The Information Railroad

by Jon Bekken, LIBERTARIAN LABOR REVIEW #17 (1994)

Everywhere you turn, nowadays, you bump into the information “revolution.” Politicians prattle about information “super-highways,” national competitiveness and better jobs. Trans­national corporations shift data-entry and computer programming work to Barbados and Ireland, using computers, fiber-optic lines and satellites to move data back and forth. Cable companies promise 150, 300, 500 cable channels – and have scores of Home Shopping Network imitators in development. Computer workstations automatically monitor the number of key strokes per minute in many workplaces, and report that information to the boss. Computer networks make it possible for labor activists and others to keep in almost-instantaneous contact with each other, to coordinate international campaigns and to access a wealth of information.

Vice President Albert Gore speaks of “a planetary information network that transmits messages and images with the speed of light from the largest city to the smallest village on every continent.” This, Gore promises, will lead to

robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solution to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care…. help educate our children… It will be a means by which families and friends will transcend the barriers of time and distance. It will make possible a global information marketplace…

Gore advocated five principles upon which “information highways” should be based: private ownership, competition, minimal regulation, open access and universal service. The U.S. effort would “be built and maintained by the private sector,” Gore said, and he encouraged other countries to do the same. Gore concluded by exulting that telecommunications links “strengthen the bonds of liberty and democracy around the world. By opening markets to stimulate the development of the global information infrastructure, we open lines of communication…”[1]

Similarly, Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown issued a report, “Putting the Information Infra­structure to Work,” which promises “a fundamental change in the way we work, the way we learn, the way we communicate.” Brown looks to information technology to enhance U.S. competitive­ ness, speed electronic commerce, improve health care, improve the environment, sustain libraries “as agents of democratic and equal access to information,” and provide government services faster and more efficiently.[2] President Clinton’s science advisor agrees: “Information highways will revolutionize the way we work, learn, shop and live.”[3] And Gore promised Communications Workers of America members 500,000 new information jobs in the next 18 months.[4]

Computer, cable television and telephone services are. converging – today it is technically possible to deliver similar services over each of these networks, at much higher volumes than  was possible just a decade ago. Hype about the “information superhighway” is nearly inescapable. Whether we like it or not – and we are told that we will like it –corporations are wiring the land, developing a host of new information and video “services,” and deploying information technologies in our workplaces. Indeed, they began deploying earlier versions of these technologies more than ten years ago. But these systems have not been developed with our needs in mind, and to the extent that workers have been consulted at all it has been only as potential consumers. Now the government is trying to speed the course of these developments in ways that would strengthen the corporate stranglehold on what could be an invaluable community resource.

Highways, Webs & Railroads

A great deal of energy has been expended debating the most appropriate metaphor for dis­cussing the evolving system, which the Clinton administration originally described as a National Information Infrastructure. This never caught on, whether because it’s an awkward phrase or because people couldn’t figure out just what was being proposed (after all, infrastructure includes everything from schools to sewers). Instead, politicians, corporate officials and journalists began speaking of an “Information Highway” (which quickly metamorphosed into a superhighway), a much more concrete metaphor, and one that quickly spawned a host of associated metaphors (Highway Robbers, Potholes, Road Kill, Toll Booths, On Ramps, etc.)

At a recent labor conference many people challenged the “superhighway” metaphor, arguing that highways are lifeless, ugly, unfriendly places (they preferred to think of the emerging information systems as a web – a living, interdependent organism). Others favor “superhighway” precisely because the emerging system looks to be lifeless, a fiber-optic scar across the land. Others thought the emerging systems looked more like a Shopping Mall where everything is for sale and people and ideas are tolerated only if there is money to be made off of them.

This debate over metaphors is an argument over how we should think about the emerging system – its possibilities and dangers, its structure, how it is controlled. To see it as a Shopping Mall is to position it as an abomination; a Web is a much friendlier concept (and one that proponents hope would shape policies in a more congenial direction). Each of these visions is technologically possible, but none really captures the essence of what is presently being built. Thus we are offering our own metaphor, the Railroad.

While railroads and highways both get people and goods from place to place, there are important differences. Ugly as they may be, highways are accessible to any automobile or truck (most exclude bicycles and motor scooters) on equal terms. You might be required to pay a toll (particularly out east), but you go where you want, carry what you will, and move at your own rate of speed (subject, of course, to speeding laws and the highway patrol – restrictions which have led some to favor lnfobahn as a metaphor, after the German autobahns which are reputedly free of such annoyances). Highways are owned by the public.

Railroads, on the other hand, are privately owned. (Passenger service is provided by a government-owned company, Amtrak, but it leases access to rail lines.) The companies which operate them generally have a monopoly over their particular routes, and they can set rates and policies subject only to the constraints of the capitalist marketplace. The owners determine the routes, which towns will be served and which (the vast majority) will  not. They decide which services they will make available. You don’t drive on a railroad, you are cargo – just like the coal and other goods being hauled from place to place.

The railroads have organized their business in such a way as to make it practically inaccessible for the majority of the population (the railroads don’t handle small freight, many communities lack train service, passenger trains run so infrequently, and so poorly, that they are impractical for most people). The service the rail­ roads provide the general public is impoverished and centralized, but this way of running railroads has proven highly profitable to those in charge.

The railroads are like the emerging information system in another important way – they were built on the wholesale theft of valuable public resources. Railroads received massive land grants from the government in exchange for building railroads. By right the railroads ought to belong to us, the entire population, since they were built on our land (often land still held by native Americans) by ill-paid workers with money largely raised from the sale of more of our land. Similarly, the Information Railroad is being built on the back of a publicly owned network of computer networks, the Internet (so called because it is less a physical network than a system for coordinating the informational resources of hundreds of computer systems across the country and the world). Much of the financing for building the system is coming, directly or indirectly, from our taxes, and much of the information being bought and sold is ours as well.

As communication scholar Herbert Schiller notes, the Clinton plan is “a blueprint for corporate domination” sold through the same empty promises that were earlier used to sell radio, television and cable:

The nation’s information/media/culture sector is currently the site of sweeping transformations… Stunning corporate mergers and acquisitions among telephone, computer, cable and entertainment companies, each of them already dominant in their field, are preparing the way for … an unprecedented corporate enclosure of national social and cultural space.[5]


It seems clear that many people will be kept off the Information Railroad routes. A growing number of people – about 7 percent – do not even have basic telephone service, let alone the computers, modems and high-quality lines needed to hook into computer networks. Far fewer people are hooked up to cable television – the other distribution system. Industry is urging the government to abandon even the pretense of universal access for new communication services. Although Vice President Gore suggested that connections to libraries and public schools should be subsidized in the name of universal access (though this would at best set up a distinctly second-class access system for the poor, particularly in an era where both are being starved of the resources to provide even their present functions), a former Federal Communications Com­mission research director argues that universal service policies would discourage investment (in­deed he advocates letting rates for local phone service rise to market levels).[6] Plans filed by four telephone companies with the Federal Communications Commission for “video dial-tone” networks (which would upgrade telephone networks to also deliver movies, television and information services) illustrate why telecommunications companies want to dump universal access requirements. Pacific Bell, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic and U.S. West propose to build their networks almost entirely in wealthy areas. Similarly, when Nynex decided to test the market for interactive services it chose three luxury apartment buildings in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods.[7] The reason is very simple, that’s where the money is.

Information has traditionally been available to the general public through a relatively democratic institution, the public library. Those with money could get information more conveniently (and sometimes more quickly) by buying their own copies of books, magazines and specialized publications, but vast amounts of information were made available through libraries free of cost to anybody able to read it. The Internet is organized on the same principle, but with the difference that anyone can make information available. Increasingly information is being withdrawn from this free public sector and being trans­ formed into a good for sale. Private information vendors have made more information available, but at a price that puts it out of reach of all but the wealthiest. Much of their products are simply electronic compilations of government information that was once available free of charge through government documents libraries; the government is eliminating many of its publications and much of this information, gathered with our tax dollars, is now available only to those who can buy it.[8]

Big Money, Small Dreams

These technologies could easily be used to create a truly public information system, with terminals available to all at public locations (libraries, post offices, stores, schools, workplaces, and union halls) containing a wealth of information (about employers, social services, local events, political concerns, etc.) that people could use to help them in their daily lives. Such a system could provide useful information and, more importantly, it could provide an opportunity for people to communicate with each other – to distribute alternative information, to air their views, to make contact with like-minded people. A truly democratic communication system is technically quite feasible.

But that is not what the corporations have in mind. They see the Information Railroad as a means to deliver products and advertisements to a passive consuming (and paying) audience.

On this point the cable operators, phone companies, computer makers and broadcasters are all agreed. Although they are battling to achieve their cut of the traffic on the highway, they are unanimous in seeking to exclude the public’s participation and interest….

In the long run … hardware sales will be dwarfed by the golden flows that will be extracted from the viewing public for the shows, games, films and specialized data that will be transmitted. Private ownership of the electronic highway confers the right to determine who and what will be given access…

While the electronics and cable companies… claim, for example, that interactive TV heralds the arrival of viewer participation and autonomy already announced plans for the new services belie this promise. Most of the interactivity, in a corporate­ owned and sponsor-supported system, will inevitably be directed to the future invasion of the home with marketing messages …

In addition to the established home shopping networks, cable programmers are waiting in the wings with channels devoted to advertisements, game shows, food and the Macy’s catalogue.[9]

A trade magazine recently listed scores of new cable channels – among them TACH: The Auto Channel, Television Shopping Mall, Lincoln Mint Network (an interactive shopping “service” complete with coupon-dispensing device in your home), Catalog 1 (a Time Warner-Spiegel joint venture featuring 16 upscale catalogs), and a host of music, movie, talk and sports channels.[10] Cable companies talk of 500-channel systems, but most of these channels would be devoted to advertising, to home shopping (even though industry surveys show that 71% of cable subscribers reject such “services”),[11] and to pay-per-view services. There is no money to be made by developing systems – labor channels, public access, dossiers on major corporations with information on their labor and environmental policies (as distinct from information on credit-worthiness and stock prices, which find a ready market), etc. – in which people can talk to each other about our common problems, and therefore they will be put on line only if we buy the bandwidth (inevitably the corporations will be able to outbid us) or we force the owners to open up spaces for the  public.

The Information Railroad is not being built by public interest groups, it is being developed by the giant corporations that already provide telephone and cable television. A $26 billion merger between the Bell Atlantic telephone company and cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. that would have given the merged firm control over phone or cable lines going into more than 40 percent of American homes (and a good deal of the programming carried over those lines) has fallen through. But plenty of other corporations are lining up at the trough looking for a piece of the action.[12] The recent Viacom/Paramount merger, for example, brings together a distributor (Viacom is one of the largest cable operators in the country) and a content provider (Paramount makes films, publishes books and owns sports teams), positioning them to own and control both what we receive and the channels we get it over.[13]

Companies already make about $12 billion a year, primarily by selling information on a pay­-per-use basis to computer users (lawyers, stock and currency brokers and similarly well-heeled interests are the primary customers, and most of the commercial services now available are targeted to their needs – thus there are two competing services providing the full text of all U.S. court decisions and other information for lawyers, but none targeting the more numerous homeless population). They hope to expand in part by broadening the range of information made available and marketing it to new audiences, but also by getting us to pay for information which is presently available for little or no cost.

The High-Tech Jobs Machine

Much of the money driving the Information Railroad isn’t seeking to communicate with the general public, however. Rather, corporations and other institutions have been investing heavily in telecommunications for several years in order to develop and control global business operations and increase the flow of profits by moving work, goods and money around the world almost instantaneously.[14] A recent AFL-CIO Executive Committee statement on Telecommunications Policy embraced Clinton’s national information infra­-structure proposal, but urged “policies to encourage a unionized, high-skill, high-wage workforce … [and] to promote a positive trade balance…”[15] This is precisely what Clinton and the corporations do not have in mind.

While corporations have good reason to believe that these technologies will help improve profitability, there is no reason to believe the claim that high tech jobs will restore American “competitiveness” or create secure, well-paid jobs. Although a handful of high-tech workers (engineers, computer programmers, etc.) are well paid, most workers in computer and other high-tech firms earn miserable wages working in unsafe conditions for subcontractors driven by ruthless competition. Thousands of workers in California’s Silicon Valley, for example, work with toxic chemicals for about $6 an hour (no benefits). If they object or try to unionize their plants are closed and the work transferred to a new sweatshop, whether in the U.S. or any other country where cheap workers can be found. Sometimes these electronic sweatshops go bankrupt owing thousands of dollars in back wages to workers. These workers are prisoners of the “virtual corporation,” where manufacturers such as IBM, Digital Microwave and other industry giants contract out their manufacturing operations to fly-by-night contractors; the resulting corporate “flexibility” is highly profitable to the bosses, and helps keep U.S. workers “competitive” with our fellow workers around the globe.[16]

Nor are engineers and programmers immune from “competitiveness.” Telecommunications, computer and other information industry firms are laying off hundreds of thousands of workers around the world as they turn their technology to the task of eliminating high-paid workers. And much of the surviving work is being transferred to countries like India and Ireland where skilled workers can be hired much more cheaply than in the U.S.[17]

Universities and schools are also succumbing to the lure of high tech exploitation. The State University of New York, for example, is trying to increase faculty “productivity” by offering courses and even entire academic programs via the information railroad. Lectures can be carried by video or as computer files, class discussions and papers by email, and students’ progress monitored by computer. One lecture can be shown to thousands of students around the world, exams can be graded automatically, classrooms and libraries can be phased out, and faculty can be laid off as students are increasingly “taught” by cheap, automated systems.[18]


The Internet is essentially a cooperative. Although it was started with Defense Department funds to link researchers around the country, the Internet now links over 1.5 million computers in 50 countries. Users can scan libraries for obscure books or locate a unionist in another country who shares an interest in a particular corporation’s plans. “The Internet’s structure encourages participation and involvement. User contributions have sustained resources like bulletin boards and archives, which offer others easy access to information… And it is run democratically, with users on diverse sites participating in network administration and maintenance.”[19]

The Internet also suffers from shortcomings. Aside from the handful of cities with established “FreeNets” (local access centers allowing people to hook into the internet by phone), users must pay hourly access charges unless they are affiliated with a University or other institution connected to the Internet. As a result, most Internet users are affiliated (as students, workers, etc.) to universities or other government agencies, hundreds of thousands of other users are on commercial networks (CompuServe [owned by H&R Block], America OnLine, Prodigy, etc.) that al­ready charge for information on a pay-per basis and reserve the right to control the types of information they distribute. In addition to charging users, Prodigy (owned by IBM and Sears Roebuck) sells advertising on the bottom of each screen. People on these corporate networks pay more than do Internet users, but while they don’t always have access to the full range of Internet materials they can access a variety of for-profit databases not available over the Internet including the full text of many newspapers,[20] latest stock prices, weather and travel info, and special­ interest discussion groups similar to, but not interconnected with, those on the Internet.

In any event, federal funding of the Internet ($12 million) is scheduled to end next year, as the feds award new contracts for information networks to private vendors. The Internet will continue for several years even if it is displaced as the primary system, but as more and more people sign on and the funds for maintaining and expanding the system dry up it will increasingly become unreliable. And, of course, much of the information currently available over the Internet is likely to be shifted to the for-profit systems, where providers can charge for access. Indeed, the National Science Foundation recently announced that it is awarding five key contracts to telephone companies  (Pacific Bell,  Ameritech, Sprint, MFS and MCI) to operate Internet Network Access Points and the new Internet high­ speed backbone. Many users fear the telephone companies will seek permission to price service by usage (presently Internet-connected institutions pay a flat fee for connection) and are lobbying against metered pricing in order to preserve the free flow of information through the Internet.

Stopping the Railroad

If current developments continue, the Information Railroad will develop much as radio, television and cable before it – as a system for selling goods and deadening minds with an endless stream of corporate-produced programming. The economic benefits will largely be limited to the handful of giant corporations that provide the programming and own the railroad lines that deliver the endless stream of advertisements and pay-per-view offering to our homes. And the alternative communication systems that have been developing on the Internet and on similar non­profit networks will be forced to the margins.

But there are other possibilities. Many labor and other social movement activists are using computer networks to coordinate their efforts nationally and internationally, to mobilize inter­ national solidarity, to share information. When the Chinese government massacred its citizens near Tianamen Square, dissidents transmitted detailed, vivid reports instantly by fax, telephone and computer networks to activists throughout the world. During Yeltsin’s recent coup, activists countered the official lies with first-hand reports which were distributed over networks affiliated to the Association for Progressive Communications (in Canada the WEB, in the U.S. LaborNet and PeaceNet). Rank-and-file workers in the auto, airline and trucking industries share information and ideas over LaborNet computer conferences. Workers in Mexico, Indonesia, Russia and other countries post news of their struggles, ask for (and distribute) information about transnational corporations operating in their area, share information about toxic chemicals and other hazards. The IWW’s Industrial Worker is produced by groups scattered across the U.S. and Canada, using electronic mail to find information, edit and discuss articles, and transmit the final articles to Chicago for printing.

In the 1980s, Spanish dockworkers in the Coordinadora union proposed developing a computer network that would link all the European ports (and would be accessible not only to union officials but to any dockworker), and which would make available information on all the major ship­ ping companies, on working conditions, and on labor disputes (thereby preventing shippers from moving from port to port to unload scab goods or to play workers off against each other). That proposal was never implemented, but as computer networks become more widespread it is quite feasible to link workers in every plant companies operate around the world. Such networks could help rank-and-file workers to counter the bosses’ international strategies with their own and to mobilize nearly instantaneous international campaigns.

Several years ago, Sam Dolgoff pointed to the decentralizing and democratic possibilities opened up by the “cybernetic revolution.” Computers and modern telecommunications networks make de­ centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making more feasible, and indeed more efficient than centralization and bureaucracy. Dolgoff noted the vast amount of information even then being distributed over the Internet by scientists, educators and others “who are now already self-organized into local, regional, national and international federations [which] freely circulate information…”

The unfoldment of the new society will depend greatly upon the extent to which its self-governing units will be able to speed up communications; to understand each others’ problems, and thus better coordinate their activities…. The new technological revolution could expedite the disappearance of the parasitic institutions of the state and representative government. …

The organization of the new society will not, as in the state or other authoritarian associations, emanate from “the bottom  up” or from  “the top down” for the simple reason that there will be no top and there will be no bottom. In this free, flexible organization power will naturally flow, like the circulation of the blood, throughout the social body, constantly renewing and revitalizing its cells.[21]

Dolgoff noted that the very same technologies which could open new roads to freedom could be used (and were being used) for very different ends – to regiment individuals and obliterate human values. The new society is not technologically determined, rather we must develop and fight for our own vision of the future.


  1. Albert Gore, Remarks prepared for delivery to In­ternational Telecommunications Union, March 21, 1994, emphasis added. (Distributed electronically over IAMCRNet, International Association for Mass Com­munications Research)
  2. “Brown Releases Report Highlighting Benefits, Barriers of National Information Highway,” News Release, Department of Commerce, distributed electronically. The full report (which I have not read – there is no mention of barriers in the news release) is available for a charge from the National Technical Information Service or electronically under the documents/papers subcategory of the speeches/testimony/ documents category on the gopher.
  3. John Gibbons, quoted in John Burgess, “Can U.S. ride to prosperity on ‘information highway?”‘ Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 10, 1993, lOD.
  4. Harry Jessell, “Gore stumps for superhighway  bill,” Broadcasting  & Cable, June 20 1994, p. 36.
  5. Herbert Schiller, “Highway Robbers,” The Nation, Dec. 20 1993, p. 753.
  6. Peter Pitsch, “Disconnect the Universal Subsidy,” Wall Street Journal , April 4 1994, p. Al2. This position is shared by many in the industry, but is by no means uncontroversial. The head of QVC, a home-shopping company that operates two cable channels and recently tried to buy Paramount, calls for building two competitive information highways. “If you have one wire, then you better have it be a common carrier [like the telephone] and regulated within a true inch of its life.” He seemed quite shocked when his interviewer argued for a single, unregulated wire. Don West and Mark Berniker, “Barry Diller: TV’s Smart Agent,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 231994, pp.19-30, esp. 26-28.
  7. Mary Lu Carnevale, “Coalition Charges Four Phone Firms With ‘Redlining’ in Adding Networks,” Wall Street Journal, May 24 1994, p. B7; Leslie Cauley, “Interactive Trials Are Trials Indeed-Tough to Start and Tough to Judge,” Wall Street Journal, May 18 1994, p. Bl.
  8. This discussion borrows heavily from an interview with Herbert Schiller, “The Information Superhighway: Paving Over the Public,” published in Z Magazine, March 1994, 46-50. ·
  9. Herbert Schiller, “Public Way or Private Road?” The Nation, July 12 1993, 65. Similar prospects await computer users, from the advertisements built into the Prodigy system to the “Internet Ad Emporium” promised in a recent press release from Multimedia Ink Designs of Poway, California.
  10. Broadcasting & Cable, May 23 1994, special section “NCTA ’94.”
  11. Harry Jessell, “Cable ready: The high appeal of interactive services,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 23 1994, p. 75. The article reports that cable subscribers are willing to pay a few dollars more a month for interactive services such as video on demand or information services. The text claims there is widespread interest in interactive TV shopping as well, but 71.1% said no when asked “Would you be willing to shop from your home using interactive TV?” This even though other questions held out the possibility of lower prices.
  12. Though there is a lot of hype too – the Yankee Group found that would-be builders of the information high­way aren’t spending nearly as much money as they claim on interactive media. Pacific Telesis, for ex­ample, claims to be spending $16 billion over seven years, all but two billion of that was already slated for routine maintenance and upgrading of its facilities. Ameritech claims to be spending $33 billion, Yankee says it’s closer to $4.5 billion. John Keller, “They’ll Spend Lots But Lots Less Than They Say,” Wall Street Journal, May 18 1994, pp. Bl, B3.
  13. Erika Wudtke,  “Who’s  watching  the  wires?” MediaFile,  April/May  1994, 10.
  14. These issues were explored in several books by communication scholars (long before information be­ came a subject for politicians’ speeches) including Herbert Schiller’s Who Knows: Information in the Age of the Fortune 500 (Ablex 1981) and Vincent Mosco’s Pushbutton Fantasies (Ablex 1982). For a discussion of the impact of computerization on jobs see Harley Shaiken’s Work Transformed: Automation and Labor in the Computer Age (Lexington Books, 1986).
  15. Statements Adopted by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Bal Harbour, Florida, February 15-18, 16. Elizabeth Kadetsky, “High-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret,” The Nation, April 19 1993, pp. 517-20. These issues are also addressed in Glenna Colclough and Charles Tolbert’s Work in the Fast Lane (State University of New York Press, 1992).
  16. For a running list of these layoffs and detailed discussions of working conditions in the industry see CPU: Working in the Computer Industry.
  17. For a generally optimistic assessment of these developments see “Potholes along the information highway,” The Voice (United University Professions, AFT), April 1994, 8-9, 15.
  18. Betsy Reed, “The Wealth of Information,” Dollars and Sense, March/April 1994, 9.
  19. The National Writers Union has filed suit over this, noting that newspapers and magazines are not paying the freelance and syndicated writers who provide the bulk of their copy for the right to republish their work in electronic form.
  20. Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Mod­ern Society, Third Edition, Charles H. Kerr, 1989, 30-31.

Information & Power

The following excerpt from a proposal by the Spanish Coordinadora dockworkers union, “Information and the Construction of Socialism,” presented at a conference of alternative dock workers unions in Ham­ burg, Germany in 1985, was translated by Carlos Betancourt and Peter Waterman.

He who has information has power. The collection and use of data and information about objects, persons, groups or peoples one wishes to dominate or exploit – this is the secret of the accumulation of power, the manipulation of persons, groups and peoples, the exploitation of natural resources, of natural and human behaviours at the end of the 20th century….

The alternative to the monopolistic accumulation of information is the socialization of information: access to data centres by those persons, groups or peoples about whom information is accumulated in such data banks. Against monopoly, diffusion….

The existence of secret data banks is not only dangerous for the ‘informatised’ (not the same as the ‘informed’) but is as – or more – dangerous than the existence of arsenals of weapons …

In so far as wages and conditions demands are concerned, we need, in the first place, to emphasise the necessity for access to information. In the same way as there exist health and safety committees, there is an undeniable necessity for information-access committees….

In relation to the ports movement

The transport of commodities is the point in the chain of control least dominated by the capitalist structure. Production is strictly controlled by the rigid structure of the enterprise. Consumption is fully dominated by the extreme vulnerability of the isolated individual. Spatial mobility in the transportation of commodities implies a certain distance from immediate control by the instruments of the enterprise structure. And it is here where world capitalism is currently fighting its fundamental battle. And, within transportation, it is precisely in the movement of commodities within ports that there continues a possibility for exercising some kind of counterpower with a certain degree of autonomy and strength….    ·

[The alternative port workers movement should] create information centres which can be used by the base at different points: ports, autonomous trade union organisations, national and international coordination. Such information centres, characterized by their openness, accessibility, participation, and by their ascending, descending and horizontal diffusion, should be administered by representatives of the base, or those serving them, and supplied with the necessary material equipment (computer information bulletins, magazines, data centres, etc.).

We would also suggest that the contents – the data to be worked upon, stored, systematised, analysed, distributed – should be the following: Working conditions, skills, wages, collective agreements, standards, laws and working rules, etc.; Trade union experiences, organization, strategies, campaigns – especially solidarity campaigns –coordination, etc.; …. Documentary archives, magazines, articles, documents relative to matters of interest….

Labor Resources Online

(This section is largely obsolete, based upon a network of list-serves and bulletin boards long since superseded by more powerful technologies also more susceptible to corporate control.)

LaborNet – Particularly strong on international labor news from Russia and Asia, this rank-and-file net also offers industry and union specific conferences in airlines, auto, graduate employees, IWW, National Writers Union, teaching, Teamsters, etc. Inter-connected to the Internet, shares conferences with EcoNet and PeaceNet (and with APC systems around the world), $3 to $10 per hour on line. In Canada many of these same services are available on the WEB. email:; in Canada,

AFL-CIO Labor Net – Several AFL-CIO unions operate conferences on CompuServe, a commercial information vender owned by H&R Block.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility – among other projects, they publish a useful free electronic newsletter: CPU: Working in the Computer Industry email:

RSI Network – A major industrial hazard of the Information Railroad is repetitive stress injury for keyboard workers. This bimonthly electronic news­ letter discusses treatment, workstation design, case studies, etc. Email: The message should read: Subscribe RSI

Economic Democracy Info Net – EDIN maintains a Labor Issues section containing government documents, labor law, and files on U.S. and international labor issues. It is accessed via gopher. Type gopher 1250

Spunk Press maintains an anarchist/alternative (rather broadly defined) electronic contact list which includes newsgroups, archives, electronic newsletters, mailing lists and email addresses for publications. Requests to:

1-Union – a syndicalist list (loosely speaking), where IWWs, DeLeonists, anarcho-syndicalists and assorted Marxists discuss a range of issues and share information on current labor struggles. Like most electronic discussion lists, this is unmoderated, which means that the quality of the debate is un­even and some participants are hostile to the list’s stated goals. But the discussion is more productive (and more civilized) than that found on lists such as the Anarchy list. email:

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

Wanted: More Social Misery

Editorial from ASR 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The $400 Question: Getting by after 50 years of economic stagnation

from ASR 67

The $400 Question

by Jon Bekken

The Federal Reserve Bank’s annual “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households” (released in May 2016) reports that 31 percent of Americans say they are “just getting by” or “struggling”; 22 percent have been forced to take a second job; and 46 percent would be thrown into financial crisis by an unexpected expense of just $400 – forced to borrow money (likely from a payday lender, at usurious rates) or sell something. This, the central bankers report, represents improved economic well-being.

Fifteen percent of the U.S. population is officially poor, and in their new book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer report that nearly 1.5 million American households receive less than $2 a day in cash income. That figure has nearly doubled since 1996 – the year Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress agreed on a major welfare “reform” bill that tied cash benefits to strict work or training requirements and limited how long benefits could be received.

Pundits and polytricksters proclaimed the reforms a wild success. Many people did get jobs, typically part-time gigs that paid wages too low to support even a single person with any measure of comfort. Because there aren’t enough jobs at the bottom of the labor market to go around, it’s difficult to find full-time jobs, and even more difficult to pair one part-time job with another given the rise of just-in-time scheduling.

As corporations have consolidated, increasing the dominance of  handful of players in most industries, the newly empowered bosses have slashed wages and benefits – pocketing much of the savings for themselves, but also passing it along in the form of higher profits. In transportation and warehousing, for example, the 50 largest firms increased their share of industry revenue by 11.4 percent over the last 15 years, and slashed the share of income going to workers by 7.6 percent. In health care, where concentration rates declined slightly, workers saw an extremely modest 1.8 percent increase over those 15 years. So the better off the bosses are, the worse off the rest of us – at least in relative terms.

“Party Like It’s 1973.” That’s how Business Week headlined a May 2016 piece heralding the return of prosperity, as indicated by the fact that first-time unemployment claims had fallen to their lowest level since November 1973. Actually, they hadn’t: as the graph that followed showed, the current figure is 2.1 million, compared to 1.8 million in 1973. A series of statistics meant to reassure us that times are good followed; all making 1973 look good. The official unemployment rate is higher (though it’s since fallen to 1973 levels, but only because millions of people have given up looking for work), payroll growth was twice as strong in 1973, inflation-adjusted hourly wages were higher, and annual GDP growth was two-and-a-half times higher.

This is I suppose encouraging news for mainstream economists, but it reinforces the point made in ASR 64 about how workers are no better off today than we were 50 years ago. We said it a year ago, and now Business Week concedes the point. They seem to think this is a good thing, but while we’re invited to wax nostalgic for 1970s salaries and fashions (don’t even think about the benefits) the bosses are reveling in the Roaring ’20s, with unprecedented income disparity and so much money rolling around that some parasites can think of nothing better to do with their stolen wealth than to eat it (in the form of gold sprinkled on their food – it’s flavorless and has no nutritional value [quite the opposite], but makes a statement of a sort).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says workers have set a new record for the percentage still working in our not-so-golden years. Some 20 percent of people aged 65 and up are still working, the highest level since they started counting many decades ago. (The proportion would likely be much higher were it not for those forced to take early retirement during the great recession, and now unable to claw their way back into the labor market.) A Bloomberg report conceded that the main reason workers are postponing retirement is simply that they can’t afford it, but ended on the cheery note that maybe retirement just isn’t as much fun as it used to be. And, of course, if you had to refinance your home to keep afloat, lost your pension in the recession, and face the prospect of privatized Medicare, retiring may well not look too attractive. But a study by the Employee Research Institute found that while overall satisfaction with retirement is indeed declining, the wealthier you are the more you enjoy retirement. Indeed, the super-rich find retirement so much fun that some are starting in their 40s.

Payday lenders and other “nontraditional” financial services firms see opportunity in all this, of course. Once limited to pawn shops, credit cards and high-interest mortgages, there are now a host of financial instruments designed to part the unwary from their money – and steal their cars, homes and paychecks (or at least anything the cops didn’t seize first through asset forfeiture and high-fee probation programs) in the process.

Rather than adopt measures that would get the government out of the union-busting business, the Obama administration is proposing regulations on the industry that would take effect next year: making sure borrowers are able to pay off a two-week loan in two weeks, that loans can’t be endlessly rolled over to generate new fees, and that a borrower can’t take another payday loan if he or she paid one off less than 30 days ago. (This, of course, would do nothing to address the desperation that forced workers to turn to the loan sharks in the first place; it will simply incentivize the vultures to find new schemes to take advantage of them.)

And many are desperate indeed. Average U.S. life expectancy has dropped in recent years, driven by drug overdoses and suicide. As income has stagnated and the cost of living has continued to climb, many workers have slipped into debt. One study says the average U.S. household with credit card debt is now $15,762 in the hole, with no conceivable way of digging out. (Add in car and student loans, and there are lots of workers who couldn’t clear their debt in five years even if they devoted 100 percent of their income to debt payments.) And since the average household with debt pays $6,658 in interest per year, they inevitably fall deeper into debt with each year that passes.

In today’s mail I see an appeal from Habitat for Humanity which begins, “Did you know there is no county in the entire United States where a family with two minimum wage incomes can afford to pay the rent? Not one!” Some of these families are homeless, others couch surf, a lucky few live in (often dilapidated) public housing, and many are crowded into tiny apartments, always a step or two from eviction. If they manage to find a place where they can manage the rent, it’s probably run-down, likely poisoning their children with lead paint, in a dangerous part of town, far from jobs and quality food and decent schools. Financial catastrophe is always knocking at the door – a couple days home from work sick (or with a sick kid), a car repair, an emergency room visit or a dental bill. That leads to the $400 question.

As organized labor has collapsed, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative – a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education or specialized training, going to where the jobs are (what does it matter if you have a family?), and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Of course, there’s no support to make this possible, and growing numbers of our fellow workers find themselves mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits.

We are told that our problems are individual failures, and our successes the result of hard work or, perhaps, a reward from god. But hard work has nothing to do with it. Very few of those pulling down million dollar salaries work anywhere near as hard as the low wage workers whose labor supports them. Developing skills or getting an education only helps you get ahead as long as the boss can’t find a way to outsource or automate the work, and even then only as long as those particular skills are in short supply. Many of those who were persuaded to get degrees in information technology, for example, find themselves on the industrial scrapheap as soon as a new software program comes along or the boss finds workers (perhaps halfway across the globe) who can do the work for half the cost.

The occasional wage slave can escape, but for workers as a whole our lot is simply to toil and to die. Escape is possible, but only if we work together to make it happen. Our problems are not individual problems; they are the inevitable result of our present social and economic arrangements. The solution also is not individual – it will require organization, concerted action, solidarity. Until we come together to make a new world, too many of our fellow workers will remain $400 from financial catastrophe.

Editorial: The Business Unions Can Not Be Reformed

from LLR 22

Shortly before we went to press Teamsters president Ron Carey stepped down amidst a growing scandal about his administration’s embezzlement of union funds to finance his re-election campaign. Carey was elected atop a reform slate heavily backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which waged a long struggle to rid the Teamsters of mob control and undemocratic rule by a handful of bureaucrats who lived lavishly off the Teamsters treasuries. The Carey-TDU slate took charge of the union with the backing and under the aegis of U.S. government-appointed trustees; today the government has withdrawn its sponsorship and a government-appointed former FBI agent once again has full control over union finances. (We discussed at some length Carey’s at-best mixed record as a labor reformer in LLR #20, and critiqued TDU’s strategy and limitations in #15.)

No worker should feel the slightest sympathy for Ron Carey and his cronies. Carey is a life-long union bureaucrat who has not hesitated to use his bureaucratic power to stifle dissidents and to centralize power into his own hands. Where mobster-run locals backed Carey’s administration, he proved more than willing to turn a blind eye to their assaults upon not only the rights but also the bodies of their members. And when he found himself falling behind in his re-election campaign against the Jr. Hoffa forces (Hoffa was lavishly funded by the corrupt local piecards hiding behind his name, and much of his money was almost certainly stolen from union coffers as well), he did not hesitate to raid the Teamsters treasury of what authorities report was at least $735,000 – laundered through a variety of labor and “progressive” organizations en route to Carey’s re-election campaign (though much of the money appears to have been skimmed off in the process).

The scandal continues to spread. Citizens Action has had to close its national office, and the head of the “progressive” telemarketer Share has stepped aside and may yet be moving to a federal jail cell. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is so far rejecting pressure to dismiss AFL Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka (the darling of the labor reform set); $150,000 of Teamsters members’ dues reportedly passed through Trumka’s hands as part of the scheme.

Carey has been barred from running for re-election, and forced to step down from his post. He may yet be expelled from Teamsters membership by a government-controlled review board and/or prosecuted for embezzlement of union funds. The Teamsters “reform” forces are in disarray, desperately searching for some other union bureaucrat who might stand a chance against Jr. Hoffa in next year’s election (though reformers are asking the government to ban Hoffa from standing for office as well). Indeed, the “reformers” don’t seem to recognize what has hit them. Shortly after the scandal broke, but before Carey was disqualified, TDU cochair Mike Ruscigno told Labor Notes, “This is our chance to drive a stake through the heart of the old guard.” And the bankruptcy of the “labor reformer’s” strategy of trying to revitalize and reform the unions by capturing the top offices, relying on the government to lend a hand, is ever more clear.

Ironically, much of the labor “left” is supporting Carey. The once-Trotskyist Workers World Party had practically elevated Carey to the status of a class war prisoner, claiming that his removal is in retaliation for the Teamster’s “victory” in the United Parcel Service strike. (For a critique of the UPS settlement see the October 1997 Industrial Worker, their December issue had a detailed account of the Carey scandal and its causes.) The Association for Union Democracy, which long supported rank-and-file Teamsters in their battle against precisely this sort of abuse of power and looting of union funds, labelled Carey’s election “probably the most democratic in the recorded history of the labor movement.” (The IWW holds more democratic elections every year.) Even those who criticize the Carey campaign’s theft of union funds typically portray it as an aberration — a tragic and ironic episode in Carey’s quest to reform the Teamsters union ignoring the fact that this looting was possible only because rank-and-file Teamsters have little more control over “their” union than they did when it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mafia.

Building a fighting labor movement can not be accomplished by capturing positions in the union bureaucracy. While it is much easier to gain union office than to build genuine working-class organizations, boring from within the business unions makes sense only if one assumes that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them – that with a change of officers or a little tinkering with their bylaws, they could be transformed into effective working-class organizations.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Business unions are organized not to prosecute the class war, but rather to smooth over disputes. They are dues-collecting machines whose continuity and stability rely upon a passive membership. Anarcho-syndicalists recognize that no lasting gains can be wages within this framework – instead, what is needed is a fundamentally different unionism based upon the workers ourselves, organized at the point of production. Electing better bureaucrats accomplishes very little. We need to build rank-and-file organizations on the shop floor, relying on direct action and self-organization to improve our conditions, and to lay the groundwork for a fundamental transformation of our unions and our society.

Shutting down the government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Conceptions of Unionism

by Jon Bekken, ASR 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American Health Care Crisis: Capitalism

by Jon Bekken, ASR 16

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

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

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

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

Capitalism Cannot Work

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

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

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

Managed Care No Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business Unions Capitulate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syndicalist Approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

6. Himmelstein & Woolhandler, p. 183.

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

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

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

10. Himmelstein & Woolhandler, p. 188.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bakunin and the Historians

Review Essay by Jon Bekken

“Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the anarchist, was a political thinker; his reputation, based partly on his appetite for action and partly on unsympathetic historiography, obscures this…” Robert Cutler opens the introduction to his anthology of Bakunin’s writings with these words. Another historian, Nunzio Pernicone, deplores the modern fashion of “Bakunin-bashing.” And Arthur Lehning, in a 1978 review of the historical literature, refers to a conspiracy of silence, suggesting that studying Bakunin inevitably raises basic questions confronting working-class movements – dictatorship vs. liberty, centralism vs. federalism, self-organization vs. a domineering political party.

When Lehning wrote, only the Marxist E.H. Carr’s 1937 biography was available in English (aside from historical sketches in pamphlets, journals, and collections of Bakunin’s work) and few of Bakunin’s writings had been translated into English. But today a substantial number of biographical works, at least compared to the paucity of Bakunin’s own writings, are available in English. In addition to E.H. Carr’s dated but still standard biography, reissued in 1975, readers have been subjected to two popular biographies (Masters, Mendel), a new scholarly biography by Aileen Kelly, a very useful look at Bakunin’s pivotal role in organizing the Italian socialist movement (Ravindranathan), and Thomas’ rather intriguing examination of the way in which Marx borrowed his ideas from, and shaped his arguments in response to, anarchist thinkers including Bakunin and Proudhon.

Masters’, Mendel’s and Kelly’s biographies are quite poor, especially when compared to Carr. Mendel argues (unconvincingly, and on the basis of remarkably few sources) that Bakunin’s revolutionary career and ideas were fundamentally authoritarian and resulted from deep-seated psychological problems. Masters is friendlier to his subject (but sees anarchism as at best a beautiful but impractical dream), but draws almost entirely upon English-language sources, especially Carr, and is written more in the style of a novel than a work of history.

Aileen Kelly’s biography, the newest of the three, purports to be an intellectual biography but (in Cutler’s words) “treats Bakunin as a case study in the social psychology of millenarianism” (p. 234). Kelly is unabashedly hostile, painting Bakunin as an ill- meaning buffoon, misrepresenting key aspects of his life and thought, and disguising missing evidence with circular footnotes. Although historians of Spanish (Esenwein) and Italian (Ravindranathan) anarchism point to the organizational and propagandistic skills Bakunin displayed in those settings, Kelly refuses to allow the historical record to stand in the way of her thesis.

Ravindranathan, however, has written an outstanding book focussing on one of Bakunin’s most productive efforts during his ten years or so as an anarchist (for most of his revolutionary career, Bakunin was a pan-Slavist). Bakunin played a key role in disabusing the nascent Italian revolutionaries of patriotic illusions, and persuaded them that a social, not merely a political, revolution was necessary. As the American Historical Review’s (Dec. 1990, pp. 1576-77) reviewer put it, “Thankfully, Ravindranathan does not indulge in the Bakunin-bashing that has become so fashionable in recent years. Although he does not hesitate to note [indeed, to exaggerate-jb] the Russian’s ideological inconsistencies and personal failings, Ravindranathan portrays Bakunin as a serious and devoted revolutionary, an acute thinker capable of extraordinary insights… and a master propagandist.”

Kelly and Mendel attribute responsibility for Nechaev’s Catechism to Bakunin, even though it has been proven that Bakunin not only did not write it, but vigorously denounced it. (Carr, writing before the evidence was in, makes the same argument on the basis of stylistic similarities and turns of phrase, apparently never considering the fact that authors borrow from, and are influenced by, one another. Avrich’s collection of Anarchist Portraits contains an essay reviewing the evidence on this, and another which attacks Bakunin on scant evidence indeed.) Aside from Carr, the biographies focus their attention on Bakunin’s pre- anarchist period, whether because it was the greater part of his life (though it is his anarchist years for which Bakunin is best remembered, and that account for the continuing historical interest) or because it enables biographers to indulge in their pet theories about why Bakunin turned out so badly.

And make no mistake about it, in the eyes of his biographers (at least his English-language biographers) Bakunin turned out very badly indeed. For Carr, Bakunin is a tragic-comic figure, albeit very human. Masters suggests a greater degree of grandeur in his rewriting of Carr’s work. For Mendel, Bakunin is a villain of the highest order, with an egomaniacal will to dominate and to destroy. Kelly softens this portrait somewhat, leaving Bakunin quite inscrutable. For if he were truly the ineffectual buffoon she describes, he would surely have long since passed into obscurity.

Readers interested in learning the details of Bakunin’s life would do better to look at Guillaume’s highly partisan account, which opens Dolgoff’s anthology, or Shatz’s briefer biographical sketch in the Introduction to his edition of Statism and Anarchy. While Carr is by no means friendly to anarchism, his account too is worth reading. But Ravindranathan’s account, while covering Bakunin’s life from 1814 through 1863 (Bakunin moved to Italy in 1864) in just 16 pages, offers the best book-length English- language biography, covering the years when Bakunin developed and began to propagate his anarchist ideas. Despite its focus on Italy, Bakunin & The Italians illustrates both Bakunin’s methods and his ideas during this vital period (Bakunin retired in ill health in 1874, his final two years receive little attention).

In order to read Bakunin himself, one still often needs to be proficient in French or Russian (preferably both), but there are now four widely-available English-language anthologies of Bakunin’s writings (Dolgoff, Cutler, Lehning and Maximoff), alongside the long-available God and the State (published by Dover in 1970) and Marshall Shatz’s new translation of Statism and Anarchy – one of Bakunin’s few more-or-less completed books, and his last major theoretical work. (An earlier translation of Statism and Anarchy by C.H. Plummer was published in 1976 by the Revisionist Press. I have been unable to locate a copy, but it is reputedly much inferior.) Also available in English is an annotated edition of The Confession of Mikhail Bakunin (written from a Russian prison), and excerpts in several anthologies and pamphlets.

These translations and anthologies fall into two broad categories: scholarly editions (Cutler, Shatz), and more popular translations (Dolgoff, Maximoff; Lehning falls somewhere in between) intended to present Bakunin’s ideas to contemporary readers. The popular editions often delete references to often obscure controversies or persons Bakunin was responding to and seek to simplify his often difficult prose in order to make it more accessible to modern readers. The resulting works are generally more readable than are their scholarly counterparts, though some readers prefer (or need) the deleted material in order to place Bakunin’s writings in their specific, historical context, which often shaped not only the concerns addressed but also the form they took.

Dolgoff’s anthology is the most useful and comprehensive, although Cutler has unearthed several interesting texts. Maximoff is useful primarily as a concordance – he has organized very brief excerpts by subject, in order to enable readers to readily ascertain, say, Bakunin’s views on human nature. But while translators such as Cutler and Schatz tend to present Bakunin’s writings as historical artifacts, Dolgoff sets out to illustrate the basic themes of Bakunin’s anarchist philosophy, and has carefully selected his texts “in order to enable the reader to grasp the essence of Bakunin’s views” (p. 21).

(For readers interested in comparing different translations, Cutler [pp. 32-33] provides a useful list of the editions and pages upon which other English-language translations of the same works can be found. Similarly, compare Dolgoff’s 25 pages of excerpts from Statism and Anarchy to Shatz’s 218 page translation. Dolgoff extracts the core of Bakunin’s devastating critique of Marxism and his discussion of the preconditions for social revolution; while it is certainly useful to have the complete work available, it is largely devoted to a detailed analysis of contemporary political currents which adds relatively little – with some exceptions, most notably the “Appendix” and its discussion of revolutionary strategy – to our understanding of Bakunin’s philosophy.)

Sadly, many anarchists know little more of Bakunin than a few aphorisms (the urge to destroy is also a creative urge, “I shall continue to be an impossible person so long as those who are now possible remain possible”) and perhaps a general sense of his critique of, and battle against, Marxism. For example, a writer in The Raven recently argued, on the basis of her reading of God and the State, that Bakunin was uninterested in the liberation of women. Clearly she was unfamiliar with Bakunin’s “Manifesto of the Russian Revolutionary Association to the Oppressed Women of Russia” (excerpted in Dolgoff), of his defense of his sister’s right to escape a love-less marriage, etc. Similarly, recent writers in the anarchist press have attributed a wide variety of conflicting economic views to Bakunin. Without doubt, Bakunin had many faults and inconsistencies – even during the years when he was developing anarchism as a political philosophy. But he played a vital role in the evolution of our movement and our ideas, and deserves to be better, and more accurately, remembered.

Works Cited:

Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. (Reviewed LLR 7)

Michael Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy (Introduced and Edited by Marshall Shatz). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin (Revised Edition). New York: Octagon Books, 1975.

Robert Cutler (translator and editor), From out of the Dustbin: Bakunin’s Basic Writings, 1869-1871. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis Publishers, 1985. (Reviewed LLR 2)

Sam Dolgoff (editor), Bakunin on Anarchism (Expanded edition). Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980.

George Esenwein, Anarchist Ideology and the Working Class Movement in Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. (Reviewed this issue)

Aileen Kelly, Mikhail Bakunin: A Study in the Psychology and Politics of Utopianism. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Arthur Lehning, Michel Bakounine et les historiens. Geneva: C.I.R.A., 1979.

—– (editor), Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings (Translated by Steven Cox and Olive Stevens). London: Jonathan Cape, 1973.

Anthony Masters, Bakunin: The Father of Anarchism. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974.

G.P. Maximoff (translator and editor), The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1953.

Arthur Mendel, Michael Bakunin: Roots of Apocalypse. New York: Praeger, 1981.

T.R. Ravindranathan, Bakunin and the Italians. McGill-Queen’s University Press (3430 McTavish St., Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X9), 1989.

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

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.

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

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

Iain McKay, “Anarchist Economics,” ASR 61 (Winter 2014), pp. 25-28.

Iain McKay, “Proudhon, Property & Possession,” ASR 66 (Winter 2016), pp. 23-25.


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)

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.

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.

Jeff Stein, “The Realities of Self-Management” (Review), ASR 66 (Winter 2016), pp. 32-34.

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 Ethnicity.

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