Those Not Busy Born are Busy Dying

George Caffentzis draws an interesting dichtomy between workers and debtors and lays out some of the antinomous implications of each, when it comes to "what to do" (George Caffentzis, "Debt and/or Wages: Organizing Challenges", Tidal, Feb 2013, and at ).

A parallel way to look at the wages vs. debt organizing implications is to not see these as separate categories but as consequences of the intersection of the realm of production and that of consumption. Consumers (debtors) are simply workers (wages) when they get home from work. But capital expends enormous amounts of energy to keep the fight around consumer debt separate and distinct from the fight over wages and working conditions on the job.

Our job is to show that they are really two artificially separated moments of the same historical force; they are not contradictory. No matter which "window" (the 'debt' window, or the 'wages' window) one looks through, one is looking at the same beast.

Furthermore, both expressions exist simultaneously within every moment, like yin and yang. You can't have the one without the other, no matter how finely you fractalize the moment.

Capital works hard at maintaining the illusory wall between "workers" and "consumers" — a pitiful and disempowering way to describe workers when we're not at work. Most of us have internalized this split, to capital's advantage; it keeps the 99% from taking action where capital is most vulnerable and where we have the most leverage — on the job and in resistance to work.

At the first Left Green Network gathering at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 1987, I outlined the need to reject that workers vs. consumers framework and proposed ways for our burgeoning environmental movement to overcome that false divide. What has come to pass since then is that capital has expended enormous sums — part of its overall cost of production — to maintain the acquiescence of worker organizations to its labor/management rules. Unions, where they have not been demolished outright by neoliberalism, have been instrumental in assisting the imposition of capital's "structural adjustment programs" at home as well as abroad. Such agencies as the AFL-CIO's "Solidarity Center" and National Endowment for Democracy serve as cops (AFL-CIA?) for the system where workers in slave conditions in Maquilladoras and "free trade" export zones produce goods that are purchased by "debtor" workers elsewhere (that is, workers who have no choice but to go into debt to meet their everyday needs). In so doing, they undermine their wider interests, solidarity, and direct action impulses.(1)

Most leftist parties also have accepted the worker/consumer distinction; they proselytize workers to vote for candidates who would better tend to their interests but often at the expense of workers elsewhere. Even the progressive campaigns of consumer advocate Ralph Nader for President presented the primary clash in our society as between "consumers" and "irresponsible corporations," therein upholding (at least in theory) "responsible" ones, and ignoring the exploitation and expropriation on which capitalism as a system is built.(2)

In accepting the false dichotomy between workers and consumers, we allow invisible constraints to strap us to the gears of capital, the periodic bluster of trade union hacks and "minimum common-denominator coalitionites." We need to bust them open.

Worker organizations rarely encourage their members to take action on the job to put into effect non-waged (or "debtor") portions of the new society they'd want to live in. That was part of the 1935 legislation legalizing trade unions, as I've discussed elsewhere. Even for much of the Left, implementation of a socialist program is to occur only after socialists come into control of the state — a major squabble between the old Left socialist parties and the new left of the 1960s, and still remaining to be resolved.

So I resume my 1987 appeal for radicals to find ways to break down that false dichotomy between "consumers" and "workers" — between organizations and activities built on debtors and those built on wage-labor. We need to create new organizational forms that go beyond the traditional trade union, consumer advocacy and political party models, all of which accept that duality to one degree or another. We need to expand what is seen as legitimate to fight for on the job, and merge those fights with what we need in our communities.

All of this entails reframing the question — challenging what we take for granted today, what is perceived as "natural" or "legitimate" — so that in all areas of our lives we take direct responsibility for the world around us instead of ceding it to others exalted as "experts": politicians, bankers, priests, corporate execs, scientists, media moguls, union managers, or even professional activists.

The challenge for any radical organization of-a-new-type is not so much to proselytize around political questions arising out of one side or the other in the wage/debt debate or exhort the exhausted to hustle back to the barricaded Zuccotti Squares of our lives, but to enable us all — particularly workers (who are, after all, us) — to dramatically expand our organizations' purview to include what is produced, how it is produced, and how it the end-product is made available to all.

One way to do that is by revealing the hidden environmental, political, racial, sexual, class and cultural dimensions within every seemingly economic issue. And, second, we must make it possible to organize and fight for so-called "consumer" demands on the job and not just in the community, by taking direct action on the job and forcing the company or government to comply with whatever we are demanding in our communities. In that way, we can begin the process of taking political, ecological and social responsibility for the world around us.

In Australia in the late 1970s, worker and community organizing pressured unions to issue "Green Bans". In what would have been developer and power-broker Robert Moses' worst nightmare, the workers refused to construct highways and malls unless they were first approved at public meetings by the communities impacted by such "development." They would not build anything unless both the workers and the community approved it.(3)

There is a wealth of similar but not widely known direct action collaborations between workers on the job and the communities they serve — an alliance previously seen as outside the purview of labor organizing in the U.S. In the last decade, for example, the California Nurses Association heroically took the lead in mobilizing its membership to oppose attempts to make Swine Flu and smallpox vaccinations mandatory.(4) What if nurses in the U.S. took it a step further, and decided to challenge the patriarchal and denigrating hospitals? What if they set up their own community-based worker- and client-run clinics? And what if they combined with AIDS activists, midwives, holistic and herbal healers, acupuncturists, chiropractors and nutritionists to create underground buyers' cooperatives and a qualitatively better complementary health care system, not the same old medical meat-market mauling us with industrial medicine at the beck and call of pharmaceutical corporate profits and the insurance racket that too many current health care proposals, including Obamacare, are bent on preserving? That would be a health plan worth investing in!

What if newspaper workers in San Francisco kept publishing their strike newspaper even after the strike ended, as the "voice of labor, community & environment" in the region?

What if mass-transit workers advocated on behalf of so-called "consumers", and fought against fare hikes, demanding — as part of their union negotiations — that transportation be free? What if they'd "look the other way" when people walk through the gates, instead of calling the police?

What if homeless people began squatting the thousands of abandoned housing units, and community groups and unions rallied to defend them and hold back the police, as they did in NYC on that heroic November morning in 2011?

What if construction unions stopped treating jobs as private fiefdoms and accepted the homeless, squatters and homesteaders as apprentices, teaching skills and fixing up their buildings? Anti-community and ecologically destructive "development" projects (hydro-fracking, tar-sands pipeline, nuclear power plant construction) pit workers who need jobs (especially as so many are outsourced) against the neighborhoods they'd be destroying, setting up a downward spiral of competition between people who should be allies and who are, in fact, the same people when they get off work!

What if progressive scientists and ecologists circumvented the U.S.-imposed embargo on Cuba and worked with their counterparts there to develop and learn from Cuba's organic agriculture and alternative energy programs, relieving it of its dependence on foreign oil, domestic nuclear power plants, one-crop sugar economy and petroleum-based fertilizer? What if we, acting in solidarity with the Cuban revolution, helped make that island a beacon for ecologically-sound planning and alternative health care?

And what if instead of shutting down buildings to protest tuition hikes and cutbacks in services, students began "opening them up" — building by building, libraries, gymnasiums, study areas — keeping them open all night for people to use, putting the goals of open admissions and free tuition — once standard operating procedure in New York City and state-run California colleges — into immediate practice?

Framing the issue in that way forces the university administration to shut down the buildings in the face of people acting directly to keep them open. That permits us, as Karl Marx put it, to "retain the moral ascendancy" by exposing and directly doing something about the university's complicity with the austerity budgets, larger scandals and crimes. Then, when government or university bureaucrats try to close buildings claiming the need to lay off workers and cut back services (or, in the new euphemism of the day, "to downsize"), we'd say, "No, we're not going to let you. We're going to keep them open so people could use them to study." The tactical advantages are obvious; we would enjoy overwhelming popular support, putting our vision of the type of society we'd like to live in directly into effect. We'd be breaking out of symbolic forms of "protest" that, though once powerful, have largely been co-opted and integrated into the system.

What if we begin occupying and directly opening up those schools, libraries, subway stations, hospitals, day care centers, foreclosed homes and farms, post offices, fire houses and public parks slated for privatization or "structural adjustment" cutback? It's time to reclaim, occupy, and "open up" property stolen from us, the 99 percent!

What if the Transportation Workers Union — now to its credit heavily supporting Occupy — worked with Greens to devise a comprehensive transportation program based on renewable energy, slowing the destruction of the ozone layer and reducing society's dependence on Exxon-Mobil, BP and Shell? And what if the workers also exposed the nefarious role of General Motors, DuPont and Firestone Rubber in tearing up ecologically friendly electric trolley systems in dozens of cities across the country in the 1930s, '40s and '50s? That conspiracy — and aren't all corporate decisions "conspiracies" by their boards of directors to rip as much labor as possible out of workers, sell products to consumers, and maximize profits? – was rewarded by local and federal governments with billions of dollars in write-offs, subsidies and tax-breaks. It forced ground transit to switch to more costly and environmentally destructive gasoline-fueled diesel buses that poisoned the air for 60 years.

What if, instead of limiting ourselves to petitioning the government to stop financing the junta in Haiti and cracking down on the popular movement there, we in the U.S. targeted those corporations (Disney, Sears, J.C. Penney, WalMart, Texaco, Wilson Sporting Goods, Halliburton and MacGregor, among others) that outsource to sweatshops to produce their goods and break the unions, oppose attempts to raise the minimum wage, fund the death squads and rake in millions off the earthquake in Haiti and slave labor there?

What if striking telephone workers not only marched against cutbacks in health benefits but occupied, en masse, the telephone exchanges — can you hear me now? — blocking the state's surveillance of our movements, reaching out and touching AT&T and Verizon where it hurts?

What if workers at the Schenectady General Electric plant fought to end G.E.'s spewing of PCBs and other deadly chemicals into the Hudson River as part of their contract negotiations? What if they said, "We will not allow the company to dump this crap into our Hudson river," and took direct action to stop it? What a difference workers — organized through their debts as well as through their wages –could make in the fight to save that river, let alone the planet.

Turning Motion into Movement

All of these "What Ifs" embody a radical vision that is fundamentally democratic (with a small "d"); they are based upon direct community participation through which people take charge over the decisions that affect their lives on every level and minimize relying upon those in power to make the changes they seek. The kind of focus provided by these direct action contexts differs from what one might expect in customary issue-oriented organizing. A key frame of direct action is that with every "demand" we raise we need to ask: "How might we begin fulfilling the demand we're making for ourselves, here and now?" That approach shapes the demand; it differs significantly from the way unions, Leftist parties and coalitions have historically seen their mission and approached their work.

It is that false separation of "workers" (producers of value) and "consumers" (users of value) that has locked us into an increasingly untenable situation, and renders us controllable and impotent. What would it take for unions to stop accepting the rigid constraints imposed by capital and government on working class organizations, and instead reframe the production and purchase of commodities as a continuously re-negotiated struggle between big capital and the 99 percent?

Breaking down the imposed dichotomy between wages and debts — between workers and consumers — involves new organizational formations that take action to prevent the waves of cutbacks, privatization, layoffs, housing and farm foreclosures, bank bailouts and huge consumer and student debts, to say nothing of the massive destruction of the planet's biosphere and imperialist wars. Empire has no conscience; neither the system nor those running it can be shamed into ending exploitation of labor and domination (expropriation) of nature — the twin sources of capitalism's profits, which drive the economic system and propel it to expand, at the planet's expense.

Such direct action interferes with the system (including capitalism's integration of customary modes of protest); it sets the conditions for activities, demands, and new kinds of organization. Witness the power and creativity unleashed by the sustained direct action campaigns in Tunisia and Egypt (the Arab Spring), followed quickly by Wisconsin, and now Occupy Wall Street. These so reinterpreted social reality that, looking back on 2011, it becomes absolutely stunning that the "demand" to democratize economic and social institutions has, all of a sudden, caught fire and articulated with exceptional clarity the undemocratic class rule to which we all are subject.

That doesn't mean we should never petition those in power; it means we don't rely on it. Instead, we focus on putting the world we want directly into effect, and create in the here-and-now some tiny sliver of a future society worth living in. These will hopefully inspire others, and become bases — liberated zones — from which to launch further sorties against the system. Direct Action/Participatory Democracy serves as both means and ends at the same time.

Clearly, direct action as conceived here is not simply a more militant form of protest, as some portray it, but a total reconceptualization of how societal transformation comes about and the role of conscious activists in organizing themselves to achieve it. That is, direct action is a strategy for achieving a new society and not just a tactic used in attempts to attack the policies of the old one.

The strategy of direct action explicitly draws out connections between what to demand, how to achieve it and what forms of organization we'd need. It seeks to bring everything that impacts on our lives within our control. Direct action as strategy, therefore — even over the most mundane and seemingly non-political aspects of daily life — is inherently political; it has no need to bring in "the political" from the outside, but — in this new way of seeing our "mission" — it uncoils the politics already present and wound up in everything. As a result, it necessarily expands our conception of what to consider valid political work.

Direct action is, most of all, a way — a Tao. It is a strategy of dual power based on participatory grassroots democracy, of building up the embryo of liberated or autonomous zones (often quite temporary ones; sometimes they are not even geographical but based on affinities around subverted norms), which serve as communities of resistance and nurturance within the shell of the old. They create in effect a parallel socialist universe; but these differ from utopian communes in that they are continuously engaged, they can't withdraw from the effects and pressures of the system even if they want to. The more successfully they see wage-workers and debtors as two sides to the same coin, the more powerful our chances of saving ourselves — all of us — and the planet we live on.

Much of this is taken from Mitchel Cohen's new book, "What Is Direct Action? Lessons to (and from) Occupy Wall Street," available from the author at [email protected].


1. See the website, set up by NYU Professor Bertell Ollman, originating as a spoof of the National Endowment for Democracy. The IEFD website houses a very good library of readings and reference material on the question of "democracy".

2. To the U.S. Green Party's credit, however, it has maintained a very strong opposition to imperialist wars. Unlike some of their European sister parties, the U.S. Green Party has repeatedly mobilized its membership for every antiwar movement — a huge step, given the pro-imperialist history of many of the erstwhile socialist factions that had dominated the U.S. electoral Left for the last century.

3. The Communist-led unions enacting Green Bans were finally broken up when the government hired Maoist thugs in "alternative" unions to assassinate the leadership, with the support of the Australian government.

4. Mitchel Cohen, West Nile Story.

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