Sophia Burns on ambulance-chasing and revolutionary strategy

I generally think that the radical left in the US does very little in the way of strategic thinking, so its always nice to read pieces like “Chasing Ambulances” and “Strategize, Don’t Moralize”, both written by Sophia Burns, a radical out in the Pacific North-west.

“Chasing Ambulances” critiques the common leftist practice of bouncing around different hot-button issues that are sparking protests and rallies, in an effort to spread the good word of revolution or whatever and find new recruits.  This is often weird and alienating and annoying to the people who are actually organizing the events and who have been engaged in long-term organizing around a particular issue or community.  And even when leftists aren’t being weird and opportunistic, there is still a tendency to put out all manner of resolutions and endorsements and whatnot as a way to “support” a cause — and it usually ends at that, which makes it highly questionable what the actual point of them is.  Burns argues that instead of running around and chasing after causes, leftists ought to instead be actual organizers, and engage in base-building in specific communities, with a long-term strategic perspective.  Sounds obvious, but then again, look at all the different cliques and sects running around in urban centers of the US that can be found at the fringes of any protest action, but have no meaningful organizing activity of their own, aside from trying to recruit people and raise awareness of socialism or whatever.

However, I would nuance this line of argument by saying that there are leftists who can and are engaging with flare-ups in social movements, like the ongoing teachers’ strikes, in what seems to be an effective and fruitful manner.  This engagement isn’t based on trying to recruit or preach, but on mutual communication and on the basis of learning.  There are plenty of radicals in education and academia who can and are connecting with the West Virginia wildcat teachers on the basis that they, too, are facing similar styles of exploitation and subjugation.  And of course it certainly helps that radical organizations like the IWW have been actually helping out in West Virginia.

“Strategize, Don’t Moralize” is a more explicit discussion of the need for revolutionary strategy, and a critique of the common leftist practice of debating about tactics in the abstract, divorced from context or strategy.  For example, its ultimately meaningless to talk about whether punching Nazis is good or bad in the abstract; you have to discuss it in the context of specific goals, which themselves must be connected to a larger strategy.  For revolutionaries, this strategy of course needs to be oriented around the prospect of revolution, which requires the synthesis of many different tactics — direct action, mutual aid, etc. — that have appropriate times and places to implement.  Without a coherent strategy, then leftists are left debating and implementing tactics in a vacuum, and arguing ideas without implementing practices, and thus remaining marginal to both the masses and to political and social relevance.

Burns doesn’t explicitly connect this line of argumentation with the one about ambulance-chasing, but the connection should be clear: when leftists aren’t acting in accordance with an explicit long-term strategy, then the impulse to abstractly moralize means that their actions are dictated by the issue of the month, and the need to “be correct” or “take the right position” on all manner of topics that, in the end, they have no concrete ability to influence.  The war in Syria is an excellent example of this.  Everybody is so damn caught up in yelling at each other about the correct line on Syria that nobody has stopped to realize that none of them have any power whatsoever to influence the situation in the first place, so the debate is ultimately irrelevant.  Instead of this style of moralizing, we need to take a step back and think about how to get from point A (being irrelevant to the situation in Syria and global capitalism/imperialism as a whole) to point Z (being a serious revolutionary force capable of intervening against imperialism).

Strategize and build power, don’t run after ambulances!

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Creating a new Lucas Plan for Google

One of the many, many excellent essays in Issue 2 of Notes From Below discusses the Lucas Plan and the potential to replicate it for the tech industry.  The Lucas Plan was a proposal developed in the 1970s by workers at Lucas Aerospace, a major aircraft designer and manufacturer in the United Kingdom.  The plan sought to overturn management and capitalist control over technology and the use of the workers’ surplus value, in favor of the reorganization of the company and a worker-lead vision for the creation of products far more useful to society.  As quoted from a Guardian essay on the subject:

Over the course of a year they built up their Plan on the basis of the knowledge, skills, experience, and needs of workers and the communities in which they lived. The results included designs for over 150 alternative products. The Plan included market analyses and economic argument; proposed employee training that enhanced and broadened skills; and suggested re-organising work into less hierarchical teams that bridged divisions between tacit knowledge on the shop floor and theoretical engineering knowledge in design shops.

At the heart of all this is the fundamental, radical question: what would we like to do with our labor?  The answer has never, and will never, be “whatever capitalism has me working on now”.

This contradiction between what one would like to work on, and what one is forced to work on, exists in the tech industry.  As it currently stands, the tech industry mostly revolves around the accumulation of data collected from people using search engines, social media, service platforms, etc., and using this data to make it easier for advertisers to sell people stuff.  When you really break it down, the fact that Silicon Valley is largely about advertisement technologies is decidedly uninspiring, even without getting into the other aspects of this system, such as the engineering of addiction and political/ideological polarization.  Surely tech workers would rather work on technologies that are more socially useful than this?

Thus the call for a Lucas Plan for the tech industry is coming at a very timely moment.  And in fact unrest within the industry around its products is already growing.  Google workers are making international news with a petition, signed by thousands of employees, to get the company to abstain from military contracts.  This drive is coming after news that Google has been helping develop artificial intelligence technology for improving the precision of drone strikes.  It is excellent news that so many workers in a major tech company are disgruntled with its entanglement with the military-industrial complex, and shows that the trend of tech workers politicizing and radicalizing is continuing.

Of course, a petition will do little by itself — what is needed is for worker power to be built up, and for organizing happening in Google and elsewhere to strategize around how to actually put some muscle behind their demands on management.  As the Notes From Below essay discusses, the investigation into the class composition of Google and other tech companies is key, in that it is necessary to build up alliances between different layers of tech — from the skilled technical layers (programmers, engineers) to the subaltern layers (gig economy workers, campus service workers).  This way, further organizing, and any new Lucas Plan for Google and other tech companies, will truly reflect the interests of all workers, not just a skilled labor aristocracy.

Its worth nothing that creating a viable Lucas Plan for tech companies will be much more difficult than creating one for an aerospace company that is centered around defense contracts.  The latter has a close relationship with government, and its not a stretch to imagine that nationalization and state support would have been able to play a key role in reorganizing the company and completely overhauling production.  But for the tech industry, its a much greater leap to think about nationalization, and whether this would be desirable at all given the hyper-nationalist and imperialist nature of the US state.  But without some kind of nationalization, how could the tech industry revenue — which is currently based on surveillance and advertisement — be replaced?  Perhaps some sort of municipalization, involving the break up and decentralization of the big tech companies, is the way to go.  This could even be linked with a rural and rustbelt renewal program, to heal those old industrial areas that have been left behind by contemporary global capitalism.  In any case, its clear that drafting an alternative worker-centered vision for the tech industry would require a concurrent revolutionary reorganization of all of society.  A tricky task, to put it lightly, but a necessary one.

Second-order imperialisms in South-East Asia and the Middle East

Viewpoint Magazine just released their latest issue, on imperialism.  One essay, “The Specificity of Imperialism” by Salar Mohandesi, critically examines Marxist definitions and analysis of imperialism. The main points revolve around moving away from the classical Marxist conception of imperialism as purely an extension of capitalism and economic dynamics, and toward viewing imperialism as an inherent quality of most nation-state formations, independent of whether they are capitalist or not.  Socialist nations have been imperialist (i.e. the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979), as have Third World nations who themselves supposedly upheld anti-imperialist politics (i.e. Egyptian meddling in Syria and North Yemen in the 1950s, Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980).

To elaborate on the idea that imperialism is a product of modern states rather than of capital, the essay looks at the Third Indochina War, fought in the late 1970s mainly between three supposedly socialist states: Vietnam, Cambodia, and China.  The commentary draws mostly from the book Red Brotherhood At War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Since 1975 (1990).  Despite the fact that socialist politics is supposed to be transnational/internationalist, the socialist states of the time were cheerfully engaging in cynical geopolitical maneuvering on the basis of their own nation-state’s territorial integrity and security, even at the expense of other socialist states and movements.  The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was more interested in pursuing ethnic grievances against the Vietnamese and the restoration of the old imperial glory of the Khmer Empire, and China — extremely hostile to the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split — was allied with them as a counterweight to Soviet-backed Vietnam.  And so border conflicts between Vietnam and Cambodia escalated, as did genocidal policies within Cambodia against Vietnamese people and other minorities, and eventually Vietnam invaded Cambodia, provoking a brief Chinese invasion of Vietnam, and then many years of occupation and guerrilla warfare and sabotage.  Not a great look for states supposedly upholding the legacy of a global working class undivided by borders and nationalism.

Aside from the fact that socialist and/or anti-imperialist revolutions don’t overthrow the potential for such states to engage in imperial behaviors themselves, it is also worth expanding on the essay’s comments about the way smaller states replicate or fit into larger imperial systems.  The Middle East is a fine region to use to unpack this.  A certain kind of reductive anti-imperialist perspective will try to pin every single thing that happens in the Middle East as a consequence of US/Western imperialism, but the reality is much more complicated and interesting, and requires looking at the roles played by the regional bourgeoisie classes and their relative autonomy from the US.

The UAE, for example, is firmly meshed with US imperialism, whether you look at its banking system or its contracting with various American defense companies.  But at the same time, the UAE demonstrates an ambitious will toward a level of autonomy, with its military taking a lead on interventions in Libya and Yemen.  Indeed, the latter case demonstrates the most independence that the UAE has shown yet, with its recent actions in backing southern separatists against the Hadi regime, which is backed by the UAE’s close ally Saudi Arabia.  The separatist insurrection could very well threaten the entire Saudi project of crushing the Houthis, and so it remains to be seen how this will affect Saudi-Emirati relations.  And of course it doesn’t seem like the US is playing much of a role in this at all despite its ongoing support for the anti-Houthi coalition, similar to its lack of interest in post-Gaddafi Libya, where it also accepted a situation where regional allies fought a proxy war against one another (Egypt/UAE vs. Qatar).  The UAE has also carved out some relative autonomy in Afghanistan, which while still dependent on US military presence, is its own significant player when it comes to finance and banking.

Turkey is another example of an imperialist power that is on a lower order than that of the US.  Turkey has of course long been a junior partner to US imperialism as a key member of NATO.  But while recent policies such as the funding of various Sunni militias in Syria continued this tradition, Turkey has also clearly gone increasingly further from the US imperial orbit as it seeks to prioritize its own imperial interests, namely against Kurdish nationalism and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  Today this pits it directly against US imperial strategy in Syria, which is to continue to oppose the Assad regime and Iran by arming the Syrian Kurds, who are largely affiliates of the PKK, and ensuring their control over northern and eastern Syria and much of the country’s agricultural and oil resources (not unlike pre-2003 US policy around Iraqi Kurdistan).

All of which is to say: don’t reduce modern geopolitics and global capitalism to be solely the product of US imperial planners!  Such a narrow view covers up the complicated reality of a terrain of many actors of varying autonomy, and more importantly, fools us into believing that all it takes to defeat imperialism (as a tendency of nations or capital) is for there to be successful national liberation or socialist revolutions.  In reality, as Mohandesi points out, what is needed is whole-scale restructuring of the nation-state form itself, in conjunction with international revolutionary socialist struggle.

Amazon, the decimation of warehouse worker wages, and a warehouse inquiry

In the latest issue of Economist, there is an article with some pretty stunning analysis about the wages of warehouse workers in US counties where Amazon sets up shop — specifically on how they collapse.  The following two graphs speak for themselves.

What’s behind this?  According to the analysis cited by Economist, it appears to be a combination of Amazon workers being younger, more inexperienced, and more unskilled than in other warehouses, and generally not able to find alternative jobs due to there only being a few employers in the area.  Technology also plays a role here, with cutting-edge automation allowing the company to hire younger and less skilled workers in the first place, which is deeply related to the argument that automation doesn’t eliminate the need for work, but rather helps generate the need for less skilled work.

Amazon is growing fast, already worth more than all the major brick-and-mortar retail companies put together.  Its combination of retail, logistics, and tech is allowing it to devour large swathes of the US economy into itself.  Amazon and its low-wage, cyborg workforce is the future — and the present, for that matter.  Engaging in militant labor struggles in Amazon warehouses will only become more and more critical for all those interested in rebelling against the rule of capital.  Thus inquiries and workplace reports, like this one just released by Angry Workers of the World, are a valuable resource that worker militants should use and produce themselves, in order to pick apart the nature of the workplace and reveal the ambient level of worker unrest and struggle.  To quote from the conclusion of the first report:

This all sounds bad, but don’t believe that the workers just sat and took it like the good victims the newspapers like to write about every now and again. In the beginning a lot of people had high expectations of working with Amazon, but after a few weeks they started to realise what working for Amazon really meant. So after a few weeks you started to hear more and more angry and incensed discussions amongst workers around the aisles of the pick tower. Workers who in the beginning tried to run themselves into the ground trying to reach their targets, now having realised it didn’t make a difference in terms of getting a long term contract, stopped stressing about targets and deliberately worked slower than they could. In the beginning we were all worried about even going to the toilet because we might get a warning for “time off task” but after a few weeks when we started to realise we would all be fired soon anyway more and more people started to take “extra” breaks, spending time talking with colleagues, wandering around the warehouse, going to the canteen to grab a cup of coffee, playing a game of ping pong, and of course not giving a toss about ‘power hour’. The permanent staff already know that Amazon don’t care about the workers and the temps quickly learn it, and a lot of us start to do minor individual acts of resistance. That is all a good start, but if we want to change the way Amazon treats us we have to work and resist together!

Moving beyond Marx’s fetishization of science and technology

One of the starting points of my attempts at arguing the importance of analyzing and organizing techno-scientific workers has been a perceived shortcoming in existing Marxist theory on the matter.  McKenzie Wark, in the in introduction to General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century (2017) has some excellent comments on this shortcoming, starting from the arguments of Karl Marx himself.

Wark focuses on Marx’s Fragment on Machines, a set of notes that speculate that technological development is the transferring of skills and knowledge of workers into machines in a process mediated by and for the interests of capital.  However, there is a gap here in terms of the actual process of how this information is turned into machines in the first place.

For Marx, science will appear to the laborer as something alien to him.  Science appears in the form capital dictates.  Science is a productive force: “all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital”.  But who makes science?  “Invention has become a business,” says Marx, but who does the inventing?…

…The problem is that as actual organized social activities, science and technology do not fit so neatly into the schema of labor and capital.  Hence in Marx they simply come from without as a reified thing called “science” which then becomes part of the machine system as fixed capital. (8-9)

In order to move past this fetishized understanding of science and technology, Wark offers analysis by both J.D. Bernal and himself.  In Bernal’s Science in History series, he argues that contemporary techno-scientific labor (as of the 1950s) was a fusion of high-skill technical labor and the bourgeoisie “gentlemanly culture” of leisurely philosophical-scientific inquiry.  Thus, the new scientific workers who make the science and do the inventing constitute a new class with hybrid origins.  Wark, in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), similarly argues that there is a new techno-scientific class of workers that he dubs “the hacker class”, who today mainly labor with information and are dealing directly with capital’s commodification and enclosing of information and knowledge.  (It would be interesting to compare the arguments of Bernal and Wark with those in “The Californian Ideology”, which seems to take a much more pessimistic view of the new techno-scientific classes).  All of this echoes other efforts at a class analysis of techno-scientific workers, such as analysis by student leftists in the US in the 1960s, debates among French Marxists in the 1970s, and of course recent writings on the new “Tech Left”.

Wark’s comments on this can be summed up in this paragraph that ties the above comments to the project of the book overall:

One task for general intellects might be to imagine a kind of common hacker class interest among those whose efforts end up being commodified as some sort of intellectual property: artists, scientists, engineers, even humanist and social science academics.  We could imagine all of them as belonging to the same class from the point of view of the commodification of information.  We all process information that is part of a complex natural-technical-social-cultural metabolism.  But nearly all of us get to see a ruling class of a rather unprecedented kind extract most of the value from the combined efforts of hackers and workers worldwide.  As general intellects, maybe we should stick our heads above our little cubicles, look around, and figure out how to cooperate with others who understand different parts of the labor process. (11)

Techno-pessimism in the early 1990s

There seems to have been something about the early 1990s that lent itself to intensely pessimistic ideas about the direction of an increasingly technological society.  At least that’s the impression I’m getting from reading two different and highly influential pieces of literature: a 1995 leftist polemic against Silicon Valley, “The Californian Ideology”, and a 1992 cyberpunk sci-fi novel, Snow Crash.

“The Californian Ideology” had a huge impact on discourse about Silicon Valley and its politics, enough to make the editor of Wired issue a very angry and snarky rebuttal.  It analyzed the way the ideology of Silicon Valley — a combination of techno-utopianism with a hostility to any kind of government regulation — is historically rooted in the merging of two previously antagonistic classes in the San Francisco Bay Area, counter-culture hippies and money-grubbing yuppies.  When the various social movements of the ’60s were defeated, a significant faction broke off to try to continue their project in developing new technologies and new ways to mediate social life free of states and corporations, but in the process accepted the boundaries of the free market and slowly mutated into the anti-regulation libertarians that define the stereotypical Silicon Valley techie.  The essay predicts a future of intense economic inequality, environmental collapse, and renewed forms of apartheid in the US.

Snow Crash seemingly builds its dystopian cyberpunk vision directly from the arguments of “The Californian Ideology”, despite being written three years earlier.  Its world is one where techno-libertarianism has been taken to absurd lengths: the government has completely collapsed and private corporations run the entirety of society while also competing with each other, the military has fragmented into rival security firms, the Central Intelligence Agency is now the Central Intelligence Corporation, the mafia has risen to the heights of political economy via innovations in the pizza business, some nations-turned-corporations use fully automated robotic security systems, the global biosphere has totally degraded, tends of millions of refugees from the Third World are fleeing to the First, while California suburbanites construct explicitly white supremacist and segregationist suburbs.  But perhaps the most stunning aspect of the world of Snow Crash is the vision of a labor market that has been fully fragmented via digital platforms, where each worker is a pure individual who must compete with other works to fulfill discrete tasks — indeed, the main characters are a freelance hacker (and ex-pizza delivery guy) and a delivery girl, both of whom work through automated digital platforms.  Somehow, despite being written in 1992, Stephenson predicted the rise of the gig economy and platform companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and Task Rabbit.

Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what about this time period would have produced this kind of techno-pessimism.  After all, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, all the “end of history” chumps were cheering loudly, and US politics was turning sharply toward the right with the Democratic Party going all-in with “Third Way” neoliberalism.  I guess you can chalk one up for left-wing media studies scholars and cyberpunk novelists.

Rise of the “Tech Left”

There was a pretty good piece recently published about a month ago in The Guardian about left-wing organizing and activism in the tech industry, titled “Coders of the world, unite: can Silicon Valley workers curb the power of Big Tech?”  The article touches on much of what I talked about here, and extends it to look at what is called the “Tech Left”, a movement within the tech industry that focuses on tech workers as a potentially radical agent of change:

Their insight is as compelling as it is counterintuitive: the best people to confront the power of the tech giants may be their own employees. First, they want to teach their colleagues to see that tech work is work, even though it doesn’t take place in a factory. Then, they want to organise them, so that rank-and-file workers can begin to bring political transparency and democratic accountability to the platforms they have worked to build. Call them the Tech Left…

…The Tech Left believes it must urgently transform the industry in order to stop it from serving nefarious ends. It is not focused on getting Democratic politicians elected. On the contrary, much of the Tech Left distrusts mainstream Democrats. It does not believe that more engagement with digital tools necessarily means more democracy, or that the tech industry will necessarily lead the way to social progress. It is sceptical that people who became billionaires under the current system will transform that system. Instead of venture capital, the Tech Left talks about worker power, believing that the best chance to reform these companies will come from people who work there.

The article looks at two organizations, the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) and Tech Solidarity, both of which are organizing tech workers for left-wing and progressive ends.  The TWC is organizing to both raise class consciousness among engineers and programmers and other techies, and to unite these white-collar workers with their blue-collar counterparts who work in food and janitorial services in the same buildings and campuses.  Tech Solidarity is working along similar lines, to build labor-oriented networks among tech workers and empower them to resist a reactionary Trump administration.  Other organizations and networks are observed as well, such as the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and their Tech Action committee, and the Never Again pledge that was passed around among thousands of techies.

The article is long, and good.  Check it out.  Also related is a more recent op-ed, published last week, on basically the same topic, titled “Tech capitalists won’t fix the world’s problems – their unionized workforce might”.  The op-ed notes the TWC’s activities in the US, as well as parallel activities in India and Brazil among radicalizing tech workers.

Hopefully, this is all just the beginning of a wave of organizing and mobilizing in an industry that is the engine of contemporary capitalism.