Devoted readers may have noticed that our output has slowed considerably in the past two months. This is because the authors have been occupied with working to resist cuts to public transit here in Seattle. We started a small campaign, and now are moving on to developing a permanent organization dedicated to organizing around this issue. You can read about it here.
Since we are playing a central role in getting this new organization off the ground, our time is in high demand. The demands made on us by the ‘movement’, if it can be called that yet, are more pressing than those of mere theory. But we have not by any means abandoned the theoretical mission of this blog. Rest assured that more content is on the way. We have a piece on free will vs. determinism in Marxian thought that is just about ready for publication, and many more writings in the works. From here on out we are committed to writing at least two pieces per month. Please bear with us as we negotiate the current transition and figure out the balance between our practical and our theoretical work.
by K. Wilson
On July 13, 1909, the long-suffering immigrant workers in the riveting department of the Pressed Steel Car Company plant at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, approached the company offices with a list of grievances. They were rebuffed, so they downed their tools and walked out. This was the start of a bitter two-month strike, one that first united and then divided foreign and native-born workers; pitted strikers against hoards of strikebreakers shipped in from afar by the notorious “King of the Strikebreakers”; pulled in Wobbly organizers and became the first major venture of the I.W.W. on the east coast; and ultimately ended in the strikers’ defeat, despite loud proclamations of victory from the organs of Progressive-era public opinion.
Strikers and their families and supporters meet on Indian Mound, a Native American burial site overlooking the town
McKees Rocks lay six miles from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. In the decade prior to 1909 the town’s population had more than doubled to 14,000, of whom 10,000 were either immigrants or the children of immigrants: Austrians, Hungarians, and Russians, joined more recently by a flood of Slovaks, Germans, Croatians, and others. 3,500 of these semi- and unskilled foreigners were in the employ of the Pressed Steel Car Company – and subjected to the autocratic whims of its President, Frank N. Hoffstot. Many lived in squalid company housing in the company town of Presston, where families crowded their homes with lodgers to pay the rent and still fell into debt. Continue reading
by K. Wilson
Like coffee and alcohol, prescription psychotropic drugs are becoming a routine part of coping with everyday life. Fifty years ago, when the pharmaceutical industry was still in its infancy and ‘mental health’ newly risen to prominence as a national issue, it must have seemed somewhat remarkable to have a relative or friend undergoing psychiatric treatment. Today it is nearly impossible not to know such a person.
The rapid proliferation of medications and mental illness diagnoses has spawned a heated public debate. On one side are the drug defenders, backed by statistics and stories of lives restored to productive normality. On the other side are the doubters, who suspect that ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ is no more than healthy rambunctiousness and ‘depression’ merely a clinical word for sadness. To the doubters, the defenders of medication are not the hard-headed realists they imagine themselves to be: they are dupes in thrall to (if not directly in the pay of) the drug companies. And to the defenders, the doubters are not savvy skeptics of big pharma: they are anti-science cranks who ignorantly and irresponsibly deny the existence of real, debilitating illnesses.
This debate is interminable in part because both sides deftly skirt around the vital questions, questions about health and sickness and about what our way of life is doing to our human nature. This avoidance is not surprising, since taking seriously the question of why people are so unhappy forces us into a radical criticism of our society. Instead, the unsuspecting observer who takes this debate at face value is safely and inexorably drawn toward a ‘sensible’ and superficial middle ground. We can see this process at work in an article that appeared this week in the New York Times, entitled “Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?”, by Susan Cain. The article is worth examining, because it gives us an opportunity to subject this whole debate to a radical critique. Continue reading
by S. Myers
Continuing our ongoing discussion on what it means to be a radical, we submit the following excerpt from The Conscience of a Radical (1965), by Scott Nearing. The book is a response to The Conscience of a Liberal (1948), a now-largely-forgotten book by Chester Bowles, and The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), which still to this day functions as a sort of bible for conservatives.
We have chosen this selection because it challenges the popular confusion regarding the epithet radical, which is taken to mean extremist. A radical is not an extremist! A radical is someone who goes to the roots.
While Nearing is a very odd and singular kind of radical, he nevertheless demonstrates the quality of unshakeable sanity that genuine radicals always possess. This fundamental sanity is what motivates him to Continue reading
by K. Wilson
Worker cooperatives have never occupied a central place within Marxist theories of class struggle. They have not been regarded as a revolutionary force in society, and still less has their formation been considered a worthwhile or necessary activity for revolutionaries themselves to engage in.
The usual justification for this attitude seems straightforward. Ultimately, the aim of communism is to put the whole process of social production under cooperative control. But for this it is necessary to overthrow the rule of capital, a feat that can only be achieved through the organized struggle of the great mass of workers employed in capitalist production. Until then, cooperatives are nothing more than a premature attempt to establish communist relations on a small scale. Even when these experiments do not succumb to market competition or corruption, they will never just ‘catch on’ and spread – at best they make life more pleasant for their few members (at worst they make life considerably less pleasant!). Within capitalist society, according to this argument, cooperatives are essentially utopian.
If we look more closely, however, we find that this question of cooperatives cannot be dismissed so simply. Continue reading
by K. Wilson
In previous essays, we have made it clear that we believe that the future of the workers’ movement depends on the creation of new forms of working class community. But this is not just an abstract idea. In fact, it is already happening – even if not yet widely or in a manner that will lead to a resurgence of working class struggle. A brilliant example can be found in the June 13 issue of The Nation, in an article by Sally Kohn entitled A New Grassroots Economy. Kohn briefly chronicles the history and activities of the Alliance to Develop Power, a membership organization of around 10,000 mostly African-American and Latino workers in western Massachusetts. Whatever the limitations of its ‘progressive’ vision, this project can serve us as an inspiring and instructive example. (All quotes in the following commentary are taken from Kohn’s article, which I highly recommend reading.)
Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) is one of many community-organizing groups that have emerged in the United States in recent decades Continue reading
by K. Wilson and S. Myers
In the first article in this series we saw how, during the 20th century, capitalism destroyed the foundations of community in the developed countries. The community institutions through which people once satisfied their needs and organized their social life were broken down, and their functions were taken up by the institutions specific to the capitalist mode of production: the business firm, the market, and the bureaucratic state. Today it is overwhelmingly through these kinds of capitalist institutions that our whole social existence is organized and our needs met. The individual confronts these institutions in relative isolation: going to work, drawing a paycheck, buying consumer goods, receiving support from the state, etc.
The destruction of community, we saw, has created serious obstacles to labor organizing. A new mass movement of workers will remain an impossible dream until we figure out how to build new forms of community capable of sustaining workers’ struggles today as the old forms did in the past.
But building a new ‘community of workers’ is not a matter of resurrecting the forms of the past. Continue reading
by S. Myers
In What Is Community? we defined community as – shared administration of shared resources. We illustrated this by the example of the agricultural village. While this was the predominant form of community that capitalism initially came into contact with – and subsequently broke up – it is not the only one, nor is it the original one. In the course of human history, institutions of community have gone through many permutations. The vestiges of community that still survive within our advanced capitalist society – what is left of the family, the church, civil society, etc.– are the degraded remnants of the myriad forms of community that arose in earlier epochs. In order to locate the community of workers within the context of world history, it will be helpful to sketch a history of the institution of community.
In the earliest forms of human society we find nothing but community. From the tribal arrangement of hunter-gatherers on up to the agricultural village, resources are held in common and administered by the group. However, at this stage the group is still quite small. Where its boundaries end so do feelings of common identity and humanity, along with the common cultural institutions that cement such feelings. For most of its existence the human race has consisted of such small communities, tied down to local territories, alienated from Continue reading
by S. Myers and K. Wilson
In Toward a New Model of Working Class Organizing, Part I: Organizing in the Community, or the Organizing of Community? we argued that a new worker movement will not be able to gain a foothold until we figure out how to build a new kind of community, a ‘community of workers’. Before developing this idea further, it is necessary to explain more fully what we mean by ‘community’.
Community is a much abused word. Nowadays it is used to refer to any group of human beings in close proximity to one another, or who share some superficial characteristics. We hear talk of the black community, the scientific community, the Catholic community, the activist community, the immigrant community, the Facebook community, the business community, and so on.
Community is generally recognized as a good thing. There is a widespread recognition that it is disappearing or breaking down, though it is not really understood why. In the lives of individuals there is an increasing feeling of isolation, and this produces a longing for a ‘sense of community’. Many are moved to take action, and there are countless attempts to ‘build community’.
Unfortunately, most of these attempts focus on the most superficial aspects of community: common patterns of speech, dress, aesthetics, music, beliefs, rituals, etc. It is thought that by supporting a cultural pattern that differs from the ‘mainstream’ of large-scale capitalistic activity, community will flourish once again. Continue reading
by K. Wilson
Here we present an autobiographical essay in which Christine Ellis describes her upbringing and her experiences as an organizer in the Midwestern United States during the 1930s. This essay is the first chapter of the book Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, edited by Alice and Staughton Lynd (1973). This excellent book is currently out of print (a second edition is forthcoming later this year) and difficult to obtain, so we have reproduced the chapter in its entirety. What follows is my commentary. [Thanks to David C. for mentioning this book! - Ed.]
Christine Ellis: People Who Cannot Be Bought (HTML) (PDF)
Christine Ellis’s autobiographical narrative, People Who Cannot Be Bought, paints a vivid picture of early 20th century American life: the trials of immigration, the coal mining towns of the Midwest, the post-WWI miners’ strikes, the Ku Klux Klan, factory work and the new labor-saving machinery, the Great Depression, unemployment and evictions, and so on. Told from the perspective of an organizer, this narrative invites us to think about how American society has changed since then and how, as a result, the challenges facing organizers have changed too. Continue reading