Media Reviews Submitted to AJODA in 2016: Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Cubed, and A Renegade History of the United States

These are some reviews I wrote for AJODA in 2016. I’m not sure which (if any) were published because I haven’t seen a copy yet. Re-reading these, I’m not sure how much I agree with myself from only a few years ago. But since I had the occassion to talk about one of these recently, I decided I would post them here.

Speech to metalworkers: Anarcho-syndicalism for South African unions today
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #61 (Winter 2014)
PO Box 42531
Philadelphia PA 19101
$5 ($15 per year)

Before an audience of unionized metalworkers, Lucien van der Walt
debated with a South African Communist Party member. It is summarized
between cheers and laughs from the floor. If you haven’t ever witnessed
the spectacle of an anarcho-syndicalist putting a Marxist-Leninist to
shame before an audience of industrial workers, “Speech to Metalworkers:
Anarcho-Syndicalism for South African Unions Today” would be a good
piece to form a sense of the occasion. It is also the exact sort of
self-congratulatory material that you would expect from an anarchist
labor magazine: a few of the anarcho-syndicalist’s better arguments,
briefly interrupted by the Marxist-Leninist’s oldest and most oblivious
responses. In this case, the interruptions are quotes from Lenin’s What
is to be Done?

These debates tend to feel as slick as any other politician’s. The
audience is treated to a few versions of flattery and
confidence-boosting, the talking-points are polished and entertaining,
and there is little to dwell on when it is over. When an anarchist is
presented as the debate champion, the contradictions are even more
apparent. Here we have van der Walt arguing for the self-emancipation of
the working class through their already co-opted union. In other words,
van der Walt is reduced to pleading with metalworkers to do something
for themselves. As opposed to what? To continuing their working
relationships with political parties, even a Communist one. And how?
Well, let him tell you about the CNT and FAI. And what role will LvdW be
playing in this transformation? We don’t find out.

Challenging the SACP’s attempts to suck up labor unions isn’t itself a
bad thing. The issue with such rabble-rousing and agitation is that
despite the weakness of their arguments, the SACP offers some sort of
hand in carrying out its proposals. It’s a hand worth biting off, but
with what teeth? The advantage for the SACP is that their organization
is offering its resources, representation, and strategic leadership;
even if the offer isn’t to the benefit of the workers. Lucian comes to
the debate with some solid argumentation, including examples of
organized syndicalists; however, his suggestion that the workers
transform their state-friendly union into a syndicalist one asks more
from the workers than it gives. It asks them to take on all of the tasks
that are performed by the present leadership and/or future SACP
leadership, without really offering any help.

The article doesn’t mention the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front
(ZACF), but offering ZACF membership at the end of the debate for
interested “militants” wouldn’t surprise me. After all, the ZACF, as a
neo-Platformist organization, practices an insertion strategy that tends
to look a lot like the actions van der Walt is taking in this debate. It
also looks like anarchist motivational speaking and career counseling. I
wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up from the metalworkers in response, I
just doubt that they will. From my experience, outside agitation tends
to annoy people, even when it takes the form of an accusation. When
outside agitation is the main strategy, I expect even less positive

Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #61 (Winter 2014)
PO Box 42531
Philadelphia PA 19101
$5 ($15 per year)

Wayne Price’s contribution in this issue is “Workers’ Self-Directed
Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program.” Anarchist (and socialist) history
is filled with advocacy for the self-management and ownership of their
workplaces by the workers themselves. There are many examples to choose
from where workers have demonstrated their capacity not only to manage
their work, but to increase the average wage and out-compete capitalist
enterprises within the same industries. This is not the challenging
issue for Price. The larger question is the more difficult one to
answer: can a complex economy actually function in this way?

Price presents some of the other factors involved with this question.
Should these enterprises compete in markets? To what extent? Can they
exist alongside capitalist firms? Can the State be used to create them?
To plan their exchanges?

He provides answers that the quoted thinkers had not. The “workers’
self-directed enterprise” can play a major role in an anarchist
revolution. Not only this, but to truly resolve present-day and past
failures of implementing this mode of production, they must be
revolutionary: workers must be willing to expropriate from the
capitalist class their ill-gotten gains in labor, capital, and
productive machinery.

Price takes care to emphasize that this would be only one component of a
more elaborate program. He mentions the importance of neighborhood
associations and other organizations. Surprisingly for a self-described
anarchist, he also advocates for revolutionaries to accept state
intervention: public works programs, public funding for cooperatives,
instituting a political preference for these modes of production. Price
seems quite convinced that this could even resolve some larger crises
caused by capitalism.

This aspect of Wayne Price’s thinking flies in the face of revolutionary
anarchism. What makes them any less authoritarian than council tenancies
and other such social democratic mechanisms? Are we to imagine that the
State’s preference for workers’ self-management would somehow put more
power into the hands of the State’s subjects, simply because managerial
tasks are performed by the working class itself? These suggestions leave
workers subordinate to state regulations, market forces,  and whatever
other institutions are to emerge for their maintenance. They would
barely mend the complex divisions of labor that help reproduce economic
(and other forms of) inequality.

The fundamental economic oppression is the dispossession that compels
one to sell themselves to those whom use the State’s power to possess
the means to life. What is it to me if I am driven to subordinate myself
to a cooperative enterprise, instead of an enterprise owned by
capitalists and managed by other employees? The capitalists and the
managers may be upset with such reforms, but the basic compulsion to
work and the basic alienation of people from the means to their own
survival would still be in effect. The authoritarians would have the
last laugh: the representatives of this supposed transformation of labor.

From a less (or anti-) work-oriented anarchist, there is little to
argue with when it comes to such superficial alterations of economic
compulsion: it’s still work. If the choice is between Price’s
suggestions and the others he mentions, I’m fine with his brand of
social management …but not his claim that it is anarchist. A more
interesting issue for me, however, is his emphasis on, work; typical of
anarcho-syndicalists, he doesn’t question its existence or its history.
I agree that the bastards ought to be expropriated, but not through
state policy and not in this sense of merely eliminating the division
between workers and managers, or workers and owners of infrastructure. I
do not look forward to a world of workers, even if that world’s
dispossession is self-managed cooperatively.

For Cyber Syndicalism
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #61 (Winter 2014)
PO Box 42531
Philadelphia PA 19101
$5 ($15 per year)

“For Cyber Syndicalism,” by Jeff Shantz, is short but sweet. Shantz
compares contemporary hacktivism with a history of The Anarchy
Organization (TAO), a group of Canadian-based anarchist techies that
focused on the material basis for technological infrastructure. Shantz
notes that radical techs today seem to lack a depth of vision for their
projects. He notes some of the more popular hacktivist actions: DDOS
attacks on websites, online advocacy, facilitating communication between
on-the-ground actors. By way of contrast, TAO aimed immediately to
change the relationship among people and the way they use computers;
they supplied the resources necessary for the web’s existence, to be
managed collectively, by radicals themselves. While this also included
hosting services anarchists were using, TAO saw themselves as part of a
broader anarchist mission to create autonomous and self-reliant spaces.
I can see where Shantz would draw the connection between TAO and
syndicalism (hence the title), but I think that similar projects today —
that in fact exist — would hesitate to express their vision in such
worker-centric language. Where small-scale production for mass society
no longer made sense, anarcho-syndicalism grew as one response to the
exploitation of a mostly factory-working proletariat. The formation and
maintenance of servers and other hardware components do not come with
this problem (though the production of their materials may); they’re not
a good example for anything at the scale of the means of productive that
syndicalists traditionally look to expropriate. They are a better
example of a means of production that requires small-scale land, energy,
labor, and other such resources or practices. And for those, a
discussion of something like a revolution through syndicalist unions has
very little applicability.
Nevertheless, examining the early radical web is an important part
of coming to grips with contemporary conditions and the many ways that
they change anarchist practices, and anarchists’ lives.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
Nikil Saval

In Cubed, Nikil Saval covers the history of office work, beginning with scribes and scriveners, still unfolding and growing today as the predominant form of work in post-Industrial societies. Saval’s book is monumental. A study of office work – sometimes known as white-collar work – hadn’t been taken seriously since C. Wright Mills published White Collar: the American Middle Classes in 1951. Since then, the Office and its notorious cubicles has only proliferated, with 60% of United States employees droning away in offices in the year 2000. And what Nikil Saval explores that C. Write Mills did not is the rich history of this development and its consequences.

Saval isn’t an anarchist, but this shouldn’t dissuade anarchists from reading his book; especially those anarchists of a post-Left perspective. Cubed provides vivid insights into the failures of Leftist labor organizers to capture the hearts and minds of office workers, the futility in trying to reduce hierarchy in the workplace through office design or social engineering, and the exceptional misery of office work, demonstrated over-and-over again in literature, film, surveys, and comics. Additionally, Saval doesn’t shy away from noting people’s many forms of resistance to offices; and, the ways that capitalists have tried to appease white-collar workers, fearing they may side with such folks as the dreaded Haymarket anarchist. He even quotes Lucy Parsons, who writing for Alarm, advocates for the bombing of skyscrapers.

Cubed is full of other interesting bits. Take this excerpt on the relationship between office work and prisons, for example:

“Certain prison systems, such as that in Texas, responded to overcrowding by redesigning their jails along the lines of an open-plan office, replete with cubicle partitions. Prison inmates employed by the company with the classic 1990s name Unicor … were set to work manufacturing cubicle walls and occasionally the chairs that people sat in in those cubicles. At night, while others left their cubicles to go back home, some prisoners by contrast left the manufacturing plant to go back to their cubicles.”

Or here, on the symbolic importance of skyscrapers:

“skyscraper would remain one of the most peculiarly American of white-collar institutions, much more a symbol of the prowess, even ruthlessness, of American-style capitalism than what it equally was: an especially tall collection of boring offices.”

In the end, what Cubed really hits home is the erroneous beliefs of so many, that improvements to the workplace itself – its design, social atmosphere, and managerial schematics – will meaningfully impact the lives of office workers. Saval shows that it hardly matters if an office is designed like a food court, or if it is filled with private rooms, or if the managers work under the same environmental conditions as the most expendable employee: there is no escaping the horrible tasks at the root of office misery. From an anarchist perspective, this becomes a powerful argument against the Left’s utopian ideas for work-place reforms, and a strong motivator to emphasize the abolition of work instead.

A Renegade History of the United States
Thaddeus Russell

When it comes to popular US History books, there are two main narrative tendencies for mapping out important figures: the Great Men of History narrative, and the Social Movement narrative. A Renegade History of the United States breaks with these tendencies and invents an all-together new one. It is a history of those whom society is ashamed of, its renegades. The renegades include drunks, prostitutes, slaves, slackers, performers, migrants, sexual deviants. Those who disregard the social mores and laws of their time to pursue their desires. In telling their stories, Thaddeus Russell also presents his thesis that it is because of these renegades that personal freedoms have expanded beyond the narrow limits set down by Puritan colonists. The lesson being that personal freedoms are taken, not given.

It should be no surprise that Russell is something of a libertarian, though some of his positions are just as unique as his story-telling. He sides with capitalists on the importance of markets, but faults them for their work ethic. He sides with anarchists against the State, but shakes his head at their anti-consumerism. He doesn’t believe in a revolution, he believes in a shameless practice of pursuing one’s own interests. Above all, he is an individualist that isn’t afraid of making waves.

A Renegade History of the United States begins with an analysis of the colonial values that are at the foundations of this country. Mainly, the values of the Puritans; their two most central being the Work Ethic, and sex as an exclusively reproductive act between husband and wife. While the latter doesn’t require more clarification, the Work Ethic should be understood as the goodness of working itself and not as a means-to-an-end. Russell demonstrates how these values shaped the colonies, how they informed theories of democracy, and how they continue to define a barrier of entry into respectable, polite society. To put it another way, these are the values of Whiteness that said renegades transgress against the boundaries of.

By concentrating on Whiteness and the Puritan sensibilities underpinning it, Thaddeus Russell offers a refreshing break from the same old stories of social movements, with their workaholic figureheads and populism. Instead of a Marxist history of class struggles, A Renegade History gives us the struggles of those who can not or will not be assimilated. Its heroes are gun-toting madams whom clothed and sheltered the poor, whites who fled the colonies to live with local tribes; migrants who gave themselves pints of beer on the job and a 3-4 day week-end with their drinking habits; runaway slaves who gave themselves vacations; Italian and Jewish speakeasy owners and liquor smugglers who made a mockery of prohibition; and many, many others.

For as many stories of renegades, there is also the unfortunate stories of conformity that are just as interesting. The stories of Irish renegades becoming police, of movement leaders disciplining followers in the name of legal reforms, of the changing status of various ethnicities to White, of movements for sexual liberation turning their backs on drag queens. As we are all probably aware, the work ethic is still strong in the United States and although there have been many gains in personal freedoms, there is plenty of Puritan-like morality to go around.

What we get in A Renegade History is an opportunity to be aware of such moral tendencies. Even more, we get a rich sense of struggle that is cultural, rather than political. Although this cultural approach to social struggle is old, it can have very contemporary implications. In this new age of government and self-surveillance, precarious employment, relatively relaxed morals concerning pleasure, and the impotence of mass movements, resisting assimilation at a cultural level continues to be an option that can consequently change the ways we live together. I believe that Thaddeus Russell’s book is thus instructive for an anarchist audience and for those of us who challenge the supposed goodness of work, movements, and appealing to assimilationist norms.