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Tom Wetzel

Murray Bookchin’s Legacy: A Syndicalist Critique

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas And Action, January 14, 2021

January 14th is the 100th anniversary of Murray Bookchin’s birth. Perhaps it is worth looking at his contribution to radical politics.

Bookchin had been involved in the communist youth movement in the 1930s. He eventually abandoned official Marxist organizations for a turn to libertarian socialism. A central feature of Bookchin’s politics from the Sixties to the end of his life was his opposition to the worker struggle orientation that was central to syndicalism and many anarchists — as well as Marxists — in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

After World War 2, the general strikes and pitched street battles of workers in the Thirties were a fading memory. The post-war years saw a consolidation of a conservative bureaucracy in the unions. The American working class by the 1960s no longer had the large “militant minority” of radical workers that had been a feature of American workplaces from the early 1900s through World War 2. This led certain radicals to seek out a new “agent” of revolutionary change. Bookchin was an example of this way of thinking:

“Contrary to Marx’s expectations, the industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class….Present-day culture [and]…modes of production…have remade the proletarian into a largely petty bourgeois stratum….The proletarian …will be completely replaced by automated and even miniaturized means of production….Class categories are now intermingled with hierarchical categories based on race, gender, sexual preference, and certainly national or regional differences.”

This quote is from Bookchin’s last book, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. This shows a certain lack of understanding of how syndicalists — and other socialists — view the working class. The basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its position as both the majority of the population and its objectively oppressed and exploited situation. Workers do not have their own means to obtain a livelihood. Thus we are forced to seek jobs from employers, to obtain the wages we need to live. And this arrangement forces workers to submit to autocratic managerial regimes where workers are denied control over the decisions that directly affect them day to day in the labor process and the running of the workplaces. Employers own the products of our labor and use this to suck down profits — an inherently exploitative situation.

A “Green New Deal”?: The Eco-syndicalist Alternative

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, April 15, 2019

Capitalist dynamics are at the very heart of the current crisis that humanity faces over global warming.

When we talk of “global warming,” we’re talking about the rapid — and on-going — rise in the average world-wide surface and ocean temperature. Thus far a rise of 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, two-thirds of this temperature increase has occurred since 1975. A one-degree rise in temperature might seem like no big deal. As the NASA scientists point out, however, “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much.”

We know that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is at the heart of the problem. For many centuries the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranged between 200 and 300 parts per million. By the 1950s the growth of industrial capitalism since the 1800s had pushed this to the top of this range — 310 parts per million. Since then the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen very rapidly — to more than 410 parts per million by 2018. This is the result of the vast rise in the burning of fossil fuels in the era since World War 2 — coal, petroleum, natural gas.

The problem is rooted in the very structure of capitalism itself. Cost-shifting is an essential feature of the capitalist mode of production. An electric power company burns coal to generate electricity because the price per kilowatt hour from coal-fired electricity has long been cheaper than alternatives. But the emissions from burning coal travel downwind and cause damage to the respiratory systems of thousands of people — including preventable deaths to people with respiratory ailments. This is in addition to the powerful contribution to global warming from the carbon dioxide emissions. But the power firm doesn’t have to pay money for these human costs. If the firm had to pay fees that would be equivalent to the human cost in death, respiratory damage and contribution to global warming and its effects, burning coal would not be profitable for the power company.

Firms also externalize costs onto workers, such as the health effects of stress or chemical exposures. The “free market” pundit or hack economist might deny that companies externalize costs onto workers. They might say that wages and benefits paid to workers for each hour of work measure the cost of labor. But the human cost of work can be increased without an increase in the compensation paid to workers. If a company speeds up the pace of work, if people are working harder, if they are more tightly controlled by supervisors, paced by machines or software, this increases the cost in human terms.

Toxic chemicals used in manufacturing, in agriculture and other industries pose a threat to both the workers and to people who live in nearby areas. Usually working class people live in neighborhoods near polluting industries, and often these are communities of color. This is another form of capitalist cost-shifting.

State regulation of pesticides or air pollution often ends up acting as a “cover” for the profit-making firms. Despite the existence of pollutants generated by leaky oil refineries and pollutants emitted by other industries in industrial areas in California — such as the “cancer alley” of oil refineries in the Contra Costa County area  or the similar refinery zone in Wilmington — the government agencies set up to deal with air pollution in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County protected polluters for years by focusing almost exclusively on pollution generated  by vehicle exhaust. In this way the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District have been an example of “regulatory capture” by corporate capital.

Power firms that generate vast amounts of carbon dioxide emissions — and firms that make profits from building fossil-fuel burning cars and trucks or from the sale of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel — have not had to pay any fees or penalties for the growing build up of the carbon dioxide layer in the atmosphere. The global warming crisis thus has its explanation in cost shifting and the search for short-term profits and ever growing markets — features that are at the heart of the capitalist system.

If global capitalism continues with “business as usual”, the warming will have major impacts — killer heat waves, more ocean heat pumping energy into hurricanes and cyclones, rising ocean levels from melting of ice in the polar regions and melting of glaciers, destruction of corals in the oceans, and a greater danger to the survival of many species of living things.

What is Class Oppression? Who is the Working Class?

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, November 15, 2015

Occupy Wall Street highlighted class inequality in the USA through its talk about the concentration of income and wealth in the hands of “the 1 percent.” This does put a bullseye on the ruling class in our society. But much of the talk about class in recent times has focused on income inequality. The idea is that “the 1 percent” are at the top because they have the highest incomes. But this fails to get to the heart of the matter. The existence of different income levels doesn’t explain why there are classes at all. After all, what explains why there are such huge differences in income?

When American union leaders talk about a worker struggle as a “defense of middle class jobs”, you’d think they must lead an organization of lawyers and doctors. Again, this is about income. In the past, unions in some industries were able to use their leverage to secure wage gains that would enable some workers to “lead a middle class lifestyle.”

That way of looking at things is a product of the years of the so-called “class truce” after World War 2. By the ‘40s workers had gained major concessions from the capitalist elite in North America and Western Europe.

These concessions didn’t happen because of the election of liberals and “collective bargaining” by “responsible union leaders.” In the period between World War 1 and the 1940s the entire capitalist order was under assault around the world. There were revolutions in numerous countries, widespread factory seizures by workers, general strikes. Throughout Latin American there were large revolutionary syndicalist labor movements. Repressive dictatorships were imposed in many countries to crush radical working class movements.

The capitalist elite were forced to make concessions in the ‘40s because of a threat to the very existence of their system. From that period until the early ’70s real wages in the USA continued to rise for many workers.  This happened for two reasons:

(1) The employers could provide increasing wages because investment in technology increased output per worker hour, and:

(2) Workers engaged in strikes which enabled them to capture a rising share of the revenue created by their labor.

They were helped in doing this by institutional changes won in the ‘30s-40s era — such as wide-spread collective bargaining and a legal baseline of minimum wages. Many at the time thought this was some sort of permanent change in the system.

In fact that era of relative peace in the class war proved to be a brief period in the history of capitalism in North America and Western Europe. Since the ’70s the ruling class has been on the war path to uproot the gains of the ’30s-’40s era, suppress unionism, and keep wages low. In the so-called “neo-liberal” era, the bosses’ system has returned to its more  basic “laws of motion.”

Talk of some workers being part of “the middle class” because they have somewhat higher  wages than poorer people obscures the reality of class oppression and drives a rhetorical wedge between better paid and lower paid workers.

Worker Management of the Barcelona Public Transit System, 1936-1939

By Tom Wetzel - Workers' Control, November 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In the years leading up to the revolution in Spain in 1936 there had been bitter struggles of the workers...such as the long but defeated streetcar strike in 1935. A number of leading activists in that strike were sent to prison. With the victory of the liberals and social-democrats in Spain's national elections in February 1936, imprisoned unionists were freed, and the workers on the Barcelona transit system began rebuilding their union, which was to play an important role in the city during the revolutionary events of 1936.

In Barcelona in 1936 the main part of the transit system was a large streetcar system, operated by Barcelona Tramways (Tranvias de Barcelona), a company owned mainly by Belgian investors. The streetcar company operated 60 routes that criss-crossed the city and ran into the nearby suburbs. Of the 7,000 workers for this company in 1936, 6,500 belonged to the Transport Union of the National Confederation of Labor, known by its Spanish initials as the CNT. The CNT was a libertarian syndicalist labor organization. The Transport Union was a highly democratic organization, run through worker assemblies (general meetings) and councils of elected shop stewards (delegados). Being syndicalist means that the union was part of a revolutionary social movement that aimed to have the workers take over direct, collective management of the industries, replacing the bosses and the capitalist investors, and creating an economy based on ownership of industry by the whole society.

In response to the mass mobilization and strikes of the Spanish workers, the heads of Spain's army, with direct support of the country's capitalist elite, attempted to overthrow the liberal government, beginning July 19 1936, so as to crush the country's radical labor movement. Union defense groups fought back with the support of much of the rank and file of the police, defeating the army in two thirds of the country initially. The worker unions then formed their own "People's Army" to fight the fascist Spanish army. In the days following the defeat of the army in Barcelona, the unions moved to expropriate most of the country's industry and new organizations of direct worker management were created.

Why revolutionary syndicalism?

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, October 31, 2012

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

1. A Strategy for Workers Liberation

Capitalism is at its heart an oppressive and exploitative economic system. The core is the class structure, in which the majority are dispossessed of the means of production of goods and services, and must submit to bureaucratic production regimes. These regimes control our labor so as to pump out wealth privately accumulated by the plutocrats at the top of the heap (and paying high salaries to the bureaucratic class of managers and high-end professionals), and backed up by the coercive force of the state. Working people are thus an oppressed class, although it is also internally quite heterogeneous and various sub-groups are oppressed in various diverse ways.

The working class can’t be free and can’t ultimately ensure well-being for itself unless it can take over the control of the process of production (which includes transportation and distribution and production of services), and the land and all the means of production, becoming masters of production, in control of our own work of and technological development. To do this means dismantling the institutional power of the bureaucratic/managerial and capitalist classes, so that we are not subordinate to any dominating class. As Ralph Chaplin put it in “Solidarity Forever”:

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

Workers self-management of all of social production is thus a necessary condition for working class liberation. If we don’t control production some other class will, and then we’re not free. This means there must be a mass worker movement that has the capacity and aspiration to take over the means of production, and continue social production under direct worker’s management. This takeover of production is not all there is to social emancipation but this is very basic in that the working class cannot liberate itself if it doesn’t do this.

Also, by “takeover of production” I do not mean that the existing workplaces and techniques of production are continued without change, but with workers replacing management. I also mean that the working class then sets up a system of working class control that re-organizes social production, works to change technology, works to develop worker skills to break down hierarchical divisions of labor, changes production to ensure our species survival through a change in ecological impacts, and in general works to make social production more socially beneficial. Breaking down the present class division between subordinate workers and middle management and professionals also requires major changes in the educational system and the way that learning is linked with social production.

But to achieve its liberation the working class needs to have a strategy. Part of the point to the focus on the struggle between workers and bosses is that this provides a lever for changing society. Workers have the potential to exert power here because the flow of profits to the capitalists requires our cooperation in production. Thus the ability to bring production to a halt is a potential form of power the working class has. Again, to quote Ralph Chaplin:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

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