Gayge Operaista writes about some of the strengths and weaknesses of anarchist political organizations, the IWW and solidarity networks in the U.S.
INTRODUCTION: WHAT DO WE SEEK TO ACHIEVE IN THE NEAR-TERM?
This piece seeks to provide a set of opinions on what strategies we, as revolutionaries, might take in the near-term future (the next couple of years), critique some tendencies in our organizations, and hopefully ground all this in a realistic assessment of the current class composition. This piece is in no way intended to be the final word on these matters, but rather a discussion and debate starter. It is not "what is to be done?" but rather "where are we at? What are things that make sense to try at this juncture?"
While much of the assessment of the current composition of the class, and the current composition and capacity of revolutionary organizations focuses on the US context, some of this may be applicable to other contexts, and I welcome dialogue with comrades internationally. We find ourselves having made it through a year (2011) where the class started to show a long awaited tendency toward recomposition, and struggle grew more coordinated and began to be slightly less atomized. What started in the US with a "militant reformist" struggle in Wisconsin broke out later in the year in the Occupy movement, which saw its high water mark on the West Coast, particularly in Oakland on November 2nd with the attempted General Strike, which I have written about previously. I stand by my commentary, even if I was "high on communism" and thus overly hopeful when I wrote it, four days after the events of November 2nd. While a move-in day was attempted in January in Oakland, and was impressive in the number of people that were willing to confront certain massive police violence, it is clear that in the US context, the public expropriation of large buildings will require full-blown insurrection. My prior writing reflects the fact that a rupture was opened, and while it was likely not nearly of the magnitude that could lead to even a localized insurrection, it still required coordinated effort by the trade unions, non-profits, progressive/"former radical" politicians, and opportunist mistakes by revolutionaries to promptly close it.
Even though 2011 was an exciting year, with more visible, widespread, and massively self-organized struggle than we have seen in the US in a while, and even with the recession of the Occupy wave we saw a more vigorous May Day than we have in the last few years, we must be careful to not deceive ourselves: the class struggle is still carried out in a very atomized manner and there are many tasks to accomplish in the process of class recomposition. Similarly, conscious revolutionaries are few, in general lacking in praxis, and atomized.The vast majority of the Left is in disarray. Parties, factions, and so forth that would claim the legacy of Lenin continue to deteriorate; similarly, the vast majority of anarchists only get roused out of lifestylism to tail after mass struggles. Simultaneously the most interesting milieu in the US is the one consisting, in the main, of the (somewhat sectarianingly named) "Class Struggle Anarchist Conference" organizations, the groups sometimes referred to as the Jamesian organizations (small, generally local organizations that draw major inspiration from C.L.R. James, autonomism, and so forth), strong, active currents in the IWW, and various fellow travelers. This milieu serves as a loose hodgepodge of anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists, and the Marxists who are still far more committed to revolution than writing polemics between irrelevant sects. Much of this milieu is overwhelmingly white and male, which is both a serious distortion of the class and reflects the flaws in the practical activity of much (but not all) of the milieu.
The disarray of much of the Left is an opportunity to develop new praxis. Detritus and disorganization is what stands in the way of the class building the self-organization that serves its current and future situation, not an entrenched Left that has somehow "lost its way". We have several roles in this task as revolutionaries: to recognize and record the struggles of the class; to effectively put forward our analysis to provide guidance to the rest of the class in struggle; to realize the potentials in struggles that may not be apparent to the other participants; to participate in struggles in ways that furthers the process of class recomposition; and to find ways to organize ourselves as revolutionaries that reflects the class and enables us to better accomplish our other tasks. As Nate points out, we need to avoid "double-edged swords"; we should avoid rebuilding the old Left (or even the New Left), and we should avoid building up organizations that will put decision-making into the hands of "representatives" of the class. Our current situation is full of both opportunity and danger, for while the strength of the class is starting an upswing, there is little momentum to counter any mistakes we may make. We should be ever wary of falling for a tendency of "don't think, organize!". It is better to think too much and not intervene than to intervene so badly we make things worse.
WHAT IS MEANT BY "THE DIALECTIC OF EXPLOITATION AND REPRESSION"
Here, we can draw a strong parallel with the idea of there being a dialectic between political and economic struggles; we can also draw a strong parallel to the fact that all economic struggles are in some way political, and vice versa. It is also tempting to view these as completely synonymous, and in many ways "struggles focused on exploitation" are generally primarily economic struggles, but, the differing sets of terms reflects the priorities of much of the milieu, particularly the CSAC submilieu (the IWW is more comfortable framing things as political and economic, the ease which Wobblies sometimes see these as two entirely separate spheres is perhaps one of the flaws of revolutionary syndicalism as opposed to the anarchist syndicalism of the CNT or the Marxist Unionen of the historical AAUD or KAUD), and reflects the larger milieu that many revolutionary anarchist communists and their fellow travelers come out of.
As Harry Cleaver describes in Reading Capital Politically (specifically, pg. 109-110), struggles by workers over solely quantitative matters (hours worked, wages, etc) were seen as economism, and labelled as being entirely within capital, whereas the only political struggles are ones that directly threaten the existence of capital by attempting to seize power by a revolutionary overthrow of the state. However, as Cleaver explains, the quantitative struggles, beneath the surface, have a qualitative element as sufficient quantitative gains by workers threaten the survival of capital by jeopardizing the realization of surplus value. Furthermore, the purpose of work in capitalism is social control, thus, work is a tool of political repression of the proletariat. The exception are the deals, that were especially common in the Fordist era, where increased wages were traded for increased productivity (which can end up strengthening capital). Cleaver concludes with pointing out that political struggles for workers' control that increase productivity or develop capital are also counter-productive. However, in general, the economic struggle has a political element and the political struggle obviously aims to change economic conditions.
It is easy to see how if we, instead of adopting the economic/political frame, adopt the very similar exploitation/repression frame, we must realize that there is no exploitation without repression. Without a repressive apparatus, the irreconcilable class antagonisms would very quickly end, as Marx puts it, "the expropriators are expropriated" (Capital Vol I, pg. 929). And without any exploitation, the repressive apparatus would have no point; all class systems are exploitative, and the state (as the primary repressive apparatus used against the exploited) arises because class antagonism is irreconcilable. In a more immediate sense, we see that heightened repression is a necessary part of the "accumulation of misery" that creates a reserve army of labor, giving both a higher general rate of exploitation and creating instances of hyperexploitation among sections of the class (pg. 799). When we focus on exploitation, and we struggle with the most exploited sections of the class, we will be forced to confront the repression that is the direct cause of that hyperexploitation. And when we enter into protracted struggles against repression (rather than just showing up for spectacular protests), we will be forced to deal with how the hyperexploitation that repression facilitates structures the potential responses to that repression.
There is no irreconcilable contradiction between economic/quantitative and political/qualitative struggles, or struggles against exploitation and struggles against repression. We can see that when we see, for instance, the political element in an "economic struggle" or the exploitative element in an "anti-repression struggle", we can then explicate how, when we dig through the surface form of the struggles, we see that the content of all them are social struggles. Part of the task of revolutionaries in the current period is to unveil the core content of struggles and propagate that analysis beyond their limited circles.
VULGAR WORKERISM AND HOW IT AFFECTS ORGANIZATIONAL COMPOSITION
Two forms of vulgar workerism are particularly rampant in our organizations. The first is the tendency, particularly in the CSAC submilieu and the IWW, to focus solely on economic/exploitative struggles and to ignore political/anti-repression struggles. There is a tendency, though not universal or insurmountable, to be apolitical, rather than antipolitical. We must always remember that the communist movement is antipolitical - its goal is the utter destruction of class society, and thus the end of bourgeois politics. In the IWW, the challenges in confronting this is in how direct unionism - our workplace committees - and solidarity networks confront repression in the work we do. We will discuss this more when we talk about these forms of organization. The IWW form, as a revolutionary syndicalist organization, and its particular history provide a narrowness that can be both an advantage and disadvantage. Advantageous as it provides focus; disadvantageous as its history can encourage people who join up just as activist stamp collecting (at best maybe getting involved productively; at worst, trying to use the organization as a venue for their pet projects). This, combined with the IWW's focus, can lead to blindspots about anyone other than the stereotypical straight white male worker and their experiences of work. Both direct unionism and participation in solidarity networks can overcome those blindspots, and by overcoming those blindspots, shopfloor organizing and solidarity network actions relevant to a greater and greater cross-section of the class can occur.
In the CSAC submilieu, there is not the same narrowness. This particular submilieu often suffers from a lack of focus, with little common work or coordinated activity. This lack of emphasis on common work and common strategic orientations leads to frequent displays of sectarianism from people on all sides of a variety of issues. The submilieu has a loose structure of "what we don't do", mainly being a way to differentiate itself from all the self-proclaimed anarchists outside the submilieu. Oftentimes, given the prevalence of lifestylism and a "militant" version of non-profit style activism that goes on in the general anarchist milieu, rejecting many of the actions taken by people in the milieu is wise. However, as anarchists outside the CSAC orbit tend to heavily focus on anti-repression struggles, this need for differentiation, combined with a vulgar workerism that sees class as an identity (substituting a "true prole" identity, complete with scally caps, peacoats, and a general softness on patriarchal behavior, for the more prevalent drop-out identity in the milieu) rather than a social relation and reduces the class struggle to the workplace and narrowly economic struggles over things such as rents, causes the CSAC orbit to downplay struggles that initially focus on repression. A further critique of the CSAC milieu and political organization as it is is given in a fragmentary form by Juan Conatz. This beginning of a serious critique is well-worth reading, and I agree with all his points.
The second form of vulgar workerism is to fetishize mass organizations that are perceived to have grown out (of certain segments) of the class; particularly the fetishization of the bureaucratic enemy of the working class, trade union bureaucracy. This also ties into the trend of seeing mass organizations as inherently non-revolutionary, rather than non-revolutionary right now. While one who is in a trade union because of their job should of course organize with the rest of the rank and file, a pipeline from our organizations to union salting to union bureaucrat is contradictory to our revolutionary aims. The trade unions do win short and moderate term benefits for those they represent; but in the long-term, they divide the class and are another tool of capital to impose the discipline of work when it is in crisis. Furthermore, Selma James does an excellent job of tying this point in with the vulgar workerism of narrowly focusing on primarily exploitative struggles in centralized waged workplaces. As she says in "Women, the Unions and Work, Or…What Is Not To Be Done":
Until recently the capitalist class with the help of unions had convinced men that if they got a rise in pay they got a rise in standard of living. That’s not true, and women always knew it. They give men a pay packet on Friday and take it back from us on Saturday at the shops. We have to organise the struggle for the other side of wages -against inflation -and that can only be done outside the unions, first because they only deal with the money we get and not with what we have immediately to give back; and second because they limit their fight -such as it is -only to that workplace where you get wages for being there, and not where your work involves giving the money back.
It is not simply that they don’t organise the shoppers; it is that the union prevents such organisation, by fragmenting the class into those who have wages and those who don’t. The unemployed, the old, the ill, children and housewives are wageless. So the unions ignore us and thereby separate us from each other and from the waged. That is, they structurally make a generalised struggle impossible. This is not because they are bureaucratised; this is. Their functions are to mediate the struggle in industry and keep it separate from struggles elsewhere. Because the most concentrated potential power of the class is at the point of direct production, the unions have convinced the wageless that only at that point can a struggle be waged at all. This is not so, and the most striking example has been the organisation of the Black community. Blacks, like women, cannot limit themselves to a struggle in direct production. And Blacks, like women, see the function of unions within the class writ large in their attitudes to them. For racism and sexism are not aberrations of an otherwise powerful working class weapon.
You will see by now that I believe in order to have our own politics we must make our own analysis of women and therefore our own analysis of the whole working class struggle. We have been taking so much for granted that happens to be around, and restricting, segregating ourselves to speaking and writing about women, that it looks like we are only supposed to analyse and understand women after others (men) have analysed the class in general–excluding us. This is to be male-dominated in the profoundest sense. Because there is no class in general-which doesn’t include us and all the wageless.
While Selma James primarily focuses on the history of the trade unions in the UK, there is a long history of racism and sexism in US trade unions as well. A well-known part of IWW history was the fact that we were one of the only organizations willing to not only organize women and people of color, but to also let them join and participate as full members of the organization. As to her points on an analysis of the whole working class struggle, I will return to them later.
The larger problem is in the focus on the numbers involved in the struggle, rather than the character or quality of the struggle. There is a constant tailing of the "class" (read: those portions of the class most able to fit the mold of the waged laborer) and a need to participate in whatever will attract the greatest numbers, no matter the content of the organizations involved. Instead, a focus on assisting in the building of quality self-organization rather than quantity at all costs is needed.
If we look at the current composition of groups in the CSAC submilieu and the IWW, there is a significant dominance by white males, particularly in the CSAC submilieu. This is not primarily because of recruitment strategies (though those play a part in that the core of these organizations are very often social circles), but rather the content of the work done. People join the organizations that are relevant to their lives and that they can stand, and while people often put forward proposals to make organizations more welcoming, people don't join and stay in organizations that feel "welcoming" that aren't relevant to them. While perhaps tautological, people in strata of the class heavily targeted for repression tend to have a more immediate and personal concern with anti-repression organizing. In addition, the fetishization of waged labor does not speak to the specific concerns of women, nor the "surplus army of labor", which is overwhelmingly made up of POC. The IWW's organizing strategies will push it in a direction of dealing with these issues as they naturally include anti-repression struggles. The CSAC submilieu, lacking any common work or common strategy, leaves this unresolved.
THREE FORMS OF SELF-ORGANIZATION PARTICULARLY USEFUL ON THE CURRENT TERRAIN OF STRUGGLE
It is easy, when there is a wave of struggle (such as Occupy Oakland at its height, or before that, the Oscar Grant struggle, to take two examples from Oakland) to know where we should be, and our need to participate in the spontaneous self-organization of the class in a principled manner, deepening and connecting struggles, hopefully pushing them to their limits, and guarding against the recuperation of the trade unions, non-profits, and progressive politicians. What we should do is a more difficult question when there is not a wave of struggle to participate in, and the daily struggles of the class (for struggle is always everywhere) are atomized. I can personally identify three types of projects that seem particularly useful with the current composition of the class, and have potential to further our goals. These three forms are Solidarity Networks, Direct Unionism, and small organizations formed on political affinity by members of particularly repressed and exploited sections of the class. Solidarity Networks and Direct Unionism have been discussed at length by many others, and I shall primarily direct people to their writing, while providing some commentary of my own.
Good information on the "why" of solnets can be found in the aptly named Why You Should Start a Solidarity Network and advice on starting one can be found in the Building a solidarity network guide. Striking back at bosses: solidarity networks and sexual assault raises important questions on how solidarity networks should deal with organizing against repression, as frequently, the cases solidarity networks take up often feature instances of repression and not just pure exploitation (of withheld wages or security deposits, for instance). Solidarity networks have a very intuitive recruitment model - the people who come to the solidarity network for assistance in their struggles are empowered by taking a leading role in their own struggle, and hopefully stick around, becoming a permanent part of the network. By being open to struggling against repression in the cases taken, and by doing so effectively, solidarity networks will gradually become more and more reflective of the class as a whole. Key to being able to start this process is early on in the formation of the solidarity network having members who have experience being effective organizers in struggles with a strong anti-repression character. There are several possible starting points for building a solidarity network. SeaSol was started by Wobblies in Seattle, in other cities, solidarity networks have been started by collectives or locals of larger organizations. Solidarity networks can even be started by informal affinity groups; the key is to start with enough capacity to take on a fight, because nothing builds like doing and winning.
The debate on direct unionism can give us a good idea what it means; direct (or, sometimes, solidarity) unionism has been extensively discussed and debated within the IWW. This practice of direct rank-and-file struggle rather than struggle to attain contracts and representation has much to recommend it, as one will gather by reading through the debate. Much like solidarity networks, direct unionism forces us to confront repression when it occurs on the shop floor, as it forces us to smash the lines such as race and gender to stand directly with our fellow workers rather than with the bosses. Anyone interested in direct unionism as a form of struggle should join the IWW, whether they work in a shop that is controlled by a trade union or not. If there is not an active IWW GMB where they live, they can build one.
Perhaps less clear is what I mean by "small organizations formed on political affinity by members of particularly repressed and exploited sections of the class". What precisely are the form of these? What content are they intended to convey? How can they be useful in struggle? As usual, I think form is something best worked out by the people involved, arising out of what they're trying to accomplish. People should form groups with people that are in similar locations or strata in the class as they are, and address immediate issues that they can organize around, in ways that bring in other members of the class to struggle directly. Thinking of what sections of the class we are in, and organizing around immediate needs makes our organizing relevant to people who also face those immediate needs.
Depended on the intended goals, greater or less degrees of theoretical unity are needed. For instance, TransFix NorCal started with the intent to encourage stronger community and the formation and strengthening of networks of mutual aid in the trans community in the SF Bay Area. The theoretical unity necessary to work toward this goal did not require we all read Capital and have an identical interpretation - it involved recognizing how nonprofits can be disempowering and a commitment to accountability to each other and to a community. We also made a tactical move to challenge how other stratifications in the working class affect the trans community. Many well-educated, primarily (but by no means exclusively) white trans people move to the urban centers of the Bay Area (particularly San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley), and have little connection to hyperexploited and intensely repressed Black and Latin@ trans and queer communities in the Bay. I have since moved back East, but, my friends in TransFix are trying to overcome that barrier in a constructive way by reaching out to the organizations in those communities and providing the support asked for, in an attempt to build relationships and break down barriers.
Other useful possibilities based on location or strata in the class would be clinic defense work - defense of access to reproductive health care and abortion is most definitely class struggle, as it is resistance to capital's control of women's bodies as a site of production for labor power. Grassroots organizations that help women to leave abusive relationships can also be seen as class struggle, as women do the majority of reproductive labor (in the sense of reproducing labor power (not just biological reproduction)) in the class, and being forced to caregive one's abuser is a double insult. In all these instances, white supremacy must be directly confronted in how capital mediates patriarchy with race. In terms of location, anti-foreclosure and home occupation work directly in heavily affected communities, by the people who live in those communities has a ton of potential to expand throughout the class. And of course, the classic organizing strategy of Copwatch forces us to face the fact that groups such as people of color, trans women, the homeless, the mentally ill, sex workers (and we must recognize that both historically and currently, the forcing of women into prostitution is directly linked to housewifization) are the sections of the class most intensely targeted by the police.
Extensive mention was made of reproductive labor; in general, the milieu has failed to learn the lessons of autonomist feminism, and I think this has led to the milieu being less relevant than it could be to women and queers, and has substantially narrowed the scope of organizing that is done. As Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa noted in their historic pamphlet, not only is reproductive labor ("women's work") fundamental to capitalism, but also that there is often the necessity for sections of the class (such as women, queers, or POC) to organize autonomously. Revolutionary feminist organizing has been at a long, unfortunate lull for several decades; however, it is work that we as women must take the lead in. Male-dominated organizations should find a way to support it without attempting to lead it. The glorification of wage labor and the dismissal of housework is unsurprising in a male-dominated milieu (of course, there are now very high rates of wage labor in working class women - everyone is expected to work for a wage. Women just have to raise the kids, clean the house, and cook the meals as well), but ends up being toxic to women in organizations (particularly those with significant unwaged caregiving responsibilities), but also leads to a cultural rift when trying to organize with women. As Federici points out in an essay well worth reading, this housework is qualitatively different in that it has been naturalized into an inherent trait of a gender, allowing it to be viewed as "not real work". We need to understand it is real work, grasp its centrality to capitalism, and then incorporate this analysis into our organizing.
CONCLUSION: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
I have not spoken much of the Jamesian organizations, as I am less familiar with them, though I hope the members of those organizations will find my general analysis useful and contribute to the discussion. It should be clear that while the IWW does in places need to work on internal culture, be intentional about recruitment and campaigns, that the best solution is for the direct unionism tendency to stay the course and continue to expand, and learn to confront struggles that present primarily in the form of repression as they present themselves. To repeat myself, anyone who personally wants to be involved in direct unionism should join the IWW. Places where an IWW General Membership Branch is the main grouping of people with the capacity to get a solidarity network off the ground may well see the people who get a solidarity network going meet through the IWW (there are of course legal issues with the IWW officially having solidarity networks as part of the IWW).
The "political organizations" of the CSAC submilieu have a lot of work to do. In areas where they have strong locals, those locals are the perfect springboard for solidarity networks. The CSAC organizations tend to put the cart before the horse, expanding before there is common work and strategy. Local organizations and locals of larger organizations should find work that builds the self-organization of the class and also allows for the development of common work, and, as my commentary has hinted at, a common strategy of targeting patriarchy and white supremacy as key components of class composition.
We should also look around us and find the people in similar situations to us, that can form the core of groups to address those situations. We should not be afraid to start new projects and to put those forward in ways that broaden the struggle. One possible use of these smaller, less focused organizations is bringing up the level of general theoretical education. Unfortunately, sometimes, some of these organizations have been the most hostile to having a coherent theoretical framework as a weapon of the proletarian movement. I, personally, feel that that coherent theoretical weapon of the class is to be found in several strains within Marxism; the key is to extract the useful Marxism from the corruption of Marxism that been used at times to control the class. More generally, people getting educated through informal mentoring often means that occurs solely through social circles, and often has problematic racial and gender dynamics. More structured educational methods can be purposefully setup to address those issues.
Finally, we need to spend more time asking ourselves "why?" and "what will this accomplish? how does this fit into a larger strategy?" before we do things. We also need to learn that belonging to an organization on paper is not the same thing as doing common work with people with whom we share a common strategy. We need to identify what work we want to do, who we want to do that with, and what our overall near and moderate-term strategy is. Then we organize ourselves around that, rather than organizing everyone we are somewhat politically close to, and then trying to figure out what we do. In other words, we are a milieu that has many theories and takes many actions, but we have not synthesized those into a coherent whole. We are in search of effective praxis, and we will be far more relevant once we have it and consistently use it.
Originally posted: June 15, 2012 at Autonomous Struggle of the Glittertariat