Rethinking Anarchism

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.


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.

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.

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.