Archive for the ‘Social Movements’ Category


50 state capitals, 50 rallies

February 26, 2011

Thanks to the organizing efforts of and unions, environmental, and other progressive groups, today saw solidarity rallies in every state capital in the country. The one in St. Paul, MN was impressive: over 1,000 people turned out despite blowing snow and “feels like -7” temperatures. While the messaging at this hour-long event wasn’t as tight as on Tuesday’s event, the spirit and the energy were similar, particularly during a rousing keynote speech from Rep. Keith Ellison.

Once more I have little to add of substance aside from photos, which are after the jump, and a few more good reads:

This last piece is a great read:

David Rhode is a paramedic in Middleton, Wis. He works 56 hours a week, mostly in 24-hour shifts, frequently carrying wheezy patients up and down flights of stairs. He said he earns about $43,000 a year.

HuffPost asked Rhode, 36, how it feels to be overpaid. His eyebrows went up.

“I drove my Ford Focus here,” he said. “I live in a 950-square-foot condominium!”

Photos from today’s rally in St. Paul after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry ?


How Labor is (Part of) the Problem in Building an American Left

October 11, 2010

Today I got to see Frances Fox Piven (distinguished professor of sociology and political science at CUNY; outgoing president of the American Sociological Association; author of this among many other things) give a talk with the above title and thesis. The argument was simple: organized labor in the United States is overly bureaucratized and institutionalized and run by extremely risk-averse leaders divorced from the rank and file. As a result, it has failed to adapt to the new realities of work presented by today’s globalized (and, in the U.S., deindustrialized) world.

Piven’s talk started with outlining three theorized sources of worker power: market power (ie when labor is scarce); political power (electoral influence); and strike power. Globalization, the argument goes, has eroded all three of these sources of power, although she also argued that the erosion of strike power has also been a product of unions shooting themselves in the foot. But, Piven says, the new global economy is a double-edged sword: it also presents brand-new possibilities for worker power, which the labor movement has completely failed to grasp.

The increasingly complex global chains of production, Piven claims, create opportunities for small pools of workers to exercise greatly magnified power over global capital. There are bottlenecks in the system where striking workers can shut down entire industries. But such actions would be extremely disruptive, and institutional labor would be unlikely to support them, and might even work to undermine them. Unions, she says, have become oligarchical, with leadership acting more out of self-preservation than the interests of the membership (much less the working class as a whole), and with damaging ties to the Democratic party as well as, in some cases, firms themselves.

Overall her argument seemed to be that unions have become too self-interested and parochial and what is really needed is a true working class consciousness. Her example was this: at a meeting between SEIU and COSATU (South Africa’s largest labor federations), the SEIU rep said, “We represent our members – that’s our job.” The COSATU rep replied, “We represent the working class. That’s ours.”

What troubles me is that both of the possible new pressure points that Piven highlighted – the above-noted bottlenecks in the global production chain, as well as the organizing potential of the huge new pool of place-based domestic service workers that cannot be outsourced – would seem to require pretty massive institutional support. It seems to me that workers striking to shut down a global production chain would be met with excessive and potentially lethal force, depending on where they were based. Such an action in the developing world would require a strong transnational movement to support them. And I would think that such an action in, say, the United States – a dock worker’s strike was her example – would still require some major institutional support. And how are domestic service and retail workers going to organize without union support? Perhaps I’m just having a major failure of imagination, but it seems that some pretty powerful institutional support is going to be needed if we are to overcome Wal-Mart’s anti-union strategies and actually organize those workers.

I posed this to Piven in the form of a slightly muddled question – if not from institutionalized unions, from where is the impetus for organizing going to come? – and I didn’t find her answer particularly convincing. She reiterated that such unions simply won’t support disruptive actions, and then basically stated that bottom-up movements from workers (both unionized and nonunion) are what’s really needed. She later used the immigrants’ rights rallies and the “Day Without Immigrants” of a few years ago as an example: the oppressed population organized themselves, spontaneously, without support from major institutions until the ball was already rolling.

I don’t know. That movement hasn’t really been sustained. How does the kind of sustained bottom-up movement needed for something as audacious as shutting down a global production chain happen without some kind of transnational labor movement or global class consciousness? Can you have a truly effective anti-systemic movement that arises without institutional support? Was the pre-9/11 anti-globalization movement an example, or does it fall apart under scrutiny given that it did enjoy support from some pretty institutionalized entities, despite its decentralized nature?

Piven emphasized that truly insurgent movements are largely unpredictable. They just happen when people get sufficiently pissed off about being oppressed, and simultaneously empowered because they’re talking to one another about it. So if these things are really so ad hoc and unpredictable, how does someone trying to organize for social change try to tap into these sources of discontent and resistance?


Apparently I don’t know what it means to be a failed state

January 22, 2010

A few weeks ago, when Yemen grabbed a news cycle or two and folks were saying things like this, Flying Whale and I had a conversation with a good friend about what the criteria was for being considered a “failed state” and whether or not Yemen qualified.

Between the three of us, we dutifully recited Weber (loss of monopoly on violence) and hypothesized that it meant the inability of a centralized government to enforce its will outside of the capital.

And then I read this article.  And now I’m wondering if being categorized as a failed state is even bleaker than I realized.

Khaled Fattah of the Yemen Times writes that Yemen’s government has lost its “infrastructural power” and become a creator of problems, not a source of solutions.

[O]ne may point to the wide-spread endemic corruption, the expansion of ‘dark spaces’ that are far beyond the reach of the state’s eyes and hands, the growth of hidden economies, and the tendency to ignore the juridical processes of the state.

This loss is evident in the absence of the state in many parts of the country, in the inability of state institutions to counter lawlessness and social disorder, in the very poor quality of basic government services, and in the very limited impact of state controls. Unsurprisingly, Yemen today is one of the best examples of political entities where the state is performing ‘self-canceling.’

Although united Yemen has been holding together as a fragile Middle Eastern state, the wide array of anti-central authority actors who are engaged in varying degrees of violence and subversion are operating within a new poisonous environment that can push Yemen towards joining the list of failed states.

A birds-eye view of the current security situation in Yemen reveals how the Weberian notion of a state that enjoys a monopoly on violence is nothing more than a fantasy.

If the author hadn’t so clearly implied that Yemen wasn’t yet a failed state, I’d have thought the description certainly qualified it. I need a new working definition.  Thoughts?

P.S. I’ve been following these three blogs.  They’re a decent starting point.



Teabaggers in DC

September 12, 2009

Sometimes RedState is my favorite website ever.

Today, a whole lot of people marched in DC against, uh, government. They weren’t anarchists, they were teabaggers. Most media outlets are citing estimates that there were probably between 50 and 100 thousand of them. But RedState goes off the deep end and declares, TWO MILLION march on Washington! On the other side, Josh Marshall accepts a figure of 60 to 70 thousand and writes a post titled, “Small Protest Against Big Govt.”

Come on. Can’t we agree that 70,000 people is a lot, and more than many of us would have expected? It’s not small, and it’s certainly not two million.

Anyway, I also love RedState for posts like this one, with a slew of photos of signs from today’s march. My favorite sign in this whole mess is right near the beginning: “If Abortion Had Not Killed 53,000,000 Babies We’d Have Plenty Of Money For Medicare and Social Security.” I believe it’s important to understand where people are coming from, but sometimes, as here, one is confronted with utterly nonsensical statements and such a good-faith effort is bound to fail spectacularly.

Flying Whale


Echoes of a bygone era

August 26, 2009

In late September, Pittsburgh will host a G20 summit to follow up on the April summit in London. The Pittsburgh police department is not messing around with this, as they have apparently requested 4,000 extra police officers from across the country to help keep control around this summit. To put that number in perspective, the entire Pittsburgh police force numbers less than 1,000.

Why the crazy paranoia? While Pittsburgh is obviously a blue-collar town with a strong labor tradition, it’s not like Seattle and located near a hotbed of radical/anarchist activity. Are the powers that be worried that the global economic meltdown is actually enraging people enough that a massive police presence will be needed to keep the peace?

The “protest culture” that the 1999 Seattle WTO Ministerial spawned has not had any relevance in the United States since 9/11 (the 2004 FTAA summit in Miami could have been a prominent exception, but it received scant national attention relative to the scale of the chaos actually happening on the ground). The organizing strategies behind the global justice movement changed to fit a new political reality. “Teamsters and turtles” wasn’t just a chant in the streets, it became a real, if usually uneasy, political coalition working against further expansion of the WTO and even more controversial bilateral and regional agreements.

But if people are really on the brink of taking the streets en masse once again, I can’t say I think this is a bad thing. I’ve long thought that there has been far too little outrage in the United States about the global economic crisis. I don’t expect Pittsburgh to be another Seattle in the sense of educating a whole new generation of activists (not even close), but any signs of life on the streets would be welcome.

(An interesting aside: according to that Times article linked above, Seattle’s chief of police during the 1999 protests regrets ordering the use of tear gas, saying it “set the tone of conflict for the rest of the week.”)

Flying Whale


Semantics that matter

August 21, 2009

The BBC posted an article a couple of days ago about the Hilltop Youth, a group of teenagers who “flout both Israeli and international law and build shacks they hope will eventually become established settlements in the West Bank.”

There is a lot to be unpacked here.  It’s a strange article with bizarrely portrayed characters that legitimizes voices I’d rather not have legitimized.  But for now, I’ll zero in on this:

While the article mentions that these makeshift structures are illegal, the author also calls the activities of the Hilltop Youth activism, not crimes.

Rather than arguing that a Palestinian teenager acting similarly would be characterized as a criminal, I’ll just assert it.  (Stick disagreements in the comments and I’ll respond.)  But the Palestinian comparison aside, I’m left wondering why some illegal, non-violent acts are portrayed as activism and others as crimes.

From most of Greenpeace’s actions to spontaneous protests to political graffiti to makeshift structures, I’m struggling to articulate criteria that could clearly separate crime and activism (again,  I’m only talking about non-violent actions here) other than the decider’s ideology.  Thoughts?



Spidersilk of a new alliance

August 10, 2009

As you might imagine from my recent post, one of my most consistent critiques of the so-called progressive movement has been its fragmentation. Usually, I find myself trying–and failing–to articulate the complicated intersectionality of multiple issues or the importance of working as allies across both issues and strategies. But every now and then, a new frame comes along that quickly and easily puts more folks under the same tent without all the messiness.

The Highlander Research and Education Center has recently been playing around with a new alliance building frame: displacement. Gulf Coast residents displaced by Katrina, Rita and Gustav. Appalachian mining communities displaced by mountain top removal. Low-income folks displaced by gentrification. Immigrants. Refugees.

It’s got me thinking–who else could be integrated into this coalition?



Re: On the weakness of the global left

August 10, 2009

Flying Whale, quoting Immanuel Wallerstein, writes that the most audible voices in the world left are either “free-standing intellectuals or…located in very small organizations.” This assertion strikes me as not-quite right. I think it’d be more accurate to say that the principal voices who advocate a comprehensive leftist world-view are free-standing intellectuals or in very small organizations.

I’d argue that there are plenty of powerful voices within large organizations, but that their work (if not their ideology) is confined to a relatively small number of issues. The weakness here is not necessarily that the folks who best articulate a comprehensive leftist world-view are within weak institutions (or no institution at all)– it’s also that the single-issue experts haven’t found better and more consistent ways to build sustainable coalitions that actually aggregate power in meaningful ways.



On the weakness of the global left

August 7, 2009

Once every two weeks, world historical sociology scholar Immanuel Wallerstein writes a lengthy commentary on whatever world affair is currently foremost on his mind. His latest piece, “The World Left and the Iranian Elections,” discusses the fragmented views taken by self-identified leftists around the world. Some support Ahmadinejad openly (for example, Hugo Chávez); others are “virtually unconditional opponents.”

It’s an interesting read but I want to skirt the topic and highlight a single parenthetical sentence: “The principal voices of the world left today tend for the most part to be primarily that either of free-standing intellectuals or of activists who are located in very small organizations.”

I have no real way of evaluating this statement, but it strikes me as fairly accurate. The leading leftist governments of the world are either not particularly “left” per se or are often politically unhelpful (Exhibit A: the aforementioned Hugo Chávez). No one is ready to proclaim Evo Morales or Rafael Correa as a spokesperson of the global left. When I think of such spokespeople or leaders, I think of people like… Noam Chomsky, or Martin Khor, or Naomi Klein, or Vandana Shiva. All of these people have their flaws, but more importantly they fit perfectly into Wallerstein’s characterization. For who they are they have remarkable influence, but on a global (and surely on a world historical) scale their power is extremely limited.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why – for example – in the midst of a tremendous global financial crisis that could and should be seen as an implication of the neoliberal, deregulatory agenda of the past 20-some years, no real reforms are being proposed in any of the circles that matter. The power dynamics are titled too far to one side.

Flying Whale