In Praise of Direct Action (and More)

Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair

Idle Capital Through Disruption

As the partial federal shutdown moved into its third week, I found myself thinking about the late left economist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi’s concept of “workplace bargaining power” (WBP).  By WBP, Arrighi meant the ability some strategically placed workers possess to idle capital and harm profits by bottle-necking the interdependent, integrated, and continuous flow of production.  This, Arrighi argued, was different from the special “marketplace bargaining power” (MBP) some workers derive from the possession of scarce skills. WBP is available to “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” workers by virtue of their strategic position in highly capital-intensive production processes.  It was no small part, Arrighi theorized, of how the United States’ once powerful industrial unions arose amidst the mass unemployment of the Great Depression [1].

The Shutdown’s Tipping Point: Worker Resistance

As the shutdown ground on, I started wondering when federal air-traffic controllers and other key and strategically placed air-travel workers would flex their capacity to disrupt the continuous flow of airline flight operations? The answer came last Friday when a sick-in of New York City controllers led to the stoppage of flights at LaGuardia Airport. Delays began piling up across the nation’s integrated air-travel system, a quarter of which moves through New York.

The disruption was just a taste of what might have come if the slowdown and stoppages had spread to include the flight attendants and the pilots.  On Thursday, the separate unions representing the controllers, the attendants, and the pilots had issued a joint statement warning the nation that the government’s failure to pay controllers and TSA workers (the people who scan and pat-down  passengers on the way into airport terminals) had created a situation of “unprecedented” air travel peril.

A critical tipping point was coming. The New York air-traffic controllers were starting to flex their WBP (and more – see below) to control the situation from the bottom up. The pilots and attendants were likely to walk off their jobs. The unpaid TSA workers would have done the same, bottlenecking the boarding of jets. It wasn’t hard to imagine activists and supporters flocking to major air terminals on the model of the early airport protests of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Some of them might even have donned yellow vests (see below).

The nation’s critical and capital-intensive air-travel system, upon which the nation’s business and professional classes depend, would have crashed, helping move America’s Trump-saddled capitalism from zero to negative growth.

The previous Sunday, Sara Nelson, the president of Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, had given an impassioned speech in which she called for a national general strike in support of the 800,000 unpaid federal workers and connected the shutdown with the struggles waged by public schoolteachers in Los Angeles and workers everywhere.


It wasn’t just about WBP, of course.  Air traffic controllers are skilled professionals with a good bit of MBP as well, thanks in part to the federal government’s failure to train an adequate number of professionals to fill vacancies resulting from retirements. I saw an airline CEO complain go on CNN to complain about the shortage of “replacement workers” if controllers were forced to take other jobs.

Airline pilots are high skilled workers, to say the least. They too are not in great supply and not easily disciplined by Karl Marx’s “reserve army of labor.”

Rising hazard was also part of the equation.  When a brain or heart surgeon royally screws up, one person dies. If air-traffic controllers and pilots don’t do their jobs at a high level of proficiency, hundreds can perish in an instant. TSA workers are charged with keeping wannabe shoe-bombers, hijackers. and other maniacs from wreaking mass-murderous sky-havoc. The notion of people doing the incredibly stressful work involved in monitoring flights and coordinating take-offs and arrivals to prevent mass-fatality airplane crashes while being exhausted from working second jobs (or from sleeplessness induced by financial anxiety) was simply and transparently insane.

Government is supposed to guarantee public safety, but Trump’s insane nativist Wall demand and the political and fiscal theatrics in Washington were putting travelers at chilling risk.

It was too much for big capitalist “adults” behind the absurdist political theater of the visible state. The CEO of Bank of America called for an end to the shutdown last Wednesday, warning of serious damage to “economic stability” (translation: to capitalist profits).

A potent combination of WBP, MBP, and public safety concern – call that “civic bargaining power” (CBP) – translated into political bargaining power (PBP). The workers left Trump with no choice but to “cave” on his ridiculous and self-owned shut-down.

The Pitiful Orange Dufus’s Predictable “Cave”

This ridiculous buffoon of a president had just the other day announced that federal workers really didn’t need to worry so much about losing their wages and salaries because “Local people know who they are, when they go for groceries and everything else.” (Translation: their neighbors and grocers would supposedly give them free food). Trump’s pathetic Treasury Secretary and fellow clueless and classist billionaire Wilbur Ross had just sparkedmass nauseaby suggesting that unpaid federal workers had no business visiting food pantries since they could take out loans to cover their expenses – this after Trump had been boasting that his shutdown (“I will own it”) could go on “for months, even years.”

The pitiful orange dufus, with his popularity sunk to a pathetic new low (34%), had to bow his head and walk like a pouting toddler up to a White House microphone and pretend to have led an agreement to re-open the government – but just for three weeks, mind you (I will return to this important topic in a future commentary). The nation was left to wait for the tough-sounding Tweets certain to be issued the following morning by the tangerine-tinted wannabe strongman – and for the shrieks of “betrayal” and “wimp” certain to be made by the sallow Neo-Nazi necromancer Ann Coulter. Both arrived on schedule.

It was all so predictable. As Barbara Ehrenreich Tweeted a few days before Trump’s defeat: “The shutdown would come to a sudden end if airport workers stop working and shut down air travel. Business, aka capitalism, cannot function if its minions are all floating in the stratosphere or fattening themselves at Cinnabon. The whole thing should take no more than 3 hours.”

I channeled Ehrenreich’s advice and the spirit of the Gilets Jaunes (see below) while speaking last Friday afternoon to the wonderful talk show host Esty Dinur on WORT-radio in Madison, Wisconsin.  I predicted that airport and airline workers’ WBP would raise its head and the shutdown would end soon.  Little did I know the deal would be done (for three weeks anyway) in less than an hour.

Corporate Media Spin: A Great Victory…for Nancy Pelosi

Notice the framing on “liberal” (Democratic) CNN and MSNBC: the end of the shutdown has been repeatedly called “a victory for Nancy Pelosi,” but not and more accurately a victory by and for working people, who exercised critical workplace, marketplace, civic, moral, and political bargaining power at the strategic point of airline flight production.  No surprise there. Acknowledging the political potency of direct action by ordinary working people beneath and beyond the masters’ election cycle is pretty much a no-no in the corporate news and commentary complex.  At CNN and MSDNC, where practically one-third of air-time goes to corporate advertisers (with Big Pharma represented to a comic degree), it’s all about two capital-serving things right now:

+ Getting rid of one ridiculous state-capitalist political head of state (Trump) and replacing him with a more suitable and sophisticated state-capitalist head of state (Kamala Harris as the new Obama?)

+ Getting and keeping everyone to understand U.S. “democracy” and “popular input” as those incredibly brief and distantly time-staggered moments when we little citizens get to make teeny little marks on ballots filled with the names of ruling class-vetted politicos.

It’s not for nothing that those remarkable French working-class streetfighters, the Gilet Jaunes, have been blacked out on American cable news. They aren’t waiting around like passive idiots for the 2022 French presidential election to fight back against upward wealth concentration and neoliberal austerity. Putain non! They practice and demand disruption and democracy now! They are demanding direct citizen democracy maintenant, dans le présent (now, in the present) and calling for fundamental constitutional change beyond the sham popular sovereignty of bourgeois electoralism.

Back to TrumpMuellerRussia, Up with the Quadrennial Candidate Circus and the Bipartisan Empire

Meanwhile, with the shutdown on hold, MSNBC and CNN get to do some partisan victory laps (“All Praise to Nancy Pelosi!”) and run 24/7 with the real stories that matter most to them:

+TrumpMuellerStoneRussiaCohenManafortTrumpMuellerStoneRussiaCohenManafortTrumpMuellerStoneRussiaCohenManafortTrumpMuellerStoneRussiaCohenManafort (Many CNN and MSDNC staffers were surely irritated that the military-style FBI raid on Roger Stone’s mansion had to compete with the shutdown’s suspension for airtime.)

+  The Democratic presidential candidate circus, already starting its engines two years before the next presidential Inauguration.  CNN has already scheduled a Town Hall candidate event with Kamala Harris in Iowa for tonight!

Along the way, the “liberal” corporate-imperial cable networks have been showing their real colors by curiously praising the Trump administration’s brazen effort to delegitimize the democratically elected socialist government of Venezuela and, indeed, to foster a coup there. The chattering cable news skulls endlessly obsess over despicable Russian interference in American politics even as they praise US interference in Venezuela. They like how “Pelosi beat Trump” but dig “Trump beating Maduro.”  The hypocrisy of it all stinks to high heaven and barely registers with the liberal Democratic base, which has become more aggressively imperialist than the Republican base under the influence of MSDNC in the Obama and Trump years.

 “The Best Way to Protest”

“The best way to protest,” the deeply conservative former president and MSNBC-CNN hero Barack Obama told University of Illinois students last year, “is to vote. … When you vote,” Obama said, “you’ve got the power.”

As people sometimes like to say to this day on Chicago’s Black South Side, which Obama pretended to be from: “Negro,please.”  Like most of Obama’s fake eloquent utterances, his statement in Urbana was slimy, silver-tongued bullshit.  We are allowed, yes, to vote, but mammon reigns nonetheless. As  the mainstream political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens noted  in their important 2017 study Democracy in America?,  U.S. “government policy … reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.

Candidates like Obama, who blew up the public presidential campaign finance system with record-setting contributions from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup in 2008 – and who then went on to honor those contributions by governing in utmost accord with the commands of the nation’s unelected financial dictatorship.

Contrary to the conspiracy addicts at the DNC, CNN, MSNBC, the CFR, the CIA, the New York Timesand the Washington Post, there was no “great American democracy” for Russian military intelligence to “undermine”in 2016. Insofar as Russia interfered, it was an intervention between two different oligarchies– theirs and “ours.”

No, the “best way to protest” is, for starters at least, to protest. And the best way to protest is with actions that threaten capitalist profit and disrupt business and business-[rule-]-as-usual. “There’s a time,” as Mario Savio famously said in December of 1964 during Berkeley Free Speech Movement:

“when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!…That doesn’t mean that you have to break anything. One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not [letting] anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine! And it will stop!”

Three years later, the great protester Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected “progressive” pleas for him to run for president (as a Democrat, of course). The narcissistic presidential-electoral game held no interest to King.  He called instead for “massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system…The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King said in a lecture broadcast into the United States by the Canadian national radio network in December of 1967. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice…There must,” King intoned, “be a force that interrupts [a classist and racist society’s] functioning at some key point…mass civil disobedience” to “dislocate the functioning of society.

There’s a very different and more potent kind of politics beneath and beyond our bourgeois masters’ carefully calibrated and constitutionally contained election cycle. Ordinary people “g[e]t the power” when they form militant grassroots movements and take collective and direct actions before, during, and after the election spectacles, whatever their outcomes.

We can follow the dictates of MSDNC, CNN, Obama, Nancy “We’re Capitalist and That’s Just the Way it is” Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Tom Perez et al: get out of the streets and wait for your precious little moment in a voting booth for two minutes once every two or four years. Or we can follow the paths suggested by Savio, King, and those other great protesters who both preceded and followed them, including Tecumseh, Black Hawk, Sitting Bull, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, the sit-down strikers, Herbert March, the Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, Occupy, the Ferguson protesters, the Chicago and LA teachers, and the late radical historian Howard Zinn, who wrote the following about and against the “Election Madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left, in the Obama-crazed spring of 2008:

“Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. … But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice. … Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.… Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct actionagainst the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That’s great advice, but we need to go further given what we know about capital’s cancerous compulsion to push the planet past the last tipping points of environmental catastrophe. Exercising workplace, marketplace, civic, and political bargaining from the bottom up is necessary but insufficient now. It’s not just about “shak[ing] whoever is the White House, in Congress.”  At the current moment of ecological and authoritarian peril, it’s about dismantling (by any and all means necessary) the corporate and imperial state and system.  We need to take it down from the bottom-up, from the top-down, and from the sides-in and all the way around.  The reigning class rule system poses a grave existential threat to any and all hopes for a democratic and remotely decent future.  Sorry to be so stark, but Istvan Meszaros was right: “It’s [eco-]socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

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1. The great prolonged sit-down strike (workplace occupation) that gave rise to the United Auto Workers (UAW-CIO) union in 1936 and 1937 is a classic example. Even during the Great Depression, in a time when mass unemployment undercut workers’ MBP, the mostly semiskilled and unskilled workers of General Motors’ Fisher Body plant in Flint, Michigan were able to win union recognition and a contract by demonstrating their capacity to disrupt the overall production process of their highly capital intensive corporate employer – the nation’s (and perhaps the world’s) largest manufacturing firm at the time The same basic power was exercised by such workers in numerous other industries across the nation during the mid- and late-1930s.  The CIO packinghouse union, for example, rose largely on workers’ flexing of WBP on meatpacking plant’s strategic killing and cutting floors, located at the very front end of the “production” (really dis-assembly) process. When highly specialized but strategically placed knife workers on the killing floors stopped work, their work department went down. When the killing floors went down, whole meatpacking plants ground to a halt and the employers’ expensive raw material spoiled, at no small cost. Politics (the rise of a significantly pro-union New Deal state and Democratic Party by the middle 1930s) was significant as well, of course. Still, the elaborate collective bargaining systems that arose in the United States during the late 1930s and 1940s were dedicated among other things to the managerial containment of the workplace bargaining power flowing to workers (unskilled and semiskilled as well as skilled) under “modern” capitalist mass-production.


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).