Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reflections of Crisis

My final year's project from Hampshire College has been published by a German academic publishing company. It is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

From the back cover:
"A specter is hanging over the the United States: The specter of the Great Depression. This is a journey through the looking glass of economic crisis, and a study of how it is reflected across time and space into the present day and our own lives. It is an attempt to learn from the Great Depression and, in reflecting on its causes and consequences, to apply these lessons to the twenty first century and the current economic crisis. Unconventional and innovative in both form and content, this is a spirited trans-disciplinary investigation and analysis of both the dynamics and tendencies of capitalism as an economic and social system, and also of organized social movements in times of crisis."

Below is an excerpt from my faculty committee's final evaluation of my work, chaired by Laurie Nisonoff, with Stan Warner and Marty Ehrlich.

"In his economic research project Quincy seeks to cover a very ambitious landscape, exploring the differences and similarities between the Great Depression and the most recent U.S. and world economic crisis. His purpose is to reveal a fundamental set of critical factors in the very nature of capitalism that tends to produce crisis and to exploit a significant proportion of the working class.

Some of the issues he covers span the financial sector, consumer credit, the wages and working conditions of labor, international capital flows, monopolization, environmental consequences, and more. He begins his journey by exploring the nature of finance capital before and during the Great Depression. He tracks the rise of consumer debt, the rapid growth of non-bank financial institutions, the role of income inequality, and the interplay of productivity and unemployment. His 51 pages on this historical period are divided into 73 individually numbered sections. Some are quite terse, such as section 38 which states: “Debt is damnation in the genesis story of capitalism. Debt is the perverse form that trust takes in the capitalist mode of production.” By contrast, section 40 is a four-page essay that begins with a discussion of the paradox of a “dual economy,” in which the collapse of “plantation fiefdoms” in the South is presented as part of a larger “continental catastrophe of capitalist agriculture in the United States.” Sections 41-48 provide an insightful perspective on the social upheavals of labor migration and environmental collapse in the context of a marked intensification of monopoly in the North.

Part II of Quincy’s study turns to the current economic crisis in capitalism, again starting with the role of finance and identifying the specific ways in which that sector has been transforming itself. He details the argument that the globalization and deregulation of finance have served to heighten the vulnerability of the economy and to widen the gap between private profit making and the social good.  

It was an explicit objective of Quincy’s analysis to experiment with the way ideas are organized and expressed. The form of his essay, and his, at times, richly metaphorical language, reaches for an often literary effect. He adopted a style of short vignettes or snapshots that took up a particular issue in one or more paragraphs and focused on an aspect of that topic. He  frequently quoted from such writers as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Adam Smith, Upton Sinclair, John Maynard Keynes, John Steinbeck, Rudolf Hilferding, Josef Stendl and a variety of contemporary political economy theorists as a springboard for his discussions. Quincy hoped that the reader would treat these offerings as building blocks of accumulated knowledge and commentary that could be assembled and interpreted by the reader to come to an understanding of how capitalism performs in situations of crisis. He writes, “This is not a random buffet of ideas. On the contrary, I have avoided connecting the dots in certain ways in order to enable the reader to connect them in others. … This is an attempt to make many stories possible… These are pieces of a broken mirror. Shattered reflections of a country and a world in crisis.”"

Readers of this blog who are interested in knowing more about this project, scheduling a presentation by the author, or obtaining a copy, should leave a comment with their contact information and I will get back to you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reflections on the US Social Forum 2010

by Quincy Saul

(Photos by author. Apologies for these angles, I couldn't get them to scan upright)

This summer in June, over 10,000 people from across the country and from around the world gathered to attend the second US Social Forum in Detroit, Michigan. This massive political, economic and logistical feat (organized entirely by volunteers and funded entirely by donations) brought together a wide diversity of organizations and individuals under the common platform “Another World is Possible, Another United States is Necessary, Another Detroit is Happening” for four days of demonstrations, workshops, assemblies and for much more.

For better or for worse, the major media networks ignored this historic occasion completely, and remained rigidly focused on the relatively squalid constituents of the Tea Party, the paltry scandals of celebrities, etc. The task of reporting and reflecting on this event has thus fallen, again, for better or for worse, to people like myself, who are doing our best to spread the news and the stories and the ideas as far and wide as we can. These reflections do not presume to represent the forum or any of its constituents, but are the result of my own thoughts and experiences in Detroit that summer. They address the Social Forum as a whole, and specifically the first Excluded Workers’ Congress, which I attended on June 23rd of this year.

The second US Social Forum came at a particularly poignant time, to a world and a country and a city in crisis. On the first day of the Forum, the New York Times printed an article by Bob Herbert, who wrote that
“As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It’s not just that we can’t plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we’ve become. We can’t seem to do much of anything.”

This article, printed in the premier newspaper in the United States and read around the world by millions, testifies to the massive subterranean shift that is occurring today, as the legitimacy of government and private enterprise crumbles beneath the mortal weight of its inability to respond to the many overlapping crises of our era. While the NYT trumpeted defeat, the USSF announced its readiness to build political, economic and moral legitimacy in the eyes of the city, the country and the world.

There can never be a single synthesis of over 1,000 workshops and assemblies, attended by over 10,000 people. Multitudes do not conclude; no one has the last word. No one knows everything that happened. But we can reflect on some highlights of our own experiences, and attempt to distill some of the most portentous themes and ideas. In reflecting, we are not only analyzing, but breathing life into what happened that week in Detroit, amplifying it beyond its confines and pushing its possibilities to their limits.

Chico Whitaker said it right in the title of his book1: The Social Forum is above all a challenge. It is a different kind of challenge than many others. Not a challenge to overcome our enemies, but a challenge to overcome ourselves. To overcome both our differences and our similarities. Together, the forum is on the front lines, not against the familiar barricades of capital or the state, but against the equally formidable divisions between our movements for freedom and justice. Towards this, the convocation of the forum began with a call for “linguistic justice”, “rejecting the forces that homogenize and/or oppress the way we express ourselves, and speaking, loving and dreaming in languages of our choice.” Overturning the barricades that have divided our movements may in the long run prove more decisive and far-reaching than the limited victories our movements have had against the ruling classes.

The US forum of missed opportunities? Workshops and assemblies spend hours educating and inspiring each other, and then 15 minutes remain in the schedule to propose and arrive at consensus around specific proposals and a concrete plan of action. By the time we are through realizing the interconnectedness of our struggles and the magnitude of the possibilities that arise from that, time is up and everyone disperses.

Many people I’ve met here are in a way apathetic towards this forum, and the whole concept of the forum. They accept its diffuse structure as an unconditional mandate, and don’t expect anything in particular to come together. Perhaps they are right. But who is the burden of proof on? There seems to be a real lack of political will to moderate and facilitate large assemblies towards more concrete plans of mass collective action.

Perhaps it is a romantic notion to imagine that relationships made in a few days or hours can launch serious alliances or campaigns. If we really connect with another person or group we can contact them after the forum and build a relationship over the long term, and maybe that is the only really sustainable way. And yet this network of networks, this conference of conferences, comes and goes, gathers and disperses, without much effort to make anything more of it. It is frustrating most of all to see the experienced organizers apathetic about organizing organizers. Isn’t that what revolution is all about? As the saying goes, if not you, who? If not now, when?

Detroit. Detroit is a city in crisis and it is also a city which reveals in miniature the social and economic predicament which the whole country is diversely enmeshed in. Detroit was first established as a frontier fort in the colonization of the continent, controlled at different times by both the British and the French. Centuries later it became the final stop before Canada for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. It has always contained a warring dialectic of exploitation and resistance.

At the beginning of the 20th century Detroit was catapulted into the commanding heights of the global economy in the rough-and-tumble industrialization and urbanization that changed the face of the USA. The first assembly line was introduced in 1913, and by the time of the second world war, Detroit had earned the title of the ‘arsenal of democracy’ for its prodigious industrial output in the rising military industrial complex. By the 1950s, Detroit literally dominated the world automobile industry, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s production and assembly of cars.

In the last sixty years, Detroit has been transformed again. While the dramatic reversal of the character of economic development in the United States has been nation-wide, perhaps nowhere has the transition been as dramatic as in Detroit. Detroit has become a ghost city. The downtown skyscrapers oversee empty city streets. Within the city limits, 40 square miles of land are now vacant -- a territory the size of Boston. Economic erosion has generated widespread social problems and a shrinking welfare state has exacerbated them. The transition from welfare to work-fare under the Clinton administration was pioneered in Michigan and Detroit especially. The epidemic of police brutality in Detroit today is an acute expression of the macro-economic structural violence of de-industrialization. Detroit has been the model martyr in the United States of the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism and the new world order. The decline of Detroit as one of the economic capitals of the US and the world was not inevitable, and could have been averted with public subsidies. Instead it was sacrificed for the new economic and political imperatives of finance capital.2

Today Detroit confronts a new level and character of crisis. What remains of the social contract in Detroit is under siege. The fundamentals of security and dignity are being privatized: Hundreds of city parks and recreation centers are scheduled to close, and a plan is on the books to reduce the number of ambulances that serve the city from 20 to 12. Public education is also under attack, and dozens of schools face closure. But today, these neoliberal economic policies operate under the guise of urban renewal. Private foundations are now directing massive urban planning projects with public money, and are increasingly unaccountable to local governance.

But in the midst of this, Detroit resists. Heir to a rich history of revolutionary organization and struggle, Detroit boasts the largest urban gardening movement in the United States. The movement is not limited in scope to producing food. The urban gardens are an expression of a praxis of self-reliance that has grown out of the experience and conviction of generations of struggle. Detroit organizers Wayne and Myrtle Curtis write that:

‘Grow a garden, grow a community’ is our tag line... Instead of always striving for money, we are challenging ourselves to develop relationships and practices that will sustain us spiritually and physically. We realize most jobs are not coming back to Detroit. And those we once had didn’t satisfy our needs. We desire work that matters and that doesn’t threaten our very existence. We believe that living in harmony with all life is more desirable than dollars... We say the garden is not just a garden, it is a gathering place for meetings of minds, a place where history lessons and education about all things connected to life are shared.

Wayne and Myrtle are part of an organization called Detroit City of Hope (, which is, in its own words “an emerging network of Activists, Artists, Architects, Community Gardeners, Poets, Environmentalists, Entrepreneurs, Block Clubs, and all those seeking creative solutions to the crisis of our city and of our time.” Detroit City of Hope is one example of the many organizations that are springing up to seize the crisis and turn it into an opportunity. Just as Detroit has led the country through both growth and crisis, perhaps it shall also lead the way forward towards a new social system. On the subject of the crisis in public education, veteran organizer and Detroit resident Grace Lee Boggs has written that teachers

can spend their time lamenting their hardships and struggling to get back their old jobs or they can take advantage of this strategic moment to redefine the role of teachers to become full partners with the students and parents in the visionary transformation of educations so that students have the tools they need to create a more just, democratic and sustainable world. (From The Changing Role of Teachers, The Michigan Citizen, June 27- July 3, 2010)

In hosting the second US Social Forum, organizers in Detroit have boldly taken up the torch of the spirit and direction suggested by Grace Lee Boggs. When a committee met after the forum in Atlanta, Georgia to decide on the next location of the Social Forum, Detroit was chosen because the local community of organizers was more ready than any other to take it on. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Detroit has in many ways epitomized the national character and condition. Perhaps the Social Forum is an indication that Detroit, in spite of its plight or perhaps to some extent because of it, will remain one of the vanguard cities of the United States.

The Excluded Workers Congress

In historical perspective
On June 23rd this year, representatives of over a dozen organizations representing historically excluded workers assembled in Detroit, Michigan during the US Social Forum. Farm workers, domestic workers, restaurant workers, contingent workers (“temps”) from across industries, taxi drivers, students and many more of those excluded from US labor law, for the first time in history were gathered together, not in simple complaint or plaintive protest, but organized, and in continental congress assembled.

“We are standing in the doorway to a new labor movement,” someone addressed the congress as it convened, and it is high time. Today, the labor movement in the United States is barely worthy of the name. Under the current labor regime, union density and militancy have been in steady decline for at least four decades. Can something that has been shrinking and losing power so consistently for so long still be called a movement? In 1994, Time magazine called the labor movement “a toothless dinosaur on the way to becoming fossils.” Despite all the drama surrounding the leadership and direction of the big unions in the last few years, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Time’s rhetoric has not been proved wrong. If it can still be called a movement, its direction and trajectory are disintegration and retreat.

The answers to the burning questions of our time will not be found within the old labor movement, of this much we can be certain. However, the failures of the old labor movement and the conditions which have made a new emerging labor movement possible are bound together, in a history both shared and divided.

The legal split between included and excluded workers as we know it today was forged in the gauntlet of the New Deal. The New Deal came at a high price. Agricultural and domestic workers (the vast majority of black workers at the time) were excluded from the legislation protecting the rights of workers to form unions and collectively bargain for a contract. When the big unions accepted this deal, they turned their backs on the core principle that had built their movement: solidarity. They forgot that the old anthem “An injury to one is an injury to all” was not just a slogan, but a strategic necessity. From that moment, it was only a matter of time before that betrayal at the heart of the movement would come home to roost. It has officially come home. Today the institutionalized labor movement finds itself stuck in a swamp of internecine turf wars and personality conflicts, struggling to hold on to what privileges remain, an eager but unrewarded lackey of the Democratic Party, all but irrelevant to the majority of the working class population in the United States.

In all this time, excluded workers in the United States have learned the hard way the consequences of the old labor regime. They have paid the price of exclusion and see through the sham of a solidarity which is not universal. Together, they are joining together to lead a new kind of labor movement. They know better than to allow someone to fight for them. “Closed mouths never get fed,” one adjunct student worker concluded, “so it’s up to us to make some noise!”

Professor Dan Clawson, in his book The Next Upsurge3, suggests that the United States labor movement may be poised for a comeback. Just as the low point of the labor movement in the 1920s gave way to the highest tide of class struggle in US history in the 1930s, the swell of a new labor movement might even now be building. “[T]he labor movement will not grow slowly and incrementally,” Clawson writes:

“It hasn’t in the past and it won’t in the future... Historically, unions in the United States have grown in explosive bursts rather than in steady increments... Most of the time unions are losing ground; once in a while labor takes off... Each period of upsurge redefines what we mean by ‘the labor movement,’ changing cultural expectations, the form that unions take, laws, structures, and accepted forms of behavior... how labor relates to other groups in society, laws and regulations... what sorts of labor action are permitted, encouraged, prohibited.” (pages 19, 16 and 13)

If the increasing adversity of economic crisis provokes a new upsurge in the labor movement, as it did in the 1930s, the Excluded Workers Congress could provide some of the ideal leadership to coordinate the many diffuse movements in this country for economic, environmental, racial, sexual, and international justice. Their fight against exclusion gives the congress something in common with all of these movements, and the Congress could provide the organizational lens through with this diversity of alienation is focused against its systemic oppressor.

Many in the labor movement bewail the 12% statistic of total aggregate union density in the United States. The lowest in the industrialized world! The new labor movement will flip this statistic upside down. 88% of the working class today is excluded from their right to improve their conditions in the workplace, and it is this 88% that must become the new labor movement. What better form of organization to unite them than an Excluded Workers Congress?

Although convened in the format of a forum, it was an amazing insight to call it a congress. Not only does it suggest that it will convene again, but it suggests that it will be a place for not only meeting and the celebration of unity, but for empowered debate and deliberation over a common course of action, alongside coordination between representatives of large and very diverse constituencies. It not only suggests the move beyond service-providing to struggle, but also beyond advocacy and into leadership. The Excluded Workers Congress could be a staging point and organizing platform for a new revolutionary labor movement in the US.

In theoretical perspective
In our upside-down world, the truth can often be the inverse or opposite of the language used to express it. Really, these excluded workers are the most included, in the sense that without their labor, there could be no inclusion for anyone. This is not mysticism but de-mystification. What excludes these workers, and what simultaneously unites them as a class, is really the nature of their inclusion -- a kind of inclusion which at once excludes them and makes all other kinds of social inclusion possible. It is a paradox so striking that it’s hard even to express. But it is the daily life of millions.

These excluded workers are doing perhaps the most essential work, both in the United States and the world over. They are building and repairing the foundations that make all forms of inclusion possible. They are raising children, caring for the elderly, cleaning homes and clothes, growing, harvesting, cooking and serving food, transporting people and things; they are delivering the payoff of the social contract to our neighborhoods and dining room tables. Without them society would not only come to a halt, it would crumble.

This permanent underclass of workers is really at the “commanding heights” of the local, national and global economy, and this has big theoretical implications! (For example, an economy may survive for some time without a banking sector, but for no time at all without carework.) Their work is so essential that we take it for granted, and often do not even account for it in economic or political terms. But we cannot afford to continue to do so. Not only a moral imperative but a strategic and theoretical understanding of political economy demands that we doubly recognize these workers for both their potentially immense political and economic power and their historic exclusion.

These are the real proletarians, in the original particularity of the term. They are workers who cannot be freed from their chains until everyone’s chains are broken. And, which is more, they are workers who generally recognize and understand this. They are a class of workers who, as Marx and Engels theorized in the Manifesto, “cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” The freedom and human rights that they are demanding are not any kind of rights or freedom. They will only accept a freedom that is for all society, and human rights for them must be universal. As excluded workers, anything else could not be enough. Of all classes of workers, they are least likely to sell out, because their experience as an oppressed class is a direct material consequence of being sold out by others; they understand the necessity of solidarity. Until they are free, no one in the world will be free, not in terms of metaphysics but in terms of political economy. “As long as there are excluded workers,” one said in the assembly, “the threat of indentured servitude hangs over us all.”

What are they fighting for? Inclusion in a system that excludes so many others? They will not have it. Their whole experience as individuals and as a class rebels against it. They will not take the road of the old labor movement. They are fighting for a world which does not yet exist, a world which will not exist until no one is excluded; or, perhaps, as the Zapatistas have said, a world where many worlds fit.

At the center of a tornado of all the forms of oppression that this society whips into a frenzy, these men and women will not be free until the whole storm of exclusion itself is ended. Which is to say that their struggle is directly and immediately a struggle against alienation, and against capitalism.

The real proletarians are standing up. Brought together by their exclusion, they are in continental congress assembled. With exclusion as their banner, they are intrinsically unlikely to fall into a trap of the business unionism that co-opted the radical inclusive demands of the best of the 1930s labor movement. Already they are recognizing themselves as a class, a class unique and apart in the Marxist sense, as defined in the manifesto: “All the preceding classes that got the upper hand,” (for example the representatives of the majority white male manufacturing working class) “sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation,” (namely, exclusive privileges for themselves; the private welfare state.) “The proletarians,” however, “cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation,” (exclusion) “and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation” (from slavery to wage-slavery). As a class excluded from all privileges, “[t]hey have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” They are by nature struggling not only for the abolition of exclusion, but, directly or indirectly, for the abolition of capital and its crises, of which exclusion is so constant a feature.

Exclusion: The deep significance of the term. Decades ago, Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael stressed that language is a crucial arena of struggle, and therefore that is essential for a movement to maintain conscious control of the terminology that surrounds it: “We have to fight,” he insisted, “for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted. This is the first need of a free people, and this is also the first right refused by every oppressor.”

The paradigm of exclusion and inclusion is the economic, legal, political and moral backbone of the current world-system. This paradigm describes not only the primordial economic division in capitalism between rich and poor, but also the symptoms and ancillary characteristics of this system -- the multifaceted apartheid which saturates societies and divides them between those with and without worker’s rights (to organize), citizen’s rights (to vote), and human rights (to subsistence, dignity and justice). For this reason, the focus on exclusion, and the language used to describe this focus, is deeply essential and significant to the future of the movement. The language itself focuses the struggle, not only in analysis but in practical strategy.

In his recent book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce,4 Slajov Zizek categorizes that the current global crisis of capitalism as composed of four primary antagonisms: 1) the impending ecological catastrophe, 2) the ever-broadening contradiction between private property and the social character of production (now hotly contested in the realm of intellectual property rights), 3) the controversy over the moral and economic significance of new technological and scientific developments (from genetically modified foods to nanotechnology) and finally, 4) the extreme exacerbation of inequality on a local and global scale and its manifestation in “new forms of apartheid” between those included in the newer world order and those excluded from it. (p91) All of these antagonisms converge today in the current crisis, and it is on the terrain of these antagonisms that the battle for the meaning and outcome of this crisis is being fought. But these antagonisms are not all equal. Zizek goes on to say that

“[i]n the series of the four antagonisms then, that between the Included and the Excluded is the crucial one. Without it, all others lose their subversive edge -- ecology terns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, biogenetics into an ethical issue... In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian battling against poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.” (page 98)

Zizek suggests that it may be possible for the system to resolve and/or accommodate the first three antagonisms without addressing the fourth. Indeed, he implies that the first three crises could be resolved by effectively exacerbating the antagonism between included and excluded; by ‘out-sourcing’ the crisis onto the excluded, and through the formation of socially and ecologically responsible gated communities (the Green Zone comes to mind) from where the next empire could be coordinated. It is important to understand that none of these contradictions can be resolved or transcended in the long run without addressing the paradigm of apartheid at the core of the system. Out-sourcing is only a temporary fix because as Subommandante Marcos says, “there are no seats outside the ring.” But in the meantime the reality of apartheid under the guise of economic development does threaten humanity in ever new dimensions. (For examples, see the book “Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, New Press, 2007”.)

To combat this nightmare which holds the dignity of the planet hostage, it is necessary to focus the language used to describe the current crisis around the fundamental paradigm of exclusion. The Excluded Workers Congress can play a decisive role in framing both the terminology and terrain of this struggle.

Some possible points of unity:
1. The Excluded Workers Congress is not fighting for inclusion in the economic/legal/political system that is understood to be fundamentally at fault.
2. The Congress is united in its struggle against exclusion, but diversity is its greatest and most respected resource. Before the diversity of exclusion divided us. Now it shall unite us.
3. Organized struggle to improve our conditions is an inalienable human right to which all workers are entitled, but the struggle for inclusion in the legally-protected labor force must also be part of a struggle against all forms of exclusion.
4. The exclusion of one is a threat to all.

These explosive points of unity, at least as I was able to discern them from the prevalent discourse at the congress, are enough to catapult a new labor movement into political territory as radical as occupied by the Industrial Workers of the World. They propose a struggle not only against capital, but against all forms of alienation. The spirit of the IWW’s version of the “Internationale” could be theirs as well:

No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves! No more in thrall!
The earth shall stand on new foundations
We have been naught -- We shall be All!

P.S. (in the style of el Subcommandante Marcos)
The alliance of the Excluded Workers’ Congress with the factory occupation movement

Following the Excluded Workers Congress, there was an international meeting of the factory occupation movement, attended and facilitated by union leaders from the US, Mexico, France and India. Attended by many participants of the Excluded Workers Congress, this meeting brought the best of the old labor movement together with the first waves of the new. A domestic worker who had lead a political campaign for legal rights argued in simple terms for a national appropriation of the means of production by the working class. A union leader from India offered important advice on the steps that need to be taken in advance to ensure the long-term viability of an appropriated enterprise. A US factory worker who had helped lead a plant occupation called for a general strike in support of radical immigration reform. In this international, interracial, intergenerational and inter-organizational meeting, the dead weight of the past seemed to fall away. History was not transcended, it was seized. The barriers that have divided these movements for generations, and the constraints that have narrowed the horizons of their politics for centuries, receded before the power of their alliance. I think everyone was equally radicalized and inspired by each other.

Such reunions are so fleeting in duration, but may reverberate very far, if we call attention to their significance and actively and collectively reflect on them. One of the great political failures of the last four decades has been the failure to connect the labor movement with the new social movements, particularly those that emerged in the 1960s. In Detroit this summer, some of these bridges were crossed. It will be important for these groups to meet again, not only in the context of a larger forum, but on their own terms and soil. First to reiterate and formalize both the conditions of their unity and struggle, and secondly to begin the serious debates and the political process of setting a course of action, for the country and the world. There is not a moment to lose.

Cracks in the walls of exclusion
A security officer from the Transportation Security Authority took the floor at the Excluded Workers Congress, not to threaten or cajole, but to humbly explain his plight. The Transportation Security Authority was mandated after September 11th, 2001 by the Bush administration in the advent of the War on Terror, to renovate and reinvigorate the nation’s security against the risk of terrorism. The formation of the TSA stripped 45,000 security officers throughout the United States of the right to unionize. Collective bargaining was overruled as a potential threat to national security. And so it came to be that the apparatus designed specifically to enforce the division between included and excluded forced its own employees into alliance with the excluded.

The security apparatus is devouring itself, making enemies of its own defenders. As William Blake foretold centuries ago, “A dog starved at his master’s gate / Predicts the ruin of the State.” That fact that a TSA officer was at the US Social Forum to ask for help and solidarity is a sign from both above and below that crisis is really upon us. He explained that he had to have his speech approved by the entire Homeland Security bureaucracy in order to obtain permission to attend the Congress. But I don’t think he was reading from it. He was speaking from his heart, and his experience is clearly not an isolated case. The centurions of empire are pleading with the barbarians outside the gates for help.

Justice vs. Capital
I talked at length with a warehouse worker from Illinois who had worked as a temp for six years in Chicago’s massive logistics and distribution industry. When I asked him the long term goal of his organization Warehouse Workers for Justice (, he responded, among other things, “a permanent job.” For such a dream, hundreds of workers moved from the United States to the USSR in the early 1900s. Those workers neither expected nor found a perfect world in Russia, but they understood that there were no permanent jobs in a capitalist economy. They had been ruthlessly taught that crisis and a reserve army of excluded workers are a permanent characteristic of the capitalist system. Nonetheless, this warehouse worker and his organization will not be satisfied with anything less than stable, living-wage jobs with benefits. They will not settle for less, and will indeed struggle for more. They are building power in the heart of this nation’s supply chain -- the third largest container port in the world. While these workers make the just-in-time world economy flow smoothly, running the distribution hub for the majority of all commodities bought and sold in North America, they endure terrible treatment -- low pay, no security, no benefits, racial and sexual discrimination and no rights to organize. The struggle of these warehouse workers for the justice that is due to them will put them up against some of the biggest most powerful representatives of capital in the world, who rely on the submission of these warehouse workers for the stability of their bottom line. These workers will learn in their struggle that the cause of justice is irreconcilable with the cause of capital. And with their hands on the levers of the global economy, their demands for the dignity they deserve may very well shake it.

Whose Social Forum?

On my way back from the Social Forum I had the time to begin to read through some of the literature I had picked up in my time there. As I learned more about the history and current events of the city of Detroit, an unsettling perspective weighed in heavily upon my high-flown reflections from the Forum. Somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand people attended the Social Forum this summer, an impressive number, unmatched by any other kind of political convention in the recent history of the United States. But whose Social Forum was it? At the end of 2009, 50 thousand people, not from abroad, but Detroit residents, filled the Cobo Convention Center, where the Forum was based half a year later. They were not there for revolution but for housing assistance. That these people in need were not more integrated into the vision of the Social Forum or even in attendance, represents a major problem not only for the Social Forum but for the left as a whole, which seems perennially isolated from those most in need of an alternative. The future of the Social Forum, not only in the United States but internationally, will depend on the understanding of this problem and the strategy to resolve it.

1 El Desafio del Foro Social, by Francisco Chico Whitaker, Loyola, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 2005
2 See in particular The Untold Story of Detroit’s Collapse, How the U.S. Press Helped Destroy the Auto Industry, by Eamonn Fingleton, Counterpunch, May 2009
3 Clawson, Dan. The Next Upsurge, Labor and new social movements. Ithaca and London: ILR Press, 2003
4 Zizek, Slavoj. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, London and New York: Verso, 2009