The Need for an Organized Working Class

The Wobbly Fish

by x365097

Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution made major changes to the the way people work. Wherever it spread, the capitalist factory system put pressure on the feudal agricultural system to adapt, and many social traditions were strained. Some of the countryside was privatized, and many people who had previously grown their own food and made crafts by hand had to move into the cities to find jobs that paid wages.

Many of the new jobs in the capitalist workplaces were miserable, and workers who didn’t like being exploited produced a number of responses. Some workers formed cooperative businesses in which everyone voted on what to do with the profits. Other highly skilled workers — shoemakers, for instance — formed craft unions to protect their livelihoods from the cheaper competition coming from the capitalist-controlled factories.

Both of these systems were able to protect their followers from exploitation to some extent, and both are still around today. However, the advance of machine-driven work and the creation of jobs which did not require much skill (“deskilled” jobs) meant that increasingly, the working class, whether in factories or shipyards, on farms or in restaurants, was becoming one big mass of industrial workers pulling levers and pressing buttons, lifting loads and smiling at customers.

Because of these changes, and because the craft unions often refused to allow anyone but white male workers to join them and benefit from their protection, some labor organizers formed a new union in 1905 called the Industrial Workers of the World. The idea behind the IWW was to make one big union of all workers from every industry, and the union would organize both for better wages, shorter hours, and safer conditions, and for a permanent end to capitalism and the wage system. Nothing else, said the IWW, would really be a solution to workers’ problems, just a temporary truce in the class conflict between capitalists and employees at best, which could always be reversed if the capitalists thought they could get away with it.

In 1919, just a few years after the communist revolution in Russia, radicals in the the United States began to experience a period of extreme repression called the Red Scare. The truth is that, although they were growing, the anti-capitalist revolutionary groups in the U. S. were not nearly as strong as in Russia, but the capitalists, with their private armies and with the state police, still decided to attack. Many radical activists and organizers were deported to other countries, and many more were imprisoned, tortured, and killed, often with the help of local militia groups and racist organizations like the KKK.

Ten years later, the Great Depression had brought deep poverty to large parts of the U. S., so the union movement started to pick up again as workers sought a way out of hardship. One segment of the ruling class, led by U. S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decided to respond by meeting some of the workers’ demands through government reforms. Their idea was partly to respect workers’ basic human dignity, but perhaps even more than this, they wanted to use government regulations to prevent capitalism from destroying itself. As part of what they called the New Deal program, they passed workplace safety laws, introduced some social insurance measures like Social Security, and launched steep taxes on the biggest capitalists to help redistribute some of the wealth that the capitalists had taken from the workers.

The New Deal reforms made conditions at some jobs better and set some new standards for how businesses could run, but it was not what anti-capitalist organizers really wanted. Reform was not necessarily bad, but it was not a final solution. Although these workers now legally had the right to form labor unions, very few businesses were brought under direct worker control, instead remaining under capitalist ownership. And even though a plan was made to redistribute some wealth to workers in the form of hospitals, public schools, and other resources, the only marginally democratic, capitalist-controlled government, and not the workers’ unions themselves, was still mostly directing how these programs were run.

Nonetheless, workers continued to organize through the 1940s, empowered by these partial class victories as they were. Even during World War II and despite a no-strike pledge from some of the more conservative trade union bosses, workers struck anyway, and in record numbers. When the war was over, the U. S. emerged as the main winner and the world’s leading industrial power, with the Soviet Union taking second place. Conservative elements within the U. S. ruling class decided to use this situation as an opportunity to launch another round of anti-communist hysteria. This was the second Red Scare, also known as the McCarthy era. During this time, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the big labor federations like the AFL and CIO were compelled to purge their ranks of strongly anti-capitalist elements: anarchists, communists, socialists. Therefore, the labor organizers who were the most militant and radical were pushed into the darkness, and the major unions became friendlier to the employing class.

In the 1960s, a new wave of radical activity started in the U. S. which would eventually become known as the New Left. Groups like SNCC, which advocated for racial integration and racial equality, middle-class student organizations like SDS, and the feminist movement became the foundation for the civil rights movement, which eventually joined forces with the movement against the war in Vietnam. All of these interests left a powerfully democratizing impact on U. S. society, but unfortunately, there was by this time a big split developing between economically oriented organizing and individual rights oriented organizing. This was a major problem because, as many radicals had previously argued, political and social power comes most of all from economic power. In other words, if you don’t have control over the economy, you don’t have real bargaining power to get what you want in other areas of life.

What started happening is a backslide in the many economic rights that the previous generation of workers had won, and which the New Left wrongly assumed were going to stay in place on their own. Consequently, the purchasing power of wages reached its peak around 1970 and then started to drop, which it has continued to do ever since. Likewise, labor unionization started to slide from about thirty-five percent in the 1960s to about twelve or eleven percent, where it is today. And a political philosophy called neoliberalism, which calls for an end to wealth redistribution and public services, started becoming more popular among the ruling class (and among some very confused workers). Neoliberalism made its major debut during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, a former corporate spokesperson, and it has continued its dominance in one form or another ever since.

What this shows is that the “Old Left” radicals were right: all arrangements with the employing/ruling class are temporary, and until workers have taken over the economy and replaced capitalism with a cooperative system of industry, there will be no lasting peace or justice in society. As soon as workers stop organizing around economic issues, making these the central rallying point of all other efforts, conservative capitalist forces will start working to roll things back toward the Social Darwinist, “laissez faire” system in which employment is at its most insecure, exploitative, and undemocratic, nothing material is guaranteed, and ruthless competition rules the day. That is no way to run a society!

How now do we escape a descent into even worse kinds of economic brutality? The IWW says that the entirety of the economic infrastructure, also called the means of production — all of the workplaces and tools, everything material that’s used to produce goods and provide services — must be turned over to the organized working class and run by radical union democracy. Naturally, the major challenge for radical unionists is, first of all, to demonstrate to the working class (by which we mean all those who sell their labor to earn wages or salaries to survive, even highly skilled “professional” workers), the necessity of organizing. “Free market radicals,” such as Ron Paul supporters and some Tea Partiers, for instance, want simply to eliminate the government, thinking that this will create peace and prosperity. However, without an organized and educated working class to provide order in its place, society will simply succumb to the desires of the next most-organized faction, the corporations themselves. Likewise, communist and socialist political parties which propose to turn over the economy to the workers by decree will be unable to do so until the working class has organized enough to receive it! In the Soviet Union, for instance, work life was often the same as under capitalism, just with a government bureaucrat as the boss instead of a privately wealthy capitalist.

So, working people of all backgrounds, this is your task today: to organize to replace capitalism with union democracy, as one big union of all workers laboring to meet human need, not some boss or stockholder’s selfish expectations. We in the IWW aim to do all we can to help shed light on the way toward this possibility, drawing lessons from the past as we go the best that we can. In the short term, you are likely to win higher pay and more control over your job conditions. In the long term, we just might make some major changes for the better. Contact the IWW today to talk to us about your work situation — even if you are currently unemployed — and we’ll be happy to tell you what we can.

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Paul Boggs on Right-Wing Populism

by x365097

In the last five years, the U. S. mainstream has seen a sharp increase in right-wing populist activism, from the Ron Paul supporters of both the 2008 and 2012 election cycles to the Tea Party movement and beyond. While often calling themselves “libertarian,” a term which, in countries other than the U. S., tends to refer to IWW-style anti-capitalism, people caught up in this circuit have made calls for a total razing of the concessions won during the New Deal and Great Society reforms of the 1930s-1960s and a return to Social Darwinist, “law of the jungle” capitalism.

The claim is that such a program will somehow be beneficial to the average American, but on pages 129-130 of his 1986 book, Social Movements and Political Power, author Paul Boggs, a professor of political science at USC, eloquently lays bare the implications of the demands of movements like these with the following critique:

The sharpening institutional, economic, and cultural crisis of American society has given rise, since the 1960s, to resurgent populist movements on both the right and the left. These movements and the organizations they have spawned reflect an erosion of the Keynesian welfare-state consensus that has shaped two-party politics since the 1930s. Set in motion by the fiscal crisis and bureaucratization of the state, the two populist revolts share an anti-statist, decentralizing vision with deep roots in U. S. history. Both legitimate their goals through appeals to democracy [although this is increasingly less the case on the right in 2012], the community, self-help, and the everyday concerns of the common person, and both envision gradual but militant struggles to restore civic participation against the encroachment of powerful interests. Further, both offer solutions to the present crisis that contain a strong moral as well as economic and political thrust. The right-wing populists, who helped catapult Ronald Reagan into the presidency, urge a return to the mythic free-enterprise economy, with its glorification of unfettered individualism, self-regulating market forces, and private incentives, and to traditional values embodied in an old-fashioned work ethic, the neighborhood, religion, patriarchal sex roles, and patriotism. […]

In terms of any real democratizing potential, it is difficult to take rightist populism very seriously. Beneath its antibureaucratic rhetoric lies an elitist and corporatist project designed to strengthen multinational corporations, the military, and the authoritarian state. Poorly camouflaged by symbols of traditional morality, self-reliance, and “supply-side” economics, the corporatist “solution” is little more than a cover for policies beneficial to the affluent and powerful and cynically brutal to workers, the poor, minorities, and the vast majority of women. It follows that Reaganism could not for long reconcile the rationalizing imperatives of capital accumulation with a populist legitimation urging a return to early capitalist principles, or laissez-faire myths, appropriate to the frontier. Something had to yield — in this case, the new-right ideology of a free-market economy already suffocated by the requirements of both monopoly and governmental expansion. Still, the ideological success of a right-wing populism that has strong appeal among blue-collar workers, urban ethnic groups, Christian fundamentalists, and small proprietors has been impressive.

The broad diffusion of populist sentiment, even where its ideological content remains highly variable and unpredictable, signifies a fundamental shift of American social and political forces that was well under way before the 1980s. If the right wing (and the Republican party) appears to be the main beneficiary in the short run, the direction of change could be altered in the long run to the degree that space for leftist mobilization is extended.

Working people, although the “traditional American values” you’ve likely been handed during your socialization in the U. S. may cause you to veer for some time towards the flag-draped right-libertarians and their hard-money “hearts of gold,” the Austrian economics they frequently promote does not and cannot resolve the fundamental contradiction within capitalism: the exploitation of labor through the employment relationship. Rather, its adherents will try to convince you that workers’ sale of labor to capitalists for wages is a voluntary and mutually beneficial arrangement.

Wage labor might beat starving to death, but it certainly isn’t equally beneficial to both parties, coming to the table as we do with dramatically uneven bargaining power. Having entered into this relationship, the worker, when all is said and done, loses control of the products of her or his labor and receives wages in return, while the capitalist retains full control over how the surplus is distributed. Most of it usually goes right into her or his own pockets, while we workers struggle to meet our basic needs, often going into debt just to try to do so (as we then enjoy the privilege of paying interest to the for-profit loan masters). No matter how “personally responsible” we are with our finances, our standard of living as a class steadily continues to drop right alongside our level of organization as workers.

Is there truly no possible improvement to this system, which grants the capitalists, through their monopoly on decision-making productive authority, the ability to steer humanity and the rest of the natural world to an uncertain tomorrow? Is capitalism, a system which, on the other hand, promises hardship and insecurity to the all-producing worker, really the end of history, or can the working class organize, seize control of the means of production, and institute a cooperative, planned economy in which human need is satisfied and creativity increased exponentially?

The IWW offers a proven path toward this revolutionary possibility, and the change will start to happen as soon as you put your mind to it to do so. Why let the capitalists continue to hoard the wealth that you and your fellow workers have created? Every day that approaches is another opportunity to organize with the IWW’s support.