(“All about New York” by Eric Drooker)
by Alexander Riccio
Revolutions happen alongside massive escalations of collective imagination.(1) Thankfully, a number of leftist thinkers are doing their part to inspire revolutionary imaginations. Among them, Walidah Imarisha recognizes every effort to build a better world as an “engag[ement] in speculative fiction,”(2) and in his recent book Four Futures, Peter Frase tries to develop what he calls “social science fiction” to stimulate the production of visionary praxis.(3) Their efforts highlight the intrinsic speculative quality of how to bring about a revolution. In essence, every response to this question has produced a story on how we get there, who ‘we’ are, and what may come after the revolution. Facing the imagination, therefore, is a crucial task for all who desire collective liberation. Because without envisioning how the world could be the meaning and content of revolution remains ambiguous and prevents any shared sense of what is being fought for and how to arrive there together. In this spirit, I wish to share some thoughts on why liberation movements in the United States(4) should view utopia as a needed social idea for sustaining revolutionary energies.
The Battle Over Utopia
Constituted power reproduces itself through concealing its own utopianism. Donald Trump’s election (eerily prophesied in Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler) has generated for many a mood where utopia seems far removed. But in fact, Trump’s invocation of “making America great again” displays the power—and immediate presence— of utopian narratives.
Comparing the campaign slogans of Trump and Hillary Clinton is revelatory. Trump’s rhetoric promised some variety of “redemption” or “renewal,” whereas Clinton’s “I’m with her” was a stark promotion of the individual. Clinton’s slogan was a far departure from the Democrat’s recent theatrical flourishes of “hope” and “change,” buzzwords which invite the imagination to run wild. The strength of these respective catchphrases rested in their semantic flexibility, as they enabled manifold personal interpretations on the types of change seen as desirable. Clinton’s slogan insisted on voters identifying with the candidate specifically. While the idea of little girls feeling empowered by the presence of a woman president may seem a great inspirational tool, the reality is that working class women (and the broader multi-racial and multi-ethnic working class(5) in general) do not see themselves reflected in the successes of upper-class white women. This lack of vision in Clinton’s campaign explains why less eligible Democrat voters(6) cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential election.(7)
In contrast, Trump did project a vision that appealed to voters, particularly white voters, and this vision is similar to the utopianism that lay at the founding of the United States. As put by the puritan settler John Winthrop, the nation-state was a potential “New World” and future “shining city upon a hill.” Such utopian vision still permeates this country, and Trump tapped into its narrative power. Implementing this view of utopia necessitated a simultaneous continental genocide of Indigenous North Americans and massive importation of slave labor from sub-Saharan Africa. Its extension into today’s political climate still inheres genocidal premises. (8) Clearly, utopia in itself is not a praiseworthy concept, but rather a malleable metaphor whose meaning needs to be filled with political liberation. Trump’s rise to power represents a battle over utopia where the right-wing has so far proved victorious.
Imagination as a Prison or Vehicle for Liberation
Utopia seeps into the “common sense”(9) of status quo ideology. David Harvey exposes how free market ideologies, with their mantras of a capable “invisible hand” and view of history bending toward progress, are utopian to their core. “The most effective Utopians in recent times,” he explains, “have been those of a right-wing persuasion.”(10) But “the utopian rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and markets conceals so effectively [their utopian content] that we often find it difficult to articulate the pattern of underlying coerced collaborations that otherwise stares us so blatantly in the face.”(11)
Modern bureaucracy also emerged within a discourse of utopian aspirations. Organizing society through so-called “rational” administration, went the claim, would bring about a legibly sensible world of smooth operations and rule-bound social activity. David Graeber contends that “what ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.”(12) Play is defined as “the free expression of creative energies…for its own sake,” which can be terrifying “because this open-ended creativity is also what allows it to be randomly destructive.”(13) Games, conversely, are bounded by rules with clear objectives and predictability. Following the rules, in games, actually allows the player the opportunity to win the game. Graeber contends that “bureaucracies create games—they’re just games that are in no sense fun.”(14) By understanding and obeying the rules of the game (the rules of governance by administration), players can win, in essence, at the games of life. “Games, then, are a kind of utopia of rules.”(15)
The utopia of rules has become the paradigm of governmental operation, and is pervasive in the administration of daily life. Indeed, bureaucracy has become so naturalized that even within liberation movements it is inescapable. One finds evidence of this in tendencies toward contractualism, schematizing operational protocols, creation of committees to solve the problem of too many committees, and incessant calls for meetings to accomplish these tasks.
Challenging the power of right-wing utopia insists upon liberation movements to generate their own view of a society that could be. Suspicion of this call is warranted given the bloody history of attempts to realize utopia (even of a left-wing persuasion).(16) Yet, without a vision of a world worth striving for how is it genuinely possible to sustain revolutionary energy? How can liberation movements become attractive enough to build an expanding base of ordinary people needed to abolish existing power structures?
Utopia, through stimulating the radical imagination, is possibly one of the most powerful tools for liberation. Generating such a utopia needs to employ a radical imagination which is not afraid, and indeed insists, upon a full social revolution against the totality of capitalism.(17) If liberation movements do not generate a more inspiring utopia, they will continue to be defeated by the utopian projects of the right-wing and the powerful. On this point adrienne maree brown is says:
We are in an imagination battle.
Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, radicalized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable.
Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.(18)
Cracks Within and Against Capitalist Totality
How can liberation movements come together to share in utopian dreaming? Fairly common to hear among activists is the desire to move beyond sectarianism, or petty in-fighting among the broad Left. While such is a desirable goal, it appears to me that a central challenge for liberation movements is not sectarian habits but overcoming fragmentation. Needed now is the creation of spaces with accessible entry-points and adaptable, self-(re)producing structures for sustaining revolutionary energy. I call these ‘spaces of revolutionary (re)production.’(19)
At root, change happens on an everyday basis, and in everyday life many people are mired in the struggle for survival amid an onslaught of violence structured by white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and settler-colonialism. Chiseling out spaces for imaginative dreaming requires liberation movements to contest everyday struggles. For many, the daily suffering experienced under capitalism, and the fight against it, is only bearable by envisioning, and working toward, a humane society. Muses Robin D.G. Kelley, “sometimes I think the conditions of daily life, of everyday oppressions, of survival, not to mention the temporary pleasures accessible to most of us, render much of our imagination inert.”(20) Making space to dream instigates desires for excitement, thrills, and inspiration while exposing capitalism’s false claims of satisfying these desires.
Capitalism maintains hegemony, in part, by rendering labor invisible (such as the labor of care workers, undertaken primarily by women of color from the global south). Magical thinking on how social life is produced and reproduced also undermines movement organizing. So often the hours of work and social labor that go into organizing a lecture, march, campaign, or direct action get taken for granted by spectators and participants not involved in the planning. Small wonder that organizers appear pressed and unimaginative when asked how to change the world—they’re exhausted!
Imagine what could happen if organizers and activists, through their participation in liberation movements, had their energies replenished instead of sapped? How might it be possible to participate in revolutionary struggle while simultaneously having one’s total needs met? I often like to ruminate on the possibility of creating a space where one could engage in a spirited debate, help plan a protest, and do their laundry at the same time. Let’s attempt to sketch a strategic path toward making this fantasy a reality.
Capitalist totality is a spatial and temporal process of organizing society, whereby “accumulation by dispossession”(21) is a grounded logic. Owing to this, the present situation of capitalism has resulted in a wholesale shrinking of public space and near depletion of commonly held resources (both material and immaterial).
Yet, capitalist totality is not a complete project – one should understand it as an open totality as capitalism seeks to be a totalizing force. Inherent in its operation are cracks which offer the opportunities for potential ruptures against its power.(22) Within the cracks of capitalism might emerge spaces for revolutionary deployment, therefore an immediate tactical objective is to locate the cracks – the open spaces within capitalist totality – and position them as spaces of revolutionary (re)production. ‘Seize the state’ is no longer a sufficient battle cry (perhaps it never was), therefore we should ‘seize revolutionary space!’
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) offered a concrete tactical example of how capitalism’s cracks become ruptures. However, the decolonial critique of Occupy should not be sidestepped. The charge that OWS was insufficiently capable of addressing the larger occupation of Indigenous lands and confronting the settler-colonial state presents a valid critique. But this should be measured against the nascent political ambitions for total social transformation harbored within Occupy. As put by AK Thompson, “although it often remained insensitive to the colonial experiment from which it remained inseparable, the Occupy movement’s wish images revealed that regicide was its guiding star. And, had they reached it, they would have opened clear lines along which decolonization forces might have advanced.”`(23)
Occupy’s encampments in public parks placed priority on democratic process. Occupation as a tactic rested on the view that seized spaces could be refashioned into democratic places. For occupiers, public parks were small cracks in the advance of capitalist totality. Public space is merely the inverse of private space – as what is not private is publicly administered by the state and thus void of democratic control. However, the general population tends to view public spaces in a positive light, signaling their rough belief in the need for shared spaces. So OWS filled the (ideological) cracks with its own set of ideals, its own utopian project, and immediately sought to cultivate these cracks as spaces of deep democracy for “the 99 percent.” In this regard, “the space of Occupy was not only physical, but also symbolic.”(24)
The cracks of public parks were used to confront localized fragmentation, but OWS also offered a glimpse on how to connect the cracks. Occupy went from being an isolated protest tactic in an obscure New York City park to spreading like wildfire across the country and around the globe. Park occupation had a strategic brilliance based on its simplicity, which ran as follows: we can turn our public park into a site of democracy, and so can you. It invited ordinary people to engage in the same type of activity. It wasn’t seen as necessary to lobby one’s congressperson or go through formal political channels to be active in politics, instead one could just take a walk through the park and engage in political debate, deliberation, and decision-making. Prefigurative practices, such as setting up free clinics and libraries and experiments with sustainable farming, were also employed across the many physical sites of Occupy.
OWS offers one view of how to create visible entry-points for the public at large to enter into movement actions – thus Occupy (temporarily) seized spaces for revolutionary (re)production. The effort still suffered from prioritizing localized spaces of autonomy which has historically hamstringed anarchist strategies. Still, through its successes and limitations, OWS provides many lessons and one particular insight is on the need to permanently hold spaces of revolutionary (re)production.
Other case histories in liberation struggles offer tangible strategies as well: the efforts made by MOVE, a Black liberation group based in Philadelphia who emphasized communal ways of living and anarchist practices of local autonomy; the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico who embody a hybrid politics of indigeneity, anarchism, and Marxism and have enlarged their zone of autonomy to the kind of revolutionary (re)production which carries possibilities; and the current and endangered struggles within Rojava, inspired in part by the political writings of Murray Bookchin. Each example contains many practical lessons to be used by other liberation movements, and within them all is a clear recognition over the importance of seizing space for revolutionary (re)production.(25)
Enlarging the Spaces of (Re)production
Contemporary movements appear to be shifting in a direction which understands the importance of space. Kanishka Goonewardena observes, “the events of the Arab Spring…and the Occupy Movement…revealed that ‘space’ is both an essential mediation of politics and an unmediated object of political struggle.”(26) Spaces can become blocs of power, interlacing land, politics, and economics with prefigurative practices of care and democracy. By seizing space, instead of states, such strategies do the work of creating communities bounded by more than their geographical or national character. They create the potential for an “imagined community”(27) constituted by dreams for collective liberation.
One could frame this as “neighborhood organizing.” This has always been central for successful anti-capitalist campaigns, whether of an explicitly labor union front or project of dismantling racial oppression. Spaces of revolutionary (re)production, however, imply bigger spaces than neighborhoods. In his work on Rebel Cities, David Harvey repeats the concern that capitalist totality requires liberation movements take into account the question of scale. “The plain fact is that certain problems,” he writes, “only become visible at particular scales, and it is only appropriate that democratic decisions be made at those scales.”(28)
Harvey’s concern leads him to ponder the possibilities of organizing an entire city. Surveying the history of urban rebellions, spanning a vast terrain in time and space from Paris, Cairo, Cochabamba, and more, Harvey discovers that in times of urban uprisings singular centers of activity are rare. More often rebellions spread not only to close geographic locations but across the whole globe. One example includes Paris 1968, which quickly spread to “Chicago, Mexico City, Bangkok, and others.”(29) The local is a spark which can ignite global conflagrations, and Harvey’s Rebel Cities propose the possibility of city after city, like dominos, succumbing to the will of “the people.”
Organizing Entire Cities
Let me move from the abstract to something more concrete. As a labor organizer I’ve had opportunites to consider the above arguments in more precise detail as it pertains to union organizing. What follows is a preview of how unions can seize spaces of revolutionary (re)production, and how through such activity utopia can become filled with liberatory and mobilizing content.
Stanley Aronowitz issued a convincing argument that the labor movement’s current woes are not due to a lack in the number of unionized workers – even with small union percentages in the public and private sector there are millions of union members in the nation – but was in fact due to a lack of radical imagination. Aronowitz urges the labor movement to embrace its radical roots, particularly its militancy and regular use of the strike as a tactic, but understands that the constraints on labor’s collective imagination prevent its revitalization.(30) A radical vision is not impossible if unions commit to reassessing their preconceptions.
Unions have experienced a heavy blow in the Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME. Local unions representing public workers saw immediate cuts in operating revenue, sometimes as high as 50%, the day the decision came down. However, in a twist of irony so common amid the contradictions of capitalist modernity, Janus could prove to be a rupture which renders visible more cracks in the system.
Rather than posing a threat to the very survival of unions, Janus exposes the limits of one particular form of unionism – business unionism. Indeed, business unionism, the standard in organized labor today, has been a walking zombie for decades unaware (or possibly in denial) of its own undead condition. Now the necessary task is to lop off the zombie’s head once and for all.
Partly to explain the existential dread amid many a unionist today is their inability to imagine union models outside the narrowed parameters of wage increases and grievance filings. Described as “Gomperism,” or “business unionism,” this approach to union organizing is geared toward winning contracts at all costs and fixated on membership numbers without much consideration over what role members should have in their union. Gomperism, too, fails to acknowledge the fundamental conflict between capital and labor assuming instead that a bargain can be brokered with capitalists. This analysis exposes why the prevailing political interventions made by organized labor today are narrowly focused on tweaking existing labor laws and abandoning any pretense of becoming politically independent of the Democratic Party. It is a shallow politics circumscribed by nationalistic allegiances, and, at best, seeks to slightly improve the status quo.(31) To obliterate business unionism, organized labor today needs to shift its mission from representation of its members to organizing as a class against the owners of capital.(32)
Labor union efforts must extend beyond the worksite. Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin write that “if class struggle is not restricted to the workplace, then neither should unions be.” They conclude that unions should not limit their strategies to organizing workplaces or industries but should organize entire cities.(33) Jane McAlevey complements their framework by conceptualizing “whole worker organizing,” which shucks the narrow focus on “workplace issues” by recognizing that workers do not experience their lives in neatly broken up arenas – struggles with child care, housing needs, food insecurity, and more are all felt inside and outside the worksite. McAlevey’s approach places importance on drawing on the whole lived experience of workers, where their social and familial relationships are sites upon which to draw organizing support.(34)
Broadening the horizon of where to organize also requires broadening conceptions of who qualifies as a worker. “When we restore a sense of the social totality of class,” writes Tithi Bhattacharya, “we immediately begin to reframe the arena for class struggle.”(35) Under capitalist regimes ideas of value are primarily quantifiable. Only what can be measured and held is considered valuable. Therefore, what is viewed as a form of labor, or of productivity, has tended to ignore the labor of social (re)production (which is not solely invested in the production of things but rather of human beings). Undertaken primarily by women, (re)production refers to child-raising (which guarantees future labor supplies), food cultivation, care work, general housework, and emotional or interpretive labor which are all necessary for reproducing social life.(36)
Opening up conceptions of what is work expands the imagination allowing for light to be shined on other forms of invisibilized labor – such as prison labor disproportionately undertaken by Black and Brown working class people. Janaé Bonsu, in an article for Dissent, urges us to “imagine if prison laborers were entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers’ compensation when injured on the job.”(37) The outcome, they suggest, would effectively strike against the core of today’s New Jim Crow. Bonsu argues that prison laborers should not be overlooked in unionization campaigns, and persuades readers to understand that if prison workers were seen as a centerpiece of organized labor’s strategy the prospects for revolution would dramatically increase. Here, as well, Bonsu offers a view of finding ways to connect the cracks between different movement groups.
Shifting strategic organizing – at the scale of a city and inclusion of non-unionized workers – is possible if organized labor becomes more reflexive in understanding its own self-identity. Currently, forty-five percent of union membership in the US is made up of folks who identify as women, yet mainstream commentators rarely consider the labor movement as part of the feminist movement. Additionally, Black workers are more likely to be members of a union than white workers.(38) These two realities alone provide the potential for the union movement to move toward self-identifying as feminist and anti-racist. Indeed, the future of the labor movement hinges on it becoming a movement guided by anti-racist feminism.
Labor’s Identity Against the Enclosure of History(39)
One starting point for changing labor’s self-identity is within the annals of its own history. “In every era,” writes Walter Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”(40) Much like other liberation movements, the story of organized labor has often been watered down to fit the narrative as shaped by the AFL-CIO or other liberal commentators wishing to claim the entirety of workers’ victories in the US as their own. But labor unions are not the singular story of craft unionism, stained as it is with racist and sexist past (and present) practices. It is also the story of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit who advocated for autonomist workers’ organizations to fight both racist bosses and racist unions. It is also the story of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905 to advocate for “revolutionary industrial unionism” informed by socialist and anarchist philosophies and expressly open to Black workers, women workers, and immigrant workers. And it is also the story of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), who staged 477 sit-down strikes in 1937 helping inspire the later “sit-ins” launched by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement. Organized labor is the totality of workers who have collectively attempted to shape the conditions of their work, therefore it is these stories and so many more.
Beyond internal demographics, which do not in themselves determine political identities, the process of shaping all of organized labor into an anti-racist feminist force is already underway. Beginning in late February 2018 and spanning multiple states across the country, including West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and North Carolina, public school teachers launched a series of successful strikes against austerity and privatization schemes. Not recognized enough is how these strikes have been led primarily by women and, as Tithi Bhattacharya argues, constitute “a feminist project:”
These strikes are for wages and benefits, but they arise from a social landscape scoured by gender and racial inequalities. The leaders of the strikes are thus not simply workers shaped only by conditions of work: gender marks them.
These are women fighting for dignity and security in the most commodious sense of those terms. Their gender is not incidental to this strike, their narratives of fear about their families and health, are not backstories to what is merely a wage struggle.
It is time to consider these “backstories” as central and constitutive of the strike wave. (41)
Women’s strikes are spanning the globe generating prospects for a new “wave” of international feminist struggle, as argued by Cinzia Arruzza. The new wave represents a deepening of movement knowledge, hitherto turning on a fallacy which viewed social struggles as separate formations – i.e. there is the labor movement, then the feminist movement, then the environmental movement, etc. “Within this framework,” writes Cinzia Arruzza, “one wondered how to unite these movements with each other.” In her estimation, this new wave resolves the question through understanding these struggles as already interwoven resulting in the formation of “feminist class struggle.”(42)
Other encouraging developments are taking place for the radical imagination to reinsert itself into organized labor. Since the 1990s the rise of “worker centers” has increased from approximately 10 locations to over 250.(43) This is a welcome development, as worker centers operate to encourage the creation of cooperative businesses, recreational spaces, educational support services, and more. Efforts to build worker centers have been primarily taken up by undocumented workers in the United States (again highlighting the need for a more reflexive self-identity within organized labor) as a necessary means for channeling resources and mutual aid into sites outside of standard labor arenas.(44) Where some segments of organized labor have made strategic advances toward liberation struggles it now must become understood by the entirety of unions how their fight contains the aforementioned struggles along with fights for “cleaner air, better schools, against water privatization, against climate change, or for fairer housing policies,” as these represent “social needs of the working class that are essential for its reproduction.”(45)
Spaces of Utopia
Large unions waste millions upon millions of dollars in member dues every year on electoral political efforts which over the long run have only weakened organized labor. In capturing spaces for revolutionary (re)production, imagine if unions shifted the money they dump into the Democratic Party toward the creation of cooperative living establishments. For union members, they would have access to fixed-rents in areas where their neighbors are their union comrades (yes, they could begin seeing them as comrades instead of co-workers). They could also link these residential areas for union members with land trusts for sustainable farming, along with recreational centers for children and families. Such initiatives could go a tremendous way in capturing housing and food security for millions of workers and families across the country. Just think of the additional time people could have for engaging in civic matters without having to worry as much about their housing and food needs. More time, as well, to marinate in imaginative explorations of what else could and should be.
From this position, union members could launch their own political initiatives rooted to local conditions. Alexander Kolokotronis issues a persuasive appeal for such a political project to center around “municipal syndicalism,” focusing on the possibilities of using local municipal political levers as launch pads for peoples’ assemblies, participatory democracy, and cooperative programs as effective means for “channel[ing] resources into centering the voice and power of women and people of color.”(46) Kolokotronis argues that labor unions could become central amid a broader municipalist agenda, and I contend that if unions were to embrace this strategic move it could bolster their already developing revolutionary spaces with political power which would serve as a buffer between their communities and the larger state without necessarily entering into fruitless direct combat with the state.
Organizing at the scale of cities would enable union members to see connections between their own particular experiences of capitalist domination and its effects on people outside their workplaces and occupations. Potentially, this could motivate bigger and more sustained efforts at unionizing the non-unionized, particularly for workers whose work is commonly devalued or rendered invisible (specifically fast-food workers, sex workers, undocumented workers, and imprisoned workers).
Taking on such ambitious efforts likely feels overwhelming; however, I have been heartened through experience to witness how quickly these strategies can gain traction at the local union level, and subsequently cascade outward. The union I work for in Oregon has shifted toward addressing housing needs as one of its primary issues. Calls have been made for creating a “hardship fund” to address housing and other financial needs, stimulating the development of union cooperative housing, and advocating for improvements in renters’ rights at the legislative level. Importantly, the union did not exclude non-members or “outsiders” from initial strategic sessions, which sparked the creation of a local union for tenants.
Additionally, through communications with affiliated state-wide unions and efforts taken at an annual convention of the state federation, affordable housing has become a salient issue for unions across Oregon. In fact, at the University of Oregon the graduate employee union, inspired no doubt by the local union who employs me, submitted a housing proposal during their current negotiations demanding that the university create policies surrounding housing that would improve the entire quality of life for their union members. And this is just on the topic of housing! When one begins to contemplate the practical outcomes of realizing their union’s housing goals it is not long before they consider how the housing should be accessible, safe, a haven of anti-racist and anti-sexist activity, and more. The utopian implications hover nearby, soon to be articulated.
Another current example of how union militancy can gain traction, and win, is found in the formation of the first fast-food workers’ union in the country, the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU). After countless years of union “experts” lamenting the unorganizable condition of fast-food industries it is quite tremendous to see these workers accomplish the “impossible,” and no less through the affiliation of the Industrial Workers of the World, an overtly anti-capitalist and revolutionary labor union. BVWU’s accomplishments are partly due to their recognition that mutual aid and ‘whole worker organizing’ are keys to victory. Evidence of this is found in their fight against Burgerville corporate’s banning of Black Lives Matter and pro-DACA buttons worn by workers; their bus fare sharing and child care programs; strikes called against verbal and sexual harassment; and their regular effectiveness in getting community allies to boycott the company until it cedes to union demands.(47)
Strategic pursuits such as outlined above also benefit from the fact that they operate at the level of daily life. The experiences of workplace domination shape a person’s expectations, and effectively circumscribe the imagination over what types of change are possible. Victories against the boss are transformative for workers. They cultivate a sense of new possibilities and openings previously viewed as impossible. The task, then, is to expand the arenas where victories take place. In this way, what may begin as a victory against landlords and project for cooperative housing contains the potential of enlarging its imaginative capacities to become the pathway where a recognition is made that cooperative houses on colonized lands is insufficient, and nothing less than a global revolution against settler-colonial capitalist heteropatriarchy will do.
Spaces of revolutionary (re)production are not simply about minimizing daily struggles, but are efforts where the “production of space becomes a non-alienating, radical-democratic praxis.”(48) Such imaginations work best when they create linkages across movement struggles, exposing clear lines of understanding that such struggles are, and have always been, entwined. These spaces allow ordinary people to become organizers of a better world where, as Walidah Imarisha teaches, by “using their everyday realities and experiences of changing the world, they can form the foundation of the fantastic, and, we hope, build a future where the fantastic liberates the mundane.”(49)
We have inherited a world of dueling utopias, my hope is that the seizure of spaces for revolutionary (re)production can put liberation movements in a position to win this battle.
Alexander Riccio is a labor organizer based in Corvallis, Oregon (traditional territory of the Chepenefa band of the Kalapuya). He is the co-host of Laborwave Revolution Radio and co-organizer of the annual Opening Space for the Radical Imagination (www.oregonimagines.com) summit.
If you liked this essay please support our work by making a one-time donation – or becoming a monthly sustainer Here! The new issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory is on the theme of Imaginations, and will be available from AK Press & Powell’s Books Fall, 2019. To get the current Beyond the Crisis issue, or our Anarcha-Feminisms issue, go to AK Press here: https://www.akpress.org/perspectivesonanarchisttheorymagazine.html
1 I am indebted to my comrades Nicholas Fisher and Lzz Johnk for their invaluable feedback and insights over early drafts of this piece. All the blame, however, for any inaccuracies and limitations belong to me alone.
2 Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown et al., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press, 2015).
3 Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (London: Verso, 2016).
4 Liberation movements, in my view, are those social efforts at dismantling white supremacy, cis-heteropatriarchy, settler-colonialism, and capitalism while also attempting to replace such systems with non-oppressive societies. Where other social justice efforts may not yet be at the point of a liberation movement, I do have hope that they can develop into such.
5 The category “working class” today is so often regarded with suspicion, no doubt likely owing to its normative coding as a “white person” and “male” phenomenon. Amid the popularity of discourse calling for “intersectional” frameworks what is clear for those that do not intuitively understand the working class to be composed of all identities is that they are not being intersectional enough. Until such an understanding of the meaning of working class becomes standard, I feel it appropriate to refer to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s unequivocal statement that “the working class is female, immigrant, Black, and white. Immigrant issues, gender issues, and anti-racism are working class issues and to miss this is to be operating with a completely anachronistic idea of the working class.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016). Additionally, the category of “woman” used throughout this piece is not intended as self-evident. I appreciate the succinct summary provided by Holly Lewis, “the use of the term ‘woman’ always outlines the parameters of people in a social category at a concrete point in history. It is not a description of the trials and vicissitudes of a universal gender essence, nor does it assume that the gender identity of individuals matches their social gender assignment.” The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, And Marxism At The Intersection (London: Zed Books, 2016).
6 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Trump’s Victory and the Necessity of Solidarity,” interviewed by Ashley Smith, International Socialist Review, Issue #104, available at https://isreview.org/issue/104/trumps-victory-and-necessity-solidarity (accessed December 2, 2018).
7 To be clear, political branding is not a sufficient explanatory factor in determining elections. Democratic Party policies, geared as they are toward accomplishing a neoliberal agenda, owe the bulk of the blame in the failed 2016 election. As well, notwithstanding Clinton’s atrocious campaign strategy, she did still win the election by roughly three million votes. Of course, the United States is no democracy therefore Clinton’s clear victory in numbers did not translate to victory in practice.
8 Arun Gupta, “Donald Trump’s Plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ is Ethnic Cleansing,” Counterpunch, November 7, 2016, available at https://www.counterpunch.org/2016/11/07/donald-trumps-plan-to-make-america-great-again-is-ethnic-cleansing/ (accessed December 2, 2018).
9 I refer to the notion of “common sense” made coherent by Antonio Gramsci, who viewed the project of cultural hegemony as one which imposed its own set of accepted values and norms accepted by the population at large, cementing its power.
10 David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 176-177.
11 Harvey, Spaces of Hope, 181.
12 David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (London: Melville House, 2015), 193.
13 Graeber, 192.
14 Graeber, 190.
15 Graeber, 191.
16 Elsewhere I’ve identified this as emblematic of views which conflate utopia exclusively to its “blueprint” inflection, where the pathway to completing history accords to a prescribed set of ‘necessary’ events, or stages of development, to complete the utopian project. In this way the late liberal philosopher, Karl Popper, described utopia as the totalitarian demand to “dominate or prostrate yourself.” Another view of utopia can be found in what I call its “prefigurative” inflection, which offers more promise for democracy and autonomy while counteracting the authoritarian tendencies coupled with utopian aspirations. See, Toys for Utopia, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, N. 30 (Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2018).
17 A crucial distinction must be made here in regards to what I call ‘capitalist totality.’ Raj Patel and Jason Moore have preferred to use the term “capitalist world-ecology,” and what their term and my own seeks to highlight is how the project of capitalism seeks to be total, and spread in a totalizing fashion through domination of “frontiers.” Raj Patel and Jason Moore, The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (London: Verso, 2017). I do not suggest that all social action against capitalism is hopeless because of its totalizing attempts—in fact I make the exact opposite argument throughout this work. Think of it as an open totality, with cracks and ruptures opening spaces within the totality.
18 adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Oakland: AK Press, 2017).
19 Inspiration for this concept derives from Silvia Federici’s analyses on ‘social reproduction,’ primarily as the forms of unpaid domestic work disproportionately harbored by women, as the necessary precondition for capitalist production and thus the glue that binds together the entire fabric of society. Therefore, the spaces I envision, are ones which enable the reproduction of social life via participation in revolutionary struggle. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012).
20 Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 11.
21 David Harvey defines “accumulation by dispossession” as “the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations…conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights…suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade…and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession.” David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 159.
22 I make this argument with a view that capitalism is not stable, and the points where capitalism is weakest offer opportunities for revolutionary action. John Holloway, in his Crack Capitalism (2010), has opted to refer to these weak points within capitalist totality as its “cracks.” These cracks are varied and fluid, and my contention is that the greatest crack in the system of capitalism is the collective capacity to access the imagination for a better world, which leads to practices of resistance and rebellion. Once such rebellions scale up to a degree they can become what I call “ruptures” which pose a potential threat to the very system itself. I draw out the ideas of ‘cracks’ and ‘ruptures’ more in my essay Everyday Movement Against Capitalism available at https://thenextsystem.org/everyday-movement-capitalism.
23 AK Thompson, “Occupation, Decolonization, and Reciprocal Violence,” Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt (Chico: AK Press, 2018), 163-180. Thompson’s full argument is worth considering. Highlighting how the charges against “occupation” rests on the view that it is the antithesis of “decolonization,” Thompson registers this argument as one of “conceptual negation, of siding with the representational antithesis of the thing we oppose.” Thompson goes on to argue, “liberation owes nothing to negation; instead, it is the fruit of reciprocity. Opposition to militarism calls on us to disavow ‘class war’ about as much as our conviction that picket lines mean ‘don’t cross’ demands that we cede abortion clinics to the placard-wielding zealots who showed up first,” Thompson, 170.
24 Kanishka Goodewardena, “Space,” Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. editors Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson (Chico: AK Press, 2016), 409.
25 See, Beverly C. Tomek, MOVE, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, available at https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/move/ (accessed December 2, 2018). Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001). Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan (London: Pluto Press, 2016).
26 Goodewardena, 408.
27 Benedict Anderson, in exploring the making of nationalism, defined nations as social constructions whereby people imagine themselves to belong in community to one another on the basis of their boundedness to the same nation-state. See, Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006).
28 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012), 152-153.
29 Harvey, Rebel Cities, 115.
30 Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (London: Verso, 2014).
31 To be clear, I am not trying to propound a view of unionism that abandons all notions of “service” for members such as filing grievances and other representational configurations. Nor do I maintain that, in practice, there is a clear and obvious binary between “business unionism” and “social movement unionism.” In reality the broader labor movement is a mishmash of multiple organizing philosophies, worker militancy seeking its emergence across many locals, but the predominant attitude and practice is of a legacy owed most to Samuel Gompers and his accommodationist orientation toward capitalism.
32 This argument does not assume that “class” is something automatic or an objective thing per se. Rather, it rests on a view that, following Cinzia Arruzza’s argument, “class” is produced through “class struggle,” and does not exist prior to it. Therefore, as she explains, to constitute a class a group must “fight as a class” as the formation of class struggle corresponds to political and social relationships. I write this in response to a well-taken point made by my comrade, Nicholas Fisher, who highlights how within the graduate student worker union, of which he is a member, there are internal class divisions based on the aspirational goals of some, and the short-term “working class” situation of others. Indeed, being paid paltry stipends for five years does not immediately suggest that one is a permanent member of the working class. Cinzia Arruzza, “From Women’s Strikes to a New Class Movement: The Third Feminist Wave,” Viewpoint Magazine, December 3, 2018, available at https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/12/03/from-womens-strikes-to-a-new-class-movement-the-third-feminist-wave/ (accessed December 4, 2018).
33 Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
34 Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
35 Tithi Bhattacharya, “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class,” Viewpoint Magazine, October 31 2015, available at https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/how-not-to-skip-class-social-reproduction-of-labor-and-the-global-working-class/ (accessed December 8, 2018).
36 Federici, 2012.
37 Jana Bonsu, “A Strike Against the New Jim Crow,” Dissent, Winter 2017, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/prison-strike-mass-incarceration-labor-reparations (accessed December 3, 2018).
38 Bill Fletcher Jr., “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).
39 I take inspiration for this sub-title from AK Thompson’s insight that history, in its entirety, constitutes a commons always at risk of enclosure. AK Thompson, “The Battle for Necropolis,” Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt (Chico: AK Press, 2018), 197-218.
40 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 255.
41 Tithi Bhattacharya, “Women are leading the wave of strikes in America. Here’s why,” Guardian, April 10 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/10/women-teachers-strikes-america (accessed December 3, 2018).
42 (emphasis in original) Arruzza, 2018.
43 Kim Bobo and Marién Casillas Pabellón, The Worker Center Handbook: A Practical Guide to Starting and Building the New Labor Movement (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2016).
44 Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2006).
45 Bhattacharya, 2015.
46 Alexander Kolokotronis, “Municipalist syndicalism: organizing the new working class,” Roar Magazine, September 9 2017, available at https://roarmag.org/essays/municipalist-syndicalism-alex-kolokotronis/ (accessed December 3, 2018).
47 For more information visit www.boycottburgerville.com. You can also listen to a podcast interview I was able to conduct with BVWU organizers on LaborWave Revolution Radio available at https://soundcloud.com/laborwave/burgervilleunion
48 Goodewardena, 412.
49 Imarisha, 3.