What follows is another essay on the ongoing dialog on syndicalism in the 21st Century. This essay in particular is a response to the Radical Education Department from the author of “Crafty Ghosts.”
The Radical Education Department, in their response to Nothing to Syndicate, asserts that Occupy, anti-ICE struggles, and anti-racist struggles were “almost always expressing precisely working class concerns”. This is blatantly untrue. ICE detainees generally identify first as migrants. Occupiers rallied in public parks, not workplaces. The unemployment rates in Ferguson were three times higher than the national rates. “Worker” is not an identity these people in revolt took for themselves, it is one that class-reductionist leftists foisted unto them.
RED might think that by spending the first half of their article describing a dynamic interrelationship between class and other identities and oppressive systemss they’ve thrown off the old “class reductionist” millstone, but we can see them pivoting away from those arguments before the conclusion. All their intersectional rhetoric unravels with statements like: “the resurging fascism in the US and beyond is only another step in a dynamic that lies at the very heart of capitalism,” and “we should not see recent uprisings as alternatives to worker struggle, but as channels into which working class radicalism is flowing”.
Since the situationists threw up “never work” tags in May of 68, social uprisings have been increasingly disinterested in letting “working class radicalism” flow through them. Leftitsts, please try to recognize this; people are not your ventriloquist dummies. Many understand their oppression and exploitation in terms that are NOT primarily economic, that do NOT involve identifying as workers, and while their ire may be aimed at the same wealthy elites as you, their relationship with those elites is often NOT mediated by a boss or a workplace hierarchy. Today, people find ourselves relating to our oppressors through police, ICE agents, prison guards, politicians, and, yes, internet aps.
Recognizing that digitization (and more importantly financialisation and precariatization) change people’s relationship with the mode of production is not “repeating the fever-dreams of the ruling class”, it is calling for an updated praxis.
What does it mean that a Lyft driver operates their car (and thus assumes the overhead costs and start-up risks) but still has surplus value stolen by the company? It means capital has sneakily reduced its role from owning the means of production to purely mediating the circulation of finance, a significant transformation.
What does it mean when factories and offices are staffed by temp workers, who are already functionally scabbing against the full-time employees? It means the workers often can’t strike and have thus joined the rest of us in our “[limited] ability to disrupt capitalist power”.
What does it mean that some of the richest companies are based on recirculating content we create for them, free of change? It means we have become at once consumer, producer AND product.
What does it mean when some workers fight to defend their benefits, ie, retirement accounts, which are invested in stock portfolios and grow based on the exploitation of other workers? It means that class lines are blurrier than your analysis admits.
What does it mean that the planet will choke on the exhaust of industrialism even if it were miraculously halted today? It means that we can’t rely on a rising revolutionary consciousness among the industrial proletariat. That ship has sailed, and then sunk.
What does it mean that the ruling classes are dumping massive and ever-expanding resources into systems of carcerality rather than systems of labor-extraction? It means the unemployed “surplus population” is a bigger threat to them than any mass of people identifying as workers.
What does it mean when people who are more motivated to work for social amelioration rather than economic gain–whether at state run institutions like public education or private like non-profits (including privatized schools)–are employed by one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy? It means that for many of us, the desire to play a role in altering social reproduction, is actually at the root of our exploitation.
If your analysis reduces these complexities to “the same as any other firm” then it is “passe, outmoded and defunct.” Social struggle, insurrection, uprisings, revolts, feminism, anti-racism, these are not “the second pillar of syndicalism,” they are an entirely different route toward the deconstruction and revolutionary reconstitution of society. Unlike workplace organizing, they are vibrant expansive movements winning gains in cultural and social realms. They are also wise to resist being subsumed under the failing leftist model of economy-first struggle. The bureaucratic left is not just a capitulation, it is a death knell to movement energy. Anarcho-syndicalism while less centralized and dull than Marxist-Leninist schemes is still more bureaucratic than the struggles that are currently winning gains, contesting territory, and building power.
Historical periods when syndicalism experimented with feminist or revolutionary cultural changes during large scale labor-based struggles are not relevant to the current situation, because presently, those “pillars” are reversed: the economic pillar is dragging behind the cultural. I can agree that we need an “infrastructure… to move from win to win” but a “federation of revolutionary workplace councils” is not it. Calling for a “federation of councils” in a context of “locale-specific, minimally organized, very loosely connected” struggle is a call toward centralization. Relative to the dominant anti-authoritarian practices, syndicalism (especially ushered in by the IWW which is partially composed of state socialists) is a step toward bureaucratization and the danger of socialist parties, the capitulation, reformism and authoritarianism that RED warns against.
Meanwhile, there are infrastructures already carrying many of us from win to win, they’re just (intentionally) opaque and (unfortunately) weaker than they need to be. These infrastructures include collective housing, mutual aid networks, protest norms like black bloc, security culture, or the st paul principles, street medics, legal defense crews, spokes-councils, and “anarchist franchise” projects like food not bombs, disaster relief, really really free markets, social centers, etc. These are the names anarchists give these practices, but mutual aid infrastructure exists in other communities as well, they tend to be based in kinship networks and are sometimes more robust and less scrutible to outsiders, including us. This infrastructure is exactly the kind of practice that anarchosyndicalists frequently deride as “lifestylist” or “subcultural”, but then turn around and imitate under an IWW banner.
What’s happening, and what critics are calling attention to, is that syndicalism is inserting itself in these struggles, distracting and sapping energy from them if not actively undermining and sabotaging. This causes some very specific detriments, which RED avoids by speaking in generalities. The GDC competes with antifa crews (mass antifascism is an established antifa practice, not a GDC innovation). IWOC competes with the Freedom Movement (prisoners didn’t call themselves “incarcerated workers”, the IWW did, before supplanting Free Alabama Movement’s effort to expand state-by-state).
In each of these situations, syndicalists are creating more accessible, but less effective and less authentic alternatives to pre-existing struggles. Many people involved intend to support or cooperate with the movements they’re joining, but by joining them through a syndicalist project, rather than on the struggle’s own terms, they end up subsuming it to the needs of the syndicalist bureaucracy. At the very least our own contribution is wasted on politicking and conflict-resolution with the rest of the union.
Just because something is formally established doesn’t mean it’s more robust, sustainable or powerful than informal structures or disorganized struggle. Anarcho-syndicalism needs to do more than learn the rhetoric of intersectionality and then assert the superiority of class struggle organizing without evidence. RED’s article is full of evidence that worker-power continues to bottom out (record low strikes, reformist dominance in trade unions, etc) and effectively argues against “the rigidity and top-heaviness” of unions, but then urges anti-authoritarians to leave our lively efforts and join them as a “second pillar” struggling to resuscitate exactly those failures. Syndicalism’s corpse is stiff and pale, stop breathing for it. Give up the ghost.