Aiming at Ghosts: On the Limited Usefulness of a Critique of 19th-Century Syndicalism

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Both a defense of workplace organizing as well as a critique of the article Nothing to Syndicate, which was recently published on It’s Going Down. Includes some discussion of the ideas of Frank Wilderson, and their limitations.

As the anarchist movement has responded and adapted to the increased level of social struggle seen over the past few years, it feels as though a lot of the tired old debates of the past have been pushed aside, as we’ve been confronted with newer problems and challenges. Nothing to Syndicate: Against the Democracy of Work & the Work of Democracy, a recent critique of anarcho-syndicalism, feels like kind of a throwback, the sort of thing that one might find in the middle of a heated argument between Evasion-era Crimethinc and NEFACers.

The author argues at length against the idea of workers’ self-management of the economy and gives a basic introduction to anti-work positions, but never makes it quite clear who they’re arguing against.

In a telling footnote early on, they say that, “This article is primarily directed not at a specific organization or its members but at an idea. In the majority of cases I’ve found modern-day wobblies to be solid people who, though sometimes driven by a strange nostalgia for a more radically “authentic” past, possess a genuinely anti-authoritarian ethos and comradely nature.” And that’s the thing: are these ideas actually widely held among modern-day wobblies? And if not, what’s the point of the critique?

It’s notable that, out of a very long and wide-ranging list of sources, they seem to cite precisely one contemporary wobbly/syndicalist text, which seems to suggest a certain lack of engagement with the ideas and tendencies that they’re meant to be arguing against.

One of their strongest points is made early on, when they discuss the ecological impact of the technology needed for solar and wind power. These questions – how a post-capitalist society would relate to the earth and manage “natural resources,” what technologies and materials are compatible with the continuing survival of life on this planet and which ones will have to be abandoned, and how we’ll cope with the absence of those resources we can’t rely on anymore – are, I think, pressing ones for us all. But things become less impressive when they move on to ask whether “the economy… just needs a little green, self-managed tinkering and everything can keep on humming like normal? And if we don’t believe that, then how does a predominantly syndicalist strategy for social revolution—in which unions take power from bosses and continue to run all these workplaces for society’s benefit—make sense?”

And there’s the thing – who exactly are they arguing with here? Which contemporary wobblies actually see liberation in terms of keeping the existing economy and workplaces running under workers’ control?

Indeed, it’s questionable whether the author’s caricature of anarcho-syndicalism has ever been accurate: in another footnote, they talk about how, “Even in the heyday of syndicalism, Spain’s glorious CNT was largely dependent on informal neighborhood networks run mostly by women, and decentralized armed affinity groups operating clandestinely and outside of formal union channels.” I’m not sure why they offer this as evidence to support their argument, when it instead seems to show that syndicalism has always been more thoughtful and complex than the strawman they wish to argue against.

Later, they assert that “the most advanced, militant, and widespread resistance to state, capital, whiteness, and citizenship of the last 20 years has mostly occurred outside the workplace. This is true from the caracoles of the Zapatistas and the accompanying “anti-globalization” movement, to Occupy, to the organizing and sub/urban riots of Black Lives Matter, to Standing Rock, to the prison strikes[18] of 2016 and 2018, to #OccupyICE, and beyond.”

One obvious point of contention here is whether or not the prison strikes occurred in workplaces. They do at least acknowledge this issue in a footnote, but insist that it’s not really the case. Beyond that point, it’s also unclear whether this is meant to be a list of international struggles (as the mention of “the Zapatistas and the accompanying “anti-globalization” movement” would suggest), or purely U.S. ones, as with the later examples. Even just confining myself to the US, I would suggest that looking at the organizing work that led to the attempted assassination of Judi Bari, the mass walkouts on May Day 2006, the movement in Wisconsin 2011, the longshore dispute that coincided with the high point of Occupy, and the wave of illegal education strikes that took place earlier this year – along with the prison strikes of 2016 and 2018 – provide a powerful list of counter-examples, especially when remembering that many of the education strikes involved mass defiance of the law.

Discussing the attempted general strike in Oakland 2011, they assert that “the only notable “general strike” of our generation, that of Occupy Oakland on November 2, 2011, succeeded in accomplishing a (partial) retail, service, and port shutdown not primarily by internal workplace action but rather by tens of thousands of people blocking ports and roadways and physically attacking businesses from the outside. Even the port workers, themselves a powerful union, stood on the sidelines, mostly supportive but constrained by their own contract and regulations.”

This is a serious misrepresentation: apart from anything else, it’s worth stressing the point that outside pickets were so successful in disrupting the port precisely because the port workers had a strong tradition of radical workplace organization, which allowed them to win contract provisions that mean they can respect outside pickets. That strong workplace organization is why Oakland port workers were able to shut down the port, not just during Occupy in 2011, but also, for instance, against the Iraq War back in 2007, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in 2015 and against Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Years after Occupy Oakland, the port workers are still able to carry out disruptive workplace actions in solidarity with a wide variety of social struggles; the “other organizing structures” praised by the author seem not to have aged quite so well.

They spend a while stressing the changes in the nature of work, pointing out that, “It is difficult to organize the workplace if there is no workplace. It is even harder if there are no workers.” Before immediately conceding that “there still are workplaces, and we are (mostly) still workers, and people have been organizing at their jobs however we (still) can. This should continue as long as these conditions of work remain—we should be organizing and rebelling in every place in which this world is reproduced, which is everywhere”.

This is a pretty massive concession. And just saying that “we should be rebelling everywhere” passes over some pretty important questions – at what sites do we have relative power? Where do we have more or less leverage? And even leaving this point aside, out of “everywhere”, where do we spend most of our waking lives?

Perhaps in the future, most of us will be part of the surplus population; but right here, right now, there are around 156,795 thousand people reported as employed in the US. That being the case, for a lot of us, fighting where we stand means fighting at work.

To Our Friends – not usually seen as a particularly old-fashioned text – also has relevant insights to offer here:

“What defines the worker is not his exploitation by a boss, which he shares with all other employees. What distinguishes him in a positive sense is his embodied technical mastery of a particular world of production. There is a competence in this that is scientific and popular at the same time, a passionate knowledge that constituted the particular wealth of the working world before capital, realizing the danger contained there and having first extracted all that knowledge, decided to turn workers into operators, monitors, and custodians of machines. But even there, the workers’ power remains: someone who knows how to make a system operate also knows how to sabotage it in an effective way. But no one can individually master the set of techniques that enable the current system to reproduce itself. Only a collective force can do that. This is exactly what it means to construct a revolutionary force today…”

They insist that “a strategy which centrally privileges the workplace as the primary site of counter-power feels bizarrely out of date and hopelessly inadequate”; it would be nice if they considered what contemporary IWW strategy looks like, with its embrace of community self-defense via the General Defense Committee and prison organizing via the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. And, indeed, it might be worth engaging with the full history of revolutionary anarchist unionism, like the FORA in Argentina, which attempted to build power outside the workplace way back in the early decades of the 20th century.

“They insist that “a strategy which centrally privileges the workplace as the primary site of counter-power feels bizarrely out of date and hopelessly inadequate”; it would be nice if they considered what contemporary IWW strategy looks like, with its embrace of community self-defense.”

In the next section, they draw on the work of the stockbroker-turned-academic Frank Wilderson, who asserts that the true Revolutionary Vanguard – sorry, the subject with the most irreconcilable positionality – is not the worker, but the Black subject. In my opinion, Wilderson’s thought is well overdue a critical examination, with an eye to figuring out how far it can be useful to anarchists and other revolutionaries, and how far it’s mainly a good toolbox for academics and would-be specialists in/managers of revolt. In the meantime, a brief examination of the uses to which it’s put here will hopefully show some of its limitations.

The author offers a supposedly insightful quote from Wilderson:

“Whereas the positionality of the worker (whether a factory worker demanding a monetary wage, an immigrant, or a white woman demanding a social wage) gestures toward the reconfiguration of civil society, the positionality of the Black subject (whether a prison-slave or a prison-slave-in-waiting) gestures toward the disconfiguration of civil society.”

It’s actually impressive how much Wilderson manages to get wrong here, in such a short space of time. Perhaps the most glaring error is how, in his keenness to draw lines around the One True Revolutionary Vanguard, he posits “an immigrant” as an entirely separate category to “a prison-slave or a prison-slave-in-waiting.” This might make for a neat conceptual model, but it’s hard to square with the reality of those border states where immigration offenses such as illegal re-entry make up a high proportion of those who become prison slaves, or indeed the existence of immigrant detention centers – do places like the Northwest Detention Center really resemble “civil society” more than they resemble prisons? It’s worth noting that, in contrast to Wilderson’s dismissive attitude, the prison strike organizers took a far more inclusive and solidarity-building approach, specifically including detention centers in their call and stressing the similarity in conditions between immigrants and others affected by the prison system.

Wilderson’s false distinction between immigrants and prison slaves isn’t just a factual mistake, it’s the grounding for a theoretical claim: “the positionality of… an immigrant gestures toward the reconfiguration of civil society” – that is to say, the demands put forwards by immigrants are inherently reformist and nonthreatening, in contrast to those of Black subjects. Of course, I don’t want to deny that immigrants, like anyone else, can put forward reformist demands for inclusion, but it is also the case that the state – any state, not just the US – can only function by drawing lines between insiders and outsiders, so those that cross borders without permission are subversive to the state’s functions in a much deeper way than Wilderson admits.

This is one of those points where the right – from the Pittsburgh murderer specifically choosing to target a synagogue that he saw as threatening because of its work with migrants, to Trump militarizing the border, through to conservative social democrats writing articles against open borders and saying “If “no human is illegal!,” as the protest chant goes, the Left is implicitly accepting the moral case for no… sovereign nations at all” – actually have a far clearer understanding of why border control is so important to the state than Wilderson does.

It’s also worth noting how his similarly dismissive reference to “a white woman demanding a social wage” simultaneously shows an ignorance of what “white women” actually demanded in texts like “Wages Against Housework”, which rightly or wrongly posited the social wage as a step towards the overthrow of the system as a whole, and serves to posit the whole issue of reproductive and domestic labor as solely a white thing, as though unpaid reproductive work was not also carried out by Black women, as though attacks on the social wage aren’t often put into practice precisely by aiming at the figure of Black “welfare queens” and so on.. If Black women put forward the same demands for a social wage (as historically they have done – see Piven and Cloward’s discussion of the National Welfare Rights Organization in Poor People’s Movements for more on this point), is it still a reformist demand for the reconfiguration of civil society, or does it suddenly become a revolutionary demand aiming at the disconfiguration of civil society?

Following Wilderson, and the author insists that prisoners are part of the proper innately revolutionary no demands vanguard, telling us that “no one is trying to democratically self-manage their prison—they’re trying to burn that shit down and get free.”

At this point, it’s worth comparing the overheated projections of Professor Wilderson and his followers to the actual demands put forward by the prison strikers. Contrary to the ideology that claims prisoners have such an irreconcilable positionality that there’s no way they could demand anything short of “burn that shit down and get free”, prisoners speaking for themselves actually put forward demands like voting rights and the restoration of Pell Grants – not exactly a total disconfiguration of civil society. Or how about that document written by an inmate after the Vaughn Uprising, “For a safer, more secure and more humane prison” – real “burn shit down and get free” stuff, right?

Of course, to point out that the prison strikers made reformist demands for inclusion is in no way to insult them or downplay the significance of their struggle, and there are lots of cases of reformist demands for inclusion leading people towards revolutionary conclusions. But it does suggest that, if Professor Wilderson’s analysis of the positionality of prison slaves can only work by talking over and ignoring the actual voices of prisoners themselves, there might be a few problems with it.

Any struggle always faces the possibility of reformists trying to co-opt, tame and manage it. There’s no shortcut that can get us around the need to engage with and fight against this possibility. It’d be nice if Professor Wilderson had managed to find the One True Revolutionary Struggle that is always inherently radical and can never be co-opted or managed; but I don’t think that’s the case, prison struggles have to face these problems just like any others. Indeed, to the extent that they make it harder to get a clear understanding of what’s going on, and encourage a false complacency about the potential of reformists co-opting such movements, Wilderson’s ideas actually make it harder to fight against prison reformism.

The next section is a personal critique of the food service industry based on the author’s experiences. There’s some good stuff in there, but it mostly just made me think “we’ve all read Abolish Restaurants” – although perhaps the author hasn’t, since they seem so unaware that it’s possible to have a critique of work and still to see the workplace as a strategically important site of conflict.

It is also worth pointing out that, when workers in the past did win extremely limited forms of control over their work, or even just expressed aspirations toward it, they have made attempts to transform their workplaces rather than just managing them, as in the Lucas Plan or the Green Bans in Australia.

The author seems to simultaneously suggest that work is so obviously terrible that no-one would ever want to self-manage it, and also to criticise syndicalism and other workplace-focused strategies in a way that implies that no-one from these traditions has ever noticed how much work sucks, as if no syndicalists or wobblies have ever expressed critiques of work that go beyond “let’s manage all this ourselves.” Even if you think the Lucas Plan or the Green Bans are hopelessly inadequate compared to what real liberation would be like, they do at least serve as examples of the fact that over and over again, class struggle in the workplace has gone beyond just asking for higher wages or questioning who gives the orders, and whenever we get strong and confident enough, we always start trying to transform what we do and how we do it.

They ask, “Why should the ghost of capitalism be allowed to prescribe the creative and decision-making forms of a new society?” But again, who exactly says it should? Again, Argentina’s revolutionary union, the FORA, was arguing that: “We must not forget that a union is merely an economic by-product of the capitalist system, born from the needs of this epoch. To preserve it after the revolution would imply preserving the capitalist system that gave rise to it. We, as anarchists accept the unions as weapons in the struggle and we try to ensure that they should approximate as closely to our revolutionary ideals”, way back in 1904 – and that quote is taken from a history published by another anarcho-syndicalist group in 1987, showing that anarcho-syndicalists have always been thinking about these issues.

There’s a lot to engage with in their critique of the service industry, but pretty much all of it is already covered in Abolish Restaurants – so, since these criticisms and ideas have been expressed before, and since wobblies and class-struggle anarchists have always been involved in helping to spread these ideas and keep them in print – see, for instance, the role of the IWW-affiliated project Thoughtcrime Ink in printing AR, and the fact that the IWW sell it through their publication department, and host it on their website (admittedly, with a slightly critical disclaimer), then what’s the point of a critique that explains these ideas as if wobblies have never even engaged with them?

Approaching the conclusion they claim that their critique “is just as relevant to an approach that sees syndicalism as a transitionary stage… as opposed to an “endgame” in itself”. Which, I think, is frankly untrue: a strategy that sees workplace organizing as a centrally important part of a strategy for the abolition of wage labor and the economy (again, the approach first set out by the FORA is relevant here) is a different thing to a strategy that aims towards unions self-managing the economy, and you can’t just say that a critique of one works as a critique of the other. At the risk of stating the obvious, to say that the service industry should be abolished is a fair objection to make to people who don’t want to abolish the service industry, but it’s not really a relevant critique to make of people who do.

They also state that, “There should be no new “revolutionary subject” to replace the idealized “worker,” “peasant,” or “lumpen,” around which detached middle-class socialists will salivate and spew forth their objectifying projections and predictions.” Which, again, makes me wonder why they spent so much of their essay plugging Wilderson, since the whole purpose of the Wilderson quotes they cited setting “the positionality of the Black subject” against workers, women and migrants was precisely to establish a claim about a new idealized revolutionary subject.

They say that, “it is both necessary and to our strategic benefit that any sort of anarchistic social revolution attack our oppression at all points of its reproduction—this still means the workplace, but also the home, the urban neighborhood, the back roads and mountain hollers, schools, suburban developments, forests, swamps, deserts, reservations, everywhere”. But “do everything everywhere all the time” isn’t really a strategy. To start off with, there’s the simple question of what it actually means to fight where we stand. On a very basic level, most days I spend a lot of my waking hours at work, and none at all in a swamp or the desert. Obviously, not everyone would say the same, but I think that statement is probably true for a pretty hefty percentage of the population, and that not that many people can say the reverse, that they spend more time in swamps or deserts than at work.

So, just looking at where we tend to spend our lives, before thinking about any real strategic questions about where we have power and leverage and so on, I think that the workplace has an importance that other places on that list don’t have. Next, if we question what it means for “the back roads and mountain hollers.. forests, swamps, deserts” to be counted among the places where our oppression is reproduced, I would tend to suggest that these places are important to capitalism, to the state and the economy precisely in so far as, and to the extent that, they are workplaces where people are getting paid to do something, and that attacking the system in those places tends to consist of trying to stop people do the things that they’re getting paid to do there. So again, we arrive back at the strategic importance of workplace struggle: if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it still reproduce capital?

The author hastens to stress that they are “not suggesting that we abandon conflict with our bosses”, but simply arguing against “privileging one sector of resistance over others, or centralizing a single node or channel of decision-making (i.e. the One Big Union) because that’s what our revolutionary blueprint tells us to do”. In an important footnote, they add “One might respond that syndicalists are already organizing in a variety of sectors, not just the workplace. This is admirably true, but only more so begs the question why this dated strategy has not has not updated itself for the 21st century. So often the activity of the militant speaks to a reality not yet explicitly recognized by our ideas, which remain millstones around our necks.”

But again, I find myself asking: is this really a case where a dated strategy has not been updated, or is it one where the strategy has indeed been updated, but people offering critiques argues as though it hasn’t? At the risk of repeating myself once again, I think it’s worth looking at the strategy explicitly set forward by the FORA, and the work of syndicalists and wobblies in keeping that tradition alive.

The article closes with a restatement of some ideas from communisation theory about the abolition of the economy, but again I’m unclear why the author seems to assume that syndicalists have never encountered these ideas before, as if only people who were ignorant of these perspectives could still have a strategy that sees workplace power as being centrally important.

As we struggle to live out our ideas and apply revolutionary strategies, whether anarcho-syndicalist or not, to the challenges we face, we’ll find ourselves faced with all kinds of conflicts and arguments. But I think a lot of them will be far more interesting than just rehashing a critique of early-20th-century syndicalist ideas and arguing as if no-one’s ever encountered Abolish Restaurants.

Anarchist communism 4eva, if destroyed still true.

-a tired old workerist dinosaur

Further reading:

Work Community Politics War
Abolish Restaurants
Fighting for Ourselves
On the Un-Logic of Anti-Blackness
Afro-Pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness


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