New Wave vs. Black Lung?!

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Flyer denouncing the two-day benefit gig for the striking United Mine Workers (March 20–21, 1978) at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco

(Read this flyer first!)

What I love—yet also hate—about this flyer is its arrogant sense of self-evidence. By this I mean that the flyer presumes that anyone who reads it will automatically understand its point. Of course, judging by the reactions of those to whom I’ve shown it, including a friend who is a scholar of the history of anarchism, this flyer is confounding and more-or-less inscrutable. It’s also interesting personally because, as some of you who have been reading my writing since I was a teenaged zinester will surely attest, I used to adopt this tone myself (maybe still do, to some degree), and I was inspired by people like the anarchist behind this flyer. So let me try to unpack what’s going on here.

Although this particular story registers as barely a footnote in the grand scheme of both punk and US radical historiography, it energizes me for a few reasons, which guide this article. First, the developments behind this flyer are the transformations of global capitalism of the 1970s that fascinate me and that I maintain are essential for understanding the present. Second, despite its antipathy toward punk, this flyer, and the gig that is its object, represent a moment when radical political movements in the US and punk rock were in dialogue and allows me to discuss how its misreading of punk means a misreading of punk's radicality. Third, the flyer itself suggests failures of analysis, theory, and praxis that I recognize as plaguing some strands of anarchist or radical left politics in the US with which I otherwise sympathize. Finally, the flyer, the gig, and coverage of the miners' strike in Search & Destroy open on to several unpredictable turns of events that beg recapitulation.

I will proceed, as they say, from the macro to the micro. First, the backdrop to the flyer was the incipience of neoliberalization. By that I mean, in part, that the compromise between capital and labor that was the foundation of the post-WWII capitalist boom, premised on increasing wages for the working class and resulting increases in consumption of goods and services, had begun to fray in the 1960s. There are many complicated reasons for the compromise to have fallen apart, but one of the responses of capital to increasing power of unions, once profit rates began to be imperiled, was to clamp down on labor. Since the late 1960s, there have been two predominant, and related, trends in wages that resulted in large degree from this clamp-down. One is that wages have remained essentially flat or declined (after adjustment for inflation) for the majority of the US populace. The other is that the gap between the rich and poor has increased dramatically. Therefore, it is important to note that this flyer refers to the unions’ attempt to preserve their strengths in the face of increasing repression and simultaneous willingness to cede powers in order to maintain smooth relations with capital.

But, from the radical perspective informing this flyer, the tumult of 1968 demonstrated, in France particularly, that unions and official left-wing parties, like the French Communist Party (PCF), in order to hold on to their power, were willing to capitulate in the face of insurrection rather than attempt to push forward to revolutionary overthrow of the hegemonic system. The corollary perspective informing the flyer is that the unconstrained insurrectionary tendencies of the late 1960s, which continued through the 1970s, in many countries demonstrated that the unions could no longer be said to speak for the working class. May 1968’s wildcat general strike in France, the country’s first, was evidence of the working class taking matters into its own hands (and evidence that the “working class” as such could no longer be considered solely the male, native-born industrial proletariat, which the postwar compromise had made comfortable, in contrast to women, students, immigrants, etc.).

For the US coal industry, the 1970s were marked by several interrelated shifts. First, the mine corporations realized that they could stockpile coal to enable them to continue to supply the energy industry in the event of a strike. In addition, overall, as the economy declined during this period, their extractive capacity exceeded that needed by the energy industry itself, making many workers redundant. In turn, worker redundancy led to increased worker militancy. But worries surrounding labor militancy caused some energy suppliers to shift to other sources besides coal. And, finally, changing extractive technology was also diminishing the need for large numbers of miners. Therefore, the United Mine Workers of America was in a compromised position, with workers having taken part in creating their own redundancy, cementing the ineffectiveness of tactics like strikes, because they had themselves produced the surpluses of coal in the course of their regular work. These industry-wide shifts, however, were not accompanied by the one shift miners most desired: a decrease in the danger of their profession.

In 1977, coal miners were some of the most militant union workers in the US. Capital-intensive industries like mining were among the most severely affected by the overall economic decline of the previous decade, which is why this industry was at the forefront of clamping down on labor in the effort to preserve its profitability. Among the workers a bitter fight throughout 1977 over national union leadership represented a broader struggle between the rank-and-file members, the leadership, and the industry over work-safety conditions, pay, benefits, and the very ability of miners to strike. Wildcat strikes occurred across Appalachia. In Kentucky, where union locals bore a long history of radicalism—workers for whom the gig mentioned on the flyer was a benefit—gunfights broke out between industry-hired security and miners. In the face of increasing militancy, the industry refused to give in to demands, which led to further wildcat strikes. By year’s end, after failed negotiations, bombings, shootings, and strikes, 180,000 union miners struck nationwide. What the union could do, it seemed, was hold on to its tenuous position by ensuring cost-of-living increases for its members and trying to hold the line on lay-offs, even if it meant resolving not to allow wildcat strikes at individual mines. In early March 1978, the White House intervened to compel striking miners to return to work. (Presidential intervention in labor disputes was a pattern that would be reproduced and escalated by President Reagan, as well as by Margaret Thatcher with striking miners in Britain, marking a central tendency in neoliberalization.) The rank and file, particularly the younger and more radical miners, such as those in Kentucky, rejected the newly negotiated contract. But eventually the contract was adopted, with a bare plurality in a vote. And within a couple months, newspapers were reporting that miners were still dying with alarming frequency in the mines. 

In this light, the flyer’s line, “Many miners are increasingly fed up with this whole arrangement provided for them,” becomes somewhat more understandable. But the flyer is critiquing the existence of unions themselves. Rather than seeing the United Mine Workers as stuck between a (bituminous) rock and a hard place, it argues that the union and the industry want the same thing. What they both desire is a cessation of worker militancy, such as “absenteeism, sabotage, turnover, hatred of both union and company officials,” outside the bounds of sanctioned tactics. The workers, it presumes, based on this militancy, are not solely concerned with their contract. What they want is less “servitude.” The flyer decries the strike as a sanctioned tactic, a “sham ritual” designed to help workers “release pent-up hostilities.” Following from the lessons of May 1968, the flyer remarks that allowable disagreement surrounds who may represent the workers but not whether the workers should be represented at all. This line of thinking derives from the French social theorist Henri Lefebvre, who was excommunicated from the PCF, and from his one-time comrades in the Situationist International (SI), particularly Guy Debord. A key argument of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, one that was particularly prescient because it preceded the events of 1968, which is often overlooked in discussions of its ideas, is that the alienation the society of the spectacle engenders is political. Mediation is not just an effect of “media,” it also obtains in the modern conception of democracy. When Debord speaks of “Separation Perfected” or “The Culmination of Separation” (depending on the translation) at the beginning of the book, he is arguing that the political vector of mediation through democratic representation in the modern liberal nation-state has become entwined with the vector of mediation—estrangement—of wage labor and commodity fetishism.*

A passing irony: I have until now coyly avoided mentioning that this flyer was created by the anarchist writer John Zerzan, who is well-known in some circles for authoring many works extolling so-called anarcho-primitivism. The ironic part is that in the late 1960s, he was a union organizer in the Department of Social Services in San Francisco. In 1971 Contradiction, a local radical group influenced by the SI, attacked him for being a radical but working within the union framework—from Contradiction’s perspective an irresolvable paradox. Indeed, in their open letter to Zerzan, they named the now-famous historical examples of worker self-management (autogestion, as Lefebvre called it), such as Kronstadt 1921, Spain 1936, and Hungary 1956, wherein workers abolished the need for representation of any sort, doing away with unions and bosses alike.** By the late 1970s, however, Zerzan had adopted precisely the perspective Contradiction accused him of lacking. Yet the flyer does not broach the subject of autogestion, leaving the reader with the feeling that it begins a sentence it does not know how to end.

What would autogestion in the coal industry entail? One can perhaps imagine worker-controlled coal mines, which would put safety first. But to what end? Coal’s centrality to capitalist industry means that worker control of its production would engender worker control of one necessary link in an otherwise globally destructive system of production. Even if the environmental degradation attributable to coal-fired energy plants and coal mining techniques was not as well recognized in the late 1970s as it is today, Zerzan’s silence on the issue of autogestion, the logical next step after abolition of union representation, speaks volumes about how thorny the issue actually is. As Lefebvre writes, “One cannot claim in [autogestion’s] name to ‘transcend’ the market, the profitability of businesses, the laws of exchange value. Only centralized statism has had this excessive ambition.” And we know Zerzan is fundamentally against centralized statism. Lefebvre continues, “The principle of autogestion revives the contradiction between use value and exchange value. It tends to restore primacy to use value. It ‘is’ the use value of human beings in their practical relations. It valorizes them against the world of the commodity, without, however, denying that this world has laws that must be mastered and not neglected.” Zerzan’s fervent wish, it seems, is that the use value of human beings—the qualities of life that exploitation extinguishes—could be valorized though the abolition of unions, without facing the logic of commodification itself. What Lefebvre suggests is that workers’ self-management of, for example, coal mines would necessitate a radical questioning of whether the use value of these workers’ lives could be valorized without maintaining the exploitative status quo in related industries. Lefebvre: “Once someone conceives of autogestion, once one thinks its generalization, one radically contests the existing order, from the world of the commodity and the power of money to the power of the State.”*** Although Zerzan’s rhetoric is full of bluster, and he accuses the punks of not being willing radically to contest the existing order, he fails to offer any concrete proposal of a modality for so doing.

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*  Marx, and later Georg Lukács (who greatly influenced Debord), both understood, in outline form, this tendency of liberal democracy as well. They described the commodity form as supplanting other, traditional social bonds and imposing its own logic upon the whole of society, including upon citizenship, which is fundamentally “abstract equivalence” in the political realm. Although this point may seem tangential, I would argue that the flyer’s difficulty is partially explained by its studious unwillingness to engage issues like the state, which its intellectual forebears would never condone.

** Arguably the most successful example of autogestion occurred in Portugal from 1975 to 1976, not long before the matter at hand.

*** Lefebvre's "Theoretical Problems of Autogestion," the source of these quotations, appeared in 1966 in a journal called Autogestion et Socialisme but was not published in English until last year's collection State, Space, World. Although Debord and Lefebvre had severed all communication well before May 1968, Raoul Vaneigem, whom Lefebvre originally had introduced to Debord a few years earlier, would publish in the SI's final journal issue (in 1969) a theorization of autogestion and critique of the May 1968 attempts thereof, called "Notice to the Civilized Concerning Generalized Self-Management." This article shares commonalities with Lefebvre's 1966 take, of which he was almost certainly aware, enriched by the experience of successes and profound failures in France in the May explosion. He extended this discussion in a 1974 book called From Wildcat Strike to Generalized Self-Management.