Capitalism, Labor Unions, and Strikes

A wave of labor strikes — the scope of which has not been seen for decades — is sweeping across the United States. In fact, more than 100,000 workers are either involved in strikes or will be if threatened strikes happen. And the militancy of the strikers themselves, and of the unions, is supercharged. Members are rejecting small concessions, and leaders are even talking about the system — capitalism — in their public narratives. 

All of this occurs against a background of a general rejection of traditional work structures, low wages, and expectations of loyalty or enthusiastic labor. For entry-level jobs and wages, it's now often the case that nobody is showing up to work at all, despite the federal government cutting the most "generous" of Covid-era benefits. Ultimately, people are tired of working in conditions that inhibit their humanity. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, says that the bosses and mainstream media are trying to frame the current conditions as a "labor" shortage. "But that’s not what’s really going on," Reich writes. "In reality, there’s a living wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage." To this, I would add a shortage of system legitimacy. People are fed up with the brutal hierarchies of capitalism and are responding en masse. 

It's not controversial, I think, to predict that these mass labor actions will win immediate gains for workers and their families, including for those workers who aren't participating in strikes. Unions make everyone better off, except the bosses. If the dominant paradigm of contemporary capitalism is neoliberalism — a widespread assertion by the powerful that markets are always better, economic hierarchies provide benefits that "trickle down" to make everyone better off, and government policies should actively maintain such conditions — the strike is the ultimate repudiation of neoliberalism. The strike asserts that maintaining and reaffirming worker power should take precedence over maintaining "free markets”, and that egalitarianism — material equality — is more important than profit. It does all this through coordinated work stoppage, because control of work translates into political control. 

Granted, there are still barriers to the widespread success of strikes (most of which would go away if the PRO Act passes). These barriers include the simple fact that there is no right to strike guaranteed by law, that bosses can, in many instances, hire replacement workers (“strikebreakers”) without running afoul of labor law, and that the National Labor Relations Board's ban on "secondary activities" (boycotts and strikes against companies that support the companies against which workers are striking) renders strike action much weaker than it would otherwise be.

But even with these limitations, the ability of labor to flex its muscles in the American political playing field is impressive — particularly as not long ago, economists were predicting massive permanent layoffs as a result of automation. For the foreseeable future, however, workers have leverage because of their scarcity and their militancy. Unions may even help usher in widespread climate change-inspired reforms concerning how entire industries and labor are structured.

It's an open question and somewhat controversial, however, whether unions and strike actions can fundamentally transform the economy. The answer depends on who we ask.

The stakes could not be higher. The climate crisis is an existential one, portending widespread death, grueling refugee crises, and potentially irreversible damage to the biosphere. And Marxists believe that the working class, the most important class in history, is the agent which will address it. "[I]n the face of a worsening climate crisis," the Trotskyist faction of the Fourth International recently posted, "we know it is necessary to develop a program based on class independence with a strategy for ending the root cause of the ecological and social catastrophes we face: the capitalist system itself . . . Only the working class and its allies have the power to build a new system which operates in the interest of all of humanity." 

But if fixing the climate requires a wholesale restructuring of society along anti-capitalist, cooperative, and explicitly sustainable lines, it's still somewhat of an open question whether labor unions as presently structured have an integral role to play. The reason for such ambiguity lies in the essentially reformist nature of unions. In fact, that’s why critique of trade unions and labor unions in general can be identified in the earliest iterations of Marxism. 

Take, for example, arguments by anarchists like Partisan Review editor Dwight McDonald, who a century ago argued that in England, "the great dock strikes of 1889 led by socialists like Tim Mann and John Burns" ultimately evolved into the milquetoast British Labor Party. And in Germany, "the mighty Social-Democratic trade union movement, on which Marx and Engels placed their main hope for socialist leadership" — like the CIO in the United States — went from "rebellious youth to bureaucratic senility." Unions, the argument goes, exploit anticapitalist sentiment to gain power, then collude with the ruling class to control workers: "in each case the early struggle to establish unions had an anti-capitalist character which more and more disappeared as time went on," observes McDonald.

Perhaps this is another way of expressing Ahmed White's thesis in his article "Its Own Dubious Battle: The Impossible Defense of an Effective Right to Strike," positing that labor actions are only truly revolutionary if they occur as part of a revolution — that is, at the very least, if labor refuses to stay in the narrow NLRB lines and instead engages in illegal, wildcat, and forbidden actions. White's main argument is that "an effective right to strike is not only an impossible distraction but a dangerous fantasy that prevents labor’s champions from confronting the broader, sobering truths that this country’s legal and political system are, at root, anathema to a truly viable system of labor rights and that labor’s salvation must be sought elsewhere." 

But I think this is ultimately a kind of question-begging argument. All influential movements in capitalist society are in some way institutionally embedded, and such groups also, quite naturally and consistently, provide the rope of their own criticism and (sometimes radical) transformation. While most socialist and communist organizations in the U.S. support unions, few do so uncritically, and some groups have gone to great lengths to democratize unions, play decisive roles in strikes, and play strong roles in union locals while explaining their structural and ideological limits. Others have done nothing but criticize labor hierarchy and invite workers to form new labor organizations, explicitly anti-capitalist and indifferent to NLRB politics. Those "outsider" theorists also have a role to play in the mosaic of the radicalization of labor.

In order to empower unions as political forces, unions need to communicate with their own set of "constituents," and engage in campaign outreach based on an understanding of a kind of "voter base" in the politically conscious public. There are effective tools — like the email appending services offered by my client, Accurate Append — which can make this outreach easier. Ultimately, if more workplaces are unionized and more community members belong to unions, these ideological arguments will take on new form and life, and socialists, anarchists, and communists can work their differences out in common praxis against capitalism, rather than primarily against each other.

The History of Antifa

Guest post

Contrary to the narrative pushed by conservatives like Donald Trump, Antifa is not an organization. Indeed, to describe Antifa as an “organization” would directly contradict its inherently decentralized character. To “be Antifa” (anti-fascist) is to recognize the existential threat posed by fascism to vulnerable communities. This means committing to stopping the encroachment of fascism by any means necessary. Importantly, this is not a progressive definition of Antifa and anti-fascism— it is the only definition. 

Anti-fascism is as old as fascism itself. In 1920s Italy, left-wing resistance group Arditi del Popolo took to the streets to fight Benito Mussolini and his Italian Fascist Party. The group united leftists of all banners, from revolutionary communists to anarchists, for the common cause of hitting fascists where it hurts. During Adolf Hitler’s far-right Nazi regime, left-wing resistance groups such as Antifaschistische Aktion took to the streets in an effort to prevent further atrocities from taking place. After World War II, left-wingers in Germany regrouped, with new anti-fascist movements such as the Außerparlamentarische Opposition forming.

Antifa: As American As Apple Pie

In the United States, Antifa can be considered merely one in a long line of decentralized movements dedicated to the elimination of fascism. In the late 1980s, Anti-Racist Action (ARA) was founded in Minneapolis from a radical punk group known as the Minneapolis Baldies. The group spread across the Midwestern cities of Chicago and Columbus and later found its way throughout the country. Anti-Racist Action would establish a meaningful presence in the West Coast cities of Los Angeles and Portland, and even “crossed the border” into the Canadian metropolis of Toronto.

The rise of Antifa as a radical political force can also be partially traced to the creation of Redneck Revolt, formerly the “John Brown Gun Club” in honor of the famed abolitionist. The group was founded by white southerners committed to the cause of anti-racism and anti-fascism. The core principles of Redneck Revolt provide a strong summary of what guides anti-fascists in the United States:

  • “We stand against white supremacy
  • We believe in true liberty for all people
  • We stand for organized defense of our communities
  • We are working class and poor people
  • We are an aboveground militant formation
  • We stand against the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich (police and military)
  • We stand against capitalism
  • We stand against the wars of the rich
  • We stand against patriarchy
  • We believe in the right of militant resistance
  • We believe in the need for revolution”

Following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, anti-fascists wasted no time taking to the streets to resist his right-wing extremist agenda. From the beginning, Antifa activists were on the frontlines resisting Trump’s agenda, which included building alliances with religious groups in the interest of protecting migrants. Almost two hundred anti-fascist activists faced criminal charges after protesting Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. 

Praxis: Antifa in the Real World

Despite the media’s depiction of Antifa organizers as troublesome young people committed to violence at the expense of making a meaningful impact, this could not be further from the truth. Following the devastation brought on by Hurricane Harvey, Antifa activists took to organizing mutual aid efforts to help those displaced. Outside of the United States, the cause of defeating fascism in any form remains the goal of activists across the world. From India to Brazil, activists are putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others at risk from the rise of the far-right. The fact of the matter is that you can’t simply vote out fascism: defeating fascism means breaking it at its very core, and this means organizing on every front.

Eugene Debs: Political Communicator

It would be interesting to see how the public—even the left public—would respond to Eugene V. Debs if he were alive today. Debs was so morally sentimental and personally vulnerable in his rhetoric that it is difficult to predict how audiences would react, especially in a present during which vulnerability is often heavily tempered with irony, sarcasm and even nihilism in order to be digestible. In many ways, such irony and nihilism emerges from an explicit rejection of "liberalism," or soft center-leftism. Ronald Lee and James Andrews explain how Debs has been reappropriated by liberals (as distinct from socialists) as one of their own precisely because of liberal attachment to moral sentiment. By using "the historical narrative's definition of virtue," liberals crowd out radical change. Thus, Lee and Andrews argue that Debs' moralism better serves a contemporary agenda of "business-labor reconciliation" instead of the class war and unapologetically anti-capitalist ontology Debs actually possessed and espoused.  

Another critic points out that, ranks Debs' speech to the jury following his conviction under the Alien and Sedition Act for his Canton, Ohio anti-war speech "as the 34th most influential and memorable speeches of all time." It is widely acknowledged that "the speech in the courtroom failed at the legal level given the complicity of law and politics in reinforcing the power of the state.” Yet, something greater was at stake, and it is that very higher idealism which might succeed as political rhetoric right here and right now if someone emerged possessing Debs' ethos, which he himself had gained via creating "tropes of working class rhetoric that resonated with a wider audience." Indeed, losing in court was a huge rhetorical advantage to Debs' own movement at the time, and it is likely that the same events today would have been similarly appealing to audiences, given unprecedented and contemporary cynicism about the legitimacy of courts under neocolonial capitalism. Yet, an important difference to consider is that, "Debs never doubted that justice was on his side, despite the contrary conclusions of a closed political and legal system." In 2021, even committed leftists and progressives are hesitant to believe if not outright disbelieving that even a hypothetical court would provide true justice. What Debs might have treated as an aberration of capitalism is now seen by a significant section of today's society as an irredeemable feature of governance generally. 

More than one rhetorical scholar has highlighted that Debs understood messaging. One article even suggests Debs used what we might recognize as "modern" campaign tactics, and specifically in his 1912 presidential race where he utilized easy-to-communicate messaging, a non-condescending simplification of complex German political theory suitable for Americans. Debs was different from other radicals: "He was able to translate the Marxist idea of socialism into traditional American language; he used Lockean language as a tool to explain to common Americans socialist thought."  This included appeals to individualism and natural law. Capitalism, he argued, was a threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The results of Debs' messaging are clear. Third party candidates generally struggle to get more than a few thousand votes, even for president. Only three third party candidates have ever exceeded five percent of the vote. Debs was one of them, attaining six percent of the vote in a race against Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Teddy Roosevelt—a crowded and notoriety-saturated field. Debs had nearly a million votes campaigning both as a free man and as an incarcerated one. He had a devoted following and even his enemies acknowledged his virtues and how tough it was to go up against him. Above all, Debs' deep faith in humanity, and his abiding loyalty to the marginalized and downtrodden, made him a living argument for socialism rather than simply another firebrand with a manifesto. Debs had ethos, forged through his kinship with the least powerful people including the incarcerated. 

I think understanding Debs rhetorically and politically requires analysing his statement to the court from a point earlier than that chosen by most. Debs statement begins with "kinship," or relatedness. "Your Honor," he says, "years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free” (emphasis added). In these opening lines, Debs is emphatically acknowledging that he is not any better than anyone else. And that, unlike some of the more flowery morality often identified in his rhetoric, remains an acceptable sign of virtuosity even today. 

Similarly, Debs' very important statement on race relations critiques whiteness in a way that intentionally and decisively lifts up the agency of Black voices. "The whole history of the Negro race in America is one to make the white race blush scarlet with shame," Debs writes, before continuing on to point out that the seizure of humans from Africa for the sake of chattel slavery had so dehumanized Black people as to render them free from any debt to the white race, even the old cannard of "gratitude" for those white people who fought for emancipation. Debs had been a railroad worker and so he used the phrase “'Jim Crow' car" to describe the post-emancipation treatment of Black people. In the end, "for the improvement [African Americans have] been able to make under such inhuman and degrading conditions he is certainly under no obligation to his former white slave-drivers—his present white persecutors." Ultimately, Black people do not owe white people anything in the context of race relations; instead, Debs said, we owe each other solidarity as workers.

Debs as a political communicator would, perhaps, do better today than some might initially expect. Yes, he was at times excessively sentimental in the language he chose to use, but he was also self-deprecating, critical of both his race and gender and clear in his admittance of his own moral weaknesses, all in an effort to lift up the working class in its entirety. In 2021, marginalized communities and poor people—those living most precariously—might appreciate Debs' combination of utopian hope, commitment to struggle and solidarity and clear criticism of whiteness and cis-gender patriarchy. 

This post was sponsored by Accurate Append, which provides data services similar to those of Melissa Data, Infutor, and Data Axle. Try Accurate Append's data services for your cause or campaign today.

In Political Communication, We Always Seem to Be Fighting a War

This article is sponsored by my client Accurate Append, a quality email append and phone append service working supporting organizations, political campaigns and companies.

Communication specialists are often employed to guide their clients through problems and obstacles, whether personal, professional, political or otherwise. Given the demands of such moments, it is understandable that rhetoric is used (especially in political communication) to invoke a sense of urgency, that threat or promise which must be addressed quickly and powerfully. Very often, this rhetoric utilizes the metaphors of war and fighting and constructs an enemy who is imbued with a power and ruthlessness that designates them as a threat. This threat is then used to motivate collective action. 

One academic paper notes: "The domain of war is employed metaphorically for all types of human struggle and conflict. War metaphors have become an indispensable part of the English language over hundreds of years, since more and more war terms like besiege, fight for, win out, attack, battle and fend off are widely used by ordinary people in everyday language." 

Many scholars and activists are unhappy with the ubiquity of war metaphors. In particular, they are unhappy with how the metaphors (as expected) apply descriptions of warfighting to non-war contexts in a way that supercharges them and riles up audiences. Much has been written about the use of those metaphors, for example, in health care. Particularly in "biomedicine, including HIV research," the language reflects a "mindset that regards pathogens as enemies to be defeated." Philosopher Susan Sontag is especially critical of the use of the military metaphor in health care, saying “It overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill." 

But while the vast majority of analysis on military and warfighting metaphors concludes negatively or at least pessimistically about the practice, some scholars push back against that generalization. Several of the authors both critical of and in defense of military metaphors point out the usefulness of those metaphors in motivating people in times of adversity. What differs, however, is their judgement on whether the use of such figurative language in this way is problematic, and whether it necessarily demonizes or dehumanizes an actual enemy. 

In a research paper released in January of this year, Eunice Castro Seixas takes on the use of war metaphors in political communication around the Covid-19 crisis. Seixas notes that many others have taken on that metaphor critically, suggesting that its use, and the militarization of discourse in general, is a negative thing. Seixas doesn't necessarily disagree that in general, war metaphors probably connote aggression and negativity, or at least the demonization of an enemy. But Seixas concludes a little differently, urging "caution against previous generalized criticisms of the war metaphor as inherently dangerous and damaging." Instead, in certain contexts, the metaphor is constructive and even optimistic without being dehumanizing towards an enemy subject: "the war metaphor is often used for the pursuit of specific goals of crisis communication and management such as: preparing the public for hard times, persuading the population to change their behavior and bolstering resilience and self-efficacy. These are messages that, while using the war metaphor, place the emphasis on adaptation to hard times, rather than on fighting an 'invisible enemy.'" Seixas also acknowledges that it matters where such discourse is used and lands. Germany might reject the use of war metaphors because it is sensitive to being labeled a warlike nation after its role as aggressor in the First and Second World Wars. States rising up out of colonialism, or overcoming apartheid, might be more comfortable with the metaphor because it connects to the optimism of recent liberatory victories. 

Thus, using militaristic language to mobilize people doesn't necessarily mean vilifying an enemy, encouraging violence against specific people, or painting all conflicts as only resolvable through the use of force. What is clear, though, is that war metaphors underscore urgency. In urgent situations, therefore, is it okay to use language that alludes to war? And, does it serve us to use urgency as the starting point of so much discourse, particularly political discourse? 

Asking these questions pushes us deeper into the foundations of our rhetoric than the question of whether we need an enemy. The object of concern now becomes, why do we feel a need to construct everything as urgent? Why do we always feel the need to mobilize ourselves and others? Is this a carry-over from the fight-or-flight patterns that developed in our prehistory? Obviously some things really are urgent, but when we use that urgency as a template for all political activity and progress, is that cause for concern?

Philosophers like Paul Virilio have questioned Western metaphysics and technology and our obsession with speed, acceleration and efficiency, the way everything is defined according to use value. This necessitates further questioning about why everything in politics is so urgent, why we have to solve every problem now. Different thinkers have different answers. For Martin Heidegger, it's "technological thinking" that trades off with a more meditative view of the world. For Marxists and other theorists of capitalism, it's the mechanization and commodification of time as well as alienation of human activity

All of this analysis seems to suggest that we shouldn't reject out of hand any particular metaphorical strategy in political communication, except, of course, strategies that really do dehumanize or degrade other humans. Military mobilization may be appropriate if it doesn't put other people in danger. Calling our struggle against a disease or an economic crisis a "war" might be inelegant, but pragmatic and appropriate. What we should keep an eye out for, though, is whether we are being urgent and alarmist as a default, rather than in response to genuinely urgent and alarming problems. It's okay for us, as political communication practitioners, to point out the times when the drive to urgency is not appropriate. Because sure, our communication strategies are driven by our clients, but there's a reason they come to us for advice. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Department, and Public Communication

When a Chicago cop shot and killed 13 year-old Adam Toledo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially supported CPD's and States Attorneys' declaration that Toledo had been armed. But Adam Toledo did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, which the video makes clear. Lightfoot's blunder tells us a lot about the difficulties in leaders' public communication when having to speak for, cheerlead, or otherwise defend powerful police forces and their way of doing things. 

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio's struggles with NYPD are the stuff of legend, and have raised questions about what police are allowed to do in response to criticism from elected officials. Policing itself is political, and the politics of the police clash with the policies of municipal governments in major cities throughout the United States. Lightfoot's relationship with CPD isn’t any different. 

It's unlikely that the Mayor would deliberately lie about this even if she had wanted to appease the CPD. But her response was about as bad as it could be in the wake of such a genuine tragedy. That the murder and Lightfoot's public misstep happened atop a sharp upswing in especially offensive police killings and near-killings, all during the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, only added fuel to the fire. 

Though not the primary issue within this breakdown — policing, generally — it is notably that political communications specialists have continued to fail so atrociously throughout the past year. Importantly, this is related to, rather than separate from, the failures going on in U.S. policing. 

A 152-page report released just eight weeks ago described, as the Washington Post put it, "a plague of communication breakdowns" in the Lightfoot administration. And a brand new story by ProPublica's Mick Dumke describes Lightfoot as impatient and overly critical of well-meaning and admired city leaders like Andre Vasquez, a first-term alderman with a pressing agenda to help homeless and soon-to-be-evicted city residents. In one meeting, the Mayor attacked Vasquez for over a minute in order to minimize his request for emergency rental assistance. Lightfoot said the issue wasn't "a good use of our time," a statement of remarkable arrogance and aloofness coming from someone who ran on a progressive agenda.

But Mayor Lightfoot may be turning a corner after hitting rock bottom on both the shooting of Adam Toledo and another matter: the inexcusably brutal and mistaken police raid at the home of social worker Anjanette Young in 2019 which occurred before Lightfoot took office as Mayor. Cops raided Young's home based on incorrect information. Naked and then partially covered, Young kept insisting they had the wrong place, and they did. A series of misjudgments and mishandlings in the city legal department — which Lightfoot says she was "blindsided" by — soon followed. City attorneys tried to block the video from being shown to the public. Top attorney Mark Flessner was forced to resign. Eventually Young sued both the police and the Mayor, alleging a (very believable) "conspiracy and cover up between the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Office of Police Accountability and the Mayor’s Office.”

In many ways, Lightfoot's initial response to the police assault of Anjanette Young presaged her response to the shooting of Adam Toledo. But with the Young catastrophe, she has changed course and done so even though she is getting sued and would likely be better off if she were to simply stop talking about it. Skeptics might say that this apology only came when it became clear that Ms. Young intended to sue the city and the CPD. That lawsuit has now commenced. Perhaps this strategy was created to place blame on CPD, which it certainly has coming given its history. Lightfoot has also "falsely said her administration had not received a Freedom of Information Act request from Young." Still, I'm noticing in Lightfoot's language a more open level of contrition. Using words like "deeply sorry" and "humiliation and trauma" make clear the Mayor's intention to read the incident as reality. "It simply should not have happened," Lightfoot said, conceding some ground that might even be used against the city in the lawsuit. 

The Mayor also describes her own interpersonal reaction to the video, which she says she watched "in absolute horror. I showed it to my wife. We both thought about what could happen to us if we were in her circumstance." Even if that's not true, it builds a sense of empathy. Most importantly, Lightfoot says "this happens to Black and Brown people disproportionately." This is an acknowledgement that police brutality is systemic and racist, something that even liberal mayors in large cities have been reluctant to say historically. 

In many ways, the tasks and skills of a successful municipal political candidate don’t always translate to skills in office. For example, being able to effectively communicate with potential voters — maybe with the help of data append services like Accurate Append — doesn’t automatically translate to transparency and accountability during times of crisis or atrocity. What Lightfoot needs is advisors and staff who can keep her accountable to both macro data on the Chicago electorate and micro situations like "reading the room" on fundamental moral issues like policing. 

Importantly, at the root of this all is not Lori Lightfoot’s own investment in changing how policing is done, or how to help struggling Chicagoans, or anything else. It's about whether her constituents can effectively pressure her to advocate for their interests regardless of her own.