A Response to the Solidarity Halifax Conference (November 2010)
On Sunday November 14th, I attended the Solidarity Halifax conference because it was described as an event aimed at building a “vibrant, anti-capitalist left.” Unfortunately, the way the discussions were framed was not conducive to a conversation about capitalism and how we might overthrow it.
Although I did not stay for the conclusion of conference, I was there for the entirety of the group discussions and the introductory panel. Despite the fact that the conference was described as being “anti-capitalist” there was very little critical discussion of capitalism during the event. To be frank it seems that the conference was organized in such a way as to avoid discussions around what capitalism is and how to contest it. With all of this in mind I can only conclude that the organizers of Solidarity Halifax's definition or understanding of the term anti-capitalist is this: we organized an anti-capitalist conference, thus anyone and everyone who attends is an anti-capitalist. In my eyes this empties the concept of anti-capitalist of all meaning.
I am not alone in thinking that;
If capitalism is wage-labour and the production of value, then to be worthy of the name anti-capitalism must be a strategy or strategies which lead to the abolition of these things. Yet, the ever-marginal left bestows the magic label "anti- capitalist" on any movement which passes in front of its eyes. Much of what is called anti-capitalism is in fact only opposition to aspects of capitalism. Many unions oppose aspects of globalization, such as tightening or relaxing of trade polices, because they fear it will have a negative impact on their members' jobs (save "our" jobs?), or their nation states. This is not anti- capitalism, but defence of national capitalism...Anti- capitalism has become a catch-all phrase taken to means any aspect of opposition to a particular capitalist policy. (All the worlds a rage, Red and Black Notes #12, 2000.)
During the conference we were asked to attend two different working groups out of a possible four. None of them directly addressed capitalism, however, I attended the two groups that I thought would be the most productive. The two questions which my break-out groups dealt with were;
1. What can we do to make the anti-capitalist movement one that people want to be involved in (ie. how do we make it inclusive)?
2. How can we more effectively recruit and retain new activists?
These questions take the existence of a coherent anti-capitalist ideology and its embodiment in a social movement as a given. When the question was introduced, “What can we do to make the anti-capitalist movement one that people want to be involved in?” I immediately thought to myself, “What anti-capitalist movement?” Obviously people can’t become involved in a non-existent movement. There are small groups and initiatives, some of which may be critical of some aspects of capitalism and wish to reform it, but nothing resembling a vibrant social movement. Where there is no coherent anti-capitalist movement in Halifax I would suggest that our discussions towards building one need to start with basic questions such as “What is capitalism and how do we go about overthrowing it?” Basic, shared principles are required before we can move toward action, let alone let people know what we’re asking them to participate in.
Another point regarding this first question: I don’t think we should preoccupy ourselves with being inclusive. Activists often worry about getting people of different backgrounds involved in their groups and initiatives. When their groups are predominantly white and culturally middle-class activists fear that they will be seen as exclusive and/or overly privileged. This preoccupation is based in liberal notions of diversity and multiculturalism which purport that social problems can be solved by “including” people from oppressed groups into “our” nation, institution, activist group, etc. Our main failing as a politicized minority is not that we are largely exclusive of people of different backgrounds than ourselves (not to say that we’re never guilty of excluding people based on race, sex, etc.), but that our activities are most often irrelevant to working class people generally. Our movement will only become relevant to workers when it begins to concretely address material needs, and only when we have a clear critique of we’re against, and a strong notion of what we’re for.
In all the discussions I tried to make the point that under capitalism class struggle is the reality regardless of the activity of politicized minorities. Working people continue to face exploitation and alienation and the natural world continues to be destroyed. Working people will at times resist their conditions and fight back, the recent general strike in France against pension cuts provides just one contemporary example. This ongoing class struggle is fundamental to capitalism.
The question for us as revolutionaries, is how do we intervene in existing struggles in such a way as to push them toward overthrowing capitalism? Again, the first step is for us to develop a shared critique of capital and what it could be replaced with. Here is a brief attempt at doing just that.
Capital and Communism
Capital is a system defined by private or state ownership of the means of production, that being the resources, machinery, offices, factories and other sites of social and material production. In this system of ownership those of us who do not own property, businesses or other capital from which to generate wealth must work; we must sell our our living activity (labour) for money in order to make ends meet.
Even in the so-called Socialist states, countries we see as state-capitalist, this relationship is not fundamentally altered. The state owns the means of social and material production and the working class still toils in order to survive. For the working class, the boss simply changed his costume from that of a private capitalist to that of a state bureaucrat.
Communism is not state ownership of the means of production; communism is the appropriation of the means of production by the working class. In 1844 Marx described communism as "the positive transcendence of private property, or human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being—a return become conscious and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development.”
As workers we produce commodities - goods, services, technologies, art, information and infrastructures, all those things, material and immaterial, which make up our societies. A small portion of the value we create is returned to us in the form wages and services from the state and in turn we use these to get the things we need to survive. A larger portion of the value we create is taken from us. This expropriated wealth is reinvested by capital in order to grow its productive resources, expand its markets and impose its system of exploitation upon greater numbers of people.
Capital imposes a class relation whereby the interests of workers (whether employed or unemployed) are pitted against those of capital. As workers we struggle to work less for more money while capital drives us to work longer and harder for less pay and time off. This class struggle is always present but is not always visible. However, when workers enter into open conflict with capital through strikes, occupations, riots, and when we self-organize through workers’ councils, neighborhood assemblies and the like, the opposing class interests lay themselves bare. In these situations capital will take whatever measures it must to defeat the self-organized working class and to re-impose its system of class exploitation, often by offering the carrot (concessions, reforms) or the stick (violent repression). However, in this period of austerity, where the concessions of yesterday are being put to the axe, to expect dangling carrots instead of baton blows is simply delusional.
The material conditions of today that necessitate revolt and rebellion by the world's masses are planting the seeds of a new society based on human need. Communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence”. The struggle of the working class to impose its needs over the needs of capital is the real movement towards communism.
History shows that forms of social organization incompatible with capitalist social relations are thrown up in the course of working class struggles. Examples include but are not limited to the two month long revolutionary government of the Paris Commune of 1871, the soviets that emerged during the 1905 revolution in Russia, the socialization of the countryside during the Spanish Civil War and much more recently the assemblies and occupations that characterized the Greek Insurrection in 2008.
To varying degrees, such organizations engage in a process of communization - however limited, they begin to seize the means of production away from capital. They occupy workplaces and destroy or abandon others, they squat living spaces, they turn the sites and resources of capitalist production over to human need and expression. These types of working class organizations, coordinated internationally, have the potential to seize the means of production and make an international working class revolution that could bring about communism. Communization is not a program instituted by a party or a state after seizing power but rather immediate revolutionary activities that begin to abolish the rule of capital, waged labour, money and the market.
The content of a communist society is the negation of capitalist social relations towards the fulfillment of all human need and the maximization of our creative potential. In a communist society the means of production is held in common, it is not owned privately or by the state. All production is toward meeting human needs and not for the accumulation of private or state controlled wealth. “Work” and “consumption” in a communist society become what Marx described as “all-sided activity” where it would be “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”.
Basic Principles of Revolutionary Organisation
A shared critique of capital is essential toward building movements toward communism. However, a shared critique is not sufficient in and of itself. For revolutionaries to begin to intervene in existing struggles we need principles which can form a basis for our collective organization and intervention. The following principles were authored by the libcom.org group based in the UK.
Communist: We are against all forms of capitalism whether private, state or self-managed. In its place we want a classless, stateless and moneyless society based on solidarity, co-operation and the principle ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ - a libertarian communist society.
Class struggle: Capitalism is characterised by the creation of a class of people, dispossessed from the means of production and subsistence, who are required to work for a wage to get by. This condition pushes us to resist - to do less work, for more money. However, our employers want us to work more for less money to increase their profits. The struggle resulting from this contradiction sets our human needs and desires against those of capital. This struggle also lays the foundations for a new kind of society, based on the fulfilment of our needs.
Opposing all discrimination and prejudice like sexism and racism by attempting to unite the working class is just as much a part of class struggle as striking for higher wages. Direct action and solidarity are the basis of working class strength.
We support the actions of our class in our own interests. We are opposed to all those who claim to be our representatives, like the trade unions or political parties which seek to manage capitalism supposedly on our behalf.
Internationalist: Our class is global and so should be our solidarity. We oppose all nationalist movements, whether openly conservative or supposedly progressive and ‘anti-imperialist’ in nature as both are based on the unity of workers with their rulers. We never take sides in wars between states or would-be states, instead always supporting mutiny, fraternisation and the working class fighting in its own interest.
Everyday life: Whether waged or unwaged, it is our everyday activity as workers that reproduces capitalist society. And it is through disrupting this activity that we can challenge and eventually replace it. As such, our activity as radical workers should always be based primarily on issues rooted in our everyday lives and experiences.