photo by SG

Monday, December 15, 2008

Meta Shit

I'm always intrigued by what people are paying attention to, thinking about, and writing about. This last week has been great because there have been two parallel events with really important consequences. What has been fascinating is how, for the most part, constituencies seem to only be paying attention to one, totally ignoring the other. It's difficult to discern exactly why folks are ignoring the other, since they're obviously not saying anything about, but I'll do my best to conjecture based on previous experience.

U.S. leftists that I know have been incredibly interested in the Republic factory occupation in Chicago. Obviously, this is an event with far-reaching consequences. Workers from a rank-and-file union occupied a factory and demanded that not just their company, but the entire financial system give them their legally-obligated wages. What's more, it got front-page press in the mainstream media, with pretty positive vibes.

Anarchists have largely ignored this event, focusing on the week-long rioting in Greece, prompted by the murder of a youth by cops. These riots, incited primarily but not exclusively anarchists, have spread throughout the working class, particularly youth, and the "movement," such that it is, is beginning to take on characteristics of decision-making and strategic planning. The cops have been basically beaten back, the Stalinist party has predictably turned against the movement, and the government is in incredibly shaky straits. All good stuff.

But there's been a great deal of exclusivity to the conversations and interest about these things in the U.S. Very few leftists I know are as excited as anarchists about Greece, and anarchists are pretty passive in their interest about Republic.

So what's going on? I think that the silence I'm hearing indicates some important things about ideology and goals.

On one hand, for many post-left anarchos, rioting forms the majority of their praxis. (If I hear one more goddamn thing out of Milwaukee about "social war" I'm gonna puke.) Since politicized rioting does not happen a whole lot in the U.S., and when it does happen its mostly in PoC neighborhoods, which let's face it, have little cross-over with insurrectionist anarchist circles, this kind of thing is great to focus attention on. Lots of the things that we're hearing from Greece are playing directly into the kind of things that their theory plays up. There is little to no organization of the movement, it's violently anti-cop, and based in the lumpenproletariat. This whole thing makes leftists really bored because they don't see it in their framework of class struggle.

On the other hand, a success by a left union in the mainstream is what the U.S. workerist left has been searching for for some time now. UE is inspiring to a lot of folks, and not least of which Wobblies, to which UE looks like a bigger but more bureaucratic version of us. The union movement has been in decline (as everyone keeps going on about) for decades, and this kind of return to 30's-era tactics has all the good feelings of a working class fighting for itself attached to it that we've lost in the last couple of decades. Many anarchists, convinced that unions are firmly a tool of cooption, choose to ignore the Republic victory because they don't want to see workers conciously embracing unions as their tool to fight capitalism. Also, anarchists have yet to offer firm strategies to fight the economic crisis and the left has now appeared on the front page of the New York Times doing just that.

But not so fast. Both of these events are incredibly important but simultaneously overplayed in the respective milleu in which they are celebrated.

First, Greece is not a social revolution. At least not yet. And it appears that exactly the reason it is not is because the movement lacks (*shudder*) organization. It appears that without some kind of mechanism to change the course of the struggle from primarily negative (destroying the old world) into primary productive (building the new) the riots are just serving as a tool of the official capital-L Left to manuever for power. I can't figure out exactly what is going on on the ground (it's sad but true that this whole thing would be taken much more seriously by Americans if it had happened in an English/French/Spanish-speaking country. Nobody fucking speaks Greek.) What I am piecing together though is that despite all the awesome assemblies and burning barricades that are going down, there's still a serious lack of coordination and cohesion. With no way to organize a conscious and public series of proposals, the rioters are in serious danger of becoming just another point on a political scoreboard for the liberal parties.

Second, Republic was a victory, but it does not go as far as its supporters claim it does. Republic was a defensive action that did not nearly go far enough and the reason it didn't is because UE is not a revolutionary union. It's time for leftists to start being critical, even of our limited successes. The workers occupied the plant, they put their hands on the means of production and claimed them for themselves and then...decided to give them back in return for a measly 70 days pay. What we saw in Chicago last weekend was a failure of the imagination. It is exactly the imagination that workerists have not been inspiring, buried with our noses in the day to day of "the struggle," without engaging the utopian desire to actually "demand the impossible." Without a doubt, the return of the factory occupation is a fantastic move and will hopefully inspire others. But it is not the revolution; it is a tactic workers use when the going gets tougher. Unless it takes on a revolutionary aspect, capital is perfectly able to co-opt it and, with Barack Obama publicly supporting the workers, it already has.

So the situation is that both of these consticuencies are right about the other one, even though they are in bad faith. For my money, this means returning to one of my old themes: the cross-pollination of struggles and of ideas. The post-leftists who write beautiful poetry about molotov cocktails and vegan kitchens need to get into the factories and organize. The leftists need to support and aid the rebellious lumpens, even if they may not always see eye-to-eye. It's like, solidarity and stuff, ya know?


Anonymous said...

Well said.

William said...

If we don't give a shit about Republic it's because WE'VE ALREADY DONE THAT. We did it better, bigger and complete with the holy circle-A slapped on it -- ARGENTINA. As recently as 2001, so yeah, Republic is sorta nice, but the ONLY thing that makes it special is the country it's happening within. And the US has simply 0 potential for substantive union-inspired class warfare. That's not what's going to start the revolution in the 50 states. Probably the rest of the world, but that form of anarchism won't play here.

Greece is not TEH revolution. Even if the nation were to see massive consciousness raising, revolt and lines of solidarity, it would die. Whether through guns or wealth, the people of greece can't make a stand and live. But it's new and it's dramatic and it has our brand -- the only brand that matters -- slapped all over it. As such it's desperately needed balm after the RNC. It's building profile and confidence, and, even if the entire country rises up and is slaughtered, we need that.

Teh riot-praxis is stupid but fuck your organization. The reason Greece isn't expanding in a magical wave of black flags across Europe is the lack of converts. Which is due to a poor starting location, distaste for outreach and incomplete logic.

Nate said...

Setanta, I don't get it. What was the failure of imagination?

William, three things - First, Argentina stuff was similar but not quite the same. For one thing, the Argentina stuff was about workers running plants that were idled (maybe this difference is why the charge of failure of imagination?) with the demand being made mainly against the state - don't evict us! - whereas the Republic occupation was directed against companies and was basically a wage demand, though tied to a really militant tactic which hasn't been seen in the US in a long time.

Second, the occupations in Argentina came in part out of really specific post-dictatorship and genocide stuff and the history of the left and the working class in that country but it also came largely out of mass organizations of employed and unemployed workers. So if you're into Argentina then I don't see how you're not going to be into workplace oriented mass struggle, since that's what laid so much of the groundwork for events in Argentina. (Oh, and if by "the holy circle-A you mean that people who ideologically identified as anarchists were a real player in events down there, I don't think that's accurate. If anything, events radicalized people more than people who were already radicals really shaped events.)

Third, I don't think you can predict what will or won't start a revolution, such your remark about there being "0 potential for union-inspired" stuff to really light things up in the US is a baseless assertion. And one that doesn't have history on its side either. The US probably was closest to revolution two or three times, in the 1930s and the 1950s/1960s. The labor movement and waged working class were huge in the 1930s struggles. The black freedom struggle was the major player in the 1950s and 1960s (and some of the major people in that had big ties to the labor movement, like A Philip Randolph and the Highlander School). Arguably the student movement and anti-war stuff is another player, I'm not as convinced about that stuff but that didn't have the same tie to the labor movement. Those circles (particularly second wave feminism) did draw a lot on the experience of civil rights, though, which provides an indirect tie to the labor movement and more importantly to mass organizations and organizing.


William said...

Nate, that's exactly my point re Argentina, the conflict was against the state rather than the corporations, and thus was inherently more militant. Both republic and argentina involved plants being shut down, argentina took them over, republic asked for a severance check from an arbitrary 3rd party that had earned public ire. I mean seriously. Republic was embarrassing.

Yes there were bigger factors in Argentina, but part of it WAS the presence of the (A) in the radical left over the last few decades and from those I know who visited during the initial occupations I think you severely underestimate the anarchist influence. Just because Argentina was unfairly blessed with a surplus of punks and spanish veterans compared to the US doesn't make anything i said less true.

I'm too smart to bother contesting your workerist-tinted glasses perspective on America's specific revolutionary buttons or the significance of labor historically here. Of course, yes, anything is possible, MAYBE. Maybe God exists too.

Nate said...

Hi William,

I’d appreciate it you wouldn’t be so condescending. “Too smart”? Really? I mean, how about if I said “I’m too grown up to get drawn into this kind of exchange of quips.” That kind of thing and the “maybe God exists” thing adds nothing positive to the conversation. If you don’t have an argument other than “I disagree” or “I don’t find you convincing” then just say so. That’s fair. We’re both on speculative terrain here. There’s no need to be rude or dismissive or get all one-upsmanship about it, though.

On your substantive points, in what way was Republic embarrassing? I don’t see that at all, I really don’t understand where you’re coming from. I think you're undervaluing an important experience for those workers involved and something that's really unprecedented in recent U.S. history (in reference to your first comment in this thread, it's not the case that "we've already done that." Some people in Argentina have done a lot of that. Almost no one in the United States has. Obviously we should be internationalists and not simply define ourselves by the states we happen to inhabit, but it's not as if all anarchists globally get to claim "we were there, we did this" because a bunch of people in Argentina worked hard to take over and run their own workplaces.) The Republic occupation definitely had limits(likewise for the recovered enterprises in Argentina) and those should be discussed, but "embarassing" sounds really dismissive to me, like you don't think it's worth even thinking about.

And why are struggle against the state “inherently more militant” than struggle against a private company? That sounds ahistorical to me.

As for the presence of anarchists in Argentina being a determining factor in events down there, if you’ve got evidence for that then I’ll accept it. Your claim to that effect is the first I’ve heard along those lines. This may be because everyone I know from Argentina is an ex-member of some Marxist group and so wants to hide or is ignorant of anarchist stuff. I highly doubt that, but again if you have some evidence I’d be happy to be wrong on this – I’d really like to be able to agree with you that anarchists helped shape the cool stuff that went on down there in an important way. I just don’t think it’s true, as I’ve never heard anything else to that effect. All the reports I’ve heard have focused way more on the loss of political memory and perspective because of the genocide in the 70s and on the role of the movements and organizations of the families of the disappeared (mostly the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo but also H.I.J.O.S., the organization of sons and daughters of the disappeared). Most of this is from Raul Zibechi’s book Genealogia de la Revuelta and some material by the Colectivo Situaciones, it’s been a few years since I followed Argentina stuff at all closely but I can dig up more precise references for you if you want.


William said...

Oh, hey Nate, didn't see you response until now.

Yeah, I'm really not interested in a discussion on the capacity of workerism in the US here, even if we were to seriously have a go at it there's simply too much to cover. So I'm more than content to be a smug jackass on that one.

re: Republic, yes obviously a nice thing in some sense. But so are SIEU pickets. The very fact that such an occupation is substantive in the local context is embarrassing.

When I bemoaned the lack of radicalism in anti-capitalist compared to anti-state focuses, I was by no means speaking to historical actions, but rather the concept themselves. No doubt folks have dramatically fucked up more shit and generally done more in the name of economic resistance than in the name of resistance to the very idea of the state itself. But that's because, in historical and cultural context, it's almost always been EASIER to rant about how much the boss sucks and take action in that vein than it is to claim Democracy itself sucks and take action accordingly.

Actions that have a larger degree of anti-state component, I feel, are by definition more radical than anti-capitalist ones, because they represent a bigger and more fundamental break.

William said...

Oh, almost forgot Argentina.

My impression comes from conversations with a couple anarchists who visited (1 during 2001 and 2 a little bit after), and naturally their take is a bit slanted (immediately hanging out in old anarcho-syndicalist union halls, for example), but yeah, there's obviously a strong interrelation between the punk movement -> militant landless peasants -> factory workers. Backing each other up and radicalizing the discourse. The efforts of the anarchist diaspora weren't the only component to be sure, but marxism and apolitical liberalism/populism is everywhere and barely rises above the background. While anarchists may not have directly inspired the workers at hand in a given plant, their presence in the broader community it seems critically contributed the energy and the points of realization to help things flourish.