Rethinking Anarchism

Don’t Just Vote… Go to Starbucks, too
November 30, 2008, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , ,

Unless you’re some kind of leftist hermit (no offense, just sayin’), you probably heard that Starbucks gave away a free cup of coffee to anyone who said they voted on November 4th. I emphasize the word “heard.” Starbucks aired a 60-second commercial during Saturday Night Live the weekend before the election advertising the offer. Word spread like wildfire. Here’s the commercial, too be followed by some analysis…

It’s an incredibly effective piece of propaganda. The promotion itself was a stroke of genius for the company. On November 4th, everyone was talking about Starbucks at the polls, and everyone headed in for their free cup of coffee after voting. With this kind of an impact, you might be surprised to learn that Starbucks did not advertise on television or in the newspaper until Winter 2007. They were able to establish themselves as a national brand without recourse to the traditional avenues to consumers brains. Maybe this explains why they were so successful.

But there’s more to this than a stereotypical narrative of entrepreneurial success. The rise of Starbucks is a story about capitalism and culture. Starbucks is the most insidious of the multinationals because it’s own success depends on its ability to permeate the social fabric. The corporation must become part of the city, the “heart of the neighborhood,” as Howard Schultz likes to say. There you have it- corporate America at the heart of every neighborhood.

This is a disturbing notion. Whether or not you think Starbucks is a “good” company, the acceptance of one corporation at the “heart” of America culture has deep implications for the acceptance of corporate power in general. If we uncritically accept one multinational corporation in our midst, this implicitly destroys the potential for any deeper critique. Instead of losing faith in the corporate system in general, people will think that the other “bad” corporations just need to be “more like Starbucks.” What is at stake is the very ability to envision a life beyond capitalism.

So how does a corporation secure a spot close to a nation’s heart? Marketers across the US are wringing their hands over the new “cynicism” of the American consumer. Like heroin junkies, advertising executives are searching for a new vein to deliver their drugs to the consumer brain. Preferably, they want consumers to think that they are not being advertised to at all. The impulse to buy should appear in the consumer brain as if by immaculate conception; no one should know where it came from.

Instead of speaking directly to consumers, Starbucks infects the social medium with its message, and lets us do the work. Their advantage is that they have some 150,000 workers who they can command to tell customers about their products at over 15,000 locations worldwide. For most promotions, Starbucks puts its employees on the front line facing customers, and lets us do the work. They walk a delicate balancing act between heavy-handed coercion of Baristas to treat customers well, and allowing for the improvisation which is what makes human interaction unique.

Starbucks depends on tapping into the very core of what it means to be human, a part of society, in order to sell their product. In the case of the “Don’t Just Vote” advertisement, they captured the zeitgeist, creating a script that was copied and repeated by people across the country for a day, endlessly. Through a careful tactical intervention, they turned millions of people into ambassadors for their products.

Their success with this promotion illustrates both a weakness and a strength. Corporations are forced to insert themselves into the social medium, always trying to stay one step ahead of those of us who would delegitimize them and break their power. So how do we do this? We have to out-organize them. We need to build a movement. Movements are made up of the anonymous acts of millions of people. We need to give the public ways to participate in our cause– the Revolution. We need to enlist millions of people as  participants, not just as voters or consumers but as organizers of actions outside the officially-sanctioned forms of civic participation cynically encouraged by the corporations.

The corporations are afraid. Viral marketing will fail. They have brought about a crisis that free cups of coffee on election day cannot solve. It is up to us to put out another message: solidarity and direct action is the solution.


Some thoughts on “Radical Space: Building the House of the People”
November 22, 2008, 2:42 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I just finished Margaret Kohn’s “Radical Space: Building the House of the People.” The book is an analysis of the role that autonomous spaces played in the Italian socialist movement before the rise of Fascism. I was partly motivated to read the book because I recently took on the responsibility of establishing long-term financial stability for a local radical community center. I didn’t get much out of the book in terms of practical hints, but it did move my thinking about the role of space in social movements in a new direction.

Kohn’s primary thesis is that rather than being socialized into revolutionary consciousness in the factory, Italian workers’ movements were rooted primarily in cooperatives, chambers of labor, and houses of the people. Most of these structures were non-partisan coalitional spaces shared by various political groups, trade unions, and popular associations. Kohn claims that the “Houses of the People” served to project political meaning onto everyday activities like drinking a glass of wine, relaxing with friends, or purchasing food. Kohn makes arguments about each type of social space in particular as well (cooperative, chamber of labor, factory, the bourgeois public sphere), but these probably aren’t necessary to go over. She also claims that learning how to run cooperatives and community centers helped build the compositional power of the working class.

On the whole I was very impressed by the book. It is surprisingly relevant and readable for an academic text. However, I thought that the argument suffered for the absence of a couple key conceptual tools for understanding capitalism. This became clear toward the end of the book when Kohn devotes a chapter to analyzing the geography of socialist municipalities in Italy in the inter-war years. As a result of her early choice to dismiss the role of the factory as a site of potential liberation, she actually overlooks the central goal of proletarian struggle: emancipation from work. Her emphasis on working class political movements instead must focus on control of local governments by social administrations. Kohn starts out with a promising dismissal of traditional notions of a linear progression of class consciousness to the formation of a working class political party, and ends up glorifying local socialist governments and downplaying the real failure of the socialist movement to seize the means of production.

That said, it is painfully clear that the closure of political space in the postmodern world has been much more than a metaphor. There are no places for people to meet, discuss, and make plans. Back on a metaphorical level, workers today are socialized almost directly by capital without the mediation of the bourgeois private sphere or the autonomous proletarian public sphere. The workplace still produces antagonism between workers and bosses, but the antagonism becomes submerged, continually collapsing back into fascist dependency. Revolution clearly will not spring out of the workplace without outside organization.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. There is no consciousness, to there is no organization, so there is no struggle, so there is no consciousness. How does one create something from almost nothing?

Perhaps here is where we can add to Kohn. Before there are spaces, there must be movements that need spaces, or at least an image of movements that might need spaces. This where we are at right now. First the prophets, then the people, then their house.

Too Sad to Cry: A Mini-review of Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream”
November 20, 2008, 3:40 am
Filed under: movies | Tags: , , , , ,

I cried during “Salt of the Earth.” I cried during “Harlan County, USA.” I almost cried during “American Dream,” but I didn’t. It’s odd, because “American Dream” is the most tragic of these three movies.

Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream” is a documentary about the heroic strike of UFCW Local P-9, based in Austin, MN, against Hormel. In the reactionary climate of the 1980s, Corporate America was taking all it could get from workers, ramming concessions down unions throats. But the workers didn’t just have to contend with greedy corporations. The labor movement was rotting from within. Union bureaucrats were too lazy, uncreative, or scared to back up workers who did dare to fight back.

When UFCW Local P-9 in Austin, MN voted to strike with a 93% majority, the International refused to support them. Instead, union bureaucrats began sowing discord in the ranks of the workers, and eventually ordered striking workers back to work and put their local into trusteeship.

The strike was lost. Perhaps the workers were up against unbeatable odds. This was the analysis of the labor bureaucrats in the International. I don’t share their analysis, I think this strike could have been won with the support of the International.

Either way, I am reminded of words I heard from a Wobbly a few weeks ago at a retreat in Chicago: “Solidarity over strategy, every time.” We need to fight to win. But we will never win if we go against our most basic principle: solidarity. And if we forget our principles in the pursuit of victory, it will be a hollow win if we win at all.

Kopples’ movie is supposed to reflect America in a microcosm. There haven’t been too many labor victories we can be proud of in America in the two decades since P-9. It’s been a sad time for working people. Maybe I didn’t cry during “American Dream” because I’ve personally become numb to defeat. It’s always the same story. I don’t cry out of sadness any more. Now, I cry out of hope. I cry when I see workers standing together, fighting against any odds, fighting because it’s the right thing to do.

Battles are fought, some won some lost, but the struggle always continues, the workers rising again and again no matter the odds. And as long as the struggle continues, I will continue to be inspired by the possibilities latent in the human heart, always reigniting my hope that together, we can build a world more beautiful than anything we can imagine. This is what moves me too tears, every time.

Strike Action at McDonald’s
November 18, 2008, 6:56 pm
Filed under: News | Tags: , , , ,

McDonald’s workers in New Zealand are preparing for a summer (it’s summer there) of strike action against McDonald’s. They’re organized in the Unite! union, which is different than the US-based UNITE-HERE. In the past, Unite! has taken credit for the “world’s first Starbucks strike.” Anarchists and Wobblies have participated in these campaigns, but also raise criticisms. Either way, they’re obviously doing something right.

Here’s the story on Libcom:

David Graeber- “Hope in Common”
November 18, 2008, 7:36 am
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , ,

So David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist, has published an essay about the current moment of crisis in capitalism. You can read it here.

It’s an interesting piece. The main idea is that peoples’ imaginations have been impoverished by capitalism, leaving us unable to imagine a different kind of social order. Graeber is optimistic that the crisis will create an opening for new kinds of thinking, leading to the construction of planetary alternatives to capitalism.

Let’s hope he’s right.

“What’s Left After Obama?”- Anarchist Analysis of the Election
November 16, 2008, 2:37 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

This is one of the best analyses I have read so far about Obama and the election.

Interestingly, it’s by Simon Critchley, author of Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. His book was revied by Zizek here. And Critchley’s rejoinder here.

Maybe when I get some time I’ll write about this.

Howard Schultz Needs to Shut the Fuck Up
November 15, 2008, 8:21 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

He lays of 12,000 workers in order to keep Wall Street happy, and then has the nerve to say that big business is the answer to the economic crisis. “Yes Business Can.” How witty…