Open Letter to Insurgent Notes

Date: 2024-02-11T16:48:47+00:00


Dec. 30, 2023     

On Feb. 5, 2017, Insurgent Notes, the only visible sign of anything resembling left communism in the United States, hosted an open meeting with accompanying online video conferencing in New York City. The titles of four of the discussions, linked to audio recordings of these discussions on the Insurgent Notes website that following Feb. 26, were “Making Sense of the Election Campaign…” — presumably the 2016 campaign, seven years ago now — “…and Their Results: A Conversation,” “Anti-Fascism and the Alt-Right: Three Way Fight,” “For Women’s Liberation in an Age of Reaction: A Conversation,” and “Against Whiteness Again: A Conversation.” 

This public meeting took place almost six years ago. This one readily visible, public outwardly-directed effort by the people behind Insurgent Notes was apparently a one-time-only thing.

Insurgent Notes’ most recent collective effort was an online exchange of perspectives about the war in Ukraine. This was posted on their website a year ago. Since then, blissful silence has ensued.

I ditched anarchism for an idiosyncratic interpretation of what for lack of a better handle I’ll here call left communism — direct action class struggle Marxism qualitatively to the left of Lenin and Trotsky — 40 years ago. This wasn’t based on finding this stuff to be titillating exclusively in a sitting position. This aspect of my political evolution was a product of earlier efforts geared toward mainstream wage-earners. Within five months of landing on the West Coast, via Greyhound bus, as an eighteen-year-old boy at the end of the 1970s, I organized a union meeting for AFSCME among permanent full-time employees of the food service operation at U.C. Berkeley’s International House. This meeting initiated a process that led to an organized crime-connected union getting kicked out at I-House and replaced by an at-least-it-wasn’t-run-by-criminals capitalist labor brokerage. As an eighteen-year-old boy, I had big illusions about unions, and changes, after AFSCME came on the scene, were shamefully modest, but they were small material improvements all the same, improvements in pay levels and workplace conditions of people who could not have been more dissimilar to me: roughly thirty hard-working, ardently Believe-in-the-Work-Ethic, socially conservative, church-going Protestant middle-aged and elderly African American proletarians whose families had emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area at the tail-end of the Great Migration from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. These are the people who matter: wage-earners who never show up at protest marches and have no engagement with academia, Marxism, anarchism, and the left. The rent strike I organized in Berkeley, California the following year, was my second effort along these lines, this at the ripe old age of twenty, and at the end of a year that I’d mostly spent living on the street, was the biggest ongoing rent strike in Berkeley for the six months that this rent strike took place. These efforts weren’t particularly anti-capitalist in their social content, and they weren’t very destructive to the interests of the employer and the landlord, but they took place outside of my comfort zone in the larger world around us, and helped inform later and better anti-commodity-relations-motivated collective direct action I repeatedly pursued among San Francisco Bay Area transit system operators and transit system riders, as well as among my co-workers in the service sector. My tooth-and-nail anti-gentrification efforts in San Francisco’s Mission District a quarter of a century ago elicited plenty of attention from the bourgeois news media, not because I tickled journalists under their chins or plied any of them with a spray of roses and a bottle of Veuve, but because these efforts were taking place in the real world, in corporeal reality, in the larger society around us, and good journalists have an ear to the ground for this sort of thing.  

When my politics crystallized into something resembling their current form forty years ago, my goals were modest. I wanted to band together with others with a similar transparently clear and unequivocal point of reference and engage in an ongoing pattern of public collective direct action, in a number of contexts, as evolving social struggles presented opportunities to us — actions whose credibility is measured in the fact that they readily get taken seriously by friend and foe alike. The frequency of wage-earners’ collective struggles in the San Francisco Bay Area was not great in the Reagan eighties and into the early Clinton years, and all political space to the left of the Democratic Party was still occupied by volunteer social workers, simpering liberals and various forms of Stalinism and Trotskyism. But if a pattern of high-profile action by small groups of people couldn’t itself bring a new mass social movement into being it could — at least potentially — help to lay down some groundwork for the emergence of this in the decades to come, as circumstances changed and became more conducive to an authentic communist perspective in a new mass popular context.

The first word in the phrase social struggle as well as the phrase social revolution implies the involvement of more than one person. A group of people with a shared intense commitment to their efforts and who can establish political cohesion that endures under stress can punch well above their weight class. From 1983-1984 onward I did not find this in the San Francisco Bay Area. I did not find other people who understood the pressing need for this. I see no evidence that it happened before this time. I see no evidence that it has ever happened anywhere else in the U.S. or Canada. And although U.K. ultra-left stuff like the funny and combative journal “Workers Playtime” of the London Workers Group was a crucial inspiration for me when I was ditching anarchism in the early 1980s, I later found this same compulsive inability or unwillingness to act in credible terms during a five and a half week visit to London and Brighton in the year 2000. In London, I met more than twenty times as many people as I’d encountered in the United States with advanced — in other words not the I.C.C! — communist perspectives. In practice, this added up to nothing. When I asked about practical public expressions of their implacable verbal sentiments people would nervously eye the tips of their shoes and speak sotto voce about something called No War But the Class War, which came into being briefly at the time of Bush One’s Jan. 1991 mass murder of Iraqis, doesn’t seem to have done much of anything, and disbanded without leaving a trace.

Everybody in a consumer society has an opinion about something. Opinions are not convictions. Authentic profound convictions imply a different magnitude of belief. And convictions must give rise to action. The hallmarks of underlying authentic convictions are completely absent here. A compulsive inability to act in credible public contexts appears to be a beta-sheet in the DNA of ultra-leftists. Ultra-leftists are not political beings or capable real-world political actors — they are passive opinion-holders. As insurgencies go, this isn’t much of one. This real-world stuff I keep referencing isn’t Quantum Mechanics and it doesn’t require a Doctorate — anyone with a little physical energy and nerve can do it. All it involves is a minimal ability to band together with like-minded others, step outside of your subjective cocoon, try to view the world from outside, and act accordingly. This has not happened anywhere on earth among English language world ultra-leftists since I became one forty years ago.

Everybody’s a critic. So, what do I propose instead? What practical real-world alternative do I have to offer?  

I propose this:

The most recent public effort that I initiated and burned plenty of calories for ended up becoming an unsuccessful city-wide transit system fare strike on Muni, San Francisco’s main public transit system, in 2005 — nineteen years ago this coming May Day. This effort began with a public meeting in SF’s Mission District on May 1, 2005. The city-wide fare strike began and in effect ended on Sept. 1st, 2005. I initiated this direct action transit system effort 19 years ago. I haven’t tried to initiate it since then. And in the intervening 19 years, nothing like this has happened in San Francisco again. Is there a connection? Apply all of your rigorous critical thinking skills here. As with all such things that I’ve been involved with, if I don’t personally try to make it happen it doesn’t happen.  

My initial idea with this was absolutely not for a transit system fare strike, but for an on-the-job wildcat action by Muni transit system operators, the fundamental people here, where Muni employees would “look the other way when people don’t pay” — a “spare the fare day” as one of the transit system operators who was the most sympathetic to this put it in a dissident Muni operators’ bulletin. Borrowing from the tool kit of combative proles in Italy in the 1970s, the idea was that Muni operators would keep the busses, streetcars, electric trolleys, the Muni light rail, and the world-famous cable cars running and not allow riders to pay to ride. This has the potential to build an instant bond of solidarity between otherwise atomized proles who don’t necessarily understand that they are on the same side. Many people, me included, use a monthly or weekly transit pass, so we aren’t paying each time we board Muni, but the spirit of this gesture would communicate more than the actual money saved. And it would, in a fleeting and microscopically small way, be a practical expression of future communist social relations in a post-market society, where socially necessary activity is shared and freely allocated, without money and without buying and selling, carried out in the most mundane everyday life context by mainstream wage-earners, and not as a topic for idle philosophizing by fringe types. Here antagonism to market relations is integral to the effort. It is not spliced on as an ideological afterthought. Whether this kind of effort can be introduced from the outside into someone else’s workplace culture is an open question. Council communist types would claim that this is what Leninists do and that is it substitutionist or elitist, but no one excels at being ignored by all the world like council communists and I’ve never taken them seriously — nobody cares what they think. My main contact among Muni operators and plenty of accompanying noise in San Francisco’s bourgeois news media indicated that Muni operators were massively pissed off at both management and the union apparatus. Previous waves of leafletting of drivers and station agents had established enough of a minimal connection between us for Muni employees to reproduce leaflets that I and others distributed at a small number of transit nodes and put these in co-workers’ mail slots, and San Francisco is a small city so this word gets out fast. Unfortunately, as soon as this word got out, Transport Workers Union Local 250A fulfilled its role as a policing mechanism against combative rank-and-file workers, staging a “trial” of the three most combative ones that resulted in these three Muni employees being fined and suspended from the union. My recollection is that the three subsequently sued the union and got this judgment against them reversed. But any slight likelihood of an on-the-job ‘self-reduction’ action was effectively spiked. 

On-the-job direct action like this is all about the transit system employees. Transit system riders come second. For an effort like what I’ve sketched out here to fly, transit system employees would have to have an already established ongoing sub rosa self-organization, outside of and implacably antagonistic to the union apparatus, and rank and file Muni employees would not just have to be completely steamed at management and the union, but have an awareness of their potential city-wide power and an accompanying powerful self-confidence. This wasn’t happening in 2005. With Muni operators out of the picture, the effort decomposed into a typical San Francisco Bay Area loser left clusterfuck, where a gaggle of chumps turned a declining vestigial effort into their private property and dragged it back to Palookaville with them. Predictably none of these feckless duds have tried anything like this again in the almost one-fifth of a century since then.

A certain special someone once said that revolution (including microscopically tiny contributions towards this) is the only form of warfare where a final victory can only be prepared by a series of defeats. The point of an action like this isn’t simply the immediate goal of spiking fare hikes, service cuts, and give-back demands against transit system employees, worthy as this is, but of exploited and dispossessed people gaining an immediate experience of acting together against what this social order does to our lives, and with this some very small taste of future political power. 

In big labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, a labor dispute at several auto plants, a trucking company, or a department store would sometimes lead to sympathy strikes spreading among working people. A strike at a large enterprise would sometimes become general and an entire city could be shut down.

Contemporary workplaces are much smaller and more spatially dispersed than in the era of the classical workers’ movement. In part, the capitalist class has developed this as a kind of preemptive strike against the potential disruptive collective power of the wage-earning class. In the old days, labor stoppages at large enterprises employing many wage earners could really hammer employers.

Today, even a strike at a large workplace can be easily isolated by employers, aided significantly by the general absence of working-class solidarity and collective class consciousness. Working people in the US are more easily fucked over by capital today because most working people have no direct experience of collective action against the exploiter class and their system.

Big-city bus and subway systems offer a rich opportunity for overcoming this atomization. Urban bus and subway systems bring together exploited and dispossessed people in greater numbers and variety than any other social space. And this is also a setting where we are often going to and from our places of wage slavery. A big wildcat action where bus, streetcar, and subway operators “look the other way when people don’t pay” has the potential to give contemporary wage slaves a small but real experience of collective power against an ever-intensifying regime of exploitation, poverty, and police repression. Even a small, limited success in an action linking riders and operators could lead to bigger and better efforts in the future. And big city public transit systems can give a small number of marginalized revolutionary extremists a large, potentially receptive audience for their message — when this message is expressed in transparently clear language with style and nerve.

A widespread, self-organized movement emerging from joint action between transit system employees and riders can affect an entire urban region. Good ideas of this kind can spread from transit system to transit system, from city to city, and into non-transit workplaces. And to be wildly visionary: self-organized and extremely self-aware mass wildcat actions growing out of labor strife in metropolitan transit systems could conceivably develop, in-depth and breadth, and in ways that cannot be predicted at present, to create a working-class-propelled political crisis for the ever-more unstable regime that we live under.

In Chile, beginning in October 2019, in response to a 30-peso fare hike, mass fare evasion on the Santiago Metro helped to trigger a nationwide mass revolt against inequality and austerity. The upheaval emerging from this lasted for several months. Something like this can have a much more destructive impact against a regime as hapless, unstable, and historically bankrupt as the one we endure in the United States. Actions like this could help to realign extremely promising political polarization in the United States on class against class lines. Mass action on mass transit could be the way that a new social movement begins.

The United States is in an accelerating, irreversible decline. This social order is circling the drain. The once large, expanding aspirational middle class, a bulwark of political torpor and social peace, is fast disappearing. With the exception of the U.K., the U.S. has a more extreme inequality of wealth distribution than what’s seen in other advanced industrialized nations, and in this serves as a model for a relentless upward redistribution of wealth for the exploiter classes of other First World nations. We endure mass impoverishment and attendant social ills on a scale not seen in other industrialized societies. No political or economic mechanisms of the reigning market order will slow this down or reverse it. The United States is owned and ruled by an awe-inspiringly incompetent, venal, and short-sighted elite, and more importantly than anything else, liberal democracy no longer commands the political and emotional allegiance of the vast majority of the populace. In abolishing historical consciousness among the people they exploit and rule, the rich and their political, academic, and media servants have also largely abolished it among themselves. This is going to pay substantial negative dividends. A decades-long relentless upward redistribution of wealth has not been an intelligent long-term survival strategy for the owners and rulers of the United States. Some of the sharpest among them know this. In a lengthy piece in the January 2017 New Yorker, the co-founder and CEO of Reddit, valued at that point at 600 million dollars, is quoted as being “concerned about basic American political stability and the risk of large-scale unrest.” Awkward conversations have been unfolding in some financial circles. Robert H. Dugger worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry before he became a partner at the global hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation, in 1993. After 17 years, he retired to focus on philanthropy and his investments. “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution…” (“Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 30, 2017)

Today’s fast-unfolding domestic situation is unprecedented. Our rulers are weak. Their power is in sharp decline. A new period of protracted social upheaval will soon begin. There has never been a better time for subversion in capitalist America. The events in Chile, the Yellow Vests in France, and Occupy in the U.S. all sprang into being quickly and unexpectedly; there is much to learn from here. And quickly doesn’t mean completely spontaneous. A small number of people — I believe it was exactly one with the Yellow Vests — try something new, or try something that isn’t completely new, and something unexpected bursts to life. Imagine a new movement quickly taking off like Occupy, but with sharp teeth and claws, emerging out of the most unglamorous mundane everyday life concerns of mainstream wage-earners and not tailored to the entertainment needs and illusions of professional protesters, college students, and lumpens.

The days when social movements could begin in San Francisco and spread outward are probably behind us. The city was socially and culturally gutted by a quarter-century-long abject lack of resistance to gentrification, and after Covid, it has devolved into an appropriate setting for an uninspired episode of “Black Mirror.” I know next to nothing about New York City — and less about Philadelphia — but my wild guess is that a big East Coast city might have some kind of major untapped potential here. I understand that this is the very tallest of tall orders; there are 472 stations in the New York City subway system, that’s not beginning to count buses, and Brooklyn alone has 3.37 times the population of SF. But bigger cities may mean many more angry, intelligent people who might be up for action. 

As I said earlier, a group of people with a shared intense commitment to their efforts and who can establish political cohesion that endures under stress can punch well above their weight class. There is a vast and rapidly growing discontent with the state of things in this nightmare country. There is nothing to lose by putting time and effort into something altogether new — it is time to step up to the plate. There is no guarantee that this will produce results, but it’s certain to beat recreational pontificating about Great Events Of The Day that the people doing the recreational pontificating cannot possibly play any living role in.

-Kevin Keating,

 P.S. On a not necessarily even slightly related note, I’ve always dissed the group that produced this statement as the ‘Beneath the Planet of the I.C.C.’ one, but this statement is surprising and compelling. It is very human and alive. It reads a bit like Ballard’s introduction to the French Edition of ‘Crash:’

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