The Infinity of the Silent Strike

Jeanne Dunning, "Untitled Hole," 1992. Cibachrome mounted to Plexiglas and frame.We know from Burke that it is the noise of the crowd or throng which leads to the experience of the sublime. The cacophony of the many, gathered in their discharged state, draws us like a magnet. But the crowd in strike has a number of very different dynamics to our open, closed and occupation crowds. Let us begin with this question of the crowd’s noise. The brief spell of revolutionary Syndicalism in France between 1886 and 1914 provides a useful starting point for thinking about the function of noise and silence.1 Canetti begins this:

Within the actual strike it is essential that everyone should abide by the undertaking not to work. Spontaneously from within the crowd itself there springs up an organization with the functions of a state. It is fully conscious of the shortness of its life and has only a very small number of laws; but these are strictly kept. Pickets guard the entrances to the place where the strike started and the workplace itself is forbidden ground. The interdict on it lifts it out of its everyday triviality and endows it with a special dignity. In its emptiness and stillness it has something sacred. The fact that the strikers have taken over responsibility for it turns it into a common possession and, as such, it is protected and invested with a higher significance.2

The crowd appears at the picket, gathered by a simple refusal to work. While the absence at the heart of the refusal is filled with demands and determinations, these can never fill the fundamental lack. The ‘laws’ which Canetti tells us emerge, circle around the sanctity of this absence. The space of work becomes sacred, a cathedral emptied by the refusal of labour.

The dream is of the city of labour gradually falling silent, as the furnaces and machines are unmanned. The cacophony of labour is contrasted to the silence of the strike. In the early days of syndicalism, a simple picture was described.

The revolution would involve nothing more difficult than a national agreement to cease work on a particular day. The workers would declare a Grand National Holiday…. With one accord they would leave their factories, shops and fields, donning their Sunday best for a stroll along the boulevards or for a picnic en famille in the Bois de Boulogne. As the furnaces died out and the machines ground to a halt, the capitalists would at last realize that only labor was truly productive; faced with the manifest determination of their former employees not to serve them any longer, they would have no choice but to submit with the best grace possible. As paralysis spread, as press, transport and other services failed, the government would be faced with… isolation…; they would be forced to capitulate.3

The silence of the machines seem to fill the space, welling up to the brim of the factory, before spilling over. Strikes are catching, whether they are sympathetic or in solidarity, they are contagious. The silence flows from one site to the next, filling the city with the absence of din and the possibility of talk. The great pleasure of walking in the new Boulevards, the chirpy ‘grand holiday’ with one’s family clad in ‘respectable’ clothes – this is an everyday utopia of speaking with one another.

In this simple image of overthrow, the city in silence becomes a way of imagining the power of labour. Without it, even the politicians would be left giving orders to no one as their minions deserted them. However, the city’s silence is not the absence of noise. Silence, like withdrawal, is a much more complex phenomenon. ‘Rather than being that which thwarts language, silence is that which opens the way for language’s potency… speech is born from silence and seeks its conclusion in silence…. Silence then is required for the intelligibility both of what is said in discourse and of discourse itself as discourse.’4 The crowd falls silent before the fiery orator. In the silence of the workplace the voice of organisation, negotiation and argumentation emerges. Silence opens the possibility of re-humanising the workers. No longer machines, they recover life and language. But it is not simply a matter silence as the precursor to speech. Merleau-Ponty remarks that ‘we should be sensitive to the thread of silence from which the tissue of speech is woven’.5 Silence is not simply lack, but like lack it is something which we try to fill in.6 In a group, in conversation, in a crowd we need to fill silence, to break it and assuage our discomfort. The factory is never completely silent, it is filled with the faint cries of the picket or the echoes of the space itself. What is important for us here is the manner in which the shift of sound from the everyday order of din to the eeriness of the workplace-in-strike is a rupture. The work-place without work, tears the order of necessity. In the silence of a strike, life is imagined without the necessity of toil.

The early syndicalist image of the arms folded in withdrawal is soon overtaken by a second more noisy idea. The syndicalists saw that the system of capital would not simply roll over. The folded arms gives way to the dichotomy of the picket – Ridley remarks that the image of the Commune’s barricades in 1871 would still have been a relatively recent memory to those setting up the CGT in 1895. The picket, like the barricade, is a bordering practice. As such it is always in need of policing. The picket manifests the border between the profane world and the place made sacred by its worklessness (inoperativity). The crowd’s presence is manifested there beside but not in the place of business. The noise and presence at the picket is held in tension with the silence and absence in the space of work. However, it is the absence that holds the strike together. The crowd that gathers holds this other-place out as its talisman. It is well established that a strike that does not garner sufficient numbers to properly damage production is easily defeated. The strike can thus be measured in its hush, in its transposition of noise from one form to another – from the noise of labour to the din of voice.

The picket-border signifies a division, but like all borders it is not simply the divide between inside and outside. The picket is not in opposition to the place of labour. Rather the picket, in syndicalist thought, is the manifestation of the war of workers against the forces of capital. But we should listen carefully to Canetti’s diagnosis half a century later. Withdrawing from the workplace ‘lifts it out of its everyday triviality and endows it with a special dignity.’ This still and silent sacredness comes from the ‘fact that the strikers have taken over responsibility for it [thereby turning]… it into a common possession’.7 In the everyday course of activity, work is directed and commanded. In the ordinary course of business, the occupation (in the sense of labour) by the workers of the workplace is in fact a signification of the owner’s possession of the workers, his control and direction. Only by leaving the workplace together and thereby refusing the owner’s control, do the workers take possession of the workplace. This is occupation reversed.

One of the crucial insights of the syndicalists was to refuse theory. They defined themselves against the ‘scientific’ socialist who proffered a determinative account of history wherein the proletariat would come to power by force of historical necessity. Syndicalism understood that a new world would not just be born because capitalism was already impregnated with the seeds of socialism. In the absence of historical predetermination, they proffered the process of education. However, education was not the simple transfer of knowledge from an expert theoretician to the uneducated masses. This is why, aside perhaps from Sorel or de Man,8 in whom we still find a slight disdain and discomfort with the masses, there are few ‘theorists’ of this syndicalism. The syndicalists held that education came in the process itself. The strike was the manner of both shifting from capitalism to socialism or anarchism, but also the way to learn about this shift. Each strike, with its picketing crowd taking possession of the silent means of production, is thus the means and end of the process.

Unlike a normal strike, the general strike does not make specific demands. Each economic or political strike is tied to particular strategic gains: The workers want to rest for one or two days each week; They refuse to work after eight hours of labour; They want the suffrage to be extended to all men irrespective of the quantity of private property they own. Each strike is thus a noisy affair, wherein demands are addressed and refused. However, the general strike is silent. It makes no specific demand. It does not address itself to the system of capitalist exploitation, but rather stays quiet.

Parties, as a rule, define the reforms that they wish to bring about; but the general strike has a character of infinity, because it puts on one side all discussion of definite reforms and confronts men with a catastrophe. People who pride themselves on their practical wisdom are very much upset by such a conception, which puts forward no definite project of future social organization.9

The silence of the general strike is the opening of an ‘infinite’ demand. Sorel insists that ‘all that is best in the modern mind is derived from this ‘torment of the infinite’.’10 Infinity is something which must be grappled with at each moment. The general strike makes an infinite demand.11

The silent void at the heart of the general strike is a transposition of the sacralising silence of the workplace which has been taken into common possession. It is born from the realisation that each demand – which is nothing other than a symptom of the structure as a whole – may be met or negotiated away. A strike attached to particular demands simply enters the fray as a negotiating tactic, it becomes one among many ways of framing politico-economic rationality. However, a strike without demand aside from the utter refusal of the system of labour itself provides no point of traction. Sorel insists that we must consider the infinite absence of the general strike as a ‘catastrophe’. The general strike is not a rational plan for the shift from capitalism to socialism,12 but an eschatology. In his ‘Letter to Daniel Halvey’ which opens the Reflections on Violence, Sorel situates this in pessimism.‘The pessimist regards social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded, so that the system is given, as it were, in one block, and cannot disappear except in a catastrophe which involves the whole.’13 Pessimism for Sorel is a reflection upon the dire conditions and the possibilities presented in the immediate future.14 In a structure without cracks, eschatology – the study of the end of days – becomes a powerful way of generating immediate resistance.

But there is a certain romanticism in all of these reflections. The infinite silence at the heart of the strike is itself a reflection upon the romantic sublime. Burke tells us: ‘All general privations are great because they are terrible: Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence.’15 Infinity is itself a source of the sublime, for Burke. Even Sorel’s phrase the ‘torment of the infinite’ is a reflection of romantic ideas of being there before death in anguish. Later in 1911, Barré would use the phrase to discuss Chateaubriand’s 1802 novella René.16 However, we must be careful here. An easy association with romanticism is problematic. For one, syndicalism underlined the collective nature of power, rather than the lonely romantic hero standing sublimely out against the grey banality of the world. The flip side of this is that this entire discourse on strikes is marked by a thorough romanticisation. Sorel in particular was not a participant in the labour which he sought to analyse. Talking about the grey reality of strikes and labour in terms of silence and the sublime certainly seems to be out of place. The point, however, is not to engage in some sort of descriptive sociology of strikes, nor is it to somehow suggest their utility or otherwise at our current conjuncture. Rather I am pointing to a certain imagination of the city, of the crowd and of labour.

  1. Of course, revolutionary syndicalism can be variously traced to events of the French revolution or the various revolts in France and Spain and particularly the Paris Commune, but for the purposes here I will begin roughly from the ‘labor clubs’ (bourses du travail) created after the 1886 decriminalization of trade unions, and particularly with the intensification of these processes after the creation of the Confédération générale du travail(the CGT) in 1895. Importantly, I will also limit this section to the beginning of the first world war. At this point the question changes radically, and the milieu closes in the face of jingoistic nationalism and pacifistic internationalism. After the war, the Russian revolution had radically altered the political horizon, leading to a decimation of syndicalism as the radicals moved to ideas of communism and the party.
  2. Canetti, Crowds and Power, 57
  3. Ridley, Revolutionary Syndicalism in France, 148
  4. Dauenhauer, Silence, 119
  5. Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World, 46
  6. Cf Lacan
  7. Canetti, Crowds and Power, 57
  8. That is Henri de Man, Paul de Man’s uncle.
  9. Sorel, Reflection on Violence, 27 fn
  10. Sorel, Reflection on Violence, 27
  11. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding
  12. In this we can contrast de Man’s ‘plan-ist’ writings of the 1930s, which underline a rational process of moving from one form to the other, which some suggest are important in his later collaboration with the Nazi occupation of Belgium.
  13. Sorel, Reflection on Violence, 11
  14. Sorel argues that: ‘In primitive Christianity we find a fully developed and completely armed pessimism: man is condemned to slavery from his birth – Satan is the prince of the world – the Christian, already regenerate by baptism, can render himself capable of obtaining the resurrection of the body by means of the Eucharist; he awaits the glorious second coming of Christ, who will destroy the rule of Satan and call his comrades in the fight to the heavenly Jerusalem. The Christian life of that time was dominated by the necessity of membership in the holy army which was constantly exposed to the ambuscades set by the accomplices of Satan; this conception produced many heroic acts, engendered a courageous propaganda, and was the cause of considerable moral progress. The deliverance did not take place, but we know by innumerable testimonies from that time what great things the march towards deliverance can bring about.’ (Sorel 13)
  15. Burke, The Sublime and the Beautiful
  16. Barré, Symbollism (1911)