No more double-edged swords

No more double-edged swords

In this post I argue that we should build organizations that can't be used as instruments for enforcing capitalist social relationships.

No more double-edged swords: institutions that reinforce capitalism

In his short, readable book Historical Capitalism, Immanuel Wallerstein writes about movements that sought to take state power in the twentieth century. He says that when

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successful [these] movements were then confronted with the realities of the limitations of state power within the capitalist world-economy. They found that they were constrained by the functioning of the interstate system to exercise their power in ways that muted [their] 'anti-systemic' objectives.

Wallerstein argues that movements pursued the seizure of state power because "[t]here seemed to be no more promising alternative strategy." (All these quotes are from page 69 of that book.) I don't find that convincing as an explanation, but Wallerstein makes a more interesting point. He says that seizing

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state power at least promised to change the balance of power between contending groups somewhat. That is to say, the seizure of power represented a reform of the system. The reforms in fact did improve the situation [in those countries], but always at the price of also strengthening the [global capitalist] system.

That is: the world market had really important effects on all the movements that seized state power in the 20th century. After taking power they had to run their state and had to exist within the world market, which required various concessions. The capitalist system exerts force on everyone in it and disciplines everyone in it. Those who took state power then found themselves having to govern the population and in part having to transfer capitalist discipline onto the populace.

Wallerstein doesn't get into this but I think basically the same thing happens with union contracts - the union after winning an election has to help govern the workers. I wrote about this in another blog post, struggles try to take some social territory and to hold it. "Holding territory means having to govern that territory, and that governing takes place within the larger context of capitalist society. A collective bargaining agreement requires a union to govern the workers who fall under that agreement, or requires those workers to govern themselves, within a range of acceptable behaviors. If the workers go outside that range, there can be serious penalties. Effectively this makes the union into a lever for enforcing behaviors that are functional for capitalism. Unions are disciplined into helping discipline workers into doing their jobs."

To my mind this means there are basically two moments to struggles - their upswing and their peak/plateau/down-swing. On the upswing all kinds of movements are very disruptive and important. After their peak, many movements then become organs (and ideologies) of capitalist discipline, depending on the institutional forms they took (states, union contracts, etc). In my opinion, whether on the scale of a workplace, a local or regional industrial action or organization, or a national struggle, this means that we should be careful about the institutional forms our struggles take from peak to decline. There are institutional forms that require the institution to govern some social space and some resident population. More specifically, they require the institution to govern that population in such a way that it's partially functional for capitalism. We should reject those institutional forms to the best of our ability. Some of the time we may well not have better short-term options, and some of the time a struggle may be unlikely to actually succeed - a union campaign may be unlikely to win a contract, a local struggle with ideology about shaping state power may not stand a chance of doing so in the short term. That means that those struggles will peak well short of being able tp play any real role in shoring up capitalism. Participating in struggles like that can make sense some of the time. Still, in the long term we should be moving away from these kinds of institutions and struggles to build or participate in these kinds of institutions. I think the conversations about 'direct unionism' that some of us have been having and the solidarity networks like the Seattle Solidarity Network are both efforts to create institutions that don't play this sort of disciplinary role. We have a long way to go in all this.

Comments

Chilli Sauce
Jun 12 2012 06:12
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Holding territory means having to govern that territory, and that governing takes place within the larger context of capitalist society. A collective bargaining agreement requires a union to govern the workers who fall under that agreement, or requires those workers to govern themselves, within a range of acceptable behaviors...
...On the upswing all kinds of movements are very disruptive and important. After their peak, many movements then become organs (and ideologies) of capitalist discipline, depending on the institutional forms they took (states, union contracts, etc).

'Nother great post, Nate.

Joseph Kay
Jun 12 2012 08:01

Good blog. To play devil's advocate though...

Wallerstein's argument (as quoted anyway, I haven't read the book) seems a bit one-sided. It's true that operating in a wider capitalist society conditions any institution within it. But the nature of the institution and its relation to its membership would also seem important. So there seems to be a 'vertical' relation between institutions and constituents (state-citizens, union apparatus-shop floor), and a 'horizontal' relation between the institution and wider capitalist society (state-world market, union-the economy).

So it's not just that the USSR operated in a capitalist market, but that it was a state capable of governing and disciplining its population. Likewise with unions, it's not just the wider economic forces but the fact they have a bureaucracy, hierarchy etc capable of enforcing shop floor discipline. Which seems to be central to the question of 'no more double-edged swords: institutions that reinforce capitalism'.

The question is, if you don't have the vertical relation between union and membership, is the institution capable of disciplining its members? In theory you could have a self-managed contract where workers internalise the discipline required of them. But in practice it seems like stuff like direct unionism or SeaSol aims at not being able to be put in that position, but rather functioning as a catalyst to turn the everyday grievances of capitalism into collective action.

That's not to say such organisations could never be turned against their creators, but that a certain degree of 'inoculation' (preparation for likely responses) seems to be built in. So if for example SeaSol became such a thorn in the side of landlords that the local government offered them the chance to offer 'SeaSol seals of approval' to landlords to avoid collective fights, then they'd presumably reject it as leading away from collective struggle towards being a wing of the state.*

* which fwiw is the necessary political content of syndicalism, not how much Bakunin or Marx people have read.

Nate
Jun 12 2012 15:10

Thanks Chili. Thanks Joseph.

Joseph, well-said, that's really clarifying. I had something like what all you said in mind, I probly didn't convey clearly what I was thinking, and what I was thinking was not as clear as what you said. (I also meant to add but forgot - one problem with Wallerstein's formulation is that it could sound like "if only there were enough seizures of power in enough states at the same time then it would break the ability of world capitalism to put this pressure on those allegedly revolutionary states." As anarchists we certainly would reject that, because there's still that disciplinary relationship - the vertical relationship, as you put it - between states and 'their' subjects.

Joseph Kay wrote:
the nature of the institution and its relation to its membership [is very] important. (...) it's not just that the USSR operated in a capitalist market, but that it was a state capable of governing and disciplining its population. Likewise with unions, it's not just the wider economic forces but the fact they have a bureaucracy, hierarchy etc capable of enforcing shop floor discipline.

Yes, absolutely. There's a disciplinary relationship that the institution has to the rest of capitalist society (the union and the state are subject to pressures by the world around them). Then there's a disciplinary relationship that the institution has to its constituents (the union's membership, the residents of the population held by the state).

As you say, the question for other sorts of institutions is "is the institution capable of disciplining its members?" Like you said, there are kinds of informal discipline that we can imagine happening, but they're much softer and have little consequences other than interpersonal ones - smaller teeth there, to be sure, so those organizations are less able to bite their own members.

Joseph Kay wrote:
a certain degree of 'inoculation' (preparation for likely responses) seems to be built in [to organizations like Seasol and experiments at direct unionism]. So if for example SeaSol became such a thorn in the side of landlords that the local government offered them the chance to offer 'SeaSol seals of approval' to landlords to avoid collective fights, then they'd presumably reject it as leading away from collective struggle

Yes. That's the key issue I think. I tried to get into this in a long piece a while back - http://libcom.org/library/intermediate-level-trajectories-struggle - I think that struggles have a sort of wave to them. I mention this a bit in this post as well. When a struggle's rising it's one thing and when it's peaked/plateaued/declining it's another. Things about an institution matter differently depending on one phase of the wave. For instance in some instances, a push for a union contract has short term subjective benefits in a struggle, at least in the US; it's easily imaginable, it's easy to explain, it's easy to define what victory looks like and how to get there, it's more or less legitimate with a lot of people and easy to talk about in legitimate-sound terms like "fair day's wages" "legally recognized" etc. But then, as we all know here, if the push is successful then the contract which was a useful thing as a goal and shared framework during the upswing of the struggle then becomes part of the disciplinary mechanism of the new institution.

With Seasol and seasol-inspired groupings and direct unionism, in terms of this post, they're different institutions. In the metaphor in the title, double-edged swords, these are institutions that are a lot less double-edged. Which means that they're going to look a lot different after the peak of the wave, so to speak - they won't be able to discipline their members in the same way etc. I think that's really what I'm trying to think out in this post - organizations before and after the peak of a wave of struggle. And what sorts of things we want to build in (or not build in) to our organizations, as part of what we want and don't want to happen after a wave of struggle peaks and declines. I think we'd rather see almost complete organizational collapse instead of conversion of our organization into a disciplinary mechanism that transfers pressures from the larger capitalist society onto the organizations members.

I also want to point out that I think this stuff is important but it's not radical on its own, I think a lot of the reformist worker centers in the US are sort of similar, and it's possible to pursue apolitical direct unionism (direct unionism that's all about a fair day's wages). So that this organizational form stuff is important but not sufficient. I know the three of us (Joseph, Chili, and me) agree on this but I figure it's worth saying anyway.

Joseph Kay
Jun 13 2012 08:55

I think the danger with a wave analogy is it might imply symmetry, whereas I think struggles are asymmetric. I mean, it's correct to say that struggles rise and fall, and that institutions/organisations can play differing roles in different phases - the classic example being a militant struggle for union recognition that succeeds and incorporates that same union to police shop-floor militancy under a contract.

But struggles rarely leave people unchanged. That doesn't mean necessarily changed for the better: people can become radicalised but also demoralised and burned out. I think this is where methods of struggle are crucial, and in particular direct action. Do the methods of struggle foster participation, development (of confidence, skills, ideas), and for want of a better word, empowerment? Or do they promote passivity, stasis, and powerlessness/reliance on representatives?

To the extent 'struggle is the school of socialism', struggles are asymmetric. Part of not being a double-edged sword would seem to be employing the kind of methods to promote this asymmetry. In other words, the wave may fall but the tide may rise. E.g. a strike ends, mass meeting participation dwindles, but a workplace organisation could be larger, have more contacts, and be better placed to instigate the next fight ('wave'). Best case this could lead to a virtuous circle - organisations emerge from struggles stronger than they went in, are in a better position to instigate new fights which further strengthen them and so on (obviously, the reverse can also happen - defeat, demoralisation, weaker position, defeat...).

Easier said than done and by no means a linear process, but I think it's an important dynamic. And I think we probably agree on this too, it's just a case of working through it out loud.

Nate
Jun 13 2012 15:46

I definitely agree but am pleased to hear it express out loud. If you don't do something with "the wave may fall but the tide may rise" then I may steal it, that's excellenet phraseology!

Steven.
Oct 21 2012 17:48

Is there any reason the publishing date of this has been edited to today? If not it should be set back to its original publishing date…

Nate
Oct 21 2012 18:44

hi Steven, I dunno why or how that happened.