin to directly challenge the dominant labor-language nexus. Emerging social crises can further fuel and, most importantly, generalize these subversive speech acts. In acts of self-enlightenment, groups of workers may begin to formulate alternative ascriptions of meaning for their social position. And the more continuity these speech acts have and the more successfully workers articulate their resistance with them, the more clearly they appear historically as autonomous, social actors.
For a communism of the body
It would now go too far here to elaborate all the implications of this concept. But one of the main results of my book on the subject, in which I develop the concept of industrial suffering work in detail, is to point out that one of the great defeats of the left in the 20th century took place almost unnoticed in the scientific factory established by Taylor and Ford. To put it more precisely: although the left gained widespread influence in many societies especially after 1945, it had already subjugated itself to the technocratic logic of incessant development of productive forces in the factories after the First World War. This subjugation, which characterized almost all leftist currents, systematically suppressed the industrial suffering work, i.e. the workers’ seizure of words, so that the workers gradually took note of the fact that their struggle organizations did not seek any fundamental change in the core area of the workers’ life, the everyday labor process, and thus only differed rhetorically from many bourgeois actors. After a last, futile attempt in the 1970s to bring about a “humanization of labor,” the onslaught of “authoritarian liberalism” (Chamayou) silenced the workers – but did not dissolve their resistance.
This particular defeat of the left in the factory, however, is not yesterday’s story; it has lasting consequences. Because: if people silently accept the over-exploitation of the immediate nature of their own bodies and their own health and consider it unchangeable, fighting only for better wages but not for fundamental change of production relations, why should they commit themselves against the over-exploitation of the nature surrounding them and all of us? But this also means: If the left succeeded in breaking up this unspeakable suffering in the world of work and in turning against the conditions through new word-grabbing practices, then the chances of constructing links between labor struggles with environmental struggles would increase. To put it pointedly: we need a communism of the body.
Such a communism entails the end of the blind (self-) exploitation history of human and non-human natural resources, that is, as a bodily balance between humans and nature. This communism would seek to win the workers for the struggle against the ecological tipping points by taking up with them the struggle against the tipping points of labor suffering. Following the experience of workers’ medicine in Italy, this communism would know that the workers’ struggle for a healthy work and work environment facilitates the production of a general environmental consciousness among the workers.
In this communism, the vernacular workers’ organizations are losing ground in favor of a mix of workers’ councils and solidarity clinics. Similar to the health center movement, communal points of contact and coordination would be less concerned with curing disease and more concerned with the sustainable production of health. Last but not least, these communal centers would be important places where the organization of collective resistance against disease-causing relations of domination and nature would take place – medicine understood as collective empowerment, so to speak.
The left would no longer have to measure the success of its efforts in terms of economic indicators, but would be able to assess its successes on the basis of social epidemiology statistics in addition to ecological measurements – for example, whether there is an upward equalization of life spans within the social classes. Thus, in this communism of the body, radical democracy would not be merely a matter of deliberative processes. Rather, radical democracy could come to bear in the humane work of as many people as possible as a daily, sensory experience of decommodified labor processes of production and reproduction.
Note by the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de