Archive for January, 2017

Historical Materialism and the Difference Between a Mobilization and a Strike

January 2, 2017

If a boss did it, he is guilty. If a worker did it, she was framed. This is the correct way to see the relationship between capital and labor as it is manifested on the job.

I was pleased and honored to be asked by Worker’s Power admns to write a few thoughts about the upcomng SEIU “general strike” one day action planned to protest the election of Donald John Trump as US president. I have been on strike four or five times, once I was locked out for 27 months at Bridgestone Firestone.  So, forgive me in advance to be so bold as to take on the role of teacher here; I don’t want to imply that I have all the answers, but these discussions need to be raised by somebody, and well, it might as well be me!

I am going to refer to four theorists in passing here, only as sort of touchstones, not to elevate theorists above the real power of the working class,  but to add flesh to the bare bones I’ll be constructing here. These theorists are Adam Kotsko, professor of religion at Shimer College in Chicago,Adolh Reed Jr., also an academic and long time African American activist, Fedy Perlman, anarchist theorist who got in trouble for letting his students grade themselves and was active in the anti war movement,and finally Jodi Dean, political science professor at Hobart College in New York.

I wll be giving a class if you will on hstorical materialism in the process of explaining why a one day action is not a “strike”. Go easy on me, I am not one who is comfortable being an “instructor”; it seems so pompous to me, but I must share what I’ve learned and let the chips fall where they may.

I wrote a cover article in the Des Moines Iowa magazine Cityview, titled “Firefight: Diary of a Firestone Striker”. I began with a killer, if I do say so myself, depiction of a meeting we had, ten months into the strike wich was held at a high school gym. I really know how to set a scene and build tension in a narrative; I am a naturally good writer but have not had alot of training, so stellar prose can suddenly turn janky if I don’t have a good editor- this piece will have one, I’m sure! Anyway, the scene was, the company had sent half of us letters stating we were being permanently replaced, whereupon , predictably,  we began to turn on each other, like a scene from Lord of the Flies.

The president of the local was a narrow minded, conservative bastard, but he never erred on the side of capitulation to the hated Company, I’ll say that for him. He tried to keep the crowd together, but there was a vibe of anger that some had crossed the picket line to sign a paper saying they’d return to work “unconditionally”. He explaned that some had been duped by the company and were sorry for having done it, but then something incredibly dramatic happened: A guy stood up and said “My family has suffered as much as anyone else’s, and I say that anbody who signed that list is just like those who went to Canada to avoid Viet Nam, they are traitors!”. Then a guy stood up and said “I went to Viet Nam and I signed that list. Those of us who got that letter are done, but the rest of us have got a lot to lose”. A key thing to note is this guy was a leader of the pipefitters and mechanical trades, one thing you learn is that the higher skilled workers will be he first to surrender- which flies in the face of the old trope that with enough education and skill you can go out and pull yourself up by your bootstraps and easly get another job. That is a lie. Another thing you learn from a strike that you wouldn’t learn from a one day  action.

Well the next thing that happened was, about six big guys stomped that guys ass right there, and he was only saved by another big guy who dragged him out the side door. That senior pipeftter led all his men across the picket line the next day.

Where am I gong with all this? well, a strike is something that, if it goes on very long, will turn violent, which is bad because it usually means the strike is lost along with public opinion. A one day “mobilization” is not a strike, a strike is where you actually come up against the rulng class and you have high personal stakes in the fight. A strike has the kernel of socialist revolution,whether the strikers are conscious of it right away or not. A one day so called “general strike” against Donald John Trump is easy, you don’t stand to lose your car, home or marriage over it, it is an example of failng to call things by their right names.

In the vernacular of historical materialism, Donald John Trump is what is called a “Bonapartist”, a reference to Napolean’s feckless nephew who was elected in France on a platform of authoritarianism- he claimed to be a strongman who would get things done by ignoring  civil niceties and solving all the social problems for you, even if his tactics were crude and brutal, he would “do the neccessary” in the name of the forgotten little man and make France great again like it was under old uncle Napolean. Donald John Trump is a Bonapartist. I call him by his full Christian name so as not to allow him to ingratiate himself with the workers by using the folksy “The Donald”, or simply Trump, as if he was a good old buddy of the workers- think of “Jimmy”Carter, “Dubya” Bush, they try to obfuscate the fact that they are representatives of the enemy class. I don’t play that, because I see things through the lens of historical materialism- which for me at least is a “way of seeing”- Jodi Dean talks about the “Commnist horizon”,the real material baseline that never lets us down.  Actually existing commnism ended in 1989, but the fear that workers might take power still terrifies the ruling class, they still invoke the slur of “communists” in their propaganda,as if Barak Hussein Obama was a communist, etc. There is power in the word, and Jodi Dean wants to name it and claim it, take back the banner of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” from the Stalinist past and weild our power in a dictatorship of the proletariat- although I’m not painting her position fairly; she thinks the “dictatorship of the proleariat ” and other Marxist terms are outmoded and suggests building a party with the slogan “sovereignty of the people”.

The good news is that we workers can take power and break all the rules and run things in our own interest just like Trump did. Bonarpartism is the mirror image of what workers rule might look like, only instead of cuttiing through the red tape to make life miserable for workers like Trump does, we could take power and force him and his class to heel.

Adam Kotsko on the blog An Fur Sich recently wrote a short think piece on the idea that the Democrats need to “fight like the Republicans”, and how in order to do that, it would take a revolutionary party that would forcefully repress the GOP, and the Democats are not that kind of party. He slammed his point home with a hstorical materialst idea: when two rights are in conflict, force decides. That means, if I say I deserve a good job a home and health care, and you say that imposes on your right to lord your private property over me and your right to exploit me, force will decide. How much political, collective power can we amass to counter our class enemies, and how much force can they amass? these are issues of historical materialism.

Since the halcyon days of the victories of the civil rights movements and the Viet Nam victory over imperalism (by the way, you notice I never say “we” when referring to “our” country- the bosses and landlords want us to think “we” are all n this together- another historical materialist take), the Left has slid into a mode of operation that focuses on representation rather than actual labor militancy- btw the “mobilization” is a good thing, it is the false “representation” of it as a strike that is problematic. Adolph Reed J. is great for explaining how it is that the unions cannot teach workers working class economics- I’ll call it “historical materialism”- because if they did the workers would begin to question capitalism, and that would endanger the union beauracracy’s uneasy place of privilege as mediators of the day to day struggles- and they also fear the union could be crushed if it came to scorched earth combat. And so workers only hear the boss’s idea of what economics is, through the radio and internet propaganda systems. No wonder they voted for you  know who.

I recall trying to get a modest loan from the Firestone credit union- which was named after the union! The “Local 310 Credit union”, and was turned down due to bad credit, by a kid who asked me how long I’d worked tere- I said six years. He told me he only had three months onthe job. Later, when  on strike I saw the parking lot filling up with repossessed striker’s cars, and it came clear to me hat the credit union wouldnt exist without the workers, and now when we are fighting for our livelihoods, the bank showed no mercy. You begin to see how capitalist exploitation is reified. Fredy Perlman wrote an essay “The Reproduction of Everyday Life”,  where he explains how capitalist social relations reproduce themselves, reify themselves, each day as we go to work.To reify something means to take something from the abstract and bring it to the concrete; capitalism is reified anew each day that we accept these relationships as unchanging and sacred. We must fight the notion that the bosses create wealth, no, labor power and nature create wealth, and the capitalsts parasite off our labor. Marx once said ” a bird s more free than a man, as it as to build its nest but one time, whereas (under capitalism) a man can build ten houses and still not have one of his own”.

The workers I know who voted for Trump (and yes I am angry with them for abettng racism knowingly!) did so mainly in response to their feelings of precarity, uncertainty- it was actually poignant to me the way they hoped against hope that trump would “bring back coal” and give them a measure of security. Never mind that he seems to be an insane liar, he painted  a picture of himself as a savior of the “forgotten man”, but as Adolph Reed scoffs, precarity was and is the default state of workers already-always. He claims the notion of the “precariat” as a new thing is ludicrous. He says, in effect, we should call things by their right names and not make up fancy new words to obfuscate and depoliticize, to regress into “representation” as substitute for real,bare knuckled struggle. Remember, even if you do nothing, the struggle will come to you anyway. The rightists understand the stakes- and we need historical materialism to help us see through the fog and resist capitalism.