Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Less Docile American Further Reflections on an American General Strike by Zbignew Zingh

A few weeks ago, “The Docile American (The Nexus of God, Labor, Health Care and the Fear to Strike)” was posted at Dissident Voice and subsequently at other sites on the web. The responses ranged from “huzzahs” to some pointed skepticism about the viability of a general strike in the United States. Because many of the comments raised valid issues not directly addressed in the original article, I want to address some of them here.

Geography -- Does Size Really Matter?

Is the United States geographically too big to hold a general strike? My answer is no. From a practical perspective, general strikes happen in urban, industrial and transportation centers. The strike that shuts down the shipping and rail centers of coastal Italy, for example, affects the entire country, including the interior. A strike by Canadian rail workers shuts down all production centers in Canada. Similarly, a strike on the East, West and Gulf Coast port cities of the United States (an admittedly tall order) would effectively shut down the entire United States.

It is not the geographic size of a country that makes it vulnerable to a general strike, but the degree to which it is commercially integrated. The US economy is now completely interwoven. That is why when shipping and oil refineries in Louisiana and Texas went down due to Hurricane Katrina, the economic ripples were felt everywhere. For that matter, the globalized nature of capitalism has made the US and all western “democracies” more susceptible to a general strike anywhere on the planet if it were to shut down major centers of finance, manufacturing or energy production. So whereas size matters for Internet spammers, size does not matter in terms of bringing the global economy to a halt.

Who Needs a General Strike When We Have the Peace Movement and Elections?

Is a general strike necessary in America where we have a viable peace movement? I do not believe that any peace movement, in and of itself, has stopped any war. More importantly, no “peace movement” has yet to prevent any war from starting (as in the impending assault on Iran).

Although the Vietnam era peace movement in the United States contributed to the ultimate cessation of the war, it gained traction because of the ferocious determination of the Vietnamese people themselves to rid themselves, at their own extremely bloody personal cost, from the yoke of foreign occupation. The armed resistance of the Vietnamese people, together with the GI resistance movement, the economic destabilization caused by the war, and the peace movement collectively ended the conflict. However, it might have ended sooner if American labor, students and peace activists had had the ability to coordinate a national strike.

Likewise, the primary credit for the shift in American public opinion regarding the occupation of Iraq belongs to the Iraqis who have sacrificed themselves by the hundreds of thousands for the principal of self determination. Their willingness to shed their own blood (and the blood of their occupiers) has given the impetus to the domestic peace movement that it would not otherwise have. It is sheer hubris to deny primary credit to those who have sacrificed the most for the sake of their own resistance movements.

Not for one moment do I denigrate the sincerity and good intentions of the peace movement. I question tactics of permitted weekend marches in parts of town where mild acts of very civil disobedience are not seen and quickly forgotten. A demonstration has to marshal a huge number of participants and have (or threaten to have) a significant economic impact for it to register on the rock-hard consciousness of the ownership class. Somehow, one gets the sense that the ownership class has “figured out” the peace movement, learned new tactics and learned how to let people harmlessly let off steam through harmless parades in obscure “free speech zones.” Meanwhile the American peace movement, as though nostalgic for the '60s, seems to have learned nothing new. Politics, although it is very serious business, is played by the usual game rules. If your opponent evolves and changes tactics, then so might you, too, have to evolve and change tactics.

Americans, particularly those in thrall of “liberal” religious doctrines, seem immobilized by the canonization of Gandhi and his “non violent” approach to anti-colonialism. Mr. Gandhi's tactics, however, though technically “non violent”, deliberately incited violence by the British occupiers and mass civil disobedience by the Indian people in order to increase media pressure for an end to the occupation. A general strike would be similar to Gandhi's targeted salt strike of the 1930s. But what worked for India and a post-WWII Great Britain that was militarily and economically prostrate may not work for a bellicose United States where, as in the old USSR, the Administration is deaf to public opinion and the media work hand in glove with business and government to pimp for war.

Is a general strike unnecessary in the United States because voters can change their government through the ballot box? I disagree, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that all votes are counted, that no voters are discouraged from casting their ballots, and that nobody tampers with the voter lists.

In the first place, elections matter only if there is a real choice of candidates to choose from. Due to political gerrymandering by both the Democratic and Republican Parties, most congressional seats are simply uncontested affairs. They are more like coronations than elections.

In the second place, elections in the United States will matter only if there is a plethora of alternative political parties. Unfortunately, it is on that issue -- the destruction or marginalization of any third parties -- that both the Democrats and the Republicans agree. Moreover, the cost of running for national public office is prohibitive unless you are independently super wealthy or you have sold your soul to corporate Mephistopheles.

Lastly, national elections tend to suck the life out of anti-war movements. In 2008, just as happened in 2004, the pressure will be on activists to line up with one mainstream candidate or the other in order to elect, yet again, the lesser of two evils. Even now, otherwise earnest anti-war candidates like Dennis Kucinich (who knows his party will never nominate him for executive office), serve more as the Pied Pipers of Denver. Like at Boston 2004, they will lead the little lefty mice to the Democratic Convention . . . where, just like in Boston 2004, they will be turned over to fat cat political bosses and brow-beaten into getting with the program.

A general strike, on the other hand, is tough business. Practicing for one also makes one tough. European socialists and unionists, for example, through years of experience and education, have learned how to negotiate with their political class. Most importantly, they have learned when to stop negotiating and when to go out on strike.

Americans in this century, and especially labor unions, students and working class people, have either forgotten or failed to learn that type of hard nosed negotiation. It does not grow out of being the volunteer grassroots water bearers for the mainstream parties. It does not come from humbly begging for political breadcrumbs. True democratic strength comes from exercising it. Peacefully, yes. But as aggressively as circumstances require. And experience teaches that strength often translates into a general strike, a deliberate, universal withholding of one's labor.

Media Matters – or Does It?

Is a general strike impossible in the United States because of the soporific effect of the corporate mass media? Ten years ago I might have thought so, but not now.

It is true that a majority of the media serve to entertain and distract. They are the modern equivalent of the Roman circus. Like the Roman circus, the major commercial networks also strive to barbarize the general population and thus acclimatize them to a culture of hatred, violence and self-indulgence. Self-indulgent people are egoists and they tend not to organize politically. Therefore, they are the ownership class's ideal antithesis of democratically engaged, strike-capable citizens.

Although the mass media targets one segment of society, other specialized media target another segment. There are definite opinion makers among the corporate media, like The Washington Post, The New York Times and, especially, The Wall Street Journal. Their primary target audience is the leadership cadre of society. They speak for the ownership class to the management class. These “newspapers” (I use the cautionary quotation marks around the word “newspapers” because of their predilection for uncritical amplification of official government policy and for blatant propaganda) seek to shape the opinions of the upper “management” echelons of society: the mid-level business executives, professors, lawyers, judges, teachers, doctors, other regional news editors and publishers, and government administrators. They, in turn, are expected to disseminate these approved opinions down into society in general. (1)

Although that has been the pattern for many decades, something new has evolved: the Internet and the Web. I am not a starry-eyed futurist who spouts inanities about how technology has changed the world. Neither am I a back-to-the-Stone-Ages Luddite. All of us must recognize, however, that technology, notwithstanding its abuses, has given us a tool for communicating with one another much more powerful than the military progenitors of the world wide web ever anticipated when they first created it.

Many of us daily read news from around the world. (2) We have access to encyclopedic knowledge at the scroll of the mouse, courtesy of the Wikipedia and thousands of similar sources. Some have direct RSS news feeds from far flung sources and know long before the Mainstream Media what is happening where, and why. We know which radio programs to listen to, and which to eschew. Many of us receive news, information and analysis from trusted sources who have mini distribution networks of their own. The readers of this website are themselves participating in an exercise in alternative communication. Better still, although the bloggers of the Web are a mixed lot in terms of wisdom, garbage-mongering and communication skills, they are undoubtedly a highly democratic phenomenon. Like Arlo Guthrie's “Alice's Restaurant”, you can, indeed, get anything you want from the Web, and it is entirely up to you to pick and choose from the huge a la carte read-all-you-want menu.

So-called “experts” and “pundits” and highly credentialed talking heads mean very little in this free-for-all cafeteria of ideas. Justifiably so. If there is one “free market” concept that we can endorse (and which the Wall Streeters and established political leadership deride) it is that we all can educate ourselves to figure out for ourselves what makes sense and what does not. The anonymity of the Web is as democratic as the world wide free software movement in which the quality of the programming is evident in the product itself, and not in the size or advertising of the company that churns it out.

Although the number of people who regularly read this particular website are vastly fewer than those who subscribe to the mainstream infotainment networks, one suspects that you who read this website tend to have a lot of opinions of your own... and you tend to communicate these opinions to others. In short, the highly democratic nature of the Internet has permitted each of you to become small ink splotches on the dirty fabric that represents your world, real people providing real content of your own. Sometimes these ink splotches spread. They do not always spread too far, but when there are many of you, reposting, forwarding, linking people together, spreading by osmosis, sometimes the ink splotches can transfigure the whole fabric.

In a nutshell, the mainstream corporate media still dominates and propagandizes, but it is no longer absolutely dominant over the formation of public opinion. Indeed, the anonymous web users and bloggers are now a sufficient part of an alternative opinion-shaping media to actually have an incremental, but statistically significant effect on politics. Thus, too, will the American attitude toward a general strike eventually be shaped from below and not from the top by the traditional media venues.

Precisely because of this, there is an ongoing effort from the top to consolidate the Internet into the hands of the largest corporations. All members of the ownership class regard absolute Internet dominance as equally, if not more essential than the manipulation of the actual election process. The overall effect of aggregating the control of the Internet and of regulating the speed of its delivery based on content or provider, would be a political body blow to the very democratic possibilities that the ownership class most dreads. “Net democracy” is a better term than “net neutrality” to describe this technical phenomenon that now is a small counterbalance to the previous hegemony of the anti-democratic corporate media.

Does the Lack of Community In America Preclude a General Strike?

Yes and no. From one perspective, nothing makes a general strike more difficult than the fact that, in the USA of the past fifty years or so, people have no “roots”. Unlike in Europe where people may live and work among colleagues that they have known since childhood, Americans tend to move all over the place. Business interests describe this as “flexible labor”, that is, they can make you move wherever they want you to go in order to get a job. The only “community” that the ownership class wants you to have is lonely communion with your television set or while sitting in the highly choreographed spectacle of a sports-temple where folks are trained en mass to scream, stand up, sit down and salute the flag on command.

Nowadays, however, for the reasons described in the preceding section, “communities” are actually more meaningful than they used to be. Precisely because of the explosion of information, you can become part of like-minded communities wherever you live in the United States. Whereas a “community” used to be geographically defined, it no longer needs to be. This website is a community and we have never met. The entire network of like-minded people reposting articles and emailing viewpoints and opinions to their friends and acquaintances is a community. (3)

The notion of “communitarianism” also has some potential dangers against which we should all be on guard. A “community”, of course, can be nothing less than nationalism on the local level. If the sole criteria of your “community” is where its members live, then it has no more rationality than a nation of people bound by the accident of where they were born. It must be an idea that glues a community together, rather than any accident of race, religion, work or residence, otherwise it can slide into politics of exclusion. Many of us believe, in fact, that our community is not just “local”, but includes the international community of all like-minded people wherever in the world they reside. You and I may have as much (or more) in common with someone living in Mumbai or Buenos Aires or Munich or Barcelona than we have in common with our next door neighbors.

So long as the Internet, as it is, is permitted to exist, there is greater potential for true “community” to emerge than ever before. It is that type of community that is fertile ground for a general strike. (4)

We Can't Agree On Anything in America Let Alone a General Strike!

Clarity of purpose, resolve, coordination and planning are essential for any general strike to succeed. A general strike that fails for lack of adequate preparation only demoralizes and is worse than no strike at all. Although it may be impossible for the national community to unify on the essential strike criteria, it is not necessary that everyone agree to participate for the strike to take effect. In the Industrial Age, it was sufficient for coal miners or steel workers to strike, or for railroad employees, longshoremen or teamsters to go out on strike.

In our times there is one -- albeit mostly unorganized, generally apolitical -- professional group that unknowingly holds the most power in our society: the computer programmers, hardware engineers, web masters, hackers and system analysts. Veritably nothing functions anymore in the 21st Century if these people withhold their services. Everything from the world banking system to retail commerce to manufacturing to the federal government to college campuses to air traffic control to intelligence operations to the military depends absolutely on the daily massage therapy of the world's millions of computer geeks. If they do not work, then nothing, absolutely nothing works. Indeed, short of Nature herself whacking humankind upside the head with catastrophic global climate change and petroleum depletion, nothing other than the international community of digi-sophisticates has the power to redirect the course of humanity.

I do not pretend for a moment that this is a homogeneous group -- its personality and politics range world-wide from all flavors of libertarian free marketeers to anarchistic Black Hats, from socialists to capitalist freebooters, from sexually insecure alter egoists to arrogant flamers, gamers and crackers. Nevertheless, those who are interested in the dynamics of the general strike should understand where the critical pressure points are in their society and who has their laboring hands and minds on those pressure points. In the information age of the 21st century we should ask: who would constitute the equivalent of the coal miners, steel workers, railroad employees, teamsters or longshoremen of the past century? The answer is staring you in the face from your computer screen.

Practice Makes Perfect.

My purpose in writing “The Docile American” was not to provoke an ill-conceived general strike. My purpose was to identify some (though certainly not all) of the historical factors that have led to the impotence of America's citizens and which need to be addressed before an effective general strike could be organized. (5) One hugely important factor that coincides with overwhelming current public opinion is the need to radically change the health care system in the United States.

We should not be charmed by either the Democratic or Republican parties and their game of musical power chairs. However, to the extent that either party needs our votes or our money, then socialized medicine, not incremental fixes to the existing privatized health care system, must be one of the first non-negotiable demands we make. It is one of the most economically emancipating steps toward creating the next democratic tool: the power to make a general strike.

In the meantime, Americans should consider how to exercise their democratic muscles. Like a fighter who trains by lifting weights and shadow boxing to build strength and stamina, so should we, as citizens, be training, laying the groundwork for seeking fundamental changes in the future that will require more strength and stamina than we now have.

Zbignew Zingh can be reached at: This article is CopyLeft, and free to distribute, reprint, repost, sing at a recital, spray paint, scribble in a toilet stall, etc. to your heart’s content, with proper author citation. Find out more about Copyleft and read other great articles at: copyleft 2007.


1) These thoughts are loosely borrowed from the writings of C. Wright Mills, author of the classic text The Power Elite (1956).

2) Some news is harder to get than others. Google, for example, has stopped indexing news headlines from apparently because it is too stridently opposed to the American occupation of Iraq. My perspective is that informed citizens need exposure to all points of view and it is highly improper for a search engine like Google, which seeks to establish its own flavor of pervasive Net culture, to exercise censorship over what we can read.

3) Neither, however, should we fall into the antithesis of jingoism by believing that everything American is bad and everything non-American is good. People are people. They are good and awful, and everything in between, in equal measures across all cultures and societies. There are saints and bloodsuckers in every religion, in every political system, in every community on earth. Although some economic, religious and political systems have proved to be consistently worse than others in that they naturally lead to extremes of injustice, the essential thing is to pick and choose the best from all societies and systems and to discard the detritus.

4) Nothing published in clear on the Internet is confidential and we should assume that this site, and every other interesting website in the world is being monitored. That is why no one should write or post anything these days that s/he would be embarrassed to see offered as an exhibit at trial. On the other hand, there is nothing that prevents you from reaching out even to those on the other side of the divide. Most police and nearly all soldiers come from the working classes. They should be your natural allies. Even the folks who are paid to monitor this site may not necessarily identify with their paymasters. The concept of democracy is truly ecumenical. Those who know how to bear arms are as entitled to participate in it as are those who loathe them. And the day could one day come when the one will need the other.

5) One significant shortcoming of “The Docile American” that some readers pointed out was the choke-hold of consumer debt and how that contributes to the economic shackling of the people. I totally agree. It is a significant topic that I want to address in a separate article dedicated to that one issue.