Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Just give us a job, dammit

“Trade Unionism or Socialism” is a pamphlet published by the British leftist group Solidarity. Indeed, it's subtitled “Solidarity Pamphlet no 47”. It's undated but the probable publication year is 1975. Solidarity (not to be confused with the American leftist organization of the same name) was a libertarian socialist group. Solidarity's ideas have a family likeness to Council Communism and anarchism (the “constructive” rather than the stone-throwing variety). They were inspired by “Socialisme ou Barbarie” in France, a group headed by Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. A similar group also existed in Sweden, Förbundet Arbetarmakt (FAM). After the FAM's dissolution, many of its activists joined the libertarian socialist SAC. At one of their obscure bookshops, a certain Ashtar Command picked up a representative selection of Solidarity pamphlets already 30 years ago. Time does fly…

“Solidarity Pamphlet no 47” contains two pieces by John Zerzan, an American radical who later developed in an anarcho-primitivist direction and was accused of being too friendly with the Unabomber. One of Zerzan's articles had been published previously by Telos and Black & Red. The other may have been written especially for Solidarity.

Zerzan argues that labor unions collude with management and the government to such a great extent, that they have become the fifth wheel of capitalism. Even strikes are called with the tacit approval of the management, so the workers can “blow off steam” and the union leaders keep control. The unions are so integrated into the system and so bureaucratized that workers should reject them entirely. Indeed, workers already are rejecting them. Zerzan points to the widespread and often large unofficial strikes in the United States, some with national scope. Both Solidarity and Zerzan feel that radicals in the workplace may have to be explicitly anti-union (like the KAPD and the Council Communists). It's not clear, however, what should replace the unions. It's quite common for “alternative” structures outside the traditional unions to develop into dual unions!

Perhaps foreshadowing his later anarcho-primitivist turn, Zerzan talks about a “revolt against work”. Despite pay rises and fringe benefits, workers nevertheless can't stand conditions in a modern industrial plant. From speed-ups at the assembly line to authoritarian bosses, the factory is hell. Workers respond with sabotage, absenteeism, riots or informal attempts to “plan” the production themselves. This is, at least potentially, a revolt against “work” itself, not simply a protest against this or that lousy condition. Zerzan warns that management may try to buy off the discontented workers by fake “worker participation” schemes, “job enrichment” and the like. There probably was some truth to this when the pamphlet was written.

Today, of course, with “permanent temp workers”, union busting and a global economy in which everyone is a replaceable and disposable part, the old economy with its partnership of Capital and Labor suddenly doesn't look so bad anymore – certainly not if you can get “job enrichment”, too! Ironically, even Zerzan's primitivism doesn't sound as farfetched as it did during the Reagan years, when he first seems to have adopted it. While I prefer a clinically clean factory floor to a malaria-infested jungle, the inability of “modern civilization” to become sustainable is rapidly creating the preconditions for the latter…

Oh, are we gonna love GM, Chrysler and George Meany when this is over!

Those are my reflections after reading “Trade Unionism or Socialism: The Revolt against Work” by John Zerzan, published as Solidarity Pamphlet no 47.

The end.

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