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
freepress.net

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.

ASR 70 on the press

Editorial: Wanted: More Social Misery
Wobbles: Robbed at Work, Tech Workers Organize, Climate Change Vanishes, Policing the Fight for $15…
International Labor News 
Behind the Split in the International Workers Association  By Free Workers Union of Germany International Secretary
ARTICLES: The Bolshevik Myth Reloaded By Iain McKay
When the Ice Melts  Historical Fiction by Dan Georgakas
Remembering 100 Years of International Women’s Day and the Russian Revolution  By Sid Parissi
Anarcho-Syndicalism Today  By Jon Bekken
Fascist Guns Down Seattle Wobbly
Producerism: The Homegrown Roots of Trumpism   By Jeff Shantz
The Poverty of (Marx’s) Philosophy By Iain McKay
REVIEWS: Workers’ Self-Management in the Caribbean Review by Martin Comack
Civil Wars: Quests for Power  Review by Jeff Stein
The Obscenity of Hierarchy  Review by Tony Sheather
Obamalot  A film review by Jeff Stein
LETTERS: Revolutionary Unionism, Fighting Bigotry

To resist Trump’s agenda, Oakland longshore workers shut down their workplace

by Peter Cole

On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, many Americans wrung their hands. Some took to social media to express their discontent while others protested. But, perhaps, the most dramatic and important action was taken by dockworkers in Oakland, California: They stopped working. Their strike demonstrated the potential power ordinary people have on the job, when organized.

Longshore workers, who load and unload cargo ships, chose not to report to their hiring hall. As a result, “Oakland International Container Terminal, the largest container facility at the Northern California port, was shut down Friday,” according to the Journal of Commerce. It also reported that all other Oakland container terminals were essentially shut down, too.

Crucially, these workers did not first come together to protest Trump. They belong to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), one of the strongest and most militant unions left in the United States.

The ILWU, founded in the 1930s, represents logistics workers up and down the West Coast of the United States, in Alaska, Hawaii, British Columbia and Panama. For some 80 years, the union has fought for equal rights, democracy, economic equality and a vast array of other social justice causes. ILWU Local 10, which represents workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, often has been at the forefront of those fights.

ILWU members refused to load scrap metal intended for Japan because it had invaded China in the 1930s. The ILWU condemned the racist, apartheid regime in South Africa and Local 10 members periodically refused to unload South African cargo, including in the face of federal injunctions and employer pressure. They also refused, in 1978, to load U.S. military aid for Augusto Pinochet, a Chilean military general who led a coup against a democratically-elected, socialist president, Salvador Allende. On May Day 2008, the ILWU shut down Pacific Coast ports to protest the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Activists take the lead

One key element of ILWU power is its job dispatch system. In the aftermath of its legendary Big Strike of 1934, which briefly became the San Francisco general strike, the union basically won control over job dispatch. Quickly, workers implemented a “low man out” system, which enshrined the idea that the person with the fewest number of hours worked be the first one dispatched. Such socialism in action should not be surprising from a union whose founding members included socialists, communists and Wobblies, the name for members of perhaps America’s most radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World. The ILWU also inherited the Wobbly motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Today, though some workers are assigned to specific companies on a long-term basis, many still are dispatched via hiring halls. This system gives workers incredible power because they decide when to report for work, creating the possibility for workers to coordinate not showing up. The result, as seen on Friday, was to shut down the port of Oakland.

Obviously, many workers, nationwide, do not operate under a dispatch system. But they can still organize something similar without technically calling a strike.

At the end of 2014, New York City police officers coordinated a “virtual work stoppage,” nicknamed the “Blue Flu.” And last year, Detroit public school teachers, enraged by the awful conditions students and teachers suffer from because of a lack of state funding, organized an effective “sickout.” In other words, workers need not officially “strike,” or even belong to a labor union, to engineer a shutdown.

Importantly, Friday’s action was not organized or endorsed by the ILWU leadership. Since its inception, the ILWU has stood on the left tip of the U.S. labor movement, but even this union has become more conservative during the past few decades. Nowadays, rank-and-file activists in Local 10 often take the lead.
“There is power”

Like most unions and working people, the ILWU opposes much of Trump’s anti-labor agenda, which promotes “right-to-work” (more accurately right-to-work-for-less) legislation, condemns public sector unions, seeks to privatize public schools and reverse the Obama administration’s actions on paying more workers overtime, reducing wage theft and ensuring worker safety. Trump’s proposed labor secretary, for one, has made his anti-worker positions clear. (That said, Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is welcome.)

Nor have Bay Area longshore workers forgotten Trump’s insult of Oakland. The president once said, “There are places in America that are among the most dangerous in the world. You go to places like Oakland. Or Ferguson. The crime numbers are worse. Seriously.”

To resist Trump’s agenda, Oakland longshore workers shut down their workplace and reminded us of the potential of organized labor. As the old song, written by Joe Hill and sung by Utah Phillips, declares, “There is power, there is power in a band of working folks, when we stand hand-in-hand. That’s a power, that’s a power that must rule in every land.”

Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

Defeating Capital to Save the Planet

by James Herod, ASR 69

How can we defeat capitalists quickly? Why quickly? Because we have run out of time. Capitalists are on the verge of killing most life on earth, including humans, with global warming. This essay presents some exploratory thoughts on the dire situation we find ourselves in, especially with regard to our anti-capitalist struggles, our hopes for anarchy, and our prospects for cooling the earth. This is only a sketch; it will take a lot of work to flesh it out, probably more than I will be able to do.

We are way past the time when getting off fossil fuels could have alleviated global warming. If a determined, concerted effort had been made forty years ago by the governments of the world when James Hansen first alerted the president and Congress of the United States of the dangers of the excessive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, getting off fossil fuels would probably have averted the severe crisis we now face.1 But now? Our only option now is to find ways to remove carbon dioxide and other green house gases from the atmosphere. This has to be done now, immediately, and fast, because there is already enough CO2 in the atmosphere to melt the frozen Arctic.

It is estimated that there are 1,700 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons) of methane stored in the shallow Arctic continental shelf, and another 1,750 gigatons trapped in the frozen tundra all across Siberia and northern Canada.2 There are at present only 5 gigatons of methane in the atmosphere. The unfrozen methane is already being released. A few years ago Scandinavian and Russian teams studying this found several plumes a few hundred feet wide bubbling up along the Siberian Arctic coast. Now the plumes are one kilometer wide, and there are hundreds of them. Some scientists are fearful that 50 gigatons could be released rather quickly in the near future, much of it perhaps even in a great burp, which would warm the earth further, causing the release of even more methane in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The earth could become very hot within just two or three decades. Eventually, the atmosphere could even become poisonous to life, like the atmosphere of Venus, although that is probably down the road a bit.3

A poisoned atmosphere is the most serious of the imminent threats to life from global warming. Another very serious one is the acidification and warming of the oceans, which is killing marine life. Forty percent of the plankton is already gone. The ocean is losing its oxygen. A dead ocean is probably incompatible with the continuation of life on earth. Many climate scientists do not see our situation as quite as dire as I do, but they may be underestimating the methane threat. I have been following the reports of the scientists studying the Arctic methane. They are all quite alarmed.

So here is the absolutely terrible bind we are in. Almost every proposal for cooling the earth would require massive, coordinated, global efforts by most governments of the world. Yet these governments are mostly controlled by capitalists. Capitalists are causing global warming. They put profit ahead of life. As a result governments have failed for forty years to take any effective action to halt or reduce global warming.

For example, one proposal for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, suggested years ago, is reforestation. For this to be effective, it would have to be a massive, planet-spanning, international campaign. Instead, the remaining forests are being cut down at a rapid clip. It might be possible to build a factory that could remove CO2 from the air (much more than is used to build and run the factory). These factories could then be installed all over the planet. This would take enormous resources. Under present arrangements, only governments could undertake such a campaign. Similarly a proposal advanced more recently would shift to organic, small-scale, sustainable agriculture to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This would require the defeat of global agribusiness and industrial agriculture. Paul Beckwith, the eminent Canadian climate scientist, has proposed setting off carefully designed and controlled hydrogen bomb explosions in deserts to create enormous dust clouds, like huge volcano eruptions do, to cool the earth for two or three years. Then set off more explosions, at intervals. This would give us some time to try to cool the earth more permanently using other strategies. (But what about radioactive dust?)

There are many such proposals for cooling the earth. The point is, though, that they would all take global cooperation. How can that happen as long as capitalists control governments? They couldn’t even agree to phase out fossil fuels. Nevertheless, it seems that in terms of saving ourselves and the earth by cooling the earth, especially given the brief time left which we have to do this, however much we are committed to abolishing capitalism and states, we are stuck with them for now. This is a dismal thought.

Is there a way out of this bind? Remember, if we could suddenly abolish capitalism and states (they are thoroughly intermeshed, one system), we would die, or millions or billions of us would, because the essentials we need to live are currently available only through these institutions (for most of us for most essentials). It would take decades to re-establish an autonomous, self-sufficient existence independent of capitalists and states. [This is why syndicalists work to build revolutionary unions which can effectively fight the bosses today while building the capacity for administering a future free society. eds.] We must at least face up to the vast reorganization of social life that would be necessary if we did defeat them.

We must also acknowledge the failure of the three historical strategies for defeating capitalists: (a) seizing the state through elections and using it to destroy capitalists and get to communism (no state/anarchy) – that is, social democracy; (b) seizing the state with an armed revolution and using the state to destroy capitalists and get to communism – that is, Leninism; (c) seizing the means of production, establishing workers councils, federating the councils into a dual power structure in order to defeat capitalists, dismantle the state and get to communism (no state/anarchy) – that is, anarcho-syndicalism. These strategies did not work, and will not. [Obviously, we disagree about anarcho-syndicalism’s potential. eds.] It would be a huge mistake to try to rebuild such parties and unions to try again. And even if we did try again, it could not be done soon enough to save the earth. Given the urgency of the situation, however, this does not mean that we should stop asking the existing parties and unions for whatever help they can offer.

So where does this leave us? In dire straits, that’s for sure. But where else? We must find ways to weaken capitalists, and their grip on national governments, enough so that the governments, perhaps even with the help of a small minority of capitalists, both under tremendous pressure from below from globally organized citizens, could undertake the massive campaigns needed to cool the earth. Is this even possible? I’m not sure. It doesn’t much look like it is.

Perhaps if we consider new and different ways to attack capitalists we could weaken them enough to deal with global warming. I’m suggesting that we shift the focus of anti-capitalist struggles to the entire contemporary international financial system, that is, to money: interest, debt, rent, stocks, dividends, stock markets, banks, taxes, but also to where money comes from, who controls it, and its role in the historical evolution of capitalism and its current functioning. Capitalists use money in various ways to enslave us. If we could take money away from them, perhaps this would be a step toward saving the earth, and toward our own liberation as well.4

Interest. Let’s start with interest. We could launch a campaign to discredit the very idea of interest and to agitate for its abolition. There is something to build on: the laws against usury in the Middle Ages. Although usury eventually came to refer only to excessive interest, originally it condemned all interest. Isn’t it obviously ridiculous that anyone should be able to make any money just by loaning money? It is especially ridiculous for governments to borrow money from rich people and then pay interest on it, when they could simply print the money themselves. Yet this practice is quite central to capitalism, and has been from its earliest days. Giovanni Arrighi, in his magisterial history of capitalism,5 demonstrates that from the earliest days of capitalism in northern Italy in the 15th century, rich people helped finance governments – for a price, of course. Stopping this practice would be a serious blow to capitalists. So we need to be thinking of ways to do this.

We might also consider getting rid of loans as such. Even interest-free loans are still debts. All wealth is socially created. If it were also socially controlled then communities could decide whether to finance a project or not, and absorb the loss if it didn’t pan out. In a cooperative anarchist society, loans, debt and taxes could be dispensed with completely and forever.

Debt. In recent decades capitalists have enslaved the world with debt (debt peonage) to an extent never seen before – national debt, mortgage debt, student debt, medical debt, credit card debt, automobile debt, business debt. For a brief period after Occupy Wall Street it looked like an attack on debt might get under way, but it didn’t. Yet debt is a great target. It resonates with people.

Debt and global warming, are two current crises around which it might be possible to build a massive anti-capitalist movement. These affect everyone. They are global. More and more people should be able to connect the dots between these crises and capitalism. Whole countries are being destroyed by using debt as a weapon.6

We could organize debt strikes. Just refuse to repay the loans. If these strikes were massive enough it would seriously harm capitalists and disrupt and undermine their system.

Rent. Rent is one of the most egregious forms of capitalist exploitation, especially housing rent. I’ve always been puzzled by the paucity of leftist interest in housing. It is a huge issue for most people, especially those who have to rent. Why would anti-capitalists pay so much attention to the wealth stolen from wage-slaves at work but neglect the wealth stolen from them through housing (owned or rented)? Rent is another great target that affects billions of people. A campaign against rent, including rent strikes, would resonate with them. Such a campaign would involve theoretical and practical attacks on the property laws upon which rent is based.

Stocks, Dividends, Stock Markets. How strange it is, and totally unjustified, that someone can buy stock (or shares) in a corporation and then receive dividends without doing anything. It is just money making money. Dividends are profits from the corporation, that is, the appropriated surplus wealth that has been created by, but seized from, the direct producers. Or most of the profit. A large chunk now goes to bloated salaries for the executive officers. Stocks are traded in stock markets (although a great deal of trading now takes place in so-called over-the-counter or off-exchange trading). It shouldn’t be hard to discredit these practices and institutions as immoral, unjust and exploitative. But this radical critique would need to be infused into an effective strategy for attacking these capitalist oddities. What if thousands of angry protesters occupied the stock markets of the world? What if every shareholder meeting was picketed, occupied and disrupted, with demands to abolish stocks, dividends and stock markets? Ultimately, it would mean abolishing property rights, which rest at the core of capitalism. But some intermediate blows to this aspect of the system could be found, if we searched for them. At present, anti-capitalists are hardly even broaching this issue.

Banks. Banks create money by making loans, with the interest attached of course. They can be public or private: public, meaning government-owned; private, meaning corporate-owned. In the United States, most banks are private, especially the big banks including the Federal Reserve Bank. The exceptions are the government-owned Bank of North Dakota, and member-owned cooperative banks and consumer credit unions. Some countries have many cooperative banks, but they are relatively powerless, compared to central banks. We need to focus on the power of the international network of national central banks. They practically run global capitalism. They control the money supply and interest rates. They are enormously destructive. Their power must be broken.

The European Central Bank is illustrative in this regard. The European Central Bank floats above any national sovereignty. The European Union is not a true federation, with political sovereignty. It is a monetary union that adopted a common currency, the Euro, controlled by the European Central Bank. The European Parliament has no power. The EU member states retained political sovereignty but gave up their national currencies by adopting the Euro, thus losing control over fiscal policy. It turns out that the establishment of the European Union was a neoliberal capitalist coup. The ECB has been pursuing the current capitalist offensive (neoliberalism) of impoverishing its weaker members (such as Greece) by first indebting them and then seizing their assets to repay the loans, as capitalists have been doing throughout the global south for decades.

The European Union is a special case, though. Most central banks are still national banks, although they are networked internationally, and work in tandem with the other big banks to fleece nations. The five biggest U.S. banks, for example – JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Goldman Sachs – simply seized the U.S. Treasury and stole trillions (22, it is estimated) to cover their losses from bad loans, with a little assistance from the Federal Reserve Bank. I saw a sign at an Occupy Wall Street rally: “Give It Back,” it read, referring to the trillions of dollars stolen to bail out the banks.

IMF and World Bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were set up to enslave the weaker nations of the world to debt, and then to strip these nations of their wealth to repay the loans. It has been a fabulously successful strategy and has enormously enriched the ruling classes of the core countries, and also the smaller, local, ruling classes of the targeted nations. These institutions absolutely must be abolished. It is not nearly enough to demand that the unpayable debts be forgiven (a jubilee), or at least reduced to what can be repaid. No, the whole idea of loans with interest must be overthrown. The trouble is, ruling classes have the power to inflict devastating punishment on any nation which default and refuse to pay. But this is the way to go. This is what Greece should have done, what Argentina tried to do but backed off, what Iceland did. Multiple national debt strikes are what is needed to help break the power of the international financial oligarchy – one of the things. Why aren’t anti-capitalists trying to organize such strikes?

Money and Wage-Slavery. Isn’t it strange that the money (wage) part of wage-slavery receives so little attention from anti-capitalists? The focus is always mostly on the extraction of surplus value from the workers. Yet from the wage-slave’s point of view the wages are certainly of paramount importance. To get money is why they work, in order to buy the necessities for survival.

How did this happen? Capitalists have been destroying relatively self-sufficient peasant societies for centuries; today peasants are approaching extinction. Peasants have been, and are still being, driven off their lands, billions of them over the centuries, and forced to look for jobs, in order to get money, in order to live. They were forced to become wage-slaves.

How weird it is actually, and how recent historically, that one has to have a job in order to live. Why isn’t this totally unnatural relation under constant attack? Isn’t it obvious that in order to escape capitalism the link between jobs and income has to be broken? Why are so many leftists still clamoring for “full employment,” which accepts as a given that we have to have jobs to live? Nor are the revived proposals for a “guaranteed annual income” via the government a solution, especially at a time when ruling classes are dismantling the welfare state everywhere.

We could only get out of wage-slavery by shifting to cooperative labor. But we don’t have time for that now. I mention this here only to show how central money has been to capitalists, embedded as it is in one of their most essential social creations – wage-slavery. An attack on money therefore might actually prove to be helpful in abolishing wage-slavery.

Taxes. Taxes are debt. Everyone who is a “citizen” of a state is automatically placed in debt. The state says: “You owe us.” This practice goes back to antiquity and to the first formation of states. Taxes are the income of states. You would think that anarchists, at least, who want to abolish states, would have thought a lot about how to deprive states of this income. But they haven’t. And now, we need national governments to help cool the earth. I doubt that it could be done without them. So, sadly, anarchy is off the agenda for the time being. After the earth is cooled we can take up our attack on states once again. A fight against taxation might be a part of that struggle.

Corporations.  Can we tie in an attack on corporations per se to our attack on money? It seems it would be a good idea. Publicly traded corporations issue stocks, pay dividends, typically use credit, and are otherwise integrated into the financial system. What we are dealing with now is a global capitalist ruling class. So why don’t we start with the 147 transnational corporations that control 40% of the global economy?7 How could we abolish even one of these corporations? We can’t seize their factories and offices – they are scattered all over the world. We can’t outlaw them in just one country – they exist elsewhere. They are wealthier than most countries. They are defended by armies. Can we discredit their very existence? We have thousands of anti-capitalist books. Just asking.

Attacking Capital to Save the World

So what weapons can we bring to this fight? (a) Intellectual ones, at least. Pound them relentlessly with critiques. Expose their destructive practices. Discredit them. A lot of work has already been done. It needs to be expanded and promoted. We need more media. For these critiques to have a serious impact, however, they would have to be backed by a powerful mass movement, and we don’t have that (yet?). Sadly, many of the most prominent global warming activists are not anti-capitalist.

(b) Mass marches and rallies, although 400,000 people marching through New York City on September 21, 2014, in the People’s Climate March doesn’t seem to have accomplished much. Maybe a lot of people were encouraged to get active. It boosted spirits. We obviously need a lot more than mass demonstrations.

(c) Occupation of buildings. Which ones? Corporate headquarters? Governmental buildings? (d) Occupation of public squares. That didn’t go anywhere, did it?

(e) Picketing of persons and corporations. This tactic is often effective in raising awareness and attracting attention to especially egregious offenders of the common good.

(f) Strikes – debt and rent strikes, everywhere.

(g) Organizations. We have lots of organizations, dealing with dozens of important issues. They could coalesce into a mass anti-capitalist movement, one which is also linked to cooling the earth, but they aren’t, so far: transition towns, new economy movement, slow food, reviving the commons, solidarity economy, organic agriculture, eco-villages, urban gardening, cooperatives, participatory budgeting, permaculture, local currencies, co-housing, clean energy, and so forth. What would it take to radicalize these movements?

Just this brief survey of the left’s standard tactics shows how hopelessly inadequate they are for the task at hand. We need more, much more: more militancy, more mass, more organizations, more critiques, more media, more agitation, more strikes, more disruption, more insurgencies, more occupations, more anger. Perhaps if we make a big enough stink we can force some changes. I wish the World Social Forum would become more militant and start concentrating more on global warming.

One good thing: after the Paris climate accords at the Conference of Parties last year (COP 21), the climate justice movement has been finally moving to organize outside the United Nation’s framework. This should have been done after COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. But it seems to be getting underway now, thankfully – a global alliance to try to stop global warming. Perhaps this movement will bypass not only the United Nations but also the United States, which has sabotaged the UN’s efforts to deal with climate change from the original Rio treaty in 1992 on down through COPs 1 through 21. Several countries are less hostile to addressing global warming than the United States. Perhaps the number of such countries will increase.

What I would like to see is a new international anti-capitalist organization that focuses specifically on money, debt and the entire international financial system, and the oligarchs who run it. It is obscene that the Rothschild family and other historical banking families still have such inordinate power over the peoples of the earth.

Notes:

1. James Hansen recounts his efforts to alert the government in Chapters 1-3 in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. 

2. These figures are taken from Paul Beckwith’s Fall 2016 YouTube videos on global warming, the recent six-part summary of the scientific evidence, “Rapid Climate Change & Impacts for Environmental Assessment.” Part 1 begins at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1Pr_tAKs6E. Beckwith is a Canadian climate scientist.

3. See Chapter 10, “The Venus Syndrome,” in Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren. 

4. The two best studies of the international financial system are: Michael Hudson, Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance. Pluto Press, 1972, new edition in 2003; and Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms. Zed Books, 1998. Second edition, 2003. See also James Herod, “Abolishing Money: A Proposed Research Project, with Bibliography,” 2008, at: www.jamesherod.info/index.php?sec=blog&id=31.

5. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso, 1994, 2nd edition with an added 15-page postscript, 2010. 

6. See Michael Hudson, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy. ISLET-Verlag, 2015. Hudson proposes ten reforms to reign in the financial oligarchy. See Chapter 29, “The Fight for the 21st Century.” Two more of his recent books are: Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents; and The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation, and Global Crisis. 

7. “The network of global corporate control,” by Stefania Vitali1, James B. Glattfelder1 and Stefano Battiston, on the web at: https://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1107/1107.5728v2.pdf.