After my short notes on the ILWU, a couple folks asked for a sketch of a critique of syndicalism. I would like to give just that, a summary along with links offering other important critiques.
What-To-Do?: I’ll start off look at “organizing” because I think that’s a lot of what of folks asking about the critique of anarchosyndicalism are thinking of. The first thing one can say is that the experience of the would-be agitator is different from what one would imagine:
…You can start a conversation about worker council, rights, whatever anytime. Ah what freedom! You get answers that you have no adequate theoretical response to. Everybody talks about different topics, rarely, almost never about struggle. So this freedom turns into question: How often can I start worker topic before I become annoying or even crazy? Interesting libcom post by “organdva”
Anti-Work: The thing, work is an imposition. Most of the activities of the workplace are unpleasant and undesirable to the vast majority of proletarians. But the pay from working is necessary and even desired by most workers. Most workers naturally would like to be better paid and to work less, work less-hard and experience less general harassment (but sadly given the unpleasantness of non-work today, working less is very often less of a priority). Now, our capitalist society is filled with schemes which promise more-work-for-less-pay later in exchange for some time and money now. These range from the boss’ own promotion schemes to student loans and everywhere in between. Some people really do buy into one or another of these and are often disappointed.
But the thing to remember is that these schemes are ever-present today. How does this relate to a hard-working anarcho-syndicalist organizer? Well, however unique the organizer might believe his/her pitch to be, to a person “floating around” capitalist society, the organizer’s pitch is one more scheme to work harder now to get a better deal later. Moreover, this organizer is an “amateur”, clearly not presenting a slick, aggressively organized scheme. If a given worker is interested in “improving their position,” they could go back to school, join a “start-up”, join management or even find an honest-to-God professional labor organizer.
Let us further back-up. The work-world in an advanced capitalist society today is the opposite of the grim coal mine that drew on only the inhabitant of one Scottish village and so had the tightest possible community. The random draw of individuals today will result in the kind of disparate scatter shot of opinions and personalities made infamous by contemporary sit-coms. Our alienated relations involve us facing each other with a disparate series of cultures and subcultures, tastes and hobbies. And the thing is, the organizer appears as one more guy/gal with a hobby they want to sell everyone on.
I should note that, being members of our modern, hyper-glib, consultant-ridden 21st century society, contemporary syndicalists have taken this reality into account by presenting plans to make anarchosyndicalists more like professionalized organizers. The thing is, if this could be done, it simply moves the dilemma of the professional organizer – now there is a large chasm between you and the rank-and-file. Here the basic “critique of the militant” comes in. Slick, organized, having a supply of answers for all of the usual questions, the left militant is perhaps a model for the mainstream consultant. And most people today are used to letting the militants/consultants/experts guide the situation. The only “small” problem is that this form of domination is pretty much a miniature version of the present world of work. After all, exactly what gives the militant their credibility is that they’re always working.
Work usually sucks, many if not most bosses are dictatorial and irrational, a large portion of our work-activity is irrational and unnecessary. That should not make you think that the workers will be eager to take over the management of their work. Even if the knew they could, even if they thought could make a little more money. Being your own boss is more work and why would you to do that, especially if don’t enjoy or if you are doing something that is rather useless (admittedly even now, not every single job is unpleasant and not every single job is useless but its a big factor).
The more radical syndicalists at least don’t propose workers control of capitalist enterprises as their end-point. However, the more radical syndicalist program could be summarized; Step one, organize. Step two, take more power over your workplace. Step three, take power over society. The problem that if “step two” takes really any time at all, it effectively becomes self-management. For example, it is one thing directly acting to slow down the speed of an assembly line. It is another thing engaging in detailed and tedious negotiations about work can be reorganized to simultaneously profitable to management and the least-unpleasant-possible-under-the-circumstances. Basically, we are still left with the “today self-managed asbestos, tomorrow the world!” problem.
What To Do II: The answer to the communist critique of anarcho-syndicalism is often “well that’s fine but it doesn’t tell us what to do”. To be blunt, most people talking about “strategy” will not be making any strategic choices at all, they will be simply following the logic of whatever subcultural-ideological-preferences the Pachinko machine-like operations of consumer society has dealt. Now if, if, even small, cohesive would-be-revolutionary group formed, that “we” could get a lot more practical energy, even, from rejecting anarcho-syndicalism than from embracing it. Basically, the milieu is small and the schemes generally outlined by AS are not adapted to the level of energy in a group but rather are adapted to the pretense that the milieu will create revolution from its own energy.
If you are a revolutionary, capitalist society looks like a wall. Now we can bang or scratch on that wall, looking for one weakness or other. Resisting work is great and so is even finding ways to help others do that resisting. But what really holds us back is lying, pretending that the wall is really a job, that our efforts to be part of a revolutionary upsurge are based on putting in umpteen hours a day at some task, whether that task is organizing or some similar.
For now, this is a critique of anarchosyndicalism. I include other critiques of unions in general from around the web: