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May Day for Emergent Service Workers: a protest against ourselves

This May Day, Space Hijackers set up camp outside Google's London HQ. Part-pagan, part-protest against the struggles of digital labour, this was a "political party - but the good kind".

Out from the cities haste away

This is earth’s great holiday:

Who can labour while the hours

In with songs are bringing May

(1866)

 

They sing of the merry springtide

Which is sweet to them indeed

These wealthy whom we are clothing

whose little ones we feed

But to us the sun is a furnace

The spring but a burning cauldron

And life but a prison cell

(1925)

 

The people, unplugged, will never be deleted!

(2013)

 

What to make of May Day? A festival has been held at this time of year for as long as records exist - before the Roman calendar date '1 May'. In England, the whole 'merrie monthe' was once associated with communal celebrations, games, fairs, feasts, music, sports and dancing. The root cause was simple: the poor lacked large buildings, so warmer weather was needed for mass festivities. It was a convenient time for frolicking, between the heavy work of ploughing and that of making hay, and only became known as a ‘Workers Day’ in the late nineteenth century, with the American Labor Movement and the struggle for a shorter working week. 

Fast-forward to 21st century England, era of the historical mash-up. How to take this day, mine its rich wealth of history, and make it our own? Anti-capitalist veteran troublemakers the Space Hijackers had a punt at this yesterday, with a very modern May Day. Here was the open-air dancing, the booze, the jousting, the drumming of yester-year. But instead of a clearing in the woods, festooned with spring flowers, they chose the Central St Giles Google HQ and a May Pole tangled not with ribbons, but with cable wires.

Putting the public courtyard to good use

Having obtained the secret location from the ‘party line’ phone number, released at 5.45, I arrived at 6pm to find a motley handful of revelers in the public courtyard of the £140million development, just off Tottenham Court Rd. “Google is our god!” they shouted (when not singing to Lady Gaga pumping from the portable player) and “The people, unplugged, will never be deleted!”  Was this some kind of Worldwide Web Wicker Man? Were we going to burn an effigy of CEO Larry Page? 

One of the facilitators, Agent Greenman, explained the party’s logic (if there can be such a thing): "We looked back at May Day and the labour movement, the demand for the eight hour day, and we realised, we don't have any of that now.

Robin Goodfellow (another code name) agreed, "It's the 24-hour on-call ethos. I'm supposed to do a 40 hour week. I do more like 50 to 60 hours."

It was not, they said, that they were against the internet or anti-Google.

"We're protesting against ourselves,” said Greenman. “It's us who never stop checking our emails." 

After this mini-epiphany, he has deleted his work email from his phone.

Not exactly up there with the country-wide hunger marches of 1930, or the anti-capitalist May Day acid parties of the ‘90s. But ‘switching off’ is the ultimate rebellion for immaterial workers like the ‘Agents’ and myself, living off our intellectual labour. The festivities marked the establishment by the Hijackers of the Emergent Service Workers Party, borrowed from a term used in the recent Great British Class Survey. I discovered last week that I belonged to this class, so I’m happy that I now have a suitably tongue-in-cheek flag to wave. To quote from the survey: “This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of 'emerging' cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.” The internet is arguably essential to ‘my’ class, just as home-owning is to the established middle-classes. How else could my friends work their part-time, temporary service jobs, and run pop-up galleries, host blogs and write music in what they once thought of as their leisure time? If I could not have worked remotely, on my personal laptop and mobile, I would have struggled to manage in my role at openDemocracy. As the digital generation (the average age of this class is 34) we have flexibility, autonomy and the possibilities of perpetual productivity on our side. But the web is also an enabler of precarious employment relations, and the bleeding of ‘working’ hours into ‘life’.

Dancing around the Maypole, a heathen dedication to an idol

Jousting is a traditional May Day past-time. Here with computer keyboards.

“May Day was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. Whatever else it was, it was not a time to work.” Peter Linebaugh, radical historian,1999. 

Before getting out of bed on May Day morning, I had already checked my work inbox on my phone, I had googled and discovered the party, was tweeted asking if I could blog it (also sent to my Co-Editor in Italy) and found the location through Google Maps, all on my Android Phone. The Hijackers had planned to bring a phone-blocker, which had not arrived. I wish it had. What better parallel to the refusal historically enacted on May Day, the ecstatic exodus to the forests, there to escape the order inscribed by civilization and with it the tyranny of labour. In all the May Day traditions there is this element of play, which is at once a refusal and subversion of convention. From the Middle Ages to the Puritan crack-down, the crowning of a pauper king was popular, often ennobled with the title ‘Lord of Misrule’.  He often had a wild mock-marriage to a May Queen in the forests – during the 17th century milkmaids were particularly favoured. Around this marriage (two fingers up to religious and civil officialdom) was an assertion of humanity, fellowship and liberated lust, away from both the drudgery of labour and the actual workplaces of the city. Turning off the signal, disconnecting us, would have cast us all into the wilds. You might say we would have been fleeing ourselves. As an NBC Universal employee told me, having wandered out from her offices for a fag, “We don’t work to live, we live to work. Yes, the google people, but we’re like that in the media too. Workslaves, by choice.”

In the global context, all this could seem a little silly - immaterial, you might say. International Workers Day had sparked ferment across the globe. In Bangladesh, workers had hit the streets demanding safer conditions after a garment factory building collapsed last week, killing more than four hundred. There were anti-austerity demos across Europe, a 24-hour strike in Greece, thousands marching up the central Gran Via in Madrid, and Molotov cocktails thrown at police lines at a major demo in Istanbul. So what was our grievance? Where were our demands?

You can find some on the eSWP site, namely:

“Demand that the corporate internet is shut down at 6pm!

Unplug corporate gmail, spam filter that shite till the morning!

While we're at it, demand that google pay some bloody tax too!”

But there would be a riot if a state ban was imposed on working after 6pm – it might even get physical. In fact, yesterday was not about demands. More than a part of the labour movement, this was a Pagan rite for the 21st century Western worker. The ambivalence we feel towards the thinning of the fabric between our increasingly conceptual, ideas-based work and our lives is best translated into play. For a frivolous moment, I saw my life under the hegemony of the internet celebrated and turned upside down. Mostly, it was fun. Cheering on a jousting match with computer keyboards as weapons, I rejoiced in the boisterous thwack of metal against metal.

O the month of May, the merry month of May / So frolic, so gay!” 

About the author

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and fiction writer. She is lead editor of OurBeeb, and Commissioning Editor for 50.50. She lives in Athens, and is also writing a novel. 

 


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