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.

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.

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.

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.

What We Say We Are
May 16, 2009, 12:33 am
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There is a gap between what we are and what we say we are. This is the gap between reality and representation. The reality: we are a collective of workers seeking to undermine the very foundations of the capitalist system. The representation: we are the oppressed, seeking gradual reform within the system, making use of the provisions of liberal democracy to better our lot in life.

We seek tactical allies. Priests, politicians, cops, lawyers, liberals, and bureaucrats come to our aid. We do not turn them away. We polarize society against one boss after another, dividing and conquering the ruling class. This is the air war, the corporate campaign, the liberal cause.

We build our strategic base. Workers unite on the job and in the community. We build our power. We reach a tipping point. The proletariat comes into its own. We take off the training wheels and ride. We turn the world upside down. This is the ground war, the revolution itself. The reality destroys the representation. We lose our allies and win the war.

There are dangers to this strategy. We can mistake the representation for reality. We can become dependent on our allies, the means altering the ends. We can lose our best people to our tactical allies. Nevertheless, as we rebuild our power, we must use every weapon available against the bourgeoisie, including their own.

There is more to be said about this. Particularly about the subjective effect on workers of winning struggles largely through corporate campaigning or NLRB process. I wanted to get a few thoughts out there to help me sort through this stuff. I’m also not so sure that building community coalitions with liberal groups or bureaucratic organizations is the right way to go, although it’s hard to imagine organizing these days without doing so.

“Poor Workers’ Unions” by Vanessa Tait

When most people think of unions, they think of middle-aged white men, dreary, underpopulated picket lines, heavy industry, and the 1930s. In “Poor Workers’ Unions,” author Vanessa Tait shows that there is more to the labor movement than these outmoded stereotypes. Relegating the business union establishment to the fringes of her narrative, she tells a story of the continual resurgence of independent workplace organizing initiatives since the Civil Rights movement.

Over the course of seven chapters, each covering a different time period, Tait sketches the outlines of an organizational form that she calls “Poor Workers Unions.” Based in sectors of the working class that are excluded from the union establishment, or even excluded from the protections of labor law, Tait’s “Poor Workers Unions” are member-driven organizations that embrace disruptive direct action tactics. In part because they are made up of those who are excluded from the traditional AFL-CIO unions, poor workers unions often are rooted in a particular racial or ethnic segment. Workers turn this specificity into a strength, drawing on specific traditions of struggle and resistance in organizations like the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, or Black Workers for Justice, or the many “workers centers” that serve as organizing hubs for immigrant workers.

The history of Poor Workers Unions is incredibly inspiring. Again and again, workers who have been excluded from unions decide to organize. Sadly, once these new organizations grow and  stabilize, they are absorbed back into the business union establishment, losing much of their radical edge in the process.

Tait argues throughout her book for a reorientation of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to organize poor workers. I would argue instead for a reorientation of poor workers away from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. These organizations are a graveyard for organizing, and are incapable of defeating the bosses, let alone abolishing capitalism. After building their own organizations through bitter struggle, poor workers deserve more than the high dues, lack of democracy, cooptation and purple t-shirts the business unions offer.

Tait is not the first historian to study poor workers unions. German theorist Karl Heinz-Roth studied the immigrant workers movement in Germany from the late 19th century to the 1970s. He claimed that the workers movement is actually two movements- the established trade union movement and its parliamentary corrolary, the Social Democrats, and the “Other Workers Movement,” made up of workers excluded based on trade, ethnicity, race, or gender. According to Roth, the Other workers movement remains dormant most of the time, only to explode in spontaneous self-activity, throwing up democratic organizational forms in grassroots unions, wildcat strikes, riots, and even insurrections. Occasionally, the movement is able to build sustainable organizations to carry on the struggle beyond spontaneous uprisings. The historical IWW is an example.

Tait shows us that poor workers are more than capable of forming unions and fighting. It is now up to radical labor to show that workers can achieve greater goals than access to the sinking ship of reformist trade unionism.

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.