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 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.

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.

A Gap in the Theory: Mass Work and Anti-Oppression Work
July 31, 2009, 4:46 am
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I organize unions. It’s what I do. It’s simple and unglamorous. It usually goes something like this: I talk to a coworker, or a worker who works in another workplace. I find out they have problems at work or problems that are caused by work. We discuss these problems and think about ways to bring their coworkers together to put pressure on management to fix these problems. I try to do this in a way that builds class unity and hatred of the boss.

Some of my activist friends think that what I do does not address oppressions based on race, gender, or other forms of identity. They think that what I do is basically a way of  “escaping” from my own white male identity, as if I’m somehow “slumming,” just pretending to be a regular workaday guy for a littiel while until I go to grad school. This is pretty insulting, but there is a real theoretical question buried in the uncomprehending activist bullshit.

What is the relationship between mass organizing and anti-oppression organizing?

There is a gap in the theory here. Marty Glaberman writes about “Black Cats, White Cats, Wildcats,” telling us that in the struggle against the boss, racism often evaporates. But there’s more to it than that. What about the struggle against racism itself? Can we only fight racism when struggle against the boss erupts? Is it possible to fight the boss as the boss, and fight racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and so many other oppressions) as its own system of oppression? Is this what we need to do?

In my own experience, I have found that building mass organization is a powerful way of building solidarity across all kinds of lines of difference in the working class. But the question remains: what is the relationship between mass work and anti-oppression work?

This theoretical gap is not likely to be filled by corporate liberal “anti-oppression” trainings. Let’s get thinking. We need to find our own solutions.

“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.

To the Brink

Insurrection in Greece. Riots in China. Factory occupation in Chicago.

The pace of things seems to be quickening. A friend of mine says, this is our time. Which of course raises the question, what do we do?

Fortunately, we don’t really need to answer this question ourselves. People already are doing something, it’s up to us to support them, and perhaps, draw out the most radical content of the struggle.

As moments of resistance multiply, the radical lessons become clearer. We don’t need capital and the state. If workers can occupy the factory, workers can run the factory. If workers can run the factory, workers can run the world.

This is the syllogism of direct action. Direct action is not only a tactic to be used to win victories within a larger strategy based on a diversity of tactics. Direct action is inherently revolutionary in that it points beyond itself. Within direct action are the seeds of a new social order, an order without bosses or bureaucrats, capital or the state.

As long as reformist trade union bureaucrats or politicians remain the ideological leaders of the working class, they will seek to stifle the potential of the working class and obscure the meaning of direct action. Workers will take society to the brink, and the reformists will coax them back down.

It’s our job to push the world over the edge.

So how do we do this? How can we act to realize the radical potential of mass struggle?

Here’s a few ideas I’ve some up with based on thinking about how I would act if I lived in Greece, or Chicago, or China. In the abstract,:

-Prefiguration. In a revolutionary situation, the struggle is final. In this sense, the struggle does not prefigure the future. The struggle is the future. The seizure of capitalist assets does not prefigure the seize of capitalist assets in a future revolution; the seizure of capitalist assets is the revolution. There is no turning back. For this reason, the struggle must create the kind of society we want to live in: non-hieararchical, non-oppressive.

-Polarization. Without the support of broad strata of the people of this planet, any alternative will be unable to expand, and will be crushed. It is necessary to polarize the world against the enemy to ensure the safety of liberated areas and enable future expansion. We should act to bring the broad masses to the side of the insurgent workers, even if this means making compromises on the public message in the media.

-Dual Power/Reclamation. Any challenge to capital or the state must endeavor to not only hold territory or assets hostage to win demands, but actually establish a permanent base, linked to other bases in a network of counterpower. The goal should not just be to win isolated struggles, but to hold on to assets, neighborhoods, and constituencies. In the decisive moment, assets should be seized rapidly, then set into motion to create more resources to use in the war against capital. For example, media installations should be taken over permanently in order to spread news of the revolution. This will help maintain and deepen social polarization.

-Generalization. Support is not enough. If the revolution does not expand, it will collapse. The struggle must be generalized, or globalized, in order to stretch out the forces of the enemy (at minimum) or establish a sustainable counterpower culminating in revolution (at maximum). This requires global solidarity and organization.

-Defense. Polarization will only go so far. The working class must build the capacity to defend liberated areas from capitalist attack– by any means necessary. Defense organization should also be ‘prefigurative,’ in other words, democratic. The militant defense of spaces from attack will reinforce popular support for the struggle and prepare the workers forces for future battles.

-Offense. The power of the state must eventually be destroyed. We will not be able to reach certain areas through “generalization.” We will need to either invade or isolate these areas. It’s worth remembering that the capitalist class has no right to exist. Although armed struggle should not be a primary tactic in the struggle, we must build the military power of the working class to defend the revolution.


-Organization. We can’t wait for things to happen. We must organize locally now in order to be able to effectively support struggles as they intensify across the globe. This means building up democratic union organization in the workplace, and solidarity organization in neighborhoods as well. This will help build a revolutionary social bloc.

-the Revolutionary Social Bloc. Through organization, we need to build a social majority that is opposed to capitalism in its concrete manifestations of cutbacks and wage slavery, as well as its domination as a social form. We must polarize society against corporations specifically, and capitalism in general.

-Globalism. We must link all struggles as widely as possible geographically. Currently, there are very weak links between the Middle East, China, and the “West.” This is unfortunate, since China and the Middle East are currently central to capitalist globalization. It would make sense to make a concerted effort to build ties to workers organizations in those regions.

-Subversion. Radicals should consider careers in the military and law enforcement. We need to undermine the repressive apparatus as much as possible, and if possible, bring it to the side of the workers.

-Armed Struggle. This is a failure as a revolutionary strategy, but may have its place as a tactic of defense and offense. It would make sense to start building up armed workers organizations right now.

These are some ideas that have crossed my mind as I have watched Greece burn. The pace of change will probably quicken again over the next year. This is our time. Let’s not waste it.