Messengers of transition: The 2016 election and the undermining of recent politics

janus-91January 1st is the day of Janus, the Roman god of change, time, and transitions. Janus was a god they did not inherit from the Greeks, and whose origin is mysterious still to this day. The god looks out at the world with two faces, gazing as it were across the world ceasing to be and the world coming into existence. 2016 is a year of yet another presidential election in the United States, but one taking place in an environment of increasing uncertainty about the future for world powers and their subjugated. The last serious presidential contest in 2008 seems worlds away in terms of the context. When youth and the poor mobilized in unprecedented numbers for the Obama campaigns vague promises of change, it would have been hard to imagine that only a few short years later some 40% of the protesters at Occupy had worked for the Democratic Party in their attempt to secure Obama’s victory.


Since the crisis began to unfold more fully in 2008, politics as it was has been steadily undermined by a series of disruptive events such as the tea party, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter. Internationally, quantative easing led to surging economies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa fueled by easy money. When Europe and the US regained their footing with financial interventions by their governments, the investments came flooding back out of the largely export-economies which has developed into the second stage of global crisis.


Signs of new times are not hard to find. Consider the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The US is supporting it’s traditional ally Turkey who in turn is supporting ISIS and launching attacks against the Kurds who the US are also providing assistance to in the fight against ISIS. Open disagreement exists within both the Democrats and the Republicans over who is friend and foe including discussions of joining with Russia and Iran, let alone the revolutionary leftist Kurds.


Trump and Sanders are perhaps messengers of things to come. The ruling class increasingly looks like a schizophrenic Janus with its faces lost in a sea of change, with a sea of contender ready to take up the mantle. Today the outcome of the election is unclear. Even should traditional Republican and Democratic candidates secure the nominations, the candidacy of left and right populism has posed a severe threat to the party such that establishment candidates like Clinton and Bush have been forced to shift positions in light of the challengers. Trump comes on the heels of the tea party tendency in his party, but with distinct politics that managed to express the dissatisfaction of a section of the populace normally comfortable in that political home. The politics of Sanders and Trump are not the voice of a shifting public per say, but instead reflect the attempt of the political elites to shift with a public that is steadily undermining their way of doing business for the past few decades at least.


The simple formulas of the left that Sanders represents social democracy and Trump fascism, beyond being just incorrect, obscure something much more fundamental. The election is demonstrating that the instability at home and internationally has created cracks in the political structure. Whoever wins the election will face a country and a world in flux, and in which increasingly popular pressures are pushing against traditional arrangements for settling disputes within society.


The thousands of recently politicized participants in the campaigns will face the reality of our situation and the coming polarization with whichever outcome. Revolutionaries should avoid getting sucked into yet another electoral contest. Even if it were a good idea in itself, our abilities would be lost in the vast sea of reformism seeking to improve capitalism, when we could focus our attention where only we can shine. Where possible, we should be speak to those who are questioning and taking action to plant seeds against elections and for another way of doing politics that will inevitably follow election day. We should be preparing for a different context than we’ve been used to that could lead to surprising and unexpected situations of potential or repression.


Outlining a response to potential social revolts

Objective conditions and popular anger continue that could bring revolts in some parts of the population, and possibly generalized protests in the right situation. The shifts of the past few years have caught revolutionaries off guard and led to many mistakes: revolutionaries propping up militant reformism, leftists mixing with the radical right in some places, rigid dogma insulating against activity, and being too anchored to the terms of conflict from prior situations.

Struggle is likely; though the best attempts of predicting where shouldn’t be trusted, and even when correct often don’t help revolutionaries in the positions of trying to figure out what to do. Today we should be trying to prepare for future disruptions by cultivating the capacity to act in real time; having a revolutionary practice capable of adapting to a plurality of different situations. What follows are just rough outlines of pieces of thoughts, nothing formed enough to go beyond notes. Still the lack of discussion around these issues and potential for things to unfold rapidly necessitate dialogue, even in a rough and fragmented form. To open up this discussion, it’s worthwhile to outline some key points likely to come up in the next few years.

  1. Immediate new protests are reasonable to assume as popular discontent has only partially cooled and a long period of austerity adds kindling to an already tenuous situation. The world political environment is one of change and interconnectivity; a context where weak links can set off waves of struggle particularly as the crisis deepens and both the responses of power and resistance have hardened and shifted.
  2. The main responses to the crisis to watch so far have come from militant forms of reformism (largely right and left populism and social democracy), ruling class austere capitalism of large scale decline of living standards and widening inequality, neofascist movements built from elements of the left and right and not necessarily centered around race, and a growing popular support for insurgent forms of anarchism and communism.
  3. We should anticipate support within the left and right for all these forces, and not assume that the divisions of today will persist when struggle gets in motion. Some on the left today will likely move in response to social pressures to positions to preserve capitalism or implement new class orders against movements for liberatory societies.
  4. There is no certainty that this is the crisis, and no guarantees reformism is not possible. Capitalism is adaptable. We should assume the worst, that it can find solutions to its crises, and prepare accordingly. Of course we can hope for the best along the way.
  5. Objective conditions are never enough to carry a project that requires huge numbers of people to literally build a new world. An active anarchist conception of social transformation is a key aspect of overcoming capitalism, and should be put at the front and center of the day to day work of revolutionaries working against exploitation and oppression.
  6. In popular revolts revolutionaries should focus on generalizing struggles and issues, and finding programmatic ways to advance and demonstrate revolutionary politics in direct struggles. Without that we fall into support for social democracy or worse nationalist populist movements, and leave many militants floundering in otherwise positive situations. With an eye towards social revolution as the total transformation of social relationships, we need to forge the path from the context of today towards a people motivated by the desire for another society engaging in immediate struggles through to insurgent opposition to capitalism and the State.
  7. Immediately, we should experiment and attempt formulate our revolutionary practice in terms of the impinging crisis in our lives: at work, in housing, police repression of communities, sexual violence and domination, and other symptoms of the social decline and change associated with this moment.
  8. Putting social transformation of struggle at the top of our priorities reinforces the need for seeing mentorship, political dialogue, and engagement with developing militants as a priority. Specifically we need to be working to ensure militants have the capacity to act independently, without instruction or structures of command, and with creativity in real time to carry forward revolutionary politics in an unstable and unfamiliar terrain.
  9. The state of fragmentation, decades old alienation from politics in the US, and unfamiliarity with struggle puts up large barriers to the development of cohesive organization. Both attempting to build bases and political sects run into difficulties lacking the ground to nuture such attempts that come out of times with more revolutionary cognition and activity. We need to concentrate resources in a unitary field where we can develop our ideas, carve out a program in practice, organize day-to-day struggles, and mentor at all levels of commitment and development across time. Our point of intervention should be to unify that political work within struggles, development of ideas, strategizing, and libertarian education.

What is a Resistance Society?

srneuquenResistance Societies are not well known in the English speaking world, though they were among the most important building blocks and experiences in South American anarchism; arguably in its time the largest and most well developed anarchist movement in the World. The history of Resistance Societies draws from 1st International days when unions and sharp political and economic divisions had not yet been carved out. In countries like Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, anarchist formed Resistance Societies to coordinate their local struggles against capitalists and the State. There were Resistance Societies for tenants struggles, women’s struggles, and coordinating different workers associations. This text is from the present day FORA about Resistance Societies today and their role within FORA. Below is my translation of a text from the Rosario Resistance Society of the FORA. 

The Practices of the Movement of the FORA: Concerning the Resistance Societies

What is a Resistance Society?

Resistance Society designates the first nucleuses of proletarians and associated revolutionaries of the last century; workers and artisans who sought complete autonomy and independence from the relations of the State, bosses, and Capital.

Through the years the objective of the Resistance Societies were to concretize a community of effective struggle within the bosom of the proletariat by sister organizations of men and women in every locality where Capital imposes its inhuman conditions of existence. Continue reading

Responding to the Growing Importance of the State in the Workers Movement

obama_seiuRecent waves of protests in the US have given us useful examples to understand how American revolutionaries can work out our politics in practice. IWW members and branches in particular have witnessed renewed interest and potential in class conflicts, organizing, and aspects of its politics. At the same time, IWWs face a renovated reformist opposition whose tactics and ideas, while not identical, look more and more similar to our own, and pose a challenge for how we can demonstrate concrete solutions to daily issues under capitalism while building a movement against exploitation itself. The declining standard of living, sky rocketing inequality, and grim outlook for workers (if not nearly everyone) presents a challenge and open field for revolutionaries like the IWW who want to organize around the total experience of life under capitalism towards a new society.

In 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin protests and an occupation of the capital erupted in response to a bill banning public sector collective bargaining.[1] Beginning as a defense of established union practice, the protests quickly escalated beyond that and spread calls for direct action, a general strike, and forms of participatory democracy.[2] The Occupy movement, Walmart protests, and retail sector organizing like SEIU’s Fight for 15 similarly adopted a direct action approach. In all of these instances – Madison, Occupy, FF15, etc. – we had a situation where there was some kind of social base for the mass practice of libertarian revolutionary’s tactical and administrative perspectives – direct action, democracy, and confrontation – within a formation where the predominant big picture political perspective was not that of many radicals but rather was one of a more equal, softer capitalism. We can call these movements militant reformism[3], which in the context of the global fiscal crisis aimed (and still aim) at mobilizing the population behind social reforms to improve and save capitalism.

In each case it was tied to a specific class fraction or set of class fractions. These events tapped into but did not articulate, clarify, or advance more fundamental dissatisfaction with the system as a whole. Radicals did little about that, neither putting forward ideas to become more fundamental in its criticisms or more expansive in terms of what class fractions were involved. This is because libertarian revolutionaries have focused too much on those tactical and administrative aspects – basically formal qualities of struggles – and less on actually advancing the ideas they hold among people who don’t already hold those ideas and don’t speak the in-group vocabularies of the libertarian left. The libertarian left in practice has largely put forth/advocated and sought to practice militancy and democracy, and has done much less to convincingly advocate its social vision. This is part of why we were left flat-footed when social movements and NGOs etc., largely adopted similar stances regarding militant and democratic behavior.

kshama-sawantState intervention and mobilizing for reform increasingly is attracting attention and energy.[4] Navigating that and defining an alternative is a distinctly real and immediate problem for the context we are working within. Taking an active position on the State in a union like the IWW has often been seen as something similar to declaring devotion to the teachings of Marx; an abstract issue that doesn’t matter beyond stating group affiliations with some people over others. This is a mistake however because the State and the politics around how groups like the IWW relate to it have a direct and deep impact on day-to-day organizing decisions, and it’s penetration of our work is likely to become increasingly something we face. The political landscape of today is encountering a stead swell of attempts to channel collective actions like those we advocate within statist projects of improving capitalism and helping it overcome the challenges of the past decades. Madison, Fight for 15, Occupy, and recent socialist electoral campaigns have driven our relationship to the State closer and closer, and have made the methods and spheres of action of the IWW increasingly contested.

For many years the mantra of organizing was direct action, direct democracy, and movement building both by revolutionaries as well as the more militant sections of reformists, unionists, and activists. This was held in contrast (within unions, NGOs, political parties, and independent projects) to ideas promoting  strict hierarchies or representation, lobbying and electoral reform, and professional services. While radicals were often the ones calling for direct action, in practice different unformed tendencies existed promoting those tactics and structures, many pro-capitalist. Agnostacism about the State, specifically believing we can ignore it all together and achieve more by avoiding politics, was encouraged by this environment. A philosophy of pure action, uniting organizers to just work on fights and move past the political distractions, was put forward as the antidote for the general passivity and withdrawal of people from politics.

For example, in workplace organizing some call for strikes, democracy, and a working class mobilization against management-labor partnership, political lobbying, and narrowly defending the interests of an individual workplace, company, or industry. These arguments are often made speculatively without much concrete examples or experiences to go off and target people on a general basis. Until recently this occurred with little serious competition for those same positions. It was possible to claim the radical nature of a program of direct action and democracy while there were few public reformist campaigns that contradicted it. In Madison, IWWs and revolutionaries promoted direct action and general strikes with broad support amongst a general climate in favor of expanding action and militancy. That energy was ultimately directed into a defense of traditional union structures and bargaining and electoral efforts, most visibly with the recall of anti-union Republicans. The militancy of liberal politicians and reformists took many by surprise and made maintaining momentum for the IWW’s politics and strategy more difficult. During these events, no serious debate emerged around the State within that struggle beyond the issue of strikes versus winning a more supportive legislature. Looking back, it wasn’t only the recuperative efforts that were destructive to more radical actions, but also the hopes and political organization for the reform of capitalist government that played an important role in disarming more radical perspectives within those events.

Likewise Occupy changed the political terrain of the United States through its challenge to popular discourse, channeling discontent beyond the normal detours the rulers used in previous decades. Populist anger and ideas spread alongside rumblings of more overt anti-capitalist and anti-systemic thinking. In some cities the NGOs were heavily involved in Occupy from early on, but mostly the Democratic Party, unions, and NGOs found themselves on the outside and quickly tried to remedy it. The IWW too had to figure out how to relate to the shifted field. Many people normally alienated by political struggles became interested in revolutionary ideas and ways to address growing social ills spreading in communities. IWWs in cities across the US and Canada were being asked for the how and why of revolution; questions that are not answered exclusively by direct action and democracy.

Discontent with the symbolic nature and isolation of the occupations led to experiments in mobilizing around pressing issues: foreclosures, workplace issues, unemployment, etc.  In some cities the forces of recuperation were a part of this grassroots organizing from the outset, however in other places they moved in only after the popular mood was more clear. Huge amounts of money poured in largely from unions like SEIU, but also likely from Democratic Party sources. Rather than opposing horizontal methods, they embraced them and sought to direct them militantly in the service of reforms. Foreclosures, the minimum wage, and jobs were all demands of different work out there which the reformists used to put pressure on lawmakers from the outside in parallel with proposals by the Democrats for institutional reform.

This created a problem for revolutionaries involved in Occupy. With thousands activated by experiences in Occupy, projects began to pop up around the country often using the alliances crafted within Occupy. Different radicals, unions, and NGOs collaborated to organize in the community and improve the conditions of the working class. When Obama called for increasing the minimum wage, months later it would be radicals hitting the streets within SEIU, HERE, and other fronts to build actions to pressure for such increases.

Revolutionaries  making the same arguments for their methods (such as militancy, direct action, direct democracy, and base building of social movements), shared that same space increasingly filled by people who wanted to improve capitalism not abolish it, and in fact by the elements within the ruling class in some cases. This became sharper with the emergence of the fast food strikes. Though these strikes often became media circuses with little worker participation, the problem remains. What came to the front with the crisis was the need to be able to concretely place movement to save and improve capitalism versus movement to undo it. Literally people began asking revolutionaries how we can create a new society, while the answer of libertarian tactics alone was becoming shown to be not enough on its own.

In the workers struggle this creates immediate issues. SEIU’s Fight for 15 attempts to organize low wage retail workers using direct action to achieve, primarily, a raise in the minimum wage. Today this campaign has hit some initial road-blocks and worker participation has been more limited than hoped. There is speculation that this is a push that, if it gains momentum, would also seek a legislative route to make traditional contracts and union representation viable. Still the opposite could happen. SEIU, if successful, might pursue a non-contractual direct action approach using militant tactics and building a movement of retail workers. Disbelief that any reformism couldn’t be democratic, militant, etc., is likely to be proven wrong at some point even if we aren’t at that point yet. In the IWW, retail workers have a decade or more of experience collectively using similar tactics and as the rhetoric that SEIU has moved onto. If SEIU’s failures to mobilize workers push it further along militant reformism, our agitation as IWWs within the industry will be weakened if not coupled by something that clearly draws out SEIU’s and capitalism’s limitations. If not by direct action, democracy, and militancy, then what distinguishes our revolutionary syndicalism?

As the global situation changes these questions are likely to persist rather than quiet down, even if the crisis recedes. The old political balance and economy has been disrupted, and something new is possibly emerging. The past two years have shown us a glimpse of reformism that is willing to fight directly and challenge power not only within the normal means of struggles, but also beyond that even testing illegality; something a few of us have called militant reformism.[5] We have little idea where it is headed, but as these shifts are contested (from above and below), it’s likely that there will be militant reform attempts to respond to this for some time.

What becomes clear in seeing militant reformism, like that that emerged around Occupy, is that objectives matter significantly. Struggle has the potential to radicalize people, and that should be one of the most important things we keep in mind, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the system is very good at internalizing its opposition and enemies. Militancy in the service of making institutions of capitalism (and particularly the State) better able to respond to pressing issues becomes a force against addressing the long-standing problems we face. Fighting daily issues within capitalism should be connected by revolutionaries to work against the system itself. Societies have an equilibrium of power, a balance of opposition, wrangling by the rulers, and an ability to divert, coopt, and redirect resistance from below. When possible we should become a force against capitalism’s equilibrium, taking additional opportunities to radicalize people in the spaces that open up in the system’s disequilibrium, allowing for new orders to emerge.

NewDealThis does not mean that we should support the same work for reforms but advocate mere anti-capitalism. The labor movement of the 1930s often had strong currents with an anti-capitalist orientation, but through its work created new circuits for capitalism in crisis, and a new basis for capitalist expansion. The revolutionaries of the 1930s literally paved the way for world war and the golden era of American capitalism, not it’s defeat. Similarly today many forces are mobilizing for social reforms aimed at creating a new basis for expanded capitalism and directing discontent into transforming the State. It is the role of the State in maintaining order and equilibrium that is central to defeating the total system of exploitation and oppression, and it is exactly the State that reformism tries to redirect popular discontent into in order to save capitalism.

This is why the opposition to the State is a concrete necessity of day-to-day work in organizing rather than merely sectarian or ideological position. The State interferes with collective empowerment not only through corralling activity into elections and lobbying. Society as a whole is tied to the relationships of the State that struggle, contest, and constantly redefine power. Failing to oppose the State directly disarms us against militant reformism often channeling the work of revolutionaries into improving capitalism or making it a mere appendage of populist mobilizations. Recent experiences show the central role of the State in our daily work, and the necessity to concretely oppose it to advance a new social order of solidarity. This is why groups like the IWW, solidarity networks, and other projects that directly oppose the system in daily life need to oppose the State practically, and commit ourselves to organizing against the State. At the same time our weakness on these points was revealed in the lack of concreteness we could put into action. This is a key component of the work of our time; to demonstrate in practice and words clearly how to engage in revolutionary action against the State and Capital.

Practical resistance to the State is invaluable through alternatives to and critiques of electoral routes to social change, institutionalizing struggle (which weakens it and pacifies workers), and the uneven playing field of a State within a hierarchical world of power. We need to become capable of explaining steps people can take in line with our politics towards an alternative society. The critique of statist methods is crucial, but our values, objectives, and the content of our proposal are important factors that help define our revolutionary path. There is not a way to do that without opposing the capitalist State, and doing the necessary work of showing another way.

[1] See (Hawthorne, 2011a).

[2] For an overview, discussion of the IWW’s role, and some critical analysis see (Conatz & Sawyers, 2011), (Conatz, 2011a), and (Conatz, 2011b).

[3] For writings on militant reformism Nate Hawthorne’s work in general is invaluable, however the following pieces are a good start: (Hawthorne, 2012), (Hawthorne, 2011b), and (Nappalos, 2013).

[4] The successful election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council in 2013, and close campaigns of other socialists, only add to this dynamic obviously.

[5] See footnote 3 for citations.


Conatz, J., & Sawyers, B. (2011). The General Strike That Didn’t Happen.

Conatz, J. (2011a). Why a General Strike Hasn’t Happened Yet.

Conatz, J. (2011b). Wisconsin: What now?

Hawthorne, N. (2011a). Struggle Changes People.

Hawthorne, N. (2011b). Reform is Possible and Reformism is Guaranteed.

Hawthorne, N. (2012). Occupy vs. Eviction: Radicals, reform, and dispossession.

Nappalos, S. (2013). Bring Fire to the Castle: Crisis, militant social democracy, insurrection, and existing means of settling disputes.


The Tasks of Today and of Tomorrow

Much thinking in the United States around how work against this system tends to speak as if our tasks are fairly fixed. Generally, people searching for how to organize look to radically different contexts than our own. There is a tendency to compare our situation to times in where people organized into social forces created their own struggles, tendencies, and ideas, and where revolutionaries played a strong role within. The desire for huge numbers, direct influence, and the capacity to leverage large scale social change often distorts perceptions of what we can do today and can lead to counterproductive attempts to find shortcuts, be it through getting powers granted from the state or ruling class, funding staff, winning elections, finding organizing “tricks” that will send thousands into our arms, converting students, running publishing houses, or doing mental gymnastics to find the ideology, oppressed group, or category that with special powers can carry us to a new tomorrow.

Recently a few examples have called into question our relationship and understanding of our present. Occupy, Madison, and perhaps some of the post-Occupy housing and workplace protests created situations in which many were brought into new roles they hadn’t experienced before, and where their prior tools for doing work became outstripped by the appearances of people willing to engage in struggle beyond their immediate needs. Faced with a situation in which thousands or more were openly questioning and seeking ways to move forward, most were challenged to step up to the new possibilities they faced. IWW members in Madison were being asked for direction and had to decide what a revolutionary response was while the Democratic Party and unions were attempting to contain and redirect the new combativeness into institutional means. These kinds of problems are important to understand in terms of how we get there, how to prepare, and ways to respond. Continue reading

A Politics of Humanity: Towards a critique of conflict, identity, and transformation

i-am-the-99-percentThis is a draft of some ideas I’m working through critiquing the role of identification with existing social divisions within capitalism as a transition to the abolition of such divisions. It’s in a rough state, and I’d appreciate constructive contributions.

The transformative potential of conflicts forms the basis for the beginning of any politics today. This point, fundamental and too often missed, gives us ground to stand on and take steps towards collective emancipation beyond the individual liberties and transgressions of mere enlightened thinking. While conflict carries with it liberatory potential, this fact can often obscured the more fundamental issue which is taking a society built on scaffolding of toxic relationships and transforming it into one of solidarity and liberty.

When people enter into conflict, they organize themselves around relationships and lines, existing or constructed, and use the tools they identify to advance their cause.  These may follow the existing norms for how conflicts should unfold (like unions filing charges within the labor courts, class action lawsuits, fielding candidates for offices, official protests, etc.), or they may go outside those norms (occupations, riots, extraparlimentary direct action, viral propaganda, etc). In some cases, even direct action protests can become ritual, institutionalized and contained within the normal state of affairs of society like property destruction at anti-globalization and anti-war protests which are predictable and contained within that period. Any of these examples given can become normalized. In France today there are thousands of riots and violent acts of social malcontent yearly. Despite their illegal and violent nature, they are thoroughly normalized and routine, posing little threat within the balance of power today (though of course these things can get out of hand as well in certain contexts).

The dividing lines and the means for the conflicts both have the potential to radicalize participants depending on the situation. When collectivities use tactics that inspire and spread, they have disruptive potential that goes beyond their immediate value. The Occupy protests are one such example in which the context allowed for disruption disproportionate to the actual act; camping out in a space as protest, something which in previous situations had been largely uneventful. Likewise who does the protesting can effect the events that follow. Continue reading

Lever Points: Complex systems and potentialities for liberation

Archimedes_lever_(Small)“Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” Archimedes

The perspective which emergence and complex systems give us comes across as limits on our thinking and powers. The separation of the world of agents and that of emergent forces creates a casual gap which exposes the weakness of our thinking and actions to bend the world to conform to our wills. For most purposes simple cause and effect is enough. If I push a ball it will roll. If you shove me, I will move. When it comes to things like poverty, global warming, or racism such an understanding breaks down. Complex systems like society exhibit what’s called nonlinear causation or as I prefer it disproportionate causation. Nonlinear causation occurs in things like runs on stocks caused by tweets, revolts against governments caused by the death of an individual, or the famed example of butterfly flapping its wings in Australia causing a tsunami in Japan. A small cause has a disproportionate effect due to the state of the complex adaptive system in which it occurs through a number of mechanisms (like feedback for example).

The biological and social worlds are largely constituted by complex adaptive systems exhibiting emergence. Within these, disproportionate causation occurs throughout. The majority of this is simply part of the system. The response of the immune system to an allergen in a person with allergies is one example. The body reacts globally to exposure to an allergen that in some cases can cause death. Nothing intends for this to happen, quite the opposite. A smaller group of disproportionate causation occurs when someone or some group does intend for change to occur. These are called lever or leverage points in the complex adaptive systems community. Continue reading