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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.

Socialist Internationals in History

By Richard Greeman - Institute for Social Ecology, October 4, 2015

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.

This study is based on the premise that any profound social transformation in our era of globalized capitalism would have to take place on a planetary scale. History has shown that revolutionary movements, when geographically isolated, are inevitably either crushed or assimilated into the capitalist world system. This internationalist conclusion first became apparent to working people during the 19th century as capitalism and the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe, and it was first elaborated theoretically by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their 1848 Manifesto of the Communist League with its ringing conclusion: “Workers of the world, unite!”

SIDEBAR

In point of fact, the French socialist and feminist Flora Tristan (1803-1844), ahead of her time, was the first to call for a “universal union” of workers. Moreover, Tristan’s “union” was truly “universal” because she proclaimed the necessity of uniting “workers of both sexes” – in Working Class Unity (L’Union Ouvrière). It took two years before the International Workingmen’s Association, of which Marx was a founder, began to admit women as members and it was three years before a woman, the feminist Harriet Law, was added to the General Council.

Capital Blight: Common Cause or a Neighborhood "Linch"-Mob?

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 19, 2015

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.

Recently, a member of the IWW EUC posted a link to a May 27, 2015 editorial by four anonymous members of the Common Cause anarchist-communist federation, titled, Active Corrosion: Building Working-class Opposition to Pipelines, and I must say, it's very thought provoking. They definitely raise some important issues and ask some pertinent questions, but ultimately their criticisms of the IWW EUC and the conclusions they draw based on that fall far off the mark. Furthermore, although I share many of their criticisms of the environmental movement across the spectrum from mainstream NGO to radical direct-action eco-radical, I find their proposed remedies, while well intentioned, to be insufficient and, quite frankly, formulaic.

Who Misquoted Judi Bari?

Perhaps it's best to begin with their rather shallow understanding of the current orientations within Earth First!. In section II of their piece, (The Lay of the Land), they declare:

There are the assertions of Earth First!-types, as expressed by the organization’s co-founder Dave Foreman that it is “the bumpkin proletariat so celebrated in Wobbly lore who holds the most violent and destructive attitudes towards the natural world (and toward those who would defend it).”

It's interesting that they would reference that particular statement of Foreman's, since it was made almost twenty-five years ago, in a debate with Murray Bookchin, conducted as Dave Foreman was dropping out of the Earth First! movement in response to the latter incorporating class struggle into its radical ecology perspective (due, in no small part, to the influence of Judi Bari whom they so quickly dismiss--but more about that later). Many of Foreman's supporters within Earth First! who held similar views would soon follow within the next few years, and for the most part, most of them never returned to the fold. These days, Earth First!, while far from consistent or perfect on matters of class struggle or workers issues, is significantly more inclusive of them. If one were to read, for example, any of the rather detailed articles by Alexander Reid Ross, and they would see that some Earth First!ers have a fairly deep and extensive understanding of workers' issues. While it is true that there is also a strong primitivist--as well as a persistent insurrectionist--streak within that movement (one that I am often willing to criticize when he deems it necessary), these leanings do not preclude social anarchist perspectives.

Moving on from there, the editorialists opine:

In contrast, there is the commitment of the Wobblies’, otherwise known as the Industrial Workers of the World, Environmental Unionism Caucus to strategize about, “how to organize workers in resource extraction industries with a high impacts [sic] on the environment”, which lacks a broader vision of addressing industries which cannot exist in their current form or at all, if we are to prevent crisis.

Perhaps before making this rather sneeringly dismissive comment, the authors might have--perhaps--read some of the texts and articles on our site, ecology.iww.org, such as the numerous texts arguing against extractivism, including this statement by the South African Mine and Metal Workers' Union (NUMSA), this article by Jess Grant, or this series of articles arguing against "socialist" apologies for Nuclear Power, including my own pieces (Part 1; Part 2), just to name a few. Better yet, would it have been asking too much for the writers to actually contact us and ask us our opinions on the matter? You'll please forgive us if we regard such lack of due diligence as mentally lazy.

Libertarianism is a Type of Socialism, NOT Classical Liberalism

By Geoff - Ideas and Action, August 25, 2015

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.

Libertarianism is a socialist political philosophy which has its roots in the socialist workers’ movements of the 1800s and 1900s. It is especially associated with ideas that came out of the First International (IWA – 1864-1876), especially those of Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. It was upon these ideas, as well as some of those which came later like those of Peter Kropotkin, that the libertarian syndicalists in Spain formed the CNT union in the early 1900s, with the goal of creating a libertarian (socialist) and workers’ self-managed society. What this means is they wanted emancipation of the working class, recognizing that class struggle comes as a result of resistance to management power over workers, because business owners’ aims are profit-based. This means that managers will submit workers to rigid control in the workplace, cut corners and compensation, heap stress on them, etc., in order to maximize profit.

The inequitable distribution of wealth that comes as a result of wage labor creates an economic, political and social power imbalance, since in the market your vote is your dollar, and wage labor in the workplace is an apparatus to give a minority of people more votes in the market than the rest. Libertarians historically wanted to replace these conditions with workers’ self-management and create a socialist society where people have control over their own work and in all economic planning and decision-making, as arranged through popular associations like unions, assemblies, councils and federations. There are various concrete proposals for these types of economies from people like Cornelius Castoriadis, Peter Kropotkin, GDH Cole and others.

In the 1962 book “Capitalism & Freedom”, Milton Friedman says: “The rightful and proper label is liberalism…liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world…”. The word “libertarianism” became associated with right wing classical liberals in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to use the word for political opportunism. In “The Betrayal of the American Right”, Murray Rothbard said, “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy…‘Libertarians’…had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over…”

An easy way to understand the major differences between libertarians and classical liberals is that libertarians prioritize positive liberty whereas classical liberals prioritize negative liberty. Positive liberty means having control over the decisions that affect you (self-management) and having access to the resources to fulfill your potential. Negative liberty means merely absence of external restraint. Because the employer doesn’t put a gun to your head to take a job, you’re supposedly “free” as far as the liberal is concerned. But in reality workers face a denial of positive liberty because they are forced to work for employers to afford access to resources they need to live their lives, and have no direct control over their own work or over economic planning decisions which affect their lives.

Noam Chomsky: The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in, and What's Wrong with Libertarians

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael S. Wilson - Infoshop News, August 1, 2015

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. The following is the adapted text of an interview that first appeared in Modern Success magazine.

So many things have been written about, and discussed by, Professor Chomsky, it was a challenge to think of anything new to ask him: like the grandparent you can’t think of what to get for Christmas because they already have everything.

So I chose to be a bit selfish and ask him what I’ve always wanted to ask him. As an out-spoken, actual, live-and-breathing anarchist, I wanted to know how he could align himself with such a controversial and marginal position.

Michael S. Wilson: You are, among many other things, a self-described anarchist — an anarcho-syndicalist, specifically. Most people think of anarchists as disenfranchised punks throwing rocks at store windows, or masked men tossing ball-shaped bombs at fat industrialists. Is this an accurate view? What is anarchy to you?

Noam Chomsky: Well, anarchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.

Anarcho-syndicalism is a particular variety of anarchism which was concerned primarily, though not solely, but primarily with control over work, over the work place, over production. It took for granted that working people ought to control their own work, its conditions, [that] they ought to control the enterprises in which they work, along with communities, so they should be associated with one another in free associations, and … democracy of that kind should be the foundational elements of a more general free society. And then, you know, ideas are worked out about how exactly that should manifest itself, but I think that is the core of anarcho-syndicalist thinking. I mean it’s not at all the general image that you described — people running around the streets, you know, breaking store windows — but [anarcho-syndicalism] is a conception of a very organized society, but organized from below by direct participation at every level, with as little control and domination as is feasible, maybe none.

Are you sure we're talking about Syndicalism here?

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 17, 2015

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.

I have been closely following the debate between various members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Tom Wetzel (a syndicalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area) which began with Tim Goulet's review of Ralph Darlington's Radical Unionism: The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism on April 22, 2015 and has bounced back and forth since then [See: Misunderstanding syndicalism, by Tom Wetzel, April 29, 2015; Contradictions of syndicalism, by Tim Goulet, May 21, 2015; Syndicalism and taking power, by Brian Kelly, May 26, 2015; and Confusion about political power, by Tom Wetzel, May 28, 2015].

I want to say, before I go any further, that I consider myself a syndicalist, specifically a green syndicalist (the very first IWW member I met was Judi Bari, in 1995, and it was through her that I found my way to the Wobblies). I have been a dues paying IWW members since 1995, and I have a fairly deep knowledge of IWW history, as well as contemporary discussions on matters of strategy and tactics within the IWW.  Two years ago, I cofounded the IWW's Environmental Unionism Caucus with two other IWW members. I am also a member of System Change not Climate Change, and I work fairly closely with a handful of ISO members that also belong to SCnCC. I think there is little to be gained by engaging in sectarian squabbles when our very existence is threatened by the capitalist economic system which all of us, syndicalists and socialists alike agree, must be overthrown and replaced by something different, and I suspect that we'd find much agreement on what that different system would look like and how it would function.

However, I also recognize the need to debate strategy, tactics, theory and praxis if we're to be effective as revolutionaries and devise a winning strategy to successfully combat capitalism. This debate on syndicalism to some extent qualifies, but I've also noticed a good deal of sectarianism from some of the ISO folks in this discussion, not to mention some rather glaring omissions and inaccuracies. The most recent entry, from comrades Joe Richard and Ty Carroll (The Wrong Place at the Right Time), represents for me a particularly egregious example.

“If It Isn’t Rank and File, It Isn’t Anarchist”

By Anarchist Materialism - Anarchist Materialism, April 20, 2015

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.

“Our duty, which was the logical outcome of our ideas, the condition with which our conception of revolution and re-organisation of society imposes on us, namely, to live among the people and to win them over to our ideas by actively taking part in their struggles and sufferings” — Errico Malatesta

In order for the Anarchist movement to mature in this country, we must address a particularly troubling dilemma.  Are we to continue our historical struggle within the working class or do we evolve into a professional class of labor organizers and bureaucrats?? Addressing this question isn’t only about disagreements in methods but in affirming an anarchist conception of organization from the base.  Whether in garment factories and ports or in hotels and retail, our focus on the rank and file has always been obvious–without the revolutionary self organization of the workers, we will never overthrow this unjust system of economic and political domination.

Unfortunately there exists a layer of self proclaimed anarchists as well as other leftists today who have not only chosen to separate themselves from the rank and file, but to defend their activity as a strategic form of social insertion.  Such a view is heavily deluded and guided in no small part by years of NGO influence on social movements.  In the current political environment, there are anarchist staffers in every union imaginable from the SEIU and UFCW to the UAW and UNITE HERE.

Students interested in labor are directly recruited out of universities into internships with Jobs with Justice and other business unions, while militant rank and file workers are tempted off the shop floor with higher pay and benefits.

Though this sad state of affairs shows a severe weakness of the left in offering alternatives, it is also a deliberate tactic of the union leadership.  By placating agitated workers with radical staff who “get it”, the union leadership is able to control mobilization and to later use their staffers to push through harmful cuts and “reforms.”

Five reasons the IWW are challenging the culture of the UK Left (and why you should be too!)

By Chris W - New Syndicalist, February 25, 2015

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.

We can’t put our faith in the ballot box

The recent election of SYRIZA in Greece has invested a lot of hope in the emergence of a popular anti-austerity front across Europe. However the deep resistance that SYRIZA are facing to even the modest social reforms they are proposing from their European partners gives an indication of the intrinsic limits of parliamentary action alone to wider, and particularly deeper, social change. That is not to say that there are no important lessons to be drawn from this situation. Part of SYRIZA’s success story is in the way in which it has effectively capitalised on political ground that has been largely conceded by the parties of the social democratic centre in their widespread commitment to “responsible” economic policies and continuing austerity. This is a situation repeated across many European democracies. The so-called PASOKification of the centre left (in the UK and particularly in Scotland) has left a certain degree of political space “up for the taking”. The recent explosion in Green Party membership in England and Wales fits this story nicely: some might even find themselves feeling optimistic about alternatives to the Political status quo. Nonetheless, we need to be hard-headed in how we deal with these recent trends.

Poverty, hopelessness and powerlessness have drawn many throughout Europe, including a considerable section of both our own and the Greek electorate, to the populist and far-right. Understanding why it was the left that triumphed recently requires more than looking to SYRIZA’s leadership and electoral strategies – we need to look at the way broader Greek anti-capitalist culture operates. For decades a vibrant network of extra-parliamentary parties, social movements and trade union groups have sustained the continuing case for basic social solidarity through the maintenance of left spaces, solidarity networks and other forms of community engagement. This genuinely life-sustaining work has highlighted the pragmatism of socialist ideas above the individualistic solutions offered by the far-right and pro-austerity left. The future of SYRIZA’s relation to these social and extra-parliamentary movements is very unclear at this stage. Similarly, but on a smaller scale, is it possible to understand the surge in SNP popularity following the independence referendum without also appreciating the explosion in grassroots activity that preceded it?

In England and Wales the outlook is even bleaker. Not only is the left generally lacking in the basic forms of outreach and engagement that has empowered our Greek and Scottish friends, but the electoral system is stacked against any chance of even a modest swing in electoral sentiment. Even if the Green Party was to mobilise an army of supporters comparable to that seen in the Scottish referendum the “breakthrough” would be underwhelming, at most a victory of a handful of parliamentary seats.

The splitting of the political centre ground, combined with the massive disenfranchisement brought about by austerity policies, leaves a great deal of potential for any movement offering real and practical non-parliamentary alternatives. As solidarity unionists we believe that grassroots engagement and direct action are not merely the means of realising that latent potential, they are the basis for the worker-run society we’re trying to build. Meaningful and lasting victories can be won through these activities in a number of highly adaptable and scalable forms – from the group of workmates who march on the boss to win back their tip jar to the occupied and collectivised factory employing thousands of workers, we’ve got a working model for building the society we want.

Ready to Fight: Developing a 21st Century Community Syndicalism

By Shane Burley - Institute for Anarchist Studies, January 23, 2015

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.

Consistent with the ‘strategy’ theme of the current issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (No. 27), Shane Burley lays out what the anarcho-syndicalist tradition offers movements outside the workplace.

There has been an effort by scholars and organizers alike over the last forty years to segregate anarcho-syndicalism from the rest of the broad anarchist movement. The labor movement dominated social struggles in the first half of the twentieth century, but as large business union bureaucracies were formed and new shop organizing began to diminish, the participation of anarchists in labor began to wane as community struggles around environmental issues, LGBT and women’s struggles, and housing justice took precedence. The syndicalist strategies that defined the earlier successes of anarchism internationally diminished to only the most hardcore adherents of a labor strategy, though these ideas have had spikes during periods of economic crisis. This shift away from syndicalism as a strategic foundation has robbed movements of some of their tactical inspirations, and organizers from the New Left forward attempt to reinvent the wheel every time, completely reimagining every struggle as though it was disconnected from the entire history of libertarian social movements. This is a loss as these developing community struggles can still look towards these syndicalist battles in the workplace as a model for how to democratically structure movements.

The idea of community syndicalism, bringing the syndicalist organizing strategy out of the workplace and into other aspects of life, can be a way to intentionally create a specific set of tactics. These tactical choices could take the form of solidarity structures that form as a union, which mean that they unite a set of interests against an adversary that is in control of a particular sector of society, such as labor, housing, or healthcare. These different sectors are the different puzzle pieces of social life that are all intimately affected by access to resources, and one in which a real element of class is present at all times. Since syndicalism in the workplace does not rely on simply one tactic, but instead on the use of solidarity, trying to utilize community syndicalism could simply mean a whole range of strategic points all building on some of the basic ideas of anarcho-syndicalism. The question then arises: what are the core elements of anarcho-syndicalism that can be boiled down and moved from the shop floor to the neighborhood, from workers issues to healthcare and environmentalism, and to all the sectors where class struggle takes place?

Potential, Power and Enduring Problems: Reassembling the Anarchist Critique of Technology

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