By James Herod
Mar 21, 2011
The advantage of this shift is that it offers an offensive strategy, not merely a defensive one. That is, it is not merely about reacting to things we don't like and want to stop, nor is it about resisting what they are doing to us. Rather it is about defending what we are doing to them through our new social creations. This means that we would begin to take the initiative to build the life we want, and then fight to defend this life and our social creations from attacks by the ruling class. I think people will be much more willing to struggle for something like this than to fight to stop outrages of the ruling class elsewhere, which often seem remote from their everyday lives. But we should be quite clear that this will involve us in terrible battles. We will never be able to establish free associations on any of these sites without directly confronting ruling-class power.
In listing all the strategies that have failed, it isn't my intention to denigrate the revolutionary efforts of past generations. Resisting and attempting to defeat capitalism has been a historical project of enormous scope; revolutionaries have poured their lives into strategies they considered best at the time. I'm simply trying to take stock: to reflect on where we've been and what we've tried, and on where we ought to be going now, as well as what we ought to be trying to do. I do not claim that the strategy I outline here is the be-all and end-all. It's a proposal, an assessment, a reflection on what I think it will take for us to win. But I'm only one person. Fashioning a new anticapitalist strategy for our times is obviously a task for millions.
Nor is it my intention (in listing what I claim are failed strategies) to say that people should stop resisting altogether. It is to argue that these forms of resistance, although they have accomplished a lot, haven't gotten us very far toward our ultimate goal of destroying capitalism. They haven't enabled us to overthrow the system, defeat the ruling class, or build a free society, and I don't think they ever will.
Some of these failed strategies, like the leninist vanguard party, social democracy, dropping out, and guerrilla warfare, should be abandoned completely. Others, such as demonstrations and single- issue campaigns, should be subordinated to the main task of building free associations in neighborhoods, workplaces, and households. It's not so much that strategies like strikes, civil disobedience, or insurrections are wrong in themselves. It's that they are not enough, and by themselves cannot defeat capitalism. To win we must add another whole dimension.
The sad truth, though, is that the three strategic sites we could be fighting on, and that might lead us to victory, are largely being ignored. The workplace struggles going on are largely reformist, as are most neighborhood organizing initiatives, while there is little organizing at all being done around households. So the bulk of our energies are not going into these three strategic sites at all but into other arenas. I would feel much better about all the demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience, and single-issue campaigns if significant struggles were also being waged in workplaces, neighborhoods, and households. But in the absence of these fights, where does all the rest get us? Not to victory, that's clear enough.
The recent spectacular resurgence of radical movements the world over, first symbolized by the Battle of Seattle in November 1999, and continuing on through Quebec City and Genoa, highlights the issues I've raised in a most urgent way. As heartening as these developments have been, and as wonderful as they are to see, it's all too possible that they will go nowhere, eventually fizzling out and disappearing, just like the revolts of the 1960s did, unless they can be linked to struggles to seize control of our lives on the local level.
Somehow, it has come to be accepted that this is what radicals do - demonstrate - when they want to protest or stop something, and that mass demonstrations take priority over everything else. I will be arguing that we have it upside down. If we had reorganized ourselves into neighborhood, workplace, and household assemblies, and were struggling to seize power there, then we would have a base from which to stop ruling-class offensives like neoliberalism. If we then chose to demonstrate in the streets, there would be some teeth to it, rather than it being just an isolated ephemeral event, which can be pretty much ignored by our rulers. We would not be just protesting but countering. We have to organize ourselves in such a way that we have the power to counter them, not just protest against them, to refuse them, to neutralize them. This cannot be done by affinity groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or isolated individuals converging periodically at world summits to protest against the ruling class, but only by free associations rooted in normal everyday life.
And if we were organized like this, it might not even be necessary to go to mass demonstrations at all. We could simply announce what we were going to do if the ruling classes didn't cease their oppressive practices. But opposition movements gravitate again and again to these kinds of actions. "Taking to the Streets," we call it. Yet we can't build a new social world in the streets. As long as we're only in the streets, whereas our opponents function through enduring organizations like governments, corporations, and police, we will always be on the receiving end of the tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, and almost everywhere in the world but North America or Europe, real bullets, napalm, poisons, and bombs. This predilection for protests and demonstrations prevailed throughout the 1960s, as the movements traveled to Washington, DC, time and again, taking to the streets. We are still like children, only able to "raise a ruckus." We are not yet adults who can assemble, reason together, take stock of our options, devise a strategy, and then strike, to both defeat our enemies and build the world we want.
We are faced with a window of opportunity. Anticapitalist forces have been at a strategic impasse for decades, with widespread confusion over both the shape of the new world we want and how to dismantle the existing one. But the complete collapse and discrediting of the Bolshevik model in Russia and all over the third world, and the equal bankruptcy of social democracy in Europe, opens up the possibility of redefining radical politics, of rethinking the goal of the revolution and its strategy. For the first time in over a century, anarchist perspectives are back on the agenda in a serious way. Antistatist approaches are gaining ground, even among some communists and marxists. I think of my book as a contribution to this worldwide effort to redefine radical politics and break out of the impasse that has stymied the revolution ever since the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the socialist democrats were defeated in Germany in 1919, and the Spanish Revolution went down to defeat in 1939.
My book helps renew radical politics in several ways. By outlining a three-pronged attack on the system, by focusing not merely on the workplace (seizing the means of production) but also on neighborhoods and households, it anticipates a recapturing of decision making - that is, its relocation out of state bureaucracies, parliaments, and corporate boards, and into our assemblies. It also emphasizes capturing the means of reproduction (and not only production) through household associations. Its guiding principle is free association. It focuses squarely on the necessity of building an opposition movement and culture, and creating new social relations for ourselves. It also integrates the goal and the strategy for achieving the goal, suggesting concrete steps that ordinary people can take to defeat capitalism and build a new world.
I have taken some ideas for granted, in addition to an anticapitalist outlook, which the reader needs to be aware of in order to understand why I have written as I have. My sketch of a new social world and a strategy for achieving it are based on a firm commitment to direct democracy, not representative democracy or federation. I am aware that almost everyone now automatically dismisses direct democracy as being no longer possible in a 'complex industrial society.' I have always disagreed with this view.
The reader will also not be able to understand my remarks unless they are aware that I think of capitalism as a worldwide system, which is approximately five hundred years old. Capitalists started establishing their way of living in Europe between 1450 and 1650 roughly, and then over the next several centuries, carried their practices to every corner of the globe, destroying and displacing other traditions, usually through warfare. World history for the last five hundred years is thus mainly the story of this assault that capitalists have thrown against the world’s peoples, beginning with the peasants of Europe, in order to seize their lands and force them into wage slavery (wealth-making laborers), tenancy (rent-paying residents), and citizenship (taxpaying subjects). It is also the story of the worldwide resistance to this invasion. A good part of the tale, of course, is taken up merely with the fights among capitalists themselves.
You should also be aware that from this perspective, countries that came to be called communist were just capitalist states doing what capitalists always do: enslave and exploit their populations. There was always a radical tradition that perceived the Soviet experiment and the colonial revolutions that aped it in these terms (council communists, Western marxists, anarchists, and anarcho-syndicalists). Now that the Soviet Union is gone, more people are realizing that communist countries were just capitalism in a different form and had little to do with the struggle against capitalism.
A further assumption I make is that it is impossible to defeat our ruling class by force of arms. The level of firepower currently possessed by all major governments and most minor ones is simply overwhelming. It is bought with the expropriated wealth of billions of people. For any opposition movement to think that it can acquire, maintain, and deploy a similarly vast and sophisticated armament is ludicrous. I have nothing against armed struggle in principle (although of course I don't like it); I just don’t think it can work now. It would take an empire as enormous and rich as capitalism itself to fight capitalists on their own terms. This is something the working classes of the world will never have, nor should we even want it.
This does not mean, though, that we should not think strategically in order to win and defeat our oppressors. It means that we have to learn how to destroy them without firing a single shot. It means that we have to look to and invent if necessary other weapons, other tactics. But we must be careful not to fall into the nonviolence/violence trap. Is tearing down a fence a violent act or is it resistance to the violence of those who erected the fence in the first place? Is throwing a tear gas canister back at the police who fired it an act of violence or is it resistance to an act of violence? Nonviolence is a key ideological weapon of a violent ruling class. This class uses it to pacify us; it uses its mass media to preach nonviolence incessantly. Such rhetoric is an effective weapon because we all (but they don't) want to live in a peaceful world. We would do well to chart a careful course through this swamp.
In this book I have focused on the three strategic associations that are needed to defeat capitalists. I have not attempted to discuss the numerous and varied cultural associations that will undoubtedly be created by free peoples, covering every conceivable interest.
As will become evident, I'm writing from the perspective of someone who lives in the United States. This is the only culture that I'm familiar with in any depth, although I have traveled abroad, lived two years in the Middle East, and studied other cultures. My remarks are therefore most relevant to others living in this country, to a lesser extent to persons living in other core capitalist countries, and to a still lesser extent to persons living in the rest of the world, although I hope everyone may find some value in it.
This book has been written for those who already want to destroy capitalism; it is not intended to persuade anyone why it should be destroyed. That is a task of a different kind. What is self-evident to me, as it is to most radicals, is unfortunately not so self-evident to others, not even to the working class itself. Nevertheless, I have included a short initial section on how we do not want to live in hopes of attracting a wider range of readers - readers who may be quite unhappy with their lives, but who are far from attributing their misery to capitalists. I’ve also included a list of recommended readings for those who want to explore emancipatory social thought further.
Several of my essays from the past decade are directly relevant to this book and can serve as supplementary material for the issues discussed here. They are posted on my web site under >Selected Papers: 1998 to Present,= at: <http://www.jamesherod.info>. I would like to call your attention to the following papers: (a) “Seeing the Inadequacies of ACF’s Strategy Statement” (February 1999); (b) “Breaking Out of the Cage and Destroying Our Jailers” (June 1999); (c) “The Weakness of a Politics of Protest” (June 2000); (d) “Notes on Building a Movement for Direct Democracy” (June 2004); and (e) “Anarchist Revolutionary Strategy” (April 2006).
An Awareness of How We Do Not Want to Live
There are places where you can come over a bridge and see a whole big city spread out before you. The Mystic River Bridge coming into Boston is such a place, as is the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan or the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. Driving over one of these bridges you can see the dozens of skyscrapers, hundreds of office buildings and factories, thousands of stores and shops, tens of thousands of people bustling along, traffic everywhere, and ships in the harbor. And you think to yourself, How could we ever presume to change all this? It is so vast. Countless activities. Millions of people going to work everyday. Goods being shipped. Phones ringing.
And yet this whole enormous edifice is built on one tiny single social relation: wage slavery (the extraction of wealth by force from the direct producers by the accumulators of capital). The government bureaucracies, police, lawyers, schools, and courts are all there to enforce this social relation. But hardly anyone knows this anymore. This fact has been carefully hidden in dozens of ways. The knowledge that this wealth is extracted by force has long been lost, even though brute force is used all over the world on a daily basis to defend this relation, and even though millions of us face unemployment (and hence destitution) not so infrequently. The knowledge that we are slaves being bought by the hour rather than the lifetime has also been lost. We have been wage slaves for so long that we have forgotten there is any other way to live. We have forgotten that once we had land and tools and could live independently, providing for ourselves, without being forced to sell our labor power for wages.
So this is the first and most important awareness we can come to: we should not be living as slaves but as free people. Seen in this light, capitalism does not seem so invincible but actually rather vulnerable. If we could only sever this single relation, we could destroy capitalism and free ourselves to create a new social world. This is undoubtedly why capitalists go to such lengths to camouflage, mystify, and deny the wage slave relation. It is their Achilles’ heel.
A second awareness is more easily achieved. If we take a stroll around one of these cities, noticing the kinds of buildings that exist, we will come up with something like this list: banks, factories, department stores, warehouses, office buildings, shops, churches, houses, apartment buildings, museums, schools, an occasional union hall, sports arenas, theaters, restaurants, convention centers, garages, airports, train stations, bus depots, nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes, gyms, malls, hotels, courthouses, police stations, and post offices.What we will rarely see is a meeting hall. If we happen to live in a capital city, we will be able to find a single chamber where the politicians meet. Worshipers congregate in churches, of course. Unionists hold meetings sometimes in their union halls, businesspeople convene in downtown centers, spectators aggregate in theaters and arenas to watch games, movies, plays, ballets, and concerts, and students gather for lectures, sometimes in large auditoriums. But there are usually no meeting halls, as such, for citizens, where we can assemble to make decisions and govern our own lives. So how can it be said that we live in a democracy, if we don’t even assemble or have any facilities for doing so? Not only should we not live as slaves, but we should also not live in an undemocratic society. Rather, we should live in a real democracy, where we can govern our own communities.
Beyond these two basic awarenesses, there is the recognition of the linkages between our many miseries and the wage slave system. This knowledge is more difficult to acquire, mainly because capitalists, and their public relations people, take such pains to blame the sufferings of the world on anything and everything other than their own practices. If there is starvation in Bangladesh, it’s because there are too many people and not because agricultural self-sufficiency has been destroyed by capitalist world markets. If the oceans are dying from oil tanker flushes, this is a shame, but it’s really no one’s fault; it’s just the price we must pay for progress and civilization. If millions are living in abject poverty in the shantytowns of third world cities, there is nothing unusual about this; it’s just part of the worldwide "process of urbanization@ - they never mention that governments and corporations have seized the peasants’ lands, forcing them to leave their homes. If cities are filling up with the homeless, it’s because these people are lazy and won’t look for work, and not because there aren't enough jobs for everyone and rents are sky-high. The list of such subterfuges is endless.
The truth is that most of the suffering in the world now is directly attributable to capitalists. If it were not for capitalists, most of the illness in the world could be eliminated, as well as most of the hunger, ignorance, homelessness, environmental destruction, congestion, warfare, crime, insecurity, waste, boredom, loneliness, and so forth. Even much of the suffering caused by hurricanes, floods, droughts, and earthquakes can be laid at the feet of capitalists because capitalists prevent us from preparing for and responding to these disasters as a community, in an intelligent way. And recently, capitalists are to blame for the increased severity of some of these events due to global warming, which capitalists have caused. Unless you’re already convinced, I know you’re not going to believe these bald claims. But others have documented the linkages between these various evils and the profit system, if you wish to study their works.
I have my own personal hate list. I hate advertisements, seriously. Nothing could be sweeter to me than living in an advertisement-free world. I hate congested cities, being stuck in traffic jams, not being able to park, being ticketed unfairly, having to suffer the rudeness of Boston drivers. I hate car alarms, a perfect example of a totally unnecessary aggravation but for the insanity of capitalism. (To see the connection between the scourge of car alarms and capitalism will be a test of your newfound awareness of the linkages.) I hate insurance companies, the biggest racketeers in the United States (not counting the Savings and Loans crooks, of course). I hate the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I hate telemarketing. I hate call waiting. I hate weather forecasters; they are alarmists, and not one of them seems to like rain (if their on-air attitudes are anything to go by). I hate cops; and they are everywhere now, even at the movies, or in workplaces, department stores, parks, schools, and libraries. I hate bosses. I never had one who was a decent human being (at least not at work); they were always twisted in some way, mean, self-centered, or arrogant, or else incompetent, bluffing through it while pretending not to, with no one daring to say otherwise. I hate the terrible insecurity of not having a reliable income. I hate this precarious existence. I hate looking for a job, big time. This is when you realize what a bind they’ve got you in. No way to live without a job; so hustle, make the rounds, update the résumé, get the interviews, all for free (i.e., job hunting is unpaid labor that benefits corporations). Your money is running out or already gone, and there’s no one to help. You’re desperate to find someone to buy your poor self by the hour. You desperately seek slavery in order to go on living. This is what I hate. And then, once a buyer is found, the boredom, drudgery, and fatigue starts all over again, and you see your life slipping away, all used up by businessmen, and all for nothing. I hate living alone, with my crippled emotions and aborted love life. I hate television with a passion, and have ever since the first set appeared in my parents’ home in 1951. I hate seeing the earth, such a beautiful place, go down the tubes, just so some greedy fools can make a profit. I hate not being around small children, they being the loveliest creatures to grace our lives (most of them). I hate social scientists; nothing has done more to make the world unintelligible than their decades of jargon and gibberish. I hate standing in line at banks (and I hate banks). It’s bad enough that I’m paying them to use my money to make themselves a profit; it’s the standing in line to do it that rankles. I hate automobiles, in too many ways to even count. I hate nondairy creamer. I hate seat belts, the thousandth way they have found to blame the victim. I hate Smokey the Bear. I hate lawns. I haven’t even begun to list all the things I hate about our present disorder.
I suppose, to be fair, I should now list all the things I love, in order to balance the picture, but it wouldn’t be in character.
A Notion of How We Might Want to Live
We can turn now to a notion of how we might want to live. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we could start from scratch to build a totally new social world, building up our neighborhoods just the way we wanted. What would they look like? What would the core social forms be? (Please remember, as mentioned earlier, that I’m leaving aside, since they are not as essential, numerous other associations that will undoubtedly be created to cover every conceivable interest.)
I have imagined a neighborhood with the following features (see "A Note on Terminology" at the beginning of this book):
Households are units of roughly two hundred people cohabiting in a building complex that provides for a variety of living arrangements for single individuals, couples, families, and extended families. The complex has facilities for meetings, communal (as well as some private) cooking, laundry, basic education, building maintenance, various workshops, basic health care, a birthing room, emergency medical care, and certain recreational activities. Households are managed democratically and cooperatively by a direct assembly of members (the household assembly).
Projects include all cooperative activities (more than one person) in agriculture and husbandry, manufacturing, higher education, research, advanced medicine, communications, transportation, arts, sports, and so forth, plus cooperative activities undertaken within the household itself (cooking, teaching, child care, health care, maintenance, etc.). The buildings are designed and constructed for these various activities. Internally, projects are managed democratically and cooperatively by a direct assembly of members (the project assembly). Some projects, perhaps most, are controlled, in the larger sense, directly by the neighborhood, through the neighborhood assembly. Other projects are controlled by agreements worked out among several or many neighborhood assemblies.
Peer circles are units of roughly thirty to fifty people. All persons in the neighborhood belong to just one peer circle, located at their primary project. For some this is in the household, but for most it is located at a project outside the household or even outside the neighborhood. All projects are broken down into such circles. These circles meet within the project to discuss issues and, where necessary, coalesce into projectwide general assemblies. Votes are taken within meetings, but they are tallied across meetings, within each project. Peer circle meetings are necessary because genuine face-to-face discussion and deliberation are seriously constricted in groups larger than fifty people.
Because households contain many persons whose primary project is not within the household, but who are nevertheless living there and will want to be engaged in the self-governing of the household, I will refer to the household assembly as a distinct entity, different from project (workplace) assemblies, even though the household includes peer circles for such projects as cooking, teaching, child care, and health care.
The neighborhood assembly is the core social creation. It is an assembly of the entire neighborhood, roughly two thousand people, meeting in a large hall designed to facilitate directly democratic discussion and decision making. In practice, of course, the size of neighborhood assemblies will vary considerably. Yet its upper limit is determined by the number of people who can meet in one large hall and still engage in democratic, face-to-face, unmediated decision making.
An Association of Neighborhood Assemblies
Neighborhood assemblies join together, by means of a pact or a treaty agreement, to form a larger association. An overall agreement defines the association in general, and there are also specific agreements for particular projects.
The neighborhood assembly is the neighborhood governing itself. The neighborhood makes its own rules, allocates its own resources and energies, and negotiates its own treaties with other neighborhoods. The neighborhood controls the land on which it sits, and all projects and households within it.
Please note what this arrangement of social relations does not have: hierarchy, representation, wage slavery, profit, commodities, money, classes, private ownership of the means of production, taxes, nation-states, patriarchy, alienation, exploitation, elite professional control of any activity, or formal divisions by race, gender, age, ethnicity, looks, beliefs, intelligence, or sexual preference. This neighborhood, so organized, is the basic unit of a new social order.
Those familiar with radical traditions will recognize in this sketch a melding of the anarcho-communist focus on community, the anarcho-syndicalist emphasis on workers’ control, and the feminist stress on abolishing the distinction between the public and private spheres of social life. It is my belief that each of these cannot be achieved without the other. The achievement of workers’ control alone would leave no way for the community as a whole to allocate its resources (e.g., to decide whether to phase out a project or start up a new one), whereas the achievement of community control alone, without simultaneously controlling the means of production, is meaningless, empty. And the failure to democratize and socialize households, including them (and hence reproduction) as an explicit and integral part of the social arrangements, would leave a gender-based division of labor intact, thus perpetuating the public/private dichotomy.
New towns have occasionally been built from scratch in recent decades, primarily by "developers" as commercial enterprises. Also, many completely new utopian communities were established throughout the nineteenth century in the United States and elsewhere. Given the resources, it will surely be possible to build new communities in the future, at least on a limited scale. This will certainly be the exception rather than the rule, though, especially at the beginning of this revolution. For the most part, building from the ground up will be out of the question for the first fifty to seventy-five years.
The actual task we face, then, is to transform existing structures (buildings and factories) and social relations (property, family, work, and play relations) into the desired ones. We need to try to imagine how our model neighborhood would look after having been converted from a typical urban neighborhood. Let’s see first if we can convert the existing physical plant into something more useful for democratic, cooperative living, keeping in mind that this is the easy part; the hard part is transforming social relations. I will deal with this more below in discussing how to get there.
Factories and shops would be the easiest of all to convert. These can be used pretty much as they are (after they have been seized, of course). Space will have to be cleared somewhere in them for peer circle meetings and projectwide assemblies.
More difficult is how to convert a street full of individual residences into households. This can probably be improvised as follows: build passageways and tunnels between the buildings; set aside certain rooms for workshops, child care, and health care; block off certain streets to enclose the unit; expand one or two kitchens into a communal unit; rearrange bedrooms; and clear an apartment for a meeting hall.
It will also be difficult to find a meeting space for the neighborhood assembly. There are options, however. There may be a union hall, church, roller skate rink, or high school gym in the neighborhood. But also, warehouses, supermarkets, and department stores have large open floors that could be cleared and made into meeting halls. Most of these spaces, though, could not hold two thousand people. It may be necessary to begin with smaller neighborhood assemblies - say, five households of two hundred each - for a neighborhood assembly of one thousand members, instead of ten households for a neighborhood assembly of two thousand members.
Later on, after the flow of wealth out of the neighborhood to the ruling class has been stopped, and after the stolen wealth of the ruling class has been reappropriated, neighborhoods will undoubtedly want and have the resources to build specially designed neighborhood assembly halls as well as new household complexes. But at first, we will have to make do with what already exists. The wealth of centuries is embedded in the existing architectural plant - a plant that reflects capitalist values, priorities, and social relations. It will take a long time to tear down and rebuild this physical world in a way that expresses the needs of a free people.
But when we do rebuild, the mark of our new civilization will be its assembly halls. Just as earlier worlds have been characterized by the temples and theaters of ancient Greece, the castles and cathedrals of medieval Europe, and the banks and skyscrapers of modern capitalism, so the new social world of a cooperatively self-governing people will be known by its meeting halls. They will undoubtedly come in all shapes and sizes. Besides the large general assembly chambers for neighborhoods (neighborhood assemblies), there will need to be small caucus rooms in every project and household for peer circle meetings as well as projectwide and householdwide assembly rooms. A deliberating people will design, build, and equip excellent and beautiful spaces for deliberation.
To complete this sketch, we would need to imagine at least two more arrangements, one for a typical small town and another for a typical peasant village - two rapidly disappearing social entities (given the continuing violent enclosures forced through by our corporate rulers). Peasant villages the world over, although under heavy attack, nevertheless still possess a basis for community, with many communal traditions yet intact. These traditions are not always and everywhere relevant to creating a free and anarchistic society, but some of them are. Karl Marx, after all, believed that Russia could skip capitalism and move directly to communism by building on the peasant commune. Small towns still exist too, in every country. Even in a highly urbanized country like the United States, there are still 20,000 towns with a population below 10,000 - 15,000 of which are below 2,500. There is no reason why these small towns couldn't switch to direct democracy right now if they wanted to.
It will be easier I think to transform small towns and peasant villages into our desired neighborhoods than suburbs or dense urban areas. But maybe not. Megalopolises and suburbia will surely wither away, decade by decade, into the new civilization, as the countryside is repopulated with livable, cooperative, autonomous communities of free people. (Needless to say, the vast shantytowns of the neocolonized world will be the first to go.)
A neighborhood is a small place, relatively speaking. Although there may be many villages or small towns left in the world with populations as low as 2,000, they are rapidly disappearing. Most settled areas are much more densely populated. Consider a town of 90,000, for example, which is a small town by today’s standards. An average neighborhood assembly size of 2,000 members means we will have 45 neighborhood assemblies in the town. A city of 600,000 will have 300 neighborhood assemblies. A city of 1,800,000 will have 900, and a city of 9,000,000 will have 4,500.
This shows us immediately the tremendous power of this strategy. For the people in a small town of 60,000 to reconstitute themselves into 30 deliberating bodies to take charge of their lives, resources, and neighborhoods is an unbelievably powerful revolutionary act. Just the mere act of assembling is revolutionary, without even considering all that these assemblies can do. Capitalists depend a lot on keeping us all isolated. Our assembling starts to destroy that isolation. It is an act that will be next to impossible to stop; it is an act that has the power to destroy capitalism and the potential to build a new civilization.
This is the way to think of the revolution. It is a people reassembling themselves (reordering, reconstituting, and reorganizing themselves) into free associations at home, at work, and in the neighborhood. Capitalists will fight this. They may outlaw the meetings, bust them up by force, arrest those attending, or even murder those in attendance. But if we are determined, they will not be able to block us from reconstituting ourselves into the kind of social world we want.
Basic Agreements of the Association
The basic social unit is the neighborhood assembly, as described above. For many purposes, however, these neighborhood assemblies will want to cooperate with other neighborhood assemblies. They will coalesce to accomplish certain objectives. In other words, they will sometimes form larger associations. They will do this by treaty negotiations, negotiating agreements to govern all supraneighborhood projects. Sometimes these agreements will involve just a few neighborhood assemblies, and sometimes many. That is, agreements will encompass larger or smaller numbers of neighborhood assemblies depending on the nature of the project. A telephone system will require a regional or even interregional pact. A local park may involve only three or four neighborhoods. The highway system will require regional agreements. A large manufacturing facility may involve fifteen or twenty neighborhood assemblies, and likewise for hospitals, large research facilities, orchestras, and so forth. A considerable amount of the activity in the world at present is governed by such treaties and not by legislation (for example, the worldwide postal service among nations). Also, contracts between corporations are more in the nature of treaties (mutually agreed on terms and conditions) rather than laws (although they are enforced by a nation’s laws). So we should not be frightened by this. The number of interneighborhood agreements that the neighborhood assemblies will have to work out to regulate our common endeavors will be well within the range of complexity manageable by human intelligence. It probably won’t exceed a couple hundred agreements (not counting trade agreements, which may run into the thousands).
Beyond agreements governing particular projects, there will need to be a general agreement about the nature of the association. Becoming a signatory to this agreement or pact is what it means to join an association of democratic autonomous neighborhoods. There will need to be agreements about membership in neighborhoods, the basic structures of the neighborhood itself (households, projects, peer circles, and neighborhood assemblies), voting procedures within the assemblies, territory and resources, leaving the association, not joining the association in the first place, aggression and defense, and so forth. (See the appendix for a draft general agreement for such an association.)
Negotiating these treaties will involve a lot of work at first, but less so later on. Nevertheless, it will be an ongoing process. Procedures and facilities for negotiating will need to be established. These treaty negotiating procedures will probably not differ all that much from the way treaties are negotiated among states: delegates from each neighborhood will be sent to regional treaty drafting conferences, with the final ratification resting with the neighborhood assemblies. The main difference lies in the number of negotiating parties: less than two hundred nations versus tens of thousands of neighborhoods.
Although this may seem cumbersome, there is no alternative if we want to govern our own lives. The alternative is to relinquish control into the hands of regional or interregional elites, thus voiding our determination to be autonomous, free peoples. Besides, it probably sounds a lot worse than it will prove to be in reality.
Once we have in mind a clear notion of how we might want to live, we can begin to see ways to bring this new world into being and what obstacles have to be overcome in order to do so.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle we face is the enormous capacity capitalists have acquired to shape and control what people think, and how they see the world and the events taking place in it. Radio, television, and movies are the greatest weapons ever to fall into the hands of any ruling class. Add to this all the other instruments of mass communication -books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, advertising, videos, and computers; then add years and years of schooling, ruling-class control of all the major institutions, as well as the propaganda at work, the homogenization of culture, and the destruction of families, neighborhoods, and communities. Given all this it is hard to see how an autonomous, oppositional consciousness could ever emerge, much less survive the system’s attacks if it did emerge.
Nevertheless, capitalist control of consciousness and culture is not total. Opposition movements continue to be born even now. There are cracks in the empire through which the irrepressible creative subjectivity of human beings can find outlets. This is our main hope. The rapid creation of the worldwide Indymedia in just a few years (dating from November 1999) is a spectacular manifestation of this hope. I'm sure there are many other ways that we can break the hold of ruling class thought, prove that we have not been totally brainwashed by the doublespeak of its media, and assert our own values and perceptions.
Another big obstacle we face is the labor market itself. We have to go to where the jobs are. This means that many of us are moving all the time. Many of our current neighbors will be gone in a couple of years (or we will be gone ourselves). Even if we managed to set up neighborhood assemblies, their members would be constantly turning over. Still, in every neighborhood, there are also many who manage to stay put, and who could provide the needed continuity and stability.
Having to follow the jobs also results in a huge disjunction between where people live and where they work. Throughout the world the vast majority of people who live in urban or suburban areas, throughout the world, do not work in the neighborhoods where they reside. They commute to jobs somewhere else. Even if this job is only half a mile away, it most likely takes them out of the neighborhood assembly district (depending on population density, of course). That is, even if a neighborhood succeeded in establishing a neighborhood assembly, and even if workers in a neighborhood seized the factories and offices there, we would still be dealing with two sets of people. And many suburban neighborhoods do not even have factories and offices; thus suburbia itself is an obstacle, and will have to be dismantled or rebuilt. So how could a neighborhood-based assembly become a decision-making unit governing the projects in that area? It would take decades, even if capitalism were destroyed, for people to get relocated into projects nearer home. This must of necessity be a gradual process. In order to avoid total chaos and disintegration, most people must go on working at the jobs they have and know. Otherwise we would all die. There would be no food, transportation, medical care, electricity, heat, or clothing. So it is quite clear that at least initially, there cannot be an integrated neighborhood decision-making unit comprised of a gathering of peer circles from projects and households into a neighborhood assembly.
But this is not the whole story. There are still compelling reasons for sticking with the strategy. For one thing, even in a thoroughly reconstructed social world, there will be many interneighborhood projects governed by pacts struck by several neighborhood assemblies rather than controlled solely by a single neighborhood assembly. So some people will always be working away from the neighborhoods where they live. That is, some people will attend their neighborhood assemblies as individuals who are members of peer circles from outside their neighborhood. Second, it is only by reconstituting ourselves into neighborhood, workplace, and household associations, despite the obstacles, that we can destroy capitalism and thus slowly start to undo the absurd work/home spatial patterns thrown up by this system.
Another obstacle to creating the envisioned association of autonomous neighborhoods sketched above is the worldwide division of labor. Every little enterprise (office, workshop, clinic, classroom) gets supplies and equipment from all over. Lightbulbs come from far away. Paper, pens, electricity, computers, furniture, medicines, and machines often come from distant places. In the short run, no enterprise could continue to function if these networks of trade were disrupted. But at present this trade is corporate controlled. In recent decades, given transnational corporations and the further globalization of capital, the worldwide division of labor (and trade networks) has taken another expansive leap. It has suited capital’s purposes to decentralize production, scattering plants all over the world, all made possible by the new communication and information technologies. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, nor is this necessarily the best way to organize production. But this existing division of labor, induced and shaped by the imperatives of capital, certainly does constitute an obstacle to establishing democratic autonomous communities of free people. It will take time to restructure the circulation of goods to reflect the principle of freedom rather than slavery.
In the meantime, the existing trade networks will have to be maintained and worked with. But who will maintain them? And how? Obviously, you can’t overthrow the corporate world yet somehow maintain its division of labor. Which leads us to an important insight: residential patterns and divisions of labor cannot be overthrown; they have to bereplaced. (This is true also for capitalist property relations and capitalist institutions of decision making.) I have no doubt that neighborhood assemblies and self-managed projects will be able to eventually build up extensive networks of interchange to replace the existing corporate-controlled ones.
Speaking of capitalist property relations, they have traditionally been seen as the greatest single obstacle to achieving communism. The fact that the capitalists "own" the land and the factories, and that this "ownership" is inscribed in the law, upheld by the courts, and enforced by the police, is what has led anticapitalist forces to focus primarily on the state in their efforts to abolish these property relations. This strategy proved ineffective through nearly a century of trials. In any case, any attempt to establish autonomous neighborhoods, with cooperatively run households and projects, would run smack up against capitalist property relations, and they would have to be overcome.
The military might of the capitalist ruling class is of course an obvious obstacle to the establishment of democratic autonomous neighborhoods. Their ability and willingness to simply murder us, if they choose to, to protect their profits is daunting indeed. Nevertheless, although this firepower is overwhelming, it is not invincible. We can defeat it. I hope I am beginning to show how in this book.
We must never forget that we are at war, however, and that we have been for five hundred years. We are involved in class warfare. This defines our situation historically and sets limits to what we can do. It would be nice to think of peace, for example, but this is out of the question. It is excluded as an option by historical conditions. Peace can be achieved only by destroying capitalism.
The casualties from this war, on our side, long ago reached astronomical sums. It is estimated that thirty million people perished during the first century of the capitalist invasion of the Americas, including millions of Africans who were worked to death as slaves. Thousands of peasants died in the great revolts in France and Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the enclosures movement in England and the first wave of industrialization, hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly. African slaves died by the millions (an estimated fifteen million) during the Atlantic crossing. Hundreds of poor people were hanged in London in the early nineteenth century to enforce the new property laws. During the Paris uprising of 1871, thirty thousand communards were slaughtered. Twenty million were lost in Joseph Stalin’s gulag, and millions more perished during the 1930s when the Soviet state expropriated the land and forced the collectivization of agriculture - an event historically comparable to the enclosures in England (and thus the Bolsheviks destroyed one of the greatest peasant revolutions of all time). Thousands of militants were murdered by the German police during the near revolution in Germany and Austria in 1919. Thousands of workers and peasants were killed during the Spanish Civil War. Adolf Hitler killed ten million people in concentration camps (including six million Jews in the gas chambers). An estimated two hundred thousand labor leaders, activists, and citizens have been murdered in Guatemala since the coup engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1954. Thousands were lost in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Half a million communists were massacred in Indonesia in 1975. Millions of Vietnamese were killed by French and U.S. capitalists during decades of colonialism and war. And how many were killed during British capital’s subjugation of India, and during capitalist Europe’s colonization of Asia and Africa?
A major weapon of capitalists has always been to simply murder those who are threatening their rule. Thousands were killed by the contras and death squads in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Thousands were murdered in Chile by Augusto Pinochet during his counterrevolution, after the assassination of Salvador Allende. Speaking of assassinations, there is a long list: Patrice Lumumba, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci (died in prison), Ricardo Flores Magon (died in prison), Che Guevara, Gustav Landauer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, George Jackson, the Haymarket anarchists, Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko, Karl Liebnicht, Nat Turner, and thousands more. Thousands are being murdered every year now in Colombia. Thousands die every year in the workplace in the United States alone. Eighty thousand die needlessly in hospitals annually in the United States due to malpractice and negligence. Fifty thousand die each year in automobile accidents in the United States, deaths directly due to intentional capitalist decisions to scuttle mass transit in favor of an economy based on oil, roads, and cars (and unsafe cars to boot). Thousands have died in mines since capitalism began. Millions of people are dying right now, every year, from famines directly attributable to capitalists and from diseases easily prevented but for capitalists. Nearly all poverty-related deaths are because of capitalists. We cannot begin to estimate the stunted, wasted, and shortened lives caused by capitalists, not to mention the millions who have died fighting their stupid little world wars and equally stupid colonial wars. (This enumeration is very far from complete.)
Capitalists (generically speaking) are not merely thieves; they are murderers. Their theft and murder is on a scale never seen before in history - a scale so vast it boggles the mind. Capitalists make Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Attila the Hun look like boy scouts. This is a terrible enemy we face.
I can just hear the cries of protest now that we cannot blame all this on capitalists - from Hitler’s holocaust to Stalin’s gulag, from racial murders to famines. I can and I do, and if this were a different book, I could present arguments and evidence to back up this claim.
Strategies That Have Failed
We can’t destroy capitalism by running for office, by gaining control of the state apparatus through elections. It hasn’t been done and it won’t be done, even though numerous governments have been in socialist hands in Europe, sometimes for decades. It won’t be done because governments don’t have the last say, they don’t control society. Capitalists do. The government doesn’t control capitalists; capitalists control the government. Modern government (i.e., the nation-state system) is an invention of capitalists. It is their tool, and they know how to use it and keep it from being turned against them. Although building worker-controlled political parties, then using those parties to win elections and get control of governments, and then using those governments to establish socialism seemed like a plausible enough strategy when it was initiated in the mid-nineteenth century, it's way past time for us to recognize and admit that it simply hasn't worked. Capitalism goes rolling on no matter who controls the government.
We can’t destroy capitalism by taking over the government in a so-called revolution (i.e., capturing the state apparatus by force of arms). Beginning with the Russian Revolution, this has been the most widely used strategy (by national liberation movements) during the past century in countries on the periphery of capitalism. Dozens of "revolutionary parties" have come to power all over the world, but nowhere have they succeeded in destroying capitalism. In all cases so far, they have simply gone on doing what capitalists always do: accumulate more capital. They inevitably become in spite of their intentions just another government in a system of nation-states, inextricably embedded in capitalism, with no possibility of escape. Generations of revolutionaries devoted their lives to this strategy. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, and maybe it was. But now, after nearly a century of trials, it's painfully clear that the strategy has failed, and more and more revolutionaries are coming to this conclusion. The few remaining die-hard leninists, who are still struggling to build a vanguard party to seize state power, are definitely and thankfully a dying breed.
We cannot destroy capitalism with guerrilla warfare. This strategy has been mostly deployed as part of national liberation movements in colonial countries in order to capture the governments there. It is a form of leninism. As noted above, leninism in general didn’t work. And now, guerrilla warfare as a particular tactic within leninism doesn’t work. Capitalists have learned how to defeat it. The strategy was based on the assumed unwillingness of the capitalists to murder the civilian population in order to kill the guerrillas too. Capitalists have shown no such reluctance. They are willing to murder on a massive scale, and uproot and displace whole populations, in order to defeat guerrilla movements. And they win. (The current wars in Colombia and Iraq will perhaps serve as the final test of this strategy.)
Some wild-eyed romantic revolutionaries have thought to adopt the strategy for use in the core countries, with disastrous results. Capitalists have been delighted to have a new enemy - namely, "terrorists" and "anarchists"- now that "communists" are gone. But of course they will malign any opposition movement, so this is not the reason guerrilla warfare will not work here. It won’t work because it is part of leninism (seizing state power), and leninism didn’t work. It will not work because of the overwhelming firepower amassed by every advanced capitalist government. It will not work because it doesn’t contain within itself the seeds of the new civilization. I would think twice before joining the underground.
(For further thoughts on guerrilla warfare, see the Postscript.)
We cannot destroy capitalism by seizing and occupying the factories and the farms, at least not in the way this has been tried so far. Nevertheless, of all the strategies that have failed, syndicalism (federations of peasant, worker, and soldier councils) is the only one that had a ghost of a chance, and the only one that even came close to creating a new world. It came close in the great Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. Unfortunately, that magnificent revolution was defeated. In fact, all syndicalist revolutions have failed so far.
I believe there are serious flaws inherent in the strategy itself. For one thing, the syndicalist strategy ignores households, as if households weren’t part of the means of production. Thus, it excludes millions of homemakers from active participation in the revolution. Homemakers can only serve in a supporting role. It also excludes old people, young people, sick people, prisoners, students, welfare recipients, and millions of unemployed workers. To think that a revolution can be made only by those people who hold jobs is the sheerest folly. Perhaps immediately after syndicalists seize the factories and make a revolution, this exclusion could be overcome by having everyone join a council at home or in school, but this is no help beforehand, during the revolution itself. The whole image is badly skewed.
Moreover, syndicalists have never specified clearly enough how all the various councils are going to function together to make decisions and set policy, defend themselves, and launch a new civilization. In the near revolution in Germany in 1918, the worker and soldier councils were for a few months the only organized power. They could have won. But they were confused about what to do. They couldn’t see how to get from their separate councils to the establishment of overall power and the defeat of capitalism.
In the massive general strike in Poland in 1980, factory, office, mining, and farm councils were set up all over the country. But these councils didn’t know how to coalesce into an alternative social arrangement capable of replacing the existing power structure. They even mistakenly refrained from attacking ruling-class power with the intent of destroying it. Instead, the councils merely wanted to coexist in some kind of uneasy dual structure (perhaps because they were afraid of a Soviet invasion; but a strategy that has not taken external armies into account is badly flawed).
Workplace associations would have to be permanent assemblies, with years of experience under their belts, before they could have a chance of success. They cannot be new forms suddenly thrown up in the depths of a crisis or the middle of a general strike, with a strong government still waiting in the wings, supported by its fully operational military forces. It is no wonder that syndicalist-style revolts have gone down to defeat.
Finally, syndicalists have not worked out the relations between the councils and the community at large, and to assume that workers in a factory have the final say over the allocation of those resources (or whether the factory should even exist) rather than the community at large, simply won’t do. Nor have syndicalists worked out intercommunity relations. Syndicalism, in short, is a half-baked strategy that has not been capable of destroying capitalism, although it has been headed in the right direction.
General strikes cannot destroy capitalism. There is an upper limit of about six weeks as to how long they can even last. Beyond that society starts to disintegrate. But since the general strikers have not even thought about reconstituting society through alternative social arrangements, let alone created them, they are compelled to go back to their jobs just to survive, to keep from starving. All a government has to do is wait them out, perhaps making a few concessions to placate the masses. This is what Charles de Gaulle did in France in 1968.
A general strike couldn't even last six weeks if it were really general - that is, if everyone stopped working. Under those conditions there would be no water, electricity, heat, or food. The garbage would pile up. We couldn't go anywhere because the gas stations would be closed. We couldn't get medical treatment. Thus we would only be hurting ourselves. And what could our objectives possibly be? By stopping work, we obviously wouldn't be aiming at occupying and seizing our workplaces. If that were our aim we would continue working, but kick the bosses out. So our main aim would have to be to topple a government and replace it with another. This might be a legitimate goal if we needed to get rid of a particularly oppressive regime, but as for getting rid of capitalism, it gets us nowhere.
Strikes against a particular corporation cannot destroy capitalism. They are not even thought to do so. The purpose of strikes is to change the rate of exploitation in favor of workers. Strikes have only rarely been linked to demands for workers’ control (let alone the abolition of wage slavery); nor could capitalist property relations be overcome in a single corporation. The strike does not contain within itself any vision for reconstituting social relations across society, nor any plans to do so.
In recent years, strikes have even lost most of the effectiveness they once had for gaining short-term benefits for the working class. More often than not strikers are defeated: their union leaders sell them out; the owners bring in scabs, or simply fire everyone and hire a whole new crew; the owners move their plants elsewhere; and/or the government declares the strike illegal and calls out the state militia. Strike breaking is a flourishing industry on consultant row. Decades of antiunion propaganda by corporate-controlled media has destroyed a prolabor working-class culture, which in turn helps management break strikes. Nowadays, for strikers to get anywhere at all, entire communities have to be mobilized, with linkages to national campaigns. Even so, strikers are still aiming only at higher wages, health benefits, and the like; they are not anticapitalist. With rare exception, they are not even fighting for a shorter workweek.
I do not believe that this situation is temporary or can be reversed. So however important strikes are, or once were, in the unending fight over the extraction of wealth from the direct producers, they cannot destroy capitalism as a system.
Unions cannot destroy capitalism. Although unions were created by workers, mainly to help protect themselves from the ravages of wage slavery, they have long since lost any emancipatory potential. They were easily co-opted by the ruling class and used against workers as a disciplinary tool to prevent strikes, to prevent job actions, to drain power from the shop floor, to stabilize the workforce and reduce absenteeism, to pacify workers, to water down demands, and so forth. Almost from their beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century (and with rare exception) unions have been "business unions," working in cahoots with capitalists to manage "labor relations." There is an inherent flaw in this strategy. It is based on constructing a bureaucratic institution outside the workplace instead of a free association of workers inside the workplace. In any case, the heyday of unions is long since past and any hope of bringing them back is delusive.
In recent years there has been a movement to rebuild unions, even in the United States, which is notoriously lacking in labor consciousness, and where union membership is down to 8 percent in nongovernment workplaces. In other countries, though, especially poor ones, there are some strong union movements, arising in response to the industries that have moved there or to the appearance of sweatshops. With rare exception, these unions are not anticapitalist. Naturally, it's important to fight for better working conditions, higher wages, shorter hours, and health benefits. Such struggles do often highlight the evils of the wage slave system as well as improve the lives of workers. Who could not be excited by the rapid emergence in the late 1990s of the student anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses across the country? But something more is needed if we want to get rid of capitalism. Even if current labor activists succeed and rebuild unions to what they once were, can we expect these newly refashioned unions to accomplish more than previous ones did, at the height of the unionization drives of a strong labor movement - a movement that was embedded in communist, socialist, and anarchist working-class cultures that have now been obliterated? Hardly.
Insurrections cannot destroy capitalism. I don’t even think the ruling class is frightened of them anymore. You can rampage through the streets all you want, burn down your neighborhoods, and loot all the local stores to your heart’s content. They know this will not go anywhere. They know that blind rage will burn itself out. When it’s all over, these insurrectionists will be showing up for work like always or standing again in the dole line. Nothing has changed. Nothing has been organized. No new associations have been created. What do capitalists care if they lose a whole city? They can afford it. All they have to do is cordon off the area of conflagration, wait for the fires to burn down, go in and arrest thousands of people at random, and then leave, letting the "rioters" cope with their ruined neighborhoods as best they can. Maybe we should think of something a little more damaging to capitalists than burning down our own neighborhoods.
Acts of civil disobedience cannot destroy capitalism. They can sometimes make strong moral statements. But moral statements are pointless against immoral persons. They fall on deaf ears. Therefore, the act of deliberately breaking a law and getting arrested is of limited value in actually breaking the power of the rulers. Acts of civil disobedience can be used as weapons in the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, I guess (assuming that ordinary people ever hear about them). But they are basically the actions of powerless persons. Powerless individuals must use whatever tactics they can, of course. But that is the point. Why remain powerless, when by adopting a different strategy (building strategic associations) we could become powerful, and not be reduced to impotent acts like civil disobedience against laws we had no say in making and that we regard as unjust?
Moreover, civil disobedience is a tactic used primarily by the more well-off and securely situated activists who can count on friends and family to raise bail, and who can be pretty sure of not getting a long prison term. This is not true for those strongly motivated religious persons who sometimes embrace long prison sentences as part of bearing witness to a higher morality. But you almost never see poor people or minorities deliberately getting themselves arrested because they know that once in prison, they are not likely to get out.
Civil disobedience has the additional disadvantage that the movement has to spend a lot of precious time and money getting people out of jail. Enough people get arrested anyway, against their will. We don't need the added burden having to struggle to free persons who voluntarily put themselves in the hands of our jailers.
We cannot destroy capitalism with single-issue campaigns, yet the great bulk of radicals’ energy is spent on these campaigns. There are dozens of them: campaigns to defend abortion rights, maintain rent control, halt whaling, prohibit toxic dumping, stop the war on drugs, stop police brutality, stop union busting, abolish the death penalty, stop the logging of redwoods, outlaw the baby seal kill, ban genetically modified foods, stop the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, stop global warming, and on and on. What we are doing is spending our lives trying to fix a system that generates evils faster than we can ever eradicate them.
Although some of these campaigns use direct action (e.g., spikes in the trees to stop the chain saws or Greenpeace boats in front of the whaling ships to block the harpoons), for the most part the campaigns are aimed at passing legislation in Congress to correct the problem. Unfortunately, reforms that are won in one decade, after endless agitation, can be easily wiped off the books the following decade, after the protesters have gone home or a new administration comes to power.
These struggles all have value and are needed. Could anyone think that the campaigns against global warming, to free Leonard Peltier, or to aid the East Timorese ought to be abandoned? Single-issue campaigns keep us aware of what's wrong and sometimes even win gains. But in and of themselves, they cannot destroy capitalism, and thus cannot really fix things. It is utopian to believe that we can reform capitalism. Most of these evils can only be eradicated for good if we destroy capitalism itself and create a new civilization. We cannot afford to aim for anything less. Our very survival is at stake. There is one single-issue campaign I can wholeheartedly endorse: the total and permanent eradication of capitalism.
Many millions of us, though, are rootless and quite alienated from a particular place or local community. We are part of the vast mass of atomized individuals brought into being by the market for commodified labor. Our political activities tend to reflect this. We tend to act as free-floating protesters. But we could start to change this. We could begin to root ourselves in our local communities. This will be more possible for some than for others, of course. There can be no hard-and-fast rule. Yet many of us could start establishing free associations at work, at home, and in the neighborhood. In this way, our fights to stop what we don't like through single-issue campaigns could be combined with what we do want. Plus, we would have a lot more power to stop what we don't like. Our single-issue campaigns might prove to be more successful.
What is missing is free association, free assemblies, on the local level. If we added these into the mix, we would start getting somewhere. We could attack the ruling class on all fronts. There are millions of us, plenty of us to do everything, but everything must include fights on the local level, especially at the three strategic sites mentioned earlier.
We cannot destroy capitalism by staging demonstrations. This most popular of all radical strategies is also one of the most questionable. As a rule, demonstrations barely even embarrass capitalists, let alone frighten or damage them. Demonstrations are just a form of petition usually. They petition the ruling class regarding some grievance, essentially begging it to change its policies. They are not designed to take any power or wealth away from capitalists. Demonstrations only last a few hours or days and then, with rare exception, everything goes back to the way it was. If demonstrations do win an occasional concession, it is usually minor and short-lived. They do not build an alternative social world. Rather, they mostly just alert the ruling class that it needs to retool or invent new measures to counter an emerging source of opposition.
But even if demonstrations rise above the petition level, and become instead a way of presenting our demands and making our opposition known, we still have not acquired the power to see that our demands are met. Our opposition has no teeth. In order to give some bite to our protests we would have to reorganize ourselves, reorient ourselves, by rooting ourselves, assembling ourselves, on the local level. Then when we went off on demonstrations to protest ruling-class initiatives and projects there would be some strength behind the protests, rather than just shouted slogans, unfurled banners, hoisted placards, street scuffles, and clever puppets. We would be in a position to take action if our demands were not met. Then when we chanted, "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" our words might represent more than just a pipe dream.
Demonstrations are not even good propaganda tools because the ruling class, given its control of the media, can put any spin it wants to on the event, and this interpretation is invariably damaging to the opposition movement, assuming the event is even reported since the latest approach to these events is simply to ignore them. This is quite effective.
And what are the gains? An issue can sometimes be brought to the attention of the public, even if only a small minority of the public. Also, more people can be drawn into an opposition movement. For those participating, a demonstration can be an inspiring experience. (In many cases, though, this high is offset by a sense of dispiritedness on returning home.) Demonstrations can thus contribute to building an opposition movement. But are these small gains worth it? Large national demonstrations drain energy and resources away from local struggles. And even local demonstrations are costly, requiring time, energy, and money, which are always in short supply among radicals. Are demonstrations worth all the work and the expense they take to organize? No matter what, they remain just a form of protest. They show what we're against. By their very nature, demonstrations are of limited value for articulating what we are for. We are against the World Trade Organization, but what are we for?
Rather than taking to the streets and marching off all the time, protesting this or that (while the police take our pictures), we would be better off staying home and building up our workplace, neighborhood, and household associations until they are powerful enough to strike at the heart of capitalism. We cannot build a new social world in the streets.
New Social Movements
The so-called new social movements, based on gender, racial, sexual, or ethnic identities, cannot destroy capitalism. In general, they haven’t even tried. Except for a tiny fringe of radicals in each of them, they have been attempting to get into the system, not overthrow it. This is true for women, blacks, homosexuals, and ethnic (including "native") groups, as well as many other identities - old people, people with disabilities, mothers on welfare, and so forth. Nothing has derailed the anticapitalist struggle during the past quarter century so thoroughly as have these movements. Sometimes it seems that identity politics is all that remains of the left. Identity politics has simply swamped class politics.
The mainstream versions of these movements (the ones fighting to get into the system rather than overthrow it) have given capitalists a chance to do a little fine-tuning by eliminating tensions here and there, and by including token representatives of the excluded groups. Many of the demands of these movements can be easily accommodated. Capitalists can live with boards of directors exhibiting ethnic, gender, and racial diversity as long as all the board members are procapitalist. Capitalists can easily accept a rainbow cabinet as long as the cabinet is pushing the corporate agenda. So mainstream identity politics has not threatened capitalism at all.
The radical wings of the new social movements, however, are rather more subversive. These militants realized that it was necessary to attack the whole social order in order to uproot racism and sexism - problems that could not be overcome under capitalism since they are an integral part of it. There is no denying the evils of racism, sexism, and nationalism, which are major structural supports to ruling-class control. These militants have done whatever they could to highlight, analyze, and ameliorate these evils. Unfortunately, for the most part, their voices have been lost in all the clamor for admittance to the system by the majorities in their own movements.
There have been gains, of course. The women's movement has forever changed the world's consciousness about gender. Unpaid housework has been recognized as a key ingredient in the wage slave system. Reproduction as well as production has been included in our analysis of the system. Identity politics in general has underscored just how many people are excluded while also exposing gaps in previous revolutionary strategies. Moreover, the demand for real racial and gender equality is itself inherently revolutionary in that it cannot be met by capitalists, given that racial and gender discrimination are two of the key structural mechanisms for keeping wages low and thus making profits possible.
Boycotts cannot destroy capitalism. They have always been an extremely ineffective way to attack the system, and are almost impossible to organize. They almost invariably fail in their objectives. In the rare cases where they have succeeded, the gains are minor. A corporation is forced to amend its labor policies here and there, drop a product, or divest somewhere. That’s about it.
In recent years, boycotting has become a way of life for thousands in the environmental movement. They publish thick books on which products are okay to buy and which must be boycotted, covering literally everything from toilet paper to deodorant, food to toys. All these activists have succeeded in doing is to create a whole new capitalist industry of politically correct products. They have bought into the myth that the "economy" will give us anything we want if we just demand it, and that it is our demands that have been wrong rather than the system itself.
It’s true that it is better to eat food that hasn’t been polluted with insecticides, to wear clothes not made with child labor, or to use makeup not tested on rabbits. But capitalism cannot be destroyed by making such choices. If we are going to boycott something, we might try boycotting wage slavery.
We cannot destroy capitalism by dropping out, either as an individual, a small group, or a community. It’s been tried over and over, and it fails every time. There is no escaping capitalism; there is nowhere left to go. The only escape from capitalism is to destroy it. Then we could be free (if we try). In fact, capitalists love it when we drop out. They don’t need us. They have plenty of suckers already. What do they care if we live under bridges, beg for meals, and die young? I haven’t seen the ruling class rushing to help the homeless.
Even more illusory than the idea that an individual can drop out is the notion that a whole community can withdraw from the system and build its own little new world somewhere else. This was tried repeatedly by utopian communities throughout the nineteenth century. The strategy was revived in the 1960s as thousands of new left radicals retired to remote rural communes to groove on togetherness (and dope). The strategy is once again surfacing in the new age movement as dozens of communities are being established all over the country. These movements all suffer from the mistaken idea that they don’t have to attack capitalism and destroy it but can simply withdraw from it, to live their own lives separately and independently. It is a vast illusion. Capitalists rule the world. Until they are defeated, there will be no freedom for anyone.
As wonderful as luddism was, as one of the fiercest attacks ever made against capitalism, wrecking machinery cannot in and of itself destroy capitalism, and for the same reason that insurrections and strikes cannot: the action is not designed to replace capitalism with new decision-making arrangements. It does not even strike at the heart of capitalism -wage slavery - but only at the physical plant, the material means of production. Although large-scale sabotage, if it were part of a movement to destroy capitalism and replace it with something else, could weaken the corporate world and put a strain on the accumulation of capital, it is far better to get ourselves in a position where we can seize the machinery rather than smash it. (Not that we even want much of the existing machinery; it will have to be redesigned. But seizing it is a way of getting control over the means of production.)
Moreover, luddites were already enslaved to capitalists in their cottage industries before they struck. They were angry because new machinery was eliminating their customary job (which was an old way of making a living, relatively speaking, and thus had some strong traditions attached to it). In current terms, it would be like linotype operators destroying computers because their jobs were being eliminated by the new equipment. Destroying the new machinery misses the point. It is not the machinery that is the problem but the wage slave system itself. If it weren’t for wage slavery we could welcome labor-saving devices, provided they weren’t destructive in other ways, for freeing us from unnecessary toil.
We can draw inspiration from luddism, as a fine example of workers aggressively resisting the further degradation of their lives, but we should not imitate it, at least not as a general strategy.
We cannot destroy capitalism by publishing, although I doubt if anyone believes that we can. I mention it here only because publishing constitutes for so many of us our practice.This is what we are doing. We justify this by saying that radical books, magazines, and newspapers are weapons in the fight against bourgeois cultural hegemony - which is true. But we are permitted to publish only because the ruling class isn’t worried one jot by our "underground press." Their weapons - television, radio, movies, and schools - are infinitely more powerful. It’s conceivable that capitalism could be destroyed without any publishing at all. The strategy of reassembling ourselves into workplace, neighborhood, and household associations could catch on and spread by word of mouth from community to community. Destroying capitalism is more a matter of rearranging ourselves socially (reconstituting our social relations) than of propagating a particular set of ideas. So instead of starting our own zines, why don't we call a meeting with co-workers or neighbors to form an association?
We cannot destroy capitalism through education. Not many radicals recommend this strategy anymore, although you still hear it occasionally. New left radicals established free schools and even a free university or two, and there was a fairly strong and long lasting modern school movement among anarchists. But these are long gone. The notion, however, that education is the path to change and the way out of the mess we're in is quite common in the culture at large. This is like the tail waging the dog. We don't even control the schools or what is taught there. Schools and education are artifacts, and minor ones at that, of the ruling class, and are a reflection of its power over society. It is that power that must be broken. This cannot be done through schools. Even the very notion of education as an activity separated from life needs to be overcome. Learning among free peoples will be strikingly different. When we have achieved our autonomy, by directly engaging and defeating our oppressors, that will be the time to worry about how to conduct our learning.
The Strategy Described Abstractly
It is time to try to describe, at first abstractly and later concretely, a strategy for destroying capitalism. At its most basic, this strategy calls for pulling time, energy, and resources out of capitalist civilization and putting them into building a new civilization. The image, then, is one of emptying out capitalist structures, hollowing them out, by draining wealth, power, and meaning from them until there is nothing left but shells.
This is definitely an aggressive strategy. It requires great militancy and constitutes an attack on the existing order. The strategy clearly recognizes that capitalism is the enemy and must be destroyed, but it is not a frontal attack aimed at overthrowing the system; it is an inside attack aimed at gutting it, while simultaneously replacing it with something better, something we want.
Thus, capitalist structures (corporations, governments, banks, schools, etc.) are not seized so much as simply abandoned. Capitalist relations are not fought so much as they are simply rejected. We stop participating in activities that support (finance, condone) the capitalist world and start participating in activities that build a new world while simultaneously undermining the old. We create a new pattern of social relations alongside capitalist ones, and then continually build and strengthen our new pattern while doing everything we can to weaken capitalist relations. In this way our new democratic, nonhierarchical, noncommodified relations can eventually overwhelm the capitalist relations and force them out of existence.
This is how it has to be done. This is a plausible, realistic strategy. To think that we could create a whole new world of decent social arrangements overnight, in the midst of a crisis, during a so-called revolution or the collapse of capitalism, is foolhardy. Our new social world must grow within the old, and in opposition to it, until it is strong enough to dismantle and abolish capitalist relations. Such a revolution will never happen automatically, blindly, determinably, because of the inexorable materialist laws of history. It will happen, and only happen, because we want it to, and because we know what we’re doing and how we want to live, what obstacles have to be overcome before we can live that way, and how to distinguish between our social patterns and theirs.
But we must not think that the capitalist world can simply be ignored, in a live-and-let-live attitude, while we try to build new lives elsewhere. (As mentioned earlier, there is no elsewhere.) There is at least one thing, wage slavery, that we can’t simply stop participating in (but even here there are ways we can chip away at it). Capitalism must be explicitly refused and replaced by something else. This constitutes war, but it is not a war in the traditional sense of armies and tanks; it is a war fought on a daily basis, on the level of everyday life, by millions of people. It is a war nevertheless because the accumulators of capital will use coercion, brutality, and murder, as they have always done in the past, to try to block any rejection of the system. They have always had to force compliance; they will not hesitate to continue to do so. Still, there are many concrete ways that individuals, groups, and neighborhoods can gut capitalism, which I will enumerate shortly.
We must always keep in mind how we became slaves; then we can see more clearly how we can cease being slaves. We were forced into wage slavery because the ruling class slowly, systematically, and brutally destroyed our ability to live autonomously. By driving us off the land, changing the property laws, dismantling community rights, destroying our tools, imposing taxes, gutting our local markets, and so forth, we were forced onto the labor market in order to survive, our only remaining option being to sell our ability to work for a wage.
It’s quite clear, then, how we can overthrow slavery: we must reverse this process. We must begin to reacquire the ability to live without working for a wage or buying the products made by wage slaves (that is, we must free ourselves from the labor market and the way of living based on it), and embed ourselves instead in cooperative labor and cooperatively produced goods.
Another clarification is needed. This strategy does not call for reforming capitalism, for changing capitalism into something else. It calls for totally replacing capitalism with a new civilization. This is an important distinction because capitalism has proved impervious to reforms as a system. We can sometimes, in some places, win certain concessions from it (usually only temporary ones) and some (usually short-lived) improvements in our lives as its victims, but we cannot reform it piecemeal.
Hence, our strategy of gutting and eventually destroying capitalism requires at a minimum a totalizing image, an awareness that we are attacking an entire way of life and replacing it with another, and not merely reforming one way of life into something else. Many people may not be accustomed to thinking about entire systems and social orders, but everyone knows what a lifestyle is, or a way of life, and that is the way we should approach it.
The thing is this: in order for capitalism to be destroyed, millions and millions of people must be dissatisfied with their way of life. They must want something else and see certain existing things as obstacles to getting what they want. It is not useful to think of this as a new ideology. It is not merely a belief system that is needed, like a religion, or like marxism or anarchism. Rather it is a new prevailing vision, a dominant desire, an overriding need. What must exist is a pressing desire to live a certain way and not to live another way. If this pressing desire were a desire to live free, to be autonomous, to live in democratically controlled communities, to participate in the self-regulating activities of a mature people, then capitalism could be destroyed. Otherwise, we are doomed to perpetual slavery and possibly even to extinction.
The content of this vision is actually not new at all. The long-term goal of communists, anarchists, and socialists has always been to restore community. Even the great peasant revolts of early capitalism sought to free people from external authorities and restore autonomy to villages. Marx defined communism once as a free association of producers, and at another time as a situation in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all. Anarchists have always called for worker and peasant self-managed cooperatives. The long-term goals have always been clear: to abolish wage slavery, eradicate a social order organized solely around the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and establish in its place a society of free people who democratically and cooperatively self-determine the shape of their social world.
These principles, however, must be embodied in concrete social arrangements. In this sketch, they are embodied in the following configuration of social forms, as noted earlier: autonomous, self-governing, democratic neighborhoods (through the practice of the neighborhood assembly); self-managed projects; cooperatively operated households; and an association, by means of treaties, of neighborhoods one with another.
But how can this be achieved? We must turn now to the task of fleshing out this strategy, but this time in concrete rather than abstract terms.