How Much Democracy Can Exist Under Capitalism?

by x365097

In the western countries, we hear constantly from the ruling class about the virtues of democracy. In the US in particular, political democracy and the right to vote for elected representatives is often portrayed as one of the most important rights a citizen can have. US workers have even fought, killed, and died, at the ruling class’ command, numerous wars “to make the world safe for democracy.”

Alongside powerful moneyed interests, though, how powerful can political democracy be, and how important is the average working class person’s vote, really? Will candidates without money really be able to run campaigns which are as effective as those of their wealthier opponents? And won’t the wealthy and the candidates whom they support just continue to look out for their own interests, which aren’t the same as ours, and even are often opposed to ours? In other words, absent some other change in society outside of the political system, won’t the political process still be dominated in significant ways by the anti-democratic principle of one-dollar-one-vote instead of one-person-one-vote?

What Is Capitalism?

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by “capitalism.” Capitalism is a system of economic activity and social organization in which relatively few wealthy people, no more than 10% or so of the overall population (capitalists), own and control access to the industrial infrastructure (workplaces, factories, shops, etc.) that makes modern production and a safer and more comfortable lifestyle possible (indoor plumbing, heat and AC, abundant food, rapid transportation, etc.). Meanwhile, the vast majority of relatively poor people, the other 90% (workers), own almost nothing of economic relevance but their labor, or their ability to perform work (whether that work is considered “highly skilled” or more menial).

Under capitalism, goods and services are generated when workers’ labor, consisting of blood, sweat, tears, intellect, and time, is sold to capitalists (usually by the hour). The catch about capitalism, though, is that legally, the goods and services created by the workers immediately become the property of the capitalist, who may control and use them — selling them at a profit, for instance — as he or she wishes, and the workers have no binding say at all about how the earnings are distributed, or in what directions production and development are shaped. “Let the market decide,” say the capitalists, which is easy for them because guess who controls it!

Although the capitalist must — according to minimum wage and similar laws, if you are lucky enough to live in a country which has them — return at least some portion of the proceeds to the workers, he or she will typically try to keep as much of the rest as possible for herself or himself. Indeed, capitalists must turn as much profit as possible to stay ahead of other capitalists, who are always trying to expand, to control more and more of the marketplace, and to reduce others to working for them (making them their wage slaves) instead of being their competitors. In this way, a permanent underclass of workers is created, while a ruling class of capitalists becomes empowered to live large and rule society — including its political system.

Political Rights and Economic Rights

Now, let’s reconsider how much democracy is currently in our lives. To start, we could loosely define democracy as the idea that the majority or a supermajority rules — because people can and should collectively rule our own lives and make their own decisions in all aspects of our lives. The capitalist ruling class wants to limit this idea as much as possible, keeping our voting options restricted only to candidates who are fundamentally as similar as possible, primarily in the most important idea that they all support the perpetuation of the capitalist economy, the capitalists’ ownership and control of the industrial infrastructure and the wealth that is generated from it. From fascists to progressives, this is what we find, though what differs is are the shades and types of charity that are mixed in. And while some charity is better than none, whether it is in the form of private, voluntary contributions, or government-mandated, redistributive taxation, it can never be considered a complete or root-level solution to the capitalist-worker tension (which stems from the capitalist ownership and control of the means of production, the equipment of industry).

So maybe the popular concept of democracy needs to be expanded more widely from being just a political idea to an economic one as well. As a citizen, you have some political rights (see above), but as a worker, what are your economic rights? Without a union which can fight for your class interests, starting on the shop floor, you have very few, and the few that you have, granted by the capitalist state itself, only came from peace treaties that the state had to sign to placate very strong labor unions in the past who struggled extremely militantly to win better standards for future generations of workers. As long as capitalism exists, those rights are always in jeopardy, and whether your boss is friendly or horrible, the basic rules still apply: the boss has the last say, always, and he or she can enforce it with a firing.

Democracy Begins at Work — and in Your Union

If radical democracy, a democracy which relieves us of the worker-capitalist tension, must come from outside of the political system, how exactly will it come? Considering that the anchor of anti-democratic interests is the capitalist workplace, this is where workers should start to gain the leverage we need to move from powerless, to a counter-power, to the ruling power — en masse, as a union. But the type of union organization we choose is important, as not all unions have the same methods and interests.

For example, many of the largest unions (unfortunately), such as the AFL, have not only long upheld capitalism explicitly, but they have also long been accused of being exclusive in their member selection practices and member treatment for the purpose of trying to create elite groups of privileged workers who, on the basis of ethnicity, race, gender, religion, and other affiliations, are able to maintain economic advantages over other, supposedly less deserving workers — and even scabbing against, or purposely breaking the strikes of, competing labor unions. Since one of the hallmarks of capitalist oppression is increasing and fomenting divisions among workers along racial, gender, and other lines (Nazi Germany and other fascist states being stark examples of this kind of attempt to replace class struggle with race struggle), we can say that this behavior is more in line with what we would expect from capitalists than what would best serve workers on the whole.

Additionally, the standard organizing model for such unions is a top-down approach in which workers pay sometimes fairly high dues to salaried union staffers who may or may not have an incentive to push for what the workers want, or even really to listen to them. Indeed, there have been numerous instances in modern history in which unionized workers had to strike against their union bosses’ orders to get what they needed, just as they had to strike against the capitalist bosses.

Organizing with the IWW

There are alternatives to the concessions-happy, capitalist business unions. Instead, imagine a member-run union without paid staff*, which makes almost all of its decisions by a direct vote of all the members, which charges dues amounting to less than 1% of its members’ wages, and whose intention it is to organize every worker in every industry everywhere for a common purpose, that purpose being to end war, pollution, economic inequality, capitalism. That union is the IWW, or the Industrial Workers of the World. We seek better conditions and pay in the short term, and the abolition of the wage system, or capitalism, when we have become strong and united enough to put an end to it. IWWs believe that workers don’t need bosses and that we can and deserve to inherit the world’s industrial systems in order to use them to provide for each others’ needs as we determine them to be. As a worker, the choice is yours, but it requires commitment. Are you with us?

*except for the general treasurer, an annually elected official who receives a small stipend for her or his year of service, and who loses her or his vote within the union for that year in exchange for the compensation.


Industrial Worker – Issue #1758, September 2013

The Industrial Worker is the official newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union.

* IWW Returns To The Railroad With ULP Strike
* Work People’s College: Building Life-Long Wobblies
* Sakuma Brothers Agricultural Strike In Washington

* The Parallels Between The Sisters’ Camelot & Jimmy John’s Anti-Union Campaigns
* Workers’ Power: Job Conditioning
* Jane LaTour: Empowerment For Union Women

Chattel Slavery, Wage Slavery, and “Django Unchained”

by x365097

“And now from the window of a four-wheeled cab the Queen of Babylon beheld the wonders of London. Buckingham Palace she thought uninteresting; Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament little better. But she liked the Tower, and the River, and the ships filled her with wonder and delight.

“But how badly you keep your slaves. How wretched and poor and neglected they seem,” she said, as the cab rattled along the Mile End Road.

“They aren’t slaves; they’re working-people,” said Jane.

“Of course they’re working. That’s what slaves are.”

-E. Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet

Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film, “Django Unchained,” is a surprisingly mature effort from a director who has been known to allow his movies to dwell on violence seemingly for its own sake. While “Django” does plainly rejoice in its share of bloody gunshot wound FX, it is equally a courageous exploration of the horror and degradation of the system of chattel slavery with which the working class of the United States coped, and from which its ruling class profited, for centuries. The entertaining and thought-provoking ways in which it has brought these important themes to mainstream audiences more than redeems its excursions into make-up excesses, some of which are actually rather comical. However, like so many works which touch on the subject of what we know simply as “slavery” in the U. S., it leaves the paradigm of workers’ rights which succeeded it virtually untouched.

The film’s plot begins with Django (Jaime Foxx), a slave of African descent caught in the plantation system of the South, as he is liberated from his leg-irons by a Federally employed bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who needs his help to identify a group of fugitives. As Schultz finds the new “freeman” a worthy companion, he also trains him in the profession of bounty hunting.

After a series of adventures, Django opts, with a pledge of assistance from Schultz, to try to track down and reunite with his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he had been separated by a slaveowner who deliberately sold them to separate employers because he didn’t approve of his slaves being married. The duo learn that Broomhilda is being held at a large Mississippi plantation called Candyland, a living hell presided over by a wealthy ignoramus named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who enjoys such entertainments as forcing his slaves to grapple to the death in his parlor*. To free Broomhilda from Candie’s grip will require every trick in Django’s and Schultz’s repertoire — and, as Tarantino would have it, a whole lot of ammunition.

(*While certain others concern themselves with historical hair-splitting over the “mandingo” scene, let’s not forget the modern, non-snuff (usually) version of this sport, known as “boxing,” from which real workers suffer brain damage, vision impairment, and worse. Also, one need look no further than Ralph Ellison’s brilliant 1952 novel, Invisible Man, for additional, beautifully poetic exposition on the often race-motivated humiliation that is frequently intended to go hand in hand with this brutal amusement.)

Though a bit on the long side at 165 minutes, “Django Unchained” is a tremendous film for the ways in which it viscerally immerses the viewer in the outrageous injustices that characterized the racism-underpinned system of chattel slavery in which workers were legally held to be chattels, or the property of their employers. To remember this taboo era of U. S. history in which workers held no more rights as human beings than held the tools with which they labored, is vitally important as the US moves squarely into the twenty-first century, and the reactionary right, strongly on the ascent, tries to paint over these memories, for the values which enabled and perpetuated chattel slavery hundreds of years ago continue to shape actions and discourse concerning current struggles for workers such as undocumented immigrants. (Along these lines, the KKK-style lynch mob scene in “Django,” in which a gang of would-be murderers on horseback struggle to see out of their ill-fitting hoods at night, is quietly hilarious.)

From a Wobbly perspective, a shortcoming of the film, one which is frequently encountered in discussions of the subject of chattel slavery in the US, is that it defines “freedom” as anything but this particular form of slavery. The IWW, in fact, was founded to abolish another, only slightly milder form of slavery which co-existed with chattel slavery prior to the Civil War, and which continues to persist today. That system, we call wage slavery, and it is more widely known as capitalism.

To illustrate: early in the film, Schultz explains to Django that, as a reward for his help tracking fugitives, he will be sent North with seventy-five dollars to begin a life of his choosing as a Constitutionally protected citizen. But as the fast-food cashier from “Dude, Where’s My Car” might reply,

“And then?”

The U. S. Constitution, durable though it may be, has remarkably little to say about workers’ rights, or the social impacts of the burgeoning system of industrial capitalism into which our friend Django would have been released to try to make his way (partly because the U. S. was still mostly pre-industrial when it was written). It was only in the early twentieth century that major advances were made in that area, and it was only due to the intense struggles of organized workers (including first-generation Wobblies) that they were made — despite the vicious and often violent counterattacks of the employing class and their lackeys.

In Django’s time, things were different in that the ratio of wage workers to those who made their living through other means — small-scale farming, for instance — was basically the reverse of what it is today. (Today, about 90% are wage earners.) That has changed because resources, particularly productive infrastructure, or workplaces (the means of production), have become consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. And although a great majority of the U. S. working class, despite all evidence to the contrary, historically has acted as though our aspirations could be realized under this system, conditions are getting worse and worse, the economic gap between those who work and those who own growing wider and wider.

Maybe U. S. workers just don’t want to believe it. Maybe we’re putting all our chips on winning the golden ticket and being the last one standing, a fantasy pseudo-solution that, even if it had some basis in reality, assumes that it’s morally just that “millions will enter; few will win.” But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore, harder and harder to think that this is just some kind of an economic “pendulum swing” or some other sort of natural cycle that will pass on its own. It will not end like that.

Like chattel slavery, wage slavery will only end when those who profit from it are forced to give it up. The ones with the most to gain from that happening, and the only ones with the means to make it happen are we, the working class, because they live from our labor. Until we organize for this purpose and develop our capacity to withhold our labor in strategic ways, we will remain powerless as individuals to do much of anything about it. Instead, those of us who recognize some element of the problem will continue to dream of saviors and supermen who might swoop in and end the injustice for us — saviors and supermen who will never arrive. Or (possibly) worse, we could sink into self-destructive behavior, pitying ourselves and lamenting the better future, the better society we knew was possible but which we did not do everything in our power to try to create.

If you are like most workers in the U. S. today, you go to work most days of the week at a business or businesses in which you do not have a claim to ownership and at which you mostly do not participate in the major decision-making processes. You’re paid as little as the bosses can get away with paying you, and the other businesses in your industry are in effective collusion with them on that; they all pay about the same, and that pay has been in decline with respect to inflation since the early 70s. All of the rest of the value that your work generates gets paid out to the bosses as their personal profits or as reinvestments in the equipment that they, and not you, own. You can be fired at any time for basically any reason, and therefore severed from the money that you depend on to pay for the commodified essentials of life: food, water, shelter, medical care, etc. Survival then becomes a crapshoot because unemployment insurance doesn’t amount to much, even when you do qualify for it, and the only thing worse than having a job is looking for one. Maybe you’ll make your rent or mortgage payment this month, or maybe you won’t. Or you hang on to your job, and you work, and you work, and they get rich, and you maybe get by, or maybe you even manage to scrounge up enough to invest back into the system and make yourself some money off the backs of other workers — just like the parasites at the top do. This is wage slavery.

There are alternatives. There is more than enough to go around without 99% of the population running like rats on a wheel to provide a handful of billionaires with access to more goods and services than they could possibly consume in a thousand lifetimes. No one needs to do without in the midst of that kind of wealth. The working class needs to take what literally is ours — ours because our labor created it — and assist consciously in the process of sharing it efficiently, according to need.

Grassroots, democratically determined change to benefit workers is possible, but it will only start happening when workers decide that we are ready to take the necessary steps to begin the process. We can see a direct connection between periods of time over the last century in which the working class is organized, and we’re winning, and when workers try to go it alone, and we’re losing. Right now, we’re losing. What we need to do is say, “Enough,” and turn it back around. If you’re ready to commit to a solution to the poverty and the powerlessness, the IWW is ready to talk to you. Contact or join us today, and we can help you start to organize.

The Illusion of Self-Employment in a Capitalist Economy

by x365097

It’s considered a high honor in the American value system to open a business and “be your own boss.” From a Wobbly point of view, a problem with this idea, even for those who operate without employees, or for worker-owners of cooperative enterprises (both of which categories qualify for IWW membership), is that the broader marketplace in which the business must operate is still almost entirely under the control of the capitalist 1%.

What that means, first of all, is that the supposedly independent businessperson or persons must, in most cases, purchase tools, fuel, and other business supplies primarily from exploitative, monopolistic, for-profit entities. Also, for owner-operators whose industry is so consolidated that there are only a handful of customers to whom they can sell their goods and services, the lack of independence is even more pronounced.

All a situation like that amounts to is that the worker or group of workers must provide her, his, or their own equipment, and yet there is still a powerful economic dependency. In effect, the controllers of the market remain a boss even for the supposedly self-employed, or for workers who, within their workplace, have substituted the rule of an owner or manager with a cooperative system. The market-controlling 1%, by virtue of their sheer economic influence and power, are able to determine prices and set a number of other conditions that the workers, despite the certain degree of control they have asserted over the way that they work, must obey.

Given this, it is clear that for such workers to remain disorganized and estranged from other each is for them to willingly accept the very sort of submission that the praise they receive from their communities for their “self-employed” status presumes that they have rejected. The IWW has a solution, which is for workers of all backgrounds to organize by industry into One Big Union governed by direct democracy and aimed at breaking the 1%’s control over our economic lives.

Workers today can either embrace the illusion of independence and continue to be manipulated by the capitalist owning class, or we can unite to break — in reality — their control over our labor and redirect production according to human need as determined through democratic processes. This is the purpose of the IWW: to agitate, educate, and organize all workers in the understanding that until all of us are free, none of us are free.

Industrial Worker – Issue #1756, June 2013

* Wobblies Defend Fired Bus Driver In London
* IWWs Organize & Win In North Carolina
* The Struggle Continues At Chi-Lake Liquors

* May Day Celebrated Around the World
* Historical Perspective On Lithuanian Unions
* Industrial Tragedy In Bangladesh

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