ASR 73 (Spring 2018)

3. EDITORIAL: Who Believes in the Deep State?

4. WOBBLES: Union Scabbing, Billionaires Fear Revolt, Trickle-Down Economics, Handouts for Bosses …

4. Farewell, Fellow Workers: Jeff Reeder, Harold Barclay

5. International Syndicalist News Compiled by Mike Hargis

8. Argentina: Four lessons from the fight against ‘reform’ policies by Federico Abal

9. ARTICLES: Rail Workers Building Solidarity Interview with Ron Kaminkow, Railroad Workers United

12. Mind the Gap! by Iain McKay

14. ‘Roll Up the Boss to Win’: Organizing After the Fight for $15 by Jeff Shantz

15. The Hidden Terror by Tony Sheather

18. Ursula Le Guin & Utopia by Iain McKay

22. Crawling Out from the Depths of Economic Despair by Jon Bekken

24. Four Aspects of Contemporary Fascism by Shane Burley

26. Peter Kropotkin on War and Revolution

27. Private Government Review Essay by Iain McKay

30. REVIEWS: A Realizable Utopia Review by Jon Bekken

32. From Debt to Crisis Review by Jeff Stein

32. War Against War Review by Jon Bekken

33. Anarchist Immigrants Review by Martin Comack

34. Romancing the Revolution Review by Iain McKay

35. American Socialism Review by Steve Kellerman

37. Marx, Bakunin & the International Review by Iain McKay

38. Berta Caceres, Elvia Alvarado & the Honduran struggle by Raymond Solomon

38. Letters

40. Ursula Le Guin & the Revolution Poster by Alexis Buss

The Impossibility of Just Prices

Review by Jon Bekken, ASR 41 (2005)

Frank Ackerman & Lisa Heinzerling, Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. The New Press, 2004, 277 pages, $25.95 hardcover.

Everything important can be bought and sold. Advertisers tell us this every day, offering to solve our most intimate problems (or imagined problems) for a fee. Corporations put price tags on everything as they decide what to make, what towns to destroy, how unsafe they want our workplaces to be, and the extent to which they will poison our communities. (Indeed, there is now a thriving, entirely legal market buying and selling the “right” to pollute our air.) Health insurers decide how much our life, and our pain, is worth as they decide which procedures and drugs to cover, and which to reject. And governments increasingly use cost-benefit analysis to decide everything from environmental regulations to whether to allow the bosses to force workers to put in unlimited overtime. Everything has a price – even our lives.

Even many “leftists” agree. The entire edifice of Participatory Economics is built upon the premise that we can set prices that capture the full social costs (materials and labor, of course, but also externalities such as damage to the environment and the lost opportunities that otherwise could have been met) of fulfilling any need. Anything we truly value, one Parecon advocate haughtily explained, we can put a price on. Would that they were alone (with the capitalists and politicians) in their insanity, but no. An entire school of environmental economists has arisen who develop ever-more-complex formulas to try to measure the value of externalities – less, I think, out of a belief that this is the best way to make decisions than from despair. These economists insist that our calculations take account of the central role of nature in the economy (the natural resources upon which we depend, the interaction of a species within its environment, the competing uses to which nature could be put). Yet while such methods may be better than the profit-based calculations that drives most economic analysis, they still leave us in a world where prices determine what matters and what is worth protecting.

It is against this backdrop that environmental law professor Lisa Heinzerling and Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman have written Priceless, which the publishers describe as “a combative, no-holds-barred debunking of cost-benefit analysis and the derelict logic used to defend it.” While they proceed entirely within the logic of (enlightened) capitalism, the authors nonetheless provide a wealth of examples of just how dangerous (and how commonplace) the absurd notion that a price tag can be put on everything is. They track the most common cost-benefit formulas down to their dubious origins, illustrate just how easily these calculations can be manipulated to obtain the desired result, and challenge the logic that the value of human life or a healthy ecosystem can be measured in dollars and sense in terms that should be accessible to a very wide audience indeed.

While much of the book frames its arguments against a backdrop of Bush-Reagan deregulation, there is enough information presented to make it clear that price-tag analysis is a bipartisan enterprise. Thus, while the current Bush regime’s number crunchers slashed the value of a human life to $3.7 million, who among us would willingly sell their life for even the $6.1 million the Clinton analysts thought it was worth? And who would be willing to give the world’s billionaires the right to kill as many of us as they please, so long as they pay whatever the going rate is determined to be?

Ackerman and Heinzerling conclusively demonstrate that this business of putting prices on our world is fundamentally arbitrary.

Take the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, for example. Many studies have been conducted to try to determine how much the environmental damage was “worth.” Surveys determined that the average household would be willing to spend almost $100 to put in place controls that would prevent another spill like the Exxon Valdez, indicating that the price should be set at $9 billion (a figure that assumes only U.S. residents were affected; one suspects Russians and Canadians, to mention only those most closely impacted, might see things differently).

But if you ask those same people how much they would accept in order to allow Exxon to dump more oil in the ocean, the numbers get much higher – indeed, many people say they would refuse to allow such a thing at any price. And that’s the only sane position to take. Unfortunately, the people who run our society are not sane. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (a Clinton appointee), for example, has published a book that severely criticizes out present system for protecting health, safety and the environment not on the grounds that it fails to do so effectively, but rather because it is not cost-effective. Tobacco companies agree, and have given millions to support “risk analysis” studies that – because they value prices and money above all else – usually find that public health measures just don’t make sense. Which brings us to the question of just how much a human life is worth. It’s been illegal for quite some time to buy and sell the right to kill people, so analysts have to figure this out indirectly.

Often they pluck figures from thin air, as in the case of a 1995 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which decided lives in the U.S. were worth $1.5 million, but those in low-income countries were worth only $ 100,000. (The 2001 report uses an international average of $ 1 million to decide whether it is cost-effective to allow the capitalists to continue destroying our planet through global warming.) Many economists estimate how much a person would earn over a lifetime, and figure that’s the value of his or her life. (We are, after all, wage slaves, of no intrinsic value to our masters except for the money they can make off our labor.) Or, to determine how workers value their own lives, they compare two “similar” jobs with different risks of causing death, compare the pay rates, and then figure the difference reflects how much workers are willing to sell our lives for.

That this is an absurd undertaking goes without saying, but when economists take this idea seriously and crunch the numbers, they find that union members value their lives much more than do non-union workers. You have to pay blue-collar and service sector male workers $2.6 million more over the course of a lifetime for a job likely to kill them ($13 million for women); but unionized men get $6.1 million (women $42.3 mill). (The authors show how these figures are arrived at from differences of just pennies an hour on pages 76-81; there is actually a certain twisted logic to it, if you ignore factors like power, how desperate someone is to land a job, and the like.) So we’ve established that non-union workers are either dolts who don’t value their own lives, or who lack the organized power necessary to do so. Policy-makers don’t worry about such questions, they strike an average and voilà: we have the value of a statistical human life.

There are alternative measures of human life, ranging from $900,000 to a bit more than $7 million, which policy makers use to run cost-benefit analysis on workplace safety regulations, the level of poisons that should be allowed in our food, the value of school lunch programs. diseased social order, and environmental regulations. (Somehow the very real costs of maintaining the world’s most deadly military machine and inflicting untold carnage on our fellow workers around the world are never measured by these tools.) Statisticians then discount the figures because many victims will be older, some deaths will occur in the future, etc., in order to arrive at a number that justifies whatever horror is being contemplated. (Not that they deliberately fudge the numbers; people with anti-human proclivities are hired for this sort of work.)

The drive to put a price tag on everything does not stop there. Elaborate surveys have been conducted to determine how much a crippling illness is worth, many of which manipulate data from a study of denizens of a North Carolina shopping mall to determine the value of a case of chronic bronchitis. Researchers didn’t ask what people would charge to be infected, of course, since few would agree at any price. Instead, they described the effects of chronic bronchitis and asked questions about which of two imaginary communities the shoppers would prefer to live in: one with the same cost of living as their actual residence and a specified risk of bronchitis, and the other with a higher cost of living but a lower risk of bronchitis. The interviewers kept changing the numbers until they reached a point where each subject was equally happy with both communities (or perhaps desperate to escape). Researchers then figured the trade-off between higher risk and higher costs – $883,000 per case of chronic bronchitis – was the value people placed on avoiding a crippling disease.

One-third of the people they asked to participate refused to have anything to do with this macabre exercise, and so are not included in the data. Environmental Protection Agency analysts then statistically manipulated the data, dropping the people who valued their health the most (and also those at the bottom of the scale) to arrive at an average of $260,000, which they now use to value health risks such as coming down with a nonfatal case of bladder cancer. (You’d agree to have a mad scientist induce cancer in your body for a quarter-million bucks, wouldn’t you?)

Similar research has been done to determine the value of preserving entire species, of people’s “quality life years,” of an I.Q. point (lead poisoning stunts children’s intelligence, so the manufacturers need to know how much that’s worth), of living with crippling injuries, etc. It is all quite insane, and U.S. law requires this sort of analysis be performed on new regulations.

Priceless does a very good job of explaining how cost-benefit analysis is being employed and whose interests it serves. They demonstrate that even on its own terms, such analyses necessarily exaggerate costs and minimize benefits. And they offer a richly deserved repudiation of the entire scheme, instead calling for policies that reflect human values: “The alternative is not a different formula. The multitude of priceless values [life, health, nature, beauty, etc.] that we have identified cannot be measured on a single scale… At best, such methods can provide useful background information on multiple environmental impacts. At worst, when they offer their own bottom-line evaluations, they make hidden judgments about the relative importance of different impacts – judgments that can be every bit as arbitrary and indefensible as the process of monetization.” (208-09) There is no formula, they conclude; what is needed is public debate and participation, and a value system that does not gamble with the ecosystem on which future generations will depend.

These are useful cautions, so far as they go. But they do not go nearly far enough. Ackerman and Heinzerling seem to believe that capitalism and the state could be reconciled with environmental and human values, with regulatory agencies serving to keep their anti-human (and anti-environmental) tendencies in check. This attempt to reassert a liberal politics – a politics that endeavors to harness the state to human needs – may help Priceless reach a wider audience, but in the real world this sort of politics is everywhere in retreat. States serve power, and those who rule have concluded that they no longer need the welfare state.

The price tag system is utterly incapable of serving human needs in the arena of policy-making. The authors do not address this, but the evidence is overwhelming that it serves no better in determining the production of food and other human necessities, and making sure they reach the people who need them. The attempt to put a price tag on everything is a reflection of a diseased social order, and its symptoms permeate our entire social system. And even if the authors do not draw out the implications, the arguments (and evidence) presented here can be marshaled to support a broader radical project.

The price system does not protect our time from the depredations of the employers. It does not reward effort or skill; quite the contrary, it richly rewards anti-social behavior while condemning the most industrious among us to dire poverty. Capitalism indeed “know[s] the price of everything and the value of nothing,” as the subtitle puts it. We must rid our minds of the notion that a free society can rely upon prices (for our labor, or for our necessities); rather, we must proceed from the basis of identifying real human (and ecological) needs, and rebuild our economy around meeting those needs.

The Torture State

Editorial, ASR 41 (2005)

It is perhaps a sign of advancing age when one thinks fondly back to the days of one’s youth, when you could march down the streets without having to worry about the snipers on the roof tops; when you could join a union demonstration, at least, without worrying about police firing upon you with rubber bullets and wooden blocks; when the government had to at least pretend you had committed some crime in order to lock you up; and when torture was universally condemned.

To be sure, torture was widely practiced, and not only by the brutal military dictatorships the U.S. and Soviet governments propped up around the world. In Chicago, it seems police routinely tortured suspects in order to extract convictions used to send them to jail or death row. But officials dared not admit to the world that they practiced torture, and when it became clear that the fruits of torture (among other violations of basic human rights) had sent several people to death row, Illinois’ governor felt compelled to lift the death sentences of every inmate facing execution in that state. In short, torture, while practiced in back rooms and secret cells, was universally acknowledged to be abhorrent.

Today, torture is official U.S. government policy. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez issues legal opinions ostensibly prohibiting torture, but allowing methods including sleep deprivation, psychological abuse (lasting, but not permanent, mental damage is OK), and the infliction of pain up to (but not including) the point of death or major organ failure. International human rights agreements, he says, do not apply. Gonzalez was among the top contenders for a recent opening on the U.S. Supreme Court, but was apparently blocked by conservatives who thought he was too soft on moral values.

Homeland Security Czar Michael Chertoff required convicted Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh to sign a gag order promising not to reveal the systematic torture (the severely wounded Lindh was blindfolded and duct-taped to a stretcher for days in an unlit shipping container; denied medical care, food and water; and threatened with death to elicit his confession) to which he was subjected as a condition of his plea agreement. If U.S. citizens are treated this way by the U.S. military, one can only imagine the conditions inflicted upon Afghan or Iraqi prisoners.

Even a few “civil libertarians’’ now say torture is inevitable, and so call for a system of torture warrants which would allow torture so long as a judge somewhere said it was OK.

Fortunately, even if it has become official government policy, most people continue to reject torture. Human Rights Watch has called for criminal action against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA Director George Tenet in a report titled Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees. Human Rights Watch says there is overwhelming evidence that U.S. mistreatment and torture of prisoners took place not merely at Abu Ghraib but at facilities throughout Afghanistan and Iraq as well as at Guantanamo, and at secret locations around the world. Where U.S. torture was not rough enough, the CIA “rendered” detainees to countries where they would be subjected to more aggressive torture.

In these difficult times, the criminality of the state can be overwhelming. Yet we must continue to confront it, even as we work for the abolition of this brutal, force-propped system.

Long ago, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that no crime was so terrible that it could not be justified “for reasons of state.” In this, as in so many things, history continues to prove him right.

Freedom, Anarchism, or Social Ecology

Review essay by Tony Sheather, ASR 41 (2005) pp 34-35

Murray Bookchin’s significance as a leading thinker, writer and spokesman for the contemporary radical movement is still generally acknowledged. However, the past fifteen years has seen a rancor and division that threatens to challenge Bookchin’s contribution and place in history. The man acknowledged by Roszak as a philosopher to rank with Thoreau has been critiqued and criticized. Repudiated, even.

Crucial to his “deconstruction” has been Bookchin’s espousal the opposition of advocates of deep ecology like anarchist essayist David Watson, whose Beyond Bookchin: A Primer for a Future Social Ecology tears at the very fabric of Bookchin’s ideas. There is vituperative attack at times from both sides in this debate (e.g., Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – The Unbridgeable Chasm). Watson is a theorist, if one who eschews dogma. His activities would seem guided by liberatory reflection, perhaps a spontaneous dialectic. The poet, the artist, in contrast with the prosaic thinker. The man of metaphor challenging the advocate of coherence. Watson’s emphasis on metaphor, intuition, art and poetry as ends in themselves, and as a neglected dimension of Bookchin’s critique, is refreshing. Undoubtedly, in pursuing a coherence attuned to rationality, Bookchin ignores a sensibility crucial to a broad and diverse liberatory consciousness. The Renaissance man is too close to his own “ism,” as Watson observes.

However, Watson’s sympathy toward these neglected areas in Bookchin’s perception creates its own problems. His desire to view human uniqueness as a reflection of the acknowledgment of non-human identity as much as its own, leads to its own uneasiness. Citing the Dakota Black Elk approvingly that “unless human beings humble themselves before the entire creation, before the smallest ant, realizing their own nothingness… (human) knowledge of their oneness with the universe… can not be realized” (pp. 55-56), Watson invokes an obeisance to “unity” (here spirituality/mysticism) similar in intent, if not form, to the man he condemns.

Watson’s evocation of a diversity and fulfillment in aboriginal communities serves as an antidote to Bookchin’s sometimes dismissive musings. Yet again, one wonders if a catholic embrace of “primal, archaic and modern” (Beyond Bookchin, p. 72) invites confusion as much as continuity. Does necessary humility become deference: “I must add that sometimes creeping on all fours might be precisely what is called for.” (p. 60)

“Revolution will be a kind of return.” (p. 154) As wise and incisive as many of Watson’s reflections are, to conclude his chapter “The Social Ecologist as Technocrat” in this manner conveys a disturbing sense of regression. Do we explore the past humbly, with an “authentically dialectical understanding that reorients life around perennial, classic and aboriginal manifestations of wisdom … we have yet to address fully” (p. 154), or do we thus mire ourselves in new litanies of contradiction?

Watson fears Bookchin’s marriage of capitalist-sponsored computer technology and a municipalist utopia, indicating his incapacity to comprehend the full matrix of hierarchical and segmented social and psychological organization inherent in modem society; the Marxist economist within the anarchist philosopher and social ecologist. Nonetheless, Bookchin’s espousal of a nature rendered self-conscious through humanity’s realized potential retrieves and generates a spark of authentic personhood from mankind’s often dark journey. For Watson, progress is regress – unmitigated.

Bookchin’s role in demystifying Marxism (“Listen Marxist,” Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 1971) may be less certain 20-30 years on, but his analytical passion in Post-Scarcity Anarchism and The Ecology of Freedom (1982) were stepping stones, sign posts for a generation. Watson sees a paralysis or decline in Bookchin’s progress (!) over time. There are such signs. Yet Re-making Society (1990) still inspires and Re-enchanting Humanity (1995) – uncited by Watson – depicts in bold strikes the ambiguous heritage of post-modernism and deconstruction. Here awareness of “the sentinel of reason” is not an instrumentalist naiveté but a crucial intellectual reference to guide critique. Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism may be guilty of the selective trivialization Watson, personally offended, alleges. It may perceive treason where idealism is equally apparent. It is unquestionably accurate in discerning and decrying the tendency toward privatized retreat so manifestly observable within the left-liberal political spectrum (and attendant culture). For all their erstwhile (at times contemporary) nobility and integrity, the Greens elaborate this secure, middle-class compromise – Rousseau and Mill in perfect harmony.

It is no surprise to see Watson at odds with Bookchin’s illustrative libertarian heritage and his depiction of a utopian future. “Bookchin’s Civitas; from here to where?” (Chapter 6) exemplifies the divide. Watson queries the significance attributed to the Athenian polis and Bookchin’s evocation of Vermont as a current shining light, and challenges the authenticity of his envisaged participatory municipality as a beacon of the future.

David Watson’s criticisms again offer breadth and the value of an alternative perspective. His error again is to misunderstand, hence disregard, the essential conviction of humanity’s striving for freedom and the need for a passionate, if at times indulgent, vision. His glaring omission as an anarchist writer, in an otherwise comprehensive discussion, is to almost totally ignore the contribution of the anarchist tradition itself. As a reflection, Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists is conspicuous by its absence.

Is it possible that Watson’s dismissive response to Bookchin’s mention of his past experience as a foundry worker intuits more than a contextual dismissal? Without knowledge of the man’s antecedents, one can but surmise. His coming of age during the Vietnam War (both literal and political) suggests the middle-class student radicalism of the time. A deep gulf with earlier radicals like Bookchin influenced, if not shaped, by Depression and war. Personal experiences of enforced drudgery or marginalization inspires a different zeal from that created within a chosen realm of romanticized reminiscences.

It seems possible to locate some of the tension existing between the two writers in relation to the appropriate anarchist interpretation of autonomy and freedom, within these personal and social origins. Autonomy, precious to a child of the ‘60s, under suspicion from a man cherishing the best of “The Left That Was” (Part Two, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism).

As someone of Watson’s era (and perhaps background) – certainly someone changed by Vietnam and radicalized by anarchism – I see in Beyond Bookchin more systematic echoes of thoughts, reservations I expressed in a response to a brief left-wing resurgence (and Brisbane seminar) in 1989. My “Four Paths” drew attention to Bookchin’s virtues, but also his occasional lack of subtlety and complexity, his unawareness of nuance and ambiguity. My reference, with some asperity, to Bookchin’s favorite word, “coherence,” clearly mirrors a similar unease emerging overseas.

Bookchin’s virtues, nonetheless, are considerable. My own intellectual and ethical debt spans 25 years of awareness and enjoyment of his work. Janet Biehl’s brief but gracious acknowledgment of correspondence two years back (conveying her unwell companion’s best wishes), a pleasant telephone call with his comrade Dan Chodorkoff, these may be slight indications of affinity. They did earn my respect as responses to a communication both complimentary and critical – and erase an understandable annoyance at the silence greeting a letter four years earlier.

Courtesy and conviction need not be at odds. Passionate adherence to principle and belief are qualities to admire, but vitriol to the degree exhibited in the Graham Purchase – Bookchin exchange (Deep Ecology and Anarchism – A Polemic, 1993) is sad, even demeaning.

Within the compass of Watson’s critique we witness a decline from “(Bookchin is) a unique figure in twentieth century radicalism” (Chapter 1, p. 7) to “my original sympathies for Bookchin’s work waned during the writing of this essay (Chapter 7, p. 189). He speaks of its early flaws, its “unsound and inadequate … ‘maturity,’” “the saddest moment and the nadir of his career” represented by “his recent writings.” Watson salvages something – “the radical intent and virtues (of) his early contributions” – but the deconstruction is near total.

We may wonder if “after examining his work repeatedly and intensely,” Watson has inherited some of his subject’s messianic zeal; if the analysis has become something of an obsession, as much as a probing appraisal. Watson is gracious, even detached, at the end: “Only time will tell whether I have sledgehammered a flea or shot peas at an elephant” (Chapter 8, p. 245). Yet the contrast portrays extremes inappropriate to a more balanced perception of the roles of both. Watson’s insight and caveats are necessary to elevate social (or deep) ecology to a more complex, catholic conception. To diminish or caricature Bookchin’s seminal role, however, is to do less than justice to a man Watson himself acknowledges “revived valuable chapters of neglected social history for many radicals (through his) utopian concerns and exploration of the ideas of a social ecology” (p. 67).

The broader canvas – and conversation – is suggested: “I agree with Bookchin that an authentically radical social ecology beyond the ‘bare bones’ of the scientific discipline, an ecological sensibility and ethical perspective that discerns the connections between natural and social history, between social crisis and ecological crisis, is essential in halting humanity’s present inertia towards social and ecological apocalypse. I share his hunger for a social movement that can become the seed of the new society within the shell of the old, for a redemption of desire and imagination, his insistence on the possibility of a different kind of organic reasoning.” (p. 243)

Does the ultimate decision, the final truth, lie not between individual philosophers, their assertion and denial, but between the centuries-old quest for human freedom, inspired by dreams, visions and philosophical questions and the inevitable attempts to locate, confine and codify, be it in the name of anarchism, humanism, animism or ecology?

As we strive and yearn for transformation, we need to explore the writings of all contributors to the panorama of that transformation; to understand their differences, contradictions and insights. Their role – be it fundamental, reflective, provocative. Their intent – didactic, intuitive; their approach – analytical or discursive; their style – literal, metaphorical.

Ultimately, however, we find a freedom – hence love – that is individual and social, ordinary and extraordinary, existential and thoughtful, passionate and intelligent, theirs and ours. I may be you, but I am indisputably me. So, too, anarchism and social ecology, visions of utopia, maintain their heritage, their unique essence, their identity, their strength, flexibility and frailty. They illustrate and articulate freedom, sometimes explain or encapsulate it. But comprehend and define it – never.

Freedom is its own domain, while our quest – neither faith nor justice nor peace nor hope, though at times it may seem one or all of these. Their participation in this quest, their acknowledgement of this domain, measures the ultimate value of the Bookchins and Watsons of the world.

Flying Squads & Self Defense Now

By Jeff Shantz, ASR 71/2

Fascist times are periods of open, brutal, class war (when the sheets quite literally slip off). Events of the last year, including the killing of three people opposing a white supremacist shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two women on a mass transit train in Portland and the murder of IWW fellow worker Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville show the desperate need for working class self-defense of our communities.

In this we can draw on examples of rank-and-file self-defense organization. I would suggest, in particular, the rank-and-file flying squad provides an existing model for a rapid mobilization defense force for community protection.

I grew up in an autoworker family and in my family union, UAW (then CAW, now UNIFOR) Local 444, there was a very active and militant flying squad. It was deployed to defend workers and the community against a range of social threats, including, of course, during strikes, but also beyond. In Toronto, CAW flying squads were mobilized to defend immigrant and people facing deportation. Flying squads also defended unemployed workers and homeless people from attacks by police and rightist vigilantes during protests and demonstrations. A rank-and-file Canadian Union of Public Employees flying squad mobilized to defend Indigenous land protectors against racist mobs.

Flying Squads

The flying squad structure operates along the lines of affinity groups with which anarchists are so familiar and which many prefer. The structure allows members to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, preferences and discomforts. The active relationships of the flying squad reinforce accountability and commitment.

In Toronto, anarchists, some of whom were union members, formed an autonomous flying squad. The autonomous flying squad was organized typically to do strike support for workers on picket lines. Flying squad members could engage in activities, such as violating injunctions or strike protocols, that the striking workers did not feel they could do. The autonomous flying squad also mobilized for support of community groups during political actions.

In Vancouver, unionists have organized a self-defense unit, the Peacekeepers. They train together and organize to defend protesters against opponents including fascist groups such as the Soldiers of Odin. This is one model of mobile self-defense organizing that combines explicit self-defense with a flying squad structure for rapid mobilization and coordinated action.

In some cases flying squad members, as members of unions, can draw on additional established working class resources, such as legal support and defense funds for members who might need them based on their flying squad self-defense activities. These resources might not be available to more precarious or vulnerable people who might be targeted by fascists or police.

As self-defense practices spread, other groupings can take on some of these roles but the flying squad offers an already existing body of workers ready, willing and able to do some of the work of self-defense. IWW branches could organize for this work, as Vancouver Wobblies are beginning to strategize around.

Conclusion

That anarchists and antifascists have been attacked with force at demonstrations (as in Vancouver and Seattle, where an antifascist syndicalist was shot) has made this a pressing concern. The murder of Heather Heyer brought home that these attacks on antifascists are not one-off events.

In Vancouver, unfortunately, in the absence of organized and effective self-defense formations, antifascists have had to rely on limited, and hierarchical, union marshals for defense at rallies. While this is fine up to a point and shows the necessity of flying squads, it means that the antifascists became dependent on groupings of which they are not integrally a part (even if their interests are the same and they work in solidarity).

In Vancouver, the IWW branch is making a possibly significant turn towards self-defense training and organizing to act as a defense squad for public mobilizations and potentially for community self-defense, but their numbers are small. A broader flying squad drawing on experiences and participation of already organized working class flying squads, could provide more extensive defense.

Fascist Attack in Charlottesville

from ASR 71/72

Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, attacked protesters and murdered a protester widely reported to be an IWW member – part of a group of Wobblies and others mowed down when one of the neo-Nazis plowed his car into the crowd.

The Industrial Workers of the World issued this statement: “Heather Heyer, the 32-year old murdered by fascists on August 12, 2017, lost her life protesting the fascists. She should be alive with us today. We carry her in our hearts, and move forward with the struggle determined to realize the hopes she held when she faced down the fascists.

“On the internet, it has been widely reported that Heather was a member of our union, the IWW. It does not appear that she ever joined our union, but we would have welcomed her. She was a courageous woman and we should all seek inspiration from her and work to amplify her message. Members of the IWW were on the scene and were among the wounded. Like Heather, they courageously stood up to the forces of hate in one of the largest fascist gatherings in decades. We are grateful that they remain with us, and we are furious that Heather is with us no longer.”

The violence began the night before as hundreds of neo-Nazis and other white nationalists descended on the city, chanting fascist slogans and attacking protesters. Many of the neo-nazis were carrying assault rifles and other weapons; police stood by as one fired in the direction of protesters and then walked past a police barricade. (He was arrested two weeks later on charges of discharging a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school, after the ACLU released video footage of the incident they had earlier shared with police.)

Police allowed the fascists free reign to terrorize the city, refusing to protect Congregation Beth Israel, where gun-toting neo-Nazis stood watch at the entrance, and hundreds of fascists paraded past chanting “Sieg Heil” and other anti-Semitic slogans. (Forty worshippers ultimately escaped through the rear of the synagogue.) Cornel West, part of a group of clergy and civil rights activists standing arm-in-arm in an attempt to block the fascist march, noted that the police made no effort to protect them. “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the antifascists who approached, over 300, 350 antifascists. We just had 20. … They saved our lives.”

A Virginia state trooper interfered with a street medic who was trying to save Heyer’s life. As the medic administered CPR, the trooper forcibly removed an EMT who was assisting in resuscitation. The trooper continued ordering the medic and protesters who were assisting her to leave – stopping only when a firefighter arrived on the scene and took over chest compressions.

This brazen display of fascist violence triggered renewed calls to tear down Confederate and other race-baiting monuments across the country. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters took matters into their own hands, toppling a memorial to Confederate soldiers erected in 1924, as a resurgent Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing African-Americans, Jews, and labor activists. Four people were arrested for this act of civic improvement, and hundreds lined up outside the jail to turn themselves in as participants.

In Minneapolis, performers and bar workers walked out of Clubhouse Jäger after learning that its owner was financially supporting former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, now a white supremacist Republican. Workers quit en masse after learning that their labor was supporting racists and fascists. The owner told a local television station the donation was a matter of “free speech.”

ASR & the Challenges Facing the Syndicalist Movement

Several ASR editorial collective members met July 22, for our first face-to-face meeting in several years. We talked about working to include more topical articles about what is going on in the labor movement and expanding ASR’s online presence (something that would require assistance from supporters with technical expertise). Although we are committed to continue publishing historical articles and reviews, the balance has shifted too far in this direction in recent issues. We need more articles on tactics and strategies for building strong syndicalist movements today, on the challenges posed by corporate globalization, labor and other social “reforms,” and the increasingly precarious nature of work. We need more writers, especially women, young people, and anarcho-syndicalists who are active in non-English speaking countries. We need reviewers, translators and artists. If you can help, let me know.

In addition to our website, ASR maintains an increasingly active FaceBook page. We are working to revamp our email newsletter (technical obstacles are blocking it from reaching most subscribers, and so we need to develop a new platform).

ASR 71-2 (Fall 2017)

Contents:
2. ASR & the Challenges Facing the Syndicalist Movement
3. Wobbles: Loyalty to the Bosses, Refusing Deportations, Booting La Migra, Golden Age for Workers? …
5. International Labor News Compiled by Mike Hargis
6. Wildcat in Vietnam… Labor Shorts by John Kalwaic
8. ARTICLES: Fascist Attack in Charlottesville
8. Unions Against Fascism by Shane Burley
10. Flying Squads & Self Defense Now by Jeff Shantz
12. Anarchists Against Hitler from the Kate Sharpley Library
13. Fighting Fascism: Lessons from Italy by Iain McKay
16. 160 Years of Libertarian by Iain McKay
24. On the Male & Female Human-Being by Joseph Déjacque
28. SPECIAL SECTION: People’s Power, Workers’ Control & Grassroots Politics in South Africa: Rethinking Practices of Self-Organization & Anti-Apartheid Resistance in the 1980s
28. S African ‘Workerism’ in the 1980s by Lucien van der Walt
32. Lessons from the 1984-85 Vaal Uprising by Jonathan Payn
37. Self-Organization in South Africa by Daria Zelenova
41. The Playful Anarchist by Brian Martin
45. REVIEWS: Eco-Socialism, Eco-Anarchism & the Anthropocene Review essay by Wayne Price
47. Debt: Anarchist Economics Review by Chad Anderson

50. Graeber on bureaucracy Review by Jeff Stein

51. Fighting the Spanish Revolution Review by Jeff Stein
52. Kropotkin’s Activist Anarchism Review by Iain McKay
53. This Fight is Our Fight? Saving America’s Middle Class Review by Wayne Price
56. Transnational Anarchism Review by Martin Comack
57. Economics of Labor Repression Review by Jon Bekken
58. Radical Press Review Review by Mike Hargis
59. LETTERS: Fighting CEO Pay, Reviving the Cold War…

FAQ on revolutionary unionism (in development)

What is a revolutionary union?

A union that is at the same time an organization of workers to improve wages and working conditions, and a revolutionary organization to emancipate workers from wage slavery to the employers. To improve working conditions the preferred method of struggle is direct action against the employer: the strike in its many forms, the work-slowdown, all culminating in the general strike against all employers and occupation of the means of production. To emancipate the workers, the revolutionary union prepares the workers to run industry themselves by running the union democratically, educates workers in strategy and tactics to fight the bosses and the science and technology to transform industry, and prepares them for the class struggle.

Why do we call the unions of the AFL-CIO and their kind “business unions”?

There are two reasons for this. Firstly business unions are not democratic but bureaucratic. They are run by union professionals, mostly lawyers, who are not workers but middle class managers who because they spend all their time doing the union business are entrenched politically and able to keep the rank-and-file in line. Like salesmen, they sell their services to workers like insurance as protection from the boss and to employers as protection from their workers. Secondly. we call them business unions because they believe in capitalism. Just like the right-wingers, the business unions believe that capitalists are “job creators” and that capitalists are necessary. To believe in capitalism is to believe in wage slavery. Such unions can never emancipate workers.

 

The Information Railroad

by Jon Bekken, LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW #17 (1994)

Everywhere you turn, nowadays, you bump into the information “revolution.” Politicians prattle about information “super-highways,” national competitiveness and better jobs. Trans­national corporations shift data-entry and computer programming work to Barbados and Ireland, using computers, fiber-optic lines and satellites to move data back and forth. Cable companies promise 150, 300, 500 cable channels – and have scores of Home Shopping Network imitators in development. Computer workstations automatically monitor the number of key strokes per minute in many workplaces, and report that information to the boss. Computer networks make it possible for labor activists and others to keep in almost-instantaneous contact with each other, to coordinate international campaigns and to access a wealth of information.

Vice President Albert Gore speaks of “a planetary information network that transmits messages and images with the speed of light from the largest city to the smallest village on every continent.” This, Gore promises, will lead to

robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solution to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care…. help educate our children… It will be a means by which families and friends will transcend the barriers of time and distance. It will make possible a global information marketplace…

Gore advocated five principles upon which “information highways” should be based: private ownership, competition, minimal regulation, open access and universal service. The U.S. effort would “be built and maintained by the private sector,” Gore said, and he encouraged other countries to do the same. Gore concluded by exulting that telecommunications links “strengthen the bonds of liberty and democracy around the world. By opening markets to stimulate the development of the global information infrastructure, we open lines of communication…”[1]

Similarly, Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown issued a report, “Putting the Information Infra­structure to Work,” which promises “a fundamental change in the way we work, the way we learn, the way we communicate.” Brown looks to information technology to enhance U.S. competitive­ ness, speed electronic commerce, improve health care, improve the environment, sustain libraries “as agents of democratic and equal access to information,” and provide government services faster and more efficiently.[2] President Clinton’s science advisor agrees: “Information highways will revolutionize the way we work, learn, shop and live.”[3] And Gore promised Communications Workers of America members 500,000 new information jobs in the next 18 months.[4]

Computer, cable television and telephone services are. converging – today it is technically possible to deliver similar services over each of these networks, at much higher volumes than  was possible just a decade ago. Hype about the “information superhighway” is nearly inescapable. Whether we like it or not – and we are told that we will like it –corporations are wiring the land, developing a host of new information and video “services,” and deploying information technologies in our workplaces. Indeed, they began deploying earlier versions of these technologies more than ten years ago. But these systems have not been developed with our needs in mind, and to the extent that workers have been consulted at all it has been only as potential consumers. Now the government is trying to speed the course of these developments in ways that would strengthen the corporate stranglehold on what could be an invaluable community resource.

Highways, Webs & Railroads

A great deal of energy has been expended debating the most appropriate metaphor for dis­cussing the evolving system, which the Clinton administration originally described as a National Information Infrastructure. This never caught on, whether because it’s an awkward phrase or because people couldn’t figure out just what was being proposed (after all, infrastructure includes everything from schools to sewers). Instead, politicians, corporate officials and journalists began speaking of an “Information Highway” (which quickly metamorphosed into a superhighway), a much more concrete metaphor, and one that quickly spawned a host of associated metaphors (Highway Robbers, Potholes, Road Kill, Toll Booths, On Ramps, etc.)

At a recent labor conference many people challenged the “superhighway” metaphor, arguing that highways are lifeless, ugly, unfriendly places (they preferred to think of the emerging information systems as a web – a living, interdependent organism). Others favor “superhighway” precisely because the emerging system looks to be lifeless, a fiber-optic scar across the land. Others thought the emerging systems looked more like a Shopping Mall where everything is for sale and people and ideas are tolerated only if there is money to be made off of them.

This debate over metaphors is an argument over how we should think about the emerging system – its possibilities and dangers, its structure, how it is controlled. To see it as a Shopping Mall is to position it as an abomination; a Web is a much friendlier concept (and one that proponents hope would shape policies in a more congenial direction). Each of these visions is technologically possible, but none really captures the essence of what is presently being built. Thus we are offering our own metaphor, the Railroad.

While railroads and highways both get people and goods from place to place, there are important differences. Ugly as they may be, highways are accessible to any automobile or truck (most exclude bicycles and motor scooters) on equal terms. You might be required to pay a toll (particularly out east), but you go where you want, carry what you will, and move at your own rate of speed (subject, of course, to speeding laws and the highway patrol – restrictions which have led some to favor lnfobahn as a metaphor, after the German autobahns which are reputedly free of such annoyances). Highways are owned by the public.

Railroads, on the other hand, are privately owned. (Passenger service is provided by a government-owned company, Amtrak, but it leases access to rail lines.) The companies which operate them generally have a monopoly over their particular routes, and they can set rates and policies subject only to the constraints of the capitalist marketplace. The owners determine the routes, which towns will be served and which (the vast majority) will  not. They decide which services they will make available. You don’t drive on a railroad, you are cargo – just like the coal and other goods being hauled from place to place.

The railroads have organized their business in such a way as to make it practically inaccessible for the majority of the population (the railroads don’t handle small freight, many communities lack train service, passenger trains run so infrequently, and so poorly, that they are impractical for most people). The service the rail­ roads provide the general public is impoverished and centralized, but this way of running railroads has proven highly profitable to those in charge.

The railroads are like the emerging information system in another important way – they were built on the wholesale theft of valuable public resources. Railroads received massive land grants from the government in exchange for building railroads. By right the railroads ought to belong to us, the entire population, since they were built on our land (often land still held by native Americans) by ill-paid workers with money largely raised from the sale of more of our land. Similarly, the Information Railroad is being built on the back of a publicly owned network of computer networks, the Internet (so called because it is less a physical network than a system for coordinating the informational resources of hundreds of computer systems across the country and the world). Much of the financing for building the system is coming, directly or indirectly, from our taxes, and much of the information being bought and sold is ours as well.

As communication scholar Herbert Schiller notes, the Clinton plan is “a blueprint for corporate domination” sold through the same empty promises that were earlier used to sell radio, television and cable:

The nation’s information/media/culture sector is currently the site of sweeping transformations… Stunning corporate mergers and acquisitions among telephone, computer, cable and entertainment companies, each of them already dominant in their field, are preparing the way for … an unprecedented corporate enclosure of national social and cultural space.[5]

Access

It seems clear that many people will be kept off the Information Railroad routes. A growing number of people – about 7 percent – do not even have basic telephone service, let alone the computers, modems and high-quality lines needed to hook into computer networks. Far fewer people are hooked up to cable television – the other distribution system. Industry is urging the government to abandon even the pretense of universal access for new communication services. Although Vice President Gore suggested that connections to libraries and public schools should be subsidized in the name of universal access (though this would at best set up a distinctly second-class access system for the poor, particularly in an era where both are being starved of the resources to provide even their present functions), a former Federal Communications Com­mission research director argues that universal service policies would discourage investment (in­deed he advocates letting rates for local phone service rise to market levels).[6] Plans filed by four telephone companies with the Federal Communications Commission for “video dial-tone” networks (which would upgrade telephone networks to also deliver movies, television and information services) illustrate why telecommunications companies want to dump universal access requirements. Pacific Bell, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic and U.S. West propose to build their networks almost entirely in wealthy areas. Similarly, when Nynex decided to test the market for interactive services it chose three luxury apartment buildings in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods.[7] The reason is very simple, that’s where the money is.

Information has traditionally been available to the general public through a relatively democratic institution, the public library. Those with money could get information more conveniently (and sometimes more quickly) by buying their own copies of books, magazines and specialized publications, but vast amounts of information were made available through libraries free of cost to anybody able to read it. The Internet is organized on the same principle, but with the difference that anyone can make information available. Increasingly information is being withdrawn from this free public sector and being trans­ formed into a good for sale. Private information vendors have made more information available, but at a price that puts it out of reach of all but the wealthiest. Much of their products are simply electronic compilations of government information that was once available free of charge through government documents libraries; the government is eliminating many of its publications and much of this information, gathered with our tax dollars, is now available only to those who can buy it.[8]

Big Money, Small Dreams

These technologies could easily be used to create a truly public information system, with terminals available to all at public locations (libraries, post offices, stores, schools, workplaces, and union halls) containing a wealth of information (about employers, social services, local events, political concerns, etc.) that people could use to help them in their daily lives. Such a system could provide useful information and, more importantly, it could provide an opportunity for people to communicate with each other – to distribute alternative information, to air their views, to make contact with like-minded people. A truly democratic communication system is technically quite feasible.

But that is not what the corporations have in mind. They see the Information Railroad as a means to deliver products and advertisements to a passive consuming (and paying) audience.

On this point the cable operators, phone companies, computer makers and broadcasters are all agreed. Although they are battling to achieve their cut of the traffic on the highway, they are unanimous in seeking to exclude the public’s participation and interest….

In the long run … hardware sales will be dwarfed by the golden flows that will be extracted from the viewing public for the shows, games, films and specialized data that will be transmitted. Private ownership of the electronic highway confers the right to determine who and what will be given access…

While the electronics and cable companies… claim, for example, that interactive TV heralds the arrival of viewer participation and autonomy already announced plans for the new services belie this promise. Most of the interactivity, in a corporate­ owned and sponsor-supported system, will inevitably be directed to the future invasion of the home with marketing messages …

In addition to the established home shopping networks, cable programmers are waiting in the wings with channels devoted to advertisements, game shows, food and the Macy’s catalogue.[9]

A trade magazine recently listed scores of new cable channels – among them TACH: The Auto Channel, Television Shopping Mall, Lincoln Mint Network (an interactive shopping “service” complete with coupon-dispensing device in your home), Catalog 1 (a Time Warner-Spiegel joint venture featuring 16 upscale catalogs), and a host of music, movie, talk and sports channels.[10] Cable companies talk of 500-channel systems, but most of these channels would be devoted to advertising, to home shopping (even though industry surveys show that 71% of cable subscribers reject such “services”),[11] and to pay-per-view services. There is no money to be made by developing systems – labor channels, public access, dossiers on major corporations with information on their labor and environmental policies (as distinct from information on credit-worthiness and stock prices, which find a ready market), etc. – in which people can talk to each other about our common problems, and therefore they will be put on line only if we buy the bandwidth (inevitably the corporations will be able to outbid us) or we force the owners to open up spaces for the  public.

The Information Railroad is not being built by public interest groups, it is being developed by the giant corporations that already provide telephone and cable television. A $26 billion merger between the Bell Atlantic telephone company and cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. that would have given the merged firm control over phone or cable lines going into more than 40 percent of American homes (and a good deal of the programming carried over those lines) has fallen through. But plenty of other corporations are lining up at the trough looking for a piece of the action.[12] The recent Viacom/Paramount merger, for example, brings together a distributor (Viacom is one of the largest cable operators in the country) and a content provider (Paramount makes films, publishes books and owns sports teams), positioning them to own and control both what we receive and the channels we get it over.[13]

Companies already make about $12 billion a year, primarily by selling information on a pay­-per-use basis to computer users (lawyers, stock and currency brokers and similarly well-heeled interests are the primary customers, and most of the commercial services now available are targeted to their needs – thus there are two competing services providing the full text of all U.S. court decisions and other information for lawyers, but none targeting the more numerous homeless population). They hope to expand in part by broadening the range of information made available and marketing it to new audiences, but also by getting us to pay for information which is presently available for little or no cost.

The High-Tech Jobs Machine

Much of the money driving the Information Railroad isn’t seeking to communicate with the general public, however. Rather, corporations and other institutions have been investing heavily in telecommunications for several years in order to develop and control global business operations and increase the flow of profits by moving work, goods and money around the world almost instantaneously.[14] A recent AFL-CIO Executive Committee statement on Telecommunications Policy embraced Clinton’s national information infra­-structure proposal, but urged “policies to encourage a unionized, high-skill, high-wage workforce … [and] to promote a positive trade balance…”[15] This is precisely what Clinton and the corporations do not have in mind.

While corporations have good reason to believe that these technologies will help improve profitability, there is no reason to believe the claim that high tech jobs will restore American “competitiveness” or create secure, well-paid jobs. Although a handful of high-tech workers (engineers, computer programmers, etc.) are well paid, most workers in computer and other high-tech firms earn miserable wages working in unsafe conditions for subcontractors driven by ruthless competition. Thousands of workers in California’s Silicon Valley, for example, work with toxic chemicals for about $6 an hour (no benefits). If they object or try to unionize their plants are closed and the work transferred to a new sweatshop, whether in the U.S. or any other country where cheap workers can be found. Sometimes these electronic sweatshops go bankrupt owing thousands of dollars in back wages to workers. These workers are prisoners of the “virtual corporation,” where manufacturers such as IBM, Digital Microwave and other industry giants contract out their manufacturing operations to fly-by-night contractors; the resulting corporate “flexibility” is highly profitable to the bosses, and helps keep U.S. workers “competitive” with our fellow workers around the globe.[16]

Nor are engineers and programmers immune from “competitiveness.” Telecommunications, computer and other information industry firms are laying off hundreds of thousands of workers around the world as they turn their technology to the task of eliminating high-paid workers. And much of the surviving work is being transferred to countries like India and Ireland where skilled workers can be hired much more cheaply than in the U.S.[17]

Universities and schools are also succumbing to the lure of high tech exploitation. The State University of New York, for example, is trying to increase faculty “productivity” by offering courses and even entire academic programs via the information railroad. Lectures can be carried by video or as computer files, class discussions and papers by email, and students’ progress monitored by computer. One lecture can be shown to thousands of students around the world, exams can be graded automatically, classrooms and libraries can be phased out, and faculty can be laid off as students are increasingly “taught” by cheap, automated systems.[18]

Centralization

The Internet is essentially a cooperative. Although it was started with Defense Department funds to link researchers around the country, the Internet now links over 1.5 million computers in 50 countries. Users can scan libraries for obscure books or locate a unionist in another country who shares an interest in a particular corporation’s plans. “The Internet’s structure encourages participation and involvement. User contributions have sustained resources like bulletin boards and archives, which offer others easy access to information… And it is run democratically, with users on diverse sites participating in network administration and maintenance.”[19]

The Internet also suffers from shortcomings. Aside from the handful of cities with established “FreeNets” (local access centers allowing people to hook into the internet by phone), users must pay hourly access charges unless they are affiliated with a University or other institution connected to the Internet. As a result, most Internet users are affiliated (as students, workers, etc.) to universities or other government agencies, hundreds of thousands of other users are on commercial networks (CompuServe [owned by H&R Block], America OnLine, Prodigy, etc.) that al­ready charge for information on a pay-per basis and reserve the right to control the types of information they distribute. In addition to charging users, Prodigy (owned by IBM and Sears Roebuck) sells advertising on the bottom of each screen. People on these corporate networks pay more than do Internet users, but while they don’t always have access to the full range of Internet materials they can access a variety of for-profit databases not available over the Internet including the full text of many newspapers,[20] latest stock prices, weather and travel info, and special­ interest discussion groups similar to, but not interconnected with, those on the Internet.

In any event, federal funding of the Internet ($12 million) is scheduled to end next year, as the feds award new contracts for information networks to private vendors. The Internet will continue for several years even if it is displaced as the primary system, but as more and more people sign on and the funds for maintaining and expanding the system dry up it will increasingly become unreliable. And, of course, much of the information currently available over the Internet is likely to be shifted to the for-profit systems, where providers can charge for access. Indeed, the National Science Foundation recently announced that it is awarding five key contracts to telephone companies  (Pacific Bell,  Ameritech, Sprint, MFS and MCI) to operate Internet Network Access Points and the new Internet high­ speed backbone. Many users fear the telephone companies will seek permission to price service by usage (presently Internet-connected institutions pay a flat fee for connection) and are lobbying against metered pricing in order to preserve the free flow of information through the Internet.

Stopping the Railroad

If current developments continue, the Information Railroad will develop much as radio, television and cable before it – as a system for selling goods and deadening minds with an endless stream of corporate-produced programming. The economic benefits will largely be limited to the handful of giant corporations that provide the programming and own the railroad lines that deliver the endless stream of advertisements and pay-per-view offering to our homes. And the alternative communication systems that have been developing on the Internet and on similar non­profit networks will be forced to the margins.

But there are other possibilities. Many labor and other social movement activists are using computer networks to coordinate their efforts nationally and internationally, to mobilize inter­ national solidarity, to share information. When the Chinese government massacred its citizens near Tianamen Square, dissidents transmitted detailed, vivid reports instantly by fax, telephone and computer networks to activists throughout the world. During Yeltsin’s recent coup, activists countered the official lies with first-hand reports which were distributed over networks affiliated to the Association for Progressive Communications (in Canada the WEB, in the U.S. LaborNet and PeaceNet). Rank-and-file workers in the auto, airline and trucking industries share information and ideas over LaborNet computer conferences. Workers in Mexico, Indonesia, Russia and other countries post news of their struggles, ask for (and distribute) information about transnational corporations operating in their area, share information about toxic chemicals and other hazards. The IWW’s Industrial Worker is produced by groups scattered across the U.S. and Canada, using electronic mail to find information, edit and discuss articles, and transmit the final articles to Chicago for printing.

In the 1980s, Spanish dockworkers in the Coordinadora union proposed developing a computer network that would link all the European ports (and would be accessible not only to union officials but to any dockworker), and which would make available information on all the major ship­ ping companies, on working conditions, and on labor disputes (thereby preventing shippers from moving from port to port to unload scab goods or to play workers off against each other). That proposal was never implemented, but as computer networks become more widespread it is quite feasible to link workers in every plant companies operate around the world. Such networks could help rank-and-file workers to counter the bosses’ international strategies with their own and to mobilize nearly instantaneous international campaigns.

Several years ago, Sam Dolgoff pointed to the decentralizing and democratic possibilities opened up by the “cybernetic revolution.” Computers and modern telecommunications networks make de­ centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making more feasible, and indeed more efficient than centralization and bureaucracy. Dolgoff noted the vast amount of information even then being distributed over the Internet by scientists, educators and others “who are now already self-organized into local, regional, national and international federations [which] freely circulate information…”

The unfoldment of the new society will depend greatly upon the extent to which its self-governing units will be able to speed up communications; to understand each others’ problems, and thus better coordinate their activities…. The new technological revolution could expedite the disappearance of the parasitic institutions of the state and representative government. …

The organization of the new society will not, as in the state or other authoritarian associations, emanate from “the bottom  up” or from  “the top down” for the simple reason that there will be no top and there will be no bottom. In this free, flexible organization power will naturally flow, like the circulation of the blood, throughout the social body, constantly renewing and revitalizing its cells.[21]

Dolgoff noted that the very same technologies which could open new roads to freedom could be used (and were being used) for very different ends – to regiment individuals and obliterate human values. The new society is not technologically determined, rather we must develop and fight for our own vision of the future.

Notes:

  1. Albert Gore, Remarks prepared for delivery to In­ternational Telecommunications Union, March 21, 1994, emphasis added. (Distributed electronically over IAMCRNet, International Association for Mass Com­munications Research)
  2. “Brown Releases Report Highlighting Benefits, Barriers of National Information Highway,” News Release, Department of Commerce, distributed electronically. The full report (which I have not read – there is no mention of barriers in the news release) is available for a charge from the National Technical Information Service or electronically under the documents/papers subcategory of the speeches/testimony/ documents category on the iitf.doc.gov gopher.
  3. John Gibbons, quoted in John Burgess, “Can U.S. ride to prosperity on ‘information highway?”‘ Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 10, 1993, lOD.
  4. Harry Jessell, “Gore stumps for superhighway  bill,” Broadcasting  & Cable, June 20 1994, p. 36.
  5. Herbert Schiller, “Highway Robbers,” The Nation, Dec. 20 1993, p. 753.
  6. Peter Pitsch, “Disconnect the Universal Subsidy,” Wall Street Journal , April 4 1994, p. Al2. This position is shared by many in the industry, but is by no means uncontroversial. The head of QVC, a home-shopping company that operates two cable channels and recently tried to buy Paramount, calls for building two competitive information highways. “If you have one wire, then you better have it be a common carrier [like the telephone] and regulated within a true inch of its life.” He seemed quite shocked when his interviewer argued for a single, unregulated wire. Don West and Mark Berniker, “Barry Diller: TV’s Smart Agent,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 231994, pp.19-30, esp. 26-28.
  7. Mary Lu Carnevale, “Coalition Charges Four Phone Firms With ‘Redlining’ in Adding Networks,” Wall Street Journal, May 24 1994, p. B7; Leslie Cauley, “Interactive Trials Are Trials Indeed-Tough to Start and Tough to Judge,” Wall Street Journal, May 18 1994, p. Bl.
  8. This discussion borrows heavily from an interview with Herbert Schiller, “The Information Superhighway: Paving Over the Public,” published in Z Magazine, March 1994, 46-50. ·
  9. Herbert Schiller, “Public Way or Private Road?” The Nation, July 12 1993, 65. Similar prospects await computer users, from the advertisements built into the Prodigy system to the “Internet Ad Emporium” promised in a recent press release from Multimedia Ink Designs of Poway, California.
  10. Broadcasting & Cable, May 23 1994, special section “NCTA ’94.”
  11. Harry Jessell, “Cable ready: The high appeal of interactive services,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 23 1994, p. 75. The article reports that cable subscribers are willing to pay a few dollars more a month for interactive services such as video on demand or information services. The text claims there is widespread interest in interactive TV shopping as well, but 71.1% said no when asked “Would you be willing to shop from your home using interactive TV?” This even though other questions held out the possibility of lower prices.
  12. Though there is a lot of hype too – the Yankee Group found that would-be builders of the information high­way aren’t spending nearly as much money as they claim on interactive media. Pacific Telesis, for ex­ample, claims to be spending $16 billion over seven years, all but two billion of that was already slated for routine maintenance and upgrading of its facilities. Ameritech claims to be spending $33 billion, Yankee says it’s closer to $4.5 billion. John Keller, “They’ll Spend Lots But Lots Less Than They Say,” Wall Street Journal, May 18 1994, pp. Bl, B3.
  13. Erika Wudtke,  “Who’s  watching  the  wires?” MediaFile,  April/May  1994, 10.
  14. These issues were explored in several books by communication scholars (long before information be­ came a subject for politicians’ speeches) including Herbert Schiller’s Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500 (Ablex 1981) and Vincent Mosco’s Pushbutton Fantasies (Ablex 1982). For a discussion of the impact of computerization on jobs see Harley Shaiken’s Work Transformed: Automation and Labor in the Computer Age (Lexington Books, 1986).
  15. Statements Adopted by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Bal Harbour, Florida, February 15-18, 16. Elizabeth Kadetsky, “High-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret,” The Nation, April 19 1993, pp. 517-20. These issues are also addressed in Glenna Colclough and Charles Tolbert’s Work in the Fast Lane (State University of New York Press, 1992).
  16. For a running list of these layoffs and detailed discussions of working conditions in the industry see CPU: Working in the Computer Industry.
  17. For a generally optimistic assessment of these developments see “Potholes along the information highway,” The Voice (United University Professions, AFT), April 1994, 8-9, 15.
  18. Betsy Reed, “The Wealth of Information,” Dollars and Sense, March/April 1994, 9.
  19. The National Writers Union has filed suit over this, noting that newspapers and magazines are not paying the freelance and syndicated writers who provide the bulk of their copy for the right to republish their work in electronic form.
  20. Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Mod­ern Society, Third Edition, Charles H. Kerr, 1989, 30-31.

Information & Power

The following excerpt from a proposal by the Spanish Coordinadora dockworkers union, “Information and the Construction of Socialism,” presented at a conference of alternative dock workers unions in Ham­ burg, Germany in 1985, was translated by Carlos Betancourt and Peter Waterman.

He who has information has power. The collection and use of data and information about objects, persons, groups or peoples one wishes to dominate or exploit – this is the secret of the accumulation of power, the manipulation of persons, groups and peoples, the exploitation of natural resources, of natural and human behaviours at the end of the 20th century….

The alternative to the monopolistic accumulation of information is the socialization of information: access to data centres by those persons, groups or peoples about whom information is accumulated in such data banks. Against monopoly, diffusion….

The existence of secret data banks is not only dangerous for the ‘informatised’ (not the same as the ‘informed’) but is as – or more – dangerous than the existence of arsenals of weapons …

In so far as wages and conditions demands are concerned, we need, in the first place, to emphasise the necessity for access to information. In the same way as there exist health and safety committees, there is an undeniable necessity for information-access committees….

In relation to the ports movement

The transport of commodities is the point in the chain of control least dominated by the capitalist structure. Production is strictly controlled by the rigid structure of the enterprise. Consumption is fully dominated by the extreme vulnerability of the isolated individual. Spatial mobility in the transportation of commodities implies a certain distance from immediate control by the instruments of the enterprise structure. And it is here where world capitalism is currently fighting its fundamental battle. And, within transportation, it is precisely in the movement of commodities within ports that there continues a possibility for exercising some kind of counterpower with a certain degree of autonomy and strength….    ·

[The alternative port workers movement should] create information centres which can be used by the base at different points: ports, autonomous trade union organisations, national and international coordination. Such information centres, characterized by their openness, accessibility, participation, and by their ascending, descending and horizontal diffusion, should be administered by representatives of the base, or those serving them, and supplied with the necessary material equipment (computer information bulletins, magazines, data centres, etc.).

We would also suggest that the contents – the data to be worked upon, stored, systematised, analysed, distributed – should be the following: Working conditions, skills, wages, collective agreements, standards, laws and working rules, etc.; Trade union experiences, organization, strategies, campaigns – especially solidarity campaigns –coordination, etc.; …. Documentary archives, magazines, articles, documents relative to matters of interest….

Labor Resources Online

(This section is largely obsolete, based upon a network of list-serves and bulletin boards long since superseded by more powerful technologies also more susceptible to corporate control.)

LaborNet – Particularly strong on international labor news from Russia and Asia, this rank-and-file net also offers industry and union specific conferences in airlines, auto, graduate employees, IWW, National Writers Union, teaching, Teamsters, etc. Inter-connected to the Internet, shares conferences with EcoNet and PeaceNet (and with APC systems around the world), $3 to $10 per hour on line. In Canada many of these same services are available on the WEB. email: labornet-info@igc.apc.org; in Canada, support@web.apc.org

AFL-CIO Labor Net – Several AFL-CIO unions operate conferences on CompuServe, a commercial information vender owned by H&R Block.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility – among other projects, they publish a useful free electronic newsletter: CPU: Working in the Computer Industry email: cpsr@cpsr.org

RSI Network – A major industrial hazard of the Information Railroad is repetitive stress injury for keyboard workers. This bimonthly electronic news­ letter discusses treatment, workstation design, case studies, etc. Email: majordomo@world.std.com. The message should read: Subscribe RSI

Economic Democracy Info Net – EDIN maintains a Labor Issues section containing government documents, labor law, and files on U.S. and international labor issues. It is accessed via gopher. Type gopher garnet.berkeley.edu 1250

Spunk Press maintains an anarchist/alternative (rather broadly defined) electronic contact list which includes newsgroups, archives, electronic newsletters, mailing lists and email addresses for publications. Requests to: ian@spider.co.uk

1-Union – a syndicalist list (loosely speaking), where IWWs, DeLeonists, anarcho-syndicalists and assorted Marxists discuss a range of issues and share information on current labor struggles. Like most electronic discussion lists, this is unmoderated, which means that the quality of the debate is un­even and some participants are hostile to the list’s stated goals. But the discussion is more productive (and more civilized) than that found on lists such as the Anarchy list. email: 1-union-request@lever.com

The Amateur Computerist – a quarterly newsletter of historical and theoretical arguments on computing and its utility to workers. For electronic subscriptions: au329@cleveland.freenet.edu  For the printed edition send $5 (1 year) to R. Hauben, PO Box 4344, Dearborn MI 48126.