Archive for Labor

The Day After: Reflections, Concerns and Critique of the Boston Protest against White Supremacy

Posted in News, Politics, USA with tags , , , on August 20, 2017 by Z

Although I was left with an initially positive impression of yesterday’s march on the common and maintain that it was a positive event, a more sober reflection reveals some problems. We begin:

Fair Weather

This description applies to both the literal weather (sunny and mild, with pleasant breezes) and to the character of many of the protesters present. The image of Enlightened New England™ was definitely at work yesterday, and I would wager that a significant portion of the crowd was there because of it. What I mean, of course, is that the presence of many was the result of the overt character of the racism present in Charlottesville and not the result of the often invisible racism found in Boston. Clearly, Nazism is potentially far more harmful than the de facto segregation that characterizes Boston racism, a legacy of decades of racist practices in the real estate industry (some claim – not without reason – that these still occur to this day) and the peculiar way in which our public transit was constructed (it is noticeably more difficult to travel between black and white neighborhoods than it is to travel within them). Even so, Boston’s quieter race issues are still problems, problems I heard not a whisper about yesterday. Ask your average white Boston liberal about his or her black friends, and watch their jaw drop as they realize they don’t actually have any. Not discussing why this happens in a city with a history of anti-racist thought going all the way back to the revolution only guarantees that the problem will persist; we’ve gone from Crispus Attucks to Bostonians who don’t know Crispus Attucks Place is a street in their own city. The ugliest side of the busing controversy has vanished down the memory hole, and will likely come again if nothing is done.

Narrow Interests

This point concerns the lack of a broader perspective visible yesterday. This was evident in the number of anti-Trump (and only anti-Trump) participants. Trumpian cult of personality was out in force; the systemic issues that predate Trump and the disease of which Trump is a symptom (it’s not just racism, it’s not just sexism, and the primary force is likely not either) were not topics of conversation as far as I could see. Issues outside of the primary issue at hand (anti-fascism) got short shrift from the crowd at large. Speakers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Mass Action Against Police Brutality, Democratic Socialists of America, BLM, etc. made valiant efforts to reach a crowd that saw only one issue. Calls for anti-war actions, hands off Venezuela, hands off the DPRK, détente with Putin’s Russia, Medicare for all, labor organizing, climate change all appeared to reach only the core of the crowd, doubtless already members of the groups the speakers represented. Even in the context of the primary goal of anti-racism, I never once heard the word reparations. (The “sound system” used by the speakers alternated between a bass guitar amplifier with a microphone plugged into it and a megaphone, so it is possible I simply didn’t hear a message that was in fact present, but if so, that is an issue in itself). I also saw several t-shirts professing fealty to Obama and/or Clinton, which may have been mostly symbolic, but if not certainly suggest that larger lessons have not been learned about the system as a whole.

A side note related to the above issue: a common refrain offered by several people (some speakers, some signs) was the need to get racists and fascists fired from their jobs. Ted Rall has suggested that this is a fundamentally McCarthyist proposition, and Life After Hate (a recovery program run by an x-skinhead) reminds us that some of these people can be reached. At the very least, it raises a larger issue that was not discussed at all – should employers really have the power to fire workers based on off the clock activity or political views? Is this not a massive amount of power to leave in the hands of the already dominant class? Is gainful employment a human right, or is it not? These questions must be answered if we are to have a coherent and coherently defensible position on this issue. No one talked about it. (My own take: getting someone fired in a capitalist society with a dysfunctional safety net and no attempt at full employment is tantamount to a slow death sentence by starvation and exposure; if this is the goal, have the courage of your convictions and pull the trigger yourself. We need no cowards on the left. This slow starvation is what the right does to the poor, to minorities, to its political opponents. We are not them. Let them keep the cowards who leave the trigger to others or to the market.  Better yet, let’s not become McCarthyists or murderers, and let’s not mistake a series of individual solutions for a comprehensive social solution).

Lack of Discipline

I am not addressing lack of discipline among the larger crowd, as many had rarely attended protests before and were present simply to voice opposition to the fascist elements that were present at Charlottesville; of course they lacked discipline. I am here referring to the core of experienced activists and also to antifa. Concerning the organizers and rank and file in their organizations, both praise and criticism are due. There was a well-staffed food and water tent and an organized list of speakers. Donations were taken, and there was a general plan for the day. Good. Now the bad – it appeared as though no one had prepared much for exactly the situation that developed. No plan appeared to be in place for the failure of the other side to show up. Absent a credible opponent, what were all these people to do? There was little back and forth, as the “free speech” event basically fell apart and had few attendees to begin with. That left some 40,000 people in Boston Common with not much to do. Where were the organizers passing out literature? I left with two flyers, I should have been weighted down by pamphlets. Where were the discussion groups focusing on exactly the issues mentioned in this very post? Given the turnout, nothing was going to proceed smoothly, but it could have at least proceeded somewhere.

On antifa: mixed results. There was no one to clash with, so many antifa members functioned as ordinary protesters who happened to have masks on. I witnessed one antifa activist being interviewed by a reporter for some small newspaper; he gave intelligent, clear and well considered answers. Someone burned a Confederate flag; fair enough, although I don’t really see the point. We already know we don’t like the Confederacy. I’m not sure anything was added by this. Interestingly, the only clash with police that I personally witnessed was not led by antifa, but by unmasked anti-police brutality activists asking the Boston Police “Who do you serve?” The situation did not escalate beyond someone throwing a projectile I couldn’t identify that failed to reach the police anyway. I was not present at the larger clash where arrests were made, and so cannot comment on it. The point I’m making here is that there was an evident lack of focus among the more radical factions present. What goals had they set? Under what circumstances would they engage? I could see no pattern. In particular, one masked activist grabbed an American flag being held by an older woman and tried to take it; she held on to it and was pulled to the ground instead. Apparently she had attended the “free speech” rally. What was point of trying to take the flag? She wasn’t fighting with anyone, her “event” was over and there was nothing to be gained, politically or otherwise. I’m not against more militant protest actions, but surely there should be some kind of objective, a list of priorities, and a sense of when it is and is not beneficial, appropriate or necessary. Does no one have any plate discipline? A smart batter doesn’t swing at everything. Anarchist enthusiasm is nice, but rules of engagement, organization, discipline are needed. Antifa: taking a flag from an older woman for no clear benefit is the kind of thing Chris Hedges might cite as to why he isn’t a fan. If you’re going to escalate to more militant action, you need discipline, you need clear objectives. You need to admit that sometimes Lenin was right. Defending clergy from white power idiots in Charlottesville was an admirable and admirably appropriate use of force. Grabbing a flag in Boston from an elderly woman not engaged in any physical confrontation was totally unnecessary and, frankly, stupid. No one should bring a knife to a gunfight, but one also shouldn’t bring a knife when there’s no fight. Given what happened in Charlottesville, having antifa is better than having nothing, but better is possible.


On the whole, I still consider the protest a success, and I’m glad I participated, but the consequences of the breakdown of working class organizations in the US were on full display. I can’t help but wonder if deindustrialization itself isn’t at the root of this. Industrial labor conditions workers to be disciplined as they are exploited in a way they now aren’t by the new “gig economy.” Perhaps uniform conditions of labor gave us a discipline that variable ones don’t, a discipline that was once reflected in the character of our own organizations, but is now vanishing. The ability and willingness to take orders can have great benefits if we want it to. A disciplined protest can be very effective; there is a hard limit to the potential of the occupy formula, and we are in a situation where that limit must be broken if we are to have effective action. I’m not against more free form actions; as ol’ Slavoj might say, my god, it’s better than nothing (and so on and so on), but I think we can do better.

Post Thanksgiving Update 2: Black Friday, AKA American Thunderdome, or possibly Lumpenfest USA

Posted in Bad Faith, Capitalism, Economy, Media, News, USA with tags , , , , on December 4, 2012 by Z

What can be said about the uniquely American quasi-religious retail holiday known as Black Friday? This year’s observance happened to coincide with a Walmart worker’s strike that almost no one appeared to care about. Well, that’s not quite true; I’ve heard of several stories indicating that many shoppers expressed support for and approval of the Walmart strike – as they crossed the picket line to shop AT WALMART.  (This account of some of the more successful actions may lift spirits a little.  Let no one say I’m more than 95% gloom).  In addition, I’m aware of an incident of mass pepper spraying by a shopper looking for a cheap Xbox (California), two people shot dead in a Walmart parking lot over a parking space (Florida) and a man who tried to punch his way to the front of the line outside Sears, until he happened to attack a man with a concealed carry license, who drew his weapon and chased the attacker away (Texas). While I’ve never been a fan of concealed carry (if one must carry a weapon, surely open carry is both more honest and a better deterrent), the Texas Sears incident is probably the best argument in its favor I’ve yet seen. Of course, the Florida parking lot shooting seems a more potent argument against it.  But back to the matter at hand: How has this de facto holiday achieved such significance that people are prepared to kill for it? Why also do so many see no contradiction in indicating their approval of the Walmart strike even as they cross the picket line to shop at Walmart?

This second question is made more interesting in light of the revelation that the term “Black Friday” was used by factory managers in the 1950s not to refer to crowds of shoppers, but to the large number of workers who called in sick.  Only later did the day transition from a headache for manufacturing into a for profit free for all for retail. One might characterize the transition in this way: 1950s Black Friday was a day for workers to tell the boss “piss off, I’m extending my holiday and there’s nothing you can do about it,” while present day Black Friday is a day for consumers to say “it’s great that you’re standing up to this evil company I’m about to make more profitable. I’d stay home or shop elsewhere and actually support you in a meaningful way, but I can’t show any real solidarity. I mean, seriously dude – there are plasma screens at stake!” Between the violence and the disregard for workers, I think the following ought to be the official Black Friday slogan (or mission statement, if you’re the corporate type): “Plasmas over people!” This attitude shouldn’t surprise us. It makes perfect sense in the context of a society in which people have come to identify as consumers rather than workers.  This is what becomes of six decades of local news reports on who’s getting ripped off at the register instead of who’s getting ripped off on payday.  Yet the culture of Black Friday doesn’t really favor the consumer, either.  The desperate violence, after all, ultimately stems from the once a year availability of products that most consumers ordinarily can’t afford.  This is another effect of the worker-consumer disconnect. The exploitation of American workers is what sets the stage for the annual struggle over products that are temporarily affordable.  This is what leads to actual human beings calmly considering the pros and cons of unleashing pepper spray on their fellows in the name of savings, and this is what leaves us with shoppers who seem totally unaware that the bargains they’re hunting come at the direct expense of the striking workers they’re largely ignoring.  There is no understanding that the workers and consumers are the same people; even the workers and consumers themselves seem unaware of this.  Everything is simply part of the environment.  Deploying pepper spray against a rival for a game system seems as natural as two predators fighting over a gazelle carcass if it’s perceived as an environmental necessity.  Ignore the man behind the curtain, peon.  This contrived retail scenario has nothing to do with him.  Now face your opponent and fight to the death!  Two shoppers enter, one shopper leaves – with a discount!