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.

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.

Obsolete Lenin
October 14, 2009, 1:35 pm
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I have four jobs- two in the fast food industry, one in a large multinational clothing retailer, and another as a substitute teacher. On my way to work today, I was thinking about the different flavors of alienation I have to look forward to. First, I will have to “manage” classrooms of children for eight hours. I have to follow a lesson plan set out by another teacher and approved by the state. But despite the drawbacks, teaching will be the easiestand best-paying job I will do all week. I will get several breaks, including a full paid hour for lunch. I can use the computer while at work. In fact, I’m writing this while on the clock right now.

After my day of substitute teaching, I’ll head to a fast food restaurant for a second full shift. At the restaurant, I’ll work on an assembly line, closely monitored and supervised by management, unable to answer my phone and confined to a ten-sq. foot area for eight hours. I will be physically and emotionally exhausted by the time I get home at the end of the day.

It seems to me that each of these types of work will give rise to different kinds of demands stemming from the particular nature of the alienation workers in each industry confront. Fast food workers are alienated at an intellectual level and a physical level. We have to produce emotion and feeling on the demand for customers. In addition, our bodies are put to work, our motions Taylorized down to the last twitch.

Teachers face a much more subtle alienation. Teachers are forced to “teach to tests” and stick to state-sanctioned curriculum. They are alienated from the students they teach, who confront them as alien objects that must be controlled and somehow brought to reproduce state-sanctioned knowledge. The alienation of teachers is primarily at an intellectual level.

Lenin claimed that socialist consciousness would have to come to the working class from outside because workers would only be able to advance to “trade union” consciousness, making “economistic” demands on their own. However, I think there is a tendency for the demands of workers to become more inherently “political” and less “economistic” as capitalism advances. How can a teacher make a demand without calling into question the legitimacy of the state’s plan?

I believe all workers should organize. However, I think it is worth noting that as workers refuse to perform the most alienating types of labor or as technology makes these jobs obsolete, most workers will face circumstances that are alienating on a more intellectual than physical level. As capitalism advances, every demand will be a demand for workers power, since every demand will be a refusal of capital’s right to manage the social factory. Similarly, as capitalism seeks to manage its crisis, the power of the state has become increasingly interwoven with the power of the bosses on the shop floor. The economic has become political, the political has become economic. Lenin is obsolete.

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

Review: “Soldiers in Revolt” by David Cortright
July 16, 2009, 6:35 am
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Soldiers-revoltWhen the Industrial Workers of the World was founded in 1905, there was almost no public sector. These were the days before Keynesianism. Lenin hadn’t written about imperialism yet. There were no Bolsheviks, the authoritarian left was but a vicious glimmer in an intellectual’s eye. The Second International had not yet collapsed. In this political climate, the workers movement swelled, launching continual offensives against the bosses.

This is supposed to be a review of a book about GI resistance during the Vietnam War, right?

Dammit, I’m getting there, OK? Many people on the left believe that while the Wobblies and maybe the CIO were well and good in their day, these days revolutionary opposition must come from outside the system. They look to indigenous peoples, to “deep ecology” and nature. They look to the Third World proletariat. When they look at those in the emloy of the state, the public sector and the repressive apparatus, they see a monolith. When they look at capitalism, they see corporate logos.

Where they merely see “the enemy,” we see people and a site of struggle. We see an opportunity for subversion at the system’s most critical points.

David Cortright’s “Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War” demonstrates once and for all that society is not a monolith, that there are contradictions within the system that can lead to the development of revolutionary consciousness in the system’s very core. There are cracks in the edifice. In a careful study, Cortright traces the evolution of GI resistance to the Vietnam War from early, “vote with your feet” tactics like desertion, to the development of politically sophisticated GI organizations and soldiers unions. Often under the influence of radicals who entered the armed forces to organize, the US military was rocked by rebellions, combat refusals, and mutinies. This organized resistance was underscored by widespread unorganized resistance and massive drug abuse and disaffection in the ranks.

The breadth and depth of GI resistance led to a breakdown of the armed forces in Vietnam, leading to the defeat of the US invasion. The US defeat wouldn’t have happened without the courageous sacrifices of the NLF and Viet Cong in their defensive war, but without the refusal of troops to serve in Vietnam, it’s likely that the US would have continued to bomb the country until there was literally nothing left. The unreliability of US armed forces was critical to the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam.

Cortright also explains how this defeat led to the development of a more high-tech, less personnel-heavy force, and the development of the US military strategy of proxy warfare and bombing lasting from the end of the Vietnam War to present. Already in 1970, the Pentagon was developing plans for unmanned aerial drones.

Finally, Cortright closes the book by examining the re-emergence of GI resistance during the Iraq War. While most of the anti-war movement has focused on intensive protest mobilizations targeting politicians, few organizers (save have considered the potential of organizing within the military. Even fewer (perhaps none) have considered joining the military in order to organize. History tells us that by ignoring this arena of struggle we miss a great historical opportunity. The state is not a monolith. Let’s plant seeds in the cracks in the edifice, and bring the whole fucking thing down.

Notes on Student Syndicalism
June 23, 2009, 3:50 am
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I wasted 3 1/2 years of my life in pointless pseudo-radical campus organizing projects. Here’s what I think I should have been doing:

1. Actively supporting labor struggles through organizing, community education, and direct action

2. Learning the skills of community and workplace organizing through training and experience

3. Learning the history of labor struggles and various theories of organization

4. Organizing a union of students to fight for our interests.

This is pretty much what I’d like to see a student union movement do in the US. The group could move through these tasks more-or-less sequentially. First, organize in solidarity with unions and workers. Second, get training and experience in organizing. Third, during this process, learn the histor and theory of radical labor. Fourth, organize a militant student union to fight against tuition increases, student debt, and unfair treatment.