reflection on “We’re All Precarious Now,” April 20, 2015, Jacobin Mag.
Jacobin itself is an interesting project because it’s written for an audience that is relatively new to socialist and revolutionary politics, a project that could not have existed before 2008. It’s strength is that it serves kind of as a clearinghouse for socialist thought, regardless of tendency or party affiliation and it has a very young and modern aesthetic. Politically it is limited for the same reason, as it serves as a space to give a new justification to socialist/social democratic thought that imagines that capitalism can be structurally reformed by social movements combined with electoral action. There’s some exceptions to this and some strategic variation but I think holds generally true.
Charlie Post is slightly to the left of this as he comes from the Trotskyist tradition. As you read, he’s critical of trying to push conservative leadership (specifically unions) to the left (which is classic progressive/social dem strategy) and he gets a lot right about the euphoria the Left gets about top-down change: Sweeney’s ascendency in the AFL-CIO and the emergence of the SEIU in the 90s, (and Obama, of course) but in my opinion his own conservatism comes out in the way that he clings to the classic union form. He’s right that to stay beholden to the National Labor Relations Board and legalist strategy is a recipe for failure and he promotes independent action by workers as a necessity in responding to the ruling-class offensive (agreed). But he still believes that workers should fight for official recognition by companies and for contracts which completely removes the capacity for workers to fight their own struggles. Contracts include clauses like “no strike” which nullifies workers’ most powerful weapon. You see this in the way that he critiques the IWW. While there’s definitely a large tendency in the IWW that does say “fuck it, let’s just organize individual random workplaces,” Post conflates a rejection of contracts and company recognition with a rejection of strategy altogether. In fact, many Wobblies have been pushing for types of industrial/logistical strategy. This is because Post is stuck in old forms of social organization which is characteristic of Trotskyism.
I’m largely in agreement with his critique of certain interpretations of the concept of precarity, specifically that it is distinct from the working class. I could say more but I’ll just cut to the implications. I also agree that the slogan “we are all precarious now” can be useful to the extent that it helps to animate the links between different sections of the proletariat that are feeling the squeeze. We saw how capitalist restructuring affected the oil workers during the USW strike, in its refusal to reinvest in new machines and equipment leading to injury and death and the like. We saw how Royal Dutch Shell brought in Madicorp, a powerful strike-breaking company that supplied temporary workers backed with armed security to break the USW union. Madicorp was also deployed as private security during the Ferguson rebellion. So making this connection between so-called “privileged” skilled workers and “precarious” Black poor was so critical. This is all good. Post’s problem here is that he doesn’t see how the pivot of the restructuring moves on racial and gendered lines. As much as we need to connect the dots, we also need to fight where those connections diverge and devolve. If we don’t, it just means that certain sections of the class (usually Black folks) see their specific needs and demands tabled for more “popular” and “general” (see white) demands. There can be no rollback of this offensive without understanding the role of the police and the relation of the Black working class to the capitalist restructuring. While many white workers are getting their asses kicked by the crisis, they generally aren’t getting their asses kicked by cops.
This ties into the point about “social power.” He’s right that dock workers have more economic leverage than teachers, this is obvious to all. But what he and every other militant that makes a fetish of workers situated in production and distribution choke-points miss is that without the support and engagement of other sections of the proletariat, the strikes are doomed. In fact, we’ve all seen how the rulers opportune on strikes among strategic sectors by telling the rest of the working class that they turned their back on America; that they are selfish, greedy, anti-American, etc. So when teachers are trying to get to work but the trains ain’t moving, if there’s no pre-existing social tie between those sections of the class, they are easily pitted against one another. In 2005 when the NYC transit workers struck, mayor Bloomberg led a march across the Brooklyn bridge with workers headed to work. The transit workers were vilified. They weren’t wrong for striking, but they failed to tie their strike to the general conditions of the class. What if they had offered free rides? How could the possibilities have changed? It definitely would have made it far more difficult for Bloomberg and the NYC ruling class to throw them under the bus, no pun.
Social power is that which rests on attacking the very divisions which keeps the class in check, not sweeping them under the rug. So strategically I think, had the Houston I.W.W. been able to really intervene in a more concerted way in the oil strike, we could have focused on a campaign to target Madicorp that represses strikes and murders black people. Conservative white workers seeing Black youth throw down with them and vice versa because they share a common enemy (even if they experience that enemy differently) would send ripples through the whole system that should scare the ruling class to death. It would open those workers closed off to the idea of cops being bad to a whole new narrative. It would mean the end of abstract moralizing about “you should support this because its right” or “because you have privilege.”
The socialist and Trotskyist traditions unfortunately focus on putting aside differences and focusing on common enemy (with some very important political and strategic differences among them). That’s nice, but it has inadvertently reproduced white supremacy, because it has conflated unity with specifically white interests, general demands for white demands, etc.
Anyhow, Post is a smart dude and has a lot of important contributions, but he has some major blindspots too that have be considered.