Graham Purchase: Green Anarcho-Syndicalism

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Graham Purchase’s essay, “Anarcho-Syndicalism, Technology and Ecology,” which originally appeared in Kick It Over, #35 (Summer, 1995). Purchase argues that anarcho-syndicalism and environmentalism (or ecology) are not only compatible but necessary to each other, in contrast to Murray Bookchin, who criticised the anarcho-syndicalists for being too narrowly focused on the working class and “proletarian revolution,” arguing instead for an approach based on community assemblies. Purchase’s approach is explicitly anarchist, and therefore worth repeating in response to Alex Kolokotronis’ recent advocacy of a “municipalist syndicalism” that proposes an alliance between conventional trade unions and democratic socialists at the municipal level, an approach that I do not regard as being either anarchist or syndicalist (the “revolutionary syndicalists,” who did not advocate anarchy per se, nevertheless did not advocate working with socialist political parties in order to transform governments at any level, including the municipal level; for them, “syndicalism” was “sufficient unto itself,” an approach criticised by Errico Malatesta in his debate with the French syndicalist, Pierre Monatte, at the 19o7 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, reprinted in Volume One of my Anarchism anthology).

Anarcho-Syndicalism and Environmentalism

Only time will tell whether human technology and society can co-evolve successfully with nature. Neither the “primitivists” nor the “technophiles” can read the future, but I am convinced that neither alone holds the answer. That we can simply dismantle the industrial and technological revolutions and return to small-scale tribal communities seems even more naive a proposal than some old-fashioned anarcho-syndicalists’ view that workers self-management alone will bring about the “free society.” The idea that a workers’ paradise could simply be built upon the shoulders of global capitalism is simply preposterous. The large-scale, centralized, mass-production approach that developed with capitalism, idolized by many Marxists, was, unfortunately, never seriously challenged by either the union movement or by anarcho-syndicalists. The wider anarchist movement, however, has always distrusted large-scale, wasteful industrial practices and deplored the regimentation involved in work and the factory system, and has placed its faith in the self-governing, environmentally integrated community. Anarcho-syndicalists should review the intellectual insights of the broad anarchist movement to a much greater extent than they have. Otherwise, anarcho-syndicalism will become just another tired, 19th-century socialist philosophy with an overly optimistic assessment of the liberatory potential of mass industrial culture.

Nevertheless, it is only through organizing our fellow wage-earners, who have the least to gain from the continued functioning of global capitalism, that we can build any lasting challenge to the state and its power elite. The traditional methods of syndicalism, such as the general strike, could bring the global mega-machine to a complete standstill overnight. No other group can achieve this, because wage-earners, and especially the growing army of service workers, represent the majority (at least 60%) of the adult population. Once the people wrest the industrial and service infrastructure from the hands of the elite, we can do what we will with it. Maybe the majority of workers will choose to dismantle their factories and abandon their fast-food restaurant chains, committing industrial mass manufacture to the dustbin of history; or perhaps they will elect to develop new, more localized versions of their industries. Of course, unless anarchists persuade their fellow workers to organize themselves to resist and eventually eliminate the current state and corporate coercive apparatus, this whole discussion is so much pie in the sky. This is the most compelling reason why an environmentally sensitive and rejuvenated anarcho-syndicalist movement represents one of the most practical methods of halting the destructive advance of the state and the mega-corporation.

The worldwide nature of pollution provides more reason for international workers’ organizations. Even though governments have achieved some successes in controlling pollution, these successes have been sporadic and limited. For example, the Montreal protocol appears to have been successful in slowing the continued production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, of CFCs. These chemicals are, however, mainly produced by only six companies, and we should not be too optimistic about the possibility for global co-operation between capitalists and national governments on environmental issues. (The failure to do anything about “greenhouse” gas emissions shows the near-total lack of environmental concern of those in power.) Although CFCs were first synthesized in 1894, they were not used industrially until 1927. Had they been used beginning in 1894, we may not have had an ozone layer left to protect. We are told that, after a period of thinning, the ozone layer will most likely begin to repair itself. But what other long-term or irreversible industrial damage is occurring without our being aware of it?

The industrial system as we know it may indeed be causing such damage, but what do anti-syndicalist anarchists propose to do about it? Even if humanity decided to give up industrialism altogether and return to a craft economy, global co-operation among the industrial workers of the world would be necessary to implement that decision — via a permanent, worldwide general strike. In the absence of a grassroots and anarchistically inspired workers’ movement that could mount a sustained opposition to industrial capitalism, such a course does not even present itself as a possibility. Anti-syndicalist anarchists, if they are sincere in their desire to abolish the industrial system, should as a matter of logic talk with working people, persuade them to accept their point of view, and then help organize them to implement it. Neither capitalists nor unorganized, unaware workers will abandon their factories and consumerist habits. And, as long as there are industrial capitalists — and no massive international opposition to them — industrialism as we know it will assuredly remain.

Means and Ends

It is true that we may ultimately discover that most technology, and even the industrial system itself, is inherently environmentally destructive. It is even possible that many of the new eco-technologies that seem to offer hope may turn out to have unforeseen side effects, and that humanity will be compelled to give up modern technology altogether. But, if this happens, it must be an organic process. Its starting point, one would hope, would not be simply to smash up the machines, dynamite the roads and abandon the cities, beginning again at “year zero” — as Pol Pot attempted to do in Cambodia. The only non-authoritarian way in which the “year zero” can come is for the people to decide unanimously to destroy their factories, stores, highways, and telephone systems themselves. If this happens, there would be nothing anyone could or should do to stop them. But starvation, dislocation, chaos and violence would almost certainly be the immediate result of such reckless actions, leading to dictatorship, horrendous suffering, and political and social passivity in the long run. (And even if primitivists would, by some miracle, convince a majority of our fellow citizens to discard science and technology, would that give them the right to force the rest of us to submit to their will?)

The everyday needs of humanity are enmeshed in the continued functioning of the industrial machine. One cannot simply smash up the life-support system and hope for the best. Instead, it must be carefully dismantled while new methods and practices are developed. If we are to achieve an eco-anarchist society, workers must wrest power from their employers, after which the goal should be production of socially necessary and environmentally benign goods. Once people are no longer forced to produce useless consumer goods and services, it is likely that every person will work only a very few hours per week — leaving people with much more time to devote to their own interests and to their communities. By eliminating the parasitic classes and reducing industrial activity to the production of basic necessities, a huge amount of human energy would be released. The reconstruction of the eco-regionally integrated human community from the corpse of the state could thus commence in an incremental way, ensuring that basic human needs would be effectively met while retaining the positive aspects of the industrial infrastructure. Each of us would have to continue to work a few hours per week to keep the industrial machine minimally functioning while we made changes.

If, in the face of sustained efforts to reduce its adverse effects and to integrate it with the local eco-region, the industrial system still proved to be an environmental menace, then humanity would, one hopes, have had the time to explore new ways of life suited to meeting its basic needs without industry as we know it. Industrial syndicalism is one relatively bloodless way of doing away with the state/capitalist elite, and of allowing construction of an anarchist society; it may or may not have a place in the creation of an ecologically sound way of life, but it is a sure method of returning economic and industrial power into the hands of the people. Anarchists — be they industrial-syndicalist, technophile, or neo-primitivist — thus have no program other than to bluntly declare that it is the people who must decide their own social and environmental destiny.

Of course, the question remains of whether industrial syndicalism is the only, or most satisfactory, anarchist method of reorganizing the distribution of goods and services within communities. What we can be sure of is that the individualistic mass consumerism of the current state/capitalist system is quite ill-suited to the health and sustainability of life on Earth.



Alex Kolokotronis: Municipalist Syndicalism

I always found Murray Bookchin’s perennial critiques of anarcho-syndicalism to be misdirected. It’s not as if there was a burgeoning anarcho-syndicalist movement in the United States that was steering the revolutionary masses in the wrong direction. Bookchin also misrepresented the revolutionary politics of historic anarcho-syndicalist movements, which never narrowly focused on the workplace as the one and only revolutionary arena. The first anarcho-syndicalists, although they referred to themselves as federalists, anarchists, and collectivists, were the anti-authoritarian activists in the First International associated with the anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin. And when they first put forward an anarcho-syndicalist program at the 1869 Basle Congress of the International, they advocated organizing for the revolution through the workers’ autonomous organizations and on a communal (or municipal) basis, a combination of revolutionary trade unions and revolutionary communes that would together provide the basis for a stateless federation of directly democratic associations for production, distribution and consumption in conjunction with more geographically based federations of communes, which together would create a socialist society. Although Bookchin claimed that he did not ignore the importance of working class organizations in achieving an ecological society, his focus on municipal politics and continual sniping at the anarcho-syndicalists left the impression that he did not see class based organizations playing much of a role. 

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by Bookchin advocating “municipal” as opposed to “workers’ control” of the means of production. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this creates serious problems regarding the realization of Bookchin’s social ecological vision of a stateless future without hierarchy and domination in which people live in harmony with themselves and with nature if people, in their capacity as workers, are subject to the authority of the municipal assemblies. I also included a piece by Graham Purchase under the heading “Green Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in which he argued that revolutionary trade unions would have to play a role in the creation of an ecological society, which does not mean giving them a privileged role or power over others.

Alex Kolokotronis takes another approach in his article from Roar magazine, “Municipalist Syndicalism,” which differs significantly from Purchase’s “green anarcho-syndicalism,” primarily in that it is not an anarchist form of municipalism or syndicalism. I’ve reproduced a portion of Kolokotronis’ article below.  Kolokotronis advocates the democratization of existing trade unions, rather than the creation of revolutionary trade unions, which can then provide organizational and financial support for a municipalist political program in multiple locations.

Municipalist Syndicalism

The strength of municipalism lies in its locality, in its attention to the particular — an attention that some of the best unions have and harness. But to offset against at least some pressures, it must also find strength in its multiplicity. That is to say, not just the multiplicity that lies within a given locale, town or city, but the multiplicity that is at the core of notions of confederalism.

I call this type of politics municipalist syndicalism because, although it is socialistic and premised on multi-tendency coalitions, different chief agents will arise in different contexts. In the context of unionized “eds & meds” metropolitan regions, the unionized “new” working class can be that agent. Where will the meetings be held? Who will have resources to establish an effective communications system? Who will do the canvassing (whether for candidates or as part of a participatory process)? Unions can do a substantial part of this work. And in that way, it is syndicalist: unions deploying their self-organized power and resources towards a political end. Yet, it is municipalist in that organized labor’s eyes are turned for more far-reaching transformation. A transformation beyond the point-of-production.

Before this can take place, however, there must be a democratization of unions themselves.

Community-Focused Union Democracy

As I noted in a previous piece for ROAR Magazine, concepts and designs of union democracy have remained quite thin. Participatory budgeting for union dues can be part of a union’s democratized design. I have argued that participatory budgeting can help stimulate class consciousness, serve as a means for worker education (particularly in the area of self-management), and help transform bureaucracy into a collaborative iterative form of administration.

Participatory budgeting also has an intersectional character. It has been a forum for including and empowering immigrants. It has also increasingly become a staple of the Movement for Black Lives. Public Agenda’s research of PB in North America finds that “black residents were overrepresented or represented proportionally to the local census among voter survey respondents.” In an official statement addressed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Black Youth Project 100 called “for a participatory city budget in which the public has the power to defund the Chicago Police Department and invest those dollars and resources in Black futures by setting a living wage with union representation.”

BYP 100 member Rossanna Mercedes writes that she has “witnessed first hand the organizing power of black people in participatory budgeting.” Mercedes recounts that “formerly incarcerated persons, mostly Black men, organiz[ing] together through a local community based organization and decide how to spend tax dollars in their neighborhoods. Black youth let[ting] their neighbors know about the process by knocking on doors, taking the vote to them to build support for projects they’ve proposed for their communities.” Mercedes goes further, imagining “what we could do with Community Development Block Grants, the billions in federal funding for those of us in low income communities.”

Participatory budgeting for a labor union could potentially help ground and scale this work, and also connect to it. It can be an organizational form that materially connects labor unions to community groups, with the backing and creative leadership of membership. It can create the necessary alliances for a real municipalist program and movement. There can even be cross-union and cross-local participatory budgeting processes, reminiscent of the regional assemblies once held by the Knights of Labor in the nineteenth century.

Unions can even help community groups achieve their targets, by deploying both their fiscal capital as well as social capital. A labor union participatory budgeting process, for example, could include a budget category of external or “community relations.” Union members could propose ideas and craft projects that directly benefit or work together with the larger community.

This dimension of a union participatory budgeting process could then flow into a democratized “Bargaining for the Common Good” initiatives (partnerships between labor unions and community-based organization that pursue “broad based campaigns that demand common good solutions to win progressive revenue and advance community fights such as affordable housing, universal pre-k and expanded after school programs, and improved city services, as just a few examples”). Such Common Good Bargaining frameworks would be more thoroughly co-designed, which itself would flow out of experiences of co-design and co-production practiced in project development phase of the labor union participatory budgeting process.

There are other ways that democratic union processes can be designed for intersectional ends. One way of explicitly doing this could be through a participatory mapping process. Here members themselves bring their “local situated knowledges” and “standpoints” to the mapping of a workplace or work-location. For example, a number of public schools in the United States fall short of meeting requirements prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even when accessibility grievances are lodged through unions, such grievances either fall through the union’s bureaucratic cracks or are simply ignored. Participatory mapping processes could be formally linked to what ends up on the bargaining table between unions and employers. Member participation would achieve results by substantively reorienting unions towards intersectional concerns, while also informally pressuring union leadership to act accordingly.

Participatory budgeting and mapping processes within labor unions would also prepare unionized workers to take part in municipal-level participatory budgeting processes. Beyond cultivating trust, this would train union members to operate large-scale participatory budgeting processes in preparation for significant scaling and expansion of participatory democratic processes. Competencies developed within unions would be readily available for transference and scaling at the municipal level. With all of these initiatives being inclusive of non-labor community groups, coalitions would be in place and there would be a backlog of trust-generating experience of having worked together.

Working with this variety of community groups and associations — such as retirees — unions can also streamline the creation of a sector of workers’ controlled enterprises. Soon-to-be retirees hold a stock of businesses that could be converted to democratic employee-ownership. Retiree associations possess networks that could connect those seeking to convert their enterprise with those who can help carry out the conversion. Retirees are also a significant segment of the voting base. Through lending legal and fiscal capacity for converting businesses to democratic employee-ownership (this itself is a tremendous opportunity considering that nearly 25 million workers are employed in businesses susceptible to conversion), soon-to-be-retirees will have found an exit-option.

Municipalist takeover by unions would then enable redeployment of this legal capacity — with greater resourcing, staffing and generalized support. With an autonomous federation of workers’ controlled businesses, democratized unions would have another ally possessing extensive fiscal resources — an ally operating according to socialist relations of production.

A number of unions in eds & meds already see the municipality as a key site of political engagement. In New Haven, a number of current or former UNITE-HERE organizers or officers have been elected to the Board of Alders (effectively, the City Council). There, a coalition of unions and community groups successfully called on Yale University to hire five-hundred residents from communities of color. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) has run multiple teachers as candidates for the city’s Board of Alders and mayorality. It has also publicly forged ties with community groups, earning the CTU’s reputation for practicing “social movement unionism.” Power is being leveraged in these cities not only for organized labor as it stands, but the city as a whole. Labor unions are already heading this way. The key is imbuing this movement with a democratized form, imperative and character.

DSA as Potential Platform for Municipalist Syndicalism

There is another question: through what inter-union platforms could this be coordinated. One potential organization is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the fastest growing socialist organization with 25,000 members. Countless members have demonstrated a commitment to an intersectional socialism as well as one focused on the labor movement. As shown by the intersectional character of participatory budgeting and other processes above, municipalist syndicalism gives content to this commitment.

Thus, as DSA turns towards creating a Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC), it would be wise to consider how union democracy can help flow into the construction of a municipalist socialism. Subsection 3 of the priorities resolution states that “DSA is committed to building democratic labor unions that empower and activate their rank-and-file members.” Putting forward a mix of reforms that include union dues participatory budgeting and common good bargaining adds programmatic weight to this statement.

A DSLC that “coordinates chapter-based labor branches” can do so along such lines, on the premise that if democratic socialism is to be implemented on the national level it must be first experimented with within our unions and within our cities. DSLC can help materially articulate a municipalist syndicalism. A socialism in which democratized unions take leadership, by constructing intersecting layers of self-governance and self-management at the municipal and regional level. Democratization of unions — and union capacity deployed-today towards democratization of the workplace — would remake unions into a “bridgehead” to a participatory society.

The seeds of a municipalist program already lie within the labor movement’s capacity. Once planted, the seeds of municipalism can grow from a democratization of the union to a democratization of the city itself — along direct and participatory lines. It is not the only pathway to radical municipalism, but it is the promise of the new working class. It is the promise of socialist-led union democracy in the twenty-first century.

Alexander Kolokotronis

Green Anarcho-Syndicalism