America First? Transatlantic conversations on class reality and revolt
AngryWorkers and friends are holding a series of meetings to get in touch with comrades in the USA to discuss the hot topics of the day.
The left, the right, the front pages and conversations across the globe have been chewing over the election of Trump and what this signifies. This has been echoed over here with the Brexit vote, as well as the recent French election. An ‘anti-establishment’ message combined with ‘protectionist’ promises and anti-immigration propaganda has a significant appeal within the local working class in the UK. We think it would be useful to speak directly with comrades in the States about recent developments in order to understand the similarities and differences. This might also have a mobilising effect on how and where to centre our political activities over here.
Amongst the left, there are two predominant ways to look at the United States, either as a rather monolithic imperialist world power, or as a rich source of ‘popular culture’ (Wobblies, Civil Rights movement etc.). To see the US as the empire of evil misses the point. It would be necessary to look at how the US’s position as a dominant – and now declining – economic and political global power forms and impacts on the working class stratification within and how internal class contradictions propelled the US expansion.
Historically, in times of global crisis and social shifts, revolutionaries from Europe have been able to learn a lot from developments in the US: Marx’s orientation towards the US during the civil war; the abolitionist anti-slavery movement and 1870s crisis; the links between the KAPD and other left-communists and the IWW during the upheaval post WW1; the engagement of Italian Marxists such as Tronti or Bologna with the US situation in the 1960s, the influence of the Black Panthers etc.
But since the 80s, it seemed that nothing too exciting was happening there. This all changed post 2008 financial crisis, which hit there first and harder. The main social dynamics (economic trends, government changes, working class actions) have either preceded those in the EU or are more pronounced: Occupy was bigger and had at least a bit of a working class perspective, there are more things going in the low wage sector (e.g. Fight for $15, walmart warehouse workers), the mobilisations of migrant workers against deportations and state repression have a mass base. Therefore, a lot of theoretical and practical efforts made by comrades in the US seem a step ahead of what we see around us – from IWW organising to Viewpoint Magazine’s theoretical work.
Things in the UK are still recovering from the Brexit bullshit blow. There are similarities, but also big differences. We want to build up a more accurate picture of what these are.
We came to realise that the slogan of the ’99%’ was a lefty and rather middle-class pipe dream. The class system (not only) in the US is more stratified and the working class itself more segmented. We want to start not from political ideals (‘working class unite’), but from the real divisions within the class – only from there we might discover organic links and overlaps which future struggles will have to unearth. The following list of ‘topics’ is not supposed to be seen as an add-on list of single issues – the focus of the debate will be on how concrete struggles relate to other segments of class reality.
*** Topics of the series
The following line up is not complete and (apart from the first three) not in chronological order. Please feel free to make suggestions and please check the blog for exact dates of the meetings.
1) Context Meeting – with Amiri Barksdale
The first meeting will introduce the series and provide a general context for the following meetings, which will look at more concrete and particular aspects of working class reality. We will try to raise some general questions, e.g. about the relationship between class and race in the US, which can then be debated in concrete in the following meetings, e.g. about the role of the prison system. We will try to provide a brief historical context for the working class stratification in the US: the role of racial divisions, of the rural hinterland, of Latin American migration etc. – and about the difficulties and possibilities for a general class movement.
2) Workplace organising in precarious times – with Scott Nappalos
There have been bigger strikes recently (oil workers, Verizon, Chicago teachers etc.), as well as ongoing struggles in the logistics sector (Walmart) and mobilisations for a higher minimum wage, in particular in the fast food sector. It would be good to have a closer look at these disputes and how they are related or not to the other more street-based protests of the class, e.g. against racist and anti-poor police violence. We will also ask how mobilisations for an increase of the minimum wage are tied to the NGO sector and the (local) election machinery.
3) Fightback against patriarchal reaction – with Comrades from Redstockings Collective/Women’s National Liberation
One of Trumps’s first measures as President was the enactment of the Global Gag rule, that bans US federal funding for any organisation that provides or advocates for abortion services. Abortion and reproductive rights more widely are even more under threat and the Women’s March got millions onto the streets. How can we understand these developments and what options do we have to resist them? In which way does reactionary state policy and the return of patriarchal ‘family values’ mainly target working class and poor women?
4) Working class and migration – with IWW Houston or Gifford Hartman
The migrant workers strike – under the slogan ‘Si se puede’ – in 2006 revealed the systemic nature of ‘illegal migration’ and the power that migrant workers have. During recent years there has been all kinds of militant actions against police raids and within the deportation centres. It would be good to have a closer look at the differences between US/Mexican and UK/Eastern European labour migration. We would focus on the importance of migration from, and industrial relocation to, Mexico etc, as well as getting an overview on migrant workers’ organisations and struggles in general and against deportations in particular.
5) Prison system and revolts – with people from the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee / IWOC (TBC)
Class stratification and hierarchical segmentation of the labour market needs external, as much as internal borders in the form of the prison system. Recent strikes and riots in US prisons gave us much hope that these walls won’t stop the wider struggle from spreading. The IWW in the UK have started some ground work to set up an IWOC, hopefully some FW can be present.
6) Rural/Urban divide – with New River Workers Power
What is the social landscape that underpins the massive levels of inequality in the world’s richest country? Many in the Rust Belt switched from voting from Obama to Trump so a more detailed look at the composition of the working class in these areas is necessary to avoid fall into the trap of seeing this right-wing turn as just ‘history repeating itself’. It might be good to look at initiatives in the rural or socially more remote areas: how do groups working in non-urban centres see the difficulties of bridging the gap between metropolitan and (white) hinterland proletarians?
7) Working class self-defence – with the African Peoples’ Caucus of the IWW (TBC)
Various Black proletarian groups, the IWW and other initiatives like pro-choice groups have started to organise structures of militant resistance against fascists and state attacks – it would be good to discuss how they do this practically and how they see it connected to wider working class organising. What experiences can we share and use in our own anti-fascist organising?
8) Solidarity networks, community organising, housing – with Portland Solidarity Network
In large parts of the US working class life is not necessarily structured by larger workplaces and/or proletarian life is determined by struggle around housing, unstable employment, harassment from authorities.There have been various experiences with solidarity networks and ‘community organising’ (e.g. the Flint water dispute etc.) so it would be good to see what worked and what didn’t, as well as what role the NGO sector plays.
10) University struggles and struggles around education – with Alex Kolokotronis
From Chicago teachers strikes to university struggles at CUNY, the education sector has been a central point in US class conflict. We want to discuss similarities and differences to the situation in the UK and understand how struggles around education radiate into other spheres of working class life.
11) A look into the future and the past – with Dan Georgakas
During the Detroit riots in 1967 the police would let Black workers pass even during curfew hours as long as they were able to show a company card of one of the big automobile companies. The assembly lines of the main US corporations depended heavily on Afro-American workers. The main unions ignored this fact – which led to Black workers organisations like DRUM or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. We invite the author of the classic account, ‘Detroit I do mind dying’ to talk about the past and present.
12) Labornotes and rank-and-file union organisation – with Kim Moody and friends from Labornotes (TBC)
Since the 1970s Labornotes have helped establish a network of rank-and-file union activists and self-education for working class organisers. In the UK a similar attempt was hijacked by political parties and degenerated into a campaign machine. We want to discuss challenges and pitfalls of rank-and-file union networks with comrades involved.
13) Final meeting: On organisation – with comrades of Unity and Struggle (TBC)
Some comrades are trying to ‘collectivise’ reflection on practical experiences and propose some strategical orientations; this could be more a ‘general debate’ about the situation and about the revolutionary left. Round-up question: What is to be done?