Dig Where You Stand

April 11, 2024

I wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian on Amazon’s “cashier-free” grocery stores, AI, outsourcing and military technology. You can read it at the Guardian’s website, but the bit I’d like to focus on is this:

The national minimum wage in the UK is £11.44. A small grocery store like the Amazon Fresh shops might have half a dozen staff. Assuming all of them were on full wage (unlikely) and all of them were on the lowest wage (ie not managers), the average individual salary would be about £20k and the annual wage bill would be about £130k. When this work is outsourced via video cameras, it is passed to data labellers. Amazon’s remote data labellers might be paid one or two pounds an hour, if they are lucky. If you can replace half a dozen UK staff with half a dozen data labellers in India, Kenya or the Philippines, then the difference in the annual staff bill alone could be almost £100,000 a year.

Jeff Bezos is the second-wealthiest person in the world, worth about $205bn (£163bn). That money doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t drop out of a pier-end slot machine called, “I learned to code at Princeton and that’s why I’m better than you”. It is the result of deliberately hiding actual work – designing, making, sorting, packing, cooking, farming, delivering – behind little icons on your smartphone screen, in order to devalue it. It is the systematic use of the fake robot trick to lower the value of labour, until people are reportedly sleeping in tents at the factory gates, then banking the difference.

The size of Bezos’s rocket is very precisely determined by the difference in costs between paying a worker in Britain and a worker in India – including all the historically determined racist and colonialist inequality that calculation involves. But make no mistake – Bezos and his ilk will pay a robot even less, as soon as that’s possible. The only lesson of Amazon Fresh is that we are not – quite – there yet.

The thing that I’m doing here – looking at the precise cost saving of outsourcing labour through technology, and pointing out that this is actually a form of wage theft which accumulates to the capital of the company doing it – was directly inspired by one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in some time.

That book is Sven Lindqvist’s Dig Where You Stand. I expect I’ll be writing a lot about it in my next book, but – not least because I’m really interested in discussing it with anyone else who’s read it – some notes…

I’ve been a huge admirer of Lindqvist for some time. Saharan Journey, Exterminate All the Brutes (which you might know from its HBO series adaptation by Raoul Peck, which I also highly recommend), and A History of Bombing are all unique texts, blending visceral, passionate reportage with high literary technique. I quote on a regular basis his line from Exterminate… which for me encapsulates the problem of knowledge and action in an era of over-whelming information: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

Dig Where You Stand was published in Swedish in 1978, and started a whole movement in Scandinavia and elsewhere. I’ve been telling people that it’s simultaneously the most boring and the most fascinating book I’ve ever read. The first part is because it’s largely a book about the Swedish concrete industry: its history, its structures, its employees and management, its role in society. But it is very much more than that. It’s a practical handbook for workers in any industry to excavate and relate the history of their own labour, and thus to better frame their present working conditions and industrial relations. And it’s much more than that too: by meticulously researching the history of worker’s lives, even as they are scarcely recorded in the official archives, Lindqvist shows how power, over time, appropriates the value of labour, and makes this – yes – concrete.

One chapter, for example, details the official holiday allowances of workers in a factory in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, as well as the unpaid seasonal layoffs which preceded this period. Then he shares excerpts from the diaries of the factory’s owner: their yacht trips, trips abroad, long weekends at their country house. Each moment of the owner’s leisure revealed as time stolen, directly, from the lives of his employees, who can neither afford, not have time for, such pleasures. Another chapter performs a similar analysis on worker’s housing, another on healthcare, and so on. A chapter on asbestos is particularly devastating: Lindqvist shows how deliberate cost-saving measures by management in the first half of the twentieth century manifest as both cancers in the lungs of workers later in life, and as actual capital in the accounts of the company.

“Thus history lives on in living people’s bodies. It lurks there and finally it kills. When the dead body is opened up, history can be found in the shape of silvery fibres – the last remnants of the air people breathed in the factories and workers’ homes of the 1910s and 20s.” [p. 115]

“For each year that Skånska Cement managed to avoid installing an electrostatic filter, the company could save some money at the expense of the workers and and the local population. This money has not disappeared. It is still there and today forms part of the capital of Industri AB Euroc.” [p. 122]

Lindqvist didn’t invent dialectical materialism. What he does in Dig… is critically twofold: he puts it to work, and he shows you how to do it. The book is a handbook, and includes boxed texts in every chapter showing you how to go and find this information yourself, where to find it – and how to ask questions of it. The result is more than information; it is agency.

Finally, Lindqvist points to a couple of examples of where workers have become involved in their work politically and culturally. He insists on the value of workers knowledge (in a chapter which compares the official Swedish dictionary with worker’s terms for their own tools, he writes: “you have knowledge that science has not” [p. 207]). And he writes particularly movingly of the work of retired engineers Tony Cundick, Ivan Fear, and Ron Plaster, who saved and restored the five huge steam engines at the Kew Bridge Pumping station:

“To me the steam engine is a time machine,” says Ron Plaster. “When I work on one of them, I feel it’s a way to enter history, knock off the rust, take it to pieces, clean it, polish it, oil it and start again. You can sense the odor of history, you hear it hissing and puffing when the steam is admitted. You can feel history tremble under the pressure, see it start slowly and begin to move, you see how history works — that’s what’s so fantastic.” [p. 240]

“To reconstruct an old text — that’s research” writes Lindqvist. ” To restore old murals in a church — that’s culture. But to get one of the largest and oldest steam engines of the world to move again, after having been in the scrap-yard for thirty years — what is that?” [p. 241]

One of the most interesting things about Lindqvist’s book is its legacy. In Scandinavia, it gave shape (and a name) to the emerging Dig Where You Stand movement, which saw tens of thousands of ordinary people (who Lindqvist termed “barefoot researchers”) join study groups and excavate their own histories and social conditions. In Germany, it helped inspire the widespread History Movement which advocated active popular engagement with the country’s recent past. Among many other things, the History Movement led to the literal digging up, by amateur archaeologists, of the rubble-strewn former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin: an action which in turn led to the preservation of the site, which is now the Topography of Terror museum.

Although it wasn’t published in English until 2023, unofficial translations circulated in Britain from the 1970s, including as part of the curriculum of the History Workshop, Raphael Samuel’s seminars at Ruskin College which also led to a broad history-from-below movement. I’m currently reading Workshop of the World, Verso’s recent edition of Samuel’s essays, which is leading me to all sorts of interesting places, like the Pleb’s League, a worker’s self-education collective founded in the mining communities of South Wales. In the 1920s the League collectively published a series of textbooks on subjects such as psychology, finance, and imperialism. I’m looking forward to going to the Marx Memorial Library to read them.

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