Letters, January 2016

Alan Rickman; Catch 22

R.I.P. Alan Rickman

News of renowned actor Alan Rickman’s death swept social media on January 14. Even though he’s most widely known by millennials for his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, Rickman’s career spanned far and wide including cult classics like Dogma, Galaxy Quest and Die Hard to sappy romantic comedies like Love, Actually.

Less well known than his film career are his political views, which are just now starting to get notice. Rickman was a lifelong Labour Party supporter, having come from a working class background himself. He made a contribution to the Palestinian solidarity movement through My Name is Rachael Corrie, a play he co-edited about the American activist killed by an Israeli soldier in 2003 during a protest against Israel demolishing homes in Gaza. He had to push for it to be performed in the United States against attempts to censor it.

When Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger, tweeted a pro-feminist quote from Rickman as a memorial, the reaction was a tide of gendered slurs and threats from online misogynists. Serves her right for memorializing her friend as having been more than an iconic actor?

– Rob Owens


Escaping the Catch 22

 Continuing our discussion from his last reply (“Still Looking for a Silver Bullet”, December 2015), I want to say there are some good points, but it’s stuck in an old way of thinking. Particularly they use examples of the general strike of 1919, the St. Louis Commune of 1877 and the struggles in the 1930’s and then jumps to Occupy wall street and  the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the most important Kshama Sawant who just won her re-election campaign. It then goes on to talk about building an alternative media, which we will come back to. But there’s a critical point to be made here. Both Occupy Wall Street and to a lesser extent the Black Lives Matter movement have been relatively ineffectual. While the Seattle general strike could be looked at as a great failure and possibly even harmful to the overall struggle In the minds of Americans, It did demonstrate that a worker run society was possible, and this during a period of great disturbance due to the nature of the situation.  In short it was a test case proving the validity of Marxism. It was not the first and it would not and will not be the last. And you see this repeated during the 20’s and even the 30’s. Prominently there was a little known figure you may have heard of named Eugene V Debs who was instrumental in this period.

But there was another side effect, Fear, unadulterated paralyzing fear in the ruling class of the proletariat for what they could do. You see this in everything from the homestead strike to the rednecks at anthracite coal, one of the greatest victories in labor history as far as I am concerned. And if this were still 1902 or 1930, he’d be right about tactics. However this isn’t 1902 and it’s certainly not 1930.

The reason Occupy Wall Street was so ineffectual is the same reason you aren’t going to see another Seattle General Strike or Anthracite coal strike anymore. The power of the worker has been subverted. In 1902 they brought machine guns to combat strikes. This was their greatest mistake as for every one worker you cut  down 10 more took their place. It took decades for the ruling class to learn this lesson and thanks to their slow learning we got the weekend, the 8 hour work day, health and safety regulations. And then they got smart. Back in the 40’s and 50’s the power of unions was real, the battles were mostly dying down and big industry had settled into an uncomfortable truce after loss after loss at the hands of the power of the people. In the mid 30’s they even got so fed up they tried to initiate a coup and failed, That was the end of their use of force, and the beginning of one of Americas greatest periods. The bargaining power of unions, the new deal and the aftermath of World War II combined to create the greatest economy ever cultivated (okay maybe an exaggeration but it was our best time). And then something happened in the early 1970’s . People were comfortable, and big business started buying up politicians. Slowly and surely they started chipping away the advances we had made. Reagan was the tipping point, not the beginning but the climax of a series of events that would lead to the destruction of the power of the worker. With so many comfortable, and politicians secretly being bought union rights began to be stripped right out from under the workers’ noses. Today union rights are on par or less than they were in 1902 but with one glaring difference. The power elite have new weapons not available to them in 1902.

The first of these weapons is the concept of excess capacity as demonstrated by Caterpillar. In the ages of stagnation and lazy comfort the unions did nothing to stop caterpillar from building factories overseas … factories it was not using in full capacity. That’s odd, capitalists are all about maximizing profit, why build factories you don’t need… in Germany of all places where wages are higher? Purely for class war. Now when the local unions go on strike Caterpillar can simply say, “you go ahead and do that we’ll use these other factories over here until you decide to accept our new terms that favor us even more.” This is one of the “new” tools that lead to record 50% growth in profit on stagnant sales for the top Fortune 500 companies in the last few years.

The second weapon they have is the modern bourgeois equivalent of the nuclear bomb. We are all familiar with the term “scab,” temporary replacement workers. Something already condemned by international labor organizations with good reason. But the new weapon is something much worse, and America stands in splendid isolation in allowing it: permanent replacement workers. And a number of the fastest growing Fortune 500 companies specialize in providing these permanent replacement workers. So we have gone back to a time before labor had any rights, in fact we’re even worse off because there are now whole industries that revolve around helping the rich and power fight labor.

That’s all before you mention the fracturing of the proletariat, which leaderless, has fragmented into tiny organizations with little to no power that bickering amongst themselves. Comfortable enough to not want to make waves. Which is another lesson the bourgeoisie learned: “don’t push too hard” another lesson anthracite coal and the Seattle general strike taught them. In the short term both were amazing victories for labor and the proletariat (although anthracite coal did pit labor against revolutionaries.). But in the long term the bourgeoisie learned from these how to fragment the movements and divide and conquer. They then bought the government and took the rights to organize away from the people.

And that is where the catch 22 comes in, with the new paradigm installed by the rise of an industry based solely on crushing the proletariat, and a government that is complicit. In short we need leverage. That leverage is held by the proletariat joining together, which the government and big business have ensured cannot join forces. In order to undo this we need to regain workers rights, in order to do that we need to break the bond between big business and government. In order to do that we need to band together and join forces…. Which brings us back to square one. If we had a Eugene V Debs, a big name to rally behind we might stand a chance at cutting through the bourgeoisie control.

However, you then still need to contend with media programming which keeps the people you need to join you in the dark. They do this by very subversive methods. Remember back to Vietnam. When you listen to those in power and the media that were against the war you hear them say things like: “it’s too costly” or “we probably can’t win” …. The other side says “we can win” or “FOR CAPITALISM” or some other bull. Notice both sides are agreeing on something without saying it: we have a right to invade south Vietnam. Noam Chomsky does a better job of explaining this than I ever will but he has a name for both extremes of these two categories, Hawks and Doves, but both are birds and you never see anything but birds. In this manner the national viewpoint is sculpted into pre approved view points.

So in summary, I do not hold that class struggle cannot be accomplished via worker action, but that there are barriers in the way of making these methods effective. Like fighting a boxing match with both arms tied behind your back. But we have cracks. Consciousness about government corruption is at an all time high. Workers rights and worker struggles are at an all time low, but the corruption in government cannot be ignored, it’s become the elephant in the room while the glory days of worker power is hidden in the closet. And that’s the fracture that let out Occupy Wall Street. We need to capitalize on it, crush the bond between government and big business, not just campaign fund matching but wholly government funded elections, zero outside influence whatsoever. Sever that link, and you stand a chance at restoring worker rights, from there you can use the power of the proletariat, worker struggles, strikes boycotts, mass action, to sever the media ties. From there the rest is all down hill. But until we crack that catch 22 we get nothing. Unfortunately it’s not going to be done by a fractured and leaderless mass worker movement the power, leverage and misinformation is simply too weak. But we do have the anger behind corruption that is already uniting the nation and propelling Bernie Sanders and yes even Trump to the top of the polls. Once you have that done you can rebuild the tools that can unite the workers and rebuild a proletariat army of the people. Now to some this may stink of looking for Moses but we need a force to unify the people and fighting corruption can do that if we capitalize on that anger.

– Anonymous