All Worked Up and Nowhere to Go

The ever more futile politics of left protest

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I did not anticipate how the death of the radical British writer and theorist Mark Fisher would haunt me, but I am reminded of him more and more often, and I find myself returning to his work regularly. And it’s not just me. Recently, a magazine editor asked if I would cowrite an autopsy of contemporary radical activism; we both felt a postmortem was needed before a reanimated left could emerge to fight capital and seize power. “We could be like Mark Fisher!” he said excitedly. “We could tell the hard truths!” I had to remind him not only that neither of us is half as smart as Fisher, but that the “hard truths” essay the editor was referring to got Fisher crucified by his peers. And that Mark Fisher had recently committed suicide.

Although Fisher’s work demonstrates a sprawling awareness of life deranged by capitalism, he is best remembered for the prescient, infamous essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” which infuriated much of the self-identified left by arguing that a shallow and noxious liberal identity critique, delivered mostly on the internet, was being used to undermine class politics and paralyze left discourse. I remember not thinking too much of his diagnosis at the time, which was late 2013, agreeing with some points, but not buying in wholesale. Later I realized it was spot-on, a preview of the farcically doomed Clinton campaign; but by then Fisher had been written off as a “toxic” white brocialist, a man doing “violence” to the “most vulnerable” people in “the movement.” Even worse, after Fisher died at forty-eight in January of this year, he was still being denounced by po-faced critics for his frankly gracious critique of the left. And I’m talking right after his death—within hours of the information going public.

The Trump administration has rekindled the internal hysteria that Fisher warned against. And though it was heartening, the first wave of solidarity marches and general actions is now fading into memory; we’re left with a familiar hostility, a recurring bad faith that so recently has smeared greater minds and gentler hearts than my own. The economic ambitions of the so-called “Sanders Effect” appear to have waned, and the focus has predictably turned to the glittering, bilious spectacle of Trumpism. Just as Trump remade politics as television, we’ve allowed political action to mimic the spiteful, futile patterns of online bickering: our fellow anti-capitalists betray us all by enjoying or creating the wrong art, reading the wrong articles, championing the wrong theories, or even laughing at the wrong jokes. The left is at once flailing and sclerotic. Afflicted by a vague autoimmune disorder, we cannot even retain what little power we have, nor do we have any institutions capable of doing so; thus, we are able to smack only those within arm’s reach of us—ourselves. Meanwhile, the bigger and stronger the right gets, the more insular we become, single-mindedly obsessed with purifying our own ranks and weeding out the problematic among us. Of course, the left requires large portions of the problematic and disparate working class to sign on, but the range of acceptable comradely thinking is becoming ever-stricter, and “deviants are sacrificed to increase group solidarity,” as the artist Jenny Holzer warned.

The self-appointed Trump Resistance is stuck in a compulsive loop, perseverating on symptoms and self-help rather than tackling the disease.

Marxist writer David Harvey notes that even Warren Buffett acknowledges the neoliberal era is marked by a one-sided class war, waged only by the capitalists. (“Sure there is class war, and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning,” Buffett has said.) The left lies sputtering on the mat, unable to maintain its ground, much less make any material gains. It’s hard to disagree when our gestures lack bite and our political parties—and most of our unions—are feckless at best, and capitalist quislings at worst. Whether it takes the form of insular campus activism, reactionary internet sermonizing, or impotent calls for general action, what passes for “the left” today is both parochial and completely disconnected from power. To put it bluntly, we have lost; we are decimated and we are feeble. What’s worse, we refuse to admit our failures, repeating them over and over and over again, castigating anyone who might question this pattern. In “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” Fisher alerted us to a “witch-hunting moralism”—in this case, against anyone who might try to raise class consciousness—that inevitably devolves into guilt and ineffectuality. In the wake of the election, it’s a lesson that seems to have gone largely unlearned by a self-sabotaging left.

Scabs and Flirts

I was introduced to the idea of a Women’s Strike while speaking on a panel of leftist feminists shortly after Trump was elected. During the Q&A afterwards, a feminist from the audience took the microphone and delivered an impassioned speech. Among the things participants were to abstain from:

Paid jobs

Emotional Labor

Childcare

Diapers

Housework

Cooking

Sweeping

Laundry

Dishes

Errands

Groceries

Fake smiles

Flirting

Makeup

Laundry

Shaving

At the end of her speech, I jokingly asked if I was allowed to flirt with other women during the strike, or if that would be scabbing—I did not get a laugh. Of course, tensions were high and good humor was in short supply, but there was also something genuinely irksome about the perceived usefulness of such a “strike,” and my glibness betrayed my skepticism.

For one, general strikes require a massive amount of organizing, and the proposed date for the strike was a few short months away. Also, the National Planning Committee was much heavier on academics and writers than on labor organizers. And if the turnout was low, would anyone even notice? (If a tree strikes in the woods, where no boss is there to feel it, can the tree really get the goods?) These questions were frustratingly overshadowed by criticisms from liberals insisting that only the “privileged” women would be striking. This framing, of course, misses the point; the success of a strike is not dependent on the relative “privilege” of the workers participating, but in the chaos those workers can inflict by withholding their labor.

Capitalism doesn’t actually give a shit about your unpaid emotional labor. It’s kind of a bro like that.

Striking works because it fucks up someone’s day, but whose day would the participants of the Women’s Strike affect? Would the event, billed as “A Day Without Women,” amount to anything more than a day without adjuncts and freelance graphic designers? As an adjunct myself, I believe my job is important, but if I’m being perfectly honest, no one notices when I don’t show up for one day of work. It costs no money, and it doesn’t plunge the university into chaos, and without cost or chaos, a strike is an impotent performance.

In my little lefty circles, these concerns were not received graciously. Men who questioned the strike’s utility were branded sexist; women who did the same were simply ignored. It was reminiscent of the Hillary campaign’s rhetoric: every feminist who didn’t fall in line was suddenly invisible; every man with a criticism of a woman was suddenly manifesting a deep-seated and pathological misogyny. When I asked my more enthusiastic comrades why I should be striking, or what I would even be striking for, the best answer I got was “Why not? We’re just trying to see what sticks.” The worst I got was silence. There were a lot of passive-aggressive Facebook manifestos about how lefties who questioned the action were just scared, or closet liberals, or worse, “scabs.”

As early as January, many leftists expressed skepticism about calls for a general strike, but by March there was a self-justifying urgency to defend the tactic against all doubts. Maybe it was due to the reorienting of the action as a “Women’s Strike”—no one wants to be called a brocialist or a mansplainer—but I think the bigger culprit was in our general panic. We are living in an era of Post-Trump Hysteria. It’s scary out there, and so we cling to the delusion that what we are doing is working. The naysayers, the thinking goes, must be politically backward or reactionary; we should be quick to root them out. Meanwhile, the world goes on.

In the end, I called off my classes. I told myself I was setting an example for my students, but I still put “Women’s Strike” in quotation marks when I explained why class was cancelled. I told myself the students were critical thinkers, and that it would do them good to see a politically active teacher; but really, I cancelled class for the same reason I do so many fruitless and potentially self-destructive things—so that no one can call me a coward. In the meantime, I peeked at the rally; it was small by New York standards. Weeks later, I still saw colleagues and comrades defending the action as “radical.” Some were denouncing those who considered the strike a failure—even those who went on strike themselves—as insufficiently supportive of this promising new vanguard of women college professors.

The pervasive mood reminded me of church, and specifically the churches of my grandparents, who cycled through about a hundred tiny Protestant evangelical sects, each one seething with mistrust of its own parishioners. Belief, in those denominations, was fervent, and turnover was high. I grew up with a certain envy of Catholics and Jews, who are allowed to attend services regardless of their connection to God. For these evangelical Protestants, however, a loss of faith was considered a personal failing, and any hint of creeping atheism could get you purged, lest you infect the brethren with your demonic skepticism. The arbitrary piety was there, too. During the strike, I remembered when my Papaw tried to sell a car to my mother, but then refused to accept her check on a Sunday, since he couldn’t do business on the Sabbath. That event—like the Women’s Strike—was a strangely un-materialist initiative, one underwritten by the idea that we should abstain from work merely out of observance and reverence, and not to “get the goods.”

I still flirted that day. I have never understood this tactic of chastity, but then again, I’ve always viewed sex and romance as properly proletarian pursuits. (It never felt like work to me, but maybe I’ve been doing it wrong.) I also did my dishes. God might not want you to be prurient or fastidious on the day of rest, but capitalism doesn’t actually give a shit about your unpaid emotional labor. It’s kind of a bro like that.

What the Women’s Strike did reveal is that the self-appointed Trump Resistance is stuck in a compulsive loop, perseverating on symptoms and self-help rather than tackling the disease. The “battles” you see making headlines in our claustrophobic community have become microscopically petty: Who speaks at what campus? Who made what problematic joke? Which left magazine has a bad take and who will “take responsibility”? None of these squabbles are politics; none of them build power. I’m sorry to say, even punching the odd Nazi doesn’t build power. (It raises spirits, but little else.) We’re forever resting on the laurels of feel-good symbolic outcry rather than the material victories that make our day-to-day lives better. It suits the ruling class just fine.

In his 2009 barnburner Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Fisher diagnosed this rut as an acceptance of our own political futility:

Since [the anti-capitalist movement] was unable to posit a coherent alternative political economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met.

These lines come from the second chapter, titled “What If You Held a Protest and Everyone Came?” The Women’s Strike listed in its platform: “An End to Gender Violence,” “Reproductive Justice for All,” “Labor Rights,” “Full Social Provisioning,” and “Environmental Justice for All.” If those are the expectations of the Women’s Strike, they are exactly of the kind Fisher describes—the sort you never expect to be met. Conversely, if the platform wasn’t listing demands, it was a strike without demands, which means it was not a strike at all, but a rally.

Rallies are fine. I’m not suggesting we retire the rally, but let’s remember what political theater actually does and does not accomplish: marches are for morale, protests are for pathos, but strikes? Strikes are for getting the goods, and that requires organizing workers. The hub of political power is not academia; it is not the internet; it is not the media, or comedy, or romance, or friendship, or art, or theory. It’s the workplace. And however “deviant” or unwanted this message may be, there are workers—mostly ignored by the broader left—who are nonetheless transmitting it loud and clear.

The Deft and the Militant

It was difficult getting ahold of Bhairavi Desai. She’s busy. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance is very active, very understaffed, and very underfunded, but it’s a force to be reckoned with, even though the majority of its more than 19,000 rank-and-file drivers feel the exacerbated sting of institutionalized racism under Trump.

On January 27, Trump issued an executive order crookedly titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The NYTWA was administering an exam for a driving class at the time, and around forty members were gathered in the office, alarmed by what they immediately recognized as a Muslim ban. Phone calls poured in. Drivers were angry and scared; they turned to their union first. The next day the union tweeted “NO PICKUPS @ JFK Airport 6 PM to 7 PM today. Drivers stand in solidarity with thousands protesting inhumane & unconstitutional #MuslimBan.” With a useful tweet—uncharacteristic of the medium—the strike went public.

The anti-ban rally at JFK was a big story, and with good reason—it was an uplifting sight. Somewhat underreported, though, was the labor action that helped stir the beautiful chaos. Any New Yorker will tell you getting to or from an airport is an absolute nightmare—taxis are essential. In less than twenty-four hours, the NYTWA threw a fat wrench in the daily functioning of an international airport, marooning travelers in a rapidly expanding and unruly crowd. Off-duty drivers even showed up to hold down the lot. Uber tried to scab, of course, but everyone saw through it, and a mass of customers deleted their app in response. It was only an hour, but an hour was all it took. The protest combined with the taxi strike is what broke JFK.

Though the protest got the brightest spotlight, the Taxi Workers did get plenty of attention on social media that night. When I asked Desai if she was shocked by the response, she said, “We were so caught up in the protest, we didn’t think anybody knew. It wasn’t until we got home late [that] night, after we had lost our voices, that we knew people were talking about it. We were blown away.”

Desai was shocked because NYTWA members are used to working unnoticed, even when they win (they do), and even when they fight hard (they always do). Still, it should surprise no one that they’ve shut down the airport before. In September 2015, a driver was assaulted by a dispatcher, and the union staged a sit-down. The Port Authority came with dogs, but the drivers refused to get up or move their cars, saying, “We move when the union tells us to move.”

On paper, the NYTWA looks like it’s poised to be devoured by neoliberalism. After a mere two years of organizing, it was officially formed in 1998—a younger union, born under the Clinton administration, hardly a golden era for organized labor. And 19,000 drivers may sound like a large membership, but compared to the big unions it’s a blip. What’s more, NYTWA members had been vulnerable workers even before Trump. For one thing, none of the drivers are legally classified as “employees,” making the NYTWA the only non-employee union with an AFL-CIO charter since the United Farm Workers of the 1960s. Without employee status, they aren’t guaranteed employee rights. Nor was the charter a windfall for the NYTWA; it was only supposed to protect them from other larger unions that might try to “poach” their drivers. Unfortunately, the charter raised the Taxi Workers’ profile, and they’ve experienced even more interference from other unions—one incident of a competing union organizing on their turf completely derailed a campaign in a large metropolitan area. Desai asked that I not name names so as not to exacerbate tensions between the two organizations.

The hub of political power is not academia; it is not the internet; it is not the media, or comedy, or romance, or friendship, or art, or theory. It’s the workplace.

Add to this the rise of “the sharing economy.” Not only do service apps like Uber spend millions to fight labor regulation, but Uber itself has run an attack campaign against the NYTWA, going so far as to send their drivers misinformation about the union thugs who might try to woo them. Meanwhile, other unions have cozied up to Silicon Valley by throwing their principles out the window. The Machinists Union struck a deal to form the Independent Drivers Guild, a pseudo-union that is in fact unilaterally operated by Uber itself.

Despite all of this, the NYTWA is vibrant and growing. Where others see walls, Desai sees challenges. We fret over the rise of the millennial “precariat,” but the nonemployee status of the drivers did not faze Desai—“organizers have to be creative,” she said. They are fighting Uber’s propaganda with their own information campaign, and they’re watching their backs, guarding against raids from other short-sighted, opportunistic unions. Most impressively, they flex labor muscle against state power, which is now firmly in the hands of the right.

It’s true that it was inspiring to see so many people standing against racism at an airport, which is essentially purgatory with Starbucks and duty-free booze. But what about the deft and militant saboteurs who monkey-wrenched everyone’s ride home? Watching the live feeds, my head was spinning, and the world was filled with promise again: We can still shut down ports. What else can we do?

A More Perfect Union

I have spent a lot of time trying to find a novel way of delivering this very cold take, but there’s just nothing new about the one and only prescription for socialism, however aberrant it sounds.

More than Twitter-style rhetoric, amputated “strikes,” and academic posturing, the left needs radical, militant unions with a political vision beyond the protection of their own rank and file. When the Muslim ban was declared, the drivers of the NYTWA immediately turned to their union, because they know it’s how they fight; that’s what unions need to be.

We need to be able to build labor coalitions and strike for real—meaning we can shut everything down until our demands are met. Sometimes this will be illegal. Sometimes workers will have to camp out and occupy workplaces. Sometimes they will have to sabotage machinery or bully the boss. Maybe there are gains to be had in local elections, but even as Bernie Sanders is currently the most popular politician, the Democrats still seem hell-bent on fighting winners and running losers. If we’re ever going to have any sway in electoral politics, we need union muscle. For his part, the Marxist NYU professor, writer, and sociologist Vivek Chibber put it nicely in “Why We Still Talk About the Working Class”:

The working class is unlike any other social grouping in the non-capitalist section of modern society. However penurious it is, however dominated it is, however atomized it is, it is the goose that lays the golden egg. It is the source of profits, because unless workers show up to do their work every day and create profits for their employers, that principle of profit maximization cannot be carried out. It remains a dead letter.

It’s true that many traditional labor unions are backward or weak; some will need an overhaul. After a notoriously failed strike effort, the Communications Workers of America cleaned house, replaced an incompetent leadership, assessed their failure, and regrouped. (It led to a successful strike against Verizon in 2016, one that yielded 1,300 new jobs and a 10.5 percent raise over four years.) Other unions, like the aforementioned Machinists, must be gutted entirely, their membership reorganized into new institutions. Mostly, though, we need to start organizing the unorganized (i.e., most workers) and focus heavily on strategic points of employment. As much as it would flatter my ego to believe otherwise, I am not at a particularly strategic point; I’m an adjunct professor at a private university, and even when we all strike, it’s only a problem for our little university microcosm.

But take heart, fellow atomized and expendable neoliberal subjects: there is a place for us in the coming wars! The microcosms still need to be organized (every bit helps), and established unions can be refreshed and steered toward radical ends. Nevertheless, I regret to inform you that much of this endeavor will be quite dull. Organizing is not usually as invigorating as rallying; it’s mostly meetings, planning, phone calls, emails, spreadsheets—you know, women’s work. There are a lot of tedious administrative tasks that go into forming and maintaining a union, and the work is rarely as romantic or cinematic as a bunch of taxi drivers locking down JFK. But those moments do happen. They’re sustaining, and they compound one another. Only labor can make it happen. Only workers can shut down production. Only workers can close the ports. Only workers can take capital hostage and make the whole world stand still.

Amber A'Lee Frost is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. She is a contributor to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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 June 22

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