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Pre-meeting chatter focused on topics ranging from mutual aid to white supremacy in video games, from Industrial Workers of the World to the differences between anarchism and libertarian socialism.
When the meeting started, one participant volunteered to “take stack,’ a strategy for holding democratic discussion whereby someone keeps track of the order of those who want to comment; it was way to clearly put into practice the democratic principles that have attracted so many new members to local DSA chapters across the US over the last couple of years. Twenty-four thousand people have joined DSA since President Donald Trump’s election.
Much of the discussion at the Harrisburg DSA’s reading group focused on understanding The Communist Manifesto in its historical context while simultaneously finding particular points of relevance for today’s political landscape. Sometimes participants raised points of confusion or asked if anyone had more historical insight to help understand a particular point. Others responded with what they understood from the pamphlet and shared their knowledge of history.
Karl or Groucho?
One participant shared that at the beginning of the The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels use a bit of humor that rings true today. They acknowledged that “Communist” was commonly used as a slur and then launched into their own explanation of what communism really is.
Another participant added that today, the pamphlet’s explanations are “what people need to understand about communism to like it”. He pointed out that the message would resonate with most working people - that their labor is equal to the cost of production, and that those who control the means of production give workers only enough money to barely get by.
“That’s true of today’s Gig economy,” noted another participant.
A Gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. The trend toward a gig economy has begun. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors. Generally, Gig economy jobs do not include health care benefits, retirement plans, paid vacation, or even sick days.
One participant pointed out that “in today’s Gig economy people are taught to think of ourselves as capital, a function of the American value of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.”
Adding to this thought, another participant said, “the game is rigged, but we keep trying to beat the Gig economy,” which offers no benefits, retirement. “Workers must juggle two or three Gig economy jobs with low pay in order to survive,” the participant explained.
Alienation is a theme in the writings of Marx. One participant gave an example of workplace “alienation” when he was employed in a “therapeutic support job” and having no office hours - and therefore no time to interact with other workers. All his duties were performed outside of any established workplace, on a virtual basis. “I was also offered the supposed benefit of ‘optional hours’ which the employer used to avoid paying actual benefits,” he explained.
Someone else added the observation that there are no break rooms in Uber as a further example of the “total alienation” of workers from one another in the Gig economy.
Medium still message?
In the 60s, Marshall McLuhan said: The medium is the message. The Canadian professor also coined the phrase “global village” and predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented.
Some participants observed that one phenomena preventing groups like DSA from getting out their message is the chaos set into motion by the capitalist system’s major players, who have the greatest marketing power. In other words, those who control marketing also define our history, analogous to Winston Churchill saying “History is written by the victors.”
A group member added that schools contribute to powerful myths of capitalist American exceptionalism by teaching, for example, that the American Revolution was purely about freedom. “Great, I don’t want to be a subject of the King George III, but the revolution was also about how slave owners didn’t want to pay taxes.”
Another member pointed out the familiar narrative of “a moral US intervention in World War II”, and how that narrative often ignores the research, strategy, and loss contributed by the Communist USSR on the Eastern Front. Although the exact figures are disputed, The Soviet Union’s World War II civilian and military casualties from all related causes are estimated at more than 20 million.
The meeting ended on a hopeful note with participants agreeing to continue learning “how to take care of each other,” as one participant said.
“Turning that learning into practice,” shared another group member, “is a way to fight the capitalist system that functions to ensure that we don’t know how to do that.”