Notes on Anarchist Economics

by Iain McKay, ASR 74 (2018)

Anarchism is generally not associated with economics. There is no “anarchist” school of economics as there are “Marxist,” “Keynesian” and so on ones. This does not mean there are no anarchist texts on economics. Proudhon springs to mind here, with his numerous works on the subject – the three volumes on property (most famous being the first, What is Property?) and the two volumes of System of Economic Contradictions (of which, only the first has been translated) – as does Kropotkin, with his Fields, Factories and Workshops. However, in spite of various important works, there is no well-established body of work which can be called anarchist economics.

There are various reasons for this. Partly, it is due to the typical isolation of the English-speaking movement: many works which could be used to create an anarchist economics have never been translated into English. Partly, it is due to an undeserved sense of inferiority: too many anarchists have followed Marxists by taking Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy as an accurate account and honest critique of Proudhon’s ideas (it is neither, as I show in “The Poverty of (Marx’s) Philosophy,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 70). Partly, it is due to anarchists being – in the main – working-class people who often do not have the time or resources to do the necessary research – and more often, rightly, prefer to change the world than interpret it, particularly given we wish to end the exploitation and oppression we are subject to sooner rather than later.

What would anarchist economics be? There are two different – if somewhat interrelated – possibilities.

First, and least important, would be the economics of an anarchist society. As such a society does not exist, this explains why it is the least important. Adam Smith did not speculate about markets in theory, he described them by observing their workings (I write “markets” rather than “capitalism” as capitalism – wage labor – was not extensive when he was writing and so he was describing an economy marked by substantial self-employed artisans and farmers – an ideal which appealed to Smith). So, in this sense, any anarchist economics would develop as an actual anarchist society develops. Attempts to produce in detail now how a libertarian socialist economy would function are misplaced. All that systems like Parecon can show is that certain notions (such as detailed planning) cannot and will not work – even if its advocates do not seem to recognize this.

So all we can do if sketch general principles – self-management, socio-economic federalism, etc. – and discuss how tendencies within capitalism show their validity. This is important, as anarchists do not abstractly compare the grim reality of capitalism to ideal visions. Rather, as Proudhon stressed (and Kropotkin praised him for), we need to analyze capitalism to understand it and to explore its tendencies – including those tendencies which point beyond it.

Which brings us to the other, more relevant, form of anarchist economics, which would be the analysis and critique of capitalism. The two are interrelated, for what we oppose in capitalism would not exist within an anarchist economy. So, for example, Proudhon’s analysis of exploitation as occurring in production – because workers have sold their liberty to the boss who keeps the “collective force” and “surplus of labor” they create – points logically to workers’ cooperatives (self-management) as the basis of a free economy. Unsurprisingly, he and subsequent anarchists opposed associated labor to wage-labor.

Here we do have much to build on. Proudhon’s analysis of exploitation predates Marx’s nearly identical one by two decades – ironically in 1847 Marx mocked the Frenchman for advocating what he later came to advocate in 1867 (see my “Proudhon’s Constituted Value and the Myth of Labour Notes,” Anarchist Studies 25:1). Other insights, including methodological ones, can be drawn from his and Kropotkin’s contributions – although much of it may need to be translated first.

This does not mean we cannot useful draw upon other schools. Marx, for all his flaws, provided genuine insights into the workings of capitalism. Keynes may have sought to save capitalism from itself, but to do so he had to understand how it works and so is worth reading. The post-Keynesian school, likewise, has a substantial amount of work which would be of use in constructing an anarchist economics. (Steve Keen, author of the excellent Debunking Economics, is a post-Keynesian.) Those schools that have been developed – often explicitly so – to defend capitalism (such as neo-classicalism) have little to offer, except perhaps as examples of what not to do.

Which points to another key aspect of any anarchist economics: an understanding of the flaws of other schools – particularly the mainstream neo-classical school. It should help us see when we are being lied to or when certain conclusions are based on preposterous assumptions or models. The same applies to Marxist economics, which all too often woefully mixes up empirical reality and explanatory categories. As such, it would play a key role in intellectual self-defense.

The key issue, though, is not to confuse understanding how capitalism works from a libertarian perspective, an anarchist economics, with the economics of an anarchy. So an anarchist economics in this sense is still in its early days – even after over 150 years! – but there is a foundation there which can be usefully built upon. The real question is, how do we start? As Kropotkin suggests, by basing our analysis of empirical evidence rather than the abstract model building of neoclassical economics. We need to root our understanding of capitalism in the reality of capitalism – and our struggles against it.

This is no trivial task – but one which would be of benefit.

Israelis protest for African refugees

By Raymond S. Solomon, ASR 74 (2018)

In the Spring 2018 Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (Issue 73) it was reported that “At least 222 planned expulsions of refugees were halted last year when [many] airline pilots refused” to fly planes with African and Middle Eastern refugees being expelled from Germany.

The same article reported that “In January, three pilots for Israel airline El Al announced that they would not operate flights that were deporting African refugees.” This is, as the saying goes, “the tip of the iceberg” of increasing opposition in Israel to governmental threats to deport African immigrants. On February 27, the Israeli newspaper Harretz reported that:

In an unusual show of defiance, the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency has taken a public stand against the government of Israel and its plans to deport African asylum seekers.

The Jewish Agency Board of Governors published a resolution … at the conclusion of a three-day meeting, urging the Israeli government to grant legal status to 500 African asylum seekers who arrived in the country years ago as unaccompanied minors and were housed, fed and educated in youth villages run by the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Education.

Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery reports on his blog that many Israelis have committed to giving refuge to African immigrants facing deportation.

The issue of sanctuary for refugees facing death is a very deep one, cutting directly at the heart and soul of many people in Israel, because of the many Jews who were denied sanctuary before and during the Second World War. Anarchists Maria Louisa Berneri and her husband Vernon Richards, editor of the anarchist publication Freedom, wrote about this both during and after the war.

In introductory material to his late wife Berneri’s posthumous collection of some of her Freedom articles, Neither East Nor West, Richards wrote:

We know, for example, that the British government, knowing exactly what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe, sought to close the last escape-route down the Danube. In 1943 Lord Cranbourne, the Colonial Secretary, wrote to the British ambassador in Turkey to stress that Jews in occupied Europe should not be encouraged to escape, nor should they be organized or helped.

Richards cites a BBC Channel 4 documentary, Raoul Wallenberg: Between the Lines, showing that “400,000 places within the [United States] quota” were not filled, leaving these people to be murdered. Richards stressed that “The United States gave refuge to only 10 percent of the number that they were allowed by law.”

Berneri had great empathy for the Jews faced with extermination during the Nazi horrors. In “Hell Ships for Refugees,” originally published in 1942, Maria Louisa Berneri cites the Italian-language American anarchist magazine L’Adunata about Jewish refugees in a coffin ship going from port to port with desperate passengers who would rather kill themselves than return to Nazi Europe. They were prevented from landing at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Also, “Ramon Castillo (President of Argentina) gave the order for them to leave,” after that they were re-embarked and went to a Brazilian port where they were again rejected.

After the Second World War many Nazi war criminals found a safe haven in Argentina and Brazil. Among the Nazis who found refuge was Joseph Mengele, the Auschwitz “angel of death” who performed gross medical experiments, including how long it would take a baby to die without food or water, and helped decide who would go to labor and who to the gas chambers. He died in Brazil in 1979. Mengele was also very involved with the murder of Gypsies’ children at Theresienstadt. Eichmann was in hiding in Argentina for many years before being captured.

The above incidents and others like them may well be in the minds of the German and Israeli pilots who have refused and will continue to refuse to fly refugees out of their countries. Today there are a growing number of people determined not to let such episodes of history be repeated.

Selected References

Anatoli (Kuznetsov), A. (1970) Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel (New, Complete, Uncensored Version). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Translated from the Russian into English by David Floyd.)

Berneri, Marie Louisa. (1988) Neither East Nor West: Selected Writing 1939-1948. Freedom Press.

Bettelheim, Bruno. (1943) “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 38, 417-452.

Bettelheim, Bruno. (1960) The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age. Glencoe, The Free Press. (Bettelheim was held in two concentration camps, and his research after the war explored the psychology of the doctors experimenting on the inmates.)

Morse, Arthur D. (1967) While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy. Random House.

Pelhe, John, Josiah DuBois, Jr. and Randolph Paul. (1943, 1944.) “A Report to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Reprinted in A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust by David Wyman and Rafael Medoff, reissued by New Press, 2002.

Labor & the Climate Crisis

by Jon Bekken, ASR 78 (Winter 2020)

Global warming is big business. Twenty giant oil companies are directly responsible for one-third of all carbon emissions since 1965. The U.S.’s largest banks have financed $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel projects since 2016. Those who run the global economy are not ignoring climate change – they are actively working to make it worse. Why? Because there are quick profits to be made, and the long-term costs will fall to the rest of us.

It’s not that nothing is being done. Wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles (the latter hardly harbingers of a green economy) are spreading quickly. But this growth in clean energy isn’t nearly fast enough to limit global warming according to the International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook. Despite the growth of renewables, the burning of fossil fuels is growing even faster and global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to continue rising for the next 20 years.

Ultimately the climate crisis is a workers’ issue. It is workers  the whole world over who will pay the price if we allow the bosses to destroy our planet, and at least as importantly it is workers who have the ability to take decisive action to address the crisis.

Too often the business unions have bought into a false debate between saving the environment and saving jobs, instead of asking what sort of jobs we want and what sort of world we want to live in. It is true, of course, that there are in the short term jobs to be had clear cutting the world’s forests, strip mining the earth for coal, and burning fossil fuels. But once the devastation is complete these jobs will be gone, and only the profits will remain.

There could also be jobs in reforesting, converting to renewable energy, retrofitting inefficient buildings and industrial practices, rebuilding public transit systems, and cleaning up the industrial wastelands that litter the world. Unlike the jobs to be had destroying the planet, these jobs are not only useful – they have a future. (Of course, there would also be new jobs if we allow the planet wreckers to proceed on their merry way – jobs building dikes to hold the seas back, as mercenaries protecting the fat cats trying to hold the desperate hordes at bay, scavenging the submerged wreckage, fighting fires and cleaning up toxic debris.)

The politicians hold fancy conventions around the world while the planet burns. Meanwhile, the plutocrats plunder the planet as quickly as they can, raking in the profits while the looting is good. What do they care if they kill off millions and consign the rest of us to misery and privation for generations to come, so long as they can keep accumulating their blood-soaked money?

The question is not whether this vandalism of ecosystems across the planet will eventually be brought to a halt. It will. The question is how much destruction we will allow to be done in the meantime. There is still time to limit the scope of global warming and rising sea levels. Even if we are unsuccessful in winning the full decarbonization that is so urgently needed, we could still mitigate the devastation. We can afford neither to succumb to despair, nor to the hope (against the evidence of decades of dithering) that our rulers will act before it is too late.

What can workers do in the face of bosses and politicians determined to speed climate change? On the one hand, they rely on us to carry out the destruction from which they profit. They are only able to strip-mine the mountains, lay pipelines across our waterways, replace vibrant ecosystems with dying monocultures, and pollute our skies and water because workers not only carry out this destructive labor at their behest, but also supply a wide array of support services to make it possible. Power workers could refuse not only to operate facilities that worsen the climate emergency, they could refuse service to particularly egregious polluters. Transport workers could refuse to haul the means of mass destruction. Construction workers could refuse the demolition and building activity that makes this destruction possible. Workers could refuse to manufacture or service equipment that does not meet environmental standards or is destined for those who are destroying our future.

There are precedents for this sort of conscientious refusal of planet-killing and anti-social work. Building laborers in Melbourne  implemented a series of Green Bans in the 1970s to prevent the destruction of wilderness areas and affordable housing. For many years Australian dockworkers refused to handle US warships that might be carrying nuclear weapons. British mechanics refused to repair aircraft engines for the Chilean military junta, grounding most of its air force. Just this year furniture workers in the United States engaged in a short strike to protest their employer’s sale of furniture to the ICE concentration camps. In Europe, dockworkers  have refused to handle shipments of military equipment to Saudi Arabia for use in its brutal war in Yemen. As workers, we have enormous power in our hands, should we organize and resolve to use it.

We are told that we cannot address the climate crisis because it would hurt coal workers. (It’s hard to drum up sympathy for the coal barons.) But the coal miners have quite different interests than their bosses, who have proven time and again that they do not care whether the miners live or die.

In 1968, after a mine disaster that killed 78 coal miners, rank-and-file miner Jock Yablonski decided to challenge United Mine Workers President Tony Boyle. As Yablonski asked, “What good is a union that reduces coal dust in the mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water, and eat contaminated commodities?” Yablonski lost a close election, and was murdered by Boyle’s hit men. A year later, tens of thousands of miners joined wildcat strikes for better safety and marched to demand protections against black lung disease.

Miners continue to be killed by coal mine collapses and explosions, and new cases of Black Lung Disease have skyrocketed in recent years. As coal consumption has declines, the mine owners have looted their companies, abandoning their commitments to workers’ pensions and health care (and, increasingly, even their wages). Coal miners have fought for a host of measures to protect themselves and their communities from the coal barons, and this is no time to be toadying to the bosses to keep them afloat.

In the 1980s, Tony Mazzocchi, a leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, argued for winding down industries that harmed workers, environment and society while taking steps to safeguard their workers – proposing a revived GI Bill for atomic workers who would be left unemployed by nuclear disarmament and a Superfund for fossil fuel workers. The Labor Network for Sustainability and others are pressing unions to take up these issues once again, but too many union officials are so accustomed to accepting “managerial rights” in all spheres of our existence that they can not even conceive of demanding a different kind of economy – one in which we are no longer offered a bitter choice between eating today or breathing tomorrow.

Solidarity for our Future

There have been countless examples over the years of workers honoring picket lines in solidarity with workers on strike or who were being denied the right to organize. Millions of workers have refused unsafe work, individually and through their unions. Logging workers have demanded sustainable forestry methods (which mean more jobs, as well as protecting ecosystems), farmworkers have fought agains pesticides which poison our food and the land (and the workers). Before pollution is spewed into the environment it is poisoning workers on the job.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in unions raising demands that not only benefit their own members, but also the broader public. Teachers have demanded support systems, improved facilities, and adequate school funding. Nurses have campaigned for safe staffing levels in the face of speed-ups that endanger hospital staff and patients alike. Public transit and other service workers have fought privatization schemes and service cutbacks, pointing out that these are an attack on the entire working class.

There is no reason that this approach could not be expanded. Coal miners and steelworkers have been ill-served by alliances with the bosses to preserve profits under the guise of protecting jobs. The jobs are vanishing, the workers have been stiffed, the number of black lung victims is rising, local communities are dying, and so are the rest of us. Would it not make more sense to negotiate for a rapid transition – one that would phase out coal production, secure and remediate the mines, support retirees and black lung victims, and help workers and their communities build sustainable local economies?

Instead of taking whatever work is on offer, no matter how destructive, building trades unions could demand that new construction be more sustainable and campaign for policies requiring environmental retrofitting of existing facilities. They could actively campaign for solar and other renewable energy projects, and organize those who are doing this work, often for significantly lower wages.

Just as Lucas Aerospace workers developed plans in the 1970s and 1980s to convert their facilities from manufacturing weapons to socially useful production, so too could workers engaged in manufacturing gas guzzling vehicles that destroy our planet while clogging our streets.

The Lucas workers developed their plans through their unions’ coordination committee, based on suggestions from the rank and file. They were not implemented because the company was unwilling to negotiate such matters, and the workers lacked the will (and likely the broader public support that would have been needed) to seize their factories, show the managers the door, and start running them themselves – working to meet urgent social needs instead of quarterly earnings targets. And so Lucas gradually disintegrated, some bits sold off to other companies, and most of the operations simply shut down.

The bosses lack the imagination and the sense of urgency needed to resolve this crisis. Leaving them in charge can only lead to mass unemployment, ecological catastrophe, abandoned facilities, and a landscape littered with toxic waste.

We need rapid action to slash greenhouse gases and remediate (to the extent possible) the damage that has already been done. Climate action shouldn’t mean lost jobs – done right, with unions and community organizations in the lead, it can mean better work for most people than what’s on offer today. A just transition to a sustainable economy would transform work more broadly, increasing the power of all workers.

We would decide what work needs to be done, drawing upon our experience and our knowledge of our workplaces and our communities to create solutions that slash pollution and waste – enriching our lives and our communities in the process.

But this will only happen if workers fight for it. The future that the bosses and politicians are stumbling toward is bleak indeed.

Global Warming: Get Rid of Capitalism!

by Bangladesh Anarcho Syndicalist Federation, ASR 78 (Winter 2020)

As the climate warms, it changes the nature of global rainfall, evaporation, snow, stream flow and other factors that affect water supply and quality. Specific impacts include: Warmer water temperatures affect water quality and accelerate water pollution.

A World Bank report released a few months ago, “Shock Waves: Managing the Impact of Climate Change on Poverty,” predicts that global warming will push 100 million more people into extreme poverty over the next decade and a half. … This would add a hundred million to the roughly 700 million people earning $1.90 a day or less, or what the World Bank defines as “extreme poverty.”

The people of the poorest countries are the most threatened, especially the people of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. According to the report, climate change will have terrible consequences for agriculture and health of the poor parts of the world. Crop yields will be reduced by 5 percent by 2030. This will cause food costs to rise for the poorest people. Natural disasters, like flooding, will become more frequent. And diseases will become more widespread among the poorest parts of the world.

In 2015, 195 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, a non-binding treaty aiming to keep the global average temperature rise to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” The signatories commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a report comparing the probable impacts of a 1.5°C global warming with 2°C and assessing what it would take to keep to the lower level. The report came out in October 2018 and synthesizes all published research to 15th May 2018. However, the official version is not as written by the scientists who authored it. The final wording is the outcome of political negotiations and is heavily redacted. We know from leaks that the US was one of the governments intent on watering it down.

The full report makes it clear that the consequences will be severe even if the 1.5°C target is met. It also states that, “there is a very high likelihood that under current emission trajectories and current national pledges the Earth will warm more than 1.5 degrees above targets set in Paris…” This was cut from the final report. Also omitted was the verdict that if countries make the cuts they say they will then the world is on course for a 3°C warming by 2100. And if they don’t, global warming could go as high as 7°C!

This latest IPCC report only confirms the complete inadequacy of the Paris Agreement and the huge gap between words and necessary action if the planet is going to be able to sustain human civilization or any life at all. That Agreement fails on all four counts that scientists and environmental groups agree need to be met, namely:

1. Catalyze immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions

These cuts, or “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) were drawn up by governments, based on what they were prepared to deliver, not on what scientists think is needed. They go nowhere near far enough. For instance, aviation and shipping emissions, which are as large as the emissions of Britain and Germany combined, were not even included. Meanwhile, Australia’s blatant refusal to phase out coal by 2050 to keep emissions within the Paris target highlights the absurdity of expecting each capitalist power to put the survival of the globe before its own national (profit-making) interest. The world’s biggest coal exporter said it would be “irresponsible” to comply with the IPCC recommendation to stop using coal to generate electricity. Instead the government’s priority is to cut domestic electricity prices, not greenhouse gas emissions, which have risen for four consecutive years! Coal generates two-thirds of Australia’s electricity and earned it a record A$61bn in exports in the 2017-18 financial year. In China, slowing ‘economic growth’ has led the government to withdraw emission curbs on heavy industries only recently introduced to reduce disastrous levels of air pollution. Can’t let difficulty breathing affect profit-making.

2. Provide adequate support to “developing nations” for transformation

According to the International Energy Agency, transformation to a fossil-free world will require $1,000bn per year by 2020. Around two-thirds of this, $670bn, will need to be spent in “developing nations,” requiring a significant transfer of finance from North to South. The big capitalist countries hold just 10% of the world’s population but produce around 60% of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere.

However, the Paris Agreement only commits to “mobilizing” $100bn per year by 2020, to cover not just emission cuts but also adaptation. The definition of “mobilize” is deliberately broad, to include loans, private finance, grants with strings attached, and re-allocation of aid budgets. There is even talk of calling money sent home by migrants working in richer countries a form of climate finance, and counting it in the total “mobilized” by the US, France, Germany, etc. In short, the proposed funding is totally inadequate, when it’s not a complete fiction. It is totally dwarfed by the estimated $5,300bn a year governments spend on direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels.

3. Deliver justice for impacted people

According to the UN Environment Programme, on top of an annual $670bn needed for emissions cuts by 2020, vulnerable countries will need another $150bn per year for adaptation measures to protect them from the worst impact of climate change. The UN’s $100 billion put forward represents less than 15% of what is formally needed!

The large capitalist powers are the biggest polluters but the idea that they should make a commensurate contribution to a solution has been watered down at the behest of the US and others. The Paris deal just says that “developed countries” should “take the lead” on providing finance, as part of a “shared effort” by all parties.

4. Focus on genuine, effective action rather than false solutions

The Paris agreement aims to reduce anthropogenic emissions by the second half of this century, yet a 1.5° target requires a definitive end to fossil fuel use by 2050! Plus, the deal allows for continued fossil-fuel burning “offset” by “removals” via dubious carbon capture, geo-engineering or forestry schemes. Regulations to rein in destructive industries, halt deforestation and stop mining fossil fuels are not even hinted at. And the agreement has no precedence over existing or new trade agreements, allowing firms to overturn environmental regulations when profits are threatened. In short, it is more a PR exercise than a serious plan to reduce emissions. When Trump withdrew the United States from the ‘deal’ just over a year ago, it was of little consequence. Its goals are far too little too late.

Capitalism is killing the planet. Even where a price might be put on it, the cost of cleaning up the environment is greater than the value of economic growth as measured by GDP. (Hence the agreement’s blurring over how to pay for its feeble recommendations.) The disappearance of species, toxins in food, water, air, land, indicate capitalism’s ravaging of the planet. The profits capitalism makes from exploiting the working class would be negated if they had to include environmental cost in their production. No amount of climate accords, spurious recycling schemes, or whatever can reconcile capitalism’s pursuit of profit with Marx’s insight on the need to hand the globe down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. The answer should be staring every environmentalist in the face: Get rid of capitalism!

Interestingly, a recent poll showed that concern about climate change reflects the global class structure. The poorer countries, with Africa and Latin America leading the pack, say climate change is of “grave concern.” By contrast, even though climate change is recognize as a real problem by international institutions of Empire, less than half of the people polled in the United States see climate change as a serious problem. …

Revolution [is not] the [inevitable] consequence of class struggle. There is another possibility: our common ruin. This is the reality that humanity faces. Global capitalism is pushing our planet, our common home, to its limits. The First World culture of consumption and waste is pushing the environment to a breaking point. The majority of humanity, the global poor, the proletariat suffers. A minority, the global rich, the bourgeoisie consume more and more, waste more and more.

If we are to avoid our common ruin, if there is to be a future for our children and their children, we must awaken. We are the vast majority. We are the only ones who can stop this madness. Time is running out. Now is the time to raise the banner of the Global People’s Struggle for Anarcho-Syndicalism. Ruin or revolution?

Outlaw Unions, Illegal Strikes

by Jon Bekken, ASR 79 (Spring 2020)

The 1970 wildcat postal strike quickly threatened to expand to other federal government workers, forcing the federal government to seriously negotiate with public workers for the first time.

Public sector workers had been organizing for more than 150 years, fighting poverty wages, unsafe working conditions, shakedowns by party bosses, and abusive treatment more generally. But even where their unions were not outlawed, the right to strike almost always was – and the government proved as vicious in fighting strikes as did any private sector boss. Aside from building trades workers, who carried their unions (and their working conditions) with them when they took public sector jobs, most early public sector labor organizations might be better described as associations than unions, offering insurance, lobbying and other benefits.

There were exceptions, including the Boston policemen, who struck in 1919 after union officials were suspended and threatened with firing if they did not dissolve the union. The largest teachers’ union was formed as a loose federation that officially rejected strikes. More militant teachers’ organizations, such as those in the Chicago Teachers Federation, which began organizing in the 1890s, scared the Board of Education so much that membership was made a fireable offense. Fed up with low wages, no job security and enormous class sizes, and inspired by a resurgent labor movement, teachers’ unions conducted dozens of strikes in the 1940s, and have continued striking to the present day. Most of these strikes were illegal and hundreds of union leaders and strike activists were imprisoned, but by the 1970s most states were forced to tolerate teacher (and other public sector) unions, and many legalized strikes rather than suffer the indignity of workers successfully thumbing their noses at the law.

By the 1950s a handful of states, including Wisconsin (which more recently has imposed draconian restrictions) accepted collective bargaining. But the absence of such rights did not stop workers from organizing unions (California recognized public employee unions only in 1978, but rank-and-file unions had long had a strong presence) or from striking. The famous 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis to support the workers) was illegal and local officials long refused to recognize or negotiate with the union.

Even today, only 12 states recognize public employees’ right to strike – just as many completely bar them from union recognition or collective bargaining. But workers have organized in every state, whether or not they have legal rights, and have won better conditions through their struggles. Some of the massive state-wide teachers strikes in recent years were in states that officially ban collective bargaining (strikes were illegal in all but Colorado), and New York City transit workers struck in 1966, 1980 and again in 2005 despite a state law prohibiting strikes and providing for massive fines and imprisonment of union officials. (More than a thousand workers marched with TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint when he surrendered to serve three days in jail; the union was also fined $2.5 million – far less than workers gained in the final contract.)

In 1970, U.S. postal workers belonged to eight separate craft unions, including the National Association of Letter Carriers, which lobbied Congress for better pay, assisted workers with grievances, and managed union benefit plans. There was no collective bargaining and strikes were illegal. A 1968 study reported “widespread disquiet” as a result of “antiquated personnel practices … [and] appalling working conditions.” In New York City, high living costs had forced many postal workers onto welfare to supplement incomes eroded by surging inflation. There had been several small wildcats, such as a 1969 “sick-out” by 72 workers at the Kingsbridge Station in the Bronx. So when the Letter Carriers’ Bronx-Manhattan local voted to strike and set up picket lines around New York City post offices, 25,000 drivers and clerks joined the strike, shutting down postal operations in the city. The strike quickly spread to workers throughout New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut despite union statements discouraging strike action. The strike shut down New York’s financial industry, kept 9,000 people from receiving draft notices, delayed the mailing of census forms and tax refunds, and generally disrupted the country’s communications. By March 21, the strike had spread to more than 200 cities and towns across the country, including Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Denver and Boston.

Ultimately, more than 200,000 postal workers in 15 states joined the wildcat. Government and union officials moved quickly against the strike. The courts quickly issued an injunction against the New York strikers, and the head of the Letter Carriers said the union’s executive council was considering expelling the New York City local because of the strike. Chicago postal workers voted to strike the same day postal union leaders called upon workers to end the strike in exchange for a government promise to consider workers’ demands. The next day, New York City postal workers voted almost unanimously to defy the back-to-work agreement.

The government had to act, as the strike was on the verge of spreading to other government employees. The head of the American Federation of Government Employees reported that he had to intervene personally to prevent several strikes. National Federation of Federal Employees locals throughout the country indicated that they wanted to strike in support of the postal workers. The National Association of Government Employees similarly heard from union members across the country who wanted to strike, looking to the postal workers as examples. Injunctions and heavy fines were levied on union leaders; but the workers paid no attention. President Richard Nixon took time off from bombing Cambodia to dispatch 24,000 soldiers to distribute the mail in New York City, but they were ineffective. While Nixon insisted there would be no negotiations until workers abandoned the strike, Secretary of Labor William Usery quietly began negotiations that brought the strike to an end.

Postal workers won improved conditions and a 6 percent wage increase retroactive to 1969, with another 8 percent to follow. But while the government agreed to collective bargaining, the Postal Reorganization Act passed in April 1970 continued the ban on postal strikes, instead providing for binding arbitration.

Following the strike, five unions representing postal clerks, mail processors, maintenance and motor vehicle workers merged into a new American Postal Workers Union, and several strike activists were elected to local and national union office.

This was the first nation-wide strike of government employees, and the first nation-wide strike in recent decades to be carried on not only independently of, but in opposition to, national union officials. The strikers did not play by the rules of the game. The risks they took were considerable. Striking against the government is a felony, punishable by a year and a day in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The Great Postal Strike of 1970 was the moment they were “standing 10 feet tall instead of groveling in the dust,” as a Manhattan letter carrier put it. They got fed up, joined together, and transformed both the Postal Service and their own lives forever.

Sources: Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Revised edition), PM Press, 2014. Philip F. Rubio,There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality, University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Revolt of the Good Guys: Remembering the 1970 US Postal Strike

By David Feldmann, ASR 79 (Spring 2020)

This March marks the 50th anniversary of the 1970 postal strike. Postal workers across the country struck the federal government for better pay and working conditions after years of stagnating wages, mistreatment by postal management, and an indifferent Congress which refused to address and resolve any of the key grievances of the nation’s letter carriers employed by the U.S. Post Office Department (the predecessor to today’s U.S. Postal Service). Until 1970, this dynamic seemed unlikely to change – indeed, it took the largest wildcat strike in U.S. history to make it change.

In New York City, where the strike began, despite opposition from postal management and union leaders alike, most postal workers were eligible for welfare benefits, yet Congress would not vote in favor of granting raises to the postal workforce.

Year after year, letter carriers worked for low pay in increasingly decrepit postal installations. At that time, a carrier started at an annual salary of $6,176 and didn’t reach peak pay of $8,442 until they had twenty years on the job. In areas with high costs of living, even peak pay put postal workers below the poverty line. Beginning with carriers represented by Branch 36 in New York City, the strike soon included over 200,000 workers in multiple postal crafts – mail handlers, clerks, and ancillary employees. As federal workers, every one of these strikers was engaged in an illegal labor stoppage and faced termination and possible imprisonment, which begs the question: Why did these workers risk everything?

This very question was asked of a letter carrier walking a picket line by a news reporter in the midst of the strike (a video clip of which can be seen in the AFL-CIO produced documentary, “The Strike At 40,” available on YouTube):

“What if what you’re doing is illegal?”

“I don’t care. Now, I know it’s against the law…if they want to put me in jail, put me in jail. But they haven’t got a jail big enough to put all of us in!”

While these straightforward words of defiance were common among the rank-and-file, union leadership was much more cautious and diplomatic. In fact, the NALC never openly called for a strike and made a point of ordering strikers back to work after the initial strike vote in NYC. Eventually, as carriers in city after city followed suit and went out on strike themselves, the real leaders of the NALC proved to be carriers themselves.

Following successful strike votes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, Postmaster General Blount promised the heads of the NALC that demands would be considered but only if workers went back to their stations and resumed mail delivery. The response from Branch 9 workers in Minneapolis seemed to reflect the sentiment of posties nationwide: “Congress has consistently given us promises. We’re not going to work merely for more promises.”

The strike continued. More strike votes passed throughout Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and Massachusetts. There were even rumors of strikes among other federal workers represented by AFGE and NFFE, no doubt inspired by the resolve of the postal workers. Over the next several days, workers set up picket lines at numerous post offices. Most of these were reportedly “hard” picket lines, with non-striking workers forcefully prevented from crossing.

President Nixon told the nation that no further negotiation would occur until strikers returned to work. He even declared a national emergency and called in National Guard troops to work as scab labor at mail sorting facilities in New York. By all accounts, this was a disastrous move. Lacking basic training in mail sorting, troops were unable to process even a small fraction of mail which had accumulated in previous days. For all intents and purposes, mail delivery was halted nationwide. The stock exchange was closed.

In the face of a crippled economy and continued public support for the strikers, the striking federal workers appeared to have all the bargaining power in the world. Despite threats that union officials and shop stewards were in danger of being jailed, the official NALC leadership relented and began talks with federal authorities and postal management, even going as far as to acknowledge the legitimacy of the strikers’ demands. Herman Sandbank, Executive Vice President of NALC Branch 36, told the NY Times, “the membership insisted on us leading them in a strike and there was no way we could hold them back because they were right.” Eight days after it began, the federal government conceded and the postal strike ended in victory for America’s postal workers.

Soon, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act which transformed the Post Office Department into the semi-independent United States Postal Service, ensuring the continuation of universal service to postal customers throughout the country. The postal unions gained stronger bargaining rights though the right to strike, the very tactic which had won these gains, remained illegal. Wages and working conditions improved. Several unions consolidated to become the American Postal Workers Union but the NALC and the Mail Handlers union remained separate.

No union leaders or members were jailed for their participation in the historic and unprecedented strike. The improvements in pay, conditions and dignity on the job for postal workers in subsequent years are incalculable. Despite a massive decrease in first-class mail volume the last twenty years, the USPS continues to handle billions of packages a year in addition to letters, cards, magazines, etc. The current number of postal employees remains more than half a million strong. Were another postal strike to occur today, we can only surmise the level of public support and economic impact it would have but it’s probably safe to assume that, as in 1970, it would be led by postal workers themselves.

One would hope that the militancy of yesteryear would recur, exemplified by these words spoken by a letter carrier on the picket line, “We can not take it any longer. Either they give us what we should have or we will stay out on strike until hell freezes over.”

An earlier version appeared in the March 2019 NALC Branch 9 newsletter.

An Election in Hell

by Wayne Price, ASR #80 (Summer 2020)

The United States is moving toward a national election in the midst of a collapse of world civilization. It is a disaster of an unknown duration, consisting of the covid-19 plague and the economic collapse it has triggered. Meanwhile the catastrophe of climate change continues to loom over everything. Whatever issues were previously important, the overwhelming concern now is how President Trump and his Republican Party have been dealing with the crisis. As any fair-minded observer will agree, their response has been disastrous.

The reaction of people on the Left has varied. Liberals take it for granted that they will vote for Democrat Joseph Biden for president to defeat the vile Donald Trump. Many, perhaps most, former supporters of Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” agree. Holding their noses, they will vote for Biden, although they will not “endorse” or “campaign” for him, they say. Others will not choose between Biden and Trump. Of these radicals, some (particularly those close to anarchism) will not vote at all, while others will cast a protest ballot for Howie Hawkins of the Green Party.

I am not going to argue here about what individual leftists should do about voting. I do not much care. The votes of a small number of radicals, out of millions, will not have an effect either way. This is especially true for most voters who live in “safe states,” where the outcome is foreordained. (I live in New York State, where the electoral college votes are guaranteed for the Democrats.)

The real question is what radicals should advocate be done by progressive voters and organizations. What should the unions be doing about this and other elections? How do we suggest the African-American community should act? Latinx communities? other communities of color? LGBTQ groups? environmental organizations? feminist groupings? These forces are the base of the Democratic Party (which, like the Republicans, does not have a membership as such). Their organizing, mobilizing, get-out-the-vote activities, phone banking and donations of money have been essential to the functioning of the Democrats. Should they continue this strategy? Should they attempt to build a new, third, party? Or should they quit the electoral process altogether for a strategy of demonstrating, organizing, occupying and striking? As a revolutionary anarchist, I advocate the last.

President Trump

The United States is the richest and most powerful nation on earth, even if its relative power has been declining over the past decades. Its economy was highly profitable during the decade-long recovery from the Great Recession. It was “profitable” for the upper classes, not so much for most people; but there was a relatively high employment rate, even if jobs were shaky and low-paid. Economists, both conventional and radical, had been saying for years that the prosperity was brittle and vulnerable to a shock. Now we have had the shock and the capitalist economy has collapsed.

Worst of all, public health and the economy have been in the hands of a completely incompetent government – ruled by Donald Trump, a narcissistic, ignorant, fool, lacking all empathy let alone common sense. His stupidity and weak self-confidence make him disdain all scientific advisors. Vast numbers of people have died due to his inability to organize an appropriate response to the plague.

It is tempting to see Trump as an accidental freak. Then, when he is voted out, things will return to “normal.” This is exactly how Biden presents matters, but it is dangerously misleading. Trump is solidly supported by his party despite his compulsive lying. Republican governors are as dangerously ignorant as Trump in regard to health care and other issues. About 40% of voters support Trump no matter what he does. Big business, while never wild about Trump, likes much of his, and his party’s, policies: enormous tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, reactionary judges, etc. These “conservative” forces will not go away, even if the Democrats take over the White House and both houses of Congress. They will be a constant threat – and a temptation for the Democrats to compromise with, as they have repeatedly done in the past.

This is not to say that Trump or Trumpism is “fascist” (or “neo-fascist”) as many do. Undoubtedly, there are fascist traits in this administration and its supporters (including a crazed minority which does identify as Nazis). Trump is authoritarian, refuses oversight by the legislative branch, sneers at the courts, attacks and denigrates most of the media, and undermines the professionalism of the executive branch. Against the states, he declares that he has “total” power. He whips up his supporters with nativist and racist rants. He panders to the most right wing and hysterical part of his base and refuses to directly criticize the outright fascists.

For all that, he does not have an independent organization of violent gangs, such as Hitler’s stormtroopers or Mussolini’s fascisti. And he can be voted out of office, which no fascist would let happen. He might wish to be president-for-life, but the military, political and business establishments will not let him. They are not (yet?) at a crisis where they might accept this, nor would they want such a ditzy incompetent as ruler.

Sanders the “Socialist”

Many radicals had high hopes for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He called himself a democratic socialist and advocated a “political revolution.” The Democratic Socialists of America went all out for him. And Sanders did astonishing well for a “socialist.” He won in a number of states, getting a great deal of support from young people, from workers, and from Latinx. However he was never going to be allowed to win the nomination (let alone the presidency). The Democratic establishment pulled together all the “moderate” candidates and made a bloc behind Biden. Sanders was never able to win the African-American vote (especially older people). A similar steamroller ran over the other “progressive” candidate, Elizabeth Warren. The capitalists were, if anything, even more hostile to her than to Bernie, due to her history of backing strong regulation of banks and other businesses. She had to go.

In any case, Sanders was never much of a “socialist.” He did not call for the expropriation of any section of big business. He did not propose to replace corporations with a non-profit cooperative system of production. His model of “socialism,” he repeatedly stated, was the Nordic (Scandinavian) countries or the U.S. New Deal. That is, capitalist, market-driven, profit-oriented economies with government regulation and a high level of social welfare. Whatever the virtues of this program, it is inadequate to deal with the fundamental crises which the system is facing.

None of the socialist leaders who backed Bernie discussed the dismal history of socialist governments that were elected to office. There was Mitterand in France, Allende in Chile, and recently Syriza in Greece, Lula’s Workers’ Party in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, not to mention the current woes in Venezuela. These and many other examples (the various Labour Party governments in Britain) show that it doesn’t end well for socialists to be elected to take over a capitalist state and its capitalist economy. The socialist regime may be undermined by the established state bureaucracy or by the ruling rich’s control of the economy (such as an investment “strike”), causing enough chaos that the regime is voted out, or the regime is intimidated into accepting the capitalists’ demands (Syriza), or, if “necessary,” the socialists are overthrown by the military or fascist forces (Allende). Even if Bernie had been elected, very likely he would have been stymied in his progressive programs, making him ineffectual. As anarchists have long argued, we cannot reach socialism (however defined) by using the state.

What is significant is that a large minority of the U.S. population is attracted to “socialism,” while others were willing to support a “socialist,” whether or not they agreed with the label. To the extent that young people put a clear meaning to the term, they have been taught to mean reformist state socialism. But the possibility of attracting them to revolutionary anarchist-socialism is there.

Joe Biden

Joseph Biden was an uninspiring politician who lost two earlier tries at the presidential nomination. His memory was poor and he was prone to “gaffes,” which are worse now in his seventies. He told lies to look good (such as claiming to have been arrested for trying to see Mandela in South Africa). For such reasons, he did poorly in the early stages of the nomination process and was outshone by younger, more inspiring “moderate” candidates. His only strengths were his name recognition, the image (true or not) that he had the best chance of beating Trump, and that he had been Barack Obama’s vice president. But the Democratic establishment decided that the “moderates” had to rally around one person in order to keep Bernie out. They decided that Biden was good enough. All the other “moderates” capitulated to him. Eventually even Warren, the “progressive,” and Sanders, the “socialist,” did so too.

Supporting a “lesser evil” means admitting to yourself that you are supporting an “evil,” which is psychologically hard to do. So many liberals are trying to persuade themselves that Biden is really not so bad, even pretty good. They note his progressive words, his appeals to Sanders’ and Warren’s bases, his admitted changes in political stances. As he had once made friends with segregationist Democrats and reactionary Republicans, now he was trying to make up to liberals. How sincere any of this is is impossible to say. After all, an opportunist may swing left as well as right, so long as it is not too far left.

I am not going to go over the record of Biden as pro-corporate business, pro-military intervention, pro-racial inequality, misogyny, and generally pro-status quo. (For a full record, see Nathan Robinson’s Current Affairs article, “Democrats, You Really Do Not Want To Nominate Joe Biden.”) Just for example, after pushing Bill Clinton’s repressive crime bill through the Senate in 1994, Biden cheered, “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties [and] … 125,000 new prison cells”! While Biden talks a good game about the climate crisis, he was part of an Obama administration which vastly increased fracking and other forms of carbon energy production. As the radical Kevin Zeese says,

Biden is someone who has been on the opposite side of every issue I have worked on for 40 years – the drug war, mass incarceration, racist police enforcement, marijuana prohibition, the Iraq War, militarism and every war of my lifetime, student debt, climate change, energy policy, racism, and desegregation, shrinking Social Security, corporatism… I can’t think of anything significant that I agree with him on. (April 17, 2020; Actiongreens email discussion)

Zeese said he will vote for the Green Party candidate.

The only real argument for electing Biden is that he is not Trump. It is that Trump, while not a fascist, is not simply another bad Republican. That he is something way outside the box, whose politics intersect with a freakish personality to be exceptionally dangerous in a time of extreme crisis. Many respected radicals have made this claim.

However, it is also true that the Democrats have had their part in creating Trump and Trumpism. Look again at the historical record. Reactionary Republican presidents have repeatedly been followed by moderate Democrats, who have been followed by an even worse reactionary Republican. Again and again. Nixon by Carter by Reagan-Bush by Clinton by Bush by Obama by Trump. In no case has electing Democrats led to the end of the right-wing Republican threat. The Democrats play the “good cop” and the Republicans play the “bad cop.” Neither party is able to cure the ills of capitalism, which has repeatedly driven sections of the population toward the only other alternative offered by our two-party political system.

The Way Out

The pandemic was created by global semi-monopoly capitalism, with its intersection of urbanism, industrial agriculture and wild nature; its global production chains and travel; its weakened public health services; and its nation-states. With its unrelenting drive for quantitative growth, profit and accumulation, capitalism had to upset the ecological balance between humans and the rest of nature. Capitalism is the virus. Continuation of capitalism will only lead to more pandemics, climate catastrophes, economic crashes and disastrous wars. What strategy leads to a revolution for a non-capitalist, cooperative, participatory-democratic and ecologically balanced society?

Historically, the main progressive advances in politics have come from direct action outside the electoral system. The great strikes of the thirties gave us unions and won the benefits of the New Deal. African-Americans destroyed racial segregation and gained other benefits through massive civil disobedience and “riots.” The war in Vietnam was opposed through huge demonstrations, draft resistance and rebellion in the military. Gay liberation was fought by the Stonewall “riots” and Act Up civil disobedience. Women’s liberation developed in the context of all these popular struggles. And in every case, the movements died down or were tamed when they turned to working through the Democratic Party in elections.

Even under conditions of the plague, people have been self-organizing. There have been strikes by Whole Foods, Instacart and Amazon workers to demand better health protection and more time off. There have been labor actions by poultry, auto, sanitation and warehouse workers. Unionized nurses have been forceful in protesting shortages. Bus workers in Detroit bargained for fare-free bus service. Workers at GE demanded repurposing jet engine factories to make ventilators. Car caravans demanded a moratorium on rent. There has also been mutual aid organizing for people to help themselves and each other, given the failures of the government and big business.

How long the coronavirus plague will last, of course I do not know. I expect the economic collapse to last a good deal longer and the climate crisis to worsen whoever gets elected. Whatever happens in this election (and it would say something positive about the U.S. people if they reject Trump), progress depends on more mass action in the streets, the schools, the offices and the workshops. Only this could lead to a revolutionary reorganization of society.

Reference: Robinson, Nathan J. (2020). “Democrats, You Really Do Not Want To Nominate Joe Biden.” Current Affairs.

“Anti-Government Ideologues” and Coronavirus

from ASR 80 (Summer 2020)

For an anarchist, it is annoying to see the right – whether Trump or Johnson, the Tories or the Republicans – proclaimed “libertarians” or “anti-government.” They are neither, not least because they are members of governments and so repeatedly and regularly use state power to further their own and their backers’ interests.

Yet this does not stop the likes of economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman arguing that “we may not get the [stimulus] program we need, because anti-government ideologues, who briefly got quiet as the magnitude of the Covid-19 shock became apparent, are back to their usual tricks.” (Starve the Beast, Feed the Depression: Anti-government ideology is crippling pandemic policy) Yet what are they actually doing? Krugman notes the following:

Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows what is really happening: McConnell is trying to get more money for businesses while continuing to shortchange state and local governments. After all, ‘starve the beast’ – forcing governments to cut services by depriving them of resources – has been Republican strategy for decades. This is just more of the same.

Which raises an obvious question: how is the politicians of a governing party seeking to funnel government money into the hands of business an example of “anti-government ideology” in action? In reality, it is government action and so these “anti-government ideologues” are responding to the crisis – they are using the government machine they are part of to funnel monies to the wealthy, to the capitalist class, to corporations. Yes, this is not what is required now. Yes, they are obstructing and squeezing out more sensible policies. Yes, they will cause vast suffering – but it is hardly “anti-government” when politicians use the bloody government to pursue their favored policies.

So how is a government bill which sought to give billions to corporations “anti-government ideology”? How was the goal of giving the head of the federal government carte blanche over $500 billion “anti-government ideology”? How is skewing government action towards favored sections of capital an example of “anti-government ideology”? Is it that flawed and self-interested government action is not really government action? Is it that the recipients of government largess determine its “anti-government” credentials rather than the fact of government action?

Simply put, the government having the wrong – whether subjectively or objectively – policies is not “anti-government ideology”: it is government action. Thus we have the frankly bizarre situation that many – including well-educated professors – view giving $500 billion to corporations as an expression of “anti-government ideology” but giving an identical amount to the people would be “government intervention”! Strange…

Then there is this example of cognitive dissidence:

Early Monday Trump tweeted out an assertion that he has the power to overrule state governors who have imposed lockdown orders – which suggests that we may have a constitutional crisis brewing, because as far as anybody knows he has no such power. (Economists Aren’t the Ones Pushing to Reopen the Economy: On cronies, cranks and the coronavirus).

Sadly, Krugman does not explain how seeking autocratic power and concentrating even more power into the hands of the head of the government expresses “anti-government” ideology, feelings or policies. Presumably, if Trump does indulge his authoritarian instincts and refuses an election or refuses to admit defeat and the Republicans back him then we would have an “anti-government dictatorship”? Presumably any citizen protesters shot by troops – or by pro-Trump activists – in such a scenario would be victims of “anti-government government violence”?

Or, to take another example, Trump using government power to force the meatpacking industry to open and to protect the companies from future lawsuits. Then there is the awkward fact that Trump and the Republicans have been very happy to increase funding for the armed forces, indeed they even want to add a new branch – Space Force! – to the armed might of the state! How is that the action of “anti-government ideologues”? Or is it a case of “in space no one can hear you rant about Ayn Rand” and so does not count?

In the UK we have to suffer comments like these on “the innate Tory distrust of collectivism and state intervention – which Johnson shares, whatever his rhetoric” (John Harris, “We can’t hide behind the bunting – let’s face up to what’s happened to Britain,” The Guardian, 12 May). This completely ignores the fact that the Tories have made state intervention against, say, trade unions a leitmotif of their administrations (one which Johnson vocally championed and, in his election manifesto, promised to increase). Does this mean laws regulating workers’ organizations and actions are not “state intervention”? What of the centralization of funding and control under Thatcher, which gutted the independence of local councils? Is that not “state intervention”?

The facts are the Republicans and Tories are opposed to the state acting even slightly in the interests of the population but in favor of it acting in the interests of the elite, the capitalist class and their various hangers-on. Yet anti-worker policies and interventions are still state intervention. So we must neither forget that the state intervenes all the time, for numerous reasons, nor that these “anti-government ideologies” will never refuse to use the state to protect capitalist property rights. Nor will they refuse to use governmental forces if people decide not to pay rent, utility bills, etc. as a result of Covid-19 impacting their income. Nor let people act for themselves – they will send in police and troops if, say, homeless people take over a hotel or hospital staff take needed equipment from warehouses, private or public, without paying for it or getting permission from the appropriate bureaucrats.

That the right wants to limit state action to specific and very narrow sections of society does not mean government action is restricted or limited, for helping capital can be a very expensive business. Moreover, it increases state power, for it does not reduce the repressive functions which are its essence; in fact the powers of repression must be strengthened as free competition results in more discord and inequality. Thus the so-called paradox of “free market, strong state” is no such thing.

The government acting in the interests of business (or, at least, certain sections of it, as some bosses seem to be aware that dead workers cannot produce profits for them) is hardly “anti-government” – not least decreeing that capitalists cannot be sued by those (more correctly, their next of kin) who are infected as a result of being forced by necessity to go back to work. Still, this will not stop many on the left proclaiming elements of the right as “anti-government” or “libertarian” when the reality of the situation is clearly and obviously the opposite.

So in terms of left and right, the Situationists were correct: theory is when you have ideas and ideology is when ideas have you. Although, is it fair to call the right ideologues when they clearly have no ideas?

Still, the right are seeking with unseemly haste to kill workers to “save the economy,” or, more correctly, the profits, interest and rent extracted from labor. Yet the dangers of reopening without disease control or a vaccine can be seen at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, USA. Its boss offered workers a bonus if they showed up every day in April to increase attendance and it worked. However. in a pandemic, this simply encouraged the sick to haul themselves into work and so the plan backfired. Hundreds of Smithfield employees were infected, forcing the plant to shut down for more than three weeks. Another example: A hairstylist from Missouri potentially exposed more than 90 customers and colleagues to coronavirus after going to work for a week with symptoms of the disease.

The right want to repeat the same mistake across the whole economy. It is no coincidence that Senior White House Economic Adviser Kevin Hassett called working people “human capital stock.”

Needless to say, genuine libertarians – libertarian socialists – are urging people to understand and follow the advice of the experts. This means the epidemiologists rather than the politicians who filter that advice. Likewise, we should be dismissive of others who claim a competency where none exists. So, for example, while many economists have been asked – often not even asked! – to talk about how to manage the pandemic, few – if any – epidemiologists have been asked about managing the economy. Which seems unfair, particularly as most economists understand how a real capitalist economy works about as well as the typical epidemiologist.

Which brings the relevance of libertarian tactics to the fore. Direct action and solidarity is what we need now. Solidarity with our fellow workers means self-isolating until it is deemed safe not to. It means direct action when it is not safe. As such we applaud the welcoming sight of workers walking out when faced with unsafe working practices during the current crisis. According to a Guardian report, dozens of employees at an American Apparel clothing plant in Selma, Alabama, took direct action on April 23 after two workers tested positive for coronavirus. The plant has remained open during the pandemic to manufacture face masks for a U.S. army contract. “We left for our own protection,” said employee Norma Kennedy. “Beforehand, management said if someone tested positive they would shut down and have the plant cleaned. When workers tested positive, they didn’t want to shut it down. They’re not really concerned about the workers.” Elsewhere, Ieshia Townsend, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago, walked off the job in protest of the lack of hazard pay, proper personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and health insurance benefits: “Workers like me are going on strike because McDonald’s and other billion-dollar corporations do not care about us as workers. They don’t care if we’re safe on the job, they don’t care if we’re sick on the job.”

As anti-government – and anti-capitalist – theorists, anarchists should be encouraging such actions and arguing that the only genuinely safe way of opening the economy is through workers’ control. Likewise, we need to resist the Trumpian death cult attempts to “open” the economy at the expense of working-class lives. We should be following the example of the medical workers who, in suitable PPE, protested the Astroturf “reopen the country” events. Solidarity, like mutual aid, in a pandemic is essential – profit-grinding is not and will get you killed. And we must never forget that there are better ways to help those workers who are suffering during the crisis.

To conclude: we must use a new, better, label to describe this. These words from the very first issue of Freedom (October 1886) are still appropriate:

To understand the Governmental application of laissez-faire learn the two following rules of thumb. 1. When the proprietors molest the proletariat, laissez-faire. 2. When the proletariat resist the proprietors, interfere to help the proprietors.

So a suggestion: how about replacing “anti-government” with “anti-worker”? This is a far more accurate label, not least because it resolves the apparent contradiction of “anti-government ideologues” being in the government and using it for their own goals.

— Iain McKay

Rebellion Sweeps U.S.

from ASR 80

As this issue of ASR was getting ready for press a massive uprising against racism and police brutality erupted across the United States in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by cop Mark Chauvin on May 24. Led largely by black youth, multi-racial crowds ignored the dangers of possible contagion by Covid-19 to expose and confront the equally deadly plague of racist police violence that has taken the lives of so many black workers over the decades. Amadou Dialo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Lacquan McDonald, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Gray, Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbery and on and on and on, all murdered by police or vigilantes because their killers considered their lives worthless.

Floyd’s murder, viewed online and on television by millions, thanks to the courageous action of a 17-year-old who had the awareness to record the murder on her phone, was the final straw for many. Beginning in Minneapolis, demonstrations have spread to all 50 states and internationally. Not surprisingly, protests were often followed by rioting and widespread looting which the plutocratic press were quick to highlight and condemn. The bogeymen of the “outside agitator,” “anarchists,” “criminal elements” hijacking “peaceful protests” were trotted out, including by liberal and progressive politicians, to justify curfews and the harsh repression unleashed by police and National Guard. Still, people continued to come out on the street to denounce police brutality, racism, and social and economic inequality.

As this is written it has been 10 days since pig Chauvin murdered George Floyd and people are still in the streets from sea to shining sea, despite tear gas, pepper balls, flash-bangs, rubber bullets and even live ammunition (killing some) – even in the face of threats by Trump to send federal troops to crush the uprising.

We don’t know how long this uprising will last or what direction it will take. All we know is that people are fed up with this miserable racist, capitalist, statist system. All that can be done is push it as far as the people are willing to take it and preserve any gains and lessons that come out of it. Stay tuned.

ASR 80, Summer 2020

2 Announcement: The Sam Dolgoff Institute
3 Editorials Rebellion Sweeps U.S.
3 “Anti-Government Ideologues” & Coronavirus by Iain McKay
5 Wobbles Folly of Craft Unionism, Destroying Food…
7 Syndicalist News Defending the Elderly, Farmworkers…
8 Articles Indigenous Peoples, Workers & Environmentalists Attacked in Canada by John Kalwaic
9 An Election In Hell by Wayne Price
11 Understanding South Africa’s Incomplete Liberation: An Anarchist/Syndicalist Analysis by Lucien Van Der Walt
16 Mutual Aid & Solidarity Against the Covid-19 Crisis by Jeff Shantz
17 Anarchy And Covid-19 by Iain Mckay
22 In the Face of the Covid-19 Crisis: The International Confederation of Labor (Icl-Cit) Mobilizes
25 Anarchism, Marxism and the Lessons of the Paris Commune, Part I of III by Iain McKay
32 Reviews Chile’s Uncontrollables by Martin Comack
33 Spanish Anarchists in the United States by Jeff Stein
34 Capitalist Brutality by Ridhiman Balaji
35 The Press’ War On Workers by Jon Bekken
36 Sustainability or Greenwash? by Jeff Stein
37 Economic Planning as a Reconfiguration of Capitalism by Ridhiman Balaji
39 Letters