Lost Conversations: Questioning the legacy of anarchosyndicalism

voz de mujerThere is more interest than ever in anarchosyndicalist unions, their history, and lessons for doing organizing in today’s context. During its peak, anarchosyndicalism engaged millions of workers on every continent except Antarctica. Though the Spanish experience through the CNT and 1936 revolution stands out, anarchosyndicalism was perhaps stronger in Latin America and Asia than in Europe. Despite the depth of those experiments and today’s interests, our knowledge of anarchosyndicalism is still poor. Continue reading

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Health and Happiness: Confronting the waste of human life through the pursuit of joy

hospital_room_emptyIt’s said that a society is to be judged by how it treats its weakest. Many forms of involuntary bondage are justly infamous for their abuses once people are put into chains, metaphorically or literally. Employers physically, sexually, and emotionally abuse workers on a mass scale. Workplace injuries, chemical exposure, and disease remain a top killer worldwide. Prisons are rampant sites of constant abuse, trauma, and disease. Soldiers in the military are subjected to cruel experiments, chemical and radiation exposures, violence, rape, and carelessness with the bodies that the military discards after their term is served.

Yet other violence and violation of people on a mass scale goes largely unnoticed because the people are socially invisible. Through the course of life, natural and unnatural, a section of the population encounters illnesses and conditions which render them unable to function independently without the direct care of others. Soldiers, prisoners, and workers are present here because of their inherent dangers, however we all face these dangers irrespective of our vocation or situation. Today’s society has dealt with people who have lost their full independence by creating institutions that concentrate resources and people to allegedly reduce cost. The reality is stark. Beyond the effect of the concentration of disease in institutional settings (which is massive since medical errors alone are the 3rd top killer), the human impact is rarely discussed and alternatives are even more scarce.

It is a fact that millions of people in the United States live in conditions where they may not have conversations with others of any length for weeks if not months or years. There is little resources or capacity for them to create, engage others, or interact with society. Overburdened staff are worked to the bone and often literally lack time for an uninterrupted 10 minute conversation. For people who haven’t spent a lot of time in these scenarios it’s difficult to imagine. The default is minimal access to television. Yet what does it mean that millions of people are removed from society, and held in conditions where there is no engagement of their emotional, social, and spiritual lives? What does it do to a human being to be placed in limbo with active barriers impeding their ability to contribute to society, create, and interact with others? Can any of us not in those situations imagine the effect say of lying in an empty room for decades? The break down of family and community bonds makes such cases disturbingly common. Continue reading

rough thoughts replying to Juan Conatz on organization

Juan wrote two intriguing and important pieces here and here putting out his fragmentary thoughts on political organization. It’s one of the only places I’ve seen that in text, and put into words many things I’d been wrestling with. This and the earlier piece which I missed sum up a lot of thoughts I’ve had about the problems building political organization in our context. I think it would be wrong to try and extrapolate to other contexts, but in a situation like our own I think these insights are key. Most of the groups people point to usually arose in high points of struggle as means to defend and expand the advances of revolutionary mass movements, and there’s a real error in trying to apply that ahistorically.

One gap I see here though is in the critique of political education stuff (mostly in the fragments piece?), it made me think of the IWW. In our relatively recent experience we’ve come to see the need for deepening the politics of the IWW, and finding a way to do politics more explicitly in our day-to-day work. I think that’s a move towards anarchosyndicalism and within the tradition. In practice though I think it’s fair to say that the people who have experimented the most with that are people more in the political organizational world. In fact some of the wobs, who can speak for themselves, who started doing political work in the workplaces were drawing from some of those traditions and experiments directly. I know my own advocacy of those positions came from engaging with anarchist and marxist experiences in latin america that questioned education as instruction, and that within the CSAC millieu those perspectives led to a number of experiments along those lines. Not much to show for it, but the thinking and practices did expand, and the IWW has benefited, even if indirectly.

I wonder if there isn’t a lesson here. Klas made some comments on the libcom thread that questioned how the divisions are drawn, which is profound in my opinion. Like how much of different animals are political organizations vs. solnets or the IWW? At their extremes we can see where they come apart, but if we do reject the political-economic distinction it muddies the water. It may be for those reasons the work political organization folks set out to do led them to grappling with exactly those questions, of how we do explicitly political work in organizing, that the approach myself and others had taken earlier in the IWW had overlooked.

The answer is not to replicate in my opinion the problematic aspects of those experiences. Instead I think we actually need to rethink how we think about organization all together. In a way, every organization is like the Argentinian FORA. Political organizations and mass organizations are both political entitites and both do organizing on some level. There are different approaches to different problems, and in our context significant overlap in the kinds of questions and work people are doing that are usually artificially separated. More and more we need to define our organizations based on what we’re trying to do and what’s justified. I’m not convinced those lines are drawn correctly, nor that our assessments have been correct. The persistence and increasing political maturity of sections of the IWW speak to something being done right. Likewise the political organizational current did contribute to thinking about education in organizing because of grappling with real problems in that work that provides lessons for anarchosyndicalists. Neither of those two define themselves based on their goals and activity, those perhaps both are moving closer. I feel strongly that attempts to prop up political organization are wrong, but there are contexts where work can’t happen except by getting together with other comrades to work on it. I’m not convinced either that that’s wrong across the board either (not saying anyone else is). In many ways we should be looking at why some experiments in politically linking folks to do some work outside their organizing worked, and why some organizing retained its political aspirations when others dumped it overboard at the first sign of trouble. I think we need a new framework for thinking about organization in general to get better answers than we’ve had.

Fighting to Heal: Anti-social violence and a path towards healing

image-516Yesterday morning a shooter, purportedly an ex-reservist and civilian IT contractor Aaron Alexis, killed 12 people at the DC Navy Yard.[1] As information about the recent mass shooting on a military facility emerges we appear faced with yet another instance of a mundane act of violence. An act of terrorism appears unlikely, instead a combination of anger issues, mental health, and workplace disputes is being identified.[2] It is obviously too soon to make any judgment on the facts, but the reactions and a recent trend makes it worth exploring.

I come into contact with patients with PTSD, veterans, and people who have experienced and perpetrated such violence through my employment as a healthcare worker. Before the identity of the attacker was released, the response from a number of vets I heard yesterday was almost exclusively that “this could not be one of our own, it has to be foreign terrorism”. This was surprising to me because of the recent spate of mass shootings carried out by Americans, let alone the less well acknowledged fact that most acts of terrorism at home have been carried out by Americans ourselves. There is a real disconnect here between the perception of our society and people and where we have come to. In Miami even just in the past six months a casual survey of local news shows a disturbing trend of anti-social violence: a whole family bound and gagged and shot execution style, children shot without apparent reason in robberies, and elderly people executed without request and subsequently robbed. Objectively these situations are quite rare, and their incidence has been decreasing (although anecdotally there appears to be some rebound since the crisis for which I haven’t seen good data either way). Still, we should pause and reflect on the fact that events like someone opening fire with an AK-47 on a park filled with children is less than a national event. Today, it seems everyone, even some people from foreign nations for whom such acts are nearly unheard of, is unsurprised about such violence in the US.[3] A familiar chorus points to gun control or mental health as the source of the violence.[4][5] Why do we not see questions being raised about what it is that is causing people who live here to seek out carnage against people who they don’t know and have no reason to wish any harm on? Increasing funding for mental health and restricting access to guns would likely help and should be supported. Yet the underlining corrosion of social relationships will be unaffected by such changes. 

Mass shootings are acts defined by their willingness to harm indiscriminately, in a way an attack on society as a whole or at least some sub-section of it. While larger scale violence against strangers is more flashy, anti-social attitudes and acts are much more common than this. Everyday in this country there are more mundane examples of people who resort to other less attention grabbing acts of anti-social violence that show total disregard for the lives of others. Beneath the criminal side of this phenomenon lies a social decay across American society that has eaten away at our trust, relationships, and capacity to function as a society. We live in a society filled with fear, mistrust, and a perception by many that we get ahead in spite of each other rather than with each other. 

The blame must be placed strongly at the door of the State and ruling capitalist interests who have carried out a toxic experiment on this country. This should be made clear, the moral and social violence and misery of this society is produced in part by the values and order of this society. Neighborhoods have been decimated by social engineering aimed at neutralizing political opposition in poor neighborhoods.[6] Drugs and crime flourish while the State sustains a program of mass incarceration against large sections of the population, leaving whole communities drained of resources, under siege by police and gangs, and creating the impetus for more crime and trauma. Social safety nets are slashed and everyday brings new experiments in shoving people into greater precarity and poverty for the benefit of an increasingly tiny and insulated elite. Without politically organized community and movements, people face this deprivation and the violence of everyday American life alone. The effect has been a social and moral decay in spite of the earnest efforts of millions to improve their situation through whatever means they find.

Yet we should also reflect on what could have been done to prevent the downward spiral, and what has been done to avert worse social decline. Faced with this situation, much of the progressive forces of American society has been channeled into charity and institutionalized social service or at least played a defensive role in trying to maintain existing social welfare measures. While clearly inadequate as a response, it must be recognized how the humanitarian work of countless individuals, many outside any organized social or political spheres, keep society functioning in spite of the barbarity of the ruling order. Large scale acts of solidarity like the anti-globalization movement, anti-war movements, Occupy, etc., accentuate this but also should not overshadow the innumerable people who constantly try to carve out a more humane existence by dedicating themselves to others. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans put forward effort to help Haiti after its horrible earthquake should be noted for a clear desire for and vacuum of ways to contribute to a greater whole.

Politically, progressives aspiring for liberation have lost sight of a collective universal needed to help society heal and to form the foundation of a future society. The reaction against the old left’s universal concept of humanity was correct as it was one which in the name of humanity wrote out the majority from it’s program. The needs of the oppressed were subjugated in a way that held back the advance not just of oppressed communities, but of everyone as a whole. An understanding of difference and autonomy were too long absent from the dominant currents of progressive thought. Yet the alternative has left us with a solution as fragmented as society itself. Too often the left is content to reinforce existing capitalist identities. Post-modern politics of fragmentation often aligns itself with the cultural politics of ascendant ruling classes now contesting power within the existing political and economic structure. The pragmatics of alliances and balkanization of the political landscape is one factor in disarming us against the ruling class attacks. What is missing is a sense of how we can move forward in dismantling the divisions that this society creates rather than reinforce or seeking to advance with them. The problem is less conceptual than practical. How can we heal this society and create a new order for social relationships that dismantles the corrosive structures and interactions of exploitative, racist, patriarchal, and other hierarchical relations?

Of course we all have a role to play in this too through having internalized the culture of America. We are neither perpetrators nor victims of this system; we are simply people making hard choices everyday. Often we choose to overlook chances to help others and avert harm because of all the things society has thrown at us. While not the main factor, thoughts and deliberations do have an impact and power that sometimes is not recognized. A mass change in attitudes can’t be willed into existence, but working to change our thinking can have a positive effect on our communities in the long run.

There are few voices that seek to fix this situation for everyone, in part because the problem goes beyond where people normally do politics. Social healing would require both removing the causes of constant trauma in American society, as well as creating new social forms and struggles outside the institutions of American power. It is not simply attacks and poverty that have created this situation, but also the absence of positive community. Defending against new encroachments on social welfare and standards of living are justified. Yet our program should go beyond both defense and expansion of social welfare measures. Any increase in people’s standard of living is good for humanistic reasons and should be supported. However, politically our efforts should focus on ways in which we can wrest control of social life out of the hands of hostile forces, and into those of a conscious collectivity. For example, we should be struggling not only for universal healthcare, but for healthcare directed and administered by organized communities. We should not let market forces or elements of the political establishment set what our health is. Instead we need to build an autonomous political force behind our own conception of health arising from discussion, debate, and activity within our neighborhoods. That is to say our struggle should be to organize people for the expropriation of resources for their own health and wrestle that control out of the hands of business and the State. While not realizable within capitalism, the lines drawn by such struggles carries the potential to sustain revolutionary movements acting based on their daily lives against the State and capitalists. 

img_0419Combatting anti-social acts and mentality requires a process of healing and construction of social alternatives. While limited by the corrosive nature of capitalist society itself, part of the contribution of anarchism is its understanding of the self-organization of societies and the possibility of collective action to transform our daily lives. The role of anarchists in particular in social healing should be experimenting, promoting, and educating about the potential of solidarity, and wherever possible creating opportunities for social bonds of mutual aid to grow and flourish. In absence of large scale movement against dominant values and order, such a path is difficult. Yet we benefit from being more clear about both how far society has fallen and our potential as healers. Anarchism has the ability to become a motivating force in society and with its actions contest the dominant values and ideas leading society to perpetual trauma and decay. For all of its faults, Occupy Sandy gives an example of how radicals can in key moments expose capitalism and offer an alternative.[7] If that kind of universality of solidarity can be built upon, we may have a chance at stemming the tide of anti-social violence and decay.  The flourishing of society is tied not just to opposing evil, but also to sustaining beauty, justice, kindness, and compassion. In this way the struggle of anarchists is not merely to defeat the evils of capitalism and the state, but also for the construction of moral and aesthetic virtues in common with each other. Against the tide of depressing anti-social violence and attitudes, we must be building new worlds and new values every day wherever we find the strength and capacity to break through.


[6] Some examples and citations of the social engineering of urban centers, suburbs, and the project of spatial deconcentration carried out by the federal government are laid out in my article about transportation and urban space called Taxing Our Lives: Unpaid costs and wages in transit. https://snappalos.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/taxing-our-lives-unpaid-costs-and-wages-in-transit/

[7] While not endorsing the New York Times or even Occupy Sandy itself per say, I think it illustrates the tensions created by the work done in Occupy Sandy. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/nyregion/where-fema-fell-short-occupy-sandy-was-there.html?pagewanted=all

Not One Nor Two: political organization, syndicalism, and thought.

minimum_wage_onpage“We would like to thank these activists and the lawyer who won this fight for us. Before we met them we fought for 15 or more years with nothing. We were powerless, but thank god we have people to help us now do what we couldn’t do on our own”.[1]

After years of working together and six months of actions, they won. The county had fined them almost daily hundreds of dollars for an infraction involving their vehicles. Research had revealed that the county commission never passed a law which would have given them the power to do so; for 5 years or so they were illegally collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from poor drivers without any legitimacy. The drivers organized, held general assemblies, picketed, led actions shutting down parts of the city, and disrupted county meetings. Without a leg to stand on the county buckled and admitted fault, promising to refund the money to the drivers.

Before we began working together, the drivers had paid a lawyer more than a mortgage per month to advocate on their behalf. Every election they pooled money for candidates, and sat on countless county meetings to try and correct basic daily issues making their lives and work miserable. The fight has been on 20 years or so when we met, but the current generation of leaders had fought for 10. There were very few victories. The drivers are candid; what works is when we shut things down. But they didn’t want to do that.

The problem isn’t that they didn’t not know how to fight, but that they are committed to another view of life and politics. Following the victory, the workers dove head in to lobbying commissioners and seeking an advocate on the council. Feeling they had won, they openly rejected the idea of being forced back onto the streets and out of their vehicles. Instead they believed that the power of outsiders to win favors gained them a seat at the table. Continue reading