Category Archives: Co-operatives

The Working Class Strikes Back

Reading the daily headlines, it’s easy to forget that the corollary of a civilization in precipitous decline is a world of creative ferment, a new world struggling to be born. If you could have a God’s-eye view of all the creative resistance rending the fabric of political oppression from the U.S. to Indonesia to Colombia, you would surely be persuaded that all hope is not lost. This conclusion is borne out in detail by a book published earlier this year, The Class Strikes Back: Self-Organised Workers’ Struggles in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dario Azzellini and Michael G. Kraft. The chapters, each dedicated to a different case-study, survey inspiring democratic activism in thirteen countries across five continents. The reader is left with the impression that the global working class, while facing an uphill battle in its fight against imperialism, business and state repression, and conservative union bureaucracy, may yet triumph in the end, if only because of its remarkable perseverance generation after generation. Its overwhelming numerical strength, too, bodes well.

In their introduction, the editors concisely state the book’s purpose: “This volume aims to examine how new, anti-bureaucratic forms of syndicalist, neo-syndicalist and autonomous workers’ organisation emerge in response to changing work and production relations in the twenty-first century.” Traditional unions, which they observe have been “part of the institutional setting to maintain capitalism” (my italics), have deteriorated on a global scale. In their place have sprung up more radical and democratic forms of resistance, such as blockades, strikes, and workplace occupations and recuperations. Workers’ actions have even made decisive contributions to the toppling of governments, as in Egypt in 2011.

In this article I’ll summarize several of the most compelling case-studies. Unfortunately I’ll have to pass over many interesting chapters, including ones on the workers’ movement in Colombia, the solidarity economy and radical unionism in Indonesia, the sit-ins and ultimately the worker cooperative at a window factory in Chicago (about which I’ve written here), and the South African miners who were attacked by police and massacred in August 2012. The book is too rich to do justice to.

Greece

The crisis in Greece that followed the economic crash of 2008 and 2009 saw a savage regime of austerity imposed on the population, which resulted in a “diffuse precariousness” across the labor force. Conventional unionism and national collective bargaining have been among the victims of this neoliberal regime. And yet the general strikes that the trade union bureaucracy was compelled to declare early on, particularly between 2010 and 2012, were the most massive and combative of the past forty years. “Long battles with the police, crowds which refused to dissolve and regrouped again and again, the besieging for hours of the house of parliament, self-organisation and solidarity in order to cope with tear gas and take care of the wounded—all have become part of the normal image of demonstrations during strikes, replacing the nerveless parades of the past.”

Outside the framework of conventional unionism there have arisen exciting new forms of struggle. Since early 2013, the Vio.Me factory has operated under worker self-management, after its initial owners abandoned the site. Aside from the lack of hierarchy, the job rotations, and the directly democratic structure of the business, one innovative practice has been to run the factory in cooperation with the local community and, indeed, the whole society. After taking over the factory the workers consulted their community about what they should produce; they were asked to stop making poisonous building chemicals and instead to manufacture biological, eco-friendly cleaning products. A “wide network of militants and local assemblies” around the country has supported the effort from the start, which has enabled even the distribution of the firm’s products to be done in a completely new way, “through an informal network of social spaces, solidarity structures, markets without intermediaries and cooperative groceries.”

In general, labor struggles in Greece have become more intertwined with social movements. Early in the crisis, structures of mutual aid sprang up everywhere:

Throughout the country collectives have established community kitchens and peer-to-peer solidarity initiatives for the distribution of food, reconnected electricity that was cut down to low-income households, organised “without middlemen” the distribution of agricultural produce, established self-organised pharmacies, healthcare clinics and tutoring programmes and organised networks of direct action against house foreclosures.

Later on, grassroots initiatives became more political, in an effort to create institutions that would be long-lasting and relatively independent of capital and the government. The Greek squares movement of 2011 spread to almost every city and village in the country, leaving behind a legacy of local assemblies and social centers. It also “unleashed social forces which boosted the social and solidarity economy and the movements for the defence and the promotion of the commons.”

All this flowering of alternative institutions has not occurred without significant problems and defeats. There has been little success in establishing solid organizations of the unemployed, and grassroots labor struggles have failed to form durable structures that can challenge institutionalized unionism. Certain victories, nevertheless, have been impressive. Social movements were able to prevent the government’s privatization of public water corporations in 2014. Even more remarkably, after the government closed down the influential public broadcaster ERT in 2013, ERT employees, together with citizens and activists, took over the production of television and radio programs by occupying premises and infrastructure. For almost two years the self-managed ERT transmitted thousands of hours of broadcasting on the anti-austerity struggle, serving as an important resource for the resistance. When Syriza came to power in 2015, it reestablished the public broadcaster.

Worker and consumer cooperatives exist all over the country. Cooperative coffee shops and bookshops, for example, exist in most neighborhoods of Athens and Salonica, functioning “as the cells of the horizontal movements in urban space and the carriers of alternative values and culture.” Broadly speaking, labor identities are becoming more socialized, “because more embedded in local communities and grassroots struggles.”

The Greek experience is of particular interest in that other Western countries, including the U.S., are likely to replicate important features of it in the coming years and decades, as economic crisis intensifies. We ought to study how Greek workers and communities have adapted and resisted, to learn from their failures and successes.

Egypt

The mass movement that felled Mubarak’s regime in 2011 received sympathetic coverage from the establishment media in the West, but the key role of workers’ collective action was, predictably, effaced. Strike waves after 2006 not only destabilized the regime but also gave rise to the April 6th Movement in 2008, which would go on to catalyze the 2011 rebellions. Even after the fall of Mubarak, the flood of labor actions didn’t let up.

As everywhere around the world, neoliberalism meant decades of pent-up grievances against working conditions, privatizations, low wages, and economic insecurity. Finally in December 2006, 24,000 textile workers went on strike at Misr Spinning. Within a few weeks, “similar strikes were spreading between public and private sector textile producers, and from there to civil servants, teachers, municipal refuse workers and transport workers.” In the next couple of years, many more strikes occurred, frequently taking the form of mass occupations of workplaces.

Workers even managed to form the first independent unions in more than fifty years, beginning with the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETAU), established in December 2008. The conservative and bureaucratic Egyptian Trade Union Federation was unable to cope with all the sit-ins, strikes, and waves of democratic organizing, and saw its influence over the labor movement wane. RETAU’s consolidation “accelerated the development of other independent unions and proto-union networks among teachers, public transport workers, postal workers and health technicians,” raising their expectations of what could be achieved through collective action.

After the steadily rising wave of worker and popular resistance crested with the resignation of Mubarak in early February 2011, labor actions didn’t cease. In fact, Mubarak’s fall was followed by “a new tidal wave of strikes and workplace occupations, with nearly 500 separate episodes of collective action by workers recorded in the month of February 2011 alone.” Strike waves ebbed and flowed over the following two years, and did much to undermine the military and Islamist governments that succeeded each other before the crisis of the summer of 2013, when, after Mohammed Morsi fell, a successful counterrevolutionary offensive was launched by the Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, the judiciary, and the media.

After the fall of Mubarak, a ferment of self-organization resulted in the founding of many new independent unions, which often engaged in intense battles for tathir, or the “cleansing” from management positions of the ruling party’s cronies. This was especially the case in public institutions. Public hospitals in Cairo, for example, “were the scene of attempts to assert workers’ control over management to a much greater degree than had been possible before the revolution.” These experiments weren’t always successful, but in a number of cases they did at least force the resignation of old directors and were able to establish, temporarily, democratic councils to oversee work.

In the end, the workers’ movement was unable to impose its demands on the agenda of national politics. Its leaders “did not score victories at that level on the question of raising the national minimum wage, or forcing a lasting retreat from privatization, or even of securing full legal recognition for the independent unions themselves.” Still, the authors comment that the nationwide revival of self-organization was an astonishing feat. “Factory and office workers created thousands of workplace organisations, despite conditions of acute repression and the lack of material resources. There have been few examples on this scale of a revival of popular organisation in the Arab world for decades.” Memories of these uprisings will not be erased easily, and will inspire the next generation of activists.

Venezuela

Venezuela differs from the other cases in that its Bolivarian revolution has entailed a commitment to elevating the position and the power of workers. So how successful has this process been? In recent years, of course, Venezuela’s severe economic crisis has undermined the Bolivarian process, with increases in poverty and less money going to social programs. But the achievements have not all been destroyed. The account in the book goes up to early 2016, well into the crisis years.

Until 2006, the Chavez government focused on promoting cooperatives (in addition to nationalizing the oil industry and expropriating large landowners). In nationalized medium-sized companies, for example, workers became co-owners with the state. Whereas Venezuela had had only 800 registered cooperatives in 1998, by mid-2010 it had 274,000, though only about a third were determined to be “operative.” It had been hoped that these businesses would produce for the satisfaction of social needs rather than profit-maximization, but the mixed-ownership model, according to which the state and private entrepreneurs could be co-owners with workers, vitiated these hopes.

By 2006 a new model was spreading, which was more communally based. Its political context was that “communal councils” began to be recognized as a fundamental structure of local self-government: in urban areas they encompassed 150 to 400 families, while in rural areas they included a minimum of 20 families. “The councils constitute a non-representational structure of direct participation, which exists alongside the elected representative bodies of constituted power. Several communal councils can come together to form a commune. By the end of 2015, over 40,000 communal councils and more than 1,200 communes existed.” Councils and communes can receive state funding for their projects, which now began to include community-controlled companies instead of cooperatives. “In these new communal companies, the workers come from the local communities; these communities are the ones who, through the structures of self-government…decide on what kind of companies are needed, what organisational form they will have and who should work in them.”

In 2008 a new model for these companies emerged, the Communal Social Property Company (EPSC). “While different kinds of EPSCs can be found in the communities today, their principal areas of activity correspond with the most pressing needs of the barrios and rural communities: the production of food and construction materials, and the provision of transport services. Textile and agricultural production companies, bakeries and shoemakers, are also common.” Under the initiative of workers, even some state enterprises are partly under community control, at least regarding their distribution networks.

Despite Chavez’s commitment to workers’ control, it has not been easy to shift the orientation of a state and a private sector deeply hostile to workers. Workers’ councils and struggles for worker participation can be found in almost all state enterprises and many private ones—and workers have taken over hundreds of private businesses, sometimes after the state’s expropriation of the original owners—but even in the chavista state bureaucrats were apt to undermine the Bolivarian process. Whether through corruption, mismanagement, obstruction of financing to state companies with worker-presidents, or other means, ministerial bureaucracies and even corrupt unions impede workers’ control. In many state enterprises the situation is ambiguous: workers don’t control the company or even participate in management, but “they control parts of the production process, they decide on their own to whom they will give access to the plant, [and] they are in a full-scale conflict with the management.”

Despite all the advances made under Chavez, the fact is that the economy’s social relations of production have not really changed and capitalist exploitation remains the norm. Private interests are still too powerful and have too much influence over the government, promoting mismanagement and corruption. It is still a rentier economy. But a revolutionary process has begun and is being carried forward by communities and workers across the country. The transformation of a society from authoritarian to democratic does not happen overnight.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Like the rest of the post-Soviet world, Bosnia-Herzegovina has suffered terribly from the privatizations, asset-stripping, marketization, and rampant corruption that have attended its transition to capitalism since the mid-1990s. Unemployment and economic insecurity are at epidemic proportions. In 2014, workers in Tuzla, Bosnia’s third largest city, organized a massive mobilization against their deteriorating conditions, the first since the 1992–95 conflict. While the movement didn’t last, its legacy may inspire further mobilizations in the future.

The 2014 demonstrations were a response to the wretched situation of workers in a laundry detergent factory, DITA, which at one time had provided 1,400 jobs. After its privatization in 2005, things started to go downhill. The company paid them minimal wages, issued meal vouchers only in bonds rather than cash, and eventually stopped paying them pension funds and health insurance. In 2011 they began a long strike, but in December 2012 the firm closed, having ignored all their demands.

Picketing the factory and filing lawsuits didn’t secure justice for the workers, so in February 2014 they teamed up with their counterparts from four other nearby factories to stage demonstrations in front of Tuzla’s canton court. All five work forces had similar demands: investigation of the questionable privatization processes that had destroyed their livelihoods; compensation for unpaid wages, health insurance, and pensions; and the restarting of production. Their demands didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing: during one of the demonstrations, riot police secured the entrance of the canton building and fired teargas and rubber bullets. This brutality only further inflamed the workers, who kept up their resistance the following couple of days. The number of demonstrators rose to 10,000 as students and other citizens joined the protests, finally setting the government buildings on fire.

Chiara Milan’s summary of the ensuing events is worth quoting:

The action [of burning government buildings] resonated throughout the country. Within days, rallies in solidarity with Tuzla’s workers took place across Bosnia-Herzegovina. Increasing discontent among the social groups suffering under government policies led tens of thousands to join in the main cities of BiH [i.e., Bosnia-Herzegovina]. Like a domino effect, the rage spread and the revolt escalated. On 7 February the government buildings of the cities of Mostar, Sarajevo, and Zenica were set ablaze by seething protesters. While politicians tried to hide the plummeting economic conditions of the country by constantly playing the ethnic card, the workers of Tuzla triggered wider social protests, arguing that rage and hunger do not recognise ethnic differences. The protests spawned a mass movement of solidarity that overcame the ethno-national divisions inside the country, travelling across the post-Yugoslav space. Rallies in support of the workers were reported in nearby Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia…

Soon, directly democratic assemblies called plenums were set up across the country. “The citizens gathered in leaderless, consensus-based assemblies where everybody had the right to one vote and nobody could speak on behalf of other people.” Each plenum had working groups addressing such issues as media, education and culture, and social problems. “Demands that arose during the plenums were collected and delivered to [these] working groups, in charge of reformulating them in a coherent way. Once reformulated, the demands typically returned to the plenum for a final vote [after which they were submitted to the cantonal government]. All the plenums were coordinated through an organisational body called interplenum…”

A new labor union was also formed in the wake of the protests, called Solidarnost, which quickly reached 4,000 members from dozens of companies. It was intended as an alternative to the conventional unions that had so signally failed to protect the interests of their rank and file. While it didn’t succeed in winning the battle for the workers, it did keep fighting for years afterwards, as by staging weekly protests in front of the canton court.

The moment of collective outrage slowly faded away, especially after the flood that hit the country in May 2014 turned into a national emergency. The workers at the DITA factory, however, still did not give up: in March 2015 they occupied the factory and restarted the production of cleaning products, publicly appealing for international support. Shops and retail chains decided to sell the “recuperated factory’s” products, and groups of activists volunteered to help the workers optimize production.

In general, Milan comments, the uprisings left a legacy of solidarity and activist networks, which challenge “the dominant rhetoric of ethnic hatred” and may be drawn on in future struggles.

*****

The path forward for the working class in an age of neoliberal crisis is tortuous and uncertain. Given the near-collapse of mainstream trade unionism and many left-wing political parties, it’s necessary for people the world over to forge their own institutions, their own networks, to fight back against the rampaging elite and construct a new, more equitable society. The stories collected in The Class Strikes Back are an encouraging sign that workers everywhere are already waging the war, that democratic institutions can germinate in even the most crisis-ridden of societies, and that the ruling class’s hold on power is, in fact, ultimately, rather tenuous.  The next generation of activism is sure to bring major changes to a morally corrupt civilization.

The Incredible Weight of Not Being

If I Don’t Feel It, The Problem Doesn’t Exist

You know we are cooked when the middling middle class, with educations from Duke, USC, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Columbia, and gobs of money in the bank, and an east coast upbringing, now California dreaming, are astonished that there are actually homeless veterans.

This is the state of the lobotomized America, one country that is a mix of Disneyland, Zombie-land, Filthy First Families, War Economics, General Anxiety Disorder gone rampant, and, well, everything one can imagine the White Race (sic) has become under the crystal meth bubble of money, debt, TV, Netflix, Cowboys and Indians Entertainment, and a population in a dervish of debt spiral while the hooked-brained Point Zero Zero Zero One Percent has us as slaves.

On the surface, everything looks fine in America when zipping down the streets of LA, Seattle, Phoenix, Atlanta, if one wants to believe normality is that baseline of gutters full of 7-11 hot dog wrappers, millions of miles of strip malls with attendant boarded up storefronts, smoke-pot-booze-armament-nickel and dime shops, concrete, tar, 300,000,000 cars pushing and pulling people to precarious jobs and off-the-clock mortgaged lives, and the endless serpents of 18-wheelers crisscrossing America with the goods of depravity, obsolescence, and despair.

It’s a blitzkrieg of sound bites, biting hatred toward anyone different than that narrow creepy species of white people with kids and two homes depicted on TV. The white race, even though it is shrinking, is like a plague. It takes only a few microbes to disease a pond with cholera, and it only takes a few whites in a board room or in a bureaucracy or corporation to turn the air to putrid, disease-causing sickness, where punishment is measured in how much the few can take from the many.

So I go back to the astonishment of friends and relatives on the West Coast, Southern Cal: How can there be homeless veterans . . . as if the only veterans in the minds of these upper middle class are four-star triple-dipping multimillionaire generals, or Ollie North types selling their filthy Christo-Zio murderous brand of America to FOX, the NRA and some glass church on the hill making profits from private prison hell.

We are talking about 50 K veterans homeless, hundreds of thousands basically screwed because of the enormous disabilities for which the time spent “serving” has exacted as the second and third level of punishment this sadistic system of indoctrinating people into believing they are doing anything for the country (not) in the form of pushing around dirt, cranking wrenches, tooling around in this disgusting excess of overpriced dangerous polluting equipment that literally takes food out of the mouths of babes and grannies.

Then the millions of veterans hobbling around with herniated discs, diabetes, dead knees, metal hips, PTSD, rotting teeth, a thousand varieties of internal injuries, diseases and maladies. And we pay dearly in this structural violent land of Bernie Sanders’ pet F-35 project, or McCain’s aircraft carriers, or Filthy Trump’s “we make the best stuff, the very best guns and missiles and killer jets and bombs in the whole world, the best . . .” and untold bio-chem-putridity created by the US Armed Forces.

I attempt to tell these la-la land folk that even one base, Camp Lejeune, killed thousands of military and civilians from 30 years of contaminated water exposure that was covered up by those big brass officers, generals and retired triple-dipper civil servants.  They guffaw, and then eyes glaze over when I repeat there are 130 other US-based military compounds that are toxic dumps.

Brother can you spare a dime is sister can you spare a tooth extraction

This is the lead up into my work, daily the stories and the crises, the onion peeled back, multiple bizarre incidents in the veterans’ lives. Bombarded with not only propaganda, but shock waves, chemicals, murder teams like the Phoenix Program or MK-Ultra or DARPA, you name it, the things these many times economically-drafted people have endured would rip the souls from most of the middling ones, the flag wavers and cocktail umbrella twirling Republicans and Democrats.

The filthy Trumps and Don’s entourage and millions upon millions of Kool-Aid drinkers, believers, deplorables, oh, they are, whether they are calling themselves stock brokers or sausage makers, when you lick the shoes of this sort of filthy fellow, we know we have slipped in our insanity – from all these other bastions like Ike, Truman, Nixon, Bush, Ford, Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter, hell, these are cutouts of the two parties for which they flip billions and billions of shekels in the name of the corporate Satans.

Here I am, in the richest country in the world (ha, ha) in the weirdest town in the USA, Portland, Oregon, where the influx of money from California has turned this into a winter and summer playground for the 20 Percent with thousands of homeless in tents along freeway off-ramps, kids with heroin track lines intertwined with tattoos selling trinkets, thousands of people in drug recovery programs, and an army of civil servants and social services personnel making shitty livings off of some really shitty shitty situations.

We have this Pacific Northwest billionaire and millionaire club, the Boeings and Alaska Airlines and Intels and Nikes and Amazons and thousands of companies that give shit about the near homeless, the houseless, the struggling ones their own shitty companies hire on to do the heavy labor and mindless digital shuffling required in this usury and punishment world of the Goldman Sachs prostitutes.

I can rail on and on, but the reality is, punks like me could change the world, with just the right marketing, connections, exposures, moments of epiphany, conversations with the right person at the right time at the right place, etc.

Think 20- or thirty-acre venues, in the forests around Mount Adams and Mount Hood, anywhere in this PNW, where we could, with the right funding, get tiny homes built with sweat equity, around communal all-purpose rooms-kitchens-gathering points. Homes with toilets (compostable), solar arrays, and gardens circling this mix, and then, well, hundreds upon hundreds of these with tens of thousands of people, mixed races, mixed ideas, mixed ages, supporting each other. Ebenezer Howard comes to mind, oh those Garden Cities, but with a 21st century punch. School buses, ready for the crusher, retrofitted for homes, that is, college kids and high schoolers and Pk8 working to learn the tricks of working with hands, design, construction, art, engineering, food growing, and social services.

This organic concentric circle of tiny homes, cabins, containers, school buses, like a giant sunflower, with other circles and rings of gardens, livestock pens, work arenas, amphitheaters.

It could be done in five years. Land is plentiful. We have these creeps at Google wanting self-driving vans, buses, so get their billionaire butts involved – shuttles for those veterans and non-veterans getting to hospitals, or, better yet, do the Stan Brock (Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom sidekick) thing of Remote Area Medical and have docs, dentists, PAs, shrinks, gerontologists, child social workers, holistic healers, naturopaths, et al. I can give the links below, but the stories and solutions have already been written, for sure, and if it takes these thieves like Musk-Tesla and Bezos and Buffet and Walton and Gates and the countless gluttons, war profiteers, the scabs of humanity – industrial military-finance-education-ag-energy-legal-IT-prison-insurance-retail complex – to fund it, voluntarily, or with a Eugene Debs reality, then so be it.

Here’s the segue into one example of a veteran at the place where I work who could be the Johnny Appleseed or Pied Piper of this project, going to the captains of industry, the colonels of Wall Street and the generals of filthy rich wealth with a dervish of a man like me showing the plans and crunching the numbers.

Who’s Giving this Guy Right Out of a Quadruple Hollywood Script the Time of Day?

I will call him Stephen. He’s in the homeless shelter a second time. The first time, man, a few years ago, he was here, with a lot of sobriety under his belt, but, he ended up at a 7-11, loaned out some money to a friend, and then bam, the friend offered to pay back the loan with crystal meth. Stephen, living in our shelter, which is family and sober based, jumped out the window to not embarrass himself or put the program at risk.

From 1977 to ’82, 82nd Airborne. He did the radical macho stuff, in the Army, and he tells me that he always wanted to be in the military, since age 10. Northern California roots, athlete, family with military history – Army, Navy, Marines. He worked in a trailer factory in high school, and other outfits.

The drinking started in the Army. Guys back from Vietnam as company leaders, with plethora of drug abuse, drinking, and hell, the Army barracks had beer machines installed next to cots. The 82nd Airborne then, Stephen says, was called “The Jumping Junkies.”

He bounced around after military, working at Bank of America, married and divorced. Biker clubs (gangs) and things got hard when his son was murdered by the mother’s (his ex) boyfriend. That’s when the anger set in, and the drugs, but he ended up being a number one supervisor for construction sites building Wal-marts and the other box stores. Six figures, and, he ended up owning his own company, 12 acre plot of land and home he paid cash for. He moved up to even higher pay doing supervision of hospital construction and refab sites, in California, and earthquake mitigation.

A functional cocaine-speed-methamphetamine abuser with a lot of anger but more compassion. Prison terms for selling, a few property crimes, no violence.

He counts homelessness in years, living in storm drains, living out of dumpsters, and even told me about waking up many times with a piece of drop cloth covering him and snow packed on top of that.

He looks like a cross between Tommy Lee Jones and Scott Glenn. He talked of turning 60 in September. He’s strong, and counts his lucky stars his body held up.

Now, he makes $3000 a month, and that’s from his service connected disabilities. He is on his road to 23 months sober, and before he came back to our shelter, he was 31 days living in the forest parks around Portland that are such a draw for those same Californians who think there is no way in hell a veteran can be homeless.

Stephen’s got all the elements in this day and age of flash in the pan so-called business leaders. He has the biographical narrative that shows how some people can go from here to there back to there, hit rock bottom a few times, almost bite the dust, get criminally involved, let the drugs be the monkey on the back, and, then, bam, the spirit takes him.

He goes to Narcotics Anonymous, is a member of a local church, takes other vets belongings to their new digs, and he’s shooting for community college in the fall for an AAS degree in alcohol and chemical dependency, and he wants the BA, and more.

A tailored shirt to display his buff frame, short-sleeved to show the tattoos, and boots and new jeans and a briefcase, and, rolled up site plans for these garden villages, and the right knock-knock-knock to Bill and Melinda, or Oprah, or, whomever.

The problem in America, though, as Stephen and I talk, are the doors – which doors, how to get to those doors, and in many cases the rich and powerful hide behind a house of mirrors with all sorts of false doors. Too many middlemen and middlewomen, too many great pretenders, too many self-absorbed so-called community leaders and heads of non-profits.

You Go to Jail to Get Mental and Addiction Help!@?#

Hell, head clerk at the prison, completion of a robust program in Portland, Bridges to Change, volunteering, peer support training, volunteering at the labor force office helping recently released prisoners with resumes and finding housing for the bottom of the barrel ex-cons – those charged and time served for sexual offenses.

I keep being told I am where I am at – precarious, job to job, old now, on the far edge of power – because I piss people off, because I call a spade a spade, and that I can’t accept baby steps and the power of the offensives this white supremacist country sets forth upon the land. True.

nicevillage

The mantel is Stephen’s, and I might just be an idea generator, a big bag of hot air blowing ideas and criticisms and theoretical platitudes so far out of sync with the language of punishment and dog-kill-dog capitalism, that I am in la-la land.

So, this is how Stephen got sober the last time, two years ago – he jumped out the window his shared bedroom of the shelter, wandered for a few hours, and then, exactly 48 hours later, he went into a Subway, grabbed a milk from the fridge, plopped it on the counter, and told the attendant, “This is a robbery. Call the police.”

Stephen proceeded to put the milk back, and, waited for the cops. Attempted robbery, and a rap sheet, so two years inside a minimum-security penitentiary taking every available class in cognitive behavioral therapy and anger management and addiction recovery.

He’s the guy that could manage these garden villages, training any number of people how to lead, how to design and implement the building and construction and maintenance of the villages. One village at a time, times 5 or 20.

While these fat-cats invest in parasitic capitalism, investing in yachts and gold faucets to their penthouses. While these thugs with billions crusade across the land to smear us, the working class, attack us, those with a collectivism that would outperform any of their deceptive tricks to triple bookkeeping and felonious investments and punishment spread across the seas in their transnational capital crypto-currency Mafioso.

Brother, can you spare a million people? Sister, can you spare a few million young people from the endless toil of the fulfillment centers (sic) and kill-your-self-slowly Gig Economy.

The Three Magnets from Garden Cities of Tomorrow, 1902

Howard’s socialist vision of garden cities tied to the people and cultural implications of these thriving communities over the spatial holism of the cities/towns: Article.

The Veterans Community Project (VCP) is on a mission to eliminate Veteran homelessness by providing transitional-housing and enabling access to exceptional 360-degree service solutions. Focusing first on the Greater-Kansas City area, VCP aspires to use Kansas City as the blueprint for achieving similar successes in cities across the United States. VCP has a long-term goal of eliminating Veteran homelessness nationwide.

For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn “extremely low income” (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  Source: Yes! Magazine.

Remote Area Medical (RAM) is a major nonprofit provider of mobile medical clinics. Our mission is to prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free, quality healthcare to those in need. We do this by delivering free dental, vision, and medical services to underserved and uninsured individuals. RAM’s Corps of more than 120,000 Humanitarian Volunteers–licensed dental, vision, medical, and veterinary professionals–have treated more than 740,000 people and 67,000 animals, delivering $120 million worth of free health care services.

Image result for ebenezer howard

The Incredible Weight of Not Being

If I Don’t Feel It, The Problem Doesn’t Exist

You know we are cooked when the middling middle class, with educations from Duke, USC, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Columbia, and gobs of money in the bank, and an east coast upbringing, now California dreaming, are astonished that there are actually homeless veterans.

This is the state of the lobotomized America, one country that is a mix of Disneyland, Zombie-land, Filthy First Families, War Economics, General Anxiety Disorder gone rampant, and, well, everything one can imagine the White Race (sic) has become under the crystal meth bubble of money, debt, TV, Netflix, Cowboys and Indians Entertainment, and a population in a dervish of debt spiral while the hooked-brained Point Zero Zero Zero One Percent has us as slaves.

On the surface, everything looks fine in America when zipping down the streets of LA, Seattle, Phoenix, Atlanta, if one wants to believe normality is that baseline of gutters full of 7-11 hot dog wrappers, millions of miles of strip malls with attendant boarded up storefronts, smoke-pot-booze-armament-nickel and dime shops, concrete, tar, 300,000,000 cars pushing and pulling people to precarious jobs and off-the-clock mortgaged lives, and the endless serpents of 18-wheelers crisscrossing America with the goods of depravity, obsolescence, and despair.

It’s a blitzkrieg of sound bites, biting hatred toward anyone different than that narrow creepy species of white people with kids and two homes depicted on TV. The white race, even though it is shrinking, is like a plague. It takes only a few microbes to disease a pond with cholera, and it only takes a few whites in a board room or in a bureaucracy or corporation to turn the air to putrid, disease-causing sickness, where punishment is measured in how much the few can take from the many.

So I go back to the astonishment of friends and relatives on the West Coast, Southern Cal: How can there be homeless veterans . . . as if the only veterans in the minds of these upper middle class are four-star triple-dipping multimillionaire generals, or Ollie North types selling their filthy Christo-Zio murderous brand of America to FOX, the NRA and some glass church on the hill making profits from private prison hell.

We are talking about 50 K veterans homeless, hundreds of thousands basically screwed because of the enormous disabilities for which the time spent “serving” has exacted as the second and third level of punishment this sadistic system of indoctrinating people into believing they are doing anything for the country (not) in the form of pushing around dirt, cranking wrenches, tooling around in this disgusting excess of overpriced dangerous polluting equipment that literally takes food out of the mouths of babes and grannies.

Then the millions of veterans hobbling around with herniated discs, diabetes, dead knees, metal hips, PTSD, rotting teeth, a thousand varieties of internal injuries, diseases and maladies. And we pay dearly in this structural violent land of Bernie Sanders’ pet F-35 project, or McCain’s aircraft carriers, or Filthy Trump’s “we make the best stuff, the very best guns and missiles and killer jets and bombs in the whole world, the best . . .” and untold bio-chem-putridity created by the US Armed Forces.

I attempt to tell these la-la land folk that even one base, Camp Lejeune, killed thousands of military and civilians from 30 years of contaminated water exposure that was covered up by those big brass officers, generals and retired triple-dipper civil servants.  They guffaw, and then eyes glaze over when I repeat there are 130 other US-based military compounds that are toxic dumps.

Brother can you spare a dime is sister can you spare a tooth extraction

This is the lead up into my work, daily the stories and the crises, the onion peeled back, multiple bizarre incidents in the veterans’ lives. Bombarded with not only propaganda, but shock waves, chemicals, murder teams like the Phoenix Program or MK-Ultra or DARPA, you name it, the things these many times economically-drafted people have endured would rip the souls from most of the middling ones, the flag wavers and cocktail umbrella twirling Republicans and Democrats.

The filthy Trumps and Don’s entourage and millions upon millions of Kool-Aid drinkers, believers, deplorables, oh, they are, whether they are calling themselves stock brokers or sausage makers, when you lick the shoes of this sort of filthy fellow, we know we have slipped in our insanity – from all these other bastions like Ike, Truman, Nixon, Bush, Ford, Bush, Clinton, Obama, Carter, hell, these are cutouts of the two parties for which they flip billions and billions of shekels in the name of the corporate Satans.

Here I am, in the richest country in the world (ha, ha) in the weirdest town in the USA, Portland, Oregon, where the influx of money from California has turned this into a winter and summer playground for the 20 Percent with thousands of homeless in tents along freeway off-ramps, kids with heroin track lines intertwined with tattoos selling trinkets, thousands of people in drug recovery programs, and an army of civil servants and social services personnel making shitty livings off of some really shitty shitty situations.

We have this Pacific Northwest billionaire and millionaire club, the Boeings and Alaska Airlines and Intels and Nikes and Amazons and thousands of companies that give shit about the near homeless, the houseless, the struggling ones their own shitty companies hire on to do the heavy labor and mindless digital shuffling required in this usury and punishment world of the Goldman Sachs prostitutes.

I can rail on and on, but the reality is, punks like me could change the world, with just the right marketing, connections, exposures, moments of epiphany, conversations with the right person at the right time at the right place, etc.

Think 20- or thirty-acre venues, in the forests around Mount Adams and Mount Hood, anywhere in this PNW, where we could, with the right funding, get tiny homes built with sweat equity, around communal all-purpose rooms-kitchens-gathering points. Homes with toilets (compostable), solar arrays, and gardens circling this mix, and then, well, hundreds upon hundreds of these with tens of thousands of people, mixed races, mixed ideas, mixed ages, supporting each other. Ebenezer Howard comes to mind, oh those Garden Cities, but with a 21st century punch. School buses, ready for the crusher, retrofitted for homes, that is, college kids and high schoolers and Pk8 working to learn the tricks of working with hands, design, construction, art, engineering, food growing, and social services.

This organic concentric circle of tiny homes, cabins, containers, school buses, like a giant sunflower, with other circles and rings of gardens, livestock pens, work arenas, amphitheaters.

It could be done in five years. Land is plentiful. We have these creeps at Google wanting self-driving vans, buses, so get their billionaire butts involved – shuttles for those veterans and non-veterans getting to hospitals, or, better yet, do the Stan Brock (Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom sidekick) thing of Remote Area Medical and have docs, dentists, PAs, shrinks, gerontologists, child social workers, holistic healers, naturopaths, et al. I can give the links below, but the stories and solutions have already been written, for sure, and if it takes these thieves like Musk-Tesla and Bezos and Buffet and Walton and Gates and the countless gluttons, war profiteers, the scabs of humanity – industrial military-finance-education-ag-energy-legal-IT-prison-insurance-retail complex – to fund it, voluntarily, or with a Eugene Debs reality, then so be it.

Here’s the segue into one example of a veteran at the place where I work who could be the Johnny Appleseed or Pied Piper of this project, going to the captains of industry, the colonels of Wall Street and the generals of filthy rich wealth with a dervish of a man like me showing the plans and crunching the numbers.

Who’s Giving this Guy Right Out of a Quadruple Hollywood Script the Time of Day?

I will call him Stephen. He’s in the homeless shelter a second time. The first time, man, a few years ago, he was here, with a lot of sobriety under his belt, but, he ended up at a 7-11, loaned out some money to a friend, and then bam, the friend offered to pay back the loan with crystal meth. Stephen, living in our shelter, which is family and sober based, jumped out the window to not embarrass himself or put the program at risk.

From 1977 to ’82, 82nd Airborne. He did the radical macho stuff, in the Army, and he tells me that he always wanted to be in the military, since age 10. Northern California roots, athlete, family with military history – Army, Navy, Marines. He worked in a trailer factory in high school, and other outfits.

The drinking started in the Army. Guys back from Vietnam as company leaders, with plethora of drug abuse, drinking, and hell, the Army barracks had beer machines installed next to cots. The 82nd Airborne then, Stephen says, was called “The Jumping Junkies.”

He bounced around after military, working at Bank of America, married and divorced. Biker clubs (gangs) and things got hard when his son was murdered by the mother’s (his ex) boyfriend. That’s when the anger set in, and the drugs, but he ended up being a number one supervisor for construction sites building Wal-marts and the other box stores. Six figures, and, he ended up owning his own company, 12 acre plot of land and home he paid cash for. He moved up to even higher pay doing supervision of hospital construction and refab sites, in California, and earthquake mitigation.

A functional cocaine-speed-methamphetamine abuser with a lot of anger but more compassion. Prison terms for selling, a few property crimes, no violence.

He counts homelessness in years, living in storm drains, living out of dumpsters, and even told me about waking up many times with a piece of drop cloth covering him and snow packed on top of that.

He looks like a cross between Tommy Lee Jones and Scott Glenn. He talked of turning 60 in September. He’s strong, and counts his lucky stars his body held up.

Now, he makes $3000 a month, and that’s from his service connected disabilities. He is on his road to 23 months sober, and before he came back to our shelter, he was 31 days living in the forest parks around Portland that are such a draw for those same Californians who think there is no way in hell a veteran can be homeless.

Stephen’s got all the elements in this day and age of flash in the pan so-called business leaders. He has the biographical narrative that shows how some people can go from here to there back to there, hit rock bottom a few times, almost bite the dust, get criminally involved, let the drugs be the monkey on the back, and, then, bam, the spirit takes him.

He goes to Narcotics Anonymous, is a member of a local church, takes other vets belongings to their new digs, and he’s shooting for community college in the fall for an AAS degree in alcohol and chemical dependency, and he wants the BA, and more.

A tailored shirt to display his buff frame, short-sleeved to show the tattoos, and boots and new jeans and a briefcase, and, rolled up site plans for these garden villages, and the right knock-knock-knock to Bill and Melinda, or Oprah, or, whomever.

The problem in America, though, as Stephen and I talk, are the doors – which doors, how to get to those doors, and in many cases the rich and powerful hide behind a house of mirrors with all sorts of false doors. Too many middlemen and middlewomen, too many great pretenders, too many self-absorbed so-called community leaders and heads of non-profits.

You Go to Jail to Get Mental and Addiction Help!@?#

Hell, head clerk at the prison, completion of a robust program in Portland, Bridges to Change, volunteering, peer support training, volunteering at the labor force office helping recently released prisoners with resumes and finding housing for the bottom of the barrel ex-cons – those charged and time served for sexual offenses.

I keep being told I am where I am at – precarious, job to job, old now, on the far edge of power – because I piss people off, because I call a spade a spade, and that I can’t accept baby steps and the power of the offensives this white supremacist country sets forth upon the land. True.

nicevillage

The mantel is Stephen’s, and I might just be an idea generator, a big bag of hot air blowing ideas and criticisms and theoretical platitudes so far out of sync with the language of punishment and dog-kill-dog capitalism, that I am in la-la land.

So, this is how Stephen got sober the last time, two years ago – he jumped out the window his shared bedroom of the shelter, wandered for a few hours, and then, exactly 48 hours later, he went into a Subway, grabbed a milk from the fridge, plopped it on the counter, and told the attendant, “This is a robbery. Call the police.”

Stephen proceeded to put the milk back, and, waited for the cops. Attempted robbery, and a rap sheet, so two years inside a minimum-security penitentiary taking every available class in cognitive behavioral therapy and anger management and addiction recovery.

He’s the guy that could manage these garden villages, training any number of people how to lead, how to design and implement the building and construction and maintenance of the villages. One village at a time, times 5 or 20.

While these fat-cats invest in parasitic capitalism, investing in yachts and gold faucets to their penthouses. While these thugs with billions crusade across the land to smear us, the working class, attack us, those with a collectivism that would outperform any of their deceptive tricks to triple bookkeeping and felonious investments and punishment spread across the seas in their transnational capital crypto-currency Mafioso.

Brother, can you spare a million people? Sister, can you spare a few million young people from the endless toil of the fulfillment centers (sic) and kill-your-self-slowly Gig Economy.

The Three Magnets from Garden Cities of Tomorrow, 1902

Howard’s socialist vision of garden cities tied to the people and cultural implications of these thriving communities over the spatial holism of the cities/towns: Article.

The Veterans Community Project (VCP) is on a mission to eliminate Veteran homelessness by providing transitional-housing and enabling access to exceptional 360-degree service solutions. Focusing first on the Greater-Kansas City area, VCP aspires to use Kansas City as the blueprint for achieving similar successes in cities across the United States. VCP has a long-term goal of eliminating Veteran homelessness nationwide.

For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn “extremely low income” (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  Source: Yes! Magazine.

Remote Area Medical (RAM) is a major nonprofit provider of mobile medical clinics. Our mission is to prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free, quality healthcare to those in need. We do this by delivering free dental, vision, and medical services to underserved and uninsured individuals. RAM’s Corps of more than 120,000 Humanitarian Volunteers–licensed dental, vision, medical, and veterinary professionals–have treated more than 740,000 people and 67,000 animals, delivering $120 million worth of free health care services.

Image result for ebenezer howard

Rescuing Food Sovereignty in the Venezuelan Andes

Village of Gavidia in the Venezuelan Andes (Photo: Ricardo Vaz)

In the remote village of Gavidia, in the state of Mérida, a very interesting experience is taking place: the rescue of the native potato and other native foodstuffs; something that is fundamental in terms of food sovereignty. In this article we discuss this experience after visiting Gavidia and talking to one of the people involved, Cantalicia Torres.

*****

Cantalicia Torres, commonly known as “Alicia”, is a member of the Vertientes de Agua Viva cooperative. It currently has 12 members, a number that has more or less kept constant, Alicia stresses, despite some people coming in and others leaving. The name has to do with the original idea, which remains a goal, of launching a water bottling project, making use of a natural spring in Gavidia.

This village is at an altitude of over 3500 meters, and is made up of around 70 families. If we add the two other villages in sight, Micarache and Las Piñuelas, the total is of around 600 people. They mostly survive off of what they produce, and usually need to go down 13 steep kilometers to reach Mucuchíes, the municipal capital, to find other foodstuffs such as sugar or – something Cantalicia stresses as very important – coffee, which cannot be grown at this altitude.

Nevertheless, the main activity of the cooperative is rescuing the native potato. As Cantalicia explains:

We started when professor Liccia Romero came to do her thesis in Gavidia, and Bernabé – one of the founders of the cooperative – enjoys being a “rescuer” of old things, so he used to say that we were not going to let this potato disappear. The main difference is that the native potato yields a harvest every 8 months to a year, whereas the commercial potato can yield one as quickly as 5 months. So since it was less profitable the farmers stopped growing the native potato.

The rescue of the native potato is essential in the current context, not just because of general food sovereignty issues, but because, with an economic and commercial blockade, the state has ever fewer resources to import seeds. In the case of the commercial potato (also called granola potato), it comes from countries such as Canada. Additionally, seeds imported by the private sector have unaffordable prices for (small) producers.

There are currently eight potato varieties being grown, although many more exist. The differences with respect to the commercial one are not just the frequency of harvests. Cantalicia points out that, while the commercial potato rots fairly quickly, the native one can last up to a year after being harvested. The same holds true for the seeds, which last a long time without rotting.

Native potato varieties (Photo: EcoFestival de la Papa Nativa)

In addition, the agriculture here is much more friendly towards the land. Although the sowing is manual or with cattle, it is biological, without recourse to agrochemicals. Pests are controlled with traps, or with worm humus, produced locally in garden beds, and the fertilizers are also organic, produced using cattle manure.

But it is not just the native potato being rescued up in the Andes. Cantalicia adds that:

Besides the potato there are other foodstuffs that have being rescued, such as the cuiba, the ruba or the mashua. These are not usually commercialized, but we have them here. They are native foodstuffs of the Andes that practically disappeared from consumption. Nevertheless, they have excellent nutrition properties.

Rubas are small potatoes, also called “smooth potatoes” or “ñucos”. They come in two varieties, one of them yellow or green, and the other one red, Cantalicia tells us. They are a bit juicier than a potato and can be used, for example, to make spicy sauces. Cuibas are similar to carrots, and very nutritious. They can be used in salads, soups, juices or even eaten raw. Mashuas are spicy, and mostly used in sauces, and they are said to be good for those suffering from diabetes. Their leaves can also be used to make tea or infusions.

Cuibas, one of the native foodstuffs being rescued in Gavidia (Photo: EcoFestival de la Papa Nativa)

The isolation of Gavidia, coupled to the fact that the producers do not own a truck that would allow them to take their produce to markets, leaves them at the mercy of middlemen when they need to sell part of their crops. These intermediaries come with their trucks and effectively end up fixing prices that allow for huge profit margins when re-selling later on.

In spite of this, the isolation is being broken little by little. On one hand more and more farmers are becoming aware of this experience and coming over to acquire native potato seeds, thus extending its production. And on the other hand, initiatives of organized distribution and consumption are also springing up, allowing for a bigger protection against intermediaries, for producers and consumers alike.

The “Mano a mano, agroecological exchange” collective, like other initiatives throughout Venezuela, has a component of direct organization of producers, which includes the Vertentes de Agua Viva cooperative, in order to sell produce directly to people at fair prices. More than that, it is a market that looks to boost native foodstuffs that had been forgotten, as well as encouraging producers to switch from conventional agriculture towards agroecology. However, the worsening of the crisis – Cantalicia says – also affects the regularity and reach of this kind of initiatives.

Agroecological market “Mano a Mano” (Photo: “Mano a Mano” facebook page)

When we discuss rescuing native seeds, it is important to point out that (imported) genetically modified seeds have two fundamental problems.1 First of all, there is the fact that it is impossible to reproduce or reuse the seeds, since they have patents, which leaves farmers totally in the hands of multinational corporations such as Monsanto (now Bayer), who acquire monopolistic positions in the market. Secondly, and this is related to the previous issue, the use of genetically modified seeds also requires the use of herbicides such as glyphosate, which carry deadly health and environmental effects.

In this sense, the seed law approved in December 2015, after a process of tremendous mobilization and popular organization, was an important step to lay the bases for a model of ecological agriculture that would allow Venezuela to safeguard its food security and sovereignty.

The experience in Gavidia is, so to speak, a little seed in this journey. It is not a matter of glorifying a model of subsistence farming, or yearning for an idealized and glorious past, but of understanding that food sovereignty, as an essential element in any emancipation project, requires control over the entire production chain, and this naturally starts with seeds23 The challenge is to strengthen and articulate these kinds of experiences, joining a bunch of remote corners in a stream of dignity and popular power.

• Special thanks to Silvana Solano for having come with us to Gavidia and for her comments and suggestions on the article.

• First published at Investig’Action

  1. This without going into the health effects of genetically modified food.
  2. Naturally, there is a previous step that has to do with ownership of the land.
  3. For a detailed analysis of these issues see this article by Ana Felicien, Christina Schiavoni and Liccia Romero.

On Purpose, In Kabul

Writing this week for the Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman called a U.S. Government report on the war in Afghanistan “a chronicle of futility.” “The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction” report says the U.S. spent large sums “in search of quick gains” in regional stabilization – but these instead “exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption and bolstered support for insurgents.”

“In short,” says Chapman, the U.S. government “made things worse rather than better.”

Gains, meanwhile, have certainly been made by weapon manufacturers. On average, during Trump’s first year in office, the Pentagon dropped 121 bombs per day on Afghanistan. The total number of weapons – missiles, bombs – deployed in Afghanistan by manned and remotely piloted aircraft through May this year is estimated at 2,339.

War profiteers deliver hellish realities and futile prospects, but the Afghan Peace Volunteers have not given up on bettering their country. In recent visits to Kabul, we’ve listened as they consider the longer-term question of how peace can come to an economically devastated country where employment by various warlords, including the U.S. and Afghan militaries, is many families’ only way to put bread on the table. Hakim, who mentors the APVs, assures us that a lasting peace must involve the creation of jobs and incomes with a hope of sustaining community. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi’s calls for self-sufficiency, and the example of his Pashtun ally, Badshah Khan, they resist war by fostering education and creating local cooperatives.

Miriam is a student in the APVs’ “Street Kids’ School,” which prepares child laborers to pursue schooling while helping their families stay afloat with monthly rations of rice and oil. Sitting with me in the garden of the APVs’ Borderfree Center, her widowed mother, Gul Bek told me of the hardships she faces as a single mother of five.

Each month, she struggles to pay for water, rent, food, and fuel. Some years ago, a company installed a water pipeline leading to her home, but every month a representative from the company comes to collect 700 – 800 Afghanis (about $10.00) in payment for the family’s water consumption. An impoverished household – even free of war’s ravages – can’t easily spare $10. She tries hard to conserve. “But we must have water!” says Gul Bek. “We need it to clean, to cook, to do laundry.” She knows how important hygiene is, but she doesn’t dare go over her budget for water. Gul Bek fears she might be evicted if she can’t manage rent. Would she then go to a refugee camp in Kabul? She shakes her head. I asked if the government helps at all. “They know nothing about how we live,” she said. “At the beginning of Ramadan, we couldn’t even have bread. We had no flour.” Her two eldest sons, age 19 and 14, are beginning to learn tailoring skills and they attend school part time. I asked if she ever considers allowing them to join the military or the police to earn something closer to a living wage. She was adamant. After working so hard to raise these sons, she doesn’t want to lose them. She won’t allow them to carry guns.

Visiting a refugee camp several days later, I could understand her horror of moving into a camp. The camps are overcrowded, muddy, and dangerously unsanitary. An elder from the camp, Haji Jool, was entrusted with the keys to a control room for a well that two NGOs recently installed. On that day, the valves weren’t functioning. 200 of the 700 families in the camp depend on that well for water. I looked at the worried faces of women who had been waiting, since early morning, to collect water. What would they do? Haji Jool told me that most of the families had come from rural areas. They fled their homes because of war or because they lacked water. Kabul’s battered infrastructure, in desperate need of U.S. reparations for fifteen years of war, simply can’t sustain people.

Our APV friends, recognizing the need to create jobs and incomes, have begun forging ahead with impressive work to establish cooperatives. In early June, they initiated a shoemaking cooperative, led by two young men, Hussein and Hosham, who’ve already been trained and have taught their skills to Noorullah. They named their store “Unique.” A carpentry co-op will soon be up and running.

The APV are grateful to the many internationals who, over the past six winters, have assisted their annual “Duvet Project” to bring much-needed blankets to Kabul residents lacking protection from harsh winter weather. The “Duvet Project” has donated winter blankets to some 9,000 destitute families in Kabul and has offered a winter income to as many as 360 seamstresses. Yet, the APV have grappled with a persistent plea from seamstresses who, while appreciative of the seasonal project, express their acute need for an income throughout the year.

This year, APV are forming a seamstresses’ cooperative which will manufacture clothing year-round for inexpensive local sale and will also distribute duvets.

The U.S. exerts massive power from the skies of Afghanistan, raining down hellfire in ever greater quantities. Its Security Zone and its military bases, within and near Kabul, help to drain the local water table faster than wells can be dug. It persistently causes hatred and harm. Meanwhile, it might sound like a cliché, but in imagining a better world our young friends are helping to build one. With sustainable projects to support the neediest, they embrace Gul Bek’s refusal to cooperate with war. Their simple, small actions do strengthen Kabul.  They give themselves over to compassion, to strengthening their neighbors. They plant the seeds that may or may not grow a forest there – they use, rather than wasting, what power they have. They aren’t rewarded with the titanic achievement of having shaped and ruined a country, but instead with purposeful intent to stop the vicious cycle of war and resist the cruel hierarchies attempting to prevail. We at Voices are grateful for the chance, with them, to reject despair. In supporting their projects, we can make reparations, however small, for the persistent futility of war.

Girls and mothers, waiting for their duvets, in Kabul (Photo by Dr. Hakim)

Economic Insanity Close Up

Capitalism as it is practiced is economically insane, and it is devouring the American dream. So says the author of one of the books I have reviewed.1 Part 2 of this series adapts and adds to that review.

Roger Terry wrote a book in 1995 on “economic insanity” (no, it isn’t a “mis”fortune telling of the insane economic meltdown of 2008 thirteen years later). He’s certainly not a mainstream economist nor do I think even a maverick one. Rather, I assume business management is his professional field because he mentions once having students in his management classes in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. He is the co-founder of the “funcompany,” which is in the publishing and stationary business. His company gives him an opportunity to practice some of what he preaches.

Terry contends that the growth-driven capitalism of big, authoritarian, and unaccountable organizations is devouring the American dream. As proof he points to the erosion of the good life of being happy; how we have become a nation not of citizens but of consumers of “life-style enhancing” things, yet in actuality we produce more (in waste) than we consume in products and services; how seeking limitless economic progress is both illusory and self-destructive; how we live in a capitalistic society, but most of us are dependent wage earners, not independent capitalists; and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer-an inevitable result of capitalism.

I could not agree more with his aspersion toward “big, authoritarian, and unaccountable organizations.” My very first book not only railed against them, but better still, offered a model of an organization that was the direct antithesis of today’s behemoth hierarchical organizations.2

Note his reference to “independent capitalists.” We shall encounter that idea more than once as we proceed through the series.

In the first part of his book, Terry questions three underlying assumptions of our current capitalistic system that he contends are so inherently wrong that the system can’t be fixed; 1) limitless, perpetual economic growth is an imperative good, 2) increasing productivity is a cure-all for an ailing economy, and 3) maintaining a good life depends on continuous technological advances. I could add some more underlying inherently wrong assumptions, like that of assuming that debt is the basis of our economy.3

The growth imperative, he argues, is illogical, immoral, misguiding, and destructive. It’s illogical because we consumers buy products we don’t really need (e.g., personal computer upgrades) from companies that are fearful of not making and selling new products lest their competitors do so and grab more of the market share. It’s immoral because it lets companies rationalize wrongdoing for the sake of survival.  It’s misguiding because companies are diverted from what should be their true purpose, to serve society in useful ways. It’s destructive because our planet and our pocketbooks are being irretrievably depleted by a growth-driven, consumer-oriented economy. I agree with him completely, and as a side note, I have reviewed another book that propounds the opposite, “double-digit” growth.4

He argues that productivity increases, contrary to the prevailing assumption, don’t make the economy grow and thereby don’t improve our standard of living. He observes that while productivity has gone up over the last 25 years, real wages haven’t. Productivity increases, instead, are siphoned into the pockets of the rich, into pay for support people (e.g., consultants) who don’t produce anything, and into payments on un-forgiving huge debts fueled by the growth imperative. Not to mention, I would add, the unconscionable hiatus between the haves and have nots that are reflected not only in individual incomes but also in misery, insufferably poor living conditions and health, and sometimes death from failing health.

Technological advances, he claims, are “inherently self-destructive” because they are “quickly bankrupting us.” Only a few select companies and the more affluent among us can afford the technology race. The rest go out of business or into deeper debt.

In Terry’s opinion, the assumptions are so inherently wrong that the system can’t be fixed, so in the second part of his book he offers ideas for a new kind of capitalism. In that sense, Terry’s ideas are very much at home with this series (obviously, or I wouldn’t have included him).

In the second part of his book, Terry outlines the features of a new economic system. It would be a structurally different capitalism, one we’ve never seen before. It would be a “Nation of Owners,” in which there are three levels of ownership: (a) small enterprises, like his own, with the founders and a few partners who share ownership commensurate with their seniority and other factors like start-up funding; (b) larger enterprises, the corporations of today, would be owned collectively by their members, who would elect managers for limited terms of office; and (c) public enterprises, such as utilities, education, defense, and the like, would be created and managed by public boards or local governments. Now that, I would add and enthusiastically emphasize, would be real economic sanity!

Here is a sketch of what he says life would be like under this different capitalism. It would be a “truer form” of capitalism because anyone able-bodied and “even minimally motivated would own capital and in reasonably equal portions,” thus guaranteeing freedom of opportunity and markedly reducing inequality of income. There would no longer be a Wall Street since absentee owners; i.e., shareholders, would gradually be replaced by working owners, which in turn would eliminate the motive of short-term profits and its immoral consequences. Our government would be much different — it wouldn’t be controlled by a corpocracy. Our economy would be developing better rather than growing bigger. Businesses would be motivated to serve society instead of serving themselves. There would be no more drudgery at work, exploitation of workers, cutthroat competition, takeovers, downsizings, wholesale firings, ballooning personal and collective debt, frivolous products, superfluous support structures, or any other ills you might associate with the present system. Sounds like utopia, doesn’t it? Unless you’re a fat-cat CEO or you can’t wait for the next computer upgrade.

But he obviously wasn’t writing for the fat-cat CEOs or the impatient PC owners; no, he was writing instead for people “who will inhabit America’s future and dream the American Dream” and “leaders—among us (who) have yet to find their voices.”

Terry forged this book out of what he calls “a disjointed pile of half-baked, angry ideas.” His purpose in this less angry final product is “to identify a new way of looking at our organizational and individual lives through rejecting certain assumptions that drive our economic system.” Some of it is indeed a new way for me and maybe for you, too.

In Closing

Roger Terry has given us an innovative alternative form of capitalism. Terrific! But there’s more! Wait until you see the rest of this series!

An Internet friend of mine who is also an editor and writer wrote not long ago that capitalism is intrinsically a despicable economic system that has caused the U.S. to be the scourge of humanity, so to speak.5 I posted this response to his article:

Capitalism, on the other hand, is not intrinsically the curse of humanity as you suggest. In two of my books, The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch; and, Corporate Reckoning Ahead, I present six viable, alternative forms of capitalism, none of which resemble the present form. And I laid out a way to put the latter in the dustbin of history. Of course, Americans have been duped by the corpocracy to accept the present form of capitalism as the only form, and unless they wise up and rise up America and the rest of the world will continue to suffer until the bitter end, which will also sweep away the power elite but not soon enough.

That commentary of mine underlies this series. By its end you will have come to your own conclusion if not way before.

• Read Part 1 here;

  1. Terry, R. Economic Insanity: How Growth-Driven Capitalism is Devouring the American Dream, 1995.
  2. Brumback, GB. Tall Performance from Short Organizations Through We/Me Power, 2004.
  3. Brumback, GB. “Economic Sanity and Alternative Economic Systems: Part 1. Introduction to the Series“, OpEdNews, May 16; Dissident Voice, May 17, 2018.
  4. Michael Treacy. “Double-Digit Growth: How Great Companies Achieve It-No Matter What”, New York: Portfolio, 2003.
  5. Pear, DW. “On U.S. Imperialism, Capitalism and Fascism”, OpEdNews, May 12, 2018.

“May Day” Militancy Needed To Create The Economy We Need

The Popular Resistance School will begin on May 1 and will be an eight-week course on how movements grow, build power and succeed as well as examine the role you can play in the movement. Sign up to be part of this school so you can participate in small group discussions about how to build a powerful, transformational movement. REGISTRATION CLOSES MIDNIGHT APRIL 30.

Seventy years of attacks on the right to unionize have left the union movement representing only 10 percent of workers. The investor class has concentrated its power and uses its power in an abusive way, not only against unions but also to create economic insecurity for workers.

At the same time, workers, both union and nonunion, are mobilizing more aggressively and protesting a wide range of economic, racial and environmental issues.

On this May Day, we reflect on the history of worker power and present lessons from our past to build power for the future.

May Day Workers of the World Unite, Melbourne, Australia, in 2012. By Johan Fantenberg, Flickr.

In most of the world, May Day is a day for workers to unite, but May Day is not recognized in the United States even though it originated here. On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the US walked off their jobs for the first May Day in history. It began in 1884, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed at their convention that workers themselves would institute the 8-hour day on May 1, 1886. In 1885 they called for protests and strikes to create the 8-hour work day. May Day was part of a revolt against abusive working conditions that caused deaths of workers, poverty wages, poor working conditions and long hours.

May Day gained permanence because of the Haymarket rally which followed. On May 3, Chicago police and workers clashed at the McCormick Reaper Works during a strike where locked-out steelworkers were beaten as they picketed and two unarmed workers were killed. The next day a rally was held at Haymarket Square to protest the killing and wounding of workers by police. The rally was peaceful, attended by families with children and the mayor himself. As the crowd dispersed, police attacked. A bomb was thrown—no one to this day knows who threw it—and police fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing several civilians and wounding forty. One officer was killed by the bomb and several more died from their own gunfire. A corrupt trial followed in August concluding with a biased jury convicting eight men, though only three of them were present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. Seven received a death sentence, the eighth was sentenced to 15 years, and in the end, four were hanged, one committed suicide and the remaining three were pardoned six years later. The trial shocked workers of the world and led to annual protests on May Day.

The unity of workers on May Day was feared by big business and government. That unity is shown by one of the founders of May Day, Lucy Parsons, who was of Mexican American, African American, and Native American Descent. Parsons, who was born into slavery, never ceased her work for racial, gender, and labor justice. Her partner was Albert Parsons, one of those convicted for Haymarket and hanged.

Solidarity across races and issues frightens the power structure. In 1894 President Grover Cleveland severed May Day from its roots by establishing Labor Day on the first Monday in September, after pressure to create a holiday for workers following the Pullman strike. Labor Day was recognized by unions before May Day. The US tried to further wipe May Day from the public’s memory by President Dwight Eisenhower proclaiming “Law and Order Day” on May 1, 1958.

Long Shoreman march in San Francisco on May Day 2008 in the first-ever strike action by U.S. workers against U.S. imperialist war. Source: The Internationalist

Escalation of Worker Protests Continues to Grow

Today, workers are in revolt, unions are under attack and the connections between workers’ rights and other issues are evident once again. Nicole Colson reports that activists on a range of issues, including racial and economic justice, immigrant rights, women’s rights, a new economy of worker-owners, transitioning to a clean energy economy with environmental and climate justice, and a world without war, are linking their struggles on May Day.

There has been a rising tide of worker militancy for years. The ongoing Fight for $15 protests helped raise the wages of 20 million workers and promoted their fight for a union. There are 64 million people working for less than $15 an hour. Last year there was also a massive 36-state strike involving 21,000 mobility workers.

Worker strikes continued into 2018 with teacher strikes over salaries, healthcare, pensions and school funding. Teachers rejected a union order to return to work. Even though it included a 5 percent raise, it was not until the cost of healthcare was dealt with that the teachers declared success. Teachers showed they could fight and win and taught others some lessons on striking against a hostile government. The West Virginia strike inspired others, and is followed by strikes in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona. These strikes may expand to other states, evidence of unrest has been seen in states including New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as Puerto Rico because courage is contagious.

Graduate students have gone on strike, as have transit and UPS workers and low-wage workers. The causes include stagnant wages, spiraling healthcare costs, and inadequate pensions. They are engaged in a fight for basic necessities. In 2016, there wasn’t a single county or state in which someone earning the federal minimum wage could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment at market rate.

Workers are also highlighting that women’s rights are worker’s rights. Even before the #MeToo movement took off, workers protested sexual harassment in the workplace. Workers in thirty states walked off the job at McDonald’s to protest, holding signs that said “McDonald’s Hands off my Buns” and “Put Some Respect in My Check.”

Last year on May Day, a mass mobilization of more than 100,000 immigrant workers walked off their jobs. This followed a February mobilization, a Day Without Immigrants. The Cosecha Movement has a long-term plan to build toward larger strikes and boycotts. There will be many worker revolts leading up to that day.

The Poor People’s Campaign has taken on the issues of the movement for economic, racial, environmental justice and peace. Among their demands are federal and state living wage laws, a guaranteed annual income for all people, full employment, and the right to unionize. It will launch 40 days of actions beginning on Mother’s Day. Workers announced a massive wave of civil disobedience actions this spring on the 50th anniversary of the sanitation strike in Memphis, at a protest where they teamed up with the Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for Black Lives.  Thousands of workers walked off their jobs in cities across the country.


Unrealized Worker Power Potential Can Be Achieved

The contradictions in the US economy have become severe. The wealth divide is extreme, three people have the wealth of half the population and one in five people have zero wealth or are in debt. The U.S. is ranked 35th out of 37 developed nations in poverty and inequality.  According to a UN report, 19 million people live in deep poverty including one-quarter of all youth. Thirty years of economic growth have been stagnant for most people in the US. A racial prism shows the last 50 years have made racial inequality even wider, with current policies worsening the situation.

May 5 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of economic philosopher, Karl Marx, the failure of US capitalism has become evident.  Over the last fifty years, in order for the few to exploit the many, labor laws have been put in place to weaken workers’ rights and unions.  Andrew Stewart summarizes some of the key points:

First, the National Labor Relations Act, signed by FDR, that legalized unionization. Or more precisely, it domesticated unions. When combined with the Taft-Hartley Act, the Railway Labor Act, and Norris-La Guardia Act, the union movements of America were forced into a set of confines that reduced its arsenal of tactics so significantly that they became a shell of their pre-NLRA days. And this, of course, leaves to the side the impact of the McCarthy witch hunts on the ranks of good organizers.

In addition, 28 states have passed so-called “right to work” laws that undermine the ability of workers to organize. And, the Supreme Court in the Janus case, which is likely to be ruled on this June, is likely to undermine public unions. On top of domestic laws, capitalist globalization led by US transnational corporations has undermined workers, caused de-industrialization and destroyed the environment. Trade must be remade to serve the people and planet, not profits of the few.

While this attack is happening, so is an increase in mobilizations, protests, and strikes. The total number of union members grew by 262,000 in 2017 and three-fourths of those were among workers aged 35 and under and 23% of new jobs for workers under 35 are unionized. With only 10 percent of workers in a union, there is massive room for growth at this time of economic insecurity.

Chris Hedges describes the new gig economy as the new serfdom. Uber drivers make $13.77 an hour, and in Detroit that drops to $8.77. He reports on drivers committing suicide. One man, who drove over 100 hours a week, wrote, “I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.” This while the former CEO of Uber, one of the founders, Travis Kalanick, has a net worth of $4.8 billion. The US has returned to pre-20th Century non-union working conditions. Hedges writes that workers now must “regain the militancy and rebuild the popular organizations that seized power from the capitalists.”

Solidarity across racial and economic divides is growing as all workers suffer from abuses of the all-powerful capitalist class. As those in power abuse their privilege, people are becoming more militant. We are seeing the blueprint for a new worker movement in the teacher strikes and Fight for $15. A movement of movements including labor, environmentalist, anti-corporate advocates, food reformers, healthcare advocates and more stopped the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This shows the potential of unified power.

In recent strikes, workers have rejected proposals urged by their union and have pushed for more. Told to go back to work, they continued to strike. The future is not unions who serve to calm labor disputes, but unions who escalate a conflict.

The future is more than re-legalizing unions and raising wages and benefits, it is building wealth in the population and creating structural changes to the economy. This requires a new economy where workers are owners, in worker cooperatives, so their labor builds power and wealth. Economic justice also requires a rewoven safety net that ensures the essentials of healthcare and housing, as well as non-corporatized public education, free college education, a federal job guarantee and a basic income for all.

The escalation of militancy should not demand the solutions of the past but demand the new economy of the future. By building community wealth through democratized institutions, we will reduce the wealth divide and the influence of economic inequality over our lives.

Challenging Capitalism through Workers’ Control

Workers’ assembly at Officine Zero, a former night train repair facility, in Rome (Photo: Officine Zero)

A common feature in every crisis situation, from the upheavals of the early 20th century to the neo-liberal re-structurings of the late 20th century, is the emergence of workers’ control – workers organising to take over their workplaces in order to defend their jobs and their communities. We interviewed Dario Azzellini* to talk about this issue in depth: the emergence of new values and social relations not just in the recuperated workplaces but also in the communities, the need to re-orient production, the overcoming of the separation between political, economic and social spheres, and the role of workers’ control in the larger struggle against capitalism.

*****

Ricardo Vaz: Why is workers’ control an important issue?

Dario Azzellino: It is an important issue because if we look at what is socialism, what Karl Marx described, the living example for him is the Paris Commune. It is the people taking matters into their own hands, and the state as such disappears because power is no longer delegated.

But I would say that workers’ control is one first step on a path to socialism, in the sense that control over production and workplace should not be only on behalf of the workers but also of the communities, the self-organised people in general. And even that is still not the last step, because as Marx says, the commune is the finally discovered political form, so it is still a political form. Socialism, or communism, is about going beyond politics, achieving the self-organisation of life.

So these are all intermediary steps, and even the commune would not be the final form, but we cannot even imagine the final form, because we are trapped in the imagination of what we know and what has been done. What has to be developed is probably beyond our imagination now.

RV: Nevertheless it is important also in the immediate context…

DA: Yes, because if workers take charge of their workplaces and decide on production, the labour processes, the values, everything changes. We have seen that in worker-controlled places. Security and health questions become central, and they are far from it in capitalist workplaces. For example, many worker-controlled workplaces start working with organic, or less toxic, production, because they are exposed to it.

Workers’ Control Poster

So once workers can decide, these questions become central. The struggle is no longer only about wage raises, which is the only struggle more or less allowed in the framework of capitalist society. Instead workers’ control is automatically challenging capitalism. We have a central field of conflict, and obviously all the other fronts, like gender, race, etc., are equally important. But labour and production are not only fundamental for society but also a field we all have in common and that is absolutely fundamental for our survival and to the structuring of the whole society. In this field all other contradictions obviously have to be tackled too.

We should not forget that the predominant way in which the economy and production are organised reflects on the rest of society. For example, as long as the dominant form of production was Fordism, the rest of society (universities, schools, bureaucracy) was organised in a Fordist way. So there is some kind of leverage if we are talking about labour and workers’ control.

RV:  In both books you have edited you describe lots of historical scenarios where workers’ control comes into play. What was the purpose of bringing together all these different experiments?

DA: We try to show, with the books and the research, how workers’ control is an important and recurring question, and we have to dig and make it known, because nobody is really interested in making it known. Unions have no interest in showing that workers can organise by themselves. Parties, which are based on the principle of representation, are also bypassed if the workers organise themselves. And, of course, capitalists would have even less interest.

But it is interesting that workers’ control comes to the fore in every kind of crisis, political, economical, in anti-colonial struggles, during the revolutions of the early 20th century, after WW2 or other wars, when capitalism is not able to develop because capitalists will invest into speculation and commerce and not into production. It happened during the neoliberal re-structurings of the early 80s, etc. So it happened always, not because the workers knew of previous experiments, but because it was something anthropologically present in the workers – get together, self-organise in a democratic way and try keep up the production, benefiting themselves and the people around them.

RV: What are the common features among all these different workers’ control attempts?

DA: This is the first common aspect, that in any situation of crisis, there are always workers that take responsibility for their jobs, for their workplaces, and for the people, for society. The second thing is that they choose democratic structures that are based on equality. They do not simply elect a new boss. Hierarchies disappear. It does not really matter what position was previously held in the production chain. That does not determine what one is able to do in a crisis.

For example, there is the Junin clinic that is now under workers control in Córdoba, Argentina. I visited it and the head of the cooperative now is the former janitor and technician, because he was the person who was most able to organise the struggle.  So he was elected as the formal head of a cooperative, which is still deciding everything in assemblies on a democratic base. This shows that the skills or capacities that are seemingly important in a capitalist hierarchy are not the same ones in a democratic and workers’ assembly-based structure.

Rally in support of the Junin Clinic which was taken over by the workers in Córdoba, Argentina (Photo: Junin Clinic)

Another common feature is that the workplace switches from a hierarchically organised workplace where the central aim is to produce as much surplus value as possible, to a place where the well-being of the workers and the purpose of production, what you produce and for whom, become the central question. So the social relations in the factory change, especially if these places go through a process of struggle or occupation, against former bosses, or political struggles. There is a trust that is built during these struggles which inevitably forces a change in the social relations.

One example of this is that it becomes less rigid that people have to fulfill the same amount of work. Or if people are sick or cannot come to work because their kids are sick, it is not a problem. It is understood by the other workers because of this relation of trust that I mentioned. This naturally contrasts with workplaces with a boss. But also in many traditional cooperatives, which do not have to go through this trust-building struggle, there is also more of a tendency to demand that everyone has to fulfill the same amount of work, there are conflicts about work hours, internal conflicts, etc.

RV: So recuperated factories/companies do not just go back to reproducing the old logic…

DA: Precisely. Especially if they have had a length of struggle, they do not go back, they do not re-install the hierarchies they got rid of. It is a bit different in places that did not have a long struggle. There was a bit of contradictory phenomenon, for example, in Venezuela1, where you had a government that was (supposedly) in favour of workers’ control. Workers would occupy a workplace and after two weeks the government would step in, expropriate the workplace and put in some provisional administration to then supposedly pass it over to the workers. At first glance this sounds great, but at the same time the workers did not have the time to form a collective, to build this conscience.

So very often you end up having conflicts among the workers, or you would never get to workers’ control because the administration was reluctant to do so. I say it is contradictory because you do not wish that people have to struggle for years without an income for their workplace, but on the other hand it is what then makes these worker-controlled companies really democratic and successful.

Ford Motor Company assembly line (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

RV: You mentioned cooperatives, and this is an important point to discuss. Most of these worker-controlled or worker-recuperated companies register legally as cooperatives. But as you have said, they are not like usual cooperatives. What are the main differences?

DA: The first main difference is that traditional cooperatives usually mean that people that already have similar ideas and values come together to build the cooperative. A workplace recuperation is very different, because everyone is involved. Everyone that is working there is also potentially there when the recuperation takes place. It is something that Gramsci describes when referring to the workers’ councils. He says that they are the real class organisation, because the whole class is there, not just political tendencies.

Another very important difference is that traditional cooperatives tend very much to base the right to decide on property, on being an owner of the cooperative. And that is problematic because it is the same logic as capitalism. Recuperated workplaces have democracy on the shop floor, and their starting point is to question private property of the means of production, so capitalism is immediately questioned. At the same time, almost none of these recuperated workplaces have models based on individual shares, or unequal shares, or even outside investors, or employ wage labour, features that are common for cooperatives.

So you have all these differences. Most of the time it is still more pleasant to work in a cooperative than in a pure capitalist private company, but what I stress is that cooperatives as such are only a democratisation within the framework of capitalism. Many cooperatives are driven by entrepreneurial or ownership logic, and by doing that they lead workers into what I call a “class limbo”. Workers no longer know that they are workers. This is especially strong in the US, where cooperatives are presented as an alternative business model, and not as an alternative model for society, or communities, or part of the workers’ struggle, which is what cooperativism historically meant. But given the way they live, the way they work, they are not entrepreneurs. They are workers!

This is in high contrast with the recuperated workplaces, where workers, having gone through these struggles, see themselves of part of the workers’ movement. There are a lot of recuperated companies in Argentina, for example, that have the rule that one day of the month they go and support other workers’ struggles, and it is part of their work. In Uruguay when companies in a given sector go on strike, workers in recuperated companies of the same sector go on strike as well so as to not undermine the struggle of the other workers.

Assembly in the recuperated Cerámica Zanon company in Argentina (Photo: La Izquierda Diario)

In a nutshell, cooperatives wage a struggle for survival in a capitalist system. Recuperated workplaces wage a struggle against the bourgeois law, often manifested in state repression, against the capitalist owners and private property. So workers are reinforced in their subjectivity as struggling workers, and as workers without a boss, and that is a fundamental difference.

RV: How would you characterise the relationship between recuperated workplaces and labour unions?

DA: It varies a lot.  It depends on how the unions work. There have been examples of unions that have supported worker takeovers, and this is very good because they can reach out to a broader public. But most of the times the unions either ignore or intervene in a negative way in these struggles, unfortunately.

In any case we should not see trade unionism and workers’ control as antagonistic projects, They are simply two different things, two different fronts of the struggle. One thing is a self-organisation in the workplace that allows for struggles that would not be possible with unions. Unions have their formal recognition and are interested in sticking to rules and laws to keep up this status of a “reliable partner”, so they will not do certain things, like wildcat strikes or occupations. They are not as flexible and not as fast in their decisions as the workers’ assemblies obviously are.

Rimaflow plant in Milan. Formerly a manufacturer of air-conditioning pipes for BMW, its activities under workers’ control now range from recycling of household appliances to producing artisanal liquor (Photo: still from “Occupy, Resist, Produce”)

RV: You mentioned how new social relations are produced in the workplace, but recuperated companies also create new social relations with their communities. Can you talk about that?

DA: Yes, the relation with the community and with other social movements is fundamental. In fact, we can put it the other way around. Of the examples of recuperated workplaces (factories, restaurants, print shops, hospitals, etc.) it is usually the ones that have a strong relationship with communities and other social movements that tend to be successful. The ones that tend to be isolated and do not have these strong relationships, often with time either turn into more or less traditional workplaces or cooperatives, withdrawing from the larger struggle, or they simply fail, because they did not have the necessary support.

And there is one question that is central to that. In the capitalist system closing down a workplace is simply a legal question. It is not a social question. It is not a political question. The law of the land is a bourgeois law that is based on property. Within these boundaries the chances of achieving something are minimal. So the main challenge for all these workers is to turn a legal question into a political question, and for that you need as much support as possible. You need the support of the communities, of other movements, of unions, maybe even of institutions and political instances. And with that you can win everything.

One example is the Republic Doors and Windows, the factory now called New Era Windows in Chicago, which is producing eco-friendly windows. When it was closed down and occupied for the second time, together with Occupy Chicago in 2010-11, the occupation got the workers the possibility to be at the negotiating table about the future of the factory, which they later agreed to buy. And the workers did that by forcing the banks that had taken over the bankrupted factory to pay them 1.5 million dollars for lost wages. Usually if there is money left (e.g. from selling machinery) it goes to the creditors. But the workers managed to do a political campaign that generated so much public support that the banks saw themselves forced to pay the workers 1.5 million dollars, even if legally they were not obligated to do that.

Workers of New Era Windows (Photo: workerscontrol.net)

RV: So they managed to turn a legal question into a political one…

DA: Exactly, and once you do that you can win everything, even things that seem completely impossible or that are not in the existing legal framework. That is one of the big reasons why it is important to have bonds with other movements and communities. The second one is that you create new values. Factory work is usually not fun, not even in a recovered factory. What keeps you working in capitalism is money, but in a recovered workplace the workers find new values, and one of the values is to be useful for society, not just for capitalism.

Many of these workplaces, if we are talking about industrial workplaces, are usually situated in poor communities. There are no factories in Beverly Hills! One usual feature of these poor communities is that they lack space. They lack space for social, collective activities. In Argentina, for example, where there are more than 400 recuperated workplaces, more than 60% give permanent space to community activities, from bachilleratos populares; i.e., the possibility for adults to re-do their school, to community radio stations, libraries, even just community festivities. So they become an important focus of community life, and the spaces in a certain way become commons, because they are used for other activities which are not immediately linked to production.

RV: Can you talk about the need for recuperated factories to re-orient production? Because if these factories are closed because they are not profitable any more, workers cannot just go back to what they were producing before.

DA: Indeed, often it is simply not possible to continue the production that existed before. One example is Officine Zero 2, a former night train repair facility in Rome. Night trains are almost gone in Europe. There is only one facility left which is enough for the few night trains that still run. Most of the trains are fast-track trains now, so you cannot continue planning to produce or repair night trains. The workers that took over the factory now engage in a number of activities, such as recycling domestic appliances or furniture, and have continued the workshops they had – upholstery, carpentry, iron works and others.

Another example is Rimaflow in Milan3 which was producing air-conditioning pipes mainly for BMW cars. The owner took out the machines, but even if he had not, BMW was not going to buy air-conditioning pipes from an occupied factory! So you have to re-invent yourself. But that is good, because then the workers start thinking about useful production. Rimaflow started with a mix of activities, for example, upcycling and recycling of household electric appliances and computers.

Later they raised money for an air-conditioning system and set up a hall to recycle industrial pallets. So they collect industrial pallets from all kinds of factories, put them back together and sell them back. They also started an artisanal food and liquor production, cooperating with organic cooperatives. They produce Rimoncello, which is a lemon liquor (originally Limoncello), together with cooperatives from Southern Italy which pay fair wages to immigrant seasonal workers, and they produce Amaro Partigiano (a digestive liquor) together with the Italian Institute for Partisan Studies.

A traditional economist might call this “patchwork”. But I would disagree. This does make sense. We have to transform our society in every sense, so these successful examples of industrial conversion make sense, because naturally we are not occupying the workplaces to simply go on with the same capitalist production we had before. We do not want to take over everything and then keep producing military helicopters!

RV: Along these lines: in capitalist societies, in liberal democracies, there is a separation between economic, social and political spheres. How do worker recuperated companies, by themselves and through their relations with communities, challenge this separation?

DA: Yes, I think that is a central aspect of what we can call “council democracy” as a model for communes, worker-controlled workplaces, etc. Capitalism, and bourgeois society, is always based on the division of spheres. The first step is the division between the political and social spheres, which is never justified. It is there to be accepted a priori. Because there is no reason why some people should be governing and others should be governed.

The second separation is that the economic sphere is supposed to be separate, autonomous, often likened to living organism that society has to keep feeding. We get to this point where it sounds mythological, like the market is this kind of dragon that needs to be fed all the time otherwise it will get angry and destroy everyone! Which is also totally absurd, because the economy should be serving society, it should be serving the people, not the other way around.

The recuperated workplaces are obviously an overcoming of that. First of all because usually there is no representation, there are only spokespeople. The decisions are taken by the people concerned with the issues and not delegated, which is the foundation of the separate political sphere. Secondly, the economic decisions are also taken directly by those involved in the production process, and subject to their political decisions and social needs. So this separation of spheres is tendentially overcome.

Officine Zero in Rome. A former night train repair facility, it is now under workers’ control, and its activities range from recycling appliances and furniture to holding workshops (Photo: still from “Occupy, Resist, Produce”)

There is a second division of spheres which is characteristic to capitalism and bourgeois society that is also tendentially overcome, namely, the division between intellectual and manual work. The person that is unloading the pallets from the truck has as much to say in the assemblies as the engineer that is adjusting the computer-led production process, for example. It is also quite common to have much more job rotation, people learning new tasks and developing new ideas; therefore there is much less of the traditional division of labour and particularly between intellectual and manual work.

Also when we talk about overcoming the division between political, social and economic spheres, we should always stress that this is a “tendency towards…”. Because as long as we are in a capitalist system it would be an illusion to think that we can be totally move beyond that.

RV: You cannot just create an island…

DA: You cannot create a happy island in the capitalist system. You can work towards overcoming the system, which means you have to expand. One of the things they always stressed in Rimaflow was that they needed to build a new economy because the economy of the bosses is not working anymore, and we can be successful if examples such as Rimaflow occur 100, 1000 times. A happy little island will not survive. The system will crush it.

Many cooperatives had a lot of idealism concerning this issue, and their ideals faded away with the age of the members and immersion in capitalism, or the cooperatives got big and got bought up. That is why I am always speaking of a tendency towards building a new economy, overcoming the separation of spheres, etc.

RV: With globalisation and the evolution of capitalism, there is a fragmentation or an atomisation of the production chain. Does this present new challenges for workers’ control, or make this question more urgent?

DA: Yes, it presents new challenges but also new opportunities. For example, the necessity of building local and regional economies is growing. Because of the ongoing globalisation, capital is concentrating more and more in ever fewer metropolitan spaces. So the necessity to build local and regional economic systems, and to keep wealth where it is produced, is becoming more urgent. This represents a chance for workers’ control and more localised production and distribution.

The fragmentation of the production chain is itself a very contradictory issue. For example, in the US, there is a tendency of insourcing again. Car manufacturers in the US are insourcing again a lot of production steps that they had outsourced before. This proves that the outsourcing was never about saving money or being more efficient, it was simply about the destruction of the workers’ power. So now that they have destroyed the unions in the car sector, that used to be some of the few strong unions in the US, they are insourcing again all these production steps.

Artistic rendering of the Fiat Factory in Longotto, Turin (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But the fragmentation, which is not only a fragmentation of the production chain but also inside the workplace itself, makes it a much more subjective act to be collective and to struggle than it was before. You had companies like Fiat, which had 70 or 80 thousand workers which were automatically organised because 95% of them had the same contract and the same work conditions. You look now at the same Fiat factory, It has 12 thousand workers that have probably 40 different kinds of contracts, from part-time contracts, to sub-contracted labourers, to insourced work, or seasonal labour, and at the same time you have another 70,000 workers in the greater region of Turin which are working in different outsourced, independent companies, or even as independent workers.

So in Fordism the factory was the entity doing the workers’ movement a “favour” by homogenising the workers, in some sense creating the class and class conflict (the class constitutes itself as conflict, it does not exist as such or derive from a certain position in the production process). Now work is fragmenting and differentiating people. That makes it much more difficult to create a collective vision and struggle, to avoid turning against each other. Because capitalism will then point to a group and tell them they cannot earn more because of the privileges of the other group over there…

RV: It becomes a race to the bottom…

DA: Exactly, it becomes a race to the bottom, in the form of part-time contracts, or temporary work, and with all these divisions among workers. It is creating a very problematic situation, also from the point of view of production, and that is why I think it is very important to take over as many workplaces as possible, and to use these workplaces, as well cooperatives that place themselves into a political/labour/class struggle logic, to build production chains.

For example, in Argentina, a study of about 80 recuperated factories showed that over 16% of the commercial activity, sales or buying resources and parts, was done with other recuperated workplaces, and almost 2% was with the solidarity economy or other kinds of cooperatives.4 This means that almost 20% of what they are doing is in a cycle that, while not being complete out of capitalism, does not strictly follow the rules of capitalism. You are supporting different labour relations and social relations by having these economic relationships. Therefore I think it is important that we have as many worker-controlled workplaces as possible and that we also start thinking about creating production chains.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Rimaflow launched “Amaro Partigiano” in 2017 (Photo: Rimaflow)

RV: To finish, do you want to tell us about the website workerscontrol.net that you helped found?

DA: What we are trying to do is to create a virtual archive with workers’ control experiences from all kinds of epochs and different languages. We have functioning Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, Portuguese and Greek. The idea was to build a network of researchers and activists from recuperated workplaces, to make available as many experiences as possible. Because up to now there was nothing like that. You only had websites or sources dedicated to specific authors or to specific recuperated workplaces.

We founded it also as a decentralised network. There is no central group reviewing what can be on the website or not, so all the nodes are autonomous and free to publish whatever they think is useful in the framework of workers’ control. It is an interesting network of collaboration between people with different political orientations, people that consider themselves council communists, or more anarcho-syndicalists, others Luxemburgian or Gramscian, others Trotskyist, others might be more workerist/operaist, others more traditional Marxists.

What we all have in common is that we support workers’ control and want to create access to as much information as possible. We are now in a process of redesigning the website, which will be relaunched in a few months with a new design and more visibility.

• First published in Investig’Action

*Dario Azzellini is a sociologist, political scientist, author and documentary filmmaker. He has worked and written extensively on the issue of workers’ control, including two recently edited books, Ours to master and to own. Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (with Immanuel Ness) and An Alternative Labor History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy. He has also produced a series of documentaries on this issue called “Occupy, Resist, Produce” (with Oliver Ressler). More information about his work can be found on his website.

  1. A second interview with Dario Azzellini on the issue of communes and workers’ control in Venezuela will be published shortly.
  2. The documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” dedicated to Officine Zero is available here.
  3. The documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” dedicated to Rimaflow is available here
  4. Information from this report, pages 35-36.

Why is Workers’ Control an Important Issue?

Workers’ Assembly at Officine Zero, a former night train facility in Rome (Photo: Officine Zero)

A common feature in every crisis situation, from the upheavals of the early 20th century to the neo-liberal re-structurings of the late 20th century, is the emergence of workers’ control – workers organising to take over their workplaces in order to defend their jobs and their communities. We interviewed Dario Azzellini* to talk about this issue in depth: the emergence of new values and social relations not just in the recuperated workplaces but also in the communities, the need to re-orient production, the overcoming of the separation between political, economic and social spheres, and the role of workers’ control in the larger struggle against capitalism.

*****

Ricardo Vaz:  Why is workers’ control an important issue?

Dario Azzellini:  It is an important issue because if we look at what is socialism, what Karl Marx described, the living example for him is the Paris Commune. It is the people taking matters into their own hands, and the state as such disappears because power is no longer delegated.

But I would say that workers’ control is one first step on a path to socialism, in the sense that control over production and workplace should not be only on behalf of the workers but also of the communities, the self-organised people in general. And even that is still not the last step, because as Marx says, the commune is the finally discovered political form, so it is still a political form. Socialism, or communism, is about going beyond politics, achieving the self-organisation of life.

So these are all intermediary steps, and even the commune would not be the final form, but we cannot even imagine the final form, because we are trapped in the imagination of what we know and what has been done. What has to be developed is probably beyond our imagination now.

RV: Nevertheless it is important also in the immediate context…

DA: Yes, because if workers take charge of their workplaces and decide on production, the labour processes, the values, everything changes. We have seen that in worker-controlled places. Security and health questions become central, and they are far from it in capitalist workplaces. For example, many worker-controlled workplaces start working with organic, or less toxic, production, because they are exposed to it.

Workers’ Control Poster

So once workers can decide, these questions become central. The struggle is no longer only about wage raises, which is the only struggle more or less allowed in the framework of capitalist society. Instead workers’ control is automatically challenging capitalism. We have a central field of conflict, and obviously all the other fronts, like gender, race, etc., are equally important. But labour and production are not only fundamental for society but also a field we all have in common and that is absolutely fundamental for our survival and to the structuring of the whole society. In this field all other contradictions obviously have to be tackled too.

We should not forget that the predominant way in which the economy and production are organised reflects on the rest of society. For example, as long as the dominant form of production was Fordism, the rest of society (universities, schools, bureaucracy) was organised in a Fordist way. So there is some kind of leverage if we are talking about labour and workers’ control.

RV: In both books you have edited you describe lots of historical scenarios where workers’ control comes into play. What was the purpose of bringing together all these different experiments?

DA:  We try to show, with the books and the research, how workers’ control is an important and recurring question, and we have to dig and make it known, because nobody is really interested in making it known. Unions have no interest in showing that workers can organise by themselves. Parties, which are based on the principle of representation, are also bypassed if the workers organise themselves. And, of course, capitalists would have even less interest.

But it is interesting that workers’ control comes to the fore in every kind of crisis, political, economical, in anti-colonial struggles, during the revolutions of the early 20th century, after WW2 or other wars, when capitalism is not able to develop because capitalists will invest into speculation and commerce and not into production, It happened during the neoliberal re-structurings of the early 80s, etc. So it happened always, not because the workers knew of previous experiments, but because it was something anthropologically present in the workers – get together, self-organise in a democratic way and try keep up the production, benefiting themselves and the people around them.

RV: What are the common features among all these different workers’ control attempts?

DA: This is the first common aspect, that in any situation of crisis, there are always workers that take responsibility for their jobs, for their workplaces, and for the people, for society. The second thing is that they choose democratic structures that are based on equality. They do not simply elect a new boss. Hierarchies disappear. It does not really matter what position was previously held in the production chain. That does not determine what one is able to do in a crisis.

For example, there is the Junin clinic that is now under workers’ control in Córdoba, Argentina. I visited it and the head of the cooperative now is the former janitor and technician, because he was the person who was most able to organise the struggle. So he was elected as the formal head of a cooperative, which is still deciding everything in assemblies on a democratic base. This shows that the skills or capacities that are seemingly important in a capitalist hierarchy are not the same ones in a democratic and workers’ assembly based structure.

Rally in support of the Junin Clinic which was taken over by the workers in Córdoba, Argentina (Photo: Junin Clinic)

Another common feature is that the workplace switches from a hierarchically organised workplace where the central aim is to produce as much surplus value as possible, to a place where the well-being of the workers and the purpose of production, what you produce and for whom, become the central question. So the social relations in the factory change, especially if these places go through a process of struggle or occupation, against former bosses, or political struggles. There is a trust that is built during these struggles which inevitably forces a change in the social relations.

One example of this is that it becomes less rigid that people have to fulfill the same amount of work. Or if people are sick or cannot come to work because their kids are sick, it is not a problem. It is understood by the other workers because of this relation of trust that I mentioned. This naturally contrasts with workplaces with a boss. But also in many traditional cooperatives, which do not have to go through this trust-building struggle, there is also more of a tendency to demand that everyone has to fulfill the same amount of work, there are conflicts about work hours, internal conflicts, etc.

RV: So recuperated factories/companies do not just go back to reproducing the old logic…

DA: Precisely. Especially if they have had a length of struggle, they do not go back, they do not re-install the hierarchies they got rid of. It is a bit different in places that did not have a long struggle. There was a bit of contradictory phenomenon, for example, in Venezuela1 where you had a government that was (supposedly) in favour of workers’ control. Workers would occupy a workplace and after two weeks the government would step in, expropriate the workplace and put in some provisional administration to then supposedly pass it over to the workers. At first glance this sounds great, but at the same time the workers did not have the time to form a collective, to build this conscience.

So very often you end up having conflicts among the workers, or you would never get to workers’ control because the administration was reluctant to do so. I say it is contradictory because you do not wish that people have to struggle for years without an income for their workplace, but on the other hand it is what then makes these worker-controlled companies really democratic and successful.

 

Ford Motor Company assembly line (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

RV: You mentioned cooperatives, and this is an important point to discuss. Most of these worker-controlled or worker recuperated companies register legally as cooperatives. But as you have said, they are not like usual cooperatives. What are the main differences?

DA: The first main difference is that traditional cooperatives usually mean that people that already have similar ideas and values come together to build the cooperative. A workplace recuperation is very different, because everyone is involved. Everyone that is working there is also potentially there when the recuperation takes place. It is something that Gramsci describes when referring to the workers’ councils. He says that they are the real class organisation, because the whole class is there, not just political tendencies.

Another very important difference is that traditional cooperatives tend very much to base the right to decide on property, on being an owner of the cooperative. And that is problematic because it is the same logic as capitalism. Recuperated workplaces have democracy on the shop floor, and their starting point is to question private property of the means of production, so capitalism is immediately questioned. At the same time, almost none of these recuperated workplaces have models based on individual shares, or unequal shares, or even outside investors, or employ wage labour, features that are common for cooperatives.

So you have all these differences. Most of the time it is still more pleasant to work in a cooperative than in a pure capitalist private company, but what I stress is that cooperatives as such are only a democratisation within the framework of capitalism. Many cooperatives are driven by entrepreneurial or ownership logic, and by doing that they lead workers into what I call a “class limbo”. Workers no longer know that they are workers. This is especially strong in the US, where cooperatives are presented as an alternative business model, and not as an alternative model for society, or communities, or part of the workers’ struggle, which is what cooperativism historically meant. But given the way they live, the way they work, they are not entrepreneurs, they are workers!

This is in high contrast with the recuperated workplaces, where workers, having gone through these struggles, see themselves of part of the workers’ movement. There are a lot of recuperated companies in Argentina, for example, that have the rule that one day of the month they go and support other workers’ struggles, and it is part of their work. In Uruguay when companies in a given sector go on strike, workers in recuperated companies of the same sector go on strike as well so as to not undermine the struggle of the other workers.

Assembly in the recuperated Cerámica Zanon company in Argentina (Photo: La Izquierda Diario)

In a nutshell, cooperatives wage a struggle for survival in a capitalist system. Recuperated workplaces wage a struggle against the bourgeois law, often manifested in state repression, against the capitalist owners and private property. So workers are reinforced in their subjectivity as struggling workers, and as workers without a boss, and that is a fundamental difference.

RV: How would you characterise the relationship between recuperated workplaces and labour unions?

DA: It varies a lot.  It depends on how the unions work. There have been examples of unions that have supported worker takeovers, and this is very good because they can reach out to a broader public. But most of the times the unions either ignore or intervene in a negative way in these struggles, unfortunately.

In any case we should not see trade unionism and workers’ control as antagonistic projects. They are simply two different things, two different fronts of the struggle. One thing is a self-organisation in the workplace that allows for struggles that would not be possible with unions. Unions have their formal recognition and are interested in sticking to rules and laws to keep up this status of a “reliable partner”, so they will not do certain things, like wildcat strikes or occupations. They are not as flexible and not as fast in their decisions as the workers’ assemblies obviously are.

Rimaflow plant in Milan. Formerly a manufacturer of air-conditioning pipes for BMW, its activities under workers’ control now range from recycling of household appliances to producing artisanal liquor (Photo: still from “Occupy, Resist, Produce”)

RV: You mentioned how new social relations are produced in the workplace, but recuperated companies also create new social relations with their communities. Can you talk about that?

DA: Yes, the relation with the community and with other social movements is fundamental. In fact, we can put it the other way around. Of the examples of recuperated workplaces (factories, restaurants, print shops, hospitals, etc.) it is usually the ones that have a strong relationship with communities and other social movements that tend to be successful. The ones that tend to be isolated and do not have these strong relationships, often with time either turn into more or less traditional workplaces or cooperatives, withdrawing from the larger struggle, or they simply fail, because they did not have the necessary support.

And there is one question that is central to that. In the capitalist system closing down a workplace is simply a legal question. It is not a social question, it is not a political question. The law of the land is a bourgeois law that is based on property. Within these boundaries the chances of achieving something are minimal. So the main challenge for all these workers is to turn a legal question into a political question, and for that you need as much support as possible. You need the support of the communities, of other movements, of unions, maybe even of institutions and political instances. And with that you can win everything.

One example is the Republic Doors and Windows, the factory now called New Era Windows in Chicago, which is producing eco-friendly windows. When it was closed down and occupied for the second time, together with Occupy Chicago in 2010-11, the occupation got the workers the possibility to be at the negotiating table about the future of the factory, which they later agreed to buy. And the workers did that by forcing the banks that had taken over the bankrupted factory to pay them 1.5 million dollars for lost wages. Usually if there is money left (e.g. from selling machinery) it goes to the creditors. But the workers managed to do a political campaign that generated so much public support that the banks saw themselves forced to pay the workers 1.5 million dollars, even if legally they were not obligated to do that.

>Workers of New Era Windows (Photo: workerscontrol.net)

RV: So they managed to turn a legal question into a political one…

DA: Exactly, and once you do that you can win everything, even things that seem completely impossible or that are not in the existing legal framework. That is one of the big reasons why it is important to have bonds with other movements and communities. The second one is that you create new values. Factory work is usually not fun, not even in a recovered factory. What keeps you working in capitalism is money, but in a recovered workplace the workers find new values, and one of the values is to be useful for society, not just for capitalism.

Many of these workplaces, if we are talking about industrial workplaces, are usually situated in poor communities. There are no factories in Beverly Hills! One usual feature of these poor communities is that they lack space. They lack space for social, collective activities. In Argentina, for example, where there are more than 400 recuperated workplaces, more than 60% give permanent space to community activities, from bachilleratos populares; i.e., the possibility for adults to re-do their school, to community radio stations, libraries, even just community festivities. So they become an important focus of community life, and the spaces in a certain way become commons, because they are used for other activities which are not immediately linked to production.

RV: Can you talk about the need for recuperated factories to re-orient production? Because if these factories are closed because they are not profitable any more, workers cannot just go back to what they were producing before.

DA: Indeed, often it is simply not possible to continue the production that existed before. One example is Officine Zero2 a former night train repair facility in Rome. Night trains are almost gone in Europe, there is only one facility left which is enough for the few night trains that still run. Most of the trains are fast-track trains now, so you cannot continue planning to produce or repair night trains. The workers that took over the factory now engage in a number of activities, such as recycling domestic appliances or furniture, and have continued the workshops they had – upholstery, carpentry, iron works and others.

The second separation is that the economic sphere is supposed to be separate, autonomous, often likened to living organism that society has to keep feeding. We get to this point where it sounds mythological, like the market is this kind of dragon that needs to be fed all the time otherwise it will get angry and destroy everyone! Which is also totally absurd, because the economy should be serving society, it should be serving the people, not the other way around.

The recuperated workplaces are obviously an overcoming of that. First of all because usually there is no representation, there are only spokespeople. The decisions are taken by the people concerned with the issues and not delegated, which is the foundation of the separate political sphere. Secondly, the economic decisions are also taken directly by those involved in the production process, and subject to their political decisions and social needs. So this separation of spheres is tendentially overcome.

Officine Zero in Rome. A former night train repair facility, it is now under workers’ control, and its activities range from recycling appliances and furniture to holding workshops (Photo: still from “Occupy, Resist, Produce”)

There is a second division of spheres which is characteristic to capitalism and bourgeois society, that is also tendentially overcome, namely, the division between intellectual and manual work. The person that is unloading the pallets from the truck has as much to say in the assemblies as the engineer that is adjusting the computer-led production process, for example. It is also quite common to have much more job rotation, people learning new tasks and developing new ideas. Therefore there is much less of the traditional division of labour and particularly between intellectual and manual work.

Also when we talk about overcoming the division between political, social and economic spheres, we should always stress that this is a “tendency towards…”. Because as long as we are in a capitalist system it would be an illusion to think that we can be totally move beyond that.

RV: You cannot just create an island…

DA: You cannot create a happy island in the capitalist system. You can work towards overcoming the system, which means you have to expand. One of the things they always stressed in Rimaflow was that they needed to build a new economy because the economy of the bosses is not working anymore, and we can be successful if examples such as Rimaflow occur 100, 1000 times. A happy little island will not survive, the system will crush it.

Many cooperatives had a lot of idealism concerning this issue, and their ideals faded away with the age of the members and immersion in capitalism, or the cooperatives got big and got bought up. That is why I am always speaking of a tendency towards building a new economy, overcoming the separation of spheres, etc.

RV: With globalisation and the evolution of capitalism, there is a fragmentation or an atomisation of the production chain. Does this present new challenges for workers’ control, or make this question more urgent?

DA: Yes, it presents new challenges but also new opportunities. For example, the necessity of building local and regional economies is growing. Because of the ongoing globalisation, capital is concentrating more and more in ever fewer metropolitan spaces. So the necessity to build local and regional economic systems, and to keep wealth where it is produced, is becoming more urgent. This represents a chance for workers’ control and more localised production and distribution.

The fragmentation of the production chain is itself a very contradictory issue. For example, in the US, there is a tendency of insourcing again. Car manufacturers in the US are insourcing again a lot of production steps that they had outsourced before. This proves that the outsourcing was never about saving money or being more efficient. It was simply about the destruction of the workers’ power. So now that they have destroyed the unions in the car sector, that used to be some of the few strong unions in the US, they are insourcing again all these production steps.

Artistic rendering of the Fiat factory in Lingotto, Turin (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But the fragmentation, which is not only a fragmentation of the production chain but also inside the workplace itself, makes it a much more subjective act to be collective and to struggle than it was before. You had companies like Fiat, which had 70 or 80 thousand workers which were automatically organised because 95% of them had the same contract and the same work conditions. You look now at the same Fiat factory, it has 12 thousand workers that have probably 40 different kinds of contracts, from part-time contracts, to sub-contracted labourers, to insourced work, or seasonal labour, and at the same time you have another 70.000 workers in the greater region of Turin which are working in different outsourced, independent companies, or even as independent workers.

So in Fordism the factory was the entity doing the workers’ movement a “favour” by homogenising the workers, in some sense creating the class and class conflict (the class constitutes itself as conflict, it does not exist as such or derive from a certain position in the production process). Now work is fragmenting and differentiating people. That makes it much more difficult to create a collective vision and struggle, to avoid turning against each other. Because capitalism will then point to a group and tell them they cannot earn more because of the privileges of the other group over there…

RV: It becomes a race to the bottom…

DA: Exactly, it becomes a race to the bottom, in the form of part-time contracts, or temporary work, and with all these divisions among workers. It is creating a very problematic situation, also from the point of view of production, and that is why I think it is very important to take over as many workplaces as possible, and to use these workplaces, as well cooperatives that place themselves into a political/labour/class struggle logic, to build production chains.

For example, in Argentina, a study of about 80 recuperated factories showed that over 16% of the commercial activity, sales or buying resources and parts, was done with other recuperated workplaces, and almost 2% was with the solidarity economy or other kinds of cooperatives.3 This means that almost 20% of what they are doing is in a cycle that, while not being complete out of capitalism, does not strictly follow the rules of capitalism. You are supporting different labour relations and social relations by having these economic relationships. Therefore I think it is important that we have as many worker-controlled workplaces as possible and that we also start thinking about creating production chains.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Rimaflow launched “Amaro Partigiano” in 2017 (Photo: Rimaflow)

RV: To finish, do you want to tell us about the website workerscontrol.net that you helped found?

DA: What we are trying to do is to create a virtual archive with workers’ control experiences from all kinds of epochs and different languages. We have functioning Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, Portuguese and Greek. The idea was to build a network of researchers and activists from recuperated workplaces, to make available as many experiences as possible. Because up to now there was nothing like that. You only had websites or sources dedicated to specific authors or to specific recuperated workplaces.

We founded it also as a decentralised network. There is no central group reviewing what can be on the website or not, so all the nodes are autonomous and free to publish whatever they think is useful in the framework of workers’ control. It is an interesting network of collaboration between people with different political orientations, people that consider themselves council communists, or more anarcho-syndicalists, others Luxemburgian or Gramscian, others Trotskyist, others might be more workerist/operaist, others more traditional Marxists.

What we all have in common is that we support workers’ control and want to create access to as much information as possible. We are now in a process of redesigning the website, which will be relaunched in a few months with a new design and more visibility.

• First published at Investig’Action

 

 

 

 

  1. A second interview with Dario Azzellini on the issue of communes and workers’ control in Venezuela will be published shortly
  2. The documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” dedicated to Rimaflow is available here. The one dedicated to Officine Zero is available here.
  3. Information from this report, pages 35-36.

Socialist Planning Circles

Common objections to socialist planning from below

In my last article, “Do You Socialists Have Any Plans? Why We Need Socialist Architects“, I argued that the only way 21st century socialism is going to get any traction with working class people is to not only have a socialist vision, but also to have feasible plans which suggest transitions in between the current capitalist crisis and our ultimate vision.

In that article, I presented the following objections along with their rebuttal through a dialogue between two workers: an older worker, Andrew, and a young, anarchist worker, Sean. The objections of Sean to socialist planning transitions were:

  • Marx said a plan isn’t necessary—the workers of the future will figure this out.
  • Workers are only capable of dealing with survival needs. Planning is too remote from every-day life for them.
  • Plans are rigid and can’t do justice to the complexity of social life.
  • Plans aren’t implemented as politics gets in the way. (Stalin’s chaotic five-year plan)
  • There is something inherently revolutionary about collective spontaneity.

Let’s examine some small but hopeful moments that could benefit from and be deepened by socialists who have collective experience making socialist plans.

Disaster socialism as a precursor

In his book Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action, David Miller cites convincing research demonstrating that natural disasters bring out the best rather than the worst in people. Contrary to centrist newspapers’ mantras about “looting”, most people respond to a crisis heroically. Instead of mainstream newspapers’ warmed-over version of a Lord of the Flies scenario, if we examine the mass behavior in the recent hurricanes to hit Florida, Texas, Mexico and Puerto Rico, we find stories of people acting altruistically, in socialist ways. From a socialist point of view, the problems with the crowd’s altruistic response to these disasters is that after the storm people have not built socialist institutions that can help them extend their altruism longer before the return to a rapidly collapsing capitalism. Yet the behavior of masses of people in natural disasters is very close to how people behave in revolutionary situations. How can we preserve and deepen the memory of such collective creativity?

Workers cooperatives

Capitalists have done a good job of convincing people that there is “no alternative to capitalism because all socialism is Stalinism – and that has failed. This ignores the fact that workers’ self-management, workers’ control, and worker cooperatives currently exist and many are surviving with better production records than capitalist businesses or workers under state socialism. (Seymour Melman’s book After Capitalism provides a wonderful description of this). In the case of worker cooperatives, they are managed and run by workers themselves, most of whom have ownership in the company. Through regularly held general assemblies, workers decide together what will be produced, how much will be produced, how long and how hard they will work and what they will be paid. They also decide what tools and resources they will purchase and what they will do with the surplus. This is a radical departure from companies where workers have no say in any of these matters. John Curl’s book, For All the People documents the history of workers’ co-ops.We don’t expect miracles from any worker co-op because they still have to exist within a decaying world capitalist system. However, worker co-ops and the flashes of “disaster socialism” are promising.

Rank-and-file union democracy

As many of you know, radical unions in the early 20th century in the United States like the Wobblies used to talk about workers running things on their own, having “One Big Union”. Now unions have given up any vision of workers running anything. Instead, they preside over the most myopic concerns at sparsely attended meetings. In fact, when my partner once asked her shop steward at the university where she worked, “why don’t all these separate unions unite under one union instead of having numerous small ones? Wouldn’t we be stronger united?”, the steward looked at her like she was from another planet. Despite this, one small bright spot in the United States is Labor Notes, a monthly publication which tracks union activity around the US from the point of view of the rank-and-file. These monthly reports are union workers’ experiences with the strategies and tactics they used to combat employers and were largely independent of union leadership.

What is missing from these scenes of “disaster socialism” workers’ co-ops and rank-and file union democracy is a unified political party which coordinates, synchronizes, deepens and expands all these activities and spreads them to wider sectors of society with some kind of transition program. We don’t have such a party, but if we did the party would need a coordinated plan to link these experiences together in time and space.

Limitations of Trotskyist transition programs

Unlike anarchists, Leninists have experience with state power and understand the importance of a socialist transition program which takes years and decades to implement. In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party used to lay out a transition program as part of their presidential runs. We think this was a very good idea. The problem here is that all the imaginary planning was done by the vanguard party. “The workers”, as Lenin said, “can attain only a trade union consciousness”. They need to be injected with the collective imagination of the vanguard. But the workers of Russia during the first four years of the revolution and the Spanish workers during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 showed more collective imagination than any vanguard party. They developed general assemblies, workers’ councils, and direct democracy by politically mandating delegates rather than representatives. Optimally, these delegates were rotated and were strictly recallable. These were the inventions of working class collective creativity that were not imposed on them by any socialist leadership. In the case of Russia, it was the Bolshevik party that reacted and supported these councils or “soviets”, for a time. But the origin of these political forms were workers, peasants and soldiers.

Filling in the Gaps

As I said in my previous article, socialists are very good at criticizing capitalism. You can get us to argue about what would and wouldn’t be allowed in our ideal socialist society: whether or not to abolish inheritance; how people should be compensated for their work or whether we use labor vouchers or dissolve all mediated exchange of products and services. But the moment you say “what about the messy transition from the current capitalist crisis to our ideal conditions?”, almost everyone disappears.

There are a few visionaries who propose scenarios about what socialist futures might look like and how to get there, including David Schweickart, John Romer, Michael Albert, and Erik Olin Wright. But do radical organizers use these plans? No. They either don’t know about them or they do know, and they dismiss them because the theorists are academics. But worse, they don’t even think plans are necessary. At best, radical organizers go from socialist principles directly to strategies, tactics and then to collective actions. My claim in this article is that between principles and actions there needs to be socialist plans that inform strategies and tactics. Plans mediate between principles and strategies. They ground principles, making them more tangible while they give wings to strategies by keeping the long-view in mind.

Here is what I don’t understand. Socialists have no problem starting and sustaining book clubs in which they discuss and learn what the great theorists say. There are book clubs about politics, economics, history and anthropology. But there are no meeting groups where socialists are forced to write detailed plans to answer questions such as:

  • Give me a snap-shot version of how a socialist future will work in terms of politics, economics, the workplace, housing and education.
  • How long do you project it would it take, and by what process are you going to get there?

If I weren’t already a socialist these are the questions I would expect most socialists to be able to answer readily. If they couldn’t do this I’d never take them seriously. If fiction-writing groups get together and write stories, why don’t socialists get together and share their dreams as architects of socialism?

My Personal experience with socialist planning circles

About three years ago, four of us got together for over a year and engaged in what we called a “socialist planning circle”. We met for three hours once every two weeks. We each developed our own plans for the most basic social institutions that would need to be reorganized as part of the revolution – food production, basic housing, energy harnessing, transportation systems, and workplace organization, to name a few.

The kind of controversies we addressed were:

  • Economic allocation systems: who is entitled to what under what conditions?
  • What does a transition out of the wage system look like?
  • How do we institute a global minimum wage to keep capitalists from leaving a country?
  • How to we abolish finance capital? Is there a place for “socialist banks?”
  • How might food cooperatives reorganize food production?
  • If we want to abolish the prison system, what do we do with people who continue to engage in anti-social activities?
  • By what process would shortening the work week be institutionalized?
  • Which social industries can afford to be localized and which, say, energy system might need to remain centralized?
  • How to coordinate workers’ councils from the local to regional level?
  • Will we still have a need for political parties and if so, how would they be organized?

Our procedure in socialist planning circles

We agreed on an area in social life from our master list, say economic allocation. Over the next two weeks we each created our own vision of the future about economic allocation. We each made a table entitled “The Current Crisis of Capitalism” and followed it through in six phases:

  • Transition one phase
  • Justification for transition one
  • Transition two phase
  • Justification for transition two
  • Ideal condition
  • Justification for ideal condition

Once the phases were identified:

  • Each of us presented our plan for economic allocation at the next meeting
  • We criticized and discussed each other’s plans
  • Two weeks later we synthesized the plans into a written document
  • We picked a new topic and repeated the steps

What was invigorating about this process was how often we already had ideas about these topics but we didn’t know we had them because we never asked ourselves, let alone anyone else. We also learned a great deal from the criticism from other members. Some of us were hesitant about our own plans but we could be critical of the plans of others. These criticisms in turn led us to look at our own hesitant plans in a new way. What was also interesting was the need to prioritize in what order we would restructure things in a socialist manner. It’s like a parody of the old show “Queen for a Day”. If the gods said you had a week to build a socialist system, what would you do first, second and third?

Justification for socialist planning circles

A socialist planning circle is a small group of 4 to 8 people formed with the intention of:

  • Giving socialists confidence that we can plan the future now while living under capitalism. This involves learning and practicing our skills at planning transition programs for the infrastructure, structure and superstructure of socialist society among ourselves. We rehearse our scenarios in the hope that when capitalism collapses we have some semblance of a collective, structured understanding as to what is to be done because we have shaped, criticized and refined our plans through thought, discussion, writing, criticism and revision over weeks, months and years.
  • Once we have experienced this process in a pilot group, we establish new groups to provide a supportive atmosphere to help working class people build confidence that they are smart enough to coordinate production across their workplaces.

There is a need for working class visionaries who learn to collectively imagine socialist futures, not by reading books, but by writing and sharing our imaginations now, before capitalism completely collapses. We need to rehearse, rehearse and rehearse our socialist plans with each other. We need to begin to cultivate our social imaginations now, rather than waiting for leaders or vanguard parties to do this for us. We have to have the nerve to say, “I can imagine transportation systems could be run this way, or food distribution should be run that way”. This project requires us to take seriously our socialist claim that we know how things could work in an ultimate sense, as we imagine how we navigate in the immediate future through the muddy, murky waters of getting from the crisis to our ideal conditions.

Objections

Why don’t you just start a reading group of socialist visionaries like you mentioned earlier rather than reinventing the wheel?

For the same reasons that you don’t begin scientific research with a literature review. You begin with your hypothesis and what the reasons are you think will support it. Then you do the literature review. Otherwise what you think is buried by the literature review. The same thing is true for art. You don’t begin drawing the figure by measuring it with a ruler. You begin with a gesture drawing, so you bring life into the drawing. You measure later. In the case of socialist planning, I’m convinced that people have an unconscious knowledge of how social organization could be. It is currently buried within them and needs to become conscious and worked on. The scenarios of scholars would only bury this unconscious knowledge. In the revolutionary situations that are coming, we are going to have to figure this out by ourselves anyway.

Socialist planning circles are too abstract and not connected to the working class. Getting together and spinning socialist plans pulls us away from the daily struggles of poor and working-class people. It will draw people who just want to talk and not act.

This is a danger in a discussion group in which there is no reading and where no preparation is required. It is less of a problem in a structured reading group because the individuals must make the effort to read the book in order to discuss it. A socialist planning group requires imagination and preparation, just the way a painting group would require people to bring two paintings to show for the next meeting or a songwriters’ group would expect people to come up with two songs for the next meeting. In some ways planning is more difficult than imagining ideal conditions. Ideal conditions ask you to imagine how things could be in an ultimate sense. Socialist planning groups ask, “How are you going to get there”. In my opinion, the second requires a far more active commitment. A socialist planning group would very quickly shed ‘dead weight” people who just wanted to talk.

These plans will dissolve once they face the realities of real social life

Any socialist who participated in these groups would know that when they return to their political practice much of the plans they learned to cultivate in the group would crumble and dissolve. However, the collective memory of some of these plans would remain and grow stronger by continuing in the socialist planning hot-houses over weeks, months and even years.

For example “participatory budgeting” is a way for people to become involved in local economics by having a say in the prioritization of the city’s budget. This exercise is designed to give residents practice in how to plan economically. But years ago, anarchist Murray Bookchin argued that the basic unit of city governance should not be city council, but neighborhood assemblies. City budget priorities were proposed at these local assemblies. Does that mean the city council in a capitalist city would accept that local neighborhood assemblies should exist at all? Of course not! Neither are they likely to agree if these assemblies decided that they wanted real estate “developers” kicked out along with a reduction of the police force. The important thing is to awaken in working class people a taste for planning and running things independently of the outcome.

The subtitle of this article was very carefully chosen. I am not advocating a static blueprint. I am advocating building scaffolds. In a technical sense a scaffold is defined as a temporary structure outside a building used by workers while constructing or repairing a building. Scaffolds are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for buildings. Scaffolds are not buildings. But without scaffolds there would be no buildings. The buildings themselves are like the socialist institutions of the future. The scaffolds are the means by which we build that future. There will be no socialist “buildings” without scaffolds.

As capitalism continues to decline, we will have more “disaster socialism” situations because the chickens are coming home to roost in capitalist ecological policies. Workers’ co-ops may spread because they will pay better entry level wages than capitalists and they are less likely to fire people in times of crisis. Rank-and-file democracy in unions will spread as workers become increasingly disgusted by a union leadership wedded to the Democratic Party. In all these circumstances the memory and enactment of socialist planning circles’ scaffolds could only deepen and organize what is already going on.

Optimally socialist planning circles would be an institutionalized, ongoing structure within a working-class party. It could certainly be implemented within the Green Party. But we can’t wait for these organizations to do this. Socialist planning circles should begin now. If organizations form later to house socialist planning circles, fine, but we cannot afford to wait for them to see the light. We must be our own light. If they these political forms emerge later, they will be lucky to have us!