Whither Localism? Unions, Community and Diversity

Gregory Diamant
Thursday, February 20, 2020

What are you working on?” Mr. K. was asked. Mr. K. replied: “I’m having a hard time; I’m preparing my next mistake.”― Bertolt Brecht, Stories of Mr. Keuner

Of course the path to progressive change is littered with mistakes. Don’t we often feel that when we take two steps forward, we then take a step back? It is when we step back that we need to take time to reflect on our path, to think critically about our strategy and tactics, to refine our thinking about our goals.

Our desire for a better world: the wish to transcend capitalism arises in the tension between the possible and the actual. This tension is set among two major contradictions: that between Capital and Labor and that between Capital and Nature. Capital exploits both Labor and Nature in its relentless drive to accumulate profits. Labor plus Nature creates value and thus the surplus, the ultimate area of contestation. Our goal of transcending capitalism can only be achieved by keeping these contradictions in the forefront of our (Labor’s) struggles to democratically take control of the surplus and in so doing transform the relations between people and Nature in a thoroughgoing and self-conscious way. My argument is that local initiatives alone, without an educational and political movement rooted in solidarity and with the goal of socialism in the forefront, is doomed to failure. Horizontality alone is not the answer and the question of taking state power cannot be pushed to the recesses of our mind.

The foregoing being said, local initiatives and struggles can be great and necessary tools, acting as educational and physical incubators of new and progressive ways of being within capitalist society, “the germs of the new” as they have been characterized. They have the potential to help build a better world. They will have to be cultivated with great care: much can and will be learned by their successes and their failures. But how to evaluate what is a success and what is a failure? That is a task we must set ourselves. It will be well-nigh impossible to evaluate these initiatives unless they are judged as part of an overall movement toward socialism steeped in progressive class politics.

One very fruitful and new area of local struggle can be characterized as ‘social movement unionism’. The recent strikes by the Chicago Teachers Union illustrates this very well and is an important bellwether for future struggles and the creation of new forms of association. As we all know, traditional strikes historically centered on wages and working conditions in a particular economic area. What is refreshingly new in the Chicago strikes is that it aligned worker based organizing with other community initiatives. The teachers allied themselves with the school support staff and the teachers’ demands for reduced class size as well as more support services with the students resonated throughout the community. They also demanded better housing for educators and support staff along with more inclusivity and protection for LGBT students as well as the desire for schools to become sanctuaries for immigrants facing deportation by the federal government. These demands helped to build a sense of solidarity that extended beyond the workplace and engaged groups like Black Lives Matter and other community organization in ways that other recent strikes had not done. How can we not think of these as positive developments in our struggle to build a better world? In it, we can already see the germs of an outreach that extends beyond the particular as it extends feelers in solidarity with other struggles that expand our range of vision.

Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement and others have a reach that extends beyond the local. The stresses of climate change with their concomitant pressure on populations to abandon their homes that then often result in violent conflicts pose a challenge unseen in a very long time. Pandemics and other health events increase the pressure on an overburdened population. Can local initiatives alone rise to meet these challenges? Don’t we need a rigorous systemic analysis of our present situation with goals and strategies commensurate with the problems that are arising? Mustn’t we look at all of this as we analyze our current political situation often characterized by the rise of right wing populism around the world?

Right wing forces often create a playbook taken from the experiences and projects of the left. They build a type of solidarity often predicated on nationalism and the mythic. As the social democratic and liberal forces have become increasingly befuddled and are pushing a neo-liberal agenda that includes globalization, identity politics and a confused approach to immigration, they have ceded a strong political vision to reactionary forces who have capitalized on the left’s weakness and perceived lack of vision to build a base that expresses itself in neo-fascist organizations, parties and street actions. Digital and traditional media in many ways become handmaidens to the forces of the right and act as megaphones for the propagation of dark forces and activities. How are we going to contest for the hearts and minds of the broad working class?

Evolutionism, whether overtly advocated or immanent in many local projects, for many years has been a dominant outlook on the left in the advanced capitalist societies. Whether the projects are community gardens, projects to improve human health, coops, a myriad of environmental improvement projects, etc., most seem to assume that capitalism will die out due to major crises and that the new potentialities expressed will lead to “…the progressive emptying out of the power of capital and the state” (Porcaro). Many on the left feel that we can create a life that is independent of capital and the state; the need to conquer political power is not only not on the immediate agenda, but is rarely discussed. Questions such as who owns the means of production (and how to change that on a macro level) and who will lead the state are not often addressed. Somehow, by an evolutionary process, the new associative forms that have been created are supposed to overcome capitalism as it is in its death throes. The constructive/destructive energy of capitalism in crisis will be expressed in many forms that will require fluidity in our tactics and strategy. The general crisis of political legitimacy has to be addressed in many ways and not just through electoralism.

Local initiatives have particular difficulty in resisting the market discipline which mediates capital’s ruthless and incessant drive to accumulate. The need for credit, not only in the production of commodities but also in their circulation, becomes another disciplining force. Even the largest and most long-lasting positive local initiatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, can become seriously weakened as they are exposed to the vagaries of the financial circuits. Our local initiatives are not immune to the crazy self-enhancing circuit of capital that is often expressed in wild speculation and the creation of waste (not just pollution, but advertising and marketing costs). The internal drives of capitalism limit the potential for small scale alternatives. Small projects can become self-justifying and are not in and of themselves the means to build broad movements for social change. Many of these projects, especially those with a great component of “do it yourself-ism” can conceal a deep pessimism about the possibility of collective agency and come out of a profound internalization of individualism. There is a great (and understandable) wish to delink from the global economy with all of its confusions and injustice. This desire can lead to what Marx characterized as a “Robinson Crusoe economy”, an ahistorical concept that leads us nowhere. We need to look at the relational aspects of the local, how do the projects collectively prosper and simultaneously advance a class based political transformative project? I will address this later on in my presentation.

In order to speak about precarious labor let’s speak a little about technology, labor and capitalism. “Restructuring” has become a bourgeois buzz word repeated ad-nauseam in both the business and mainstream press. It means what it says and changing the structure of work is one of its goals. Let’s not forget that the main purpose of technology is to increase the value given to capital. Smaller high tech workplaces have the effect of breaking up the concentration of labor and thus hindering the drive to solidarity and reduce workers’ bargaining power. Now the workplace is shrinking even further by going back to the home: internet sites such as TaskRabbit in the U.S. are matching workers with employers. The new/old wrinkle is that the work is done at home and it has led to the revival of piece work. It is creating a high tech home of work that is socially redolent of pre-industrial revolution days and is putting a downward pressure on wages. Further, this project strengthens individualism while reducing the space for collective action. Time is compressed and the search for work becomes all consuming. Even sleep now is being perceived as an affront to capitalism: it is “unproductive”, “a waste of time”, much as Locke viewed the lack of intensive cultivation by native societies as unproductive, thus providing an ideological and moral justification for colonial expropriation. Time is becoming an area of contestation unseen since the clock was mated to the factory two hundred years ago.

The task before us is to change our tactics as regards local initiatives much as the Chicago teachers are doing; to transcend capitalism we will have to engage in a self-consciously political project to contest for power; not only or even principally in the electoral arena whose own logic can distract us, even in subtle ways, from the logic of the larger struggle. As inspiring as many of the worldwide protests have been, such as Occupy, “they are revolts without the spirit of revolution” (Žižek). As we view the Arab Spring and other revolts it brings to mind the insight of Walter Benjamin that “every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution”. The counter revolution is proof of the left’s failure but it is also proof that that there was revolutionary potential that we were unable successfully to mobilize.

As mentioned earlier, we will have to move beyond horizontality to have a chance of success. We will have to move beyond rejection and protest (a necessary first step) to positing a vision of a future society. Many of our local projects do that in various ways but a form of evolutionism seems to be at the root of them. Among others, David Harvey has put his finger on some of the problems of the strictly local and horizontal approach: “…in some sense ‘hierarchical’ forms of organization are needed to address large-scale problems such as global warming. Unfortunately the term ‘hierarchy’ is anathema in conventional thinking, and virtually unpopular with much of the left these days. The only politically correct form of organization in many radical circles is non-state, non-hierarchical, and horizontal.” And further, “What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold on another scale. Even worse, patently good solutions at one scale (the local, say) do not necessarily aggregate up (or cascade down) to make for good solutions at another scale (the global, for example).” In an even more explicit way Harvey goes on to say, “This is also, incidentally, why the valuable lessons gained from the collective organization of small-scale solidarity economies along common-property lines cannot translate into global solutions without resort to ‘nested’ and therefore hierarchical organizational forms. Unfortunately, as already noted, the idea of hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days. A fetishism of organizational preference (pure horizontality, for example) all too often stands in the way of exploring appropriate and effective solutions. Just to be clear, I am not saying horizontality is bad – indeed, I think it an excellent objective – but that we should acknowledge its limits as a hegemonic organizational principle, and be prepared to go far beyond it when necessary.” The important point Harvey makes here needs to be applied to our political work as well.

In 1968 there was a slogan, “demand the impossible” that can inspire us today to demand things that are perfectly reasonable and materially possible, but well-nigh impossible to deliver under capitalism (e.g. universal health care, affordable housing for all, free and excellent education for all, etc.). This again exposes the inability of capitalism to truly satisfy the needs of the majority of people. We will have to create a political formation that will express our collective solidarity and become a vehicle for political education and national and trans-national struggle. As Žižek has said, “We will have to posit a positive universal struggle that can be shared by all participants”. Just as trans-national capital recognizes no boundaries or time zones neither can we on the left. In our struggles, we need diversity and respect for differences to become not the supreme goal and principle; rather the achieving of unity, the theorizing of what is common, among the broadly defined working class has to become the central self-conception. We will begin at the local but we must create political formations that can contest the power of capital in multiple arenas. We will have to make the long march through the institutions, as Gramsci has noted, for where else will we help gain the knowledge and experience to change society?

As food for thought as we deal with our challenges l shall leave you with a little story: a man who believes himself to be a kernel of grain is taken to a mental institution where the doctors do their best to convince him that he is not a kernel of grain but a man; when he is cured (convinced that he is not a kernel of grain but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back, trembling and very scared – there is a chicken outside the door and he is afraid that it will eat him. “My dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a kernel of grain but a man.” “Of course I know,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken?”

February 20, 2020