After the First of Many Last Resorts: on ports and activists

A brief piece critiquing activists' attempted management of the #Occupy "West Coast Port Shut Down" in Portland, Oregon.

Submitted by scottydont on April 7, 2012

We can only conclude that the shutdown of West Coast ports on the 12th of December was a success. Commerce was stopped in a massive way up and down the coast. The material effect of this action is enormous compared with any other action in Portland within recent memory and we greet this turn towards the large-scale blockade of the circulation of commodity capital with a smile and open arms. In the world of just-in-time production–in which capital gains the vast majority of its profits through the global circulation of commodities–an attack on this circulation is a direct attack on the reproduction of capital. But even more importantly, we approve of the blockade of infrastructure as a tactic of struggle because it fits our position in relation to capital. We are, as are most of those who participated in the blockade, proletarians who expend our labor in a world of part time jobs, temp jobs, non-union service jobs, and student jobs. We are often unemployed, and even more often deeply in debt. We are not often in a position to withdraw our labor from our own places of work, if we are even “lucky enough” to have one. Thus, as some perceptive comrades in the Bay have recently pointed out, the blockade of workplaces other than our own, particularly those that are highly strategic for capital, can become a primary tool in our struggle against capital . As they write:

This is why the general strike on Nov. 2 appeared as it did, not as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from large factories and the like (where so few of us work), but rather as masses of people who work in unorganized workplaces, who are unemployed or underemployed or precarious in one way or another, converging on the chokepoints of capital flow. Where workers in large workplaces –the ports, for instance– did withdraw their labor, this occurred after the fact of an intervention by an extrinsic proletariat. In such a situation, the flying picket, originally developed as a secondary instrument of solidarity, becomes the primary mechanism of the strike… Such mobile blockades are the technique for an age and place in which production has been offshored, an age in which most of us work, if we work at all, in small and unorganized workplaces devoted to the transport, distribution, administration and sale of goods produced elsewhere.

From this point of view when we blockade ports, we are doing so not because we are asking the support of the workers who work there, nor because we are claiming to be in solidarity with them, but because we are asserting our ability as members of our class to materially challenge capital. In reducing our blockade to a shell game with a union arbitrator, in which the efficacy of the blockade itself is secondary, we only hurt ourselves. If we can use the decaying inheritance of the ILWU’s militant past to further our blockade then so be it. But to rely on this as the basis for our action is an absurdity. As our comrades from the Bay eloquently put it:

The subject of the “strike” is no longer the working class as such, though workers are always involved. The strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it, and perhaps to wage-labor entirely. We need to jettison our ideas about the “proper” subjects of the strike or class struggle. Though it is always preferable and sometimes necessary to gain workers’ support in order to shut down a particular workplace, it is not absolutely necessary, and we must admit that ideas about who has the right to strike or blockade a particular workplace are simply extensions of the law of property.

Quite. We would add that the idea that workers who work in a given workplace must be consulted and their permission given to blockade, or that a blockade must be first and foremost an appeal to them, is nothing but the worst kind of sentimental workerism. It sees them (conveniently burly men in pickups!) as the “real working class” and can only conceive of “us” as “outside agitators” or “activists” with a specific cause attempting a substitutionist action. It renders our role as humbly cultivating their support, asking for them to withdraw their labor out of some sense of solidarity or, perhaps more accurately, sympathy for our cause. Instead we assert that we are not asking for their solidarity and even less their sympathy. We are demanding it as members of our class, and are willing to back up that demand with the physical force of a blockade if they do not give it. Those who do attempt to cross our lines are scabs, pure and simple, and should be treated as such.

But perhaps you do not wish to join us?
Almost as soon as the blockade of the Port of Portland was in place, the familiar faces of Portland’s activist far left appeared. They seemed primarily concerned with rendering our collective actions as symbolic as possible. Apparently, to them “Shut down the ports” means symbolically picketing the ports and begging union workers to respect our picket. Throughout the day organizers argued, or, perhaps more accurately, “informed” the crowd through megaphones and sound systems, that truckers should be let through, because they were non-union independent contractors and would lose their pay. Some even went as far as arguing that the longshoremen who did not choose to respect the picket should be let through, even though they had little to nothing to lose by a show of solidarity! In a show of double-speak that was impressive even for leftists, certain individuals wearing IWW pins literally argued in favor of the “right to choose to work”

This behavior is nothing if not revelatory of these activists’ real role as managers of struggle. When they advance the idea that any open conflict with port workers should be avoided because it will generate that mythical creature called “bad media”, they demonstrate not only their total lack of understanding of the media (of course most of the news coverage was terrible anyway), but their desire to convert even the most material of actions into a managed media spectacle. When they argue that truckers should be let through because they actually have something to lose by choosing to show solidarity, or being forced to, they show that their own concept of solidarity extends only so far as it does not require personal sacrifice or impede on an individual’s choice to work (a point where they find common ground with the architects of the anti-Union legislation they so vociferously denounce). When they patronizingly remind us, as if we are foolish children, that “we are only here to blockade the port” when the crowd attempts to block a recycling truck moving through a gate adjoined to the main port terminal, they display their desire to make sure that the action has as limited and specific a material effect as possible rather than generalizing the stoppage. When they argue that we will “alienate workers” by standing firmly in the principle that a picket should not be crossed by anyone, and forcefully backing this up, they demonstrate that their conception of movement building, whether cloaked in global justice rhetoric or in the walking corpse of the “one big union”, is simply incompatible with social war (or class war for that matter). When they argue that a picket is somehow a symbolic action fundamentally different than a blockade, they demonstrate either their total ignorance of the historic workers movement, or their desire to participate in continuing its total disarming.

With friends like this, who needs laws
Let us be clear. We do not think that the actions of these activist-managers represent individual failures to carry out principled action or personal failings. We have little desire to moralize. Rather we think that their actions must be understood as structured by the ways in which capital has come to manage the ever increasing amount of proletarians who do not find themselves working within the large workplaces where industrial unions have been developed as a primary management strategy. With this in mind, the context of our comrades’ argument that the “working class”, as such, is no longer the subject of the strike and has been replaced by a more diverse proletarian layer bears more detailed examination. In part this change in class composition is based simply in the fact that since the 1970′s capital has flung increasing amounts of proletarians in the United States into work that does not center on large workplaces with collective bargaining agreements. We have seen casualization, underemployment and unemployment, new lines of credit available to the working class as a replacement for the steady wages of large scale production, and a booming prison industry to take in ever larger numbers of surplus workers. We all know the story. We live it. But this is simply demographics. On another level we argue that the working class, as such, is no longer the subject of the strike because the history of the 20th century workers’ struggle has lead to the almost total integration of the formal party of labor (unions, in this case) into capital. In the United States, Great Depression era legislation gave legal recognition for certain groups of workers to collectively negotiate with capital in the form of unions. However, amendments to this legislation largely meant that the cost of this was the loss of the established forms of class struggle developed by the workers movement. Solidarity strikes, political strikes, wildcat strikes, secondary and mass pickets were all traded for a limited set of legal rights and formal recognition for unions. We would note that it is here that the picket line, which had originally served as a physical blockade of the workplace intended to force the withdrawal of labor and prevent scabbing, slowly evolved into the symbolic display that a strike was taking place, and a passive moral appeal not to scab. Unions and capital effectively became co-managers of large industrial workplaces. A privileged sector of proletarians, “the industrial working class”, was guaranteed a certain stability, legal recognition of their right to collectively bargain, and given relatively high wages in return for a certain restraint (with the added benefit, for capital, of guaranteeing their higher purchasing power). It is precisely these legal limitations that prevent even a union with the militant heritage and rhetoric of the ILWU from ever formally supporting an action like the port shutdown, even if the rank and file do. This is also why the ILWU is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the militant action undertaken by Longshoremen in Longview earlier this year.

Thus when we argue that “the working class” and in particular the industrial working class is no longer the subject of the strike, we do so not because we wish to reject the possible participation of workers in large industrial workplaces, but rather out of a recognition that neither the forms of class struggle that led to the the creation of large industrial unions, nor the unions themselves, can any longer be at the center of a real attack on the reproduction of capital. Even though union workers can still take militant and inspiring action, as Longview proved, we should be realistic about the content of these struggles. As our comrades from the Bay write: “Though they employ the tactics of the historical workers’ movement at its most radical, the content of the Longview struggle is quite different: they are not fighting for any expansions of pay or benefits, or attempting to unionize new workplaces, but merely to preserve their union’s jurisdictional rights. It is a defensive struggle.” Unions as a whole form, and not just the “conservative leadership” that leftists are so found of talking about, have almost totally reached the end of their utility for active struggle. While this in no way means rejecting union workers, we must suppress any nostalgic longing for the supposed authenticity of union workers and industrial workplaces.

What we really wish to highlight here is how the attempted management of the various layers of unorganized proletarians who made up the port blockade follows the exact same logic as the ways in which unions manage the industrial working class, only informalized. When the arguments and statements of the activists who attempted to mediate the blockade are examined in this light, their managerial role becomes even more clear. They wish to impose the same limitations that unions impose on their workers on the “unorganized” proletarians who made up the bulk of the port blockade. They carry out a self-inflicted Taft-Hartley act, so to speak, through their affirmation a limited and almost legalistic concept of solidarity, without even the need to invoke the formality of the law. They try to make sure that a strike action or blockade only reaches the limited and specific target of an individual capitalist enterprise, without the need for a formal limitation on secondary actions. They want to keep the picket safely positioned as a symbolic moral appeal rather than a physical blockade, without the need for intervention by the armed wing of the state. In this they represent the full triumph of the last the 30 years of neo-liberal counter-revolution: activists that will self-police proletarian struggles without even the need for formal bureaucratic positions or state backing!

On Violence and Conflict
Obviously it is no surprise to us that these semi-professional leftists continue to play the managerial roles they have learned so well from their activist careers. Nor is it particularly surprising that those who are so eager to claim the heritage of the historic workers movement out of a nostalgia for a supposedly lost authenticity are prone to reacting to the messiness of lived class struggle by attempting to manage it. Although, we must point out the depth of their historical ignorance is somewhat surprising: would the port strikers in 1934 have let independent, non-unionized workers through the gates on the grounds that they would have lost wages? Have there been any meaningful strikes in history in which workers expected to receive wages from their bosses while striking? More than anything they seem to have forgotten that proletarian action means the exertion of force against capitalist relations of production, including those proletarians who do not show solidarity with their class. Instead they insist, thought a truly neo-liberal rhetoric of inclusion, that any activity we engage in must be constructed as “outreach” to an wholly imaginary working class that will be “alienated” by any show of force.

Let us strip away the legalism of the last half century. Let us re-remember that blockades and strikes have always been violent acts; they are a direct assault on the reproduction of capital, they attract violence from the police and military forces, and they involve the use of violence to maintain class solidarity and prevent scabbing. They are conflictual affairs, not amiable discussions nor symbolic media spectacles.

For an escalation of tactics and a continual attack on capital

-A Party Against Order
December 15, 2011

PS- hella props to all those who worked hard to make it happen, and then refused to play your role as managers. we got your back when you get ours.