The term ‘cost of living crisis’ has been used so often in the last year, it has begun to feel devoid of any meaning. First rent, then fuel, and now food is the next necessity with an eye-wateringly high price tag. One need only go to the shop and be charged a tenner for two chicken breasts and a block of butter, or any other banal combination of basics, to be reminded of the fundamental assault on our standard of living the current crisis poses.

As of March 2023, the ONS reported that food inflation in Britain now stands at 19.2% — its highest rate since the financial crisis of 1977 (21.9%), with even sharper price hikes seen in olive oil, cheese, bread and cereals. As of May 1 2023, it is reported that over half of adults in Britain are buying less food than they usually would.1

While the explanations given for such dramatic increases often fall at the feet of the Ukraine war and Brexit, one inconvenient detail remains hard to look past. Corporate profiteering has soared 89% in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. The big three supermarkets - Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda - have made combined profits of £3.2 billion in 2021, nearly double their pre-pandemic levels. We agree then with those who have said: this is not a cost of living crisis, but a cost of profiteering crisis.

Here then, we see ourselves not only exploited as workers, by creating surplus value pocketed by our bosses at our jobs, but also exploited as consumers — by paying huge price hikes when attempting to reproduce our lives outside of work. So while hundreds of thousands of workers across the country have valiantly fought the profiteering crisis through a huge wave of strikes, spanning over 2022 and into 2023, we’ve also seen a rise in less orthodox acts of rebellion, with many turning to the ‘five finger discount bag’ as a means of survival. According to the latest Office of National Statistics figures for England and Wales shoplifting has risen by 22% in the year up until September, with 7.9 million cases reported last year - five million more than were recorded in 2016/17. Shoplifting has risen so much so, that supermarkets have attempted to curb rising theft by adding security tags to £6 tubs of Lurpak, and more grimly baby formula, as well as locking up £10 jars of coffee behind staff counters. This is perhaps not an overreaction from the capitalist class, as it has been found that shoplifting cost the British economy £660m in 2021-22.

While these individual acts of resistance are no doubt on the rise, they have so far failed to cohere into anything resembling a mass or coordinated campaign. The reasons for this are apparent; a lack of class cohesion and combative confidence, the sense of shame that many feel, and the threat of prison all act to maintain silence around the ubiquity of this activity.

Furthermore, the left has historically failed to prioritise struggles over commodity circulation. Since the late 19th century it has been widely accepted amongst socialist militants that capitalist exploitation takes place primarily in the workplace. It is here that workers are forced to reproduce the means of their own subsistence, producing commodities whose surplus value is pocketed by their capitalist boss. Of course, this remains as true as it was when Capital was first written. But our exploitation as consumers, as exemplified by both rising fuel costs, and now, also food, raises questions: is it possible to turn individual acts of survival, like shoplifting, into effective mass campaigns to redistribute basic goods? And what does it mean for the communist project more broadly to attempt to intervene in the circulation of commodities, through the appropriation of social wealth, in addition to the more well-trodden ground of their production, through strikes and industrial disputes? While a provocation like this may indeed sound ‘pie in the sky,’ it’s not without precedent.

A history of auto-reduction struggles

Struggles over the immediate control of the commodities we produce is as old as the class itself. As noted by E.P. Thompson, the 18th century working class that were living around London’s Docklands were radically committed to programs of wealth redistribution. They would withhold a proportion of the goods that they unloaded from each ship for ‘common use’, seeing it as a natural right of the workers and their families. These endemic customs however were threatening to the claim the bourgeois held over private property and workplace discipline. Through successive legislative acts, property law was eventually ring fenced, ensuring that work where we sell our labour, was the sole legal means offered for survival.

It should come as no surprise then, that revolutionaries have often sought to move outside the law in order to assert our class’s claim over the wealth we collectively produce. History is littered with examples of militant mass action in the face of spiralling price hikes over the cost of commodities. For example, 1766 saw a series of food riots in Britain in response to the rise in price of wheat and other cereals, with some protesters reportedly looting shops and warehouses, which eventually led to many traders being forced to sell produce at a lower rate. Similarly, in 1812 riots broke out in Leeds and Sheffield around the high cost of food, with flour dealers once again forced by popular crowds to reduce their prices to a level which that crowd deemed accessible.

More recently, in 1970s Italy, collectives of factory workers and young people would organise mass ‘proletarian shopping’ in supermarkets, involving hundreds of people. A date, time, and location would be chosen at a prior assembly, and on the day participants would divide into two groups. The first would enter the supermarket in dribs and drabs, blending in with the rest of the crowd. The second would be placed on either end of the street, looking out for and defending the ‘proletarian shoppers’ from the police. Finally, the signal would be given - a militant would take control of the supermarket tannoy and announce a special sale: “Today everything is free! Don’t Pay! Don’t Pay”. This was the militants in the shop’s cue - take as much as you can and then get out. With these militants, many normal shoppers would take the opportunity to also leave with their shopping, at a 100% discount.

Why was auto-reduction so successful in the past?

Auto-reduction is a term used to describe practices developed by working class militants in order to impose a reduction over the price of a commodity or a service, or through attempts to make these products free. While looting, the withdrawal of rent — or shoplifting for that matter — are clearly not exclusive tactics belonging to communist militants, auto-reduction refers to politically conscious attempts to incorporate these tactics into anti-capitalist strategy. The term itself emerged from the social struggles of the working class in Italy during the late 1960s into the 1970s and the theoretical explanations offered for it by the militants of both workerism (operaismo), and later, Autonomia.

In the Italian context auto-reduction took many forms - from mass rent strikes through to squatting, proletarian youth refusing to pay for pop concerts, cinema entry or travel on buses, through to the mass looting of supermarkets. These actions were subsequently conceived by the operaisti as examples of how class struggle had expanded beyond the factory walls and into every aspect of our lives. However, we cannot make sense of why or how class struggle occurs outside the workplace without reference to social composition, a third component added to the classical schematics of class composition first propositioned by Notes from Below which we will flesh out more here.

Social composition - where we live and in what kind of housing, patterns of migration, which languages we speak, where we eat and shop, and so on - provides a lens that can tease out the balance of class power contained in struggles occurring outside the traditional workplace. Conversely, it can provide a more nuanced account of the technical arrangement of workers within these traditional workplaces too. By focusing our attention on the specific material organisation of workers through the social relations of consumption and reproduction, we can develop a more nuanced means to evaluate the potential successes and limitations of auto-reductive campaigns.

For example, during recent organising efforts undertaken by the Angry Workers collective in West London’s large distribution centres, it was noted that the cultural distinctions held by workers, in particular their spoken languages, dictated their technical arrangement within the workplace, as well as hindering organisational efforts.The workforce Angry Workers encountered in Greenford, broadly defined as migrant labourers, comprised two distinctive communities: those who had settled locally in previous decades from the Indian subcontinent, and more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. While the racial division of labour is a long accepted reality in Marxist discourse, social composition allows for a more nuanced account of the technical arrangement these workers experienced. As witnessed in Greenford, workers were often allocated their positions within work not on skill, but dependent on what cultures or languages they shared, where they lived, and familial connections within the workplace.

This is just one of countless examples of the utility of social composition for militants in their attempts to comprehend technical arrangement and to pinpoint more novel organising responses. However, social composition also provides militants with a means to assess the strengths and weaknesses of working class militancy outside of work. The inquiries conducted by militants in 1960s Italy were predicated on a central assertion: that the political activity of the working class was rooted in the material conditions of production - processes which the workers were actively organising against. As such, the potential autonomy workers held from capital gained its strength from the shared conditions they experienced as workers in their workplaces. Their shared experiences within the rhythms of work, their proximity to one another inside the factory and their intimate knowledge of the production process ensured that if a new ‘political solution’ was to emerge from within the social body of the ‘mass worker’ itself, it could easily grow and viralise across the workforce through their shared experiences, understanding and opposition to the production process.

However, the commonalities that workers shared didn’t stop at the factory gate. Northern Italy’s growing workforce needed to be housed and as such new municipal projects erupted across the Northern cities in order to house new workers and their families arriving from the South. This meant workers shared not only a technical composition (in work), but also a social composition. They shared bosses as well as landlords. They shared conveyor belts, but also washing lines, shops and utility bills.

These shared conditions, the mass technical and social cohesion then experienced by the working class in Northern Italy, ensured that any political solution to these crises had a possibility to scale. For example, when rent strikes were called, these auto-reductive strategies had a capacity to viralise en masse, due to the relative cohesion of the workers’ social composition. What’s more, the proximity of the workplace to the community meant that when auto-reduction took place, workers could stand in solidarity with their community by, for example, refusing to disconnect houses that had not paid their energy bills.

Auto-reduction struggles today

While it’s not hard to find inspiring examples of working-class self-organisation - from workers’ self-organising at Deliveroo, to the ‘E15 mums’ squatting their estate against enforced displacement - these actions unfortunately still remain partial. If we believe class composition still allows us a means to recognise the distinctions and similarities held within our class, it surely offers us a means to also search for campaigns and strategies that contain the greatest potential to move and inspire the mass of the class.

Through a redress to social composition, we suggest that campaigns of auto-reduction, or in the sphere of commodity circulation, can see success for our class when we experience strong technical and social cohesion. But in an era marked by mass technical and social fragmentation, where are the opportunities outside of the workplace for mass organisation to take hold?

Renters’ unions such as ACORN and London Renter’s Union have attempted to grapple with this question, with members across the country fighting back against evictions, negligent landlords and rent hikes. But although we share a form of common experience as renters - in as much that we’re all undeniably being ripped off - this work is also difficult to viralise into a mass campaign in light of social fragmentation. Unlike factory workers in Northern Italy in the 70s, as renters now, each of us may have a different landlord who is exploiting us in a different way. How then can our organisation move to something bigger than heterogeneous actions against individual landlords, on behalf of one or a small group of tenants?

In contrast, the anti-Poll Tax campaign, between 1989-92, saw a universal tax imposed on the working class implemented by one common enemy: the state. A social cohesion was fostered onto the class by the near universal nature of the tax itself. Ultimately, the anti-poll tax movement saw up to 18 million people refusing to pay, and over 6,000 actions nationwide by 1990, resulting in its reversal and contributed to the resignation of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

For a time in the summer of 2022, Don’t Pay also provided an exciting and fast growing movement against inflation and the cost of profiteering crisis through the notion of one mass auto-reduction campaign. In many ways, the campaign was able to ‘catch the wings of history’ by recognising one unifying assault on the working class in a moment of mass technical and social disarray. The universal nature of the assault provided the working class with a new found sense of social cohesion - we were all set to face the same debilitating rises in our energy bills, and almost every consumer in Britain was reliant on one of the ‘big six’ energy providers. Despite its recent slowing down in pace, for a time the campaign was seen by the government and energy companies as an “existential threat”8, and was able to viralise much in the same way as the poll tax or other auto-reduction campaigns in the past.

In many ways this set of circumstances is shared with food prices. As consumers, we’re universally being forced to pay through the nose for basic necessities to reproduce our own lives. We all share the same few supermarkets that we’re reliant on to buy our food - all of which have been revealed to have been making historical profits from our misery. We already know that huge swathes of us are being forced into shoplifting as a means of survival. But how can we turn these individual acts of survival into one, mass, unifying campaign that demands the cost of food be brought back down to affordable levels?

What next?

Clearly, it’s high time we developed a mass, militant campaign around the cost of food. Exactly what that will look like we’re not foolish enough to delve into here. However, the history of mass auto-reduction campaigns, from organised tube bunks to mass looting of goods, provides some possible examples of where such campaigns could go. We hope we have outlined the necessity for such a campaign, and identified that the conditions for such are particularly ripe within the current conjuncture.

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Seth Wheeler (@sethnotes)

Seth Wheeler is a writer and activist. He is the contributing editor of ‘In and Against the State’ (2021 Pluto Books). He is part of the militant research collective Pagliacci Rossi.

Jamila Squire (@jamsqu)

is a writer and activist. She is part of the militant research collective Pagliacci Rossi.