A Modern Call for Anarcho-Syndicalism as a Means to Social Change...
"Let every person put forth their best bet for the best candidate, and we will let the nominee with the most votes govern all..." This has been the classical Republican approach to the matter of government, what some have asserted is the closest, practical, working system of the ideal of Democracy. But even in the United States, among the first of nations to throw off the chains of Monarchy, there is considerable skepticism whether the electoral system truly involves the people in the decision-making process. In the past two national elections of the United States, the candidate who received the majority of votes from the public was not elected. The US constitution includes technical details for the vote process, using a system called the Electoral College where a citizen's vote holds a different weight depending on the province of their established home. In 2004, American voter turnout was 55.3%. For the year 2000, it was 51.3%, for 1996, it was 49.1%, and for 1992, it was 55.1%. [*1] Tracking back another decade will show you similar results. Among the many complaints to this system, we commonly hear that people are reduced to "choosing the lesser of two evils." Both of the major political parties in the United States have so homogenized themselves with what they think the median, average citizen would believe, and then have advanced that as a political campaign. What the public is left with are two options that are nearly identical.
The political process in America asks you who should be the leader, and then as a citizen, you are ignored until several months before the next election. There is absolutely no recourse for a citizen to hold a representative accountable to a campaign platform. If a candidate wins the election on the promise to avoid armed conflict and then declares war on a foreign nation, there is no legal or political alternative for the voters. They will have to wait another four years before they're allowed to choose the correct option of the lesser of two evils. With no accountability programs for members of the judicial, executive, or representative branches (except to each other), the citizen is left feeling completely powerless. Even among those who do vote, they are highly suspicious of the true value of their involvement in the electoral system. Should any citizen bring these complaints to their representatives, they are told, "Then form your own political party!" Our American political system has been ruthlessly governed by a two party system for over a century. We are all aware of the weakness of third parties and their struggles against highly financed, well-endorsed, and business-backed political parties. The average citizen becomes disheartened with the system, feeling that the voting process is just a means of rubber-stamping the actions of the rich, powerful, and established in this country. We represent this sentiment every four years when half of Americans of voting age decide to stay home on election day.
These systems of government, and the social and economic elites who benefit from their organization, are supported by the masses of the people. To quote Thomas Malthus in 1815, "...the labouring classes of society, as the foundation on which the whole fabric rests..." [*2] To quote Thomas Paine, "...the cultivator and the manufacturer are the primary means of all the wealth that exists in the world..." [*3] And the Anarcho-Syndicalist Rudolph Rocker tells us, "Only in the realm of economy are the workers able to display their full strength; for it is their activity as producers which holds together the whole social structure and guarantees the existence of society. Only as a producer and creator of social wealth does the worker become aware of his strength." [*4] Rarely does the worker, the loader of coal, the harvester of food, the assembler of the factory, rarely do we realize that the ability and the means to effect real change in society already rests within in our hands. As the producing mass who are responsible for the wealth of society, we must understand and learn to wield this power in a way that protects the interests of the people. The premise of Anarcho-Syndicalism is rather simple. To quote Emma Goldman in 1913...
Syndicalism is more than just a style of unionism; it is a theory of how to create a true Democracy without authority. Its main premise is not a a strike against a single business-owner when they refuse to give in to the collective bargaining demands of the workers. Its premise is that all workers, of all industries, should cease their laboring, in order to coerce economic and political institutions. When the main support for society's foundation is pulled, it will strain the rest of the structure into submitting to the demands of the workers. On the local level, unions have always used strikes as a means to increase wages, lower hours, improve working conditions, among a slew of other work-related reforms. Unions only recognize the basic, most elemental conflict of the two classes. When workers have a fundamental understanding of their workplace, unions are the only natural conclusion. It takes only a slight power of deduction to realize the effect of a mass work-stoppage. When unions work together in massive, federated organizations, where they can align their efforts and establish common initiatives, they are realizing their struggle in a different manner. The struggle of the workers is not simply against one business-owner and their exploitation of the laborer; it is a common battle happening everywhere, which requires national, or even international, organization in order to defend the interests of the working class. A Syndicalist federation of labor would continue to use work stoppages as a means of improving work conditions and giving workers a voice in how the business is operated. If it is fueled with enough momentum and support, a general strike can sway the masters of government in their decision-making. This federation could shut down an entire nation as means of forcing lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, to end some unpopular war, or to abolish some miserable form of oppression, such as sexist or racist discrimination.
The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 involved 30,000 to 35,000 workers on strike in a city of only 200,000. The effect was shaking. Ten of the union leaders were arrested. The New York Times declared, "Bolshevism Invades Canada." The Manitoba Free Press ran cartoons of a hook-nosed Jewish radicals throwing bombs. Two hundred police officers from the city's department were dismissed for striking with the workers. [*6] In the Textile Workers Strike of 1934, 400,000 textile workers in New England went out on a general strike. In only a very short time, the national guard and the private security firms had claimed the lives of at least ten picketers and union organizers, many more were wounded, and countless were imprisoned. [*7] The way in which the established authorities have consistently responded to strikes, especially large-scale strikes, only demonstrates the need of the union to recognize its battle against the political system, as well as against the economic system. The British Miner's Strike of 1926 involved 1.5 to 1.75 million. They were striking against reducing benefits. Winston Churchill and his government enacted violence and repression against the workers, picketers, and their sympathizers, making it illegal to strike with another union in 1927. [*8] In May of 1968, there was a General Strike of ten million workers in France, or two thirds of the working population. Taking refuge in Germany, the French President dissolved the national assembly and created a military operation to deal with the social unrest. Unfortunately, as the oppressive government was nearing the moment of collapse, communist party and union officials demanded that the workers return to their shifts. [*9]
There are innumerable advantages of a society directed by a federation of unions. All governments are naturally diseased and corrupt, and worst of all, consider themselves of the most enlightened and advanced opinions, to which all deviations are subject to harassment and imprisonment. Following on the footpath of power, all parties and politicians come and go, collecting for both ways. This government, by its own rules, by its own regulation, will always seek to establish itself as greater than the will of the people. Senators have redrawn voting districts when reorganizing and dividing the vote meant a different, but significant, change in the representation of government. It is well known that the Republican Party is responsible for destroying votes of other parties at its collection sites; associated organizations are currently facing voter fraud charges. [*10] Union-organization, when it first bore itself in the labor movement in the 14th century, was immediately outlawed by King Edward III of England; it continued to be illegal in most of the West until the late 19th century, and in some parts, the early 20th century. [*11] The earliest forms of voting required a property requirement, whether in the United States or in nations of Europe. [*12] The division between wealthy and poor has always been a trend throughout civilized history. Just as constant, we will find that authority always isolates its powers from the grasp of the people.
The history of mankind's progress in government was a series of infinitely small steps. The rights of the people of all nations were slowly recognized by applying resistance to authority and demanding concessions. That is the origin of the Magna Carta, the document from 1215 that established constitutional rule. While it did not give the people of England the right to voting or national elections, it established for them important judicial rights, such as the right to a trial. It is only logical that it would be this right, among others, that comes before suffrage. The state must be bound to the law before the people can rationally have the rights of free speech or free association. In each successive step, government has slowly allowed the decision-making process to be influenced by the voice of the people. It is a process of Democratizing the state. But, like any keen and well-established bargainer, the state will give as little as it can to satisfy the quelling and resistance of the people. The established powers may meet the demands only a third of the way, or half of the way. The people are many classes and have many different interests; some are fully satisfied by the concessions, some are surprised that they were capable of shaking the world, and the majority of the people are always left thinking they were going to get more. This has been the constant pattern of organized, coercive authority.
The rights of self-government which the people currently enjoy were achievements, slowly obtained through centuries of bitter oppression and the undying spirit of revolt. Should a person decide to participate in the nation's most prominent, decision-making organ, their successes and failures will be determined on the effects of the Democratic reforms that came before. The election is held on the terms of the government, at intervals that have been predetermined and preset, and in accordance with the established voting measures. In the United States, the people are only asked to voice an opinion in our national matters once every four years. Until that hour of reckoning comes next time, the people aren't asked again for their advice. Whatever the elected officials decide to do, they will not be stoppable by the power given to them in these systems. The only way a president can be removed is through impeachment, and for that to happen, there must have been a technical crime. The lawbooks are bereft of a law that requires government to represent and fulfill the will of the people. These premises of national election procedures for republican governments are absolute. Representative government grants authority, with a defined role and defined laws, to those who win the majority of the vote. Until the next election, the people will have no reprieve against any of the actions of that representative. If the actions of authority fall within its own defined roles and laws, any grievance against this order would be criminal. That is the nature of established authority of whatever type.
An election is held on the terms of authority; a strike is held on the terms of the laborers. Voting can be regarded as the means of social change that is acceptable to the established authority: they organize it, they regulate it, they restrict it, and they control it. There are countless means and methods available for resisting an unjust authority. But the tool of the general strike is instrumentally different on many levels. First, it is initiated and carried by the people themselves. It exists according to mutual, cooperative agreements between workers and their co-workers. The decision-making process, the means of organizing, the means for disseminating information, the whole structure of the union and how it would work with other unions -- all of this is determined not by a coercive authority with the hand of violence, but by the laborers. This is a radical shift in the politics of power. It is not up to a leader, a parliament, or a council to determine that the peoples' rights have been violated. It is not one of the sacred duties of the king or his royal heirs. It is a responsibility of the people. The peoples' widespread resistance to any unjust authority can be seen throughout history, from the French partisans against the Nazis to the Russian peasantry against the Tsar. In the creation of a democratic federation of syndicalist unions, the people are being armed with the most damaging form of non-violent resistance to any authority. To counter this weight, it is a completely free, autonomous organization that moves only with the will of the people.
Naturally, the structure of these unions and how they work together is going to be debatable. Delegates should be completely recallable by the vote of the union. The people chosen to argue during collective bargaining shouldn't be considered leaders, but simply couriers for the worker's voice. In a form, it should be a complete democracy, where no binding agreements are reached without the consent and directing of the union vote. The administration of the Democracy generally takes the form of a representative election, where leaders call a vote for binding action of strike or returning to work. It is the obligation of every organized laborer to be on guard against corruption within their union. Even if a leader holds no authority and can make no action without the vote, their right to organize and direct the affairs of the union is still a form of authority, and as such, it will find itself ripe with abuses. Autonomy and equal rights of voice are important foundations for the laborer's organization. Federalism and the cooperative directing of unions is also an important foundation. Every labor organization begins with trying to defend the interests of the worker against those of the employer. In a federated union, this target of antagonism is widened to the entire employing class. And if the vision of the labor movement is clear, it will know that the state is an enemy equal to that of the Capitalist class.
The lifestyles created by this system of capitalism produce a population that spends most of its time working, with the few moments it has to itself spent on vice and self-destructive tendencies. The people are without the time and the resources to full develop intellectually, morally, and culturally. A mind that is perpetually between labor and rest can never delve into the deeper questions, such as the unseen forces that move our society and economy. Those with culture are more aware of how different habits of other people all derive from the same inherent impulses of civilized thought; they are more imaginative, more tolerant, more temperate, and more understanding. To create a true, genuine social change of any type, whether it is for religious tolerance, or the acceptance of social orientations, or for civil rights for racial minorities, or to end animal exploitation -- to create any of these things, the activists and reformers must overcome the mindset created in Capitalism. Those with little time to consider other ideas will be unable to change. The work-effect created paralyzes the people's spirit to develop socially, culturally, and intellectually. Those wishing to seek social change should see the labor question as the one of most importance. Creating a syndicalist federation of unions will not only awaken the minds of the workers to social awareness, but it will also immediately place within their hands the power the change the situation -- the power of the General Strike.
What I am calling for is a type of revolutionary unionism. If there is anything certain about the behavior of social forces, it is that privilege and authority will always cooperate in order to exploit the masses. The only way to prevent tyranny, and especially this form of tyranny, is the maintenance of a Syndicalist federation that envisions Democracy as its own obligation. By means of the union, the worker can capture the means of production; in this sense, it is the clearest way to democratically create Socialism within a Capitalist system.
1. Federal Election Commission. Data drawn from Congressional Research Service reports, Election Data Services Inc., and State Election Offices.