In this post I argue that we should build organizations that can't be used as instruments for enforcing capitalist social relationships.
No more double-edged swords: institutions that reinforce capitalism
In his short, readable book Historical Capitalism, Immanuel Wallerstein writes about movements that sought to take state power in the twentieth century. He says that when
successful [these] movements were then confronted with the realities of the limitations of state power within the capitalist world-economy. They found that they were constrained by the functioning of the interstate system to exercise their power in ways that muted [their] 'anti-systemic' objectives.
Wallerstein argues that movements pursued the seizure of state power because "[t]here seemed to be no more promising alternative strategy." (All these quotes are from page 69 of that book.) I don't find that convincing as an explanation, but Wallerstein makes a more interesting point. He says that seizing
state power at least promised to change the balance of power between contending groups somewhat. That is to say, the seizure of power represented a reform of the system. The reforms in fact did improve the situation [in those countries], but always at the price of also strengthening the [global capitalist] system.
That is: the world market had really important effects on all the movements that seized state power in the 20th century. After taking power they had to run their state and had to exist within the world market, which required various concessions. The capitalist system exerts force on everyone in it and disciplines everyone in it. Those who took state power then found themselves having to govern the population and in part having to transfer capitalist discipline onto the populace.
Wallerstein doesn't get into this but I think basically the same thing happens with union contracts - the union after winning an election has to help govern the workers. I wrote about this in another blog post, struggles try to take some social territory and to hold it. "Holding territory means having to govern that territory, and that governing takes place within the larger context of capitalist society. A collective bargaining agreement requires a union to govern the workers who fall under that agreement, or requires those workers to govern themselves, within a range of acceptable behaviors. If the workers go outside that range, there can be serious penalties. Effectively this makes the union into a lever for enforcing behaviors that are functional for capitalism. Unions are disciplined into helping discipline workers into doing their jobs."
To my mind this means there are basically two moments to struggles - their upswing and their peak/plateau/down-swing. On the upswing all kinds of movements are very disruptive and important. After their peak, many movements then become organs (and ideologies) of capitalist discipline, depending on the institutional forms they took (states, union contracts, etc). In my opinion, whether on the scale of a workplace, a local or regional industrial action or organization, or a national struggle, this means that we should be careful about the institutional forms our struggles take from peak to decline. There are institutional forms that require the institution to govern some social space and some resident population. More specifically, they require the institution to govern that population in such a way that it's partially functional for capitalism. We should reject those institutional forms to the best of our ability. Some of the time we may well not have better short-term options, and some of the time a struggle may be unlikely to actually succeed - a union campaign may be unlikely to win a contract, a local struggle with ideology about shaping state power may not stand a chance of doing so in the short term. That means that those struggles will peak well short of being able tp play any real role in shoring up capitalism. Participating in struggles like that can make sense some of the time. Still, in the long term we should be moving away from these kinds of institutions and struggles to build or participate in these kinds of institutions. I think the conversations about 'direct unionism' that some of us have been having and the solidarity networks like the Seattle Solidarity Network are both efforts to create institutions that don't play this sort of disciplinary role. We have a long way to go in all this.