Red Wedge spoke with one of our close comrades and collaborators, Kate Doyle Griffiths, for what was initially to be a discussion of transgressive social practices within the context of the West Virginia uprising. What transpired, however, was a wide-ranging discussion of transgression and Left politics, social reproduction theory, Insane Clown Posse and of course, the cultural practices of the striking workers in West Virginia, the polysemic quality of Twisted Sister. The following interview was conducted in June and July 2018. It will featured in our upcoming sixth issue, which you can subscribe to by supporting us through the Red Wedge Patreon.
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Red Wedge: Tell us a bit about yourself, your “history” on the Left, as the saying goes, and the kind of work you do, both practically and theoretically.
Kate Doyle Griffiths: I always find this a funny question to answer, because it has so many answers. I usually end up talking about my history as a socialist and a political thinker about class issues and labor organizing, but I could write something just as long about my trajectory as a reluctant anthropologist, as feminist and a queer person, about the transformative impact of learning about the South African working class, and that meeting many individual people in South Africa has had on my sense of what is needed and what is possible, about my particular experiences growing up as a white, anti-racist person in the South, about reading Judith Butler when I was 21, or about my childhood fascination with the US Civil War, historical fiction, and Mexican history.
I could probably frame my “coming out” as a revolutionary Marxist around the very particular experience of attending “vanguard” public schools in Houston, Texas in the 1980s and my choice in that environment to become a musician rather than pursue a purely academic track. I don’t think that’s really a testament to my uniqueness; I think those kinds of multi-layered complexities inflect everyone’s stories of how they come to politics, and the kind of political choices that resonate with them over time. Sometimes, I wish these histories were written as accounts of the “worst” political positions and analysis we’ve had, and how those changed. What I like most about these accounts is the aspect of recording development over time.
I come from a family that was considered and considered itself far left in the context of Houston in the 1980’s and 1990’s; my dad was a civil rights lawyer and anti-death penalty activist and my mom was a physician on the forefront of the AIDS crisis, which definitely shaped my worldview in pretty fundamental ways. My family has a long history of being “weird” and making it work; its multiracial, aggressively woman-led, with unconventional marriage and childrearing arrangements, and developed, I think a way of making that an ethos. As far as “left” politics, Dad was then and is now a member of Democratic Socialists of America, my mom’s parents (Dick and Ruth Doyle) were militant unionists who didn’t shy away from the word “Communist,” and were active anti-racists, feminists, and anti-war activists in the industrial center of East Texas, “The Golden Triangle.” It perhaps does a bit of violence to the memory of my grandparents to air my well supported suspicions that they were at some point Communist Party members, though, because they never told me that themselves, even under pretty close questioning. I could never bring myself to ask my grandfather “are you now or have you ever been,” but once when I came back from a summer of union organizing in the Gulf, at about 19, my mom encouraged me to tell him about my union activity. His response was to ask “so are you a communist?” I said no, he said “oh well a socialist then” (with maybe a look of amused disappointment). I said I wasn’t and he said “well you must be an anarchist then!,” which I also denied, though I was at that point certainly some sort of social anarchist. He just laughed and exclaimed “That’s what they all say!”
To put my own history very briefly, I started out as a progressive liberal with particular interest in unions. When I went away to college, I was very much a democracy dork and a policy person, but the Battle In Seattle, and particularly the “Teamsters and Turtles” aspect of things really won me to the potential of direct action as the truly meaningful power behind any real chance for working class politics to emerge. In college, I worked with a heterogenous group of student activists, Students for Social Equality, doing work with United Students Against Sweatshops, and labor support for graduate student workers, clerical workers and other worker organizing on campus, as well as some campaigns beyond campus like greengrocer organizing and laundry workers. It’s hard to remember the mood of the period, but compared to now it was decidedly anti-intellectual, pragmatist and in retrospect rather aggressively apolitical. I remember feeling that calling yourself a “socialist” might put you outside the realm of the thinkable; it was then, to me, a scary word. But I was always interested in the theoretical aspect and lucky to be at NYU when many Marxist thinkers were teaching there. “History from Below” really changed my life, as did learning about the working class roots of the black radical and socialist feminist traditions.
My experience in and around the labor movement – during a period when student activists like myself were really seen by a number of union internationals as the answer to the accelerating collapse of organized labor movement – put me in close quarters with some really disappointing moments of opportunism, short-sightedness and cowardice on the part of the bureaucracies of more than one international and a couple of local unions. When I encountered the socialist group Solidarity and the rank-and-file strategy, it really gelled with my sensibilities; more than that, Soli members were among the first experienced activists I met who didn’t simply declare every rally and campaign a victory, no matter how small or how defeated, and confirmed some of my suspicions and analysis of the weaknesses of the various strategies – summit-hopping, media-blitz style “solidarity” of moral appeals, student substitutionism and the like. It was also a group of people who had material and experience of shop-floor organizing and could do some “showing” rather than “telling” on that front, all of which impressed me, and reminded me of the kinds of stories my grandfather -- a lifelong shop steward, and perpetual bargaining committee member, who refused advancement into management or apparently in the union – liked to tell over holiday meals.
I’ve since left Solidarity, though I still have many member-comrades and comrades who are former members, over a drawn-out battle over gender contradictions. Even without that, I would have opposed softening the organizational stance on the Democratic Party, though when I joined I likely would have supported that change. These days, I organize mostly with the International Women’s Strike and with a small communist collective in New York called Red Bloom, but I consider Marxists in and from many organizational traditions my comrades both in principle and, as much as possible, in practice.
In IWS and in Red Bloom I have a chance to develop theory and strategy mostly with comrades who are explicitly Marxist feminist, internationalist, anti-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-queer-and-trans, and pro-sex worker, and who are committed to shop- floor and community organizing, which is important to me in terms of my own development and to the task of building new Marxist cadre. A lot of the work is political education. We are in a moment in the USA of a flowering of the “socialist idea;” the DSA has become the largest socialist organization on the US left in some time, and more mainstream progressives are now paying lip service to socialism. Thanks to Bernie and to some of that ongoing electoral work, a lot of the “bite” of the word is waning. It’s a good development overall, in my opinion, a really exciting time to be a Marxist. But I think part of the job of the cadre-fied left, especially those of us committed to working class independence and autonomy, is to put some of the “bite” back in a politically meaningful way rather than resting on the laurels of the declining power of McCarthyite scare tactics.
We have two main things to do I think, and we have to do them both at the same time. First, we have to help consolidate a socialist movement that that transcends sectarian identifications and socialist pedigrees like the one I’m writing for you now, and instead create the broadest conditions of unity among socialists in a vision for building working class power, and active solidarity across those lines. That will mean breaking the habits learned from liberals of staying “relevant” by punching left, as well as overcoming the learned helplessness of isolation and smallness. A friend I admire very much recently told me and a couple of worker activists “you are the adults in the room;” a renewed, powerful and organized socialist movement will require many of us and many new socialists to take serious action, take real responsibility, try new things, fail and as another person may have once said “fail better.”
The second task may be even more important and is assuredly more difficult. It involves connecting the new socialist bloom with the worker upsurge we’re seeing in a new wave of strikes that have been underway this year, and a broader and growing sense of worker militancy. It means connecting the socialists we have with the urgency of organizing where they are – in workplaces, but also in housing struggles, as class militants in fights against police brutality, for black and queer liberation, against the crushing social abandonment of disabled people, children and the elderly, and against the increasingly brutal global regime of borders and citizenship. It means having a strategy to do this, in terms of transmitting what we’ve learned, really over centuries, about how to build power from the ground up, for connecting the power of strike action, boycotts, occupations, rent strikes and social-strike tactics (like mutual aid, self defense and some of the ways the structure of our movements can give us glimpses of a new society) in ways that build rather than drain our energy. It means encouraging socialists and workers to make decisions collectively on a new horizon which goes beyond defensive actions and individual plans to “get by” or schemes to trick the ruling class into minimal reforms. It means some of us will make our plans to survive with an eye to the best and most strategic places to do this kind of organizing. Those decisions are going to be about not only what kinds of risks it makes sense to take, but also about what kinds of priorities we put first, when and where.
Red Wedge: The theme to this issue of Red Wedge is “In Defense of Transgression.” Over the last few years, we’ve seen cries from some quarters of the Left bleating about transgression, pathologizing broader Left culture – implicitly queer folks, but others as well, notably cultural producers. Indeed, while the core of the complaint from some circles is that the Left are a bunch of oddballs, we are arguing that it is the oddballs that have led our movements. One reads these accounts, whether blaming the anti-war movement and hippies for the election of Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey, or “Tumblr Liberalism” for the alt-right, and one sees both bad analysis and a specific political agenda. What do you think this agenda is all about, and what role do you see transgression playing in our movements today?
Kate: Well the kinds of decisions I’m talking about are inherently transgressive; Walter Rodney called it “class suicide” for a reason, and class suicide is an easier decision to make than ever in an era of outright bald and bold class murder and proletarianization of what might have once been stable professional career tracks. We live in a society organized for profit and for the power of the ruling class. We are channeled into all kinds of decisions, large and small, that suit that organization and that are heavily ideological. What is “normal” in terms of career choices, in terms an ideal family, or man or woman or even simply the social definition of adulthood is by no means common in practice; it’s at best an aspirational bourgeois ideal or a set of superficial options among fundamentally similar alternatives. Mostly, it involves being rich enough not to be embarrassed, but it also involves not being too queer; participating in de facto and de jure segregation along lines of race, gender and citizenship in housing and the labor market; getting a job that matches your “potential” or education; or which can afford you signs of stability and affluence. The ideal is a life organized around the moral imperative of providing the best possible future for your children (which you should probably have) or at very least one which keeps you from being “dependent” on your extended family, the state, or other people at all beyond the medium of exchange. But that kind of “normal” is increasingly a pipe dream for anyone who ever had access to it and has always been tenuous-to-unattainable for much of the working class. For some parts of the working class it has always been, in fact, recognized as such and undesirable.
Often the idea that socialists “fail” to connect with “the working” class is rooted in a completely ahistorical and personalistic evaluation of the flaws of socialists, while ignoring the known and hidden histories of transgression that populate the history of socialist, working class and revolutionary history that we can and should draw inspiration from. If we wanted to get into the history of the divide between organized socialists and workers we’d have to talk about the impact of Stalinism as a state ideology on the global working class, of Social Democratic, Liberal and Stalinist drives to “normalize” gender and the family, to naturalize race and nation in the service of shoring up the power of national elites. We’d also have to enumerate the impact of the concerted anti-communist efforts of bosses and the state in USA and around the world, and probably the failures of “socialist” parties as they turned first to nationalist betrayals and then to programs of austerity, as well as to some of the more detailed failures of specific groups and figures in moments where organizing across borders and chauvinisms might have otherwise been possible. But too often the push for “normie” socialism works precisely to elide this sort of conversation in terms of its meanings for building socialist and working class movements today.
Part of this historical elision and what I see as a sort of neoliberal approach to “normal” socialist identity is, I think, that this kind of thing – an injunction to personally “just be normal” – can feel like all we have control over, and satisfies a frustration we’ve all felt with messy and ham-handed conflicts among socialists. But the point is precisely to get beyond that. The appeal of this kind of socialist cheerleading for normalcy I think runs deep; its an old boring Marxist concept but alienation of our labor from ourselves means our selves are alienated from society and human relationships. We all feel like socially awkward dorks, we’re all weird and transgressive. There’s a reason “nerd” culture, intricate fandoms and “geek” cultures have become so visible. It’s not just a queer thing, but queers have a lot to offer everyone about “coming out” and being authentically your weird self, loving not just who you love, but the ideas you love, the commitments you love that might not map on to that bourgeois ideal, and your dreams for yourself and society. For me, being fully out as queer and as a socialist or a communist have coincided. The lesson, I think, is that the power, or really sense of control, you might gain from being in the closet, whatever closet, is illusory; rarely are you fooling anyone. As much as we aren’t going to trick the ruling class into giving us what we want and need, we won’t trick workers into socialism or into trusting socialists. In my experience, being “out” in any sense, breeds trust among comrades and militants.
But I think that’s the appeal; it can feel like if we just convince everyone we are like them in superficial ways, we can sell our ideas, but, to me, that’s marketing, and maybe it’s even an expression: “professional” socialization. It’s certainly not organizing. When you really get to know people, across the lines demarcated as normal and appropriate to your social position, whether socially or in an organizing context, or both, you learn everyone is strange in some way, and that most people know that. Most people appreciate honesty. So I think sincere socialists can be drawn to this idea. I have been, at times, but its often an expression of lack of experience and confidence. The main thing that convinced me out of it was more of a sense of trust in myself, my organizing skills and my ideas.
That it has appeal, however, is not the only or main reason this anti-left, anti-transgressive meme is being promoted by some prominent socialist voices and isn’t the main reason why it’s exploitable by the right. The utility of this argument, if we can call it that, has to do with a focus on voting as a socialist strategy and the staying power of the liberal “science” of elections as primarily a demographic one. The idea here is that “the white working class,” particularly but not exclusively men, is the Lost Voter Block for “progressive” politics, and that appeals to their economic interests, combined with downplaying the “culture wars” amped up by liberals and the right around trans politics and black lives, can result in quick victories. I think this strategy is a bad one; I think, on its face, it aggressively ignores the class politics taking place in the black movement, in immigrant rights movements, in feminist movements, and in gay/queer/and trans politics, the degree to which these increasingly make themselves plain in the workplace, and sacrifices some of our most important opportunities to unite socialist politics and working class militance in a way that allows us to honestly organize with workers in motion. It condemns liberal “identity politics” while relying on those of us with “identities” to stay committed to the bankrupt politics of lesser-evilism, and fundamentally signals a commitment to the coalitional approach that has long been exploited by both parties and the ruling class as a whole in order to maintain a minority dictatorship of capital and capitalists.
But it may be even worse than that; I don’t think it will work on its own terms, that is, simply electing socialists or even more Democrats to office. It relies on an already unrealistic and static account of the commitments and sympathies of working class people, who like me, each have their own individual political stories of change, through relationships, through organization and through action. If any of this works, to the extent that it recruits newly politicized socialists, they aren’t going to stay still; we see that I think in a lot of the political expressions of local DSA chapters and working groups, and in even in the development of the Chapo Trap House fandom, which often exceeds its authors in political sensibility and vision. We certainly see it, over just days, in the context of the large teachers strikes in red states. It not only makes no place for those moving left to go, but it also opens the door and affirms the trajectory of those moving towards a militant right populism, and proto-fascist politics. Most of all, I really question the utility or really even possibility of “winning” some sizable minority of the minority of socially conservative workers committed to white identity to voting for Democratic Party politicians. This is clearly a key step implicit in this “normie” sensibility, and in some of its associated and elucidated strategy which asserts Democratic Party ballot lines as politically void, if not cynically, implausibly. Why should we misrepresent our hopes for the Democratic Party, one which almost all socialists publicly agree is beyond reform and captured by the ruling class, and one which at every turn has sold out, not just straight white male workers, but all workers and working class people? Why should we leave open to the right the growing opportunity for a totally new kind of politics, rooted in direct action, independent organization and militancy? That’s a dangerous recipe, that in the past has precisely paved the way for fascists. To me, it’s a strange kind of pragmatic idealism, borne of a foreshortened socialist horizon, and seemingly also rooted in a kind of self-loathing and lack of confidence on the part of the socialists who advance this agenda. They are, to a person, themselves weirdos, intellectuals, hipsters, rigidly sectarian, “fail sons” in their own minds, deeply embroiled in left “subculture,” “weird Twitter” and the like, and really, all manner of not adequately normal.
Red Wedge: You work within the tradition of social reproduction theory (SRT). What would SRT tell us about the role of transgression that we are discussing here, and its relationship to the social movements?
Kate: Well, SRT is both a tradition with a long history – one in which I squarely place Marx and Engels – as well as many of our favorite Bolsheviks, and a great number of thinkers who emerged from social movements historically. It's just Marxism, weaponized as a theory for political action and strategy. In its simplest presentation, it’s just (just!) the attempt to theorize, analyze and document the class-in-itself; to look at how we reproduce ourselves in a way that encompasses production-for-profit as a collective endeavor of working class self-reproduction, part of that process of class-making and a specific potential source of class power, while also looking at how those arrangements beyond surplus value extraction shape the possibilities for class consciousness and realities of working class self-activity. But it’s also, as we are now defining the field, quite in its infancy. There are many more books to be written, actions to be taken and lessons to be learned. So I hesitate to give a pat, what-does-SRT-say answer about this, because I don’t think it says one thing.
I think though that fundamentally Marxist analysis, and so SRT, tells us that when we take what we need to survive, let alone to thrive, what we need to organize and to fight back, we will be transgressive, whether it’s our time, dignity, higher pay, health care, or flatly appropriating commodities; whenever we use our capacities for ourselves, we transgress our use and the vision capital has for and of us. Increasingly, doing any of these things literally transgresses the law. That’s entailed in the fundamental Marxist idea that we don’t share interests with the ruling class.
Not all transgression is politically useful, particularly not individual acts of self-assertion, self-care or individual acts of refusal or disruption; some of that might be necessary or unavoidable but it often depends on and presumes precisely on the arrangements of exploitation and domination we all are born into; this is what people describe but don’t really explain when they refer to and use “privilege” as a category of analysis, in my estimation. But where social movements come in, I think, is that different people and different parts of the working class come to realize the need to transgress in specific ways, in groups, at different times. That’s not, I think, something socialists can afford to scoff at, to reject or to mock. To the extent that openly identifying as a socialist, (or communist or anarchist) is itself a kind of necessary transgressive subculture, the experience of joining it should give us useful information about the ways people come to politics, why and how they stick with them and develop them, and we should look for these ideas, processes, and steps in other subcultures, countercultures and social movements. Where we see people coming to socialist ideas in groups, even when it’s incomplete, mixed and not all there, we should be present and engaged. Class consciousness isn’t going to and has never happened all at once, overnight. It's a cultural as well as a political process, or really, hopefully a set of processes.
I think a lot of people on the left really understood and do understand that, at the same time as finding some solace in “normie socialism,” we have our own kind of mixed consciousness. We saw that recognition even with the left popularity of something as blatantly weird and transgressive as the “juggalos” turned “struggalos,” fans of the Insane Clown Posse, a subculture framed around the inherent transgression and isolation of rural and suburban slum poverty, largely but not exclusively white, and framed around a rap-rock band and outre makeup stylings. Juggalos pride themselves on what mainstream society condemns them for; advocating a surrealist commitment to violence along with proto-socialist values, like mutual aid, anti-fashion, aestheticization of “cheap” non-nutritive food, assertion of body and ability positivity. It's clear that the structural conditions of forced transgression pave the way for a kind of “for-itself” subcultural survival and self-valorization. If EP Thompson were doing his thing today, he’d check out the un-steepled spaces of the Gathering, as much as teacher happy hours, out-of-the-way queer bars, block parties and barbecues, comedy clubs, and Sunday morning soccer and cricket games in city parks.
Much the same can be said for many “social movements” in a much more developed form; specific sections of the working class experience conditions of alienation, exploitation and oppression in specific ways that self-organization and activity bring to the fore. When the black struggle both argues for black beauty and asks us to imagine a world without police and prisons, these are socialist ideas, and ones that go beyond “subculture,” intersecting with questions of gender, sexuality and ability. When those movements specifically organize themselves with respect to class antagonisms within the movement, we’d be fools not to pay attention. We could do this conceptual exercise all day, and not just as contained examples but by looking at the way social movements influence each other demanding solidarity and sharper analysis. As a concrete example, the International Women’s Strike saw in the internal push-back to Women’s March organizing, a call for anti-Zionist, anti-racist, pro-trans and pro-sex worker platforms a kernel of that kind of class antagonism and a chance to popularize the strike as a tool for combating sexual harassment, discrimination and cooptation of a resurgent women’s movement by “boss feminism” focused largely on representation and rhetoric. In 2017, that kind of united front socialist intervention was a predictive temperature check on class militancy and organization; our biggest workplace walk outs were district wide teachers’ strikes in red states.
This kind of bubbling of social movement consciousness, reflecting the structured conditions of race, gender and sexuality, is similar and concurrent to the way that Marx describes the development of worker consciousness – critically for Marx, or later Harry Braverman – out of quite particular arrangements and innovations of the labor process itself and the process of always-iterative class antagonism over the control of work, between manual and intellectual labor, between workers and the designation of “management,” between worker power and bosses’ evaluation of the balance between efficiency (and thus profit) and the political and ideological control of work. Rather than see these particular insights arising from specific workplaces and industries as divisive, or too far afield, the Marxist tradition sees in them parts of the whole, the whole being the future of working class actualization as a revolutionary subject. We should regard class antagonism in “social movements” in much the same way.
Perhaps the key SRT insight here is the way in which the labor processes of paid social reproduction by necessity call up questions for workers engaged in struggling over them, larger questions about the reproduction of the entire class, which is why we see class demands and broad strike action emerging among paid workers in education and healthcare. At the same time, we – thinkers in SRT – recognize that the non-waged efforts, increasingly strained, of workers to reproduce themselves as families and communities as themselves a labor process (or set of them) with precisely that kind of potential both for sparking insight, struggle, transgressive action, and connections across the divisions of work, geography, the labor market and more.
A third, maybe distinct, SRT insight is the way in which radical family traditions (those of natal and chosen family), community and organizational traditions can “remember” and valorize precisely the kind of class transgression we need now and have always needed. Oral history, and then history in its written form when done in the voice of workers and subordinate classes, is for anthropologists and historians, itself a process of social reproduction, the only one that gives us memories of previous eras of struggle and of a time before capitalism. History, broadly conceived, is the only proof we have that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that “this way” is always really a kind of opportunist, post-hoc justification expedient to ruling class power, and one that necessarily changes over time. For me, one of those stories which always leaps to mind when the question of transgression arises is, again, one my mother, aunts and cousins tell about my grandparents, both while they were still living and at their funerals and wakes.
Living in a union-dominated refinery town – Port Arthur, Texas – my grandparents counted precisely on their coworkers, neighbors and friends to defend them in the face of red-baiting McCarthyism. A carpetbagging anti-communist lecturer was scheduled to present to all assembled in the high school auditorium an instruction on “how to identify communists” in your community. My grandparents, as the story goes, made a late entrance, wearing a red tie and cummerbund and a red silk evening gown, respectively, walking slowly from the back to take seats in the front of the audience. As lore has it, the speaker got the message and declined to appear. They were safe, in one of the USA’s worst historical climates for socialism, because the red flag they flew was not a pose or a brand; it was backed up with earned leadership, with shop floor organizing, with anti-racist struggle in a local church, with a lived expression of feminism in the physical presence of my grandmother, and her husband’s obvious delight in her power. At my grandmother’s funeral, I met workers who told me and all assembled that she and my grandfather had taught them to read, that they were the first intellectuals these now octogenarians have ever met; apparently their weird artistic inclinations (Ruth wrote fiction in a behind-the-house-shed built for the purpose by Dick, Dick painted landscapes and portraits, and carved), nerdy insistence on arguing every point (tiring even to those who loved them), gender egalitarianism, militant anti-racism (they formed a Unitarian church as the desegregated option under Jim Crow) were precisely the things that made them effective organizers. It might not always be safe to fly our red flags high, but given the period of flying red flags in which we find ourselves, I’d argue this is precisely the content we have to fill in, and the kind of frankly transgressive vision any socialism worthy of the name must embody.
Red Wedge: You were deeply embedded in the teachers struggles this spring, notably in West Virginia, and have written about these struggles extensively. What can you tell us about the role of transgression in these struggles? It would seem that there are three dialectically interacting layers of transgression here – first that of the workers transgressing the logic of the bosses, second that of workers transgressing the logic of the union bureaucracy, and finally, subjects of the American state transgressing bourgeois law. Tell us about the interplay of these struggles.
Kate: Well in the case of public school teachers and support staff, transgressing the logic of the boss and the logic of the state are really one and the same. The logic of the state in this simply became increasingly untenable and self-contradictory from the perspective of teachers employed to educate and care for West Virginia’s children. On the one hand the state has hired them to spend most of their waking hours on this rather blatantly socially necessary task; on the other hand disastrously low pay, high healthcare costs with limited access, and the fundamentally pressed conditions of work made the task increasingly difficult to impossible. Teachers and all public employees—presumably by dint of their social necessity and importance—were banned from striking and even bargaining collectively, rights any other worker still has. Yet austerity thwarted the work and even the self-reproduction of teachers and support staff. It’s a truism that even the most bread and butter strikes really come down to dignity, but in this case the indignity of being trapped in that contradictory “logic” is beyond glaring, and the indignity of poverty among students and in the counties and towns where West Virginia’s educators work and live is especially glaring. Survival, with one’s own perspective and experience intact, is transgressive.
As far as the unions, operating as minority associations in a right to work state; the bureaucracy is also perched on an intersection of logical and material contradiction. Largely deprived of the state-level levers and nodes of bureaucratic business union power in the public sector, in the firm of collective bargaining, leaders had little choice but to move with the initial call to strike; members and the prospect of members being really the sole means of reproducing their position and interests as leaders. It meant that when they were unable to sell a narrow and unsecured deal for teacher raises they had no mechanism to enforce the deal. They didn’t control the strike from the start, which is how it became both an “unlawful” strike and a wildcat, ending when a class demand for across the board public sector raises was met, the workers’ minimum program. So the answer is that these transgressions were not really a matter of interplay; they were simultaneous. From the moment an organized militant minority of workers began to build solidarity across job categories, union affiliation and non-affiliation and to prepare to strike to win, they transgressed all three. I think it’s important to say here that the subcultural transgression of self-identified and aware socialists, activated precisely by the bloom of the socialist idea, and activating lived experience and history of struggle and strike made that possible, not some capitulation to the day-to-day normalcy of a lobster in a boiling pot.
I’d add a fourth transgression: the transgression of the limit of bourgeois politics to elections and the legitimation of a two-party system. It’s possible to see the frequent assertion of teachers especially in early days that the strike was not political as a kind of naïveté or capitulation to Trumpist politics. On the contrary, the strike made direct demands on a state that had imposed austerity under the leadership of both parties and asserted power beyond and extremely in excess of that wielded at the ballot box.
Red Wedge: To focus for one more moment on the issue of union bureaucracy, and to bring it back to the initial critique of transgression. It seems that there is an overlap, tendentially and in practicality, between forces that scoff at the “oddballs” of the Left, posting memes of screaming babies, and forces that doubted, scoffed at, and then later misrepresented the struggles in West Virginia. What does this tell us about the different forces at work within the broader Left?
Kate: Well this gets us into the question of “why can’t we do both?,” where “both” is the prime directive of socialists to potentiate, build, deepen, and support the kind of working class self-activity and possibility of independent organization we saw emerge in teachers strikes as the first tactic and to repurpose, rebuild or realign the Democratic Party as social democratic or working class vehicle as a second one. As you suggest, the union bureaucracy is a key obstacle to the former activity, and is secondarily a hindrance to the latter goal, however otherwise infeasible that one may also be for bigger reasons, precisely because of the nature of the bureaucracy and its role in the Democratic party. (I would argue that NGOs borne of social movements and formally assigned to advancing formal rights of oppressed groups play a similar role with respect to class antagonism within movements that I previously described.)
“Normie” socialism is at its core an assertion of electoral politics, and specifically those within the Democratic Party, as the horizon of the socialist movement today as opposed to direct action and working class self activity. Most of the loudest voices in this vein have little if any direct connection to the labor movement, either in terms of its leaders or its members, but they have at various times over the last couple of years gone out of their way to pay lip service to “real” workers and unions, imagined as that 70s hard-hat cartoon that was even (especially) then an outmoded stereotype. At the same time these pro-normie ideologists dismiss and sneer at actual particular instances of organizing (like workers in higher ed), cast illegal strike action as an ultra-left concept at least until it is well underway as a mass activity, actively oppose mass anti-fascist action and argue that the self organization of particularly marginalized working class people, whether on the job or in the streets, distracts and detracts from “real” class politics.
When teacher strikes broke out, this tendency was late to the ground game – then, once they paid attention, were all-too-eager to declare victory in advance of the workers themselves, or even in advance of any indication that deal had been secured. Finally, once the question could not be glossed over, they were eager to mold the historic strike wave and first real sign of a potential working class upsurge in 20 years exactly if awkwardly into the shape of “angry white (right-wing, genderless) workers,” focused and fighting for basic bread and butter demands and implicitly poised to “turn red states blue.” They presented a kind of rear-guard congratulation to workers once they had already won real demands on their own terms, but actively encouraged them to downplay public socialist identification, to avoid solidarity with other socialists, to settle for the minimum program and negotiate the core demand of the Public Employees Insurance Agency after the fact from a place of much less power, and to “remember in November.” It coincided with national teacher union leaders pushing this same agenda and with their insisting on strategies to stay in control of “(illegal) bargaining” in the states where strikes spread, often pushing for symbolic protest rather than the indefinite shutdown that won in West Virginia. Not coincidentally, the gains in West Virginia represented a highwater-mark for “strike spring” in terms of real gains achieved and consolidated out of teacher struggle.
And in this sense – of being not just a matter of emphasis on elections, specifically of Democrats but of opposition to the strategic deepening and spread of autonomous worker organization and activity by socialists, to the practical unity and struggle utility of a broad and united-in-action socialist movement – the “normie injunction” it is a pretty precise expression of the self-interest of the union bureaucracy. People often present the conflict between direct, mass worker action and Democratic Party politics as something that will happen “down the road,” but it’s always already happening. It’s hard to write about this and not sound abstract or cranky, but to understand the argument it’s important to have a sense of what the response of union bureaucrats has thus far been to the sustained decades long attack not only on the working class as a whole, or even on unionized workers and the terms of workers contracts large and small, but for a long, long time directly on the rights of workers to organize and democratize their workplaces. These attacks are always presented as an emergency and a reason to stick with the defensive program of begging from elected officials, but, to me, they are a reason to exit that framework. The one-sided class war we have all lived through until very recently – when workers started fighting back in 2018, making it more of a fair fight – didn’t start with Trump, or even Bush Senior, but with Reagan, and it didn’t let up in between when Clinton or Obama took the reigns of power. Nevertheless for the period of at least my own nearly four decade lifespan, union leaders have pursued a strategy primarily of getting Democrats elected and appealing to them for nothing more than a slower rate of attack.
This response has been what Kim Moody and others have characterized as an “organized retreat.” At times expressed as old-guard clueless myopathy and at other times expressed through a “militant” approach to concessionary bargaining, using consumer campaigns, “show strikes” and other kinds of shortcut, tactical “leverage,” really anything at all besides concerted preparation to strike-to-win, with of course a handful of notable exceptions. For union officials, and I think it's fair to say particularly for public sector union leadership, their individual and small-group position as leaders – well-paid and protected from the squeeze on the shop floor and in the realm of social reproduction – the hold on that position depends not on winning gains for workers, or even preventing major losses, but on a two-fold grip on control of bargaining and of offering themselves as brokers to the Democratic Party, a source of a solid voter constituency as well as of well trained and reliable election-cycle activists willing to put leather to pavement and phone to ear to get out the vote for the candidates their union endorsed. The process of this death spiral has seen leaders retreat to smaller areas of control, in terms of labor market sectors, in terms of the number and kinds of workplaces, and in terms of political geography, focusing on reliable blue and union one-party cities and states, even as union density, the legal regime and geographic coverage of closed shop and “blue” strongholds have continued to shrink.
Most horrifically in recent memory, this dynamic played out in the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, when workers took direct action against a legislative assault on public sector workers. Anticipating West Virginia teachers, Wisconsin public sector workers began pushing the logic of the state, their unions and the electoral mode. The protests took the form of occupation of the state house that developed over weeks and culminated in a kind of de facto general strike; union leaders and embattled Democratic Party politicians led a concerted effort to redirected the energy into a failed recall effort for Governor Walker, effectively neutering the power and potential expansion of the direct, mass political strategy, and resulting in total defeat.
The consequences were dire, lending energy to the spread of reactionary policies and power of right-wing politicians across the Midwest. Right-to-work legislation spread, seemingly overnight across what was once the geographical heart of the United States labor movement, to the point where the final blow of the Janus decision is something of an afterthought, approached with a sense of resignation and by many union leaderships as nothing more than a rhetorical talking point, and focus of fundraising appeals, or at best anemic membership drives.
While this defeat certainly hurt labor leaders too, their weak response can't simply be understood as a mistake. When workers’ democracy and organized power begins to exceed the logic of the state, electoral politics and union officialdom, union leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place; they are threatened by the austerity and anti-union assault and the slow demise of their dues base, but they also become extremely vulnerable to ouster by newly organized and angry workers who inevitably begin to criticize and challenge the decades of official union collaboration and capitulation to concession. From the perspective of officials, organized workers in motion are always a more immediate threat to their jobs, no matter how bad things otherwise get.
We see that same model of labor leaders clinging like sharp and dangerous but quite stationary barnacles to rusty the ship of New York State Democratic party machine politics and Governor Cuomo's promises of legislative cover in the face of the Janus decision. Quite concretely this alliance resulted in the blow up of the Working Families Party in the context of the looming New York State governor's race, where union leaders have abandoned WFP, initially organized to both as their vote-counting vehicle and constituency-delivery mechanism, and the face of “progressive” politics in the state. In the face of that party’s democratic decision to back “democratic socialist” underdog Cynthia Nixon over the incumbent, the union leaderships endorsed Cuomo because of his promises for state-level Janus protections and in the hopes of union quotas on state-funded construction projects. Whatever the potential radicalism of the rank-and-file in this exciting political moment, and despite the hints of and on-the-ground efforts at building concrete solidarity between workers and social movements in New York, this race is a clear example of the way that (particularly one-party state style) Democratic party politics converts every expression of militancy and hope for change into a calculation of coalition size and a battle of brands; identity politics in the worst possible sense of the term. Union members and working class people generally now face the choice to buck their unions as individuals at the ballot box, opting between voting “socialist” and voting “worker,” with a side dish of possibly getting to pick a charismatic woman, “the homo, not Cuomo.” I find the slogan (along with Nixon’s transgressive and hilariously bisexual reclamation of being “an unqualified lesbian”, a phrase which was originally coined as an anti-queer dog whistle diss by a standard bearer local gay politician) to be snappy and amusing, but I find the nature of the choice itself deflating and instructive about the very real and immediate limits of “doing both”.
Red Wedge: Tell us about the cultural practices of the strikers in West Virginia. The role of music, chants, apparel, the use of social media, memes, videos and the like? Also, what were the parties like? There’s that great passage in Marx’s 1844 manuscripts where he suddenly effuses about Parisian workmen drinking and smoking and singing. Can you tell us similar stories about these practices in West Virginia and elsewhere?
Kate: I wish I could say I’d been to more parties! One thing about the West Virginia strike was that people traveled every day from all over the state to come to the capital and so that meant that lots of people had long commutes, and people were managing child care and family responsibilities on top of sustaining an ongoing strike, often with multiple family members involved. It’s one reason it was a good strategic decision for the legislature to make its final offer on a Saturday, and something to think about in terms of the overall strategy of these combined occupations and strike as a method – how can we build in more of the movement as an ongoing experience of being together. Often overnight occupations can start to take on that character and that’s something I think worth considering.
But teachers in West Virginia really brought their artistic skills to bear and sensibilities to the state house. I was really majorly impressed with the quality and content of the signs people made, and with t-shirt designs. It shouldn’t be a surprise that teachers are good with visual messaging, with historical context and with funny puns, but it really was inspiring. There were costumes, references to local and movement history and lots of plays on kids’ literature and the classics. Every county and some schools had their own t-shirts, often with particular or just their own favorite slogans, lots of glitter. Music and art teachers and social studies folk really got into it, and bus drivers had some creative bus-related material. The high level and specific content and unique messages also made for great ice-breakers for conversation with strangers, because they are interesting enough to talk about and because people are proud of what they create; something mass-produced placards and identical t-shirts produced and distributed by international unions can’t really reproduce. Later state uprisings still had a lot of this quality, but it was noticeable that the degree of coherent militancy where strikes spread coincided with a dominant and homogeneous image of “red for ed” optics. I’m completely down with “red for ed” but we can’t lose the energy that’s created when strikers feel empowered to produce their own materials, and their own look, and to DIY some of that, together. The visual is completely different – you can see the “parts” of the whole that make up the solidarity in action, you get lots of signage specifically about that; the West Virginia actions were color coded for teachers, support staff and other public sector workers, so you were constantly confronted by an instant reminder that people are in this together but coming from different experiences. It makes it harder to settle for less than victory for everyone who is putting their asses on the line, and for the communities they are representing.
The musical motifs had much the same purpose; in that context a spirited rendition of “Take me Home, Country Roads” was certainly enough to bring me to tears as a non-West Virginian and as someone who isn’t really a John Denver fan normally. That song was also a point of unity between activists demonstrating against the abortion ban on the last Saturday of the strike and strikers; it was a weird moment because abortion activists were still locked into a lobbying mentality and tended to think of strikers as a question mark about being on their side when it came to reproductive rights, even though it was clear to me that the vast majority were on board, and among the personally affected. West Virginia and Planned Parenthood folks were a little leery of marching into the statehouse that was unexpectedly full of teachers; I wonder what could have happened if we’d marched in from the rally singing that song? I think the more socialists and activists we have who are able to think quickly in moments like that, the more we can concretely build the politics we so desperately need. Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister also got some play, and I think make the transition out of West Virginia well, though there’s nothing wrong with people in New York and everywhere singing some homage numbers to the leadership those teachers there really showed us. I think Twisted Sister is also a great one specifically for student/teacher solidarity, and all y’all should keep that in mind. It was funny to me that “Which Side are You On?” wasn’t really one of the big West Virginia picket line hits that I encountered, but I still think we can go ahead and bring that back.
Utah Phillips says that “any song you sing yourself” is a song for protest and revolution, and I can really get behind that. In the context of strikes, songs, even ones with no or bad political meanings in their own right, take on their own new meanings. It’s a way people can express and consolidate not only demands but the agenda and the feeling behind the demand, and its so fun to watch that happen.
During the Women’s Strike, we got really into singing Destiny’s Child “Scrubs” as “scabs” – as in “I don’t want no scabs,” and it’s neat watching those real-life memes spread. Not just songs; in West Virginia, people started wearing bunny ears as a “fuck you” to governor Jim Justice after he called them “dumb bunnies” for not “understanding” the limits of the legislative process. It was such a great response to that, but it was also a cool play on the “pussy hats” of the Women’s March. I’d love to propagate it – bunny ears for teacher solidarity and also for solidarity with sex workers!
Red Wedge: In the wake of the Janus decision, one is reminded of Bob Fitch’s line that closed shops actually dampened down militancy, and that this will make unions “organize for a change.” One can’t help but feel some sympathy for Fitch’s point here, but in the short-term lives will be damaged, so it is an insufficient argument, a shortcut. What is your assessment for a path forward for labour right now, and what role can cultural workers play?
Kate: I actually don’t have a lot of sympathy for the Fitch line on one level; I don’t think unions in existing right-to-work states have evinced any new ideas or apparent willingness to leap into action, Wisconsin didn’t have the effect of inspiring many come-to-Jesus moments that I’m aware of, really. In New York, where we’ve been anticipating this decision, there's been some preparation in the form of expanded union cards and some member-to-member work actually, particularly in the teachers union here in NYC, but it’s not been up to the gravity of the situation so far, and too subsumed into Democratic Party politics. Here’s hoping that it can spark some unintended consequences for the leadership, forge new connections between rank-and-filers and inspire some political ideas and action within the union and beyond it.
I think the red state teacher uprising does tell us something about this dynamic, but that isn’t that things just getting bad enough will automatically result in worker militancy; we haven’t seen that so far in the Midwest or the Deep South. Instead I think the lesson there is the importance of both socialist organization and relatively open union structures. In this case, the “openness” is a product of weakness borne of union-busting laws, one could imagine that stronger but structurally open unions would as responsive to taking leadership from a similar worker-led upsurge in the way that weak unions were forced to do in West Virginia and to some extent beyond.
I’m not sure I’m the right person to outline a strategy for the labor movement as a whole. But I do have some ideas about what socialists should be doing with respect to worker organizing and the hopeful signs of shop-floor and rank and file militancy we are currently seeing.
I think the main task we face is to spread the strike and build a militant minority; the best tool we have to do so is the experience and lessons of the teacher strikes so far. I think we should both be organizing new workers and organizing in existing unions; we should do so at the level of the shop floor and as open socialists. To do that we have to build both the face-to-face meetings in schools, warehouses, factories, depots, hospitals, offices and shops. To do it effectively, we have to build not only the shop floor organization but also the mechanisms and organization for distribution of those lessons through independent organization – rank-and-file caucuses, independent unions and socialist organizations.
This essay originally appeared on the Red Wedge Patreon page and will be appearing in our forthcoming sixth issue. To read exclusive content such as this early, and to receive a subscription to Red Wedge, become a supporter.
Kate Doyle Griffiths is an anthropologist and organizer with the International Women’s Strike and Red Bloom in New York City.