One More Nail in the Coffin

When UAW President Owen Bieber agreed to sent Caterpillar strikers back to work on April 14 under the terms of Cat management’s final offer he drove another nail into the coffin of organized labor in the U.S.

Bieber’s motive in capitulating to the world’s largest earth moving equipment manufacturer was undoubtedly to preserve the jobs of 12,600 striking workers (and the dues revenue generated for UAW coffers?) who were threatened with permanent replacement by scabs.

Alternatives to surrender, risky as they might be, could have been implemented. Mass picketing, plant occupations, or a combination of both could have bee set up to keep out any scabs. Thousands of unionists in the midwest who were anxious to come to the Cat strikers’ aid would have responded to a call for active support. (On March 22, over 20,000 workers took part in a solidarity rally held in Peoria, Illinois; there had been short sympathy strikes of Cat workers in South Africa and Belgium, and even some talk of a general strike in some UAW locals.)

However, one has to wonder if other alternative tactics were even considered before the decision to surrender was reached. Although there has been some talk recently of implementing a work- to-rule to bring some pressure to bear on Cat management, the seeming lack of any creative thinking about strategy and tactics in the current economic climate only underlines the total bankruptcy of business unionism.

The capitalists declared war on labor over ten years ago, and the casualties suffered in this decade should have convinced any sober unionist – even a reformist one – that the long battle of attrition-style strikes is suicide. Not only that, the UAW’s failure to organize any pre-strike actions to reduce Cat inventory going into the strike shows the severe short-sightedness, approaching blindness, of the trade union leadership. In addition, the fact that the rank-and-file were not even consulted, let alone allowed to vote, on the decision to return to work indicates that the business union leadership is more afraid of an active rank-and- file than anything else.

Of course, negotiations between UAW leaders, Cat executives and a federal mediator could produce a slightly improved contract for Cat workers. But the rank-and-file will remain largely marginal to the process, and this is the crux of the matter. The passivity and lack of self-organization of the rank-and-file makes the defense of hard-won conditions, let alone their improvement, virtually impossible – not only for Cat workers but for workers in all sectors of the economy.

Only when we decide to organize ourselves into self-managed, revolutionary class unions that recognize the irreconcilable conflict between labor and capital will we have the power to win.

Capitalist terror and madness

Capitalist terror and madness:
George bin Laden & Osama son of Bush incorporated.
Towers may blow up and crumble, while fortifying the very social structures they stood as a symbol for. The words You can’t blow up a social relation, ring truer than ever.

There are good reasons to begin talking about terror as such and within a global context. To a large extent terror can also be viewed apart from whatever motives that may hide behind particular expressions of it, or whether it is carried out of states or not. If the end result is the same, in both a shorter and longer term perspective, such distinctions become less important. Which does not mean we should overlook the question of ideological legitimization It is no coincidence that terror has formed such a central part within fascist movements. Nor that words such as class are absent in Osama bin Laden’s as well as George Bush’s legitmization of terror.

Terror has a long history in the service of counter-revolution, and will always work towards undermining the very foundations of a new, free, postcapitalist, society, or even one where forces of death, oppression and exploitation are significantly weakened. The Red Terror orchestrated by the Bolsheviks, directed against, they claimed, the old rulling classes, had essentially two effects, apart from that of immediate, indiscriminate death. It brought into existence the repressive forces of the new state which were again redireced against the workers and peasants, and served as the most “vital” recruiting ground for the White Army (or armies). For the rest of the Civil War period, the terror within these two armies, combined with and constituted a precondition for the terror directed against workers, and even more so against the peasants masses. This produced an even greater army of deserters, but also a situation where two camps, becoming increasingly indistinguisable from each other, in effect recruited solidiers for the other side. The Red Army victory was finalized through a massive war against the peasantry and the working class, and the greatest famine that the Russian Empire, had seen. Five million starved to death. Further down this historical blind alley, followed the rule of Stalin.

Terror can be reduced to the following: To rule through fear. The target is not the persons directly hit but those who fear they might be the next. Thus the more indiscriminate the better. Terror produces or reinforces counter-terror, and imposes internal terror in both camps. In the late Yugoslavia, this Rule was played out as civil war. On another level, in Northern Ireland, the sectarian killings are not only in themselves a manifestion of terror but also its trueborn children. While having roots and precendents further back in Irish history, organisational terror of more recent date have been effective in reproducing this madness. Any terror group, even those who start out with social revolutionary pretensions, will tend to reproduce the state from within, as well as reinforcing the one whose power they set out to “ex-terminate;” a favorite expression of Lenin, who tended to confuse social relations with biology. However, to have assisinated Hitler during World War II or Stalin in his might, would not have consitituted terror if carried out from the conviction that their removal alone could lessen sufferings and save many more lifes. These are two of the rare historical cases where this very likely also would have been the result.

In what follows it is important that readers clearly distinguish between Islamism as a political project (with numerous historical precedents in the history of European Christianity, the time when such a term still had a real meaning as a Rule and not only exception) and muslims as fellow workers and friends.

The abstract words of justice and honor of Islamists such as Osama bin Laden and feyadeen of Imperial Order, as George Bush, turns to corpses within and without the United States. Like the national socialism of the Ba’th, Islamism shares with the governments of the United States of America and Israel, in being far more effective in taking the lifes of “muslims” – or human beings of flesh and blood and lifegiving kaffir (heathen) dreams, as I would say – than other such human creatures, as Israeli “jews,” or U.S. “christians.” That is not likely to change. Nor is this a coincidence.

In 1981, Lafif Lakhdar wrote in Khamsin: Journal of revolutionary socialists of the Middle East:

“In a Moment of frankeness, Hasan al-Banna’ admitted in 1947 to the members of his [Muslim] Brotherhood [in Egypt] that the first obstacle they would meet on the path to the re-Islamisation of secular Muslim society, in his opinion, would be the hostility of the people. ‘I must tell you,’ he said, ‘that your preaching is still a closed book to the majority. The day when they discover it and realise what it aims for, they will resist violently and oppose you tentaciously.'”

This the Taliban knows, and this is also the reason for their state-building terror. What they do not recognise is that they in a longer perspective are paving the road for the McDonaldisation and secularisation of Afghanistan. Thus Lafif Lakhdar could write 20 years ago about a country bordering Afghanistan: “Contrary to what Islamic propaganda claims, and many western leftist believe, today’s Iran does not represent the reinvogation of Islam but its swan song, except that it lacks any beauty”

Our social revolutionary friend made another significant observation:

“The cult of death may well fascinate a large number of middle class youths, who are the victims of emotional blocks, and are frightened of freedom and and libertarian ways. It is however no solution in the face of the real problems which shake the very foundation of the Iranian society. A person such as Khomeini, who suffers from historical scleroris, and who in his book “Islamic Government” deals with such serious problems as the buggery of a poor donkey by poor muslims, and who is incapable of creating an Iranian bourgeoisie, can only return to to the American fold or fall under Soviet influence. “We are less independent today,” admits Badi Sadr, “than we were under the Shah. Our budget depends on the credit of foreign banks. Our dependence on arms and foreign military experts is quite simple tragic.” Has Bani Sadr, the spiritual son of the Imam, finally grasped that in a world unified by the violence of the laws of the market Iran cannot be independent, whether the Imam is present or absent, likes it or not? …. The middle classes, who first idolised Khomeini in the belief that they had found in him an universal miracle cure, now turn away from him to await the coup d’Ètat. The sub-proletariat who served him as cannon foder, now suffer more than ever with the repression of the Khalkhali. The proletariat are engaged in a permanent struggle in their workplaces to counter the intervention of the Islamic committees, and only stop specific strikes to return their permanent go-slow.”

Through one of those ironic twist of history, Osama Bin Laden and Taliban are preparing the incorporation of Afghanistan into the “American fold.” If a further tens of thousands of Afghanis do not die in the process, it is through no merit of theirs. Nor should we thank them if September 11 does not produce an inflation of death, carried further to other countries and continents as massacres, civil wars, pogroms and famine, nationalist and religious hysteria, foreign military intervention and terror. Whether or not the verdict of history will show al-Qaeda was directly responsible for the World Trade Center graveyard is not the question here, but that this expression of Islamism have been disseminating a Culture of Death, Terror, Oppression, Self-oppression and Stupidity, which nutures such acts. All with the complicity of global financial institutions, the governments of “the West,” as well as of of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the military regime of Algeria, Iraq, and others. In implicating all these other actors, I am not promoting some weird conspiracy theory, but an understanding of how social forces de facto tend to reinforce each other, knowingly or unknowingly. The extremely central role Saudi Arabian petroleum money has played, and very likely will continue to do, is almost comical but also very telling.

The World Trade Center massacre must be comprehended within an agenda of nuturing xenophobic hysteria. As a means for ends that geographically lie elsewhere. That the airborne suicidal guiders of the will of God were human beings with crushed dreams, and victims of capitalist alienation as much as everyone else whose lives exploded, like the numerous children who suffer a far less spectacular death in Iraq under the rule of Washington, D.C. and Baghdad, does not change this.

Within such an agenda, US might and wealth and the settler colonialism of Israel, become the best of allies, but can only function as such by being portrayed as the incarnation of “Satan” within an endless rhetorical monologue, where the distinction between rulers and ruled, and every class perspective, is wholly blurred. Just as the US propaganda apparatus never can make any real critique of Islamism, the Islamist leaders, as the Panarabic before them, cannot put forth any real critique of the global social order that the United States is a manifestation of. This would have undermined their own power basis and ends. Instead their “anti-imperialism” and Jihads serve as a means to enslave their “own” working classes: to reproduce “Satan,” as the rule of fascist terror within an Islamic or nationalist ideological framework, even more oppressive in many aspects than “Satan himself.” Only to soon be fully reintegrated into the capitalist world order they always were a particular expression of. And in the meantime, all social struggles pointing beyond the present order, all efforts of bringing into life a confederation of globalised wokers-to-workers solidarity, is undermined.

Terror works in seemingly mysterious ways. If looked at not from the perspective of New York, but from people coming from regions where Islamist terror forms part of, or is on the verge of becoming, part of daily fear, the message of September 11 spoke loud and clear. The turning of the World Trade Center into a graveyard was from this point of view a de facto declaration of war by rulers and would-be-rulers against the masses in the Middle East and Central Asia, North Africa and beyond. Not a struggle against oppression and exploitation: but a call for total submission through terror, and an expression of inter-capitalist competion. A terror that did not start and will not end in New York, which never was its real target. Which is yet another reason to oppose NATOs war-efforts.

Simultaneously this act of terror is exploited as a means to impose “security” on the working class of “the North,” and throughout the globe. Around and within Fortress Europe, and all the other Fortresses of the world, the walls are now being built taller, and a whole new level of control is being imposed. Refugees, legal and illegal immigrants – and those who from their appearance can be suspected to belong among “Them” – will be hit worst. Increasingly they will become victims of a more subtle terror, a phenomenom which started long ago but which now has gained force. Without ever reaching the headlines, a greater number of human beings seeking a better future for themselves and their children, trying to reach the shores of Spain, Italy, Australia and elsewhere, will drown, be shot (as happens on the US-Mexican border), or die for other reasons. Increased “security” will extend worldwide, and lead to the full imposition of a global capitalist world (dis)order.

Nothing of this is predetermined, but such an agenda has gained force after September 11, 2001. It has been become even more critical to wage also an ideological struggle against forces of terror, state-sponsored or not, on a local and global level. We are all part of the one same bloody civilisation, of alienation and silent and spectacular death and boredom, but also of compassion, love and broken hearts, tears and laughter, hopes and dreams, and a capacity for globalised solidarity.

The capitalist world order is an order that rules by being everywhere, and increasingly so, and not only in a restricted economical sense. If all its force was concentrated in the Pentagon it would have been easy to overcome. Instead it rules as much through small and large Ayatollahs, small and large Saddam Huseyns and Assads, Milosovics and Tudjmans, Sharons and Arafats and, as well as through the “humantarian” rulers of the Scandinavian countries. The latter is true as well. But terror is still among the phenomenoms that most effectively reproduces the monster, state-sponsored or not. Afghanistan has been one of this centres of capitalist world disorder in the last decades. There another manifestation of modern alienation was born, created out of many worlds, of old and new ones, linked to the global market in numerous ways. That the Taliban soldiers, together with Pakistani border guards, in these very days are being bribed to turn their heads the other way, so to let refugees pass a closed border, and that this is all organised as an enterprise, selling the fear of famine and death for what amounts to several months salary, is just another example on how the force of commodity production and the spirit of George Bushs is very much is alive in the realm of Taliban.

The world is increasingly moving towards a triadic American-European-Asian Empire. The enforced alliance-building we are now seeing around the Pentagons campaign of Infinite Terror (which magnitude is still quite unclear), and the seeking of legitimation for this through the United Nations, is not just a facade. We are moving towards a global order, also politically, in a whole new sense. Just as the the increased speed and magnitude of communication and transportation on a global level is increasingly also furthering a blurring between terror, policing and war. But we should also be aware of the new positive possibilities for a struggle of global resistance founded on solidarity this opens for us, with a potential to take us beyond capitalism.

Capitalism is a complex, globally interlinked social system that only can be surpassed through a collective creative effort on the basis of human communication and practical, non-hierachical and globalised solidarity of the working classes. There never was and never will be any other road. Now less than ever.

A last word about terror. In a play of words: Out of the ruins of anarchy, anarchy cannot arise, only the rule of the Market and the State in their most brutalised, authoritarian manifestations. In its proper sense, anarchy of course does not signify disorder and the struggle of each against all, however common such a belief may be, but the overcoming of the Rule of the Siamese Twins of Market and State through the human creation of a global classless society, where people in cooperation rule over their own lifes and destinies, and the freedom of all becomes the condition of the freedom of each, as the freedom of each is the condition for the freedom of all.

Chinese Anarchism collection

by Jing Zhao

Since the great Chinese Democratic Movement in 1989 transformed me into an anarchist in Japan, I learnt more and more anarchism from Japanese and English resources. In 1992-95 when I worked in a company living under Fuji Maintain, I read Black Flag Front series in Numatsu Library. I was deeply moved when I realized that this great work was conducted by one Japanese anarchist in the 1920s, and I was delighted that Ba Jin had translated some of the material in this series into Chinese in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, in China, almost all books related to political thought, especially anarchism, were modified to fit the so-called Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. For example, Ba Jin’s Collected Works (published in 1993 by People’s Literature Press) did not include his “From Capitalism to Anarchism” (published in 1930 by Shanghai Liberty Press), and deleted the names of Chen Duxiu (Chinese Communist Party founder) and Emma Goldman (Ba Jin’s “spiritual mother”) in his “My Childhood.”

This make a Chinese anarchism collection edition important and urgent in this era of globalization. Since Confucians and Shima Qian, editing history has also made history in China.

All of these works are published in Chinese (and while some are translations, the collection includes much material not available in English, including information on the Soviet Union’s activities in China). Since 2008, the collection’s books have been published through They can also be downloaded for free from the US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute’s web site at Following is a list of publications presently available:

A-1 Anarchists Vanzetti and Sacco, translated and written by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-16157-7

A-2 Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, by Berkman, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17172-9

A-3 The Chicago Anarchists, translated and written by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-24143-9

B-1: Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, by Godwin, translated by He Muli, edited by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 9780557327140

C-1 Chinese Anarchist Activities, edited by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-19209-0

F-1 What is Property, by Prodoun, translated by Sun Shubing.

G-1: The German Ideas Contributing to Anarchism, by Jing Zhao, ISBN: 9781257377718

J-1 Japanese Anarchism Material, translated and written by Ba Jin and Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-23538-4

R-1 Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Kropotkin, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-16157-7

R-2 The Conquest of Bread, by Kropotkin, translated by Ba Jin, edited by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-17173-6

R-3 Ethics, by Kropotkin, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17076-0

R-4 Russian Nihilist History, by Stepniak, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17077-7

R-5 Prison Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Figner, translated by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-17175-0

R-6 State and Anarchy, by Bakunin, translated by Ma Rangcong.

R-7 Russian Revolutionary Pioneers, translated and written by Ba Jin. ISBN: 978-0-557-22345-9

R-8: The Unknown Russian Revolution, by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 9781458304117

S-1 The Anarchist Lesson from the Spanish Civil War, translated and written by Ba Jin and Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-17055-5

W-1 Anarchism: From Practice to Theory, by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-01635-8

W-2 State Forms and Social Order, by Jing Zhao. ISBN: 978-0-557-03086-6

An Anarchist FAQ

Review by Jon Bekken

Iain McKay, An Anarchist FAQ Volume 1 (AK Press, 2008), 555 pages, $25 paper. Volume 2 (AK Press, 2012), 561 pages, $25 paper.

This two-volume compilation includes the great bulk of the material assembled online in the Anarchist FAQ by ASR contributor Iain McKay and other comrades over more than a decade. Established to confront misrepresentations of anarchism that have proliferated particularly in the online universe (allegedly anarchist tendencies exist there that have no apparent manifestation in the material world in which the rest of us live), AFAQ quickly evolved into a much broader overview of anarchism, as a social movement and as a set of ideas.

It is impossible to do justice to the 1,136 pages in these two volumes. Volume 1 opens (after three introductions which explain the origins and evolution of the project) with an overview of anarchism, followed by sections explaining why anarchists oppose hierarchy, capitalism and the state; summarizing the anarchist critique of capitalist economics; reviewing how statism and capitalism operate as an intertwined system of exploitation and oppression; offering an anarchist analysis of the ecological crisis, and refuting the notion that there could be some sort of “anarcho”-capitalism. An appendix reviews the origins of three major anarchist symbols: the black flag, the red-and-black flag and the circled A. Volume 2 opens with a survey of individualist anarchism, which remains implacably hostile to capitalism despite its differences with the social anarchism embraced by most anarchists; followed by an explanation of why anarchists (who McKay rightly insists are part of the broader socialist movement) reject state socialism; an overview of anarchist thinking about the shape of a future, free society; a section addressing contemporary anarchist practice (involvement in social struggles, direct action, organizational approaches, alternative social organizations, child rearing, and social revolution); followed by a brief bibliography.

Each major section is divided into smaller sections and subsections (presented in question form and using an outline numbering system that probably works better online) addressing specific aspects of the topic. The writing and organization are clear, if rarely captivating, and the tone is reasoned and constructive. However, at times, McKay does show his exasperation with the persistent misrepresentations of the Marxists and the “anarcho”-capitalists (who, as he rightly points out, have nothing whatsoever to do with anarchism and receive attention here far out of proportion to their actual significance in the world in large part because of their early adoption of and highly vocal presence on the Internet). Evidently, the ravings of the “anarcho”-primitivists have received less attention online and so they pass unmentioned here. As the book is devoted to political and social thought and action, there is also virtually no attention given to anarchist tendencies in art and literature, or to the post-modern “anarchisms” which dominate so much academic publishing on the subject of late.

McKay and his fellow contributors give serious consideration even to anarchist tendencies with which they clearly disagree. Thus, platformism, syndicalism and synthesis all receive respectful treatment, presenting the arguments proffered for and against. Thus, Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism is presented on its own terms before a short critical assessment (1092-93). (This tolerant policy can extend too far, as with the citations to the notorious police informer Bob Black, who can evidently be excerpted to make it appear as if he has a coherent social analysis, though nothing could be further from the truth.) Here and throughout the two volumes there is heavy reliance on direct quotations. The FAQ draws upon and tends to synthesize a wide array of (primarily anarchist) sources, in keeping with its broader mission of presenting a broad anarchist approach to a general public, rather than exploring differences within the movement or advocating for a particular school of thought. The emphasis is definitely upon the classics of anarchist thought, but McKay and his contributors have read widely and include citations not only to anarchist writers but also to social scientists and historians whose work tends (whether intended to or not) to bolster the anarchist position.

By way of summation, and to give a bit of the flavor of the whole, I will briefly discuss Section I: What would an anarchist society look like? This 168-page section is broken up into subsections on libertarian socialism, a discussion of the balance between the insanity of drafting blueprints for the future and thinking about the sort of society we wish to build, considerations of the structural aspects of an anarchist economy and an anarchist society, consideration of how an anarchist economy might function, a review of the Spanish Revolution as an example of anarchism in practice (if also under severe constraints), and short discussions of the balance between individualism and society and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons.

This is a lot of terrain to cover, but the questions are essential. McKay’s discussion is grounded in the classics, and (correctly) presuppose that anarchism represents a particular strand of socialism, quoting Bakunin:

We are convinced that freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and that socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality. (839)

The text then methodically establishes the necessity of socialism, the practicality of our vision, explains why any lover of freedom must reject markets, and refutes the absurd (but oft-preached) notion that capitalism distributes social resources efficiently. And that’s just the first 30 pages. The section refutes mainstream economists’ critiques of self-management (critiques based not on examining actual practice but rather on mental exercises based on assumptions that nowhere exist), and reviews the long history of self-management in practice.

However, as McKay argues, social ownership of the means of life, and of production, is essential to any meaningful freedom. While anarchists have advocated for different methods for distributing the product of our necessarily social labor, and hence for different systems for organizing the economy, all anarchist visions are necessarily based upon social ownership and free access to  the means of production. McKay explores the ways in which overlapping federations of syndicates and associations (most organized for specific purposes, as anarchists have generally been skeptical of schemes which try to centralize the entire sphere of human life into a single, totalized organization) can cooperate to meet the incredibly varied range of human needs and desires.

Throughout, McKay raises and refutes the objections we have all heard a thousand times, not only theoretically but with extensive examples from real life (something far more congenial to anarchist theory than to the doctrines of either the capitalists or the state socialists). Anarchism, he shows (like Kropotkin and Dolgoff before) offers an eminently practical approach ideally suited to coordinating large, complex societies.

My main objection to this section is the part where McKay suggests (to quote the title) that “anarchists desire to abolish work.” In the actual text, he is more clear, noting that

Work (in the sense of doing necessary things or productive activity) will always be with us. There is no getting away from it; crops need to be grown, schools built, homes fixed, and so on. No, work in this context means any form of labor in which the worker does not control his or her own activity.

But what purpose is served by using commonly understood terms such as “work” in so technical a way? It must necessarily lead to confusion, on the one hand, and on the other enable charlatans such as the aforementioned Bob Black to sneak their obfuscations into the anarchist camp. Far better to speak of wage slavery, or, as Chomsky often does, to authoritarianism in the economic sphere.

Far too much of our labor is of course wasted under present arrangements, and our workplaces are sites of subjugation and misery. In an economy controlled by workers and organized around meeting human needs, we could soon slash the work week to 16 hour or less, reorganize workplaces to make them both safer and more fulfilling, abolish the ruthless division of labor that has some think and others serving as the minions of those who decide, and redirect the entire sphere of production in fundamental ways. This would transform our relation to our work, as well as to the products of our labor. But while we might well take genuine pleasure from joining with our fellow workers to fulfill our needs and our desires, not all work will be pleasurable in and of itself, as is suggested here.

Anarchists have not come to agreement as to how production will be coordinated and social priorities decided upon, and so McKay leaves these questions open (while discussing some of the leading proposals). This is an issue ASR has been exploring in our series on anarchist economics, and which I suspect is at the root of the otherwise inexplicable attraction many feel to the Parecon scheme. Personally, I find Kropotkin’s treatment of these issues more compelling, even if it is a century old. AFAQ does effectively integrate the experience of the Spanish Revolution (also presented in a well-crafted 31-page section that concludes this chapter) into the discussion. But in general, I fear the pluralistic approach embraced in this treatment – while capturing the diversity of the movement – undermines the coherence of the argument, as well as eliding the congruence between our broader social visions and the means we advocate that is one of the unique strengths of the anarcho-syndicalist approach.

In short, McKay and his fellow contributors have made a substantial contribution in creating and maintaining the online introduction to anarchism, and refutation of the endless objections of those who can not conceive of a society free of oppression and exploitation. It will serve as an invaluable reference to those unfamiliar with our ideas and our movement, or to those who have recently embraced anarchism but have yet to explore and reflect upon the tradition. However, its breadth and pluralism are both its greatest strength and its most notable weakness.

Anarchist Economics

compiled by Jon Bekken

A casual observer of the anarchist movement, restricted to contemporary writings, could be forgiven for concluding that anarchists have no conception of economics. Several years ago a serious debate was carried out in the pages of the British anarchist paper Freedom in which it was argued that all wealth comes from agriculture – that the working class is merely a burden that 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 – deprived of tractors, books and other useful items and confronted with millions of starving city dwellers cluttering up perfectly good farmland that could otherwise be growing crops – might take a somewhat different point of view.

On this side of the Atlantic, countless trees have been killed in furtherance of “arguments” for abolishing work, abandoning technology and turning to a barter economy (or, alternately, to local currencies) both as a strategy for escaping (I hesitate to use the word overthrowing) capitalism and as a principle for reorganizing economic life in a free society. Such approaches may have a certain appeal for lifestylists whose aim is more to reduce the extent to which capital impinges on their personal existence (a rather futile enterprise) than to abolish its tyranny over society, but they are simply irrelevant to those of us truly committed to building a free society.

Although anarchists are of necessity interested in the workings of capitalist economies, our attention is focused on the class struggle. 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. And, most importantly, an anarchist economics would address itself to the problems of maintaining economic activity in a revolutionary situation, and to the sort of economic arrangements which might support a free society.

We have been attempting such a study in the columns of our journal for several years. In our Winter 1991 issue (#10), Libertarian Labor Review (now Anarcho-Syndicalist Review) announced the anarchist economics project which continues to this day. As we said then:

Far too many anarchists nowadays have underestimated the importance of economics in their vision of social change, but this was not always the case. The classical anarchists, who always considered themselves part of the socialist movement, recognized the new economic arrangements created by the social revolution would determine its success or failure. Thus they were forced to create an economic “science,” which although sometimes in agreement with capitalist or marxist economics on various points, must diverge from them to the same extent that it differed in its goals. The notion of a political anarchist who was an economic marxist or economic capitalist – a notion one runs across all too often today – would have struck the original anarchist thinkers as an absurd impossibility. It is our hope that this series will help to show why this is so, as well as to help bring anarchist economics up to date with current developments.So far we expect the series to include discussions of the contributions made by Proudhon, Bakunin and the First International Workers Association, Kropotkin, the Spanish Anarchists and their practical experiences in the Spanish Revolution, as well as those of less-well-known anarchists. We also hope to add to this critiques of Marxist economics and modern capitalist economists such as Keynes and his neo-classical critics. Finally we will look at contributions made by modern economists such as E.F. Schumacher and the appropriate technologists, whose views have converged with those of the anarchist movement in several ways.
Due to the scope of the projected series, we are hoping to get contributions of articles and letters from outside our small collective. We extend an open invitation to all in our movement who are interested in taking part in this series along the lines we have mentioned to get in touch with us…

To date we have published articles on the economic theories advanced by Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin; a translation of a major article by Abraham Guillen; a critique of Marxism; an analysis of the Mondragon cooperatives; and several articles on contemporary economic issues. Our plans for the future include critiques of neo-Marxist and Keynesian economics, and a series of articles building on the anarchist economic tradition to suggest ways in which we might organize production, distribution and consumption in a free society.

Economics is fundamentally the study of how to organize production and consumption to meet human needs most efficiently and satisfactorily. As such, it is inextricably bound up with questions of human values – with our sense of who we are, how we wish to relate to our fellow human beings and to our planet, and how we wish to live our lives. Bourgeois economists have made the mistake of confusing their (fundamentally anti-human) values with economic laws, asserting against all evidence the necessity and efficiency of mechanisms such as markets, wages and (in an earlier day) chattel slavery. Marx similarly seized on bourgeois economists’ claims that the price of commodities is determined by the amount of labor socially necessary to their production for his Labor Theory of Value, a quasi-religious doctrine which cannot hold up to the slightest empirical scrutiny. Wage levels, like the price of all commodities, are set not by their cost of production or the amount of labor they require (though there are of course material constraints; few workers will be paid more than the revenues they make possible or less than it takes to feed them), but by the relative economic, military and social power held by the respective parties. Kropotkin’s research demonstrated that shortages, economic crises and general distress are endemic to capitalism, but are wholly unnecessary. The means to meet all of society’s needs were already at hand a century ago, but instead of doing so capitalism creates a perverse set of incentives encouraging chronic underproduction and deprivation.

Kropotkin argued for restructuring production to decentralize agriculture and industry, arguing that economies of scale and specialization are largely illusory. At the same time, he rejected the notion that it was possible to reduce labor to the individual – to isolate any one worker’s contribution to social production. The simple act of manufacturing a shirt necessitates thousands of workers, from the farmers who grow the cotton (or the chemists who fabricate the nylon), to the makers of the sewing machines (and of the raw materials from which they are manufactured), to the sewing machine operators, to those maintaining the vast economic infrastructure (energy, roads, water, etc.) necessary to production. All production is social. We enrich each other – not only spiritually, but materially as well – as we work, think and play together; and without the efforts of society as a whole no one prospers.

Anarchist economics should begin not from the standpoint of production, but rather from the standpoint of consumption – of human needs. Needs should govern production; the purpose of anarchist economics is not so much to understand the workings of the capitalist economy but rather to study human needs and determine how they might be best satisfied. Every kind of human activity should begin from what is local and immediate, and should link in a cooperative network with no center and no directing agency (federation). Nor is it enough merely to meet people’s material needs – we must also have the means to pursue our artistic, intellectual and aesthetic interests. These are not luxuries, but necessities.

It seems to me that any anarchist economics must begin from certain basic premises:

    • No Markets: Everyone above all has the right to live, and so a free society must share the means of existence among all, without exception. All goods and services should be provided free of charge to all. Those available in abundance should be available without limit, those in short supply should be rationed on the basis of need.
    • No Wages: The notion that people will not work without compulsion is provably false. Far from shirking work when they do not receive a wage, when people work cooperatively for the good of all they achieve feats of productivity never realizable through coercion. Efforts to arrive at “just wages” are necessarily artificial and arbitrary. Labor vouchers, consumption credits and similar schemes are nothing more than attempts to maintain the reality of the wage system while changing its name.
    • What Work and Why? Despite dramatic increases in productivity over the last century, we work as many (and often more) hours as ever, while millions of our fellow workers languish without the means to support themselves. Enormous effort is squandered tracking the flow of money, encouraging people to consume, and making products designed to wear out quickly. Meanwhile, vitally important social needs go unmet. Many jobs can be eliminated, but other jobs (for example, cleaning up the environment or building a viable public transport system to replace our current auto-intensive one) will be created. Some effort will have to go to material assistance to our fellow workers in other parts of the globe to develop economies capable of sustaining themselves and the planet (this is a matter not only of human solidarity, but also of our own self-interest). Nonetheless, there is no reason why we cannot dramatically reduce the number of hours we spend at work, while simultaneously making that time less alienating and better meeting human needs.
    • Self-Management: Under current conditions, too many workers spend long hours doing boring work under unhealthy conditions, while others have no work at all or do work that serves no socially useful purpose. Over-specialization, repetitive drudgery and the separation of manual and mental labor must be replaced with self-managed, cooperative labor.

Self-management necessarily implies federalist economic arrangements. Where “libertarian Marxists” such as Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel suggest a centralized economic planning bureaucracy (albeit under some form of democratic oversight) which would inevitably lead to a dictatorship of the “facilitator” class, an anarchist economics would clearly devolve most decisions to the local level and rely on free agreements to handle coordination. (Of course, difficult issues of how to balance, for example, ecological concerns with production and consumption needs would remain, and some method would have to be developed for addressing them in a way that simultaneously upholds the rights of those most directly impacted by the decisions and the broader social issues at stake.)

Expropriation, direct action, federalism and self-management are the means for making the social revolution and reconstructing society. Ultimately, only the free distribution of necessities, in all their variety, on the basis not of position or productivity, but of need, is compatible with a free society.

As Kropotkin noted a century ago, production and exchange are so complicated that no government would be capable of organizing production unless the workers themselves took charge, “for in all production there arises daily thousands of difficulties that no government can hope to foresee … only the efforts of thousands of intelligences working on problems can cooperate in the development of the new social system and find solutions for the thousands of local problems.” (quoted in Dolgoff, Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society)

The society we hope to build must necessarily be built on the basis of what presently exists – seizing the existing industries and goods to meet immediate needs, and as the building blocks from which we will construct a free society. To think otherwise is to build castles in the air. As Sam Dolgoff notes, “Anarchy or no anarchy, the people must eat and be provided with the other necessities of life. The cities must be provisioned and vital services cannot be disrupted. Even if poorly served, the people in their own interests would not allow us or anyone else to disrupt these services unless and until they are reorganized in a better way…” So we need to think about how we would manage the transition from what is to what we want (it seems to me that revolutionary unions offer the best prospects). While it is not possible to spell out in every detail how a free society might operate, it is important to think about its general outlines in advance, so that we might build with a vision of where we are trying to go.

Published to Date in our Anarchist Economics Series:

Jeff Stein, “Proudhon’s Economic Legacy,” LLR 10 (Winter 1991), pp. 8-13.

Jon Bekken, “Capitalism is Criminal,” LLR 10 (Winter 1991), pp. 14-19.

Jon Beken, “Kropotkin’s Anarchist Critique of Capitalism,” LLR 11 (Summer 1991), pp. 19-24.

Etcetera, “Dispersed Fordism and the New Organization of Labor,” LLR 12 (Winter 1992), pp. 16-18. Translated by Mike Hargis.

Jon Bekken, “Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchist Communism,” LLR 12 (Winter 1992), pp. 19-24.

Jeff Stein, Revew: “Looking Forward,” LLR 12 (Winter 1992), pp. 25-28.

Jon Bekken, “North American Free Trade,” LLR 13 (Summer 1992), pp. 18-19.

Jeff Stein, “The Collectivist Tradition,” LLR 13 (Summer 1992), pp. 24-29.

Jeff Stein, Review: “Market Anarchism? Caveat Emptor,” LLR 13 (Summer 1992), pp. 33-34.

Michael Bakunin, “The Capitalist System,” Champaign: Libertarian Labor Review, 1993, 15 pp. Translated by G.P. Maximoff and Jeff Stein.

Abraham Guillen, “Principles of Libertarian Economics,” in three parts: LLR 14 (Winter 1993), pp. 20-25; LLR 15 (Summer 1993), pp. 24-30; LLR 16 (Winter 1994), pp. 18-23. Translated and with an afterword by Jeff Stein.

Mike Hargis, “The Myth of the Vanishing Working Class,” LLR 16 (Winter 1994), pp. 2-3.

Jon Bekken, “The American Health Care Crisis: Capitalism,” LLR 16 (Winter 1994), pp. 10-14.

Harald Beyer-Arnesen, “From Production-Links to Human Relations,” LLR 17 (Summer 1994), pp. 13-14.

Jeff Stein, “Marxism: The Negation of Communism,” LLR 17 (Summer 1994), pp. 20-26.

Noam Chomsky, “The “New’ Corporate World Economic Order,” LLR 18 (Spring 1995), pp. 6-11.

Mike Long, “The Mondragon Co-operative Federation: A Model for Our Times?” LLR 19 (Winter 1996), pp. 19-36. With a commentary by Mike Hargis.

Jon Bekken, “The Limits of “Self’-Management Under Capitalism,” LLR 21 (Winter 1997), pp. 29-33.

Rene Berthier, “Crisis of Work, or Crisis of Capital?” LLR 23 (Summer 1998), pp. 19-24. Translated by Mike Hargis.

Jeff Stein, “The Tragedy of the Markets,” LLR 23 (Summer 1998), pp. 30-37.

Jeff Stein, “Scamming the Welfare State,” LLR 24 (Winter 1998-99), pp. 14-18.

Jeff Stein, “Freedom and Industry: The Syndicalism of Christian Cornelissen,” ASR 28 (Spring 2000), pp. 13-19.

Jon Bekken, Review: “Campaigning for a Living Wage,” ASR 28 (Spring 2000), p. 31.

Brian Oliver Sheppard, “Anarchism vs. Right-Wing ‘Anti-Statism,'” ASR 31 (Spring 2001), pp. 23-25.

Jeff Stein, Review: “The Irrational in Capitalism,” ASR 31 (Spring 2001), pp. 26-27.

Brian Oliver Sheppard, “Anarcho-Syndicalist Answer to Corporate Globalization,” ASR 33 (Winter 2001/02), pp. 11-15.

Jeff Stein, Review: “After Capitalism,” ASR 37 (Spring 2003), pp. 33-34.

Jon Bekken, Review Essay: “Work Without End, or Time to Live?” ASR 38 (Winter 2003/04), pp. 23-29.

Also of Relevance:

Frank Adams, “Worker Ownership: Anarchism in Action?” LLR 5 (Summer 1988), pp. 24-26.

Jon Bekken, Review Essay: “In the Shell of the Old?” LLR 5 (Summer 1988), pp. 36-39.

Sam Dolgoff, editor, The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Sam Dolgoff, “The Role of Marxism in the International Labor Movement,” LLR 5 (Summer 1988), pp. 27-35.

Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1989.

Peter Kropotkin, Fields Factories and Workshops . New Brunswick: Transaction. A condensed and annotated edition edited by Colin Ward is also available from Freedom Press under the title Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow.

Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread . New York: New York University Press.

Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution . London: Freedom Press.

Mike Long, “A Tale of Two Strikes: Education Workers in Hawai’i,” ASR 33 (Winter 2001/02), pp. 19-30.

Mike Long, Review Essay: “Mondragon and Other Co-ops: For & Against,” ASR 29 (Summer 2000), pp. 15-28.

G.P. Maximoff, Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism. (extract from his Constructive Anarchism, published in English in 1952; this section is not included in the only edition of the work now in print.) Sydney: Monty Miller Press, 1985

Pierre Proudhon, What Is Property? (B. Tucker, translator). New York: Dover.

Pierre Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (J. Robinson, translator). London: Pluto Press.

Graham Purchase, “After the Revolution” (Review of D.A. Santillan’s After The Revolution: Economic Reconstruction in Spain Today), LLR 20 (Summer 1996), pp. 38-39.

Jeff Stein, “The Tragedy of the Markets” (Review), LLR 23 (Summer 1998)

Jeff Stein, “Freedom and Industry: The Syndicalism of Christian Cornelissen,” ASR 28 (Winter 2000)

Jon Bekken, “Capitalism and its Economics” (Review) ASR 31 (Spring 2001)

Jon Bekken, “Work without end, or time to live? Fighting over time” (Review Essay), ASR 38 (Winter 2003-04)

Jon Bekken, “The Impossibility of Just Prices” (Review), ASR 41 (Summer 2005)

Iain McKay, “Would cutting wages really reduce unemployment?” ASR 50 (Winter 20

Iain McKay, “On Paul Krugman’s Nobel prize in economics: Class, power & “free” markets,” ASR 51 (Winter 2009)

Iain McKay, “The economics of anarchy,” ASR 53 (Winter 2010)
Iain McKay, “Reforming health care,” ASR 53 (Winter 2010)

Jon Bekken, “The Economics of Freedom,” ASR 54 (Summer 2010)

Iain McKay, “Radical Economics & Labor” (Review), ASR 57 (Winter 2012)

Iain McKay, “Pay Inequality: Where it comes from and what to do about it,” ASR 58 (Summer 2012)

Eric Chester, “The Crisis of Capitalism,” ASR 59 (Winter 2013)

Wayne Price, “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 21-24.
Iain McKay, “Anarchist Economics,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 25-28.
Brian Martin, “Prosperity Through Self-Management,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 39-43.
Jeff Stein, “The Irrational in Economics  (Review), ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 44-47.

Jon Bekken, “(barely) Staying Alive: The US Economy Since the ’70s (50 Years of Economic Crisis),” ASR 64/5 (Summer 2015), pp. 13-16.
Brian Martin, “From Capitalism To Commons,” ASR 64/5 (Summer 2015),  pp. 17-20.

Iain McKay, “Poor Adam Smith,” ASR 66 (Winter 2016),  pp. 21-22.
Iain McKay, “Proudhon, Property & Possession,” ASR 66 (Winter 2016), pp. 23-25.
Jeff Stein, “The Realities of Self-Management” (Review), ASR 66 (Winter 2016), pp. 32-34.

Thoughts on the 2012 Presidential Elect-Chains

We anarchists don’t have a lot of use for elections. We know that the decisions that most affect our lives as workers are made by the employing class and that politicians are just there to give the illusion of representation as they carry out the bosses’ class program. Still, elections can tell us something about the terrain upon which we are currently deployed.
The re-election of Barack Obama tells us, for example, that a majority of those voting prefer a government that “provides for the general welfare,” as the U.S. Constitution puts it, rather than just the welfare of the rich. That the voters will be sorely disappointed when the lame-duck Obama administration seeks to make a “grand bargain” with Republicans that cuts beloved “entitlements” over the next few years doesn’t change the fact that the people voted to defend those programs. The AFL-CIO mobilized its staff and ranks to get out the vote for Obama, even though he did nothing over the past four years to earn labor’s support, and they’ve vowed to bring street heat to prevent the inevitable sell-out. We’ll see.
Americans rejected the notion that Wall Street knows best.  Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, tried to convince voters that his experience at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, would make him capable of jump-starting the ailing American economy. During the election campaign, including the Republican primaries, it was revealed that Bain Capital and Mitt Romney had no record of reviving American industry.  Instead Bain Capital was known for leveraged buy-outs of older marginally profitable companies and then loading them with debt from high pay-outs to investors, big pay increases to Bain corporate executives, and borrowed funds.  When the leveraged companies were unable to pay these debts created by Bain, the companies were taken into bankruptcy and the assets sold off, leaving the workers unemployed and retirees without their full pensions. Instead of a “job creator,” Romney was a “vulture capitalist.” Obama did not offer an alternative to vulture capitalism, but was able to raise considerable skepticism about Romney’s vision of letting Wall Street guide the economic recovery.
Another lesson from the election is that the days of white supremacy (or at least its cultural manifestation) in the U.S. are numbered – and this is driving the racists to distraction. On Fox Snooze, pundit Bill O’Reilly claimed that Obama won re-election because we are no longer living in a “traditional America” and that the non-traditional Americans just “want stuff,” presumably for free (and what’s wrong with that, might we ask?). It is well known that by 2050 the pale-faces will be only half the population, the rest will be people of color (or mud people, if you’re a tea-bagger). Obama won the votes of over 70% of Latino voters, over 70% of Asians, over 90% of African-Americans, over 60% of youth and over 55% of women – all the constituencies that don’t watch Fox Snooze.
The writing is on the wall, and “traditional America” doesn’t like what it’s telling them. Following the election the racists began venting on Twitter and Facebook; the buffoon Donald Trump called the elections a farce and called for a revolution; and thousands of people in the states that went for Romney have signed petitions asking for permission to secede from the United States.
Of course, these people are delusional.
We know that Obama is not a socialist, or even a progressive. He’s actually a Richard Nixon Republican.
Rich people have done just fine during his administration. Profits are way up. The auto bailout was accompanied by deep concessions granted by the auto workers union (just like in 1979). The Obama education “reform” program sees teachers unions as a road-block to be smashed and the wages of federal workers have been frozen for the past two years. Efforts to stem climate change have given way to “energy independence.” Unemployment among Black folk is still double that of Whites and unemployment overall is double-digit; the prison-industrial complex continues to incarcerate over 2,000,000 people, a majority of whom are people of color, and militarism has never been more rampant: the war in Afghanistan is slated to go on for another two years despite the fact that the number of so-called insider attacks on NATO forces is increasing; the drone-assassination program continues to kill suspected “terrorists” and anybody who happens to be in the neighborhood; and the love of all things military is paraded in public at all times. Tune in to any sporting event.
Really, the only thing that Bill O’Reilly and company have to complain about is that the captain of the ship of state does not look like them (oh, and that they might actually be asked to pay a little extra for the privilege of the protection of their state).
We anarcho-syndicalists have a tough row to hoe. With people so invested in protecting the crumbs from the bosses’ plate how to convince them that they can provide for the well-being of all by taking control of the means of life? Will the inevitable disappointment in a second Obama term result in greater cynicism among the people or open them up to a radical critique of the system? Big Labor has promised to keep Obama’s feet to the fire. If history is any indicator, what this means is a few demonstrations targeting Republican legislators and further support for Democrats in 2014. Will there be openings for revolutionaries to intervene in these mobilizations to point to a different path? One thing is for certain – there will be more class battles in the near future as the crisis continues and further attempts are made to make the workers pay. An added dimension, the racist right will undoubtedly engage in more violent direct action against people of color and anti-racists will have to actively defend against this unless we want the people to have to depend on the state for protection, thus increasing the state’s power.
In any event the re-election of Barack Obama to the presidency is not going to end the “war on terror,” reduce unemployment, secure women’s reproductive rights, save Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, start to address global climate change or do any of the other nice things Obama supporters voted for. Autonomous working class organization and direct action are still the only way to stay the hand of capital and bend the state to the people’s will.

The Crisis of Capitalism

By Eric Chester, ASR 59

The global economy is mired in the worst crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and yet capitalism has always been characterized by instability and insecurity. An economic system that operates without an overall plan, and in which powerful economic forces act on the basis of maximizing short-run profits, is a system that is inherently unstable. Marx predicted a collapse of capitalism leading to a revolutionary upsurge as early as the 1850s.1 This would appear to be a prediction that has been contradicted by the course of history, but in fact the global economy has been plunged into one crisis after another.
The unpleasant reality we confront today is that although capitalism is constantly changing, the impact of these changes is, on balance, overwhelmingly destructive. Indeed, as capitalism grows and expands, it destroys everything in its path. As the system unravels, more and more workers become permanently displaced from the workforce; income and wealth differentials widen within the already industrialized societies, as an increasing number of countries are added to the list of “failed” nations; and ecological catastrophe threatens the continued existence of the planet as we know it. We are at a crossroads. Either the working class acts as a class and wrests power from the capitalist class, or the system will disintegrate into a catastrophic freefall.
The Business Cycle
Capitalism has always been marked by short-run business cycles in which times of prosperity are followed by harsh times. To some extent, these short-run cycles are self-regulating. Unplanned growth leads to overproduction in certain sectors and investors pull back. Bankruptcies ripple through the economy, allowing venture capitalists to purchase existing assets at bargain prices. Lower prices, and, more importantly, even lower wages, create opportunities for new investment, and the cycle begins again.
Capitalism has also experienced several severe downturns when its continued existence was called into question. Frequently, an economic boom is accompanied by a period of frenzied speculation. When the bubble bursts and speculators go bankrupt, the crisis spreads rapidly through the entire economy, with banks and financial institutions the hardest hit. Investment banks play a vital role in directing investment into new sectors, the dynamic growth sectors. Once confidence in the financial sector has been lost investment spirals downward and the entire economic system confronts a total collapse.
Although a decline in the price of capital goods might help to overcome the down phase of the usual short-run business cycle, the opposite is the case when bankruptcies occur as the result of a sustained and precipitous slump, such as the current one. Firms coming out of administration initiate massive layoffs as venture capitalists squeeze a greatly reduced workforce in a desperate search for profits. In the end, the spiral of bankruptcies that ensues in the course of an economic crisis only reinforces the pervasive collapse in investor confidence, thus making it even more difficult to spur the economy back into sustained growth.
Bailouts and Total War
When the system reaches the point of catastrophic collapse at the onset of a crisis of confidence, the most powerful capitalist interests usually intervene, often in conjunction with the state, bailing out the banks in order to avert a disastrous crash. This happened in the fall of 2008 and into the spring of 2009, with the support of both Presidents Bush and Obama. Confronted with the imminent possibility of a precipitous fall in output, and in stock market prices, the rich and powerful abandoned their distaste for planning and government intervention and agreed to a massive rescue of bankrupt financial institutions, as well as the auto industry. The recent bailout is not the only time that such a crisis intervention has occurred during a financial panic.
An imminent economic collapse is not the only moment of crisis when the government can rapidly assert a dominant role in the economy. The planned mobilization of a nation’s resources when fighting a total war is the other circumstance. During both world wars, the governments of the combatant nations commanded vast resources, becoming the predominant factor in the economy. In some cases, key industries were nationalized, and the rudiments of a national economic plan were put into practice. Segments of the Left, especially mainstream social democrats, viewed these developments as significant steps toward a socialist economy. The move toward a more planned economy was cited as a further proof that a socialist transformation was inevitable. Furthermore, it was argued, the inefficiencies of an unplanned economy were so glaring that even segments of the capitalist class understood the need for a regulated economy, with a substantial public sector that included key industries.
These arguments were advanced by some influential socialists in the United States during World War I, only to quickly be proven totally mistaken. Once the war ended, there was a concerted corporate onslaught designed to ensure that the capitalist class regained its hegemonic control of the economy. The entire network of railroads had been taken over by the federal government during the war, but the railroads were returned to their owners soon after the war came to an end. Public sector spending was sharply curtailed, and any hint of government planning was abandoned. After World War II, the anti-Communist hysteria provided a convenient rationale for dismantling wartime planning, along with the social reforms of the New Deal.
The dire threats arising from a total war provide a temporary crisis situation in which the government displaces the capitalist class as the prime factor in determining investment. In a very different context, a pending economic collapse has the same effect. In both cases, the role of the state as the determining factor in the economy has proven to be a temporary phenomenon. As the crisis passes, the pendulum soon swings back, and the government is forced to retreat.
The Limits of Deficit Financing
The capitalist economy is not self-regulating. Furthermore, emergency bailouts of bankrupt banks and corporations can prevent a rapid and total collapse, but they don’t resolve the crisis, which continues as economic stagnation threatens to deepen into a downward freefall.
Keynesian economists recognize this and argue for active government intervention as an effective means of stabilizing the system. In “normal” times, Keynesian economics can act to provide a certain balance, smoothing out the cycle. Higher interest rates can check the tendency to high inflation rates during the boom years. Deficit financing can enable the government to stimulate output and employment during the downturn. Only a few years ago, many mainstream economists were convinced that counter-cyclical government intervention assured the continued stability of the system. The current crisis has proven that this forecast was nothing more than an ideological rationale for the capitalist system.
In fact, once an immediate crisis situation has been passed, the traditional resistance to government intervention, and, indeed, to any kind of broader plan, reasserts itself. This resistance represents more than an adherence to the ideology of “free markets.” Indeed, the powerful corporate interests that backed the bailout did so in pragmatic disregard for “free market” dogma. One of the essential mechanisms of control held by the capitalist class is its ability to determine how much of its savings it will invest, and in which industries it will invest. To permit the government to become the primary channel for the flow of investment funds is to strip capitalists of a key component of the economic power they control as the ruling class.
It is easy for the wealthy to bring pressure on the government because a rapidly growing debt will lead bondholders to become more fearful of a default. With an increasing public debt to government budget ratio, or public debt to output ratio, interest on the debt starts rising as a proportion of total spending. This can not continue indefinitely since some types of expenditures are viewed as critically important, and thus are extremely difficult to cut. Thus, aside from upholding the interests of the capitalists as the ruling class, bondholders have real concerns that the state will default on interest payments as debt ratios increase. Deficit financing by its nature can only act as a short-term means of stimulating the economy.
Keynesian Economics and the 1930s
These underlying factors produce the curious paradox that Keynesian policies only work in “normal” times to smooth the short-run fluctuations of the business cycle, and not in a time of crisis when the system is threatened with collapse. Yet Keynes developed his General Theory in the 1930s with the express purpose of countering the Great Depression. He was convinced that his policies would enable the industrialized countries to overcome the Great Depression, and to avoid further slides into mass unemployment. Both predictions have proven to be false. Once the “animal spirits”2 of investors have totally soured, as the wealthy few lose confidence in the growth potential of the economy, deficit spending will not succeed in moving the economy back on track.
The experience of the United States in the 1930s provides an interesting case to examine. President Franklin Roosevelt was surrounded by advisers who viewed themselves as social reformers, and who were open to Keynesian economics. The federal government deliberately expanded its expenditures on social services, through deficit financing, with the explicit intention of stimulating economic growth and returning the country to prosperity. These policies were followed from the time FDR was inaugurated in March 1933 until June 1937.
When Roosevelt became president in March 1933, the United States had already experienced four years of economic collapse, during which President Hoover had done virtually nothing to counter the crash. Estimates of unemployment indicate that one out of four workers could not find a job, and millions wandered the country looking to survive.3  This was a catastrophic disaster, one requiring drastic measures.
Roosevelt had no overriding strategy, but he was prepared to take immediate action to counter the crisis. Legislation creating the Civilian Conservation Corps was rapidly enacted by Congress, creating jobs for hundreds of thousands to create nature trails and buildings in national parks, as well as building and repairing basic infrastructure. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration was launched, pump-priming the economy on a large scale with a wide variety of projects that employed a total of eight million workers over the eight years of its existence.4
New Deal programs were funded through deficit financing. Historians have estimated that the unemployment rate fell from 24% in 1933 to 14% in 1937. This was an improvement, but hardly an impressive one. The United States was still bogged down in an economic depression, with millions of workers confronting long periods of unemployment, with little hope for the future.
In early 1937, President Roosevelt’s administration came under heavy attack from corporate interests. The national debt had been rapidly rising, and bondholders were becoming skittish. Furthermore, CIO unions had organized militant strikes and occupations in the automobile industry, as well as other key industries. A spike in unemployment might dampen the militancy of an aroused rank and file.
Roosevelt had always viewed deficit financing as a temporary measure, a brief exception to the norm of a balanced budget. In June 1937, he proposed a drastic cut of three billion dollars in the funding of New Deal programs, with the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps absorbing most of the cuts.5
The result was a profound shock to the system, with the downturn even more precipitous than that of 1929, at the start of the Great Depression. In the ten months following June 1937, total output fell by 12%, while industrial output dropped by one-third. Estimates of the unemployment rate indicate a jump from 14% in 1937 to 19% in 1938, with 10.4 million workers out of work.6
Roosevelt’s advisors pleaded with him to restore the cuts, but he refused until the spring of 1938, when funding was partially restored. A further collapse was averted, but the economy continued to sputter until the fall of 1939, when military production began to escalate as the European countries prepared for World War II.7
Keynesian policies did not succeed in overcoming the economic crisis of the 1930s, although the technical analysis underlining the policy recommendations was shown to be true. Government spending when not counterbalanced by taxes on the working class has a significant multiplier effect on output, income and employment. Nevertheless, Keynes did not take into account the overall context. First, unlike wartime, countering an economic downturn does not provide the government, even a very popular one such as that of FDR’s New Deal, with sufficient momentum to engage in the level of deficit spending required to counter the collapse in private investment. As a result, the economy remains stuck in the doldrums, although no longer at the trough of the cycle.
Second, Keynes’s analysis views pump priming as a temporary fix. The government gives the system a boost and then the economy returns to its previous course. In fact, during a severe downturn investor confidence does not respond to deficit financing. Once the government moves toward a balanced budget, usually by reducing spending on social services, output falls, moving back to the level where it was prior to the government intervention. The underlying problem, the refusal by the wealthy few to invest, has not been resolved.
The only way deficit financing could work in the midst of a severe economic downturn is if it were to be made a permanent feature of the economy, but this can never happen. Deficit financing can only be a temporary measure because the state is taking over an essential task in a capitalist economy, one reserved to the capitalist class. It follows that the rich and powerful will use all of their power to ensure that deficits are cut and they again become the driving force in the economy, determining the flow and direction of investment.
The experience of the United States in the 1930s provides an archetypical model. In spite of New Deal pump-priming, the Great Depression only came to an end with the start of World War II. Such a solution to the current economic crisis is no longer possible. Capitalism is a dynamic system in which certain innovations are fostered. The producers of armaments are always seeking deadlier weapons that require fewer soldiers to deploy them. Thus, a future total war would be over quickly and would leave the planet a radioactive wasteland. Smaller, localized wars of occupation do not necessitate a huge output of military weapons and do not involve enormous armies. Indeed, the United States was fighting two localized wars in 2008 and yet still experienced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In the current context, the military can not provide the sustained demand needed to lift a country out of the mire of economic stagnation.
The Myth of Neo-Liberalism
In analyzing the failure of Keynesian economics to resolve the tendency of the capitalist economy to veer into an economic collapse, the emphasis has been on the underlying economics and class relations, and not on ideological dogma. The current “common wisdom” of the Left ascribes the defeat of Keynesian economics to the ascendancy of neo-liberal ideologues. This is a highly dubious explanation.
There is nothing new about the theory that the capitalist system is self-regulating, and that any government intervention can only make the situation worse by upsetting the automatic correcting mechanisms built into a market economy. Similar ideas were formulated by the Austrian school of economists in the late nineteenth century in response to the rise of a working class movement influenced by Marxism.
There is no doubt that this perspective has more traction now than even a few decades ago, but this is hardly because of its cogency or insights. The globalization of production has provided the objective basis for the rise of neo-liberalism. Corporations have outsourced their factories and mills to low-wage countries, thus destroying unions in the private sector. Unions provided the essential base of support for social democratic parties that legislated the welfare state in Western Europe, and for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party as well.
As transnational corporations create a global workforce, corporate bosses see no need to pay wages and benefits to workers in the previously industrialized countries that are higher than those paid to low-wage workers in Bangladesh, China or India. This drive to reduce wages is not a matter of ideology, but rather the pragmatic imperative of the bottom line. Globalization has substantially shifted the balance of class forces. The rightward tilt in the ideological debate reflects a more fundamental shift in the underlying balance of class forces.
This is not to deny that the rise of neo-liberal ideologues marks a meaningful change in the political terrain. In particular, in the United States, which has a long history of elections dominated by two corporate parties controlled by opportunistic politicians whose political perspective does not extend beyond a commitment to upholding the power of the capitalist class. The Tea Party has a program and an ideology that goes well beyond this, calling for the total dismantling of the welfare state reforms instituted during the New Deal. Its rapid rise in visibility has made a significant impact on the Republican Party, which has begun to present a distinct alternative to the pragmatic centrism of the Democrats.
As socialists, we can recognize that there are genuine differences between the pragmatic Obama Democrats and the Tea Party neo-liberal ideologues. Nevertheless, both approaches remain well within the constraints of mainstream capitalist politics. When leftists target neo-liberalism as the primary problem, they underscore their failure to understand the essential dynamic of the current crisis in their desire to exaggerate the differences between neo-liberals and their pragmatic opponents. This position is often followed by a call for a coalition of the broad Left against the rabid, dogmatic Right, as those on the Left subordinate their radical politics to defeat the perceived threat of a neo-liberal victory.
Global capitalism, not neo-liberalism, is the primary problem, and a rapid transition to a socialist society provides the only possible answer.
Capitalism has always had an inherent tendency to expand. Of course, the drive to conquer others precedes the rise of the capitalist system, as imperial rulers have always fought to expand their domain. In the past, this would involve looting and pillaging. The empires that have arisen in modern times have certainly looted and pillaged, but this has been a secondary aspect of their rule.
Historically, a capitalist power has sought to create a distinctive link between the imperial center and the subject countries on its periphery. The British empire of the nineteenth century is the classic example. Industrial production was concentrated in the center, England and Scotland, while industry in the periphery was actively discouraged. The headquarters and coordinating functions of the finance sector were also centrally located in London. Conquered countries were limited to one primary economic role, providing cheap raw materials for the industries of the imperial power. This could entail the exploitation of scarce natural resources, with no regard for the environment, or the extreme exploitation of unskilled labor through the use of force.
In this context, the working class of the imperial power had a vested interest in maintaining the empire. Indeed, a century ago the more far-sighted strategists of the British Empire understood the utility of ensuring the loyalty of the British working class by providing limited social benefits and establishing a minimum wage. In the past, there had been a unique and defined set of economic relationships between the imperial power and its dependent colonies.
The outsourcing of industry and mining to the developing countries has devastated the traditional working class in the developed capitalist countries. Unions in the private sector have been virtually wiped out, and public sector unions have come under intensive attack. As a result, inequalities in income and wealth have significantly widened, thereby increasing the volatility of the system as well as its tendency to become mired in prolonged slumps. Globalization also increases the volatility of the system because it greatly restricts the ability of governments to regulate the economy, and to redistribute income through taxes. The interconnectedness of the global economy also increases the likelihood that a crisis triggered in one country will spread quickly throughout the globe.
Globalization makes the system more volatile, but it only accentuates the fundamental underlying problems. Indeed, the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred decades before corporations began shifting industrial production overseas. Still, globalization adds to the instability of the system, while making it more difficult to pull the economy out of a prolonged downturn.
The Keynesian policy of deficit financing as a method of stimulating the economy constitutes one of an array of government programs designed to stabilize the system. Many on the Left are convinced that the deregulation of markets, as driven by the neo-liberals, provides the primary reason for the current global downturn. In their view, future disasters can only be avoided by strict regulation of the economy, especially the financial sector.
At the turn of the twentieth century, progressives pushed for government action to break up the trusts. They called for anti-trust legislation, hoping that the market economy would return to a mythical golden age when small firms, acting independently of each other, operated within competitive markets. This project proved to be a total failure, as large corporations discovered ingenious ways to evade anti-trust legislation in order to create ever more gigantic entities, and to act in collusion with other powerful firms in their market. Capitalist economies have always been dominated by a few large corporations that manipulate prices and outputs so as to maximize profits. These days, corporations span the globe, crossing national borders with ease.
During the New Deal, the focus of reform shifted from anti-trust legislation to the financial sector. The current crisis has led progressives, once again, to argue that strict regulation of the financial sector will be a critical element in a program that will allow the economy to overcome the current slump and prevent another one from occurring. In fact, such a policy is bound to fail.
To start with, a speculative frenzy only occurs when investors are confident of the future and are willing to take risks. The current situation is characterized by investor pessimism, and a reluctance to undertake risky projects. Indeed, investor confidence appears to be heading downward, with no imminent sign of any upswing. The current problem confronting capitalism is not how to curb an unbridled speculative frenzy. Quite the contrary, investors are following an extremely cautious path.
Even if the current crisis were to be overcome, it will be very difficult for any government to enforce strict regulations on the financial sector that inhibit speculative investments. The only time the economy can prosper is when investors are prepared to undertake investments in new sectors where, by definition, the future is unclear and the risks are high. Obviously, there are no gains to society from the kind of scam investments that brought the housing market to a standstill. Still, it is difficult to discern in the midst of a boom what are risky but still potentially worthwhile investments and what are elaborate frauds.
Furthermore, even the most skillful regulation does not touch the underlying problem. Capitalism generates more savings than can be matched by profitable investments. Globalization has further exacerbated this underlying problem by widening the gap between rich and poor. Regulating the financial sector will not add to effective demand, and, indeed, may well reduce it by dampening investment.
There is also little reason to believe that regulation of the financial sector will prove to be effective. Globalization has integrated the world’s financial markets, making it easy to shift funds from country to country. Financial institutions need no longer remain in New York or London, but rather can be relocated to any place that is connected to the internet. Restrictive legislation in the United States and Britain will just speed the rate at which financial institutions move offshore.
Finally, the impetus to enforce strict regulation dissipates as the crisis that spurred these actions fades in memory. As time goes on, enforcement becomes increasingly lax and banks, and financial institutions become more adept in evading the rules. Corporations use their enormous power to press the case for regulatory “reform,” insisting on the need for freeing financial institutions from “unnecessary” restrictive red tape.
This trajectory can be traced in the United States from the 1930s to the recent debacle. During the first days of the New Deal, the Glass-Steagall Banking Bill was passed with the goal of stabilizing the financial sector, in part by making it harder for banks to invest in high-risk loans. One aspect of this was the creation of a tight barrier between retail banks, those taking deposits from individuals and small businesses, and investment banks, which funnel large sums to fund mergers and new technologies, but also underwrite risky investment vehicles. Over the years, the tight separation of the two types of financial institutions was eroded, until legislation passed in 1999, during the Clinton Administration, junked the entire policy, permitting retail banks to merge with investment banks. The funneling of funds from retail banks to the high-risk investments of credit default swaps and real estate investment trusts was one factor facilitating the speculative frenzy in the housing market, which, when it collapsed, triggered the current crisis. It should be noted that this piece of deregulation was not formulated by neo-liberal ideologues, but rather by the pragmatic advisors of Bill Clinton who were enamored with the rapid spread of a global financial sector.
Capitalism is inherently unstable, and subject to extended periods of mass unemployment, bankruptcies and crisis. Government regulation will not prevent economic instability. Efforts to regulate the financial sector in order to prevent destructive speculative booms are bound to fail. These efforts represent yet another case of reformers fruitlessly trying to fix a system through piecemeal changes. Capitalism can not be reformed. It must be fundamentally transformed through a revolutionary process.
Obama and the Economic Crisis
Emergency bailouts of banks and bankrupt corporations can forestall a total collapse, but the economy remains mired in stagnation. The recent course of events in the United States is indicative of the depth of the problems confronting a capitalist system in decline.
President Barack Obama is, above all, a pragmatist. He has no ideological reluctance to using the state to intervene in the economy, and yet he also has no intention of confronting the capitalist class. Very much the corporate centrist, Obama’s economic policy has been marked by cautious timidity. A total collapse has been forestalled, but output remains stalled, and unemployment remains at high levels. The official unemployment rate fell from 10.0% in 2008 to 8.4% in 2011. These figures limit the count of the unemployed to those who are currently out of work, but who are actively seeking employment. A broader figure adds to the number of unemployed those who have become discouraged, as well as those “marginally” tied to the workforce, including older workers who reluctantly retired after finding that work was no longer available. Using this more accurate indicator, the unemployment rate fell from 15.2% in 2008 to 13.5% in 2011.
These statistics demonstrate that the United States remains stalled in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and the Administration has done little to overcome it. Obama’s approach to overcoming the crisis has been far more cautious than Roosevelt’s New Deal, as limited as that was. This reflects several factors. First, the bailout of 2008 was enormously expensive, adding significantly to the total debt, and thus making it more difficult to undertake deficit financing to spark a revival. Furthermore, globalization has led to the U.S. debt being held by wealthy individuals and financial institutions from around the world. It is all too easy for those currently holding U.S. bonds to sell them should they become concerned with the federal government’s increasing debt. Such a dumping would significantly increase the interest rate accruing to U.S. bonds, making it more expensive to borrow.
These factors are relevant, but secondary to the significant shifts in the objective situation since the 1930s. Globalization has undermined the strength of the working class in the previously industrialized countries. (In the United States, only 7% of those working in the private sector are union members.) With the working class in retreat, Obama has only agreed to implement a fiscal policy of economic stagnation. This is in contrast with the first years of the New Deal, when Roosevelt authorized deficit financing on a scale that led to lower unemployment rates, although unemployment still remained at depression levels. Globalization makes capitalism even more susceptible to severe economic downturns, while at the same time making it more difficult to recover.
Obama has also been eager to limit the scope of counter-cyclical spending to capital projects that can be viewed as emergency measures, while avoiding projects that widen the scope of projects undertaken by the public sector. New Deal plans to counter mass unemployment were quite different. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed roads and buildings in wilderness areas that made natural parks more accessible and desirable, and thus stimulated the demand for increased funding for the park system that lasted well beyond the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration was given a broad mandate that led to a variety of projects such as the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Art Project8 that could only inspire working people to demand that the federal government do more than fund a vast military apparatus. The Obama administration has studiously avoided any creativity in envisioning pump-priming projects.
This difference in approach reflects the underlying shift in the balance of class forces. Roosevelt was worried that the working class in the United States might be attracted by Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. He therefore sought to present a positive alternative, a welfare state which remained a capitalist market economy.
The change in approach to deficit financing also reflects the very different global context in which the United States finds itself. In the 1930s, most Americans believed that the Great Depression was merely a temporary downturn that would be followed by further periods of prosperity. Eighty years later, globalization has led to deindustrialization.
For three decades prior to the economic crisis of 2008, the working class has suffered through declining real wages and a deterioration in essential social services. Although Obama has pursued a fiscal policy of modest economic stimulus that has forestalled a total collapse, state and local governments have not been provided with funds from the federal treasury needed to counteract the precipitous drop in tax revenues at every level of government. As a result, there have been drastic cutbacks in education, health care and mass transit, compounding those that were already in place before the current crisis. Workers are constantly told that austerity is inevitable, and that they will have to live on less, not just now but in the future.
The Eurozone Debt Crisis
The sharp downturn in the global economy has led to a rapid increase in the debt owed by governments in most of the developed capitalist countries. Banks have been bailed out by governments anxious to avoid a collapse of the financial sector. Tax revenues have substantially declined, as output and incomes spiral downward. At the same time, some countries have pursued Keynesian pump-priming policies by increasing expenditures on infrastructure projects, such as roads, railroads, even prestige projects such as venues for the Olympics.
In several countries within the Eurozone, the rise in the national debt has led to a catastrophic collapse in the economy. Generally, these countries are among those with the weakest economies, having the lowest per capita incomes within Western Europe. Still, the crisis is deepening and spreading. Even France and Holland are threatened by the debt crisis, and the possibility that the European Union may disintegrate is very real.
Although several countries are approaching the economic abyss, their paths to this critical point have been strikingly different. Spain had a small debt to output ratio prior to 2008. The Spanish housing market boomed, but once the slump began, mortgages could not be repaid and the banks collapsed. In Greece, the debt to output ratio was high before 2008. The Greek government hoped that the richer EU countries, particularly Germany, would continue to funnel aid its way, permitting the Greeks to construct a network of social services that approached that of the wealthier countries of Western Europe. Once the global crisis hit, the shaky foundation of this fleeting prosperity was exposed, and the economy collapsed.
In both Spain and Greece, official unemployment rates stand at 25%, and interest rates on government bonds have risen to levels that cannot be sustained. Although the specific road to the debt crisis has varied, the results have been very similar. The economic crisis has led to a sharp fall in output and, as a result, tax revenues have fallen as well. As deficits increase, the countries are pressured into sharp cuts in social services, which produce even further cuts in output, and the downward spiral continues as the system spins out of control.
Bondholders observe debt to output ratios rapidly increasing in the weaker Eurozone countries, and they respond by shifting out of the bonds of those countries and into safe havens, such as U.S. government bonds. The increase in those wanting to sell leads to a fall in the price of the bonds of the beleaguered countries, and thus an increase in interest rates. Higher interest rates add to government expenditures, thus creating even larger government deficits, and a further twist in the downward spiral.
As interest rates on government bonds approach 7% per year, bondholders begin to panic, and bankruptcy looms. Interest rates for both Greece and Spain have begun to approach this critical point. To avoid a crisis, the European Union, that is primarily the German government, provides emergency funds to buy the bonds of the targeted country, demanding stringent repayment plans and further cutbacks. The emergency infusion of funds stabilizes the bond market for awhile, until the spiral begins again and the abyss approaches again.
In this situation, austerity measures are self-defeating. Cutting government spending only exacerbates the underlying problem. Still, stimulating the economy through deficit financing will not work either, given the readiness of bondholders to flee from the risk of default. Furthermore, the draconian cuts required to service the emergency loans virtually propel the working class into action, and the militancy of the popular resistance deters the government from fully implementing the austerity program demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
There would appear to be only one way out of this impasse within the constraints of a capitalist market economy. The wealthy few must be heavily taxed, and the revenues thus generated used to fund vital social services. This would require a significant shift in the balance of class forces toward the working class. The recent decades have been characterized by the exactly contrary trend, as the gap between the rich and the poor widens even further.
Globalization not only undercuts the power of the working class in the previously industrialized societies, but it also makes it easier for the affluent to hide their incomes in the many tax havens that have sprung up around the world. The ability of nation states to effectively tax wealthy individuals or large corporations has been significantly undermined by globalization. Incomes and corporate profits would have to be taxed at the source, and this would require full and open transparency by corporations to become meaningful. A true accounting would necessitate a direct confrontation with international capital, triggering massive capital flight.
Immediately, the Eurozone countries confronting economic collapse can gain a breathing space by leaving the European Union and defaulting on sovereign debt. By being integrated into a currency zone dominated by Germany, less technologically advanced countries such as Spain and Greece have been saddled with overpriced exports. This has exacerbated the impact of the global downturn, and has been one factor contributing to the economic crisis in these countries. Nevertheless, leaving the Eurozone will not resolve the underlying problems. Investor confidence has been decimated, and a brief upsurge in exports is not likely to remedy the problem.
A Stark Choice
The choice is stark. Either countries such as Greece and Spain move rapidly to overthrow capitalism, and to establish a new society, or economic stability will be restored by quashing the working class, dismantling social services and slashing wages. This is a choice that can not be confined to one country. The revolutionary option will only succeed if it rapidly spreads. The current crisis can not be transcended through half-measures and limited reforms. We need to think in bold terms, to view our commitment to building a new society as an immediate strategic priority, not as a goal for some vaguely defined future.

1.  In a letter to Engels written on September 25, 1856, Marx suggested that the crisis had “assumed European dimensions such as have never been seen before.” The two revolutionaries would not “be able to spend much longer here merely as spectators.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983), 40:72.
2.  John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936), p. 161.
3.  The federal government did not collect statistics on unemployment during the 1930s, so economic historians have calculated rough estimates based on the available statistics concerning output and income. In 1940, the current system was initiated, based on monthly surveys of the labor force. The estimates of unemployment rates from the 1930s, therefore, are not comparable to the current statistics.
4.  Frank Knight, “The Economic Principles of the New Deal,” in Morton J. Frisch and Martin Diamond, The Thirties: Reconsideration in the Light of the American Political Tradition (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1968), p. 92.
5.  William Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40 (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 244.
6.  Richard Polenberg, “The Decline of the New Deal, 1937-1940,” in John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner and David Brody, eds., The New Deal: The National Level (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, p. 255.
7. Knight, “Economic Principles,” p. 94.
8.  Leuchtenberg, Roosevelt and the New Deal, pp. 125-8.

Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #60

asr60 coverASR #60 is now available.  Click on the link to order online (via Paypal), or you can order a copy for $5 from ASR, PO Box 42531, Philadelphia PA 19101 email: anarchosyndicalistreview


EDITORIAL: A booming economy?
OBITUARIES: Audrey Goodfriend, Mott Green; Nunzio Pernicone by Robert Helms
WOBBLES: Oiligarchs Fund “Stink Tanks,” Murderous Capital, Vanishing Labor Law, Chinese workers seize CEO
SYNDICALIST NEWS: USI-AIT hospital workers strike, Employer opens fire on migrant workers, Workers’ Control in Greece, Garment workers strike after factory collapse, Wobbly News… Compiled by Mike Hargis
Interview with Egyptian anarchist by Mark Mason
Do Fast Food Strikes Signal U.S. Labor Revival? Seattle Teachers Refuse Standardized Tests by John Kalwaic
ARTICLES: Seething anger, wildcat strikes, and growing struggles in South Africa’s mines by Shawn Hattingh
Thatcher: Putting the fun back into funeral by Iain McKay
Thatcher: Reagan with a brain by Mike Long
Proudhon on Race and the Civil War: Neither Washington nor Richmond by Iain McKay
REVIEWS: Lucy Parsons: American Anarchist Review essay by Iain McKay
Anarchism & Syndicalism in the Colonial World Review by Jon Bekken
Environmental Anti-Humanism Review by Graham Purchase
The IWW & the Spanish Revolution Review by Jon Bekken
Anarchist Science Fiction Review essay by Iain McKay
LETTERS: Consensus, Occupy Shareholders Meetings

Nationalism or Freedom?

By Jon Bekken, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #32

Writing in the most recent Arsenal, a well-produced “magazine of anarchist strategy and culture,” Mike Staudenmaier devotes one of the leading articles to a critique of ASR’s “extensive and influential writings opposing nationalism and advocating working-class internationalist revolution.” (Unfortunately, he cannot be troubled to cite any of them, perhaps recognizing that his muddled argument could not stand up to any anarchist writings on the subject.)

According to Staudenmaier, we follow the “people, not nations” analysis he attributes to Rudolf Rocker, “combin [ing] the sort of economic reductionism that is often the hallmark of syndicalism with careful analysis of the harsh experiences of the Cuban revolution.” Our color-blind position that “working people have no country” was revolutionary a century ago, he continues, but today is a manifestation of white supremacy responsible for the overwhelmingly white membership of “one of the best-recruiting and most steadily growing segments of North American anarchism.”

Citing our criticism of Chomsky’s suggestion that in this era of globalization, the nation-state can serve as a mechanism for popular self-defense (and strangely arguing that the Brazilian nation-state, which routinely murders homeless children on the street, aids and abets transnational corporations in despoiling Brazil’s abundant natural resources, and forces landless peasants into debt peonage, is less repressive than the IMF), Staudenmaier says we fail to acknowledge the substantial divisions within global economic classes posed by racial and national identities. These divisions, he argues, create the possibility of “meaningful cross-class alliances – difficult to assimilate into a syndicalist world view.” (13)

In a typically confused passage he then conflates race, culture and nation, and claims that syndicalists say that the struggle for racial justice must be put off until after the anticapitalist revolution (which, Staudenmaier suggests, is exactly backward). Conceding that syndicalists are “sincerely anti-racist,” he argues that we ” underestimate the importance of cultural identity to people’s lives and to social struggles,” thereby leading revolutionaries into a dead-end.

After some muted criticisms of anarcho-nationalist tendencies, which have led many who consider (or once considered) themselves anarchists into backing a variety of Marxist-Leninist groupings (a significant fraction of the now-dissolved Love & Rage Federation recently joined the Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization) for ignoring class struggle, the author turns from setting up his straw men to putting forward his own perspective:

“Where ASR offers the false dichotomy between people and nations, the ABCF upholds a similarly questionable opposition between ‘oppressor nationalism’ … and ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ … [But] in both cases, the social experience at a grassroots level is the same – cultural identity rooted in geography, language and assorted historical intangibles, producing a broad-based love and prioritization of a community of communities.” (15)

Staudenmaier rejects this attempt to separate what he sees as inextricably intertwined positive and negative aspects of national identity. Instead he champions what he admits is an ad hoc analysis, skeptical of national liberation struggles while supporting them, “recit[ing] rhetoric about class struggle” while working with radicals of all class backgrounds (he apparently believes there are significant numbers of the employing class to be found in the anarchists’ ranks, something I have never observed), and calling upon activists to embrace the contradictions.

Anarchist support for the EZLN (the Zapatistas) is offered as an example “of this promising new anarchist response to nationalism,” (16) citing Marcos’ embrace of “the nation” in a typically incoherent quote. But for Staudenmaier the Zapatistas embody an anti-statist nationalism, apparently because they have recognized that they are in no position to seize state power and so instead negotiate with the state and pressure it to change its policies. Unwilling to embrace nationalism fully, Staudenmaier instead urges us to “participate in and/or lend support to anticolonial struggles in a principled and critical way. … Anarchists must become involved in a critical way in what Marcos calls the ‘reconstruction’ of the nation, which can only happen if we avoid the twin pitfalls of knee-jerk anti-nationalism and uncritical acquiescence to national liberation. By balancing the competing claims of race and class, we can develop a new anarchist understanding of nations and nationalism.” (17)

I apologize if this summary seems incoherent; while I have endeavored to distill a coherent argument from seven pages of confusion, this is at best a difficult task. I undertake this thankless task only because Staudenmaier is quite mistaken when he describes our writings on this question as “influential.” In fact, most North American anarchists today embrace the muddled thinking he advocates, with devastating results. In upholding the traditional anarchist opposition to nationalism (although our recent writings on the subject have hardly been extensive, and have tended to discuss the Middle East far more than Cuba), we have waged a difficult and usually lonely struggle for fundamental anarchist principles.

Staudenmaier’s argument relies upon an almost total exclusion of evidence, allowing patently false claims such as that syndicalists argue that the struggle for racial justice must be postponed until after The Revolution to stand cheek by jowl with highly questionable characterizations of various nation-states and nationalist movements. Failing to critically engage the one example of “progressive” nationalism he discusses (the Zapatistas), he leaves readers with no concrete sense of what this “new anarchist understanding” might look like in actual practice, or why we might consider it to be in any way anarchist.

Staudenmaier is unable even to keep his core concept clear. He offers two definitions of nationalism: a common language and shared geography (11) and cultural identity rooted in geography, language and historical intangibles (15). These definitions are quite useless in understanding actually existing nationalism. In the Balkans, for example, the allegedly intractable nationalisms there (we leave aside the high levels of intermarriage and other such inconvenient facts) have nothing whatever to do with language (Serbian and Croatian are the same language, only the script in which they are written differs) or geography (the populations are completely intermingled, thus the necessity for “ethnic cleansing”). This confusion is not entirely his fault. The “nation” is an essentially mythic concept, its signifiers chosen arbitrarily by ideologues seeking to unite followers against the “other” or to conceal real conflicting interests behind a facade of national unity.

As Mikhail Bakunin (whose understanding of nationalism was far more complex than Staudenmaier’s), noted: “There is nothing more absurd and at the same time more harmful, more deadly, for the people than to uphold the fictitious principle of nationalism as the ideal of all the people’s aspirations. Nationality is not a universal human principle; it is a historic, local fact. … We should place human, universal justice above all national interests .” While consistently defending the principle of self-determination, Bakunin (whose political activity began in pan-Slavism) came to see nationalism (and its corollary, patriotism) as a manifestation of backwardness. “The less developed a civilization is, and the less complex the basis of its social life, the stronger the manifestation of natural patriotism.”

Bakunin also termed nationalism a “natural fact” that had to be reckoned with. Indeed, nationalism does exist, in precisely the same sense that dementia does. There are many people in the world who hear God giving them orders – sometimes cruel, sometimes bizarre, sometimes quite humane – or who see hallucinations. While these unfortunates insist upon the reality of their visions, we know better. Such things simply do not exist, for all that thousands of our fellow humans act upon them. But the mental disorder that sparks these delusions quite certainly exists. Sometimes it is relatively harmless and can perhaps be ignored, though I tend to believe symptoms should be responded to before the disease gets worse. Sometimes the derangement is quite serious, and must be confronted forcefully.

In precisely the same way, we can say that nationalism exists, even though there is no useful sense in which “nations” can be said to exist, except as an artificial construct imposed by states, churches and other powers to suit their own interests.

Nations are in fact inventions of relatively recent origin. Five hundred years ago, the language we now know as “French” was a family of loosely related regional tongues that were not mutually intelligible. The “Italian” nation was invented in the 1800s, and a significant fraction of the Italian right now seems determined to uninvent it. In Chicago, in the early 1900s, there was a prolonged struggle over the national identity of the people now known as Ukrainian immigrants, with competing networks of institutions seeking to construct national identities as Poles, Ruthenians, Little Russians, Russians, and Ukrainians. With the defeat of the claimants in the diaspora, the Ruthenian nation vanished without a trace, aside from some old buildings where it was engraved into the stone. Similarly, there was heated debate within the Polish community over whether Jews, atheists, socialists, and members of the Polish National Alliance could be considered members of the Polish nation. Such debates had little to do with language or culture, rather they represented efforts by competing leaderships to establish dominance and to exclude those who subscribed to competing identities from inclusion in the fold of “the people.”

But Staudenmaier’s confusion does not end with his definition of nationalism. Throughout his essay, he treats the concepts of “nation” and “race” as if they were synonyms. There are, of course, important similarities between the two concepts: Both lack any basis in the real, material world, but are instead ideological constructs invented to justify oppression and domination. Although their boundaries are porous, subject to constant reinterpretation and redefinition (as are all arbitrary categorization schemes), many people have internalized these constructs, making them part of their own self-identification. Both are poisonous, pernicious ideologies; there is no crime too heinous to be “justified” under the cloak of race or nation. And, of course, both are manifested in social arrangements that reflect not only relations of power (which have their own historic weight), but have also implanted themselves in the consciousness even of those sincerely committed to the cause of human emancipation.

But despite these similarities, there are also important distinctions between race and nation. While no one can define either with any precision, given their wholly mythic character, race certainly does not involve questions of geography or language – the only two generally agreed-upon markers of nationality. (That nation is not in fact defined in any way by these markers is a different question.)

There are certainly people who have historically been – and continue to be – oppressed in particular ways, justified in part by alleged differences in skin color and/or physical build. (Such differences have relatively little explanatory power; in the 1790s there was a debate in this country over whether Germans were “white” or ” black”; in the 1800s the same question was raised about the Irish; in the early 1900s Finns were widely considered an “Asiatic” people by specialists in racial categorization. Physical characteristics are purely incidental to such arguments, which are fundamentally about power and domination.) This history of oppression manifests itself in many ways, from the jobs workers are able to obtain, to the schools their children are enrolled in, to the accumulated resources they have at their disposal to see them through hard times or enable them to secure a viable economic foothold, to their likelihood of being shot by police. Syndicalists have always recognized the importance of racial oppression, fighting against discrimination on the job and in the broader society, demanding equal access to jobs, and putting our bodies on the line in the struggle for racial justice. “Race” has been used both to divide the working class and to subject one segment of our class to particularly brutal oppression and exploitation, and as such it can not be ignored. But its manifestation is radically different than that of “nation,” and to treat them as interchangeable is a dangerous confusion.

It is particularly dangerous when Staudenmaier swings between race and nation, arguing that anarchists should build cross-class alliances – an anarchist version of the Popular Front which has sucked so many radicals into pallid reformism. While there is a certain logic to cross-class alliances for those who seek state power above all else (the politician needs money for propaganda, for armed henchmen, and his material comforts, but also needs a mass base to provide cannon fodder, generate wealth and implement the great leader’s schemes), there is absolutely no reason why anarchists should be making common cause with our exploiters. It is not only wrong in principle, it not only feeds illusions among our fellow workers, but it is tactically stupid to boot.

As we noted earlier this year, “The right of a people to self-determination is a long-standing anarchist principle. Nationalism, however, is a fraud whereby would-be rulers ‘self-determine’ to impose their vision of nationhood on an entire community. Nationalism is an ideology of separation, of hatred for the ‘other.’ It is a creed of violence and war and oppression. And it has absolutely nothing to offer the world’s oppressed. What is necessary is to develop human solidarity, the instincts of mutual aid that enable us to survive and which have fueled all human progress…”

Even many Marxists are at long last recognizing the folly of their long detour into nationalism. In a recent essay, George Kateb describes nationalism (and its close cousin, patriotism) as “a grave moral error” arising out of “a state of mental confusion.” Noting that the nation is an amalgam “of a few actual and many imaginary ingredients,” he notes that patriotism, in its essence, “is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction … for what is largely a figment of the imagination.” (907) Necessarily constructed to exclude the vast majority of humanity from its imagined community, patriotism – the celebration of the nation armed – needs external enemies. ” Patriotism is on a permanent moral holiday, and once it is made dynamic, it invariably becomes criminal.” (914) But not only does nationalism define itself in opposition to the whole of humanity, Kateb argues, it also requires that the individual surrender her moral authority and individuality, abandoning her own dignity and individuality to embrace submersion into an ideology of hatred, a life of criminality. Quoting Thoreau, he concludes that only those who surrender their “self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less” can be patriotic. “They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.”

As Rudolf Rocker noted, “the change of human groups into nations, that is, State peoples, has not opened out a new outlook… It is today one of the most dangerous hindrances to social liberation.” (202) Peoples with common history, language and cultural backgrounds evolved over long periods of living together in free (and sometimes not so free) social alliances. No anarchist would propose that such communities should be forced to dissolve themselves into some invented social identity. But this is precisely what nationalism, the political theology of the state, attempts. “Nations” are in no sense natural communities; they stand in stark opposition to human autonomy, to the right of self-organization and self-determination, and to the principles of mutual aid and solidarity upon which our very survival depends.


ASR: “The Folly of Nationalism,” #30 (Winter 2000/01), pp. 1-2.

Mikhail Bakunin, “Statism and Anarchism,” “Letters on Patriotism,” “A Circular Letter to My Friends in Italy,” “The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution.” Excerpted in G.P. Maximoff, ed., The Political Philosophy of Bakunin.

Jon Bekken, “Negotiating Clas and Ethnicity: The Polish-Language Press in Chicago.” Polish-American Studies (Autumn 2000), pp. 5-29.

George Kateb, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?” Social Research 67(4) (Winter 2000), pp. 901-24.

Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture.

Werner Sollors (ed.), The Invention of Ehtnicity.

Mike Staudenmaier, “What Good are Nations?” Arsenal 3 (2001), pp. 11-17.

Direct Action: Towards an understanding of a concept

by Harald Beyer-Arnesen, ASR #29

Campaigning for wage-workers to join the Industrial Workers of the World, Eugene V. Debs stated in December 1905: “The capitalist own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own.” To this one could add: At times direct action may mean putting the tools we do not own out of action, at times it may mean bringing them into play for our own, self-defined needs and ends. In the final instance, it can only mean acting as if all the tools were in fact our own.

Direct action brought to its ultimate and logical end is the libertarian social revolution: the working class’s direct overtaking, rearrangement, transformation and deconstruction (when not found appropriate to human needs) of the means of production (the material tools of freedom), and the disarmament of the forces protecting the order that was. If we are talking about a genuine social revolution, this can be nothing but the collective, direct action by the working class abolishing itself as a class, and thus the state and class society as such, making us all into citizens of a world of our own making.

Many are those who talk about direct actions these days, fewer try to explore its meaning, asking what kind of tool it is. This is not a semantic question but one of substance – one that lies at the core of the whole anarchist, social-revolutionary project where “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” and the means are determined by and contained in our ends. From this perspective we can define direct action as being an action carried out on the behalf of nobody else but ourselves, where the means are immediately also the ends, or if not, as in a wage strike not mediated by any union bureaucracy, the means (decreasing the bosses’ profits by our non-work, and thus also diminishing the bosses’ power) stand in an immediate relationship to self-defined ends (increasing our wages and extending our own power). A direct action successfully carried out brings about a direct rearrangement of existing conditions of life through the combined efforts of those directly affected.

Nobody need wholly agree with this definition, but I find it logical as well as a potentially powerful instrument in developing a practice where the future society comes to life within the shell of the old. In all circumstances, we as anarchists and social revolutionaries must comprehend direct action within the context of our project of human emancipation. Direct action is however not like pregnancy, which is something you either are or are not. Elements of direct action may be contained in actions that do not fully qualify as such. Part of our task consists in trying to make these elements as dominant as possible, whenever possible. To this we need a usable definition, something to aspire towards and measure our actions by, and thus also acquire a greater awareness of the sources of our strengths and shortcomings.

We will not always have the power to reach our ends through direct action. More than any other form of action, it tends to demand a collective, organizational force. Most clearly this will manifest itself in the working class’s direct re-expropriation of the instruments of production and freedom. We can achieve anything together. Building that togetherness is the difficult part, and like a muscle not used, the force of collective action is weakened by passivity. On a local level, where most of our actions are still confined, or on international level, through the coordinated actions within one small sector of the working class, our ability to carry out direct action will be restricted by it being a means not yet generalized. We should still be able to make use of it some of the time, but not all of the time without being crushed by the forces we are up against. If you are fired, a sit-down strike might save your job, but if you are the only one sitting there it might be a good idea to look up a lawyer or some union bureaucrat. Something which also draws our attention to how the concept of direct action links up with another old word in the vocabulary of working class struggles, namely practical solidarity. Solidarity does not mean charity, and cannot be reduced to altruism. Rather it is something which grows out of an understanding of common interests. At the root of the IWW catchword, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” lies more than a moral economy. The words also describe a fact of social life.

Direct action has been defined as action without intermediaries. This is a definition in need of qualification. From an anarchist perspective direct action is connected not only to solidarity, but also to what tends to be a precondition for solidarity and the underlying principle of the concept of direct democracy: non-hierarchical human communication. Such communication lies at the roots of what direct action always is, individual and collective self-empowerment. As direct action contains its own end, within that self-defined end its meaning is also found. The more the ends are manifested in the means, the more it is a direct action.

If we stay seated or go on playing darts as a means to prolong a lunch break, and thus shorten our working day, then the meaning of the action is also immediately the means used. But such collective action has as its precondition the human dialogue. It is through the mediation of the dialogue the ends are defined that gives the action its signification for us as human beings. If we stay seated or go on with our dart playing because the boss tells us so, then even if this will prolong our lunch break just as much or more, it is not direct action. Now there are forms of direct action that may involve only a single person, precisely because it is something which is of nobody elseÕs concern. But in general, for an action to be effective and have more than a symbolic significance in a social context, it must involve the participation of many. A one-(wo)man strike is at best a political statement.

Protesting the modern-day popes and tsars

If you lack water you might have to dig a well, and the act of digging will be direct action. You may need the assistance of others and your lack will very likely also be shared by them, making it into a collective task. But within a class society things are rarely that simple. The land may be owned by an absent landowner, and an apparatus of force will exist to impose proprietor rights. Just going out there digging the well would thus be illegal. Still, illegality is not what defines it as direct action. Collective self-education, for instance, is a form of direct action that often, if not always, would be perfectly legal.

We could imagine that rather than digging the well without a permit, we organized to sit down outside the landowner residence, the KingÕs Palace, the White House or the parliament building, called in the press and proclaimed we would remain seated on the lawn (committing the crime of trespassing) until the absent landowner, a legislative body or somebody else with authority, granted us a permit to dig for water on his or her property – or until we were carried or otherwise forced away.

This surely would be civil disobedience, a breach of law, but would it also be direct action? Hardly. We had tried to put pressure on an authority to make or undo a judgment. In this we had abided by their power and authority to make such a judgment in the first place. Rather than letting our ends only be mediated by our own efforts and (wo)man-made tools – which in this case would be spades or excavators – we had put their rule between our means and ends. The tools yes, the instruments of production and destruction, as well as our own creativity: sold hours of life turned into instruments of our exploitation. We are the ones who employ these tools, but not according to own plans, needs and desires. We rarely utilize them as means of direct action. The wage working cook does not serve the poor as part of collective project in the time (s)he has sold to an alien force, instead (s)he casts a vote, signs a petition, joins a demonstration, breaks some windows or blows up a building in his or her unwaged time. None of which produces anything immediately digestible.

Some would define any non-parliamentary action as a direct action, such as any street demonstration. But to make a statement about we would like something to be, or not to be, is not likely to move any mountain. If the mere words, “Stop the bombing!” halted bombs in mid-air, or took away their deadly effect, the world be a better place to live. It is not any more likely that breaking window panes would generate this effect, either.

That symbolic actions, and actions that borrow their efficiency from the very powers we are struggling against, more and more have come to be defined as direct actions, reflects our present organizational impotence, our social fragmentation and a generalized lack of trust among waged and unwaged workers in their own collective powers. Under particular circumstances symbolic actions can be powerful. But they should be seen as what they are at their best: means of communication. Their degree of efficiency outside this lies foremost in the fear among the owners of the world that they will be followed up by more direct forms of action. At the present moment, disorganized as we stand, or organized into passivity, they are also often all we have, but that should not lead us to the conclusion that they are all we could have.

Often, as during the WTO meeting in Seattle, we see proclaimed as direct actions protests carried out in spectacular and some times violent or destructive ways to draw the attention of mainstream media. Though often denied, the whole logic of such actions is to influence the powers that be by way of some imagined “public opinion.” And in the age of the world-wide web, even a demonstration of a few dozen people can appear as a world event if only the rumor about it is widely enough circulated, while you can live a couple of blocks away without even noticing that it has taken place. So maybe a better term than direct action in such circumstances might be virtual or multi-mediated action. Ironically, both larger protests, like those in Seattle, as well as smaller ones tend to be followed by a critique of the mainstream media for distorting the (f)acts, for only having reproduced their most spectacular aspects.

Of course it could be said, and not without some truth, that the property destruction in Seattle had a symbolic value that it gained from the particular context if functioned within. I am not arguing against that, though this value would soon be devalued if the same procedure was tried repeated over and over again. However, apart from their symbolic value, the actions had no immediate relation to what one wanted to achieve. The blocking of the meeting or the destruction of property were not means to bring about any immediate changes in the conditions of trade, exploitation and oppression: they fed no one, did not reduce the pollution of our environment or in other ways enrich the lives of working-class people.

Exploitation and oppression always work in concrete ways, and the realities of what one was protesting against and the concrete points of possible change escaped the protesters. Lacking the power to bring about immediate changes, one appealed to the Pope and the Tsar, some would say in less than polite ways, to use their commanding powers over us to bring such changes about. Rather than going out digging the wells to find the water, one demanded of the high and mighty to order us to do so, and rather than blocking the ruling order from polluting our water, one called on them to make laws prohibiting such acts, or to refrain from introducing new ones allowing the pollution. One appealed to the force of their laws, asking for better ones: asking for an atheist Pope, a landless Tsar, a capitalism where money wields no power. Many will find this a misrepresentation: “We demanded the break-up of the WTO,” they will say. But this, even had it been realistic – which it was not – would at best only substitute a not yet defined set of international laws and power relations for the particular ones existing or in making. It was a wholly abstract demand.

If temporarily halting the mere coming together of the delegates of the World Trade Organization was all one had wanted to achieve, then the protesters used means (their own bodies) appropriate to this end. But was this really their end? Hopefully, and far more likely, they thought of it as a means. In the age before the telegraph and telephone, to say nothing about more modern means of communication, such means might also have had a more immediate effect, and a far closer relation to the end. But today such gatherings of the high and mighty foremost have symbolic significance. The decision-making and coordination of power takes place elsewhere, and not in any particular place at any particular date. I for one am certain that the protesters aspired to bring about an end to particular destructive practices associated with the policies of the World Trade Organization, as well as to halt even more destructive ones, and not to the mere obstruction of the coming together of some people at a certain place and time. Had practices of exploitation, oppression and destruction existed only in the minds and the statements of the high and mighty, we would not have to offer them much attention. Nor would the high then be very mighty.

If from every community affected by the policies of the WTO (or rather of global capitalism) there had been one person present among the protesters in Seattle, they would be in the wrong place to bring about changes through direct action. The concrete and daily manifestations of WTO policies takes place in the communities they would have left behind, and it is also there these policies could be directly confronted. On the other hand, such a global assembly could have served as an opportunity to coordinate actions throughout the world, and not primarily to worry about what was going on in the congress halls where the WTO delegates were gathered. As it was, people from every community of the planet were not gathered in Seattle. What is more, those who were there, to the degree they at all considered the option of direct action, were in Seattle precisely because of their, or rather our, impotence to bring about the organization needed to confront the WTO through direct action on our home ground.

Propaganda by the deed & solidarity revisited

A critical dialogue in search of forms of action that could directly put whatever has and will be resolved within the framework of the WTO, IMF and World Bank wholly, or more realistically at this stage, in part out of operation, has hardly even been attempted, despite of, or maybe because of all claims of direct action practices.

In this context, it is interesting that West Coast longshoremen carried out a political strike against the WTO. However positive this was a sign of times to come, it did not go beyond being a symbolic action. But the event may also be considered as symbolic in another context. The longshoremen (dockers and wharfies) and transport workers in general, are the wage workers with the most manifest potency to directly and materially impose the terms of world trade. Thus also all the efforts to destroy their strength. But these workers would in no circumstances be able to wield such power for long if their “propaganda by the deed” did not also bring about manifestations of direct action by the waged and unwaged workers of the world, or at least within significant parts of it.

The term “propaganda by the deed” brings forth associations to bombs and other individual acts of desperation and social impotence. But it need not refer to this. When tasks meet us on a global scale, direct action carried out locally to bring about smaller changes in the here and now, or internationally by a small section of the working class, may be considered as just a drop in the bucket. But if successfully carried out direct actions will communicate a message beyond their immediate ends, carrying within themselves the very seeds of a libertarian social revolution. Acts of immediate empowerment tend to be contagious as they practically illustrate roads that may be traveled outside the realm of bureaucratic intermediaries and parliamentary representation. Direct action is always “propaganda by the deed.”

This all brings us back to the question of solidarity and its relation to direct action, and then in particular as defined as an action carried out on behalf of nobody else. The question also arises out of ecological concerns. Who are the directly affected, and at what point does an act cease being direct action because it is not being carried out by those directly affected? What interests us here is of course the political implications of the answer given. The advocates of ideologies of representative democracy, social democracy and Leninism all claim to act on the behalf of “the people” in the interest of “the people.” Anarchists have always rejected not only that the representatives of these ideologies do so, but the very notion that they could. What is more, even if they could, we claim that this would not be in our best interest as the value of being our own masters is the very essence of being a human being. Something, it must be added, which does not imply an escape from the influence and critique of others, without which we would be nothing.

On the other hand we uphold the principles of mutual aid and solidarity; that an injury to one is an injury to all, and thus also the concern of all. We can skip the most absurd interpretations of non-representation, like: “If we see a person drowning, this is not our concern.” Whether or not saving another person from drowning also should be defined as direct action is not an interesting question. Philosophical riddles are not the concern here, but the politics of human emancipation.

On this level the answer to the question leads us to another: who has the defining power? I define the low wages and bad working conditions in company X, wherever it may be situated in the world, as my concern not only for moral reasons, but also because, to paraphrase Bakunin: in the hands of the owners of the world, their exploitation and oppression becomes an instrument for my subordination. Brought to its logical conclusion this reasoning may however brings us straight back to rule by representation and enlightened despotism. The defining power must be situated among the workers of company X. However, my participation in direct action on their initiative, or through joint initiative and cooperation, would make me part of this direct action if my acts also otherwise qualified as such, for instance through a blockade during a strike. We have realized our common interests.

There is much more that could be said around this topic. But what is crucial is to grasp its importance, so that claimed direct action does not become a road that leads us towards elitism, and thus also away from the anarchist project of individual and social emancipation.

Once again we reach the conclusion that as a rule, the greater the task the more collective the action – this to fit a libertarian definition of direct action. We should never lose sight of the fact that the concept of direct action emerges out of people doing something with their own situation. It is for this reason that it has held such a central position within the traditions of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism. Direct action is an expression of power over our lives: our empowerment. Direct actions are primarily, if not exclusively, tied to collective forms of actions also for the simple reason that it is together we as waged and unwaged workers have the potency to directly, and often immediately, change our conditions of life. The fewer the actors the more symbolic our acts as a rule will also be. They then tend to become, not means to the immediate transformation of part of our reality through our own efforts but foremost to call on the power of others.

While many may live under the illusion that through direct action we escape the need for organizing, the opposite is true: Generally it requires a greater degree of organized coordination. The degree of our disorganization is the degree to which our lives will be organized by others. It is we who make the world, but we make it as a collective (presently under the command of and through the mediation of the owners of the world) and it is thus also together we can make direct profound changes unmediated by outside forces, and in the final instance conquer the world and the power over our own destinies.

Direct action could be seen as a kind of language: a language of practical articulation. As such it contains also a symbolic force far greater than any mere symbolic action, precisely because its message is contained in and not separated from its means. Much of the reason for our present impotence to express us through direct action lies in an ever increasing division of labor within modern capitalism. Not so much due to this division in itself but in our failure to bridge it in our minds, and through organization and action.

We need to reconnect our means with our ends. To return to the wage strike Ð it used to signify, and still often does, striking the bosses where it hurt them the most, their banking accounts, by withholding our capacity for labor. So why did the workers of the “public owned” trams in Melbourne ten years ago strike by running the trams Ð the tools they do not own – free of charge for the public, while their bosses struck back by closing them down by force? The reason is obvious. As so often is the case with public services, the non-work of the publicly employed tramdrivers would not have cost the city council a cent. It could only save them the expenses of the workers’ wages. Free public transport, however, would cost them.

What is more crucial, this was a manifestation of workers turning the tools they do not own into means for their own ends, as well as for the working class community at large. What if all the waged and unwaged workers (including school and university students) of Melbourne had non-hierarchically organized to do the same, if only for day or a week? That really would have been a symbolically powerful manifestation of our potency by means of direct action. Reality is still concrete. Let’s not forget it. Also in the struggle against the policies of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank we should seek to find ways to on a local and global scale halt and put into action the tools we do not own for our self-defined needs.