On Everyday Resistance: A Conversation Between Shane Burley and Kevin Van Meter
Shane Burley: Let’s begin with the concept of “everyday resistance,” which is the focus of your new book, Guerrillas of Desire. What does it mean and what lineages does it draw from?
Kevin Van Meter: Everyday resistance is simply one way of framing acts that take place outside the official organizations of the Left (unions, political parties, nonprofit organizations, progressive religious groups, foundations, etc.) and the gaze of the state; acknowledging that there are whole ways of life that exist beyond these organizational forms, entire ways of life that express working-class or revolutionary potential and power. Some have referred to this as “the commons” or “commoning.” Autonomist Marxists call it “self-activity” or “self-valorization.” Anarchists identify this as “mutual aid.” So, different revolutionary traditions have looked at these ways of life and come up with different phrasing, different methods of conceptualizing how this type of activity functions. And while I predominately work within the autonomist tradition, I draw upon others as well.
All of life does not take place in the family, where people work, during leisure hours, or in formalized organizational forums. In fact, there’s a surplus, there’s something of greater substance there. As revolutionaries, we’re always trying to understand what that substance is. What predates an organization? What kind of social relationships prefigure it? Everything from churches and bowling leagues to unions and revolutionary organizations have evolved out of earlier forms of activity. So, what is this activity? Everyday resistance is just another way of expressing this activity and quantifying these ways of life that exist outside of official channels. Everyday acts and methods of survival actually prop-up and further develop all forms of organization; self-activity makes organizing and organization possible.
Everyday resistance is the term I have chosen because it gives us a category for this behavior and activity. Then we can talk about overt rebellion, which is something different, and which includes armed uprisings, revolutionary parties, unions, collectives, etc. Starting in the late 1940s and early 1950s — especially in Detroit around figures such as Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, Chinese-American luminary Grace Lee Boggs, slave historian George Rawick, former auto-worker and militant Martin Glaberman — working-class initiatives were taking place outside of, and sometimes against, the official structures of the labor union. After a union contract was signed in a Detroit auto factory, the union would discipline the workforce to meet the conditions of the contract. As a result, there would be job actions against the union or job actions to get around the limitations of the union contract. Let’s be honest that these unions, the IWW aside, were dominated by white, skilled, male workers and excluded most other workers and their experiences. To challenge these exclusions, this group of Detroit-based revolutionary theorists started to identify everyday and autonomous forms of activity, from wildcat strikes to work stoppages, which they referred to as “working-class self-activity.”
In 1947 a pamphlet titled The American Worker was co-written by Grace Lee Boggs, under her “party name” Rita Stone, and Paul Romano, an auto-worker whose name is actually Phil Singer. This pamphlet looked at these forms of life that were taking place in the factory, forms of self-activity that strengthen the union in some ways and in others try to get around its limitations, as well as the discrimination taking place within these unions. At the same time that this is being discussed in Detroit, similar if not identical findings are being developed within a group called Socialism or Barbarism in France, and they both influenced the operaisti, the “workerists,” or more broadly the “autonomists,” a few years later in Italy. The pamphlet ends up in Italy and has a huge influence on these early autonomists, who begin asking: “Ok, here’s this activity. How do we start inquiring into, and understanding, this activity?” As a result, they start developing co-research methods and surveys. They stood outside of the auto plants, where the Catholic workers’ unions, the communist party, and the autonomists would all be flyering. What the autonomists were doing differently was asking the workers questions and not just telling the workers what they needed to know. Asking in the tradition of workers’ inquiry: “How is your shop organized? Who has power in your particular sector? What kinds of activities are taking place?”
SB: How then did these autonomists relate to the organized institutions of the Left? How did they understand the relationship between self-activity and capitalism?
KVM: There are different questions that are being asked in the tradition of workers’ inquiry in Italy. Initially, these are folks within the Italian Communist Party. Numerous militants then leave the party, understanding that the Communist and Trotskyist parties in the United States and Italy are not expressions of working-class self-activity or are not for working-class needs and desires, but are problematic organizational forms that limit the potential of revolutionary struggle. As anti-capitalists interested in working-class struggle, they start to articulate that self-activity as the “revolt against work,” the “refusal of work.”
Italian “workerists” were particularly interested in factory-based struggles, but later you started seeing interest among students who were refusing the work required of them in order to become workers, refusing to develop their labor-power for a job and a wage. And in response to the exclusion of women, feminists in the Wages for Housework campaign, such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, start speaking about how the most important commodity for capitalism’s ability to continue to exist is labor-power. There can be no markets, no commodities without labor-power, without the worker’s ability to work. It’s a very special commodity; energy is important, resource extraction is important, but nothing is as important as labor-power. What’s more, labor-power is being reproduced without a wage. So Dalla Costa and others start talking about what the refusal of waged housework might look like. They expand the definition of the worker beyond the factory gates, to include students, housewives, peasants, slaves, and the unemployed, because work is not only imposed upon an individual by a boss in a factory. Work is also imposed society-wide upon a population, because if you do not work then you cannot obtain a wage, and if you cannot obtain a wage then you cannot survive. So work is imposed on various different levels and in various different ways.
In the 1970s we also start seeing the Welfare Rights movement, an incredibly important social movement that has received too little attention in the United States, which was led by women of color. The movement activists made demands for increased welfare payments, for less surveillance of their families and their children’s lives. So, this was a demand for income separate from work, because in fact there’s “never enough work” for people looking for work. Although the imposition of work is central to capitalism, that doesn’t mean that everyone must work. To produce commodities under capitalism, the capitalist needs a reserve army of laborers clamoring for work, along with the threat of starvation and death for those who refuse work, to be able to pull people off the unemployment lines and into factories, into coffee shops or other places of work. And capitalism needs to be able to pay people only for the time they work for a wage.
Capitalism has gone through these various stages and crises to address its insatiable desire for labor-power and its desperate need to impose work, constantly, everywhere. Autonomists are interested in everyday resistance, mutual aid, and self-activity. They are interested in ways of life that take place outside of the official organizations of the Left because this is where the refusal of work is most pronounced.
SB: Now, I want to turn to your historical examples of slave and peasant resistance. How does “everyday resistance” account for peasant struggles, both in modernity and in the early development of capitalism?
KVM: The French anthropologist Pierre Clastres left France in the 1960s and 1970s and went to the jungles of Paraguay, where he started to see all these forms of life that existed among so-called “primitive” peoples, within indigenous societies. These were not just societies without a state, these were societies that were designed to prevent state formation, to prevent the kinds of power relationships that would be expressed as a state with its hierarchical relationships. These are actually societies that had created mechanisms that keep the state from forming. Clastres and others said, well, if we want to live in a society without this kind of political power, without a state, then how do we actually “govern” ourselves in order to prevent state formation? What mechanisms exist in our society that prevent power from accumulating, that prevent wealth from accumulating and being expressed as a state form? Or as a state apparatus with a police force, satellite white supremacist organizations, and patriarchal households, all of these other social elements that the state requires to function.
Fifteen to twenty years later, James Scott, an American anthropologist out of Yale, starts looking at practices among the hill people of southeast Asia, and he argues that peasant politics were less a part of what we might consider traditional political organizing and more a part of everyday life. As Scott argues in Weapons of the Weak: “Formal, organized political activity, even if clandestine and revolutionary is typically the preserve of the middle classes and intelligentsia. To look for peasant politics in this realm is to look largely in vain.”1
What Scott saw is that the peasant hill peoples of southeast Asia were not necessarily interested in forming unions or political parties, but everyday practices allowed them to survive and to resist particular impositions of work, such as particular agricultural regimes. Sometimes they escaped and ran back to the hills to create their own peasant abodes, outside of various land tenure systems of the state.
SB: This is of course similar to slave resistance in the United States and Americas. What role does slave resistance and rebellion play? How does this help us understand capitalism and work?
Van Meter: At the same time radicals are looking at the working-class self-activity in the factories in Detroit, there’s a huge, bubbling interest among black revolutionaries in slave resistance. Were slaves really saved by the emancipation proclamation? Because if slaves were docile and accepted slavery this could mean that black people are docile and accepting of white supremacy. This was the dominant image of the slave at the time; that slaves were docile, stupid, accepting of their conditions. Maybe a few ran away, maybe they caused trouble occasionally, but they did not engage in active resistance against the slavocracy — this was the assumption. Militants and scholars went back and looked at slave narratives and found that slaves are constantly rebelling. That there was ongoing “slave guerrilla warfare” taking place.
Herbert Aptheker writes American Negro Slave Revolts and notices, by looking at historical record, that there are periodic rebellions in various clusters throughout the history of slavery in the United States. And these rebellions, as well as forms of everyday resistance, were intensifying in the years leading up to the Civil War. It’s not only that clusters of slave rebellions were taking place; there were millions of slaves in the United States, the Caribbean, and Central America who were running away, escaping, fleeing, and creating maroon communities. You see slave owners having to develop heavier axes and tools, because if a slave takes the axe, hits it against a rock and breaks it, they don’t have to work for the rest of the day. There was this phenomenon where everyone would be sick on Saturday and no one would be sick on Sunday since Sunday is the day slaves had off. Women would feign pregnancy, saying that they were pregnant so that they could get less work and more food rations. Eventually they’d be found out and punished for such a thing, but the temptation for more time, less imposition of work, was just too much.
Researchers started digging back even further to ask why African slaves were required in the first place. Going to another continent and capturing people, bringing them here to work is a massive undertaking, and 500 years ago it surely seemed impossible. Why would capitalism require slavery? Because it couldn’t impose work on the indigenous populations of the world. Because when you captured indigenous folks in Brazil and the United States and tried to force them to work, they would run away — and the advantage the indigenous folks had over the colonizers was their knowledge of the terrain. African slaves didn’t have that advantage because they were captured on one continent and then taken to another continent, brutalized and separated from their families, maimed, tortured, and thrown onto a slave ship. Even on that ship they very often revolted and sometimes hurled themselves overboard to drown, refusing the life of imposed work.
So the imposition of work is constantly being refused and resisted — by slaves and peasants but also by workers in fields, factories, and workshops, bedrooms and kitchens, schools and prisons, and the innumerable sites of precarious and temporary service work today. We’ve looked at peasant societies, we’ve looked at factories, we’ve looked at the home where housewives are working, and we’ve looked at slaves and indigenous populations — there is the constant refusal of work. The imposition of work is the imposition of a form of life, the imposition of a way of living where your entire life is converted to labor-power until you’re no longer needed or dead.
That is what capitalism is and that’s why Marx refers to capitalism as vampiric. It’s sucking the cooperative life energy of the subject, of the peasant, of the worker, of the housewife, of the student. Sucking that cooperative and creative energy out of them, sucking that life force, and leaving them with nothing but a paltry wage at the end. Over the years I would hear very often that we need cooperatives, because we live in a competitive society and what we need is a cooperative society. I think that’s a bunch of bullshit, because capitalism actually requires cooperation — you need to cooperate with your fellow workers to do anything on the job. Capitalism utilizes the cooperative energy and creativity of human beings in the larger society. So autonomists define capitalism as the endless imposition of work and take great interest in everyday resistance, self-activity, and all these other ways that people are surviving and organizing under capitalism. But we also need to recognize that capitalism is especially insidious in that it doesn’t just steal our labor-power, it steals our cooperative and creative capacities that could be used for something else — for creating a maroon community, for stealing from a warehouse, or forging a new society.
SB: Does that mean everyday resistance, or this inclination towards resistance, should be thought of as the core element of revolutionary struggle?
KVM: I am interested in how cooperative and autonomous ways of life are not just captured by capitalism, but how they escape capitalist command and allow people to survive. When autonomists say self-activity, when we say everyday resistance, when we say mutual aid, when we say commoning, we are interested in how cooperative and autonomous ways of life can forge a new society beyond capitalism. Then the task of the revolutionary is to ask, what are our life activities, how does capitalism capture them, and how do we escape capitalism to create other life ways and forms of resistance?
In the book, I argue that the foundation for all revolutionary politics and social movements is everyday resistance. An organization, a coalition, a federation only emerge out of these prior, earlier forms of self-activity. People become revolutionaries because they become involved in these everyday practices. And you don’t need to become a revolutionary to become involved in these everyday practices; this is not a question of revolutionary consciousness, this is a question about activity and the composition of struggle.
We also can’t just judge these practices on their own. Forms of resistance are not always good. When white workers would strike against the inclusion of black workers or women in the factory, that’s a form of resistance, but that’s not necessarily one we want to honor. So, I argue that everyday resistance itself is important, it is something we should really pay attention to, and it’s a factor in revolutionary struggle and revolutionary upheaval — but it’s not the only factor we have to consider. We should consider other factors: of exploitation and oppression, of domination and control.
The question we need to answer as revolutionaries attuned to everyday resistance, mutual aid, and self-activity is this: how does everyday resistance express the desires of those who are exploited and oppressed, dominated and controlled by capitalism and the state? And this question cannot be answered abstractly, outside of the specific context in which you are inquiring and operating. I wanted to make sure to not just add everyday resistance to the hodgepodge that is contemporary revolutionary theory. What I attempted to do in the book is to use everyday resistance as a catalyst to reconsider and rethink theory and organizing, because while I see everyday resistance is an important factor in revolutionary struggles, there are all these other factors that we should be constantly reconsidering.
SB: Guerrillas of Desire sets up the premise that everything we know about organizing is wrong. How can “everyday resistance” inform organizing and what can we do to take today’s movements in a new revolutionary direction?
KVM: Let me be as clear and concise as possible. In the introduction to the book, I write: “Guerrillas of Desire offers a contentious hypothesis: the fundamental assumption underlying Left and radical organizing, including many strains of anarchism, is wrong. I do not mean organizationally dishonest, ideologically inappropriate, or immoral. I mean empirically incorrect. Historical and current strategies on the Left and in radical movements are predicated on the assumption that working class and poor people are unorganized and not resisting. Hence the role of the activist, organizer, and insurrectionist is to activate, organize, and educate a disengaged population through various initiatives. Illustrating that everyday resistance is a factor in revolution and a form of politics, maintaining that its effects on overt rebellion and crises are measurable, requires the reversal of this assumption. Working class and poor people — as slaves, peasants, and workers in the industrial and social factory — are already organized and resisting.”
So, while this addresses your question about how everyday resistance challenges our premises around organizing, it doesn’t fully tackle the question of how everyday resistance informs organizing. In effect, I am suggesting that if we are to be attuned to everyday resistance, mutual aid, and working class self-activity, we need three things: a new type of organizer; mechanisms that organizers utilize to “record, circulate, amplify, and intervene into the new society as it emerges”; and a constellation of revolutionary and “survival pending revolution” initiatives that express the actually existing needs and desires of the working class in struggle. What is more, because everyday resistance is expressly contextual, our mechanisms and initiatives will be particular to the contexts they are operating within. Now, I think answering the question of what direction revolutionary movements should go in, is always difficult, and possibly one we shouldn’t ask in the abstract. Rather, I am interested in asking, how do organizers, revolutionary organizations, and movements emerge? In this sense, we are not looking from the point of view of the organization on up to coalitions, federations, general strikes or revolutionary upheavals, but looking in the opposite direction — from the organization “all the way down.” This results in a different set of questions being asked.
For the sake of precision, let me read from the chapter on organizing: “What are the integral elements of an organization? Where are its precursors? Who told the hallowed stories that predate its formation? What experiences and encounters has the organizer emerged from? Where have these been recorded, and how can those of us acting in common amplify, circulate, and propagate these experiences and expressions? What are the constituent elements, forces, relationships, materials, needs, and desires that came together and allowed this organization to emerge? A response to these queries would require militants to investigate the constituent elements, forces, relationships, materials, needs, and desires that could emerge and are in fact emerging. Becoming attuned to the taxonomy of struggle, to everyday resistance in this manner, in turn requires a new type of organizer.” And it’s going to be up to the reader of this interview and the book, if they find what I am saying at all interesting or useful of course, to figure out what kind of organizer is needed in their own context.
- James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1985), xv. ↩
Kevin Van Meter is an activist-scholar based in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Guerillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (AK Press, 2017). He is also coeditor of Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States and a contributor to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, We are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation, and Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization.
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in places like Jacobin, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, Salon, Raw Story, ThinkProgress, Make/Shift, Upping the Anti and Labor Notes. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net and on Twitter @shane_burley1.