Volume 20, Number 2

A Path Toward Reimagining Socialism

Fred Schepartz

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s groundbreaking essay, “Reimagining Socialism,” which appeared recently in The Nation, she states that we on the Left need a plan, but we don’t have a plan.

Well, I have a plan, albeit a small one.

My plan is something I like to call Neo-Syndicalism. This may sound familiar to longtime Mobius readers; I have written about this before.

Just to quickly review, Neo-Syndicalism, like Classical Syndicalism, is the notion that we can change society through economic means rather than political means. In terms of Classical Syndicalism, this is most elegantly expressed in the old IWW slogan, “one big union, one big strike.”

Neo-Syndicalism takes an updated, more pragmatic, and perhaps more cynical approach in that we acknowledge that perhaps we can’t overthrow the Capitalist system. However, within the Capitalist system we can create liberated zones through organisms like worker cooperatives, collectives, and other forms of worker-owned businesses, along with economic alternatives such as fair trade, community supported agriculture, and, in general, sustainability.

Essentially, this is about building our own economy brick by brick.

The movement, the plan, is out there. It just doesn’t know it, at least not yet. That is why I have given it a name. Giving a movement a name pulls together diffusive elements and helps provide a conduit for people with different interests to work together toward a common goal.

Or to put it another way, if you are involved in an activity that falls under my heading of Neo-Syndicalism, you are doing something greater and more significant than you realize. You should take this understanding, talk to the other members of your group, and discuss your work in this greater context. You should network with other groups that do the same thing your group does. And then you should network with groups you may not have much in common with if these groups share the strategy of Neo-Syndicalism.

It’s about building our own economy brick by brick.

In these desperate times, there’s interesting and radical things going on. Last year in Chicago, workers at Republic Windows and Doors staged a sit-in after the company was forced to close when the bank, which had received TARP funds, refused to extend a line of credit to allow the company to continue production. The worker’s refusal to let the plant close was rewarded. Another company came and in bought the plant thus saving a few hundred jobs.

In Latin America, there have been numerous instances where factories abandoned by the companies that owned them have been taken over by the workers. As one worker commented, the company came into our community, took our subsidies, took our tax breaks and then left. We are claiming ownership.

My favorite story is in France, there have been instances of boss-napping. Of course, the French being the French were rather civilized about the whole thing. While holding bosses as they waited for corporations to consider their demands, they stuffed the bosses with moules et frites.

I remember way back in 1979, when I first moved here to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend the University of Wisconsin. Somebody handed me a copy of the very last issue of the radical newspaper Takeover. I remember the slogan: “Are you going to take orders or are you going to take over?”

Granted, I’ve always found the sentiment a bit simplistic, but in this case, I think it’s quite apt. I look at the shuttered GM plant in Janesville, and all I can think is “are you going to take orders or are you going to take over?”

These corporations are afforded the same rights as individual human beings. We give them tax breaks. We give them tax subsidies. We give them tons and tons of public money so they can come into our communities to provide jobs. In these harsh economic times, we give them stimulus money so they can stay in business and continue to provide jobs.

And then they close. They either simply shut their doors or they move to other countries.

As far as I’m concerned, the GM plant in Janesville belongs to the people of Janesville. They should take over the plant and run it as a worker-owned cooperative or perhaps as a community-owned cooperative of some sort. They could produce anything they want, though perhaps it might make the most sense if they produced cars. Perhaps they could contract with one of the surviving auto companies. Or maybe they could actually start their own auto manufacturing company. Or maybe they could take over Saturn once GM officially discontinues that line.

One might think, automakers designing cars? Ridiculous?

Well, of course they’d hire design engineers and whatever brain power they need, but just imagine what kind of cars such a plant would produce when the workers who produce the vehicles and drive the vehicles actually have a say in the design of the vehicles. Gee, they might actually be vehicles people want to drive!

And yes, I do understand this is a pipe dream without a massive infusion of cash. After all, as a character in The Right Stuff says, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

If the government can bail out the banks and the auto companies, they can provide money to facilitate the formation of worker-owned-and-operated cooperatives at abandoned manufacturing plants. This would comprise a real economic stimulus package. It would save and create jobs. It would be great for the communities that die long, slow, painful deaths when a manufacturing plant closes.

And it would help get us back into the business of building stuff the world wants to buy.

The Obama Administration should call for an initiative to provide grants and low interest loans to abandoned workers who want to form worker cooperatives. In fact, the Obama Administration should encourage abandoned workers to take over shuttered manufacturing plants.

Of course, there’s a chicken/egg aspect to this. Workers should view this tactic strategically, that if more and more workers take over abandoned manufacturing plants, it could be a way to force the Obama Administration to take positive action. We saw this during the FDR Administration, and it’s equally true now: radical change comes from the bottom up. Remember, FDR himself said, “Make me.” Obama has pretty much implied the same thing, urging people to organize, to basically give him political cover to be able to move in stronger directions.

But let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Neo-Syndicalism is not merely a tactic to push government into a more radical direction. It’s a strategy. Again, it’s about rebuilding our economy, brick by brick. It’s about telling the corporatocracy that we will no longer play their little reindeer games, that we can find a path toward a real and lasting prosperity without them.

Neo-Syndicalism is just a term I came up with, but as I’ve said time and time again, words have great power. What we’re talking about is defining a movement that’s out there, working hard and doing good work. By identifying this as a movement, we create a synergy that will make it stronger through greater numbers and more comprehensive exchanges of information and, in general, people power.