The tasks of today and tomorrow

A piece exploring transformation in struggle, its limits, and tasks in an environment when people aren't self-initiating struggle in our specific historical position. Examples looked at are IWW experiences in the Port Trucker wildcats of 2005, Occupy, Madison, and the unfolding of the crisis.

Much thinking in the United States around how to work against this system tends to speak as if our tasks are fairly fixed. Generally, people searching for how to organize look to radically different contexts than our own. There is a tendency to compare our situation to times where people organized into social forces created their own struggles, tendencies, and ideas, and where revolutionaries played a strong role within. The desire for huge numbers, direct influence, and the capacity to leverage large scale social change often distorts perceptions of what we can do today and can lead to counterproductive attempts to find shortcuts, be it through getting powers granted from the state or ruling class, funding staff, winning elections, finding organizing “tricks” that will send thousands into our arms, converting students, running publishing houses, or doing mental gymnastics to find the ideology, oppressed group, or category that with special powers can carry us to a new tomorrow.

Recently a few examples have called into question our relationship and understanding of our present. Occupy, Madison, and perhaps some of the post-Occupy housing and workplace protests created situations in which many were brought into new roles they hadn’t experienced before, and where their prior tools for doing work became outstripped by the appearances of people willing to engage in struggle beyond their immediate needs. Faced with a situation in which thousands or more were openly questioning and seeking ways to move forward, most were challenged to step up to the new possibilities they faced. IWW members in Madison were being asked for direction and had to decide what a revolutionary response was while the Democratic Party and unions were attempting to contain and redirect the new combativeness into institutional means. These kinds of problems are important to understand in terms of how we get there, how to prepare, and ways to respond.

Since 2008, the world’s powerful have been trying to find new footing, and have done so in key countries through a series of interventions into the world’s economies. Briefly, after serious economic disruption in the 2008 financial crisis the US implemented a policy of Quantitative Easing, purchasing mortgage and treasury securities to increase the amount of available capital to keep the economy going, which has kept the worst wolves at bay and given some space for maneuvering. At the same time these policies, applied by the US, EU, UK, and Japan, have created a situation where a brief boom in key developing economies (Brazil, India, China, etc) was followed by contraction due to the pressures created by the market manipulations involved in Quantitative Easing (amongst other factors).[1]

Anyone who claims to understand where this is heading with any certainty is boastful at best and lying at worst. We do not know whether or not these interventions or possible future ones can keep things as they are. Moreover, we are short of examples where these predictions have had direct positive impact on figuring out what to do and a countless counter examples of it leading well-intentioned people astray. Still, the broad context does suggest a period of political instability and uncertainty with the possibility of struggles emerging in the space created by disruptions to normal politics. While tentative, even merely a reshuffling of global power would be likely to create new divisions and contested terrain that is important for us to evaluate and figure out where we stand.

Presently, our situation is one where largely people don’t want to fight. It’s important to recognize this fact that has present for decades. There are good reasons not to fight in the sense of using collective direct action. The system for many has been able to put butter on the table and deliver when pushed, and often without even being pushed. It generally offers more through its normal ways of rewarding people than the personal and social costs associated with fighting outside the normal means of settling disputes. People do largely identify with the values and structures of dominant power (the state, professional hierarchies, meritocracy, etc.), and more than wanting to overthrow it wish to improve it. This isn’t to say that everyone is content, nor to deny that people’s own actions and ideas contradict their belief in or support of power. The situation is extremely complex and contradictory, but the system functions for real reasons, and that these can’t be glossed over simply because suffering exists. Misery itself doesn’t imply the need for a fundamentally new society, and especially not the acceptance of great personal risks and suffering to build something only potentially better. We do not have a monopoly on the improvement of humanity, and shouldn’t put faith in the objective situation to deliver the kinds of actions and perspectives necessary for the construction of a new social order.

Today, when struggles emerge it happens for fairly specific reasons. Rather than global struggle against the system itself (as was seen during intense waves of struggle such as 1848, 1919, 1968, etc), conflicts that take an antagonistic character to politics as usual come in places where those otherwise in tact and strong capacities for recuperation have broken down. For instance, we do see militant struggles of certain sectors largely defensive of prior benefits being lost, such as unionized workers, public sector workers, or resistance to dismantling of institutionalized protections for classes of marginalized people. Many recent militant moments have come as last bastions of prior ways of living have been attacked. At times defense of those arrangements, embodied by unionized workers for example, can be perceived as happening against the broader population such as the TWA transit strike in NYC, the ILWU coast-wide strike in the 2000s, and the BART strike this year. Alternatively, Madison might be looked to as defense of a standard of living by a broader population that identified a political break from normal life that required attack. In all these cases it’s the dismantling of the existing political structure that creates exceptional struggles, and which are generally redirected into a defense of reform or a return to an idealized past for minorities within society (like skilled unionized workers in the above examples).

Similarly large struggles like that of independent contractors who are denied a structure for collective bargaining, resistance to mass foreclosures, and anti-deportation immigration work show areas of conflict where the system does not offer a way to obtain immediate redress for conflicts. Port truckers, taxi drivers, couriers, and other independent contractors have repeatedly sought out the IWW, and engaged in militant illegal strikes precisely for these reasons. Other unions lack a framework for organizing in that environment, and the risks associated close doors on more reformist strategies.[2] Some revolutionaries in groups like Occupy Homes or Take Back the Land were able to build organization in a few instances to illegally resist evictions and attack immigrant deportation infrastructure likewise. We shouldn’t be naïve and believe that simply being excluded from reformist mechanisms for settling disputes is permanent or inherently revolutionary. In spite of falling outside the institutional framework for integrating struggle into the political world of the State, concretely the solution to these struggles and indeed the ideas of those fighting tend to be towards creating exactly the missing framework for integration. Non-integrated workers can push for integration, foreclosed homeowners can push for revised terms and ownership, and immigrants can push for legalization. Though the situation is different, the fundamental drivers are similar to other spheres; most people do not wish to fight given other options and seek to better the system to incorporate themselves into a successful society while only tiny minorities as of yet attempt to break from those powers all together.

In essence, a context like our own has powerful forces that allow for struggle to be recuperated and directed into institutional reform. It should go without saying that people (in general) neither wish for nor have broken from the world view of the rulers and power brokers, and the reformist capacities of the system itself make an immediate alternative difficult. Recognizing this situation and the limits is important, because it helps us to identify the faults in our actions, and not to try to escape through thinking that thin barriers separate us from millions in the streets behind anarchism if only certain tricks, marketing, strategy, hype, or the right tactics were applied. The world of action does not proceed like building a house brick by brick, but is more like a continent coming into birth with drastically different phases of change and growth; earthquakes, eruptions, and tsunamis interrupted with long pauses where life, earth, wind, and waters reshape the landscape into a new land emerging.

With this in view, today our tasks are agitating, trying to stir and inspire people to fight, advocating for our ideas and tactics, developing our capacity to organize and take action, and thinking concretely about revolution and revolutionary action in differing situations. There are great obstacles in realizing this work. Direct action can be effective, but reformism will continue to offer benefits and meet people’s pre-conceptions. Attempts to advocate for revolutionary ideas will be limited by the lack of experience both in struggling and constructing alternatives by ourselves and in those we seek to move. Theory in general will be held back and alienated from practice by the objective situation; something which we have to struggle against and constantly seek more opportunities for testing and learning where possible.

Recognizing these limits, we must act accordingly. We should deepen practice, study, and try to improve our ability to think and act through struggle in real time. Our work and projects should be directed towards bettering our people, broadening our networks around activity intervening in the day to day issues of people outside the political process, and integrating interested people out of that work. In key areas we should create foundations of experiences in collective struggle and revolutionary thinking, along with ideological preparation for work in other conditions where our tasks will be different. The focus should be on finding struggles and work with the greatest potential to break from dominant power.

The experience of participating in collective conflicts can cause people to break away from dominant ideas of society and social change towards alternatives they encounter or create in their struggles. The space created by struggle can (but doesn’t necessarily) arise through people being brought into conflict with the mechanisms of maintaining dominant power, the inability of the system to provide for their hopes, desires, and legitimate grievances, and dissonance between their collectivity and the imposed dominant form of classes, castes, and identities. The friction created by the tension of immediate struggles around people’s lives allows some to question and reject the normal course of affairs, and even alternatives within the range of options available to them including leftist ones. While the obstacles discussed above impede this process, the transformative potential of conflict should remain as the main focus of our work in our daily lives. In most contexts this may leads to radicalization of only a few in hundreds or thousands, however the transformation that occurs and the broader experiences in a larger milieu can form the basis for revolutionary currents advancing, and with shifting balances of power can create a force intervening in key moments.

There are a few features that yield strong potential for pockets of revolutionary practice in a time where the mood and ideas of people are not breaking from power. First, we should focus on places where daily issues bring collectivities into conflict with the system directly or have little or no institutional form for mediating disputes. Second, our work should aim towards methods, demands, and content that is antagonistic to the State and Capital directly, thereby giving space to work out in practice our revolutionary ideas and engage others around those tensions. Third, we should integrate our work within social organizations that concentrate revolutionary ideas and action in a common space.

Let me give an example. During the 2005 port trucker wildcat strike, truckers sought gas subsidies and other demands as fuel prices skyrocketed. The drivers had been fighting and striking for literally decades as the industry was turned into a flexible casualized workforces of independent contractors forced to bear the costs of insurance, maintenance, fuel, etc., while under the direction of companies as employees. Unions and politicians had repeatedly betrayed them, and a general hostility existed in some sectors because of their experiences. The workers were taking action and had their own ways of organizing. The truckers came to the IWW to help coordinate and bring a framework for integrating their demands with the employers. An initial attempt to was created for an IWW network of truckers to organize within the trucker assemblies as a revolutionary coordination. The truckers had no rights to organization and the IWW may have been threatened by injunctions, prison, and fund seizures due to the unique laws around independent contractors (anti-trust legislation, which has been threatened repeatedly with truckers). In the end, companies were able to promise changes, injunctions defeated certain cities, and conditions improved temporarily in the industry. The need for the network dissolved into more particular fights, and there was not a sustained will to continue direct actions indefinitely or in a coordinated manner.

Perhaps more importantly, those of us involved in organizing it did not yet see a bigger picture for how we did our work as revolutionaries beyond winning the demands of the truckers and building an organization like the IWW. The relationship between organizing and our motivations is very cloudy generally. This situation is made worse by the idea that organizing and political positions should be separated. With a small core of people doing this work, there’s inherent pressure in terms of limited time and people to split up one’s roles and neglect aspects of the work. In practice this generally means abdicating the political aspects of struggle in favor of technical fixes or just hoping that fighting is enough by itself to radicalize. If our project in the IWW had oriented specifically towards being a body working around anti-capitalism and anti-statism within those aspects of the struggle, it would have provided both a direction for the organizing and the opportunity to do that work within a collectivity. Likewise by failing to take that up, opportunities were missed that may have helped in the fights that followed and are continuing today. Part of the power of the best work the IWW has done in recent history is in its rejection of the traditional division of labor for unions and political groups. Looking from where we stand, we should reflect whether those divisions haven’t been questioned or surpassed enough?

Unique features of this experience are worth thinking more about. The IWW functioned as a coordination of revolutionaries attempting to support and build workers assemblies; social forms of collective democracy around daily life. Within that work, the role of the IWW to some extent was and should be to consolidate the lessons and increase the capacities of those in struggle towards activity and ideas antagonistic to dominant power. That antagonism should be made concrete and integrated into the nuts and bolts of fighting things like fuel surcharges, wait times, health hazards with cargo, etc. Our job is not only to advocate tactics to win (if winning is even on the table given the disproportionate situation), but to bring out the latent critique within struggle and possibilities for constructive alternatives and values for a different way of living. That element should be deepened at all levels; making revolutionary ideas concrete in the actual struggle, training ourselves around those ideas, and finding ways to make the people we work with who are interested capable of navigating, advocating for, and implementing them through their experiences.

Independent contractors have specific difficulties with the dynamics of the trucking industry (potential to become small business owners, isolation of workers, etc.) that can make this work tough, especially for the small isolated groups that we find today of those committed to organizing against the State and capitalism. If we can find other places where that can be applied and tested by the forces we actually have, it could form the basis for training and rooting an anti-systemic movement. Three features of such work could be brought out: advocating for and constructing collective forms of activity and democracy, integration and focus on anti-systemic conflict within daily life, and organization around anti-systemic ideas and work directly. This would be a revolutionary social organization that directly builds struggles, capacitates its members and those it works with, and engages in revolutionary thinking. Such a project would depart from most of what occurs today that attempts to separate those different elements into distinct organizations and groups of people. Yet the environment we are acting in makes those divisions particularly unlikely to succeed as the isolation, incapacity, and difficulty sustaining the work tends to drive the committed, the interested, and the work together with meager resources. The multiplication of organizations, meetings, and administrative bureaucracy is one of feature of this dynamic and tension amongst tiny groups. Taking models from other contexts leads groups to shift their time and resources from action towards administration with a demobilizing and demoralizing effect.

Shifting away from the present, what are the tasks of tomorrow? By this, I don’t mean a revolutionary tomorrow, but a more immediate tomorrow (possibly quite soon given the crisis, though differing by geography likely for some time). If people begin to self-initiate struggles and the mood shifts towards being receptive to the personal and social costs of fighting, what role would revolutionaries play? When roles shifts from trying to initiate, convince, and catalyze such struggles to operating within a plethora of such struggles, our job is clearly different. Occupy gave a distorted glimpse of that, though severed in many ways from daily life. When thousands of people filled the streets of the US during Occupy and actively sought out an alternative way to life and change society, new possibilities for action were placed before all of us. Agitation still is a part of those situations, but how those dynamics unfold can be radically changed.

It is certainly imaginable that the present global tensions could devolve into a politically unstable situation in which the ruling class is unable to govern, limited in the recuperative reforms it is able to offer, internally divided in an antagonistic way, or faced with external crisis that weakens it to internal threats from social movements. This doesn’t mean that a loss of equilibrium in the reproduction of the system inherently means something good or progressive. Loss of power creates a vacuum into which any number of actors can step into, including repressive and dictatorial ones. What is most important in recognizing when these situations arise is that it represents a time in which our actions have different impact, and where new potentials arise that can alter perceptions and responses to collective activity.

In such a changed environment, our main function is to intervene politically within a process that encourages breaks from dominant power and the reproduction/construction of processes with collective power. For the IWW this would mean organizing around open assemblies in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, etc., acting as revolutionaries within the assemblies, organizing using libertarian tactics, advocating for the abolition of the state and capital, and cohering practice into militants and revolutionary ideas within social forms of democracy. Here, the constructive portion of our movement is particularly important. Rulers have been defeated many times but without overturning systemic power.

In recent history we can look to Argentina in 2001 or the Arab Spring for examples. In fact, we can decisively defeat power, and new forms of repressive society can emerge from those formerly oppressed as happened in many political revolutions. So victory is not the main goal, and even the ruling classes are not the ultimate enemy. We must work for, understand, and advocate for the transformation of social relationships as our most fundamental goal and practice looking to abolish class and hierarchical power directly. Working in this environment, we are directed not towards capturing the industries and institutions of dominant society, but in transforming the whole social basis for society to destroy its institutions, industries, and divisions, and create a fundamentally new order.

Understanding the changing roles we must play is one of the main tasks of our time, especially in a changing global context of power where a period of instability and uncertainty is unfolding. We don’t know how this will go down, and table thumping about inevitable crisis isn’t helpful in figuring out what to do. It could be that capitalists find a way out of this mess, reformism creates new circuits for capital that reinvigorates the economy, or more importantly people do not become willing or capable of fighting. Clarifying our roles in different situations can help us think through where we stand today, whatever comes tomorrow.

[1] Worth reading is the exploration of this situation from Endnotes. Though the framework and conclusions are not necessarily my own, the framing and questions are helpful for us in grappling with this situation.

[2] Though today we see unions making initial steps towards organizing outside the legal framework for these workers. This is because the mood of the workers have changed, their alliances with the Democratic Party that seek to capitalize on them, and an increasingly dire situation for traditional labor. Still, the political limits of that path are clear even if we haven’t even seen the beginning of such militant reformism.

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Feb 8 2014 14:17


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