Reset: why strike works

So I’ve been to the doctor just now queuing for a longer period of time than I expected (for some minor issue), and I had a longed-for nice accidental nap on the train to University Station. I like how that length of trip from Hung Hom is one that’s long enough for a satisfying nap and for waking up one stop right before mine. I like it less when I am awake and I have to anticipate when I’ll have to get down, just to be 2,3, or 4 stops ahead.

An impatient personality it must be.

The point for writing this now is because I am a bit too exhausted mentally to start another task immediately, reviewing Chris’s paper on Localist Populism since 2014 Occupation Movement. Just between us, I do sometimes have a perception that the theoretical sharpness of his writing could be even stronger? Perhaps that’s the feeling I get from reviewing the last project proposal on Guangzhou & Chengdu compared on economic upgrading. Maybe that is because it is by nature water blowing when the data hasn’t been collected or analysed yet. Nevertheless I like his tone – gentle and humble, just like him in person – and I look forward to reading the paper as a way to start my reflection on the issue.

A more important reason for writing is because I realise this form of ‘wanting the task/ event/ podcast/ reading/ whatever to kick off my thinking on this issue’ really serves just that purpose – kicking it off, that’s it. Too much of that and my head’s being spun around. So I hope I can take a nice pause to reflect further on the article – essentially a summary of what Chris and Leung Po Lung have said in giving a talk on ‘Strikes in Hong Kong: Past and Present’ on I think around 6 September.

It was the time when I brought my father along (probably because he cares about me, and especially so at the time, and that he was free during that period). As usual I was super diligent in jotting down notes, and after a whole 1.5 month, I can still reconstruct a colossal 6000 Chinese characters (6 pages) of two articles on it, hopefully to be published on some (I was gonna say respectable, but is Mingpao still respectable given its shitty editorials?) media platform.

So yes. Writing the article in fact helped organising myself (see the blog address :)) a lot. A lot, can’t stress more. It helped resolving an almost 5-year question of mine: why the fuck are my friends around CUSP plus all that convinced of the political power of strikes? How is something that remote from our present lives (or my last 20 plus years for that matter) even possible? I must say that listening to a podcast on the recently ended UAW (United Autoworker’s Union I think. I hate acronyms when I don’t know what I mean and use it to puzzle others, as everybody else) Strike. I think listening to that, and also searching events that were mentioned in passing in the talk in order to write an article that the reader on the street picking up the paper or scrolling fb would understand – that helped me a lot to get into the scene of an actually happening, or happened strike. And that does help a lot in immersing oneself in the power of that strike, both politically and bit surprisingly morally.

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So on what have I been convinced? Yea I have that incredible feeling of finally feeling part of the joy and sadness from a monumental show of strength by a collective that seemed far from us (or I should say, usually hidden from our eyes in the workplaces, behind the scenes). I think the immediate striking point was at some point, I figured that taking strikes as the most powerful political tool to bring social changes make sense. And I know for Anna to think that way, she’s rooted. I still remember how my comment on Karl Marx’s Capital after reading it in 2016 was that it makes sense. The idea that it makes sense comes from many other things at the mainstream that I have been fed with not making sense – being superficial, being bland, being outright counter-intuitive, etc. Like liberal media commentaries, neoclassical economics for sure, even public governance things I remember from CUHK times. The language in those tings are clean, or passionate in a bureaucratic/ rigid way, idk. But the lens of political economy always help me to see things like 1000x clearer and more excitingly.

So why does striking make sense as a political tactic? I remember reading Julian’s blog regarding the bar benders’ (紮鐵工人) strike in 2007, where he put a line in red and it was something like: ‘when capitalists are making profit out of the labouring of labourers, what’s a better way to undercut their profit than having the labourers, their source of profit, to stop labouring?’ The idea to me is, what’s a more fundamental strike at someone’s profitmaking out of source X than to remove source X – more precisely, explicitly reject to be X, the dehumanised factor of production ‘labour’ or just ‘L’ in neoclassical economics and (more importantly) DI-the-fucking-RECTLY reject & challenge profitseeking practices that we have long condemned and they have long themselves experienced as dehumanising and painful, and DEMAND change in form of, well, direct demands that blackmails the long-time blackmailer to a CLEAR, unequivocal RESPONSE?

當你抗爭的對象是藉工人勞動從中取利的資本家,有甚麼比透過罷工截斷其利潤來源更具威脅,更能成為談判的籌碼?

紮鐵工潮旁觀記(一) , 心湖淬筆 http://mindtologos.blogspot.com/2007/08/blog-post.html

And in the above half-rant there lies a lot of different fertilizers that come fruitfully into this ‘this make sense’ declaration. First is of course, hundreds and thousands of news of how things just are BAD to HELL in our current human world that’s not entirely different from an Aristotlean slave society, in the sense of a bunch of smurfs run chores and do things that are too gross to be seen in the open light for us and live segregated, second-rate citizen lives. There are a lot. Sweatshops sound like a platitude once it has become a Liberal Studies topic, once you have flattened it into ‘a social issue’. But it’s not. Every pinky that’s gone from handling a machine, every extra 4+ hours of OT, it counts towards some human flesh just like yours or mine being crushed into a state of hopelessness and acceptance of reality as it is. (And Trump is a ‘reality’ TV show host. I now understand why the crowd would like a Joker than cut that kind of crap short for a punchline. *spoiler alert if you haven’t watched the excellent movie*).

The second is of course, the Marxian language I’ve acquired over time. So the idea that the source of surplus value (or in simpler but wrong technically term, profit) is socially necessary labour-time. So yea, I just have never thought of striking as reversing this logic but it fits like seamlessly: withhold the handing over of labour-time to your boss, and you get no surplus value and a destructed capitalist production logic that goes in a chain reaction. Think of chemistry as chain reaction between atoms (whatever). I always liked Marx’s analogy of the study of society to the study of evolutionary biology – it spreads, contagiates, just like that. Okay, I actually have heard of that multiple times: ‘we need to choke capitalist production at its choke points’. But I guess the way Julian put it makes its tie to the theory even more intimate: workers, as the source of surplus value, are the only ones that technically, morally, effectively and legitimate able to ask for what they should have by refusing to perform that function.

I guess the third and final ingredient in this chemical reaction in the brain that gets me the newfound conclusion is *ta-da!* reality. I don’t know what in the Vox podcast on UAW strike hit me, but maybe some background chanting? Maybe on how they fought this week-long struggle with each like US$250 per week, like a few thousand HKD to care for an entire family? The human and lesstidy fragments of reality that stem from that, like some of them really really want to give up and take the General Motors deal, even though it doesn’t respond to their core demand? (Yes they took it eventually) Like another untidy detail of Trump actually stubbornly being on the side of workers this time because of his stupid campaign promise to bring jobs back to America? (GM was trying to pull out of certain states in America and go to Mexico. Tbh, this is anti-property rights, but to be fair the honest and straight forward way to bring jobs back to America is not to attract businesses but to force production to stay in the US with hefty government fines? Why do capitalist firms have this free pass to make America worse over and over again? I don’t mean to support this, just mean this logically.)

Perhaps it has been in my training to see things in very tidy compartments, both as theories and case studies (empirical evidence to back the theories up). I guess you can say that’s my strongest ability (one of). But I realise the kind of stuff that I read that get me to identify as someone who is really glad that I’m able to see the world as it is with these lens (was gonna say ‘as leftwing’, but tbh I have a much more complicated pattern of thought than that kind of dichotomous categorisation on the political orientation plain – I think some other diameters include ‘feasibility’, ‘coherence’, etc.), is when I am reading some more personal account that show how the theory fails in very believable ways to portray the historical and practical effects of phenomenons that had been closely studied by the (left) intellectuals.

Say, cleaner actually don’t like the minimum wage because her boss almost immediately cut her hours, or that her social benefit claims become more troublesome because her earnings have exceeded some limits. They find it cumbersome to their normal conduction of lives. Or when a guy in Chengdu recounts how he witnessed all the paramilitary struggles against one another during the Cultural Revolution in the factory he worked for, but the strongest piece of memory was how he climbed to the next dormitory to get an electricity cable to connect to theirs, and almost fell onto the ground, when he and his pals needed the light to play Poker cards and mahjong. Natural because production was being stopped!

Or when Justin Trudeau actually took a picture with some high school students on his daily jog and then people questioned why was it taken by a professional photographer – realising that the prime minister is actually crafting his image to be a down-to-earth one by having a photographer around him during his outings.

These things just add the necessary dose of reality to me that makes the complicated effects and results coming from actions or policies in certain direction more believable and lubricates the theories that I’ve heard in the right way – make things messier than they are in a good way. In a way that makes me firmer in my beliefs (because they make even more sense, lol).

Yea, I think these are the kinds of things that make me like Guardian and Vox podcasts a lot. The light human touch. And the Oral History on Chengdu workers whose state-owned factory was going to be torn down soon. Each of them have a personality that shed very different angles of light on the same time period and they are the living testimonies of monstrous experiments and fortunes they had been through.

賈樟柯 《中國工人訪談錄──一個關於集體記憶的故事》

https://www.cp1897.com.hk/product_info.php?BookId=9789620764226

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So back to the article that I’ve been writing for Chris. The idea is roughly this: that Hongkongers had been very militant in strikes and social movements in the past since 1842. Militancy had been in the air right there in the Causeway Bay or Central that I am now walking in. So I took pride in coming up in the title 香港人的勇武史︰罷工的前世今生 , of course knowing how pointless it is to receive gratification by intellectually masturbating at my own ingeunity but still can’t help to get some adrenaline or whatever prompting a sense of achievement over coming up with something like this sort. The point is throughout the process of writing, I am convinced by the historical details that strikes had been possible (because they have happened), effective in forcing capitalist & governmental response, and popular because there had been mass mobilisation.

The last point I think is especially striking, because seeing Hong Kong now everyone are pretty dull and often thinks grimly about the possibility of actually being a meaningful collective that can fight for something meaningful in a powerful way. (Ok, maybe I am the only one thinking that way. I am not convinced by the kind of solidarity coming simply from being ‘yellow’ (pro-democracy).)

So there had been teachers’ strike and nurse’s strike in the 1970s. There had of course been general strikeS in 1920s – 1920 Strike by machine workers, 1922 Strike by sailors and 1925 Canton-Hong Kong General Strike involving Hong Kong workers returning to Canton as part of striking en masse. I am sure these are commonplace knowledge within the left circle, but first of all the nurse’s strike hasn’t been to me, secondly this is definitely not the case for the general public, and thirdly going into the details make them a lot realer and powerful. They were GENERAL or at least multiple-sector strikes – imagine neighbors in the whole district filled with a very natural sense of brotherhood and almost vulgar solidarity with workers from a sector who dared to speak up against the British, and very naturally stopped their own lines of production as if it’s just how things are. Stopped serving the French in restaurant or grocery stores when some ship repair workers refused to repair a French warship that just crushed Fujian in 1884. To be fair it’s pretty like how people from the neighbourhood go out and shout at the police together in the evenings recently – a kind of natural response as a human being to the suffering of fellows.

Communism mattered a lot at the time before it went very, very sour and rotten in China. That’s another story, one that I am surely very interested in pursuing later on.

Now I am a bit self-conscious of perhaps appearing to be ‘hypomanic’ because I write so much. So yes, partly I feel some excitement from being able to speak my mind, but no, no. I have always felt all these things during readings but just deadly unable to articulate these insights and intellectual strikes. Writing them help me to make sense of my own thoughts and why I have been and will remain that dedicated at least in principle to these ideas in the future. All these helps me to vent and understand myself better. Trust my judgment (ok hypomanic persons are sometimes said to lack self-insight. Let see what others think.)

And for those who have seen my personal writings before, these are a lot less obscure and inchoate right. At least I think so.

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Another related thought is that recently, I do feel like I need to walk the talk in some way. Like when I am savoring something $300+, in a very real sense that money can alternatively be spent a lot more effectively by another person in a worse situation – it’s a lifesaving amount of subsidy for others, at least potentially. So say with gym and yoga, the kind of things that I can clearly do myself (to some extent) at a very low cost at a high level of willpower. Why do I pay for quite petty bourgeois classes that cost a fortune? I am not changing my personal habits right away, but I am digesting the ‘market only recognise preferences backed by purchasing power’ point a bit in my life. Have had many nice meals outside and crave dinner at home, really.

Once again, I am not going to take my happiness right now for granted and think that everything is moving just the way I wanted – so I remembered, at the clinic just now when heading to the bathroom, that not so long ago I used to have this very nasty and uncomprehensible-today habit of walking into commercial buildings randomly, choosing a high-enough floor level, and go into the bathrooms or staircases finding out windows that are accessible enough. This is probably too much detail, but I want to say it. That was me, obsessively preoccupied, just a few months ago.

What would you think of me after knowing about this piece of me? As expected? Will you make it a blackspot that’s forever on your head when you think of me? Is it something gossip-worthy? I wonder, but I still want to say it. It’s a part of me that makes me who I am now, and making sense of what drove me into that level of dedication to my belief and subsequent devastation at the inability to achieve it, in the earlier part of this writing, is part of the healing.

Thanks for listening,

Anna x

Last Week Tonight: Xinjiang, Podcast, Economics & You-know-who

So it has been a pretty exhausting week for me. My friend recommended me to do an mood diary, but that’s not why I’m writing. I am writing because – the urge is to feed further contents into my head (Universal Pension book that I’ve borrowed, the talk record for Chris and related thinking on strikes in Hong Kong, etc.), the stamina is literally ‘please, I just want a rest’, and just like a cigarette, a moment to pause and let the flowing streams of thought clear themselves a bit seems to be the best thing to do. I’m glad I finally have a concept of the week-end, a working week ending.

‘And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.‘ Genesis 1.31, 2.2.

Both in my mentally drained (let say disastrous) times and high-functioning times, no. I never had a weekend.

So there has been several things that I really learnt over the last week. It’s nice to dwell on them a bit because they are quite perspective-shifting, for a stubborn Anna.

First of all I was immensely happy and had that extraordinary sense of achievement from completing Chris’ ppt for Xinjiang in essentially 2 days. I knew I was suppressing it and let it loose – allowed myself to dwell a bit further on the fact that I was being smart to be able to tie the whole repressive-regime narrative over the Xinjiang issue back to some very fundamental capitalistic exploitation-based issue – of Uighurs essentially being forced to labour for fast fashion sweatshops within the camps. I felt so smart about the title ‘Political Economy of Repression – Unpaid Prison Labour’. Then I asked myself a bit more on bed before I slept (as the thought excited me & triggered that internal reward mechanism really well, lol) – so what?

So what? There’s not much of an answer to it. So what? How does my being smart mean anything to the one million Uighurs detained and 14 million living with a nanny app in their cellphones and security checkpoints outside every park and shopping mall?

A second and intimately related issue is that I started listening to podcasts, and I heard about the Uighurs. Podcasts, or just a (force-fed) voice over your ears, give an extra layer of intimacy to things being said to you. Maybe that’s because I’m an audio-person (I like singing, choral singing, fascinating about being a news anchor or a voice actor, …). It’s like someone helping to ask the questions to have in mind (with Current Affairs 101-type introductory podcasts, e.g. Today in Focus by Guardian) and bringing you over to their worlds through a speech extract at times, or an interview extract, a surrounding’s crowd cheer – it makes you feel present, it’s more sci-fi than ever (imagine the kind of futuristic tele-transport machines) – it’s certainly better than video clips you watch within a Youtube frame alongside many other tabs reminding you of your busily-scheduled life.

It makes questions a lot harder to answer. Someone is there, using his or her bare body to confront a mass machine of annihilation – of hope, or of physical matter like his or her relatives for that matter. So, what now. What now?

In part at least from listening to Jacobin Radio, even the act of running the radio is part of the answer to the ‘what to do’ – propagate unpleasant facts and underheard opinions to the rest of the world (literally, when even Lebanese infants know ‘Baby Shark’, the Internationale isn’t that hard to realise materially. Capitalism does very solidly give us the centripedal forces to unite.)

So Uighurs – pronounced ‘wee-gurs’, another perk from listening to podcasts for an infrequent English speaker – in deep Western China. I must say I had a very selfish reaction to the issue at first, when I was doing my research into Xinjiang’s political economy. It supplies literally 1/4 of China’s oil and gas when China’s a net energy importer. It is the route to Central Asia and Middle East where further oil is located. I had a moment thinking, China’s not gonna let go of Xinjiang because of that, and I am glad because I, as part of the Chinese materially dependent on China for our energy (let’s put aside the issue of nationalism & identity politics for now), am securing an important source of oil for myself, the resource-scarce deep South. It is EXTREMELY selfish. I wonder if US citizens sometimes think this way as well when they see home troops stationing at oil routes and oil allies in the Middle East – they are securing OUR energy for US.

It is a thought that has to be denounced and I abhor myself for that little impulsive cheer… but how else? How else are we to live in a universe where we compete for scarce resources based on national economic and political power? What still is of Hong Kong (and China for that matter) if we are no longer physically powered? How do we do politics differently by you know, freely trading with another region for the resources they are naturally endowed with, respecting their claims over it and respecting their legitimate claim to political union? (Ok it sounds as easy as this to me now. China can still fucking TRADE FAIRLY with an East Turkistan, even putting aside the urgent need to develop renewable energies. So does the US 🙂 )

So this leads in quite smoothly to a third point. I’ve been rethinking on the issue of mainstream neoclassical economics – which starts from precisely the standpoint that human beings allocate scarce resources to the most efficient ends for the persons that need them the most, through competition via the market. My friend and I are now working on some debunking of all the myths based on faulty and ethically gross assumptions made by economists. (I said in the tutorial this morning while reading J. B. Foster with a student: Larry Summer, World Bank Chief in 1992, had a doctoral degree in economics, but not basic common sense of a 9 year-old. That’s my sister who said outright dumping pollution from MDCs to LDCs is ‘CRAZY’, while Larry Summers advocated it using sound economic arguments without a blink in the eye or remorse :D)

Foster, J. B. (1993). “Let them eat pollution”: capitalism and the world environment. Monthly Review, 44(8), 10-21. http://wjsmith.faculty.unlv.edu/smithtest/FOSTERletThemEatPol.pdf

I am immensely, immensely grateful for my friend to be weathering out of my personal dramas with me in part through this project. I used to, and still feel a lot a rage about economics after having these non-sensical concepts force-fed to myself by choosing to do an economics degree. For a group of people that I cared deeply about (in convoluted and eventually harmful ways). My friend helped me to start to see the importance of putting effort in communicating these rage to others, and ultimately to myself for the former to be able to take place – it is such a relief to know, I have been right all along, and I can be proud about myself, my insistence, and that rightness can be communicated for a purpose that’s far, far larger than completing a rant for my own intellectual comfort. A purpose that links back to the group of people whose comments I cared or still care deeply about, to all people suffering directly from these faulty and ethically gross logics, to even my mom, dad and sister because we can find ways to understand each other again, to bridge that gap, even gulf from my intellectual & academic advancement far far ahead of them for the time being.

For the contents we can probably wait till we get something out, hopefully soon 🙂 One thing I can say for now is that markets only recognise preferences BACK BY PURCHASING POWER, and therefore takes background inequality in endowment and distributed entirely for granted. Right now I am too exhausted to go back into the details because that’s intellectual hard work. It feels a hell lot better to be working hard of these arguments than the Oxford essays I used to write though, for sure.

Fourthly and also related is, my relationship with others. People’s comment which I still care deeply till now. People’s stronger friendships or relationships with somebody other than me which get me insecure more than jealous. (Jealous is not really the right word. Insecure is.)

So there’s a line that I’d try to remember for some time if not the rest of my life from a very dear friend of mine. When your relationship with a person does not turn out the way you hoped or wanted it to be, adjust instead of avoid. Hell and heaven know how many people I had, have been or still am avoiding because I could not cope with the way we fell out, or more precisely, how he or she fell out from my very fucking ideal imaginations, assumptions and expectations of him or her. Very frankly, that list includes myself and I tried to annihilate her. (me.)

I am a really emotionally inept person and I’m literally crying a bit now. But here comes another line from another very dear friend of mine: maybe I am adapting better to myself this way, being openly admissive of my strong, intense emotions from something, someone, over a pair of oversized golden sunglasses and Temple. It’s natural and physical that I miss someone dearly, want something dearly, and get emotional over not being able to get to what I want to be. I am learning to make peace with this side of myself that’s perhaps really the truer me. At times I feel like it would do me good to try actively think back on my psychological unbearable times – to remind myself that that’s where I came from and there’s no need to be overjoyed for that being gone. It’s never going to go because it deeply engraved in the present me and it’s an important part of me, and of course it could happen again.

I still haven’t got a decided view over the broader issue of mental health. Is psychiatry a good thing or something to be denounced as strongly as my group of (ex-)friends do? Is positivity-based self-support a good thing or something to be outright ignored? I still don’t know. I am pretty sure thatI am all too prone to an all or nothing attitude and the reality is probably if not always something in between. For now all I can say for sure is that, mental health services and awareness in whatever form (to be debated about what it should be precisely) have to be a hell lot more extensive than they are now. I can’t imagine not seeing a doctor for half a year because that’s how long queues are in the public system in emergency cases. (Later I realised that there are ‘urgency level’ ratings and sorting, which solves a big part of this issue. But still, we don’t want things to get there before it can be resolved earlier.)

Back to the group of friends I cared a lot about. I realise I feel quite uncomfortable with the way they express their care and move forward, as I now do see a contrast in my interactions with other friends. I used to be a lot stronger in tone in expressing my frustrations at interacting with them, but now this is a different and genuine feeling that I want to explore a bit. So they would take you as a case study to further understand the mentality of Hong Kong students/ early graduates to facilitate further organisation of this segment of the Hong Kong political forces. By doing that they are still directly caring about you because their success, or ‘improvement’ in milder terms in that struggle against the normal order of the globe, has been and/or still is our common goal. We never walk alone, but sometimes we have to walk alone. We’ll meet in a few years if we happen to still be working towards the same goals.

I think I was forced to accept this without being able to take it emotionally. To be very very fair, I did a lot to sabotage the relationship and I had some really strong reflections over that probably around a month ago, a realisation on how far I went to gain their constant approval just to feel secure about my relationship with them. I realise I also tend to write in terms of ‘how I have improved, am improving and will improve‘ when I am trying to reply to their emails, even recent ones – I HAVE to prove my worth to them.

So there is a new, genuine and profound sense of relief right now, that I am no longer in that circle. Even though I love them dearly, just hints back at that way of communicating with one another suffocate me – probably a hangman’s knot I tied for myself. The relevant piece of relic is still inside their house.

Perhaps it’s time for me to accept – this is and has been the better way forward for either party. I feel really happy and proud of myself for what I have achieved, however little, insignificant and unplanned, in the last month, with friends that paid a patience that I am forever grateful for to me, an unworthy person struggling to find her place in the world and relationship with the swirls of madness playing out every single second on the globe, by forces beyond our control right now but will be if we try very, very hard. (Yes I am referring to capitalism and political, economic maliciousness. Not God or anything of that sort.)

Writing feels really good and I am definitely going to write more!

Thank you all my friends, companions, colleagues and comrades I’ve met, who accompanied me and from whom have been learning in the last few weeks. Maybe even Guardian, Vox and Jacobin podcast makers. It feels surreal when I think back on my universe just a few months ago, really.

Anna x