I02 Essen Direct Action as “propaganda by the deed,” the making of a“moral economy,” and the need for an institutionalized playfield too

Thursday 9 August 2007, by FAUD

Direct Action as “propaganda by the deed,” the making of a“moral economy,” and the need for an institutionalized playfield too

Defining direct action

I will begin where I began in an article I wrote for the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. Campaigning for wage-workers to join the Industrial Workers of the World, Eugene V. Debs stated in December 1905: “The capitalist own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own.” To this one could add: At times direct action may mean putting the tools we do not own out of action, at times it may mean bringing them into play for our own, self-defined needs and ends. In the final instance, it can only mean acting as if all the tools were in fact our own. Direct action brought to its ultimate and logical end is the libertarian social revolution: the working classes direct overtaking, rearrangement, transformation and deconstruction - when not found appropriate to our self-defined human needs - of the means of production (the material tools of freedom), and the disarmament of the forces protecting the order that was.

It might be apt here to draw attention to how the Pentagon’s planned war on Iraq is wholly depended on the use of the merchant marine sailing under different flags to carry military equipment to the Gulf. Within the context of a planned wildcat strike in a chocolate factory I once worked, we used the company employed chauffeurs as direct messengers between ourselves and workers in retail chains. Together with the sweets and chocolate, they also delivered leaflets calling for insubordination. The fact that we had employed company time and vehicles for this purpose, made the bosses even more furious than the contents of these leaflets in itself did. Bosses tend to be very aware of the importance of form, and have an almost instinctive understanding of when their authority as such is challenged by what I here with the English historian E. P. Thompson, will refer to as a working class moral economy in making.

Direct action can be defined as being an action carried out on the behalf of nobody else but ourselves, where the means are immediately also the ends, or if not, as in a wage strike not mediated by any union bureaucracy; the means (decreasing the bosses profits by our non-work, and thus also diminishing the bosses power) stand in an immediate relationship to selfdefined ends (increasing our wages and extending our own power). A direct action successfully carried out brings about a direct rearrangement of existing conditions of life through the combined efforts of those directly affected.

I just defined direct-action as an act carried out on behalf of nobody else. But who are the directly affected? And at what point does an act cease being direct action for not meeting the requirement of being carried out by the directly affected? The advocates of ideologies of representative bourgeois democracy, social democracy and Leninism, all claim to act on the behalf of “the people” in the interest of “the people.” In this they are no different than the Emperor and the King. Anarcho-syndicalists have always rejected not only that the representatives of these ideologies do so, but the very notion that they could. What is more, even if they so could, we claim that this would none the less not be in our best interest, as the value of being our own masters is at the core of the very essence of being a human being. Something that does not imply an escape from the influence and critique of others, without which we would be nothing.

On the other hand, we uphold the principle of mutual aid and solidarity; that an injury to one is an injury to all, and thus also the concern of all. Philosophical riddles are not our concern here but the politics of human emancipation. On this level the answer to the question leads us to another: Who has the defining power? I define the low wages and bad working conditions of the wage slaves in company X, wherever this company may be situated in the world, as my concern, not only for moral reasons, but also because, to paraphrase Bakunin: in the hands of the owners of the world, their exploitation and oppression becomes an instrument for my subordination. Brought to its logical conclusion this reasoning may however brings us straight back to rule by representation and enlightened despotism. Therefore, the defining power must be situated among the workers of company X. However, my participation in direct action on their initiative, or through joint initiative and cooperation, would make me part of this direct action, if my acts also otherwise qualified as such, for instance through a blockade during a strike. We have then mutually defined ourselves as a human collective with common interests, considering an injury to one as an injury to all. There is much more that could be said around this topic. What is crucial however is to grasp its importance, so that claimed direct action does not become a road that leads us towards elitism, and thus also away from the anarchist project of individual and social emancipation.

While direct action has been defined as action without intermediaries, this is a definition in need of qualification. From an anarchist perspective direct action is connected not only to solidarity, but also to what tends to be a precondition for solidarity, and the underlying principle of the concept of direct democracy; nonhierarchical human communication. Such communication lies at the roots of what direct action always is, individual and collective selfenpowerment. As direct action contains its own end, within that selfdefined end its meaning is also found. The more the ends are manifested in the means, the more it is direct action.

Direct actions are primarily, if not exclusively, tied to collective forms of actions, also for the simple reason that it is together we as waged and unwaged workers have the potency to directly, and often immediately, change our conditions of life. The fewer the actors, the more symbolic our acts as a rule will also be. They then tend to become not means to the immediate transformation of part of our reality through our own efforts, but foremost to call on the powers of others. While many may live under the illusion that through direct action we escape the need for organising, the opposite is true: Generally it requires a greater degree of organised coordination. The degree of our disorganisation is the degree to which our lives will be organised by others. It is we who make the world, but we make it as a collective (currently under the command and through the mediation of the owners of the world), and it is thus also together we can make direct profound changes, unmediated by outside forces, and in the final instance conquer the world and the power over our own destinies.

Direct action can also be seen as a kind of language: a language of practical articulation. As such it contains also a symbolic force far greater than any mere symbolic action, precisely because its message is contained in and not separated from its means. Direct action is always “propaganda by the deed”.

The term “propaganda by the deed” brings forth associations to the bomb and other individual acts of desperation and social impotence. But it need not refer to this. When tasks meet us on a global scale, direct action carried out locally to bring about smaller changes in the here and now, or internationally by a small section of the working class, may be considered as just a drop in the bucket. But if successfully carried out, direct actions will communicate a message beyond their immediate ends, carrying within themselves the very seeds of a libertarian social revolution. Acts of immediate enpowerment tend to be contagious, as they practically illustrate roads that may be travelled outside the realm of bureaucratic intermediaries and parliamentary representation.

Elements of direct action may be contained in actions that do not fully qualify as such. An essential part of our task consists in trying to make these elements as dominant as possible, whenever possible: To generalize a certain practice rooted in a different moral economy which carries within itself the seeds of a different form of organizing life. This also implies, and this cannot be stressed enough, that the form of action is considered important in itself, carrying within itself a message loud and clear.
To conclude this first part, I will claim that a revolutionary syndicalism or anarcho-syndicalism that does not in part challenge the very form of labour relations as regulated by law, is a contradiction in terms. Anarcho-syndicalism must exist within the borderland between legality and illegality, or not at all.

“Workerism” and the question of communication structures

In an in many ways interesting paper on class composition, written by Kolinko, a group inspired by Italian “workerism” and responsible for a workshop at this conference on “the inquiry and intervention in call centres,” we can read:

“The formal notion of exploitation (appropriated surplus labour-time) can not reveal the possibility of self-emancipation that workers can develop. As ‘non-possessors’ of means of production their power can not be explained. The mere fact that they are all exploited does not create a real coherence between the individuals. The possibility of self-organization can only be derived from the fact that workers have a practical relation to each other and to capital: [that] they are working together in the process of production and [that] they are part of the social division of labour. As producers they are not just opposing capital as formal ‘wage-labourers’, but in their specific practice [through which] they are producing capital. Only arising from this relation can workers’ struggles develop their power.”

They then continue:

“The isolation of workers in single companies, branches etc. cannot be overcome ‘artificially’ by taking the similarity of ‘all being exploited’ as the foundation for an organization. This attempt generally ends up in another "rank-and-file’ union: there will always be the need for an outside institution if the coherence of the workers is not based on their actual social co-operation, but just on the "formal coherence" of exploited wage-labour.”

Kolinko take as their point of departure a historically imposed division of labour. They stress the concrete practical relations between workers brought about by that we as wage slaves are randomly thrown together, and state that the mere fact that all workers are exploited, does not create a real coherence between us as individual human beings: There does not lie any power in “non-possession” unlike in the fact that without our brains and muscles not a single wheel would turn. They go on to denounce as artificial any institution imposing a coherence that is not based on the workers actual social co-operation, but only on the "formal coherence" of being exploited wage-labour. This is a clear reference to unions.
It is obvious what is right with this picture, but what have Kolinko got wrong? Here, the real coherence is posed as simply being derived from the conditions brought about by capitalist rule, while efforts by workers to combine their own forces to overcome or weaken this rule, and the divisions it imposes, is perceived as being necessarily nothing but an artificial imposition from the outside, constituting nothing more than a formal coherence. Now, as far as modern corporative unions have become organizers of workers passivity, rather than the workers organization of their own activity, it is not wholly inadequate to describe this formal coherence as artificial. That is to the degree that membership in these so-called unions entail not much more than what follows from being a customer of an insurance company; and where the union official might as well be replaced by a lawyer.
But while Kolinko claim - as others before them - that unions and permanent structures in general, by definition are reformist, I find it self-evident that only by so to speak artificially, that is creatively and institutionally, overcoming the divisions capitalist relations imposes; only by the linking of our means to our ends to bring about direct rearrangements of existing conditions of life through our combined efforts; only by mutually defining ourselves as part of a human community considering an injury to one as an injury to all, and through establishing permanent structures of workers-to-workers communication - that is only through union - can we ever hope to move beyond the conditions of separation providing fertile soil for reformism and counter-revolution.

If we return to the Kolinko’s point of departure, and from there proceed to the practical relations between workers at a single workplace, unionized or not - while keeping all of the petty-bosses out of this picture -, there is no way that it from these conditions automatically would arise any coherence in struggle. Such coherence must so to speak first be artificially created. This is for instance the precondition of any wildcat strike.
Kolinko claim: That given that we as producers are not just opposing capital as formal wage-labourers but in the specific practice by which we are producing capital, then only from the point of departure of these relations can our struggles develop their power. While not in any way denying the vital importance of developing strength at this level, I will against this one-sided perspective, claim: That only by going beyond this restricted, immediate sphere - in thought and in practice - can workers’ struggles develop their power beyond the point of reformism; beyond a consciousness and practice wholly tied to the logic of capitalist survival. The Liverpool dockers understood this well when proclaiming nothing less than the world as their picket line.
The division of labour, not only between different spheres of work, but between our waged and unwaged time - and waged an unwaged workers -, can, with a far from wholly adequate metaphor, be seen as gigantic jig-saw puzzle, where it is necessary to fit at least some of the pieces together to get a sense of the larger picture. Workers struggles cannot develop beyond a certain point, if they do not cross the borderlines between states - and much of the corporative structure of so-called unions today are due the fact they so to speak became nationalised -, which again has been a direct consequence of the dominant state-capitalist ideology within the labour movement since the times of the First International. Even less can our struggles develop beyond a certain point, if they do not cross the borders between particular companies and industries. To accomplish this, there is no way around permanent structures within which human communication can develop, and wherein utopian dreams grounded in concrete reality, and our combined knowledge and skills, can be cultivated. 90 per cent of any successful workers’ struggle is about human communication.

What the anti-unionist perspective ignores is that the corporative unionism that has institutionalised a particular kind of disorganization - the organization of passivity and division - is not simply the product of a natural development, but the historical product of concrete class struggles; of state and corporate oppression on the one hand, and a long dominant state capitalist ideology within the labour movement on the other. Today, a whole edifice of laws is needed to uphold these conditions.
What is further ignored, is that the labour contract, whether collective or individual, is by its very nature a disciplinary mechanism at the very foundation of capitalism, and entering into such contracts involve a conditional acceptance of the class relations. This is simply the prerequisite of survival of any worker, and not something anybody can withdraw from on the basis of their political convictions, and certainly not on an individual level. This only makes capitalist rule supreme. As wage slaves - temporarily employed or unemployed, in the process of being formed as one, or already discarded - we are linked to the functioning of capitalism. However, this linkage is not total; we are not the mere appendages of capital. Our acceptance is always conditional. There exists a cleavage in the link that can be widened or tightened.
There workers for more than a brief period have managed to bring about a cleavage in the chains that bind them to the contract-system - to what by syndicalists was referred to as “slave contracts” - it has precisely been because they had non-hierarchically combined their forces as a union. Needless to say, these chains cannot be completely broken as long as capitalist relations exist. However, one example of such an imperfect separation, was the use of the so-called register-method developed by syndicalists within SAC. This approach might best be described as a permanent strike — the withholding of labour power prior to being employed. Unilaterally a minimum wage was imposed under which no worker would let themselves be hired. Any worker who did, was considered a scab and would have to face the consequences. The wages where this working class moral economy ruled, rose considerably above the level in the regions where the social democratic unions where dominant and had entered into binding and time-limited contracts. More importantly, this, and other direct action methods put in use, nurtured a certain mentality of rebellious creativity. A question I will return to.
To end this part, though much more could be said on this subject: Co-option, like Lenin’s notorious revolutionary consciousness, is not simply something imposed from the outside. It is rooted within the working class itself, as sure as the potential for rebellion is. The tendency towards reformism and co-option, which always will exist within anarcho-syndicalism, constitutes one of its greatest assets. It forces these questions to be answered concretely on a day to day basis, and not just in an abstract future. While the only guarantee against co-option is death, one may ask: Would an organizational structure emerging in the heat of a revolutionary situation, composed of workers with most of their concrete experiences from within a bureaucratized, corporative union structure - or disorganized altogether -, be less likely to be co-opted into either an old or new class relation? I think not. The opposite seems a far more rational judgement. I refuse to accept the logic that being accustomed to a greater degree of servility and passivity is a great asset in a revolutionary situation. Neither do I see any historical evidence supporting this view, but on the contrary an endless trail of blood and a line of tyrants giving witness to the opposite. There are in fact good reasons to ask if not the principled rejection by genuine revolutionaries of all permanent mass organizations is not the ultimate triumph of capitalist co-option.

CGT, labour councils and umediated workers creativty

Even if the Spanish CGT is engaged in many concrete struggles there is every reason to support, the union has none the less based much of its existence on the participation in elections to work councils - comités de empresa -, and not as a tactical exception but as a rule, soon turned into an unreflected habit, if labour history is to be the judge. As a duplicate of the parliamentary system, and with a 4 years electoral period, the work councils structure leaves workers with even less control over representatives than what is the case within the corporative labour relations edifice of Scandinavia. The work councils were originally critisized by the CGT for promoting class collaboration, corporatism and passivity, and there can be little doubt about that it was for this very purpose the structure was developed and sanctified by law, and that the work councils also have had this effect: Promoted passivity and capitalist order through a representative system and a layer of union officials partially or wholly freed from the drudgery of daily wage slavery. Such structures are an ongoing tragedy, swallowing up one rebellious soul after the other; and as any social democrat will tell you, they are effective above all in producing a particular atmosphere and mentality of constructive co-responsibility, all the more so since bosses are also human beings, despite all.
The participation of CGT in the work council system works as a legitimating practice. They fill the role of its radical alibi, in much the same way as diverse self-proclaimed revolutionary parties have done within the parliamentary system for more than a century. What begins as a pragmatic policy becomes internalized as a particular way of thought. The more CGT gets depended on working within this framework, the more the practice will turn into a cage, and the harder it will get to escape its grip, and take part in the making of a practice of autonomous workers’ struggles able to stand on its own two feet, and without the need of any state-sponsored crutches. An indication of this are the cases where the CGT have taken the initiative to create such structures in workplaces where they had no prior existence. The very question of a practice existing in radical separation from the work councils soon gets forgotten, or if raised at all, tend to get ridiculed. While entering to either transform the work council system from within, or make use of it as a tool for different ends, one ends up empowering and being transformed by the same system. It easy to forget that social democratic reformism, with its originally revolutionary aspirations, was successful in capitalist terms precisely because supported by so many well-intentioned idealists, and also because it in fact delivered some improvements, while at the same time undermining the very foundation that had made this possible in the first place, as well as closing the door to a more fundamental transformation of society.
The double-communication the participation of CGT in the work council system entails, sends a message of silence of what could have been, and involves the kind of double-speak associated with politicians. What it does to CGT, and how many members it may bring them in a shorter term perspective, is uninteresting compared to its effects on the creativity of workers in general. It is not so much a question of whether the decisions taken by the work councils are good or bad, but by bringing most everything up on a semi-juridical level - and to revolve around the question of good and bad representatives - the focus and minds are taken away from the potentials lying dormant in the workers own unmediated creativity, which is the only basis on which an anarcho-syndicalist practice can be founded. For anarcho-syndicalism is about nourishing a certain spirit of rebellious creativity as much as anything else.
In as far as the notion of select few representing the interest of workers on their behalf is at the core of a social democratic ideology, and constitute a practice standing in direct contradiction to a practice arising directly from the workers own, unmediated creativity, and self-managed direct action struggles, a permanent participation of CGT in this system cannot escape the logic of reproducing a capitalist order and ideology. On the other hand, as far as they manage to escape this logic, as they no doubt claim to do, it is very hard to see what the purpose of their participation is at all. Their continued and increased participation within this structure speaks of dependence. And I at least, have not been able to discern any strategy to get out of the situation they have placed themselves in, unlike a self-celebration of any further advance into it becoming an end in itself, the more successfully also the more difficult to turn around. The end of this blind alley will almost certainly be a split within the CGT, with one faction rejoining its forces with the CNT.

SAC and a working class moral economy

I cannot here go into any details of the functioning of the present day SAC, but it quite obvious, despite some positive developments in the recent years, that more than a superficial transformation is needed for SAC to again become the potentially social revolutionary force it once was within the working class. SAC no doubt has maintained a far more democratic structure that the union-confederations rooted in a social democratic tradition, and there are many idealist and well-intentioned people within its ranks. Still, it is very hard to discover how its practice in the concrete class struggle in any essential way differs much from the social democratic unions, apart from showing a greater respect towards its individual members. I think it is also correct to say that it stills holds a far greater potential, and for this reason, I am also inclined to believe that the Norwegian affiliate of the IWA, NSF, might do worse than to join the SAC as an oppositional force. For despite all its shortcomings and faults, it is hard to see any future for anarcho-syndicalism in Scandinavia outside of the SAC.
This said, the very question of going beyond legality is not even understood by large parts of SAC’s membership. Even the kind of extra-juridical direct action struggles that from time to time occur at a shop-floor level within the framework of social democratic, corporative unionism, is often denounced as irresponsible when suggested as forming the basis of SAC’s own practice. The fear of loosing members, the survival of the organization, has become more important than the survival, or more correctly, the recreation of a specific syndicalist practice. I hope this will change, but the above is none the less a pretty accurate picture of the current situation.
I don’t think it is wholly unfair if I say that large part of the membership of SAC, like the membership of social democratic unions in Scandinavia in general, have also to a great degree internalized the purely juridical definition of what defines a scab. This is all the more amazing seen on the background of SAC’s own history. Against this, IWW has maintained the concept of union scabbing, which is precisely, more than any labour laws, what historically undermined SAC as revolutionary force within the working class.

It is not far from the truth, that the whole edifice of pre-World War II labour laws in Sweden was constructed for the sole purpose of putting an end to the influence of SAC within the working class. Still laws can always be broken. The determining factor, however, as the Swedish employers’ associations so well understood, was the undermining of a working class moral economy; the unwritten laws within the working class which constituted the real basis of the strength of SAC.
From the founding of SAC in 1910, the major Swedish employers’ association, SAF, had been deeply troubled by the syndicalist direct action methods, and had used much time and energy to find out how best to combat what they considered as threatening an ordered society, and the very foundation of capitalist production. They worked to transform what was described as the “secretive and deceitful” direct action methods of SAC into what they referred to as “open and honest” labour relations. The variety of words they took in use to describe syndicalists, who allegedly had “underdeveloped brains” and a "immoral mentality" almost "beyond criminal law," brings the thought foremost to the description of natives by colonial powers. As the situation was, the employers complained, they could never know in advance when syndicalist workers struck, when their industrial action ended, or if an offer had been accepted, before "the workers suddenly started working again". The syndicalists in SAC most of the times refused to sign contracts, and when they did, used every opportunity to break them. Apart from always bringing trouble, they were wholly unreliable. But above all SAF was concerned with how this particular syndicalist mentality was undermining the moral fabric of capitalist order; how it was contaminating the members and locals of the social democratic union confederation, who, according to the unwritten law of a working class moral economy, respected the syndicalist secret and open blockades, and increasingly were even adopting the large repertoire of syndicalist direct action methods. In 1924, SAFs special Syndicalist Committee expressed that they regarded giving way for syndicalist methods to be "reprehensible," and "harmful for the social democratic union movement," and SAF declared they would consider all further respect for syndicalist industrial actions as a declaration of industrial war. The direct action methods of SAC to a large degree depended on the existence of a moral economy within the working class as a whole. It was only when the central agencies of the social democratic unions, after a long struggle with their own members, managed to discipline them to the point of replacing the concept of workers solidarity with the novel one of loyalty to the organization, or in other words, with the acceptance of union scabbing, that the revolutionary force of SAC was seriously undermined. This was far more important than all the systematic blacklisting of syndicalists that had being going on for a long time, or the new laws that were made for the expressed purpose of marginalizing SAC. SAF understood very well that the strength of SAC consisted precisely in the degree to that a syndicalist mentality managed to contaminate the minds of other workers. To undermine SAC as a potential revolutionary force, they first had to undermine the moral economy among workers organized in the social democratic unions.

From this we can also draw the conclusion that our efforts today must largely be measured by the degree we manage to contaminate the minds of unionized and non-unionized workers with that old Wobbly spirit of rebellious creativity; by the recreation of a working class moral economy, and autonomy in struggle, and not membership numbers alone. A more democratic structure, some nice black and red colours, some fine aims and principles written on paper, and more or less successful wage strikes; this does not in itself constitute anarcho-syndicalism, if not coupled with a practice that consistently aspires to expand the realm of direct action within workers’ struggles; fanning the flames of discontent through bridging the divide between ends and means imposed by labour laws and corporative unionism, and thereby also turning our struggles into a creative practice. There are no short-paths. In any edifice the building of the foundation takes time, but on this eveything else also depends.