In Occupy, in a memorial to Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky gives a lot of the very basic history necessary for understanding the possibilities for revolution in the United States. I focus on his talk because it covers my chief concern when thinking about revolution: Why is revolution rarely defined as the seizure of workplaces by workers? Why has this notion of revolution been taken out of contention in favor of protest and legislative and juridical action?
He begins with a focus of the spirit of hope that pervaded the country during the Great Depression. “There was a sense that ‘we’re gonna get out of it’, even among unemployed people…a sense that ‘it will get better.’” The hope stemmed, among other things, from the militant labor organizing happening at the time, especially that of the CIO. Workers were engaged in sit-down strikes—strikes during which they would sit down at their workstations and refuse to work, preventing the possibility of their being replaced by other workers. Such tactics “are really very frightening to the business world—you could see it in the business press at the time—because a sit-down strike is just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself.”
The hope that pervaded at the time does not exist today. Manufacturing jobs have been moved out of the country and the economy has become more financially based. The financialization of the economy began in earnest in the 70’s and has continued to thrive since. Political power shifted from the productive to the financial sector. The gap between public policy and public will has grown enormously.
My interest in Chomsky’s portrayal of things is that it lays bare certain problems with many approaches to revolution that don’t have to do with the immediate seizure of workplaces by workers. Protest, legislation, courts and legal avenues generally presuppose that, even if pretty corrupt, the system itself functions. In my opinion, non-violent civil disobedience in the form of worker take over is the only viable solution given the scale of government corruption and scope, and the size of the US military and intelligence services.
Chomsky, indeed, says that businesses are actually invested in making sure that workers never realize how easily they could take over industry. “In one of the suburbs of Boston about a year ago…a multinational decided to close down a profitable, functioning manufacturing facility…evidently it wasn’t profitable enough for them. The workforce and the union offered to buy it, take it over, and run it themselves. The multinational decided to close it down instead, probably for reasons of class-consciousness. I don’t think they want things like that to happen.” So many think taking over workplaces is impractical. But what kind of effect on a worker’s consciousness does doing so have, given the general demoralization inherent in almost all protesting and other legislative and juridical endeavors? Which is more impractical?