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A General Strike?

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Seattle shipyard

There’s been a lot of talk on the left about a general strike in the last 2 weeks. Color me extremely skeptical. It has seemed to me that this is being pushed by people who want to shut shit down and, well, that’s kind of it. I haven’t seen any convincing discussion of tactics or goals and it seems completely disconnected from where the actual working class is in this country. Given where we are at and what we are facing, I am open to the possibility of nearly any tactics, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. If by general strike we mean a bunch of protestors shutting down American’s transportation network and forcing mass arrests, then that’s one thing. If we mean actual workers walking off their jobs, then I think this is totally disconnected from reality. So let me wholeheartedly endorse this Alex Gourevitch essay debunking the idea. As he points out, the history of massive worker resistance in this country has led to arrests, deaths, and repression much more than it has liberation. In fact, that’s really the story of why the American labor movement is so tepid compared to other similar nations–employers and the state generally haven’t combined to bust heads in Europe to nearly the extent as in the U.S. If this is an actual goal, there needs to be A LOT of work done ahead of time. Gourevitch:

In the past, workers stayed out on those strikes, even fighting the state, in part because of dense, historically developed, cultures of solidarity; established traditions of militancy; organized, if not always recognized, unions; and long connections with left-wing organizers. These days, the appetite for fighting the state is next to nil, there is no tested public sympathy for labor actions, and there are no clear organizations standing ready to lead.

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions.

Not to mention, there had better be a recognizable goal. But what is the point of the proposed general strike? To say down with Trump? What, so we can have Pence?

Or is the point just a generalized ‘No’? A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.

On one version, the point of the strike is to affirm a grab-bag of demands: no to the immigration ban, yes to universal health care, no to pipelines, no to global gag rule and, inexplicably, a final demand that Trump reveal his tax returns. These demands show no evidence of thinking about what the immediate interests of workers might actually be – no mention of proposed national right-to-work legislation, $15 minimum wage demands, or even Trump’s terrible Labor Secretary pick. Trump’s nationalist and deeply inegalitarian economic ‘plan’ at least acknowledges the need to address bad employment prospects and stagnant wages.

It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Moreover, even moderately effective general strikes don’t emerge, willy-nilly, like miraculous interventions into national life. They are intensifications and radicalizations of already existing patterns of resistance by the working class. This demand for a general strike looks less like that intensification and more like an attempt to leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work that goes before.

At least some of those arguing for the general strike seem to sense that there is an element of bad faith here. For instance, Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those “who can do so without being fired” should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.

Believe me, I’d love to see a real general strike, a serious attempt at restructuring society, not just lopping the head off the Republican hydra. But there is no royal road to revolution, or even to a true mass movement for social change.

Yes. Also, yes.

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