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Once more on the failed transit system fare strike in San Francisco in 2005

by Kevin Keating Thursday, Jun. 14, 2007 at 8:16 AM
proletaire2003@yahoo.com

A brief re-examination of this missed opportunity in working class-based radical mass action in this part of the world...

Both of the following are taken from posts on a forum on libcom.org, here:

http://libcom.org/forums/thought/once-more-failed-transit-system-fare-strike-san-francisco-2005

Some of these posts involve exchanges with an individual who writes under the name "Comrade Mobuto," refererd to in these posts.



* * * * *

I.



By now many libcom.org readers will have seen or read a long document or pamphlet titled, "FARE STRIKE! San Francisco 2005: First-Hand Accounts," available here:

http://libcom.org/library/fare-strike-san-francisco-2005

This account of the failed effort to foment a transit system fare strike is largely a fraud. It systematically misrepresents the character of the politics that the pamphlet's authors asserted, or attempted to assert, during the fare strike and during the lead-up to the fare strike.

My response that follows here is from an e-mail I originally sent to a London comrade about this.

The London comrade criticized the "FARE STRIKE! San Francisco 2005: First-Hand Accounts" pamphlet for not criticizing the leftist recuperators in the group called Muni Fare Strike. The people who produced this pamphlet were in the group called Muni Fare Strike during the Muni effort in 2005.

My response was:

"...1. The guys who put out this pamphlet don't make any criticism of the leftist recuperators in their group because they were the leftist recuperators, not just in their group, but in the effort as a whole.

In the fare strike action they acted just like any other ultra-conventional, SF Bay Area leftist culture of failure phenomenon, exactly like a Trot group, in fact, only in this case a Trot group whose communications skills are so feeble that they had to subcontract out the leaflet writing duties to the General Secretary of a one-man Leninist party, this Marc Norton guy.

From the outside at least, Norton appears to have been the one who supplied their group with its fundamental political direction, and given how proprietary Norton was in our meetings about their content-free leaflet he also appears to have been the author of the Muni Fare Strike groups' key piece of propaganda.

Norton is a former Maoist, then was in a pro-Soviet Union, pro-C.P.U.S.A .group in the 1980's called 'Line of March,' and now he's some kind of unaffiliated Lenin-geek of one stripe or another. In various rapidly deteriorating exchanges on libcom.org and anti-politics.net I've demanded that they explain what Norton's politics are; the individual who uses the initials GH in the pamphlet and "Comrade Mobuto" have repeatedly given my question the swerve.

They have never come clean about Norton's politics. There has to be some substantial reason for this.

Now with their "FARE STRIKE! San Francisco 2005..." pamphlet they are in effect re-writing the history book and airbrushing the photographs, Soviet-Union-kids-schoolbook-style, making their wholly conventional leftist effort and the utter flop that it was look like it was a lot bigger and badder than it turned out to be, and jazzing things up with references to Midnight Notes and council communism and quotes from Guy Debord.

In my experience all this is typical of the individual in this doc who uses the initials GH. GH's middle name should be "corrupted data." The guy is a constant source of what are at very best wild exaggerations. He is consistently not a source of useful, accurate information.

They present the doc without mentioning that four of the people who are telling their stories are members of, or at least nominal members of, GH's Potemkin-Village "group," Insane Dialectical Posse. I used to see this type of thing with Maoists and Trot groups around here back in the 1990's; they accidentally-on-purpose forget to mention their affiliation with one another in public events. Whether this is consciously deceptive or not on the part of the Fare Strike! pamphlet people, it at least smells dishonest.

Beyond the obviously crucial question of simple honesty this is the next most important issue to me. In an essay about the deficiencies of the detective fiction of his day, Dashiell Hammett wrote, for a pistol to be called a revolver, it must have something which revolves. For a class struggle effort to be, as old-timers might put it, on the authentic terrain of communism and not on the terrain of the left of capital, it cannot be just like what leftists do, only done by people who long after the fact will get around to mentioning that they have a window-shoppers' affinity for the ultra-left.

I don't blow my horn about this, both because it would be completely obnoxious, and because the ultimate result of the effort was so dismal and not something I need to take credit for. But I initiated the not-begging-on-the-steps-of-City-Hall part of the resistance to the fare hike, service cuts and austerity measures against drivers, and when I did this I had a conscious strategy for how to go about getting the word out in a big way.

I wanted to:

1. Start with a 'saturation' leafletting of transit system operators; we did do this, the anarcho-kids in the group I was in,

2. Then put posters up at key intersections, etc. That's not because I was trying to re-live illusory past glories, or because I've got some kind of hard-on for posters as such, but simply because in a relatively small city like SF posters have proven to be an effective way to get the word out in the past.

3. And then mass leafletting; leafletting at bus stops, on the busses and so on. That kind of leafletting is crucially neccssary, but only after the ground has been effectively prepared for it.

The only way something like this could take off would be for enthusiasm for a mass self-reduction effort to take on a life of its own and word for it to spread like a house fire. There were steps we could have and should have engaged in, and the guys in the group that produced the Fare Strike! pamphlet -- that's mostly GH, is my guess -- have no track record of ever successfully communicating anything to anybody. They went at their effort in a hapless, chicken with its head cut off manner, and the effort failed, not just in that it didn't take off in a big way -- you can't "organize" that sort of thing, it obeys its own logic, and can only really happen under some mysterious confluence of a number of favorable circumstances -- but they utterly failed to effectively draw attention to the issue, and to all the bigger questions of life under the dictatorship of the market that must ride piggy-back on even the smallest mass agitation effort of this sort.

SF is a small city. With the number of people involved in this there is no excuse for their utter failure to get the message about this out -- other than that they don't know how to communicate a message that will really be heard. This was a perfect marriage of feeble form and feeble content; in the substance of what they had to say and the methods they used to say it they were politically timid in the extreme when they needed to be audacious in the extreme.

The Muni Fare Strike guys didn't know what to say, and they didn't know how to say it, and this is still apparent in their leftist-subjectivity doc.

The subjectivity stuff in their document has a smoke-and-mirrors quality to it; you can't see the forest because there are too many trees in the way, and I think this is also dishonest on their part. Some aspects of what the various participants say here is of some limted interest, but it's no substitute for an analysis of the larger dynamics of which conflicting perpectives came into play in the effort and how the choices that were made ended up affecting the effort as a whole. I tried to supply this in my account, 'Muni Social Strikeout..' found here:

http://www.infoshop.org/myep/muni_social_strikeout.html

My account is of course colored by my own subjectivity and prejudices that I am not even fully cognizant of. Orwell noted this about his own account of his experiences in 'Homage to Catalonia,' and I'm sure I'm not more self-aware of such things than Orwell could be. But to the best of my knowledge I've presented an accurate account of what I saw in this little unsuccessful action. This whole thing could have been a small foot in the door for a larger perspective of antagonism to the existing state of things. Instead it was the same old, same old. It didn't have to be, and the next time around it doesn't have to be that either..."





II.



The effort get together a large-scale, direct action, Italian-style self-reduction effort on Muni, San Francisco's main public transit system, was initiated by the group called Muni Social Strike at a public meeting in San Francisco's Mission District on May 1st, 2005.

Other than me and to the best of my knowledge one other person, everybody else in the group called themselves an anarchist. The anarchists bailed wholesale on the Muni effort around the time of a ridiculous, wholly self-indulgent, subcultural scenesters riot on SF's Valencia Street, coinciding with the anti-G8 demos taking place in Scotland at the beginning of July 2005.

For that point onward, the conventional leftist culture of failure group called Muni Fare Strike took the lead in the Muni effort. It was very much a product of what their politics -- their conventional Bay Area leftist politics -- were all about.

What follows is what needed to happen in the Muni effort, from what I see as an authentic communist perspective -- and what the conventional leftists of the Muni Fare Strike group did instead:

1. From the beginning everybody in Muni Social Strike agreeed that the Muni effort would be an anti-market economy action -- and that we would "disdain to conceal" our aims with this. All the discontent that we hoped would emerge with the supposedly minor inconvenience of a threatened fare hike and other austerity measures would be a foot-in-the-door for voicing a larger antagonism to what market relations do to our lives.

-- No such perspective was ever even faintly present in any of the leaflets or public pronouncements of the Muni Fare Strike group.

They played the game the way capital wanted the game to be played; the fare hike and service cuts were, to them, and this is based on all they said and did, a single issue phenomenon. For them it had no connection to anything else. Take a look at their leaflet and at the Muni Fare Strike web page, if this embarrassment is still up and running.

2. At the public meeting launching the effort, I made a little speech, saying that we must start at the center and work our way outward; this meant that the effort must begin by mass leafletting of Muni operators, by making reaching the operators and forming an alliance betwen employees and riders a central priority, and making the drivers and their concerns the first step in everything that would come after.

Employees of a mass transit system are the most crucial people in a mass effort of this sort.

-- the conventional leftists of the Muni Fare Strike group virtaully ignored the drivers. See the copy of the main leaflet that they distributed, under the subhead, "We're the People's Judean Front -- Not the Front for People's Judea!" in the 'Muni Social Strikeout' piece.

The main leaflet they distributed said nothing about the transit system employees. This not only did nothing to draw transit system employees into the effort, to persuade them to see this fight as their own, to pick up the ball and run with it on their terms; it could only serve to alienate them, and make them think they were going to be hassled or bum-rushed by mobs of riders whose interests they don't automatically understand to be their own.

This was a signal failing on the part of guys who are now frantic to prove their credentials as a "posse" of studious, serious labor scholars.

Also, there is a huge difference between having a political relationship with the only oppositional group among the mass transit system employees in an Italian style 'self-reduction' effort who have dubious politics, or worse that dubious politics, and having a Leninist-Stalinist give political direction to your own effort. The first implies no concession to an organization like Progressive Labor or to its politics. The second one implies that you don't really know what you are doing. And as a matter of fact, the drivers who were members of PL, a woman and her husband, had both at that point either retired or were about to retire

The Lenin-geek from Muni Fare Strike, Marc Norton, made it clear at one of the Muni Social Strike meetings that he had written the content-poor leaflet that the leftist culture of failure group Muni Fare Strike distributed. He was also the person from the Muni Fare Strike group who was repeatedly quoted in the San Francisco Examiner as the spokesperson for their group.

So, does this or does this not make this Leninist the key figure, or a very key figure, of Muni Fare Strike, and an individual with a central voice in its perspectives, and in the strategies or lack of a strategy for getting those perspectives out?

Comrade Mobuto likes to make a big deal about my not knowing which particular flavor of couner-revolutionary Marc Norton is. Is it a surprise that a Leninist is deceitful? Is it a surprise that a deceitful leftist like Mobuto probably knows more about his Leninist comrade than I do -- and won't 'fess up as to his bona fides?

Contrary to Mobuto's lies, I never said that he and his leader "IDP" were Leninists. I said they were conventional Bay Area leftists who appear to have been led bya Leninist. This still stands.

In a meeting of the Muni Social Strike group, Norton refused demands that he re-do the piss-poor Muni Fare Strike group leaflet and come up with a new version including some sort of appeal to the drivers.

At first Norton gave a dog-ate-my-homework excuse, claiming that their wasn't a big enough margin at the bottom of the leaflet to include anything about the employees of the transit system. Apparently he's a grown man who allows his word processing program to make his political judgement calls for him. And he can't remember the old days before desktop publishing, when you would have had to improvise with glue-stick and a scissors at the photocopy machine.

Then after that Norton got all petulant about his rights of authorship, as if his crappy leaflet was 'Guernica' or a Vermeer or something.

Go take a look at the crappy leaflet, and compare it with the leaflet to the drivers, displayed at the opening of the 'Muni Social Strikeout...' doc on the 'Love and Treason' web page. Judge for yourself.

3. There needed to be an intelligent strategy to maximize the effectiveness of what would under the best of circumstances be a very small group of people trying to get a mesage out in a big way to at least many tens of thousands, and hopefully several hundred thousand of wage-slaves riding Muni.

I've outlined how I advocated that this could unfold in the Muni effort in the post above, and in the article that I've linked to above.

-- the conventional leftists did as I said above; haphazard leafletting with a content-poor leaflet that made no effort to persuade anybody of anything.

The predictable result of this was that their message went largely unheard, and almost wholly un-acted upon.

Like it or not, and whether you like me or not, I have some small, limited experience in effectively getting out a subversive message to large numbers of contemporary working people. The people behind the "FARE STRIKE!" pamphlet and their Leninist buddy have absolutely zero experience in doing this. And their perfect score on this wasn't upset by anything they did with the bungled Muni effort of 2005.

4. The effort had to be about asserting a new kind of anti-capitalist/anti-state proletarian politics/anti-politics in this part of the world. This means no Popular-Front-style bullshit, and it means doing an end-run around the ragbag of left-liberal social workers/professional protesters and wannabe appointed or elected government officials on the atrophied left elbow of San Francisco's Democratic Party political machine. These people will naturally glom onto an effort of this sort and turn it into another excuse for a session of liberal panhandling to the powers-that-be on the steps of City Hall.

-- The Muni Fare Strike leftists held a rally at which a number of these groups were invited to speak. I go into a number of ways that this was totally ineffectual in my 'Muni Social Strikeout' piece.

These groups did nothing to extend the reach of the message of what was at that point being simply described as a fare strike -- and no longer as a joint drivers and riders action.

And involvement of aggressively non-radical groups would have effectively diluted any anti-market, mass collective direct action message that the rally organizers were trying to get out -- luckily, this wasn't a problem, since the Muni Fare Strike group wasn't trying to get out any subversive message of any kind, anyway.

5. An effort that is really about opposition to capitalism is always going to be outside of and against the decision-making apparatus of capitalist democratic society.

-- Muni Fare Strike had a call to vote in the November elections prominently displayed on the first page of their web site.

"Vote Tuesday

March Thursday"

at this link:

http://www.munifarestrike.net/

How "communist" is it to call for proles to vote in bourgeois elections? These people are not in any way a part of the same historical movement as I am, or as I at least the historical movement that I aspire to be part of.

Eight years ago, with a very small revolving circle of people whose connection to me was solely that we occassionally drank beer together, some of us got out a subversive message in a big way around the market-generated housing and social space crisis in one of the few remaining predominantly working class neighborhoods in San Francisco. The posters of the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project helped to frame the issue in class terms. People in my neighborhood who don't neccessarily agree with almost any aspect of how I see things still remember all of this. It had some impact on what was happening in this city at that time. There were in retrospect a number of thigns that I could have done better. But the fundamental methods of communication were sound. If these methods had been used in the Muni effort in 2005 the entire effort might have turned out differently. There is virtually no way that the results could have been any worse.

The group Muni Fare Strike had something like a dozen members -- more if the chronic exaggerations and misrepresentations of Mobuto and his leader "IDP" are believed -- and from what I saw of the one joint meeting between people from what was left of the group I'd been in and the Muni Fare Strike group, they had a superior level of organization to what I got together with the MYEP.

And it didn't matter; they utterly failed to draw attention to the issue at hand. With a relatively good sized group of people, in a very small city where people tend to be slightly more receptive to this sort of thing that in other US cities, they completely failed to draw any attention to the issue at hand, and to the larger social question behind it. They didn't even fucking make the effort to connect the austerity measures on Muni to the larger problem of life under the dictatorship of the market. And now they are fucking lying about it, like the deceitful leftist failures that they are.

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