26 August 2011

“SCAB!” Spontaneity and Organization on the Verizon Picket line

The strike is over! This was the largest US strike in four years and seems to be a victory. But it would be a mistake not to learn lessons from it and imagine that this was simply a good strike, and good strikes win. We must draw out the peculiarities of the strike within the larger historical context and use this to raise and push forward important questions about the larger trajectory past capitalism.

The most remarkable images of this strike came from the picket lines, where members of CWA, IBEW, their families and allies taunted, harassed and at times possibly assaulted scabs (for more stories see this Labor Notes article).
Many of the most aggressive YouTube videos were removed, likely at the union’s behest: they were outside labor law and off the program. Yet this brashness is what’s so remarkable about these images. In this strike rank-and-file workers took the helm of militancy. They hated those scabs and they didn’t, to use the language of the picket lines, give a fuck about labor law or the union program.

This sudden burst of militancy does not, of course, clearly lead toward overcoming capitalism. The workers’ affect is largely based on the right not to be poor (i.e. “Middle Class”) — if pressured toward politics many would be nostalgic for Fordism — and is built on the pride and value of labor. But just as Deckard asks us to be ambivalent about the London riots, we must pay more careful attention to this spontaneous, unruly activity.

Where does this sudden spirit for struggle come from? NYC striker Dominic Renda’s comments are helpful here. He said that, “If we strike Verizon and win, it could give confidence to people throughout this country that they can also take on their bosses whether it be government jobs or whether it be in the private sector and also win, instead of us being brought down to where everyone else is, you know, making peanuts and having benefits you have to pay into.” This, for him, is about feeling emboldened both by a sense of being attacked and a sense of building momentum in the labor movement. Wisconsin has been a frequent reference point despite the electoral losses. In the background of the video (in full below) there is a man with t-shirt from the Wisconsin fight, and Larry Cohen, the president of the CWA, has said, “We’re on strike for our bargaining rights, just like Wisconsin or Ohio.” This combined with a growing exasperation with the Tea Party breathes some boldness into workers. There is real anger at the “greed” of the bosses and real fear that everything that has been won since Fordism will be lost.

These feelings are radically different from the sense of exclusion and irreverence typical of the London rioters (my favorite articulation of which is here), but they are nonetheless analogous. They are both militant, spontaneous responses to lives that people feel do not work. However, they are not revolutionary. They are incited by particular affronts brought on by the exigencies and impulses of capital and do not challenge the underlying social forms that constitute capitalism. As Deckard rightly points out, the London rioters do not articulate a path beyond the current crisis, let alone the commodity form. Verizon strikers have similarly low horizons. They are fine with working 8 hour days, they are fine with not having direct control over the production process, and they’re fine with money mediating sociality, in fact they’re even fine with unequal distribution so long as their cut isn’t that bad. These reactions, these seemingly negative positions with respect to the social order are products of capital and are internal to it; they do not in themselves point over the horizon.

The posts of Deckard and AB might be mistaken as positing thinking as an “alternative” to the limits of this spontaneity but this is a misnomer. About the London riots Deckard says, “I would argue that a truly “political” response to the conditions of austerity and the powerlessness of concerned citizens in England, or anywhere, must be able to project a path beyond the contradictions of neo-liberalism.” But this still begs the question, where might this coherent response come from? By way of an answer we might turn to AB’s comments on formulating a response to the current crisis, where she says that, “The process then is first intellectual, and then, political. And not intellectual in the sense of reading books, but that a mental switch is thrown. It requires the recognition of the alienated force and recognition that it is the result of our own social action.” Our own living under capitalism pushes forward our intellectual project of imagining a new reality. Rather than looking to a genealogy of books and great thinkers for a platform outside of social action from which we can see over the horizon, our thoughts are grounded in and and determined by that action.

We are then left with what we might call a dialectic of spontaneity and consciousness. Spontaneous social action instigated by material conditions produces actions which themselves have no revolutionary character. The same material conditions as well as these spontaneous actions produce a consciousness of the possibilities and the forms of a transformation of life. All the while they are immanent to the system against which they appear to position themselves. The last step of the dialectic however seems to be missing, the revolutionary consciousness in turn must inform spontaneous social action and give it a character that increasingly challenges the essential qualities of the present and make concrete steps toward the realization of an alternative. We’re missing this step, where the will to overcome capitalism leaps from ideality and theory into concreteness and practice.

I think that this lack, which has pervaded this blog, is itself a characteristic of this present historical moment. For the original theorists of this dialectic in the 1910s and 1920s, like Luxemburg and Lukács, this step was made by the party. The Communist Party was for Lukács the “conscious collective will” toward “the realm of freedom” (Lukács, 315) — the determinate desire for an alternative to capitalism made concrete as a collective will. I would argue however that the notion of the party, at least as it was understood by Social Democratic thinkers, is no longer adequate. As Walker has rightly said, the neoliberal subject is totally alien to “the unconditional absorption of the total personality in the praxis of the movement”, which Lukács claimed was the “only possible way of bringing about an authentic freedom” (Lukács, 320). Under neoliberalism the only viable moments of a “concrete mediation of man and history” (Lukács, 318) came either in the form of a retreat from grand unifying visions like the Zapatistas and the Alter-Globalization movement, or the disavowal of the desire for a coordinated seizure of state power like Chávez and Latin American electoral socialism. With the end of neoliberalism seeming inevitable even these forms appear inadequate. The crisis is total, not just of accumulation, but of the revolution as well.

And so the project of completing the loop between social action and consciousness, of making concrete the will that desires the realm of freedom, is wide open. How can we turn the momentum from the Verizon victory toward a movement of overcoming capitalism (or at least getting out of the current crisis)? There is no answer, yet. But there is still hope. Social action, the lived history of resistance and oppression, as well as the battle-tested canon of great thinkers, are the life blood of creativity of thought and practice. We must allow our impasses in thought to be worked out through practice, listening to events for new answers and questions and posing our problems to the world in the form of concrete experiments.

Lukács, Georg. trans. Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

Luxemburg, Rosa. ed. Paul Buhle. Reform or Revolution and Other Writings. Dover, 2006.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right that the Party is no longer a historical possibility, and its remaining adherents in the sectarian socialist parties appear more pathetic than threatening to the status quo. The left, such as it is, now appears as a microcosm of the larger fragmented social whole, composed of fitfully cooperating but irreducibly parochial unions and community organizations and one-sided single-issue campaigns.

    Do you think a refoundation of vision, so that the left became animated by the universal, would be adequate to our moment? Or do you think that significant organizational/institutional change would also be required?