Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Coming General Strike

Many thanks to Michelle Ty, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, for letting us re-post this excellent letter on tomorrow's general strike. The letter has been circulating today on a number of graduate student and organizing lists. It's worth reading in full. -- a.

October 30, 2011

The Coming General Strike

Dear Fellow Graduate Students,

As someone who rarely likes to make an imposition on people’s time, I am writing this letter to entreat you to consider setting aside some of your hours this Wednesday—and with these hours to support the general strike that was called for by Occupy Oakland.

Because sometimes one is understandably reluctant to answer the call of the bullhorn and better able to form a response in the silence of a library—and because it is difficult to act without the aid some understanding—I have decided to issue this somewhat long and quiet exhortation.

For the sake of conceptual clarity, we might begin by noting that what makes a strike “general” has little to do with surpassing some quantitative threshold of participants. What is implied in the adjective is not strictly about size—how “big” the strike is—but rather designates a political action that is qualitatively different from the typical labor strike.

According to Benjamin (who himself is drawing from Georges Sorel), there are two essentially different kinds of strikes. In the political strike, partisans withhold labor, with the hope that their action—which interestingly is an omission of action—will cause an employer to make certain concessions that the strikers have specified beforehand. Because it is assumed that participants are ready to resume work once certain demands have been met, the strike can be thought of as the means to a determinate end (usually some form of material gain).

By contrast, the general strike is what Benjamin describes as “pure means.” Such an action differs from the paradigm of political activity that seeks only immediately practicable goals—like wage increases, health benefits, and certain modifications to the workplace. The premise of the general strike is this: work will not resume once this or that concession is made; instead, people will show their “determination to resume only a wholly transformed work” [my italics]. In a characteristically wonderful phrase, Benjamin writes that the general strike “not so much causes as consummates.”

Likely, one can already see why, for the “occupy movement” that refuses to articulate “moderate” demands, the general strike would an apt form of resistance.

But before rushing into a consideration of the upcoming general strike that is just a day away, it is perhaps worthwhile to counterpoint Benjamin’s conception with that of Rosa Luxemburg, who cautioned that the “abstract, unhistorical view of the mass strike” would all too easily lose sight of the circumstances that made such actions possible.

When she wrote about the general strike in 1906, she had the Russian Revolution on the mind. From her point of view, the 1905 strikes marked a “new epoch in the development of the labor movement” and was the first time the idea of the mass strike—a mature form of the general strike—had been successfully realized. Here is an excerpt from her historical account of these events, which is quite astonishing if read with care:

The spring of 1903 gave the answer to the defeated strikes in Rostov and Tichoretzkaia; the whole of South Russia in May, June, and July was aflame. Baku, Tiflis, Batum, Elizavetgrad, Odessa, Kiev, Nicholaiev and Ekaterinoslav were in a general strike in the literal meaning of those words. But here again, the movement did not arise on any preconceived plan from one to another; it flowed tougher from individual points in each one from a different cause and in a different form . . . . In Tiflis the strike was begun by two thousand commercial employees who had a working day of from six o’clock in the morning to eleven at night. On the fourth of July they all left their shops and made a circuit of the two to demand from the proprietors of the shops that they close their premises. The victory was complete; the commercial employees won a working day of from eight in the morning to the in the evening, and they were immediately joined by all the factories, workshops and offices. The newspapers did not appear, and tramway traffic could not by carried on. . . In Elisavetgrad on July 4 a strike began in all the factories with purely economic demands. These were mostly conceded, and the strike ended on the 14th. Two weeks later however it broke out again. The bakers this time gave the word and they were joined by the bricklayers, the joiners, the dyers, the mill workers, and finally all factory workers. [my italics]

At the very least, the imagination should now be aroused. A six a.m. to eleven p.m. shift—utterly outrageous. One has the image, too, of the city’s bakers, rolling pins in hand, sending text messages to the bricklayers, reputed to be active tweeters, who then go on to spread word of the strike to the mill workers. Soon enough, all factory workers have their two feet in the street.

The conclusions that Luxemburg drew from her involvement in the revolution are worth repeating. For the ease of your eyes, some of these ideas are laid out in bullet form.

It is absurd to conceive of a general strike as an isolated act; it is, rather, an “indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle.”

Often, the general strike can be seen to oscillate with smaller-scale economic strikes—or what, in Benjaminian terms, would be called the political strike for economic gain. Thus, economic and political struggles seem to pass into each other and to be mutually animating.

Although planning is involved in a general strike, a general strike cannot be “planned.” Its success cannot be entirely guaranteed by conscious initiative and direction. Rather, its fruition depends largely on a degree of spontaneity.

A word on this last point: Luxemburg’s emphasis on the necessity of spontaneity should not be interpreted merely as a caricatured expression of Romantic ideology. Her insistence on acknowledging the role of accident in history is itself a critique of a theory that would suggest that history is made up of the decisions of a few. Even a most cursory survey of the events of Arab Spring, or for an example closer to home, the building occupations in California, would seem to corroborate her hypothesis.

As the above passage illustrates well, Luxemburg noticed that the most significant events of the popular movement were not orchestrated or produced artificially but were often triggered by little, accidental occurrences, which—like the first dapple of color on the canvas—are to a degree unforeseeable. Without downplaying the importance of organization, Luxemburg insists that a mass strike cannot be called at will, and that the form it takes cannot be determined in advance.

To conclude our preliminary understanding of the general strike, we can say that it is characterized by a cross-sectoral cessation of labor and animated by the conviction that what is wrong with the present state of things cannot be set straight by a finite set of “feasible” modifications; instead, some yet-to-be-determined structural transformation must take place. The general strike involves some element of spontaneity and when consummated, results in a marked disruption of the functioning of business, and therefore the city, state, nation, or world.

With Benjamin and Luxemburg as historico-philosophical touchstones, we can now begin an inquiry about the coming general strike of November 2nd.

* * *

The last general strike in the United States took place some time ago, here in Oakland in 1946. This was the same year that Gertrude Stein died, and a year following a wave of protests against the bombing of Japan. The 1946 strike was initiated by a few hundred clerks, mostly women, who were working in retail. In December, a relatively small strike prevented delivery trucks from supplying goods to two large department stores in downtown Oakland. The police exercised force to break up picket lines, and soon, several other labor organizations joined the strikers in solidarity.

More than a hundred thousand employees walked out of their jobs—sailors were among the first—and a “worker’s holiday” was declared (the force of this figure is only felt when one recalls that at the time, the total population of Oakland’s workforce was about 200,000). All stores were instructed to close, with the exception of pharmacies and food markets. Jukeboxes were set out in the streets and played tunes for free. By day two, the strikers demanded the resignation of the mayor.

That was in 1946. Since then, the practice of the general strike has been relatively dormant in America. The question must be asked, why a general strike now? Why here?

Although I am hardly qualified to supply what is necessary to answer these questions adequately— namely an analysis of the objective conditions from which this strike emerges—I can offer some thoughts about why such a strike should be supported and why, to put it simply, the general strike matters.

* * *

There are times when it seems that the chasm between theory and practice cannot be traversed, and times, like last week, when it seems that they manage to find their way to each other, all on their own. Times, that is, when the day itself seems to impose upon you questions of a ‘theoretical’ nature.

What does it mean to enclose public space in order to prohibit public space from being publicly used? This question was posed by the fences that were erected downtown, to prevent people from reclaiming a plaza that is ostensibly accessible to all.

We might also wonder (as Weber and others have), why it is that the state can lay claim to the exclusive right to the ‘legitimate’ use of force? And, given that the police do claim that their acts of physical violence are sanctioned, we might ask, from where does this sanction come?

As you have undoubtedly heard, the Oakland police raided the peaceful encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza last Tuesday—at five a.m. in the morning. Dressed in riot gear, the police destroyed tents and confiscated property, including medical supplies. Ninety-seven people were arrested. When, that evening, people gathered at the library and decided to reclaim the plaza, the police reacted with an even greater show of force. Against a crowd of unarmed civilians, they deployed rubber bullets, flash grenades, and fired not one, but six rounds of tear gas. In the fray, a projectile fired by an officer hit an Iraq War veteran, Scott Olson, resulting in a fractured skull and the impairment of his faculty of speech.

Some have argued that the protesters were forewarned that “chemical agents would be used,” that harm would come to them if they remained. But, as even the most rudimentary playground wisdom will attest, announcing one’s intention to strike out at another does not mean that doing so is okay.
The evening following the confrontation with police, over three thousand people congregated for a general assembly, during which the general strike was first proposed.

In this skeletal recapitulation of a now-familiar narrative, I want to call attention to the strange temporal dynamics at work in the local enforcement of law. The occupation of Oakland began on October 10th; an eviction notice was not issued until the 20th. On the tenth, the encampment was supported by the city; ten days later it was condemned. What was, at one point on Tuesday, recognized as a peaceful demonstration, by nightfall was declared an “unlawful assembly.” What should be evident, here, is that something awry is happening to the separation between law and its enforcement. That the very same act that is initially assessed not to be in violation of the law can be later, without any structural transformation of the act, be persecuted as an illegality, suggests that the law enforcement is not merely preserving the law given by the people, but that it is actually attempting to instate the law. This act of law-making by law enforcement does not derive its power from the people, but forcefully institutes law primarily by means of the threat of violence. This would seem a clear violation of democratic principles.

On occasion, concrete experience can bring unprecedented clarity to abstract contradictions. When, on Tuesday night, a police sergeant announced that he was “declaring this to be an unlawful assembly in the name of the people of California,” one woman in the crowd retorted, with some fervor, We are the people of California. Apart from the fact that such a comment reveals a sense of humor under duress that I personally find charming, the incident did make palpable the incongruity between a state that acts in “the name of people” and the people themselves.

A consequence of recent events is that for many Bay Area residents, this contradiction, which one might readily acknowledge as a fact, has lately been felt, heard, and seen. The prevalence of gas masks, a somewhat recent fashion trend, testifies visually to felt experience. Recalling Luxemburg’s reflections earlier discussed, these October events, which include developments in the occupation of Wall Street, might be thought of as the relatively small occurrences that flow “rapidly to a raging sea.”

The recent occupation of Oakland emerges, too, from a backdrop of various unresolved local and statewide issues that were exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2008 and surfaced acutely in the past year—the gang injunctions that impose curfews in designated areas populated mostly by ethnic minorities, the closure of state parks and public libraries, the rise of California’s unemployment rate to over 12%, the shooting of Oscar Grant by the BART police, to name a few. Occupy Oakland also speaks to those state-level problems that have been percolating for decades. Although it is only one of numerous causes, many single out Proposition 13 (1978), which limits property taxes, as a significant factor that contributed to the unnecessary inflation of the state budget deficit, and the resultant enervation of public services, including California’s state education system.

* * *

From its inception, Occupy Oakland conceived of itself as a response to its local history of resistance, as well as to the occupation underway on the east coast. In part because it has decidedly formed itself as part of a national movement, many of the reasons to support the Oakland general strike coincide with arguments in favor of the occupation of Wall Street.

I will not rehearse the many motives that have now become buzzwords for the movement (i.e., “corporate greed”; the 99%). I will, however, suggest a few other, perhaps less familiar considerations, regarding these nationwide efforts.

1) To deny the legitimacy of a movement on the grounds that it does not make (practicable) demands is to deny political praxis the right to theoretical reflection.
Such a view restricts politics to the smaller realm of practical activity, then falsely asserts their coincidence. Although the occupy movement is often ridiculed for being directionless, it would seem even more absurd to insist that people are entitled to make feasible demands, yet denied any say over what constitutes feasibility. Popular politics should be permitted devote itself to something that is not strictly immediately practical, but would actually be able to determine what the limitations of practical activity are (an assessment of aims, means, method).

It also might be added that, as in the moment of articulation, something is lost in the very act of definition. Something is lost when the constitutive power of people is constituted in discursive prescriptions and a set of norms. The point is perhaps most easily made by appealing to that experience, which you no doubt have had, in which something is felt yet remains unspoken. That moment of bringing to words what had before only existed, spread out like a mist, does confer upon something a new reality but also robs it of what it might have been.

2) The reaction of the state suggests an unfortunate predicament: although the state, in the name of austerity, is increasingly reluctant to provide for the welfare of citizens, it also prohibits citizens from providing for the welfare of one another, including those people who are not recognized as citizens.

When the Occupy Oakland encampment was first being set up, its priorities were telling. Medics and medical supplies were among the first things to be secured. Along with that, the camp ensured the provision of food, a library, a free school, a source of sustainable energy (a stationary bike powered a generator), a garden—and eventually daily classes in yoga and meditation.

Healthcare, education, sustenance, energy, and well-being. There is a sense that these things must not be provided for free. In Austin, occupiers were arrested for criminal trespassing (!) when they set up a food table in front of the City Hall. In Zucotti Park, firefighters confiscated gas canisters and generators that powered electronic devices and kept people warm. In more distant history, the FBI denounced as “communist” the Black Panthers’ social program that served free breakfast to children.

3) From the second point, we might arrive at a third, namely the rejection of the idea that what is extra-legal is necessarily illegal. The occupy movement, among other things, is attempting to make possible a politics that is not subjected to the mill of legal process. If the formation and regulation of law is often influenced by private interests, it would make sense for people to try to form a political process outside of a legal system that no longer reflects popular sovereignty.

4) To support the general strike would indicate support for labor rights more generally, which, in the past year especially, have been diminished in the United States. Labor rights, one can recall, are things that protect people who do not have any other resources to ensure their livelihood, apart for their own work and time.

Admittedly, I suffer from a feeling of enthusiasm that some noses might snub as naiveté. And though I am willing to admit the possibility that the strong impression made on me could have to do in part, with historical myopia, I do think something remarkable is happening here, and as a result, that remarkable things are happening elsewhere.

The immediate and attentive international response to local events is noteworthy. Within a day of the OPD’s show of police brutality, activists in Egypt announced their solidarity with California and organized a march on Tahrir square, issuing a statement that “Oakland and Tahrir are one hand.” New York responded quickly, too, with donations and a solidarity protest. Yesterday, the Philippine Airlines Employee’s Association issued a statement of support and are now planning to occupy airports in Cebu and Manila as a sign that they stand “shoulder to shoulder with the Occupy Oakland Protesters.”

A chant that has recently grown popular draws together two places with a copula: “Oakland is Tahrir”; “Oakland is Greece”; “Oakland is New York”; “Oakland is Denver.” Of course one should take careful note of where comparisons illuminate and where they only obfuscate important differences. The assertion of an unequivocal parallelism between Egypt and Oakland fails almost instantly in that there is an unmistakable difference between the occupations here and the struggle against dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. That said, such international alignments do draw attention to some shared economic conditions—and speak to the notion that the most pressing problems extend well beyond the borders of the nation-state and have much to do with the workings of global finance and uneven economic development across the world.

So then, we might say that the copula keeps distinct what it draws together.

* * *

Among the several reasons for supporting the general strike that we have considered, I have left out the one that, as the addressee of this letter, may hit home most closely—that is, the insistence on the importance of accessible education.

Although the defense of public education may seem a remote or peripheral concern of the occupy movement, the connection between the two is indisputable. There is a financial pipeline that travels from public universities directly to Wall Street, and what is trafficked through this pipeline is not anything positive—rather it is debt. This year, student debt hit the trillion-dollar mark, surpassing credit card debt in magnitude. As Bob Meister has put it, student loans are one of the last legal forms of subprime lending—the practice of lending money to people, knowing that it is unlikely that they will be able to pay it back. Now that debt has been securitized—can be sold as an asset—it has become possible, on a large scale to convert debt (future labor) into a source of profit.

Nietzsche reminds us that the relationship between creditor and debtor depends on the wager of the body as collateral. The creditor lends what the borrower does not have. As a guarantee of repayment, the debtor agrees that in the event of default, the lender can inflict harm on the body as method of compensation. Although the workings of this principle of exchange have become abstract, and even spectral—at root, the economy still operates in quite the same fashion. Those who lack resources are forced to take out loans in order to provide for basic needs, like education, all while the cost of these basic needs becomes increasingly prohibitive; as a result of this unwise, but necessary borrowing, bodies are put on the line (the working body that can never seem to catch up to the interest that it owes; the sleeping body that is displaced from its shelter).

In response to speculative finance’s guise of being wholly immaterial, the form of political action called for by the general strike—the congregation of bodies—gives corporeal expression to what would otherwise remain abstract and therefore somewhat remote.

There is much else to say regarding how public education has played the double role of being a great casualty of privatization as well as its very conduit. One could point to the questionable investment policies of the UC Regents; the increasing ratio of managerial to faculty positions in the university; the still-escalating cost of student fees; the UC’s borrowing of money from banks and its pledge to raise tuition as a means of keeping its bond rating high; the liquidation of minority departments to cut expenses; the layoffs and furloughs imposed in the name of a fiscal emergency; the closure of libraries and schools; the rise of the for-profit education sector; the influence of the private sector on scholarly research; the uneven accessibility of education that seems to follow closely racial lines.

But perhaps all this talk is for another day.

Since its announcement, the general strike has been endorsed by the UAW, the union that represents Berkeley staff and graduate students. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers has also invited members to participate. And, as of yesterday, the Oakland Teachers Association endorsed the strike, after the board came to a unanimous vote.

* * *

The Plan

The Oakland general strike was called for on Wednesday, October 26, during the general assembly that convened at seven o’clock in the evening. When I say that a strike was called, what I mean is that the strike was discussed and voted upon by the people who attended, and that anyone was welcome to attend.

The official proposal calls for the city to be shut down; encourages workers not to attend work and students to walk out of school. The event is called a general strike and a mass day of action so that organizations that would otherwise be penalized for officially endorsing a strike can lend their support.

Protests will be held at Oscar Grant Plaza (14th and Broadway) at nine, noon, and at five. They have opted to schedule multiple mass convergences so that those who cannot leave the workplace can participate in the evening.

The evening plan, as I understand it, is to march south from the plaza to the Port of Oakland and to arrive before the change of shifts that will take place at seven o’clock. They plan to shut down the port, which happens to the fifth-busiest container port in the country. This is hardly an impossible task. In 2008, union workers and protesters who opposed the Iraq war successfully shut down much of Oakland’s port. More recently, ten ports in the East Bay were shut down by workers, who were demonstrating in solidarity with Wisconsin and Ohio.

In Berkeley, people will congregate at 11 a.m. at Sproul Plaza. The hope is to gather at least a couple hundred people so that a march to Oakland, through the streets, will be possible. There will be another convergence at four o’clock in the afternoon, but it seems that the earlier meeting may be the better option.

* * *

Among the most trenchant objections to participating in the strike is that it would seem imprudent to insist on the priority of education by encouraging students and teachers to abandon their schools. Though the point is well taken, it does seem to reveal some short-sightedness in that the worry about missing one day of school is incommensurate with the very possible loss of the whole prospect of affordable education.

And, of course, there is also that old objection about the inefficacy of protest, the possibility that the lion’s roar may turn into little more than the paper tiger’s whimper. To the repeated question, “What will a strike actually do?” we might recall Benjamin’s analysis, which suggests that such a question fails to understand something fundamental about the general strike. In addition, we could also heed the experiential wisdom of Luxemburg, who writes, “After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth.”

So yes, there is a real possibility that your hours ultimately may be of little consequence. That said, it does seem that to live by entangling heart and mind only with those things that are sure successes would guarantee little more than the very atrophy of life. And though I’m perfectly aware of how odd and rather perverse it is to close with the words of Wordsworth, I ventriloquize him in order to issue a different sort of call:
“Up, up! My friend and quit your books!”


Michelle Ty

*My apologies for being unable to furnish proper citations under the pressure of time. References will gladly be provided upon request.

With the support of:

Jane Gregory, English
Jocelyn Saidenberg, Comparative Literature
Suzanne Herrera Li Puma, Rhetoric
Aaron Bady, English
Munira Lokhandwala, Film and Media Studies
PJ Nadal, Rhetoric
Gina Patnaik, English
Lynn Xu, Comparative Literature
Lili Loofbourow, English
Alexandria Wright, Rhetoric
Gabriel Page, Comparative Literature
Megan O’Connor, English
Kathryn Crim, Comparative Literature
Irene Yoon, English
Althea Wasow, Film and Media Studies
Layla Forest-White, Comparative Literature
David Vandeloo, English
Carli Cutchin, Comparative Literature
Samia Rahimtoola, English
Amanda Armstrong, Rhetoric

And, our beloved faculty member,
Lyn Hejinian, English

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