ASR 66

asr 66 coverASR 66 (Winter 2016)

3. Editorial: The Bernie Sanders Illusion

3. OBITUARY: Federico Arcos

4. Wobbles: Vulture Capitalists, Economic “Boom,” Killing Your Own Job, Jailed for Poverty, Profiteering Off Pensions…

6. Syndicalist News: Union-busting in Kyrgyzstan, Polish Nurses Strike, U.S. Job Deaths Rise, Repression in Iran, Paperworkers Build Global Links, Autoworkers Fight Two-Tier, Polish & German Amazon Workers Coordinate Struggles, CNT Strike…  compiled by Mike Hargis

9. Articles: Ready to Fight: Developing 21st Century Community Syndicalism  by Shane Burley

15. Imperial Wars &  Their Losers: A Critique of ‘Labor Aristocracy’ Theories by Lucien van der Walt

16. The “Sharing” Economy  by Jon Bekken

17. The Attempted Rehabilitation of the Communist Party by Wayne Price

21. Poor Adam Smith  by Iain McKay

23. Proudhon, Property & Possession  by Iain McKay

26. Regarding Louis Blanc – The Present Utility and Future Possibility of the State by P. J. Proudhon; translated by Shawn P.  Wilbur

29. Anarchists in the Russian Labor Movement: 1900 – 1930 by Anatoly Viktorovich Dubovik, translated by Malcolm Archibald

32. REVIEWS: The Realities of Self-Managementreview by Jeff Stein

34. Anarchists & the French-Algerian War  review by Wayne Price

35. Joe Hill’s Living Legacy review by Jon Bekken

35. The “Progressives” and Labor Reform  review by Dylan B.

38. Germany’s “Wild Socialism” review by Jon Bekken

39. Reclaiming the Commons  review by Jon Bekken

39. Letter: Like A Bag Over Our Heads by Kenneth Miller

ASR 64/65 Summer 2015

asr64 coverASR 64/5 Contents:

3. Editorial: Trans-Pacific Partnership

4. Wobbles: Outbreak of Bi-Partisanship, Profiteering off Health Care “Reform,” Announcements

5. International News: Bulgarian Syndicalists, Solidarity with Amazon Temps; Green/Rail Alliance, Fighting Wage Theft… compiled by Michael Hargis

9. Polish hospital workers win… by John Kalwaic

10. Articles: Anarchy in Athens by Nicholas Apoifis

13. (barely) Staying Alive: The US Economy Since the ’70s (50 Years of Economic Crisis) by Jon Bekken

17. From Capitalism To Commons by Brian Martin

21. Symposium: The U.S. Government’s War Against the IWW Review and commentary by Staughton Lynd (21), Peter Cole (23), Gerald Ronning (25) and Steve Kellerman (27). Response by Eric Chester (29).

33. Kropotkin: Class Warrior by Iain McKay

36. The Action of the Masses & the Individual P. Kropotin

38. Climate Change: “Only Mass Social Movements Can Save Us Now” Review essay by Wayne Price

40. Canada’s New Anti-Terrorism Act and the “Green Syndicalist Menace” by Jeff Shantz

42. Democracy At Work Review essay by Iain McKay

50. Reviews: Lessons of the Spanish Civil War Jeff Stein

52. The Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912review by Steve Kellerman

53. Syndicalism in a Neo-Liberal Climate by Mark McGuire

55. Two Cheers For Anarchism review by Iain McKay

58. Celebrating a Frame-Up review by Robert Helms

58. The Legacy of Chinese Anarchism review by Jing Zhao

ASR 62 (Summer 2014)

ASR 62Editorial: The Capitalist Seige Mentality

Obituary: Penny Pixler

WOBBLES: Bosses want cheap workers, Union Scabbery, Amazon rips off workers, Educators under attack…

Syndicalist News: CNT gains ground, Workers occupy factory in Istanbul, Solidarity Federation wins unpaid wages, IWW picket attacked, Turkey: “It’s not an accident, it’s murder” …  Compiled by Mike Hargis

Fast Food Walkouts: New Experimental Solidarity or Astroturf Smoke and Mirrors? by John Kalwaic

ARTICLES: Ukraine, Odessa, Anarchism in the context of civil war  by Antti Rautiainen

Venezuela: Autonomy, self-management, direct action & solidarity  by El Libertario

The making of an anarchist bookfair by Jay Kerr & Sid Parissi

Bakunin Bicentennary: An injury to one is an injury to all: Mikhail Bakunin’s social conception of freedom  by Harald Beyer-Arnesen

Bakunin: Count on No One But Yourselves!

Bakunin & the First International by Jon Bekken

Politics at a distance from the State: Speech to South African Movements   by Lucien van der Walt

Radical Happiness  by Brian Martin

Work & Freedom  by Jon Bekken

REVIEWS: Libertarian Socialism: Beyond Anarchism and Marxism?  Review essay by Iain McKay

What really was the “Real Socialism” of the Soviet Union? Review by Wayne Price

Marxist economics for anarchists  Review by J.N. McFadden

Green Syndicalism  Review by Jon Bekken

Early New Zealand anarchism

Jared Davidson, Sewing Freedom: Phillip Josephs, Trans-nationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism. AK Press, 2013.

Review by Graham Purchase

I knew nothing about the development of anarchism in New Zealand before reading this well-researched and ably produced study. Sewing Freedom is a brief, readable and informative piece of anarchist historical scholarship examining movements, organizations and personalities active at the cusp of the 20th Century.

The book is nominally an account of the life of Josephs, who, from his little tailor’s shop, organized the distribution of anarchist literature he imported wholesale from London and America. Josephs was an anarchist of the category perhaps best described as the Kropotkinite-Freedom Group (London) tradition.

Josephs migrated to Glasgow from Latvia in 1897. There he married a cigarette-factory worker, fathered four children and toiled as a sweatshop machinist before moving to Wellington in 1904. In Wellington, he set up as a self-employed tailor-cum-anarchist bookseller, becoming involved in local revolutionary and anti-capitalist groupings, particularly the N.Z. Socialist Party, then a broad-based organization attracting many syndicalists. Activities focused around Socialist Hall, where lectures on such topics as socialist economics were delivered. Josephs contributed articles to the Commonweal and the Maoriland Worker, newspapers published by the NZSP and the Federation of Labor.

Strikes were illegal under an obsolete and bankrupt arbitration system, whose courts invariably favored employers despite low wages and increasing living costs. The first challenge to the arbitration system was an illegal strike by tram workers in 1906, followed by slaughtermen and miners (the Blackbull strike), culminating in the General Strike of 1913. The ‘Red-Fed’ (Federation of Labor) was an I.W.W. affiliate and the most revolutionary. The Federation split with the N.Z. Socialist Party because its members rejected parliamentary politics and trades unionism in favor of direct workers’ action. The syndicalist surge within the class struggles of 1908-13 was bolstered by a stream of noted revolutionaries and labor leaders who stepped off the ship and onto the soapbox. Transnational radical tourism created a melting pot of ideas which spawned a minority movement of anarcho-syndicalists within a radicalized and militant labor movement.

War legislation was used extensively to stymie revolutionary syndicalism, and a state-sponsored campaign against Wobbly-anarchist-socialism continued after the conclusion of the Great War. Fascination with Bolshevism after the Russian Revolution (1917) and the founding of the N.Z. Labor Party in 1916 corresponded with a decline in revolutionary syndicalism.

Josephs migrated to Australia in 1921, and little is known about his life thereafter. In truth not much is known about his life in New Zealand, either. But his life usefully serves as an anchor upon which to elaborate a modest but extremely cogent account of early anarchism and syndicalism and its relationship with the wider labor movement in New Zealand.

Shutting down the government

The recent U.S. government shut-down and the budget deal to avert a new one make it clear whose interests it serves. Long-term unemployment benefits were allowed to expire in the budget deal, leaving millions of workers without any form of sustenance. (Now the Democrats are making a show of trying to reinstate the benefits, but had they really cared about the jobless they would have used the leverage the budget impasse offered.) Corporate tax loopholes were left untouched, and food stamps avoided another round of cuts only because the polytricksters can not agree on how deep those cuts should be.* (At present, the program is generous enough that most recipients make it into the third week of the month before running out of food and turning to the soup kitchens to survive, so the need for cuts is obvious to all.)

During the shutdown, health and safety inspections of workplaces stopped, as did oversight of polluters. Museums, art galleries and public parks were closed. No one answered the phones at agencies charged with “enforcing” workers’ rights. But the border guards were out in full force, making sure none of our fellow workers crossed the borders money flows across so freely. The military continued its operations. No one was released from prison, not even those the administration concedes are victims of unfair treatment in the war on drugs. Whistleblowers like Private Manning were not set free; the persecution of those accused of lifting the curtain on the government’s secrets did not stop.

We can see what is important to the bosses in the list of essential “services” continued during the government shutdown, and in the list of those shuttered.

Even more telling was the pundits’ bleating. The government shutdown was not so bad, they said. We can get by just fine without parks and art, without labor rights and the like. What really matters – and on this the pundits were unanimous – is that Republicans back down on their threat to not lift the debt ceiling.

If they didn’t, horror of horrors, the government might go into technical default. The bankers would not receive their money on time! Financial markets would rebel! Catastrophe would ensue!

One can almost see the platoons of bankers, decked out in three piece suits, fountain pens in hand, parachuting in from their global tax havens to occupy Washington DC and set things right. Money must prevail! Debts must be paid!

They really don’t go to all that much trouble to conceal who’s in charge, and whose interests really matter.

*After we went to press, a deal was struck to slash food stamps by a “modest” $8 billion; the boss press and pundits hailed this bipartisan compromise, and expressed their fervent  hope that it presages more of the same.

International Solidarity Actions Hit Santander Bank

by John Kalwaic

On Oct. 1 and Dec. 12, the International Workers Association (AIT) organized international days of action against Santander Bank in solidarity with information technology workers facing casualization and retaliation for union activity.

Despite being highly profitable, the Santander Group (which bought U.S.-based Sovereign Bank in 2008, in the depths of the financial crisis using funds it pulled out of land speculation in Spain just before the bubble burst) has been slashing payrolls and outsourcing operations around the world. In order to evade Spanish laws providing protections for permanent workers, Santander’s information technology services subsidiary, ISBAN, is in the forefront of transforming thousands of what should be decent jobs into ill-paid temporary jobs. In August 2013, workers organized in the National Confederation of Labor (CNT-AIT) protested this outsourcing; ISBAN responded by firing the union delegate (as a “temporary” worker, technically he was merely returned to the employment agency that supplied him, Panel Sistemas), sending a clear message to Santander workers that they risk their jobs if they demand their rights as workers.

The historic international anarcho-syndicalist federation, the IWA-AIT, which includes labor unions as well as other groups, responded with demonstrations around the world. The COB in Brazil handed out flyers in Aracajú and Araxá. In Philadelphia, syndicalists leafleted a Santander branch across from City Hall. The Polish ZSP demonstrated in Warsaw where Santander is trying to expand. In Uruguay the anarcho-syndicalists of Montevideo visited the headquarters of Santander Bank for an informational picket.

The Portuguese section of the IWA-AIT organized pickets in Lisbon and Oporto. In Norway the NSF picketed in Oslo. In the UK the Solidarity Federation held informational pickets in Brighton and Hove. The FAU in Germany picketed in Koln. And of course there were protests across Spain.

Where there were no Santander branches, groups such as the KRAS in Russia and the PA in Slovakia demonstrated against affiliated companies such as Isban and Panel Sistemas.

The dismissed CNT delegate made a symbolic gesture of thanks for this solidarity by putting up a banner in English in his current workplace, Panel Sistemas.

Are the Republicans Anarchists?

We Respond to a Fund-Raising Email from Senator Elizabeth Warren 

Dear J*,

If you watch the anarchist tirades coming from extremist Republicans in the House, you’d think they believe that the government that governs best is a government that doesn’t exist at all.

But behind all the slogans of the Tea Party – and all the thinly veiled calls for anarchy in Washington – is a reality: The American people don’t want a future without government.

When was the last time the anarchy gang called for regulators to go easier on companies that put lead in children’s toys? Or for inspectors to stop checking whether the meat in our grocery stores is crawling with deadly bacteria? Or for the FDA to ignore whether morning sickness drugs will cause horrible deformities in our babies?

When? Never. In fact, whenever the anarchists make any headway in their quest and cause damage to our government, the opposite happens.

After the sequester kicked in, Republicans immediately turned around and called on us to protect funding for our national defense and to keep our air traffic controllers on the job.

And now that the House Republicans have shut down the government – holding the country hostage because of some imaginary government “health care bogeyman” – Republicans almost immediately turned around and called on us to start reopening parts of our government.

Why do they do this? Because the bogeyman government in the alternate universe of their fiery political speeches isn’t real. It doesn’t exist.

Government is real, and it has three basic functions:

Provide for the national defense.

Put rules in place rules, like traffic lights and bank regulations, that are fair and transparent.

Build the things together that none of us can build alone – roads, schools, power grids – the things that give everyone a chance to succeed.

These things did not appear by magic. In each instance, we made a choice as a people to come together. We made that choice because we wanted to be a country with a foundation that would allow anyone to have a chance to succeed.

The Food and Drug Administration makes sure that the white pills we take are antibiotics and not baking soda. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration oversees crash tests to make sure our new cars have functioning brakes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission makes sure that babies’ car seats don’t collapse in a crash and that toasters don’t explode.

We are alive, we are healthier, we are stronger because of government. Alive, healthier, stronger because of what we did together.

We are not a country of anarchists. We are not a country of pessimists and ideologues whose motto is, “I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.” We are not a country that tolerates dangerous drugs, unsafe meat, dirty air, or toxic mortgages.

We are not that nation. We have never been that nation. And we never will be that nation.

The political minority in the House that condemns government and begged for this shutdown has its day. But like all the reckless and extremist factions that have come before it, its day will pass – and the government will get back to the work we have chosen to do together.

Thank you for being a part of this,

Elizabeth Warren


Thank you for your letter, but it is confusing. Do you really consider your Republican counterparts in the House of Representatives to be “anarchists”? What leads you to believe that?

According to you an anarchist believes government is not necessary and wants to get rid of it. Is this what the Republican Party truly believes? According to you government has three basic functions: national defense, putting rules in place that are “fair and transparent”, and building things that we all need but cannot provide for ourselves. How can anybody be against that?

Certainly the Republican Party is not opposed to “national defense.” During the previous Republican Administration they were so much in favor of national defense they felt the need to defend the streets of Baghdad from Al-Qaeda, even though there were no members of Al-Qaeda to be seen anywhere in Iraq. Of course, the members of your Party, the Democratic Party, were no slouches when it came to national defense and voted to give Bush and Cheney the authority to invade that country. Good for you, you Democrats. 

As you point out the Republicans have always been in favor of funding for bombs, the military, and any old thing the Pentagon wants. During the latest round of government defunding, they made sure that the troops would still get paid. After all, we can’t expect them to be in Afghanistan, Gitmo or other parts of our country being shot at without getting paid for it. If they stopped getting paid, the soldiers might get it into their heads to go home to their families. Not to mention those “defense” contractors that can always count on getting paid. So does paying the military make the Republicans “anarchists”? Certainly not.

That brings us to rules, especially rules that are “fair and transparent.” As you told us during the last election, many of us ordinary citizens have come to suspect “the system is rigged.” I thought you were right about that one. The electoral system is rigged. The political system is rigged. Certainly the economic system is rigged, which is why so many of us are either out of work or just struggling to get by.

The question we anarchists have is “do the rules that come from the Senate, Congress, or any of the various states really do away with rigging the system, or are they part of what makes the system unfair”? It is true that the deregulation of the financial sector played a big role in making the system less fair and less transparent, but is that all the Republicans’ fault? Seems to me that Bill Clinton and the Democrats played a big role in that, so is Bill Clinton an anarchist too? 

As for that transparency thing, there are a couple guys named Manning and Snowden who would probably tell you that President Obama is no more interested in transparency than his Republican predecessors. Are you getting all this down, NSA? 

I could go on and on about this law or that law that makes life in this country less fair. I don’t know that the Republicans are against these laws. Vaginal probes anyone? 

And not that I have ever placed much faith in the electoral system, but how are those Republican voter I.D. laws working out for those of you who do? I remember when the U.S. military held the first elections in Iraq, all the Iraqis had to do was present their fingers to show they had no ink stains on them and our occupying military let them stick their finger in a bottle of ink and vote. Kind of simple wasn’t it? Maybe that’s how the majority ended up in power there (not that any government really operates according to majority rule). Good thing there weren’t any Green Party candidates over there trying to get on the ballot.

Finally you say the anarchists are against building things together that we all need but can’t build by ourselves and that it takes government to do that. Well, I admit the Republicans have been pretty stingy lately. But is either one of your propositions true, are Republicans against building stuff and does that make them anarchists? What about the Keystone Pipeline? The Republicans want to build that. That is pretty much a bipartisan issue. A lot of members of your party want to build that too. 

On the other hand anarchists like roads, especially railroads and mass transit systems and other transportation that is more sustainable. We haven’t seen much a an effort by either the Republicans or Democrats to do that, so it may not be so much a question of building stuff but what your priorities are that makes you an anarchist.

So just to clue you in, there is a difference between the Republicans and the anarchists. True, we have both been known to rant about “the government,” but the difference between Republicans or Tea Baggers or the followers of Ayn Rand is that anarchists want liberty … and equality. Because we know that you can’t have one without the other. Equality in civil liberties. Equality in economic power. Equality in treatment regardless of what family you come from, or how you want to live your life. Liberty without equality is a political fiction.

Republicans don’t want liberty and equality, but neither do the Democrats. Your Party is just as much to blame for the globalization and financialization of the economy that have replaced the old forms of capitalist exploitation with new ones based on low wages and lifetime financial debt. If given the choice between your Party and the Republicans, and a real alternative, many would choose to have neither one of you. So you and your counterparts on the other side of the aisle continue to play Americans against each other. Don’t blame anarchists for the failings of your economic and political system. 


The Anarchists

ASR 61

asr61coverWinter 2014

3  Editorials: Work Until You Drop

4  Are the Republicans Anarchists? A Reply to Sen. Warren

5  Wobbles: Shutting Down the Government, Subsidizing Poverty Wages, High-Tech Sweatshops, There is a Limit

6  Syndicalist News: Spanish CNT Fights Pension “Reform,” Low-Wage Workers’ Rebellion Spreads, USI General Strike, Bangladeshi Garment Workers, Independent Truckers Strike, Wobbly News…  Compiled by Mike Hargis

9  Solidarity Actions Hit Santander Bank  by John Kalwaic

9  Report from IWA’s 25th Congress in Valencia

11  Articles: Speech to Metalworkers: Anarcho-Syndicalism for South African Unions Today  by Lucien van der Walt

21  Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program  by Wayne Price

25  Anarchist Economics  by Iain McKay

29  For Cyber Syndicalism  by Jeff Shantz

31  Victor Serge: The Worst of the Anarchists  by Iain McKay

39  Reviews: Prosperity Through Self-Management  Review essay by Brian Martin

44  The Irrational in Economics  Review essay by Jeff Stein

47  Anarchist Solidarity with the Palestinian Struggle  Review by Steve Kellerman

48  Early New Zealand Anarchism  Review by Graham Purchase

48  Kropotkin for Beginners  Review essay By Graham Purchase

50  Taking Proudhon Seriously  Review essay by Iain McKay





Two Conceptions of Unionism

by Jon Bekken, ASR 21

The ongoing struggle to unionize the giant U.S. bookstore chain, Borders Books (operating under the Borders, Brentano’s, Planet Music and Waldenbooks names), illustrates two utterly incompatible ideas of unionism. While the United Food & Commercial Workers holds to the AFL-CIO model of business unionism — seeing the union as a social service agency, relying on a professional staff to ‘service’ workers who buy its services through payroll deductions — the Industrial Workers of the World adheres to a more traditional model of unionism, one which sees the union as a body of workers coming together to gain through their collective action the better conditions they can not hope to win alone. Under this model, which has long since been abandoned by the vast majority of labor organizations, a union does not rely on government certification or Labor Relations Board proceedings. Rather, unions rely upon workers’ own power, recognizing that government “protections” are at best a means of compensating workers long after the fact for the violation of their most basic rights — when after the union itself has been crushed. (More often, they serve to frustrate workers’ efforts, and to divert them into endless bureaucratic channels.)

Unfortunately many workers have fallen for aspects of business unionism, even within revolutionary unions such as the IWW. Thus, Wobblies at one retail outlet in the San Francisco area recently decided that while their fellow workers were ready for a union, it would be too difficult to win a majority to the IWW. So instead they formed an organizing committee of IWW members and tried to organize their fellow workers into the UFCW. (Bay area Wobblies have also mounted several organizing campaigns in their own right in recent years, including an ongoing campaign at the giant Wherehouse Entertainment music and video chain.) Leaving aside the fact that the UFCW is a particularly disgusting example of business unionism with a long history of selling out its members and signing sweetheart contracts with the bosses (it is so ineffective at defending its members’ interests that the first pay hike tens of thousands of UFCW members saw in recent years came with the recent increase in the federal minimum wage), such tactics are incompatible with basic union principles. (They are also ineffective; UFCW bureaucrats and the Wobbly committee inevitably dashed on strategy and the drive was defeated.) For these tactics are based on a faulty premise — that a union exists by virtue of government certification.

The result of such mistaken premises are disoranizing campaigns urging workers to vote for union “representation,” meanwhile setting their grievances aside until their representatives are certified to deal with them. When, as in this case, the election is lost workers are left defenseless (ideologically and organizationally) against the bosses. Yet in this workplace there were several Wobblies committed. to fighting for better conditions. Had they had the courage of their Wobbly convictions, they could have established an IWW branch on the job and begun mobilizing their fellow workers to fight for better conditions. At first they would have been a small minority, of course, but as they agitated and organized they could have established a living, breathing, fighting union presence on the job — one much stronger because it was based upon the workers themselves, rather than a scrap of paper from the government or a bunch of high-paid bureaucrats in an office across town.

In contrast, the IWW drive at Borders culminated years of IWW organizing efforts among low-paid service, educational and retail workers in Philadelphia. And at least some Borders workers turned to the IWW precisely because of its broader social vision. But the Borders campaign, too, was afflicted by symptoms of business unionism. Although this drive was conducted under IWW auspices, Philadelphia Wobs sought the “easy” road of government certification eventually trimming their sails in a desperate scramble to hold on to a majority of voters as managers chipped away at their initial majority with threats and promises. They narrowly lost that vote and, barred from from going back to the National Labor Relations Board for another year and without any apparent realization that the 20 workers (of 45) who had voted for the IWW could act as a union regardless of government certification, the workers lapsed into depressed apathy.

Management seized on the situation to crush not only that drive, but also fledgling IWW efforts at other Borders stores across the country. Suspected union supporters were interrogated, threatened and harassed and on June 15, 1996, Borders fired Miriam Fried, one of the most active Wobblies in the Philadelphia store.

By then, most Wobblies in that store had despaired. Some were looking for other jobs, others turned to the UFCW. When FW Fried was fired there was no organized reaction from the Wobblies on the job. But an IWW organizer who had been working with the Borders drive put out word of the firing over the internet and it was quickly picked up by Wobs. On June 17th, two members of the Boston IWW Branch entered the downtown Boston Borders and demanded to speak to the manager. When she insisted that Borders’ firing of a worker for supporting the union was none of her concern Wobblies set up a picket line in front of the store and began leafletting customers and passersby. Picketing continues to this day, and has been taken up by Wobblies at dozens of Borders outlets across the country (including in Philadelphia).

While the UFCW responded to the firing by promising to file a piece of paper with the government begging it to protect workers’ rights to organize, the IWW responded with direct action — hitting the bosses where it hurt. There is no evidence that the paperwork has had any effect on Borders, but Borders managers have been frantically working the phone lines and spreading corporate disinformation to counter the IWW’s efforts. Far from defending workers’ rights against Borders’ flagrant imtimidation the UFCW has asked Wobblies to take down the picket lines in several cities, and has even taken to calling people and urging them to cross the picketlines and patronize the union busters.

Nearly 40 Borders stores from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles, and from Miami, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington, were picketed December 14th and 15th in a national protest to increase the pressure on the chain Tens of thousands of leaflets have been distributed to Borders customers informing them of the dispute. Sales reports since the campaign began show that Borders is losing ground to rival Barnes & Noble.

Whether or not the campaign is able to build an IWW presence at Borders or get Miriam Fried her job back, it has shown that the IWW’s relatively small membership is fully capable of mounting a solidarity campaign that puts much larger unions to shame. Within a few days of the firing, IWW members were sharing leaflets on the internet, creating web pages about the dispute, picketing Borders stores across the country, and putting the company on notice that it could not act against workers with impunity. While it continues to threaten and intimidate workers, Borders has not fired any union activists since the campaign began and has retracted and apologized for a warning issued to another IWW supporter for discussing working conditions and the need for a union with her fellow workers. Workers across the country have seen evidence that the IWW is still fighting the bosses.

The campaign has provided a nationally visible focus for IWW activities – the first time in many years that the IWW has organized around a common project. In the early stages of the campaign, an IWW member was quoted by a newspaper saying that the IWW was too small to take on a national campaign and so would have to defer to the UFCW. But while a few IWW members have followed that defeatist logic, more have recognized that numbers only count if they are mobilized; that a huge membership disorganized into a business union can not begin to match what can be accomplished by a genuine union, one which turns to its members to act for themselves in accordance with that venerable principle, An Injury to One Is An Injury to All.

The American Health Care Crisis: Capitalism

by Jon Bekken, ASR 16

No country in the world spends as much on health care as the United States, or gets as little for its money. In 1992, fully 14 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (about $2,700 per person per year — though by no means do all people receive health care) was spent on health care, and yet a recent study of seven industrialized countries found the U.S. dead last in basic health indicators. We have fewer doctors per capita, higher infant mortality, and shorter lives. And nearly 100 million people went without any health insurance for part or all of the year. Surveys find that people are quite worried about their access to health care — two-thirds fear they couldn’t afford long-term care, and almost half worry that they couldn’t finance a major illness. The crisis is particularly severe for the unemployed and for those in low-paying jobs — precisely those in the worst position to cover medical expenses, and the most likely to get ill.

The costs of operating this for-profit health system are rising sharply, far ahead of the inflation rate. Much of this spending does not go into treatment–about one out of eight dollars spent by the health insurance companies goes to administrative costs, nearly ten times what it costs Canada’s nationalized system (the world’s second most expensive) for paperwork. U.S. doctors are better paid than their counterparts in other countries, drug costs are higher, and insurance and hospital profits are soaring. Only people’s health lags behind.

As costs rise, insurance companies get pickier about whom they’ll cover, and make workers pay a growing share of health care costs through higher deductibles, rising premiums, co-payments, and reduced coverage. Insurers avoid entire industries as too risky, and refuse to insure people who get sick. Similarly, HMOs avoid rural areas and economically depressed inner cities where it is more expensive to provide care and where people are more likely to need medical treatment. And growing numbers of employers reserve the right to cancel workers’ health insurance if their treatment gets too expensive (or threatens to).

The health care industry has proven incapable of providing even basic medical services to most people, but it has been one of the few economic sectors to create new jobs even during the current recession. The health business added 3 million new jobs between 1980 and 1991, according to the November 1992 Monthly Labor Review, and health care wages grew at 6 times the national average (though this is in part the result of low-paid service workers unionizing and demanding a living wage). Employment in health insurance offices led the pack as thousands of auditors and other paper pushers were hired in a desperate attempt to take charge of escalating costs by close monitoring of health care providers.

Capitalism Cannot Work

Even the capitalists are forced to admit that the healthcare marketplace simply does not work. As corporations have found themselves paying ever-escalating insurance premiums, the country’s largest corporations have joined the call for health care reform. A front-page article in the New York Times termed health care an “economic outlaw,” because medical insurance served to insulate consumers from rising costs. “Americans have every incentive to seek additional medical care, even if the benefit they stand to gain is modest compared with the total cost…” (The extent to which this is true is quite limited. Not only are many people excluded from health care because they have inadequate or no coverage, but for several years employers have been pushing an ever-increasing share of expenses onto workers.) Nor does the alleged “invisible hand of the market” function — sick people are in no position to shop around for a better deal and rarely have the expertise to evaluate the quality or necessity of their treatment.

Indeed, capitalism inexorably lead to higher costs. Doctors and hospitals create their own demand for services: the more hospital beds there are in a community, the more doctors put patients in hospitals and the longer hospitals keep them there; the more surgeons in a community, the more operations are performed to support them. One study found that doctors who perform their own radiological tests prescribe such tests at least four times as often and charge higher fees than did doctors who referred patients to radiologists. Drug companies charge high prices for prescription drugs to finance costly advertising campaigns to persuade doctors to prescribe their brand-name drugs rather than cheaper generic equivalents. Hospitals buy the latest equipment, regardless of whether it’s needed, simply to keep up with the competition — and then charge high prices to make up for the fact that it is hardly ever used. And as hospital admissions decline and average hospital stays shortened, the number of employees on hospital payrolls (largely administrators and book-keepers) soared. Between 1970 and 1989 the number of health care administrators in the U.S. increased nearly six-fold, while growing numbers of hospital beds lie empty. As doctors David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler note, “It apparently takes substantial administrative effort to keep sick patients out of empty hospital beds.”

The Times finds this outrageous, and for good reason (it makes the health coverage they provide their workers more expensive). But the most serious problem with market-based health care entirely escapes their notice: under our capitalist health care system many workers, and indeed entire communities, do not receive basic health care services. Hospitals (including ostensibly non-profit ones) refuse to treat patients who don’t have health insurance or well- paid jobs. About 300,000 people are refused care each year at hospital emergency rooms because they are uninsured or inadequately insured; if their lives are in immediate danger they are patched up and shipped to often overcrowded private hospitals. And many people go without necessary medicine because they cannot afford to pay for it. The U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialized society (even developing countries such as Singapore do better), and both men and women die at younger ages than do our fellow workers in many other countries. Quite simply, thousands of our fellow workers suffer and die each year because of the capitalist health care industry and its profit motive.

Managed Care No Solution

Clinton’s health care reform plan begins with the basic assumption that Americans are overinsured, and thus focuses on creating incentives to force us to be more cost-conscious health care consumers. Managed competition might (depending on how tight- fisted the government proves) end up saving money over the long run (in the short run it means higher costs and higher profits for the insurance industry), but only at the expense of people’s health. Clinton proposes phasing in “universal” health care over the next four years (undocumented workers would not be covered–apparently they will be left to die in the streets). But this “universal” plan would offer only the most minimal coverage–co-payments of as much of $25 per visit would discourage many people from seeing doctors, and Medicaid and Medicare benefits would be slashed. Himmelstein and Woolhandler describe the Clinton plan as one designed to make insurance companies the feudal lords of American medicine, “push[ing] all but the wealthy into a few cut-rate HMOs, owned by insurance giants such as Prudential. Since only the wealthy could afford higher cost plans, Managed Competition would ratify a system of care stratified along class lines, separate and unequal.”

Instead of reducing bureaucracy and administration (overhead accounts for about 14 percent of U.S. health care costs), Clinton’s plan would add new layers to the bureaucracy, while transferring Medicaid recipients from the relatively efficient (3.5% overhead) public sector to inefficient private businesses. Newly created regional health alliances would collect premiums, while a new National Health Board would establish an overall health budget and regulate premium levels. Workers would be required to pay income taxes on the value of any health care benefits that exceed the government’s minimal package (mental health, vision and dental coverage, for example). And patients would have to pay extra if they wanted to choose their own doctor.

Pilot managed care programs demonstrate that quality health care is the last thing on the government’s mind. Typically, these systems operate under a fixed price scheme in which health care providers get the same money whether or not they provide any services. Some go further, paying more to doctors who spend less. This is supposed to discourage unnecessary expense, but it is at least as likely to discourage necessary health care. When the Pentagon tested a managed care system on military families in Virginia, it didn’t bother to monitor the quality of care being offered. But it definitely saved money.

Similarly, the federal government has been encouraging Medicare patients to sign up with health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Since HMOs provide and pay for medical services directly (unlike insurance companies, which get billed after the fact), they have a clear incentive to provide as little service as possible. A study of New York City HMOs found that several did not keep adequate patient records, showed little interest in monitoring patient histories, spent huge amounts and marketing and advertising that could go to care, and provided little concrete information to patients. A 1990 General Accounting Office survey of care provided to Medicaid recipients by Chicago-area HMOs found that required preventive care was not provided to children, and worried that incentive payments to cost-cutting doctors encouraged them to delay and deny care.

Managed Care schemes cut costs in part through hard bargaining to hold down doctor and hospital payments. HMOs skimp on doctors, having them handle nearly twice as many patients as do doctors in private practice, generally leading to long waits for rushed consultations. But their centerpiece is the requirement that doctor’s visits and medical treatment be preapproved. HMOs refuse to authorize what they considers unnecessary or inefficient practices. For example, one HMO cut a patient’s psychotherapy benefits because the patient refused to take the mood altering drug Prozac. Giving people drugs instead of treatment is certainly cheaper, but is cost the primary basis upon which these decisions should be made?

As the Left Business Observer concludes, “Providers under the whip of profit maximization will skimp on care to fatten profits… In health care, the market kills.” But for all their skimping on actual health care, HMO premiums have been rising even faster than for the medical system as a whole–even without taking into account increased co-payments and other hidden costs.

Business Unions Capitulate

The Clinton proposal has been roundly condemned by consumer groups and the health care reform movement as a placebo at best, and at worst a mechanism for sucking an ever-increasing share of our wealth into the pockets of the health care profiteers. An editorial in The Progressive, for example, praised the Clintons’ sympathetic manner but concluded that their prescription could not solve the underlying problem:

Why won’t it work? Because it deliberately and decisively refuses to deal with the root cause of all the ailments so admirably described by the Clintons: the fact that the health-care system in the United States is market- oriented and profit-driven. At every level and in every aspect, health care in our country is provided on the basis of someone’s ability to turn a buck…

In recent years unions have been one of the leading forces in the battle for health care reform. The rising costs of health care benefits have been one of the factors driving corporations’ all-out assault against unions, prompting many business unions to come out in favor of a Canadian-style single-payer system in hopes of eliminating the non-union sectors’ cost advantages. But when the Clintons declared for Managed Competition most unions went along. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, ran a “special report” arguing that securing decent health care is beyond unions: “No matter how hard your local union fights for you, it can’t give you the security of health care that’s always there. The problem’s just too big for any local union, district or national union to solve.” But for all their efforts to sell the Clinton plan, primarily by presenting it as a minimum leaving unions free to negotiate better deals, the AFT admits that the “pretty short” list of excluded health benefits includes dental care, orthodontia, hearing aids, contact lenses, psychotherapy, etc. While workers could still choose their own doctors, they would be required to pay more to do so. And workers would be required to pay income taxes on any health benefits that exceed the government’s stingy package.

The situation will be even worse for part-time workers. Employers will pay a pro-rated insurance contribution based on the number of hours they work, part-timers will be required to come up with the rest of the money themselves (and since coverage will be mandatory, they will find themselves in a very deep hole indeed).

Most health care reformers call for a “single payer” system modelled on Canada’s, where basic health care services are funded by taxes and the government pays doctors and hospitals directly. Such a system reduces administrative overhead and paperwork by eliminating insurance companies, as well as economic barriers to health care access. And since the government is the sole payer of health care bills, it can theoretically set global budgets to hold expenditures in line. (In practice this works less well; the Canadian system is the second most expensive in the world and offers coverage only marginally better than that in the U.S. Since doctors and hospitals continue to operate in a capitalist economy, they have strong incentives to push payment levels upward; the government must choose between limiting available health services and taking on the powerful health care industry.)

But this also gives the government immense powers over the lives of its citizens–the power to dictate what medical services will be available, what drugs they will and will not take, etc. In an era of economic decline, the government could quickly become an HMO-like operator backed by the full coercive power of the state.

Syndicalist Approaches

In a society organized along anarcho-syndicalist lines, health care would be one of the many necessities available to all without charge. While we have little interest in developing a social blueprint (the details of any free social organization must of necessity be worked out by those who constitute it, and evolve in accord with experience and changing needs), a syndicalist health care system would surely be self-managed by health care workers themselves — working through their union which would include all workers involved in delivering health care, from those who scrub the floors to the nurses and doctors. Health workers’ unions would federate among themselves internationally — to share and develop their expertise, to provide training, etc. — and with other groups in their communities to ascertain what services are needed and to ensure that the necessary resources are provided. This would likely involve a radical rethinking of the way in which health care is delivered, with greater attention to preventive care (prenatal care, routine checkups, nutrition, etc. — but also environmental conditions) and changes in the division of labor which now separates doctors’ mental labor (diagnosis, prescription, etc.) from hands-on treatment.

Anarchists have considered these issues before, if not in the context of our highly technological medical system. Kropotkin argued that the progress of civilization could be measured by the extent to which such necessities (a term he defined broadly to also include culture, information, etc.) were available, free of charge, to all. G.P. Maximoff noted that medical and sanitation services (sanitation was the preventive medicine of the day — indeed it is only in recent decades that medicine developed the ability to significantly improve people’s health) were essential public functions to be supported by the communal economy and administered by the union of medical and sanitary workers. “The Public Health service will cover the entire country with a close net of medical and sanitary centers, hospitals and sanitoria.” Alexander Berkman argued that such needs should be met by locally based voluntary committees, rather than by centralized structures which were likely to overlook real needs and stifle the spirit of human solidarity so necessary to social progress.

During the Spanish Revolution, our comrades faced the problem of constructing basic medical services essentially from nothing. (Spain certainly had doctors and hospitals, but like other social services these were not available to most workers because of cost and location.) As Gaston Leval wrote,

The socialization of health services was one of the greatest achievements of the revolution… The Health Workers’ Union was founded in September, 1936… All health workers, from porters to doctors and administrators, were organized into the one big union of health workers….

Before the revolution, Spain had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and vast inequality in access to services. So it was not sufficient merely to take charge of the existing system — it had to be (re)constructed from the ground up. In Catalonia, the health workers’ union distributed health centers throughout the province to ensure that everyone was within easy travelling distance. There were, of course, many difficulties:

Where there had been an artificially created surplus of doctors serving the wealthy under capitalism, there was now under the socialized medical system a shortage of doctors badly needed to serve the disadvantaged masses who never before received good medical care…. Not all health services could be entirely socialized, but most of the dental clinics in Catalonia were controlled by the syndicate, as were all the hospitals, clinics and sanitariums… Private doctors still practiced, but… the cost of operations was controlled. Payments for treatments were made through the syndicates, not directly to the physicians. In the new clinics, surgery and dental extractions were free….

In the village of Albalate de Cinca, for example, the local collective provided free health care to all, providing the town doctor with medical supplies and books, and, of course, with the necessities of life from their collective labor. Similar arrangements were made throughout Aragon and Catalonia.

It is, however, relatively easy to sketch how we might provide health care in an ideal society; given that we are not presently in a position to socialize the health care system, the question of what our position should be towards proposals to address the immediate health care crisis remains open. In Britain, the anarchist movement — while intensely critical of the many inadequacies of the nationalized health care service and its bureaucratic deformations — has generally opposed efforts to reprivatize health care, recognizing that this would only worsen the situation. Similarly, in the U.S. many anarchists have taken part in efforts to fight the closing of public hospitals or their privatization.

Some anarchists, such as the anarchist caucus of the Committees of Correspondence, call for a national health plan, apparently modelled after Canada’s system. But it is far from evident that such a system can meet people’s needs. In Canada, health care costs are rising almost as sharply as in the U.S., prompting government efforts to control costs by cutting back on services. Workers (whether in health care, or in society as a whole) have little influence over health care policy — rather the important decisions are made by government bureaucrats, and driven by the need to placate the health care corporations, on the one hand, and the transnational corporations’ demands for global competitiveness on the other.

Any meaningful health care reform needs to eliminate capitalism from the health care system and place decision-making in local communities (though funding would need to be drawn from a wider area, in order to address the vastly different wealth levels and the greater health needs typically found in poor communities). This might take the form of community-based health clinics, mutual aid societies (of the sort that provided sickness and death benefits to hundreds of thousands of workers in the early years of this century), or union-sponsored facilities.

Decent health care should be available to all as a fundamental human right. Yet infants die for lack of prenatal care, people live in fear of being bankrupted by medical bills in the event of a major illness or accident, many others cannot afford medications for chronic illnesses, people die every day because there is no profit in treating them. This is a strong indictment of our capitalist system and its inability to meet basic human needs. But the solution is not in strengthening the insurance companies or more government control. Rather, we must seize control of health care — so necessary to ensure our ability to live out our lives — and build a health care system (and, indeed, a society) organized around fulfilling human needs.


1. “Paying for health,” Left Business Observer #57, Feb. 16 1993, pp. 2-7. Figures vary widely for the numbers uninsured and underinsured; David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler (The National Health Program Book, Common Courage Press, 1994, pp. 24-5) estimate that about 37 million Americans are uninsured at any one time, and that 1 in 4 (63.3 million) were uninsured for at least one month in a 28-month period from 1986-88.

2. Thomas Bodenheimer, “Health Care Reform in the 1990s and Beyond,”Socialist Review 1993(1), pp. 18-20.

3. David Rosenbaum, “Economic Outlaw: American Health Care,” The New York Times, Oct. 26 1993, pp. 1, D22.

4. Himmilstein & Woolhandler, The National Health Program Book, p. 89.

5. Himmelstein & Woolhandler, The National Health Program Book.

6. Himmelstein & Woolhandler, p. 183.

7. Robert Pear, “Congress is Given Clinton Proposal for Health Care,” The New York Times, Oct. 28 1993, pp. 1, A24-A25.

8. Judith Ebenstein, “Big Brother, Manager” (Letter), The New York Times, Nov. 16 1993, p. A26.

9. “Cost Control,” Left Business Observer #58, April 26, 1993, p. 8.

10. Himmelstein & Woolhandler, p. 188.

11. “Placebo” (Editorial), The Progressive, November 1993, p. 9.

12. “The Clinton health plan: A union Q&A,” On Campus, November 1993, p. 4.

13. See my “Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchist Communism,” Libertarian Labor Review 12, Winter 1992, pp. 19-24.

14. G.P. Maximoff, Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 32; originally published in Russian in 1927. English translation by Ada Siegel included in Maximoff’s Constructive Anarchism (Maximoff Memorial Publishing Committee, 1952). Reprinted 1985 by Monty Miller Press, Sydney, Australia.

15. Alexander Berkman, ABC of Anarchism, London: Freedom Press, 1977 (Excerpt from 1929 edition of What is Communist Anarchism), pp. 72-3.

16. in Sam Dolgoff, ed., The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self- Management in the Spanish Revolution, New York: Free Life Editions, 1974, pp. 99-101.

17. Dolgoff, The Anarchist Collectives, pp. 119, 133-34.

18. “National Health Plan Now!@!” Black and Red #5, July/August 1993, p. 1. The article criticizes the emerging Clinton plan and quotes several advocates of a single-payer system, but offers no details of what sort of national play they advocate.