All posts by Nestor Makhno /MYEP

Oakland General Strike – some critical notes

My personal experience of the Nov. 2nd general strike in Oakland was that it was a blast. The event was beautiful and exhilarating — even the colors in the sky were perfect! More importantly, as the first attempt at a general strike in a U.S. city in sixty-six years, I hope Nov. 2nd in Oakland can stir a long-suffering and silent wage-earning class in the United States to see the collective power we can have when we use a mass-scale workplace walkout as a political weapon against the owners of America. This is a gift to our future from the Occupy movement as a whole, and in particular a tribute to the outward-directed and working class focus of Occupy Oakland. Today in the Occupy movement, Oakland leads the way.

The ever-more-alienated internet is now saturated with exhaustively detailed first-person accounts of this event and I don’t need to add to these. I’m not out to revel in a self-indulgent buzz. The San Francisco Bay Area anti-authoritarian protest-scenester-scene is at its most limber and energetic when patting itself on its back, reveling in imaginary victories, celebrating its manifest failings as glorious victories, and proclaiming the limits of its current endeavors as the highest possible point that future efforts can aspire to.

The word ‘strike’ means “to hit with force’ (Webster’s dictionary). Except for a few large windows of some wholly appropriate businesses, nothing got hit with force in Oakland on Nov. 2, 2011. It may be years until we have some accurate figure of the number of people who actually walked off the job in Oakland on Nov. 2nd, but my guess is that it was something less than 15% of the city’s wage earners. Below 10% might be even more likely.

A “strike” that the boss gives you permission to take part in isn’t really a strike. On Nov. 2nd in Oakland this meant:

1. Employees represented by the California Nurses Association making use of their sick days,

2. Oakland City government employees were given permission from the city to “participate,”

3. And the occasionally leftist-jargon-slinging port worker’s union, the ILWU, needed to have masses of protesters block the gates to port facilities, and with this in place got an official mediator to approve of one of the port worker’s shifts being cancelled. Other ILWU members went to work during an earlier shift on the day of the general strike.

A strike has to have some forcible, breaking-all-the-normal-rules, disruptive and destructive qualities to be a true act of social or class rebellion. It has to damage the economic interest of the bosses, and this didn’t happen with the strike on Nov. 2nd. Among other negative indicators here, I haven’t seen the bourgeois media offering any public estimate of money lost to businesses from the strike. You can generally count on this after similar episodes in all those other countries where the working class has been more assertive of its interests than we’ve been. An actual one-day general strike would deliver an economic rabbit-punch to the bourgeoisie, and if they had taken a real hit this way we would have heard them acting martyred about it afterward.

Still, this doesn’t mean that Nov. 2nd was a failure. The majority of working people in the contemporary U.S. are many generations distant from any directly lived experience of collective workplace-based confrontation with capital, let alone a large-scale, city-wide event taking the form of a mass workplace walkout. From the car culture to hip-hop, we’ve been subjected to an ever-more sophisticated hundred-year-long psychological operations campaign of consumer society that tells us that we are all free and atomized individuals. And of course in Uncle-Sam-Land everybody is “middle class,” only some have a lot more money than others. All this has preempted the emergence of a collective class awareness, even in a rudimentary defensive sense, let alone a widespread, conscious, irreconcilable, collective hostility to our exploiters and to the political and ideological mechanisms of their power. Fortunately, as the often tedious and dogmatic ultra-left Marxist Amadeo Bordiga noted, action tends to precede consciousness, and the simple fact that a general strike of sorts was attempted in Oakland in November 2011 may generate some awareness of the potential that an action like this can have among a wider U.S. audience.

Before the strike, the call for a city-wide walkout was not publicized in an even minimally adequate way. On the Saturday night before the Wednesday strike we had a march to the Oakland City Jail with a thousand people chanting anti-cop slogans. Two nights later I walked the length of Telegraph Avenue, one of Oakland’s main streets, from the center of downtown Oakland to the Berkeley border, a distance of several miles, and saw a total of less than two dozen handbills slapped up in a desultory manner, and these mostly along a short stretch in the semi-hipsterized/gentrified Temescal District. My guess is that this paucity of propaganda applied equally to other main thoroughfares as well. So, what’s that mean? A thousand people showed up for an entertaining, lightweight, low calorie episode of anti-pig posturing, but not one fiftieth of that number had the authentic dedication and commitment to form crews with paint brushes and buckets of wallpaper paste, or with tape guns, and cover the length of the main streets of Oakland with posters and flyers, with visible public propaganda calling attention to an action that had to strike most mainstream contemporary U.S. working people as a wholly unusual, exotic and foreign idea.

The main routes of the bus system AC Transit, major bus stops and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) could have and should have been used as a platform for the message in the form of mass postering and flyering. This did not happen in the build-up to the general strike. In the days leading up to Nov. 2nd, rank and file union members and low-level union bureaucrats came to meetings of the Occupy Oakland General Assembly. Many of these folks sincerely tried to get their unions involved in the build-up to the general strike. Some union locals generated pious statements devoid of any threat of action. Participation of unions in an effort like this is like asking the U.S. Department of Labor to organize a general strike. Unions are capitalist business organizations — they cannot be transformed into something other than this by combative members, or compelled to act as anything other than transmission belts from capital to labor that help adjust labor to the requirements of capital. Eighty years of repressive labor legislation have also tied capital’s labor brokerages at the ankles, wrists and elbows to capitalist legality and to the capitalist state. The fact that unions are sociologically made up of working class people doesn’t make them an expression of the class interests of their members, much less of the working class as a whole. The U.S. Army is for the most part made up of individuals who are sociologically working class in origin, but that doesn’t make the Army a “working class organization.”

Organizers at Occupy Oakland were probably and quite understandably overwhelmed by the task they had set for themselves in calling for a general strike, and they only had about six days to prepare for it and get the word out. Trying to get unions involved may have seemed like some kind of short cut into the world of the mainstream working class. It wasn’t. And it won’t be next time, either.

Today almost ninety percent of U.S. wage slaves aren’t members of labor unions. Among those who are union members, those who have any strong opinions at all about unions are as likely to have negative perceptions of “their” union as positive ones, and they may see “their” union as a wholly bureaucratic entity that steals dues from their pay and is either indifferent or actively hostile to their needs.

Any real future general strike has to do an end-run around unions. All future efforts of this sort will have to draw many energetic individuals to get the word out in a big way, using direct action methods, appealing to immediate needs, and do this with an uncompromising anti-capitalist message. This is no small task, and unions will do nothing to help us here.

The admirable and exemplary targeting by Black Bloc youth of windows of a store of the despicable market-libertarian-owned Whole Foods Market chain during the 2 p.m. “anti-capitalist” march points the way to where the Occupy movement must now go; into a much deeper involvement with the everyday life struggles of the mainstream wage-slave class in capitalist America, from a public, highly visible, aggressive anti-market/anti-money/anti-wage labor perspective. And for all its viscerally satisfying qualities, bricks through the windows of deserving capitalist enterprises aren’t going to draw in the large numbers of hard-pressed mainstream working people who have so much to gain from mobilization in a new mass social movement. The bricks can come later. A few broken windows won’t scare off the work-within-the-system types, either. Liberals of the MoveOn.org stripe and leftists including or akin to the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition are the deadly enemies of any liberatory potential that the Occupy movement has, but these counter-subversives have to be politically combatted and defeated in an open debate where the only weapon will be the weapon of language.

For all its admirable, spontaneous, anti-hierarchical and tremendously positive aspects, the Occupy movement in the United States is still just not enough of a mainstream working people’s movement. The problems with the Oakland General Strike prove that this is absolutely the direction that the Occupy movement must go in now.

MAINSTREAM WORKING PEOPLE, INCLUDING THE UNEMPLOYED, AND ENLISTED PEOPLE IN THE ARMED FORCES ARE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GOING TO MATTER MOST