José M. Tirado is a poet, writer, former labor organizer, and Green activist. He is also a Shin Buddhist priest teaching in Iceland. His articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Swans Commentary, Dissident Voice, and the Magazine of Green Social Thought: Synthesis/Regeneration. He and I recently had a long conversation on our differing conceptions of theory as applied to a socialist project and what, if anything, could be done to change organized labor in the US. Both of us poets, and both of us expatriates from the US, our conversation reflects shared concerns and tensions about the development of socialist strategy and theory in the US.
C. Derick Varn: You have spoken to me on the need for “the left” to have a more tragic worldview on several occasions? Why do you think this is important? What do you think about the left-wing relationship to art in other to express its points?
Jose M. Tirado: Well, let me clarify a bit. I don´t think we need adopt a more tragic worldview. I think we need adopt 1. a more broadly compassionate attitude, and 2., move less from the righteous agitation than from kindred concordance.
First, let me say I do not believe we are facing any time soon the overthrow of capitalism. We are in a long-haul and even Marx understood capitalism’s remarkable capacity for adaptation. The current system is embedded in practically every corner of the planet and dislocating capitalism would require dislodging from the mind a set of assumptions about work that most people have not seriously begun to tackle. In my travels and life in Europe over the past 12 years (and about 5 in Japan where I lived in the 80s) I have certainly heard many arguments for a “different system” and many even name socialism as the way to proceed but when push comes to shove, Greece, Spain, Iceland, France, and Japan (and pretty much everywhere else on this side of the pond) remains firmly in the control of a capitalist economy and mindset with appropriate disgust at its current turn of events via horrible “austerity measures,” and “banksterism”, but no real base-level alternative nor viable plan on getting there. And this is in an environment far more amenable towards a real socialist alternative than where you are! The US is in worse shape, I believe and the greatest rumblings are not from an organized Left but a semi-organized Right who´s propensities are decidedly fascist and yet no one dares say so. So I don´t think we are facing any big disruption in who owns the means of production (admittedly a simplistic description but it retains some aptness) nor in how the wealth of modern industrial societies are managed.
So what do we need? Less theorizing and more an authentic sense of solidarity to working people—which are basically all of us who don´t own much more than what we carry on our backs. Singling out the US, I think we need a renewed drive within all workplaces to build unity in a deeper level than slogans and viscerally poignant posters and mottoes and the occasional breakout issue. And that means a renewed labor movement which, in my opinion, is the only possible mechanism for fundamental change. Because at the end of the day, people will not revolt, or fight or die for a slogan but for a comrade. And today, most people do not look at fellow workers seated next to them as comrades. So for us to get there, we need to first feel the desperation together, to be frustrated together, to be angry-together and not presume we can talk to workers or speak for them but work with them – not as a “them”, but as an us. Restoring that kind of sensibility will be the core beginnings of what follows and without it, we remain with a small group of loudmouths who remain separate. And all of that is what I mean by compassion-which, after all, means “to suffer with.” In practical terms this means a reinvention of organizing, a commitment to challenging “right to work” laws, a firm accord with the workers who are next to us and leading from within, those steps will be the basis for any later attack on the broader system as a whole. I´m not a theorist, I do not have at my disposal the easy access to names and historical trends, I retain a working view of these things as proceeding best when arising organically from within the workers and rather than being “led” from without.
What all this means to me is that we must cry more and scream less-cry because the guy next to me can´t afford some time off, cry for the lady who has no childcare and will probably lose her job as a result, cry for the guys who clean the restaurants or who pack the groceries or who daily face a life of simply enduring instead of truly living. We scream all the time and we don´t sound committed, we sound shrill and officious, elitist and condescending. And you know something? Most workers see when we hurt for them rather than hurt with them. And the one who really hurts with them is the one who, when she gets an idea to fight back, to organize or to rebel, is the one who will get the most favorable response.
As for the arts, I am less enamored of the potential role it may have in the US mainly because the commodification process there begins early on even in the arts and authentic “rebels” are not the more published writers, the more played musicians or the more seen visual artists. The celebrity culture in the US makes utilization of the arts for real rebellion problematic at best. In my case, I write poetry and contribute the occasional article or commentary on situations I am a witness to but I am under no illusion that I can or will have much of an effect. And even in my art, poetry, I am not a political poet or a radical poet or a socialist poet—I am a poet and that means I try to serve Life in all its facets first.
I do not particularly agree with you about less theory, but I do agree with you about more sincerity and a willingness to weep and not sugar-coat the pain people feel. Let me push on this a bit deeper: What I meant by a more tragic world view is to realize that all problems cannot be solved by the eradication of capitalism so that the problems that can be viewed more sincerely. I think talk of Utopian societies that are totally outside human experience are basically just that. So in that regard, what could be done to encourage sincerity in socialist circles?
Well, first we need sincerity, period! Within our immediate human circles. This means, for me, less theory, that is, less abstraction-which renders the common human elements of atomized alienation, generalized anxiety, depression over finances, fear of a future for one´s children, fear of a future for humanity, etc., as quantifiable units of data through which no element of the enormous human toll is taken consideration of, considered, or conveyed. Only dry collections of historical data and exhortations without emotional connections. Theorists do not engender trust—other people do. Theorists do not make revolutions-revolutionaries do. And the most successful revolutionaries were individuals fully immersed in the suffering of their respective peoples. Take Emiliano Zapata, or Ho Chi Minh, for example. Or today, Subcommandante Marcos. These were people who knew work, knew suffering, knew theory-yes-but they knew people. They worked with them hungered with them and lived with them and learned from them. They were respected, and followed, because they were part of the people.
I am not saying that we do not need critical or historical analysis, or that we can dispense with “big ideas”. I am saying that if all we produce are theoretical robots who can quote some Italian, German, or Russian theoretician who died long before the average worker sitting next to them was born, then we will never, ever reach those workers. We need to pause a bit, to shut up and listen, to put ourselves in positions where we too no longer have options, where we feel desperation too, where we are not working only “to get experience” as a worker but because that´s what we require to feed ourselves and families, when we live that kind of sincerity next to people, right next to them, then and only then will they listen to us when we tell them we´d like to host a meeting and discuss some ideas we´ve been considering for a long time. And then we begin again and again.
Let me give you my story, which might be helpful. When I was at Warner Bros. with a very moribund company union owning my clerical position in the Feature Story Dept., I never paid much attention to the feelings of general helplessness which dominated the union. Elections came and went and we were being whittled away by a thousand small cuts with each new contract. I was a big mouth on Left issues, but I was focusing outside of work, advocating for more Latinos in the entertainment industry via the Latino Writers Group (LWG) of which I was a head. Well, one day an Armenian friend who worked in the mailroom came to my office and told me about the new contract our union had been given for ratification (we were then called the Warner Bros. Office Employees Guild and had a bit over 700 members) and he said I should take a look at it. I begged off, already loaded down with a full time job there and then the LWG filling up my nights and weekends. He insisted and I saw how in this upcoming round, the company was forcing us to take a 40% cut in sick time-from a measly 10 days per year (per YEAR mind you!) to only six. I looked at it and, as it affected me personally—and was brought to me by a fellow worker who was also in rough financial straits, I said, OK, I´ll go to the next meeting.
Well, I grew up in a household supported by a union man, and went a few times with my father to the union headquarters as he looked for positions (he was in the NMU, a maritime union). So I expected something like that. Anyway, I saw a weak and demoralized union Board and, after listening to the sagging responses, I stood up and demanded some fight from them. I was trembling and didn´t know anyone aside from a handful of people whose faces I´d seen around the lot, but they all looked at me differently. I said we couldn´t just lay back while the studio was making some 750 million dollars in profit (this was 1993) that year and at the same time giving away Range Rovers (worth more than the average worker in my union made per year) to rich people like Danny de Vito and the stars of Lethal Weapon. I said I too couldn´t afford to lose 4 days from my 10 days and we needed to do something because, with 700+ workers, if we took a united action, we could stop the studio from moving. Well, that brought the house down and the talk began then and there to get me to run against the President. I had no allies, no supporters inside the small hierarchy but people had heard some passion from inside, and they were interested. It was a long struggle but what I did cemented it for many people that I was sincere-I said, during the campaign, that I would meet anyone every Wednesday at lunchtime to talk about maybe opposing this contract and fighting back by electing a new board. Every Wednesday I was there and gradually, week by week people came and went, taking our talks to their respective departments and the word spread that this guy, “one of us”, was talking a good talk and maybe we actually could fight back. Eventually we won handily and after more work I led an affiliation with UE and won, but I left WB to go back to school. In looking back, that was my biggest mistake.
My main point about sincerity is that it has to be real. We can´t fake concern with high theory and just good rhetoric. We have to care and when new really do, it´ll show. I think that´s why the Sawant campaign has done so well (and apparently she just might win as of the latest ballot count.)
Now the second part of your question, about Utopian societies, we needn´t spell out exactly what a socialist future would look like because we don´t know either. Instead, we could say more what it will not look like-it will not consist of a society where people die from hunger or lack of health care. It will not be a society where some districts receive phenomenal education for their kids while other schools lack supplies or heating. It will not be a society where there are millions of de facto indentured servants crippled by student debt. It will not be a society where tens of thousands of people live in their cars or on the streets. It will not be a society where one small group of people controls most of the wealth in the country. And it will not be a society where military contractors always get money, banks always get bailouts and jails continually get more inmates. So that part is easy to spell out.
On the positive formulation side, we can say we are for a fair society, a radically democratic one in which want is eliminated and all the forces of society will be trained upon ennobling the human spirit through free education, free health care and, most importantly, the building of real community. The US system is a behemoth and it will take at least a generation to budge it in the right direction, another generation to rally enough people to even want to replace it, and a third generation to begin the actual acts of dismantling it—that’s three generations away. If we can´t visualize that far, then we have no business being in the revolutionary current. And I realize that I´ll be long gone by then. But I do this for the future-for my children´s future. So if we think long term (and if you read the WSJ, while the profit margin may be the most visibly short term objective, they do think long term in so far as they desire this system to be kept in place) we should think accordingly: let´s lay out an agenda: that´s the now, then a plan for tomorrow, so that we will be ready with the skills we´ll need to get there the day after tomorrow. That´s what we fight for—the day after tomorrow, I think. Approaching our task that way I think conveys some depth and seriousness currently lacking in our terminally youthful embrace of the passion of the moment, versus the day-to-day enacted commitment to the future.
In practical terms this means a two-fold strategy: first, a renewed focus on the workplace (labor renewal, a new union consciousness) and on local issues. The local is the arena we can have the most effect on-we need to use it more. From the job site to city councils, school boards, we need to be full members of our communities, always there to learn and in turn, teach what we know to make the immediate area around us better and ultimately more receptive to socialist idea(l)s.
Second, we need to create alternative communities more, to “opt out” and experiment with different structures and resources. The traditional problem with this one, though, is the insulating nature of the attempt often serves to further segregate out “undesirable” elements and, given the now fractured nature of USAmerican society and its history of race and class that is something we will need to watch over very carefully. But I think of this as one wing of a two winged vehicle-by focusing on the structures which are closest to us-our workplaces and local communities, we become known “commodities” (to borrow a repugnant phrase!) and we are really seen as sincere, long-term members of a community.
I think that´s how we begin.
I am going to push you harder on this because I find what you are saying to be interesting but perhaps a bit too rigid. Abstraction is a necessary part of human relationships, including emotional relationships because empathy itself is conceptualize in a kind of folk theory of mind. Everyone does. Communication, even self-communication, seems impossible without it. Such “alienation” is a result of reflection and as such seems to be fundamentally different from social alienation in the separation of labor. So I guess the question I would ask is what in the leftist “theory of mind” has gone wrong that actually increases and not decreases social alienation? To push back on another topic, how does one stop “alternative communities” from being either politically compromised or subject to becoming a market commodity? These attempts at forming alternative communities from the 1960s forward tend to end up being grist for the mill of the culture industry.
OK, let me see if I can clarify what I mean by “abstractions”. First off I think that human relationships are, by definition, contrary to abstraction as I understand both “abstraction” and “human relationships.” When one´s child cries, abstractions are neither necessary to understand how or why to react and, in fact, get in the way of reacting in such a manner as to enhance the actual “human relationship”. When there is a natural disaster or a car accident, an emergency or a human need such as someone needing assistance through a door or to get into a vehicle, abstractions obstruct the actually existent human relationship. Likewise, most people find it quite difficult to kill another person and thus this need for extensive propagandistic training in the dehumanization of the Other deemed to be one´s “enemy” in the military.
So as I understand it, each time we abstract we are one more step removed from the actual fact before us. And, in this case, all abstractions (read: theories) about socialism or “the people” take us farther away from the people we are ostensibly trying to work for, people we claim some a priori responsibility for as if we were separate from them, which we are not. To abstract literally means to pull away from, and that´s what I oppose-a pulling away from others, which is just another form of objectification in my opinion. Every theory we develop is a brick not thrown or used to build a new structure. We are in an emergency-our world is changing and we need to be engaged directly with the “facts on the ground” and this means the people right before us, literally right next to us, in the cubicles or offices, in the shops, factories or agencies right next to us. All around us are the most fabulous opportunities to create a better world and what we call the left generally spends too much time abstracting away from people in some misguided attempt to create the perfect theory in order to return, bodhisattva-like, back into that world bestowing our wisdom and compassionate knowledge in order to free “them” of their shackles. I don´t buy that and I don´t accept that as an appropriate way to begin a liberatory movement which can, in the near-future, bring down this behemoth known as global capitalism.
I also don´t know that there is a single or universally applicable (from Marx or anyone else) “leftist ‘theory of mind’”. Nor do I think one necessary. Insofar as I am identifiable on some scale of intellectual “tradition” it would fall roughly on the “Existential-Humanistic” area informed by my 40+ years in Buddhism. What is “left” about me is my orientation towards a compassionate concern for the downtrodden, the weak, the oppressed communities of the world, and the Marxist understanding of the causes of all that. I care about human freedom and the biggest obstacles to the maximization of human freedom for the maximum number of people is only in part the concentrated power and wealth held in the hands of the greedy. It goes far deeper than that. But we can address certain practical problems. The alienation we experience can be partially attenuated by the act of creating community and, in these attempts, we build actual solidarity with real people, at which point we can then, and only then consider the branching out to jettison the larger structures of a capitalist economy and social world view which is absolutely ruinous to our entire planet. The problems inherent in alternative communities are noted and because they are often built around “abstractions” like particular religious ideas or dominant personalities, they leave much to be desired. But some continue and thrive and I think we need revisit communities where we already live and build community gardens, reinvest in co-housing communities where trust can develop and make affordable homes which are heated via solar or other non grid tied means. There are plenty of ideas to draw upon and an honest survey of most households would reveal I think, a large number of people who would prefer to not pay utility bills to monopolies and a great curiosity about how to grow significant portions of their own food. Our world is dying and we have got to start somewhere and the best somewhere we have is right here where we already are.
Marx does have an explicit theory of mind though and his ideas about class relationships and social alienation come out of it. For example, consciousness being generated in the individual by their class position is a theory of mind that is both social and abstract. Now, I would agree with you that there is no a single theory because their seem to be some differences on the topic from the “Species Being” of early Marx and the fetishism of later Marx, but any theory predicated on “distortions” of social consciousness maintain within them a theory of mind. Perhaps we think this is unnecessary to have one theory of mind, but it is a theory based on an abstraction of lived experience. Disagreement between real human beings often come out of conflicting and acknowledged theories with are also tied into our emotional core identity. The idea of a “fact” itself is an abstraction as is the idea of a relationship to that “fact.” When you say “Our world is dying” the number of abstractions in there are actually far greater than the four words used to express the idea, and my response is going to be based on a set of abstractions and experiences that work in tandem to generate a coherence theory of what that means. I would say we need a different way of conceptualizing experience, What you seem to be talking about is an awareness of direct experience that is beyond our description or understanding of it? Do you think that perception of “things as they are” as opposed “our thoughts about things” is crucial to our relationship to natural resources and non-human forms of life?
Another statement you made strikes me as interesting: “There are plenty of ideas to draw upon and an honest survey of most households would reveal I think, a large number of people who would prefer to not pay utility bills to monopolies and a great curiosity about how to grow significant portions of their own food.” I think this is true, but there is a reason people do not do this now. What do you think that reason is? I stayed, briefly in my teens, with a very conservative judge in the Georgia mountains who deliberately lived an early 19th century lifestyle with off the grid, growing his own food, slaughters his own animals, etc. It was the kind of work most people now frankly don’t just lack the knowledge of how to do, but the will. Our entire way of life seems in conflict with this and even he had to make some concessions like batteries for a radio so that people could get news from the nearby city.
You know, you say that “the number of abstractions in there [the phrase “our world is dying”] are actually far greater than the four words used to express the idea” but at the end of the day we all know what is meant by that phrase and I believe, we all pretty much know what to do about it. There are huge systems which need to be dismantled, as soon as possible, because they are causing planetary destruction and, since we cannot do much on a macro scale now, we need tackle concrete micro-scale tasks which, taken together, can create the conditions from which a larger attempt can be made later on down the road. So this means letting go of our toxic addiction to non-renewable fuels, creating a community where we live to challenge corporate power domination, growing as much as possible our own food so that we know what´s in it and so that we ease away from dependence upon corporate farming. We need to begin to learn how to do some of those things again-perhaps not a sink-or-swim “back to the farm” type movement, but to relearn the essentials so that we can opt out, if only in part, from the corporate food system which is killing us and the land it abuses to do so.
We need a workforce that is united-and this means unions, new ones or old ones but no takeover of the vast economic system in place will happen without an organized workforce and that means a unionized one. We need to immediately and State by State dismantle so-called Right to Work laws, and to demand locally controlled renewable forms of energy be used for our homes and water supplies. We need to elect at local levels socialists and form the basis for a nationwide movement to create a more equitable election system such as a truly Proportional Representation one.
These are “facts” with which we can work with now-sans theoretical analysis. The fact is, we cannot effect long-term change overnight—it will not happen and therefore we need opt out of some of the processes which enslave us here and now and begin and create new and viable alternative currents which will spread and in turn create the mass movement we need to end the grotesquery of global capitalism. We are literally running out of time and we must begin with what is before us, to yes, “see things as they are” and begin there. All utopian dreams of transformative revolutions are just that, utopian dreams and we need to be in this for the long haul.
We are entering a new phase of the global barbarism which engulfs every inch of the planet now, a coalition of ecological tipping points which the average person can have only limited influence on in the wider scheme of things. But we have a moral obligation to try no matter what. In fact, the greatest moral tragedy we have faced is that at the very least, since the end of the Second World War, we have known with visceral and not theoretical certainty that to continue as before will risk death on a scale contemplated only in science fiction. Now things are approaching a new and more deadly phase and our task is not to retreat into utopian fantasies of imminent revolution (and what would we put in place were one to happen?) or to wait until a refined definition of “do” propels us into action. Creating alternatives now, small scale food coops, neighborhood gardens, trading centers, etc., are all happening anyway whether we pay attention or not. Link those small movements with community policing, free schools and clinics, and other groups which are trying out new things.
Hell! I don´t know! I read as much as I can and follow trends and I see enormous potential but within a realistic frame believe it can all be put together to launch a serious challenge to capitalism with an already tested informal parallel system in place within the next 50 years. I know eyes will roll at that but think carefully-it´s actually doable if and only if we lay the groundwork now. Right now.
How do you see Unions growing in an age of both employment instability and government collusion on suppressing Unions? To be frank with you, if I take what you seem to think at fact value, I must come to the conclusion that you that the answers already exist within the current way we live. Hence the attack on theorizing, and yet without theorizing a lot of the struggle could be aimless and historically has been. Riots in the 1960s, third world revolutions in the 1970s, but stagflation still happened in the 1970s and neoliberalism still happened in the 1980s. You want keep talking about laying the ground work, but without some real re-thinking and acting on that thought I think activists are just spinning their wheels without realizing what the ground work will be.
You say, “We are entering a new phase of the global barbarism which engulfs every inch of the planet now, a coalition of ecological tipping points which the average person can have only limited influence on in the wider scheme of things. But we have a moral obligation to try no matter what.” I think you are only partially getting to the point here: You have a moral obligation to do what will work to change the situation, not just resist the system. Let me give you a historical example, Georgia, as a colony, was set-up as an anti-slavery agricultural economy based largely on protestant Scotch-Irish debtors with some Jewish refugees. Slavery was illegal in the colony as was ownership of large plantations. However, without figuring out the logistics of how to farm that land without slaves or indentured servants, the colony failed and became another slaver colony. This was not because people were not acting. This was not because of lack of trying or resisting on the be half of the leadership. This was because there were real developmental limits to having settled agriculture in the region and even with relatively friendly relations with indigenous and aid large scale agriculture was not possible with a huge population working for subsistence or less. It should have never been tried in the first place. We can see that in the way Soviet union collectivized farms, which despite involving some really innovative technology and having a largely sympathetic population within Russia itself. To industrialize the food production required, from the Soviet Union’s own record on the matter, the caloric intake of the average worker in the late 1930s was around 1200 calories a day. That is less than the Soviet Unions own records for rations during the Russian civil war. Moral obligations require, in my mind, not just action, but successful action. This should have been tried, but with more dealing with the limitations of certain already existing modes of production. The Soviet Union was trying to cram 150 years of capitalist and specifically Taylorist production into about 30 years. I do not know if other models would have been worse, but the consequences historically are pretty clear. Hence my insistence that successful action must be empathetic, surely, but also reflective and have a developed model of reality and the minds of the people who are involved. Otherwise, it does often lead to worse outcomes than if nothing were done in the first place.
This is directly tied to the idea of a unionized work force: The larger question is what can be done to re-unionize the workforce when the conditions of union success in the 1930s through 1950s, which were never that strong in the US, how do you turn that around. That is not non-theoretical question. That is just not the kind of theory you get from Verso books or NYC leftist salons. I understand the hostility because so much of the theory seems needless abstract and hard to communicate. That is true with Marx too. It may be a valid criticism of the way Marx has been developed. I think the divide between acting and thinking is frankly artificial, or if not, at least a product of capitalist separation of labor itself.
The answers are “currently in the way we live” – I´ll say that upfront. The way we currently live is unsustainable. Simple. It is unsustainable for the environment and it is unsustainable for the people.
While there is a disproportionate amount of unsustainability in the larger industrial processes which are the engines of our macro-economy, we cannot continue as we are. That is a “fact.” It requires little analysis, nor extra reflection. The time for such is rapidly ending. We need to act. Thus the options I have given are well within the power of the people to enact on their own, experimentally with each other, without much interference from the State, to wean themselves off the larger system which penetrates like a snake into all aspects of their lives. I have advocated for concentrated attention on micro-scale solutions, local ones, which, when attempted, in turn create the larger sense of community sorely lacking now and which can serve itself as the springboard later for development of a wider class consciousness which then can be the launch of a wider set of revolutionary activities. I even put what I believe to be a reasonable and long term frame for it—a three generation (or roughly 50 year) project. This runs counter to alarmist or apocalyptic rhetorical paroxysms within the Left and Right fringes both, which impatiently demand radical change now, as well as serving as a corrective to an ingrained powerlessness and abdication of responsibility which only encourages and sustains the status quo.
We now have 4 out of 5 people in the US “facing joblessness, near-poverty, or reliance on welfare” according to a new AP study, which also lists 50 million people currently living in poverty. That stunning statistic alone is a fully “developed model of reality” for several hundred million people total in the US. Your example of the Soviet Union´s efforts completely ignores what I said-that we need and can build small scale alternative systems now, within local communities while (re)unionizing our workers to begin a 50 year process not by the state or a revolutionary party but by organic experimentation by the people themselves. This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff nor is it plunging headlong into a maelstrom of change for change´s sake. It is a reasoned approach that takes into consideration the emergency situation our planet faces and requires no new theoretical framework to succeed. It begins with what we already know about the crisis within (the alienation and sense of powerlessness which begins to ease once we begin focusing our efforts on our immediate and more controllable local environment) and immediately addresses some of the crises without: for example, planting more local gardens pulls people away from corporate control of their food supply if only for a small percentage.
Let´s just focus on that one bit a little more. As people cultivate local gardens with their neighbors, they are learning a number of valuable things including the names of people otherwise seen but feared or ignored, how to work soil, how to be patient, how to provide staples for their diet which are healthier, and how to work cooperatively. Those are incredibly revolutionary skills we will need in order to jettison capitalism. However, armed with just bookloads of theories and armfuls of excuses serves to further disempower people into relying upon “experts” or “thinkers” who are said to possess the right way to do things. And in the meantime, the status quo pushes people further into debt peonage, poverty and dependency. I think we need to move away from that particular model of action and begin where we are, with the knowledge we already possess.
I see this as a revolutionary moment but a “moment” that is, in reality, a 50 year project. I tell younger people I speak with that the possibilities of change are not impossible, but they are longer term than the way we see it currently, but shorter than some far distant future. I say to those under 30 who feel some socialist stirrings, “Look, the project you believe in is more possible now than ever before, but to make it happen will require 20-25 years of mainly local, micro-scale work and then the following 20-25 years of macro-struggle to dismantle the system now in place.” That´s within their lifetimes and I believe the current collection of crises make such a scenario very plausible. So while I won´t get there, I actually, with all my heart believe they could. Imagine the power of thousands of young people working in their communities to create food coops, to lead local union efforts, to get elected to local school boards, city council-ships, assemblies, etc., all the while with the intention to be the real people´s vanguard which, when widespread enough, will coalesce to dismantle the capitalist system! Imagine the potential. I do, and the prospect excites me. But we must get over one major psychological hurdle and that is this need for instant gratification. We can get there-but like all god things, it will take a lot of work.
This goes to the heart of the union question. Everyone needs to live. Every one therefore needs food and shelter and, as things now stand, the main way to procure such is to rent out one´s labor, and be employed. No matter what, people will work and therefore will be in close contact with others like them who by necessity rent themselves out, too. Thus, at that level, we will always be around those for whom our very living is defined in the exact same way and who therefore we share a great deal in common, all other factors excepted. This is an enormously powerful realization. The actual power of workers is remarkable and the proof is the extraordinary lengths employers have taken-from murder, to daily violence, to billions of dollars worth of propaganda efforts spread over the past hundred or so years to convince workers otherwise. Institutional unionism as it now stands may have forgotten that, but the average worker gets it real fast when they consider it. No force on Earth has the power to create a whole new configuration of society, a new world, in fact, than the workers themselves. And again, the proof of that is the amount of fear mongering and opposition to any unionization efforts by the working classes undertaken by the capitalists everywhere around the world. But without unity, without being together in an organized form, in other words without creating a union of workers, we cannot begin that new society project. It is not a matter of simply accepting the enormous losses USAmerican workers have suffered under the persistent and violence laden opposition against them which has whittled unionized workers to a fraction of what they used to be. We must acknowledge this and move to renew our present forms of worker organizations (toss out old, moribund ones and remake them) and create newer forms which unite broader classes of workers than are seen now. There are small pockets of renewal already and stirrings of revolt are forcing at least some in the various union hierarchies to take harder line rhetorical stances publicly. But we have a long way to go. I accept that. But nothing is impossible.
Do you think the AFL-CIO’s move to possibly include both the contract workers, non-Unionized workers, immigrants, etc into the larger Union was a good idea? Do you see this as expandable?
Honestly? I don´t know. I have looked at that issue and more and more it confirms what I think is a loser´s mentality within the top ranks of the organized union hierarchy in the US. But perhaps desperate times call for desperate (in this matter) measures? Personally I think organized labor in the US would win a lot more for the long run if it immediately came out in favor of a Labor Party, breaking with the Dems immediately. I think the excitement and disruption would cost some clout and connections in the short term, but would increase interest and membership (and influence) in the long term. But that´s utopian! A bit less utopian but just as unlikely is a move towards a more IWW-style “one big union” , merging all the unions into a single structure but that too isn´t going to happen. No, I think again, thinking small and thinking long-term is what is not only needed but what is feasible. Maybe a big push among various Left groups to join the IWW would be an idea? At least there´d be a visible alternative out there with a renewed energy and focus. There remain some units within the big unions which are good—the nurses in California, for example, and of course, the UE remains a dynamite group. Another option is to work core groups in certain unorganized industries to form a union creating a united “facts on the ground” situation. No matter what, getting out there and making noise to workers as workers, and constantly reframing the task as more than just a wage one is what we need do right now.
Does Taft-Hartley make explicit advocacy of a Labor party illegal? Also if the AFL-CIO leadership continues giving so much of its operating budget to financing campaigns and lobbying Democrats, does a new Union organization need to be started or, like you say, perhaps an expansion of the IWW needs to take place?
No, it does not. Although it did have the effect of pushing out the commies which decimated the unions by red-baiting their best organizers (and lots of members), tied unions to the hip with the Dems via Democratic threats to further contain them if they got out of line (and this was masterfully done by Truman who “opposed” it but used it about a dozen times while President) and effectively neutralized the best bargaining chips the unions had-“sympathy strikes” and closed shops which were both banned and an established “right to work” became law. It was awful and it heralded the end of a real labor movement in the US. Imagine what could have happened “if”?
I think a galvanized attempt to unite unaffiliated workers into a renewed IWW and merging existent unions into such an umbrella organization would be the ideal. It won´t happen, though. However, it might be possible to fatten up the IWW and bring in new groups around the country and to weaken the stranglehold the larger unions have on organizing. But again, all this is part of what I envision as a two-pronged, long term strategy which depends upon a local, small-scale focus during the first phase. I don´t believe it´s impossible, but we need canny organizers and deeply committed folks to begin where they are now.
Do you think this would require illicit dual unionism?
No. I think creative tensions could still be maintained without endangering anyone´s position. IWW allows it but I think to begin with, the better route is for young or newly fired up workers to join or affiliate their working place with as progressive a union as is possible, then to take it over, moving up the ranks and educating oneself and one´s co-workers along the way. At the end of that process, those who have done this successfully (and remaining radically oriented) after some years, will then be part of the union hierarchies themselves from which they can further lead by example and propose further integration. Remember, I´m thinking a 20 year first phase here and this alone, as one component, would require half of that and say a couple hundred committed people.
Is there anything you would like to say in closing?
Well, as a Buddhist, I believe the opportunities for change present themselves each moment, but on the larger political scale, I think we are in the middle of a wonderful opportunity to plan for and execute a remaking of what we call the Left as we watch, worldwide, the inevitable decline of capitalism. But without serious, practical efforts made now and with an eye to towards an end that won´t happen until most of us are gone, we cannot achieve this. And for that to happen, for such a serious effort to be made, we must stop now and think, who is it that we cry for? Who are we really concerned about? Is it really others? Or is it ourselves, because of the insulting way Fate seems to be mocking us with these multiple world crises which lead either to despair or fatalism? A moral life is one which cannot allow itself to fall into either despair or fatalism but must strike out, for the good of the many as it is said, while we are alive. And this means creating the conditions whereby we identify intimately with the struggles and sufferings of those around us. We cry because we hurt inside believing the Other to be as important as ourselves. If we do this, we will begin a great healing process to occur. It will loosen the boundaries between ourselves and those around us so that an informal community is established, based on mutual care and cooperation. Then with that community watching our backs, we can do anything. I won´t live to see that end, but I intend on living to assist its beginning.
(Originally posted here)