Flyer from the "Occupy" movement's December 12 blockade of West Coast ports in the US, analyzing the blockade, plans for a general strike, and lessons from US labor history and May '68, from a perspective of "communization."
We’re making history today: we’re attempting to shut down all the major ports of the West Coast from the outside, following the example of Oakland on November 2. Port workers have shut down the West Coast before, not just for a day but for months at a time, cutting into the profit of the “1%” and increasing the power of their unions – especially the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, born from the three-month coastwide shutdown and four-day general strike of 1934. Today will be the first time a movement based outside the ports (including some port workers as active participants or passive sympathizers) will attempt such an action. The ILWU’s official statements against the action make this more novel and complicated, but do not invalidate this as a working-class action against capital.
In terms of immediate interests, doubters should know that the longshoremen will get paid today without working, if we have enough people blocking the terminals to constitute a safety hazard. The ILWU is mainly nervous because it was recently fined $250,000 for shutting down the Port of Longview against the union-busting of EGT Development, co-owned by Bunge, one of the companies infamous for monopolizing the global food chain. This highlights the contradictory position of unions in general – not because of individual union leaders or the degree of democracy in particular unions, but because of the contradictory position of workers: as producers of capital on the one hand, and as a force capable of destroying capital, on the other.
The first time workers shut down the West Coast, in 1934, many saw unionization as a necessary means to improve their situation, whether through reform or revolution. In response to widespread unrest during the Great Depression, and the “threat of communism,” in 1933 the federal government authorized the formation of industrial unions, and many workers channeled their resistance in this direction. On the West Coast, the International Longshoremen’s Association refused to address the grievances of rank-and-file longshoremen who flooded into the union, so they spurned the leadership and declared a port shutdown, gaining support from other port workers. After two months, the National Guard tried to restore order, killing two strikers and injuring over 100. The funeral procession turned into a four-day general strike in San Fransisco. It was the AFL Central Labor Council that took the lead in suppressing the strike, ending the port shutdown and leading to a compromise with the longshoremen’s demands. This is often celebrated as the founding of the ILWU, but it should be recalled that it was a rank-and-file action in which the existing union leadership played a negative role.
The ILWU has distinguished itself as one of the more democratic and radical unions in the US, but it cannot escape the basic function of unions in general as representative of workers as producers of capital, and not as the potential creators of a new society beyond capitalist control. “The spirit generated by mass strikes had helped build the industrial unions… But once established, the unions in turn did not promote disruption, either in economic or political spheres… To the contrary, the unions undertook from the outset to maintain internal discipline in the [workplaces] in exchange for recognition…” (Piven & Cloward, Poor People’s Movements).
Today’s action is led neither by unions nor rank-and-file port workers, even if they participate. For that reason it could be criticized as substitutionist or irrelevant to the working-class movement against capital. But May ’68 in France could be seen as one precedent for such an external intervention – a rebellion that did not start in the workplace, but which inspired workplace actions (despite union obstruction). In early 1968, radical agitation in universities about “the poverty of student life” led to expulsions, demonstrations, and clashes with the police. ‘The police brutality and hundreds of arrests arouse sympathy from all over the country, forcing the government to back down and pull back the police. Students and other young people occupy the [universities] and invite everyone else to join them, to come together in a democratic general assembly to address the many problems they face and see what solutions they might come up with.’ Radicals such as the Situationists pushed for ‘direct democracy in the assembly, and appealing to the workers of the entire country to occupy their factories and form workers councils… that would bypass the union bureaucracies. Within two weeks… virtually all the factories of France are occupied by over ten million workers. [Radicals] organized into a “Council for Maintaining the Occupations” (CMDO) undertake a massive effort to urge the workers to bypass the union bureaucrats and carry on the occupations in order to realize the radical possibilities that their spontaneous action has already opened up, noting that if they do so they will soon be confronted with the task of restarting the social functions that are actually necessary, under their own control. [Finally] the workers, understandably unsure of what to do in this strange and unaccustomed situation, allow the union bureaucracies… to insinuate themselves back into the movement in order to deflate and dismantle it.’ (Knabb, bopsecrets.org)
It’s unlikely that today’s action will lead immediately to mass strikes or workplace occupations, but some are proposing this as a next step for the Occupy movement by next May Day. There is a tendency to fetishize the general strike, probably because strikes of any kind have been so rare in the US since the 1980s. And it is true that the last nationwide event to be called a general strike, the “Day without Immigrants” on May Day 2006, managed to forestall the criminalization of immigrant workers in the US. But we should be clear about the limitations of such actions, considering that “general strikes” occur almost every month in Europe, with little effect, and even when protracted shutdowns and workplace occupations occur, as in May ’68, at best they have only set the stage for the otherworldly transformations that must follow.
Against Reform and Revolution
First we should respond to the idea that today’s action, like earlier “occupations” or a potential “general strike,” might serve as a means to “push back” against “the 1%” or petition the government to crack down on “corruption” and “corporate greed.” Anyone harboring such reformist hopes should brace themselves for disappointment. All kinds of reforms have been tried repeatedly throughout capitalist history. Any meaningful pro-worker regulations eventually become fetters to capital’s health, so it becomes necessary to dismantle them – to “save the economy.” That’s what we’re experiencing now, and a return to more regulation, more taxing of the rich to fund social services, etc., is something capital cannot afford without first restoring the rate of profit, which would require more of the same: rising unemployment, falling wages, cuts to public goods and services, and the acceleration of energy wars and environmental devastation, bringing us ever closer to catastrophe. So reformism is “utopian”; the only “realistic” way out of this mess is the path we have yet to forge.
The beauty and possibility of this movement lay not in the participants’ various goals, their strategies for influencing policy, but in the tactical form of “occupation” – liberating spaces and things from capitalist control, and collectively using them to satisfy our needs directly, without the mediation of money or the government. “For if anything about OWS is encouraging, it’s that in the first days of the present wave of occupations, veritable communes were set up in literally dozens of American cities, distributing food, shelter, and first aid freely and to all comers. Whatever else the [participants] believe about their movement, they’ve already begun to [create] living breathing communism in some of the least communal places imaginable. A movement that began as a political response to economic injustice has become an economic response to capitalism.” (Prima Porta, “Autumn of the Communes”)
Some would say this phase of the movement ended with the eviction of plaza encampments, but maybe it’s just beginning, as we relocate into abandoned buildings. With today’s port action, we invoke the specter of a more subversive kind of occupation: the communization of spaces and things actively functioning as capital. No one’s proposing that now, but if we want industrial actions to go anywhere, we should consider this possibility, and beware of (1) the futility of petitioning for reform, and (2) the futility of “revolution,” if that means replacing politicians, nationalizing industries, or even taking over workplaces and running them democratically, without replacing the system of commodity exchange in which they would still be forced to operate. This was the limitation of moments like May ’68 that we need to prepare for. We don’t want to end up with the future in our hands and then throw it away again, like a stillborn child.
“All past revolutionary movements were able to bring society to a standstill, and waited for something to come out of this universal stoppage. Communization, on the contrary, will circulate goods without money, open the gate isolating a factory from its neighbourhood, close down another factory where the work process is too alienating to be technically improved, do away with school as a specialized place which cuts off learning from doing for 15-odd years, pull down walls that force people to imprison themselves in three-room family units – in short, it will tend to break all separations.” (Dauvé, Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement)
If the slogan “everything for everyone” sounds utopian, bear in mind some variation of communism has been the norm for about 98% of human history, and survives in our everyday relations with friends and family (see for example Our Kind by anthropologist Marvin Harris). This isn’t a call to abandon all aspects of civilization and return to foraging. Capital’s dismal cycle of “creative destruction” makes such a way out seem increasingly attractive, if we manage to survive its apocalypse, but it’s not yet necessary to give up hope: it’s not too late to occupy all the good and bad things accumulated by this civilization, from ports to prisons to hospitals, and transform them according to our own collective desires. If this sounds unrealistic, how much less realistic are our lives becoming under the current conditions?
The crisis will not end until we end the reign of capital or it ends us first. Either way, things will get violent, but “the greater the insurgents’ fighting spirit, the more the balance of forces will shift away from State power, and the less bloodshed there will be… Communisation saps counter-revolutionary forces by removing their support. Communisers’ propulsive force will not come from shooting capitalists, but by depriving them of their function and power. Communisers will not target enemies, but undermine and change social relations. The development of moneyless and profitless relations will ripple through the whole of society, and act as power enhancers that widen the fault lines between the State and growing sections of the population.” (Troploin)
The Occupy movement and today’s coordinated blockade would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. If there’s still possibility in this movement, it’s in our dogged independence from the forces of the Left that are trying to co-opt our desperation – the unions, Democratic and would-be third parties, the non-profit industrial complex. Our only hope is our disillusionment with this world as whole, and the boundless creativity that ignites when we come together.
“Between the plaza and the riot, between the most saccharine affirmation and the blackest negation – this is where we find ourselves… In both cases, what is missing is a concrete movement toward the satisfaction of needs outside of wage and market, money and compulsion. The assembly becomes real, loses its merely theatrical character, once its discourse turns to the satisfaction of needs, once it moves to taking over homes and buildings, expropriating goods and equipment. In the same way, the riot finds that truly destroying the commodity and the state means creating a ground entirely inhospitable to such things, entirely inhospitable to work and domination.” (Research & Destroy, “Plaza – Riot – Commune”)