Perhaps the greatest obstacle we face in creating a new
socialist world is the enormous capacity capitalists have acquired to shape and
control what people think, and how they see the world and the events taking
place in it. Not only has there been the church and the education system
conditioning our way of thought but the mass media has become a great weapon in
the hands of any ruling class. Given all this it is hard to see how an
autonomous, oppositional consciousness could ever emerge, much less survive the
system’s attacks if it did emerge. Nevertheless, capitalist control of
consciousness and culture is not total. Opposition movements continue to be
born even now. There are cracks through which human beings find outlets to prove
that we have not been totally brainwashed by the doublespeak of capitalist
ideology and assert our own values and perceptions. This is our hope.
We can’t destroy capitalism by running for office and
instituting various reforms through legislative acts. It won’t be done because
governments don’t have the last say, they don’t control society. Capitalists
do. The government doesn’t control capitalists; capitalists control the
government. Modern government (i.e., the nation-state system) is an invention
of capitalists. It is their tool, and they know how to use it and keep it from
being turned against them. Capitalism goes rolling on no matter who controls
the government. The only method is to build socialist political parties, then using those parties to
win elections and get control of the state-machine to abolish capitalism,
dismantle the state and establish socialism.
We cannot end capitalism through single-issue campaigns, yet
the great bulk of a great many radicals’ energy is spent on these campaigns.
There are dozens of them: campaigns to defend abortion rights, to prohibit
pollution, stop police brutality, stop union busting, abolish the death
penalty, to protect the environment, outlaw genetically modified foods, stop
the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and on and on. What we are
doing is spending our lives trying to fix a system that generates evils faster
than we can ever eradicate them. Although some of these campaigns use direct
action, for the most part the campaigns are aimed at passing legislation to
correct the problem. Unfortunately, reforms that are won in one decade, after
endless agitation, can be easily wiped off the books the following decade,
after the protesters have gone home or a new administration comes to power.
These struggles all have value and are needed. Could anyone
think that the campaigns against global warming, to aid asylum seekers ought to
be abandoned? Single-issue campaigns keep us aware of what's wrong and
sometimes even win gains. But in and of themselves, they cannot destroy
capitalism, and thus cannot really fix things. It is utopian to believe that we
can reform capitalism. Most of these evils can only be eradicated for good if
we destroy capitalism itself and create a new civilization. We cannot afford to
aim for anything less. Our very survival is at stake. There is one single-issue
campaign we wholeheartedly endorse: the total and permanent eradication of
Many millions of us, though, are rootless and quite
alienated from a particular place or local community. We are part of the vast
mass of atomized individuals brought into being by the market for commodified
labor. Our political activities tend to reflect this. We tend to act as
free-floating protesters. But we could start to change this. We could attack the ruling class on all
fronts. There are millions of us, plenty of us to do everything.
The social movements, based on gender, racial, sexual, or
ethnic identities, cannot destroy capitalism. In general, they haven’t even
tried. Except for a tiny fringe of radicals in each of them, they have been
attempting to get into the system, not overthrow it. This is true for women,
blacks, homosexuals, and ethnic groups, as well as many other identities - old
people, people with disabilities, mothers on welfare, and so forth. Nothing has
derailed the anti-capitalist struggle during the past quarter century so
thoroughly as have these movements. Sometimes it seems that identity politics is
all that remains of the Left. Identity politics has simply swamped class
The mainstream versions of these movements (the ones
fighting to get into the system rather than overthrow it) have given
capitalists a chance to do a little fine-tuning by eliminating tensions here
and there, and by including token representatives of the excluded groups. Many
of the demands of these movements can be easily accommodated. Capitalists can
live with boards of directors exhibiting ethnic, gender, and racial diversity
as long as all the board members are pro-capitalist. Capitalists can easily
accept a rainbow cabinet as long as the cabinet is pushing the corporate
agenda. So mainstream identity politics has not threatened capitalism at all.
The radical wings of the new social movements, however, are
rather more subversive. These militants realized that it was necessary to
attack the whole social order in order to uproot racism and sexism - problems
that could not be overcome under capitalism since they are an integral part of
it. There is no denying the evils of racism, sexism, and nationalism, which are
major structural supports to ruling-class control. These militants have done
whatever they could to highlight, analyze, and ameliorate these evils.
Unfortunately, for the most part, their voices have been lost in all the clamor
for admittance to the system by the majorities in their own movements.
There have been gains, of course. The women's movement has
forever changed the world's consciousness about gender. Identity politics in
general has underscored just how many people are excluded while also exposing
gaps in previous revolutionary strategies. Moreover, the demand for real
equality is itself inherently revolutionary in that it cannot be met by
capitalists, given that discrimination and division are two of the key
structural mechanisms for keeping wages low and thus making profits possible.
Leninism cannot destroy capitalism by taking over the
government by capturing the state apparatus by force of arms. This has been the
most widely used strategy by national liberation movements during the past
century in countries on the periphery of capitalism. Dozens of
"revolutionary parties" have come to power all over the world, but
nowhere have they succeeded in destroying capitalism. In all cases so far, they
have simply gone on doing what capitalists always do: accumulate more capital.
They inevitably become in spite of their intentions just another government in
a system of nation-states, inextricably embedded in capitalism, with no
possibility of escape. Generations devoted their lives to this strategy but
now, after nearly a century of trials, it's painfully clear that the strategy
has failed, and more and more people have come to this conclusion. The few
remaining die-hard Leninists/Trotskyists/Maoists, who are still struggling to
build a vanguard party to seize state power, are definitely and thankfully a
dying breed. National liberation movements in colonial countries in order to capture
the governments there is a form of Leninism. Capitalists have learned how to
defeat it. Capitalists have been delighted to have a new enemy - namely,
"terrorists" now that "communists" are gone. But more
importantly as a tactic for socialism it will not work because it doesn’t
contain within itself the seeds of the new civilization.
Nor can we destroy capitalism by seizing and occupying the
factories and the farms as the syndicalists advocate we should do. Syndicalism
(federations of peasant, worker, and soldier councils) did have a faint chance
of success, and even came close in the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s.
Unfortunately, that revolution was defeated. In fact, all syndicalist
revolutions have failed so far. But again there are serious flaws inherent in
the strategy itself. For one thing, the syndicalist strategy excludes old
people, young people, sick people, prisoners, students, welfare recipients, and
millions of unemployed workers. To think that a revolution can be made only by
those people who hold jobs is the sheerest folly. Perhaps immediately after
syndicalists seize the factories and make a revolution, this exclusion could be
overcome by having everyone join a council at home or in school, but this is no
help beforehand, during the revolution itself. The whole image is badly skewed.
Moreover, syndicalists have never specified clearly enough
how all the various councils are going to function together to make decisions
and set policy, defend themselves, and launch a new society. In the near
revolution in Germany in 1918, the worker and soldier councils were for a few
months the only organized power. They could have won. But they were confused
about what to do. They couldn’t see how to get from their separate councils to
the establishment of overall power and the defeat of capitalism. In the massive
general strike in Poland in 1980, factory, office, mining, and farm councils
were set up all over the country. But these councils didn’t know how to
coalesce into an alternative social arrangement capable of replacing the
existing power structure. They even mistakenly refrained from attacking
ruling-class power with the intent of destroying it. Instead, the councils
merely wanted to coexist in some kind of uneasy dual structure (perhaps because
they were afraid of a Soviet invasion; but a strategy that has not taken
external armies into account is badly flawed).
Workplace associations would have to be permanent
assemblies, with years of experience under their belts, before they could have
a chance of success. They cannot be new forms suddenly thrown up in the depths
of a crisis or the middle of a general strike, with a strong government still
waiting in the wings, supported by its fully operational military forces. It is
no wonder that syndicalist-style revolts have gone down to defeat.
Finally, syndicalists have not worked out the relations
between the councils and the community at large, and to assume that workers in
a factory have the final say over the allocation of those resources (or whether
the factory should even exist) rather than the community at large, simply won’t
do. Nor have syndicalists worked out inter-community relations. Syndicalism, in
short, is a strategy that has not been capable of destroying capitalism,
although it has been headed in the right direction.
The weapon often promoted by the syndicalists and the
industrial unionists – the General Strike cannot destroy capitalism. There is
an upper limit of about six weeks as to how long they can even last. Beyond
that society starts to disintegrate. But since the general strikers have not
even thought about reconstituting society through alternative social
arrangements, let alone created them, they are compelled to go back to their
jobs just to survive, to keep from starving. All a government has to do is wait
them out, perhaps making a few concessions to placate the masses. This is what
Charles de Gaulle did in France in 1968.
A general strike couldn't even last six weeks if it were
really general - that is, if everyone stopped working. Under those conditions
there would be no water, electricity, heat, or food. The garbage would pile up.
We couldn't go anywhere because the gas stations would be closed. We couldn't
get medical treatment. Thus we would only be hurting ourselves. And what could
our objectives possibly be? By stopping work, we obviously wouldn't be aiming
at occupying and seizing our workplaces. If that were our aim we would continue
working, but kick the bosses out. So our main aim would have to be to topple a
government and replace it with another. This might be a legitimate goal if we
needed to get rid of a particularly oppressive regime, but as for getting rid
of capitalism, it gets us nowhere.
Strikes against a particular corporation cannot destroy
capitalism. They are not even thought to do so. The purpose of strikes is to
change the rate of exploitation in favor of workers. Strikes have only rarely
been linked to demands for workers’ control (let alone the abolition of wage
slavery); nor could capitalist property relations be overcome in a single
corporation. The strike does not contain within itself any vision for
reconstituting social relations across society, nor any plans to do so.
In recent years, strikes have even lost most of the
effectiveness they once had for gaining short-term benefits for the working
class. More often than not strikers are defeated: their union leaders sell them
out; the owners bring in scabs, or simply fire everyone and hire a new
work-force by out sourcing or exporting jobs abroad; the owners move their
plants elsewhere; and/or the government declares the strike illegal and
financially cripple the union. Strike breaking is a flourishing industry.
Decades of anti-union propaganda by corporate-controlled media has destroyed a
pro-labor working-class culture, which in turn helps management break strikes.
Nowadays, for strikers to get anywhere at all, entire communities have to be
mobilized, with linkages to national campaigns. Even so, strikers are still
aiming only at higher wages, health benefits, and the like; they are not
anti-capitalist. So however important strikes are, or once were, in the
unending fight over the extraction of wealth from the direct producers, they
cannot destroy capitalism as a system.
Although unions were created by workers to help protect
themselves from the ravages of wage slavery, they have long since lost any
emancipatory potential. They were easily co-opted by the ruling class and used
against workers as a disciplinary tool to prevent strikes, to prevent job actions,
to drain power from the shop floor, to stabilize the workforce and reduce
absenteeism, to pacify workers, to water down demands, and so forth. Many unions
have been "business unions," working in cahoots with capitalists to
manage "labor relations."
In recent years there has been a movement to rebuild unions.
In some developing countries there are some strong union movements, arising in
response to the industries that have moved there or to the appearance of
sweatshops. With rare exception, these unions are not anti-capitalist.
Naturally, it's important to fight for better working conditions, higher wages,
shorter hours, and health benefits. Such struggles do often highlight the evils
of the wage slave system as well as improve the lives of workers. But something
more is needed if we want to get rid of capitalism. Even if current labor
activists succeed and rebuild unions to what they once were, can we expect
these newly refashioned unions to accomplish more than previous ones did, at
the height of the unionization drives of a strong labor movement - a movement
that was embedded in communist, socialist, and anarchist working-class cultures
that have now been obliterated? Hardly.
Insurrections cannot destroy capitalism. You can rampage
through the streets all you want, burn down your neighborhoods, and loot all
the local stores to your heart’s content. This will not go anywhere. Blind rage
will burn itself out. When it’s all over, these insurrectionists will be
showing up for work like always or standing again in the dole line. Nothing has
changed. Nothing has been organized. No new associations have been created.
What do capitalists care if they lose a few city blocks? They can afford it.
All they have to do is cordon off the area of conflagration, wait for the fires
to burn down, go in and arrest thousands of people at random, and then leave,
letting the "rioters" cope with their ruined neighborhoods as best
they can. Maybe we should think of something a little more damaging to capitalists
than burning down our own neighborhoods.
Acts of civil disobedience cannot destroy capitalism. They
can sometimes make strong moral statements. But moral statements are pointless
against immoral persons. They fall on deaf ears. Therefore, the act of
deliberately breaking a law and getting arrested is of limited value in
actually breaking the power of the rulers. Acts of civil disobedience can be
used as weapons in the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, assuming
that ordinary people ever hear about them. But they are basically the actions
of powerless persons. Powerless individuals must use whatever tactics they can,
of course. But that is the point. Why remain powerless, when by adopting a
different strategy building strategic associations we could become powerful,
and not be reduced to impotent acts like civil disobedience against laws we had
no say in making and that we regard as unjust?
We cannot destroy capitalism by staging demonstrations and
protest marches. As a rule, demonstrations barely even embarrass capitalists,
let alone frighten or damage them. Demonstrations are just a form of petition
usually. They petition the ruling class regarding some grievance, essentially
begging it to change its policies. They are not designed to take any power or
wealth away from capitalists. Demonstrations only last a few hours or days and
then, with rare exception, everything goes back to the way it was. If
demonstrations do win an occasional concession, it is usually minor and
short-lived. They do not build an alternative social world. Rather, they mostly
just alert the ruling class that it needs to retool or invent new measures to
counter an emerging source of opposition.
But even if demonstrations rise above the petition level,
and become instead a way of presenting our demands and making our opposition
known, we still have not acquired the power to see that our demands are met.
Our opposition has no teeth. In order to give some bite to our protests we would
have to re-organize ourselves, re-orient ourselves then when we went off on
demonstrations to protest ruling-class initiatives and projects there would be
some strength behind the protests, rather than just shouted slogans, unfurled
banners, hoisted placards, street scuffles, and clever puppets. We would be in
a position to take action if our demands were not met. Then when we chanted,
"Whose Streets? Our Streets!" our words might represent more than
just a pipe dream.
Demonstrations are not even good propaganda tools because
the ruling class, given its control of the media, can put any spin it wants to
on the event, and this interpretation is invariably damaging to the opposition
movement, assuming the event is even reported since the latest approach to
these events is simply to ignore them. This is quite effective.
And what are the gains? An issue can sometimes be brought to
the attention of the public, even if only a small minority of the public. Also,
more people can be drawn into an opposition movement. For those participating,
a demonstration can be an inspiring experience. In many cases, though, this
high is offset by a sense of dispiritedness on returning home. Demonstrations
can thus contribute to building an opposition movement. But are these small
gains worth it? Large national demonstrations drain energy and resources away
from local struggles. And even local demonstrations are costly, requiring time,
energy, and money, which are always in short supply among radicals. Are
demonstrations worth all the work and the expense they take to organize? No
matter what, they remain just a form of protest. They show what we're against.
By their very nature, demonstrations are of limited value for articulating what
we are for.
We are against the World Trade Organization, but what are we
Rather than taking to the streets and marching off all the
time, protesting this or that (while the police take our pictures), we would be
better off staying home and building up our workplace, neighborhood, and
household associations until they are powerful enough to strike at the heart of
capitalism. We cannot build a new social world in the streets.
Boycotts have always been an extremely ineffective way to
attack the system, and are almost impossible to organize. They almost
invariably fail in their objectives. In the rare cases where they have
succeeded, the gains are minor. A corporation is forced to amend its labor
policies here and there, drop a product, or divest somewhere. That’s about it.
In recent years, boycotting has become a way of life for
thousands in the environmental movement. They publish thick books on which
products are okay to buy and which must be boycotted, covering literally
everything from toilet paper to deodorant, food to toys. All these activists
have succeeded in doing is to create a whole new capitalist industry of
politically correct products. They have bought into the myth that the
"economy" will give us anything we want if we just demand it, and
that it is our demands that have been wrong rather than the system itself.
It’s true that it is better to eat food that hasn’t been
polluted with insecticides, to wear clothes not made with child labor, or to
use makeup not tested on rabbits. But capitalism cannot be destroyed by making
such life-style choices. If we are going to boycott something, we might try
boycotting wage slavery.
We cannot destroy capitalism by dropping out, either as an
individual, a small group, or a community. It’s been tried over and over, and
it fails every time. There is no escaping capitalism; there is nowhere left to
go. The only escape from capitalism is to destroy it. Then we could be free (if
we try). In fact, capitalists love it when we drop out. They don’t need us.
They have plenty of suckers already. What do they care if we live under
bridges, beg for meals, and die young? Even
more illusory than the idea that an individual can drop out is the notion that
a whole community can withdraw from the system and build its own little new
world somewhere else. This was tried repeatedly by utopian communities
throughout the nineteenth century. The strategy was revived in the 1960s as
thousands of new left radicals retired to remote rural communes to groove on
togetherness (and dope). The strategy is once again surfacing in the new age
movement as dozens of communities are being established all over the country.
These movements all suffer from the mistaken idea that they don’t have to
attack capitalism and destroy it but can simply withdraw from it, to live their
own lives separately and independently. It is a vast illusion. Capitalists rule
the world. Until they are defeated, there will be no freedom for anyone.
A number of radicals established free schools and even a
free university or two, and there was a fairly strong and long lasting modern
school movement among anarchists. But these are long gone. The notion that “libertarian”
education is the path to change and the way out of the mess we're in is like
the tail wagging the dog. We must not think that the capitalist world can
simply be ignored, in a live-and-let-live attitude, while we try to build new
As wonderful as Luddism was, as one of the fiercest attacks
ever made against capitalism, wrecking machinery cannot in and of itself
destroy capitalism, and for the same reason that insurrections and strikes
cannot: the action is not designed to replace capitalism with new
decision-making arrangements. It does not even strike at the heart of
capitalism - wage slavery - but only at the physical plant, the material means of
production. Although large-scale sabotage, if it were part of a movement to
destroy capitalism and replace it with something else, could weaken the
corporate world and put a strain on the accumulation of capital, it is far
better to get ourselves in a position where we can seize the machinery rather
than smash it. (Not that we even want much of the existing machinery; it will
have to be redesigned. But seizing it is a way of getting control over the
means of production.)
Moreover, Luddites were already enslaved to capitalists in
their cottage industries before they struck. They were angry because new
machinery was eliminating their customary job (which was an old way of making a
living, relatively speaking, and thus had some strong traditions attached to it).
In current terms, it would be like linotype operators destroying computers
because their jobs were being eliminated by the new equipment. Destroying the
new machinery misses the point. It is not the machinery that is the problem but
the wage slave system itself. If it weren’t for wage slavery we could welcome
labor-saving devices, provided they weren’t destructive in other ways, for freeing
us from unnecessary toil. We can draw inspiration from Luddism, as a fine
example of workers aggressively resisting the further degradation of their
lives, but we should not imitate it, at least not as a general strategy.
We must never forget that we are at war. It is not a war in
the traditional sense of armies and tanks; it is a class war fought on a daily
basis, on the level of everyday life, by millions of people. It is a war
nevertheless because the accumulators of capital will use coercion, brutality,
and murder, as they have always done in the past, to try to block any rejection
of the system. They have always had to force compliance; they will not hesitate
to continue to do so.
Capitalism must be explicitly refused and replaced by
something else. We do not call for reforming capitalism, for changing
capitalism into something else. It calls for totally replacing capitalism with
a new civilization. This is an important distinction because capitalism has
proved impervious to reforms as a system. We can sometimes, in some places, win
certain concessions from it (usually only temporary ones) and some (usually
short-lived) improvements in our lives as its victims, but we cannot reform it
piecemeal. We can overthrow slavery and live without working for a wage or
buying and selling the products made by wage slaves (that is, we must free
ourselves from the labor market and the way of living based on it), and we can embed
ourselves instead in cooperative labor and cooperatively produced goods. Destroying
capitalism requires an awareness that we are attacking an entire way of life
and replacing it with another, and not merely reforming one way of life into
Adapted from an article Getting Free: Creating an
Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods by James Herod