So, I’ve been using these few days off of work to indulge in some reading. Top of the pile was Ivor Southwood’s relatively new book Non-Stop Inertia, out on the Zer0 books imprint. Like many of these books it has emerged from a research trajectory Ivor has been pursuing over at the excellent Screened out (http://screened-out.blogspot.com/). The Zer0 imprint started really strong with Capitalist Realism by Mark Fischer (AKA K-Punk) and One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power, both great books with important points to make. However, recently Zer0 has perhaps strayed from their stated aims of producing
‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’
Recent publications dealing with Awkwardness, Class as portrayed in Cinema and modernist architecture perhaps stray from political rootedness and engagement but Southwood’s contribution to the series does not fall prey to this.
Southwood’s topic is the form which work takes in the 21rst century in the Global North. Beginning with his experiences and subtly incorporating post-autonomist theorists to support his claims, Southwood produces a bleak picture of the conditions in which many of us are forced to sell our labour power. Non-Stop Inertia serves as an excellent introduction to the key concepts needed to unpack our current political economy. Notions such as precarious labour, affective or emotional production and the privatisation of unemployment are introduced and explored throughout the text. Indeed, in the context of austerirty measures and predictions of a jobless recovery Southwood’s investigation of the privatisation and management of unemployment is particularly worrying. The book is littered with personal observations and a succession of stimulating yet also challenging ideas.
Southwood deals with a complex and oft tricky topic and simultaneously avoids the dangers of over-simplification (i.e. we all face precarious work in the same way) and hyper-specificity (i.e. there are no universal labour conditions that we can analyse). What emerges is a timely analysis of work in the Global North. It is surprising that this is one of the only notable introductions to precarious theories that I can think of. One can only assume that this stems from a reluctance from much of the non-union/workerist orientated Left to deal with the new conditions of work. Given the context Southwood’s book is an even more important read.
Perhaps the only weakness of the text comes towards the end when Southwood turns towards discussing possible means of resistance. His argument centres around the concept of ‘campness’ of over-exaggerated seriousness and the micro-tactics of individual resistance. Whilst this is no doubt important I am unconvinced that this is enough to challenge the hyper-flexibility of 21rst century capital accumulation. Southwood himself recognises that his suggestions are not likely to yield revolutionary results but (quite rightly I think) are strategies for attempting to limit the alienation felt in the immaterial factories of the UK today. The lack of serious antagonistic strategies, in many ways, highlights the conspicuous silence of those on the Left orientated around workplace struggles and the limited thought put into re-orientating workplace struggle in a period of precarity and austerity. Discussions around strategies for dealing with precarity, however difficult they are right now, are likely to prove useful as resistance to the cuts and austerity broadens beyond set-piece street battles.
Given the oft daunting task of wading through post-autonomist and political economic theory (e.g. The New Spirit of Capitalism) Southwood’s book is a welcome jump off point and a real success for Zer0 books. It delivers an accessible, challenging and altogether human analysis of labour conditions in the Global North and is an important contribution to a discussion much needed within the Left at large.