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.

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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.



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.



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.



Archaeology of the Workers Movement
December 10, 2009, 8:55 pm
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I’ve been slowly reading up on the history of the workers movement. I’m going chronologically, digging from the past to the present. I feel a bit like an archaeologist, unearthing the bones of terrifying beasts that roamed the earth during high points of workers struggle- the mixed locals of the Knights of Labor, the flying pickets of 1934, the Soviet, Soldiers and Workers Councils, the Commune, the Red Army of the Ruhrgebiet, the list goes on. All that is left of these proletarian monsters is their fossilized remains, crystallized in the amber of history books and buried in the tar of arcane dissertations. But are these creatures extinct? Or do their distant descendants continue to walk the earth, evolved, and perhaps transformed or even tamed by additional decades of struggle?

In reading about the forms of organization created by workers in moments of upheaval, I can’t help but notice certain organizational features that keep recurring, like a return of the repressed, whenever the proletarian movement is at its most dynamic.

What are these features that arise again and again in the class struggle, these weapons that the working class reaches for instinctively in its combat with the class enemy? First, from the Mixed Locals on down through the IWW and on to the Soviets and the alternative unions of the 1930s, we see that revolutionary workers tend to build organizations open to everyone in the class, unrestricted by trade, craft, nationality, and in their better moments inclusive of all genders. Revolutionary workers tend to favor direct action, establishing new standards of rationality based on their own class viewpoint, rejecting the property rights of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary workers’ organizations are based on direct democracy, rather than representative democracy. Those who do are those who decide.

Taken together, these three elements are formidable weapons in the hands of the organized army of production. The bourgeoisie never hesitates to disarm the proletariat of these potent weapons as soon as the opportunity for a counterattack arises, seeking to co-opt the movement by demanding to negotiate with representatives, establishing compromises and agreements with certain sections of the class to break up class solidarity, and seeking to channel workers’ activity into bureaucratic, legalistic channels.

It is the task of class conscious workers in our own period to re-arm the proletariat with ideas for struggle and rebuild the army of production through a patient, careful work of organization. As we organize, we should draw upon the best traditions of the past, building direct-democratic, direct-action, class-wide organizations to carry on the revolutionary struggle against the capitalist class.

Maybe then, wild beasts of workers struggle will once again roam the earth.



The Battle of the Sandwiches: What does the bosses’ offensive look like?
December 6, 2009, 8:32 am
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If you read stuff about the 1970s and 80s, there is a lot of talk about the “bosses’ offensive,” an aggressive attack on workers movements by capital.

A friend of mine from Italy told me that in 1977, the bosses and pro-boss workers (we call these people ‘scissorbills,’ because their words cut you) staged a march of several thousand people in opposition to the continued wildcat strikes, sabotage, and occasional kneecapping, kidnapping, or assassination of bosses in the plants of northern Italy. This action was sufficient to change the climate and turn the cultural tide against the workers’ insurgency.

In my own workplace, we have seen an ebb and flow of class struggle on a micro-level. Initially, when the union went public, the boss was so afraid of us that he would sneak in and out the back door of the store without us knowing. We actually had a hard time planning actions because we could never find the boss to make demands.

The company replaced our boss with a new, more authoritarian manager. She set about breaking the union. Many of our fellow workers quit of their own volition before the union-busting really started, so we were already weak when the boss went on the offensive against us.

How did our new boss attack us? The same way we attacked our boss. She picked a winnable issue- something that we cared about but that we would be unable to defend. An issue that would isolate us from our coworkers, where we would not have “common sense” or the moral high ground behind us. In this case, it was the day-old sandwiches. We used to keep the sandwiches we didn’t sell at the end of the night for the workers who would come in the next day to have for lunch. Since we’re all so damn poor, this small gesture of solidarity meant a lot- it saved us money, and sometimes meant we got to eat when we would otherwise miss a meal.

The boss took away our sandwiches and put a note in the back room instructing us that we were no longer allowed to keep the sandwiches.

We were outraged. She was taking food out of our mouths. Immediately, two workers confronted the boss and demanded we be able to keep the sandwiches, explaining how important it was to us, how we didn’t make enough money to buy lunch every day, and how upset all the other workers would be.

The boss had prepared an answer in advance. She said it was against health code to keep the sandwiches, and that her boss would not allow it. We went back and forth a bunch of times to no avail.

The next day, I packaged up the sandwiches and put them in a stapled-shut bag, labeling it for a coworker who worked the next morning. He got the sandwiches and shared them with others on his shift. This was a direct action, directly contradicting the boss’ wishes.

I got called in the back room the next day. I was informed that if I did this again, I would be written up. Two writeups and I would be fired.

What could we do? We could do another march on the boss. A strike? A picket? A phone-in? We couldn’t figure out how to escalate. Our coworkers were not comfortable openly disobeying the boss, especially with the legitimacy of “health code” behind her.

Our boss won. We lost the sandwiches. We did not have the organization we needed to defend ourselves.

This was the first defensive battle of a long retreat. Once you lose once, the effect can be devastating. People lose confidence in their ability to win and your organization crumbles. The boss gets increasingly brazen in their attacks.

But their brazenness generates agitation. You might have to bide your time, but eventually, the time will be ripe for a counterattack. It’s important to understand this dynamic in order to be able to beat back the bosses’ offensive, but also to be able to take the occasional loss in stride, pick our battles, and stay on the offensive more effectively.



The Production of Gender
December 5, 2009, 8:01 am
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For most of my life, I’ve felt that men and women were different. Women like to do certain things and men like to do certain things. I felt like this had something to do with the special character of men and women. It seemed to be true because in fact, most of the men and women I know conform to these basic stereotypes. Growing up, I was told that it was OK to break with these stereotypes because, frankly, it wasn’t a big deal and it doesn’t hurt anyone if some men love other other men and act feminine, or some women love other women and/or act masculine. But the categories remained intact, despite the acceptability of some deviations.

It seemed like there was a natural way for the majority of both sexes of act.

I started working at a multinational clothing retailer recently. I only work a few days, mostly nights. Actually, I’ve probably been fired because I haven’t been scheduled to work in the last two weeks because I called in sick too much because I work too much because none of my jobs pay enough so I work too many hours.

Anyway…

Most of the time at this job all I do is fold clothes. Somethings I work in the early morning unpacking new shipments of clothes and putting them on the sales floor.

I mostly work on womens’ floor, because womens’ clothing sells much more than mens’. There is more work to do because women buy way more clothes than men do. Maybe they’ve got something to sell, too.

One day I focused the lights on both floors. The boss told me to focus the lights on certain things in order of priority  1) Visuals (this means mannequins that are set up by the “visual team”- a labor aristocracy of workers who set up mannequins while the mass workers fold clothes) 2) Marketing- there are giant blow-up photos of women and men wearing the clothes we are selling. The womens’ floor has pictures of all women. The mens floor has pictures of all men. 3) Product- piles of shirts and jeans. This was the order of priority for what the corporation wanted customers to notice.

The company I work for launched a marketing campaign to market womens clothes to women and mens clothes to men. They bought ads on TV and on Facebook.

People came streaming into the store to buy the products. Men bought the mens clothes. Women bought the womens clothes.

Would anyone know what was right for women and men if the corporations didn’t tell us? I doubt it.

Corporate America controls the media. The media produces the common sense of our society- our idea of what is right and what is wrong. In our own time, the means of production also includes the means of producing culture. The corporati0ns produce our sense of self-hood through control of culture. They tell us what is right for women and men. Without the perpetuation of the gender binary by corporate america, people would likely find expressions of their sexuality much more comfortable than those given to us by the bosses.

Which makes me wonder- why are they so invested in producing men and women?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that until workers control the means of production, the bosses will control our most basic emotions about what it means to be a man, a woman, and to be human.