A Discussion of Politics and Mass Organizations
Part 2 of 2 (Read Part 1 here)
By Nate Hawthorne
This paper is as finished as I have the ability to make it, which is to say, not very finished. I wrote the discussion paper largely to think through some issues that have been on my mind. I would very much love feedback on it or responses to it. Feedback about improving the writing would be nice but even better would be input about the ideas – or better yet, writing stuff on your own ideas on any of this. You can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before you read the paper please think about these questions. These may seem really obvious but I for one sometimes struggle to answer them. Why does fighting bosses matter? Why does it matter to have a commitment to not only fighting bosses now but also someday ending capitalism? We talk a lot about direct action and about being a democratic organization, but why should anyone care about either of things?
Shared Interests And Mass Organizations Make And Remake Each Other
I have talked a lot about unions here and sometimes said “unions and other organizations.” My preferred term for these is “mass organizations.” A mass organization is not the same as a massive organization. That is, “mass” is not a matter of numbers. I once helped organize a committee of tenants in a building in Chicago where the landlord was doing loud, unsafe, and unsanitary construction work in the hallways. He wanted to drive tenants out so he could convert the building to condominiums. He wanted to drive them out by illegally by starting the construction while people still lived in the building. The committee touched off a rent strike and began to reach out to tenants in other buildings owned by the same landlord. There were maybe 30 tenants in the building. The group had maybe 10 people, with a few active people doing most of the real work. This was a tiny, limited group, but it was a mass organization.
As I understand the term, a mass organization is a combative organization that comes together around shared interests and takes action. “Shared interests” must immediately be qualified, because there are easy mistakes to be made otherwise. Interests are simultaneously things that exist that people can be made aware of and things to be constructed and revised. To put this another way, we live in more than one world, or one world made out of many layers which can inform and foster different perspectives. From one perspective, all working class people have an interest in ending capitalism because capitalism is a system that is bad for all working class people (though of course not equally so). From another perspective, many working class people have an interest in capitalism continuing because they benefit from aspects of it, in limited and short term ways. At one level, there is what would be best for the working class. At another level, there is what the working class thinks is best. While it can be argued at length that one of these perspectives is true and the other is false, in a way they are both true. And both of these perspectives are, in a sense, moral perspectives. They are prescriptive perspectives that are just as much about how the world ought to be as they are about how the world really is. To draw a parallel, think of someone addicted to some substance like alcohol or cocaine. For some people this is an abstract example, for others, we have (or we are) real people in our lives who have wrestled or still wrestle with this difficulty. Anyone who has been or watched a loved one and perhaps tried to help a loved one in the struggle with addiction knows that the person is better off if they can stop using the substance, if they can get their drinking under control, and so on. This is in the person’s interest. At the same time, the person has an interest in continuing to use the substance: it feels good; it is likely bound up with their social life and their friendships, such that changing their use of the substance will have an impact on their relationships. For some, substance use is a way to cope with other problems that they will have to face directly if they change their substance use. The person has two interests which are in tension or contradiction with each other. We can, if we like, say that their true interest is in changing their substance use and that it’s not really in their interest to continue their current substance use, but this means very little. When we say “their true interest is to do XYZ …” what this primarily means is “we very much want them to do XYZ.” Expressions of interests are as much or more about the world as we want it to be as they are about the world as it is. Of course, we exist in the world as it is. The way we want the world to be shapes our view of what the world is, and what we think the world really is shapes our view of what the world ought to be.
Thus, to say that mass organizations gather around shared interests means that mass organizations gather around shared understandings of the world and shared understandings of what the world should be like. This is too general, of course. More particularly, mass organizations gather around an understanding of the world that has a wide level of agreement and doesn’t require a very complicated explicit articulation to exist. In reality, mass organizations do have very complicated understandings of the world, but this is rarely, if ever, conscious or explicit. As an analogy, think about catching a baseball. Catching a baseball involves a complicated set of processes – watch the ball, where it currently is; predict where the ball will be; be conscious of where one’s body is in space now; predict where one’s body needs to be in order to catch the ball… this involves data coming into the body and brain, data being sorted into relevant data (the speed of the ball, the direction of the wind) and irrelevant data (the color of the sky, the shouts of other people watching), being processed into information with decisions and estimates getting made, instructions going back to muscles. And in the meantime, one keeps breathing, one’s heart still beats… All of this happens, and little of it happens consciously as a result of direct decisions. Humans make history but not in an immediately conscious manner; this happens in much smaller scales than all of humanity, it includes individuals as well. The understandings of the current world and ideas about the future world and the decisions that people make as part of their participation in mass organizations are very complex, but few of them are conscious. To catch a baseball does not require knowledge of any of the above processes. Likewise to be part of a mass organization does not require explicit awareness of the value systems and complex mental work that goes on as part of being part of the mass organization.
The shared understanding that people have of the world as they group into mass organizations are often general in the sense of wanting things like fairness and justice and happiness, or having more control over life. These things are subject to a huge variety of interpretations, including contradictory interpretations. More than generality, some people in mass organizations tend to be involved around localized and specific concerns: “I want this particular problem in my particular workplace to be alleviated and being part of the organization is a way to help make this so.” Sometimes involvement is about anger more than a vision of alternative: “I am outraged at this problem, it is unacceptable, so I will be part of this organization who accepts my outrage and will act on this problem.” Other people are involved for more abstract, and, in my view, better reasons: “The problems I have will only be solved through collective means; I want all of us to have more power so that all of us can have better lives; I will not have the better life I want unless all of us have more power.” All of these sorts of reasons and others can co-exist and people often change their minds. People are complicated, contradictory, and dynamic.
Mass organizations do not just gather people around shared understandings as they currently exist. Mass organizations also shape the understandings of the people they involve. To put it another way: mass organizations are made of people. Mass organizations are people who come together around shared understandings of how the world is and ought to be. In mass organizations, people take action together on the world as it is, motivated by understandings of how the world ought to be. In their interactions with each other and through their experiences of collective action, people’s understandings of the world as it is and as it should be can develop and change. To make a long story short: shared interests are in part made through mass organizations. As such, we should orient toward both shared interests as they currently exist and toward shared interests as we want to make them become. This is a balancing act, but we need both. To orient only toward what we wish to see happen is to have no vision of transition from the unacceptable present to the needed future. To orient only toward current interests is to pander and, perhaps, reinforce, elements of the present which continue to delay or deflect progress toward our needed future.
Shared interests are in part made by mass organizations in their activity. People often do not maintain one perspective which stays the same before they join an organization, while they join an organization, and while they participate in the organization’s activities and struggles. People change across those moments. So if people currently do not have radical ideas it does not mean that they will not.
We need to have a rich and dynamic understanding of “interests.” People often think mass organizations gather together around “economic” interests, by which they mean “more money” and similar things. That’s not the case. People gather together in mass organizations because of their outlooks on the world. Above all, for people to engage in combative behavior in mass organizations, they do not simply want lower rent or more money. They want value-laden things, like more time with family, more respect, a sense of dignity. These often translate into economic costs for employers. But fundamentally, mass organizations of the working class, at least to the degree that they matter for radicals, are about the ways in which the capitalist economy forecloses human possibility. (Of course, mass organizations can sometimes be conservative in their outlook and in their effects: seeking or achieving only a different allocation of the foreclosure of human possibility, or to expand one group’s possibilities at the expense of another group’s possibilities.) The marxist writer E.P. Thompson put the point well:“The injury which advanced industrial capitalism did, and which the market society did, was to define human relations as being primarily economic.” Above all “the injury [that capitalism inflicts] is in defining [humanity] as ‘economic’ at all.” Working class people in struggle and in mass organization “desire, fitfully, not only direct economic satisfactions, but also to throw off this grotesque ‘economic’ disguise which capitalism imposes upon them, and to resume a human shape.” The term “direct economic satisfactions” might be better put as “narrowly economic satisfactions.”
These two impulses, toward “direct economic satisfactions” and toward throwing off, or at least, resisting, the grotesque economic guise into which capitalism casts human life, both exist within mass organizations. Mass organizations take actions around both of these aspects of human life under capitalism – not in the same way or to the same degree, of course; this varies by circumstance and location. Furthermore, in some cases, mass organizations can play a role in furthering the reduction of human life to narrowly (capitalist) economic forms, reinforcing the grotesque economic guise or at least abandoning objections to it in favor of more money. For example, in contract negotiation, a union might be forced to or choose to abandon a demand for safer staffing levels and more control over hours in order to get higher rates of pay. Or, there is sometimes an “obey now, grieve later” mentality which argues against fighting major injustices on the job when they occur in order to obey the law and prevent consequences. Mass organizations face tremendous pressures to behave in this way. Those pressures can be contested, however, to at least some degree. But if our perspective on mass organizations concedes too much ground to a narrowly economistic perspective – if we allow the money economy to predominate too much over the moral economy – we will have less to contribute toward pushing mass organizations away from exchanging more “directly economic satisfactions” in return for less efforts at pushing back the grotesque economic guise capitalism pushes onto our lives.
Failure to recognize that both of these elements exist in mass organizations is a failure to recognize that, in the words of the marxist writer Raymond Williams, “Practical consciousness” which is to say, the actual consciousness of the working class under capitalism, “is almost always different from official consciousness (…) practical consciousness is what is actually being lived, and not only what is thought is being lived. Yet the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms,” that is, to the official version of working class conscious which tend to privilege directly economic satisfactions over opposition to the reduction of our lives to economic factors and capitalist ideology which encourages this reduction, “is a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange. Its relations with the already articulate and defined are then exceptionally complex.” As noted above, mass organizations are people grouped together around complicated understandings that are often not *consciously* complicated. These understandings overlap with, reinforce, contradict, and escape official working class ideology and capitalist ideology. Above all, these differences co-exist dynamically in the working class and in mass organizations. Mass organizations are both a product of and a shaping factor in these understandings.
Where Do Radicals Come From?
It may seem strange or simply dishonest to say that mass organizations express an interest in ending the grotesque reduction of human lives to a narrow economic calculus. In fact, though, many of us who see ourselves as radical have experienced this interest in action. That is, we have been part of moments where people have opposed aspects of life under capitalism in ways which begin to open onto the reduction of our lives to simply salable labor power.
A friend of mine talks about how his union has won grievances that apply to large numbers of workers, and the union officials have totaled up the dollar value of this grievance per person and said “look at this massive sum of money we have won from the employer!” This is true in a sense but it’s misleading: a grievance spread across 3,000 workers may add up $150,000 but that is only fifty dollars per worker, which sounds very different. It’s understandable why organizations will want to talk in large numbers like that, it sounds more inspiring.
Ultimately, though, for many of us who are committed to struggle at some level, the main sources of inspiration are not dollar amounts. The things that have gotten us fired up and kept us going are harder to quantify, mostly respect and dignity issues and workplace control issues. Those indignities have been really intolerable so we feel strongly a gut-level need to fight on them, and the aftermath that we carry with us is more than the experiences of the fight and the relationships we built in the process—it is more than the contents of the win. And when we do get fired up about the contents of the win it’s usually mixed and it’s usually about management having to eat crow more than it’s like “work is fine now” because work *isn’t* fine. That is: we are motivated more by opposition to the grotesque reduction of our lives to a narrow form economy and by attempts to limit this reduction, as well as the experiences of the fight and the relationships we build during it, than we are motivated by a desire for more goods and greater amounts of narrowly economic satisfactions.
We don’t really want money in exchange for our time and for the horribleness of being at work and being bossed around. We sometimes settle for that, and are sometimes asked to and sometimes the other side will raise the amount of money to get the settlement but… The equivalency in that exchange is a false one, the quid pro quo (“this for that”) doesn’t make quid (“this”) and quo (“that”) identical. Even if they’re rendered monetarily equal they’re not *really* equal. The employer, and more broadly the employing class, can be made to want to give money instead of our other demands, and there’s a reason why they want that.
What we really want is not the equivalent of our demand in money because what we *really* want is not really representable in monetary terms. You can’t buy what we really want, even if we might be willing to agree to undergo this shit for a sum of money, but that doesn’t really mean that the undergoing and the money are truly equivalent. There’s an element of this sensibility in every movie and TV show whenever someone shouts all melodramatically “I don’t want your dirty money, I want XYZ that I want!” There’s a fiction in some of the laws that cover injuries and that cover work and workplaces, about this equivalency that isn’t really an equivalency, the idea of being ‘made whole’ via being given a certain amount of money. We reject that, we’re not going to be made whole by more money — we’ll take the money if that’s our only option, but that’s not really what we want. Those of us who reject this capitalist world, many of us come to this understanding through things we’ve read. Experiencing groups of workers in action who share this rejection – however momentarily and however unclear it is articulated – is incredibly powerful, even for people who already thought this. And many mass struggles and mass organizations have this at least temporary recognition that the equivalency at the heart of capitalism – money for labor time – is a false on and a rip-off. A mass organization inscribing on its banner “abolish the wage system” can and should be a commitment to this perspective, a commitment to proceeding in mass struggle in a way that spreads this recognition among workers and which aims eventually to end capitalism.
What is a Fair Day’s Wage, Anyway?
The line from the IWW Preamble that rejects “fair” wages in favor of abolishing the wage system is an almost exact quote from Marx’s Value, Price, and Profit. The passage from Value, Price, and Profit that the IWW Preamble quotes is worth looking at closely. Marx wrote that “struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities.” This means two important things. First of all, capitalism will always involve conflict between workers and employers. Secondly, these conflicts will usually revolve around fighting against continued lowering of wages, worsening of conditions, and layoffs. That makes attempts to achieve or maintain “fair wages” more likely.
Marx continues, saying that “[t]he working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.” Marx adds later in this piece that “Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”
That is to say, fights about limiting the effects of capitalism are limited fights if they don’t become fights to end capitalism. Organizations that fight for “fair wages” are organizations that seek to limit what Marx calls “the encroachments of capital.” These organizations and these fights have important potentials but they are unavoidably limited unless they come to recognize the need to end capitalism and take steps to act on this need. This is why Marx argues that instead of being “exclusively absorbed in (…) unavoidable guerilla fights” with capitalists, workers need to consciously organize toward ending capitalism: “Instead of the conservative motto: ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” Readers will no doubt see that that this is almost exactly the same line as the IWW Preamble, except the Preamble says “we” instead of Marx’s “they,” because the IWW was a working class organization as opposed to Marx’s position outside the working class.
This brings us to the issue of a fair wage. What is a “fair” wage? “A fair wage” is a contradiction in terms, like “deserved abuse” or “good injustice.” In capitalism, people can’t get many things we want and need unless we have money. There are really only two basic ways to get money: hire someone to produce something which you try to sell for a profit, or get hired by someone to produce something which they will try to sell for a profit. This is why no wages under capitalism can be truly fair (and we can ask, would there be wages under any other, better society?). This is because the basic arrangement, the starting point for it all, is already unfair. Under capitalism we are required to spend our time working for other people – if working class people don’t work for wages or find someone who works for wages who will share their wages with us – then we can’t get money and so we can’t get things we want and need. Furthermore, the stuff the capitalists sell: workers made it. The capitalists’ profits generally come from the difference between the price they charge for the stuff we produce and what they paid us to produce the stuff. That difference is inherently unfair.
Sometimes liberal or progressive capitalists and people who are in favor of capitalism will become concerned that wages are too low and conditions are too bad. This is because capitalists need workers. The capitalist class needs there to be workers tomorrow, and in ten and twenty years. Smarter capitalists and people who support capitalism sometimes realize that if wages get too low then workers may have a hard time coming back to work tomorrow. You may know this from your own life, if you have ever dug through the couch cushions to find bus fare to get to work, or if you’ve had to work long enough hours or in bad enough conditions that your immune system crashes and you get sick and have to miss work. And if wages get too low then in the long term workers might not have enough money to provide their kids with the sorts of education and training that will make them be what employers will want in 10 or 20 years. That is, sometimes capitalists behave in ways that maximize profits in the short term but which have the potential to undermine the stability of the company or of capitalism as a whole in the long term. The recent global economic meltdown triggered by financial markets is another version of individual capitalists putting the short term goal of maximum profit ahead of the long term interests of the capitalist class as a whole.
Liberal or progressive capitalists and their supporters recognize that capitalists overall will be better off if there is a balance between the short term interests and profits of individual capitalists and the long term needs and interests of the capitalist class. This leads these progressives to call for fair wages. Capitalist “fair wages”– and really, would there be wages under any economic system other than capitalism? – means that individuals get paid enough so we can support ourselves in order to keep on working. In the long term, “a fair day’s wage” means that the working class gets paid enough to keep having kids and raising them up so there continues to be a working class. From our perspective, as workers, of course we want more money for our work, not less. But we also need to recognize that higher wages and improving working conditions for some workers is often in the long-term interests of the capitalist class. This is why there are laws for minimum wage and health and safety. This also accounts for the motivation of some capitalists to support initiatives like universal health care– they want to ensure that there are healthy and productive workers available for the production of profit.
One of the most important dynamics in the capitalist system is that some sections of the capitalist class try to use the struggle of the working class to identify ways to reform the capitalist system in the long term interests of the capitalist class. That is, they use the working class’s struggle to identify places where capitalism needs a course correction, ideas for what this course correction would look like, and as a club to push stubborn capitalists into line with the over all interests of the capitalist class. Fights for fair wages, even fighting in a very militant way, often play this stabilizing role – they whack the capitalists upside the head with the need to preserve a basic level of well-being for workers, for instance. This is one reason why many countries give legal recognition to unions.
The part of the IWW Preamble I have been focusing on did not appear in the first version of the preamble adopted at the IWW’s founding convention in 1905. The line was adopted at the 4th convention in 1908, the convention which resulted in the group around Daniel DeLeon leaving the organization. That convention added a whole new paragraph to the Preamble, as follows:
Instead of the conservative motto, ’A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ’Abolition of the wage system.’ It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the every-day struggle with the capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
That convention also replaced the line “between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class, without affiliation with any political party” and with the line “between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”