DEBT AND/OR WAGES: ORGANIZING CHALLENGES

The following piece by George Caffentzis in the current issue of Tidal #4 (“Occupy Theory / Occupy Strategy”) is the first I’ve seen that examines the different forms of organization that a Debtors’ movement requires as opposed to a movement around wages (or trade unions).

As such, this is a very important document (which ends much too abruptly; probably poor editing involved by the Tidal staff).

I have written not quite a “response”, but further thoughts built on George’s article, which I include below, as well as several comments on it.

by GEORGE CAFFENTZIS

I work as a university teacher and most workers’ organizations I have been involved with (and studied) have struggled around wages and working conditions on the job. For example, my union (Associated Faculties of the University of Southern Maine) is now on a “work to rule” action over a wage dispute. But with my involvement with Strike Debt, however, I am now in a debtors’ organization. This is a new experience for me and for many others in Strike Debt. I thought that it would be helpful to sketch out quite schematically some of the many dissimilarities between the sphere of debt and that of wage struggles.

First, consider the ideological dimensions of wages and debt. Wages are supposed to be a “fair exchange” between the worker and the boss; the worker works for the boss for the agreed upon time, and s/he receives a fair monetary recompense. But in actual fact the value created by workers is far greater than their monetary wage; there is nothing “fair” about the “exchange,” which proceeds anyway because workers are propertyless and need to sell their labor power, or they starve. This asymmetry between boss and worker is not total, for the workers often refuse work in a thousand and one ways (going on strike, sabotaging production, “malingering,” etc).

Debt also has its ideological character. It, too, is supposed to be a “fair exchange,” between creditor and debtor. But in actual fact the creditor gains an interest payment (often many times the principal) and in so doing receives a return for the risk incurred. Refusal to pay back the loan plus interest is considered to be immoral and unfair. The debtor is made to feel ashamed, even to have committed a secular sin. Yet, increasingly, household debt (or “use value” debt, which is used to purchase commodities meant to satisfy needs and desires) is incurred in order to meet bask conditions for the reproduction of life (food, housing, education, health).

Second, there is a profound difference in the temporal order in relation to money between wages and debt. In most cases, the work comes before the boss pays the worker his/her monetary wage. In a way, then, the employer is indebted to the worker until the payment of wages. Indeed, there are cases when the boss refuses to pay wages after the work is done (especially when the worker is undocumented or when the worker is part of the “underground” economy).

In the realm of “use-value” debt, the temporal order is reversed. The debtor receives the money before s/he performs the work needed to earn a wage large enough to pay back the debt principal and interest. The creditor is temporarily vulnerable to the debtor and so the creditor class has developed a whole battery of painful, terrorizing instruments throughout history — tortures, enslavement, servitude, eviction, repossession, foreclosure, psychic torments — in order to guard against the debtor using the social surplus implicit in debt, without repaying it to the creditor. For the existence of loanable wealth implies that there is more wealth available than is needed to simply reproduce the society. The instruments of torture are meant to “remind” the debtor of the obligation to repay the debt. But there is another function to these instruments: to repress the deep (almost innate) conviction that, in an equitable communal society, those in trouble have the right to tap the social surplus.

Third, there is a logical structure to debt and wages that leads to organizational challenges. Wages are in their nature collective. As a waged worker, one is inevitably thrown into the same work condition as other workers and, for all of their differences — race, gender, skill, etc. — there are commonalities: (1) the capital-labor conflict that leads to collective action and organization (or, at least, it must be continually repressed), and (2) the workplace cooperation required for any real work to be accomplished. Together, these commonalities are the foundation of collective wage struggle.

Debt, on the other hand, tends to be individualizing and alienating. Debtors do not necessarily know each other unless they reveal their condition to one another, and they are often too ashamed or guilty to do so. It is therefore necessary, when organizing around debt, to bring the identity of the debtor to the surface and create the collectivity that is continually being repressed and decomposed by the creditor class.

Finally, there is a difference between the revolutionary model events associated with wages and debt. For wages, it is the indefinite general strike, ie. the total, “infinite” refusal to work for the capitalist class. A general strike has revolutionary implications, but it need not have revolutionary consequences. it can lead to the granting of a specific set of reforms in the class relation that makes the system viable for another period.

For debt, the model event is the debt jubilee, i.e., the total cancellation of all debt achieved either by legal change (de jure) or by a total debt strike (de facto). The jubilee can have revolutionary implications, but it too need not have revolutionary consequences. There have been debt jubilees that have simply led to some reforms, only to have the machine of exploitation start anew.

I have presented four differences between debt and wages that have consequences for the organization of a debtors’ movement. There are many others that I have not mentioned. This is an area of class struggle that needs study and attention, for we cannot use the same tactics and strategies developed over centuries of trade union organizing in the struggle around debt.

There are, however, disturbing commonalities between wage and debt struggles. The most salient one being the way in which racial, ethnic, skill, employment, and gender differences are manipulated into divisions among workers and debtors. Just as white workers have historically earned higher wages and have had half the unemployment rate of black workers, so, too, white debtors have received quite different treatment in the hands of the credit system than have black debtors.

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THOSE NOT BUSY BEING BORN ARE BUSY DYING: Comments on George Caffentzis’ article

BY MITCHEL COHEN

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).

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 arent 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 were 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.

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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 mitchelcohen@mindspring.com.

NOTES

1. See the website IEFD.org, 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.

 

10 Responses

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  • LAURA COSTAS says:

    The all-American mortgage is one of the biggest scams of all, hidden in plain sight.  Home “ownership” is considered one of the signals of prosperity, of having “arrived” amid the middle class in this country.  We’re all so proud of ourselves for winning the privilege of paying the bank several times the market value of the house.  Moreover, we pay all the interest up front!  And we pay both money and time to maintain and improve the bank’s property!  Finally, this arrangement is explained as a benefit to the mortgagee because we get a few dollars off our income tax liability at the end of every year.  The system takes $600 from you, then gives you back $60 and expects you to be grateful.  

    It’s a form of servitude that isn’t recognized as such.  How great would it be if people had the demystified view of home owner/indebtorship?

    Caffentizis in the 5th graph talks about repression of “the conviction that, in an equitable communal society, those in trouble have a right to tap the social surplus.”  Well, I’d go farther.  Why do you need to be in trouble to share that surplus?  You created it!

    Caffentzis is right about shame–how many people have toiled their lives away in service to the bank, to their mortgage?  The options are martyrdom or shame, and just like we love the human sacrifice of war heroes, we justify just about any sacrifice in the worship of work.  

    I’m not sure I’d use US trade unions as a model for struggle.  Even if the origins of unions in this country had been “pure,” they didn’t stay that way for very long and we can’t afford nostalgia.  They have a history of giving away the store, and W.E.B. DuBois demonstrates very clearly in his book on Reconstruction that many have the same history of racial division as the rest of the capitalist society.  Before approaching US trade unions as a model I suggest we reflect on all the unpaid labor that created the capitalist structures in the first place–Africans and women especially.

    Perhaps the nostalgia surrounding labor in general is due for re-examination.  As long as we’re about the business of reinventing the world, can we get to a celebration of life rather than of work? 

    On the lighter side, here’s a link to a video by a French (I think) artist named Wax Tailor, featuring Charlie Winston.  Your basic pop tune, English lyrics, lovely images, same theme.  
    “I Own You”   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYsEo4TTTtM

  • MARK RAUSHER says:

    Mitch, I’ve only begun to read this, but I’d like to add this: consumption (and particularly the over-consumption and unnecessary purchases which lead directly to debt) are not natural; they are driven by advertising and other cultural promotion which links power and prestige to our unnatural (and historically unprecedented) conspicuous consumption and hoarding. Breaking the links to these would bring people back to a sane relationship to the things they need, and leave production (and natural resources) to fill the needs of others.

    Thanks, keep up the good work–

  • MALAV KANUGA says:

    Thanks, Mitch! I added a post on our Common Notions page:
    http://commonnotions.org/category/blog/

  • LAURA COSTAS says:

    Love it, Mitchel, well done. What if, indeed! Call the riot squad–someone is treating a patient, lending books, putting out a fire, caring for children!!

    I recall reading a story on an anarchist blog about an oil spill off the Marin county shoreline. Immediately, ordinary people streamed to the shore to begin cleaning up–and sure enough a day later the cops cordoned off the area and wouldn’t let them continue.

  • ALANNA HARTZOK says:

    Mitch – wonderful discussion! The social surplus is also understood to be “rent” and rightfully belongs to society as a whole but ever since the Enclosures was privatized and loaned out at interest to those who were made landless by force. The “commons rent” should be collected into a social fund and loans made interest free especially for basic necessities like housing. Any interest charged out of a fund created in this manner would go right back to society/community. Voila! Major cause of gross wealth inequality solved, thus providing a power platform for workers to OWN productive capital through cooperatives formation.

  • HARRY TARG says:

    This is in the spirit of the workers of Argentina and the landless movement in Brazil. For me politics matters as well but occupations constitute important tactics where there is support.

  • GEORGE CAFFENTZIS says:

    Dear Mitchel,
    Thanks so much for your interest in the piece on debt and wages. I should point out that Marx points out that the surface language of capitalism continually confuses and mis-directs the intelligence of the working class (and, many times, of capitalists themselves). A good example is the word “debt.” There are two connotations of “debt” that are quite opposed, but at the same time are often found together: “profit debt’ (i.e., the debt you incur when borrowing money in order to make money) and “use-value debt” (i.e., the debt you incur when borrowing money in order enjoy a use-value). Capitalists are supposed to be “profit debtors” while proletarians are supposed to be “use-value debtors.” And they often are, but the correlation is not precise. Sometimes, capitalists also borrow in order to enjoy use-values while proles also borrow in order to make some money. This overlapping makes debt politics a bit different from wage politics, even though, of course the categories of “worker” and “consumer” are used for obfuscating purpose, as you point out. A good example of this problem in debt organizing is the role of “small business” men and women. They often come to the fore of such movements, but they are driven by conflicting class intentions. They are often against particular forms of debt, but not against the debt system as a whole. There is a lot to say and comment on in the contrasts (as well as commonalities) between debt and wages. Let’s continue down the path sowing questions.
    Be well,
    George

  • PETROS EVDOKAS says:

    All in all it’s a very good piece. Below I noted some themes that need exploring, rethinking, correcting.

    Many of the other items and elements of the piece that I will not comment on here are very well said AND are very true and useful!

    Here goes.

    You wrote:

    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.

    Absolutely true. But it is significant in a different way than you point out.

    Our role as consumers, which in some perverse way is the inverse of our class identity as producers, is the necessary existential answer that capitalism provides to its workers. Capital steals the products of our collective labour at the point of production. It transports them to points of distribution (markets) where WE HAVE TO PAY to get back what we created.

    In the act of creation, especially through our collective labour, we as a class experience both the grandness and the terrible loss of what we create as core parameters of our being. “What we do” (our work) is a humongous part of our identity. It’s not a coincidence that people ask “what do you do?” as a way to find out WHO you are. But this way of existential definition has a gaping hole in it: we are alienated from the product of our work, and the only way to feel whole again (to whatever pathetic degree the system will allow) is to engage in … shopping.

    It’s not a coincidence that the phrase “shopping therapy” is a way to satyrize our modern consumer culture.

    The need to buy stuff goes MUCH BEYOND the need for survival necessities such as food, shelter, clothes, etc, all of which have use value for us. In fact, as soon as a person has even a few of those needs covered, they will immediately set upon “becoming actualized” by procuring fancy merchandise. The act of buying is hardly ever any more a way to fulfill one’s survival needs, except in areas where only a very primitive form
    of capitalism dominates. Or to put it differently, the domination of the commodity culture over our hearts and minds has shifted our ability to rank our priorities: most people will strive to buy a fancy cellphone (now an i-phone) rather than buy healthy food. They’d rather eat shit that will kill them rather than remain ALIENATED, removed, from the wonderful fruits of our collective labour that confront us as entities separated from us at the display window of a store or featured in an advertisement.

    People buy in order to try and heal the existentially traumatic effect of the robbery they experience at the point of production, where what we make — which determines to a great degree “who we are” — is stolen from us. People become consumers in order to try and become whole again. In vain, of course (not the artery, but the vein) because the merchandise (commodities) created and sold by capitalism are like heroin: you can never get a permanent satisfaction and must buy again soon. Socialism, and especially a regime of Direct Democracy over community-owned means of production, is a cure from all this.

    Our job is to show that [our roles as consumers (debtors) and workers (wages)] are really two artificially separated moments of the same historical force…

    Why is this our job? Later on (below) you manifest the way of thinking that leads to the above statement, but still, there is no reason apparent to me why we must shoulder this mission to “show” this to anyone. When has showing this to people ever led to a radical epiphany or a revolutionary moment, or better forms of organizing?

    Below you wrote:

    “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.”

    I don’t think that this is true. It’s true that a false separation exists, but it is not what has locked us into an untenable situation. More on this below.

    “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….”

    I don’t see any evidence that THIS is what keeps the working class (in the US, the people) from taking appropriate action. On the contrary, there are other factors that are proven to be a lot more potent obstacles to appropriate action: racism, sexism, homophobia, identification with illegitimate authority, to name a few. More about this below.

    “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.”

    There is no doubt that Nader’s approach was a sickening glorification of modern capitalist ideology at its worst: the attempt to elevate consumer fetishism to a “political ideal”. Like the cleaning product “Comet”; it makes me vomit.

    “We need to create new organizational forms that go beyond the traditional trade union, consumer advocacy /and/ political party models…”

    That, we do need.

    “…all of which accept that duality to one degree or another.”

    But not because of this reason.

    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.

    Yes, very good. Though we need to say more about the “radical organization of-a-new-type”. The criterion you delineate above is not enough.

    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.

    Yes, Direct Action conceived this way is the correct way to go, even if the way you articulate it comes out of positing a wrong theoretical problem. Your solution is the correct one, even if the identification of the problem is wrong.

    *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.

    Yes, and in process of doing so, the mobilized community experiences a transcendence of the false duality between producer and consumer and becomes directly both.

    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.

    This is wrong. Partly because there’s no credible evidence to back it up (if there is, what is it?), and partly because other, better theoretical formulations explain much better what has “locked us into an increasingly untenable situation, and renders us controllable and impotent.”

    In summary:

    1. The advent of the Orgonomic (Reichian) branch of marxism (scientific socialism) has thoroughly explored and explained the role of AUTHORITARIANISM as a tremendous social, personal, biological and psychological political force that “renders us controllable and impotent.” It has shown the mechanisms through which the dual power of the State and Capital is embedded, imprinted and reproduced within the continuum of our psyche and our biology and acts as a TANGIBLE force, a force measurable with electrical devices and observable with simple psychological interviews, that acts to distort our political behaviour as individual and collective actors (or abstainers) from the historical process in ways that serve the ruling class.

    2. The advent of the Situationist view on the evolution of the Society of the Spectacle explains almost fully how and why our modern consumerist society operates more like the Circus part of the “Bread and Circus” formula, and less like the Bread part. And it explains why there are tremendous numbers of people who instead of drinking water prefer to buy and drink ONLY Coca Cola.

    One needs to combine the findings of Orgonomy with the findings of the Situationists to see the full picture:
    authoritarian capitalism has traumatized us in many ways, but one particular way in which it did so has resulted in a tremendous amount of sexual energy (vitality) that’s accumulated and stagnated within the Ocular segment of the bodymind, that is the visual and mental areas and organs of “modern” humanity, rendering us into zombies addicted to merchandise porn. We are literally fixated by this trapped sexual energy to trying to live our lives in accordance with the images (the Spectacle) of merchandise and commodities that are embedded everywhere in the social-physical environment that surrounds us. “I will not rest until I can get a hold of that couch and SEE MYSELf just like in the picture of that ad.” It rules our lives.

    The Spectacle has become the pathway through which we attempt to regain what has been stolen from our identity as producers. Being “merely” consumers of items that have use value is not only inadequate; it is REJECTED by most working people! People want to “get themselves in the picture”, and therefore will strive at any cost and sacrifice to get the merchandise that the Spectacle promises best to give them some relief from the existential trauma they experience from the robbery of our collectively produced goods at the point of production.

    The two theoretical frameworks I delineated above explain a lot better why Direct Action and Direct Democracy — in the spirit you so brilliantly present here — are medicine for our problems. Whereas your explanation phrased as:

    “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”, I think is inadequate.

    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.

    Well, here it is again, the “new organizational formations”, or “radical organization of-a-new-type” you mentioned earlier.

    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.

    Yes, the above paragraph and the one below are excellent ways to articulate it.

    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.

    One element that is lacking from contemporary revolutionary theory and praxis is a set of guidelines that allow us to know when and where to “invest” heavily our organizational efforts in order for Direct Action and Direct Democracy to have the effects we want, especially in the sense of (as you wrote) becoming “bases — liberated zones — from which to launch further sorties against the system”.

    Up until the nineteen eighties there were three theories with guiding principles for how to devise revolutionary strategy in that respect.

    I’ll go into those three a few paragraphs below. But first I look at your guidelines for it, here:

    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.

    Up until the last sentence, everything you wrote is perfect. Except at the last sentence where I’d say if you were in a good mood and if this were someone else’s writing you would probably see that there’s an inversion of Cause and Effect. The path of Direct Action / Direct Democracy, due to the nature of the degeneracy or deficiency built into capitalism and how those affect us in ways that, among other things, create the false dualism between producers and consumer, has an inherent healing power to render that false dualism null. Socialism, is after all a large aspirin (the size of the Sun) capable of healing all of that.

    But it’s one thing to experience the neutralization of the false dualism through the path of Zen Marxism (Direct Action / Direct Democracy) and a totally different thing to say that “The more successfully [the communities of resistance and nurturance] see wage-workers and debtors as two sides to the same coin, the more powerful our chances of saving ourselves”. In fact the truth is the exact opposite. In your phrase there’s an inversion of Cause and Effect.

    Our communities of resistance and nurturance do not need to “see succefully” that “wage-workers and debtors as two sides to the same coin” in order to make “more powerful our chances of saving ourselves”. The exact opposite takes place. The experiences of Direct Democracy and Direct Action that are embedded within the revolutionary communities as applied to the specific conditions of the struggle (creation of free clinics; occupation of an empty shopping mall to create youth centers; squatting land or buildings and converting them to people’s needs, whatever the projects might be), those experiences by themselves are inherently capable of restoring the false dualism back to a unity.

    Neither the individual nor the community need to “see successfully” the false dualism in order to transcend it through struggle. The experiences within the community of resistance and nurturance are enough for that to happen.

    The way you phrase it — “puts Descartes before the horse”, you might have said on another day — violates the principle of logic by inverting Cause and Effect:

    People (both collectively and individually) reap the healing benefits of Direct Action and Direct Democracy regardless of whether they could “see successfully” the false dichotomy ahead of time. Transcendence of the false dichotomy is an Effect of revolutionary processes, not a Cause.

    But written up with a reversal of Cause and Effect, the concept misleads us into thinking that it might serve as a set of guidelines telling revolutionary strategists when and where to invest that type of revolutionary activity. Whereas the three theories I mentioned above that are specifically intended to help us make those choices, utilize a type of thought that is of an entirely different order. In summary, those three theories are:

    1. Lenin’s theory of the “weakest link”
    Essentially it presents the Empire as a system of links in a chain. The metaphor is usually applied to thinking of countries as the links, but large areas that are not formally countries might qualify for it as well.

    Due to the uneven development of global capitalism, some links in the chain are stronger than others, and the pressures and forces applied between the links are also uneven; some are strong, some are weak. When a sufficiently strong force runs through the chain (for example a world war, or a global crisis) some links break. The break in the link offers an opportunity (NOT a guarantee) that revolutionary conditions might break out. If a revolutionary organization is positioned well in time and place, and has the support of a large section of the people (or at least the people will not oppose it), then it can effect (catalyze) revolutionary change that involves a seizure of power BY the communities of resistance and nurturance.

    2. Che Guevara and Fidel’s theory of “foco”
    Che and Fidel extended this form of thinking to examining the play of powers within a country. They also recognized the uneven development of capitalism and especially the fact that due to it, a tremendous difference arises between countryside and urban areas. The Capitalist State has near absolute control in the urban areas whereas the system’s development “leaves behind” large areas of the countryside, especially mountainous or desert areas (eg. the Andes, or the Moroccan desert). The people there are nominally under the system but do not really participate in it. In those areas there is a vacuum of power, and a vacuum of political economy. In those areas, a revolutionary community or resistance and nurturance can take root, become embraced by the people, and if conditions are right, become a base from which to lure the entire country into a revolutionary change.

    3. The theory that the Yippies named the “Soft Revolution” strategy from the late seventies (well articulated in their book titled “Secret History of the “70s”) which also emerged independently in the nineteen eighties from the mostly anarchist squatter movement in the West (esp. in Western Europe and N. America).
    According to this theory, after Che’s “foco” theory and due to the accelerated development of the system in the “advanced” countries, both revolutionaries and reactionaries in the nineteen sixties realized that the the core of the urban areas in the West (the dilapidated urban centers and the ethnic/racial ghettos within the cities), were very good candidates for “foco” activities, resulting on the one hand in uprisings and revolutionary movements best exemplified by the Black Panthers, and on the other hand by a totalitarian military occupation of those urban regions and communities by soldiers of the system dressed up as Police, replete with tactical units, tanks, and heavy weapons making the revolutionary project impossible.

    So the “Soft revolution” strategy was based upon the realization that urban centers contain vast areas and communities that are within a political vacuum (high unemployment, abandoned buildings, populations either ignored by the system or violently oppressed by it), fulfilling the conditions of a “foco”, but where the conditions are not ripe for the revolution to go out into full scale conflict with the regime. Hence a strategy of occupations, takeovers, a steady instituting of communities of resistance and nurturance founded on Direct Action and Direct Democracy and “biding time” until this can be done in a larger scale.

    As you can see, the type of thinking that went into the three theories above is of a different order than what you propose. In essence you propose that if revolutionary strategists can “see succefully” that “wage-workers and debtors as two sides to the same coin” then this will make “more powerful our chances of saving ourselves” through Direct Action and Direct Democracy. But it essentially leaves the question of when and where to apply such activity and organizational effort unanswered, and reduces it to an act of awareness by the strategists. When they “see successfully” that “wage-workers and debtors as two sides to the same coin” this will somehow lead to correct choices for our campaigns, and also will heal the false dualism (producer-consumer) that the system embeds in us.

    There’s a great value in what you wrote above, except, in that last sentence.

    One last unfinished comment

    In my commentary here I wrote that you correctly argued that we need “new organizational formations”, or “radical organization of-a-new-type”. I also wrote that the criterion you delineate for it is not enough. Your phrase for it was

    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.

    I think that it’s certainly a useful attribute to have but that it not at all sufficient, nor is it explicitly a revolutionary quality. In other words an organization possessing that quality is not necessarily revolutionary.

    “What is?” you might ask. I would save more comments on that for later, if there’s interest in this dialogue.

    Thanks,
    Petros

    • MITCHEL COHEN says:

      I agree with the thrust of what Petros writes, and most of his specific points. Extremely articulate and perceptive. Thank you!

      However, remember, please, that I was not writing here a treatise on capitalist marketing, the social-psychology involved in “shopping”, a comparative study of the importance of this dichotomy when compared with many others, nor of alienation as an objective condition in advanced capitalism. Those are all legitimate and interesting jump-off points, but they were not what I was writing about (I’ve done so elsewhere, extensively).

      The context in which I was writing was George Caffentzis’ discussion of, in his view, the different and somewhat contradictory strategies for organizing a debt-strike movement vs. one around wage issues, and the underlying theory for that separation. Of course I don’t think that that “split” is the end-all and be-all of why revolutionary movements are in the shape that they’re in nor for understanding our tasks in terms of the larger picture; Petros is right to point out that there are “many other factors that are proven to be a lot more potent obstacles to appropriate action.”

      Well, yes (of course!) but also no.

      One could say the same for any of a dozen or so “false dualities” that capitalism and capitalist ideology/philosophy rips through our lives, of which worker/debtor is just one. (Objective/Subjective; freedom/determinism; holism/reductionism, spontaneity/planning; wholes/parts; opportunism/ adventurism; are just some of those that come to mind. I’ve addressed these elsewhere in my “Zen-Marxism” series, which includes discussion of how one can decide whether a dualism is “false” or not.) My aim here, in thinking over George’s fascinating essay, was to posit that that “split” is one in a long series of false dualities, which leads one to organize differently when their unity is realized as opposed to organizing within each movement when seen as separate vectors.

      In saying that “our job is to show that [our roles as consumers (debtors) and workers (wages)] are really two artificially separated moments of the same historical force,” I did not mean to imply that everyone in either the “strike debt” movement nor those in wage-worker movements must be shown the Truth by we, the Promethian vanguard (he says, sarcastically), before anyone is able to do anything constructive or revolutionary. We’re arguing here over the phrases “our job” and “to show”; I understand (and agree with) Petros’ sensitivity over that phrasing when taken out of context. What I meant by that was a sort of “show it to ourselves” — and by “ourselves” I mean those few involved in this discussion. Since we’re talking about a very specific situation: how to build upon and act within the growing debtors’ movement, a better way I could have phrased it would have been, “we (me, you) need to act from our understanding that our roles as consumers (debtors) and workers (wages) are really two artificially separated moments of the same historical force.” Again, HOW we’d act in reflecting that understanding would be different if we didn’t have that understanding. This manifests in terms of

        * the demands we’d raise,
        * the scope of the movement,
        * the targets we’d hit (and how), and
        * the allies we’d seek

      One important question Petros references still lingers — as it has done for a century-and-a-half: Do large numbers of people need to see (or experience) before-hand — that is, prior to taking action through organizations they’ve joined — the revolutionary result of where they’re heading, or is it in fact the new socialist society that needs to exist first as a means through which those divisions can be overcome?

      A lot of radical philosophy and history depends on how one answers that seemingly chicken/egg (ahem!) question. In fact, a purpose of my “What is Direct Action?” book is to show how, through institutions of dual power (which take direct action to become real), we (there’s that upstart pronoun again!) create revolutionary socialist bubbles of possibility in the here-and-now through which we do, to a great extent, take part in the process of overcoming the divisions discussed above. Otherwise, we end up looking to some outside force (the State, among others) to create those conditions after the revolution, on our behalf, leading to enormous problems that have had huge historical impact on our lives in the last century.

      I’ll return to a point-by-point discussion with Petros on all of this at a later time. Damn, I really miss these kind of intense, intricate political discussions that used to dominate our collectives in the radical left, which — when one is involved in organizations — lead to real and immediate practical measures …. Thanx!

      Mitchel

  • Of course we agree on most of everything said on this page, and really the point of the dialogue is not to make a list of agreements and disagreements, but to use the exchange of ideas as a tool for generating useful tools for radical community work, and also to make more visible parts of the Map of Reality – which seems to keep shifting and changing… as we speak!

    One of the most important elements in this discussion – yes, we agree on it! – is the usage of the concept of false dichotomies, false duality.

    “Straight” marxism, perverted as it was by stalinism and western forms of authoritarianism in the previous century, focused attention on conflicts of forces and processes (“contradictions”) which are inherent within the current system of political economy. Its followers felt or judged that focusing on that was an adequate tool for figuring out the Path, the Way. In essence, understanding Objective Reality, for them, was achieved by recognizing the real dualities embedded in social life, and navigating the Movement accordingly.

    Today, especially after the advent of Orgonomy (the Reichian branch of marxian Socialism); Che’s foco; the Weather Underground’s dictum that guides revolutionaries who are active within the countries in the center of the Empire to follow the lead of revolutionaries in the Third World and/or in oppressed ethnic and cultural minorities within their own countries; the Soft Strategy by the Yippies; and the formulation of a modern analysis of current society as a Society of the Spectacle, bolstered by actions of Image Sabotage, we are in a new era of revolutionary Theory and Praxis: one of its main – but not often obvious – elements, is that an essential part of Objective Reality is the Subjective.

    And that in order to understand Objective Reality better, we need to understand not only real dualities embedded in social life, onflicts of forces and processes (“contradictions”) which are inherent within the current system of political economy, but also as you correctly point out, its OPPOSITE: false duality, false and imaginary dichotomies. Because they are an important part of the Subjective, and since it is not the abstract “social force” who make history, but actual people who are “full of it” (full of truths and falsities of the Subjective), therefore knowing the Subjective is an important part of knowing – and CHANGING ! – the Objective.

    I know we probably see all this in similar ways, even if we might express it differently.

    The one thing missing from what I wrote here, which I feel renders our (mine?) current understanding of reality deficient, is a modern analysis of the most recent evolute of “advanced” industrial society as a Society of the Screen. The Screen, found on the monitors, phones, computers, displays on handheld, laptop and desktop personal machines and gadgets, is not simply an extension or sub-category of the Society of the Spectacle. It has taken a life of its own. To the extent that I understand it, our participation in a Society of the Screen, especially as a substitute for actual participation in face-to-face community interactions AND as an instrument of multiple forms and qualities of communication (both), possesses qualities that it is ESSENTIAL for the revolutionary project to understand better in order to move correctly and in accordance to both the actual (real) contradictions AND false (imaginary) dualities of this new form of Society.

    The Hammer and the Sickle; the Submachine gun and the Pen; the Keyboard and… Psychedelic Consciousness?

    Petros Evdokas, petros@cyprus-org.net

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