photo by SG

Monday, November 17, 2008

Winning the Battle to Lose the War

It seems sometimes (sometimes?) that the Left has everything upside-down. I've been thinking recently specifically of abortion rights, but these thoughts could apply to a variety of other issues.

Since Roe v. Wade was first passed down, the Left has been single-minded in its quest to save it. Note the difference between saving Roe v. Wade and pursuing abortion rights. Saving Roe v. Wade is a matter of electing presidents who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will continue to uphold abortion rights and putting pressure on right-wing presidents not to appoint anti-choice justices. Pursuing an abortion rights agenda is a far wider platform, embracing legal tactics as well as building structures to support abortion rights and consciousness building.

Everyone left of Dick Cheney believes, or pretends to believe, that power flows from "the people," or "the workers," or some variation of that old leftist cliche. So why is it that the Left, in fighting one of the most important battles in defense of women's rights in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond, has chosen to fight that battle on the terrain of 9 people? If power truly flows from below, why not spend all that money that they're lobbying and campaigning on encouraging pro-choice consciousness.?

Now, I can already hear the criticisms: "Brendan, this is ultraleftist and impossible." But is it? I think the example of the Civil Rights Movement which immediately preceded it is a powerful counterexample to the so-called Pro-Choice Movement. Black Americans used a variety of tactics, from, yes, lobbying the president, to direct action and armed self-defense to protect themselves from violence and to demand equal rights. Thousands probably died, but what was produced was a powerful black consciousness that threatened, and at times still does, to actually stand up to the racist power structure of our country. Every white leftist and his cousin fell all over themselves to fight that battle in the streets, yet after 1972, they simply forgot what they'd been doing in '68.

I'm not sure exactly why this happened, but I can think of a couple of reasons. One good one is plain old sexism. Sure, white straight men (TM) were willing to think that the descendants of slaves could constitute a force that could be radical and stand up to the system, but women? Good Lord, they should stay in the kitchen. (See the subsequent white leftist valorization of black men in the Civil Rights Movement and ignorance of women, except the cleaned-up, sanitized "tired, old" Rosa Parks)

Another is the fact that abortion rights aren't included in the Constitution and everybody knows it. Roe v. Wade is the most preposterous legal fiction that the Supreme Court has ever ruled on (okay, maybe not, there are some doozies) and it just happens to be the only one that's been ruled in favor of the Left. So all this energy has to be spent on convincing us that this ridiculous ruling is legitimate, instead of convincing us that abortion rights are essential regardless of what some fucking piece of paper says. The problem facing the Left after the end of the 60's was one that I've written on before, that we'd basically achieved the welfare state, (more or less, although Prop 8 stands as a pretty solid challenge) but we realized it wasn't good enough. Suddenly, every Harvard liberal and Popular Front commie realized, without saying it of course, that we dirty anarchists were right all along and that the problem wasn't that the state and capital weren't good enough, it was that they weren't good at all. Of course, we all know what happened next: the eventual decline of the Left into the intellectual abyss of postmodernism and the rise of neoliberalism and subsequent neoconservatism.

So why haven't we picked up on this? Is it because it's too hard to convince "stupid working class people" that a women's body is her own? I think underlying the rationale of the Left's abandonment of the issues of abortion rights on a mass scale is an indication of a strong elitist perspective that's also a tragic remnant of the New Left.

The fact is, we're going to lose Roe v. Wade one day. It's inevitable. In some places, it's already de facto happened. When that happens, we'll have to rebuild the abortion rights movement from below, with a populace largely hostile to it, because of what they see as government intervention. We don't have much time to refashion the debate about abortion rights, but I fear it's already too late.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drifting through Industry

Considering recently the image of the hobo in the early IWW. The hobo sticks out in my mind from this period as possible the most important figure in the struggles of early 20th century American workers. The figure of the hobo, as a type of working class archetype, offers a lot of important lessons for contemporary Wobblies, I think. A couple reasons:

1. Networks. The Wobbly hobo became one of the key organizers. Taking out a red card and riding the rails from job to job, he (and I use the gender pronoun intentionally) was the perfect type of organizer for workers in industries that depended on changing conditions and temporary work. Timber workers in particular seem associated in the histories with hobo organizers. Jumping from job to job as needed, hobo organizers represented organic working class militants, who followed the conditions of industry and kept up with the pace of technological and economic transition. He knew his fellow workers, mostly because he shared their condition and perhaps their relatives from a previous job. The image of the boxcar orator may be quaint, but it represents one type of important power: while illegally traveling through the circuits of capital, the hobo organizer spoke with his fellow workers and created resistance to workplace exploitation outside/before jobs as well as on them.

What we can learn: These jobs were, like the post-Fordist ones we work today, short-term and without longer commitments. Also like today, they tended to involve the same groups of people over and over again. If you were a lumberjack, you were one in Ontario, Minnesota, and Oregon. Today, if you're a service workers, you're one at Starbucks, McDonalds, and a call center. In our economy, the conditions and style of labor change from job to job, but the basic character remains the same. We must build upon the already existing networks that exist within the class to mobilize resistance. As we circulate through capital, we can reach out to the myriad contacts that our labor necessarily creates and turn them into revolutionaries struggling around the clock.

2. Mobility. The travels of the hobo were many and he would pop up in different places depending on both fancy and the requirements of industry. He could weave in and out of bourgeois society as necessary, if always at the margins. This marginality, along with the aforementioned seasonal and temporary style of work, necessitated constant motion and the creation of a working class counter-culture. Yet the hobo organizer took this mobility as a strength. If he was needed to fill the jails at a free speech fight, he would jump on the rails with his friends and end up in a different state. He joined together in mutual aid in the hobo jungles with his comrades.

What we can learn: Struggles on the job move beyond the job when we connect them to the larger conditions of industry and the relationships of workers to bosses. What is less important is this specific strike or that specific action, but rather the constant strategic growth of working class power in the way most appropriate to the situation. So sometimes mobility means not fighting a battle when you cannot win, but rather looking for a different terrain upon which to engage. Additionally, mobility could mean the ability to follow the currents to where the action is. The wretched SWP is actively encouraging its cadres to work in the meat-packing industry. Not a bad idea, just done for foolish reasons. In fact, the struggle of migrant laborers today has some of the most obvious parallels with the historical work of the IWW.

Two important considerations:

1. The hobo is male. That is to say, he is unattached to anything or anyone and need only look after himself. Throwing ourselves over to replicating this is definitely anti-feminist. But we should also keep in mind that culture and society have changed a great deal since the days when the nuclear family was the only model. With the rise of the women's movement, more women are self-sufficient, in the workplace and outside of the home. So capital has created conditions where women too can be this type of organizers. Further, the hobo is not the figure to organize all of industry, as this point brings up. There are industries and social locations that he cannot break into, and people whose identification he rejects, so he cannot be the model for all of our organizing.

2. Networks and mobility bring to mind the vision of the modern city. I think that hearkening back to the Situationist legacy of psychogeography is important for us. How does the city relate to itself and to its denizens? How is industry organized geographically and psychogeographically? How can modern hobos tread through the paths, both clear and hidden, while constantly transforming those paths and being simultaneously transformed by them?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sites of Struggle?

Been considering the location of the university in society. I've heard lots of different arguments about its centrality in conflict, class or otherwise, and I'm interested to hear what others think about it.

Here are two perspectives that I've heard:

Higher education is not a central location for struggle, it just seems that way because so many academics write about it and desperately want it to be a site, so that they can participate. I think this is a pretty valid criticism of a lot of things. (I contend that the popularity of post-modernism is similar.) There's kind of a feedback loop where academics want the university to be an important strategic location, so they find evidence that says it is, everyone sees these papers about the importance of the university and then everyone in the university begins to struggle because they have told themselves it's important.

The University is centrally important because it involves so many other sectors of the economy, while also producing a kind of value that doesn't appear in other settings. This seems pretty popular with the kind of post-workerist set, Negri and such. I think its got some solid ideas. Students often live in basically ghettos, contending with the same kind of landlords as in poor neighborhoods. There's an immense number of people on campuses who do work, from all different sorts of trades. It takes an enormous amount of energy, physical and environmental, to make a university function. Plus, there's something to be said about the value produced by the university itself. This perspective made most sense to me after I helped with the U of M strike last year. I realized exactly how many pressure points and connections existed in the university and beyond it. I remember hearing that the U is one of the largest employers in the state.

So maybe these represent the two extreme arguments, but they're both worth considering. As I do my best to get the hell out of academia as soon as possible, I keep hearing arguments that suck me back in and keep me hooked in with groups like SDS. So what is the role of the university in terms of struggle? Is it central, secondary, merely peripheral? And once we answer that question, we can only begin to ask the next one, which is "So how do we organize it?" I'll leave that one for another day.