Notes on a Spectacular and Hollow Movement


May 7, 2020

Introduction

Following the election that led Donald Trump to becoming the president of the United States, I attended an anti-Trump demonstration in Tempe, Arizona. With a hundred or so in attendance, it was the usual assortment of anarchists, communists, leftists, and liberals.

To the chant of “What do we want? Civil War!1 When do we want it? Now!” the march made its way down Mill Street. Being the trendy bar strip of a college town, the strip was full of reactionary and drunk upper-middle-class white kids. The demo’s reception was one of hostility and/or open heckling. Yet the demo did not engage the spectators, not even with a fuck you. So wrapped up in our own world of righteous militancy, no one seemed to notice. The entire experience from start to finish was not only demoralizing but embarrassing.

Walking back down Mill Street a block behind the march, a white frat boy having himself “a laugh” came running down the street waving a Trump flag, and shouting “build the wall”. We turned to confront him but before it could escalate further, someone unconnected to the demo intervened. With his hood pulled over his head, a Latino man came flying up from behind us on a bicycle. In what was a truly remarkable feat, he in one fluid motion leapt from his bike, flew through the air and landed a deafening blow on the frat boy, before beginning to justly and savagely beat him. A block further where the demo had concluded, no one was aware of the raw and visceral conflict that had just occurred.

This instance is a microcosm of the alienation that exists between the left and the broader working-class. That demo - like the ones to come after it - are scheduled, mediated and spectacular like that of a boxing match. Outside of the arena of leftism, the conflicts that have arisen in this time of intense political strife, play out day to day. They are unmitigated and are visceral in their intensity and their potential for raw violence. They come to life amongst youth in high school, at clubs, in working-class neighborhoods, and in the places we work. Ultimately when they do find their collective expression, they do so in streets like Ferguson and Baltimore.

Yet in regards to most of the demonstrations and street actions to occur in response to the political climate, they are not products of these strands of tension that are woven through the fabric of our day to day struggle. Rather they are the uninspired and formulaic practice of the left - the left having, over time, metamorphosed into the parental guardian of struggle in any and all of its various forms. A movement and/or network that did not directly arise from those tensions but that has positioned itself as if it has, means that the struggle they take hold of is a mere imitation of the struggles that actually exist.

For nearly half a century, workers’ movements have been decimated and their communities have been laid waste through de-industrialization, the war on drugs and mass incarceration. What survived the movements of the 60’s and 70’s were the elements that immersed themselves in the liberal establishment, taking their refuge in union bureaucracies, nonprofits, liberal universities and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (DP). It is in this regard that left movements have struggled to define for themselves the actual content of their struggle. Precisely because those institutions exist in relative alienation to the working class. In addition to the absence of robust social movements and independent working-class organizations, those institutions also tend to be the point of entry for militant leftists, whether they come from a middle or working-class background. Consequently, they also serve as the point of departure for the left, including those of us that are involved in the libertarian socialist movement.

Yet outside the left’s realm of influence, tensions in the class are rising and autonomous movements are coming to fruition. But instead of taking pause, to not only better understand and to relate to them, we instead rush to - in essence - direct them. To speed them up to our pace and to try and spectacularize them in the process. Moving from without to amongst is an action that is not reflective of a class insurgent but rather of an activist. When our activity is not grounded in the material struggle of the class and does not include their immediate participation, we are engaging in activism. Doing so is to both concede that our activity is specialized and that our revolutionary labor is in fact a product of alienation. As such, when we engage as activists, the product of our alienated labor (i.e. activism) does not in fact belong to us.

In this text, I focus heavily on the anti-fascist2 movement that exploded into the mainstream in 2016, largely because it encompassed the whole left and best illuminates the critique being made.

Convergence into Populism: From Mass Movement to “Our Movement”

Representative politics, whether they be progressive or conservative, all have their base in grassroots beginnings. The rise of political demands from the bottom to the top is merely the means in which they are filtered to better align with the power of capital and the wavering consensus of those who wield it. In the US, its final refined state looks like either the Democratic or Republican Party. For the right, their grassroots look like ethno-nationalists, militiamen, religious zealots, and so on whose reactionary rage is filtered through the institutions of the right. Namely right-wing evangelical churches, neighborhood associations, faith-based non-profits and so forth.

On the left, the grassroots appears to be the right’s purest opposition. But its rage too is channeled into hierarchical institutions, be they unions, non-profits, social service agencies and academia. It is through these institutions that the right and the left funnel both the liberatory and reactionary antagonism of the class into a hegemonic, yet false duality. The fact that many in the libertarian socialist movement have yet to effectively implement a praxis of autonomy from the broader left and thus the progressive apparatus of the DP, means that not only are we complicit in this process, but are in fact unwittingly among the frontline movers and shakers of capital’s ability to absorb, dissipate and recuperate the liberatory antagonism of the class when they arise.

In 2014, those first to forcefully take to the streets against police violence and racism were predominantly black, in what is without a doubt the most violent and insurrectionary period to occur in the US in recent memory. This persisted for several years. Then in 2016, Hispanic youth began school walkouts, undocumented migrants came forcefully back to the streets after enduring a decade of heightened repression following their mass movement in 2006.3 Latino youth began to riot in the streets of cities known for having virtually no institutional left, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico and Costa Mesa, California. Their emergence saw Latino youth fighting the police and violently crashing Trump rallies. These conflicts, be they student walkouts, confronting white reactionaries and or the anti-police riots, all had been occurring long before the anti-fascist movement arose to become the militant faction of a populist Anti-Trump movement.

Yet it is in the developments that had occurred in the latter half of 2016 and on into 2017 that the contradictions that exist between organic class conflict and left populism became visible. On the one hand, the deep-seated racial tensions that threaten the national unity of the empire had begun to rupture. On the other hand, we have witnessed the unfolding of the left’s historic tradition of recuperating the conflicts that arise from those tensions. From urban rebellions of the black working-class, to an increasingly more assertive and radicalized Latino working-class, the origins of this crisis in US capital had clearly manifested themselves outside of the left’s sphere of influence.

Within this small time frame, we only have to look back to the populist origins of the anti-Trump movement and the role that the electoral left and the anti-fascist movement played in defining it and in driving it forward. First we saw racialized members of the class acting autonomously upon the antagonisms that exist between them and both the reactionary elements of the class and the structural violence of the state. Then gradually at first and then forcefully, a deep whitewashing of the struggle occurred.

At first the left had only played a secondary and detached role, more often than not on the periphery of these struggles. However, following the 2016 presidential elections, the left subsumed the narrative and totality of the struggle when it gravitated towards populism. The transition into populism saw the left redefine the context of the struggle as it attempted to mobilize support from a liberal and white middle-class. Consequently, the social makeup of the struggle saw a dramatic shift in its racial and class demographics.

It was immediately following Trump’s presidential victory that anti-Trump protests were staged across the country. It is in these early protests that we begin to see a re-consolidation between liberals, the electoral and militant left, having found their unity and a sense of ally-ship in sharing a disdain for Trump and his supporters. What emerged was a left electoral grassroots movement to both reform the DP and defeat Trump in the next election, as well as an activist but militant street movement focused on physically confronting his supporters. Furthermore, through its symbolic show of “resistance” via impeachment hearings and inquiries, the Democratic establishment continually maneuvered to maintain its patronage over what it accurately considers to be a dissident portion of its base. Their success in doing so is evident given that, in light of the electoral left’s abysmal failure to reform the DP, many on the left are now speaking of the necessity of backing the Democratic establishment candidate Joe Biden,4 in order to defeat Trump.

Regardless of how it turned out, electoralism as the driving force behind much of the US left throughout these four years was not in opposition, but rather complementary to the anti-fascist movement, which as a whole (including many libertarian socialists) viewed Trump as the primary cause of an emboldened and militant right-wing movement, generally failing to see that the resurgent right was in fact a reaction to the movements of a racialized working class. Trump merely capitalized on a reactionary movement that was already in progress prior to his election.

Having been a historically marginal movement in the US, anti-fascism gained national notoriety following a series of high profile street confrontations. What followed was anti-fasicst and the militant left receiving a massive amount of publicity, much of it positive. The militant left captured headlines like never before. Everything from black-clad anarchists doing interviews on CNN, to romanticized articles on the new armed vanguards5 that were forming all across the United States - all of whom were united in being the self-appointed “defenders” of marginalized communities, who argued that they needed to exist in order to oppose “Trump’s America”, as opposed to the America that it is and has always been.

With the electoral left and the anti-fascist movement coalescing around their shared opposition to Trump and with a self-interested and passive endorsement from the Democratic establishment, a clear and readily-defined oppositional movement emerged. One with familiar leadership and attainable objectives, which at their core amounted to nothing more than a moral appeal to defend the sanctity and liberalism of US democracy.

To the backdrop of this popular front, with all of its rising stars proclaiming their own historic necessity, another movement was simultaneously forgotten at the very moment it was being violently repressed. Six active figures in the Ferguson uprisings wound up dead. Two were shot on separate occasions and their bodies burned in their car, with three others dying under suspicious circumstances. Many more ended up like Ferguson organizer Joshua Williams, who got eight years for no real property damage, or 19-year-old Allen Bullock who received a twelve-year sentence for jumping on a cop car during the Baltimore riots. From New York to California, the organic militants in these communities have received massive sentences for relatively minor acts. Some have been framed with charges unrelated to the social unrest and others have been outright murdered.6 In the left and capitalist press, there are only a few articles that provide a glimmer of insight into the repression that occurred in these communities following the rebellions that swept across the U.S.

It is here that we must refer to the history of the US left recuperating the struggles of racialized working-class people, because this is the form it takes. On the one hand, their struggles were rendered invisible by the spectacular and yet performative movements that followed. On the other, they have been violently and systematically repressed by the state. The repression that these communities endured was done in relative isolation from one another and without any concerted - let alone substantial - reaction from the left, and/or the networks that the left draws from. We only have to look at the disparity between the repercussions that followed these communities rioting in the urban centers, and the repercussions that followed the anti-Trump rioting that occured on his presidential inauguration day,7 to fully understand the life-and-death consequences of this abandonment. That material abandonment and the spectacle of the left eclipsing their organic activity, in essence marginalized the struggles of an already marginalized working class.

Given this reality, is it at all a surprise that the black and brown working-class forebears of our contemporary movement are no longer present in the same capacity that they once were? Are we to believe that their desire for freedom is not as strong as those of the middle class and have succumbed to “apathy”?

Or perhaps we entertain the notion that specialization disempowered those that have no use for it. That a shift in narrative (or even the creation of a narrative) necessitates a shift in the racial and class composition of a movement. We must then further reflect on how the deeper fault lines and conflicts of capital and the US nation-state have been veiled by conflicts that by all sober assessments, are spectacular and terrifying but nonetheless superficial; and that as such, those conflicts have been made manageable.

If any of the above holds true, then so is the idea that the organic and autonomous struggles of the class have undergone a process of recuperation. A process in which the left and thus the libertarian socialist movement has played an indispensable part.

To consider the above is both disheartening and complex to navigate. Largely because it is the product of a mass of good intentions, uncritically put into action. Nonetheless, these actions have passively and unconsciously gone through the motions of reproducing the means in which the state absorbs and dissipates social tensions when they arise - namely, the quantifying and de-contextualizing of a mass incoherent rage, into a simplistic and representative form of opposition.

Given this, we must accept a reality in which the left participated in the recuperation of a mass movement against the structural violence of white supremacy, into a movement of left vs right populism. Yet it is not a unique situation, as the contemporary left was simply following the script it was given and did so without deviance.

That is why we need to understand that recuperation is not always so cut-and-dried. In fact, it rarely is. The process does not necessitate conscious manipulation nor surrender, nor the undermining of a movement by a group of nefarious career-oriented individuals. Rather, recuperation is best understood as the process of disempowerment through first specialization, and then representation. When we consider recuperation, we must then also consider the internal traps of our own movement and their potential for causing harm or of being counter-revolutionary. It is accurate to say that in the terrain of struggle we have found ourselves in a specialized position in relation to the conflicts that arise within and against the class. Thus we must ask ourselves, by whom were we empowered to be in such a position and at whose expense?

Peak Spectacle and the Spectacle of Nothing: On Media and the creation of a False History

“The bait-and-switch with populists is that rather than taking orders, you’re supposedly just following your heart, only to find yourself manipulated.” - On Contesting Populism by Common Cause

I lived in Athens, Greece, following the “historic” No vote on the referendum, in regards to Greece accepting another bailout from the European Union in exchange for even more austerity. The supposed “far-left” Syriza Government, of course, ignored the vote and accepted the bailout from the EU and dutifully began ramping up the austerity measures demanded of them. In response, a massive general strike was called.

In speaking with some Greek friends who were active in the anarchist and autonomist movement, they all said that they were not going to the march. Taken aback, I asked why? They explained that through the unions they control, Syriza had literally called for a general strike against themselves. The strike was a charade meant to strengthen national unity between unions, the petite bourgeoisie and the Syriza government. Driving this point home was the fact that some of them could not go because their boss would be attending.

But they told me to go anyways and when I asked why, they said “you will see”.

The march to Syntagma Square was one of the longest ones I have ever seen, and without a doubt, the fucking slowest. We would go half a block and then stop for ten minutes. A block and then stop for twenty, and so forth and so on. It was explained to me by another Greek comrade that the reason for the walk and stop was because the front of the march had already reached Syntagma Square and that we had to wait for each party or organization to give their speech. As for the march itself, it appeared as if the most liberal elements were in the front and as it progressed, the political ideologies of the various groupings became more militant, with the anarchists at the very end looking for a scrap.

An hour and half later we finally came into Syntagma Square. The anarchist block, engaging in a rather ritualistic confrontation with the police, was relatively small, especially by Greek standards. Yet what was probably the most memorable thing to happen was that for every anarchist kicking a can of tear gas back at the riot police, there were two “radical” journalists from either the US, the UK or Northern Europe taking their picture. When an anarchist lit a Molotov, they all swarmed him like flies on shit, literally tripping over each other to get the best shot.

This is important because the next day when I went on social media, I was immediately taken in by all the riot porn and endless talk about the massive strike that had occurred the day prior. I began to withdraw into the feelings that I have had so many times before, be they during the Arab Spring, the Quebec student strike of 2011 and so forth and so on. That sense of longing to experience that intense struggle, that burrowing sense of inadequacy for both not being able to recreate those movements at home and for not being able to be there during such a historic moment. But then I snapped to and remembered that no, I was there, and that what I saw and participated in was worlds apart from what I was now seeing circulated on capitalist, leftist and anarchist media outlets.

So awe-inspiring was the spectacle I was consuming, that it literally had me gaslighting myself, wondering if a truly historic and insurrectionary moment (as it was portrayed and received) had just occurred before my eyes, but I was too daft to see it. So convinced that the fault was on me, I made certain to be as involved and central as possible to all the large ritual “clashes” that came after, be it November 17th or December 6th; among the many smaller and ritualized clashes that occur in Exarchia on the weekends. Nonetheless, it was still never as intense, as inspiring and raw as I would see the next day. Because in spite of taking part in producing that spectacle, the spectacle was infinitely more real than the life I actually lived.

What is truly tragic is our uncritical and near generalized manic obsession with trying to produce the commodity we wish to consume. Of trying to move from being a passive spectator towards the very same stage that made us spectators, to begin with. One that can only ever produce even more spectators.

When occupations, riots and the polarization internal to the class continue to intensify, the media as a spectacle only knows how to make such a transformative period palpable for mass consumption, by homogenizing the transformative process into a hollow representation of itself. It does so by presenting two movements as one. On one hand there lies the increasingly oppressed, racialized and restless working-class and on the other, the movement of ‘vanguards’. While the latter dominates the narrative on account of its movement’s professionalism, singular messaging, institutional networking and the warm co-dependency it has built with the bourgeois media, it is nonetheless the restless working class that increasingly dictates the trajectory of social rupture and antagonism of the class. Their fires are more widely heard and understood than the left’s rhetoric.

Visually and emotionally, we are utterly consumed by the spectacle the riots of our class produce, yet so entrenched in alienation that we are deaf to its rhythm. As such, our movement more often than not seeks out populism. We proclaim that our goal is to build a broad working-class struggle when in actuality it is to build struggle without the class.

As such, we court liberal institutions - the progressive liberals both within the progressive apparatus of the DP and within the media - and do so less for the numbers and the pursuit of political power, and more because we are desperate for those very institutions of capital to grant us popular legitimacy. For the pillars of liberalism to validate our efforts, even if it means our own recuperation or even worse, the recuperation of other organic forms of struggle.

As such, the strata of society that our movement has found itself entwined with is not a reflection of the class at large. Rather, it’s a reflection of where that movement is coming from and of how well-positioned various elements within it are to institutions of power, or alternatively, institutions that serve the powerful. Be they nonprofits that are tied to the DP, universities, and the liberal platforms of capitalist propaganda. The fact that the movement consists of many who, through shared cultural and social norms and points of reference, find themselves having more commonality and sustained interactions with those that promote a liberal dogmatism, speaks to the class and racial origins of the movement.

Worse still is the liberal pragmatism and the reflex appeal to left populism that gets put out by the anti-authoritarian movement - particularly when utilizing the capitalist media or even counter-media, when the objective is to speak to “ordinary” people about the movement. Had I ever been inclined to give an interview on anti-fascism like many anti-fascist “professionals” did, my talking points would have been identical to the next radical of our day and age. This is because our movement’s orientation has succumbed to an internalized form of liberal pragmatism, one that necessitates the compartmentalization of social conflict. This compartmentalization takes the totality of struggle out of the arena of class and social war and into a relatively non-offensive and more digestible arena of activism that is suitable for liberal consumption. Thus we have prison activists, labor activists, anti-fascist activists, migrant rights activists, etc and etc.

This pragmatic approach then allows us to advance compartmentalized aspects of struggle while mitigating the potential of alienating financial donors (NGOs, unions, universities, and so on) and potential ‘recruitment’ from a sympathetic and otherwise white liberal base. Mitigation that would be far less plausible if our orientation was obstinate and uncompromising in our revolutionary orientation. Or so we arrogantly assume.

However, in having no autonomy over our own movement’s orientation, we have been conditioned into knowing what “They” want to hear and presenting ourselves accordingly. In essence, when addressing a public sphere outside of ourselves, we the libertarian socialist movement have miraculously and collectively developed party lines without either a party nor our own conscious or verbalized consent. It is because we are trying to sell our ideas through liberalism and doing so in order to make our ideas and even our existence more palpable to some monolithic “mainstream” that actually doesn’t even exist.

The libertarian socialist movement’s shift to populism reflects the mass abandonment of these revolutionary ideas and the practices that embody them. In their text On Contesting Populism, The anarcho-communist organization Common Cause8 put forth one of the most well-defined and scathing critiques of both populism and the left’s tendency to pursue it. One of the most relevant distinctions they make is that

“….[Their] definition specifically does not reference the mass population, but rather a predetermined group of people. Populists only ever speak to a certain particular constituency, not a vague, indivisible mass.”

If we can agree on the above statement, then we must ask ourselves who it was that we were addressing. When an ‘antifa scholar’ and professor at Dartmouth spoke on behalf of anti-fascism in the Washington Post and the New Yorker, who was the intended audience? Was it the people of Ferguson, the Latino youth of San Jose, or was it a white and liberal middle class? Who did the left attempt to engage in the debate around anti-fascism and the anti-trump movement? When we demanded left unity, and when we made it about Trump and his supporters, who did we empower, and who did we force to take a back seat?

It is heart-wrenching to observe firsthand the historical process of the white left fading out black and brown people from the block, in order to re-establish its hegemony over social movements. I had read about it, but I was naive enough to think that if we observed it happening now, we would rise to challenge it as a movement. The problem is that we did not observe it happening, because in championing populism, much of the libertarian socialist movement was in fact an integral part of that process.

While populism prevails throughout the left, it is important to focus once more on anti-fascism, simply because it is the holy cross that our movement continues to die upon time and time again. In seeking out left populism to win out the struggle against the far-right, we passively consented to not challenging nationalism, capital, and white supremacy in its non-overt and liberal form. Worse still, we failed to do so at a time when that was precisely what was under attack by the black and Latino working class.

The shift towards explicit anti-fascism as a movement confined by the historical precedent of a pitched battle between two fixed positions (i.e. between the right and the left) and its surrender to left populism to “win” that battle on moral grounds, was not only a failure in seeing and acting upon a political climate, but was actually a move away from a budding mass movement. Instead, it gravitated towards the spectacle of conflict between two camps, both of which are divorced from any real form of economic and/or political power. Hallmarks of these conflicts have been that both the revolutionary militants for a “united left” and reactionary militants for a “united right” have been swept up into mediated pitched battles that occur in relative alienation from the broader working class. Such conflict fits squarely within the duality of bourgeois democracy, as the outcome of such conflict amounts to political theater and not political turmoil.

The Same Answer to the Same Problem

The first draft of this text was completed back in 2016, and its original intent was to speak to the trajectory that the movement was, at that time, first embarking upon. However, in returning to this text four years later, I do so during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In this historic moment, we are seeing the refusal of workers spread like wildfire in the form of wildcat strikes, rent strikes, absenteeism and various demands9 being fought for and won in the workplace by workers deemed “essential”. Yet in spite of the immense optimism that this might inspire, even the most casual study of history would reveal that without robust independent working-class organizations, those gains can be easily rolled back. That without fierce and organized opposition the state will concede nothing and that the coming fight will be against further austerity.

In looking back on not just the last four years, but rather the last few decades, I can’t help but wonder how differently we as a class would have responded to the pandemic had more militants immersed themselves in the lives of those they work with and/or live near to. Fortunately for us, it is not some abstract thought to consider, because a minority on the libertarian left have committed themselves to carrying out that slow and arduous work. By grounding their praxis in the material conditions that they share in common with most working people, they have (at various levels of maturity) built up these independent working-class organizations. In this way and through these organizations, they have been able to accomplish what the electoral and activist left could not. Namely, to address and defend themselves, their coworkers and their neighbors against the structural violence of the state.

In the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a significant portion of the membership10 and a number of local branches have continued to steadily apply the principles of solidarity unionism. A strategy that seeks to build up member-run independent unions that are not bound by the legalistic framework of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) - meaning membership is voluntary, and they reject the management-rights and no-strike clauses that are typical of a mainstream business union.

In various industries, there exist shop-floor committees building towards industrial and independent unions. They’re not just agitating and organizing their co-workers, they’re educating and mentoring them to become organizers too. These committees are collectively taking direct action and winning demands. Yet even the vast majority of the IWW’s membership does not know of half of these committees, and why would they? Most are not public because they do not need to be. They are not simply seeking validation; instead, they are working to improve the immediate working conditions of themselves and their co-workers, while also working to condition their own job.11

There is nothing “spectacular” about collectively winning the right to use the bathroom or access to a suitable lactation room - unless, of course, you are the one who can’t take a piss, or are the new mother with no access to maternity leave. If you are, then you understand that dignity changes everything, and that dignity only comes with power, which for workers can only manifest itself through collective action.

One thing that these shop-floor organizations have demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic is their readiness and ability to take immediate collective action in the face of crisis. Not being restrained by the NLRB and willing to employ direct action, IWW shop committees were able to win safety measures that exceed government guidelines, hazard pay, extended breaks, and so on.

Even when faced with a layoff, these solidarity unions are able to respond concretely. Stardust Family United is a solidarity union in New York City which has been organized with IWW since 2016. When their restaurant was shut down due to the pandemic, the workers were immediately able to set up a fundraising committee and divert $2,000 of their own dues to aid the back-of-house staff, most of whom are migrant workers without access to unemployment or government assistance. This demonstrates the value of building a concrete organization of workers and their ability to sustain themselves.12

To further stress what is possible when we effectively build up working-class organizations and ground our revolutionary activity in the struggle of our daily lives and thus the lives of the many who share our conditions, I would be remiss to not touch on Parkdale Organize, a working-class organization based out of Toronto, Ontario. From their Statement of Principles:

“Parkdale Organize is a membership-based group of working class people who organize to build neighbourhood power in Parkdale. Where landlords, bosses, or the state exploit or abuse us, we organize to defend, inform, educate and empower our neighbours to collectively improve our conditions. We want to build working class organizations independent of politicians and social service providers.”

From strictly a point of observation, Parkdale Organize has been organizing along those principles for at least 5 years now. They initially started by building up tenant unions in only a handful of buildings and doing so in a single working-class neighborhood. Since then, the fruits of their labor have grown exponentially. Their victories, big and small, have been hard to keep track of, serving as a testament to the power and fighting potential of a grounded working-class movement. What is truly illuminating is that even with appeared, at the start, to be a singular focus on tenant organizing, the organization has become truly interwoven with the various struggles that are happening in their neighborhood.

When Parkdale tenants launched a rent strike, teachers at Queen Victoria Public School in Parkdale came out in solidarity, because they know the students and the families who were fighting against the rent increase. Two years later, when teachers went on strike across Ontario, those same teachers and tenants organized daycare for the working families that depended on schools for child care.

Likewise, Tibetan immigrants who live in Pardale took the experience that they had developed in the rent strike and unionized their jobs in the logistics sector. In a statement13 that the workers released while on strike at the Ontario Food Terminal, they touched on how these struggles are interconnected in a rather matter-of-fact way, stating that:

“Of course there is a connection between our strike and the need for affordable housing. Rents go up every year, but our wages have stayed the same for a long time. Some of us were involved in the Rent Strike this year, so we know how these fights are connected.”

Now faced with the devastating impact of the pandemic, Parkdale Organize is one of the few independent working-class organizations that has been willing and able to take a concrete initiative in defence of the working class. In March they launched a city-wide Keep Your Rent campaign in response to the skyrocketing unemployment that resulted from the pandemic.

It is important to note that Parkdale Organize’s call for a rent strike was backed by another independent working-class organization, People’s Defense Toronto. Through People’s Defense organizing in largely immigrant working-class neighborhoods14 on the periphery of the city, hundreds of tenants across three different neighborhoods have since organized collectively to withhold their rent - in essence, building their own tenant union.

It is clear that in both cases, the organizers who planted the first seed are now being eclipsed by what grew from it. That is the fundamental and irreconcilable difference that exists between organizing for an emancipatory and revolutionary movement, and what constitutes the bulk of the left today: those who set out to actually build working-class power do so with the intent of making themselves redundant. With those efforts comes the understanding that you have nothing more to offer than the person next to you.

Without exception, these working-class organizations take years to build, because they are built on forming genuine relationships that are based on shared material conditions, rather than ideology. This type of organizing lacks the expediency and instant gratification that so much of the left is accustomed to. Nonetheless, it is only by centering our struggle on these shared conditions that we are then able to effectively address and overcome the structural violence of capital and the state. Even when faced with reactionary movements, the proliferation of working-class organizations will enable the class to do what it has historically done, which is to pull its strength from these organizations.

Those susceptible to activism and electoralism will continue to decry their critics, arguing that they can do all of the above - that their specialized and representative form of politics is not mutually exclusive to building up independent working-class organizations. They have had decades to demonstrate this, and yet they have nothing to show for it. The reason is actually quite simple: neither activism nor electoralism is compatible with building working-class power. In fact, the specialized nature of the former two seeks to undermine the very power that we are trying to cultivate as a class.

It is here that we must understand that the self-determination of the working class cannot peacefully coexist with any politics that seeks to delegate the revolutionary activities of the working class to a specialized few. The reality is that the self-emancipation of the class will be achieved in spite of or in direct opposition to the dominant tendencies of the left today.



  1. The chant is usually a call for “Class War”, but unfortunately for a time in some parts of the U.S., this chant caught on after Trump’s election, reflecting the mentality of many on the left. 

  2. While I reject anti-fascism as being a revolutionary movement because of its inherent populism and because historically it has had severe consequences, I nonetheless strongly support much of what is regarded as “anti-fascist” work, particularly when it takes on a territorial dimension that is both tangible and readily defined. 

  3. Immigration protests in 2006 saw millions take to the street in opposition to a proposed bill that would classify undocumented migrants and those who help them as felons. The protests lasted for eight weeks and climaxed on May 1st, with major industries that are dependent on undocumented labor having to shut down as a result of walkouts and mass absenteeism. (To read more on this, see this Libcom article titled General Strike Hits Employers.) However, it is important to note that while the proposed legislation was withdrawn, mass repression followed. Initiated by then President Bush and executed by President Obama, a massive network of immigration detention centers were built. Under Obama, more people were deported than under any other president. 

  4. In the absence of a social democratic party or any viable third-party option, the electoral left in the U.S. has always been the champion for the “lesser of the two evils”. In the case of Biden, the lesser of two evils is the subject of numerous sexual assault allegations, a former opponent of gay marriage and a former opponent of racial integration. To be clear, the portion of the electoral left backing Biden that I’m referring to includes everything from progressive liberals, democratic socialists, and even self-described anarchists like Noam Chomsky. 

  5. The Theft of Conflict is a text I wrote and self-published on the then-trending rise of armed vanguards in the U.S. Since it was self-published, I didn’t have the benefits of editorial oversight, making it a bit of a slog to read. 

  6. Mysterious Deaths Leave Ferguson Activist on ‘Pins and Needles’ - Rolling Stone 

  7. On January 20th, 2017 (the Inauguration Day of President Trump), a summit-style protest was mobilized in Washington D.C., dubbed Disrupt J20. Nearly 200 were arrested following the rioting that occurred in the capital city of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Thankfully, the J20 defendants (as they were called) received publicity and support from both the left and from liberals, and eventually all their charges were dropped. This is not to speak disparagingly against them or to wish for any other outcome, but rather to illustrate the stark contrast between the level of support they had and the state’s response to them, compared to those that participated in the urban rebellions of the previous two years. It should come as no surprise that the measures of repression the state will employ is directly proportional to the threat it perceives. 

  8. Common Cause dissolved in 2016, but not before contributing some valuable and enduring analysis for the libertarian socialist movement. Their texts can still be found at linchpin.ca 

  9. An interactive map of the strikes in the U.S. and a couple different accounts, here, here, and here

  10. Full disclosure, I’m an active member, but I am in no way speaking on behalf of the organization. My views are strictly my own. That said, the IWW has grown significantly over the last several years and as a “mass” organization, there are divergent tendencies within the union. There are some who favor non-contractualism, and some who are more ambivalent to them. In addition, due to the IWW’s fairly open membership, there are members of the union who use it as a platform for the very form of activism I am critiquing. 

  11. “Job conditioning” is when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or culture in their workplace to their advantage. Job conditioning doesn’t involve an explicit agreement with the boss to change workplace conditions - it’s more like creating “facts on the ground” that make the job better. The “facts on the ground” can be anything from ensuring everyone takes the breaks that they are or ought to be entitled to, to only performing the job description they agree to, or even to casually but intentionally slow down the rate of production. Read more about what that looks like in the article Job Conditioning

  12. To learn more about this and of workers organizing on the job, check out the amazing site organizing.work

  13. The workers’ account can be found at parkdaleorganize.ca

  14. According to the Scarborough Rent Strike article published on Springmag.ca, the makeup of this neighborhood is incredibly diverse: “A large Bengali community has established roots in these neighbourhoods, but many residents are from other parts of South Asia, East and West Africa, or are working class whites.” 


author

J. Malco

is a construction worker and an active member of the IWW.