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Posts Tagged ‘Working Class’

“To be hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.” – Howard Zinn

So much promise and hope, and yet so much, still, of all the worst of us. That is, though, the stuff activism is made of, I suppose. While so much is so good, with many dear friends and promising small-scale commons, our little household has also been dealt with a whole lot of shit over the last year, as we came up against a hostile and profoundly aggressive radicalism that seems to be more interested in inventing ever more enemies for itself than in building alternative communities of solidarity, mutual aid and respect. (more…)

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People from at least 30 countries (including Egypt) have sent pizzas to help feed the folks occupying the Capitol building in Madison, WI.  It’s a small gesture of support, but concrete & immediate.
Here’s the info:  Ian’s Pizza, 608-257-9248. $20 gets a 20″ pie with drinks which will feed 8 people. Oh, and don’t forget something for a tip.
For background, here’s a New York Times piece on the pizza solidarity thing.


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I’ve been getting back to readings in political theory and analysis lately, feeling a little need for brain-food. Some Terry Eagleton, some Slavoj Zizek, debates around “The Common Insurrection” (which will form a post of its own in the days or weeks to come). It’s a welcome change of pace, I’m finding, and jazzing me up to perhaps even get a little writing done one of these days. The most recent book is The Idea of Communism, a collection of essays based on conference proceedings from a 2009 gathering in London which brought together many of the bright lights of contemporary radical thought to talk about, well, the idea of communism. (more…)

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135iww

As we near the end of November, Meg is returning from the bargaining table, and I am about to take off for union meetings in Ottawa, with a fresh tattoo on my arm of the IWW sabocat – symbol of the wildcat strike and industrial sabotage.

I won’t write much myself today, but instead want to take a moment to remember our martyrs of the struggle – those few names we know, and those countless others in un-marked graves or left by the side of the road. They are in all times, in all countries, in all struggles, so what is here is only the smallest remembrance.

The IWW has long marked Red November, Black November – an occassion to recall all of those killed by state and capital – because that month, particularly, is the anniversary of some of the most notable murders, among them:

Nov. 22, 1886 – Thibodaux Massacre. Dozens of striking Louisiana sugar workers massacred. Newspapers of the day note, “Lame men and blind women shot. Children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negros offered no resistance, they could not as the killing was unexpected.”

Nov. 11, 1887 – The Haymarket Executions. Four leaders of the campaign for the 8-hour day in Chicago, Illinois, are executed by the state.  Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, and Adolph Fischer, whose struggles and murders are commemorated in the mural that is reproduced as the banner of this blog.

Nov. 19, 1915 – Murder of Joe Hill.  IWW organizer and author of countless labour songs and poems, Joe Hill is executed by the State of Utah on a trumped-up murder charge that even the US president of the day, Woodrow Wilson, didn’t swallow.

Nov. 5, 1916 – The Everett Massacre. Cops and deputies kill 11 Wobblies when they open fire on a peaceful crowd of 200 attempting to dock at Everett, Washington, for a free speech fight.

Nov. 11, 1919 – IWW organizer Wesley Everest, arrested after a confrontation between Wobs and Legionnaires,  is taken from his cell, castrated, and hung beneath a railway bridge. After his death, his body is riddled with bullets and returned to the jail to be laid on display as a warning to the other Wobs in custody.

November. A time to remember struggle and resistance, and captured by another Wobbly songwriter and poet, Ralph Chaplin:

Red November, black November,
Bleak November, black and red.
Hallowed month of labor’s martyrs,
Labor’s heroes, labor’s dead.

Labor’s wrath and hope and sorrow,
Red the promise, black the threat,
Who are we not to remember?
Who are we to dare forget?

Black and red the colors blended,
Black and red the pledge we made,
Red until the fight is ended,
Black until the debt is paid.

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Yes, it is the day after the election. No, I am not going to comment on it. Rather, reflections on an article I read recently that I didn’t particularly agree with but which has had me thinking.

An interesting take on the financial crisis follows below my comments. This comes from a couple of folks who are active with the Midnight Notes Collective – a group of anarchist/ Marxist/ post-structuralist types who publish an occassional magazine and the odd book out of the Boston area. I’m a big fan of Midnight Notes generally, and found this an intriguing read, though I must confess it’s got some major gaps in it, and I’m feeling pretty disappointed.

Basically, here’s the argument. The financial crisis should not be seen as some kind of accident – it is better understood as a strategic move, an attempt by capital to re-assert its control over US workers. Basically, we see here a US-based equivalent of the petro-dollar deal that led into to the Third World Debt Crisis and justified the imposition of structural adjustment and related austerity programs. Extend too much credit, watch the system collapse, as it can be expected to do, transfer public money to the private sector to bail-out the system and use the crisis and the now-public debt as an excuse to cut government expenditures.

OK, a fun little analysis, but one that seems to me lacking any foundation. A few problems. One, if this were a coordinated strategy, it would have to be solving a problem, and the problem would have to be a lack of market discipline among workers – i.e. too many workers doing too little to be productive, and too many workers finding too many ways to resist capital. This clearly has not been a political reality in the US in recent years, and the authors know it. So they surmise that, among other things, it is workers playing the investment game that is the problem. Workers try to make money by speculation rather than by working more, and capital wants them working more. But hang on…Two things here. One, workers are not being successful on the market, as is plain to everyone. By and large working people lose money playing this game, so there is no successful strategy that needs to be countered here. Secondly, the investment game is one of the fundamental ways capital extends the reach of the market, so even if the worker-investment thing were true this would hardly be a ‘problem’ for capitalism, but rather would be an indication of increasing trust in the market.

Next major problem I have with this analysis is that it smacks way-too much of conspiracy theory for my tastes. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, and I am certainly clear that there are some really vicious bastards out there driving the system. However,  the beauty of capital – and the reason it has been so fucking hard to dis-lodge – is that it doesn’t require this kind of manipulation. It is driven by real people, by a logic which unfolds almost-invisibly, by the celebration of greed, by day to day relationships of work. Crises do not need to be manufactured to be useful to the system. Take the example the authors use – the debt crisis. The debt crisis certainly did lead to all the things they note, and was pivotal in preparing the ground for the neoliberal onslaught. However, I am not convinced that the credit issues leading to that crisis and the flooding of the market with petro-dollars were part some nefarious plan – rather, those things flowed from capital’s logic, the crisis followed, and a bunch of economists and politcal strategists recognized the class dynamics at work and put together a new strategy for capital. So, yes, petro-dollars make way for debt crisis makes way for neoliberalism. Yes, evil evil men pounce on the opportunity to crush workers’ resistance and siphon public money into the market. But planned out from the earliest moments? No. Don’t buy it. The strategy was a response to the crisis, not its genesis. as far as I can tell.

And this time? Definitely class dynamics here we need to unpack. But not, I don’t think, the ones identified below. Workers playing the market? Clearly not. The global expansion of “illegal” migration, poaching, and squatting on public lands by which millions of workers simply remove themselves from the economy altogether? OPK, that part is interesting and I think worth exploring in more depth. But entirely absent in this analysis, and pretty central I’d suggest, are questions about global resistance to US empire, and how these have stretched the system beyond sustainable levels. The trillions being spent to quell revolt in Iraq and Afghanistan; the growing strength of a new left alternative across Latin America; the complete collapse of so many parts of Africa after a century and a half of pillage and plunder. These are the places we see capital forced to use its resources to quell dissent; these are struggles that have forced resources to be moved from the market to counter-insurgency. These are the battles that have stretched the empire’s reach too thin to be sustainable. These are the things I’d suggest we look to if we want to put together a working class read of the crisis, and if we want to really understand where capital is weakest and where resistance is best targetted.

Anyway, here I am now far beyond the brief introduction I intended to write. Point is, this is an argument full of some pretty damn substantial holes.

Nonetheless, I’m posting it because I think it does help to alert us to the possibilities of what may follow. Capital will seek a new strategy to deal with this. And that strategy will involve bail-outs and the massive transfer of funds from the public sector to the private. Not overnight, but over time, we can expect this to take place, unless we can generate a substantial movement in the opposite direction, for more public good, more commons.

So, I recommend reading this through. I question a good deal of the premise, and I think there are some real leaps here that cannot be supported. But I’m glad that the Midnight Notes folks are talking about strategy here, and are recognizing that these political-economic moments have class meanings and involve class struggles, and are at least opening up the debate. Cause if we are to avoid this becoming a transition to yet a new austerity plan, we need to start by considering where capital might try to go, and putting together ideas and actions to not only resist but to leverage this crisis to move in an entirely different direction.

Enough ranting. The piece follows.

NOTES ON THE WALL STREET “MELTDOWN”

by Silvia Frederici and George Caffentzis

it is important, first, that we realize that the so-called Wall Street “meltdown” is certainly the end, but also the completion of the neoliberal program. Let us be clear about it. To think otherwise is to ignore the lesson taught to us by the event that opened the present capitalist era: the 1973 coup again the Chilean working class experiment with socialism, that led to the victory of strong state backed market economy. Karl Polanyi’s theory that the single most important cause of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe was the inability to control the financial market after the 1929 crash also resonates here. In other words, we should not read the restructuring taking place as a turn to socialism/Keynesianism, to the extent at least that Keynesianism was an intervention by the state into the economy aimed at increasing the state’s investment in social reproduction, starting with the reproduction of the working class, in exchange for an increase in the social productivity of labor. Despite the adoption of regulatory mechanisms, the operation presently conducted by the US government bears little resemblance to the Keynesian program launched with the New Deal.

Behind the $700 billion bail-out and the many others that will follow–some already in the pipeline– is a massive transfer of funds from the US working class to capital, inevitably leading to an assault on the last remaining entitlements (like Medicare, Social Security) and a general program of austerity the like of which we have not seen yet in a long time. The fact that there is no organized response to this assault makes us fear the worst. For things would never have reached this point if over the last decade the US workers had responded to the repeated thefts of their money and benefits, through the Enron scandal and the many other “crises” that have followed it. That despite the “instability” of the market, despite its usage as a means to expropriate thousands of small/working class investors, US workers continued to trust their livelihoods and future to it is certainly a key factor in what we are presently witnessing and Washington/Wall Street confidence in launching the new austerity program. It is our argument that in the same way as September 11 served the US government to shed the last remains of  “democracy” and move to a model of government where militarization is always around the corner (apparently Representatives were threatened with the proclamation of martial law if they did not pass the bailout bill), so the Wall Street crash will serve to shed the last remaining elements of working class “socialism” in the US political economy, starting with Social Security, Medicare, a thorn in capital’s flesh, but so far demonstrating a great resilience, the last shore for working class struggle in the nation.2. Lessons from the Debt Crisis.
There is a important parallel here, not sufficiently noted, between the present crash and bail-out and the “debt crisis” of the 1980s, which engulfed most Third World nations (except for China) and was the start of the globalization process. Both have been engineered in the same fashion.

The  “debt crisis” was the outcome a financial campaign conducted by Washington and Wall Street, to practically force Third World nations to take cheap development loans –liberally dished out at the lowest interest rates– at a time when capital was refusing to invest in Europe and North America in the face of the most successful working class attack to its profit-rate since the 1920s, and a new generation of Africans, Asians etc. were organizing to d emand a global redistribution of wealth and a program of reparations, that is, in the language of the Bucharest Conference of 1974 : A NEW WORLD ORDER.

Through the lending mechanism, the massive flow of petrodollars that had been amassed in the aftermath of the 1974 embargo (the first attack on US wages, organized through a stiff inflationary wave) was redirected to the coffers of Third World nations, which, attracted by the bait of cheap loans, were soon hooked to the global economy, all dreams of an independent path to development foregone.

In other words, loans at the lowest interest rates were key to the creation of a global debt and the process of primitive accumulation (through structural adjustment) that was imposed on most of the workers of the world.

As we know, within less than a decade, the rise of the interest rates in the US, turned manageable debts into a long-term process of economic and political subordination. Debt became the hook for a massive restructuring of Africa’s, Asia’s Latin America’s political economies, re-establishing a colonial dependency that for three decades has served to promote a massive transfer of funds from the Third to the First World and defeat the organizational efforts of TW nation for an independent road to development.

Under the guise of the “debt crisis,” portrayed as a case of “mismanagement” by backward countries, requiring First World-style fin ancial responsibility, countries across the world were forced to open their books to Washington–via the IMF and World Bank–accept any terms of repayment imposed on them. They were forced to freeze wages, terminate all social spending, open their markets to foreign investors and products, devaluate their currencies and so forth. The consequences of these policies are well known. While Washington and NY built forests of skyscrapers, sucking on the blood of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Caribbean people, such levels of impoverishment and expropriation were imposed on the people of the world that millions took the road out of their countries, unable to survive in them, while those remaining witnessed epidemics, elimination of schools, famines, wars, the loss of ancestral lands, waters and forests, brutal wars of privatization, all directly related to the debt.This is history now, though the politics of SAP have set back for decades the project initiated by the anti-colonial struggle, reformulated and reasserted, as I mentioned, at the Bucharest Conference of 1974, where TW nations emboldened by the defeat of the US in Vietnam, demanded a NEW WORLD ORDER, i.e. the redistribution, return of the wealth that Europe and the US have robbed from the colonial world.
With the debt crisis, international capital obtained three major objectives.
i) It disciplined the working class in Europe and the US, by dismantling its manufacturing structure and refusing for years to enga ge in any serious investment in these regions [remember “zero growth”?]

ii) It destroyed the attempt of the former colonial world to escape a dependent/subordinate position, as demanded by the new generation of Africans, Asians, etc., who, infused of the spirit of Fanon, were keen on import substitution schemes, were pressing for REPARATIONS, and pushing for some form of socialism (in Angola and Mozambique).(iii). In addition to defeating revolution in First and Third World, the “debt crisis” built the infrastructure for the new global economy. It forged the mechanisms by which industries and offices could be relocated, companies could run around the globe, the work process could be computerized and streamlined and the working class thereby could be flexibilized and re-divided.

Against this background, we must note some basic similarities between the engineering of the debt crisis and the engineering of the Wall Street crash and must assume these similarities will extend to the social consequences of the crash. The housing bubble was the result of loans made at very low though adjustable credit rates, redirecting the influx of capital coming from abroad (China and other countries) toward the US market.
Is it possible that investment banks, credit rating agencies, the head of the Federal Reserve all FAILED to realize what would be the inevitable result of an “easy credit,” lending policy that reversed decades of reg ulatory principles and rules? Unless we want to revel in the nonsensical tale of a blinding surge in human greed, the answer must be a negative one. Thus, we must stop using the concept of “failure” to describe the absence of regulations and the reasons for the crash. We must rule out that the architects of the housing/mortgage crisis did not know it would end in a financial disaster and cascade of foreclosures for the home owners, in the same way as banks are partly responsible for the debt of the US working class ($45.000 on average per capita).

Continuing with the parallel, we have to conclude that with this 700 billion dollar “bail-out,” coming straight out of our pockets and hides, the “structural adjustment” that since the 1980s has been imposed on countries across the world, is going to be extended to the US territory and the US working class. This time (after many beginnings and many deferrals) we too are being “adjusted.” I will discuss later what adjustment will mean at this time for us. For the moment we only want to stress that we are witnessing not only a financial meltdown, but also a great robbery, a macro-process of expropriation, an immense transfer of labor, this time siphoning funds to the US banking system not only from the Third World, as in the Debt Crisis of the 1980s, but from our households, through the classic maneuver of increasing the national debt. What we are witnessing is a capitalist coup, an exa mple of capital’s historic readiness to destroy itself in order to regain the initiative and defeat resistance to its discipline.3. Where does this resistance come from? How is the collapse of the financial systems a response to it?

We cannot understand the Wall Street crisis unless we read it in class term as a means to negotiate a different class deal and response to class struggle and resistance. However, in dealing with these questions, I also want to distinguish this approach and the growing tendency to view every development in capitalist planning as a realization of working class struggle and demands, the Negrian perspective on capital’s response to class movements.
This perspective is dangerous, because besides turning even defeat into a victory, (such as: we wanted globalization, we wanted flexibilization, etc), it ignores the fact that a capitalist response must use working class demands against themselves, use them to drive part of the working class out of the struggle, turn it against or away from the other half, use them in such a way as to spark off forms of development that decompose the class.Let us look now at the crisis as a disciplinary tools and strategy. There are at least three areas of resistance to the neoliberal accumulation project that the Wall Street collapse has to respond to. I will list them without an attempt to establish an order.

We cannot understand the Wall Street crisis unless we read it in class term as a means to negotiate a different class deal and response to class struggle and resistance. However, in dealing with these questions, I also want to distinguish this approach and the growing tendency to view every development in capitalist planning as a realization of working class struggle and demands, the Negrian perspective on capital’s response to class movements.
This perspective is dangerous, because besides turning even defeat into a victory, (such as: we wanted globalization, we wanted flexibilization, etc), it ignores the fact that a capitalist response must use working class demands against themselves, use them to drive part of the working class out of the struggle, turn it against or away from the other half, use them in such a way as to spark off forms of development that decompose the class.Let us look now at the crisis as a disciplinary tools and strategy. There are at least three areas of resistance to the neoliberal accumulation project that the Wall Street collapse has to respond to. I will list them without an attempt to establish an order.

First, the crash and the bail-out must defeat the attempt of the US working class to circumvent class discipline by using financial markets, rather than struggle, sweat and labor, to increase their wages. While strikes and struggles have died out over the last two decades, workers have tried to increase their income in three ways: investing in the stock market, buying on credit, now even for everyday expenses, getting equity money through housing, and defaulting student loans. These tactics have clearly failed and now millions of workers are now to pay twice for them, in terms of their individual losses and in terms of the losses that will be inflicted on the US proletariat as a class through the bailouts. If successful, these bail-outs will in fact be conducive to a new regime of low wages and zero entitlements the like of which we have not seen since the last part of the 19th century.
The new regime will not be the end of market fundamentalism. It will be a revitalization of market investment through the injection of our social security money, and it will be a revitalization of some parts of American industry now presumably taking advantage of the fact that workers are desperate enough to accept any conditions just to have a job and a roof over their heads. A large part of capital has for a long time been lusting to bring back America to the situation before the New Deal, when employers had the upper hand. The “crisis” is giving them a chance to return to that era.
That this time Social Security is at stake is due to various factors. First, Social Security is the last pot of money available to re-launch the US market, in a context in which workers have no savings and monetary flows from the outside are drying out. It is also the last ‘scandal” on the list of US capitalists who have relentlessly for years now told us it must go. Most important of all, Social Security affects primarily the old, the retired, and it is therefore an easier target than entitlements affecting the whole working class.

So far workers in the US have resisted the privatization of Social Security despite many governmental attempts. But cuts in pensions have already gone a long way in the private sector, where employers have given stocks of their companies to workers, or stopped putting any money in their pension funds. The present crisis will extend that to government backed pensions. And the road to it has been cleared by years of false statements to the effect that Social Security is unsustainable. Though it is a colossal lie, younger generations have, however, accepted it. By cutting Social Security, capital undoubtedly hopes to pit the young against the old, who (as in Africa today) are being pictured as a crew of selfish gerontocrats sucking up the funds the young need to build their future.

The second target of the attack is the global resistance to capital’s appropriation of natural resources beginning with oil and gas extraction. The defeat in Iraq is the peak of it. To this day, despite an immense expenditure in war funding, the US has not been able to put its hands on Iraqi oil. Resistance to international capital control over global energy resources has also come from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Many more countries are also refusing the neoliberal packet, especially in Latin America. These refusals, not peak oil, are the true limits to capital’s energy plans.

There have also been bottlenecks in the exploitation of forests, waters, minerals, and lands which structural adjustment was to remove. A new “rurban” peasant movement has been growing that is fighting independently of unions, parties, ”civil society” and NGOs, using direct action tactics, to re-appropriate the lands and resources of which it has been robbed —poaching, harvesting timber or produce in commercial plantations, mining diamonds and gold “illegally,” or farming in the very lands from which they have been “legally” excluded. When they move to the cities they squat on urban land and take over land not used, private or public to farm it for their needs. It is a vast re-appropriation movement that is redefining the fundamentals of social reproduction globally. It has put globalizers and adjusters out of government, it has forced the nationalization of local resources, and has redistributed wealth and political power, putting the World Bank and IMF almost=2 0out of business in Latin America. It has defeated the attempt to completely liberalize the economies of the TW through the rule of the World Trade organization. Though not sitting at the table, the specter of the rural/urban peasants of the world has guided the refusal of TW representative to comply.Third, global migration has developed in ways that make it difficult for governments to use it as a regulatory mechanism for the labor market. Far from being an easy device for driving wages down, migration is now an autonomous uncontrollable phenomenon, with a logic of its own that is not reducible to the needs of the labor market. It is important however to stress (against the idealization of the migrant and of Exit, Exodus, Flight as a the highest form of struggle) that the struggle of the migrants is not superior to the struggle of those who remain. In fact, migration can lead to the dissolution of local organizations, it can create new divisions among the locals, separating those benefiting from remittances and those deprived of them, it can boost the cost of living in the area of origin by the influx of new money and hook local economies more strongly to the international monetary system, fostering the expansion of monetary relations. These, of course, are not inevitable results. Actually, migrants have been able to use the wage against the wage, to refuse impoverishment, to create transnational networks, to move from country to country seeking a better deal and nullifying national boundaries and borders.

The attacks on immigrants of recent months, which have seen the most massive factory raids and deportations ever in the US, are response to this autonomy. They are part of the attempt to create a population of rightless workers, to function as a safety valve for the labor market. Only if they have no rights can immigrants function as regulatory mechanism for the labor market (in the same way as mass incarceration and expansion of unpaid labor do). The redefinition of immigrant workers as outlaws and the criminalization of working class–historically a key strategy to devalue labor power–will continue to be a tool of the world order we will see emerging from the crisis. But the crash will intensify the divisions between “natives” and migrants, attack the organizational strength of migrant organizations, unless there is strong opposition to this strategy.The Politics of the Financial Crisis and Our Response.

Crises are always a threat and an opportunity as they break down business as usual, and reveal something of the inner workings and nastiness of capitalism. This one is not an exception and we can be sure that what will come out of it will be greatly a result of what people do in response to it. If the Great Depression is an indication, it took more than ten years for capital to organize a different social order. Much can happen in such a period.
The problem for us today is that workers are only organized around electoral politics at best. And many still place more hope in a racist and imperialist stance than in working class solidarity. We certainly don’t have a communist or an anarchist movement organizing rallies of the unemployed, fight against evictions, or organize “penny auctions” of farms as they did during the Great Depression. Nor do we have an anti-capitalist alternative as the Soviet Union was in the eyes of many. We also do not have the kind of solidarity that in the Great Depression led to invention of new commons, like the hobo movement and the creation of “jungle cities.”
Where to start then?  This is what we need to work on in the coming months and years. There is no clear path to this kind of mobilization.  But we need to start somewhere. On two things we can get people to agree with us: First, we better find alternatives, because, as things stand presently, we are so incestually connected with capitalism that its demise threats our own existence. Second, unless we organize to resist government planning, what lies ahead for us, after a cut of more than a trillion dollars of our “entitlements,” looks much more like some variant of fascism than socialism.

With warm greetings,
Silvia and George

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I wonder alot about what constitutes ‘the working class’, in my job and my study and just my own me-time. It’s a question that’s been pretty central for me ever since Zimbabwe and my introduction to the black consciousness and pan-africanist movements. As those got my thinking about race, and grappling with the intersections and conflicts of race, gender, sexuality, I found myself struggling with the whole notion of the working class – a class which clearly could not be understood in unitary terms, but a class, too, that seemed to dissolve into nothing when attempts were made to understand it as more plural. And it struck me that this same question sat at the root of countless debates on the left – the question “who is the working class?” seemed key to processes of struggle and to what we meant by  ‘liberation’.

And then, in the mid-1990s, the problem of what constituted working class resistance hit the front page of the Vancouver Sun. David Koresh in Waco, the Michigan Militia, the Oklahoma City bombing – the early and mid 1990s saw pitched battles between the US state and what were characterized as right-wing, often-racist groups comprised largely of unemployed white workers. SWAT teams and various branches of the armed forces were deployed with ferocity, at times moving swiftly to legal executions, at times razing entire communities of men, women and children. And the left felt no need to distance itself from the violence – these were the children of the right gone too far, and where comment was made at all it was to demand that state act only more strongly against armed libertarian threat.

It all left me feeling rather disturbed, for these stand-offs seemed to be moments of working class revolt – not as the left hoped it would appear, but as desperate strikes from  a white, male working class that saw its relative privilege and its monopoly on the identity ‘the American worker’ slip away. These were, it seemed to me, gasps of a particular notion of the working class facing extinction. And if there were any lingering relationship in my mind between class dynamics and particular ideological expressions, they exploded as I watched the Branch Davidian compound burn and Timothy McVeigh walk, head-bowed, to his murder. Here was another working class, fractured and defeated, but in that – or perhaps precisely because of that – a raw and destructive power.

A few years later I found myself thinking back on these in an entirely different context. After a long week organizing a work-to-rule action at the Telus Call Centre, I sat all night in a small room at UBC, desperately trying to pull together a presentation for a sociological methods course the next morning. I settled on the class location of the prostitute, thinking particularly of a recent successful unionization drive at San Francisco’s ‘Lusty Lady’ peep show and ongoing debates in my own downtown east-side neighbourhood about the decriminalization of sex-work. As I followed references and citations further and further back into history, however, I ended with a very different question than I’d started with – not, how is there room in ‘the working class’ for sex workers, but how did the very idea of the prostitute emerge as an integral pillar of the idea of the working class?

And that led me still further, back to a story I’d heard in Nigeria years before, of a beggar’s strike, in which those who made their livings on handouts from passers-by outside the mosque simply refused, one day, to accept any. And how, in the context of African Islam and requirements of the well-to-do to make regular donations as a part of everyday worship, the lack of opportunity to pay alms to the poor shook the community to such an extent that the demands of the beggars – for unhindered access to the mosque and a more general recognition of their important social role – were met within days.

And finally I recalled a strike of Toronto taxi drivers, and its wholesale dismissal by leading scholars of Marxism and by the labour movement – for these, it was said, were clearly petty-bourgeois demands, coming as they did from a group that cannot be called ‘workers’ in any meaningful sense of the term – and I found myself wholly and entirely dis-satisfied with the idea of class as I’d known it, and wholly and entirely convinced that something called class struggle was vibrant and alive in forms surprising, uplifting, and sometimes dangerous – in forms and among people too often overlooked in the left’s grand vision of struggle.

Now, I don’t really consider myself part of the left – that seems to me to smack too much of social democracy and Marxism-Leninism, neither of which I want to be associated with. However, I come out of the left and I work in unions, so it’s still a major part of my life, and I am most certainly still engaged with something called ‘working class politics’ – something that, whether of the left or not, still seems to me to be in crisis, organizationally as well as analytically.

Academics and intellectuals – not the same thing, of course – still struggle with the problem of how to recognize, let alone define, the working class. But pretty much all their solutions just recycle old theories of class formation or construct new ones that avoid reference to the fundamental location of class – production for and management by capital – somehow hoping this will resolve the problem. Sometimes they talk about ‘many oppressions’ without exploring the relationships between and within them, and ultimately just reinforce the idea of class as a fixed economic category; sometimes they recycle post-modernism or post-Marxism in various ways, to limit the use of class – making it something that appears only with respect to workplace disputes or as general reference to income inequality; sometimes they define class by consciousness or identity or abandon it altogether for another category or set of categories (typically race/gender/sexuality) that appears more culturally meaningful – and more socially acceptable – in the present.

And while these approaches are repeatedly trotted out, the political left moves along, the old debates resurfacing again and again, not only in theory but also in immediate politics, in real struggles that continue and real organizations and states which figure prominently in those struggles.

Examples recently? Debate erupts over the Iraqi resistance, as assorted leftists and anti-war activists ponder what public statement to make in the wake of car-bombs in Baghdad – the real issue at hand,  whether attacks on the occupying army constitute a working class in resistance or a retrograde Islamic fundamentalism. The vast majority choose a side and fire barbs at one another; a few suggest it does not matter, it is resistance; a very few are offended that North Americans and Western Europeans even consider this their question to answer; not a single voice suggests it might be both. The debate rages and quiets, unsettled.

At around the same time. Marxists and anarchists spar over the Bolivarian Revolution which has focused all eyes on Venezuela and sparked a resurgence of socialist debate.  A prominent critic of state socialisms announces a visit to Caracas, and promises upon his return a full airing of his views. The Marxists are incensed at his reservation of judgement – one is with the revolution or against it, there is no middle, there is no ‘wait and see’. Regardless of its intentions, the anarchist camp effectively supports the counter-revolution, they argue, its research and analysis providing fuel for the right, and weakening the popular front. Anarchists fire back with horror-stories from revolutions gone bad, and numerous questions about the personal working class credentials of the Venezuelan revolutionary brass. They volley back and forth over the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the over-arching questions: Socialism – good or bad? Anarchism – principled opposition or cop-out?  Left criticism of avowedly socialist states –  good class analysis or counter-revolution?

And, as I commented on in another post recently, Vancouver’s Solidarity Notes labour choir faces the debate, too, cancelling shows and practices over a split on the issue of union staffers. The BC Government and Service Employees Union is behind picket lines, its professional staff on strike. A number of choir members want to sing on the picket line in solidarity. And the fight is on:

Union staff should not have the right to strike; they work for the class and have no separate interest.

Who is the class if not every worker?

In this time, under this government, in the face of an aggressive capitalist strategy, to do such harm to a union is profoundly irresponsible.

But if unions cannot treat their employees well, they are unworthy of the name,

These union staff are self-interested; but who could expect anything else from the professional porkchoppers who have hijacked the labour movement.

And so on and so on, until the strike settles and the debate ebbs yet again. The choir is back in the solidarity business.

I recall similar arguments ten years or so ago, leaping into the fray and furiously defending one side; now I’m just tired of it, and instead just look for the contradictions and commonalities. And I find strands of reflection, analysis, and history coming together – in a melding of the structural with the individual; in a stress on the relationships of order and resistance; in a class analysis rooted in many and varied day to day interactions, and the accumulated weight of these in what we call ‘structure’, what we remember as history, and what we live as politics.

If class is a relationship, we can only do class analysis and make class struggle by doing and making new relationships. And if social structure is the accumulation (and real tangible, forceful defense) of certain relationships until they become ‘common sense’ and the marginalization of others until they become pathological or idealist or both….Well, then we need to re-emphasize class as a tension rather than a fixed location or identity; we need to look for the working class in dynamics of resistance rather than ideological formulations or position-papers; and we need a whole different set of questions than we’re used to.

“Is Cuba socialist?”

“Does the trade union represent working class interests?”

“Is Pride Day a working class celebration?”

Such questions are still common ones for any of us working with left or left-oriented organizations. But all of them, seems to me, presuppose a permanent wedding of identities and interests.

Seems to me there are other questions that better get at the issue, questions that ask in a given scenario: where is the push for order, profit and work, and where are the demands for freedom, commons and leisure?

Is the question of Cuba’s socialism asked in regard to U.S. aggression, joint ventures with transnational corporations, attempts by cigar-factory workers to win the right to strike, or demands by families for increased monthly rations?

Is the trade union in question locking out its staff, enforcing discipline after an illegal work stoppage, or organizing a work to rule?

Does the question of Pride celebrations arise in the context of a growing corporate sponsorship, and development of guidelines to ensure float displays are advertiser-friendly? Or is the debate engaged with attempts to block recognition of same-sex partnerships with all the attendant implications for the right to fuck, adoption and child-rearing, and pension and sick benefits?

Or – and most likely – in each of these are there several contextual considerations, and does the answer necessarily need to be the same for each?

The context and target of the question is everything. Not because class itself is any less relevant, not because production is any less central or work any less exploitative, but rather because class, gender, race and sexuality form a maze of relationships we all negotiate daily. And any one of us may occupy different  positions of power at various times in a single day, not because class is meaningless but because relationships are plural and lives are plural – and as far as class, race, gender and other analytical/ political categories are concerned it is the relationship that matters, not the person who occupies that relationship.

So, I think about all this, and it always takes me back to the same question. Well, then, Mr Acad-ma-demic, how do we ‘do’ working class politics? Cause all your theory games don’t mean shit if you don’t back them up with something real. Well, I don’t have a fucking clue. All I do know is that the very idea that something called ‘the working class’ can be defined and delineated is wholly and utterly unhelpful. Class is a term of relationship. It is universal in that it invests the entire social fabric, but specific in that it emerges in and through daily human relationships, with all their particularities and peculiarities. And so class simply isn’t reducible to any individual or organization or ideology.

And at some point – whether it be when union staff strike a union office; or when factory workers break machinery or agricultural labourers steal produce in Cuba; or when unemployed white autoworkers in the US form anti-government militias; or when former Workers’ Communist Party activists in Iraq build alliances with Islamicist networks to take on US and British forces – at some point we need to sit up and acknowledge that class tensions and class identities are not static or stable, and the history of class struggles is not the history of the left. At some point, we need to choose between the political left of our organizations and the uncomfortable, unstable and messy world of class politics.

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