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Posts tagged Counter-economics

Countereconomics on the shopfloor

So lately I’ve been reading through a cache of syndicalist and autonomist booklets that I picked up a couple years ago from a NEFACker friend of mine who was soon to move out of Vegas. Partly for my own edutainment, but also because I am doing some prep work for possibly introducing a sort of Little Libertarian Labor Library to the ALL Distro.[1] Anyway, here’s a really interest passage I ran across in a booklet edition of Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers — a talk by the Detroit auto-worker and autonomist Marxist Martin Glaberman — on the difference between asking workers to vote on an issue and asking them to strike over it, taking as an example the internal conflicts over the union bosses’ no-strike pledge during World War II.

One of the things I want to start with, because it does provide a framework, and is not simply an event from the past, is something I did some work on a number of years ago about auto workers in the United States during World War II, the kinds of struggles that went on on the shop floor, within the union, between the workers and the government, a complex reality. What it revolved around was the struggle against the no-strike pledge in the UAW When the United States entered World War II, virtually all of America’s labor leaders graciously granted in the name of their members a pledge not to strike at all during the war.

In the first months of the war, the first year, there was an actual drop off in strikes. The end of 1941 through 1942 was a period that put a finish to the late thirties, the massive organizational drives, the sit-down strikes, the violence, all the things that created the big industrial unions. The job hadn’t been entirely done. Ford wasn’t organized until early 1941. Little Steel wasn’t organized, unionized, until the war was well under way, and so on.

Gradually, however, as the war went on, the number of strikes, (by definition all of them were wildcats, all of them were illegal under union contracts and under union constitutions) began to escalate until by the end of the war, the number of workers on strike exceeded anything in past American labor history. What was distinct about the UAW wasn’t just that the wildcat strikes were larger in number and more militant, but the fact that something took place which made it possible to make a certain kind of record. It was the only union in which, because there were still two competing caucuses, leaving rank and file workers a certain amount of democratic leeway to press for their point of view, an actual formal debate and vote took place on the question of the no-strike pledge.

A small, so-called rank and file, caucus was organized late in 1943 and early 1944, to begin a campaign around a number of issues, but the central issue was the repeal of the no-strike pledge. … So[2] they proceeded to have a referendum. This referendum was in some respects the classic sociological survey. Everyone got a postcard ballot. Errors, cheating, etc. were really kept to a minimum. Everyone on the commission thought that it was as fair as you get in an organization of a million or more members. It took several months to do. When the vote was finally in, the membership of the UAW had voted about two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge.

The conclusion any decent sociologist would draw is that autoworkers on the whole thought that patriotism was a little bit more important than class interests, that they supported the war rather than class struggle and strikes, etc. There was a little problem, however, and this is why this is such a fascinating historical experience. The problem was that at the very same time that the vote was going on, in which workers voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge, a majority of autoworkers struck ….

To visualize it is fairly simple: you’re not voting on the shop floor; you get this postcard, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, you’re listening to the radio news with the casualty reports from Europe and the Pacific and you think, yes, we really should have a no-strike pledge, we’ve got to support our boys. Then you go to work the next day and your machine breaks down and the foreman says, Don’t stand around, grab a broom and sweep up, and you tell him to go to hell because it’s not your job and the foreman says he’s going to give you time off and the next thing you know, the department walks out. … The reality is that in a war which was probably the most popular war that America took part in, workers in fact, if not in their minds or in theory, said that given the choice between supporting the war or supporting our interests and class struggle, we take class struggle.

–Martin Glaberman, Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers (1993?)

Glaberman puts this out as a distinction between what workers say in their minds or in theory and what they say or do in fact. I’m not sure that’s right — doesn’t the story about the foreman involve the workers’ mind and beliefs just as much as the story about the kitchen table? — but I think the most important thing here is Glaberman’s attention to the context at the point of decision, and how that shapes what kind of decision a worker thinks of herself as making. Not just the outcome of the choice, but really the topic, whether the worker is asked to make some kind of political choice about what she ought, in some general and detached sense, she ought to value (isn’t Patriotism important?), or she finds herself making an engaged, personal choice about what’s happening — what’s being done — to her and her fellow workers right now, on the margin. There is a lesson here for counter-economists.

Freedom is not something you vote on. It’s something you struggle for. And what’s far more important than trying to figure out how to get people to endorse the right ideology, or, worse, the least-bad set of policies and candidates to each other across the kitchen table, is figuring out how you and your neighbors can best cooperate with each other, practice solidarity and withdraw from maintaining and collaborating with the state. People who would never respond to a smaller-government candidate or a libertarian ideological pitch often will act very differently when you open up opportunities to support grassroots alternatives and withdraw from the day-to-day inhumanities of war taxes, regulations, police, prisons, borders, and the state-supported and state-supporting corporate capitalist economy. Meanwhile, those who talk all day about changing votes, and building parties to more effectively capture a few more votes here and there, and have nothing else to offer, are wasting time, resources, and organizing energy on efforts that are not merely futile, but in fact actively lethal to any hope of motivating and coordinating effective practical action.

See also:

  1. [1]The basic idea: L4 would encompass some of the material we already have (Chaplin’s General Strike, Carson’s Ethics of Labor Struggle) and a lot of new and classic material, with new titles published at regular intervals, all with the basic underlying goal of (1) providing some decent labor-oriented materials for ALL locals, and (2) providing a decent source (mostly, currently, lacking) for IWW local organizing committees and other radical labor efforts to find some decently produced, low-cost booklet-style materials for lit drops and outreach tables, beyond just the IW, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, and the relatively expensive books you can purchase through GHQ.
  2. [2][After an inconclusive floor debate in convention. –RG]

The Clean Water Act Vs. Clean Water

Market Anarchists probably haven’t written about the environment as much as we should. But not because we don’t have anything to say about it. When we do address environmental issues specifically, one of the things that I think market Anarchists have really contributed to the discussion are some key points about how ex ante environmental laws, intended to curb pollution and other forms of environmental damage, makes some superficial reforms, but at the expense of creating a legal framework for big polluters to immunize themselves from responsibility for the damage they continue to cause to people’s health and homes, or to the natural resources that people use from day to day;[1]. And, also, how legislative environmentalism in general tends to crowd out freed-market methods for punishing polluters and rewarding sustainable modes of production. For a perfect illustration of how legislative environmentalism is actively hurting environmental action, check out this short item in the Dispatches section of this month’s Atlantic. The story is about toxic mine runoff in Colorado, and describes how statist anti-pollution laws are stopping small, local environmental groups from actually taking direct, simple steps toward containing the lethal pollution that is constantly running into their communities’ rivers — and how big national environmental groups are lobbying hard to make sure that the smaller, grassroots environmental groups keep getting blocked by the Feds.

In the surrounding steep valleys, hundreds of defunct silver and gold mines pock the slopes with log-framed portals and piles of waste rock. When water flows over the exposed, mineral-laden rock in and around the mines, it dissolves zinc, cadmium, lead, and other metals. The contaminated water, sometimes becoming acidic enough to burn skin, then dumps into nearby streams. So-called acid mine drainage, most of it from abandoned boom-time relics, pollutes an estimated 12,000 miles of streams throughout the West—about 40 percent of western waterways.

Near Silverton, the problem became bad enough to galvanize landowners, miners, environmentalists, and local officials into a volunteer effort to address the drainage—work that has helped avert a federal Superfund designation and restore a gold-medal trout population downstream. With a few relatively simple and inexpensive fixes, such as concrete plugs for mine portals and artificial wetlands that absorb mine waste, the Silverton volunteers say they could further reduce the amount of acid mine drainage flowing into local rivers. In some cases, it would be simple enough just to go up there with a shovel and redirect the water, says William Simon, a former Berkeley ecology professor who has spent much of the past 15 years leading cleanup projects.

But as these volunteers prepare to tackle the main source of the pollution, the mines themselves, they face an unexpected obstacle—the Clean Water Act. Under federal law, anyone wanting to clean up water flowing from a hard-rock > mine must bring it up to the act's stringent water-quality standards and take responsibility for containing the pollution—forever. Would-be do-gooders become the legal operators of abandoned mines like those near Silverton, and therefore liable for their condition.

— Michelle Nijhuis, The Atlantic (May 2010): Shafted

Under anything resembling principles of justice, people ought to be held responsible for the damage they cause, not for the problems that remain after they try to repair damage caused by somebody else, now long gone. But the basic problem with the Clean Water Act, like all statist environmental regulations, is that it isn’t about standards of justice; it’s about compliance with regulatory standards, and from the standpoint of an environmental regulator the important thing is (1) that government has to be able to single out somebody or some group to pigeonhole as the People In Charge of the site; and (2) whoever gets tagged as taking charge of the site, therefore, gets put on the hook for meeting the predetermined standards, or for facing the predetermined penalties, no matter what the facts of the particular case and no matter the fact that they didn’t do anything to cause the existing damage.[2]

The obvious response to this should be to repeal the clause of the Clean Water Act which creates this insane condition, and leave the people with a stake in the community free to take positive action. Unfortunately, the best that government legislators can think of is to pass a new law to legalize it–i.e., to create yet another damn bureaucratic permit, so that shoestring-budget community groups can spend all their time filling out paperwork and reporting back to the EPA instead. Meanwhile, the State of the Debate being what it is, even this weak, hyperbureaucratic solution is being opposed by the lobbying arms of several national environmental groups:

In mid-October, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado introduced a bill that would allow such "good Samaritans" to obtain, under the Clean Water Act, special mine-cleanup permits that would protect them from some liability. Previous good-Samaritan bills have met opposition from national environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and even the American Bird Conservancy, for whom any weakening of Clean Water Act standards is anathema. Although Udall's bill is narrower in scope than past proposals, some environmental groups still say the abandoned-mine problem should instead be solved with additional regulation of the mining industry and more federal money for cleanup projects. If you support cleaning up the environment, why would you support cleaning up something halfway? asks Natalie Roy, executive director of the Clean Water Network, a coalition of more than 1,250 environmental and other public-interest groups. It makes no sense.

— Michelle Nijhuis, The Atlantic (May 2010): Shafted

All of which perfectly illustrates two of the points that I keep trying to make about Anarchy and practicality. Statists constantly tell us that, nice as airy-fairy Anarchist theory may be, we have to deal with the real world. But down in the real world, walloping on the tar baby of electoral politics constantly gets big Progressive lobbying groups stuck in ridiculous fights that elevate procedural details and purely symbolic victories above the practical success of the goals the politicking was supposedly for — to hell with clean water in Silverton, Colorado, when there’s a federal Clean Water Act to be saved! And, secondly, how governmental politics systematically destroys any opportunity for progress on the margin — where positive direct action by people in the community could save a river from lethal toxins tomorrow, if government would just get its guns out of their faces, government action takes years to pass, years to implement, and never addresses anything until it’s just about ready to address everything. Thus Executive Director Natalie Roy, on behalf of More Than 1,250 Environmental And Other Public-Interest Groups, is explicitly baffled by the notion that the people who live by these rivers might not have time to hold out for the decisive blow in winning some all-or-nothing struggle in the national legislature.

The near-term prospects of Udall’s half-hearted legalization bill don’t look good. The conclusion from the Atlantic is despair:

Just a few miles from Silverton, in an icy valley creased with avalanche chutes, groundwater burbles out of the long-abandoned Red and Bonita gold mine. Loaded with aluminum, cadmium, and lead, it pours downhill, at 300 gallons a minute, into an alpine stream. The Silverton volunteers aren't expecting a federal windfall anytime soon—even Superfund-designated mine sites have waited years for cleanup funding, and Udall's bill has been held up in a Senate committee since last fall. Without a good-Samaritan provision to protect them from liability, they have few choices but to watch the Red and Bonita, and the rest of their local mines, continue to drain.

— Michelle Nijhuis, The Atlantic (May 2010): Shafted

(Illustration by Mark Jeffries.)

But I think if you realize that the problem is built in, structurally, to electoral politics, the response doesn’t need to be despair. It can be motivation. Instead of sitting around watching their rivers die and waiting for Senator Mark Udall Of Colorado to pass a bill to legalize their direct action, what I’d suggest is that the local environmental groups in Colorado stop caring so much about what’s legal and what’s illegal, consider some countereconomic, direct action alternatives to governmental politics, and perform some Guerrilla Public Service.

I mean, look, if there are places where it would be simple enough just to go up there with a shovel and redirect the water, then wait until nightfall, get yourself a shovel and go up there. Take a flashlight. And some bolt-cutters, if you need them. Cement plugs no doubt take more time, but you’d be surprised what a dedicated crew can accomplish in a few hours, or a few nights running. If you do it yourself, without identifying yourself and without asking for permission, the EPA doesn’t need to know about it and the Clean Water Act can’t do anything to punish you for your halfway clean-up.

The Colorado rivers don’t need political parties, permits, or Public-Interest Groups. What they need is some good honest outlaws, and some Black-and-Green Market entrepreneurship.

See also:

  1. [1]See, for example, Kevin Carson’s Monbiot: One Step Back and Fred Foldvary on Green Taxes, or my brief comments over at Alas, A Blog
  2. [2]Ex ante regulation, by definition, isn’t about looking at particular cases, and it isn’t about looking back to who caused what; it’s about identifying, licensing, controlling, and penalizing agents according to the situation right now. That sounds all progressive and forward-looking and practical, until you realize that the direct effect is to make sure that nobody who gives a damn about their community is able to afford to take responsibility for dealing with preexisting damage; all kinds of positive action get burned out, and all that’s left are cash-strapped, overworked government programs, which can proceed because government has made up the doctrine of sovereign immunity in order to protect its own enterprises from being held legally responsible for anything.

Monday Lazy Linking

Against legalization (cont’d)

Here’s an O.K. video featuring Hernando de Soto, on shantytowns and the global countereconomy:

I say that the video is just O.K. because it’s a good introduction to the situation (which is important and interesting, and which de Soto has done a lot of really fascinating work on), but it flounders around with some weak reformist platitudes when it comes to figuring out what to make of the situation, and where to go from it. In the presence of a massive exercise of countereconomic industry and ingenuity, De Soto rightly sees that government paper mazes and the government force which back them up have constrained extralegal workers — marginalizing their livelihoods, burning out their homes and property, and excluding them from access to sustaining and stabilizing resources like capital, credit, and reliable arbitration of disputes. Extralegal workers have responded by creating their own parallel cities and institutions through which they can produce non-statist alternatives — proudly unauthorized homes, neighborhoods, cities, informal microcredit, contracts, and ad hoc private mediation. It has allowed the poorest and most marginalized and exploited people in the world to build thriving parallel metropolises up from nothing, sometimes numbering in the millions of people, through their own labor and creativity out of little more than cardboard and scrap wood.

That’s awesome. (It’s awesome because people are awesome.) Faced with indifferent or hostile governments and exploitative plutocrats, workers respond with all kinds of hustle and creativity to make a living for themselves anyway beyond the sight or the control of state authorization. De Soto, seeing all this, is right to think it’s awesome — but then he can’t think of anything better to say or do about it than to suggest that we should reward them by straightening out and simplifying the government paper so that what they do can be incorporated into the straight economy and they can all get government paper just like the rest of us. If people’s livelihoods are extralegal, then the idea is that we should legalize them, so that they can be folded, stamped, taxed, and regulated just like the rest of us — because (we are told) we need them as much as they need us.

If you’re wondering about all those scare-quotes, they’re there because the we in de Soto’s sentence doesn’t really mean us. It’s a false we, the statist we, which people in the legally-regulated straight economy all too often use to grab at an illusion of control, and thus to identify themselves with their own oppressors. One result of which is dull reformist proposals, which have nothing better than legalization to propose as a solution to the problems that arise from living outside the government law.

It’s not just that legalization campaigns mostly don’t work.[1] And it’s not just that their end results will inevitably be to sink millions more people into a slightly-liberalized version of the same exploitative government-corporate bureau-economy that legalized workers are already sunk into.[2] The real problem here is that legalization is just plain boring, and lazy, as a recommendation. It’s always supposedly motivated by a concern for practicality — but practically speaking, what illegalized people need is not to get good and legalized like everyone else. What they need is not government recognition, it’s social solidarity and minimal security. Specifically, security against the threat of government violence against those who don’t have official papers. And there are two ways to try and get that. One way is to try to get everybody papers. The other way is to make it so that you don’t need papers to live your life.

The first approach — the out of the shadows sort of approach — treats poor people as if what they’ve built for themselves isn’t good enough, as if they need to be admitted to the legally-authorized official economy in order for what they do to matter. The second approach says that what poor people have built is not just some half-real shadow economy, but a real social achievement worth defending. De Soto has it exactly wrong: the regulated economy depends on black markets and spontaneous economies to keep from imploding under its own bureaucratic weight. But the countereconomy doesn’t need the regulated economy at all. Or, more to the point, it doesn’t need the regulators.

Instead of protecting people’s homes and livelihoods with government paper, they can be protected by organized people, We need new techniques, new institutions, and new social relationships that will ultimately help us to insure against, to evade, to undermine, to resist, and ultimately to disarm government coercion when it comes for our homes or our jobs. Barn-raising instead of bank credit to build unlicensed homes, and social solidarity and people-powered blockades to protect them from government demolitions. Tools for confidential exchanges, underground communication, and mediation outside of political courts. Networks for wildcat strikes and boycotts and shop floor actions to resolve labor disputes rather than bureaucratic arbitration. Solidarity and safety can really mean anything your awesomeness can devise; but it sure doesn’t need to mean more government paper. We don’t need their stinking legality. What we need is a consensual alternative.

There ain’t nothing wrong with illegality that can’t be fixed with more extralegal grassroots social organization.

Don’t legalize; organize.

[1] Although, of course, they mostly don’t. Governments have little reason to change their procedures to suit the needs of people who are already politically marginalized.

[2] Although, of course, it will. Governments that legalize never actually leave people free; they just loosen some of the constraints here and there as a means of getting as many people as possible into the constraints that remain. Government can often exercise much more control over licensees than it can over simple outlaws.

See also:

Welcome, FreeTalkers

For those of you who have been around here for a while, you may be interested to know that I recorded a brief interview this afternoon on agorism and electoral politics with Mark Edge from FreeTalkLive. The interview will be attached to the end of the podcast, which I’m told will be available late tonight. Due to time constraints on the interview, there’s a fair amount that I got the chance to mention but didn’t allow myself the time to follow up on; if there’s anything that you want to hash out at greater length, please do drop it in the comments and let’s talk.

Update 2009-10-09. [An MP3 of the 2009-10-07 show, with my interview included, is now available for download](http://media.libsyn.com/media/ftl/FTL2009-10-07.mp3).)

For those of you who found out about me, or about agorism, or about this website, through the interview, or the show notes, welcome! Let me take a moment to introduce myself. I’m Charles Johnson, also known as Rad Geek. I’m an individualist anarchist, originally from Alabama, now living and working in Las Vegas. I am a member of the Southern Nevada Alliance of the Libertarian Left, maintainer of several anti-statist web projects, and an occasional writer for The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. If you’re new to the blog, or to agorism and individualist anarchism as a set of ideas, here’s some things which might give you some idea of where I’m coming from, and what I care about.

For an extended treatment of agorism, counter-economics, and what it’s all about — including its positive aspects, above and beyond its critique of electoral politics, you may want to check out this interview I recorded with Jason Talley of the Motorhome Diaries back in May:

For an in-depth discussion of counter-economics and direct action, and of the inherent limitations of electoral politics, see:

Among agorists, I’m a bit unusual in the extent to which I stress counter-economic that are either already-existing projects of, or else inspired by the historical examples of, and tied to goals traditionally associated with, the anti-authoritarian Left — including, notably, anti-statist radical labor unions, grey-market mutual aid networks like Food Not Bombs or LETS and other localized trading networks, black-market mutual aid networks like the Jane abortion network, existing feminist projects like the battered women’s shelter and rape crisis center movement, and existing social anarchist projects like CopWatch and the Anarchist Black Cross Federation. For some discussions of why, see:

If you’re curious, I discuss my views on why I think that some more familiar forms of libertarian political strategy — such as voting for Ron Paul, or running nominally libertarian candidates for government office, or trying to lobby the state to act less statist, or trying to vindicate some less-statist reading of the United States Constitution in the courts, or indeed spending any considerable effort on teaming up in an ongoing, open-ended political party with minimal-statists — are at best futile, and often actively destructive of serious politics, at some length in:

And since the topic of Ron Paul, specifically, came up, and since, out of concern for time, I stated my views but did not spend long on elaborating them — and since, while we’re here, the miserable failure of Ron Paul’s single-digit primary showing is currently the show pony for the awesome potential of libertarian electoralism — it may be worth pointing to some more detailed discussion of what my problems with the Pauliticos are, or were:

I suppose I could also discuss the even more miserable miserable failure of the Libertarian Party, and particularly of its recent strategy of mercilessly pruning away anything resembling libertarianism from the platform in order to advance the prospects for failed candidacies by ridiculous conservative tools, as in the recent Barr/W.A.R. ticket. But really, I am at the point where I think that kind of thing is really beneath comment. The Pauliticos may be wrong, but they have the benefit of being comprehensible. Not so, at this late date, those who still believe that serious political transformation is going to come about by means of the supporting LP.

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