I want to take a crack at some thought I have here in relation to conversations I’ve had with my friends Scott and Adam. Scott has ideas on dispute resolution and institutions of dispute resolution and the functions that these have in our society. Adam has ideas about justice and universal vs particular, that we want expansive concepts of justice and expanding notions of justice and belonging. Scott’s going to write something on this soonish and I’m trying to get Adam to write something as well. I can’t really do it justice here but I can riff…

On dispute resolutions. I think we can make a sort of chart of the relationships that groups have toward dispute resolution mechanisms. I’ll try to illustrate this via labor relations stuff but I don’t think the point is limited to waged work issues. Some believe in current mechanisms: file for NLRB elections. Others believe that current mechanisms need to be reinvigorated: file for NLRB elections, and do electoral work to shape who is appointed to the NRLB. Others believe that innovation is needed in current mechanisms in order to make them work better: pass the employee free choice act in order to make the NRLB work. Others believe that new institutions are needed, and sometimes these institutions are actively created: the creation of the NLRB in the first place in the 1930s is one example. Another would be campaigns like those of the UE in North Carolina in the public sector, where the state doesn’t sign contracts so the union has organized itself as a membership and action-based organization. The issue with each of these institutions is how to respond to a grievance. (I expect there’s also some effect here about shaping the form that grievances take in the first place but I have to think more about that.) When a problem develops how can the problem be resolved in order to maintain or restore normalcy.

We’re in a moment where normalcy is up for grabs to some extent; will the old normalcy be restored? Or will a new one be implemented? I mean here a capitalist normalcy of some sort – where accumulation occurs and is predictable. (I also think that the degree of breakdown of capitalist normalcy has been exaggerated, but I don’t know how to support this claim.) Dispute resolution mechanisms are about the restoration of normalcy. Proposals for new dispute resolution mechanisms are either proposals for new ways to maintain or restore old/current normalcy, or they’re proposals tied to a project of creating a new normalcy.

It’s possible for there to be high-friction normalcy. My friend Phinneas told me a story once about a strike in Canada at a plant where a number of workers were immigrant radicals from third world countries. Some of the workers said early on to the union involved something like “we’ve been through this at home, we know how this works, we kill a few of them and they kill a few of us and then we get our demands met.” Whatever else there is to say about this situation, it’s worth noting that dispute resolution mechanisms can involve routinized violence. My friend John O’Reilly has recently recommended to me a book on the Teamsters that talks about this, about use of violence to win contracts in the 1930s. Intensity of conflict alone is not always a problem. It’s the character of conflict, understood in context, that matters, and getting a grasp on that can be tricky. It’s not just a matter of militancy, it’s more a matter of orientation toward dispute and resolution.

I can say less about Adam’s ideas about universals, but the basic point as I understood is about universal justice – who is part of the group that expresses a sense of being wronged, and what the wrong is. This has an element of depth – is the issue economic inequality or is the issue capitalism? is the issue police brutality or is the issue policing and racism as such? is the issue that interest rates are too high or is it that debt is a form of wrong? is the issue overly-aggressive deportation policies or is the issue borders as such? – and it has an element of breadth – who is the grouping who has been wronged, explicitly or implicitly? is it white people, men, the unionized trades, legal immigrants, English speakers…?

Existing institutions of dispute resolution tend to exert pressures that push in the direction of making the struggle less universal in both senses, less deep (debt and inequality and wage raises, not capitalism; deportation not borders; police brutality, not race and police) and less broad, narrowing the We in a struggle (We the tradesmen, we the citizens). Pushes to change (or create new) dispute resolution mechanisms can be tied to efforts to change the degree of universality of a struggle in one of these ways, breadth or depth.

Relatedly, on Adam’s recommendation I read Wallerstein’s short book/long essay Historical Capitalism. It’s very good. Among the points I take from it is that national liberation and vanguardist movements that sought to seize state power were genuinely really important movements for justice, but on their upswing. Wallerstein makes the point that movements to take state power, if they succeed, become the people running state power, they have to govern. And they have to govern within a larger capitalist world system. That larger system and other capitalist powers in the world exert pressures on victorious movements to take the state; the new governors have to governor in a way that fits within the capitalist world system. There will be friction and conflict, of course, but regardless the new governors have to pass some pressure and discipline downward onto those governed. The new state power become part of the mechanism for passing pressures on to the populace, as part of the capitalist system. Wallerstein says explicitly that this makes the seizure of state power a reformist demand.

There’s another point here, not just about state power, which is about what I’ve elsewhere called trajectories of struggle. Struggles are waves. They rise, peak or plateau, then decline. Seizing state power can be an incredibly powerful goal, movements to do so can be very important as movements for justice while on their upswing. Once power is taken, though, that’s the peak or plateau. To use a spatial metaphor, there’s a difference between these efforts while they’re gaining or taking ground and these efforts when they’re holding or defending ground. Holding and defending ground means governing that same territory and passing on disciplinary pressure to those governed. This is true regardless of form, I think, whether it’s state power or a tenant organization or a union. A collective bargaining agreement is a matter of ground taken and defined and held and governed. In my view, for us this means we should orient toward upswings, but more than that obvious point, I think we should build organizations and institutions which will not hold ground, will not govern ground taken, and so will not become instruments of discipline transmitted from the broader context downward. Waves will peak and plateau and decline. The issue is what is the character of that peak, plateau, and decline when institutionalized in our organizations, and how this sets things up for creating or responding to future waves.

In this piece I laid out what I think are five components of organizations and struggles – “vision, goals, strategy, tactics, and logistics. Vision is the ideology and theory of the organization and our ability to assess current reality. Goals are where we want to get to. Strategy is the plan to get there. Tactics are the individual components of the plan. Logistics are the implementation and competency in carrying out tactics.” Oftentimes radicals end up being relative experts in one or two elements and they tend to push that element in their work (someone I know said once “if you have a guillotine, every problem starts to look like a French aristocrat” – people tend react to situations by playing to their strengths and experiences). And often there are needs in struggles with regard to each of these components. For example, I know people who have spent a lot of time in the emerging Occupy movement trying to up its administrative capacity to make it more efficient, essentially out of a worry that administrative or logistical problems will make Occupy’s wave shorter – make the movement not last as long. Others have pushed more militancy – make the peak higher in terms of level of conflict and tactics – while others have pushed on the movements goals in terms of demands. I wrote this thing about the implied We in the milieu – this is part of why Adam’s points on universals speak to me so much – and I know others have worked on trying to circulate ideas in the milieu to improve people’s analysis of the current moment.

Trying to tie these elements together, two final thoughts… One, I look forward to both Scott and Adam writing more on all this, it needs to be expanded and clarified, because I think this stuff offers some points of orientation for radicals in relation to movements. In terms of Adam’s stuff, we should try to work on the level of universality of movements, in their breadth and their depth. In terms of Scott’s stuff, we should also work on how movements orient toward dispute resolution, both current institutions and possible institutions of dispute resolution, and what the dispute is (this overlaps with the stuff on universality). I think this stuff tends to be more a matter of vision/values and goals and to some extent movements’ strategies, more than their tactics and their logistical/administrative side, though I also think that working within movements/struggles’ intellectual life could involve important administrative/logistical and tactical concerns — a reflection discussion that is poorly coordinated so that few people show up is less effective; one that is poorly facilitated so that people find it offputting or come away with worse ideas, such a thing is actively counterproductive. And of course, these ideas must be implemented effectively (Scott has distinguished between technical concerns and political concerns; I think this stuff from him and Adam is political more than technical, but at the same time if our politics are carried out in incompetent or ineffective ways then that doesn’t help anything and can set things back, so there are technical concerns too… there’s no theoretical solution to what to do, those decisions have to be made in context based on the needs in a situation).

Second and final, I don’t mean in any of this to say either “the struggle isn’t universal enough” or “the struggle has the wrong orientation toward dispute resolution” as an excuse to write something off. This isn’t dismissive. We play the hand history deals us. There’s limited use to criticizing movements and struggles for not being what we think they should be; the important bit is how to move things toward or contribute to creating what we want to see. We can mostly only move things via engagement and relationships. Furthermore, I don’t think we can count on a leap toward universality or toward the abandonment of dispute resolutions; people have to go through a process. I’m only going to speak to the dispute resolution side for now – even though I think that creating or maintaining dispute resolution mechanisms is not something we should not primarily orient toward, I also think that these thinks simply exist — compromise and negotiation are social relations and are inescapable, the issue we need to decide on how to act on is what form of compromise, not the fact of compromise; everyone compromises on the day after a dispute ends, because going back to work is a compromise, life under capitalism is a compromise. So at least for now I think it’s not so much rejection of all compromise and negotiation – I mean, yes, let’s dislike all compromise and neogotiation, but a genuine social practice of no compromises and negotiations is not something on the table in all historical moments – it’s a matter of what compromises and negotiations are and are not acceptable. I think it’s probably a positive sign when there are multiple and rapidly varying forms of and proposals for dispute resolution mechanisms, because that means that there’s less hegemony of mechanism and form, and less routinization and stability. I also think that people proceeding through an existing mechanism can be productive because they can come out the other side of it differently – it’s worth follow up on a company’s sexual harassment policies once, in order to be disabused of the notion that it can provide justice, and in order to be able to demonstrate to others that the policy is exhausted. Or, if the policy can work (and when such things work they usually involve a narrowing of some sort as I mentioned above) then it’s important to be aware of that and get a sense of how it works, as part of understanding the terrain we’re operating in.