In these times of rising economic nationalism, our real concerns are being “remedied” with the political equivalent of snake oil. We see dying rustbelt towns, deserted mining communities in Appalachia and we feel the general stress of trying to reach or maintain financial stability with the limited options we have for work and an unpredictable economy with all sorts of schemes and traps we often fall into (debt schemes). Anti-globalism and closed borders have been touted as the solution. At the very best it is a band-aid, at the very worst it is complete BS that will come back to kick us in the ass.
The problem isn’t open borders for immigrants (fellow workers), but a globalizing capitalist economy constantly searching for the cheapest labor to increase profit margins. The economic elites will find the cheapest labor possible, and us workers (immigrant or not), will look for a source to make a livelihood any way we can. Most immigrants are of our same class, motivated by similar aspirations, they are our comrades. With this being the case, then what is the solution? The solution is this, building an international workers movement, supporting workers in the fields of California, in their struggles in Mexico, in Germany, in China, and worldwide. The better the lives of workers around the world, the better our lives here at home.
However, there is a new complicating factor. All around the world and especially in the US, mechanization and automation are making workers more productive (great for producing things we need, bad for distributing work to many people). Every sector from manufacturing to fast-food service is making this shift. Again our solution needs to be a strong workers movement, we need to be able to make demands upon the international economic elites, that we need more money for our time, be able to distribute the hours more evenly so our fellow workers and community members can thrive as well. Lastly, we should demand that highly productive industries move toward decommodification, certain things that are super productive should no longer be totally about profit or require work to access, but provided to all to meet their everyday needs. I can think of a bright future where many luxuries are provided to many, but we must fight for this collective economic mobilization.
So, the first-world working class, like it or not, your lot it tied to the lot of the working class in Mexico, China, Africa and worldwide.
Now, enjoy this cover of a Woody Guthrie classic by The Highwaymen, a song for our times:
I was nervous about dropping out of a liberal arts college and entering into a trade school. I thought the difference would be too stark and I would crash and burn (get zapped and fry may be more apt for a sparky in training like myself). But surprisingly I have a knack for both the electrical theory (math and scientific concepts) and the applied knowledge of wiring up circuits. I surprised myself and was elated to find out that I really enjoyed this stuff. I had made the right move.
This might sound odd, but it is true. Reading Capital Vol. 1 by Karl Marx helped me think like an electrician. Capital Vol. 1 is technical writing and systemic in its analysis of capitalism. Capital, if read with great interest and intent to learn and understand the concepts will train the reader how to break down large concepts into small bits of the totality and further Capital trains the reader to understand how things are related. For instance, Marx outlines how constant capital and variable capital are related to each other, and then how they are related to the rate of exploitation and profit. As an electrician, you must know how resistance in a parallel circuit is reciprocally related to total resistance. I could go on with different relations in Marx’s analysis of capitalism or in basic electrical theory. But my point has been made.
The development of post-modernism and more specifically post-structuralism has had a detrimental impact on the Western left. Post-structuralism has pushed rational materialist politics careening off a cliff and dying somewhere near the political aspirations of a class-conscious working class. What we are left with are a politics, that seem to share a lot of the fundamental premises of modernist left politics that was forged in the battles of 19th century class struggle, but with closer inspection we find a politics completely removed from such a tradition, masquerading as a new left politics for a postmodern era.
Before I get into why I think everyone and anyone should leave the poststructuralist politics behind, I will first briefly outline what these poststructuralist contend. The fundamentals of poststructuralist politics are rooted in a theory about the world and reality. For the poststructuralists, all reality is a conglomerate of social concepts, phrases, and symbols, dubbed broadly as discourse. Reality exists because we collectively decide it does and everything is up for interpretation and contestation -put in the common undergrad lingo and repeated ad nausem- everything is socially constructed. This philosophy has led to strange and absurd theoretical realms where definitions of agency have been distorted to include inanimate objects as on par with humans in constructing a discursive reality (ie just reality). There is an anything goes mentality for explanations of everything. The influence of poststructuralism does not end here. Poststructuralism moves beyond the pure philosophical realm into political philosophy. For poststructuralist politics, power is key, as with most realistic politics, however, they are not interested in any normative definition of political power (i.e. wielding the state or using a political subject’s structural position to make change). Rather, they take the feminist mantra of “the personal is political” to a new extreme. For the poststructuralists, every relationship, every word, and every symbol are a rooted in an unceasing power struggle. Thus, the most inconsequential small talk is really a political tango of two warring factions trying to win in some interpersonal political game. Social reality and all social hierarchies are always under contestation. The political struggle is everywhere, all the time, and most fundamentally in our words and writings. Might I add that poststructuralism seems like the perfect politics for academics that engage in writing and debate for a living.
THE LEFT’S POSTSTRUCTURALIST PROBLEM
I have a hard time substantiating a lot of my hypotheses about the history of the left, but I think if I took the time to do substantial research, my hypotheses would be proven correct. Throughout the 20th century, the left built large factions within the academy. Where before leftism had been a movement of the popular classes and a small collection of eccentric intellectuals and those of noble/bourgeois heritage. The 1960s and 70s led to a spike in the left wing army being assembled in the academy. This spike in the 1960s and 70s was a result of the vast array of social movements that rocked society the Women’s Liberation movement, Civil Rights, Black Power, and particularly student movements (think Berkley). Now it just so happens to be the case, that the last be hurrah for anything resembling a powerful left was the 1960s, major shifts in society led to a progressive direction with Civil Rights Legislation, the Great Society and so on. Now, most of that left has been decimated, except for those clinging on in the academy. But throughout the new neoliberal era and the decimation of the left, new political and theoretical trends infiltrated the academy and took all of the New Left academics with it. Poststructuralism is the infiltrator the has infected the academic left and by association all the various existing forms of left political organizations, the largest base being the NGO Industrial Complex, staffed by professionally oriented liberals which are the former political disciples of the poststructuralist academy. I feel confident in saying this because the humanities and social sciences have all be deeply infiltrated by the likes of Foucault and Derrida, just look at citations. This faction has become politically dominant over the Democratic Party (good riddance, that is fine by me) and most of the activist movements of today.
Now what types of political content did poststructuralism insert into the left? One obvious political discourse (I said it), that has emerged has been the religious focus on what is popularly dubbed political correctness, a focus personal attitudes, and personal relationships. If you believed, as do the poststructuralists’, that power is in every relationship and every symbolic form of communication, then it would be no wonder why there is a religious observance of words people say. In the eyes of the most fundamental poststructuralists, these words construct the world. Words, words, words. The most common political expression influenced by poststructuralism seems to be a poststructuralism melded with the traditional identity politics of the New Left (women’s, black, Lesbian/Gay and new political categories of people). Ironically much of the early poststructuralism, like the work of Foucault, was a reaction against identitarianism and any quasi-essentializing discourse. Out of the melding of identity politics and a firm belief that the totality of the world is constituted by the power game of discourse, we see a religious fundamentalism that emerges, which the right calls Social Justice Warriors (there are hours of cringe-inducing videos of these political types online). My assumption is that most of these SJWs don’t realize how the type of politics they spout has emerged from a hybrid of the identity politics of the New Left and poststructuralism of “left” academics, as a leftism rooted in rationality and materialism has died.
So, this is what poststructuralism has brought to the left. It has brought a totalizing focus on words and political performance that- might be why there is such liberal outrage over President Trump’s xenophobic campaign speeches and not a peep from liberals about the President Obama’s vast deportation machine, or Middle Eastern interventions, including assassinations by drones. But with a totalizing focus on words, it is no doubt that the class character or subject character of the left has shifted since the 1970s- I will add that this trend coincides with the gutting of the left by neoliberalism. The left today is not fundamentally rooted in fighting for your material interests (for workers rights, economic justice, better education in your community, and so on). Today the left starting point is discourse, how people talk, how commentators discuss events, how this marginalizes, certain groups, making sure that the most marginalized are given a voice and discursive leadership over movements, over safe spaces and so on. The political leaders are no longer those most adept at organizing their fellow neighbors or workers, but those most attuned and adept a regurgitating the correct social justice discourse. It is unsurprising that students, academics, and professional activist dominate this role.
Further, the identitarian/poststructural fusion puts great focus and creates a large space privileged in their type of politics. The privileged are the ones with dominance and for some reason, their voice magically shrinks other (I assure this stance isn’t about population prominence, it is about cultural dominance that the most vulgar SJWs believe engulf everything). There are great pieces that reveal privileged guilt and guilty performances as the key political move for the privileged subject. Self-criticism, creating discourses, and engaging in symbolic protests that point out and aim to undermine the privileged group’s dominance is the fundamental political practice of the social justice clique. I can assure you that these performances do little if anything to shift actual material power, because at the end of the day, as the left is focused on safe spaces, the rightwing and corporate interests still wield massive political power and material resources to ensure their plans are fulfilled.
Here is the list of major problems with the “social justice” poststructural/identitarian politics: 1. It alienates most people with an emphasis on a particular expert academic/activist lingo. 2. It engages people not as individuals with collective interests, but as a representative of a privileged or non-privileged receptacle for power 3. Words are prioritized over material events and interests. If the left ever wants to be relevant again, which they haven’t been since the 1970’s, they need to drop the type of politics I outlined above. Real egalitarian, anti-oppressive politics, is about building
If the left ever wants to be relevant again, which they haven’t been since the 1970’s, they need to drop the type of politics I outlined above. Real egalitarian, anti-oppressive politics, is about building organizations and institutions of the popular classes to fight for common interests and engage diverse or non-totalizing interests in the context of that solidarity. This isn’t to reduce the important of non-dominant or majority interest, but it is a realistic assessment of how politics works. This can be hard, and conflict will exist, but hiding in safe spaces and symbolic action will kill all movement for a progressive future and the left will die in absurdity (if it hasn’t already).PS: There is a possible Part Two, that will engage decry poststructuralism and defend science and a reality outside of discourse.
PS: There is a possible Part Two, that will engage decry poststructuralism and defend science and a reality outside of discourse.
There is a strange notion held by some political radicals, that the revolution is a clearly definable event, and further that this revolutionary event will look somehow similar to a mass protest, just more massive. The revolution will have more protestors blocking more roads, holding more signs, smashing more windows and so on. Some of this is motivated by an immature adventurism of black bloc kids and LARPing Maoists who wish to ride the thrill of riots and uprisings with some tenuous connection to a poorly defined political theory.
But the most massive protest isn’t a revolution. There may be a place in the process to revolution for these spectacular events, but they are not themselves the revolution. These events can be useful in reaffirming or establishing solidarity, a way for celebration, and so on. However, these memorable events don’t fundamentally shift power in the direction of the working class and often times they do the opposite by consolidating power for different class sectors. With the Women’s March and the inauguration protests, we saw massive numbers of people out in the streets, millions. Beyond the political content of these protests, the thing missing in most every place where people protested, are grass roots working class institutions. For a working class revolution that can fight exploitation and the diverse oppressions that exist, we need to move beyond protest and move beyond just the streets. To be clear the streets are a pivotal area of struggle, but there are other terrains that must be conquered and also the way we are utilizing street demonstrations needs to be rethought. For a working class movement and revolution, working class institutions are crucial. These working class institutions will be where working people regularly engage, where the issues of their daily lives are made political, made collective, and so on.
Except for some islands in a massive ocean, I see no working class institutions. There are some organizations and some reach the level of institutions, but none are in the hands of the working class. Bureaucrats control most unions, a professional class of grant-writers, business people, and activists control the non-profits, and the political parties will always be dominated by the rich under a facade of a multi-class alliance. Further, activism (broadly defined) is no longer a tool for working people to use to better their lot, but rather an activity for a defined group to engage in. Just like those that go to raves, art shows, or go to Kenney Chesney concerts, activism today is an activity for a special subcultural clique of people. This is why the left has died and why all major political and economic changes in our society since the 1970s have been largely been a move to the right. We need working class institutions.
This goes along with my previous critique of intense focus around news. We all need to realize that our daily experiences aren’t merely our own, but our co-workers, our neighbors, and so on. Secondly, we need to take this realization to realize common interests.
Some people fear this self-interested focus on daily experience will split communities apart. But, the truth is that liberation from exploitation and oppression through revolution will not be a game for allies. It will be a transformative process for people who realize the true political content of their daily lives, who realize common interests and who are empowered to work with other groups bound by common interests. Empowerment is key. Without empowerment of all diverse working class and poor communities, we can’t have real functioning solidarity. Solidarity emerges from reciprocity and mutual aid. Solidarity needs to be an equal relationship. Thus, the process of solidarity should be empowering for both parties. Until then, the process is a form of charity or potentially something worse.
The revolution is not an event and it is not a hang out space for punks and radicals. The revolution will be a movement for working people, a total shift of power from the ownership class and the political elites to working people, and a total change in the way all people relate to the world. In a reaction against the reformism of liberals and the slow road electoralism of the democratic socialists, some anarchists and revolutionary socialists have viewed revolution as one big event we have to work towards. For these anarchists and revolutionary socialists, it is one-day capitalism, the next day socialism. I am sorry, but that isn’t how it will work. Social revolution will take a long process of working people building institutions by and for themselves, that will be used as tools for fighting for their interests and one day be able to completely shift power so the world is in the hands of the working class.
I tuned my radio to 91.1 Minnesota Public Radio, the good middle-class liberal way. Today’s NPR news report: a rundown on the turnover of power from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, a complaint by Representative John Lewis about the legitimacy of Trump’s electoral win (Russian’s hackedthe election by revealing true information about one of the corrupt Presidential Nominees), and European Leaders worry about Trump’s stance on NATO. In summation, the news is bullshit. I learned enough information in the quick breakdown to know the political and economic elites are still fucking us over. That is all the news is good for, a brief reminder of the bullshit that is involved in maintaining this social order, beyond that I question its worth.
Along with bullshit news coverage, NPR hosts three seasonal member drives, where they wax poetic about the necessity of public radio and good journalism for a healthy democracy. I think they are right. For the type of representative democracy (and capitalist economic system) that dominates the Western world, these spectacular events and news reports are the primary subjects of political questions and everyone from conservatives to radical activists are preoccupied with the relevant questions of the day. Democrats cry about Russian hacking, Conservatives whine about protesters at the Presidential inauguration, and radical activists are protesting everything from President Trump, intervention in Syria, Obama’s beyond pathetic legacy and much more.
There is nothing particularly wrong with being upset with any of these things (except for the stupid things). However, the real problem is this constant preoccupation with world events and the associated outrage that is little more than performative posturing. Activists, from the left to the right, have convinced themselves that their protestations of world events actually change things and are related to their everyday life. Stop listening to NPR, stop watching Fox News, and stop scrolling through Facebook. You will realize in a few days that not knowing about current events (high-class tabloids) has no profound effect on your life. You don’t have to stay tuned into the bullshit – the bullshit that you can’t change and the bullshit that doesn’t matter to daily life – because at the end of the day, it is bullshit.
Sure, a lot of world events are important and can have serious implications for the world. But we are missing out on things that truly matter and are of chief political importance. Freddy Perlman has a wonderful piece where he breaks down Marxist concepts, “The Reproduction of Daily Life”. The quick overview of the piece is that the social order is recreated every day that we get up from the bed, go to work, and engage in labor activity for a wage. Our daily activity creates capitalism. This can be further applied to all sorts of daily conventions. Billions of people are engaging in the process, thus there is no individualistic way out of this, but we should understand that our everyday lives are deeply connected to the reproduction of the social order (i.e. the reproduction of our domination and exploitation). Further, daily life is our arena to engage with our fellow workers, our neighbors, and others in our lives.
Marx uses alienation of labor to describe how capitalism separates us from what we create. I would posit another form of alienation that seems to be epitomized by the obsession with current events and the connected forms of symbolic protests. This alienation could be described as alienation (separation) from the political questions of our daily life. Focus on current events and the corollary activism, are an alienated way to engage the world, everything that matters is separate from us, and we must engage in abstract performances to somehow affect these newsworthy events separate from ourselves- go ahead, scoff at the traditional people that sacrifice goats to please the Gods.
This isn’t to say that we should solely focus on only that which affects our daily existence, however, I think it makes the most sense for working people to root their politics in their everyday existence. We should realize that the reason we have to wake up at 5 am or 6 am to drive to work and sell our labor for a wage is one of the most fundamental political questions of our time. This focus on current events, international conflicts and the realpolitik of statecraft is not our game to play. Our game to play as workers is resistance on the job and in our communities; it is coordinating and withholding our labor. A focus on everyday life is how we can begin to realize class interests and build actual material solidarity, as opposed to the current abstractions and useless politics of allyship.
This article is pulled from experiences I accumulated as a member of a small tight-knit political group aspiring to change the world. We operated conceptually in the grandiose, pulling from the long tradition of fighting for an anarchist and socialist future. We were a group of people engaged in fierce debates with each other about the correct method of organizing. It was an extremely lively and insightful part of my life.
A small note I have before delving into this piece: I believe a lot of these insights I gained through my experience of engaging with this political group are common knowledge to many people who’ve engaged in more mainstream and normal civil society organizations. These insights of organization for civil groups have been lost on many in my generation (I was born in 1995). Thus, politically and organizationally our inexperience as a millennial cohort has forced us to re-engage the question of organization and reinvent the wheel, hopefully, it is a newer more efficient wheel. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam covers a lot of how civil organizations and American community life has declined over the past decades (this was written almost two decades ago).
The Des Moines Worker’s Alliance emerged somewhat organically when some Drake University students and Des Moines Catholic Workers became friends. This happened because the students and the Catholic Workers (there were overlaps in the two at the beginning and it became more intertwined throughout the life of the DMWA) shared many of the same political beliefs and desired to change the existing economic and political order. The first political engagement, a fight against the “emerging” xenophobia of the Trump campaign was attempted. This was marked by a coordinated disruption of a Republican forum in Des Moines, emphasizing that anti-immigrant policies are anti-family because these anti-immigrant policies split families apart. After this disruption, critical reflection led to a disavowal of the action (and similar actions) as worthwhile or productive at building our vision of society and even effectively shaping the discourse in the direction we desired. This then manifested in the groups’ political reorientation towards a more materially focused organizing model (not activist model).
Throughout this time, we organized on two fronts. First, we organized a campaign against homeless camp evictions that were lead by the city government of Des Moines. Second, we organized around prison issues. This entailed organizing a quick action in support of a prison contact that had been assaulted by prison guards. Further, organizing a short-lived weekly prisoner-writing meeting with the goal of gaining contacts, and disseminating information so prisoners could organize inside their prisons, this was based-off the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee model developed by some members of the IWW. Lastly, the organizing involved an effort at engaging those “on paper” at the parole office to build some type of working/fighting group for ex-convicts.
There were many great political moments that emerged from this. For instance, putting on various protests was a great experience for those who organized these events. We learned a lot through all of the organizing. Further, the whole experience got many of the members of the Des Moines Workers Alliance thinking in a strategic mindset about how to realistically achieve goals within the confines of a broader political vision. There was one notable victory in the prison organizing in the summer of 2016. One of our prison contacts had been assaulted and brutalized by a prison guard. In response to this, we organized a call into the Iowa DOC and the prison where this incident occurred, along with a picket outside of the Iowa DOC in Des Moines. Later, we received news that some of our demands had been met by the prison administration and the associated bureaucracies. We most likely were just lucky with this victory. The victory had less to do with our good organizing and more to do with an alignment of many things out of our control.
Though there were many great things that happened during my tenure as a member of the Des Moines Workers Alliance, I am mainly going to focus on the many things I learned through many mistakes (from the political school of hard-knocks) and what I think going forward are considerations that need to be thought of in any of my political engagement.
There was a lot of talking, arguing, and sitting in circles contemplating throughout the life of the Des Moines Workers’ Alliance. This is one of the good things. However, after a while of just talking people became antsy and wanted to actually do something, actually organize, and actually change the world and our collective lives with it. This was my feeling. And to this I say good, let’s go out and actually change the world. However, we rushed, I think we skipped some steps in the process. I am not saying there needed to be more talking, but rather more productive talking. One productive thing to discuss that I think we missed was a truly solid base of agreement on certain practical and political issues. Like for instance: what are we actually doing? We never really answered this question. What were we trying to accomplish? Well, the revolution of course… but really, we never practically engaged in this discussion, we never shared what each of us wanted to achieve and how to go about this, rather we operated on many assumptions and sometimes this was enough to get by.
During the emergence of the group, I was less clear politically about the question of organization. However, having reflected on our “organizational” history, I now have a very definite opinion on this matter. With the quotes around “organizational”, it may be obvious where I am going with this. I don’t think we really ever constituted ourselves as an organization or at the very least a stable organization, instead, we were a collection of individuals working together for shifting and often times amorphous political goals (that might be a bit harsh, but sometimes true). We were a less secretive, less sub-cultural, anarchist affinity group.
We as socialists, communists, and anarchists wish to have a social revolution led by the working class for the working class. To achieve this, we, the working class, need the right tools. An organization can be a necessary tool at times. And at this point on the path to revolution, it is most definitely necessary. Here are the reasons I think we should have constituted ourselves more formally as an organization with a constitution, set of roles, and list of procedures. At this current political juncture and social climate, I think it is the job of anarchists, socialists, and communists to orient themselves toward the popular classes. We should work to shape the consciousness of the popular classes towards our vision of a society and shape the behavior of the working class to take necessary action to institute our vision of a society. That is my base premise. My next premise is that to achieve the first premise you will need an organization that can engage working class people, effectively communicate a vision and goals to the working class, have an organization that allows working class engagement to shape the world and thus shape the behavior of the working class to engage in necessary actions. I am not a vanguard or a partyist, I don’t wish to control or dominate the working class to use them as my tool or have the working class struggle in the electoral arena as a party, I want them to emancipate themselves. I have definite opinions about what emancipation would look like and I will advocate that. Having an emancipatory revolution will require intense collaboration among working people, many who agree with each other (maybe in the same organization) and many who disagree (maybe coworkers, neighbors, family members). We as radical workers must seriously grapple with these facts.
If we had constituted ourselves as a more formal organization we would have been closer to achieving the above goal than we are now and going forward this is what we should aim for. An organization with a constitution, set of roles, and a list of procedures would have aided in these six ways I will list. 1. Clarity. What the organization was about, how it was supposed to operate, what the individuals involved in the organization were supposed to do, how they can go about doing it and by what time. 2. Organization should institute an accountable, democratic process that allows for a more fair distribution of participation in the organization, as to not allow for the domination by a clique. 3. By having the ability to pass policy and other measures there is a process for amending and changing the path of an organization, with the collective group (not just individuals) on the same page. 4. There can be a system/method of disseminating skills and knowledge to the rank and file and through this not have all the skills and knowledge concentrated in a handful of people, which is dangerous for the longevity of a fighting organization. 5. An organization can outlast individuals, whereas a group of individuals is contingent on the individuals and all of their personal baggage.I saw that the lack of formal structure made our political activity unstable due to various personal strife and individual conflict. A formal organization can safeguard against this better than a collection of individuals. 6. I felt the need to be a vanguard when there was no formal structure, with a formal structure there can be an agreed upon way of how to make decisions and create a better environment for collaboration, in contrast to top-down vanguardism.
Organizations aren’t necessary for every aspect towards a social revolution, but they are one tool in our tool belt and at this moment it is time that radical workers pull out this tool and use it to build towards our vision of a libertarian communist social revolution.
Service work isn’t a separate category from productive work
This thought came to me in one of my trade classes. Someone was talking about how there is a move to think of all the trades as a service.
There are Marxists who put a large emphasis between service work and so-called productive work… I wonder if these Marxists have really read Marx, since Marx is pretty clear that commodities are merely use-values that are exchanged. Are not many services just that?
Service work really isn’t a separate category from productive work, the only difference often times is when and how the commodity is consumed, over time as is the case with physical commodities or as the labor is being done, such as a lot of labor that is labeled service work. Now, a conceptualization of something as a “service” seems to be more about ideology than anything substantive. “Service work” is the peak form of burgeois ideology that Marx calls the alienation of labor. In service work and work that is slowly being colonized by the concept, labor activity has been completely separated from the laborer in conceptual terms. The service worker’s activity is purely for someone other than themselves and is often not conceptualized as something that can be recuperated for themselves. There maybe certain aspects of types of labor or industries that allow for a more easy conquest by the concept of “service”, like when, where and how a commodity is consumed, but as I point to there is even a move toward conceptualizing the trades as service work. The concept of work as a service most definitely has the potential to colonize the factory involved in physical commodity production and even extractive industries that extract raw materials to be exchanged to make more commodities.
If you create use-values you are a worker, end the division between so- called service and so-called productive work!