#GeneralStrike: Why an old tactic could bring about new changes

This was a piece that I wrote several months ago, but never published. There is no time like the present, though.

Boots Riley tweets

Back when I was a liberal posing as a socialist in my early 20s, I would always sneer at the suggestion of a general strike by the leftists I hung out with. After all, the only thing approaching a national general strike that I had ever read about in American history books was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. That strike, which began in West Virginia with workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, ended with President Rutherford B. Hayes calling out federal troops to suppress the strikes and states passing laws to ensure that such interstate cooperation amongst the working class would be rendered illegal in the future. Plus, my experience in organizing for the Democratic Party had embittered me to the notion that low-income families and communities would ever join such an action. My thinking was, “Hell, I cannot even get these folks to vote for shiftless, do-nothing Democrats! What makes y’all think these folks would willingly walk off their job to support their neighbors?”

But as the conversation surrounding the non-indictments of police officers in the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown has become focused on possible solutions and methods for obtaining those solutions, I find myself being thoroughly disappointed. If I am not reading something on body cameras or hiring “smarter” cops (as if the systems producing state violence are somehow no match for your run-of-the-mill MPA student), I am reading about meetings with the President where it is difficult to discern whether the florid rhetoric was matched by any real binding commitment to anything other than technocratic tinkering around the edges. Phillip Agnew exhorts that if the demands of the group in that meeting are not met, then they will “shut it down”.

But shut down what? And how? The protests that have caused major traffic backups in major American cities are exhilarating to watch, for sure. Many of us could only dream about such an occurrence unfolding nightly before our eyes a year ago, and yet here we are. It has been a sight to see. But anyone who has done community organizing or political organizing can tell you that such micro-level actions are not sustainable for the weeks, months, and possibly years that it will take to see change through this system of ours. And despite all the rhetoric of needing to “decenter” people who are either indirectly affected or unaffected in movements for change, the fact is that it will require a coalition of communities and causes to right the systems of injustice that have pulverized and demoralized us for so long. That means communists, socialists, liberals, communities and activists of all colors, low-income, middle-income, and many more will be needed if we plan on “shutting down” anything.

Given this, as well as the perspective that comes from shifting ideologies and growing older, I have come to see that the only way this will come about is through economic pressure and direct action that focuses solely on the accumulation of capital. No amount of liberal technocratic edge-tinkering will bring justice to communities like Ferguson, Brooklyn, or Phoenix so long as it leaves the status quo relationship between state and citizen in place.

Therefore, I join others in supporting the call for a nationwide general strike. There are, however, two big things that would have to be put into place before such an action could be successful. After all, this would be a massive undertaking for a country that has never seen such an occurrence.

The first thing that would have to happen is a coalescing of efforts across the country. While the demonstrations of the last two weeks seem like they are coordinated across the country, they have largely been atomized community responses to a collective outrage. Such a coalescing would require a measure of structure in order to facilitate and administer a response that would be breathtaking in scope and diversity. Maybe it would be that a Coalition for Justice and Democracy would have branches in all participating communities, regardless of size, and each branch would send a representative to sit on a national steering committee, which would produce a detailed list of demands and decide courses of action with (no more than) a two-thirds majority. There is an understanding, of course, that the largest cities might send more than one representative because there might be multiple organizations operating within that city’s neighborhoods. Those cautious about such a development need not be — this is something that such a movement would need in order to encompass as many points of view as can be put forth. Centering class solidarity while being sensitive to the ways in which injustice impacts communities differently is key not just for organizing purposes, but for ensuring that the demands put forth are truly representative of the American working class.

Those demands for change are the second condition that is absolutely necessary for such an effort to be successful. We have seen demands printed in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri, but those demands are either a) vague, b) localized, or c) leaves in place the existing citizen-state relationship that has brought us to this critical point in American history. In order to recognize the need for radical change, we must recognize that the carceral state serves a specific function under the neoliberalism that guides our national policy and political directives: breaking the solidarity of the working class and diminishing the potency of organizing around its economic claims. As such, the insistence on body cameras, police accountability boards, and hearings/commissions/studies will do more to mollify demands for change than to actually produce the systemic change that we need. This is the work and challenge of the national steering committee: it must go beyond rhetorical flourish and lay out a set of demands for how we reimagine our social, political, and economic relationship to the state, and detail plans and policies that will lead us there.

I know that this solution, and these conditions for the success of such a solution, will rub some people the wrong way. Some leftists will recoil from the amount of centralization, as moderate as it may be, that this plan requires. To them I say to look around, to look at the flare-ups that have captivated the attention of people worldwide, and then ask themselves what happens after the anger stops being white-hot, and returns to the slow simmer that Black people live with daily. Others will worry about their particular cause, issue, identity or community being marginalized in the planning and execution of this sustained action. To them I say that the particularism of this age’s concept of social justice has gotten few of us to what we imagine as a Promised Land, and that a “solidarity plus community modifications” approach has to be the next step in our journey. Finally, there will be those among us who dismiss this outright as being too fanciful or quixotic to be worthy of serious consideration. I know that, because I was there once. To those people I ask a simple question: how much blood and anguish must fill your newspapers, televisions, and computer screens before you decide that something more drastic than peaceful marches and voting for Democrats is necessary for change?

The call for a nationwide general strike is an old solution; after all, the Industrial Workers of the World made such a call over one hundred years ago. But this might be the one time-honored strategy that could bear new fruit.

And better the fruit of class struggle than the strange fruit that has been piling up in our streets.