Death Star PR: Is all corporate media propaganda?

This article was published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here. NOTE: During lockdown, we may only be able to send out the e-publication.

This is an abridged transcription from an episode of the politics and pop-culture podcast Where’s My Jetpack: jetpack.zoob.net.

The episode was originally released on the 19th of August, 2019.

Transcribed by TripleA Transcription, with corrections and abridgement by Ani White.

Ani: Kia ora comrades, welcome to Where’s My Jetpack, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White and we’re on the line to my unfairly hot cohost Derek Johnson.

Derek: Thanks, Ani. This week we’re discussing the topic Death Star PR: Is all corporate media propaganda… We’ll be discussing the Herman and Chomsky propaganda model in corporate media. So first I’ll be introducing the propaganda model and then Ani will address some limitations to the model. According to Chomsky, media operate through five filters: ownership, advertising, the media elite, flak, and the common enemy.

So what is meant under ownership, which is the first filter, is that mass media firms, which are big corporations, often they are part of even bigger corporations. and their endgame is profit. And so it’s in their interest to push for whatever guarantees that profit. And naturally critical journalism must take second place to the needs and interests of said corporations.

The second filter is advertising, and it exposes the real role of advertising. Media costs a lot more than consumers will ever pay so advertisers fill the gap. So naturally what are advertisers paying for audiences and so it isn’t so much that the media are selling your product, their output, they are also selling advertisers a product namely you.

The third filter is [the media elite], the establishment manages the media through this filter. Journalism cannot be a check on power because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, big institutions know how to play the media game. They know how to influence the news narrative. They feed media scoops official accounts interviews with “experts” and they make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. So those in power and those who report on them are in bed with each other.

So after the media elite we have flak. If you want to challenge power you’ll be pushed to the margins. When the media, journalists, whistleblowers, sources stray away from the consensus they get what is known as flak. This is the fourth filter. When the story is inconvenient to the powers that be you’ll see the flak machine in action discrediting sources, trashing stories, and diverting the conversation.

To manufacture consent you need an enemy, a target. That common enemy is the fifth filter. Communism, socialism, terrorists, immigrants, Muslims at this point are common enemy, a boogieman to fear, helps corral public opinion.

Ani: Yeah. So I find that model is quite useful in a number of ways. It describes a number mechanisms that do take place absolutely in corporate news media but I do think it has some limitations, some tensions, and to illustrate one of those tensions [you have a show like The Simpsons]… the entertainment arm [Fox Entertainment] was directly mocking and attacking the politics of the news arm [Fox News]. And the propaganda model was primarily developed for news, so particularly if you’re going to apply it too non-news media, like fiction media, propaganda implies that people are consciously setting out to promote an ideology. It doesn’t just mean that there’s ideology, it means that they’re consciously setting out to promote it. And for example, I don’t think that the producers of Dumb and Dumber had any particular ideology that they wish to promote. I think they want to make money. It’s certainly not in any way subversive. My point is that the primary purpose of corporate media is making money. You can get subversive messages through because they can still make money… [with The Simpsons] the writers were surprised at how little interference they got. For example, the Frank Grimes episode or the episode with the strike action, they didn’t get interference. And that makes sense because why would the producers care, if they are making millions of dollars, if somebody on a TV show said something mean about them. So the primary purpose isn’t to convince people of the greatness of capitalism, it’s to make money. So that does mean some of the subversive messages can get through, but only to the extent that they’re profitable and also only to the extent that people don’t act on them. So with the example of the strike episode in The Simpsons… it relatively sympathetically depicts the strike action, like it kind of makes fun of the union but in general it is sympathetic. But if the writers go on strike, Fox isn’t exactly a fan of that. So [the] concept of repressive tolerance is useful to me, which means that basically in theory you can say anything, which includes sort of racist and oppressive things as well, but in terms of radical ideas, you can’t act on those ideas. And I think that’s important because that’s a different mode of power from purely propaganda. It’s still a power structure and a class structure, but it’s not always simply propaganda. It is just a more sophisticated mode of power. And the propaganda model points out some mechanisms that do occur but it’s not a complete theory of ideology, or a complete theory of media…

I think Fox News is kind of a paradigmatic example of the propaganda model. At Fox News you can constantly see all of these filters really clearly and obviously in the evidence. The constant construction of enemies, constant flak, the flak that socialists will get for example. But one thing to consider there is that Fox News is barely considered news. It is a good example in the sense that there’s a large enough audience that thinks of it as news, that it still socially functions as news, but for example in Canada [Fox News] shows are run with a disclaimer that they’re not actually news shows. So there’s a certain standard of journalism that’s expected even in bourgeois and corporate journalism which Fox doesn’t meet. So that’s a caveat, that lying is not generally considered a good practice… it does absolutely happen. I mean, the Iraq War example, even though it occurred well after the propaganda model was developed, it’s actually another paradigmatic example of the propaganda model where basically the press and particularly in the US just directly reproduced lies, and did not in any way investigate or criticize them.

[But] my problem is that people don’t distinguish very well, so people will basically argue that the coverage of Syria is exactly analogous to the coverage of Iraq in 2003, and I don’t think that’s true. There have really been no obvious lies on the level of, for example, Saddam Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeda, which was a bizarre nonsense and it was really obviously bizarre nonsense at the time to be honest. Whereas in the case of Syria it is true that Assad is flattening neighborhoods. That’s not just something Obama came up with. You can say… that certain things will be emphasized, it’s not necessarily that the press lies, but they will report on things that they consider important, and ignore things they don’t consider important, and that’s always a necessary process in any kind of coverage. There will be some kind of filtering but it doesn’t mean it’s lies. And there’s this populist mood out there that if you post something from any source that isn’t Russia Today people will say, “Well, that’s just propaganda.” And it’s this kind of populist kind of radical skepticism that is actually really edging into just anti-science conspiracy theory.

Derek: Yeah. It’s very very vaxxer, very QAnon territory. Yeah.

Ani: Yeah. You can’t just learn from things that confirm your preconceptions, because actually in that case you’re not learning at all. You need to be willing to look at a source and say, “Okay, I don’t actually agree with the editorial line of the source. My politics are not in line with those of New York Times or the Washington Post but I can’t really learn about the world without engaging with the work of people who I disagree with. And I certainly can’t learn about the world by denying all sources that aren’t my particular variety of communist.” And that’s not necessarily what Chomsky and Herman are arguing for but it is a populist mood, that their argument if put forward in a non-nuanced way icould play into.

Derek: …[W]e’ve kind of gone from a period where we had independent media and the Indymedia media period of the late ‘90s early aughts, that collapsed because of lack of funding, lack of money, and in some places like in Germany and on the West Coast here the FBI raided the info shops and Indymedia in Seattle and other places. And in this vacuum conspiracy theorists, people with various ideologies and motives whether it’s pro-Russia, pro-Putin, pro-this or that, or campists, or fascists, or whoever, they’ve come in, they’ve used this realistic skepticism you should have of the mainstream capitalist media and they’ve made it, flattened it so that you have skepticism of everything. And then when you’re told something true by CNN or BCC or the New York Times or whoever, now all of a sudden you treat that as a conspiracy and propaganda, and you don’t believe anything. But now conspiracy theorists treat it with the same level of seriousness as facts and science and news. And it’s not coincidental, we’ve seen how this model was played out in Russia, and under other authoritarian regimes, of pushing this idea that there is no truth to be gained from the media and that it’s all lies, it’s all fake news and that you can’t trust reality at any point. And this is an engineered process and we kind of see where this metastasizes by the time you get to Trump’s supporters and QAnon people, and people who will just not believe any true things that they hear, and just treat it all as lies and propaganda. And you’re seeing how the Trump administration has weaponised that thinking. We’ve seen how it’s been used to discredit even independent media, at this point, Real News, Democracy Now!, all of these independent sources have been completely discredited for not having enough scrutiny. CounterVortex has written about this very well. Eric Draitser has written about it very well over at CounterPunch. Even though CounterPunch I would say has some problems as well but…

Ani: Yeah, definitely. They do have some good material though.

Derek: I know Daphne Lawless has written about this very well. Alexander Reid Ross has written about this very well, and there’s been studies over at University of Washington, about how there is this ecosystem of independent blogs and news sources and pages, that have a lot of connections to a lot of right wing politics, and a lot of conspiracy theories, and to either the Russian government of whoever. And we’ve seen how right wing state propaganda from Russia and other countries goes through that filter, to the left and then you see people on the Green Party, and liberals and others, parroting the same stuff you hear people on the right.. when it comes to either Syria or Assad.

Ani: Yeah… A lot of people who wouldn’t buy into flat Earthism, or antivaxx, but then buy into things with the same level of rigour regarding Syria. So a good example would be Chris Trotter who’s New Zealand’s most prominent supposedly left commentator, on New Zealand’s most prominent left blog, the Daily Blog, saying that the CIA was arming the rebels in 2011, which is nonsense because it wasn’t an armed struggle in 2011, let alone one armed by the CIA, and the CIA didn’t get involved until about 2013, 2014. Now, that can just pass by, nobody cares. It’s a complete and utter fabrication, but a lot of people are perfectly comfortable with that because it’s Syria.

Derek: Yeah. And I would also say people are turning it around now and they’re saying “don’t trust CNN, don’t trust MSNBC, or the New York Times, or whoever because they’re owned by corporations but it’s okay to listen to state-owned media when they’re owned by dictatorships.” Because it took so long to get people to have a more radical view of the news media, and then go from that to then everybody can have a blog and there’s independent media sources, that maybe aren’t under the same control of the news networks, or don’t have the same biases. For instance, Israel. The whole Israeli-Palestinian subject shackles all of our media. I mean, you can get something like Democracy Now! or Real News or somebody or the Nation, or somebody to be really honest about that subject, in ways that the rest of our media cannot be.

Ani: Yeah. Those mechanisms are real. I mean, a great example is that backlash against, Trump’s called them ‘The Squad’ [US Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib], the flak against ‘The Squad’, is a perfect example of-

Derek: The four congresswomen. Yes.

Ani: Not being a Democrat at all I can’t help but feel a lot of sympathy for them. Politically, I’m feeling very conflicted, because I like them so much. Point being, they’re getting flak. They are also an example of the common enemy, so these mechanisms are occurring on ongoing basis.

Derek: Oh yeah. It’s being done on a fascist level, yeah. Attacking them as being un-American for their race. We have a fascist president in this country, who’s going to run on open white supremacy. And now we’re seeing how Ted Cruz and another senator tried to put up a motion in the senate to have Antifa recognized as a domestic terrorist organization…

Ani: Yeah. And I mean, the question of the complicity of the media there is interesting, because obviously Fox is fully onboard with it.

Derek: Well they gave him free media time to run for president. He got billions of dollars’ worth free media time to run for president because they thought it was a lark, and they thought it was cute that this racist billionaire was running for president.

Ani: Yeah, and there’s the thing. It’s the liberal sources that enable him in a way. So at the time, 2016, I was actually running a class on News Media and actually a surprising amount of people in my class were saying that they viewed the press as biased against Trump. And I gave an example from, it was MSCNBC, which was about the coverage of the disruption of a Trump rally, and I pointed out the chronology of their reportage, and what I pointed out is that you heard from Trump first and often, and his supporters first and often, and it wasn’t until maybe the next day that they actually interviewed one of the organisers of the disruption. So I don’t think MSNBC, I don’t think that was because they’re consciously sympathetic to Trump. It’s a matter of what you could call source dependency. Trump was the official source. Some random, probably communist, community organiser is not an official source. So Trump says these sensationalist things, which are news-worthy, and so a press can enable that, without necessarily being politically sympathetic to Trump.

Derek: And they don’t understand how fascists function, and that a fascist will say and do anything, and contradict themselves and lie at any moment…

Ani: Yeah. And I do suspect that while Fox will very openly and happily jump on this opportunity, the issue of liberals, people like Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, CNN, that kind of area, they will play into the civility narrative.

Derek: Respectability politics etc.

Ani: Yeah. So if this idea of criminalising Antifa is not just a passing brain fart, and we can hope it’s just a passing brain fart. If it isn’t then they may well enable it.

Derek: Well, the idea that all this violence was happening, and all these people were being violently attacked and stabbed and shot, but the second milkshakes were thrown, all of a sudden there was attention? That speaks to something.

Ani: So, I just wanted to move on to another point about limitations of the propaganda model. Which that it doesn’t really address, and it doesn’t even seek to address, the question of whether propaganda works, whether people are essentially brainwashed. An example being the popularity of socialism among millennials, a generation that’s been raised in a thoroughly antisocialist ideological environment. So in Media Studies there was kind of a move away from emphasis on propaganda. mostly because of a look at audiences, and I guess the crucial thing about audiences is that they bring their own experiences and knowledge. So for example, me watching a Donald Trump rally, I already have my own kind of preconceptions, my own experience, my own reading that I’m bringing to this. And what audience study has tended to find is basically that, media isn’t good at telling people what to think, but it’s good at telling people what to think about or talk about. So for example, if Trump is in the news whether you’re a communist, a fascist, a liberal, whether you think you’re apolitical, you’ll probably be thinking and talking about Trump. And you’ll bring your own experiences and knowledge to bear in understanding what’s happening with Trump, but you are likely to be influenced by what is being covered. So that’s called Agenda Setting is the term for that, which is that the press is good at setting the agenda for what’s talked about. It doesn’t necessarily directly tell people what to think, kind of thing. And that is something I think we need to be somewhat resistant to… seek out things that maybe aren’t being force-fed to you, share information. On the left in particular, we’re internationalists, which means we need to be talking about things other than the US and the UK, so share information and seek out information. Point being, don’t let the press set the agenda all the time, and that also means we need our own media to a certain degree, as well.

Derek: Yeah. And that’s what I was speaking to earlier is that we kind of were going in that direction and that movement stalled and failed and now the skeleton of Indymedia has now been taken over by negative forces, to be used to as propaganda against us. And I would say that, yeah, propaganda is about… reinforcing ideas or reinforcing confirmation bias. I think it’s a misreading of the function of propaganda, or how psychology works, to think that ideas are just deposited in human heads, and then people are brainwashed, because brainwashing technically does not exist as a concept, and it’s more about persuasion. And even that, measuring the success of propaganda isn’t necessarily based on, how successful were you at persuading X amount of people. I think it’s just more about putting out your version of events as the official line, as the official story that drowns out other analysis. Cause like the best propaganda is telling the truth, but adding maybe one or two little lies in there. People often think that propaganda means it’s automatically false, or that you’re being told false things by the government, and that’s obviously not the case.

Ani: Yeah. Like it might just be a matter of quoting one person and not quoting another person. Your quoting of that person isn’t a lie, but the fact that you chose to quote that person and not another person is obviously going to affect things. So it is a matter of what truth you choose to tell. And I agree, the propaganda model isn’t discredited by the fact that audiences have the capacity for critical thought basically. But part of my point is, not necessarily that the model is wrong, but that on its own without some additional work it, can feed into some kind of populist ideas. We also can’t completely disconnect the propaganda model from Herman and Chomsky’s apologetics for certain regimes. I’m thinking of Chomsky’s apologetics for the Pol Pot regime.

Derek: Yeah. And there’s also other criticisms of Chomsky’s readings of events. The Sbrenica attack in Bosnia, and a lot of people have criticised him, his writing on that. And more recently was the gassings in two different towns in Syria, by the Assad regime, and that’s when we saw a crossover from people being critical of what they hear, or thinking oh this is regime change propaganda, to full-on Sandy Hook trutherism, where suddenly people on the left were saying… human rights groups like the White Helmets were faking bombings, or they were faking the rescues and pulling people out rubble, it was all actors and sounding not dissimilar from Alex Jones. And Chomsky repeated without question, Postill’s writing on those attacks, and Postill was taken in by a propagandist for Russia, that I believe lives in Australia, Syrian Girl who was a Nazi-connected person.

Ani: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Derek: And there was no critical assessment of that, because basically what happens is this critique becomes only about focusing on, how do these events reported implicate America.

Ani: Exactly.

Derek: Not where does the truth fall based on the information that comes out. And I find that very strange as somebody who, you really can’t question me on my dispassion and hatred for this country, and any other nation state in this world, but I can see when things are actually not the fault of American imperialism, or the fault of America, and I would not stretch my analysis to blame things that have nothing to do with America to be America’s fault. So I just find that strange, me personally, that people find themselves in that position, and it’s kind of a Cold War mentality and a campist mentality.

Ani: Yeah. I think not everything is about the US. The US isn’t the only evil in the world, and the official account also it isn’t always wrong. I think 9-11 is a perfect example of that. I mean, again a lot of people who wouldn’t buy into 9-11 Truth will buy into actually similar bullshit, but 9-11 is clearly a case where there are other evils in the world. And radical skepticism of the official account isn’t always progressive. It can be very regressive in many ways.

Derek: It could be hijacked for other purposes. And I would recommend as well Adam Curtis’ documentary, the last one that he did.

Ani: HyperNormalisation?

Derek: Yes.

Ani: I actually didn’t like that.

Derek: The last part he did there on Russia, which is very interesting because he’s very doubtful of any of the connections between Trump and Russia. And he’s a Russiagate skeptic, which is very strange given the part about Putin and Trump that he did in that documentary.

Ani: Yeah. Which pretty much exactly about that strategy you’re right.

Derek: Yeah. The point I was going to make is that that propaganda strategy, described in HyperNormalisation, used by Alexander Dugin in Russia and other propagandists. Basically the point is, it’s not that they’re trying to convince you with the propaganda, it’s to overwhelm you with as much bullshit all at once, that you cannot accurately gauge what is reality. And when you cannot understand what’s reality, how can you be an informed citizen in a liberal democracy? And that is the whole point, that Alexander Dugin was trying to do, because he’s trying to radically undermine liberal democracy, because he’s a fascist, neo-fascist, and this is very useful propaganda for any kind of administration, and any kind of regime, where you have this kind of reality management.

Ani: So yeah, radical skepticism. It needs to be about, learning about the world… that means learning from things that we don’t agree with. I mean, Karl Marx engaged a lot with bourgeois writers, and sometimes he was more supportive of things and bourgeois writing than he was of certain socialist arguments. So, particularly. I’m obviously thinking how his take on bourgeois political economy where, he found a lot of value in bourgeois political economy which other socialists hadn’t. Now obviously he critiqued it, and turned it into something entirely new. I’m saying we should do our own independent analysis absolutely, but not just saying, “Well, that’s the Washington Post. It’s a bourgeois source so it’s obviously lies. I don’t even need to read it.” Which is a very common attitude that I see around right now.

Derek: Yeah. And I would say if you have that same skepticism, why don’t you have that same skepticism about RT?

Ani: Yeah, or any, CounterPunch, what’s Greenwald’s one? The Intercept.

Derek: Yeah. They’re pretty good in spite of him sometimes.

Ani: Yeah. But there’s this weird inconsistency, with for example Reality Winner, who was a whistleblower on Russiagate, who as far as I know is still in prison for that. She pointed out interference in the voting machines. So The Intercept ran that story, and it’s been said that they basically let her go to the wall, I’m not clear on that, whether they did intentionally let her go to the wall, I honestly can’t make a solid claim on that. But it’s certainly the case she’s been completely ignored.

Derek: Yeah, that is 100% provable.

Ani: Yeah. And so there’s all these other whistleblowers who get endlessly romanticised. I mean, Assange who, yes, I think WikiLeaks did some good work but Assange is a total scumbag, he gets so much attention and so much defence. And then you got Reality Winner ho’s in prison and people just…nobody’s heard of her.

Derek: But I would imagine too though the connection is… like you’re saying is that the reason why Assange is still romanticized and why Reality Winner is ignored, is because she proved that there was Russian interference. And that goes against the popular narrative that has colonised a lot of the left in this country, to the point where we have a pro-Trump sector of the left,left media anyway, as exemplified by Greenwald and others. Where they’re actively defending Trump’s regime, and they’re actively defending him against impeachment, and they’ve completely lied about the outcome of the Mueller Report, and have totally parrotted Will Barr’s assessment. And now that that’s been disproven, that he was lying, nobody’s retracted on that, but all of those people, all of those writers, have demanded the head of Rachel Maddow, and anybody who reported on so called Russiagate.

Ani: And you’ve got Greenwald going on Fox News. Now if we’re going to talk about propaganda, right wing propaganda, again Fox News is the paradigmatic example. And you’ve got Greenwald going on there to basically say, “Well, the deep state is conspiring against Trump.” How can anyone on the left take him seriously at that point? To me, that’s a complete capitulation. People can’t conceive of, maybe learning something about Syria, but they’ll support somebody who goes on Fox News to defend the president of the United States of America.

Derek: …Nobody’s copped to it. When it was proven that those chemical attacks in Syria were not done by the rebels, and it was not a rebel stronghold, holding chlorine gas or something, that got bombed by the heroic Assad regime. Nobody issued any take-backs. Nobody said, “Hey, we were wrong, it turns out Assad did do those chemical attacks.”

Ani: [Robert Fisk rightly criticised] journalists embedded in the Iraq War. who went around with US troops who would show them what they wanted to show them, he was right to say that but he’s doing the same thing now with the Assad regime. His reportage on Syria is all guided by the Assad regime. He’s an embedded journalist, and embedded journalist sounds very objective, but it’s not because you’re embedded with basically one group or another, and in his case he’s embedded with regime forces. So when he speaks to some random guy who says, “Well, the chemical weapons attacks were faked,” he’s speaking to some random guy while on a regime tour, and then people will endlessly repost that article and ignore UN research.

Derek: So does propaganda work? It’s all over the place on that one. And as it’s been pointed out, like if advertising didn’t work they wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on Madison Avenue.

Ani: It’s easier to get people to part with their money, than to get people to fully subscribe to a political party or what have you. I mean, that’s the commonality of capitalist media, is that it’s capitalist media.

Derek: Yeah. And you know what’s funny about that, was how the media warned us about Trump in popular culture. Like in Back to the Future 2, Gremlins 2, Super Mario Brothers, and even the unfilmed Ghostbusters 3 had a villain based on Trump, and Dinosaurs.

Ani: So there’s certain amount of license artists have, particularly in comedy, particularly in satire, and particularly if it’s profitable. And there was a quote from Joss Whedon, I know he’s cancelled, but it’s an interesting quote, about basically what it’s like to work as a subversive artist in corporate media. Because, I would say shows like Buffy and Dollhouse and Firefly have dealt with some pretty interesting themes, considering again they were produced by Fox… This quote came during the production of Dollhouse, an interesting thing to note there is the production of Dollhouse was shut down for the writers’ strike, and that Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon’s company, they ran a picket line so they were relatively a militant group, which interesting because some of them were libertarians. But anyway, this quote is kind of about dealing with subversive themes while being in a corporate media company.

Derek: In his quote he said, “Have you been in America? I like to consider myself a documentarian. The entire structure is designed to mess with your minds, to combine selling you things with entertaining you, to keep you in line, to make you think that you need the things they want you to need, and to stay away from the things that they want to stay away from, to keep them in power, to share none of it. This is all happening. There are lights in the darkness. The art we get to create because our powerful patrons letters is one of them. But sometimes, yeah, it’s like running the daycare on the Death Star.”

Ani: So, what is to be done? As I said, even where you can get subversive message into corporate media, it’s still limited to its acquisition of exchange value. So put simply, if it doesn’t make money it’s cancelled, as Whedon discovered with Firefly and Dollhouse. So, for that reason we need both publicly funded media, but also and for revolutionary leftists more importantly, our own independent media. Traditionally you have the papers, the newspapers, of the communist or socialist parties. Obviously now, we’re moving into more of a digital age, there may be still some place for print, but in any case we need our own channels, as you said, Indymedia was one, and now we’re seeing the rebirth of podcasts, the sort of second wave of podcasts on a somewhat meta note. So, podcasts are certainly a part of the infrastructure that is now being developed as a kind of alternative to mainstream corporate media. And despite my criticisms of an overly simplistic view of mainstream media, I do think it’s important that we have our own media, and podcasts are a part of it.

Derek: Yeah. I agree with that, and I’m very proud to be somebody who is part of both the original wave of podcasts, and now this current wave of podcasts, now everybody and their uncle, and standup comedians, and everybody have podcasts. And I think it’s something to definitely utilise for good. And we’re definitely seeing, with the loss of net neutrality in this country, and some of the copyright laws being passed in the EU and etc., that we’re seeing kind of this closing of the digital commons, putting to lie the libertarian and anarchist ideas of the freedom that the internet was going to bring, that is described in the California Ideology… We’re really seeing how authoritarian and totalitarian Silicon Valley is, we’re gonna have the ability to have our own alternative media, and have podcasts and everything, but we may not have the bandwidth, so we’ll ironically might have to go back to radio and pamphlets and newspapers and zines.

Ani: Well, I think we need multiple communication strategies.

“Was the Russian Revolution a Carrier-Pigeon Revolution?”: Digital media and communication in the Victorian Socialists

By Ian Anderson, RMIT Doctoral candidate in Media Studies.

This article was researched and written before the COVID-19 outbreak and implementation of physical distancing measures, which have affected the relationship between ‘IRL’ and online organising. Like many organisations, the VicSocialists have shifted towards online videoconferencing, for both public events and internal discussions.

This article is being published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The Victorian Socialists (VicSocialists) launched in 2018, as a coalition of three socialist groups. That year, the campaign ran a number of candidates for the Victorian parliamentary election – two of the candidates already held seats in local council. Former leading candidate Stephen Jolly explicitly cited recent international polarisation as a reason to attempt his parliamentary bid:

[My campaign is] the first time in Australia that the left is tapping into the anti establishment mood on a large scale… In America and Europe you’ve seen the rise of far right but also a new left with figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In Australia, it’s been unusual as it’s just been the far right with Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi, who have tapped into that discontent.1

The VicSocialists did not meet their goal of electing leading candidate Stephen Jolly to state parliament, but received the fourth largest vote after the Greens. In 2019, the campaign ran three candidates for the Federal Election – notably their prior leading candidate Jolly was not selected as the organisation was conducting an investigation for charges of abuse, and after the election he would be suspended over a separate abuse investigation2 – yet they received over 4% in three electorates despite not running Jolly. This article is based on interviews with 13 members and supporters, as well as my own experiences.

E-skepticism of activists

I do think sometimes there’s an overstatement about social media, like the Arab Revolutions, there were some people who want to refer to them as the Facebook revolutions, but I mean really was the Russian revolution the carrier pigeon revolution? People will find ways to communicate, and actually in that instance people had to find ways to communicate outside of the online forms because the government shut down the internet, and they still organised.3

This was the very last comment from interviewee Kath Larkin, a rail worker who at the time had just been pre-selected as the VicSocialists candidate for Cooper. Around 200 people attended the conference, held at the Maritime Union of Australia headquarters in South Melbourne.

Kath very much emphasised the value of face-to-face communication over the course of the interview, and considered the day-conference a success in bringing people together for democratic deliberation in person. Earlier in the interview Kath commented:

Obviously there’s a lot that we do on social media, and I think sometimes when you’re in the left you can kind of feel like what you see in your Facebook wall is what everyone sees, but actually we know that’s not true, we know that the way that Facebook is manipulated and run means that actually it’s quite hard for leftists to get their views out there. I do think social media will still be important particularly for young leftists in the area, but there’s also gonna be a need to get out to community events.

This is a common sentiment among Victorian Socialist activists. VicSocialists volunteer and librarian John Gao had this to say when explaining why he uses Twitter less than he used to:

I guess because I’m interested in politics, not just theoretical but to do stuff in practice, which requires face-to-face interaction, talking to the public in my own city, so therefore organising on a local level is very important, and the absence of that critical mass on Twitter, atleast in that area was not as useful in some ways.

Another interviewee who preferred not to be named commented more bluntly that “Twitter is an actual toilet”, and while less anti-Facebook stated that “I don’t think we should overstate Facebook because a lot of it was the boots on the ground that did the work.”

Activists’ skepticism of the digital included three key aspects:

  1. The digital divide, or uneven participation – Activists emphasised the importance of face-to-face communication in fostering constituencies that did not participate heavily in the digital sphere, particularly older working class voters.
  2. Criticism of utopian techno-determinism – Connected to pride in organising capacities not determined by the affordances of media technologies. Arguably some techno-dystopianism centred on the commodification of the net.
  3. Skepticism of ‘call-out culture’ and online criticism.

Despite these criticisms, there was little interest expressed in a programmatic decommodifying transformation of digital media. VicSocialist activists were simply more interested in other issues, such as migrant worker rights. The 2018 Election Manifesto did not mention digital rights, a strong focus in digital parties, coming closest to this in a reference to surveillance associated with the War on Terror.

…And yet
Yet digital media is strongly used for promotion. The VicSocialists Facebook page has over 5,000 likes at the time of writing. The page averaged 3 original posts a day during the week before the election in 2018, with posts routinely attracting hundreds of reactions, and regular video posts usually attracting thousands of views. This rate of posts and interactions is similar to the Australian Greens Facebook page over the same period, Australia’s third largest party with a relatively significant youth base. VicSocialists also had a number of location-specific Facebook pages, a meme page, an Instagram and a Twitter. The point here is not so much the success of engagement as the effort: despite the activists’ stated lack of passion for digital media, there was clearly concerted work to ensure visibility across digital media. Crucially, this was a fairly centralised effort with consistent messaging across major corporate platforms., freeing most activists to engage in other kinds of work and keep their digital engagement to ‘likes’ and shares. There was no pretension here of digital media as a horizontal structure: it was merely a tool for promotion.

Additionally, the finding that the VicSocialists are skeptical of digital media, yet strongly use it to promote socialist ideas, is paralleled by a study on parallel electoral group the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA,4 a group which has grown to around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. This study found that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter served contradictory purposes of cohesion and fragmentation. Interview subjects found the culture on Twitter particularly alienating or even “repellant”. This is a platform that “skew[s] young, male, well-educated” and tends to use in-jokey humour to promote cohesion, and members expressed concern that this was alienating to those outside the in-group. As a “normative strategy”, members argued for the use of collective social media pages for promoting socialist ideas, countering the tendency towards individualistic fragmentation. This is paralleled by the VicSocialists’ strong use of centrally administrated pages on Twitter and Facebook, with arguably less of an emphasis on in-jokey Twitter personalities than the DSA.

Doorknocking
VicSocialists activists strongly emphasised the importance of face-to-face work, particularly doorknocking. When asked what was required to scale up from a local government to a state level campaign, leading organiser Liz Walsh answered doorknocking first and foremost. More than 95,000 doors were knocked, with around 120 people attending doorknocking events each weekend for eight weeks. Activists express pride in hundreds of activists turning up to doorknocking, and recounted how Green and Labor activists were surprised at how many they mobilised.

A report from Marxist Left Review matches accounts from my interviews of successful connections:

It was common for volunteers to return from doorknocking with accounts of meeting old trade union militants keen to regale them about this or that struggle, migrants who had not forgotten their more radical traditions from their country of origin, or even young workers who responded with immediate enthusiasm when we told them our candidate was a construction worker who would only take a skilled worker’s wage. These were by no means the majority of experiences, but they indicated there was a constituency to connect with.5

VicSocialists’ success in mobilising hundreds for doorknocking campaigns is a success in face-to-face or ‘meatspace’ mobilisation, but it is also a success facilitated by digital technology. Doorknockers used an app to record which doors had been knocked, and the events were primarily promoted through Facebook. This illustrates a distinct conception from both utopian and dystopian accounts of digital media – the use of digital media as simply a tool, with pros and cons. As Kath Larkin said, “people will find ways to communicate”, and digital media is one of those ways. VicSocialists activist and casual academic Daniel Lopez noted that a resident he spoke to on the doorstep in Brunswick had read an article Lopez wrote for US socialist magazine Jacobin, which he found on social media – indicating the way digital connections and face-to-face connections can be complementary.

Legacy media

VicSocialist activists interacted with two distinct strands of ‘legacy media’ in two distinct ways: with ‘mainstream media’ such as right-wing newspapers, and with socialist media. Unsurprisingly their engagement with ‘mainstream media’ was largely critical, although not necessarily dismissive. An example of oppositional reading of mainstream media is offered by Kath Larkin’s account of daily engagement with newspapers as a rail worker:

One other thing at my workplace is that I clear trains that go to the yard, and people leave newspapers and so we all kind of collect newspapers and then we’ll read them in the lunch room, which means we read a lot of Herald Sun, which is obviously a really right-wing news source, but it is useful I think to know what’s being said in this newspaper, because it is so widely read.

Activists in general made an effort to engage with ‘mainstream media’ despite their criticisms. A number of activists spoke of a ‘blackout’ on coverage of the VicSocialists in mainstream media. This impression of unfavourable terrain is perhaps comparable with the perception of Facebook and Twitter as hostile corporate terrain, although those channels afforded more promotion. Of the few articles on the VicSocialists, one article participants often mentioned negatively was a Guardian article which appeared more sympathetic to Fiona Patten, a rival candidate who won the seat Stephen Jolly aimed for.

Although the VicSocialists do not have their own digital platform in the fashion of digital parties like the Pirate Parties (such as LiquidFeedback or Loomio), the various component socialist groups do have their own media channels. These include newspapers, journals, and websites (discounting social media channels which the groups do not own). Yet these print-centric channels are arguably ‘legacy media’, perhaps reflecting the fact that the socialist groups are ‘legacy organisations’, groups that have weathered decades in the cold. Central activists often engaged with socialist media as creators or distributors. Yet this was not universal, with a number of activists not regularly reading the press of organisations like Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance – more often, activists reported reading broad left publications like Overland and Jacobin, and some listened to left-leaning podcasts like Chapo Trap House. Although a number of activists did engage with socialist media, it didn’t appear to be particularly complementary with the VicSocialists campaign, with the exception of electoral propaganda on digital media channels – counterintuitively, given activists’ stated skepticism about these channels. This is likely due to the relative efficiency of social media channels compared with newspapers. More recently, that is after the VicSocialists’ State and Federal election campaigns, Socialist Alternative launched a podcast called Red Flag Radio, taking advantage of the wider wave of socialist podcasts such as Chapo Trap House.

If we also include snail mail, posters, yard signs and the like as ‘legacy media’ due to pre-existing digital media, then these forms of legacy media were perceived as decisive. Campaign organiser Liz Walsh makes this case:

The numbers of doors knocked on, letters distributed, corflute/yard signs erected, posters plastered on street poles and so on is absolutely decisive in being able to connect up with the left wing sentiment and discontent with the major parties that does exist among layers of people in Victoria.

To demonstrate this case, Walsh points to the example of the Western Metro region, which had similar demographics to Northern Metro but where the VicSocialists didn’t wage a ground campaign. Here the VicSocialists received 0.57%. Therefore the ground campaign was decisive in the VicSocialists’ more impressive result in Northern Metro. This arguably vindicates the VicSocialists activists’ strong emphasis on doorknocking and other ‘old-school’ methods, without eschewing digital communication. Walsh’s article, which is fairly extensive, does not mention social media either positively or negatively.

Conclusion
VicSocialist activists tend to express a strong ambivalence about social media. Activists emphasise the importance of face-to-face organisation, although in practice digital media and other forms of organisation are strongly complementary. Digital media is embedded but not fetishised, and used more for promotion than democratic participation (which largely occurs through bi-annual member conferences). The results of this study are paralleled by a study on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organisation that has around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. DSA members used social media to promote socialist ideas, yet were often ambivalent about the medium. DSA members argued for collective social media pages to counter the social media tendency towards individualist fragmentation, a strategy used by the VicSocialists.

1Armstrong, Liam. “Could Steve Jolly Be Australia’s First Socialist Politician in 70 Years?” Vice, February 8 2018 (https://tinyurl.com/yxvjpsak ). Web. Accessed 18/06/2018

2 Jolly’s behaviour was not denied by his political supporters, who were open about the process that has occurred so far. That said, conflicting claims circulate about the adequacy of this internal process, with many external to the organisation saying it was inadequate or even a cover-up. The first problem arose prior to the foundation of the VicSocialists, when Jolly was a member of another socialist organisation, simply called The Socialists. Jolly had sent some text messages that constituted sexual harassment. This was investigated by the organisation, with the resolution that Jolly was required to apologise and undergo counselling. Jolly resigned from that organisation, and would later approach another group proposing the Victorian Socialists electoral project. In the early stages of the VicSocialist project, during negotiations between a number of socialist organisations, a group of Socialist Alliance members opposed Jolly’s nomination. When he was endorsed, those members resigned. Over the course of the Victorian Socialists state electoral campaign, claims emerged on social media that the prior process was not adequate, and that Stephen Jolly had engaged in other inappropriate behaviour. After the state election, the VicSocialists launched a second investigation into Jolly’s behaviour, and he was not selected as a Federal Election candidate because that investigation was ongoing. At that point some former members rejoined because he had not been selected. Shortly after the Federal election, Stephen Jolly’s membership was suspended as it turned out police were investigating another abuse claim. At this point, the situation finally entered into mainstream media coverage, after months of circulation on social media.

3 It may be worth noting here that her skepticism aligns with debates in academia about the techno-utopianism associated with ‘Twitter revolutions’ (Dumitru, 2012; Berenger, 2013; Musa & Willis 2014; Bebawi & Bossio, 2014; Kraidy, 2016).

4Barnes, Christopher C. “Democratic Socialists on Social Media: Cohesion, Fragmentation, and Normative Strategies.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 18 (1): 1-285, January 1 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/set6plj ). Accessed 29/02/2020

5Walsh, Liz. “Launching Victorian Socialists: an anti-capitalist electoral alliance.” Marxist Left Review, published by Socialist Alternative, No 18, pp. 19-38

System change, not climate change! But how?

By Jojo Klick.

This article was published in our magazine issue on Just Transition. You can subscribe here.

A sentiment that is shared by many within the growing climate movement is that there is a connection between the capitalist mode of production and the climate crisis. In this piece, I will analyse this connection and explore what that means for transformational strategies towards eco-communism as well as immediate demands for fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

For more than a year now, students have been striking for the climate each Friday all over the world, following in the footsteps of other movements for climate justice, often carried out by communities on the frontlines who are affected by carbon mining, oil drilling and other fossil projects. Yet, so far it does not look like the measures taken by politicians after this pressure from the streets will be likely to prevent crucial tipping points that will lead to an irreversible climate catastrophe that will make huge parts of this planet uninhabitable. Many within the climate movement are beginning to understand that this might have something to do with capitalism and that “if solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself”, as Greta Thunberg says.

But why does capitalism ruin the climate? Within capitalism, the means of production are owned privately and most goods and services we need (or sometimes don’t really need such as SUVs) are produced as commodities by private companies, which means they are not produced directly to fulfil a certain need, but to be sold on the market. On the market, companies compete against each other: Each of them wants us to buy THEIR product. They need to make a profit from selling their commodities, not only so the company owners (aka capitalists) can have a fancy life (which they most often do), but also to re-invest the profit as capital, e.g. to buy more effective machines or hire more workers or pay for more advertising so that they can produce better or cheaper and thus have an advantage within the competition against other companies. If one company would not do this, it had to fear that others are faster and that it would vanish from the market.

Competition also means that companies need to externalize costs wherever possible. If they can pollute the air without paying for it, they are likely to do it. On top of that, the need to reinvest money as capital in order to get more money (which Marx expressed with the famous formula M-C-M’, meaning money-commodity-more money) leads to what economists as well as environmentalist critics call “economic growth”. This abstract growth also leads to a growth of material production which means the use of more resources. Additionally, as digitalization and automation makes it continuously cheaper to produce goods, the use of resources might even grow more than the economic value produced. Unlimited economic growth is not possible on a planet with limited resources but within capitalism, this growth-imperative cannot be escaped.

States have some capacities to limit these destructive tendencies of capitalism and have indeed done so for more than a hundred years (capitalists are also dependent on this to some extent, since otherwise capitalism would destroy its foundations even faster). One recent example for this is the carbon price, e.g. in the form of a tax that companies have to pay for their emissions. However, these capacities are limited, since states also compete against each other. If one state would set accurately high environmental and social standards, companies would be likely to move to other countries where they can produce cheaper. Of course, states could also invest in “green” sectors such as renewable energies (which is discussed as a “Green New Deal”) and make economic growth less carbon-intensive. Even if such a “Green New Deal” might help fight climate change, it would not question economic growth and thus only lead to the extraction of other resources (such as lithium for batteries), which often happens under brutal conditions in countries of the Global South and would set the basis for the next environmental crisis in a couple of years or decades.

A truly eco-friendly alternative would mean the abolition of capitalism and thus of private property and the commodity-form. Initial stages of such a form of re/production1 can be seen in the commons, resources that people use collectively in a self-organized way and need-oriented.2 Commons are things like commonly owned land (historically in medieval Europe, today still in many indigenous communities), community gardens or social centres, but also Wikipedia or open source software. The way these things are used, managed and maintained, through commoning, gives examples of how society as a whole could be organized: Production and consumption would not be as separated as today, people would do freely what they find important and produce for their and other people’s needs and not to make money. Things would be re/produced as commons, not as commodities. Karl Marx describes the commodity as the elementary form of capitalism. In the same way, the elementary form of communism might be the commons.3(3) In such a commons-based libertarian communist society, there would be no need to produce more and more stuff and people could manage the eco-systems in a sustainable manner.

When it comes to strategies of communist transformation, this perspective means that anti-capitalist movements need to build and reclaim the commons from below. This also involves expropriating the means of production and other resources such as land or houses that need to be freed from private property and made into commons which is unlikely to happen on a big enough scale without some kind of revolutionary rupture. So far, the majority of the climate movement seems far away from such an approach. At this stage, it might thus be important to tackle the ideologies that present capitalism and market society as the only options (known as TINA, “There is no alternative”) and to discuss alternatives to capitalism and how to get there within social movements and beyond.

Yet, since climate crisis is an urgent issue, every fight for immediate reductions of carbon emissions is also worth fighting, even if they do not get rid of the root causes of environmental destruction. Besides fighting for immediate reforms, these struggles are also an opportunity for people to come together, to develop solidarity and to discuss about further horizons. In fact, within these kinds of struggles people often already practice commoning and reclaim or defend the commons.

This can be seen in a lot of indigenous struggles (e.g. at Standing Rock or currently in the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en people against the Coastal GasLink Pipeline in Canada), but also elsewhere, e.g. in the struggle to defend Hambach forest in the Rhineland coal mining area in Germany.4 This forest that had been managed as a commons for hundreds of years by the local communities has been cut down further and further every year for coal mining since the 1970s – a process that has now been stopped after years of protests, direct actions and legal actions against the coal mining project (while the forest will not be cut down now, it is still under threat by water shortages due to the mining project). Most prominent in this struggle is the occupation of the forest (with tree houses and huts) by radical climate activists that was started in 2012 and is still going on today. While the activists fought immediately against the deforestation and coal mining through their occupation but also through other means of direct action such as blockades or sabotages, they also reclaimed the forest as a commons and organized their lives in a way that can be described as commoning: You don’t have to pay to live there or eat the communally cooked food (often made from leftover vegetables from local farmers or saved from the supermarkets’ dumpster), everyone does voluntarily what they are motivated to do, there are no formal hierarchies and informal hierarchies are tried to be kept as flat as possible. Even though such a life is not without conflicts and contradictions, many people describe their experiences there as life-changing, seeing that a world without capitalism, competition and domination might be possible.

Another lesson that can be learned from the struggle about Hambach forest is the importance of direct action: By breaking the rules, occupying the forest and blockading coal infrastructure, activists did not only draw attention to the issue, but also damaged the electricity company RWE economically. Without these tactics, the struggle would probably not have been so successful.

These two lessons from Hambach forest, that if we build social formations of commoning within our movements, we can make libertarian communism an imaginable possibility and lived experience and that if we use direct action we can put a lot more pressure on politicians and companies might be helpful for the climate strike movement that until this point is rather tame. In addition, the rhetoric of the strike which is quite central in the movement could be a starting point for a more radical approach. If not only students would go on strike, but also the huge majority of workers, a climate strike could implement a lot of economic pressure. This pressure could force politicians to implement further reforms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if these are bad for the economy. A strike that includes industrial workers would also be a direct action in the narrower sense of the word, since striking would mean less production (for at least a short time) and thus less CO2-emissions. The demand for a radically shorter working week could be one focus of such a strike movement that would link the immediate wellbeing of the workers with climate protection.5 A shorter working week would also allow people to spend more time building and experimenting with non-capitalist ways of re/production in commons projects.

These are just examples of (possible) reform-oriented struggles that can be linked to the broader goal of libertarian communism. Green capitalism is an oxymoron and the fight for climate justice has to be anti-capitalist which means that in the end we need to seize the means of production (probably also destroy a lot of them if they are inherently non-ecologic), do away with private property and the commodity form and organize the re/production in the principles of commoning. If we have this goal clear, we can think about how the current struggles for reforms and immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions need to be fought in order to get closer to this goal. We can explore where we already do commoning within our movements today and evaluate how we can expand that. We could link struggles of students who fear for their future with the struggles of workers for a shorter working week and the struggles of indigenous communities who have long been on the frontlines in the fight against fossil capitalism to a common struggle for climate justice and a sustainable libertarian communist world.

1 “Re/production” implies that production and reproduction are no longer separated.

2 See my article on counter-strategies against the far right and conservative leftism from last year‘ “International Perspectives“ issue: https://fightback.org.nz/2019/02/11/germany-far-right-conservative-leftism/

3 See Stefan Meretz on peer-commonist produced livelihoods: https://keimform.de/2017/peer-commonist-produced-livelihoods/

4 See my article “Fighting Europe’s biggest hole” in Fightback’s 2015 issue on climate crisis: https://fightback.org.nz/2015/10/17/germany-fighting-europes-biggest-hole/

5 See Phillip Frey, “The ecological limits of work”: http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/The-Ecological-Limits-of-Work-final.pdf

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

Bus drivers refuse to accept abuse

Bus drivers march down central Auckland road calling for better pay and conditions, December 9, 2019.

Guest post by an anonymous bus driver.

For Wellington bus drivers it is “TIME” to take action, like Auckland drivers have just done.

For the record, earlier this year, our concerns were forwarded onto the head of the Trade Unions, Tramways Union Secretary and the Transport Ministers office, with the reassurance from these parties, that our concerns would be addressed as early as May 2019.

Considering the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] agreement that was accepted by all participating parties, it is quite clear that the agreement has been breached, by not addressing our concerns as requested in May 2019.

In all fairness to the MOU partners, you have attempted to address one of our concerns, that of our hourly pay rate.  Albeit you gave us a very low and unsatisfactory pay increase of just 3%, without consultation or respect of our concerns raised before the pay increase was given.

Even proper toilet, restroom, and kitchen facilities have been denied drivers to date in appropriate locations.

All Parties fully understand that bus drivers’ rights and certain conditions have been compromised under the new contracts signed with Bus Operators in 2018, that is one of the main reasons why over 100 drivers left the industry in 2018.

The GWRC [Greater Wellington Regional Council] have admitted they “got it wrong” when they implemented the new bus network in July 2018.  Unfortunately, instead of addressing our raised concerns as to the main reasons for the network failure, (poor pay and conditions for existing drivers) The GWRC continues to blame the network failure on the bus operators simply not being “able to recruit new drivers.”

Recently over 50 drivers have resigned in frustration, any new raw recruits will quickly become disillusioned and end up resigning unless urgent action is taken.

The other “sad and disturbing” fact is: Recent advertising to recruit new raw drivers at the same rate as professional drivers shows a “total” disregard for drivers that are “experienced” and “faithful” to their Employer to date.

The general public are not easily deceived, The feedback on social media clearly shows that the majority of people fully understand that the main issue behind the network failure to date, is because the GWRC  is not looking after existing drivers and they (the public) have stressed that the minimum pay for experienced drivers should be $26 per hour.

Why then do all the MOU partners deliberately breach the agreement and continue to ignore the general public’s opinion   and continue to blunder along?  The answer is simple – to “Try” and save costs at the Drivers expense!!    “Unless” the drivers are well looked after, the costs and the failures of the network will continue to escalate, as has been the case to date.

As long as the MOU partners continue to blame other factors and avoid addressing poor pay and conditions for bus drivers, as to the main reason why the bus network is failing so badly, they will have headache after headache and incur further increased costs for all parties, unless the drivers concerns are dealt with in fairness and integrity.

 Instead of addressing the current driver issues, MOU partners are “sweeping them under the carpet,” and desperately trying to recruit drivers, knowing full well the  “pay and conditions for drivers is “below standard and uneconomical for drivers,”  causing real hardship and frustration for drivers and their families.

To date the Unions have failed to fully represent the “frustrated” drivers at MOU meetings and seem to be running their own agenda to a certain extent. They also endorse recruitment of overseas drivers at a higher pay rate than existing drivers, rather than ensuring that existing drivers get proper pay and conditions.

Because of the lack of constructive progress that the MOU partners are making in their meetings to date to make drivers pay and condition better, it clearly shows that the majority of existing bus drivers, potential new drivers and the general public are becoming totally “disillusioned” by the MOU partners and their antics to date that has caused so much disruption.

Even when the failure of the MOU partners to look after existing drivers pay and conditions has been exposed, the MOU partners blindly continue to spend  $ 100,000’s of dollars, trying to recruit and import drivers from overseas at higher basic pay rates than existing drivers based on a minimum rate of $ 25 per hour.

 The continuation of the MOU partners to “blunder on” and ignore the existing drivers and the general public’s concerns regarding the failed bus network in Wellington, will no doubt add to the current havoc in the bus industry, create many more potential bus accidents and the continual loss of drivers will continue to plague the industry, “until” current drivers are full respected and appreciated.

 Bus drivers have been “fighting” since 2018 to regain better pay and conditions, since new bus operators’ contracts were signed back in July 2018.  The actions/inactions of MOU partners to date, regarding the complete lack of real progress to address driver pay and conditions, is simply: “Unfair”, “Unjust”, “Wrong”, and “Out of Order.”

The bus passengers also have had “enough” of the network disasters and disruption,  failure to urgently address the matters raised re the above will leave bus drivers no other option but to take “industrial action”, the status quo can no longer afford to be allowed to continue ignoring the main issues that are continually been “swept” under the carpet.

“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.