Uses of a Whirlwind

Where are the pitchforks and torches? That’s the number one question on all of our minds 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 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 (AK Press: Oakland, 2010, 400 pp.) 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.

Contributor 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 perceptions. This search for possible signs of working class re-composition which have the power to rupture the accumulation of profits is no easy task. 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 US 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. “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 recomposition.”

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 (Microcosm Publishing: San Francisco, 2010, 102 pp.). 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 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.


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