Making chains: forging the future

My partner Dave Muritu speaking at the Dudley Black Lives Matter demonstration in June 2020. The buggies behind him act as a reminder of the extent to which the “commonsing” of public spaces for radical, collective education was built out of the labour of resistance and care undertaken historically and through COVID by Black mothers and families in the home

So far the rhythmanalysis undertaken in these pilot blogs has considered the collapse of labour into the home, and the chasm between formal trade union organising work and the fight for visibility and recognition of domestic labour. Domestic labour is recognised as something which upholds the system unions fight to defend workers within. On this basis is possible to look forward to the emerging challenges for education activism in the wake of the pandemic.

It seems highly likely that while schools will see a return to “normal” as childcare is once again moved out of the home to return women to the paid workplace, post-education leaders will grasp the savings exposed through digitisation and be pushing more work online and consequentially into the domestic sphere in something already widely being hailed as the new “hybrid model”.

One key question then, is to what extent does a digital education system threaten collectivism: does solidarity need to be organic to be authentic or “lived”? How might the digital and domestic education system be a frontier for forging new sites of resistance, and to what extent may it be part of a growing focus on surveillance and discipline as key state functions in the education system? The education system is not in a bubble, and attacks on freedom to dissent have grown during the last decade, including the Prevent strategy in classrooms, notable victimisation of outspoken trade union activists, and in recent months the Conservative pledge to drive anti-racist and anti-capitalist teaching resources out of the classroom, campus protest clampdowns under the guise of protecting “free speech” as well as the wider threat of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill.  

Another key initial link for further exploration is the conflict of “chain-making” as resistance but also reproduction of the state. What are the parallels between trade union organising, educating and nurturing as processes of making connections of resistance or collectivism and love, when these connections are formed within restrictions set out by the state? What are the challenges of trying to build interconnections of resistance between these different spheres? How can rhythmanalysis support this as a method of doing as well as seeing?

The home has been primarily discussed at this point as the site of invisible domestic labour. However, this is only part of the story in how it sits in the struggle in relation to the state and education of the future. The home should also be seen as a place of resistance and through a lens which acknowledges capitalism as racist, a sanctuary at times from the state as well as the site of unpaid labour for the state. Rhythmanalysis which takes in education and the home under COVID must include in its scope the repetitive work done in homes in organising for the largest, radical and publically owned education events of lockdown: BLM demonstrations. Bhattacharyya et al (2021) identify the crucial role played historically and during the pandemic by the United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) campaign in organising and building these radical takeovers of education. Education on the street had its most prominent moment when the statue of the slaver Colston was torn down and thrown into the Bristol Channel.

My strongest memory of the demonstrations, which took place in Dudley, Stourbridge and Wolverhampton as well as Birmingham, was seeing my Black partner being able to talk to the four children we have between us about his experiences of being routinely targeted for violence by the police, most recently in 2019 only months before the pandemic. This took place in a space outside of the controls of the state, surrounded by solidarity and love which shaped this education for them. It was work done prior to and during the pandemic in homes, and in particular work done by Black mothers, which created these alternative education spaces on our streets.

As Federici (2020) notes, the welfare movement in the 1970s has been neglected as a site of academic interest or renewed organising by the left. The outsourcing of domestic and other reproductive work to allow middle class women access to professional work outside of the home has a class basis which is situated in global movement of labour with women being paid small amounts of money (the coordination of this being the responsibility of the middle class woman, rather than the state) to carry out work they will not be paid by the state to do in their own household. Some of the most radical emerging union activism is taking place in migrant domestic workers. Connected to this is the challenge around organising in the home, missing the physical connection of the factory floor. This was a challenge faced in the past by the chainmakers, and is heightened in the “future university” where organising workers will not share the immediacy of shared streets to “commons” with their fellow union members like the chainmakers did. Federici identifies that we should reject the pessimistic limits set by a model that only allows factory floor conditions for organising, rightly pointing out that this reproduces the structures of the state and limits our imagination to the boundaries set by capitalism. Nevertheless there is an interesting spatial-temporal dynamic in the history and geography of Black Country organising. This dynamic is identified by Barnsley (2011) in his discussion of the challenges facing the chainmakers. It is perhaps connected to the ongoing difficulty of getting collectivist “purchase” in our terrain: most recently, for example, the small scale of Corbyn rallies and university pickets compared to those in the old sites of large scale industry such as Liverpool or Newcastle. It can also perhaps be mapped to the relative ease of developing fear of the “other”, from the shadow of Powell (Hirsch, 2018) to the crashing Black Country election defeats of 2019 and most recently 2021 council elections). The Black Country industrial complex developed around shallow seam coal, with numerous small scale pits and lots of small scale industry, including hearth industry (chain but also nails, the historic industry of the village I grew up in). This points to the enduring challenges physical distance and a lack of organic togetherness create, an area for much thought and work as we face the challenges of “hybrid” colleges and universities.

Finally, two echoes from my family history are of interest to me in developing rhythmanalysis work around the relationship between domestic labour, education activism, and union organising. A first echo is my Mamgu, who left South Wales for London at the age of 16 in 1926 and worked for many years looking after others’ children. As a single mother, she worked full time and had a latchkey child, my mum. This pattern, a common story of that time, is a previous and smaller iteration of the current global class system in terms of how it relates to the home and use of low paid migrant workers to shelve the issue of domestic labour. A part of the pattern recurred in my own story for a year or so before the pandemic when I would leave my children at 7 and return at 7 to commute for work in Birmingham as a lone parent. A second historical figure with an interesting position in relation to education activism and the relationship between domestic and public spaces exists in my family history on my father’s side: my great great Aunt, Emily Thomas. Emily was a trade union activist who fought for equal pay for women teachers, who I know of from recollections and anecdotes in family history but who was, perhaps not surprisingly, a spinster aunt, present at the family table in memory but firmly situated in public life in her activism.  

It is my hope that these blogs will be initial links, extending into my developing research but also into a wider organising space.

References:

Barnsley, T. (2011). Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ strike of 1910. London: Bookmarks

Federici, S. (2020). Revolution at point zero: housework, reproduction and feminist struggle (2nd edition). Toronto: Between the Lines books.

Blogs in this pilot study sequence:

5 comments

  1. Pingback: Making and breaking chains: first link | 100 miles from the sea
  2. Pingback: Interrogating the domestic: COVID and the collapsed home | 100 miles from the sea
  3. Pingback: The home, class and education | 100 miles from the sea
  4. Pingback: Arrhythmia: breaking chains | 100 miles from the sea
  5. Pingback: Pandemic pinch point: invisible domestic labour | 100 miles from the sea

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