You can‘t vote for communism

by JOJO KLICK

Over the last couple of years, we have seen leftist activists throwing themselves into electoral movements – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and more recently the movement for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and for Bernie Sanders in the US[1]. To some extent, enthusiasm about these popular campaigns is certainly understandable after decades of only defensive or unsuccessful left wing struggles which were not able to achieve structural change. However, there is also a lot of confusion about what to actually expect from an electoral strategy, since these movements often talk the language of radical change (e.g. Sander’s “political revolution”) and socialism, but in fact only have a social democratic program for regulating capitalism. I would argue that for radical leftists, it makes sense to figure out where we actually want to get – let’s call it communism – in order to figure out how to get there and what our practice should look like. (Spoiler alert: electoralism is not such a practice.)

What is communism?

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write that communism is not “a state of affairs which is to be established”, but the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. However, they still make some points about how this “state of affairs” that will be reached through the abolition of the present state of things might look. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, they write that communism is an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx names “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism.

This means that wage labour, as well as the commodity form and thus money and private property, would be abolished. People would get what they need without having to give anything (like money) for it in exchange. People would manage re/production[2] in a self-organized way and distribute the goods that are produced either freely (in case of abundance) or to those who need them most (in case of scarcity). This should not be misunderstood as an ethical utopia where people have to be inherently “good”. Rather, communism is a societal structure where the inclusion of others is functional. Since people do not produce in isolation from each other, but within networks of free cooperation, they have to take into account the needs of those with whom they cooperate – if they cannot force them to cooperate through wage labour (which is a form of coercion) or a state apparatus, like today.

The problem with state socialism

This goal of communism has generally been shared by most Marxists (as well as anarcho-Communists), even if they may not have explicitly thought about the organization of a communist society in detail. Where they diverge from faction to faction, however, is the question of how to get there.

Traditionally, many Marxists have focused on gaining state power first to establish a transitional society. They can refer to Marx’ Critique of the Gotha program here, where Marx named “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism, which was in his opinion only possible when the productive forces were sufficiently developed. Until then, he suggested a model where people would not receive according to their needs but according to how much they worked, and where the state would not be abolished, but led by workers. Vladimir Lenin later called this transitional stage “socialism” to distinguish it from the ultimate goal of communism. I will call it state socialism here, since socialism is often used in a much broader sense.

The problem with state socialism is that it leaves fundamental capitalist relations intact. The difference between it and capitalism is that production is not organized by the market where capitalists compete to try to increase profits, but by the state that tries to centrally plan the production. This leads to the question of how this central plan is enforced. This can happen either through brute force, or – which is much easier – through wage labour. Private property is not abolished, but people only get access to it when they work according to the plan. The commodity form, and thus the contradiction between use value and exchange value, remains intact. People might be motivated to produce good use values, but they have to orient themselves towards exchange value in order to make a living. The state as economic planner is interested in good, yet cheap products, while the production units are interested in minimizing their effort while getting more money (or other equivalents) from the state. Thus, they still need to externalize costs and increase exploitation, almost like in capitalism. The lack of market competition takes removes some of the pressure to produce exchange value, but also leads to crappier products.

While there are many problems inherent in state socialism, the biggest question is probably how this transitional stage is supposed to move forward towards a much freer communist society which would include the withering away of the state. For most Marxists, gaining state power in order to establish socialism became the priority; the question of how to reach communism became secondary at best. Historically, state socialist countries have all either developed brutal, totalitarian bureaucracies, collapsed altogether, or moved towards free market capitalism. Nowhere has there been a development towards communism.

This did not, however change the goal of many state socialists of gaining state power. They share this goal with reformist social democrats like Corbyn and Sanders. In fact, it seems to have become so much of a priority for them that they actually forget what they wanted to get state power for in the first place – which is why they throw themselves into electoral movements for moderate social democrats, just because they speak a seemingly radical language of “socialism”.

The problem with reformism

These reformist, social democratic electoral movements have not questioned capitalism – far from it. In fact, Sanders has explicitly said multiple times that when he refers to democratic socialism, he means a welfare state like in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries – regulated capitalism, so to speak. While it would of course be a life-saving improvement to have Medicare for all, it is also necessary to consider the limitations of such a social democratic programme.

Within capitalism, the state is dependent on a growing economy, which generates the jobs and tax money that the state needs in order to actually do anything. When a state establishes high social and ecological standards, such as a high minimum wage or a carbon tax that make production more expensive for companies, they tend to move to other countries where they can produce more cheaply. Historically, social democracy has only been possible under specific circumstances, such as high growth and productivity rates, or the inter-system competition with the Eastern bloc in the post-war era. Social democracy is also inherently limited to a single nation state. To regulate capitalism in a way that makes it socially just and ecologically sustainable without externalizing costs is impossible. This can also be seen in social democracy’s favorite example of Sweden. While that country does have a relatively high carbon tax, this is reduced for those sectors that produce for export and have to compete internationally.

Even if social democratic reformism might attain some improvements, it cannot solve capitalism’s fundamental contradictions, let alone pave the way for communism.

Communism is a movement from below

If the state is not a tool that can be used to establish communism, how do we get there instead? If we do not consider communism a question of who holds state power, but a question of social relations beyond state and market, we can already see it everywhere in embryonic forms. Communism is alive in the commons; both traditional commons where land and other resources are shared and used for people’s needs, as well as modern commons such as open source software. It can even be seen – though in a very restricted way – within the capitalist economy, where self-organization has become a productive force. But most of all, it is alive everywhere where people resist oppression and build relationships of solidarity. In struggle, it is not a question of ethics or charity to include other peoples’ needs, but it is functional: we can only win when we stick together. The role of a communist movement might be to link all those existing communist relations together, to appropriate resources such as land, housing and means of production and organize re/production in a communist way – without the mediations of state and market.

If the state has any role to play in this, it would be to distribute resources to the movement. It is much more likely, however, that communism needs to be fought for against the state. This does not mean that communists should necessarily abstain from voting. Through elections, we have the possibility to vote for our preferred enemy, for conditions under which struggle might be easier. However, we should not put our energy into electoral movements for some boring social democrats who actually have nothing to do with communism at all. You can’t vote for communism; you have to build it from below.


[1] as analyzed and criticized by Daphne Lawless in the latest Fightback issue on electoralism: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/08/25/left-populism-at-the-dead-end-where-to-after-corbyn-and-sanders/

[2] Production and reproduction, which are no longer separate spheres.

Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html
What’s wrong with this picture?

Introduction: the dream is over

On 8th April 2020, Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party, following that party’s trouncing by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the December 2019 election. On the same day, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for US president, soon after his disappointing results in the “Super Tuesday” Presidential primary elections which were dominated decisively by centrist former Vice-President Joe Biden.

To be dramatic, we could call this “the day the dream ended”. That dream was one shared by much of the Left over the last ten years: that nascent Left-wing “populist” electoral movements across the world, often arising from protest movements such as Occupy or the demonstrations against austerity in Greece, would arise to defeat both the neoliberal establishment and the rising tide of Right-wing populist, even fascist, movements. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are the names most commonly associated with this movement in English speaking countries, but other movements such as PODEMOS in the Spanish state, or SYRIZA in Greece, have also caused much excitement on the broader Left. The former is currently the junior coalition government partner in Spain, and the latter led the government of Greece from 2015-2019.[1] Further back in history, the “pink tide” governments in Latin America, most famously that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, can also be seen in this category.

So why has this “Left-populist” wave reached such a dead end? And was it a wrong direction to start with?

Bernie Sanders: where was the turnout?

The strongest argument for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was always that “Bernie” was unique in having a mass movement behind him dominated by youth, who were excited and motivated by his social-democratic, anti-establishment message. None of the other, centrist candidates, the argument went, could match the “enthusiasm” and “energy” of the Bernie wave – and if Bernie were to be nominated, this wave would then go on to completely swamp the Trump campaign. Excitable online leftists, such as Will Menaker from the podcast Chapo Trap House, enthused about how the centrist Democrat establishment would soon have to “bend the knee” before the Bernie movement[2], while journalist David Klion was even more optimistic about the future:

As it turned out, there was something of a landslide on “Super Tuesday”, 3rd March 2020, when 14 states held their primaries. Turnout for the Democratic primaries was much higher than in 2016; in states such as Virginia, it doubled.[3] African-Americans, Latin@s and others in working-class suburbs queued for up to 7 hours (due to deliberate underprovision of polling places by Republican state governments) to vote…[4] and the results were excellent for Joe Biden, and disappointing for Bernie Sanders, essentially ending the latter’s chances of winning the nomination.

The immediate counter-reaction from the Sanders camp was to point out that overwhelmingly older voters (tending to support Biden) had turned out, while younger, more Sanders-inclined voters didn’t. But that begs the question. Bernie’s fabled support had not appeared at the polls. Of course, polling times and polling places were inconvenient for young people – exactly as they will be in the November general election. No matter the quality of the Sanders programme, this was powerful negative evidence about his ability to defeat Donald Trump.

One explanation was this was a real-time demonstration of “Cuomo’s Law”. In 2019, the centrist governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, was challenged from the Left by Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role in the TV show Sex and the City. Her campaign was extremely popular on social media, but in the end Cuomo defeated her by 31 points.[5] The social media “buzz” behind Nixon ended up having little relevance to actual elections. Hence, one Twitter user suggested “Cuomo’s Law”: that online politics have nothing to do with real life.[6] That is, the argument was that the Sanders mass movement was only an Internet phenomenon, unable to be translated into ballots going into boxes.

Others have given more substantive political analyses for why the Sanders campaign stalled in the primaries. Journalist Zack Beauchamp argues:

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s theory of victory was simple: An unapologetically socialist politics centering Medicare-for-all and welfare state expansions would unite the working class and turn out young people at unprecedented rates, creating a multiracial, multigenerational coalition that could lead Sanders to the Democratic nomination and the White House… In a 2019 essay in the socialist magazine Jacobin, Princeton professor Matt Karp staked his case for Sanders on the candidate’s ability to win over economically precarious voters by appealing to their common interest.

In the end, this approach failed. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who assembled a multiracial working-class coalition in key states like Michigan — where Biden won every single county, regardless of income levels or racial demographics.

Sanders had success in shifting the Democratic Party in his direction on policy. But the strategy for winning power embraced by his partisans depended on a mythologized and out-of-date theory of blue-collar political behavior, one that assumes that a portion of the electorate is crying out for socialism on the basis of their class interest. Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.[7]

Those who really believed that the Sanders campaign was a “political revolution” that would destroy the centrist Clinton/Obama/Biden Democrats as well as the Trumpist Republicans must have been disoriented that Bernie Sanders has joined Joe Biden in rejecting the quite moderate slogan of “Defund the Police”[8]; or when Sanders argues that Biden might turn out to be “the most progressive President since Franklin Roosevelt”.[9] If we believe the analysis of David Atkins, this statement by Sanders (quite wild on the surface) might make some sense:

The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform. Every major candidate in the 2020 field ran either on some version of Medicare for All, or at least a public option and Medicare expansion as a pathway toward it.

Every major candidate proposed much bolder action on climate change than the Obama administration, and major policies to address student debt and college tuition. And on social policy from LGBT rights to criminal justice, the difference between the Democratic Party of today and that of 10 years ago could not be more stark. Most of those advances are due to the hard work of leftists whose tireless advocacy has successfully won the force of moral argument and persuaded mainstream Democratic base voters and independents.[10]

The Democratic Party has moved to at least rhetorically embrace some of the reforms demanded by the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprising.[11] While there is cause for scepticism that fine words in opposition will mean anything if and when Biden makes it into the White House, results from recent Democratic primaries suggest that a new crop of progressive legislators will be joining Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the House of Representatives to push for these ideas.[12] The movement to elect candidates (almost inevitably from within the Democratic Party) who will promote economic justice, universal healthcare and other supportable reforms can and should continue, intersecting with Black Lives Matter and all the other mass movements for justice and dignity.

In contrast, the presidential election is now a simple referendum on the accelerating, murderous and increasingly authoritarian disaster of Trumpism. Biden’s lead in the polls corresponds with more than 160,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic due to federal non-response; plain-clothes federal agents snatching protestors off the streets of Portland; Trump’s blatant misuses of power to harass personal enemies, exonerate criminals who happen to be his allies, and attempt to depress voter turnout; levels of graft and self-dealing within the administration which are beginning to disgust many lifelong conservatives and corporate donors; and Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to racism, xenophobia and bloodlust.

Given all of this, Biden’s greyness, “easy-going” persona and appeal to nostalgia is proving extremely popular in the polls, to the point where he hardly seems to need to leave his house to campaign. While Sanders himself has embraced party discipline and swung his full support against Biden, an initial common reaction from his supporters to their defeat was dire prophecies that Biden would fail to motivate voters, and be utterly trounced in the general election by incumbent President Donald Trump. Some, such as the British-based magazine Salvage,[13] but many others online, even concluded that the Democratic Party leadership knows full well that Biden will not and even cannot win against Trump, and that they supported his doomed candidacy because Bernie was seen as a greater threat.

This analysis seems to embody “Cuomo’s Law”, in that it makes perfect sense for a certain online Left bubble, but does not take into account the disconnect between “very online leftists” and the actually-existing masses of working people, who took to the polls despite suppression to make Biden their standard-bearer against Trump.

We must of course fight any beliefs that Democrats in power will do anything better than restoring “capitalist normality”, except under the pressure of a mass movement backed by labour action. The Left has good reason to be repelled by Joe Biden’s moderate-at-best record as a legislator and as Vice President, his appeal to nostalgia for the good old days of bipartisanship, his stutter and verbal gaffes which are wrongly argued by some to be evidence of cognitive decline, and the believable claims of sexual assault against him by ex-staffer Tara Reade (all things that Salvage exaggerates for polemical effect). Similarly, it is important to critique the record of his running mate, Kamala Harris, as Attorney-General of California, who sued to deny trans prisoners health care and in many other ways upheld the very prison-industrial complex that the BLM/George Floyd protests are up against.[14]

It was completely correct for Sanders and Warren to mount a strenuous campaign against the “business as usual, back to normality” retro-neoliberalism presented by Biden and the other centrist candidates – and the activist Left must continue to hold Biden and Harris accountable for both their record and their proposals for office. But Biden showed support where it matters for electoral politics, at the ballot box in the primaries (by a significantly larger margin than Clinton in 2016) against all his Democratic challengers of both centrist and liberal varieties, who had none of the personal problems mentioned above. Moreover, according to the latest polling, Biden is currently also winning it handily against incumbent President Donald Trump – who has all of Biden’s problems, and more besides, in addition to his repulsive personality and increasingly fascistic politics.

This article is being written months before the November election, and it is of course still possible that Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to naked authoritarianism, racist violence and a “culture war” narrative might pull him over the line in the distorted Electoral College. Or, failing that, his attacks on postal voting and attempts to defund the Post Office might become part of a wider movement to discredit or even rig the election, after which he would simply dare Democrats to try to shift him out of the White House. However, the Black, migrant, queer, working-class and other oppressed communities of the United States are not going to be won to an insurrectionist perspective until they have exhausted the electoral route. It is one thing to counsel preparations for mass strikes and insurrection should Trump successfully rig the election; it is a bridge too far, here and now, to suggest giving up on the presidential election altogether. Even in Belarus, the masses waited until after Lukashenko’s rigged election to rise up.

In any case, the question of Trump rigging the election would be also faced by a Sanders-led ticket. Right now, Biden is ahead by an average of more than 7 points in opinion polls, a level Clinton in 2016 never reached.[15] Arguments that Bernie Sanders would be in a better position to lead opposition to Trump had he won the nomination are unfalsifiable and therefore useless. Leftists who have gone from cheerleading Sanders’ left-electoral programme to counselling electoral nihilism seem more interested in finding an excuse, any excuse, not to vote for Biden and Harris than in seriously building mass politics. A more useful reaction to the Sanders defeat is probably this:

Bernie collecting millions of campaign dollars from young, unemployed & marginalized people, just to bow out, endorse Biden & stand against defunding police—which is the start of abolition— is a good reminder that career politicians are not for you. Righteousness is w/ the people.[16]

Meanwhile, in Britain…

When Fightback wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in 2017, after British Labour’s much better than expected result in the parliamentary election of that year, we credited this success to the Corbyn leadership’s successful “fudge” on Brexit, refusing to take a clear Remain or Leave position.[17]

However, by December 2019, the benefits of ambiguity had dissolved. As the actual deadline for a final decision on Brexit drew nearer, it became clear that the Conservative government would take a “hard Brexit” (cutting all ties to the EU) as an excuse for a bonfire of laws on worker protection, human rights and even the National Health Service. This was surely the time to squarely stand for cancelling or at least delaying Brexit, rather than to continue to pretend that this issue was a distraction. Former Scottish Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika argues:

The huge mistake that we made over Brexit was at the end, it didn’t matter what our position was, it was so confusing. We  tried to be all things to all people and we were like nothing to anybody, it was just the worst of all worlds.[18]

A commission of inquiry into Labour’s defeat discovered, according to a report in The Guardian, that:

Helped by their clear “Get Brexit done” message, the Conservatives succeeded in turning out 2 million previous non-voters, accounting for two thirds of the increase in their vote share….

… Corbyn’s leadership was a “significant factor” in the 2019 result. His public approval ratings collapsed at around the time a group of Labour MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna left to found the Independent Group, citing antisemitism within Labour and its Brexit policy.

The report says: “‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.”

Had Corbyn been as popular in December as he was two years earlier, Labour’s vote share could have been 6 percentage points higher, the analysis finds.

When it came to Labour’s radical manifesto, launched at an upbeat rally in Birmingham, the analysis found that individual policies were popular, but doubts about the leadership stoked a perception that the package as a whole was not deliverable.[19]

The response heard very often on the Left is that Jeremy Corbyn was defeated  by smears in the fanatically Right-wing British press, and sabotage by centrist and “Blairite” rebels in his own caucus. It’s undisputed that, like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn was running against much of his own party, never mind the Tories. But to accept this “stab-in-the-back legend” as the main explanation serves to deflect any criticism of Corbyn and his movement, thus making it impossible for the movement to learn from its mistakes and to self-correct.

To a large extent, the Corbyn takeover of the Labour Party was the victory of the “activist Left” in Britain. This may be hard to imagine from Australia or New Zealand, two countries in which there is no longer any significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in our Labo(u)r Parties.[20] But the “hard Left” in the British Labour Party, which had been ruthlessly excluded from the leading bodies of the party and of the union movement for 30 years, jumped at the new rules for electing the leader which came into force in 2015, making it a simple “one member, one vote” decision by all party members[21], which enabled Corbyn to do an “end run” around his institutional opponents and pull off a shock victory.[22]

But this strength was also its weakness. Many commentators in America have noted the problems that the US radical Left, having been confined to a campus-based subculture for decades, have had with having to adapt their language to the mass politics needed to win elections. The “anti-Semitism scandal” which bedevilled Corbyn’s tenure as leader can be seen from one angle as an example of this.[23]

Jeremy Corbyn had long been one of the most prominent advocates of Palestinian liberation in the British Labour Party. It should be no surprise, then, that his leadership of the Labour Party brought certain very problematic aspects of the Western pro-Palestinian movement into mainstream politics. Whether Corbyn personally holds anti-Semitic beliefs, even unconsciously, is irrelevant to the issue of his defence of a notorious mural using anti-Semitic tropes,[24] or his laying of a wreath in front of the grave of a PLO leader who authorised the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes[25], and the reactions which these provoked among British Jews, which were of course gleefully promoted by the Tory press. The Corbyn leadership’s reproduction of the activist Left’s usual rhetorical moves against accusations of anti-Semitism – denials, defensiveness, and accusations of bad faith – were ineffective and even counterproductive in the mainstream media arena.[26]

Editor of politics.co.uk Ian Dunt argues that anti-Semitism in British Labour

was allowed to take root and spread because people who were not anti-Semitic relegated it to secondary importance. Defending Corbyn was the chief moral requirement. Everything else could be sacrificed in order to secure that aim. It was, at its heart, a matter of priorities.[27]

It is probably best to see Corbyn’s tolerance for the expression of anti-Semitic tropes by his supporters within Labour in the context of his foreign policy, which was his major focus before he became Labour leader.[28] Corbyn’s foreign policy has always been, in common with most the British activist Left, a “campist” one – the benefit of the doubt has always been with those forces in geopolitical opposition to the Western states and to Israel.

Corbyn’s categorization of the armed opposition to the Assad dictatorship in Syria as “jihadis” and “Salafists”[29] could have come right out of a Russian Foreign Ministry press release. But for ordinary British voters, perhaps more shocking was his attempt to cast doubt upon the responsibility of Russian spooks for the nerve-gas poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal on British soil.[30] Before he became leader, Corbyn sponsored a Parliamentary motion which denied that Serbian forces had committed genocide in Kosovo[31], and claimed to recognize “the hand of Israel” in a jihadi attack against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 2012.[32]

As I explained in my 2015 article Against Campism[33], over much of the activist Left in Western countries, healthy suspicion of Western “humanitarian” motives for military interventions has collapsed into denial and conspiracy theory when it comes to crimes committed by non-Western states. The deep intertwining of the issues of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem with Corbyn’s campist foreign policy is particularly clear in the case of Corbyn’s defence of his staunch supporter, Chris Williamson MP. Williamson was suspended from the Labour Party for denying that there was any anti-Semitism problem; but he was also a promoter of pro-Assad conspiracy theories and chemical warfare denial.[34] Former Labour councillor Adam Langlaben argues that the Corbyn movement’s penchant for conspiracy theory (in foreign policy, in their dealings with the media, and in their reactions to intra-party opposition) inevitably led them to anti-Semitic tropes.[35]

It is also no coincidence that two of Corbyn’s closest allies, Seumas Milne[36] and Andrew Murray, were political veterans of the section of British Communism which has historically promoted Soviet and later Russian foreign policy aims. Murray in particular was associated closely with the Morning Star newspaper[37], which ran a front-page article cheering the murderous Assad regime’s recapture of free Aleppo as a “liberation”[38] and, more recently, dived into TERF politics.[39] Corbyn himself wrote a notable article in the Morning Star, before he became Leader, apologizing for Russia’s invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine as being provoked by NATO.[40]

It may be shocking to a broad audience that many within the activist Left would argue that there was nothing wrong, and certainly nothing anti-Semitic, about most of the above positions. The stock line is that because George W. Bush and Tony Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then any Western/Israeli reports of atrocities must be treated with the deepest suspicion.[41] But as I pointed out in my 2018 article The Red-Brown Zombie Plague[42], denial of inconvenient truths by yelling “hoax” or “fake news” is precisely what we ridicule Trump fans or other Right-wing partisans for doing.

We can briefly summarize that Jeremy Corbyn took the actually-existing British activist Left movements – with all their positive and negative features – right into the heart of mainstream politics. When these contradictions were inevitably exposed by the capitalist press, voters rejected Corbyn personally – despite his generally supportable social-democratic platform. Corbyn’s campist foreign policy (and his “whataboutery” about anti-Semitism on his own side) is pretty standard for much of the activist Left in Western countries; but when it “hit the big time” in Britain, it appeared grotesque to mainstream voters and discredited his positive and supportable anti-austerity politics. Former Labour MP Ann Turley claims that her canvassing led her to believe that only 20% of Labour voters switching to Conservative were motivated by Brexit; the remainder, by anti-Corbyn sentiment[43].

A few years ago, a New Zealand Twitter user suggested that there is a definite constituency in elections for “soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes [voters] hate them”.[44] British socialists who want to rebuild an electoral challenge must examine how Jeremy Corbyn accumulated precisely such a “rap sheet”.

The theory of populism: Laclau and Mouffe

Though this article treats both Corbyn’s and Sanders’ movements as varieties of “Left-populism”, we have to pause here to emphasise the differences between them. These movements were very different, they had very different politics and social compositions, and they came to a “dead end” for very different reasons. To use shorthand, the Sanders campaign discovered the limits of “class-first” social democracy in an era of extreme racial and ethnic polarization; whereas the Corbyn campaign discovered that campist foreign policy, currently the common sense of the activist Left, was an easy target when playing in the political “big leagues”, and that reacting with denial, bluster, whataboutery, and claims of conspiracy didn’t help.

The biggest academic names which have featured over the last 30 years or so in recommending a “Left-populist” form of organisation have been the partnership of Argentinian Ernesto Laclau and Belgian Chantal Mouffe. Describing themselves as “post-Marxists”, their starting point is that – in the era of neoliberal globalisation – the industrial working class around which Marxist hopes had been traditionally built can no longer be the basis for a revolutionary or even a reformist challenge to the status quo, at least in Western countries. The challenge, therefore, is to build a new kind of popular majority to challenge austerity, imperialism and oppression. Though Laclau is now deceased, Mouffe carries on their work.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theories – most famously expressed in their joint work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) – make a lot of sense in an era where traditional working-class organisations and communities have collapsed, and in which “intersectional” politics of race, gender, sexuality and migration status have come to the fore. However, I intend to argue that the Corbyn and Sanders movements – and at a further remove, the more successful movements behind SYRIZA in Greece and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – demonstrate serious flaws in Left-populist politics as practiced over the last 20 years, which I believe can be shown to be inherent in the populist method of organisation itself as described by Laclau and Mouffe.

The problems of populism 1: Potato sacks and dear leaders

Everyone interested in making sense of modern politics should read Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.[45] In 1848, Louis Bonaparte (nephew of the French revolutionary general and later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) became President of the French Republic because all the squabbling factions of the ruling class – monarchist, republican, conservative and liberal – saw him as a harmless clown who could be used and discarded. By 1852, after four years of constant fighting between these factions, President Bonaparte was able to ride a popular wave of resentment and exasperation, firstly, to carry out a coup to give himself dictatorial powers, then to make himself “Emperor Napoleon III”, in imitation of his uncle (which gave rise to Marx’s famous dictum about history repeating, first as tragedy then as farce).

Marx points out that Bonaparte’s social base was not the Parisian working class, but the French peasantry– an atomised social layer who could only be unified in the sense that potatoes are unified by putting them into a sack. This “sack” was the cult of the Bonaparte name and nostalgia for the First Empire (something we might today call “Make France Great Again”?) and a feeling of what we would now call “anti-politics” – the sentiment ¡Que se vayan todos! (They can all get out!) of the Argentinian uprising of 2002.[46] In another sense, Bonaparte and his successors repeated the successful formula of Julius Caesar, who was supported by ancient Rome’s poor and socially-excluded free citizens in overthrowing the traditional aristocracy and making himself Dictator for Life, allowing his successors to become Emperors.

Modern populist politics of both Left and Right varieties inherits this “potatoes in a sack” method of organisation, where horizontal solidarity between people and groups within the movement is less important than vertical loyalty to a unifying slogan, programme, or Leader. In his book On Populist Reason (Verso Books, 2004), Ernesto Laclau argues that an individual leader upon whom many different sectors of society can project their hopes and dreams is in fact a vital aspect of the populist style of organising:

An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader. (Kindle location 1728)

A less jargony way of phrasing this would be: an individual Leader becomes a logical necessity for holding together a broad movement composed of many different groups with their own demands.[47] But the problem here is that a political leader is not only a point of unity, and a symbol; he or she is a real person with real political authority, and the two aspects of this role contradict each other. Although Left populism assembles a different set of groups under a different programme and a different personality than Right-populism, a Leader who is a symbolic unifying figure is very hard to seriously challenge from within the movement – leading to an essentially authoritarian relationship between leader and led.

Laclau himself speaks later in this book about Juan Perón, the former Argentine president who became the leader of a vast and very diverse populist movement while he was exiled during the 1960s. At this time, Perón himself compared himself to the Pope – a symbol of unity and reverence. However, after Perón returned to Argentina in the 1970s – and especially after he was re-elected President – he became an actual political leader who had to make decisions which outraged either the left-wing or right-wing parts of his coalition, or both. His movement quickly dissolved, occasionally erupting into fatal violence between factions (Kindle location 3709).

Similarly, Left dissidents from the Greece Left-populist movement SYRIZA have claimed that as the organisation got closer to power, it was progressively

turn[ed…] into a leader-centred party… The aim was to move from a militant party of the left, with a strong culture of internal debate, heterogeneity, involvement in social movements and mobilizations, to a party with a passive membership which could be more easily manipulated by the centre, and keener to identify with the figure of the leader.[48]

Another SYRIZA dissident suggested that this was accomplished through mechanisms of “direct democracy” which had the appearance of giving power to the grassroots but in fact concentrated power at the top. It was suggested that the same thing was happening in Spain’s PODEMOS.[49] This has uncanny parallels to the way Louis Bonaparte, as President and later as Emperor, used periodic referendums to give legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Certainly the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns both contained a minority (with an outsized presence on social media) which took on a “personality cult” aspect, intolerant of any criticism of the Leader. But an outsized role for the personality of the Leader goes hand-in-hand with a political emptiness among the “potatoes” in the populist sack – the various factions end up with very little in common except for what “team” they’re on. In Adam Langlaben’s words:

There’s no such thing as Corbynism, because Corbyn never said anything of substance. He enabled whatever he says to be so vague, that it allows his supporters to decide whatever they want, and to give his supporters permission to say and do whatever they want, because there was [sic] no red lines, he wasn’t saying yes or no to anything.[50]

The fact that all these populist movements have ended up in failure – even the ones which have taken State power – show a problem with not only this inherent authoritarian dynamic, but also a problem with its horizon – that is, the greatest extent to which it can be successful. In practice, this horizon has turned out to be at best a militant form of social democracy – a strong welfare state which guarantees certain economic benefits and political rights to all citizens, standing against the powers of “the market” and of foreign imperialism, as at the high point of Hugo Chávez’s administration in Venezuela.

But, as explored by American revolutionary Hal Draper in The Two Souls of Socialism,[51]this model is counterposed to socialism as in workers’ power expressed through grassroots democracy, involving the abolition of capitalist social and economic relations altogether. Too many modern-day “revolutionaries” seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between these two meanings of “socialism”. Hence nonsense propaganda like Jeremy Corbyn’s face photoshopped into old Soviet or Maoist propaganda posters, or – my personal favourite – Bernie Sanders depicted as Che Guevara on T-shirts – while Corbyn was calling for more funding for police and border guards,[52] and Bernie Sanders hardly challenged the Democrat consensus on imperialist foreign policy.

In the days when Hugo Chávez was President of Venezuela, many on the Left argued that a Left-populist, anti-imperialist State leadership would open the door for revolution from below. Sadly, this didn’t happen; and now, Chávez’s successors have made sure that it never will, having moved to the model of an authoritarian clientelist state in which capitalists who become “friends of the regime” are protected.[53] A top-down movement based around a leader with an exceptional personality, which is what populist movements tend to become in practice, cannot bring about an end to exploitation and oppression. Mistaking authoritarian, though Left-leaning, populism for socialist democracy is a mistake that the organised Left has made over and over again throughout history.

Moreover, a movement based on the personality of the Leader will find it increasingly difficult to correct the Leader when he (and it is usually a “he”) makes a wrong turn – or even to accept criticism in good faith. Ian Dunt describes the reaction of the Corbyn camp to criticism:

Out they came, every time. The loyalist ranks, where Corbyn’s survival mattered more than anything, and all that challenged him was by definition a conspiracy. First the anonymous Twitter accounts, then the ones with large followings, then the big hitters, the Corbyn supporters who appear on TV debate programmes – the whole weird cottage industry of faith-based political defensiveness. All working to chisel away at the seriousness of what was happening, to make the people targeted feel that they were somehow in the wrong.[54]

One shorthand for this kind of knee-jerk “defence of the Leader” is “Stan culture”. “Stan” is a term for a deranged, obsessed fan (from an Eminem song), and the nastiest Corbyn and Sanders supporters on social media have sometimes acted like participants in one of the infamous feuds within popular entertainment fan cultures, rather than political activists.

Apart from the issue with the possibility of democratically holding the Leader to account, in a populist movement, real power is wielded by who can get closest to the Leader to influence him in the “right” direction. Thus, we saw a rush by socialists in the UK and the US to get onto the front seats of the Corbyn and Sanders bandwagons; even worse, in the UK, to create the repulsive illusion of a “left-wing Brexit”. It should not be surprising, however, to watch “leaders” of the revolutionary Left set aside their principles to go in this direction. This is in practice how this author has watched the revolutionary movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand work over the last 15 years – tailing popular demands or leaders and giving up political clarity in favour of “influence” over the leaders of centrist or even conservative forces.

The evidence of all the Left-populist movements that gave us so much hope over the last 25 years repeat this sorry story. To an extent, it doesn’t matter whether Hugo Chávez really supported Russian and Chinese imperialism and dictators like Mugabe or Lukashenko; whether Jeremy Corbyn really thought Russia were on the right side in Syria, or whether anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was no big deal; or whether Bernie Sanders agreed with a “class reductionist” approach that ignored Black Lives Matter and similar movements in favour of cultivating white populist reactionaries like Joe Rogan. But a decisive number of important people around them certainly did, and were able to act in the name of The Leader – names like Milne or Murray in Britain, David Sirota or Briahna Joy Gray in the US, or Diosdado Cabello in Venezuela. Philadelphia antifascist Gwen Snyder argues, with respect to Sanders and the “dirtbag left”:

his campaign staff urged him to lean into it. It wasn’t his base, he had much broader appeal. He just had exactly the wrong people whispering in his ear and encouraging him to play to exactly the wrong audience, an audience that reviled the rest of his coalition.[55]

The problems of populism 2: Red-Brown confusion

Although far from a communist horizon, strong-state social democracy might still sound like an improvement for most people compared to corporate-led global neoliberalism, let alone authoritarian Right-wing populism. But the more serious problem is that Left-populism – with its majoritarian, “we are the 99%” rhetoric, based on a division between the people and the Establishment/the elites – has in practice reproduced the one-sided opposition to liberals/neoliberals/centrism which I discussed in my 2016 article Against Conservative Leftism.[56] This has opened the door to de facto or even explicit alliances with Right-populists or even fascists against neoliberal globalism.

One particular subset of the Left-populist movements – commonly known as the “Dirtbag Left” in the United States, to use the self-description of the podcast Chapo Trap House – argue that the Trump electorate can be won to social democracy by class reductionism – restricting the movement to solely “bread-and-butter” economic demands for higher wages and social welfare, completely rejecting questions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and immigration as “divisive” or even “neoliberal”.

The argument seems to be that Donald Trump’s mass support is open to being converted to a social-democratic or even socialist platform, as long as it does not evoke the dreaded “Identity Politics”. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia do not need to be confronted separately, in this light – in fact, they should not be, as doing so would alienate “the white working class” (read: white men with a “blue-collar” cultural identity) from socialist politics. Bernie Sanders, according to this analysis, gave too much away to “IdPol”. Ironically, this runs directly against Laclau and Mouffe’s proposals for Left-populism; this does not involve unifying disparate groups and integrating their demands under the common banner of “the People”, but one (privileged) part of “the People” imposing dominance over the rest. As one Twitter user put it, “they would sell out every POC and every LGBT+ person to not pay college loans”.[57]

This is often accompanied by an assertion that Trump ran to the “left” of Clinton in 2016, in particular that he promised to end foreign wars. If this were true, then a Trump pivot to anti-imperialism and social-democratic economics would make as much sense as anything. But in fact, Trump did precisely the opposite, demanding that the US commit even more vicious war crimes, such as murdering the families of “terrorists”.[58] A similar assertion is that many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton: her responsibility for neoliberalism, austerity and imperialist wars. This is often combined with an assertion that Trump’s support base are “white working class” – precisely the kind of constituency that a Left-populist movement would dream of mobilizing.

One example of “Trump is the lesser evil” rhetoric. Whether sincerely held or a Trumpist making mischief, this kind of talk is dangerous.

In reality, even if Donald Trump is not a literal fascist, he is at the very least “fash-curious”. He has built a movement (almost a cult) out of open expression of white privilege and resentment. His target audience is not the working classes or the oppressed, but the downwardly mobile, formerly privileged (overwhelmingly white and male) middle-classes and skilled workers. These are the layers who have been atomised and dispersed by neoliberal capitalism, and have lost some of their relative privilege over various layers whom they see as “beneath them” (blacks, Muslims, migrants, uppity women, queer and trans people). They direct their resentment towards the latter, while continuing their hero-worship of the billionaire class who have grown fat off their suffering.[59]

All the evidence points to Trump’s voters being much more motivated by racism, misogyny, and 25 years of Right-led conspiracy theory which has sought to convict Hillary Clinton of corruption, murder, and literally sacrificing children to the Devil. All analyses of Trump’s support show that it skews very heavily towards wealthier white (male) voters; though 52% of white women voters plumped for Trump in 2016, recent evidence suggests that this has plummeted, rendering the misogyny of the Trump movement even more stark.[60] Even worse, the same is true of the Bernie Sanders vote from 2016: as left-wing pollster Sean McElwee put it, “the white working-class voters that Sanders won were mostly anti-Clinton voters”.[61] As David Atkins puts it, the evidence of the Sanders campaign shows that “unlike leftist policy more broadly, this theory of the electorate has utterly failed.”[62]

Similar confusion was apparent among Left-populists who wishfully declared that the 2016 vote for Brexit was “a multi-ethnic working class uprising against the elites”. In fact – as for a Trump vote – the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.[63] This shows an incapacity of the existing Left-populist movement to tell the difference between radical and reactionary opposition to the status quo. If the Revolution only means “the masses in motion”, then any mass movement with a popular leadership which threatens the neoliberal establishment (from Left or Right) is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Rather than building a different power bloc among the excluded masses with its own programme, as Laclau and Mouffe suggest, this kind of “populism” skips over class analysis (which would involve an up-to-date analysis of how the contemporary globalised neoliberal economy works, where value is being produced, etc), in favour of drawing a dividing line between “the elite and the masses” based on cultural features. “The people”, in this kind of “Left Populism”, are all those who do not share the cultural signifiers of the upwardly-mobile middle class; or alternatively, display the cultural features of the manual working class which existed before the neoliberal era began. This is a conservative, even traditionalist, understanding of politics, which benefits from the prevailing drift to the radical Right, rather than opposing it.

Even worse, this envy of the success of Right-wing populism creates an irresistible temptation to “join them if you can’t beat them”. As opposed to a “horizontal” form of building a mass movement, which would ally all the oppressed and exploited on the basis of solidarity, it seems that Left-wing populism seeks to combat its Right-wing equivalent by appealing to the same base – downwardly mobile formerly privileged layers (particularly white, blue-collar men) who have lost out in the era of globalised neoliberalism.

This confusion of Left-wing and Right-wing oppositions to globalised neoliberalism opens the door to the embrace by a Left-populist movement of socially conservative and “campist” politics, even fascist-infected Red-Brown politics. Alongside this often comes a defence of authoritarian nationalist regimes which are (supposedly) opposed to US imperialism, such as Russia, China and Syria. A tell-tale sign of this kind of Red-Brown populism in the US is adamant insistence that the investigation into Russian state collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign is some kind of hoax. Well-known promoters of this kind of politics include American-Brazilian journalist Glenn Greenwald and Irish writer Angela Nagle, who have actually appeared on the show of extreme-Right FOX News host Tucker Carlson to agree with him about the horrors of neoliberalism and identity politics.

Lebanese activist and journalist Joey Ayoub puts it colourfully and succinctly:

if the ‘populist left’ has common grounds with fascism the ‘populist left’ can fuck right off and there’s absolutely no reason to waste any time listening to three white people debating whether common ground can be found with those who want to erase our existence.[64]

The problems of populism 3: Trump Envy

The role of a kind of resentment, or even sadism, in populist politics of both Left and Right is vital here. It’s no coincidence that many people who promote these kinds of politics have previously expressed the wish for a “tough guy socialism”, which, to misuse an old expression of Trotsky, “really wants to tear the bourgeoisie’s head off”. The British socialist writer Richard Seymour, now an editor of Salvage magazine, used to talk on his blog Lenin’s Tomb about how Corbyn was too “nice” and he needed supporters who would leverage “hate” and even “sadism” against the conservative Right and neoliberal centre.[65]

It might even be said that modern Left populism suffers from “Trump Envy”. Quite apart from the need pointed out by Laclau to have a leader-figure as a binding force for a populist coalition, many Left-wing activists have the desire for someone in this role who will be just as rude, aggressive, abusive and transgressive as Donald Trump but for “good purposes”, “from the Left”. If a mass movement against the neoliberal establishment is what is required – never mind its politics or its class composition – it’s easy to imagine that supporters of the Trump movement (or the Brexit movement, or similar manifestations in other countries) could be turned “to our side”, if they were offered the same aggressive macho leadership but with a different programme.

Left-populism shares with its Right-wing sibling a certain joy in transgression, in (at least verbal) violence – which tracks with what Laclau says in On Populist Reason about the vital role played by emotions, rather than strictly rational analysis, in cohering a populist bloc (Kindle location 1925). The Black Lives Matter uprisings show that retaliatory aggression and violence against the oppressor class are a part of any vital mass movement. However, the real problem comes when this aggression is directed horizontally – or even “downward”, towards a social layer which the movement considers “beneath” it. This goes beyond intemperate attacks on centrist Democrats and the neoliberal establishment, and even the usual excesses of intra-movement conflict, to become a kind of half-spoken political strategy, of abuse as a feature of the movement, a “perk” of belonging.

As explored above, factions of the Corbyn and Sanders movements in the US and the UK went down the path of Conservative Leftism in rejecting “intersectionality” as a neoliberal piety – and this has combined with the pleasure in transgression or sadism mentioned above, to emerge as racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic abuse, justified as being “from the Left” when delivered against acceptable targets. For example, Gwen Snyder, a strong supporter of the Sanders campaign, became the target of sustained harassment (escalating to death threats) for pointing out issues of misogynist behaviour within Bernie fandom, and the Red-Brown drift among fans of “Dirtbag Left” podcasts.[66] The Bernie Sanders campaign itself (not Sanders himself) proudly touted an endorsement from Joe Rogan, a pop-culture podcaster who is flamboyantly transphobic and otherwise bigoted.[67]

Another curious phenomenon is people who hold much better Left politics than the “Dirtbags”, even though they quite rightly despise Trump and almost everything he stands for, defending Trump, or at least seeing him as a lesser evil, against “the Establishment/elites”. For example, they agree with Trump that he is being unfairly attacked by a “Deep State”; law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution – something that many Left-populists regard as a positive feature, if only he would use it “for good”.

This is amplified by the way in which, as mentioned above, the US activist Left has concentrated over the years on attacking liberals, neoliberals, and “the Dems” as its first priority. And who is better at really “triggering the libs” than Trump? Disturbingly, and as in 2016, many Left-wing figures attack the Democrats in terms which are so similar to those coming from the Trump campaign that it is often impossible to tell the difference; this is the same process that Gwen Snyder identifies whereby the “Dirtbag Left” serves to “launder” fascist memes for a Left-wing audience.[68]

This phenomenon of Left-populism taking a “lesser evil” approach to Right-populism against the neoliberal establishment has become a meme to the point where it now has a name. In the same way that anything that comes after “I’m not racist, but…” is going to be racist, a Leftist who says “Mr Trump, who I do not support…” is about to support Trump against the Deep State or the neoliberal Democratic Party.

These Left populists oppose this putative sabotage, not because they like Trump’s politics, far from it… but because they imagine the State apparatus doing the same thing to a putative President Sanders (or on the model of what the Chilean state actually did to Salvador Allende in the 1970s). Similarly, many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to discredit the mainstream media as irredeemably biased against their candidate, in very similar terms to Trump and his “fake news” slogan – with the same purpose, to discredit any criticism of Dear Leader, whether valid or not. This is a logical consequence of a horizon of victory which envisions a popular Leader taking control of the State machinery “for good purposes”, rather than a popular movement dismantling it.

This sneaking sympathy by Leftists for Trump against “neoliberal elites” leads to what can only be described as wish fulfilment fantasies, that Trump may one day “pivot” to the Left, if he sees it in his electoral interests to do so. The Twitter account “Shitty Outflanking Takes” collects arguments from Leftists that Trump will, someday soon, start promoting social-democratic causes such as Medicare for All, forgiving student debt, criminal justice reform, or even ending American overseas military adventures, to “outflank” the neoliberal Democrats and win a working-class base.[69] If Trump is politically empty – if he just wants power and will say or do anything to get re-elected – and, as much of the US asserts, the “Dems” and the “GOP” are no different – why should Trump not adopt the Bernie Sanders programme in total? An interesting reply would be: if that were true, why did Sanders not run as a Republican?


To summarize, we have sketched out three categories of problems with Left-populism in practice. Firstly, there are problems inherent in the populist political method as sketched out by Laclau and Mouffe. Chief among this is the contradiction between a populist leader’s symbolic unifying role and their actual role in strategy and tactics; the fact that the urge to “defend the Leader” might make self-correction in the movement impossible; and the way in which those around the Leader can use their role as his “biggest supporters” to justify atrocious politics[70]. Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns developed a “Stan culture”, targeting centrists or even insufficiently enthusiastic supporters of The Leader as the main enemy.

Secondly: there is also the problem that problem that Left Populism and Right populism are – as Laclau says – the same method used for different ends, and we have seen a steady stream in practice of Leftists who enthusiastically back the former often end up backing the latter because they have lost the ability to tell the difference, or remember why it’s a vital one.. There is even the phenomenon of “Dirtbag Leftism”  which seeks to throw out the inheritance of 50 years of intersectional struggle in favour of trying to restore a white, male, traditionalist audience for social democracy – which is contrary to what Laclau and Mouffe would see as populism altogether, and forgets that 1960s social democracy wasn’t so great either, which is why it was rejected by the Beatnik, Hippie and Punk movements.

Thirdly: there is a real problem of Trump Envy, the belief that what the movement needs is a “left-wing version” of the Trump phenomenon, or even a hope of Trump “outflanking” the Democrats to the left on economic populism. This includes a distressing number of “Lefties” who delight in the same kind of mob cruelty and aggressive disregard for inconvenient realities which characterise Trump’s and other Right-populist movements.

Laclau’s argument is that a Leader figure who can unify atomised and conflicting social layers in an anti-establishment movement is an essential element in populism. The worst possible form such a movement can take on, of course, is fascism. At best, it can take power in the capitalist state – but historical evidence suggests that, from there, it can only retain power through conciliation with global capitalism and turning on its own supporters. Populist movements have successfully changed the balance of power within class society – but never abolished it. For “post-Marxists” like Laclau and Mouffe, the latter might not even be possible.

Direct action gets the goods

One way out of this problem might be, not to reject the Left populist strategy, but firstly, to recognize it as necessary but insufficient to provoke a fundamental change in society; and secondly, to reject primarily electoral populism of the Corbyn/Sanders/SYRIZA variety.

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings. This is similar to how the defeat of the movements of the 1970s, and the election of Right-populists Reagan and Thatcher in the US and UK, was followed by insurgent broad-Left electoral campaigns by Tony Benn, Jesse Jackson and their like.

British left academic Harry Pitts argues that the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party was in fact

the legacy of the anti-austerity social movements after the crisis. Their ultimate failure, I guess, you know, and their fragmentation, the turn of a lot of the people involved in that towards a more electoralist parliamentary route.[71]

In majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems like the United States or the United Kingdom, Left-wing electoral populism can only act as a “spoiler”, attempting to take away enough votes from the more liberal of the major parties to be able to dictate terms upon it; unless, of course, it succeeds in taking over the liberal/centre-Left major party from within. The former is grossly irresponsible when the Right no longer wants a nastier version of capitalist normality, but the mass repeal of democratic rights and the welfare state in a fascist or Pinochet-style programme. As Fightback has argued repeatedly, this is the same fatal mistake made by the Stalinised Communists of the 1930s who saw no difference between Hitler and capitalist normality.

“Third Period” politics being reborn in real time on social media

The latter runs up against the logical problem of how to successfully dominate a party mostly composed of people you despise. The Chapo “bend the knee” slogan would never have worked in practice for Bernie Sanders inside the US Democrats, just as the Labour Party caucus and apparatus never “bent the knee” to Jeremy Corbyn – which is of course exactly what Corbyn’s die-hard supporters complain about. The alternative – to purge the liberals and moderates from the party – does not seem a plausible step forward to winning electoral contests. The failure mode of both these approaches is the electoral nihilism condemned above; of asserting that neoliberal capitalist normality is no different than fascism, that it won’t be allowed to win anyway, that electoral politics are a waste of time if “Our Guy” isn’t on the ballot.

The lessons of Chávez in Venezuela and SYRIZA in Greece show that when a Left-populist movement seizes state power and confronts international capitalism, there is a period of stalemate followed by slow but inevitable capitulation. Come to think of it, this is also the legacy of Stalinism. My personal suggestion would be to concentrate on building a real Left-populist movement for protagonistic, intersectional democracy – while fully embracing a vote for “our preferred enemy” in elections. The question is whether we would prefer to be on the streets in 2021 demanding social reforms and police abolition from President Biden, or defending the remnants of freedom of speech and assembly from an emboldened President Trump and fascist mobs.

This is of course the dreaded “lesser (or least) evil” strategy, as criticised (though not rejected) by Hal Draper.[72] But anyone who argues that it is possible for a party or candidate to actually win a bourgeois election contest while not becoming some form of evil – that is, without making compromises with capital and social layers which support it – can be charitably advised to “get real”. Encouraging people to believe that voting for a Left-wing social democratic politician is actually “The Revolution” – the “Bernie in a Ché hat” phenomenon – while demonizing other centrist or reformist candidates and tendencies, means – once the compromises begin – setting up the movement for massive disappointment, abstention from the fight against fascist, or even drifting in a Trumpist or fascist direction, fuelled by hatred of “liberals/moderates” above all else.

In any case, as we’ve seen above, voting is secondary in terms of social transformation, or even a “consolation prize” once mass direct-action or protest movements fail. It seems strange that Corbyn or Sanders supporters should depict their leaders in the same terms as Communist revolutionaries, breathing fire on the hated “liberals” all the time, while at the same time placing their hopes for social change on winning elections in the bourgeois state. In fact, Gwen Snyder argues that an approach that prioritises direct action might have spin-off benefits for electoral work:

centering direct action organizing is more productive than centering electoral work when it comes to focusing our energies. Direct action changes minds and wins hearts and makes people realize their power. When people’s hearts & minds are changed, when folks realize that their action makes a difference and that they hold real power when organized, they’re much more likely to be open to coalition-building around a candidate with bolder positions when it comes time to talk elections.[73]

We might counterpose to electoral populism the concept of protagonistic democracy – a situation where working people take matters into their own hands to create a better world. Such a form of direct-action populism would necessarily require its unifying slogans and its (symbolic and practical) leadership to reflect intersectional politics – identifying and building commonalities between different axes of oppression, rather than privileging one part of the coalition above others. The “conservative Left” strategies discussed above, which centre the “traditional” (white, cishet, male) working class as the face of struggle, offer no path forward but the netherworld of Red-Brown reaction.

The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, not to mention the current “Black Lives Matter” uprisings in the United States[74], give us recent examples of direct-action populist movements. Syria’s democratic movement gives examples of the kind of unifying slogans which make connections rather than fudge differences – ‘Syria is one’ sought to counter sectarianism by assembling a people under the signifier of free Syria, combined with the transnational slogan ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’ (which has re-emerged in BLM protests). In contrast, while the Arab Spring was drowned in blood, Occupy reached its own dead end due to a confused political project whose slogan (“We are the 99%”) and practice did not draw sharp lines against conspiracy theories, misogyny and even fascism. The latter is, as we’ve seen above, a danger inherent in the populist method which must be strongly guarded against; which suggests a vital role for anti-capitalist political centres within such movements.

As this article is written, the BLM movement has quickly overtaken the Bernie Sanders phenomenon politically and is enacting a form of protagonistic democracy on the streets, under the violent repression of Trump’s fash-curious USA. It has gone far beyond the original coalition between Black communities acting in self-defence and white radicals; the white “moms and dads” who stood against Trump’s snatch squads in Portland in late July are a sign of a populist movement which is really taking off. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders himself is united with his apparent polar opposites, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in making verbal gestures of support for the movement, while refusing the demand to “Defund the Police” (let alone abolish it). Some of the dead-end “anti-liberal” Left have been reduced to repeating lukewarm versions of Trump’s slurs against Joe Biden, or fantasies about Trump “outflanking” the Democrats. American journalist Josh Messite comments on this inability to realise when they’ve lost:

if Bernie and Corbyn both achieved massive electoral wins and enacted sweeping reforms, I would have had to shift my thinking on organizing priorities and the path to power. instead Bernie and Corbyn both lost, and yet the people who pushed for that strategy haven’t changed a bit.[75]

Just recently, a major left-wing blog in Ireland ran an appeal for a new electoral coalition between the various socialist factions.[76] Left-populism has its dangers and has not yet fulfilled its promise, though I am not willing to agree that it was a mistake altogether. My argument, though, is that a primarily electoral Left-populism has proved itself to be a comprehensive dead-end.


[1]              Fightback previously published an analysis of SYRIZA’s own dead end – https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[2]              https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/22/chapo-trap-house-podcast-dirtbag-left-takes-aim-at-clinton-supporters

[3]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/4/21164518/super-tuesday-results-voter-turnout

[4]              https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/super-tuesday-results-2020-primary-texas-voter-suppression-lines-long-wait-queues-a9373886.html

[5]              https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-cynthia-nixon-wins-governors-race.html

[6]              https://twitter.com/marcushjohnson/status/1240117667287228416

[7]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[8]              https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sanders-says-i-dont-agree-with-to-abolish-police-departments

[9]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieFL8StRyJo&feature=youtu.be

[10]             https://www.inquirer.com/columnists/attytood/trump-presidential-election-joe-biden-democrat-hillary-clinton-misogyny-20200702.html

[11]             https://www.vox.com/21299730/george-floyd-democratic-party-joe-biden-black-lives-matter-protests-2020-identity-politics; https://www.wonkette.com/joe-biden-wants-to-be-your-fdr

[12]             https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/24/progressives-primary-justice-democrats-338488

[13]             https://salvage.zone/articles/salvage-perspectives-8-comrades-this-is-madness

[14]             https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2019/1/22/kamala-harris-takes-responsibility-opposing-trans-surgeries

[15]             See https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_biden-6247.html for up-to-date figures.

[16]             https://twitter.com/yohannabeee/status/1271155114569424896

[17]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/

[18]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/episode-3-transcription/

[19]             https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/18/dysfunctional-toxic-culture-led-to-labour-defeat-major-report-finds

[20]             If an equivalent of the Corbyn or Sanders movements exist in mainstream politics in Australasia, it’s in the Green parties.

[21]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Labour_Party_leadership_election_(UK)

[22]             This appeal of a leader-figure over the heads of representative or intermediary bodies to an atomised mass of individuals is an essential feature of populist politics, as we will explore further below.

[23]             In what follows, I will attempt to analyse, not Jeremy Corbyn as a person, but the movement which he led and to some extent embodied.

[24]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/08/01/10842/

[25]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corbyn_wreath-laying_controversy

[26]             https://theconversation.com/labour-and-anti-semitism-these-are-the-roots-of-the-problem-on-the-left-94923

[27]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[28]             Journalist Jonathan Freedland suggests that Corbyn enjoyed the reputation of “being the foreign minister of the Left” (https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/)

[29]             https://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/jeremy-corbyns-speech-against-military-intervention-in-syria/

[30]             https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-russia-spy-nerve-agent-iraq-war-wmd-labour-theresa-may-a8256021.html

[31]             https://balkaninsight.com/2015/08/17/uk-labour-frontrunner-queried-on-kosovo-motion-08-17-2015/

[32]             https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/uk-labour-leader-corbyn-voices-conspiracy-theory-against-israel-in-2012-563714

[33]             https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

[34]             https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2018/08/labour-can-be-jo-cox-s-party-or-chris-williamson-s-it-cannot-be-both

[35]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[36]             https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2015/10/i-wanted-believe-jeremy-corbyn-i-cant-believe-seumas-milne

[37]             Short, shameful confession: the author of this article wrote a piece on New Zealand politics for the Morning Star in 2014. I don’t remember their politics being so bad at that point.

[38]             https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/morning-star-labour-mps-aleppo_uk_584f2931e4b0b7ff851db424

[39]             https://metro.co.uk/2020/02/23/newspaper-apologises-transphobic-cartoon-sparks-outrage-12287799/

[40]             https://web.archive.org/web/20150923060138/http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-972b-Nato-belligerence-endangers-us-all

[41]             As recently replicated by the extremely pro-China Socialist Action group within British Labour: http://www.socialistaction.net/2020/08/12/the-left-should-not-be-taken-in-by-us-wmd-lies-this-time-about-uyghers/

[42]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[43]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/episode-2-transcription/

[44]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

[45]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/

[46]             https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/feb/06/global-recession-backlash

[47]             Some of the diagrams in On Populist Reason which illustrate Laclau’s theory of building unity in a populist movement between different social forces depict these forces as ovals… that is, potato-shaped.

[48]             https://newleftreview.org/issues/II97/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-syriza-s-rise-and-fall.pdf

[49]             https://isreview.org/issue/100/reflections-our-experience-syriza

[50]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[51]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm

[52]             https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2017/05/28/corbyn-pledges-increased-staffing-levels-at-security-and-intelligence-agencies/

[53]             https://socialistworker.org/2017/07/13/being-honest-about-venezuela

[54]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[55]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1294068877522014208

[56]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/02/15/against-conservative-leftism/

[57]             https://twitter.com/NickRup/status/1278128227274371072

[58]             https://www.mediamatters.org/donald-trump/myth-donald-dove-shows-perils-gullible-press

[59]             https://www.thedailybeast.com/anti-establishment-americas-new-syphilitic-politics-of-the-far-left-and-alt-right

[60]             https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-06-26/behind-trumps-sharp-slump-white-women-who-stuck-with-him-before-are-abandoning-him-now

[61]             https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[62]             https://washingtonmonthly.com/2020/04/11/leftist-policy-didnt-lose-marxist-electoral-theory-did/

[63]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0176268018301320

[64]             https://twitter.com/joeyayoub/status/1276194859167121408

[65]             http://www.leninology.co.uk/2015/06/yes-you-can-hate-rich.html; http://www.leninology.co.uk/2016/06/in-praise-of-hate.html

[66]             See thread beginning at https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1249712403404783618

[67]             https://www.forbes.com/sites/dawnstaceyennis/2020/01/26/joe-rogans-endorsement-the-stain-on-bernie-sanders-that-some-voters-think-makes-him-more-attractive/

[68]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288588513601040384

[69]             https://twitter.com/mtwidns

[70]             Those familiar with the theories of Jacques Lacan may recognize the psychoanalytic concept of “The Name of the Father” at work here.

[71]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/episode-7-transcription/

[72]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1967/01/lesser.htm

[73]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288144108431773696. The importance of direct mass action in changing mass consciousness – rather than leaving it to elected politicians or professional organisers – was also raised by US union organiser Jane McAlevey in No Shortcuts, a book I reviewed in Fightback last year: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/01/13/book-review-no-shortcuts/

[74]             Some wags have dubbed it the “ACAB Spring” (All Cops Are Bastards).

[75]             https://twitter.com/JoshMessite/status/1276318659984703489

[76]             https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2020/07/09/the-old-world-is-dying-and-the-new-world-struggles-to-be-born-call-the-midwife-ireland-needs-a-new-left-party/

BOOK REVIEW: No Shortcuts

Jane F. McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press). Reviewed by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Jane F. McAlevey, a long-time organizer in the environmental and labour movements, comes to this book with a quite ambitious goal – to seek an explanation as to why the workers’ movement has suffered defeat after defeat to the forces of corporate neoliberalism over the last 50 years or so. She sums up her argument:

First, the reason that progressives have experienced a four-decade decline in the United States is because of a significant and long-term shift away from deep organizing and toward shallow mobilizing. Second, the split between “labor” and “social movement” has hampered what little organizing has been done. Together, these two trends help account for the failure of unions and progressive politics, the ongoing shrinking of the public sphere, and unabashed rule by the worst and greediest corporate interests. Third, different approaches to change lead to different outcomes, often very different outcomes. (Kindle location 140)

Great things were expected from the newer generation of union organizers who took over in the United States’ major union federation, the AFL-CIO, after 1995, whom McAlevey refers to as “New Labor”. And yet, the long series of defeats has continued over the next two decades (386). What has gone wrong?

McAlevey distinguishes three methods of organizing, which she calls the “advocacy”, “mobilizing” and “organizing” models. The advocacy model is the model which we are familiar with from social movements and NGOs. In this model, a professional group of advocates and campaigners acts on behalf of their membership, who are only asked to pay their dues and “help out” with activism organized for them:

Many small advances can be and are won without engaging ordinary people, where the key actors are instead paid lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations professionals, helped by some good smoke and mirrors. That is an advocacy model, and small advances are all it can produce… Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way; lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle. (222, 278)

An example of this approach given by McAlevey is that led by America’s SEIU union in the 1990s in the nursing home sector. This union went out of their way to build “partnerships” with nursing home bosses, where the union joined forces with the bosses to press state governments for more funding for the sector, and in return the bosses would remove obstacles to the unions organizing in (certain, selected) workplaces. The really perverse thing about this is that the union also actively discouraged struggles by their members while this was going on:

The employers would select which nursing homes could be unionized during the life of the accord. If workers at nursing homes not selected by the employer… wanted help forming a union, the union would be bound to decline. The union agreed to prohibit the workers from any form of negative messaging or negative campaigning during the life of the agreement” (1524, 1529)

For the union tops, expanding their dues base, by proving to bosses that union membership was “harmless” to their profits and privileges, took priority over the actual needs of their existing members.

The second approach discussed by McAlevey is the “mobilizing” model, in which union full-timers actively encourage workers to campaign and to take strike action in order to win better deals. However, the mobilizing model attempts to sidestep the difficulties and risks involved in all-out strike action by concentrating on other forms of action, which can be carried out by a dedicated, self-selecting minority of workers, with full-time organizers’ help:

Mobilizing is a substantial improvement over advocacy, because it brings large numbers of people to the fight. However, too often they are the same people: dedicated activists who show up over and over at every meeting and rally for all good causes, but without the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them. This is because a professional staff directs, manipulates, and controls the mobilization; the staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change… (248)

McAlevey argues strongly that, while the mobilising and even the advocacy models can win reforms for workers from the bosses or from the state, only her third approach, the “organizing model” can create real, lasting changes in the lives of workers. This is precisely because it aims to create a majority or super-majority in the workplace, which is the only way in which an all-out strike can be won:

[organizing] places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all—that’s the point of organizing… Since organizing’s primary purpose is to change the power structure away from the 1 percent to more like the 90 percent, majorities are always the goal: the more people, the more power. But not just any people. And the word majority isn’t a throwaway word on a flip chart, it is a specific objective that must be met. (290, 314)

The “organizing” model therefore maps precisely onto those forms of politics which the late Hal Draper called “socialism from below”: an insistence that, as Karl Marx said, the liberation of the working class must be the product of working-class self-organization, not something done “for” them by kindly elites or a “professional revolutionary” minority. She contrasts this with both the advocacy and mobilization models. She links the increasing “professionalisation” of labour activism to the increasing influence of the ideas of the famous (or infamous) community organizer, Saul Alinsky:

Today, corporate campaigns continue to locate the fight in the economic arena by threatening to disrupt profit making, but not through workers withholding their labor. Instead, a new army of college-educated professional union staff bypass the strike and devise other tactics to attack the employer’s bottom line. New Labor’s overreliance on corporate campaigns has resulted in a war waged between labor professionals and business elites. Workers are no longer essential to their own liberation… Once the production-crippling strike weapon was abandoned, union leaders no longer saw a need to build a strong worksite-based organization among a majority of workers—one powerful enough that a majority decides to walk off the job, united, together, with common goals. (425, 442)

After 1995, following New Labor’s ascent to positions of power in the national AFL-CIO, justified by the Alinsky assertion “Organizers take orders—leaders lead,” professional staffing ballooned, with many new positions added—researchers, political campaigners, and communicators. People in these positions have at least as much real power as the organizers, if not more, further diminishing the importance and voice of the real “leaders.”

This is why workers, who were once central to labor actions, are now peripheral. The corporate campaign, emulating Alinsky’s tactical warfare, led by a small army of college-educated staff, has taken hold as the dominant weapon against corporations. (975, 999)

The greatest damage to our movements today has been the shift in the agent of change from rank-and-file workers and ordinary people to cape-wearing, sword-wielding, swashbuckling staff. To deny that having experienced staff can be the difference between workers winning and losing is ridiculous and counterproductive. Way more counterproductive has been the wholesale elimination of the crucial role of the rank-and-file workers (at work and at home). (3794)

In contrast, McAlevey explains how the core of the organizing model involves identifying existing worker-leaders, rather than building on the enthusiasm of volunteers:

Only true organic leaders can lead their coworkers in high-risk actions. Pro-union activists without organic leaders are not effective enough, and professional staff organizers certainly cannot do it (744)

Social-movement organizations (SMOs) … and now, unfortunately, unions as well, label as a leader just about anyone who enthusiastically shows up at two successive meetings (even one sometimes), making the words activist and leader interchangeable… But in any strategy for building power, all people are not the same. (952)

Crucially, the organizing model also involves community organizing – in the sense that of understanding that working-class people are embedded in neighbourhoods, ethnic or religious communities, sports teams, and other vitally important networks outside of their working lives. Support from these communities is vital for winning any real majority strike, and understanding this is the basis for McAlevey’s blend of the mobilizing and organizing approaches which she calls “whole-worker organizing” (501).

She particularly stresses religious communities, who – according to research – are the major influences on US working-class communities alongside the labour movement (1292). While many union organizers who come from secular middle-class or socialist traditions are wary of getting involved with religion, McAlevey’s case studies refer to Catholic priests and Protestant preachers playing vital organizing roles in support of successful struggles involving large numbers African-American and Latinx workers. Again, large emphasis is placed on developing existing networks of power and leadership in working-class communities rather than co-opting self-selecting militants.

Only this form of organization, argues McAlevey, can produce sustainable changes in working people’s lives, because what is won is not just concessions from bosses or the state which can be withdrawn at a later date, but real changes in how working-class communities live their lives and understand themselves:

where unions understand their members and unorganized workers to be class actors in their communities, and when the workers systematically bring their own preexisting community networks into their workplace fights, workers still win, and their wins produce a transformational change in consciousness. (510)

If individual actors believe that the purpose of the union is to enable a majority of workers to engage in mass collective struggle—for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their class—then in the related choice point, the role of the workers in the union drive, workers will not be mere symbols of the struggle; they will be central actors in it. If, however, the purpose of the union is only to improve the material condition of workers by increasing the share of company profits they receive, the workers’ role will be greatly diminished; they will function as symbolic actors, not central participants, much as they do in today’s fast-food “wage” campaigns. (1105)

if the workers don’t do the work of building their own union—including preparing for and having a fight—their leadership will not be tested or developed to the level of strength needed for a solid union, one where the rank-and-file workers themselves can govern the workplace after the election victory. (1683)

One interesting consequence of McAlevey’s argument turns on its head the received wisdom of a lot of writers on the labour movement: that the decline of manufacturing in the advanced capitalist (“Western”) countries and the rise of service work is a problem for organization. In fact, argues McAlevey, workers in the health, education and social services sectors potentially hold massive power:

these mostly female, multiracial service workers are as capable of building powerful organizations as they are of building a child’s mind or rebuilding a patient’s body. In fact, they are among the only workers today engaging in production-shuttering strikes. Their organic ties to the broader community form the potential strategic wedge needed to leverage the kind of power American workers haven’t had for decades. (581)

When Chicago’s teachers struck, it was a total disruption of the “production process,” not a merely symbolic action of the kind so common today. Sociologically speaking, the Chicago strike brought a major United States city to a grinding halt. (1683)

Many labor strategists, particularly men, can’t see past the need to reorganize the manufacturing sector… They implore labor to focus more on the logistics sectors, which makes perfect sense and should be high on the movement’s to-do list. But given the domination of the service economy today, we need a unifying strategic plan for and within the service economy. (3696)

In addition, these “mission-driven” workers, whose profession is care, have a fundamental orientation towards solidarity and collective behavior (3724) and have a social status which helps them mobilise the wider public in support (1858). Even the gender composition of this new workforce can be seen as a bonus for whole-worker organizing:

The large numbers of women in today’s workforce—saddled with wage work and endless nonwage work—don’t separate their lives in the way industrial-era, mostly male workers could, entering one life when they arrived at work and punched in, and another when they punched out. (1312)

McAlevey illustrates her argument with case studies from recent US labour history. She compares different methods of organizing in the struggles of nursing home workers in various US states; the successful fight of the Chicago Teachers’ Union against a neoliberal Democrat city leadership; a 15-year struggle for union recognition at a North Carolina pork products factory; and “Make the Road New York”, a social movement concerned with organizing Latinx workers in that city.

If there is a major weakness in this book, it’s that it’s written entirely from the point of view of the United States. Some of the issues with US labour laws coming out of the Roosevelt era which McAlevey discusses are relevant only to that country. That said, globalisation continually reduces the differences between nations, and the lessons of the North Carolina meatworkers’ struggle about building workers’ unity in a deeply ethnically divided workplace (2393), as well as the difficulties of organizing workers with uncertain immigration status, are certainly very applicable in our local context.

Honestly, what I would love to see is a similar book to this, written about recent labour struggles in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Our equivalent to the “New Labor” of which McAlevey speaks would be the kind of unionism which has arisen over the last 15 to 20 years, particularly in and around UNITE, but also pushed forward by young organizers in other unions. These new leaders – many of them with history on the revolutionary Left – have rejected the “partnership with employers” narrative and the “service model” (what McAlevey calls the “advocacy” model) which characterised New Zealand’s union movement after the defeats of the 1990s.

It would be very interesting to look closely at these new unions, and forms of organizing, and ask: do they fit McAlevey’s “organizing” model, or her “mobilizing” model? Are these new forms of worker organizing based on building a super-majority in the workplaces, built around natural worker-leaders, as well as the deep support from working-class communities that can carry out and win indefinite strikes? Or are the real protagonists in these organizations the union full-timers themselves (usually not from working-class communities), who constitute themselves along with a few self-selecting worker militants as a “vanguard” which can successfully carry out symbolic strikes and media campaigns?

The essential message of McAlevey is that, while the mobilising approach can win concessions and reforms, only the organizing approach can build real workers’ power and actually change the lives of working people and their community. But she also explicitly states that her book is about all organizing, not just labour organizing, and the problems of “professionalization” of activism leading to the exclusion of ordinary people extends to all the movements for social and ecological justice (373, 792).

It would be good to see the New Zealand labour and social justice movements grapple seriously with the issues she raises.

Raise the bar!: an interview with Chloe-Ann King

by BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and why you feel passionate about hospitality workers’ rights?

My name is Chloe Ann-King and I am a writer, workers’ rights organizer, community activist and welfare advocate with a strong background in academia and grassroots organizing. I’ve also spent most of my life in low waged work which includes a 15-year stint in the hospo [hospitality] industry. During my time in this industry I endured wage theft, sexual harassment (mostly from customers), insecure shifts, cut shifts with no good faith negotiation and have been fired with absolutely no reason given. For these reasons I became incredibly passionate about hospo rights. No one should go to work and feel unsafe and be paid so poorly you don’t have enough money to live on.

When did you begin your involvement in organizing and advocating for hospitality workers?

I volunteered in unions for years and my mum is a trade unionist, so from a really young age I was interested and passionate about defending workers’ rights across the board. I specifically started advocating for hospo workers around 3 years ago and I also began speaking out in the media about our working conditions.

When was Raise the Bar founded? What was the rationale for its creation?

Raise the Bar was established about 2 years ago and the rationale behind my decision was that the hospo industry was basically unregulated: consecutive governments had barely enforced employment law in the industry and unions, in general, didn’t seem that interested in protecting the rights of hospo workers. Many trade unionists told me this was because the industry was “too hard to organize and too spread out.” I don’t agree with this sentiment at all.

What has been the history of union activity for hospo workers (prior to Raise the Bar)?

Before Raise the Bar, E tū [New Zealand’s biggest private sector union] was meant to be organizing and protecting the rights of hospo workers. I was a member of this Union for a while, but it became increasingly clear this union had almost no interest in organizing hospo – some of their reps outright told me it just wasn’t an industry that could be organized. E tū was launched in October 2015 with the merging of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, the Service and Food Workers Union and the Flight Attendants and Related Services Union. But in the entire time that I worked in the hospo industry I never once saw a union rep from SFWU set foot into my workplace. I’ve no idea what their reps where doing with their time, but they certainly weren’t doing anything to protect or organize hospo workers in the CBD. Most hospo workers I speak with (especially young ones) have no idea what a union even is.

There are certainly unions such as Unite Union who are doing a really great job of organizing service workers at SkyCity and fast food workers but once again all the bars, restaurants and smaller cafes have mostly been left untouched by unions in the last 20 years.

What are the main issues facing hospo workers?

Wage theft is the number one issue we deal with at Raise the Bar, we get email after email from hospo workers who tell us their boss is stealing off them. This theft can include breaks docked that workers never took, underpayment or no payment of wages, bosses refusing to pay holiday pay (8%) or sick leave, and employers making unreasonable deductions from wages when customers walk out and don’t pay.

Other major issues include racism within the industry, ranging from racist hiring practices, like Pākehā hospo employers throwing out CV’s when names appear too “indigenous” for them to pronounce, to customers saying racist things to hospo workers that management don’ t do much to mitigate. I’ve witnessed Pākehā hospo employers also exploiting new migrant workers from Asian countries, forcing them to work unpaid or for well below the minimum wage. I’ve written about such issues for E-Tangata which is an online Sunday magazine run by the Mana Trust.

Sexual harassment is also epidemic in the industry, to the point where sexual assault and harassment on shift has been, in my opinion, completely normalised. Hospo Voice, a digital union in Melbourne organizing hospo workers, put out a survey that stated 89% of all female hospo workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment on shift. Imagine going to work and you only had an 11% chance of being safe on shift.

Other major issues include basic employment entitlements such as breaks being constantly denied by duty managers – usually because of pressure and understaffing at the hands of employers. Many hospo workers I speak with will work over 8 hours without adequate meal or tea breaks.

Can you give examples of the poor treatment of hospo workers, either from your own experience or people you have advocated for?

Personally, I’ve been sexually assaulted and harassed on shift more times than I care to remember which has included having my breasts and ass groped, and outright assaults. Five years ago, a customer pushed me into a bathroom stall and shoved his tongue down my threat and started feeling me up. I had to fight my way out. I just continued my shift that night like nothing happened – I needed the money and feared I would be sent home if I told my manager. I still have flashbacks to what that customer did, which is a sign of work-related PTSD.

A lot of hospo employers I’ve worked for have stolen from me, which ranges from them underpaying me, refusing to pay me, docking breaks I never took, refusing to pay 8% sick pay, forcing me to undertake training unpaid… I could go on. I’ve worked 12-hour shifts with maybe one 10-minute break and I’ve even been denied toilet breaks on the odd occasion which, frankly, was pretty humiliating. You really learn about your place in society when you have to beg your boss to take a piss.

What has been the response of existing unions to your campaigns?

Recently, mostly negative responses. I’ve had union men verbally attack me which often boils down to them telling me I need to ‘toe the union line’ – this has often felt like a low-level threat. And I’ve had union men undermine the mahi I’ve been doing in different ways.

Most recently two male union reps contacted two hospo workers/leaders in Raise the Bar who I was organizing with against wage theft. These Māori wāhine hospo workers had developed a strong media strategy, among other tactics, to get results with support from Raise the Bar. These Pākehā guys ignored the awesome mahi these hospo workers had done already to organize themselves. They proceeded to talk over these workers and didn’t bother to ask what they wanted or what a ‘win’ looked like to them. This left them feeling spoken over, disempowered and distrusting of unions – it was their very first experience dealing with union reps.

I feel structural issues of sexism and racism are a massive issue within our union movements in Aotearoa/NZ. I eventually stopped showing up to pickets and meetings – I just didn’t feel comfortable anymore. I used to love volunteering for unions but now I feel dejected about the movement and how some union reps treat people who propose different models of organizing or criticise issues of structural injustice within the movement. There seems to be a really swift clampdown against people who generally want to see new models of organizing such as digital organizing and bringing back rank and file organizing in response to low waged and precarious industries such as hospo.

What have been some of the successes of Raise the Bar?

The most recent success is the $30,000 pay-out we collectively got from Wagamama England. The owner of Wagamama Wellington shut the doors of his business with no notice given to his workers and then put the business into receivership. He refused to pay wages owed and holiday pay amounting to tens of thousands of dollars which left most of his workers significantly out of pocket.

The workers collectively organized with support from me and Raise the Bar, and in under a month we managed to get Wagamama in England to cough up some of the money as a good will gesture – $30,000 to be exact. A lot of this was due to the ongoing media pressure the workers and Raise the Bar applied by using a strong media campaign to ‘out’ Wagamama for wage theft. We also, generally, have weekly wins that include smaller pay-outs to hospo workers in wages owed by bosses refusing to pay. We also have consistently gotten issues such as wage theft in hospo into the media.

I also give out free legal advice (with support from an employment advocate who is legally trained) to hospo workers on a weekly basis. I count this as an ongoing success because the more hospo workers know their rights and feel empowered to stand up to their employers the more chance we have of structural change within the industry.

What issues will you campaign on in the next year?

The main issue we are focused on is wage theft and pushing the government to make wage theft a criminal offence. Right now, it is illegal for a boss to commit wage theft; but it isn’t a criminal offence, meaning that the most these employers will face is a fine. Hospo employers are stealing hundreds of thousands off their workers annually and face almost no consequences for their behaviour. Yet, if a hospo worker put their hand in the till and took $50 bucks they could be up on criminal charges if their employer rang the cops. Personally, I think this is a really clear-cut example of the massive power imbalances within both our workplaces and criminal justice system. Employers are protected but workers are not.

Freelancing isn’t free: precarity and self-organization in the “gig economy”

Agitprop from the Freelancer’s Union (USA)

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Under capitalism, we’re all supposed to dream of being “the boss” – as opposed to an exploited worker obeying the bosses’ orders. Obviously we can’t all be bosses – who would we order around and exploit? – but the next best thing, in modern “neoliberal” capitalism, is to be your own boss. Hence the appeal of those scam ads for “EARN BIG MONEY AT HOME”, which turns out to be selling cosmetics or bogus diet aids to your friends.

Capitalism is defined by the division between those who own capital – the tools, machines and resources – and those who have to work for a living for the owners of capital. “Self-employed” people are generally seen as being part of a “middle-class” between these two layers. In essence, they own just enough capital to make it possible to employ and exploit the labour of only one worker – themselves. The willingness of a self-employed person to “exploit their own labour” is one reason why small contractors are often more productive than waged or salaried workers – at a proportionate cost to their own health and personal lives.

The idea of self-employed people (often known as “freelancers”, especially when they are writers or other creative workers) as middle-class is an old-fashioned one. Increasingly, neoliberalism has made the idea of a full-time job, especially one “for life”, a thing of the past. Buzzwords like “downsizing” and “labour market flexibility” just boil down to more power for bosses to hire and fire, to drive down wages and conditions. In this situation, there is a whole new class of freelancers who can just be seen as casualised workers who own their own tools.

Freedom is a two-edged sword

A freelancer is only paid for the job. There is no guarantee of future employment, no sick leave and no holiday pay. In these situations, freelancing can even be seen as a form of “disguised unemployment”. Often, having several “clients” rather than a single employer paying you offers no escape from exploitation and mismanagement; the website clientsfromhell.com provides a regular supply of hilarious, depressing and true stories of freelancers suffering at the hands of bigoted, fraudulent, miserly, or simply ignorant employers. Freelance journalist Jacob Silverman complains:

Every generation has its comeuppance. Ours lies in the vast field of disappointment that you land in after you run the gauntlet of privatized education, unpaid internships, and other markers of the prestige economy. There you find that writing ability or general intelligence mean nothing if you don’t have the right connections, or the ability to flatter those in authority, or a father who once held the same job. Those who have mastered these forms of soft power succeed while the rest learn the meaning of “precariat” and debate joining the Democratic Socialists of America.[1]

However, there is another side of the story. Neoliberal ideology talks about the “freedom” of the freelance, be-your-own-boss lifestyle. And it really is freedom, of a sort. A freelance worker sets their own hours of work; they can often work from home, which gives opportunities to parents of small families.

Crucially, a freelance worker also has control over the conditions of their work – when your client/boss is only paying you for what you produce, you can produce it in any way you see fit, without a manager hovering over you. And a freelancer can also reject any job or any client which they consider repugnant, for whatever reason – if they can afford to. (The present author once rejected an opportunity to index the biography of a senior New Zealand politician – not for political reasons, but because the pay they were offering for it was negligible!)

But this is the same freedom that a stray cat has – the freedom to starve. The situation is even more dire in the United States, where the only affordable medical care for many workers is employer-provided health insurance. Being excluded from the “full-time” job market might mean a death sentence if you have needs which can’t be covered out of your own resources.

The author of this article became a freelancer when her employer went out of business; she simply purchased her work computer and kept doing the same job, often for the same international clients. I can testify to both the aspects of the equation above. The precarity and anxiety of sometimes not knowing where your next work (and pay) is coming from contrasts with other times when there is far too much work coming on tight deadlines and you have to choose between giving up a job and giving up your health. But all this is balanced by being able to work how I want, from where I want, producing work of which I can feel proud (that is, if I’m paid adequately to do so.) I can even just ditch work for the day to look after my preschool child, when necessary and deadlines permitting.

The freelance job-advertising website Upwork reports that

nearly half (46%) of Generation Z [those born after 1997] workers are freelancers, a number that is only projected to grow in the next five years …not only are more Gen Zers freelancing, but 73% are doing so by choice rather than necessity, while only 66% of Baby Boomers and 64% of Millennials can say the same, according to the report.[2]

Similarly the British Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed reports that in the UK:

the number of female freelancers has grown by 55% since 2008. New mothers choosing to take up freelance work rather than return to full-time office employment post-baby has shot up by 79%. Comparatively, the number of men freelancing has grown by 36% in the same time frame.[3]

This new form of employment relationship is thus dominated by younger people and by women, two of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. In these situations, the kneejerk reaction of the traditional workers’ movement that freelancing is just a way for employers to drive wages down, and should be discouraged or even abolished, looks as out as touch as those who say the same things about migrant workers. Many of us choose to freelance, and prefer the conditions of work to clocking in every day under a manager’s supervision. What we don’t like is the insecurity attached to it.

Ideology and organization

The point now should be not whether freelance work should exist, but how the position of freelance workers can be improved. And in the Marxist tradition, the answer to that has always been “the self-organization of the workers themselves”. But the current labour union movement has enough trouble organizing workers on small, geographically dispersed sites. How can we possibly organize workers who work from home, online, with a different “boss” every week or maybe even multiple bosses on the same day?

Another major problem with organizing freelancers is the strong influence of ruling-class ideas that freelancers should see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than workers – even when living in precarity at the whim of millionaire clients. According to Tom Cassauwers writing for Equal Times website:

Freelancers often see themselves as free-wheeling entrepreneurs, with little need for collective power or forming alliances with employees. On the other hand, some unions have a history of mistrusting freelancers, seeing them as a way for employers to undermine working conditions.

Freelancer Sarah Grey adds that corporate lobbyists invest a lot in trying to get freelancers to see law changes and union organization which would actually benefit them as a threat to their “freedom”:

Aligning freelancers ideologically with the goals of the petit-bourgeoisie (which some Marxists also do…), even though most have far more in common with the working class, erects yet another barrier to prevent them from organizing and demanding rights as workers.[4]

This tactic was used to gruesome effect by Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers in the dispute around the filming of the Hobbit films in New Zealand in 2010. When Actors’ Equity demanded a union contract, a slick PR operation by the employers whipped up fear that this would lead to the major studios abandoning film-making in New Zealand altogether. This led to film workers actually demonstrating in favour of law changes which deprived them of rights (one memorable sign said “EXPLOIT ME, PETER!”) and union spokesperson Robyn Malcolm faced vicious harassment.[5]

Another crucial question is how to distinguish between actual freelance workers and “fake freelancers” – workers who are actually working in traditional jobs but have been pushed into declaring themselves to be freelance or “independent contractors” so that their employers can deprive them of rights. The most familiar example of this in Aotearoa is workers at Chorus who maintain our telecommunications infrastructure.[6] Traditional unions or NGOs have to be careful to defend the rights of actual freelancers while also defending the rights of full-time workers to have all their appropriate rights and conditions of labour.[7]

What kind of organization?

Freelancer organization is currently most advanced in the United States, precisely because of the issue of health insurance mentioned above. The Freelancers’ Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org/), founded in 2001 by former labour lawyer and union organizer Sara Horowitz, concentrates mostly on advocacy and getting good deals on health insurance from its members. Their biggest victory in advocacy came with New York City enacting a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law, which requires that all freelancers be paid within 30 days alongside other legal protections.[8]

However, the Freelancers’ Union is not actually a “union” in the way we would understand it, in that it does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. It is in fact more similar a non-profit organization which provides services and advocacy in return for membership fees; a “top-down” organization, rather than an expression of workers’ power. It works for freelancers “within the system” rather than trying to change that system.[9]

One major issue in the United States is that the labour laws left over from the Franklin Roosevelt “New Deal” era specifically exclude many categories of workers (originally to make the law acceptable to racist Southern agriculture bosses). Thus, many freelancers and other “gig economy” workers couldn’t join a union if they wanted to. This is where NGO advocacy organizations play an important role, like the Freelancers’ Union, or like the organizations who have lobbied for improved conditions for Uber and Lyft drivers – even organizing successful strikes in Los Angeles.[10]

That said, there are successful models of union organization among freelance industries – the most famous being unions in the entertainment industry (which existed before the US labour laws mentioned above). The US television industry was brought to a near-halt by the Writers’ Guild of America strike of 2007-8,[11] and the same union is currently taking legal action against talent agencies who they say are exploiting their monopoly position against writers.[12]

The entertainment industry is one of the economic pillars of the US economy and – in that country, at least, can’t be easily outsourced to more desperate overseas workers (the threat of which proved so effective in the defeat of the actors’ unions in New Zealand during the Hobbit dispute). So it’s perhaps not surprising that “old-style” union power still has a foothold there. But what models are available for those of us in less “trendy” freelance jobs – for example, writing or editing jobs, where there is continuous downward pressure on pay, deadlines, and the quality of work deemed acceptable?

One recent answer comes from a very venerable source – the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) have recently started organizing among freelance journalists. An article from a member-organizer tells a story which is very familiar to freelancers in other industries:

Many new to the industry are expected to work “for exposure” (that is, for free or unliveable rates); writers covering sensitive topics are forced to shoulder the burden of legal liability and harassment from angry subjects and readers; health insurance is either a clusterfuck to obtain or simply out of reach. All of these problems follow the same dynamic: because freelancers are individually outgunned by the publications that they rely on for their livelihoods, they are forced to work under extremely exploitative conditions…

[S]taffers’ unions are only useful insofar as there are staffers; after being sold, [the website] Mic was relaunched without staffers — relying almost entirely on freelancers instead. If freelancers are not to be made de facto scabs, then they must be organized. And because staffers’ unions, bound by red tape and budgets, are not organizing freelancers, freelancers must organize themselves.[13]

The article goes on to discuss the question raised above, how to “map the workplace” (create ties between freelancers who might never meet each other in person) through one-on-one contacts through existing personal and professional networks. Crucially, the Wobbly organizers have worked on an international basis – just as feasible as local and national organizing when the community is globalised through the Internet – and has made no distinctions between print journalists, website journalists or bloggers. They have already announced a small victory: a Twitter campaign forcing the website Vox to rescind their rule prohibiting freelance writers from publicly discussing how much Vox pays them.

Other, more “traditional” labour unions have also had victories. In the US, the National Writers Union won a major battle for back-pay for freelance journalists in 2018.[14] The Dutch trade union FNV, the German union ver.di and the British trade union Community have all made serious efforts to organize freelancers – the latter, similarly to the American NWU, aims to concentrate mainly on problems with late payments.[15]

Andrew Pakes of the British union Prospect toured New Zealand last year, giving talks on the question of organizing freelance workers. In a website article, he explains:

Our approach is based on the premise of empowering freelancers (“what can freelancers do together for themselves?”) and our organizing strategy, communications and services are designed around supporting that.

We help freelance workers to organize themselves and treat the union as a source of experience, advice and administrative assistance – one that helps to create a sense of identity and pools knowledge to tackle shared concerns. This combines the best of union organizing with new ways of working and extending our reach into growing gig areas, in the creative industries, communication and digital sectors. This approach is not without its challenges and adaptability is key.[16]

The question is clearly not whether organizing freelance workers is possible, because it is being done. The question of whether traditional unionism, the “Wobbly shop” or an NGO advocacy-and-service model is the most effective is one which can only be established by experience. But time is long since due for freelance workers and their allies in Aotearoa/New Zealand to start making experiments.

Sarah Grey gives an excellent final word:

freelancers can no longer be written off as aligning ideologically with the petit-bourgeoisie. Freelancers increasingly come from working-class backgrounds, work for low wages, and share the primary interests — and the precarity — of the wider working class. We are not a precari-bourgeoisie — we are the future of class struggle.

[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/153744/gig-economy

[2] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/growth-of-the-gig-economy-46-of-gen-z-workers-are-freelancers/

[3] https://www.ceotodaymagazine.com/2018/07/the-rise-of-the-freelancer/

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/freelance-independent-contractor-union-precariat/

[5] See our predecessor organization’s article at https://fightback.org.nz/2010/10/25/workers-party-statement-on-the-hobbit-dispute/, complete with comments from anti-union members of the entertainment industry

[6] https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/110473768/action-widens-against-chorus-subcontractors-accused-of-migrant-exploitation

[7] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/07/for-freelancers-getting-stiffed-is-part-of-the-job-some-in-new-york-city-want-to-fix-it/

[9] A good account of the positive and negatives of the Freelancers’ Union is provided here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/freelancers-union/

[10] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/freelancers-want-to-join-unions-but-labor-laws-wont-let-them

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Writers_Guild_of_America_strike

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/tv-writers-union-says-agents-are-violating-antitrust-law-2019-8/

[13] https://organizing.work/2019/08/a-year-of-organizing-freelance-journalists/

[14] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[15] https://community-tu.org/who-we-help/freelancers-and-self-employed/

[16] http://unions21.org.uk/news/lessons-for-a-collective-voice-in-a-freelance-world

“Trade Unions for the 21st Century”: new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine out soon

The new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine will soon be sent out to our electronic and print subscribers. Please enjoy the Editorial from this issue. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” – this phrase has been a touchstone for the radical Left since it opened the Rules of the First International, 150 years ago. And yet, easier said than done.

Trade unions are the most basic form of working-class self-organization, and thus the embryonic form of the kind of consciousness and organization that the working class will need to conquer and rebuild the world. But it’s hard to see a straight line between this utopian vision and the unions that we know, belong to or work for in the here and now.

The necessities of mere survival through the vicious attacks of the neoliberal area have left only the strongest unions standing in the Western countries – “strongest” in the sense of the largest, after several rounds of mergers, and in the sense of being “professionalized”. Many newer unions such as UNITE in Aotearoa/New Zealand trumpet their return to an “organizing” model rather than a “service” model – thus bringing the threat of worker militancy back onto the scene after the long series defeats and “partnership” with the bosses which characterized the 1990s.

However, these new “organizing” unions are still firmly professional, in the sense that effective leadership and power remains with the full-time, well-educated and ideologically committed organizers, in addition to a small, self-selecting nucleus of “staunch” workers who are keen to carry out exemplary industrial actions rather than the traditional mass strike. Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, reviewed in this issue, draws out this distinction very clearly in the US context.

The question is, of course, if “another unionism is possible” in the neoliberal, globalized era: what might it look like? Aside from McAlevey’s analysis, in this issue of Fightback we look at possibilities for organizing “difficult” groups of workers who are generally ignored by the “labour movement professionals” of the current era: freelance workers, migrant workers, hospitality workers. Each of these articles presents viewpoints from organizers or workers intimately involved in these struggles.

We close this issue with an article from the “Women’s Strike” movement in Britain which brings up other crucial issues on what the unions of the future will look like. McAlevey’s book – as well as the book Feminism for the 99%, reviewed in our last issue – have discussed how strike action is a powerful tool for 21st century workers’ struggle in the caring industries (health, education, social welfare) precisely because these areas of work are so important to the neoliberal economy, and because they can’t be easily “offshored”. The “Women’s Strike” article also neatly reprises themes we raised in our last issue on how modern socialist feminist requires uncompromising solidarity and common struggle with sex workers and trans and gender-queer people.

Thank you very much for supporting Fightback in 2019.

Aotearoa/New Zealand sex workers speak: two testimonies

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

1. LUCY SKY

In a capitalist society, all labour is exploitative; to treat sex work as any different to manual labour is reductive and discriminatory. SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) often use a rhetoric that sex work is “selling your body”. This lacks any nuance, or critique that under capitalism all labour is commodified and is therefore “selling your body”.

A manual labourer is required to engage in physical labour in order to survive; sex workers are no different in that regard. The commodification of the body is a systemic issue under capitalism, and needs to be addressed as a whole, not just when it comes to those who are most marginalised, such as sex workers.

This marginalisation however causes sex workers to face exploitation in very unique intersections, those that a general labourer may not face. Drug use, poverty, racism, gender discrimination and other intersections can all exclude sex workers from engaging in “normal” or “acceptable” labour, as defined by the status quo.

To give a personal viewpoint, I engaged in sex work to sustain a drug habit; a drug habit that precluded me from working due to pervasive drug testing attitudes in New Zealand. This drug habit wasn’t a leisure activity, it was formed out of an aversion to trauma: sexual, emotional, and derived from poverty.

This drug habit took primacy above my own safety, and I was re-traumatised over and over again by engaging in sex work. However, sex work is not the issue in my situation. It was a means to survive in the face of a welfare system that didn’t provide support, mental health systems that didn’t provide support, and communities that were happy to turn a blind eye to the marginalised population.

I felt hopeless, and that there was no escape. There were no systems in place that would humanise me or treat me with the respect I desperately needed.

Sex workers, just as any human, are required to engage in the coercive system that capitalism has created in order to survive. They (we) shouldn’t face further alienation from their communities for engaging in the same activities that are required of any human to survive.

Sex workers deserve the same protections and rights that any labourer deserves, as sex work is work. As one of the most marginalised populations, perhaps these protections and rights need in fact to be given even more primacy.

2. JUDY

I’m a transgender sex worker. People have lots of other names for me, it almost seems there’s an approved list of them. I have my favourites from the list: “scarlet lady” and “coquet”. But one of those words is the one most commonly associated with sex workers, whore.

I proudly call myself a whore. Most of my friends hate me doing so, they see it as most people do: a horrible insult meaning you’re the most degraded thing a woman can be. But when you look at the word whore, where it comes from, what it actually means, you find something very interesting.

“Whore” started out in the 16th century as a polite euphemism for another word for sex worker we’ve now lost. When you strip it right down, whore just means sex worker. Thing is, the reason it no longer means that is we don’t like acknowledging sex work is just that: work, just like being a plumber or carpenter, no difference really.

So I’m a whore, a sex worker. And I’m proud of being one. More than that, when someone throws whore at me as an insult, I can just smile, say “yes I am”, and let the insult bounce. That’s the thing about being a sex worker, people don’t like accepting you are a worker. You’re either some kind of moral degenerate or a fallen woman who needs to be saved. Either way you have no say in your life, other people know far better than you what to do with your life. You’re a child who can’t be trusted to make your own decisions about what you do.

Oddly enough, I feel quite capable of making my own decisions about my life. Before I was a sex worker I had a variety of jobs, including manager of a graphic arts department in a printing firm. Not only did people trust me to make decisions about my own life then, they trusted me to make decisions about other people’s lives. I really don’t think my mental capacity has diminished since then.

People of course will argue I must have been forced into sex work by desperate circumstances. No, not at all. I’m a sex worker due to a conscious, logical choice. I could work 60 to 70 hours a week in a supposedly “respectable” job, or earn the same money working five to eight hours a week. A no-brainer, really.

Then we get the argument, there’s no skill involved in my job. It’s easy money, all you do is lay back and “think of England” (or whichever country takes your fancy). Nothing could be further from the truth. In my previous employment as a department manager I developed a wide and varied skill set. Time management, interpersonal relations, financial control, conflict resolution, understanding clients’ needs; the list is really quite extensive. And I use every single one of those skills extensively as a sex worker. More than that, I’ve extended and sharpened those skills.

It’s a damn sight harder being a sex worker than managing a group of graphic artists. It’s not easy money and there’s a hell of a lot of skill involved and in areas you’d never expect. I often tell people the most useful parts of my body as a sex worker are my ears and my vocal cords, listening to my clients and communicating effectively with them. You really can’t do this job if you can’t do that.

So, sex work is work. Really honest to goodness old fashioned hard decent labour. And like any other worker, a carpenter, lawyer, plumber, doctor, whatever, we deserve respect for what we do. We deserve protection from harm. Yes, the job involves risk, but to be honest, there are riskier jobs: nursing springs to mind. We deserve protection from exploitation. Biggest step in that was decriminalisation. We now have access to all the legal protections any other worker has in their employment. Sex work is hard work, it can often be very draining. It requires a wide, varied and unique skill set, one I don’t think you’ll find replicated in any other job. It can also be immensely rewarding; I get to meet a huge variety of people and get to know them on an incredibly intimate level.

Sex work is real work, and those who choose of their own free will to engage in it deserve to be respected and treated as any other worker might be.

Why Do Socialists Care About Sex Workers?

By JESSE DEKEL and the Socialist Feminism committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, San Francisco chapter. Originally published as a zine.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Why do feminist socialists care about sex workers?

As socialist feminists, we believe that all workers deserve dignity! There is no reason sex work is any different from any other type of labour when you strip away oppressive patriarchal standards of morality.

Isn’t sex work bad for the people in it?

Under capitalism all jobs are bad for workers. Bosses make money off of our labour and give us as little payment, benefits, and respect as they can get away with. As socialists we stand against the exploitation of ALL workers against bosses, exploited by conditions outside and inside their work. We support sex workers founding unions and collectives to advocate for better working conditions, and the empowerment of the workers themselves.

Fight the stigma

Due to a puritanical culture, sex workers face stigma at every turn. There is a racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, gendered and anti-Semitic history to this stigma, which informs the present of policing/prisons and economic marginalization. Society devalues and takes away agency from sex workers to make decisions about their economic livelihood. Most of all, it makes it even harder for the marginalized to survive. If we want to be a true supporter of marginalized workers, then we have to support sex workers.

Why decriminalization?

Sex workers are overwhelmingly asking for the decriminalization, and not regulation/legalization of their work. Decriminalization prohibits the state and law enforcement officials from intervening in sex work. Decriminalization also de-prioritizes arrests, reduces interaction between police and sex workers, and retroactively seals criminal records.

Why is the legalization model not enough?

Legalization would simply allow for a capitalist exploitation of sex work, with all of its attendant regulations and coercions. We’ve seen this with the legalization of marijuana: instead of simply reducing law enforcement’s presence in the drug war, it’s turned into a system that benefits only the privileged and continues incarcerating and otherwise exploiting the marginalized. As socialists, we reject the further entrenchment of capitalist enterprise within sex work.

“The Face of Gayness”: A Trans History of Resistance in Aotearoa

WILL HANSEN is a Master’s candidate in history at Victoria University of Wellington and trustee of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. His Master’s thesis, an extension of his honours thesis, is about trans politics and communities in Aotearoa in the 1970s and 80s.

From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Socialist Feminism: Against TERF and SWERF”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Aotearoa has never had a “Stonewall moment.” That boisterous blast of radical collective action at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, led by trans women and other queers of colour, sex workers, homeless street youth, and others, has achieved the status of legend in queer history. Although Stonewall was not “the beginning of queer liberation” that it is often made out to be, its importance as a symbolic moment that has been utilised by activists to push queer politics in a radical direction, and remind the community of how much we do truly owe trans women of colour and other marginalised queer communities, cannot be understated.

However, in Aotearoa, we never had such a moment. And when queer activists here attempt to utilise Stonewall in the same way, it has much less power. There is a perception that in Aotearoa, queer rights were fought for and won solely by lesbian and gay activists. Trans people were not at the forefront of our politics, no matter how important they may have been overseas.

This is a gross misconception.

Trans women, particularly trans women of colour engaged in sex work, have always been the face of our movement, regardless of whether cisgender lesbians and gays have accepted them. Speaking to oral historian Caren Wilton, Dana de Milo articulated that trans women were “the bottom of the gay heap, even though we were the face of it.” While the “white gay guys” could hide behind men’s clothing, trans women did not have this option. Although we often speak of “homophobic” violence, scholar Viviane K. Namaste argues that “the connotations of the pejorative names used against individuals who are assaulted – names like “sissy,” “faggot,” “dyke”…suggest an attack is justified not in reaction to one’s sexual identity, but to one’s gender presentation.”[1] Gender and sexuality is collapsed, and it is non-normative gender presentation, rather than sexuality, which is used by attackers to identify which ‘queers’ to bash. This is why trans women like de Milo, most likely to be singled out for transgressing gender norms, “were the face of gayness, even though we weren’t gay…we were the ones who were getting beaten up and put in jail.”[2] Queens (as such women generally preferred to be identified) were situated at the intersection of a complex network of oppressions; this system of gender violence is both classed and racialised. De Milo and her contemporaries were not only “the face of gayness” and most vulnerable to assault because they were trans, but also because they were sex workers, and the majority were also Māori and Pasifika. They defied convention on account of their gender, their sexual practice, their class and precarity, and their race.

Additionally, queens were not simply a racialised minority, but a colonised minority. Sex, gender and sexuality are used to reify colonial power, to naturalise hierarchies and unequal gender relations, and therefore heterosexism and transmisogyny must be interpreted as colonial systems of violence.[3] Steve Pile and Michael Keith argue that because “power colonises internally as well as externally” – that is, oppressed populations are encouraged to internalise the belief that they are worthy of oppression – “shedding the guilt and shame induced by internal colonisation,” while less obvious than the overthrow of external power, is just as crucial a means of resistance.[4] As scholar and activist Elizabeth Kerekere writes, since “discrimination against takatāpui has been normalised in the context of colonisation…claiming takatāpui identity can be seen as a means of decolonising diverse gender identities, sexualities and sex characteristics.”[5] While in the 1970s and early 80s, these women did not claim “takatāpui” identity explicitly, many nonetheless drew on their cultural heritage for strength in claiming their identity proudly as queens.[6] These women had to combat not only external oppression, but internalised transphobia too; in this context, the simple act of walking down the street, proud to be oneself, was an act of extraordinary power.

From Carmen to Chrissy Witoko, Wellington’s queens in particular were also actively carving out queer spaces in otherwise hostile queerphobic and cissexist terrain. Again, while such work may not look as dynamic as a protest (which trans people were also involved in, see the photograph attached), building space for community was a vital component in allowing queer people to survive and thrive. Indeed, Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee Loungebecame in the 1980s a drop-in centre for lesbians and gays and sex workers alike, providing direct support to both rights movements. Before there can be mobilisation of marginalised community, the marginalised must come together as a community first. Also speaking to Wilton, Poppy explained how queens “stuck together,” because “no one else is going to stand up for us. Nobody. You walk down Queen Street, and if they realise you’re not a girl, you’ll get punched in the street. And when you call a policeman, he’ll abuse you too. I’m proud of it. We were tough girls. The 1960s was a tough world, you know?”[7] Given that systematic and internalised cissexism and transmisogyny pressured trans people into isolation and silence, the very act of seeking trans friendships and community should be interpreted as resistance.

There is no space in this piece to outline all that trans people have done to achieve liberation in Aotearoa. Although trans people should not have had to have done anything in order to warrant respect and celebration, the point is, we were there, and we were resisting. Resistance takes as many different forms as does oppression, and just because it may not be as immediately recognisable as a change to the law or a protest placard, does not mean it did not help push forward change.

From Pink Triangle 54 (July/August 1985). Reproduced by kind permission of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.

For more international context on the role of trans people in radical and queer politics over the last 50 years, see https://communemag.com/fifty-years-of-queer-insurgency


[1] Viviane K. Namaste, Invisible Lives: the Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p.140

[2] Dana de Milo in Caren Wilton, My body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2018), pp.184-185

[3] Chris Finley, “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing “Sexy Back” and Out of Native Studies’ Closet,” in Queer Indigenous Studies: critical interventions in theory, politics, and literature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011)p.32

[4] Steve Pile and Michael Keith, Geographies of Resistance (London: Routledge, 1997), p.24

[5] Elizabeth Kerekere, ‘Part of The Whānau: The Emergence of Takatāpui Identity – He Whāriki Takatāpui,’ doctorate thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2017, p.128

[6] See Georgina Beyer in Jessica Hutchings and Clive Aspin, Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People (Wellington: Huia, 2007), pp.71, 74-74; Poppy in Wilton, p.272; Resitara Apa in Dan McMullin and Yuki Kihara, Samoan Queer Lives (Auckland: little island press, 2018), pp.27-28

[7] Poppy in Wilton, p.272

“SOCIALIST FEMINISM: against TERF and SWERF” – new issue of FIGHTBACK out soon

Cover of new issue of FIGHTBACK
The new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine will soon be sent out to our electronic and print subscribers. Please enjoy the Editorial from this issue. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

The concept of “intersectionality” – that various different forms of oppression and exploitation overlap and interact with each other – is hotly debated in Left activist circles Many from the Marxist tradition oppose this concept; for them, the class struggle (capitalists against workers) is the single key to understanding society, and all other forms of oppression are secondary to that – including oppression on the basis of gender and sexuality.

Certainly, Fightback believes that the struggle for gender and sexual liberation can’t be won within capitalism. But we strongly oppose the idea that, because of this, gender and sexuality struggles are “secondary” to the class struggle – or even a distraction from it. This is because we agree with Karl Marx that the working class can only overthrow capitalism and bring about a new world through universal solidarity. Capitalism has survived so long because it continues to divide workers against each other, including on the basis of gender and sexuality. Therefore, a working class that is strong enough to defeat capitalism must overcome gender and sexual oppression as part of the revolutionary struggle, not telling those oppressed on this axis to “suck it up” for the good of The People – or, even worse, perpetuating that oppression in the movement itself.

These are not new arguments. The dialogue between socialism and feminism has been going on since before Marx and Engels, at least back to the days of Mary Woolstonecraft. In the 1980s, some feminists agreed with some Marxists that feminism and Marxism could not be combined. Fightback disagrees. But due to limited space, we decided to focus this issue of Fightback on Socialist Feminism on two major issues which are dividing the radical Left right now – transgender rights and sex work.

Fightback makes no bones about it. Trans women are women (in fact, everyone “is” the gender as which they identify) and sex workers are workers. As we will explore in this issue, we agree strongly with the anarcho-communist website LibCom that “feminists” who deny trans people their right to gender self-identification “are for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right”. We will show that “TERFs” who claim to be on the Left preach a form of politics which has much in common with the Right-populist and even fascist forces which are growing in strength around the world – and worse, that they often openly work with these forces of reaction.

We also believe that those who wish to abolish sex work show a lack of elementary solidarity with some of the most exploited and oppressed members of the working class. “SWERF” and “TERF” politics share the vital feature of attempting to police women’s bodies and the very concept of gender itself – no matter how many actual women (and others) they hurt, exclude or “talk over” in the process. It is thus no accident that many socialists seem to have been sucked into anti-trans politics when trans sex workers didn’t want to listen to their anti-sex work politics. For this reason, we prioritised amplifying the voices of actual sex workers in this issue.

The last part of this issue canvasses some broader issues about what Socialist Feminism for the 21st century might mean. Part of the heritage of the actually-existing radical activist movement is, regrettably, a rather macho, misogynist culture which sometimes expresses it in some of the “best” male comrades acting abusively to women and others. This has been seen most strongly with overseas groups like the British SWP or the American ISO or PSL being torn apart by allegations that male members of the leadership sexually abused woman comrades, and that these crimes were covered up for “the good of the party”. Anne Russell’s article shows that these tendencies are present on the New Zealand left, while Jasmina Brankovic’s gives international context. We close with a review of a major recent book on what “Feminism for the 99%” – or Socialist Feminism – might mean for the global situation we currently face.

Daphne Lawless, coordinating editor