Rethinking Anarchism

Building the Army of Production
December 12, 2010, 6:21 am
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“The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.”

-Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World

Since the beginning of the labor movement, we have used military metaphors to describe our struggle against the capitalist class. In many ways, the fight we are engaged in really is a class war- workers fighting bosses. At times, the class struggle has even developed into an armed struggle. However, class war usually differs from actual war in one crucial respect. In a conventional war, two fully-formed armies meet on the battlefield. Strategy is a matter of planning battles. In the class war on the other hand, only the capitalist class has an army. Organizing means building the workers army, the army of production. Our army is inherently stronger because of our position in the system of production. Our task is to organize this power. The bosses seek to prevent us from doing this through a permanent counterinsurgency operation. In this blog post, I’d like to lay out a few ideas on the current state of one particular organizing effort, the IWW, and propose some next steps for building the army of production.

In year 2010, the IWW is once again feared by the capitalist class as a fighting union. Wobblies on shopfloors across the world deserve to take a minute to congratulate themselves, we are a threat again. But our work is far from done. As far as we have come, there is a long road ahead of us. We need to reflect on how we have come this far, and plan out our next steps.

Our successes in the last few years were built on a foundation that was laid over the last decade. At a time when the labor movement was at a low ebb, disoriented by the realities of globalization and the service economy, a handful of visionary workers picked up the banner of the IWW, and began organizing their own workplaces. The results were mixed, but lessons were learned. Now, we have distilled the lessons we have learned about shopfloor organizing in to a coherent training so that they can be easily passed on to others. With the help of our organizer training program, our campaigns start out leaps and bounds ahead of where we were ten years ago. With a mastery of the nuts and bolts of organizing, our organizers are capable of waging struggles against the bosses, sometimes involving hundreds of workers.

So what is the next step, and how do we lay the foundations for it now?

We need to build on our strengths, and eliminate our weaknesses. That means getting better at building Wobblies, developing workers who come to us out of an interest in organizing as leaders in the workplaces. It also means getting better at winning our fights against the bosses. These goals have component parts we can work on:

1) Initial contact. Workers have to be able to find us when they are looking for an answer to the problems they face at work.

2) Training and Support. We need to be able to coach workers through the steps of organizing. This is easiest when we have someone geographically close to them, and someone who knows their industry or workplace very well.

3) Fighting the bosses. Beyond the nuts and bolts of organizing, we need to be able to bring overwhelming pressure to bear on the bosses so that we win our fights. This means having a better organized, faster, bigger, and more creative organization.

4) Membership development and retention. We need seasoned organizers to stick around, become senior leaders in the union, and help develop another cohort of organizers. This means that we need to have a healthy, supportive internal culture.

I have three proposals for strengthening the union in these areas.

1) Functional branches. We need to incubate branches of the union in all the major cities so that workers everywhere will have someone to turn to when they decide to fight back. We should strengthen regional communication and collaboration, and develop a standard procedure for building and maintaining a branch.

2) Industrial Networks. We need to develop networks that support organizing across particular industries, as well as tailor the IWW’s message to particular groups of workers. Millions of workers are just waiting to be asked to join a union. Let’s ask them.

3) Creative organizing. It’s time to step outside the NLRB election process. We keep losing- both in conventional terms, and also more philosophically through a growing dependenence on the state. This violates our basic principles as a revolutionary union. We need to figure out a way to build a sustainable presence on the job based on direct action.

These three goals are general. If we want to achieve these objectives, we need to adopt more specific, concrete building blocks that would allow us to reach these goals. One idea would be to pick new specific organizing targets which would allow us to grow through shopfloor organizing. Another possibility would be to attempt to replicate the size and capacity of our largest branches all across the union. We currently have around 50 groupings of Wobblies across North America. If each of these groupings reached a size of 100 members in 5 years, we would have 5000 members in North America alone. This would more than double our current size.

These are just a few ideas, I hope that this can start a union-wide conversation about what next steps we want to take. Whether you agree with these proposals or not, it’s clear that we stand on the cusp of making substantial gains in building our organization and increasing the power of the working class. It’s time to act.

Losing the Battle, Winning the War
November 1, 2010, 2:19 am
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” But revolution is the only form of “war”… in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats.'”

-Rosa Luxemburg,  “Order Prevails in Berlin”  1918

Every year, labor organizations launch hundreds of campaigns to wrest economic gains from employers, and hundreds more campaigns to put pro-labor politicians in office. Many of these campaigns end in victory, others go down in defeat. In the past few decades, the defeats have outnumbered the victories. Much ink has been spilled on diagnosing the cause of the labor movement’s ills. Some theorists focus on objective changes in the system of production, scapegoating outsourcing and the rise of a service economy for labor’s weakness. Others blame the rise of aggressively anti-union management styles backed by right-wing politicians. Still others claim that cultural factors come into play- in the ‘postmodern’ era, new age management techniques have supposedly rendered class struggle obsolete.

Of course, in any struggle there are also tactical decisions that impact the outcome. It’s always possible to say- “if we had only done this instead of that, we would have won!”

But the fact is that we didn’t win. And there will be many campaigns that don’t win, even after substantial changes in the economic and cultural climate. We certainly need to figure out how to win the battles, but we also need to develop a strategy that will allow us to win the war. We are only truly defeated if we refuse to learn lessons from our losses.

What would it mean to win the war? Put simply, victory in the class war would mean the seizure of the means of production by the workers, organized in councils or other democratic organs, and the abolition of the centers of capitalist decision-making, the state and para-state fascist organizations.

The question then, is what would it take to pull this off? First, the working class would have to be organized on a truly global scale. Second, workers would need to have the desire and confidence to kick out the bosses in some kind of general strike or insurrection. All of this depends on the emergence of working class leadership- a rejection of the authority of the bosses from the CEOs, politicians, and bankers all the way down to store managers and supervisors.

How do workers become leaders? I think it’s by getting angry, and seeing their own anger reflected and validated by those around them, and then learning how to fight the bosses. Working class leadership leads to working class autonomy- workers deciding for themselves what is right for them.

As Rosa Luxemburg would say, the road of history is paved with the thunderous defeats of working class autonomy. But with each of these failed revolts, the working class learned lessons about its power, and also about the violence that the ruling class will employ against us to maintain their dictatorship. It is up to us to ensure that the lessons of these battles are carried on in the hearts and minds of a growing body of workers, schooled in struggle, so that every lost battle is a step toward winning the war.

Notes on the Nature of the Period
September 19, 2010, 8:54 pm
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The political left is characterized primarily by a deep sense of pessimism of the ability of the working class to organize itself and win. In light of the long series of historic defeats of working class uprisings, this pessimism appears to be warranted. I would argue however that pessimism of the working class’ willingness to fight in the current period is deeply misplaced. I’d like to reflect a little bit on the current period, and try to illuminate some possibilities that are latent in the working class currently.

Capitalism is facing multiple crises right now. We are in the midst of a structural crisis of accumulation, which means that unemployment and poverty are increasing around the world with few exceptions. The United States as a superpower is in permanent decline, unable to maintain the kind of demand-side economics that allowed for post-war prosperity, and unable to gain access to sufficient credit to create bubbles of fictitious wealth that generated prosperity for the upper and middle classes. The US working class faces unending and permanent immiseration.

The US working class is largely disorganized and lacking experience in struggle. The trade unions are in near-total disarray, basically unable to defend their own members from the ruling class attack. They are in no position to organize the unorganized and mount a class-wide counterattack on capital.

Despite the lack of political leadership, the working class is angry and increasingly prepared to fight back. The few organizations that are open to militant workers, such as the IWW, are receiving a steady trickle of new members in the ones and twos. None of these organizations are really prepared to coordinate a massive organizing drive and push back against capital, either.

There is currently a massive vacuum of radical working class leadership. If radical left workers organizations do not step up and fill that void, demagogues like Obama or the Tea Party will continue to make political capital out of working class frustration.

The radical left needs to get organized- fast- and prepare massive organizing campaigns in all sectors of the economy as well as in the community. Angry workers will trickle into these organizations of struggle, engaging in small fights against the bosses and the government, and will set the stage for the next level of struggle. This is no time for dicking around. It’s time for action.

Alienation and Commitment
June 6, 2010, 5:25 am
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I’ve been reading John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World.” There is a preface to the mid-1960s edition I am reading that describes the alienation Reed felt as an upper class intellectual who saw the horrors of war and exploitation that undergird the peace, prosperity, and happiness of the possessing classes. Alienated from the community of the bourgeoisie, he found a place in the movement of the workers against their oppression. Today, some might say he ‘bore witness’ or ‘accompanied’ the oppressed in their struggles. Reed overcame alienation through commitment to the cause of the proletariat, pursuing this commitment to an early death. He is buried in Red Square in Moscow.

Almost 100 years after the October Revolution, the world is still in the hands of a bloodthirsty and greedy capitalist minority. Their rule is now entirely global. The geographic breadth of the reign of the bourgeoisie’s reign is complemented by the depth of their cultural hegemony. The specter of communism still haunts the world. but it has been reduced to just that- a spectral apparition appearing only faintly, washed out by capital’s brilliant projection of itself as an eternal Reich.

The situation is basically hopeless. The proletariat is nowhere to be seen. I wish I could say otherwise, but there have been no large, serious autonomous workers movements in the US since before World War II. There have been occasional ruptures, even up to the present with the May Day 2006 marches for immigrant rights, but nothing stays. The movement does not grow, the struggles do not intensify, even as the horrors of global capitalism become even more horrific. The situation is alienating in the extreme.

In the face of total alienation from the mediated bourgeois society, some seek to create a kind of “community” with vegan potlucks, radical community meetings, countercultural bike collectives, and worker co-ops. The contrived “communities” of the radical left are merely the mirror image of the alienated “community” of the commodity society. The radical left seeks to elevate community as a value in itself, severed from any rooting in a material base. By attempting to overcome alienation, the ‘radical community’ succeeds only in commodifying, and thereby alienating, the concept of “community” itself. There is no way out. We are in the desert of advanced capitalism.

What flower can grow in this desert? We need forms of organization and modes of struggle that can flourish and thrive in these toxic sands. Such forms can only be derived from the proletarian struggle itself. We must scatter our seeds on the most fertile ground, the substrate upon which capital reproduces itself must also be the ground upon which we build the struggle.

The task of revolutionaries today is to take on the most difficult tasks- to accept total alienation , to go into the desert and seek to put down roots amongst the exploited and oppressed masses to participate in and build the struggle. From our alienation must come our commitment to build the workers movement. If there is any happiness to be found on this earth, it can only be in the struggle.

Notes on Capitalist Development and Our Tasks
April 4, 2010, 7:43 pm
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I recently went on a road trip around the Midwest of the United States. I was impressed not by the differences between states and cities in this region, but by their similarities. Driving across the prairie into the urban centers, I felt like I was taking a core sample of capitalist development. Although each state and city in the Midwest originated in slightly different circumstances and around slightly different industries or sectors of industry, most states in the Midwest are structurally identical. The capitalist economy of scale has produced a world of cookie-cutter development. This means that the problems and tasks facing the working class in one region are most likely faced by workers in other regions as well. It follows that any innovation in tactics or strategy in one city can be replicated in another, with the proper level of organization. If we can make a breakthrough in one area, it could be relatively easily replicated in the same sector in other areas. This is a serious weakness of capitalist power.

It is important to understand the composition or capitalist industry in order to get an idea of the different ways that different groups of workers experience capitalism, so that we can reach out to and organize these workers.

Capitalism in the US consists primarily of only a handful industries, each monopolized by a handful of corporations. Here are the primary sectors:

1. Agribusiness- large industrial farms owned by Monsanto, Cargill, or ADM

2. Retail, Food, Service, and Distribution- shopping malls, strip malls, and big box stores, supplied by large warehouses and food processing plants centered in semi-rural areas outside cities and meatpacking plants in rural areas. Trucking, rail, and ultimately intermodal transit and shipping tie all the sectors of this industry together. This is the sector of the economy with the largest potential for growth in concrete numerical terms. It is also the poorest and most exploited sector in the US.

3. Healthcare- Large hospitals

4. Education- K-12 and higher education

5. Corporate Administration- corporate headquarters and the services they outsource (information technology, etc.)

6. Manufacturing- auto, steel, plastics, etc. This sector has been largely outsourced to China, although there are signs that plants are reopening in low-wage, non-union areas of the US.

7. Construction- residential and commercial construction is proceeding primarily through “green field” development on the outskirts of major urban areas. The economic crisis has brought construction to a halt, putting millions of construction workers out of work.

8. Military Industrial Complex- we cannot overlook the millions of people who work as professional soldiers for a living, as well as those who work in the arms plants that supply the military. This is an enormous sector of the economy with a high potential for struggle. It also is directly connected to other sectors, as many workers have family members in the military.

The structure of the current phase of capitalist development is clear. Growth of the capitalist economy occurs primarily as the expansion of urban areas through the construction of new suburban subdivisions, each containing new commercial areas. There has also been some redevelopment of urban core areas (Times Square, for example), but the major growth takes place on the outskirts. Growth of capitalism results in a geographic expansion of capitalist urban areas.

Capital seeks to expand not only through new construction, but through increasing consumption- of education, healthcare, food, retail, and services. The result is that capitalism builds a consumer-oriented “way of life” into its development. While previously, capital sought to increase high wages in order to increases consumption, the current strategy seems to be to keep wages low through expanding largely low-skill service sector employment, while making credit easily available, forcing workers into debt, which is then turned into a tradable asset by the financial system. The other solution to stagnant profits was to globalize the capitalist way of life, increasing consumption in some third world countries, while using others as a pool of cheap labor. This is an arrangement that began in the 1970s as a result to the last crisis of capitalist profits. Now, this rearrangement itself has gone into crisis.

It is unclear how the capitalists will rearrange the system to launch another wave of development. So far, there are no new ideas. They are merely propping up the old system through massive infusions of state funding, while forcing cutbacks on the working class. This situation is highly unstable and is clearly not preferred by capitalist elites, otherwise they wouldn’t call it a “crisis.”

What does this mean for us as revolutionary organizers? I would argue that since the sectors of capital I outlined above seem to be stable, and with the exception of manufacturing, seem likely to grow or at least remain in the US, we should focus organizing efforts in each of these sectors. The crisis has merely intensified antagonisms in each sector. It seems that the trends of the last 40 years in terms of capitalist development will continue, unless the system merely slips deeper into recession. In that case, the tensions in the system will only be greater. Our task remain in any case the same. Revolutionaries must build a base in any of these sectors capable of leading struggles against the bosses. This should be our goal.

It is also important to look beyond the US and begin to map the global supply chain. We need to build an organization of cadre organizers that extends beyond North America, and connects seamlessly with organizers and workers in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. The struggle must be as global as capital, or nationalism will remain a dangerous temptation for angry workers.

We should see the emergence of this new structure of production the same way that the old IWW and CIO saw the emergence of mass industry. And like them, we should find a form of organization appropriate to organizing it. Unlike the CIO, we should make sure that our efforts are not co-opted by a bureaucracy, but remain autonomous from capitalism and antagonistic.

At this point, the way forward would involve making a critical assessment of the capacities of the Left to organize workers, as well as the potential to radicalize part of the existing labor movement. We need a new proletarian political organization of revolutionaries that that can begin building mass organization and starting fights in each of these sectors.

As revolutionaries, we should advance the following principles in the struggle:

1) Rank-and-File control. All decisions made by the workers themselves. No bureaucracy above the struggle. Few paid staff, if any.

2) Direct Action. Dependence on tactics that build and keep power in the hands of the workers. No deference to politicians. Build our own power rather than build client-patron relationships.

3) Class Solidarity. Attempt to circulate/expand struggle to others in the same industry/sector and other sectors. Organize across national borders. Organize across racial, gender, sexual divisions in the class in an egalitarian manner.

If we can build organizations that are based on these principles in one sector in one city, we can build them anywhere with the proper amount of commitment and skill by dedicated revolutionaries. The task would then be to expand to every sector. Likely, the relationships between workers in different sectors would spread the struggle with minimal effort on the part of conscious revolutionaries.

This expansion of the struggle would severely destabilize capitalism, likely leading to  a capital strike (lockouts), increased authoritarianism, and possibly an attempted fascist coup. At that point, the only remaining question would be the timing of the workers revolution.

Fascism in the USA
March 26, 2010, 5:30 am
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This last weekend I drove through the lower midwest. I visited the major cities, each separated by a three or four hour drive through rural areas from the next. These rural areas are the primary base of the so-called “Tea Party” movement, a loosely-organized network of extreme right-wingers opposed to Obama and any kind of basic liberal agenda. Since Obama took office, they have been stockpiling ammunition and arms, holding protests, and organizing. I”ve been hesitant to take them seriously. Their numbers are VERY small, but their voices have been amplified by the corporate media. They are a small white working class base for more reactionary, inflexible elements of the US elite.

Earlier this week, the US congress passed a health care reform bill. It’s still unclear how beneficial the changes will be to working class Americans, but the bill has been fought tooth and nail by the Republican Party and the Tea Party activists. After the bill passed, there were reports of vandalism of Democratic Party offices and death threats against Democratic politicians.

What is really going on here?

The reality is that the US ruling class has its back against the wall. There is currently no major mass movement for health care, education, or any other serious reform. The Obama administration is entirely oriented toward pre-empting the emergence of autonomous working class self-activity, ensuring Wall Street profits and stability.

This kind of pre-emptive counterinsurgency tactic is too much for the right wing of capital- they prefer to risk greater resistance and use brute force to put down rebellions. If they feel that the left wing of capital is becoming too socialistic, likely due to pressure from the working class, they will orchestrate a fascist coup. During FDR’s New Deal, a group of businessmen led by George W Bush’s great grandfather prepared exactly this kind of putsch.

The Tea Party movement are the Freikorps of American fascism. They are willing to overthrow the US government in order to install a government that would put down the workers movement with brute force.

Politics in the US are muddy and unclear, the actors often don’t understand themselves what they are doing, but the historical dynamics are clear. Should the working class begin to organize seriously, the Tea Party movement will provide the shock troops for a seizure of state power by the extreme right of corporate america.

What does this mean for us on the radical left? We may eventually find ourselves in the position of revolutionaries in the 1930s, stuck propping up an embattled liberal regime under attack by the fascist right. I don’t think this prospect is exactly around the corner, but things are developing in this direction.

Rethinking Syndicalism
March 16, 2010, 6:47 am
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In organizing, you have to develop a theory and an understanding of society, make a plan for action, and fully devote yourself to carrying out the plan and reaching your goal. There can be no half-measures if you want to be successful. Only by carrying things through to their logical conclusion can we decisively determine whether we were correct in our strategy. This kind of committed, dedicated, singleminded attitude is the polar opposite of the mode of operation of much of the rest of the activist left, which typically proceeds from a fuzzy, hazy theory of society, does not clearly identify goals, and does not follow through with tasks, instead jumping from project to project in what a friend of mine has dubbed “fast food activism.”

The benefit of an all-or-nothing approach is that it gets results. The downside is that you have to maintain a kind of tunnel vision while working on a project in order to avoid getting distracted. Because of this, it’s important to reflect on your organizing every now and then, measuring your accomplishments against your goals, aligning tactics with strategy, and strategy with principles, and make adjustments if necessary.

I’m at such a point with workplace organizing. I am committing to at least another solid year of organizing, so I’d like to make sure I’m on the right path. I am reconsidering my basic assumptions and retracing my steps.

The goal has always been to abolish capitalism instituting some form of workers democracy. This means building organizations that are capable and willing to:

1) Take over production on a global scale

2) Defeat the reaction of the possessing classes

I am not sure that workplace organizing in and of itself is capable of reaching these two goals. In workplace organizing, you build a struggle against the boss with your coworker. The idea is that participation in the struggle builds the organization, which can then take on bigger fights with a broader section of the class. The growth of the mass organization is supposed to lead to a dual power situation, with higher and higher levels of conflict between the working class and the capitalist class, culminating in some sort of final battle.

Here’s my concern. In most struggles, “victory” is attained through some sort of compromise. The working class agrees to give up the factory occupation, go back to work, or take down the barricades in exchange for some kind of “recognition” and a set of concessions. We decide to allow capitalism to go on existing in exchange for some benefits. If we didn’t do this, the capitalist class would literally wipe us out. Historically, this has been the fate of almost every single working class insurrection. Those that have triumphed, avoiding bloody liquidation, have had to confront the same choice- defeat, or some degree of accommodation to the existing system and a partial victory.

The dilemma is this: how do we win fights, make gains, and force settlements with the bosses within the trajectory of an escalating cycle of struggle? This question can be summed up as: how do we move from the workplace struggle to the struggle against the capitalist class as a whole for the possession of the means of production and destruction of the capitalist state?

It seems to me that in most cases historically, workers have overthrown the government only as a defensive measure against fascist attacks on their gains. Ofte, these gains were won through direct action.

Here’s the problem. In the current conjuncture- the capitalist class either grants an immediate concession and incorporates resistance into its structure, or moves to totally destroy radical opposition. As anarchist communist revolutionaries, we have no way out. It is basically impossible to prepare for revolution, building through gains, and remain revolutionary.

This topic has been dealt with in some depth by Brighton SolFed and others. I don’t have the answer, but at this point, I’m partial to a strategy that rests on building up small groups of militants, increasing the frequency and intensity of struggle, the strength of network of resistance, while not relying on formal recognition of any kind. This is a highly “cultural” strategy, but would also involve formal organization. This seems to be the only way to build power while avoiding the twin dangers of repression and cooptation. We need to build a vast, global network of class war militants, active in real direct struggle against the ruling class and actively building the organs of revolutionary proletarian dual power.

So basically- let’s start some fights. And build an organization to unite the militants who start those fights, and are developed through them. At this point- the development of militants in the struggle is far more important than where those struggles occur.