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New Kids on the Historic Bloc: A 2010 Assessment

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Photo of Jon Liss (on left) and Rishi Awatramani

A central task for our period is to figure out which are the key nodes in this reshaped political economy at which we must build strong, fighting mass organizations, and which are the key historical actors that can build unity and lead a movement against capital and exploitation.

The original article “New Kids on the Historic Bloc” was written by Jon Liss and David Staples This article takes off from where that one left off and is based on an interview between Rishi Awatramani and Jon Liss. This interview originally appeared in April 2010.

Crisis, capitalist refounding and the Reagan historic bloc

Over the last 30 years capital has ‘re-founded’ itself by imposing neo-liberal programs (see Theodore/Peck) linked with imperialist expansion.  This refounding was a response to a crisis of accumulation or declining profit rates.  Components of neo-liberalism include: privatization, aggressive attacks on unions, attacks on the ‘social’ wage in general and women of color in particular.  We use a framework of ideas, institutions and program of actions to describe the New Right program for the last thirty years. The dominant ideas of the New Right include concepts that support ‘getting government off the people’s back’, stop taxing and spending, etc. Institutions that propagate and implement neo-liberalism range from the Manhattan Institute (urban policy) to the U.S. Congress, while programs have included efforts to cut taxes on the wealthy or slash welfare as we know it.  Up until the last 18 months their program could largely be classified as a smashing success.  Because of their ideological hegemony, both dominant electoral parties accept some variation of their ideology concerning the role of government in the functioning of the economy.  These politics and policies were made dominant through the forging of an historic bloc that both elects like-minded officials but also serves as a political tail wind that keeps things they way they are. By expertly blending racism with appeals to capitalist mythology, Reagan manufactured an anti-new deal majority that was tied to industrial capital, military and industrial capital, extractive industries/capital, white workers, farm owners and outer suburbanites.  In one form or another this bloc has set the parameters of dominant politics for the last thirty years.  However, the twin jolts of economic collapse and demographic shifts (massive immigration from Latin American and Asia) created the reality of Obama’s election and indicate a conjunctural opportunity to aggressively challenge the dominant ideas, institutions and program of the last 30 years.

Recomposition of the working class

These massive changes in the political economy had major effect on the composition of the Working Class in the US. There are a number of factors responsible for this re-composition: 1) Over the last 30-40 years, manufacturing jobs moved overseas. In this period in particular, the US experienced massive de-industrialization of sectors that had been at the heart of the economy and the main provider of stable employment for the dominant white male sector of the working class (and therefore a central site of Working Class organization and struggle). Flexible and unstable employment in the low-wage service sectors, public service  and government jobs, or some form of state welfare dependence emerged as the primary bread-winning opportunities for working-class people. 2) During this same period, there was a significant increase in immigration, due  to both the liberalization of immigration policy in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as the deepening economic crises of working people in the Third World (crises which were caused primarily by the creation of massive national debts through Structural Adjustment policies). 3) The disappearance of well-paid working class jobs and the increase in unstable, low-wage jobs meant that women of color in particular were to, more than ever before, be forced to work double time: in their unpaid labor in domestic work in their own homes and in paid work, typically in low-wage service sector positions (in some cases, doing paid domestic work for other families).

Through these changes, the working class has been recomposed, and is much more populated by immigrants, people of color, and women. Significantly, this recomposition has also created a more unstable, highly flexible, and poorly compensated working class that faces speed-up pressures, contingent work, and limited benefits.

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A central task for our period, then, is to figure out which are the key nodes in this reshaped political economy at which we must build strong, fighting mass organizations, and which are the key historical actors that can build unity and lead a movement against capital and exploitation. For example, a part of our project is to develop demands for child care providers, taxi drivers, janitors, and even computer or biotechnology workers (who share the contingency of work and low/no benefits with other members of the new working class).

We face an uphill battle to achieve the key tasks of this period, as we fight against a dominant ideology which is not on our side, labor laws that do more to divide workers and protect the interests of bosses than promote workers’ rights, a historical trajectory that has left us with diminished social movements and organizations, and spatial divisions that isolate our organizations and movements.

Social Reproduction: gender, market integration, and a rising history maker!

Part of the dominant class response to the accumulation crisis was to bring fully into market conditions socially reproductive labor, or in other words, to move work that was not traditionally waged into the waged work world.  This is work usually done by  women that is involved in the reproduction (schooling, childcare, housekeeping, elder care, etc.) of the next generation of workers.  Capital continually looks to fill its insatiable need to expand by moving unwaged work to waged work.  The movement of women into the labor force, particularly its most undervalued and super-exploited sectors, expands the labor market and the production of surplus value.

Neo-liberal restructuring drove a polarization of wealth and power and created a new demand for a whole range of domestic service and services.  This emerging stratum of the working class is the lowest paid, works the longest hours and is in perennial crisis.  In addition, immigration laws further segment the labor market creating a gray market for undocumented workers who have little legal productions under the law.  At this intersection of race, class and gender has emerged the rising history maker – working women of color – who are largely the social base of the new working class organizations that have arisen in the last two decades.

In Northern Virginia this has meant immigrant women who work in hotels or the service industry who join Tenants and Workers United. Elsewhere – in urban areas throughout the country – it is women of color who have come together to motor the overwhelming majority of  New Working Class Organizaitons that have developed over the last 20 years.  Particularly for the 40 organizations who are members of the Right to the City Alliance our political demands are centered around social reproduction that is around needs and wants associated with sustaining and raising working people.  This includes fights for affordable or public housing, high performing schools and a range of social services.

Organizing during the neo-liberal era: Pragmatism in unions and community organizing

For decades, the old-school Alinsky form of organizing has dominated community- and workplace-based organizing, and it is time to formally declare it’s failure. The Alinsky model of organizing emphasizes a purportedly non-ideological, pragmatic approach to organizing that is ill-equipped to winning power for the oppressed people. It grew in the space created by the decline of the New Left, the rise of progressive or liberal foundations, and the decline of organized labor. The internal crisis of ACORN in some ways flows directly from the political limitations and failures of the Alinskly model, and ACORN is in the beginning of a period of serious decline in which it will lose dominance in it’s two former foundational strengths: electoral organizing and fundraising from private foundations.

At the same time, the labor movement, with few exceptions, is not organizing the most militant and dynamic sectors of the working class, and it has not adapted well to the formation of the new working class referenced above. Over 87% of the workforce in this country are not union members. The Labor Movement on the whole has not broken from a Gomperist (see Fletcher and Gapasin, Solidarity Divided) relation to the dominant class.  That is, it fights to get a slightly better deal for its members vis-à-vis the rest of the class.  It does not fight for the class as a whole, nor does it challenge the fundamental rules of capital.

Organizations for the new class: Emergence, approach and self-analysis/critique

Over the last 20 years a new urban movement is emerging in the growth of new working class organizations – such as Just Cause Oakland (now Causa Justa/Just Cause), Miami Workers Center, Tenants and Workers United, Domestic Workers United, POWER, and others.  These organizations social base is oppressed nationality women; including African American’s and others forced into the low-wage labor market because of welfare ‘reform’ and globalization-forced immigration.

These groups attempted to organize whole neighborhoods, cities, or sectors of the workforce in campaigns that raised demands against the state. Through direct action, conscious political education and raising counter-hegemonic demands (that is, framing demands in ways that challenge the dominant class’s ‘common sense’), these organizations fought for affordable housing and an end to displacement in the face of intense land privatization, recognition of domestic work as dignified work, the rights of marginal and informal workers, access to quality transportation for these new tiers of workers, and an end to the wanton criminalization of youth of color.

Perhaps most uniquely, there is a conscious effort amongst these New Working Class Organizations to link local base-building work with work against the US empire, by engaging members in struggles and solidarity actions against war, occupation, and financial control of the Third World, but also by developing a tier of leaders from this new working class that is highly conscious of the role the US plays financially, politically and militarily in the world. Whereas an most unions would focus leadership development exclusively on skills to be used for the narrow purpose of workplace organizing, these new organizations prioritized a form of leadership development that developed ‘hard’ leadership skills with ideological development and analytical skills.

This form of organization is relatively new, however, and has many weaknesses. The leadership of NWCO is primarily university educated, ‘middle class’ and oppressed nationality, with relatively few advanced leaders directly from the new class. It is dependent on foundations for its financial base, which has meant that, while most NWCO’s are organizer-centered, they are not typically funded to have a density of organizers moving any one campaign; new funding streams more often lead to more campaigns rather than a larger base organized around larger scale campaigns. As a result, most organizations have expertise in developing a small handful of very sophisticated members and very little success in organizing large organizations with large mass bases. New Working Class Organizations have generally focused narrowly on organizing this new sector of the class and has limited experience with broader formations. The financial crash and the corresponding drop in foundation funding has left many of these groups in financial crisis.

Interestingly, over the last two years an increasing number of these organizations are experimenting in electoral work.  This is creating opportunities to organize more broadly both spatially and also broader strata within the class.

Right to the City: further self defining as a new urban movement

In 2007, 40 community-based organizations – representing many of the most ideological of the New Working Class organzations – allied academics and resource allies (eg, Advancement Project, Florida Legal Services, the Data Center) met in Los Angeles and created the Right to the City Alliance.  This coming together represented a collective jumping of scales for a maturing and r9ising sector of the working class.  Organizations, heretofore, had generally just worked on demands at local and state levels.  Cominmg together we have begun to enunciate a collective vision for our cities – for all, green, feminist – as well as begun the difficult process to make national demands on the federal government and to claim political space at the national level vis a vis unions and other national formations.

The state: a new moment

One can see in the electoral majority that elected Obama the prefigurative possibility of a rising historic bloc – centered on a unified Black nation, with wide layers of immigrants and other people of color, unionists, and broad stratum of the cybertariat and new economy working class (many with self-identified as working class.  New Working Class Organizations broadly share much in our approach to organizing: a historical subject, a broad but common understanding of race, class and gender, and our strategy for change. An area where we have less in common is our analysis of the state.  We believe that our strategic approach should draw from Poulantzas and create political space that neither builds a parallel state that leads to a complete replacement  of the old with the new, nor simply elects new people to fill the existing state. By creating new structures and laws we seek to create fissures that increasingly alter the class, race and gender power disposition of the state. Examples of this may include efforts at democratizing the system – same day voter registration or mail in voting, felon voter registration (still an arduous process in Virginia and elsewhere in the south), others might work to eliminate structural obstacles that systematically disempower people of color such as statewide election of senators, non-proportional elections, or participatory budgeting. Others challenges could seek to democratize the economy through taxes on financial transactions or community control over banks or other flows of capital.

New organizing approaches with this in mind

Along with the above-mentioned aggressive, innovative forms of campaign work and organizing, many NWCO’s are engaged more and more in electoral work. For New Working Class Organizations (Right to the City organizations, for example), electoral work presents the opportunity to push our strengths in organizing to a scale we have been unable to reach up until now.

Often confused with social democracy, this work, when led by NWCO’s can allow us to:

  1. Develop counter-hegemonic demands, or at the very least counter-hegemonic framing that we advance through issue-based or even candidate campaigns. While these campaigns are in some way assessed by a simple measure of success (i.e. winning the election), NWCO organizations must use their electoral efforts to challenge the underpinnings of neo-liberalism and empire.
  2. Win concrete material demands that improve life for our social base, build a sense of movement for our social base and force resources to be moved from the war economy to the social wage (increasing the social wage, albeit on a smaller scale, is essentially the hallmark campaign form of most NWCO’s).
  3. Advance our practice and theory through engaging broader mass forces in, what is for the most part, their principal form of political involvement (elections). Thus we (and our allies) will be actively engaged in strategizing that will force us to continue building our base but also actively constructing a historic bloc – or ensemble of race and class forces – necessary for a new order no dominated by Capital. This provides an opportunity for different organized sectors – unionists, teachers and students, NWCM activists and others to work together in a coordinated manner.
  4. Practice limited forms of governance and power. NWCO, Alinsky organizations, and Unions have experience fighting targets and powerbrokers. We don’t have experience with even limited forms of power at his scale, and for a budding movement, it is crucial practice for different epoch in history when questions of revolutionary democracy, working class power, and organized accountability will be staring us in the face.

Finally, the scale at which our organizations must fight are always changing. While it is important to not necessarily concede political space to the ruling class, some scales of power might present opportunities at various moments in history that beckon us to action. This moment in history, due to the convergence of the economic, ecological, and political crises (the latter represents the crisis in which the ruling political classes find the legitimacy of their system of power waning) presents opportunities for struggles at the national scale which are essential to moving our base, and oppressed people broadly, into action and towards victories against exploitation. We would do well to seize these opportunities.


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