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]


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]


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.


  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 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:; in Canada,

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:

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: 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 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:

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:

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

Politics at a Distance from the State: Speech to South African movements

by Lucien van der Walt, ASR 62

The following article is a lightly edited transcript of a talk by Lucien van der Walt (co-author of Black Flame), at the ‘Politics at a Distance from the State’ summit held at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, September 29-30, 2012. The event was a space at which academics and activists sympathetic to or involved in “politics at a distance from the state” could engage with left-wing anti-statist politics in South Africa and beyond, including anti-statist currents in the anti-apartheid movement, and contemporary attempts at building alternative, pre-figurative forms of communality in South Africa and abroad.

Issues covered included the 1980s United Democratic Front in South Africa, and the radical “workerist” trade union movement in South Africa. Attendees included writers like Nicole Ulrich, John Holloway, Jacques Depelchin, Michael Neocosmos and Lucien van der Walt, the shack-dweller movement Abahlali base Mjondolo, the Landless People’s Movement, the Mandela Park Backyarders, Soundz of the South, the Unemployed Peoples Movement, the Church Land Programme, and the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front.

The need for a road map

Lucien: I think I want to just start by basically talking about the issues using the language of going to the land of Canaan, picking up on the imagery used yesterday by the comrade from Abahlali base Mjondolo.

When we think about going somewhere better, about going to a land of Canaan, a “land of milk and honey,” I think we need to think about what this means in the first place, to think about what freedom itself means to us. And here I think anarchist comrades from Soundz of the South and from Zabalaza put it quite well yesterday: that we need to not just fight capitalism but to also fight all the many forms of oppression that people face and impose: racism, sexism, landlessness, hatred for foreigners, hatred for gay people…

If we are talking about a real democracy, we need to challenge all relations of authoritarianism, exploitation, and domination between people. And if we want to relate to each other as equal human beings, we have to treat each other as equal human beings. It is no good having a popular, working-class, democracy where only men participate, or where all our leaders are from rich families.

We must remember, if we want to talk about the story of the journey to Canaan, that the Israelites were not just fleeing from Egypt because they were bored! They were fleeing from slavery, they were fleeing from oppression as a captured nation, they were fleeing for somewhere that would be better, to a future that they would run themselves. But their difficulty was that everything was in the hands of one great leader, Moses. They fled from Egypt’s Pharaoh, but in many ways they had their own Pharaoh, Moses, with them the whole time. He told them what to do.

And, we have done this, as well, in South Africa. What happened to our struggles in the 1980s was that we saw people like Nelson Mandela or O.R. Tambo as our own Moses, who would lead us out of the land of bondage and into a new country.

And what we found out was that, just like the old Israelites, following our Moses we ended up with 40 years in the desert. We have escaped much of the old house of bondage, but we are not yet in the Promised Land. I think we are still out there, in the desert, halfway from the old world of apartheid oppression, but without the Promised Land in sight.

And this is where I think it is important for us to talk about the importance of discussing ideas, theory, strategy. I know some people yesterday were skeptical about having “blueprints” and “theory,”… that they stressed instead experimentation and “building the road as we walk.”

Well, that is a healthy reaction against simple answers to big problems, and it is also a healthy reaction to certain ideas that were associated with huge failures – failures exemplified by the disastrous record of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

But whatever we want to call it, “ideas” if we want to call it that, or “theory” if we want to call it that, is essential to choosing the road we walk, and to choosing where we aim to go with this road. Let us not be afraid of “theory” and “blueprints.”

It is a mistake to think that everything will turn out right so long as we “listen,” or to believe that every type of resistance takes us forward, or to pretend that thousands of small experiments will somehow quietly make the mighty system of capitalism and the state crumble away. Many mistakes are being made., We need have open discussion and debate about where we want to go,and how – and where we are going wrong. And this is exactly where we need to seriously engage with issues of theory, strategy and vision.

Second, without open discussion, our future is in reality still in the hands of a Moses or two. Even if that Moses says he is not the leader, that Moses is still in control. A certain theory gets brought in by the uncrowned Moses as a truth, that will emerge if we “listen” while “building the road as we walk,” while other views get dismissed as “theory”; and it is this Moses who judges which ideas must be dismissed as “theory,” “dogma,” “authoritarian,” etc. This is a clever debating trick. But it is no different from any other form of closing down debate.

Someone else is making the decisions and setting the terms of discussion. That’s the problem. Instead, we need to build our struggles through debate and discussion, and that means engaging with theory, strategy and vision.

The need to engage many views

We all need to be part of the conversation about where we want to go, and that is a discussion about vision, theory, strategy.

Yes, we need a “politics of listening” and a “politics of starting from where we start.” But that means listening to a whole range of views on things. Because the solution to our problems is not always obvious. So we can’t just “listen,” we need to debate.

If a town councilor cuts us off, do we elect a new councilor, or do we occupy the councilor’s house? Do we reconnect ourselves? Do we participate in the branch structures of the ruling party to get a new councilor? And after that, where do we go next?

It does not help to say we must stand aside from theory, strategy and vision in the name of avoiding “blueprints” and promoting experimentation. The very meaning and methods of freedom itself are highly contested.

Let us not act as if the answers are obvious, as if we will somehow know what “road” we want to “walk” and “build,” or speak as if every method of struggle is equally valuable.

And if we want “listening,” we must understand and accept there will be many voices. And sometimes that means we need to raise positions that not everyone will accept. It is fine, it is necessary, to debate – and to be willing to propose clear analyses and strategies and “blueprints.”

The need to criticize

It’s not enough to just “listen.” As an example, if we were in the mass United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa in the late 1980s and we said, let us just “listen,” let us just “build,” then we would have ended up exactly where we ended up in 1994, with the exact same important (but limited) transition we had in 1994 in South Africa.

This was because by the late 1980s, the African National Congress current, with its statist and pro-capitalist politics, had started to dominate the conversation in the UDF and elsewhere. Not just winning over people, which they did, but also preventing other people from speaking, and labeling anyone who disagreed a traitor. So, just “listening” is not enough.

We must debate, and debate entails a battle of ideas, because there is no way that struggles spontaneously, automatically, lead us to any Promised Land of freedom. Many positions taken by the UDF were mistakes. If they helped get us out of the land of apartheid bondage, they also left us in the desert. We cannot just “listen,” we must debate and contest and propose.

Engaging our revolutionary history

Here another problem arises when we dismiss “theory” and “blueprints,” and discuss issues as if the challenges we face are new, and as if everything that came before is out of date or completely tainted by failure – a position that means that only “experiments” are possible, and that no prior judgements on their desirability and feasibility is possible.

But the working class, the poor and the peasants of the world have heroic traditions of struggle going back hundreds of years, from centuries of fighting slavery, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism and state oppression. It is from these experiences that we have developed theory and strategy and vision as a way for us to try to understand that long history and to learn from the past.

We do not have to keep re-inventing the wheel. We do not have to keep making old mistakes either. We must not dismiss this past and its “theory”; we should reclaim it and engage it. This mean engaging seriously with theory, strategy and vision, including anarchism and syndicalism, in conversation with our past as oppressed classes and peoples.

We can learn and see that certain things do not work. There are some “roads” we should never “walk.” And there are some “roads” that stop in the desert.

One thing that is clear from all of our history, is that whenever power is taken away from the mass of ordinary people and given to politicians, given to states and to bosses, it is the working and poor people who suffer.

Yesterday, Jacques Depelchin mentioned the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and his terrible deeds in Haiti against the heroic slave rebellion of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

But let us also remember that Napoleon himself came out of the destruction of the French Revolution. The French Revolution, when it started, overthrew kings, overthrew feudal landlords, made slavery illegal, and took steps to grant colonies independence. Its revolutionary Assembly included former slaves, like Jean-Baptiste Belley. But that Revolution, which was made by the popular classes, was captured by an elite that then crushed every popular movement and demand. From that elite was born a new Moses, Napoleon. A key figure in the revolutionary army, he seized state power through a coup d’etat. Although he brought in some reforms, he also crushed popular revolts and rebuilt the French Empire.

And this disaster was all possible because the revolution did not keep power in the hands of the people. As the anarchist Pytor Kropotkin said, the popular classes made the French Revolution, but a new ruling class captured and killed the Revolution through the state.

So I say we need to speak openly about theory, strategy and vision, and to engage openly with the revolutionary traditions of the popular classes, like anarchism and syndicalism, born of our past struggles, distilled from those struggles. I also want to stress that we need to do this in a bottom-up way.

We need to engage in politics and debate in a different way to the mainstream political parties and certain NGOs, where, many times worldwide, small groups of people hijack struggles and movements, introduce positions and committees nobody has agreed to, then control the debates, control the money and even bribe individuals. So when we debate about theory, strategy, vision, as we must do, we need to do it in a comradely, democratic and libertarian, anti-authoritarian way. How we debate matters as much as what we debate.

The need for clear alternatives

In doing all of this we need to think about concrete future alternatives. We have spoken a lot about who we are, what we do today, and so on, but we need to think about what we do in the future.

It is not enough just to stay in the position of resisting the system, and worshipping resistance as an aim. The question has to be asked, can a new society be put in place, and then, what system? If so, then resistance becomes a means to that end.

But our means shape our ends. We can learn from our past and from our theory, learn a few things that are always very useful for movements.

And the first thing is that movements need to be based on strong grassroots structures. That is to say, rather than build a movement based on a few individuals who can be arrested, oppressed, bribed, and so on, we need to have movements that are based on base-level structures, like street committees, ward committees, workers committees, but tolerating open debate.

It is also crucially important that people’s ideas are changed. At Marikana, where workers in a splinter union were shot down, the main miners’ union at the time, the National Union of Mine Workers, NUM, stood completely silent, failing to condemn the massacre.

And we can point out, rightly so, that NUM’s actions were completely deplorable. But we also have to face the fact that NUM workers elect leaders like Frans Baleni democratically. That the basic NUM structures are quite democratic. The point is, if we have the right structure, but the old ideas, then we can easily turn our structures into something that does not assist at key moments, into something that turns around and even attacks us, into something that ends up led by a Moses, a Pharaoh, a Napoleon.

Ideas matter, strategy also matters

This is why ideas matter, and why we should be so careful about dismissing “theory” and “blueprints.” Unless we have a clear idea about where we want to go, the best democratic structure can be captured, destroyed, or corrupted.

It is the ideas, theory and strategy in people’s minds that shape the structures and the struggles. And people definitely do not always think or struggle in ways that take us forward, nor do our struggles spontaneously create a new society through thousands of “experiments” and “building the road as we walk.”

After all, people are exposed, from birth to death, to ruling class propaganda, through TV, schools, songs, elections: it takes time to free our minds, our best weapons.

Views that suggest everything will just turn out fine by itself, will be “all right on the night,” that dismiss the revolutionary ideas and experiences of the past, with their valuable and hard-won lessons expressed in theory, do not take us forward. They are a healthy response to top-down, failed politics, but are not an alternative politics. Taken literally, they can take us back to the top-down politics they fear.

Resistance is not enough

Ja, now there are just two last points I want to make.

The first one is that resistance is not enough, our struggles as oppressed classes need a strategy that aims at taking economic and social power. If we really want a life for everybody that creates human dignity, that creates real freedom, then the economy, the coercive and administrative resources, either in the hands of the state or in the hands of private business, whether mines, farms or the water grid, have to be put under some sort of democratic, popular, working class, bottom-up control.

It does not matter much if resources are run by a state director at Eskom or a corporate CEO at Lonmin. Privatization, private ownership, is not a solution, but nationalization, state ownership, is not a solution, either. Both rest upon minority control, and that is exactly the problem we face: rule by a ruling-class elite, for a ruling-class elite, and of a ruling-class elite.

Why must we always fight for a few houses and struggle, struggle bitterly, to get them? Why can we not all collectively control the building industry and agree to build so many houses? And build them with four rooms, plus a lounger and kitchen? Agree that we will also want so many parks in our areas, so many schools, not houses in the middle of nowhere?

Why do we have to beg for this, with endless struggles?

It is because we lack real economic and social power. We have no say. And until we have that power, we will always be stuck in the position of resisting, responding, reacting … never solving the problems, never ending the problems. Resistance should be just a means to an end, not an end in itself.

We must move from resistance to reconstruction. The idea that our movements must always and only be about resistance, and stop there, means we must accept a system that we have to resist.

The idea that we must just keep resisting, and shy away from complete and systematic and planned change, is incorrect.

Resistance is a response to injustice. If our politics begins and ends with resistance, then it rests upon the existence of injustice.

Our resistance must form the basis for radical social change, in which injustice, and the resistance that it generates, fall away, like bad memories.

And we can finally leave the land of Pharaoh, and leave the desert too, and enter the Promised Land: freedom with equality. And we do not take a Moses or a Napoleon with us.

The need for (counter-) power

Last, in building for these things, building for a breakthrough into the Promised Land, realize that there is a point at which the big corporations and the state, both of which are controlled by the small elite, the ruling class of politicians and classes, will crack down with massive repression.

The notion that many small rebellions, experiments and resistances will slowly crack the system, and crumble it down, is naive. When resistance, and the movements built up in resistance, reach a certain point, they come into a decisive confrontation with the old order.

The old order will not go quietly, and it will not go easily. This is a dangerous dream. But the old system will have to go so that injustice and oppression will end, or the resistance and the movements will be defeated, and injustice and oppression will continue.

It is necessary to warn the working class and poor that there will not be a peaceful, gradual shift; that in walking our “road,” we will come to a terrible road-block. Will we break through or stop or turn back?

Realize this: the ruling class of politicians and bosses will never ever agree to what our movements want. The small ruling class does not have the same interests or identity as the working class and poor. They will never come over. Some of the more sensitive and principled individuals will come over, and should be welcomed, but not the whole class.

So, in closing, to go to Canaan, people must use methods and structures that take a direct route to Canaan. And if that Promised Land is to be a land of milk and honey, it must be based on social and economic power through popular, working-class democracy – the power of everyone.

The journey will not happen easily, accidentally, and not end without clear vision, theory, and strategy – getting there requires using the toolbox of revolutionary ideas, among them anarchism and syndicalism. These distill the lessons of the historical experiences of oppressed classes and peoples. They indicate what works, and what doesn’t.

Audience: Loud applause.

Comment from floor: I agree exactly, the role of ideas is important. We must not lump together and dismiss all ideas as irrelevant “theory”… we do need a pre-planned strategy, and we should avoid the approach that says “let’s be careful of people who have an agenda.” We all have agendas, so this approach is either a ploy to set you up, or it shows you are confused.

Lucien: Let’s not be afraid of vision, theory and long-term planning because some people abuse them: some people abuse water supplies, we don’t boycott water as a result!

Comment from floor: It is also completely contradictory, this dismissing theory as “dogma”; that is itself a theoretical approach … The idea that we must just “experiment” and “listen,” rather than have perspectives and strategy, this is completely contradictory; the idea of just building through “experiments” and “listening” is itself a strategy based on a theory.

Lucien: To move forward, you need new ideas, new structures, and you need a bottom-up approach, you need power. Okay, the MC’s saying that time’s up!

Count on No One But Yourselves

Translation by Shawn Wilbur, from ASR 62

Letter from Bakunin to Albert Richard, March 12, 1870:

Dear friend and brother,

Circumstances beyond my control prevent me from coming to take part in your great Assembly of March 13. But I would not want to let it pass without expressing my thoughts and wishes to my brothers in France.

If I could attend that impressive gathering, here is what I would say to the French workers, with all the barbaric frankness that characterizes the Russian socialist democrats.

Workers, no longer count on anyone but yourselves. Do not demoralize and paralyze your rising power in foolish alliances with bourgeois radicalism. The bourgeoisie no longer has anything to give you. Politically and morally, it is dead, and of all its historical magnificence, it has only preserved a single power, that of a wealth founded on the exploitation of your labor. Formerly, it was great, it was bold, it was powerful in thought and will. It had a world to overturn and a new world to create, the world of modern civilization.

It overturned the feudal world with the strength of your arms, and it has built its new world on your shoulders. It naturally hopes that you will never cease to serve as caryatids for that world. It wants its preservation, and you want, you must want its overthrow and destruction. What does it have in common with you?

Will you push naïveté to the point of believing that the bourgeoisie would ever consent to willingly strip itself of that which constitutes its prosperity, its liberty and its very existence, as a class economically separated from the economically enslaved mass of the proletariat? Doubtless not. You know that no dominant class has ever done justice against itself, that it has always been necessary to help it. Wasn’t that famous night of August 4, for which we have granted too much honor to the French nobility, the inevitable consequence of the general uprising of the peasants who burned the parchments of the nobility, and with those parchments the castles?

You know very well that rather than concede to you the conditions of a serious economic equality, the only conditions you could accept, they will push themselves back a thousand times under the protection of a parliamentary lie, and if necessary under that of a new military dictatorship.

So then what could you expect from bourgeois republicanism? What would you gain by allying yourself with it? Nothing – and you would lose everything, for you could not ally yourself with it without abandoning the holy cause, the only great cause today: that of the complete emancipation of the proletariat.

It is time for you to proclaim a complete rupture. Your salvation is only at this price.

Does this mean that you should reject all individuals born and raised in the bourgeois class, but who, convinced of the justice of your cause, come to you to serve and to help you triumph? Not at all. Receive them as friends, as equals, as brothers, provided that their will is sincere and that they have given you both theoretical and practical guarantees of the sincerity of their convictions. In theory, they should proclaim loudly and without any hesitation all the principles, conditions and consequences of a serious social and economic equality for all individuals. In practice, they must have firmly and permanently severed their relationship of interest, feeling and vanity with the bourgeois world, which is condemned to die.

You bear within you today all the elements of the power that must renew the world. But the elements of the power are still not the power. To constitute a real force, they must be organized; and in order for that organization to be consistent in its basis and purpose, it must receive within it no foreign elements. So you must hold back everything that belongs to civilization, to the legal, political and social organization of the bourgeoisie. Even when bourgeois politics is red as blood and burning like hot iron, if it does not accept as it direct and immediate aim the destruction of legal property and the political State – the two forts on which all bourgeois domination rests – its triumph could only be fatal to the cause of the proletariat.

Moreover, the bourgeoisie, which has come to the last degree of intellectual and moral impotence, is today incapable of making a revolution by itself. The people alone want it, and have the power to do it. So what is desired by this advance party of the bourgeoisie, represented by the liberals or exclusively political democrats? It wants to seize the direction of the popular movement to once again turn it to his advantage – or as they say themselves, to save the bases of what they call civilization, the very foundations of bourgeois domination.

Do the workers want to play the roles of dupes one more time? No. But in order not to be dupes what should they do? Abstain from all participation in bourgeois radicalism and organize outside of it the forces of the proletariat. The basis of that organization is entirely given: It is the workshops and the federation of the workshops; the creation of funds for resistance, instruments of struggle against the bourgeoisie, and their federation not just nationally, but internationally; the creation of chambres de travail [trades councils or regional labor federations/centers, eds.] as in Belgium.

And when the hour of the revolution sounds, the liquidation of the State and of bourgeois society, including all legal relations. Anarchy, that it to say the true, the open popular revolution: legal and political anarchy, and economic organization, from top to bottom and from the circumference to the center, of the triumphant world of the workers.

And in order to save the revolution, to lead it to a good end, even in the midst of that anarchy, the action of a collective, invisible dictatorship,* not invested with any power, but [with something] that much more effective and powerful – the natural action of all the energetic and sincere socialist revolutionaries, spread over the surface of the country, of all the countries, but powerfully united by a common thought and will.

That, my dear friend, is, in my opinion, the only program which by its bold application will lead not to new deceptions, but to the final triumph of the proletariat.

— M. Bakunin

*This unfortunate phrase, which Bakunin uses in various writings, is often misunderstood. Elsewhere, Bakunin notes that it would hold no power of coercion or official status, but rather

influences the people exclusively through the natural, personal influence of its members, who have not the slightest power, … to direct the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the people towards … the organization of popular liberty. … This secret dictatorship would … carry out a broadly based popular propaganda … and by the power of this propaganda and also by organization among the people themselves join together separate popular forces into a mighty strength capable of demolishing the State.

— Mikhail Bakunin: Selected Writings, 193-4

As Sam Dolgoff notes:

This passage is part of a letter repudiating in the strongest terms the State and the authoritarian statism of the ‘Robespierres, the Dantons, and the Saint-Justs of the revolution,’ it is reasonable to conclude that Bakunin used the word ‘dictatorship’ to denote preponderant influence or guidance exercised largely by example . . . In line with this conclusion, Bakunin used the words ‘invisible’ and ‘collective’ to denote the underground movement exerting this influence in an organized manner. [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 182]

An injury to one is an injury to all: Mikhail Bakunin’s social conception of freedom

by Harald Beyer-Arnesen, ASR #62

May 30, 2014, marked the 200th anniversary of Bakunin’s birth. The following is the text of bulleted notes for a presentation delivered in Boston a few years before Harald’s death, and recently discovered tucked inside a copy of Maximoff’s anthology. It has been lightly edited for publication; no doubt, Harald would have made more substantive revisions and elaborated several points.

The watchword of the Industrial Workers of the World, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” should not only be understood as a moral imperative, or what the English historian E.P. Thompson referred to as a working class moral economy, but as a social fact of life. Fully understood, the IWW watchword contains a whole program and a social revolutionary strategy.

It also perfectly illustrates the core of the social conception of freedom that existed within the mainstream of classical anarchism, first and maybe most clearly articulated by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, as for instance: “I am free only when all human beings surrounding me – men and women – are equally free.”

Positively, Bakunin defined freedom  as “consisting in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers latent in every human being.” To Bakunin, freedom as individuality was a historical and material fruit of society, of mutual and thus social interaction and collective labor, and not of separation or isolation. The latter he perceived as a state of nothingness or absolute slavery, a knowledge not unknown to the master of the art of torture.

Bakunin’s conception of freedom was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Hegel, but maybe most clearly articulated through a critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the latter’s notion of the general interest or will, where every particular freedom was to be sacrificed and negated by an abstract common good, embodied in the sovereign state, and in accordance with the principle underlying any Mafia, traded for a real or imagined security. According to Rousseau, human beings could only be free outside of society, in separation, in a primitive natural state. Bakunin claimed that outside of society no one could be free, absolutely or relatively.

Whatever the specifics of Rousseau’s concept of freedom, which was to strongly influence the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who gave us the Justice of the guillotine, it shares with all statist conceptions of freedom – including that of so-called state socialists – in that the freedom of each is seen as limited by the freedom of all.

From such a perspective, the freedom of each might be said to be in a state of war with the freedom of all and it becomes hard to see how any freedom could survive at all. If this may seem absurd, it is none the less the generally accepted and dominant conception of freedom, and an understanding of freedom that has in the latter decades also made its inroads into self-defined anarchist circles, not least in regions with relatively weak anarchist traditions historically.

Such a conception of freedom could, in its classical bourgeois form, be illustrated by the example of a fiesta, a ball or dance party, where each and every guest was delegated their own separated square yard of freedom to be confined within (their own ghetto of private property), free to call on the guards should any other person violate their restricted square yard of freedom, their private cell. Here surely the freedom of each would be delimited and negated by the freedom of all others.

Contrary to this, Bakunin claimed – and it is often overlooked even by anarchists what a radical turn this was – that the freedom of others constituted the very precondition for and the concrete extension of the freedom of each, and not its limitation. That, on the contrary, it was the unfreedom of others that limits and threatens my own, and that their unfreedom in the next instance becomes a weapon of oppression against me. Or in other words, in a social world an injury to one is in fact an injury to all.

Bakunin also claimed, despite the critical role he gave to the class struggle as a necessary means toward generalized human emancipation, that even our masters could not be free due to the very oppression and exploitation they imposed on us all. Something that is very well illustrated by the conditions in many U.S. cities, where the fear for the anger of the poor in dramatic ways  restricts something as basic as the freedom of movement of the high and mighty, and where the absurdly overgrown prison industry even by normal capitalist standards forces the rich to turn their own homes into prison-like institutions.

Such a classical anarchist conception of freedom, if taken seriously, has radical implications for one’s understanding of the social struggle and how you agitate within it. For instance, it logically implies that the freedom of men will be advanced by the emancipation of women, or posed negatively, that the oppression of women also serves to uphold the oppression and exploitation of men, and to restrict their freedom in real life terms. Likewise, as the history of the labor movement in the United States so sadly illustrates, the oppression of and discrimination against the so-called “black” workers simultaneously becomes, as the IWW realized from the very beginning, a tool in the hands of our masters for the oppression of all workers. An injury to one worker sooner or later returns in all reality as an injury to all workers.

Of course, if you operate within the absurdity of a zero-sum game, this would not make sense, or even within a perspective – so typically within capitalist relations – that has lost the ability to see beyond the instant moment.

Unlike what is the case of bourgeois concept of philanthropy, solidarity within the classical labor movement – if not within the American Separation of Labor, AFL – implicated the understanding of common interest, where self-interest and common interest walked hand in hand. If such an understanding is now weak, it needs to be recreated as a fundamental building stone of a working class moral economy, on the road to abolition of the wage system, and thereby the state and class society as such.

Anarchist Economics

Review Essay from LLR 8 (Winter 1989-1990) by Jon Bekken

The Decline of the American Economy, by Bertrand Bellon and Jorge Niosi. Black
Rose Books, 1988. $16.95
Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, by Peter Kropotkin (edited by Colin
Ward). Freedom Press, 1985.
“The Wage System” by Peter Kropotkin; in Vernon Richards, ed., Why Work?
Arguments for the Leisure Society. Freedom Press, 1983.

A casual observer of the anarchist movement, restricted to contemporary writings, could be forgiven for concluding that anarchists have no conception of economics. A serious debate recently was carried out in the pages of the British anarchist monthly, Freedom, arguing that all wealth comes from agriculture – that the working class is merely a burden the peasants and other agricultural workers are compelled to shoulder. The only possible conclusion from this line of reasoning is that we should dismantle the cities and factories and all return to agrarian pursuits. One suspects that farmers – suddenly deprived of tractors, books and other useful manufactured items and confronted with thousands of starving city dwellers cluttering up perfectly good farmland that could otherwise be growing crops-might take a somewhat different point of view.
Bertrand Bellon and Jorge Niosi – who nowhere claim to be anarchists, despite the fact that their book is published by the foremost North American anarchist publisher – provide a better-argued, academic analysis that, in the end, is no less absurd. In the course of arguing that the U.S. economy has irretrievably lost its dominant position (and arguing for a new world economic order based upon tight-knit, highly integrated blocs characterized by heavy state intervention in capitalist economies), they make it quite clear that for them the primary economic actors are not classes or corporations but nation-states! Questions like unionization and wage levels are reduced to economic factors influencing the relative economic competitiveness of countries and regions. Indeed, for them the working class would appear to be increasingly irrelevant as we move into a post-industrial age. (Though they are critical of U.S. corporate management for their short-sighted and inept policies, and of the military build-up which is consuming our resources.)
Nor are class struggles permitted to intrude into this tidy economic picture.
Bellon and Niosi blithely inform us, on page 70, that industrial relocation is a
negligible factor in the economic decline confronting the U.S.’s northern industrial
region. Instead, they assure us, the problem is the decline of certain
manufacturing industries on which this area has depended. Yet the world has
not stopped building or consuming cars, steel, clothing or shoes. Rather, the
employing class has chosen to relocate production to regions and countries where
workers can be compelled to work harder for less, and to automate and speed up
production in order to reduce payroll. These are not natural phenomena, nor are
these developments inevitable. They could be changed by an organized working
class determined to wield its economic power in its own behalf.
Notions of power, social transformation, or the impact of the policies they advocate on workers in the real world never occur to Bellon and Niosi. Theirs is the highly abstract world of government policy, which in practice rapidly boils down to capitulation to the demands of capital, and to massive giveaways to our corporate masters.
An anarchist economics would look very different indeed. Although anarchists are of necessity interested in the workings of the capitalist economies, our attention is focussed on the class struggle, not on the battle between nations (in any event a sideshow, as the bosses have no country). An anarchist economics might study the theft of our labor by the bosses, the squandering of social resources by the state, and the channels through which the bosses manipulate markets, finance and production to increase their profits and to pit workers in different parts of the world against each other. Similarly, an anarchist economics would address itself to the problems of maintaining economic life in a revolutionary situation, and to the sort of economic arrangements which might function in a free society.
These are the questions Kropotkin addresses in the two works cited above, and which our Spanish comrades addressed in practice during the Spanish Revolution (efforts which are chronicled in Sam Dolgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives and Gaston Leval’s Collectives in the Spanish Revolution). In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin addresses himself to the practical problems of making a revolution – how we are to maintain production and distribution of necessary goods and services in the heat of, and following, a social revolution. In the process he established that, even in his day, a decentralized, self-managed economy could easily meet the needs of the population, and with much greater
efficiency than under the prevailing capitalist (mis)organization. Those who believe that we will somehow be able to eliminate the need for work following the revolution will have little use for Kropotkin’s invaluable study, for he (like nearly all of our fellow workers) had no time to waste on such nonsense. Those interested in a genuine process of social transformation, however, will find much of value here. The Freedom Press edition is condensed from the original, with notes by Colin Ward that help to bring the original up to date.

Kropotkin’s essay on the wage system conclusively demonstrates that a free society must necessarily abolish the wage system and money if it is to remain true to its principles.
Yet while Freedom Press has performed an invaluable service in keeping these works in print (and in affordable editions), our movement stands sorely in need of a more contemporary look at these issues.

Introduction to Issue #1

Libertarian Labor Review was launched in May 1986, in conjunction with the Haymarket International Labor Conference and the Haymarket Anarchist Gathering in Chicago:

From the beginning  there has always been a libertarian presence in the North American labor movement. While seldom dominant, even within the labor movement ‘s left wing, anarchist and syndicalist activists have on many occasions made great contributions to and great sacrifices for their unions. Even today, though outnumbered by social democrats and leninists, there are a reasonable number of libertarian activists in the unions.

One problem we have is that only in the largest cities (and not even in all of these} are there enough of  us to get together to compare notes an discuss what’s happening – in our jobs, in our unions, and in the labor movement generally. To help solve this problem, this journal LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW is being launched. LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW will reprint articles from syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist periodicals in Europe, Latin America and the Pacific as well as articles by U.S. and Canadian authors, giving its readers a broad perspective on the ideas and actions of libertarian labor activists around the world.

The need for a journal like LIBERTARIAN LABOR  REVIEW is especially great now. It is decision time in the labor movement. The conservative don’t-rock-the-boat policies of the AFL-CIO-CLC (and of the Teamsters and other unaffiliated  pure and simple trade unions  have  led to:

  • Falling wages and benefits for union members for the first time in decades.
  • Massive job losses and the rapid growth of nonunion companies in the industries that were once the heart of the labor movement
  • A drop in the number of union members for the first time since 1934.

At the same time, our journal will have more to report· than it might have had five or ten years ago. The upsurges of worker organization and struggle in Eastern Europe, the beginnings of a movement towards active – rather than rhetorical international labor solidarity, the re-establishment of revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist unions in many parts of the world are among the trends that the LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW editorial collective feels point towards a resurgence of the world labor movement, and of that movement’s libertarian tendency.

The primary focus of LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW will be the revolutionary union movement. That is, unions such as the IWW in the U.S. and Canada, the CNT-AIT in Spain, the COB in Bolivia, the SAAWU in South Africa, etc, that seek revolutionary change through union action without the interference of politicians and political parties. At the same time, we recognize that the structure of labor relations in the U.S. and Canada makes it impossible in many workplaces to organize a majority into a revolutionary labor union. We will, then, include articles discussing how revolutionary unionists can act most effectively in a workplace where a conservative union has a majority.

How successful LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVlEW is will depend on our readers. Without the support of  libertarian labor activists, LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW will shortly become another of the many short-lived journals that come and go on the left. We need two things. First, we need translators (especially for Italian, German and Japanese, as well as for French and Spanish), and even more, activists who will write on current labor issues in the U.S. and Canada. We especially welcome responses to articles that LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW has published, since we believe that open discussion of current issues and events is important if the libertarian current in the labor movement is to grow. Second, as you’ve probably already guessed, is money. LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW will not make back the expenses of production and mailing through sales and subscriptions, and the small group of donors who have provided the money to launch LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW won’t be able to sustain their contributions indefinitely. So, if you find this journal useful and interesting, if you feel it can be useful as a forum to discuss the prospects and activities of libertarian labor activists and the revolutionary union movement, please write, and donate to the LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW Publishing Fund!

LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW includes and continues the quarterly bulletin W0BBLE. All current WOBBLE subscribers will receive two issues (one year) of LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW.

Regulating Corporate Dominance of the Internet

The Federal Communications Commission is in the process of repealing rules restricting Internet Service Providers from discriminating against particular web sites, either by blocking them altogether or by slowing down transmissions from them to the extent that they become unusable. This is not a hypothetical issue. Some years ago, BC Telephone blocked its subscribers from accessing a website put up by workers striking against the company. In Youngstown, Ohio, the dominant Internet Service Provider blocked subscribers from accessing a website providing information about a strike against the local newspaper. Even giant corporations like Netflix have been forced to pay millions of dollars to prevent companies like ComCast from throttling their web traffic with slow transmission speeds. Netflix can afford this, but when such payments become the norm producers of labor and alternative video will find themselves relegated to snail-like speeds that in practice will ensure no one can access their material (assuming the Internet giants don’t just block it outright).

Today, FreePress and others have called an internet-wide day of action to save Net Neutrality! They are asking people to submit comments opposing the corporations’ demand for the right to charge tolls on the Internet, or to control what we can see. Today we need as many people as possible to weigh in and stop the FCC chairman’s nefarious plan to destroy our internet freedom. Will you send a comment to the FCC in favor of Net Neutrality? Through their Battle for the Net website it takes just a few clicks to send a comment to the FCC and call Congress. After you submit your comment, the site will ask you to enter your phone number and will call you — connecting you with each of your congresspeople.

The fight for Net Neutrality is about safeguarding internet freedom: Thanks to the FCC’s Title II Net Neutrality rules, we’re able to surf the web without internet service providers controlling what we see or do online, or charging us even more to access certain content. Unfortunately these ISPs have joined forces with the Trump administration and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to try to gut these online protections.

We’re calling on all internet users to take action — will you stand up for the open internet?

Net Neutrality is about preserving your civil rights and free speech online. If corporations control the internet, they control the most important communication and organizing tool of our time — and they could use this to censor political speech and crush movements for racial, gender and economic justice. Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon wield too much influence over our representatives and regulators — and we need to activate people power to resist them on all fronts.

Thanks for standing up for the open internet—

Lucia, Candace, Dutch and the rest of the Free Press Action Fund team

P.S. TODAY is the internet-wide day of action to save Net Neutrality. Join the Battle for the Net!

Emma Goldman and Mother Earth

We have just gotten in several copies of Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. Edited by Peter Glassgold, this expanded 2012 edition includes more than 80 articles from what was the leading English-language anarchist journal ever published in the United States. The articles, by famous anarchists and sympathizers and by activists now largely forgotten, are organized into sections on Anarchism, the Woman Question, Literature, Civil Liberties, the Social (i.e., class) War, and War and Peace. Glassgold offers a short history of the magazine, and closes the volume with Mother Earth’s account of the show trial of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman that forced it to cease publication. 458 pages, paper, Published at $22.95. Available from ASR for $12

Also available:

Candace Falk, Editor, Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years. Two hardcover volumes, covering 1890-1901 (675 pp) and 1902-1909 (662 pp, focusing on her role in free speech struggles) Contents include newspaper articles by and about Goldman, lecture notes, correspondence, trial transcripts and police surveillance reports. — published by University of California Press at $60 a volume. We have a limited quantity available for $50 for the set.

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life  Vivian Gornick’s short biography (part of the Jewish lives series) focuses on the intersection between Goldman’s ideas and how she lived her life. $9.00 (tax incl.)

 Emma Goldman, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama (reprint). $10

Alexander Berkman’s The Blast (introduction by Barry Pateman). A fascimile of all 29 issues of the most important American class-struggle anarchist periodical, published by Alexander Berkman from 1916 to 1917, until it was stopped by imprisonment and deportation. — Published at $21.95, available from ASR for $12.

Wanted: More Social Misery

Editorial from ASR 70

As Republicans were getting set to repeal Obamacare, House Speaker Paul Ryan condemned it for, among other defects, costing consumers thousands of dollars a year in premiums and co-pays and leaving 20 million Americans without coverage. So he’s pushing a bill that would double the number of uninsured, and leave tens of millions more with a choice between very expensive plans that cover almost nothing and forking over tens of thousands a year more to get something approaching decent coverage.

But TrumpCare has real benefits. The rich would see their taxes slashed by $600 billion over 10 years, and insurance companies (able to charge higher premiums while offering thinner coverage) would see profits skyrocket. Add in the $26.9 billion a year Trump wants to give the rich by slashing inheritance taxes (which hit only the very richest) and the $300 billion a year his income tax proposal would save the 1 percenters (another $300 billion would go to the other 99%, though little of it would trickle down), and proposed corporate tax cuts (several of the largest U.S. corporations already pay little or no taxes), and it becomes clear that the polytricksters are taking decisive action to address income inequality.

The average CEO of the 500 largest U.S. companies makes just 347 times ($13.1 million) the pay of the average rank-and-file worker. Inflation-adjusted wages for production workers haven’t gone up in 50 years, when the ratio was closer to 20-to-1.

When American Airlines (which is rolling in profits) decided to return some of the concessions it forced on its workers during bankruptcy, arguing that this would improve morale, stockholders rose up, hurling their champagne glasses at their Bloomberg terminals. “Labor is being paid first again,” one stock analyst wrote. “Shareholders get leftovers.” American’s stock price plummeted.

Young workers today make almost as much as they did in 1975 – the Census Bureau reports average incomes down by 5.5 percent after inflation. In 1975, workers aged 25 to 34 were paid an average of $37,000 in current dollars. In 2016, their pay was $35,000. Pay (and benefits) declined even though young workers today are better educated, and have the student loans to show for it.

The 1 percent see no reason they should endure such privation. They’re working hard to get the CEO-to-worker pay ratio to 1,000-to-1 through a mix of tax cuts, slashing health and pension benefits, outsourcing jobs, deregulation, and outright wage theft.

And the politicians are only too willing to do their share. This makes perfect sense if you realize that the purpose of government is to funnel as much of the wealth society creates to the rich as possible, and to keep the rest of us in our place.

Thus, the Trump administration is proposing to slash funding for meals to school children and senior citizens (these foster dependence, after all – when people are fed they’re still around tomorrow wanting more; it’s much cheaper to let them starve to death); education; foreign aid; and anything else that might relieve human misery. The savings would go to prisons and the military.

The New York Times’ resident liberal economics columnist, Paul Krugman, illustrated in his Jan. 23 column why Democrats have little hope of persuading Trump voters – or the tens of millions who refused to vote for either candidate – that they have any understanding of the lives of working people, let alone any ideas on how to improve them.

Listening to Mr. Trump[’s inaugural address], you might have thought America was in the midst of a full-scale depression, with ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.’ Manufacturing employment is indeed down since 2000, but overall employment is way up, and the unemployment rate is low… Rising wages and the growing number of Americans confident enough to quit their jobs suggest an economy close to full employment…

And perhaps they do, to an economist so mired in mainstream thinking that he can not look out the window.

The unemployment rate is indeed down, because the job market is so dismal that millions have given up looking for work.

Employers claim they’re having trouble finding “qualified” workers. This is partly a reflection of screening programs that reject people with too much experience, or not enough; if a resume’s language doesn’t exactly match the criteria some coder who never worked the job typed in, into the discard pile it goes. Anyone accustomed to a living wage with benefits won’t get a second look, of course. But it also reflects a shift in how employers hire. A few decades ago, they figured they’d hold onto workers for several years, and so were willing to invest a few days training them. Now workers are increasingly disposable; hired by the gig or the shift. So the bosses want them to be 100% productive the instant they start work (and to squeeze extra productivity out of them by making them work off the clock, do the work of three or four people, etc.).

The bosses constantly whine about the shortage of construction workers, to cite just one example. But the April 22 Los Angeles Times reports that carpenters there earn less today than they did in the early 1970s (ignoring lost vacation days, health and retirement benefits, and work rules). Only a third as many construction workers are unionized today, giving bosses a free hand.

If there were jobs on offer at which one could earn a living, millions and millions of workers would jump at them.

Krugman says things are likely to get worse – much worse – before they get better, and absent a lot of organization and struggle he’s probably right. But conditions are plenty bad already, and when these pundits try and sell their Pollyanna stories about how great things are they only remind people how out of touch those at the top really are

Things are going quite well for the rich. Not only the infamous 1 percenters, the 5 percenters are doing quite well too. But more than half the working population is struggling to hold on to the standard of living they “enjoyed” back in the mid-1970s (it wasn’t that enjoyable; there were lots of strikes by workers demanding to be treated like human beings), and a fairly large share of our fellow workers are substantially worse off than they were five decades ago. Telling them that things have never been better (for those at the top) just won’t cut it.

Fascist Guns Down Seattle Wobbly

A member of the IWW was nearly killed in Seattle Jan. 20 by neo-fascist Elizabeth Hokoana, after she and her husband Marc infiltrated anti-inauguration and Milo Yiannopoulos protests at the University of Washington’s Red Square.

Video of the protests show Mark Hokoana warning his wife “don’t shoot anyone,” “they have to start it.” He then attacked protesters with pepper spray, sparking a confrontation which ended in the shooting of Industrial Workers of the World activist Joshua Dukes, who was trying to de-escalate the situation. The Wobbly, shot in the stomach, was hospitalized for a month, underwent emergency surgeries to save his life, and is now in physical therapy.

The day before the shooting, Marc Hokoana messaged a friend on Facebook, stating, “I’m going to wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.”

Remarkably, police released the couple without charges just hours after they surrendered. They claimed to be investigating the shooting, searching Marc Hoakana’s cell phone in February. Media reports say he erased its memory before turning it over to police. “I would describe [Marc and Elizabeth] as being very polite and cooperative,” said University of Washington Police Department Major Steve Rittereiser.

One need not speculate as to how the Wobbly would have been treated had he shot one of the neo-fascists. Scores of protestors arrested the same day for demonstrating without a permit or allegedly breaking windows were held for days and are now facing felony charges.

Yet the “investigation” dragged on for more than three months before prosecutors filed assault charges against the Hokoanas April 24. They offered no explanation of why they were not bringing attempted murder charges. During the investigation, Seattle authorities – including “socialist” city councilor Kshama Sawant, a member of a Trotskyist party – kept mum, taking no action to defend the rights of Wobblies and other activists to assemble without being assaulted or killed.

Indeed, the shooting has been followed by a series of threats against University of Washington campus activists. A self-identified white supremacist told a graduate student instructor he was going to shoot her and her class; campus authorities refused to take action even after her car windows were smashed a few days later. She subsequently quit the graduate program, explaining that, “a PhD isn’t worth getting shot for.” On Feb. 15, the theater where a Shakespeare play was being performed by leading actors who were people of color was glued over with posters proclaiming, “Yellow, Black and Brown. Look out! The Nazis have come to town!”

Neo-fascists are openly organizing armed groups to carry out such attacks. In Portland, Oregon, the head of the local Republican Party called for such a force in the wake of the murder of two people who tried to stop a neo-Nazi draped in an American flag from harassing Muslim women.

In Berkeley, Kyle Chapman, charged with assault with a deadly weapon against local activists March 4, has joined other neo-fascists to organize the “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.” “Our emphasis will be on street activism, preparation, defense and confrontation,” Chapman told The Root.