Some of you may know that I used to be a professional horse trainer and veterinary technician before I turned to history. It left me with a deep interest in how animals fit into a socialist society, and how we transform human-animal relations. Here’s a letter I wrote in Socialist Worker outlining a possible approach to that question. It’s a dialogue I hope to continue.

I APPRECIATED the dialogue that Jon Hochschartner began in his letter (“Socialists and animal liberation”). However, I felt that because of his approach, he fell short of what he was trying to accomplish–to reframe how socialists approach the questions of “animal liberation”–because the argument was taken from the point of consumption (attitudes toward veganism and vegetarianism) rather than the social relations that produce consumption.

Fundamentally, it makes no sense to talk about “animal liberation”–if that’s the term we want to use, I’m still on the fence about it, but will continue to use it for clarity of debate–without considering the relationship between humans and animals as a dynamic one, rooted in the social relations of human society. It’s not only that humans ruthlessly exploit animals–we do–but that changing the social relationship we have with animals, particularly domesticated species, would require a similar transformation of human society.

Like all aspects of our society, the consumption of animal products and the way they are produced are based in these relations. They are the product of such relations, and not themselves the cause of “animal exploitation.”

This is why it’s not just as simple as “stop eating meat.” What happens then to the legions of animals bred and raised–mostly in bad conditions, but some in quite good conditions–specifically for that purpose? While capitalism has morphed the ecological relationships of husbandry to something unrecognizable, the reality is that domesticated animals like chicken and cattle perform other important functions besides the production of meat, eggs and milk. Chicken litter is a central fertilizer used by poor farmers throughout the Appalachian mountains. Cattle play an important role in field rotation.

The question of animals and socialism demonstrates why eco-socialism is so important: We can’t view human societies or practices as separate from the ecosystem it operates in. This isn’t to defend mass slaughter or the disgusting treatment of many animals raised for meat, milk or eggs, to which I am opposed. But to pretend those relationships could be quickly undone misunderstands the role of domesticated animals in the environment. We don’t just need to abolish animal exploitation as it is, we need to reconfigure our social relationship with animals in a way that is more mutually beneficial.

This kind of materialist approach that historicizes animal-human relationships allows us to extend our analysis of animal questions beyond the slaughterhouse, to animal-human relationships that involve neither slaughter nor appropriation: pets and companions, animals and humans who share common spaces. Even under capitalism, such relationships are, on the whole, mutually beneficial.

Obvious problems exist: abuse, mass extermination in shelters, etc. It would be wrong, however, to argue that our relationships with pets, companion animals, etc., are inherently exploitative or dominating. In our social system, they can be and too often are. Yet humans, domesticated animals and non-domesticated animals with which we share close quarters have evolved to live together. The current organization of human society under capitalism makes it impossible for this mutually beneficial relationship to realize its full potential.

For those of us who have been fortunate to spend significant time working with animals, we have glimpsed the possibilities of what this relationship can be. We know that our relationships with animals improve us as people.

As socialists, we can envision a society where these moments of possibility are broadly accessible. As socialists, we should talk about our social relationships to animals, rather than our consumptive relationship to animal products. This approach is more nuanced, can explain more about the world, and refrains from the moralism that, while not universal, is still far too common among vegan/vegetarian activists.

As socialists, our job is to advance the struggle of the working class. At the end of the day, making personal choices about whether to consume animal products doesn’t offer a way forward for our class as a whole, but demanding that companies like Tyson Chicken treat its producers (mostly poor, Appalachian farmers) better and stop warehouse farming that is destructive to the environment, torturing to the chickens, a hazard for workers, and dangerous for the people who eat the product, offers a way for the working class to struggle together, and to keep the conditions of animals embedded in our wider vision of a different kind of society.

From Walmart to Wendy’s: New Low-wage Workers Struggles

Here is the audio of the presentation I gave with Sarah Jaffe at Socialism 2013 (I’m the first speaker; she is the second).  I’ll be posting a transcript with additional material from the wrap-up not included in the online audio, provided by wearemany.org.

WeAreMany.org also has posted more than 90 talks from Socialism 2013, where there were tons of amazing talks.  Some of my favorites:

Marxism and Women’s Liberation

Lise Vogel and Social Reproduction Theory

Black Feminism and Intersectionality

Women, Work, and Austerity Today

The Political Economy of Violence Against Women

Poverty Pulls the Trigger: The Roots of Urban Violence

The Fight Against Transgender Oppression

Austerity USA: The Working Class Today

Link  —  Posted: July 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Got a low wage worker myth you need busted, not addressed below?  Leave it in a comment, and I’ll take it up in second installment of LOW WAGE MYTHBUSTING.

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The struggles of low-wage workers have gotten increasing amounts of attention after thousands of us walked off the job earlier this year to demand a living wage and better working conditions.  It’s also prompted a lot of folks, from pundits down to internet trolls, to spout a whole lot of nonsense like “Do low-wage workers really deserve $15 an hour?”–“They need to get some education.”–“If companies paid low-wage workers just a tiny bit more money, they’d have to fire everyone else.”–“Raising minimum wage would tank the economy.”

All of those are ridiculous, but I must say, I find the last one particularly striking.  I have news for you, folks.  The economy is already tanked.  Guess who did that?  Banks.  Guess who didn’t do that?  Minimum wage workers.

As easy as it would be to reply to these with a level of snark I usually reserve for the kind of people who think support Ron Paul is edgy and marginally progressive (hint: no, it’s just reactionary), I’m actually going to take the time, just this once, to dispel all the ridiculous lies, myths, and fanciful imaginings I hear about low-wage workers like myself all the time.  And then, instead of being forced to write long responses to ignorant people who feel the need to tell me that I’m stupid and unskilled enough to tank the economy single-handedly, I’m going to link them back to this post.  Because I’ve had it.  Low-wage workers are here.  We’re real people, and we’re fighting back against some really fucking shitty working conditions, and we’re moving forward, so join in, or get out of the way.

—–

Myth #1: Low-wage workers are mostly teenagers, college students with summer jobs, or people who are only supplementing a second income.

Each of these statements is categorically false.  35 million workers in the US make less than $10.55/hour.  That’s 26% of the total workforce.  57.4% of low-wage workers are over 30.  Only 16.6% of minimum wage workers are teenagers.  While low-wage jobs are known for their high rate of turnover, that rate has declined significantly since the beginning of the recession five years ago.  And finally, 89% of people with low-wage retail jobs contribute at least 50% of their family budget.

The statistics disprove the myth, but I think it’s important to also confront the logic behind it, which is that it’s morally and economically acceptable to ruthlessly exploit some people and not others.  It’s also a perspective that fails to take into account the broader social crisis being experienced by the American working class (and workers worldwide).

So our response to this myth must be two-sided.  It’s not enough to say that it’s factually incorrect (which it is) because it doesn’t also confront the idea that working teenagers, college students, and other young workers also deserve a living wage, a stable job, and good working conditions.

The old labor battle cry, “An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a relic from ages past.  It must be a central principle to union organizing and movement building today.  The ability of the ruling class to keep such a large percentage of the working class in poverty makes it easier for them to justify austerity for all workers, easier for them to attack unionized industries.

Myth #2:  Low-wage workers could get better jobs through education.

They like to claim that education is a ticket out of poverty.  It’s a nice dream: a few years of hard work and BOOM!  You’ll have a job that pays the bills, doesn’t involve being degraded on a daily basis, and allows you to have holidays off (nope, we don’t get holidays off).  It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, it’s not true.

These days, instead of being a ticket out of poverty, education is more like a guarantee that you will remain in poverty.

The reality is, after five years of crisis, a supposed “recovery” that has only managed to recover a fraction of the jobs lost, and which has disproportionately replaced better-paying jobs with low-wage jobs.  Workplaces like Whole Foods–which despite some very snazzy PR, still pays its employees poverty wages–employ the most workers with advanced degrees in the grocery business.

More and more workers go into (often massive) student debt to receive an education, only to end up working the same jobs they would have been working otherwise–jobs which do not require college education.  Or high school education for that matter.  Education is not a ticket out of poverty, but a gamble where the odds are heavily stacked against you.

And, perhaps most importantly, we need to fight to make access to a living wage job a right.  As lowwagework.org noted:

Employers will hire nearly twice as many food-service workers as software engineers, hire as many cashiers as they do computer-support specialists and hire more than twice the number of customer-service representatives as they do computer systems analysts. The reskilling approach will do little to improve the lives of most workers in these low-wage jobs, jobs that will continue to grow as a proportion of our economy. What these workers need is to be adequately rewarded for the skills they already possess.

Regardless of education level, ability, etc., no one deserves to live in poverty.  This means we need to demand a living wage for every job–part or full time–and a social wage that can care for people who are unable to work.  Which brings me to Myth #3.

Myth #3: Raising the Minimum Wage/Providing Living Wages Would Tank the Economy, or $15 an hour isn’t realistic.

$15 an hour is realistic, and it would not tank the economy.  I did some math, and the store I work at could afford to pay us $30/hour and still be making more than $10,000 in profit each day.  Another store I investigated could pay its employees over $50 and maintain a profit margin.

And once again, I would like to point out that workers didn’t tank the economy five years ago.  Banks did.

The statistics in #1 reflect the restructuring of work that has been the product of forty years of neoliberalization.  Fast food workers and retail workers are a part of these statistics, but the realms of low-wage work now extend far beyond these industries, even reaching into the strongholds of union power through the increasing use of two-tier pay schemes like those in auto and trucking.  This myth fails to understand that work, as a whole, is being restructured so wages are lower overall.  Low-wage work is not something that remains segregated to a few industries or a few kinds of work.  There is nothing inherently low-wage about the kind of work we do.  Wages are the result of social forces, not some mystical and static economic reality, but confronting these trends is going to require standing up to neoliberal business and policy trends, which are part of a broader trend of capitalism.

Myth #4: Low-wage workers are unskilled, and that justifies paying them poverty wages.

It starts with an anecdote.  A couple of weeks ago, I went with my union to protest the firing of Shakita Moore, a Jason’s Deli worker who faced racism, sexual harassment and physical threats and was fired for speaking out.  After being screamed at by management and police for daring to interrupt their busy lunch rush, one of the organizers remarked to me, “wow, you are really good at holding your ground when people are up in your face.”

Well, yeah.  I’m a cashier.  That’s pretty much what I do for a living.  It’s a skill I’ve cultivated to help me better at my job.  Scream in my face, and I can still smile and tell you to have a good day when my natural reaction would be to punch you.

Besides all the more “tangible” parts of our jobs–putting out product, handling huge amounts of cash, running computer programs to process electronic funds transfers, manipulating those programs to make our customers experiences smooth, we do something far less tangible: emotional labor.  Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe has been doing some excellent reporting on the nature and experience of emotional labor.  I highly recommend her work.

Again, within this myth lies another central problem: the nebulous and socially constructed nature of skill.  As Jaffe has noted, emotional labor has traditionally been considered to fall outside the realm of skilled work because it has been naturalized as “women’s work,” thus justifying lower rates of pay.  But if we think historically, similar arguments were made towards the organization of industrial workers a century ago.  Artisans claimed that because they did not conceive and execute a project in entirety, that these workers were unskilled.  Today, assembly line jobs in auto plants are considered skilled.  Again, there’s nothing inherently skilled or unskilled in the work; what matters is how “skill” is socially constructed and valued.

In a society that produces plenty, there is no reason for some people to not have enough.

As the gaps in wealth and income continue to grow, capitalist rags like The Economist run stories that argue, “Does inequality really need to be tackled? It is also true that some measure of inequality is good for an economy. It sharpens incentives to work hard and take risks; it rewards the talented innovators who drive economic progress.”  Ugh.  Puke.

Increasingly, as low-wage workers have begun to take to the streets, public opinion has begun to shift.  New York City became the latest city to mandate that workers be given sick days.  And the victories will continue to rack up as long as workers continue to build power in their workplaces.

Myth #5: Low-wage workers cannot be organized.

Clearly, we can be.

 

Got a low wage worker myth you need busted?  Leave it in a comment, and I’ll take it up in second installment of LOW WAGE MYTHBUSTING.

Reuters – Mike Stone

 

As events in Boston have spiraled toward martial law throughout the week after bombings at the Marathon on Monday, another deadly explosion rocked a town in Texas. A chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Company, with the strength of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, has killed at least 14 people, but the number may more than double, as the search of the blast zone continues and many people remain unaccounted for.

In the context of the week’s events, Reuters tried to link the explosion with a possible terrorist attack, writing on Thursday, “While authorities stressed the Texas explosion could be an accident, it happened within days of the deadly Boston marathon bombings and the discovery of poisonous packages sent to President Barack Obama and a Republican senator – both incidents that have revived memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks.”

But a deadly industrial accident is far more likely, and quickly information emerged about a long record of negligence by plant management, safety violations, and OSHA non-compliance. Mike Elk, a reporter for In These Times, explained why the plant may not have been inspected by OHSA since 1985—more than 25 years—“that’s not uncommon. This is a non-union facility. The way  OSHA  typically works, and as well as  EPA, is that they get a call from a worker, and then inspectors show up, and they inspect the plant, and they find problems. When you have a non-union workforce, like you have in this plant, that’s a lot less likely, since many folks are scared of losing their jobs.” A familiar narrative is emerging: workers’ lives (and, in this case, the lives of first responders and community members) sacrificed for the sake of profit. And it also reveals a second side to the story: the importance of unions in protecting workers’ lives.

How common are industrial accidents and why do they happen?

Industrial accidents of varying magnitude occur every day. In the last available numbers from 2010, 4,690 workers—that’s 13 workers every day—died on the job in the United States. The AFL-CIO estimates another 50,000 died from occupational diseases. And these numbers don’t even begin to address workplace injuries, which often leave workers permanently disabled.

Some of the more severe accidents enter the public view. The same day as the West Fertilizer explosion, which has forced evacuation of the entire town, a fire at an oil refinery in Beaumont, Texas injured five workers. In 2010, there were four major industrial accidents: the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 miners—the biggest mining accident since the Mannington explosion that killed 78 miners 40 years before; the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers (not to mention causing one of the largest environmental catastrophes in history); a Connecticut power plant explosion killed five; and a refinery explosion in Washington state killed 7 workers. In 2008, an explosion at a Georgia sugar refinery killed thirteen.

Patterns of industrial accidents also reflect other inequalities in our society. Latino workers remain at increased risks for on-the-job death, with a fatal accident rate of 3.9 per 100,000 (compared to 3.6 per 100,000 for the American workforce as a whole), and immigrant Latino workers make up more than 62% of Latino worker deaths. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Latino worker deaths is the trend: since 1992, fatalities among Latino workers have increased 33%, while overall workplace death has declined by almost 25%.

Industrial accidents aren’t a necessary part of work, although they have come to appear natural. Largely, workplace accidents can be prevented. The most common cause of death in the workplace is traffic accidents—as drivers are pressed to make mileage requirements, or make a delivery deadline, disregard traffic laws or fall asleep at the wheel. Accidents also occur when the expected speed of work is increased, leaving less time for safety checks, or when companies refuse to replace or maintain equipment, which malfunctions and then causes an accident. Some industries, like mining and chemical production place workers into volatile situations with unstable gases and materials.

Take, for example, coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, known as black lung, an debilitating respiratory disease that makes it difficult for the lungs to process oxygen. In the 1970s, as American coal operators refused to admit that black lung was in any way related to working in the mines and affected miners continued to die as even more developed the condition, Appalachian doctors noted that in Australia, where workers had more protections, the problem of black lung had almost been completely eliminated through the introduction of proper safety masks for underground work.

And the explosion at Massey energy needn’t have happened either. In the year before the blast alone, Massey was fined $382,000 for “repeated unrepentant violations” of health and safety requirements, including improper ventilation levels, lacking equipment plans, and poor implementation of safety procedure. In the month before the explosion, the company received 57 safety citations, including 2 the day before. From 2005-2010, the mine had committed a staggering 1,342 safety violations.

These tales echo in West, Texas. We now know that West Fertilizer violated safety regulations when it did not disclose its storage of 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” In addition, the company had received citations for safety violations after not receiving permits for equipment updates and inspections. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had repeatedly violated the company for deficiencies in its risk-management program. The regulatory agency for pipelines and hazmat transport had recently fined the company $10,000 “for failings that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without adequate security,” but the company had the fine reduced to $5,250 by agreeing to take corrective action.

But why don’t the companies avoid fines? Why don’t they preemptively take action to ensure worker safety?

First, for multi-million and multi-billion dollar corporations, these fines are a pittance. A slap on the wrist. Often times, it is cheaper to pay the fine, even to pay fines repeatedly, than it is to fix the problem. Even in cases of worker fatality, fines are too low to deter violation. On average, in 2010, companies paid only a $7,900 fine in cases of on-the-job fatalities.

Companies would rather risk worker death than slow production and see a fall in profits. As a miner in Harlan County, USA recalls, the boss “can hire another man. [You] got to buy a mule.” And, according to US law, in a precedent dating back the 1842 case of Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corp., an employer cannot be held responsible for workplace accidents, death, or injury unless willful neglect on the part of the employer can be “proven.” As the AFL-CIO “Death on the Job” report notes:

Criminal penalties under the OSHA law are weak. They are limited to cases in which a willful violation results in a worker death and are misdemeanors. Since 1970, only 84 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 89 months in jail. During this time there were more than 370,000 worker deaths. By comparison, in [Fiscal Year] 2011 there were 371 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 249 defendants charged, resulting in 89.5 years of jail time and $35 million in penalties—more cases, fines, and jail time in one year than during OSHA’s entire history.

The result? Employers pursue profits—which they are required to do; it’s the business of capitalism to be profitable—at whatever cost necessary. If workers suffer declines in living standards, that’s the market. If a worker loses an arm during an assembly line speed-up, she was careless. If a worker dies in the tobacco fields, they can rarely be held accountable in any way that meaningfully provides impetus for improved treatment. The pattern emerges clearly across time, geography (think about textile fires in Bangladesh, for example), and industry.

Of course, this pattern has been interrupted from time to time. Working conditions used to be much, much worse. (I’m sure you believe me, but if you don’t, check out Frederick Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.) Workers and their collective power, the union, have struggled and won many gains that not only save worker’s lives, but make life as a working-class person more tolerable. Eight hour work days (though not for long, if GOP legislators have their way—let’s not let them), weekends, sick days (for you lucky bastards who still have them), safety equipment and procedures, federal oversight agencies (which, calculating by the decrease in worker death rates since the creation of OSHA in 1970, have saved the lives of more than 451,000 workers).

But as neoliberalism has ravaged working class gains and busted union after union, safety measures were among the targets, causing serious erosion in protections and enforcement as regulation of industry was scaled back in the name of development and oversight agencies like OSHA saw their budgets—already meager—reduced. With only 2,178 inspectors for more than 8 million workplaces, OSHA can inspect workplaces once every 131 years.

Working under these conditions is a kind of terrorism: the terrorism of capital

I don’t mean this flippantly. Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. That’s not to say capitalists meet each Thursday to plan attacks on the workers: they don’t need to do that. The logic of the system, encapsulated in the constant pursuit of expansion and profit, does that quite well, and the capitalists reap the benefits for themselves. But when you are forced to work under the constant threat of death each day, with days of tense quiet punctuated with explosions, cave ins, melt downs, and mechanical failures that kill thousands of workers each year in the US alone, and you are subjected to this terror so that one class—a small minority of the world’s population—can maintain economic, political, and social power, that’s terrorism.

Mining folk music shows how deeply this terror has pervaded our culture. “Oh I dreamed that the mines was all raging with fire, the miners all fought for their lives.” – “There’s a man in a big house way up on a hill, far far from the shack where the poor miner dwells, he’s got plenty of money, lord everything’s fine. He has forgotten the Mannington Mine…where 78 good men so uselessly died.” – “Shut up in the mines of the coal creek, we know that we must die” – “That there’s a blue mark left by the coal, little more and I’d have been dead.”

And then, if we step back to see the ecological crisis we find ourselves in, we might wonder why we still send workers thousands of feet underground, in small potentially deadly tunnels to retrieve coal? Or why do we engage in a dangerous and destructive drilling process to extract oil? Most often, media and investigative sources have then blamed workers for the accident, saying that proper safety procedures weren’t followed, workers were careless, etc. Little is ever said of the pressure placed on workers by management to work faster, to cut corners to cut costs.

Those are not empty threats. As the size of the industrial workforce has been diminished since the 1970s, the threat of layoffs and the consequent long-term unemployment are too real, and accompanied by the step-by-step dismantling of the already too small welfare system for working and poor people. The impetus to work for wages under capitalism is driven by our basic needs. If you are desperate, you will take any work you can find, even if it’s deadly, like a fertilizer factory (especially a non-union one), even if it’s emotionally degrading, like working in customer service. You will take any job because the alternative is to starve.

The power of workers

But because of our central role in society, workers have the power to change this state of affairs with our collective power. Through our unions, through social movements, we can win vital reforms that will save the lives of workers now. That will demand accountability from companies like West Fertilizer, Massey Energy, and BP. That will fight the racism that pervades our society. But because of our central role in production, workers can also fight for an entirely different kind of society—a socialist society based on human need instead of profit. “Accidents” like the West Fertilizer explosion are particularly egregious offenses of a system that is economically disastrous for workers, devastating for the ecosystem, murderously expansive and morally defunct. Together, we can build and fight for that alternative, for a different future, and a different world.

Femen’s latest antics are completely abhorrent, completely denying the humanity and agency of Muslim and Arab women, as well as parroting the imperialist argument that women’s oppression is somehow rooted in Islam, or in the hijab, instead of the social relations of our globalized capitalist society.  They are not brandishing feminism, but the sword of empire, all the while ignoring the ways states in the West have criminalized Muslim women through policing their dress and the hate crimes that have resulted from the institutionalization of Islamophobia.  These ideas are outright reactionary, and no feminist should accept them.  Imperialism and racism have nothing to do with feminism.  End of story.

It’s not about clothing. 

The constant debates in Western media about the clothing of Muslim women act as the mouthpiece of a racist empire, but a surprising number of people who should know better continue to engage in this debate as though it were actually legitimate.  Debates around women’s oppression that fixate on the question of clothing–or non-clothing–completely miss the point.  Nothing a woman wears–or does not wear–is the source of her oppression.  Just like wearing a mini-skirt is not asking to be raped, covering your head with a hijab is not submission to male domination.  There is nothing inherently oppressive about any piece of clothing.  Oppression is denying women access to social services because of their religious beliefs.

And, of course, what always goes unsaid is how oppressed women are world-wide, how women are assaulted no matter what they wear, or how we are dominated through violence, low wages, and unequal treatment in law.

It’s important to remember that clothing, like everything else in our world, emerges in a specific historical context.  Every piece of clothing can take on myriad social and cultural meanings, and these meanings can change person to person, day to day.  Women’s oppression, on the other hand, can be empirically documented, can be traced back to social structures constantly reinforced by social practice.  The oppression is not rooted in the clothing, but the social structure from which it emerges.  Clothing is a red herring, and if that is the focus of critique, the structural problems will never be addressed.  Furthermore, it does not matter why it is done, policing women’s dress is oppressive itself.

Feminist Tactics

But the (rightful) outrage around Femen’s Islamophobic response to right-wing attacks on one its Tunisian members has also prompted a larger debate among feminists and women’s rights activists about tactics for social change.  Is nudity an effective tactic for feminist organizing?

Sara Salem, a staff writer at Muftah.org, wrote a piece last week taking up the question.  She argued:

This fresh debate about Femen’s activities brings up several persistent issues. Femen is a group that advocates against various forms of patriarchy most notably by holding topless protests…My critique is not generally against the use of nudity as a tool of protest, which is a decision best left to individual activists. Rather, I see a problem with co-operation between feminist activists from the Middle East and Femen, an organization with a problematic viewpoint on the region. It also strikes me that, if the aim of specific tactics is to work toward societal change, these actions would be more effective if modified to fit the given context.

The reaction from hard-line Islamists is both troubling and hardly surprising, and is yet another demonstration of their lack of depth in dealing with gender issues, as well as their extremely problematic views on gender equality and women’s rights. Regardless of whether one agrees with Amina’s actions or her alliance with Femen, it is important and necessary to stand behind her against these. Indeed the solidarity of many Arab feminists has been heart-warming, despite their differences in ideological orientation.

Media coverage on Amina’s story has, however, left much to be desired. There has been little discussion of the issues facing Tunisian women, and much sensationalization, either through a focus on the “evils of feminism” from a hard-line Islamist perspective, or the “evils of Islamic/Arab societies” from the perspective of mainstream media. In this discursive battle, nuance is lost, the actual material realities of Tunisian women are ignored, and feminist activism that has been taking place in Tunisia for decades is erased.

Another interesting debate—albeit one happening mainly within feminist circles—revolves around the question of tactics. If certain actions are intended to enact social change, then to what extent can Femen’s topless protests be effective in societies where such acts will simply be rejected outright? On the other hand, should feminists allow societal norms to dictate its actions, or does this defy the point of feminist activism?  These are touchy questions. No doubt many feminists will be angered by the suggestion that certain tactics should be avoided. But to what extent can we expect grassroots change if actions that alienate the majority of the population are employed time and time again?

I am inclined to agree with her general conclusion, but from a different perspective.

I defend and will always defend the right of woman (or any person) to wear or not wear whatever they like, at/as protest or otherwise.  However, as someone who wants to build a movement for women’s liberation that is able to challenge sexism’s power in a real way, and create meaningful, broad, and permanent social change, and as someone who wants to see a socialist revolution, one that liberates all oppressed people, I do not think nudity-as-tactic will achieve these ends.

Why?

Even in cases where is not intended to, or does not, shock the viewer into paying attention, nudity remains ineffective as a tactic for movements because it is highly individualistic. In other words, individuals can go nude together, but nudity cannot be collectivized in the way other forms of action, work, and community can be (such as the anti-street harassment organizations in Egypt that Salem cites). Nudity makes a statement instead of building a movement, and hence, has the tendency to be static, and undynamic. And I think if we are going to challenge sexism in a way that actually presents a question of power, we need a broad, collective, dynamic social movement, not individual acts that are less directed toward shifting social consciousness.

The Slutwalks in 2011 merged the collective social movement with public nudity in an interesting way. There was, at least at the one I attended, an element of “provocation” but also featured two key aspects that prevented Slutwalk from becoming an event of individual expression and maintained its social aspect.

While some women decided to wear lingerie, or nothing at all, the nudity was not protest in itself, but rather a way to enhance the delivery of the demand–that it is unacceptable to blame women for assault or to slut-shame them, no matter what we are wearing or not wearing. It was also made clear that liberation was not bound up in the clothing or lack of clothing.  Liberation had nothing to do with what women wear, but in the ability of a movement to end sexual violence against women. That’s key. What Femen (in addition to their other political problems) misses is that clothing–the material thing, whatever it may be, or lack thereof–is never inherently oppressive. Social relations of male domination, which exist across the globe and are not rooted in a specific culture or religion but rather the economic relations of society, are the oppressive force.  Femen’s viewpoint is a rehash of the argument put forward by “feminists” who claimed invading Afghanistan would “liberate” women.  The focus on clothing serves the interests of the ruling class, and their imperialist, racist, sexist, cissexist, homophobic interests very well, because it divides women (and people of all genders) who should be fighting together.

The case of Slutwalk demonstrates why it’s equally important not to elevate nudity to the level of strategy–as Femen has done, or to adopt similarly reactionary ideas about how protests “should” look (remember those idiots who told us that police wouldn’t beat us if we wore suits and ties to Occupy protest? Please), policing the clothing choices and bodies of protestors, bare or covered.  These ideas are two sides of the same coin.  Both miss the point, and aren’t helpful to movement building.

Nudity is not bad, or morally wrong, and feminists should defend every person’s right to wear as little or as much as they want.  We should defend their right not to be harassed, assaulted, or degraded.  That should go without saying.  But when nudity becomes a political strategy, it’s worthwhile to think about its implications.  The problem with nudity-as-tactic is not that it is “provocative,” because it’s not.  The whole concept of a body being provocative feeds into victim-blaming.  But neither is nudity inherently liberating, nor confrontational to patriarchy.  In fact, it can reinforce it.   Nudity, as a strategy for organizing, is unlikely to build the movement we want–a dynamic movement that doesn’t equate liberation with certain clothes or certain bodies, but instead focuses on changing social conditions women face, which includes fighting for the right of all women to wear whatever they want and not wear whatever they don’t want as well as the right not to be discriminated against or bombed or dehumanized in the process.

In 1967, as Black city dwellers rebelled against the oppression and deprivation of the ghetto in a series of urban uprisings, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas released their famous song “Dancing in the Street” through Detroit’s Motown label.  The group claimed it was just a party song, not a political statement, and definitely not an open call to rebellion.  Regardless of how sincere that claim may have been, the social context of urban rebellion, the Black freedom struggle, 60s youth culture, and the Vietnam war imbued the song with a political meaning.  The context of the moment had everything to do with how the song was received.

Now, in our own times, there are rumblings again of such upheaval, organized and unorganized, especially for the last two years.  Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has sharpened the discussions around racism in this country.  It has been complemented by a series of struggles around racism–especially the murder of Trayvon Martin, the lynching of Troy Davis.  The unrelenting assault on communities of color by the police leads to resistance, whether it is the demonstrations organized by Ramarley Graham’s parents in New York after their unarmed son was murdered in his own home, or the anger at the police slaughter of Jamaal Moore, also unarmed, which led to a confrontation on Chicago’s South Side last week.

A crowd reacts to the police murder of 23 year old Jamaal Moore.

Then, of course, in fall 2011, there was Occupy Wall Street, which did for income inequality what The New Jim Crow did for racism.  It gave a new generation–a generation with no prospects for the future in our current system–the language to talk about something many understood viscerally, an avenue for collectively expressing anger, and more importantly, an open door to revolutionary politics.

Now, Les Miserables opens in movie theaters–a much more accessible venue than the live theaters where it has been popular with audiences (but, incidentally, not always critics, which initially received the piece negatively) since its English language premiere in 1985, and has been performed in more than 15 languages since.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I tend to like anything that has revolutionaries setting up barricades in it.  But all the renewed publicity around the musical has led me to revisit the music, which I haven’t considered since I was won to revolutionary politics in 2006.  I had always had a visceral reaction to the story–and not, as one Jezebel writer claimed, because I was a heart-broken Eponine.  I was far more drawn to the character of Enjolras, and I felt a connection with the city dwellers.

With a more acute political lens, however, I was astonished as I listened to one recording at how closely the story speaks to our political moment.

Imagine first the plight of Jean Valjean in Act I.  He has served 19 years in prison for stealing bread, and upon release, discovers that he has been branded by his past as a convict, even though he has never done anything truly wrong.  His wages are halved as a result of his convict status.  He is denied housing and food, even after he begs, “I can pay in advance.  I can sleep in a barn.  Do you see how dark it is?  I’m not some kind of dog!”  Though his run in with the Bishop is usually read as the effect of an act of kindness, there is more going on in Valjean’s “transformation”: namely, that it isn’t really a transformation at all.  After all, Valjean had been a good person, trying to survive.  The unjust laws further strip him of his status as a human being.  As soon as he has the means to sustain himself, he is not a thief, but becomes Hugo’s ideal of morality and benevolence.  Valjean goes through no real moral transformation, but a material one.

The parallels to our own prison system seem obvious, although Les Miserables lacks the racial aspect.  But the story chips away at the idea that laws are moral and just, and it also takes aim at the idea that human nature is fixed.  The striking similarity of the justice system in Les Miserables to our own will likely raise questions about the nature of “justice” in the United States among some movie-goers, and we should draw the connection.  “You know nothing of my life,” Valjean says to the policeman Javert.  “All I did was steal some bread.  You know nothing of my world.  You would sooner see me dead.”  Just like Valjean, who had done nothing wrong except be poor and hungry, so many people affected by the new Jim Crow have done nothing wrong except be poor and Black.

Then comes the portion of the play set in Paris one the eve of the 1832 uprising, which despite its failure, seems far less distant and fictionalized after living through 2011, the year of revolt, which toppled two dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, where Occupy Wall Street set up camp in the streets and parks of the United States, only to be met with the brutal forces of state repression.  Despite the darkness of their situation (“Something’s got to happen now, or something’s going to give,” cry the resident’s of Paris’s streets), there is a sense of hope, and possibility.  The workers in Valjean’s factory sing, “At the end of the day there’s another day dawning…and the waves crash on the sand, like a storm that will break any second.  There’s a hunger in the land.  There’s a reckoning to be reckoned, and there’s going to be hell to pay.”  We even see how sexism and bourgeois morality undermine the unity of the workers, as another female worker turns the others against Fantine for having a child out of wedlock, leaving her at the mercy of the piggish, misogynistic foreman.

We get a sense of the system’s failing from the young Gavroche: “We live on crumb of humble piety.  Tough on the teeth, but what the hell.”  To the conditions of their lives on the streets of Paris, the people respond, “When’s it gonna end?  When we gonna live?”  Despite the political weaknesses of the Friends of the ABC’s program, the story openly states that the current system has failed, and that the solution is not reform, but revolution.  The impending death of Lamarque pushes them to action.  “With all the anger in the land, how long before the judgment day?” asks Enjolras.  “Before we cut the fat ones down to size?  Before the barricades arise?”

Answer? Not very long.

Les Miserables, the musical, was likely never intended as a call to revolution.  It was written in the 1980s, and in many ways is tailored as an appeal to bourgeois moral outrage.  More of a “look what could happen if things aren’t made a bit better” than a “this is a way to make things better.”

But 2012 is not 1985.  Between Les Miserables this year, and The Hunger Games last year, popular culture reflects the changing times.  True, Les Miserables is older, but the investment in a movie reflects a belief that it will make money, which requires more people to see it that those who could afford theater tickets to see the show live.  It has reached a new level of mainstream in popular culture. And I find it hard to believe that the workers in Michigan who stood up to police batons and horses, the Chicago retail workers who blocked Michigan avenue last week to demand a minimum wage, the people who have been organizing against the racist injustice system will only take from this story a message of moral outrage.

Snyder lies

It’s clear that the passage of “Right to Work” (for less) legislation in Michigan, a union strong-hold, seventy-five years after the wave of “sit-down” strikes that began in Flint, was an enormous defeat for the labor movement.  As Eric Ruder reported at SocialistWorker.org:

Union pride runs deep in Michigan, and the defeat came as a shock to generations of Michigan’s workers. “Right-to-work” legislation makes it possible for anti-union workers to enjoy the benefits of working in a union-organized workplace without having to pay their fair share of union dues–an idea that union households find particularly odious.

“Our parents, our grandparents and our great grandparents fought and literally died so that we could have better wages, better livelihoods, better benefits and more worker safety,” said Ted Copley, a Detroit firefighter. Susan Abraham of Delta Township, who took part in the protest wearing a Mrs. Claus outfit, said: “Our family wouldn’t be where it is today without the UAW.”

The impact this defeat will have on the momentum of the labor movement, which had picked up some steam in Madison in early 2011 and was hurtled forward by the Chicago Teachers Strike in September, should not be underestimated.  But by the same token, my experience on the ground in Lansing yesterday also showed the tremendous potential of the time we are living in, and it highlighted the need for organizers to begin coordinated work to learn and generalize the lessons of Madison, Chicago, and Michigan: the need to break from the electoral strategy, the importance of rank-and-file activation and leadership, and need to maintain the workplace as a center of struggle.

The analysis of why we failed to stop the anti-union attack in Michigan, and why we have yet to completely repel an anti-union attack in any of the union-stronghold states, needs to take place side-by-side with an analysis of growing militancy among workers.  Understanding why the attacks have worked is critical, and so is working out a way to turn the tides of the anti-union, anti-worker, austerity onslaught.

lansing1211

Right to Work?  Shut it down!  Police state?  Shut it down!  The whole damn system?  Shut it down!

I arrived at the Michigan State Capitol around 8:30 AM.  In the sub-freezing weather, a crowd of a few thousand had started to form on the Capitol steps.  People were already inside the Capitol itself, and the  police tightly controlled who went in an out.  From the balcony, cops in riot gear and armed with tear gas and bean bag guns watched the crowd.  If every member of the state police wasn’t within a two block radius of the capitol building, it was pretty close to all of them.

Some of the workers climbed the steps of the Capitol, where they would remain for the rest of the day.  Hard hats climbed the statuary and railings to lead chants.  When cops decided this was somehow a security threat, they tried to pull the workers down.  Other workers fearlessly pushed the cops’ hands away as they reached for the workers’ neon safety vests.  One or two workers got down at the cops’ request, but climbed back up as soon as the cops had walked away.

The anger and readiness to fight that hummed across the steps and down to the lawn was an entirely different world to the union stage across the street, where pop-rock music blared between speakers who had already conceded defeat and sought to turn the workers’ attentions to the 2014 election cycle.  At one point in the early morning, as I walked across the lawn, picking my way through the crowd to the steps as workers hoisted a giant inflatable rat representing Snyder to the top of the capitol steps, a marshal approached me and said, “You are actually going to want to go back over there.”  He pointed away from the capitol to the union stage.  “That’s where the program’s going to start soon.”  As a collective anger rose across the lawn, the marshals tried to divert it, rather than ride the tide of the rank-and-file’s collective power.

On the capitol steps, the mood was anything from defeated.  Although many people I talked to weren’t sure the best course of action to take, they were determined to take action, and to take it right then.  As one sign said, “I will fight on until you take my union card from my cold, dead hand.”

Fuck the police–and the horses you can’t ride in on.

The Americans for Prosperity, who seemingly had advance knowledge of the attempt to ram the legislation through and had “reserved” the capitol lawn, had the audacity to set up a massive tent and then disparage the massing thousands of workers face to face.  By 11 AM, the tensions had reached the boiling point.  As the right-wingers continued to smear the long, proud history of the Michigan labor movement, workers began to shake the tent.  When workers on the capitol steps realized what was happening, they began to chant, “Tear it down!  Tear it down!”  Within five minutes, the tent fell, and a cheer went up from the workers.  The police moved in, with a column of eight horses leading a brigade of police.  They tried to establish a perimeter, but the workers, unafraid of the spooking and balking horses, swarmed around them.  Twice, the horses and foot police were forced to retreat, as again the crowd cheered.

Workers appropriated the food and drinks that had been in the tent and began handing them out.  The AFP goons continued to whine about how they had been ruffled during the commotion when the police had charged in.  Of course, they had no concern for the workers who had been kicked by the spooking horses.  They lamented, as only a right-winger could, about the “violent” workers tearing their “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in half.

We came. We saw. We treaded.

The workers in the tent area understood they had scored a victory.  It emboldened them for the next battle, which took place in the outdoor lobby of the Romney building and Capitol Street that afternoon.

We heard there was a civil disobedience action going on in the Romney Building, where the Governor’s offices are housed.  Brit Schulte described how the initial sit-in began:

We were part of a supportive action for the dozen or so union workers, sitting in and blocking the entrances to the building where Gov. Snyder has an office. Police began filing in around the perimeters and then created a split through the center of our crowd. A member of the IBEW shouted out, “They got a hard hat! They’re beating a hard hat!” And those of us tall enough to see could see the police wrestling a worker in a hard hat to the ground. Another voice shouted out, “Everyone sit down!” The majority of the crowd began sitting in and chanted, “Sit!” and “Shame!” at the police..The police immediately escalated the situation, coming with more force into the crowd, stepping on people and pushing people over. It was clear, though, that they didn’t have specific orders and also didn’t know how to handle to crowd, because they just stood there in the midst of the crowd for a long while, immobile and without a working plan for dispersal.

Eventually, they started pulling us out of the building one by one.  Although ultimately it wasn’t the case, they gave the impression we were being placed under arrest when they dragged us out.  Still, almost no one moved until forced.

I was one of the last remaining people in the lobby.  I was holding a blind woman’s hand and trying to tell her what was happening.  The police assumed she would leave on request because she was blind.  The police forced a clear path for us, and then they yelled at us to go.  I asked her, “do you want to leave?” and she replied “No.  No, I’m not going anywhere.”  I turned back to the cop and said, “We’re staying right here.”  The crowd cheered.  The cops wrenched our arms and dragged us out.

Once we were outside and had been amassed on the sidewalk, the column of horses came back.  The workers stood their ground.  Twice the horses were forced to retreat.  Each time, the workers chased them as they walked away, hurling vicious insults at the cops.  Riot police from the state building were brought out.  They formed a line further up the street and began marching toward us, brandishing their batons and chanting thuggishly.  This time, the workers advanced to meet the line.

We linked arms and chanted “Whose streets?  Our streets!”  They pulled one person from the line and arrested him.  In the end, they only succeeded in pushing us back a few feet, hitting us in the chest, neck, and face with their batons, before the mass of thousands of workers flooding the street to defend the line could sufficiently buttress those of us in the front.  Other workers and press swarmed behind them, and soon the cops were surrounded.  A tense stand off ensued.

We continued chanting and as we sang solidarity forever, the cops began to retreat.  Workers were hesitant to celebrate at first, unsure if it was really a retreat or if they were preparing another way to attack us.  Soon it became clear that we had won the standoff though, and everyone began hugging each other.

I will fight on until you take my union card from my cold, dead hand.

The workers of Michigan came to the state capitol ready to fight, to do whatever it took to win.  Ultimately, however, the militancy of the workers alone was not enough to stop the passage of the bill.  Some commentators have used this to bolster their ludicrous claims that unions are outdated and unnecessary.  In fact, the events in Lansing yesterday show exactly how desperately we still need unions.  The question is: what type of union do we need?

Especially for those of us who were in Chicago for the CTU strike, the importance of rank-and-file leadership–both in terms of having a widely activated rank-and-file membership and having officers who have been elected as the result of rank and file struggle–become clearer by the day.  If we are to have any hope of reversing these attacks, we certainly can’t rely on the government (we already knew that), but we also have begin the process of transforming our unions so they have the power and political will to act, to embody the readiness to fight that was so apparent yesterday.  To borrow a phrase, we need to rebuild our unions, as rank-and-file members, from the bottom up.   In that sense, the Chicago Teachers are not just the workers who educate our children, they were teaching us a lesson in class struggle unionism.

Under what could have been utterly demoralizing circumstances, the workers of Michigan fought back.  Why?  Because even if you are spared being beaten with a baton, they will beat you in another way–lowering wages and living standards, or whatever it happens to be that day. But if you stand up and are willing to fight them, you’ll lose sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, but there’s a chance you can win.  And the more we fight, the more we learn about what works and what doesn’t. For once it’s not just about what they’re doing to you, how they’re keeping you down, exploiting and oppressing you. For once it’s about you, and the actions that as workers you take together. Even on such a bitter day of defeat, it was hard to feel totally demoralized, because the fighting potential of the working class, that went untapped yesterday, was clear.