Three Crises: 30’s-70’s-Today

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]

This is a story about a collective learning experiment at Mess Hall in Roger’s Park, Chicago. But it has to start with a question. Why launch a collaborative seminar to explore yesterday’s economic crises and grassroots social movements, when a new revolt – the Occupy movement – is unfolding today? Why work at the intersection of Past and Present streets? Everyone had their reasons, but here’s an anecdote from my side.

I lived in Paris for twenty years, and there I met a group of Italian Autonomist Marxists in exile. They did classic industrial organizing in the 1960’s. Though their “1968” started one year late, it kept on expanding until a nationwide insurrection broke out in 1979. Many Autonomists ended up in jail, falsely accused of encouraging Red Brigade terrorism. When they got out a few years later, society was entirely different. Neoliberalism had come to Italy.

One night I was walking down the street with Paolo Virno. He told me that after seeing their movements destroyed, the Autonomists wanted to strike back. They wanted to help launch a new round of social struggles. But to do it, he said, “we had to entirely change our theories, to fit the new society.”

In their view, automation and deindustrialization were the results of a “refusal of work,” an exodus from factory labor in the 1970’s. They saw this working-class refusal as the driving force behind the technological and organizational change that brought us the networked society. And they thought it was urgent to describe the job conditions of precarious labor. This kind of work was less about fabricating things and more about providing services, or “the cultural content of the commodity.” Post-Fordist labor was marked by less direct discipline and more by pervasive forms of social control, from policing to credit. Political organizing could no longer focus on the factory: it had to spread throughout society, across gender divides and color lines, and it had to include lots of room for self-organization by the people directly involved in each of the different struggles.

The Autonomists got good at telling this story, and it had a huge influence on European movements. The kids whose parents had lived through the age of the factory, but who themselves worked at McJobs in chainstores or in call centers, could understand better where they were coming from. They could connect temp labor to the new forms of just-in-time production, they could trace the shift from welfare to workfare, they could convince other people that universal health care or pollution control were also workers’ rights, because corporations no longer paid any benefits. Adjunct teachers, outsourced social workers, data-entry keypunchers all shared similar fates. The Autonomists helped young Europeans to realize that the dream of a job in cultural production was used to extract endless unpaid hours, and that the expensive mobile phone in their pocket was very convenient for the bosses. Most importantly, they showed that the tools used at work – not just the telephone and the Internet but all the techniques of organizing, coordination and communication – could be turned around and repurposed for social struggles. That helped fuel the counter-globalization movement at the turn of the century.

History becomes useful when it’s a story you can tell about your own experience. So we all got really good with this one. After telling it myself for quite some time, I started to think: “Wait a minute, it has taken us twenty or thirty years to understand things that happened during the economic crunch of the 1970’s. Now whole generations have grown up with the Internet and flexible labor. We understand the present but what’s next? If another collapse comes to town, shouldn’t we be ready to grasp the transformations while they’re actually happening?”

Then the housing crisis exploded in 2008. Clearly this was as big as the 1970’s, or even the 1930’s. Soon there would be huge shifts in society, but the only story in the newspapers was the Boston Tea Party! What should a radical theorist be doing?

Toward a Really Free University

Naturally, the folks at Mess Hall were already answering that question, with workshops, teach-ins, a free store and even an exhibition that invited community members to write the facts of the housing crisis directly on the walls. With the group’s support, Amy Partridge and I decided to organize a semester-long seminar for Fall 2011, to explore how American society had undergone decisive changes in the last two big economic crises and to get a better idea of exactly what’s happening today. I would work on the history of each crisis, focusing on the ways that people created political change through grassroots organizing and revolts, but also showing how their efforts were at least partially coopted and woven back into the fabric of an expanded capitalist order. At every session someone else would bring research that either deepened the historical study, or located its echoes and offshoots in the present. We would record everything, so if you missed a week or lived in another city, you could still take part. And we would put our written texts and source materials up on the website too, so that anyone who wanted to develop their own ideas would have a full thematic library.

The seminar brought together anywhere from fifteen to thirty people for four-hour meetings on Saturday afternoons, twice a month for a total of eight sessions. Rozalinda Borcila and Matthias Regan stepped in to help organize, and first Lora Lode, then Gretchen Hasse did sound recording and video. We brought food for lunch breaks and we could never leave at 5 o’clock, because everyone had too many questions and answers for each other. The group was full of old friends and new ones. What we wanted was to get people thinking about the process of change in complex societies, where political issues such as labor conditions and minority rights are inseparable from technological transformations, financial operations, political ideologies, international trade regimes, shake-ups in the monetary and military order – and also from from grassroots movements, new kinds of art, revolutionary vanguards at home and abroad, new ways of living in your body and speaking your mind. We wanted to try out a full-fledged experiment in self-organized education: maybe a pathway toward a really free university. For many of us who work or study at the not-so-free ones, this is about basic conditions of existence.

After our first meeting on September 17, 2011, we went back home and found out that Wall Street had been occupied. Pretty soon Chicago was too. Should we keep talking or go out in the streets?

Well, we did both. Often you can learn more from one day of a live social movement than you could from years in a library. For many who did not know how to express their aspirations for a just and egalitarian society, the Occupy movement changed the way the city feels beneath their feet. For others, engaged in long-term struggles, it has been a chance to work with new people and to speak out in the press and in public forums. But the age of upheaval in our society has only just begun, and the breadth of transformation will be like the 1970’s or even the 1930’s. Knowledge is important in a complex society. If we know what’s happening, we can intervene. Otherwise power will do it for us.

The past is full of inspiration, and news from other countries casts fresh light on everything. But connecting understanding to action is the urgent thing. When we take our analysis of global society and find exactly where it connects to our city, then we can work with people who are refusing and reversing the plans of the powerful. By actually changing the way the crisis unfolds, we can tell the revolutionary story of the twenty-first century. For these reasons, the seminar group started working on ways to participate in the events around the NATO summit in Chicago this May. And I think that’s just the beginning of the story.


The intersection of Past and Present streets is where you run into the Future.
To explore the crises of the 1930’s and the 1970’s and find out more about the one unfolding now, click on the tab that says “Three Crises” at


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