Reviews



Book
Reviews

 

 

Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United State By Craig Hughes, Steve Peace, and Kevin Van Meter for the Team Colors Collective (ed.)
AK Press: Oakland, 2010, 400 pp.


Winds from Below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible by Team Color Collective (ed.)

Microcosm Publishing: Lansing, Kansas, 2010, 102 pp

 

Reviews by Robert Ovetz


Where are the pitchforks and torches? That’s the number one question following the meager response to the meltdown of the U.S. capitalist economy, even as insurgencies against neoliberal attacks escalate rapidly from Egypt to Madison, China to Greece, and Oman to Mexico. Craig Hughes, Steve Peace, and Kevin Van Meter, working as the Team Colors Collective, set off on a journey a few years ago to figure out if and why America is all too quiet and ended up getting caught up in a global whirlwind. Synthesizing contributions, interviews, and analyses of activists in the squatter, food sovereignty, and precarious workers movements, Uses of a Whirlwind asks us to flip our thinking on its head. The meltdown was triggered by a growing reconstructing and reorganizing (eg, “recomposition”) of working class power not the inverse. If we don’t see much reaction to the crisis, it’s because we do not yet have the analytical tools to identify and understand the causes of the crisis. And that cause, Uses of a Whirlwind tells us, is a global working class that is recomposing itself in fits and starts.

 

Contributer George Caffentzis lays out the mission of Uses of a Whirlwind in his piece “Notes on the financial crisis”: “If class struggles had the power to create the crisis, then understanding them might guide us to the path that would lead out of the crisis with more class power.” Caffentzis has continued his project begun with Zerowork and Midnight Notes in the 1970s to illuminate new forms of working class struggle that lay just beyond our perception. At first glance, long stagnant median wages, vastly increased work, castrated labor unions, eroded social programs, exploding personal debt, and the evaporation of trillions of dollars of household wealth would seem to point to absolute and utter decomposition of the U.S. and global working class. After 30-plus years of defeat after bloody defeat, it now appears that business and the neoliberal state are going in for the kill. Not so, suggests Brian Marks in “Living in a whirlwind.” Marks’s analysis sweeps the reader across the landscape of pitched battles over wages, rural enclosures, and debt financed growth in China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, riots over exploding food prices in dozens of countries predating the revolutions in the Arab world, and resistance to cutbacks in public education and services across Europe. At the end of his whirlwind journey of global working class recomposition, Marks drops us smack dab in the middle of wildcat truckers’ strikes and working class immigrants rights movement in the U.S. that preceded the meltdown. What ties all of these apparent disjointed ruptures together is a struggle over credit, energy, and food that for Marks is no less than a struggle against the imposition of more work. “What is at stake is not just food, energy, or credit as such, but what lies behind them and all commodities: the struggle between labor and capital over social production. For these reasons, and because the commodities in crisis are the very raw materials for making labor-power, the present crisis is, at heart, a work crisis.” No wonder, many of the most potent revolts over the past 30 years have been sparked by rising prices for food and gas often mandated by the IMF, NAFTA-like investment agreements, and debt repayment schemes that slash state subsidies.

 

Understanding the cause of the crisis is more than merely documenting how “financialization” of capital is a flight from “productive” investment. Careful and thorough analysis is needed to understand why the flight has become more frantic since the 1990s. This is especially needed since neoliberal restructuring appears to have proceeded unabated in recomposing capital’s power since the historic defeats of the 1930s to the early 1970s.

 

The missing pieces make the puzzle, Marks seems to be saying. Yet, as far as class analysis goes, the dynamic process of conflict means both that the pieces have yet to be cut and we still lack a complete picture of the spaces in which they fit. This is what he suggests when he concludes that “the tools of class composition analysis and militant research…are a good place to begin mapping class composition and plotting a course towards recompo- sition.” 

 

While the Team Colors Collective concur in both Marks’s and Caffentzis’s mission to document and articulate an emerging global working class recomposition of power, some of the rest of the volume misfires. Many of the contributors add little or nothing to Team Colors’s project. Aside from very insightful participant observations of how to organize precarious service workers by the Starbucks Workers Union and reinvigorate the squatting movements led by Take Back the Land and City Life/Vida Urbana, Uses of a Whirlwind needed to be more selective to ensure that contributors are capable of adding to the project. It is unclear whether the remaining contributors share either the mission or possess the analytical framework or tools to do the required heavy analytical lifting. As a result, some of the contributors retreat too easily into worn out formulaic and pointless exaggeration of whatever activist project they belong to. But as Team Colors themselves attest, activist movements and corporate-foundation-funded non-governmental organizations do not a movement or recomposed working class make.

 

While Team Colors’ intent was to give voice to those in the midst of battle, this invaluable project would have been much better served if they had done the analyses themselves—as they manage to do in their compact companion Winds from Below. This essential volume, which was intended to be their theoretical contribution to Uses of a Whirlwind, lays out their analysis of working class recomposition in the U.S. by closely examining the squatter, anti-foreclosure, and the working class immigrant power movements. Central to their analysis is the dual impotence of the left that speaks truth to power while it is unable to organize to assert its power. Simultaneously, the left faces threats from the corporate non-profit industrial complex that has channeled, managed, and institutionalized the passion and tactics of grassroots volunteer organizing. This latter point, which recognizes non-profits supplementing the role of unions as a mechanism for disciplining the working class since their institutionalization in the 1930s, deserves a volume of its own.

 

Team Colors’ most cogent insight is that to reproduce themselves, working class movements need to organize for the reproduction of their members as people with real needs for what they call “care.” Borrowing from Sylvia Federici’s contribution in Uses of a Whirlwind, “Feminism and the politics of the commons in an era of primitive accumulation,” Team Colors concludes that “the potential of self-reproducing movements…is that it seeks to re-center this reproduction as an organizing principal and practice.” Team Colors appears to be reminding us that the road to success for many militant movements throughout past U.S. history and more recently in Latin America and the Middle East is that these movements have built and sustained their power by not only confronting capital, but self-organizing the growing unmet needs for child care, education, food, housing, health, companionship, and even music. Realizing and circulating these little “futures in the present,” as CLR James called them, are essential if we are to continue recomposing our class power in the face the relentless neoliberal assault.

 

For Team Colors, the darkness that lay before us is caused as much by the absence of the torches as the dim lights of our analytical tools. The way through, they assert, is to draw upon our own autonomous capacity to build the kinds of society we want right now.

Z


Robert Ovetz is a precarious mindworker of academia at several San Francisco Bay Area community colleges in the U.S.

 



 

How Working People Can Regain Power And Transform America by Joe Burns, Brooklyn, IG Publishing, 2011, 224 pp.

 

Review by Carl Finamore

 

A new book by labor attorney and veteran union negotiator Joe Burns, Reviving the Strike, is a valuable contribution to resurrecting fundamental lessons from the neglected history of American labor. As the title suggests and as he emphasized to me, “The only way we can revive the labor movement is to revive a strike based on the traditional tactics of the labor movement.” But he doesn’t stop there. The author reviews for the reader the full range of tactics and strategy during the exciting, turbulent, and often violent history of American labor.

 

Refreshingly, he also provides critical assessments normally avoided by labor analysts of a whole series of union tactics that have grown enormously popular over the last several decades. For example, he examines and reviews the mixed results of boycotts, temporary strikes of very short duration, and corporate campaigns. Even organizing the unorganized membership drives come under his scrutiny for a bit of criticism, especially when they are mistakenly cast as the main formula for reversing labor’s rapid descent. Membership will only increase, Burns believes, once labor adopts a more militant strategy, outlined in the book, which successfully leads to substantial economic gains for workers. Here, the author refers to the experience of the 1930s when millions flocked to fledgling unions only because they were seen as immediately capable of improving the everyday lives of working people.

 

It will be similar victories, Burns strongly emphasizes, and not any secret- weapon ingenious organizing techniques that will boost union membership. But Burns reserves most of the blame for labor’s alarming decline on the last several generations of union leaders who have largely abandoned labor’s most powerful weapons of striking, of establishing national industry contract standards and of standing for solidarity with others under attack from capital. And, of course, the author particularly deplores the virtual disappearance from today’s labor scene of classical strikes that totally shut down production.

 

He cites statistics that “in 1952, there were 470 major strikes (those of more than 1,000 workers) involving 2,746,000 workers. By contrast, today, in 2008, there were only 15 major work stoppages, involving 72,000 workers.”

 

Reclaiming our History

 

Of course, workers engage in strikes only as a last resort, when all other forms of negotiations have broken down, because it is well understood the conflicts involved such big personal commitments. Harry Bridges, International Longshore & Warehouse union (ILWU) founder and leader of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, compared a strike to a small revolution in his oral history, “Centennial Retrospective”: “You see, in a small way, temporarily, a strike is a small revolution. It simply means a form of revolution because you take over an industry or a plant owned by the capitalists and temporarily you seize it. Temporarily you take it away.”

 

The Flint, Michigan automobile sit-in strike, and numerous other factory occupations spreading throughout America in this same period, underscored Bridges’ warning of the powerful challenge posed to capital. Burns describes the strategy and tactics of this militant Depression-era and does a good job explaining how terrified corporate magnates and compliant government officials hurriedly pushed through a series of laws primarily designed to smother the fiery social rebellion. As a result, even before the mass upsurge reached its zenith, labor was confronted with a maze of legal restrictions and penalties begun with the 1935 Wagner Act that substituted sluggish mediation for impassioned class struggle.

 

Restrictions on mobilizing membership power as the final arbiter in labor disputes intensified with the onerous 1947 “Slave-Labor” Taft-Hartley Act and the 1959 Landrum-Griffin legislation. The reader should find it quite interesting to learn the details of how labor militancy and the ability to mobilize the membership was increasingly curtailed by these government regulations.

 

New Strategies Replace the Strike

 

To traditional trade unionists, the point of a strike was to stop production or otherwise inflict sufficient economic harm to force an employer to agree to union demands. That simple, commonsense notion formed the basis of labor economics for the first 150-odd years of American trade unionism. “By the 1980s, however, conventional wisdom had reversed, and stopping production had become a fringe idea. That, more than anything else,” the author concludes, “explains the weakness of the modern union movement.”

 

As a result, Burns argues, most unions have largely abandoned completely shutting down an employer as part of their strategy. As mentioned earlier, some adopt short-term one-, two-, or three-day strikes as an alternative; others adopt corporate campaigns which shifts focus even further away from mass picketing at the work site.

 

While some partial victories have been won with these tactics, most notably the JP Stevens’ corporate campaign of the late 1970s, and recent hotel union victories utilizing both boycotts and short-term strikes, none of these approaches, the author asserts, can reverse labor’s plunge into oblivion. Burns does not so much completely discount these approaches as part of an overall program, he simply rejects them as a substitute for a more militant strategy which begins with shutting down production. He writes, for example, “while the corporate campaign can, on occasion, work in conjunction with a strike strategy, it will never replace a strike that halts production.”

 

He has a point.

 

Recent public employee battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and California are inspiring and unprecedented in so many ways but they also beg the question of why the fights bogged down. Why was the tremendous energy and popularity of mass protests not converted into strikes where labor’s power could have been most powerfully exerted, something not even seriously considered by national union leaders? The answers are, of course, very complicated. Burns provides a lot of insight by explaining both the onerous legal penalties and complex political obstacles discouraging labor from utilizing strikes as our most basic and powerful weapon of self defense.

 

The dilemma of our times is that unions react defensively rather than offensively to the numerous and myriad undemocratic restrictions on our freedom of mass assembly, of free speech, and of our rights to express solidarity through secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes. Unjust laws must be aggressively challenged that prevent people from organizing massive picket lines capable of shutting down production and stopping scabs from taking their jobs. This is the history of labor and it is well documented by Burns. In fact, it is the history of the U.S. in general, where progress has only resulted from violating unconstitutional and undemocratic laws enacted by the business class. Legislation that has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with keeping the rich in power. All is explained by Burns. He has written a primer for every trade unionist tired of being the victim.

Z


Carl Finamore is Machinist Local 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

 

 

A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski,

Boston, Beacon Press, 2011, 288 pp.

 

Review by Michael McGehee

 

Michael Bronski’s new book A Queer History of the United States is to the history of sexuality in this country as Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States is to the history of class struggle. And while Bronski’s book is not officially a part of the A People’s History series, it really should be. Like Zinn’s work and those who have followed in his footsteps, Bronski’s new book is about providing a more complete account of our history.

 

American history, as taught in our public education system, is often presented in a very narrow fashion that tells the stories of presidents, members of Congress, military leaders, and leaders from the business community (with a sprinkle of everyday people who made a big impact). History is often left to the study of political events and students are simply taught to learn names, dates, and places. Then they take a test and that is all. To make matters worse, history is often sanitized so that students only learn what is “proper,” or as it is for my state of Texas.

 

“Throughout social studies in Kindergarten-Grade 12, students build a foundation in history [that] enables students to understand the importance of patriotism, function in a free enterprise society, and appreciate the basic democratic values of our state and nation,” as referenced in the Texas Education Code (TEC). Students learn that Martin Luther King Jr had a “dream” but they do not learn that he was growing more radical against war, militarism, and capitalism. And students learn that Helen Keller overcame the adversities of being blind, deaf, and mute and learned to communicate, but learn nothing of her socialist and feminist views. And what of the sexuality of Walt Whitman or Eleanor Roosevelt? There is a wide gap in what students learn for it is these ignored social elements that were a big part in defining who these people were. This gap, at least in regards to sexuality (though he does touch on race, gender, culture, class and politics), is what Bronski goes a long way to fill in with his book.

 

Bronski is quick to point out that history is more than politics or economics. It’s not always sanitary (it can be very messy and outrageous to prevailing senses of normalcy) and it’s not about just knowing general information of particular events. It’s about knowing who we are, even those considered to be on the fringe, and how who we have been and where we have gone has brought us to where we are today. Do we want right-wing Christians using mob rule to limit the constitutional rights of other citizens, or for the government to use epidemics to police the sexuality of those deemed deviant simply because they do not reflect the lifestyles of the “general community”?

 

And as far as our collective sense of sexuality is concerned Bronski does just that—he richly explores our history from the earliest days of when Europeans stepped foot on the continents of the Western Hemisphere to 1990, at which point he says we are leaving history and entering the realm of “news.” In this reviewer’s opinion the book is a valuable contribution to American history. In fact, when I finished reading the book I thought to myself, “I may not be queer—outside of my absence of bigotry I am a pretty ‘normal’ heterosexual male—but if I were I would be loud and proud about it.” Because what Bronski shows is that a liberated sexuality—the advancement in personal freedom to explore and discover one’s self is always a good thing—has come a long way from colonists dismembering indigenous people to feed to dogs because those Europeans were disturbed by the natives different culture of sexuality.

 

The social purity movements, the wars, the urbanization, the move from biological families to social communities, the emergence of a consumer market for LGBT people, and the social achievements in labor and race and gender have all impacted the queer community—because they too were workers or of a certain skin pigmentation or were women or were natives or immigrants—and helped give them a sense of identity and community. These social achievements of the oppressed, the persecuted and disenfranchised have a rich history in civil disobedience, agitation, and direct action. Bronski touches on these actions and I bring this up because it is something students are too often robbed of understanding. The progress we have made in this country has not been by voting or leaving our struggles to political leaders to decide the outcomes. Just as slaves did not vote for abolition so too did women not vote for suffrage or workers for labor rights or African Americans to end Jim Crow laws or LGBT people for broader tolerance, acceptance, and equal protection under the law. The ongoing issue of getting protection from the law while also getting government out of our personal lives is likely to come from a variety of tactics to aid our struggles, and though voting may in some settings be a useful tool, community organizing, civil disobedience, direct action and other activities outside of lobbying politicians or voting will undoubtedly be necessary, as history ought to show us.

 

I would like to imagine that one day our government, under pressure of successful social movements, will establish a Queer History Month so that students can learn about the history of sexuality and Bronski’s A Queer History will be an important reference. That would be the first step and who knows? Maybe from there it—as well as Black History Month or maybe even Class History Month—will be incorporated into classes as a complementary view of history. Because as Bronski concluded in his epilogue: ”All of which goes to prove that LGBT people are simply Americans—no less and no more. The idea of America has existed, in some form, for five hundred years. LGBT people, despite enormous struggles to be accepted and to be given equality, have made America what it is today—that great, fascinating, complicated, sometimes horrible, sometimes wonderful place that it was in the beginning.

 

Their history is our history and should be recorded and taught as such.

Z


Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working class family man from Kennedale, Texas.