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Posts Tagged ‘class struggle’

“Personally, I don’t understand the compulsion to mine history for words that might describe what’s to come. The fact is that the approaching flood has no name. Any title it might take is presently lost in the noise of its gestation, maybe just beginning to be spoken in a language that we can hardly recognize. There will be no Commune because this isn’t Paris in 1871. There will be no Dual Power because this isn’t Russia in 1917. There will be no Autonomy because this isn’t Italy in 1977. I’m writing this in 2017, and I don’t know what’s coming, even though I know something is rolling toward us in the darkness, and the world can end in more ways than one. Its presence is hinted at somewhere deep inside the evolutionary meat grinder of riot repeating riot, all echoing ad infinitum through the Year of our Lord 2016, when the anthem returned to its origin, and the corpse flowers bloomed all at once as Louisiana was turned to water, and no one knew why. I don’t call people comrade; I just call them friend. Because whatever’s coming has no name, and anyone who says they hear it is a liar. All I hear are guns cocking over trap snares unrolling to infinity.”

– Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict. Reaktion Books, 2018.

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“The idea of mental health took hold in the first three decades of the twentieth-century United States not so much because it was an idea whose time had come, but because of the threat presented by fulminating radical socialist thought.

At the turn of the twentieth century, US elites were drunk on wealth, even as they panicked at the specter of violent social revolution. Their paranoia was not entirely unfounded. The decades following the Civil War were a period of capitalist accumulation that by 1900 resulted in the top 1 percent of households owning 51 percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 44 percent owned only 1 percent.

Menaced by falling rates of profit, industrial capitalists and bankers after 1865 began a transition from laissez-faire competition to industrial monopolies, trusts, and mergers, in an attempt to artificially raise profits by controlling prices. This transition from industrial to finance capitalism subjected ordinary workers to the frenzied boom and bust cycles of speculative capital. It relied heavily on the expansion of consumer credit and debt, making ever-greater tranches of the population vulnerable to the convulsions of financial markets.

The nation roiled with class warfare. Class politics in the post–Civil War period were largely articulated via recurrent populist crusades. These movements were mostly comprised of farmers, tenants, and small proprietors, loosely if pugnaciously affiliated around resistance to the banking rackets’ entrenched interests in maintaining high interest rates and keeping the currency wed to gold backing.

By the turn of the twentieth century, one third of all small farmers were mortgaged at dizzying interest rates. 70 percent of the nation’s labor force had been transformed into landless wage earners with no delusions of achieving financial independence from the industrial and financial oligarchs.

The chasm between the increasingly desperate position of deskilled labor — subject, with the introduction of Taylorism, to ever-more tyrannical control by management — and the gilded excesses of the speculative and industrial elite was obvious, most of all to the swelling ranks of the landless and precarious wage earners packed into the squalid flophouses coating the underside of the industrial cities.

The manifest antagonism of interests between Gilded Age capital and labor caused a proliferation of increasingly radical labor organizations, among them the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The period between 1870 and 1905 witnessed over thirty-seven thousand strikes.

Flailing to control working-class militancy, industrialists turned to armed scabs and police terror to break labor in bloody confrontations like the Haymarket Riot (1886), the Coeur d’Alene Silver Mine Strike (1892), the Pullman Strike (1894), and the Ludlow Massacre (1914).

Elites were alarmed by the spate of new social pathologies resulting from these social and demographic changes. By 1910, vagrancy, homelessness, and begging were rampant in urban centers. Chicago alone had up to seventy-five thousand homeless men in its streets and flophouses in 1923, and a 1915 government survey estimated the total number of “unemployables” nationally at five million, growing at a rate that eclipsed the general population increase. Divorce, or abandonment — the “poor man’s divorce” — rose to a rate of 20 percent of households in metropolitan areas by 1930, swelling the number of women and children requiring state or philanthropic support.

The dissolution of local or traditional kinship care networks was directly implicated in the seismic increase in the number of persons requiring care in asylums, whose inmates multiplied from 74,000 in 1890 to 150,000 in 1904, and over 267,000 by 1922. By 1920, the total cost of care for those labelled “insane” was estimated to exceed that of all agricultural production, with Americans diagnosed as “insane” growing at double the overall rate of population increase.

In short, by the first decade of the twentieth century, it was clear that the nation was in crisis. The question was a crisis of what? Faced with this question, the newly formed discipline of psychiatry would ally with Gilded Age elites and New Liberal political philosophy to argue that this turmoil could be solved by understanding the vast array of social ills as problems of mental health.

Emotions as Political Substance
If we want to understand the conditions under which “mental health” was proposed as the total cure for the United States’ ills, we need to grasp the dominant forms of political thought that emerged as part of the new liberal consensus. To the ills of a nation riven by class conflict and plagued by social ills, Progressive Era “New Liberals” offered a prescription of harmonious social integration. This vision of society as an integrated organism was to be guaranteed by the “emotional adjustment” and “mental health” of the individual. Its success would be secured through the benevolent rule of technocratic experts, trained and housed in the nation’s freshly minted university system.

Faced with the twin specters of social breakdown or a revolution of the strain developing in Russia, turn-of-the-century liberals embarked on a political project anchored in a redefinition of democracy. Here, the fundamental unit of politics was not the property owner, but the psyche. This political-philosophical outlook put aside the question of ownership (or not) of property, and instead prioritized the individual as a psychological entity, always conditioned by cultural habits and considered in relation to a cohesive social group unfractured by class conflict.

Thus, the New Liberals performed a kind of magic trick: by waving the wand of psychiatric technocracy over a scene of profound economic inequality, they transformed the subject of politics from the property-owning citizen into a freshly politicized psyche.

The New Liberals performed a kind of magic trick: by waving the wand of psychiatric technocracy over a scene of profound economic inequality, they transformed the subject of politics from the property-owning citizen into a freshly politicized psyche.

The political philosophy of the New Liberals differed from its predecessors in three key ways. First, in place of the free-willed individual posited by classical liberalism, New Liberalism regarded the individual as motivated by unconscious drives and habit formation that occurred below the surface of conscious thought or choice. The individual, they thought, was shaped through the accumulation of habit. As the influential pragmatist psychologist William James wrote in 1890:

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone … It keeps different social strata from mixing.

This elevation of the unconscious conditioning of the individual over freedom of choice provided the basis for the second key difference that separated the New Liberals from earlier social philosophy. While older positivist social theory (like that of Emile Durkheim) held that something called “society” exerted an inexorable force on the individual, New Liberals thought it was possible to engineer society itself through scientific principles.

If the individual was shaped by the unconscious processes of habit formation, then the best tactic for social control was not in outright force (of the sort witnessed in bloody labor confrontations) but in changing individuals’ education and environment so as to inculcate social consensus. Accordingly, the political theater should be located in the psyche of the individual, one evolving dynamically in his or her environment, taking on habits that could be engineered by the elite, university-trained technicians of social order.

The idea of social consensus was the New Liberals’ third major innovation on older forms of political thought. Previous political economy recognized competing interests (either between classes or between property owners) as creating intrinsic, constitutive social factions whose necessarily clashing positions were mediated through politics.

The New Liberals rejected the notion that society was fundamentally fractured, instead understanding society as a harmonious whole comprised of a division of labor and social roles. As a result, the question of American democracy was not a matter of ensuring equality of property, but of ensuring psychic buy-in to the social system, in which every individual would find their “natural place” to which they were best suited by habit.

The New Liberals thus put the individual psyche and emotions at the center of their vision of democracy. In replacing the question of property with that of the “personality” or psyche, they pivoted from a positive definition of freedom (e.g. freedom to pursue equality of property) to a negative one: freedom from the “emotional disturbances” that result in the individual’s failure to buy into a social harmony based on varying personal roles.

In the words of the future architect of American psychiatry Adolf Meyer, the “very foundation of democracy” rested on the recognition that “men are not born equal” in their habits and natural endowments. Consequently, democratic freedom consisted in each person finding their “natural place” in the social order. The New Liberal vision of society and politics, then, hinged on the enshrinement of what Meyer termed an “emotional culture that will cause people to stand by the rules of the social game even when it is not in one’s own benefit.”

But how was this social consensus to be achieved? The New Liberals’ vision claimed to apply truly scientific principles to the management of social ills. This was American psychiatry’s promise to the US ruling class: a universal science of the individualized psyche that could guarantee the emotional adjustment of each person to their role in the social order.”

– Zola Carr, “Medicalizing Society.Jacobin, August 28, 2018.

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“The proletarian is the destitute, that is to say the propertyless, the without-reserves and not the badly paid. The sentence is formulated in a text of Marx’s in 1854 which says that the more a country has proletarians the more it is rich. Marx defines the proletarian as follows: the waged employee who produces the capital and valorises it, and that capital throws on to the pavement as soon as he becomes superfluous to the requirements of “Mr. Capital”. With his sharp wit, Marx laughs at an author who speaks of the “proletarian of the primitive forest”. In fact, the inhabitant of this place is not a landlord, nor a proletarian, “because if he was, it would mean that the forest exploits him instead of him exploiting it”.

The place of the worst barbarism is that modern forest that makes use of us, this forest of chimneys and bayonets, machines and weapons, of strange inanimate beasts that feed on human flesh.

The situation of all the without-reserves, reduced to such a state because, dialectically, they are themselves a reserve, has been aggravated terribly by the experience of the war. The hereditary character of membership of economic classes implies that to be without-reserves is even more serious than to be without life. After the passage of flames of the war, after carpet bombing, members of the working class, no less than at the time of all other disasters, lose not only, most likely, their present job, but see even that minimum reserve of mobile property that constitutes the parts of a rudimentary household destroyed. Titles of possession partly survive all material destruction, because they are the social rights sanctioned by the exploitation of other people. And to write again in letters of fire the Marxist law of antagonism, there is the other observation accessible to all, that the industry of the war and destruction is the one that brings the biggest profits and the biggest concentrations of wealth in the least numerous hands. For the others who lose nothing, there is the industry of reconstruction and the forest of business and the Marshall plan and ERP whose big Jackals are the worthy supreme Administrators.

The wars have therefore thrown, unambiguously, millions and millions of men into the ranks of those who no longer have anything to lose. They have given revisionism the knock-out blow. The word of radical marxism must resound in a terrifying manner: proletarians, in the communist revolution, have nothing to lose but their chains.”

– 

Amadeo Bordiga, “Class Struggle and “Bosses’ Offensives.”” Battaglia Comunista, No. 39. 1949

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“Union Man Gets 3-Month Term – Toronto Organizer Sentenced at Guelph for Intimidation,” Toronto Telegram. June 29, 1934. Page 04.

“Guelph, June 29 (Special) – Max Federman, Toronto union organizer, was sentenced here to-day to three months at hard labor in the county jail for intimidation.

Federman, organizer of the Fur Workers’ ‘International’ Union, was charged in connection with visits paid to the plant of the Popular Cloak Co. here, a subsidiary of the Superior Cloak Co. of Toronto.

The manager of the plant told of Federman coming into the factory and telling Many Guziker, head of the fur department, that he must quit, and that the union was ‘not going to allow any fur shop in Guelph.’

‘We’ll have to put one of you in the hospital so others won’t come here,’ he was alleged to have said to Guziker.

The manager said he asked Federman if he was ‘trying to racketeer.’ Replying to a question by Federman’s counsel, he declared his shop was non-union and didn’t want any union men. He told the court that he had been attacked in Toronto on July 1 last year.

The threat was alleged to have been made on Federman’s first visit to the plant on June 12, but nothing was done until he returned to Guelph on June 26. On that day, Guziker said, Federman accosted him on the street and advised him again to quit his job and come back to Toronto. He had never been a member of the Fur Worker’s Union, but had been in business for himself, Guziker said.

‘Union officials have no business to come to Guelph to intimidate anyone,’ Crown Attorney Kearns declared.

‘It is not the words which made a threat, but the understanding which results,’ Magistrate Watt stated. ‘If union officials use threat to try to dictate to concerns it is going too far.’

‘I’m afraid they may beat me up,’ Guziker told Crown Attorney Kearns.

Constables Blingworth and Smith told of visiting the plant last Tuesday and seeing seven Toronto men hanging around. Federman refused to answer questions until threatened with arrest on a vagrancy charge, after which he said they were going to declare a strike in the local plant on Wednesdy morning.” 

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Scenes from the Bayonne refinery strike, July 1915. Bain News Service photographs, Library of Congress.  

“Initially about 1200 workers walked out, including 900 coopers, when their demands for increased pay and tolerable working conditions were ignored. The company retaliated by calling in the Bayonne police force through the Mayor of Bayonne, New Jersey, Pierre P. Garven, who was simultaneously on Standard Oil’s payroll as an attorney.  A riot on July 20, 1915 involving the strikers, police and “several hundred women” shut down the Standard Oil plant, and caused the shooting death of 19-year-old striker John Sterancsak. Plant general manager George B. Gifford ordered 250 men from the professional strikebreaker Pearl Bergoff.  

The following day a mob attacked the Tidewater refinery in an attempt to set it on fire. After several days of lawlessness, significant arson damage, at least five strikers killed altogether, and at least five more seriously wounded, Sheriff Eugene Francis Kinkead and federal labor mediators restored order after James Fairman Fielder, the Governor of New Jersey refused to call out the New Jersey National Guard. The General Superintendent of the Tidewater facility and 32 guards were arrested on a charge of inciting to riot. A total of 130 plant guards would be arrested. Saloons were closed. Local officials also arrested the Industrial Workers of the World agitator Frank Tannenbaum, who had tried to insert himself as a spokesperson for the strikers, and banned the sale of the socialist newspaper, the New York Call. On the 28th, the workers warily returned on promises of increased pay and the institution of an eight-hour day, promises which appear to have been kept by September.”  

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