Rethinking Anarchism


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.

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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.



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.



For Communism
September 21, 2009, 7:15 am
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organize

A friend of mine recently told me that he has realized that the radical left doesn’t really do anything. Sure, there are journals and blogs, ink and pixels spilled over theoretical questions, punctuated by the odd mass mobilization. But what the fuck does the radical left actually do in society?

Not a whole fucking lot for people who claim to be revolutionaries.

As someone who spends almost every waking minute talking to workers or fighting my own boss, I find this very frustrating.

I think it’s time to clean house. There is no longer any room for anyone above the struggle. The world has been interpreted enough. The point is to change it.

The “movement” is not made up of those who necessarily self-identify as revolutionaries, anarchists, marxist, or what have you. It is made up of those who struggle against their own masters from their own class position. As Marx wrote, “communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established , an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

For this reason, the starting point of our politics must be concrete and direct involvement in the struggle of our class. In a truly revolutionary movement, there is no room for staff organizers, professional intellectuals, and everyone who makes a career or hobby out of someone else’s struggle. We’re all in this together.

What is the deal with peoples’ fear of mass work? You are scared of talking to strangers? And you want to smash the state? Let’s have first things first, shall we?

I’d like less talk and more action.



Where is Detroit?
February 25, 2009, 1:43 am
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This past weekend, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being guided through Detroit by a working class militant who has spent the last 36 years in the city. In front of a backdrop of rusting factories and rotting houses, he soliloquized on  the long ebb of the tide of organizing in a city that once was both the crown jewel of industrial capitalism and a burning hot bright spot of working class radicalism.

His story is the tale of a long-lost left, of organizers’ iron optimism and steely commitment to a Revolution that has not yet happened. As the machinery of the Motor City  goes, so go the motors of struggle built by the last generation.

In the 1970s, Detroit drew  a turbocharged mixture of young workers and young radicals. The auto industry was the “most advanced sector” of production. All industries served as inputs to auto manufacturing, and autos in turn shaped the geography of postwar development. Factories like Ford’s “Rouge” plant employed up to 100,000 workers. The social structures that grew around this system of production set the paradigm of normality for generations of workers in the entire country. Americans were told that “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” Detroit was the heart of the economic, political, and social life of a nation.

Because of this, the city and its industry were a magnet for organizers seeking to overturn the economic, political, and social structures of capitalism. By the 1970s, an alphabet soup of left groups had established bases in Detroit. The cadre of these organizations entered the factories, intending to organize struggles in the heart of the capitalist system. A revolution based in the factories of Detroit would have unparalleled global ramifications.

Fueled by this belief, organizers toiled away, building motors, and motors of struggle. The years passed, and attrition amongst the cadre accelerated. By the late 1980s, the decay of the auto industry was mirrored by the disbandment of many left organizations. Militants left the factories and were not replaced by a fresh wave of organizers. The motors were idled, then scrapped.

The destruction of these motors of struggle is based on subjective and objective failures. Subjectively, few militants are willing to spend years of their lives build ing a long-term revolutionary project. This leads to the burnout of the hard core of activists who keep organizing going. Objectively, for the few people who are serious enough to want to organize, it is now unclear where we might make the most effective intervention.

Since the 1970s, the globalization and informatization of capitalism led to the creation of a globally networked, decentralized system. It is now much harder to find strategic points for organizing. Where would radicals who want to build workers power in the belly of the beast even go these days? Where is our Detroit?

If we can answer this question, then perhaps we will be able to push each other to rise to the occasion of building new motors of struggle, maybe even with some improvements on the previous models.