Building Autonomous Power: Radical Struggle in Philadelphia

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Both a history, analysis, and a proposal for building autonomous power in the city of Philadelphia, PA.

 “The Summer of Rage has begun! Get your sun screen on because it’s gonna be a hot one!”

Summer of Rage Anarchist Crew

by Art Burbridge

Radical struggle is on the rise in Philadelphia. Since at least 2016, anarchist actions—by the Summer of Rage Anarchist Crew, Antifa, and many others—have been intensifying and broadening in a city that already had a long history of antiauthoritarian struggles.  Other groups have been energized too, like prison and police abolitionists, socialists, and Marxists.  With anarchists, they are challenging gentrification, police brutality, mass incarceration, predatory landlords, and attacks on workers.  These far left forces are starting to converge and overlap—seen in reaction to the killing of a local activist, in the abortive 2016 anti-DNC protests in the city, or in actions against local white supremacy.  But the radical scene remains disconnected.   It is still struggling to develop on the mass scale that would be needed to challenge capital in a revolutionary way.

Anarchists and their allies confront a city in the middle of a profound neoliberal transition.  Since the collapse of much of the local industry, Philly has been undergoing a process of profound transformation by corporations like Comcast and the flood of bourgeois managers, lawyers, and others that corporations bring with them.  Internal colonization, displacement, police brutality, and a savage “gig” economy inevitably follow.  They deepen the already obscene racial and economic inequality here.  But Amazon is threatening to build a new headquarters in the city, a move that would accelerate and intensify Philly’s forces of displacement and domination.

Anarchists play an important role in radical organizing in Philly. They offer a set of ideas, practices, and experiences for building power beyond the state and capital—especially important as capital increasingly relies on an authoritarian, fascistic state to survive.  And they provide some of the most important spaces—the Wooden Shoe, A-Space, etc.—for far left groups to meet, hold events, and spread a revolutionary culture.

But what possibilities and obstacles exist here for building revolutionary, autonomous power?  To ask this question, I place far left struggles in Philly against the backdrop of its material context—neoliberal capital’s crisis-ridden development on the local, national, and international scene.  The point isn’t to give easy answers—there aren’t any—but to help chart some of the potential tasks ahead.  Ultimately, I ask: what would it take to make a revolution here?

This piece is part of a series from the Radical Education Department (RED)—see this and this—exploring possibilities for building a revolutionary mass movement today.  It emerges out of RED’s attempts—alongside many others—to build mass, revolutionary power in Philly.

I: Context

Radical left groups have long been a force in this city.  Their work was on display, for example, in the explosive revolt against the RNC in 2000 and in the continuing fight to abolish the police and prisons by groups like Philly for REAL Justice.  Since the election of Trump, far left, and especially antiauthoritarian, struggle has been on the rise.  Philly Antifa is shutting down local fascist groups.  Upheavals spread across the city in 2017 against Trump and the forces of domination he represents, and they continue.  The Summer of Rage Anarchist Crew—has recently announced a “summer of rage” against gentrification and the impending Amazon move.

What’s next for radical struggle in Philly, especially for anarchists?  What possibilities and obstacles are we facing?  To answer these questions, it is helpful to see our struggles in their historical and material context.

Neoliberal capital and crisis

The counterrevolution of the 70s and 80s shattered the revolutionary left.  This laid the groundwork for neoliberal capitalism.  Financial and corporate power was set free.  The years that followed witnessed an orgy of privatization, union busting, and destruction of hard-won social services.  Capitalists paired union busting with neocolonialism: they increasingly moving production to countries—Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.—or to domestic “mini-mills” to maximize their exploitation of workers.  Today’s “gig” service economy of precarious and atomized workers is the result.  At the same time, the ruling class turned to mass incarceration to attack the revolt of people of color.  Prisons are a new source of corporate profit and a laboratory to reinvent slavery.  The capitalist patriarchy is dismantling women’s historic gains in the 70s and driving towards ever greater control over women’s bodies and more rigid gender binaries.  A white supremacist and patriarchal state and economy drive women and people of color, along with immigrants and precarious workers, into a pool of hyper-exploited workers.  That pool helps to guarantee stagnating wages.

But capital is riven by contradictions.  Its normal state is stagnation; it drives towards periodic, violent crisis.

In their blind quest for profit and growth, firms automate jobs away and suppress wages to maximize profits.  They therefore create a working class with a limited ability to buy their glut of goods. And through automation, capitalists attack the very source of their profit—exploited labor. Confronting this reality, financial firms dump investments into extremely volatile financial transactions.  They push the working and lower-middle classes into an unsustainable debt to buy up commodities.  All the while, bosses keep pushing to automate jobs away, and they intensify attacks on workers, all to escape stagnation.  The bosses thereby drive the cycle of stagnation they try to escape.  It is no surprise that growth and profit rates have been in a long-term decline for decades.  Another economic crisis is coming. And with it comes another chance for a mass, revolutionary upheaval.

Radicals in the US and beyond inherit this history.

We confront a shattered revolutionary left.  Since the counterrevolution of 1970s and 1980s, we have been slowly rebuilding mass resistance.  We are still experimenting with ways to connect the vast array of class, racial, and gender struggles within durable, revolutionary mass movements.  These experiments include the anti-nuclear movement of 1980s, the Global Justice Movement, the anti-Iraq War movement, Occupy.  They were important moments of our development.  But they were each deeply limited in their own ways.  They didn’t create the solution to the far left’s crisis of organizing—the crisis of collective power.

But on the other hand, capitalism’s stagnation has thrown it into crisis.  A fascist state is emerging in America—and well beyond—to cope with that crisis.  Trump is a puppet of the ruling class.  He uses white supremacy and patriarchy to seduce working class and lower-middle class whites, marshalling them behind the ruling class that dominates them.  The goal of fascism is to divide the dominated, to turn them against each other, and so to save capitalism from itself.  But the more nakedly the fascist state attacks immigrants, people of color, women, and workers, the more it sparks revolt.  Under the emerging fascist regime, the far left is growing and connecting in a mass way.  And fascism does not eradicate capitalism’s basic contradictions.  Profit rates fall; growth can’t be sustained; finance capital gambles recklessly.  Anarchists, and the far left generally, are facing a historic opportunity to build mass struggle.

Neoliberal capital in Philadelphia

Philadelphia, like every city in the United States, is being fundamentally transformed by decades of neoliberal capitalist “development.”  The increased flight of manufacturing beginning in the 1960s ruined working-class neighborhoods like Kensington.  Monopolistic corporations like Comcast, alongside universities and others in the “information economy,” fill the void.  The city is flooded with mid- to upper-level managers who administer corporate and financial firms’ needs, along with the professional functionaries—lawyers, consultants, university professors and administrators, and so on—that keep the machinery running smoothly.  Industrial work remains to a degree, but Philly is now driven by finance, the “information” economy, and the service sector.

Philly’s ruling class is composed of corporate board members, corporate and financial firm heads, upper management, hospital and university administrators; and so on. They are served directly by the professional and managerial classes loyal to them.  But beneath these layers lies an army of low-paid, often precarious service and industrial workers.  This mass is composed of overlapping communities of women, immigrants, people of color, downwardly mobile students and graduates, and beyond.  They are the janitors, laborers, nannies, waiters, dishwashers, canvassers, cleaners, Uber drivers, bike messengers, taxi drivers, temps, and store clerks essential to make Philly’s economy function.  Since the city teacher’s union has been gutted, and since education is increasingly being privatized and defunded, public schools become factories pumping directly into that army of workers—or simply into prison.

Philly thrives on internal colonization; its firms are the colonizing forces.  The flood of professionals, entrepreneurs, and middle managers need someplace to live.  The city government and real estate companies make room for them.  Neighborhoods that were decimated by capital flight and ravaged by the new economy are demolished and their communities thrown out.  Eco-friendly utopias and communities of liberal, hard-working professionals rise in their place.  Chic bars, edgy restaurants, and homey shops arrive to soak up the available income, raising property values even more.  The ruling class’ media outlets help out where they can.  The communities getting kicked out were lazy and violent anyway, we’re toldEvery colonizer tells itself this story.

Police are the vanguards of colonization.  Their deadly, white supremacist harassment helps drive out decades- or generations-long residents and fill prisons.  More than this, though, the police are the Philly government’s general tool for disciplining the pool of workers that fill the “gig” jobs and do what’s left of industrial work.  With racist policing and through general intimidation  they try to create a populace that won’t revolt.  This is a lesson in local politics.  Liberals flocked to Kenny when he promised to end stop-and-frisk—an essential tool for clearing land for corporate capital’s lackeys to live on.  Stop-and-frisk has only disappeared from the mayor’s talking points.  Meanwhile, monuments to white supremacist policing dot the landscape.  The police are not some neutral tool that is changed with the whim of a government official.  They are the foot soldiers of capitalist development and expansion and the basic tool of pacification.  City hall has a progressive paint job; scratch it just a little and you find a baton and a gun.

Universities help drive displacement and domination. Schools like Penn and Drexel are major employers of highly exploited, precarious workers—who do the cleaning, cooking, and serving and who teach the classes, too.  Universities drown lower-middle- and working-class students in debt, and eject masses of downwardly-mobile workers into the gig economy.  Meanwhile, they recruit and train the newest members of the ruling class and their professional lackeys: corporate heads, university administrators, lawyers, academics, middle managers.

And universities thrive on gentrification.  They compete with each other for the best richest, and most students.  They need to constantly expand as a result, to make room for state-of-the-art forms and the most advanced stadiums and gyms.  Universities have to ape the blind and catastrophic growth of corporations.  This means obliterating local community housing, displacing residents, and using increased police presence and surveillance to clear the way for even more growth.

If Amazon’s new headquarters comes here, the dynamics of domination and displacement would be radically accelerated.  Philly would witness another wave of managers and professionals, another intensification of colonization.

II: A very rough sketch of Philly’s radical struggles

At the same time that corporate and financial capital’s power is growing, radical power is beginning to concentrate in Philly, too.  This is clear in the expanding and deepening of upheavals in 2017.  That power is rooted in the basic dynamics of local, national, and international capitalism.

The radical left in Philly comes out of Philly’s mass of highly exploited, very often precarious, strata.  Its struggles are driven by overlapping groups of service workers; alienated industrial laborers; radicalized students about to enter that workforce; and the under- and unemployed.  Some of the far left groups that are congealing within this pool include: antiauthoritarians—like Philly’s powerful Antifa, the Summer of Rage Anarchist Crew, the group surrounding the zine Anathema, and the local Black Rose/Rosa Negra helping organize workers and build an internationalist perspective, as well as radical environmental anarchists; Philly for REAL justice, calling for police abolition and confronting white supremacy in the city; Decarcerate PA and the related Coalition for the Abolition of Death by Incarceration (CADBI), fighting against mass incarceration; the Stadium Stompers and Philly Tenants Union, challenging gentrification; socialist groups like Philly Socialists as well as radical worker groups like the IWW who are helping to organize communities and workplaces; several Food Not Bombs chapters (North Philly, West Philly, and South Philly), that give crucial support to many of these struggles; student and teacher organizations like Penn’s Students for Justice in Palestine and the Radical Education Department; and many more beyond.  (The list is very far from complete.)  These groups struggle to dismantle some of the most central forces of neoliberal transformation in Philly: mass incarceration, gentrification, the rise of the far right, and the increasing exploitation of workers.

Such groups have been overlapping more and more in the past two years, a result of the increase of (both reformist and more revolutionary) mobilizations—like the Women’s March, J20, anti-Trump regime actions, etc..  A shifting core of activists tends to support and advertise one another’s work.  One person is even using the old Occupy Philly Facebook page and email to do the extremely important job  of gathering together and advertising as many leftist group events as they can.  The local blog Philly Anticapitalist is likewise crucial for advertising Philly anarchist actions and for posting reportbacks and analysis.

But in Philly, like elsewhere, radical struggles tend to be siloed.  We often remain in the scattered state we have been in for decades.  This has been particularly clear in mobilizations against ICE in comparison with other cities.  In New York, admittedly a very different context, anarchists were able to create the infrastructure for one of the ICE occupations occurring across the country.  The occupation effort was rooted in important part in the work of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, a spokes-council for connecting and coordinating multiple anarchist groups across the city.  Philly does not have this kind of tool.  Coordinating on a large scale an event or actions tends to happen in an ad hoc way.  Anarchist and far left responses to ICE have therefore been much more scattered.

At the same time, we have to recognize another crucial and potentially revolutionary set of forces in the city.  In Philly, like everywhere else, seethes a mass of radical informal organizing that happens every day among the dominated.  Networks of creative revolt—at times subtle, and other times more obvious—constantly develop to resist police violence and gentrification; dehumanizing work; unemployment; and beyond.  People are stealing shit from work; building local community support systems so that police don’t have to be called; etc. This mass drives and flows into many far left groups.  But it also stretches well beyond them.  Its revolt and dissatisfaction can draw it in a number of directions—towards either liberal groups or towards more revolutionary ones.

Among others, anarchists continue to play a key role in organizing revolutionary struggle in Philly.  The connections between the state and capital, between economic and political violence, are becoming clearer and more important to recognize and cope with in neoliberal capitalism.  This is particularly true in Philly, where gentrification is helped along by city government and the police and where the so-called progressive mayor is powerless before the police union.  It becomes increasingly important, then, to think about how to build collective autonomy against the state and capital—networks of revolutionary mutual aid that not only can help us survive but also help us strike back powerfully and effectively.   Anarchism is bringing to this context its local and international experience, filled with ideas about rejecting the state and capital and experimenting with something else.

At the same time, anarchists offer something more concrete as well.  Some of the most important spaces to develop radical thought and praxis area anarchist: the Wooden Shoe and A-Space.   

III: Obstacles and Possibilities

How can anarchists help build autonomous revolutionary power in Philly?

Building a revolutionary challenge to capitalism in this city would mean attacking on multiple fronts.  The analysis above shows that class domination is, at the same time, white supremacist and patriarchal.  Helping construct autonomous power in the city means helping build radically intersectional power.  To develop that kind of power requires tools for connecting the revolutionary layers of the dominated groups that make the city run: precarious workers, disaffected students, community members displaced by gentrification and exploited by landlords, the imprisoned ….  

A key path to greater autonomous, revolutionary power in Philly runs through increasingly coordinated, large-scale attacks on the control that bosses, cops, managers, teachers, and administrators have over the lower strata of the economy. 

This raises some key questions for anarchists and their radical allies in Philly.

  • How can anarchists help build mass struggle that is both intersectional and revolutionary in Philly—against capitalism’s multiple fronts of domination?  How can it help build a congealed, radical scene that goes beyond our activist “silos”?  What could a shared revolutionary “culture” look like here?
  • How can we help centralize and coordinate radical struggles on a mass scale in Philly—in a way similar to New York’s MACC?  How can we make sure we’re ready to strike back when the next political and economic crisis hits?
  • At the same time, how can we avoid building watered-down coalitions that go nowhere, simply sapping the far left’s energy and leaving it demoralized?
  • How can anarchists help further inject radical struggle in this city with autonomous, anti-state, and anti-capitalist power?  How can we build up our work with groups, especially community groups, who aren’t anarchist but are struggling for a revolutionary, liberated world?
  • How can we support the creative and vibrant informal resistance that happens every day among the dominated?  How can we help it build its radical and autonomous power?  How can we connect it to the broader far left radical scene in Philly?
  • How can radicals in Philly connect to other struggles across this country—and beyond?  How do we avoid being parochial, and develop a broad revolutionary internationalism?
  • What are the steps we need to take to make a revolution in Philly?

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