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.

To Stave Off Zombie Apocalypse, Organize a New Society Within the Shell of the Old

Brad Pitt wonders why he didn't join the IWW while there was still time.
Brad Pitt wonders why he didn’t join the IWW while there was still time.

by x365097

Let’s think back to late summer, 2008 — half a decade ago, right about now. It had been more than five years since the invasion of Iraq by the US, and nearly six years since the invasion of Afghanistan. The PATRIOT Act was still in the news, there was massive anti-Bush agitation from liberals and the left, and many people were looking forward to a change of regime — any change — in 2009.

The financial catastrophe that would soon arrive, however, punctuating the presidency of George W. Bush like a second 9/11, would make matters unfathomably worse, complicating the US economy for years to come and paving the way for the austerity agenda to trample workers’ hard-won economic rights like Orwell’s proverbial jackboot to the face. Of course, there had been preliminary signs of trouble; those had been plain to see. But when the blows finally started hammering down, they caught almost everyone unprepared.

Individualist survivalists, already bolstered by the much-hyped threat of terrorism, came out of the woodwork to sell emergency water filters and K-rations to the gullible and (somewhat justifiably) afraid. The average American worker hunkered down, usually alone or with a few family members, and prayed that the worst — a foreclosure, an eviction — might pass them by. And the media told us endless stories about the struggle to survive amid the mindless hordes who would ravage the remains when it all finally broke down outside the “Green Zone” of Wall Street.

It didn’t — and still doesn’t — have to be this way.

The concept of a labor union like our organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, is simple: when workers, those whose only real commodity to sell to provide for themselves is their labor, gain class consciousness and act together to protect what we recognize as our class interests, we benefit far beyond what we would be able to accomplish as individuals. But for the IWW, the imperative goes much further than protecting the job standings of some skilled breadwinners who want to preserve their traditional social roles. We want an end to all — 100% — of the exploitation and unease throughout society, and it can be done.

As the preamble to our union’s constitution states:

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

In other words, if workers wish to prevent the chaos that would stem from a sudden breakdown of the current order, unjust and destructive though it may be in the long run, we must begin — today — to organize an alternative and more socially just replacement which can carry on production in the event of TEOTWAWKI. By doing this, we can stave off a needless plummeting back into the pre-industrial era or a me-first “bunker mentality.” The 1% files such preparations under the name of “continuity of government.” The class-conscious among the 99% call our equivalent “liberation.”

For now, the crisis that is capitalism is in remission. Today, it lies dormant, waiting for another clear opportunity to pounce on the working class as it did in 2008. But when that day returns, and return it shall, there is no need for a Mad Max scenario, no need for the brutality of the Thunderdome, but we must begin to organize against it right away, building on the successes of social movements such as Occupy and of movements found more distantly in the past. A better world is possible, but it takes workers putting our petty differences aside, differences like race and gender that the capitalists want to use to divide us. We must instead focus our efforts on coming together and learning to manage and control our labor, the basis of all wealth, democratically. If we succeed in doing this, we will never be so vulnerable again. This is the IWW’s mission. Are you with us?

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.