The Rank and File Strategy on New Terrain

Moody on Moody, Part 2: On Social Reproduction

August 12, 2020

Spectre editor Kate Doyle Griffiths reflects on Kim Moody’s rank and file strategy in this second part of a three-part essay. In the final installment, they will consider the rank and file strategy in relation to ongoing strategic debates on the US left.

Writing for Jacobin, Kim Moody reflects on the rank and file strategy, focusing in part on the trajectory (and really, the failure) of  the top-down, change-to-win model. This, of course, was the primary strategic alternative to the rank-and-file strategy following the period in which the original pamphlet was written. There is little on that balance sheet with which to disagree, and indeed, Moody’s assertion is that even in a period of low class struggle, tight bureaucratic control over a “mobilization” model produces a more or less steady stream of localized rank-and-file rebellions. 

Moody’s reassessment, and his development of modern conditions in On New Terrain, also takes this observation somewhat more overtly in the direction of explicitly socialist organizing than anything that appeared in his original strategic perspective. In it, he begins to outline how socialist workplace organizing today must respond to new conditions and tasks at the level of transitional and socialist organization. Moody’s original formulation suggests that rank-and-file movements must align themselves with “community” organizations, including worker centers and environmental organizations, and that this alliance is crucial because social movements are, like unions, training grounds for working-class and socialist organizers. In such struggles, working class organizers confront problems that are infrequently taken up by rank-and-file caucuses, or by unions more broadly: from state violence and gentrification to the destruction of the basic conditions of life, in terms of clean air, water, and habitable weather conditions in the name of profit.

It is notable that Moody approvingly mentions Giovanni Arrighi—with whom he has frequently been counterposed—and his insights about the dual nature and special vulnerabilities of capital’s intensive modes of accumulation in this reassessment. Here, it is also worthwhile to mention Beverly Silver and her work in the same methodological and ideological vein in Forces of Labor, in particular her focus on the importance of public sector workers in the realm of social reproduction in “kicking off” new waves of struggle over the last century. Explicating Arrighi, she notes that conditions of austerity in the public sector create disruption of older forms of security and solidarity.

This is borne out in Moody’s take in Terrain where he, too, emphasizes the importance of worker struggle in the public sector and among care workers, though neither he, nor she, makes explicit the reasons that social reproduction theorists suggest for explaining these developments, beyond a broad strokes understanding that they represent a reaction to austerity. Silver offers a useful quantitative account of the frequency and timeline of strikes in the social reproductive sector, but her focus is not on their political qualities. Moody, meanwhile, attends to the way changes in the composition of the workforce (including its increasing racial, national, and gender diversity and feminization across sectors) have potentiated action in these sectors, while also intensifying the potential for disruption and working-class power at nodes of circulation—“choke points” of distribution. Taken together, these insights point to a second sort of choke point: choke points of social reproduction in the realm of paid care.

Much of the work of social reproduction theory, especially its ethnographic and journalistic engagements, points out how workers in these sectors may be first activated by the experience of their tasks, which engage the basic needs and ability of the working class as a whole to reproduce itself. This can spark not only early and militant action (as we’ve seen in the waves of teachers’ and nurses’ struggles, and later in the hospitality sector), but also produce a collective consciousness that takes up not only bread-and-butter demands for wages and benefits, but class-wide demands for services in education and healthcare. Often, these struggles are articulated as not just about the increasing pressures of work due to deskilling and downward wage pressure, but also as being about the general capitalist assault on the conditions of learning, health, and basic survival for broad sections of the working class, who are also these workers’ students, patients, family, and community members. Moody has, in the process of engaging current  debates about the rank and file since the publication of On New Terrain, explicitly taken up this point. 

The equally necessary (but on its own insufficient) role of workers at choke points of social reproduction is undertheorized. In particular, their role in raising class-wide demands and consciousness of the working class as such, with shared interests, is just as indispensable to a fully worked-out, socialist rank-and-file strategy.

What, then, is the relationship between both kinds of “choke point” and the questions of organization and consciousness articulated in the rank-and-file strategy? And how do we think about adapting these to the current moment? It goes without saying that Moody’s attention to choke points of distribution as well as production is central to building a workers’ movement with the power to hit capital where it hurts—in profit-making—and to do so directly and strategically. On a structural level, this is simply a site of workers’ power that cannot be dispensed with. 

The equally necessary (but on its own insufficient) role of workers at choke points of social reproduction is undertheorized. In particular, their role in raising class-wide demands and consciousness of the working class as such,  is just as indispensable to a fully worked-out, socialist, rank-and-file strategy. The argument here is that this specific form of consciousness arises out of the labor process of paid social reproductive work and also out of the social position of the workers engaged in it. Put another way, it arises out of the conditions of both paid and unpaid social reproductive labor, and in each case, out of a crisis of social reproduction, a crisis of care. The increasing desperation of most workers and their family and social networks to successfully reproduce themselves both in terms of bare life, but also as workers capable of abstractable labor-power.

In the course of conducting research in South Africa, I found that striking nurses frequently made this clear in their comments, explaining that their demands for increased staffing reflected both the pressures on them as workers caring for overloaded wards, and their concern for their own patients, but also their worries about the care available to themselves and members of their own families, which usually included elderly and HIV-affected adults often acutely in need health services. 

In the United States, the same sentiment was articulated by striking teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and California on a personal level. Rare was the public school teacher who could afford to educate their children privately. Teachers, from the beginning of the strike, made it plain that they were fighting for their own wages and those of all public sector workers in the state, and for their own students, but also for their children as students and for their retired parents, and the un- or underemployed members of their extended families who depended on schools, on the state employee’s health care fund, and, at times, directly on the regular if minimal salaries of those same teachers. These networks not only reflected the distribution of care work and collective dependence on the wages of individual workers, but were  pathways for collective memories of past strikes and militancy where nurses often had nurses as parents or teachers, teachers, who had also been on strike. These workers also remembered the changes in work, salary, and benefits over time. 

The significance and potential of social reproduction choke points is increasingly obvious in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic and a historic uprising for Black liberation and against state violence, as social reproduction workers shut down sites of transmission and risk their own lives to treat the sick, while at the same time logistics workers strike for safe workplaces, for Black Lives, and to demonstrate their social necessity beyond the logic of profit. 

The inclusion of social reproduction choke points into a strategic analysis of rank-and-file organizing expands the list of sectors and workplaces that might be targets for rank-and-file organizing and helps to flesh out the relationship between rank-and-file organizing and broader social movements. This revision might also be understood to introduce new relevant forms of transitional organization, as it complicates the original map of worker consciousness as implied in The Rank and File Strategy. If one of socialists’ tasks is to develop broader and deeper consciousness among workers, it makes sense to attend to the arenas where that consciousness is already developing, based on the social, political, and productive roles particular workers may occupy. 

To elaborate this, it helps to think about “social movements” in much the way the rank-and-file strategy frames workplace struggle: not as a parallel comparisons, but as overlapping and concurrent with its strategic understanding of the particular role of unionized workers, and those working in the realms of production and circulation of commodities.

If the rank-and-file strategy already allows that consciousness also develops outside the workplace, and social reproduction analysis demonstrates the ways in which that consciousness can be among the first sparks for waves of workplace struggle and rank-and-file rebellion, this seems like an urgent area for the further development of the rank-and-file idea.

Such transitional formations could—as the civil rights and anti-war, feminist and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s once did—help coalesce a militant layer of radical, militant, and even revolutionary workers.

Even as initially articulated, the rank-and-file strategy allows that working class leadership and militancy emerges not only from workplace struggle, not only in workers’ centers and the environmentalist movement, but in the broad social fights against sexism, against racism, and against oppression of trans and queer people. These movements, in periods of low struggle, have often been represented and dominated by (or even conflated with) NGO bureaucrats and the most privileged sections of those affected by oppression. But when social movement activity increases, organized working class elements within these movements are inevitably aware of this limitation and begin to contest for power with bureaucrats and reformist leaders. In moments of upsurge and uprising, these intra-movement conflicts intensify; to assume the inevitable defeat of rank-and-file protestors or rioters at the hands of the peace police or established reformist organizations is no more reasonable (or politically satisfactory) than assuming that the rebellions of union members will always lose out to entrenched leadership, even when that is most often the case.

Just as we have seen the rebirth of an organized socialist movement grow out of the financial crisis of 2008, and a radicalization develop from a politics of the 99% to more explicit working-class concerns, we have also seen a class-oriented radicalization amidst a wave of global feminist struggle and the struggle for Black liberation, as well as, in fits and starts, in the movement for the defense and rights of immigrants. Meanwhile, queer workers have led spurts of new union organizing in retail, in New York City, but also in Virginia and Washington, often against employers who market themselves as liberal, Democratic Party-identified, and gay/queer friendly. Such workers led a massive march in 2019 called “Reclaim Pride” against corporate Pride, and explicitly in support of Black Lives, Sex worker rights, trans rights, immigrant rights, and Palestinian liberation, and against police presence at the event and in LGBTQ communities. This year, Reclaim Pride reformed under the same banner holding a massive protest for Black Queer Liberation.

In the feminist wave of #MeToo and the Women’s March, we’ve seen precisely that same radical agenda asserted against the still-largely NGO and Democratic Party leadership, and seen it win. In the run-up to the Women’s March of 2017, the then-largest single-day demonstration in the history of the United States, and certainly since the mass demonstrations against the second invasion of Iraq, women commentators in Facebook groups, and “members” of NGOs like the National Organization of Women (NOW) and Planned Parenthood pushed against initial organizing led by an all white and cis organizing committee. They asserted instead a bottom-up program of representation in terms of both personnel and platform of trans women, queer people, sex workers, immigrants, Black and Latinx women and queer people, and Palestinian women’s rights. 

The International Women’s Strike took up this agenda and framed it in class terms, calling for a strike on March 8, 2017—International Women’s Day—in line with calls internationally for mass women’s strikes in Argentina, Poland, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe and Latin America. The call had to be taken up by the reluctant organizers of the Democratic Party-led Womens’ March, who until then, had planned a rally for the release of Trump’s Tax Returns as the “next step” for the movement. The day resulted in the closure of three school districts in “red” states, anticipating the deep well of dissatisfaction among teachers and the mechanism of forcing district closure that later became the multi-state walk out of Red for Ed.

In a similar expression of class tensions and consciousness, in the early explosions of the Movement for Black Lives, we saw increasing conflict between the self-appointed leadership of the movement oriented toward NGO career advancement and Democratic Party politics, and class-conscious local organizers who criticized the consolidation of the movement on those grounds. These organizational dynamics echo the spontaneous ejection of long-time but compromised “leaders” of the Black struggle, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, from mass meetings and demonstrations during the intense wave of demonstrations following  the police murder of Mike Brown. #MeToo has sparked a wave of workplace action and strikes against sexual harassment in hotels and food service, entertainment and education, but also in the largely non-union auto sector in the South

Since then, of course, the historically large mass of four million Women’s March protesters has been utterly dwarfed by an estimated thirty million people participating in the George Floyd Rebellion and the ongoing uprising. The relative size and power of this class-quake has produced comparably large rifts and openings in the same vein as its precursors. In a few short months, a range of immediate reforms have gone from pipe-dream to promise, and labor demands like the removal of police from school grounds or from the AFL-CIO as a whole are suddenly making piecemeal headway and have moved from niche, to normalized well beyond the radical left.

Longstanding institutions long taken for granted as the representatives of Black politics—even the more recently constituted NGO/Democratic Party formation which trademarked Movement for Black Lives in the years since Ferguson—moved well behind the pace of the increasing radicalism of movement demands. Where once body cameras and 25% reductions in police budgets seemed to mark the left edge of a reformist agenda, now, calls for full defunding, disbanding, and disarmament are standard. Even anti-capitalist calls for full “abolition”of the police (recalling the multiple and mutually-implied calls for “abolition” in the Communist Manifesto) are routinely discussed not only in far left reading circles and coalition meetings, but in the mainstream press. Predictably, this radicalism has been met with backlash—from the far right and the Trump administration and from state and local governments, but also from liberal NGOs taking up the task of reigning in radical ambitions and militant activities. The ultimate outcome of those contests remains to be seen.

In thinking about these tensions through a social reproduction frame, the original conception of “social movement unionism” in rank-and-filism requires some revision. Instead of organizing the relationship between the union rank-and-file, and working class organization and tendencies within social movements in and through layers of bureaucracy in central labor councils and NGO coalitions, it seems increasingly possible and consistent with the strategy’s emphasis on working class leadership to connect the ranks of unions with the more class conscious and independent layers  of social movements directly. To that end, projects similar to the International Women’s Strike, or the recently activated Peoples’ Strike, could potentially serve as an additional form of “transitional organization.” Such formations serve as both a coalition space and a left pole, attracting unorganized and radicalizing individuals, while open to participation by socialist organizations, union caucuses, worker centers, coops, tenants unions, feminst, queer, trans, immigrant and other collectives.  

Such transitional formations could—as the civil rights and anti-war, Women’s Liberation and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s once did—help coalesce a militant layer of radical, militant, and even revolutionary workers who can not only build the power of organized workers toward class demands (including those generated through social movement upsurge), but cohere newly activated sections of the working class in independent organizations that can weather and prepare for the inherently inconsistent and unpredictable lulls and upticks in spontaneous social rebellion. Transitional formations can create continuity during lulls in social movement activity and engage in political education within the organized workers’ movement, framing the questions not, as they are in bourgeois politics, as “divisive” culture-war tempests, but as practical matters of the everyday life of coworkers, family, and community members. The can also support and sustain shop floor, tenant, and other formations acting as a political center across sectors and arenas of struggle.  

Imagine, for instance, if after the murder of Teamster member and beloved school service worker Philando Castile, a front of workers and worker organizations had been better able to raise his murder within the organized labor movement, not just as an abstract matter of racial justice but as an attack on a union sibling, in the way that Teamsters did when, more recently, Frank Oronez was killed by police while on the job as a UPS driver. Imagine if now, in a new period of increasing radicalization and politicization, socialists were organized to take up the next iteration of something like the struggle of the Charleston 5, that could not only be turned to reform efforts within the ILA but toward radicalization of the Black movement along class lines and radicalization of the labor movement along anti-racist ones. Conditions today clearly favor these possibilities more than they did two decades ago, and we need a rank-and-file and a socialist strategy primed to take them up now and whenever critical moments for doing so occur. 

To a significant degree, this kind of social reproduction rank-and-fileism, rooted in explicitly working class formations, is increasingly possible and underway, building on the longer efforts of rank-and-file unionists and socialists who committed some (sometimes many) years ago to a vision of building working class power from below. The new popularity and expression of rank-and-file strategies among the layers of socialists radicalized more recently are also playing a crucial role, particularly among the nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic, among teachers pushing for schools safe from police and pathogens, and in both union and non-union workplaces deemed essential (in retail, logistics, and sanitation).

In the absence of coherent or effective public health policy, and in the heat of mass struggle, the logic of worker’s control has even (occasionally, very temporarily) emerged as a practical possibility or necessity—from workers strikes demanding changes in production toward socially necessary goods (ventilators and other scarce medical equipment), to cross-sector mutual aid delivering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to where it was most needed, to health care workers’ demands for industry rationalization and nationalization, to transit workers starting and stopping buses and trains on the basis of clear goals: resist police and aid protesters. In these moments, glimmers of the socialist vision and method that animates the rank-and-file strategy appear where they once seemed unlikely-to-impossible.

But what is (and what has been) actually or explicitly socialist about the rank and file strategy, in both its earlier form and in more recent years? Moody is exactly right to raise this question now even as it was largely glossed over in his first rendition of the strategy. Given a few years of renewal in a growing socialist movement, and a few months of crisis and collective action, the question of how to get from shop-floor struggle to a new society suddenly seems like something more than a thought exercise or a deeply held wish. At the same time, we have much more recent experience to observe for the purpose of understanding how the rank-and-file strategy has played out in the context of a growing, organized, socialist movement .

The final part of this essay (part 3) will grapple with the practice and potential of the actually-existing 21st century rank-and-file strategy, and how it has shaped the way socialists as a whole have been able to engage and intervene in the current moment of profound crisis and urgent possibility.

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