On Mayday: Activism vs. History

On Occupy Wall Street’s “general strike” Mayday, a thought on activism and history. I think I just heard David Graeber, author of Debt, a book I admire very much, say on Brian Lehrer’s show that the term “general strike” is now being redefined in context of the inescapable fact that American organized labor has not come out on strike today. Graeber explained that dissonance by noting that laws have made sympathy strikes illegal, anomalously in Graeber’s view when compared to standards of labor activism that he says prevailed in the 19th century.

Lots of stuff to unpack there historically. But politically, my immediate reaction: I can’t imagine that even if any and all “general strike” legislation were instantly repealed, much of American organized labor as we know it would be out on strike today. More to my point, I can’t imagine Graeber thinks so either.

So what’s up? Something to do with wishful uses of history, writing, and criticism in the service of activism. What Occupy intellectuals seem to want to do, both with the past and with current realpolitik, is to construct current and historical conditions as favoring immense growth and success for Occupy — i.e., rally to the cause. Graeber’s soundbite may well distill a nuanced historical view in which, had things gone differently in American labor history, American labor would be radically different from what it is today. If such a view enables his implying that absent a legal crackdown on the big unions, they’d be on strike today, the nuance is perverse.

As always, I think these constructions are not only misleading, possibly deliberately so, thus politically and existentially inauthentic, but also counterproductive to developing any realistic critique, an actively usable one, of American finance, economics, and government. A critique I remain unsure the Occupy movement even wants to develop. But I do.

5 thoughts on “On Mayday: Activism vs. History

  1. The central labor council endorsed the strike and even our call for “revolutionary transformation”

    • I appreciate the point; I know traditional centers of organized labor have often been supportive. I think the concerns I’m raising stand. Further discussion would be needed; I’m going to be more interested in the dissonances — which I think have a good chance of looking pretty stark, especially to the extent that Occupy *does* enjoy success — than in the harmonies. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I am ambivalent about the movement’s use of this labor history. On the one hand, I’m sure it is inspiring to look upon a rich tradition of labor activism, like the 1932 and 1946 general strikes. Those aren’t necessarily things you are going to learn about in school.

    On the other hand, activists shouldn’t look too nostalgically to the past, or expect it to have much bearing on the present day. In many ways, it’s better to just look ahead to the future.

    In any case, should we even look to any activist movement for a nuanced reading of history?

    David, I didn’t get the opportunity to hear your remarks, but William, I would say that “general strike” would have to be continually redefined; since unions weren’t technically legal until 1933 anyway, the 19th Century tradition David alluded to was itself different from those post-Section 7a.

    • Thanks for commenting. I’ve looked to Graeber for very nuanced readings; sometimes activism inspires — forces — nuance. And I wasn’t saying there’s anything wrong with redefining “general strike,” just that the need to do so and the way of doing so are possibly revealing of inherent problems.

  3. My understanding is that unions were illegal and strikes were held in order to gain the right to form unions. Now people need to have unions in order to gain the right to strike.

    Workers are now too terrified to hold general strikes because of the indirect life and death authority exercised over them by employers. People in unions generally have some form of health care insurance and the loss of a job in this time of a capital-strike-imposed austerity puts them and their families quickly at risk of early death, bankruptcy, social ostracism, and foreclosure, etc.

    Union leadership is threatened by severe financial penalties for violating the severe restrictions of legal strikes. My understanding is that the Madison, WI occupations were bottom up and the union leadership feared the bankruptcy of the unions themselves.

    Perhaps the high death and poverty rates existent at the time of the Haymarket may have made the increased risk of being fired seem minimal for the gains to be made, such as the 40 hour work week.

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