(This article is derived from a script for one of my podcast episodes. Proudly Radical – Episode 27 – Anarcho-Syndicalism 101)
First before we start into this article’s topic let me remind you, as I always try and do, that political theory & philosophy are murky subjects and different individuals can have wildly differing views on the subjects. My opinions come from a variety of teachings and sources from Kropotkin, Chomsky, Rousseau, Voltaire, Descartes, Kant, Taylor, Bellamare and so many others that the list would become unwieldy and, of course, my own thoughts and interpretations so always keep that in mind.
Let’s start with the term that most people are wildly unfamiliar with: Syndicalism.
Syndicalism is derived from the root french word of syndicat, essentially meaning union or trade-union and while there are a multitude of definitions made by a litany of people, I personally prefer the parameters applied by Larry Peterson. Syndicalism is at it’s core a system that contains really only 5 tendencies, notice the usage of tendencies over such words such as rules:
- A preference for federalism over centralism.
- Opposition to political parties.
- Seeing the general strike as the supreme revolutionary weapon.
- Favoring the replacement of the state by “a federal, economic organization of society”.
- Seeing unions as the basic building blocks of a post-capitalist society.
So let’s start with the most commonly problematic term for many people with more individualistic outlooks; federation aka a federal state. A federation is simply a political union of partially self-governing provinces, states, or other regions. In a federation, the self-governing status of the component groups, as well as the division of power between them and the government, is typically constitutionally entrenched and is protected by the fact that it may not be altered by a unilateral decision of either party, state or the political body.
In fact quite a few of the problems that the US presently experiences are largely due to the unclear, antiquated nature of the constitutional limitations and codifcations contained within our own Constitution leading to either broad, biased or intentionally incorrect interpretations of constitutional language. A drastic overhauling of it would be necessary to implement any sort of fundamental change within our society due to these (and so many more) problems that would ultimately make a constitutional convention a necessity. This is why we often see greater protections afforded to civil liberties and addressing of modern issues in more recently established constitutions because as with most things human knowledge is cumulative.
It is entirely possible to have a federated anarchistic society, in fact, it would be critical to being able to cope with several key limitations that would exists otherwise and as a direct result
would bring about the opportunity to establish more equality and individual sovereignty within the system as a whole but more about that later.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the third item on that list, seeing the general strike as the supreme revolutionary weapon. Every wonder what happened to unions in the US? Why are they so ineffective compared to what they used to be? I mean, Unions gave us the 5 day work week, ended brutal child labor practices, fought for women in the workplace, brought about sick pay and vacation leave. Unions and when I say unions what I truly mean is people who pledged solidarity to one another, created the things that we feel most strongly about in the workplace of today. Well, what happened was the Taft-Hartley Act also known as the Labor Management Relationship act of 1947.
It is the Federal gutting of all of the strongest powers and abilities of Unions by the 80th Congress despite the veto used by President Truman at the time due to their overriding vote. This bullshit authoritarian measure of legislation was amended to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act which formalized the right of private sector workers to organize trade unions, engage in collective bargaining and to undertake collective actions such as strike; only in this update they de-fanged the original legislation as it seems that after little over a decade the owners of this country had had enough of that worker empowerment nonsense.
The Taft-Hartley act absolutely forbid jurisdictional strikes (a means to protest the taking away of work from members and giving it to others such as another union or non-union workers), wildcat strikes (the striking of union members without union leadership approval), solidarity or political strikes (aka a general strike in which a substantial proportion of the total labor pool in a given area strikes for reasons not necessarily stemming from their workplace directly), secondary or solidarity strikes (a form of striking that is designed to aide and show support for a fellow group or groups of workers), mass picketing which I believe is self-explanatory, the practice of closed shops (in which unions reach security agreements with employers to hire only union members) and donations from unions to federal political campaigns.
This, this was the death blow to the collectivized worker empowerment in America. And as a little aside for my fellow Americans who have dealt with this little tidbit of bullshit, this was also the origin point for “right-to-work” laws in the US.
To recap, just a touch, syndicalism is essentially in short a political system centered around the organization of the labor forces. It is an empowerment of the working class rather than the ownership and political class with an emphasis on the ability and right of those workers to say NO when they collectively feel that they are being taken advantage of or mistreated.
So with syndicalism briefly covered let’s move on to a quick explanation of anarchism, which is actually fairly simple to describe but difficult for many to conceptualize due to the nature of the world we often find ourselves trapped in.
How It Comes Together
Anarchism is a general tendency to inquire into systems of power throughout humanity in order to detect hierarchies and modes of domination and to challenge them to demonstrate their legitimacy. If they are unable to demonstrate that legitimacy on some plausible grounds then to dismantle them and reconstruct them from the bottom up rather than the top down. It is, at it’s core, a flattening of hierarchical power structures with a focus on equality for everyone.
Syndicalism, socialism and anarchism are often present inside the same frameworks and conversations, in fact, there is quite a bit of intersectionality between them. For the purposes of this essay I’ll be pulling some tenets from socialism while not discussing the larger philosophy of socialism as syndicalism is the primary focus here and is often considered a part of the fabric or structure of socialistic societies but not wholly the same. So while they share common ground, syndicalism can be considered a substrate of socialism but is perfectly capable of functioning outside of it as well.
For now all we need to discuss about socialism are three tent pole concepts that, more often than not, are found within socialized systems. They are Autonomy, Equality & Equity and Solidarity. We discuss these to talk further about their anarchistic corollaries: Direct Action, Free Association leading into Direct Democracy & Mutual Aid.
First autonomy, I use this rather than freedom or liberty for a variety of reasons but certainly not least amongst them is to avoid the modern American mind from becoming territorial over the concept. Autonomy is derived from two Greek roots the first being auto, meaning self, and the second being nomos, meaning law. It simply means to give the law to one’s self. It implies a deliberate and conscious act involving one’s awareness of the law and arises from the resources of the self while simultaneously having both individualistic and collectivistic aspects, with the collective form being represented within the concept of democracy.
Equality & Equity
Now let’s move on to equality and equity. Often times you will find only equality talked about in this arena but as I had said before, I’ve brought some of my own modifications to these principles as well, this being a notable one. Equality is at it’s core very simple for everyone to understand, it’s the elimination of classes or hierarchies making everyone of equal standing. While this is all well and good for the first step, it leaves out the ever so essential follow up step of establishing equity.
Equity is all about fairness, the understanding that not everyone is created equal, that not everyone comes from the same circumstances and it strives to recognize that everyone’s needs and wants in life are different. It is in this addition to the traditional social philosophies that I find a humanistic approach can be more fully realized.
As for solidarity (and shortly mutual aid) I will talk about them further into this piece for now let’s move onto talking about some of the anarchistic tenets.
Next up. Direct Action is autonomy put into practice, it is when political and economic actors use their power to reach their goals rather than an appeal to authority. It exists in both violent and non-violent forms such as sit-ins, strikes, workplace occupations, street blockades, hacktivism, sabotage, property destruction and even assaults. Direct action is usually needed in order to frustrate and undermine a perceived political or societal threat to the other principles of anarchic systems such as autonomy, free association and mutual aid. Never confuse electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation or arbitration as an exercise in direct action, those are all appeals to authority. These tactics are used primarily to protest in the strongest possible means the undertakings of societal or private institutions that the activists have perceived to be a problem. In short, direct action is how you get shit done. It’s how you get their attention. Next up is Free Association. Free Association is at it’s core a re-aligning and flattening of the relationship amongst individuals & communities/groups where there is no state, social class, hierarchy, or private ownership of the means of production
which then enables individuals, or groups of individuals, to freely associate without social constraint to produce and reproduce their own conditions of existence and to fulfill both their base and creative needs and desires.
Free Association Leading Into Direct Democracy
Free Association leads into needing some sort of organizational mechanism to help align and balance the overall needs and wants of a community, no matter the size. Which is where direct democracy (or if you’d prefer there’s always consensus decision making as an option as well though I won’t be covering it here).
Democracy is comprised of two (once again, Greek) roots words, demos meaning the people and cratos meaning to grasp. It literally means the ability of the people to be able to be present and be able to take action.
Now. Direct democracy has two underlying problems; scope & size.
The scope problem is summed up as such; the group simply cannot decide together on everything since there is a need for understanding of what issues are common and what counts as individual choice.
Size is merely a limitation of the physicality of existence; since it would be impossible to gather the entirety of the proletariat for a single, let alone multiple votes.
These problems get solved via two mechanisms. Delegation & Federation
Delegation entails entrusting some power to a member of your group for a specific responsibility or project. It is essentially nothing more than a division of labor.
And Federation is what enables wider coordination using the techniques established in the practice of free association between groups on the basis of affinity or need but in a way that formalizes the relationships under conditions of mutual reciprocity with the periodic sending of delegates to federal congress which then allows for these organizations to extend beyond the local level. This concept can be scaled into multiple levels rather than simply the two I’ve just iterated allowing for regional or other congresses to exist.
Now let’s address the most common question about federated power structures at this juncture: What is to stop the delegated federation from becoming a de facto ruling class? Well in both mechanisms you need to apply some common sense limits to them.
In the case of Delegation you would need to implement a system of rotation, use of a limited mandate and utilize immediate recall procedures.
First let’s talk rotation: rotation is not merely the limiting of terms based on time periods, it is also the elimination of voting groups and electing people for particular roles. Instead what is done is that the task, job or role is passed between people of the community as a whole on a regular basis. This ensures that responsibilities are equally shared around but it also means that it is necessary for people with skills and experience to share that knowledge and to teach their fellow humans how to do what is needed as a delegate. This is vitally important as eventually no matter how experienced you are, someone else will be representing you and it benefits you directly to share all knowledge and experience you may have gained. This cultivates active participation within the group and is a form unto itself of direct action.
Limited mandates requires that there be iterated responsibilities defined by the group and there be clear limitations that are agreed on by the group.
And immediate recall simply means that the delegates are always accountable to the group and that the group itself has the power to reverse any decisions made by the delegate and to remove them from the position without such artificial limitations such as time based cycles of elections.
But, you can not establish a wider society based on these principles without greater levels of cooperation and to aide in this we use Federation. The limits placed upon this concept, or rather the organizing principles used to avoid some of the potential pitfalls are as such:
Federalism is predicated upon the idea that sovereignty can never be separated from local assemblies. Be it a town or work force. The associations between these assemblies are free, meaning
that they facilitate cooperation, coordination and communication but due to the fact that local assemblies hold sovereignty means that all decision making ultimately stays within their own power.
This is the essence of bottom up organizing.
Agendas for federal congress originate at this local level. They are circulated, debated and voted upon at this level first and foremost with the votes of member sections communicated to and tallied at congress (both regional and national) with potential further debate and voting amongst delegates happening there.
And finally let’s mention the secretariat, the necessary organizing & administrative portion of the governance. This group of responsibilities and jobs is rotated on a regular basis just as any other delegate role would be except this is rotated between sections of delegates or assemblages that are voluntarily up to the task. This allows for the continuity of communications, handling of any of the necessary go-between tasks that are needed for governing and maintenance of long-term programs or strategies.
The Missing Component: Solidarity
So, as I stated above I really haven’t mentioned solidarity and mutual aid until now. That’s because essentially those are the largely missing components in neo-liberal, bourgeois western societies. The fact that rugged individualism comes out more often than communal effort, that in times of crisis we have a nasty habit of reverting to self-centered behaviors is just common fact at this point. This isn’t true of all societies or of all people but when taken as a political or social group you can readily see the traits I speak of.
Solidarity is key, it is the cornerstone to direct action, democracy and the never-ending fight against authoritarianism. It’s the unwillingness to cross the picket line, the refusal to purchase from companies that are inherently exploitative, the readiness to support by whatever means are needed those who are being oppressed. For examples of true solidarity one need only look at foreign protest campaigns or even closer to home the manner in which soldiers support one another. No matter the circumstances, no matter the cost they get each other’s backs. This is what the general populous lacks in spades and without it we see what can be done to them. From Amazon to Nestle to Boeing to Dow Chemical the examples are never ending because the owners and operators of these organizations know they have the people by the proverbial balls.
Mutual Aid & What To Do Instead
For the purposes of the hypothetical though, or even just analysis of external efforts, let’s talk about mutual aid. Mutual aid is as old as humanity itself and likely even older. It’s a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Now don’t misunderstand or mistake this as a form of barter, the mutual benefit is not always immediate or direct and can take abstract forms such as the alleviation of suffering within your community. The establishing of mutual aid networks is always voluntary, egalitarian in nature and an amazing way that anyone can connect and uplift even the smallest of communities.
One such example is to establish a mutual aid network in your own neighborhood or apartment complex. It can begin with anything, whether it is food & water or money or internet service it doesn’t really matter as more often than not once the network is created it tends to grow to provide other necessities. It doesn’t require high-technology, it can be as simple as going door to door with basic paper signup slips, an introduction and an explanation. Some may be hesitant at first but as they see others join and hear the stories of the aid that the group has been able to provide they’ll likely come around. Without the local government, corporations or any authority’s approval you can create social safety nets for those around you. Scaling this up to apartment complexes and then neighboring areas in your town, you can begin to see the true power contained within.
Another example of solidarity and mutual aid taking shape can be witnessed in small businesses. Say you’re going to be starting a small business. Rather than give in to your baser impulses take a step back and think about how you could use that opportunity to create something great for your local community. Imagine instead of claiming total ownership over the business and all decision making, you provide a mechanism in which the workers of your business might become owners as well. Not simply minor stock options or profit sharing but truly equal owners, with voices and votes. Even if at the outset the staff don’t have the resources to contribute to the setup, you could opt instead to create a means by which they contribute equally to a fund that in a certain amount of time would equal your original startup costs. When it matures, you can collect that fund for yourself and equal ownership then distributes to all workers involved. If you wished to be even more magnanimous you could distribute that ownership from the beginning still with the explicit understanding that you get to collect the fund at maturity.
It’s these sorts of ideas and behaviors that often go by without nary a glance or second thought in our society, speaking as an American at least. Don’t get me wrong, none of these processes or systems could, or should, be implemented overnight. In fact even if it was decided today to undertake these tasks, it would be many years in the making due to the complexity and nature of our society. Principles and ideologies would need to be disseminated amongst the populous long before we could realistically enact such things. Luckily political revolution doesn’t take a vast overwhelming majority to get under way. We’d probably only need somewhere between 1 and 10 percent to get the ball rolling.
So, I hope that this brief primer on some of my political ideologies and economic stances can help you in some way. Spur on some thought in the back of your mind or provide you with inspiration for your next project. In any case, just realize that anarchism, socialism, syndicalism and all the political ideologies that align to the left of the spectrum aren’t inherently hateful, dangerous or unAmerican. They’re merely intentionally mis-taught and misused as scare tactics by authoritarians who seek to further dominate your mind and actions.
From one anarchist to you, I hope you’re as well as you can be.