Tyler is wrong about everything, as usual

Tyler is wrong about everything, as usual

This is a response to a blog post about the current state of the IWW in the US and Canada.

Hola, amigos. How you been? I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya. I just haven't had anything to say worth saying. I guess that's never actually stopped me. I dunno. Just been busy with backaches and insomnia and gardening and getting old and shit. Plus there's been some great noise rock out this year. You checked out USA Nails? Fucking great shit. Anyway, if you know Tyler then you know he's always wrong. But he's such a sweetheart no one ever wants to tell him. Latest thing he's wrong about is the IWW. You should go read his take, it's here.

Some other people helped him, and they must be smart people because there's insights in the piece. Below is my response, trying to respect the insightful parts, and disagreeing with the Tyler parts.

“the objective state of [workplace] struggles is not taken as the starting point for organizational efforts within the formal IWW.”

That seems only partly accurate to me. The training program is basically predicated on there being a low level of struggle and so low knowhow, and the training program is definitely ‘formal’ in multiple sense of the term. I may be just tripping over terminology here, I find the ‘formal vs real’ thing confusing in general. One thing I see in that distinction - and I may be reading in my own views since like I said I find it confusing - is the issue of where the life of the organization is, like at a meeting with other wobs making motions or in some other site doing other stuff more centered on opposing bosses. I think the former sort of stuff can tend to loom large in people’s live in the organization, and people who are more bound up with the latter aren’t always doing the former so much.

I don’t get what’s illuminated by the charge of ‘mysticism’ and I think there may be some assumptions built into this that I question — “a couple of solid militants raising the possibility of job action is qualitatively different from a standing organization at a workplace publicly recognized by the workers and the company.” If I read this right, you’re saying on the second thing is *really* a union. I mean, I guess so. I don’t really care about the words, except that we need names for stuff. There’s been comrades over the years (like Scott from Recomp) who have been like ‘let’s drop the term union because of its baggage’ and I’m sympathetic but I also think the percent of people for whom that baggage exists is tiny. Most people, especially people under 30 or 40, have never encountered a union in a way that gives them strongly held ideas about it, so the term basically means whatever people want it to mean. The main reason to use it IMHO is that it’s a comprehensible regular word (unlike, say ‘soviet’ or ‘council’ or ‘mass organ of the proletariat’ or whatever), and one fewer confusing association than, say, ‘party’, which is widely used on the left.

Terms aside, I think it’d be worth digging into what “a standing organization at a workplace publicly recognized by the workers and the company” would be and why (or, under what contexts/conditions) it’d be desirable. One of the views behind the direct unionism paper IMHO is that it’s better to build an organization that falls apart in the shop and has to rebuild than it is to build an organization that becomes a lever for managing workers. I think in some ways that sensibility is pushing on an open door - unions of that type are increasingly rare and it’s not clear if they’re going to come back - though some wobs, in good wob fashion, seem intent on reviving that particular ghost.

I agree that there’s little bureaucracy-as-brake. That does sometimes happen in the process of chartering branches. [shrug]

The IWW “is not a union of workers who join out of interest, but a few hundred political militants and their contacts who have a beautiful if vague vision of a different world and the need to fight for it, a vision that is as contradictory as struggle itself.” This is pretty much true, with distressingly few exceptions. One thing I’d add though is that I hesitate in the face of talk of ‘interests.’ Talk of ‘interests’ rings in my ears like workers are basically stomachs or low bank balances with legs and that kind of sensibility comes up too much among the marxist corners of the left. (EP Thompson blamed Stalin for this, then later said it’s rooted in problems in Marx. I dunno where it comes from.) Workers do lots of things for lots of reasons, reasons they have ideas about, and even the most vanilla trade unionism involves people committed to political or ethical ideas (just bad ideas).

I like the phrase ‘social ecology.’ I agree that some of the formal procedure stuff can take up too much of that. I also think this piece really underestimates the positive role that formal procedure stuff can play in the organization’s social ecology. This piece basically treats the formal stuff entirely negatively. But, like, the training program gets a budget every year and keeps a spreadsheet. That’s formal, and useful, and important for the positive aspects of the life of the organization.

I think there’s a strong strain of spontaneism in this piece - social dislocation propelling workers into action etc - that I don’t share. I’m sort of agnostic either way about spontaneism and voluntarism. I think elements of both make sense. I think we don’t actually know what makes political stuff happen most of the time and theories about that stuff provide an illusion of clarity that’s comforting but not as accurate as they sometimes feel.

I’ll also say, I think in general the IWW talking about ‘the working class’ as an existing entity - that there’s this class there in the world doing stuff, as if the class for itself exists right now - has always struck me as goofy. As such I also think analysis like Hamerquist’s - ‘this has roots in the class, so it’s not subject to an organizational fix’ - don’t really hold water. The IWW’s not doing stuff with the working class. The IWW’s doing stuff with tiny, tiny handfuls of working class people. Lenin somewhere says something like ‘politics begins when millions are in motion, not thousands, millions.’ So the IWW’s basically pre-political then. At the much smaller pre-political scale of the IWW — that is, relative to the tiny handfuls of people the IWW consists of and is working with politically — organizational fixes have way more power IMHO than that Hamerquist quote suggests. I think trying to apply that quote and analysis about the class as a whole in its hugeness is sort of like trying to plan how much money I can spend this weekend using the tools that government planners use to make sense of ten years of national GDP. There’s a mismatch between the scale of the concepts and the scale of the actual activity.

“the issue of imparting the IWW a political character” That’s a mischaracterization IHMO.

I’ve not read much from either caucus though I’ve seen some views expressed informally by people in both. I don’t feel much connection to either. I don’t know that that matters at all, just trying to be up front.

“Struggles in the context of social reproduction, in this case against the police and prisons, are not only “equally important” to workplace organizing, but central to the class experience and the heart of the crisis itself. And where the class struggles, so we as militants must be.”
That’s a good clear statement of your view. I don’t know if I share it or not. This implies that if struggle breaks out elsewhere and dies down in one spot, good militants should probably jump ship. During the financial crisis, there were struggles over eviction and foreclosure, those has died down relative to other things (in part because of important defeats), so that stuff’s off the agenda of serious militants and the other new flash points are on the agenda. I think there’s stuff to recommend that approach, and there’s stuff to recommend against it. I lean against it and toward something more like ‘core down into an area of life under capitalism, or into a location, and work on whatever’s there, regardless of what’s currently the most friction-laden social location.’ I think probably it’s best if ultimately people are pluralists on this, with some people seeking to be at ‘the heart of the crisis’ for the class, moving as that heart moves, and other people seeking to be cored down as I suggested. I’m unsure if these two approaches co-exist well *in a single organization*. Currently some of the debates in the IWW map onto this IMHO and make me pessimistic that co-existence, but I’m not at my most objective judgment.

I’m pleased by your respect for Recomp and the direct unionism paper. Thank you for that. I am entirely unsure what we accomplished in either effort. Both were meaningful to me personally to be part of and that has to be enough for me to feel okay about the time and effort. It’s nice to hear that people I respect and like also found those efforts worth something beyond personal meaning, and I hope that ends up proving true.

In this section I don’t share the assumptions about social struggle and IWW renewal, but I’m not saying you’re wrong either. I think that section is written with more certainty than I think is warranted. Like I said above I’m not convinced we really know. I lean *in practice* toward acting as if we believe the IWW can be built linearly, one small march on the boss at a time, because I can see what that practice looks like in, uh, practice. I have a hard time understanding what the ‘IWW renewal requires proletarian upsurge’ view amounts to in practice given that such upsurges aren’t happening much, and definitely aren’t in waged workplaces. One response seems to be ‘the closest thing to those upsurges are outside the wage workplace so let’s go outside waged workplaces’ in keeping with your ‘militants go where the heart of the struggle is.’ Like I tried to say above, I think that’s a defensible view. But I’m not sure ‘militants go with the heart the struggle of the class’ means *the IWW* goes there. To be real: the IWW’s irrelevant in the big picture, the medium picture, and the small picture. It’s relevant in the very, very tiny picture. Maybe it stays that way until massive rupture, as your piece implies. Maybe it stays that way until massive rupture *specifically in the waged workplace*.

I guess I don’t see why the relevance of the IWW should be a concern. I think that focus could itself be called a kind of ‘formalism’, because overly concerned with this specific formal organization rather than with the lived networks of militants and members of the working class in struggle, networks that run through multiple organizations and aren’t monopolizable by any single organization. What I mean is, militants don’t have to be single-organization-focused. One version of ‘militants seek to be in the heart of the struggle’ = ‘the IWW changes its focus.’ Another version = ‘militants are really focused on the IWW when the IWW is relevant or useful, and are really focused elsewhere than the IWW when that focus elsewhere is relevant or useful.’

I feel like this relates to an article John O’Reilly and I wrote a while back, here https://libcom.org/library/industrial-unionism-one-big-unionism-part-4-three-big-unions-iww-revolution. As always we were (or at least I was) figuring out the ideas by doing the writing, so it has all kinds of flaws. Not pointing to it because I think I am or my ideas are important, just saying this is the best I’ve managed on this. After a bunch of conversations and some articles that at best only sort of worked IMHO, I started to think the IWW should talk more about the various understandings of revolution and organization that float around inside it. (Beautiful and vague ideas, as you said.) I looked at it again now. I guess it’s like 5 years old. I don’t think my views have changed, which fits with my general condition of stagnation.
Here’s the gist: “A revolutionary situation in our day (or, within our lifetime) will involve millions of people in a complex ensemble across the class. No single organization will lead or control this. The working class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have multiple types of organization (such as unions of waged workers, committees of unemployed people, tenants' organizations, etc), and multiple organizations of each type. In all likelihood the IWW will be one working class organization among many who make an important contribution to working class revolution. As the working class takes action in a revolutionary situation there will have to be different practices developed than those that the IWW practices, and different kinds of organization - including both formal organizations and informal organizations. (…) The IWW and the sorts of activities that the IWW currently carries out will not be the only things that go on during a revolutionary situation and are not the only things that will contribute to a revolutionary situation taking place. We have to do our part, but everything does not rest on our shoulders.”

To my mind, the IWW now, prior to a revolutionary situation, should see itself as making small contributions to preparing small numbers of people for that future moment (or, more likely, I’m sad to say, preparing small numbers of people to work on preparing slightly larger numbers of people to work on preparing slightly larger numbers of people to contribute to that future moment).

I think we probly agree on some of that and disagree on some of what conclusion we think this supports.

I think your piece underestimates the value in “sign[ing] people up to the formal IWW.” To some extent, you’re right, sure, who cares. But signing people up, if it’s in the context of an actual substantive conversation about the short term struggle and organization’s core values (the Preamble and Think It Over and whatnot), then I think formally joining plays a role in political education, so to speak, and in people putting their money where their mouth is. “I’m down for this effort if it’s gonna get us more tips and end all the sexual harassment at work” is one thing. “I’m down for this effort to abolish the wage system and create a new society” is another. Seeing those two things as parts of a complexly interconnected process would be better still.

“We don’t have to get lost in the tediousness and formality as a means to have a relationship to whatever is good or interesting that is happening in the social milieu.”

“how decisive have those supposed resources and money been to our respective organizing?”
I agree with this. People will sometimes be like ‘we need to fund organizing more!’ and I think it’s mostly magical thinking. Like, organizing + money =…. what? Or more to the point: what organizing where and how, and how is lack of funds an obstacle to that? (And when/if it is an obstacle, how is it an obstacle we can *actually* overcome in a realistic way.)

“Better a small active network of militant fighters advancing the IWW traditions than a large group of passive dues-payers with legal claim to the IWW name.” Agreed. Though personally I think I’m way more in the ‘I’d prefer an IWW that’s maniacally, maybe even myopically, focused on waged workplace struggles’ than I suspect y’all are. (I want to be clear that that’s not because I think that stuff is all that matters. I take the point of this piece that the heart of the class struggle isn’t the waged workplace currently. It may never be again, I don’t know — I’m not someone who thinks the waged point of production is required for revolution, that’s something else I’m agnostic on. I’m okay with the IWW not being at the heart. I don’t need the IWW to be at the heart. It could be at the shoulder joint or at a lymph node. A body needs its heart more than it needs those things, but bodies need those things too.)

“What we can do now is to begin coordination of the social ecology, to turn the informal milieu into a scaffolding for future militant proletarian organization–who cares what it is called.” I agree with this completely. I’ve personally always seen the IWW’s activity as basically preparatory for some future moment (like in the Lenin quote about millions in motion). I think that I like have a different sense of how this preparatory work should best proceed than you do. I favor something of a division of labor with relative specialization per organization - waged workplace focused organizations, tenant focused organizations, etc - rather than organizations with more general focuses of activity. I can agree to disagree on this. I just have a hunch that specializing will work better ultimately as the way to ‘coordinate the social ecology’ of efforts to get the working class to become a class for itself (or efforts to be ready for when that happens; I’m unsure if we can contribute or not to the class becoming a class for itself, but I think trying to contribute to that process is good preparation for activity once that actually happens). So to my mind it’s a strategic error and overly broad in focus *for the IWW* to do all the activity you mentioned, but that is not to say that working class militants/radicals shouldn’t do all that activity. There should be people doing all that stuff and there should be a ‘coordinated social ecology’ of those militants. I’m just skeptical that having that coordination within/through a single organization makes sense, and I suspect it would would better if these efforts had different organization homes, with efforts to keep their relationships ones of solidarity and friendliness.


fingers malone
Aug 14 2017 10:24

I liked this article. I can't comment on the internal IWW arguments involved as a) I'm not in America b) I'm not in the IWW c) I don't actually know what they are about but there was one bit Nate wrote that really resonated with my recent experience.

Nate wrote about 'moving to the heart of struggle' vs 'coring down' and I strongly agree that both these approaches are valid andimportant, and neither has the class struggle holy grail.

'Moving to the heart of struggle'. At the moment all our struggles, whether workplace, housing, anti racism or anything else, are up against an aggressive well resourced ruling class on the offensive. The people directly affected in the struggle (the strikers, the tenants, or whathaveyou) will usually need a lot of backup. People going to wherever there is an open struggle and giving practical support is important as otherwise nearly everyone will lose, which just teaches people that struggle is a bad idea and no one else gives a fuck about you.
There's a strike ongoing at the moment with good lively picket lines, which are probably half and half striker and supporter. Doubling the size of the picket lines is really helping the pickets to be effective and is keeping up morale. The strikers also go to disputes in other industries, like a recent education dispute, and bulk up their picket lines so it's not a one way thing.

'Coring down'. There is a massive housing crisis ongoing and a lot of people have experience of trying to fight this without much success, which is exhausting and demoralising. After the fire at Grenfell there has been an upsurge in struggles because of so many blocks of flats being revealed to be dangerous. The places where a few people plugged away for years and years when no one paid any attention to them are in a better state now as there are some existing networks and the tenants know the people and respond positively to them.

Rather than arguing which is correct, moving to the heart or coring down, we could talk about why both of these are really difficult, our experiences of them and what we got right and wrong and how we can be more effective.

Aug 21 2017 07:57

email to tyler, hopefully contributing to the discussion:

I read your recent article on the IWW-caucus debates and want to share a few thoughts. We suggested discussing the article together with contributions from both WRUM and IUC at an informal smile meeting with, amongst others, comrades from IP (Workers’ Initiative, Poland) and El Salariado (Spain) in September - hopefully we can expand on the discussion after the meeting.

First of all, I share your criticism of IWW formalism based on my one year experience of being a member of the IWW in the UK. Too much time and effort is spent on keeping the structure going and re-shuffling it. Actual exchange of working class experiences is minimal, both because the exchange of, e.g. workplace reports or reports about local / town-wide proletarian experiences is not seen as a central function of a ‘national’ organisation and because there is an actual lack of experiences, too. I share all suggestions you make to foster the ‘real IWW’, meaning, the creation of open channels for strategic debate etc..

What I think is lacking in your criticism is the question why people maintain the importance of formalised structures, even though they suck up so much energy and can create pretty absurd relationships. You treat formalism a bit like a religious fetish: you mainly describe the absurdity of over-emphasising formal over practical relations, but you write less about why you think people do this. A formal structure with all the membership business, formalised functions etc. is probably more than just a ‘soul’ in a ‘soulless world’ that gives people a sense of belonging and cohesion by wearing IWW badges.

In the following I will play a bit of devil’s advocate for the IWW as a formal union structure. Behind this is our own grappling with the concept of a ‘class union’ (probably more a Spanish/Italian term). A union as a body of workers’ association that can operate within the legal limits of the labour law etc., that can call for official strikes etc. has to be a formal structure. That's by default, the legal circumstances prescribe it and the potential mass base requires it. For us the question is if there is a role for such a union structure that can be used by workers as one (!) means of self-organised struggle. A ‘class union’ would be open to workers of different political persuasions and professions etc. to conduct their struggle on the official level, as self-organised and unified as possible - which wouldn’t mean that there aren’t any other levels of struggle. Different political tendencies and organisations can relate openly to the class union, offer debate, education, strategical suggestions. As I said, this is hypothetical and I am not sure whether it is possible to actually formalise the relation between a rank-and-file union and ‘political organisations’ in a fruitful manner.


So what kind of concerns might hide behind formalism?

1) Keeping the focus on ‘the work-place’ as an reaction to the middle-class character of the ‘milieu’

Some of the formalism (“let’s just be a rank-and-file union for everyone”) is an expression of wanting to stay focussed on the sphere of production or rather, and that’s the problematic bit, ‘the workplace’. It is a reaction to the fact that most activists come from student and middle-class backgrounds, for who it comes easier to get engaged in ‘political struggles’ than to get rooted in daily lives of workers. Perhaps I am wrong, but my criticism of formalism would start with seeing it as an unproductive and unclear effort to keep the organisational work focussed on ‘the real thing’. The problem is that this is not spelled out politically: how do we see the production process today? how does it or does it not relate to other spheres of working class lives? how is it stratified racially and gender wise? etc. Instead, and you describe this clearly, it gets ossified in the organisation itself and an IWW methodology which breaks up a dynamic and contradictory social process into (perhaps more manageable) individual economic units (memberships, branches etc.) that are gradually joined together.

Because you mainly focus on the ‘real’ and current aspects of struggle in order to criticise the emptiness of formalism I feel that you have to treat class struggle with a certain immediacy perspective: whatever happens is the focus. Here I think we have political differences - and to be fair, I deduct this not mainly from your article on the IWW, but from recent Unity and Struggle texts and focus. I hope you don't take it the wrong way! This perspective that ‘class struggle is nowadays happening mainly in the sphere of social reproduction, because actual production has lost its significance for capitalism’ is propped up by historically and empirically questionable arguments made by groups like Endnotes etc. As we could see during most recent situations of ‘popular uprisings’, from Argentina to Egypt, the battle in the streets and for the squares can only produce a limited vision of social change. The ‘point of production’ remains the centre of workers’ self-emancipation and social transformation, not mainly because of some economic leverage or quantitative/empirical dimensions, but because of its social and material characteristics: people produce the material world and social relationships as capital, rather than just opposing or confronting it. The left has to engage in a deeper inquiry process about the modern production process and its social scope, rather than just keep on repeating empirically questionable opinions ('all gonna be automated; everyone will be surplus; nothing's happening').

2) Formalism as a way to provide a necessary structure and resource for workers to use

I therefore understand the general urge to ‘get rooted’ and of consistent and continuous organising, the problem is that in the IWW this largely happens in an unsystematic and unstrategical manner:

a) either IWW members just ‘organise where they are’ - and ‘where they are’ is seen as a kind of natural state of being - which explains the large numbers of student-type of jobs in organic food-stores represented. That’s kind of fine, but I would expect more strategical focus of the largely politically motivated members;
b) the organising focus is chosen on the basis of what ‘benefits or suits the IWW’ as an organisation, e.g. because the mainstream unions are not present or the IWW would get good publicity. Large areas of working class lives and potential power in the big industries (transport, agro-industry, manufacturing, public services etc.) are ignored, because the IWW would lose the official competition with the mainstream unions. This is problematic, because the starting point is not the working class, but the organisation.

Again, politically conscious members should debate where the current potentials of generalisation of class struggle are, e.g. because of new structural power, such as in logistics, or because of the general working class atmosphere, such as at the conjunction of low wage and anti-racist / anti-deportation struggle.

To make my point clearer I use the example of the IP (Workers’ Initiative) in Poland. From what I know their actual formal structure is way lighter than the IWW, less meetings mainly focussed on running the organisation. They nevertheless function as an official union shell that workers can use. In the case of Amazon it was Amazon workers (many of them supervisors who had experiences of working at Amazon abroad, before they opened the warehouse in Poznan) who approached the IP, because they saw that here they could ‘run their own union’, rather than being patronised by main-stream unions like Solidarnosc. IP is now the main representing union at Amazon Poznan and has managed, amongst other things, to organise international meetings of Amazon workers. The same happened recently at VW, where over 500 workers left Solidarnosc and joined IP - something quite incredible, knowing how VW manages union representation in general. IP comrades facilitate the process of ‘running the union’, but as far as I am aware of, they keep their other activities, e.g. squatting and housing struggles, work in the anarchist federation and theoretical discussions formally outside of the union, though workers can get in touch with this political dimension informally and personally.

3) Formalism as practice to run a potential mass organisation

Playing devil's advocate ain't easy, but another possible underlying reason for a formalism which seems stifling and for-its-own-sake in an organisation of the size of the IWW is that it's partly meant to be a structure for a potential mass organisation. This seems very hypothetical, but let's take Si Cobas that you mention in your article as an example. You are right, Si Cobas didn't grow gradually, but through a combination of factors: structural growth of the logistics sector, migrant work-force influenced by the Arabic Spring, old guard of experienced comrades from the vanguard of class struggle in the 1970s, a political and social 'ecology' of militants, squats and strategical thinking. They grew from a few hundred members to over 10,000 within a couple of years or so. They had no paid staff or elaborate committee structures. Collecting membership dues is pretty random. The lack of formal structures create problems when it comes to the question how the organisation is run and by whom. The organisation is dominated by 'the most active', to the extent that the political leadership of Si Cobas can threaten delegates elected by workers to be sacked if they don't turn up on pickets etc.. No doubt it is a very dynamic organisation, but for workers who are not or cannot be on the forefront the whole time it might be less transparent how things are run. (Having said all this in defense of more formalised structures there are obviously numerous examples, also within IWW, where individuals can hide behind structures and manipulate them in their favour. Attempts by more Leninist-oriented factions in London IWW to steer the IWW into different waters were not met with an open political debate, but they were excluded on formal grounds of having tried to 'build a separate union structure')


For us in AngryWorkers the IWW involvement is also an experiment about how largely migrant workers in the bigger workplaces in west London relate to more formalised union structures. For three years we try to get workers in warehouses involved through informal workplace groups and solidarity networks, with modest success. Where we work - workplaces with 1,000 plus workers - there is a mainstream union present, which means that formally the IWW will have little chance to act on the shop-floor. We try to act inside and outside the official unions in this case. We suggested to London IWW to start a three months organising trial at a dozen workplaces where no union is present - see invitation letter below. We are interested to see if the official union status of the IWW and the potential to, e.g. force management to act to an official wage dispute will make a difference. If workers react differently to more powerful looking union banners and decorum of officialdom. In addition to us offering workers to make use of the formal character of the IWW as a union vehicle, the organising drive will mainly be an effort to create a link between some of the London political scene and largely female, migrant workers in the outskirts, whose specific problems inside and outside of the workplace need to be addressed. We'll keep you updated about this effort and how it goes.

To conclude:

As I said, I agree with the measures you propose to make the current debate within and around the IWW and their caucuses more productive. I would add the following:

* debate the IWW as a 'class union', meaning, the IWW does not have to be a political and cultural home for anarchism, but a well structured organisation that workers of different sectors can use as an official formal body and as a means to exchange experiences; a sharpening of focus would allow to strip down a lot of the formal work
* figure out how a wider political debate and political activities can be organised around the 'class union' in a fruitful way, instead of different political factions fighting over the IWW as a political organisation
* focus the political debate away from 'what the IWW should look like' towards 'where are developments within the class, either because of material changes in production or because of class activity' where the IWW can function as a bridge and tool of self-organisation
* encourage locals to re-root themselves and to discuss their problems and experiences doing this: pick an area of town for a solidarity network; pick three, four bigger workplaces as organic focus; try to create a dynamic between both solnet and workplaces through meetings and a local publication; see the local newspaper not in merely geographical terms (leaving the paper in local shops etc.), but related to specific workers problems and places, e.g. go to the same areas and workplaces regularly; create a blog to communicate your experiences to the rest of the milieu/organisation

I send this as a personal mail, but if you think it's helpful I would post it on your blog and perhaps on libcom as a partial reply to Nate. Let me know what you think...

Warm wishes from Greenford, greetings to the others