Inspired by Jehu’s conversation with a libcom.org member, I set out to estimate the feasibility of transportation shutdowns as a tactic for the struggle against capitalism.
Jehu has previously suggested that the sort of tactic Black Lives Matter used – blockading freeways – is a useful tactic to us. However, it takes a lot of people to block a freeway on foot. Consider the following comparison of transit density between people on foot, bicycle, cars, and buses:
On October 5, 2017, a group of comrades (at least a dozen in number, possibly several) set out to block the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue in Westwood, CA, a dozen or so miles west of downtown Los Angeles. They dragged prison-style metal bunk bed frames into the intersection and formed human chains for roughly an hour or so. In the end, the LAPD arrested nine comrades and cleared the intersection by 11 AM. Here’s a screenshot from the linked Times article:
Of the comrades, one was held on $500 bail because of a traffic ticket. Yet, as far as police interactions go, this was a fairly light response. Comrades have been murdered by police in the past for doing far less than blocking intersections. A number of states with unapologetically fascist legislatures have introduced or passed bills making it legal to “accidentally” run over protesters in the street, as well as sue protesters to recoup the “cost” of “law enforcement.”
Finally, there is the question of effectiveness. Isolated traffic shutdowns like the one in Westwood, or even the months-long one at Standing Rock, have had exactly zero net effect on the national economy. A handful of drivers, perhaps even some high-placed capitalists, are certainly inconvenienced. From a tactical sense, these protests are effective: they halt traffic and attract media attention. But from a strategic sense, what purpose have they served? The fascist state – because what else is the United States in this era if not fascist? – continues on, uncaring. Capitalist profits continue to accumulate: the rich get richer.
The problem, then, lies not in the protests themselves, but rather in the lack of a coherent strategic vision to utilize the protests as a means to an end. Strikes, protests, and other forms of civic disobedience have become seen as an end in themselves since the 1970s. The last time that massive marches forced change in DC was during the Civil Rights era, when lawmakers were still trying to maintain the illusion of democratic control. Those changes have of course since been eroded and undone in subsequent years as the dictatorship of the bourgeois reasserted its control. Labor strikes against individual companies have resulted in minor “wins” in the form of wage increases and avoided cuts to benefits, but the state’s devaluation of currency and capitalism’s never-ending determination to “increase productivity” always manages to outpace even the largest wage gains.
Most communists would agree that the goal is ending capitalism. Unfortunately, there are a number of competing methods advocated to reach that goal.
Marxist-Leninists typically advocate for the building of a Communist Party in order to carry out the political struggle, but aside from some middling efforts underway in the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the Worker’s World Party (the former of which split from the latter, and the latter itself split from the Socialist Workers Party in 1959, which was itself formed from the Trotskyist bloc of the Communist Party USA, although they minimize that aspect of their history today) there have been no practical gains on that front in the United States to date, and minimal success in other nations of the imperial core (e.g. Europe).
Others may point to the “success” of the Democratic Socialists of America, with its membership ballooning past 20,000 in the year or so following the farcical 2016 presidential election. But one only needs to look at their “current campaigns” page to see the lack of any real strategy. Fighting hate is never a bad thing, but it is only a symptom of the rot belying capitalism. The second campaign, in support of the Bernie Sanders “Political Revolution,” is even more clarifying: the DSA is merely seeking to get “less bad” Democrats elected to office in the vain hope of ameliorating the excesses of capital, rather than trying to tear down the corrupt institution at its core. As a certain J.V. Stalin wrote in 1924:
Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism. There is no ground for assuming that the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of Social-Democracy. There is just as little ground for thinking that Social-Democracy can achieve decisive successes in battles, or in governing the country, without the active support of the fighting organisation of the bourgeoisie. These organisations do not negate, but supplement each other. They are not antipodes, they are twins.
What strategies remain?
First, there is the strategy of revolutionary labor, abandoned in the United States and the rest of the imperial core since roughly the 1930s. This strategy calls for the tactical use of strikes, blockades and other means on a massive scale in order to put pressure on capitalist profits and thus force demands such as the shortening of the work-week, an effort which ended with the 40-hour work-week in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Today, mobilization on this scale is nearly impossible given the weakened state of the labor movement. The IWW, weakened from the betrayal of the trade unionists during the first Red Scare, remains a shadow of its former self, and now its members can mostly be found at DSA events. Meanwhile, trade unions, represented by the AFL-CIO, are predominantly petty-bourgeoisie and remain shortsightedly focused on preserving their meagre gains while the foundation of labor crumbles around them.
One bright glimmer in all of this were the general strikes in Catalonia, but even Catalan workers’ amazing use of tactics in grinding Barcelona to a halt appears to have achieved little in the ensuing weeks, since for all the power they demonstrated, they seemed willing to merely settle for meaningless political noises before going back to work as before. Rather than calling for an end to capitalism, or at the least a shorter working week, they called for their political leaders – those representatives of the bourgeoisie – to be freed from imprisonment by Madrid. What did they think would happen?
Which leaves the concept of a protracted people’s war, laid out in Mao’s 1938 work “On Protracted War.” In this, Mao lists three stages of a protracted war:
- the period of the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive
- the period of the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counter-offensive
- the period of our strategic counter-offensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat
When the global class war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is put into these terms, it seems fairly obvious that we are only living in the second stage of it, with the first stage marked by the creation of a handful of defensively-oriented socialist nations, and a global assault on them known as the Cold War. The period from 1970 to the present has thus represented a strategic consolidation on the part of capital, combined with preparations for the counter-offensive underway in China and the other few remaining socialist nations. The preparations of communists within the United States and other imperial core nations, as I have already pointed out, are quite lacking in comparison.
Why have these preparations been so ineffective?
Given the well-documented history of programs like COINTELPRO and the CIA’s own strategy of subverting Marxists with strategic plants in publications like Paris Review, (note that those links to major publications are rather mild, and more damning evidence is available), as well as the legacy of Operation GLADIO and “Operation Mockingbird”, it does not seem terribly surprising that prominent, ostensibly Marxist parties in the US and elsewhere have at most offered “Democrat Lite” politics and no notable resistance.
Another possible reason for the ineffectiveness has been the (relatively) privileged position enjoyed by the American working class for a brief period of time from WWII to the 1970s. This “heyday” of American manufacturing depended upon America’s ability to export its goods abroad, made possible by the rebuilding of Europe after WWII and exploitation of the raw materials of colonial successor states. This period coincided with a massive reshaping of American culture, starting with the so-called “nuclear family” and suburbanization, a topic which is probably too long to cover in much depth here. This is otherwise known as the embourgeoisement thesis. It should, of course, be noted that workers in the core (and not just those in America) still enjoy a much higher standard of living than heavily exploited workers in the periphery to this day.
Whatever the reason, through all the electoral protests and other actions it seems like communists in the core have mostly lost focus on the political-economic roots of Marxist theory. It is easy to get lost in day-to-day bourgeois nonsense with 24-hour news channels and political talk shows saturating the airwaves – all propaganda, all the time.
Direct Action Tactics as the Opening Move of the Counter-Offensive
One of the objections to many direct action tactics is that they tend to place vulnerable people in harm’s way. If you’re Black, it’s dangerous to run into a cop on the street, let alone confront one as part of a picket line.
(Know how to tell the difference between a cop & a Klan member? Just kidding, there is no difference.)
Because of this, at least initially, the wage labor abolition movement will be very small. There won’t be masses of volunteers ready to cause havoc, and there is a strong possibility that “the masses” will simply shrug and go about their day once direct actions begin in earnest. In other words, while activists fight to get back surplus time for all, they should be as frugal as possible with their own time. Capitalists use technology as a labor productivity multiplier; activists should do the same.
Ever heard of traffic compression waves? They look like this:
In stewing about this I realized that EVERYONE has this same problem at that particular spot: an inability to merge in the dense traffic. Others were probably doing the exact same thing that I did, and this would make the “wave” near that exit worse and worse. Our inability to change lanes would create a “dynamic bottleneck” which hovers near the exit. Obviously the simple cure is to give up; not merge, and miss the exit. I should never have forced the issue, I should have let my exit go past. So should all the other merging drivers. But there is a bigger issue here. People SHOULD be able to merge. Why was traffic packed so tightly? One obvious reason: to punish the idiots who will jump into any little space. I had always done the same myself. I never allow a space to appear ahead of me, or some other driver will immediately swerve into it during their quest to cheat by running down an empty lane to the front of the line. But this sort of “closed-gap” driving would also prevent any necessary merges at off ramps (and at on ramps too, of course.) By eliminating the space ahead of me, I become part of the impenetrable wall which creates the “dynamic bottleneck” and screws up the traffic at highway exits. The gear teeth cannot mesh, so the whole machine grinds to a halt. The “zipper” becomes jammed because the “teeth” of the zipper are resentful about new teeth moving into the space ahead of them.