Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Worker Autodidact and the Decline of Working Class Awareness

The late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw the development of the worker autodidact. They came out of the more skilled sector of the working class; miners, printers, carpenters, and machinists and thus had more education and somewhat higher incomes than the mill hands, let alone agricultural workers and navvys. The various socialist parties, anarchist groups and trade or syndicalist unions facilitated this development with libraries, night courses and a periodical press that was highly educational in a broad sense. Nor was this just a matter of revolutionary philosophies or critiques of capital and the state. Literature, plays and the natural sciences were considered important. The idea was that workers in their rise out of barbarism, would assimilate the best of bourgeois culture and not limit themselves to just a critique of capital and authority.

The autodidacts were the most intelligent and the best educated sector of the working class. They were , to use a much over-used term, its vanguard. They performed a leadership role, both formally as party, mutual aid society and union officials and informally as people respected in the workplace or neighborhood. The sort of people who were asked for advice and listened listened to.

While some were quite well educated and “cultured”, and could knock the stuffing out of many a “perfesser”, that did not mean that they identified with the educated middle classes, on the contrary, they stayed with their class. They saw their role as educating and uplifting the other workers – again not just in terms of political theories, but culture and personal behaviour. Unlike today's right-wing alleged friends of the workers, they did not romanticize or worship the class for its backward views or behaviours. * Few were more critical of working class ways. Many workers were drunken wife and child beating racists who believed anything their masters told them – think only of the IWW cartoon character “Mr. Block” and you get the picture. Woman workers tended to find solace in religion which made them conservative. These were some of the problems the autodidacts sought to overcome. Essentially, they were building a working class out of the rubble of a dispossessed peasantry and slum proletariat. **

Politically they were concentrated in the groups least likely to be led or dominated by middle class people – the labour-socialists and syndicalists. *** Labour socialists could be either “revolutionary” or “moderate”, what they held in common was an emphasis on class, a need to educate the working class and the concept that socialism would come from the working classes themselves and not the work of a middle class elite. Labour socialists were in smaller parties like the Socialist Party of Canada, the US Proletarian Party, the Socialist Labor Party, Communist Party, etc., or as caucuses within the larger social democratic parties. They also formed the leadership of syndicalist unions like the IWW and the Canadian OBU or of the more militant regular trade unions.

The autodidacts were an important factor in the socialist and labour movements until the Second World War. From the 1950s on, it became increasingly easier for blue collar workers, and especially their children, to go to college. Some more enterprising of these, took night courses for accreditation. If blue collars sought education, they no longer did it by themselves. Thus, rather than their knowledge having a working class focus, it now followed the liberal line of academia.

This had a negative effect upon the industrial working class. Its “brightest and best” were now leaving their roots and becoming part of the new working class of “white collar” professionals and technicians. The industrial workers were robbed of their teachers and natural leaders. These were replaced by professional politicians and labour leaders who sometimes had more in common with the bourgeoisie than with the people they were supposed to represent.

This was not the only loss suffered by the blue collars. By this time, the labour socialists had been driven out or completely marginalized within the social democratic parties, and many of the smaller parties, syndicalist unions and anarchist groups had disappeared or had greatly shrunken in membership, partly due to the Cold War witch hunt mentality. The social democratic parties, now dominated by liberals without a pretense of socialism, eliminated working class education, a class-oriented press and dropped traditions like May Day and other elements of working class history.

Thus by the 1960s the blue collar working class had been deprived of both its natural leadership and its traditions. They were basically cast adrift and the small socialist or syndicalist groups, while having some influence, could not recreate the past. As the industrial working class declined in importance due to automation and offshored production, the way was open for a portion of the class to fall into the hands of reactionaries and xenophobes. This process has been exacerbated by the adoption of neoliberalism by the social democratic parties in the 1990s. These parties now turned on their remaining blue collar supporters, wrecking their lives with privatization, cut-backs in social services and other retrograde policies. It should be noted, that in spite of all these attacks in many countries a large portion of the remaining industrial work force still holds on to its progressive values. One ought not over-emphasize a global shift from socialist to right wing “populist” on the part of industrial workers.

Thanks in no small part to the Internet, the working class autodidact has, to a certain extent, returned. Young white collar workers, dissatisfied by the limitations of their college courses, have turned to the vast resources of working class history and socialist/anarchist theory found on the Web, such as Libcom and the Marxist Internet Archive, not to forget YouTube videos and documentaries. There has been a boom in left-wing publishing. These new books and pamphlets (or reprints of the “classics” of anarchism and socialism) are eagerly perused by masses of youth in the omnipresent anarchist book fairs. No doubt the old time autodidacts would be pleased.

* The autodidacts sought moderation or abstinence in alcohol consumption, combated racial bigotry, promoted birth control, “free thought”, humane pedagogy, the rights of women and “healthy” pursuits like working class football, cycling and hiking clubs.

** See Edward Thompson, “The Making Of the English Working Class” for the classic study of how the working class self-organized and self-educated, becoming a class and no longer the 18th Century “mob.”
*** I have taken the term “labour socialist” from James Naylor's excellent study, “The Fate of Labour Socialism” U of T, 2016. Naylor shows how the Canadian labour socialists were gradually marginalized within the CFF, which became dominated by Fabians and liberals. A similar story is also told in another important work about socialism in British Columbia, Ben Isitt's “Militant Minority” , U of T, 2011. I cannot urge you enough to check out these volumes.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Future Is Already Here

Many people do not realize that everything we need for an environmentally sane, egalitarian and authentically democratic society exists NOW. 1 The fact that these exist already is grounds for hope. Neither are most of these new developments in their embryonic form – many – thought still a minority aspect – are quite well established.

The best known of these is the relatively clean generation of electricity. 2 Solar and wind generation is at or near the tipping point for cost compared with fossil fuel power generation. Energy specialists think the tipping point could be 2025 or sooner. Some say we are there already. Countries like Costa Rica and Holland already produce or are near to producing all their electricity through renewables. Less well known, but working examples do exist of geothermal and tidal power.

The other aspect is using less electricity or other energy sources. A massive amount of energy is consumed heating and cooling buildings. Fifty percent of energy expended in the EU has to do with heating and cooling. Passive houses reduce the cost of heating and cooling to almost nothing. Houses can be oriented and constructed in such a fashion that they cool themselves naturally. 3. Trees – no yard or street should be without them, not only do they use CO2 but they also have a cooling effect. Smaller dwellings should be a priority- well designed they should be as convenient for the occupants as any McMansion. These designs already exist. There is no reason other than assuaging one's ego, that the tiny families of today need a 4000 sq. foot house. A smaller house or apartment requires less energy consumption than a large one.

Twenty-five percent of energy expended globally has to do with transport, 20% of that is trucks, 12% ships and 45% cars according to statistics in the Maritime Executive site. Energy is wasted in unnecessary driving. If you could walk to most of the shops, schools or recreation centres you would not need to drive. We need to restore the village with facilities located in a nearby 'down town' that can be easily reached on foot. Combine this with an efficient public transit system – like they have in much of Europe – and better yet make it "free" like in Luxemburg - and less people will have cars. This means, of course, less energy consumed. For many, car ownership will be a thing of the past and the existing car coops and car share companies will predominate in the urban areas.

Energy is wasted in the unnecessary traffic in goods. No non perishables ought to be shipped by truck that can go by rail and thus save energy. A carbon tax ought to be levied upon all products that can be produced locally, yet are imported from afar due to a false sense of economy. This will encourage local production – once again less energy consuming – and reduce the amount of trucking and shipping.

Agribusiness consumes a lot of energy on machinery, petroleum, pesticides and fertilizers. While I would not suggest growing wheat organically on a small scale, many other food items can be grown in this manner. Small but intensive organic horticulture can produce an enormous amount of food from a small area. Paris used to feed itself in that manner and Havana does today. No pesticides or artificial fertilizers, but the organic waste of the city. Working with tools that last a generation and not expensive, short-lived machines that require petrol. Of course, food prices will need to increase to make such small farming viable – but this could be off set by keeping rents and mortgages low through an intelligent housing policy, like the one that exists in Germany.

One of the biggest consumers of energy is the military and a good way to reduce energy consumption would be peace. They are called "Defense Departments" but few countries other than Switzerland really have a defensive policy. Most countries are geared for offense – against other countries – or their own people. Bombers, missiles, drones, air craft carriers, nuke carrying subs, are not weapons of defense – they are for attacking. Ironically, we have no enemies other than a handful of home made bomb and small arm toting maniacs against whom such offensive weapons are useless. Using the model of Switzerland, we could have a cheap – and therefore less energy consuming – military. A military trained in guerrilla warfare using small arms, RPGs and SAMs – cheap stuff.
The future that is now, is more than energy efficiency, it is also about equality and freedom. Freer, more democratic and more egalitarian institutions exist already and are more widespread than you might think.

Cooperatives are democratically run, one vote for one member, unlike corporations which are oligarchies or autocracies where votes are based upon the number of shares one has. Also unlike corporations, which are mandated to maximize profit no matter what, coops prioritize service to the members and community and practice solidarity with other coops or community organizations. For the economy of scale they federate, which means each coop keeps much of its autonomy, whereas corporations are centralized, top-down managerial hierarchies. Coops being local, keep the wealth in the community, where it can cycle up to seven times. Corporations drain wealth out of the community to the headquarters and the big shareholders, who could live anywhere.

They are not negligible. There are one billion coop members in 3 million coops world wide, employing 10% of the world's work force. The top 300 coops are worth $2.1 trillion. (Stats from the International Cooperative Association. )Swedish consumer coops 3.2 million members and have 21% of retail trade , this is fairly normal for Scandinavian countries. 4. As well, 28% of retailers in France are coops.5.

Cooperatives take a number of forms, some are completely non-profit, others are geared to giving an annual return to members. (Without forgetting to prioritize service and solidarity) There are also worker coops – which are owned and democratically controlled by the worker-owners. Although few in number in North America, they are increasingly popular in Europe and Latin America. In Europe 1.4 million people work in 50,000 worker coops. 6.

Then there are housing coops and co-housing developments. These institutions take people out of the capitalist/speculator housing market, and like other coops are democratically controlled by the members. About 200,000 Canadians live in coops as do 1.2 million Americans. Fifty thousand people live in cohousing in Denmark and the movement has spread through Europe and North America. There are also 540,000 Housing coop dwellings in Denmark. Housing coops in Sweden involve some 580,000 residents. 7. In Germany, there are 2.1 million coop dwellings housing 5 million residents. 8.

Land Trusts and maintaining/restoring the commons takes land out of the market and engenders democratic control. The goal of these institutions varies, some are to maintain wild spaces or forests, others for agricultural land or to provide relatively low cost land for housing. Land trusts have been around for about 100 years and are growing in numbers. Much forest land in parts of Europe remains in common and there is now a whole movement to generally restore the commons.

The commons has taken new forms such as shareware, copyleft, creative commons, peer to peer, all of which are moves away from the capitalist ethos of monopolization and rent-seeking. There are literally dozens of Open Source (OS) formations; As well as software there are OS architecture, appropriate technology, ecology (uniting farmers,) product development, seed initiatives, design, and manufacturing.

De-commodification is essential to the commons concept. Removing fees from certain services is one of the best ways to raise the living standard of the poor. For example, we already have city and provincial parks which people can use at their leisure without shelling out money. So too, in most of Canada and the developed world outside the USA, health care is largely removed from direct payment. Some places, such as Luxemburg, have decommodified public transit.

The social economy is even larger than the coop economy in many places. The social economy is the non-profit sector. In other words, service and not profit is the focus of the institution. Here in British Columbia a great deal of public housing is owned and run by non-profit institutions. Non profits are the number 3 sector of the economy, employing 114,000 people, just behind education and manufacturing. (BC Government) The social economy in France is 10% of workforce and is 6.5% of European employment total. 9.
Fair trade may be a small percent of the total market but involves $2B in sales annually in the UK alone .10. There are some problems with verification but the idea is a good one , as rather than being geared to maximizing profit for a multinational company, there are two aims – to increase the income of the producers and encourage them to use eco-friendly growing methods.

We now move from economy to governance. The problems with the existing system is that it really isn't very democratic. Wealthy lobbyists have more power than the ordinary person, power is centralized into government and party bureaucracies. The alternatives are direct democracy, decentralization and confederalism. These ideas are actually very old, having preceded the centralized state. However two still existing examples rooted in history will suffice. There are the towns in New England still governed by the Town Meeting. The meeting of all citizens decides policy and selects delegates (Selectpersons) to carry out these wishes. Some smaller cantons in Switzerland still use mass meetings for local decisions. While less authentically confederalist than in the past, the Swiss Federation still leaves much of the political power at the municipal and cantonal level.

In Rojava the Kurdish people, numbering some 4 million, have established both direct democracy and confederalism. So too the Zapatista area of Chiapas. (Worth mentioning that both are also developing a cooperative economy.) In Venezuela there are thousands of Neighborhood Committees that deal with local issues and some of the powers of government have been decentralized to them. The Spanish Assembly Movement involved thousands of people in hundreds of neighborhoods. These neighborhood assemblies still take place and have been successful in changing the government of Barcelona and other cities. The idea has spread and assemblies are being developed elsewhere, the latest of which is the Giletes Jaunes Movement in France.

So there we have it. Green energy, a cooperative economy and a democratic confederal form of governance already exist. The future is not some wistful utopia but is here and now. The new forms that have “grown within the shell of the old” need merely to be generalized throughout society. 11

End notes
1. I am not talking about ABSOLUTE equality, just eliminating those aspects of our society that create gross inequality. And it ought to be obvious that what we have is a very limited democracy, often more of a case of an elective dictatorship. The people do not rule directly.
2. Critics might point out that the manufacture of solar panels, wind mills, electric cars and batteries is polluting. A perfect solution is not possible- whatever we do will have some negative impact, the fact is that during the life of the solar panel, wind turbine, battery or electric car there will be much less pollution than fossil fuel power generation or petrol vehicles.
3. Porches front and back for the morning and evening sun. Deciduous trees or vines planted near a south facing wall. Awnings and shutters. High ceilings in hot climates.
5. p. 13., Chris Wright Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, Book Locker 2014
6. p. 14 ibid
9. P 13., Chris Wright Worker Cooperatives and Revolution, Book Locker 2014
11. Right now someone will start yelling that what I am stating “Isn't really socialism.” That is beside the point, what we have here is what is happening now, and how this develops remains to be seen. What we do have is a very broad anti-capitalist tendency that will only deepen in time due to the increasingly problematic nature of capitalism. For those who think this is not radical enough, consider this; Should these tendencies, as “moderate” as they might seem, predominate, we will have undergone the greatest social revolution in history. All other revolutions have empowered a minority, this time the economy will be owned and run by the populace, and governance will be through direct democracy instead of a tiny hierarchy of professional politicians and bureaucrats.
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