So What is a General Strike and Why is it so Hard to Pull Off?

by Austin Dell

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With #GeneralStrike trending on twitter this week, it’s time to start paying attention and start working.

It’s August 15th 2020. In the US, Congress has taken the rest of the month off, Trump’s 4 executive orders are filled with loopholes to avoid helping citizens financially, at least 30% of Americans haven’t been able to pay rent and there are 5.3 million US citizens with Covid-19. Oh and also apparently we might not have the United States Postal Service by November? A national service demanded in the original constitution and a key tool for every American who needs it for medication delivery or voting or communication. A totally normal and not at all weird thing to have to worry about.

So, chances are you are pretty stressed out, maybe a little angry. Your friends might be too. Civil Unrest is already at a historic high within the US and we are all seeing how effective it is, so maybe it’s time to get out on the street for a General Strike. But what does that entail exactly? And why don’t they happen very often?

First, It’s the Economy Stupid!

Quoting James Carville, Bill clinton’s 1992 campaign strategist, it all links back to the Economy. This is part of a much broader and more complicated conversation, but the main thing you need to know is that every major problem US citizens are facing right now is connected to the nation prioritizing economic wealth over citizen well being. That’s why we never safely got through the first Covid-19 wave, why the government won’t give you enough money to stay home, and why the USPS, a tent-pole of our society, is presented as an, “unprofitable,” loss leader within our government. This is all because of an overarching system which rarely if ever prioritizes workers.

To fight back against the system you reject the system.

So what is a General Strike? Put simply, it is a total economic halt powered by the people. A General Strike is a complete rejection of the status quo (in terms of current events, a rejection of both pre and post Covid-19 normalities). In a General Strike’s most effective form no one works, no one pays bills, everyone is out on the streets protesting and striking together in a universal demand for a better deal and continues to do so until the demands are met. It ranges in how you accomplish these goals, but at the core of a general strike is a necessity of organization and coordination. As the saying goes, if you can’t pay rent it’s your problem. If everyone REFUSES to pay rent, that’s the landlord/company’s problem. A general strike can’t rest on each person’s sole actions. It must be a multi-generational, multi-racial and well-sustained movement. Therein lies the biggest challenge.

A General Strike in the USA would mean a rejection of the supposed superiority of individualized action.

The US, more than any other country, is aggressively focused on individualism. We are sold ideas like: “YOU stop racism by just posting black lives matter on your twitter”, “YOU fix the world by voting every November” “It’s YOUR fault if you don’t get paid enough” “YOU solve the climate crisis by recycling”. So often are the gargantuan problems of our society planted on us to solve on a micro and overtly simplistic scale; as if systemic racism or wealth inequality or climate change can be overcome through my personal awareness and distaste for it.

Community efforts are the only solution. Collective action requires coordinating with friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. This tends to get complicated. Everyone has a different story, everyone has different goals and everyone has a different breaking point. It’s hard enough to get five friends to agree on where to go for dinner, imagine organizing thousands to dismantle and rebuild the only society they’ve ever lived in.

There is also the challenge of being co-opted by politicians. General strikes and their revolutionary goals are people powered. Desires can range from enacting socialism to just needing to ‘shake things up’. Striking is an intensely political move not because of policies or elected officials but because of the inherent rejection of a given system. At the same time though, politicians themselves might participate in a call to action. Though this can be exciting, it has the potential to create artificial limits and alienate workers who may approve of the movement but not the politician. This is by no means a universal truth, but there is historical precedent for it. Even recently with the Black Lives Matter movement, many politicians were happy to participate in a performative sense but failed to create tangible change in the struggle to end police brutality. Sure, we saw many in the establishment kneel and wear kente cloth in a hollow performance of solidarity, but they still made it crystal clear that no reformative policy would pass. Statements like defunding the police became controversial and instead hollow platitudes like removing statues and writing on streets became the solution. Even now, after months of protests condemning police brutality, Kamala Harris, the self-proclaimed “top cop” who wants more prisons than schools built, was chosen as the VP candidate to seize this moment. Whether the Democratic party missed the point or intentionally ignored it is up for debate.

So what? Should we give up just because it’s difficult?

Absolutely not. Protests historically have been incredibly effective, often more so than just casting a ballot for ‘harm reduction’. Gandhi’s Salt March, MLK’s Selma march, Parisians Storming Bastille and so on are historic moments that changed the course of history. It’s also crucial to remember few, if any, of these historic moments were viewed favorably at the time, especially by the ruling class.

Un-favorability does not halt a revolution. The 3.5% rule, developed by Erica Chenoweth, dictates that any huge revolutionary change within a society only needs involvement from 3.5% of that group’s population to succeed. For the United States, that’s 11,487,000 people. Still a daunting number, but one that has already been surpassed in 2020, with roughly 20 million participating in protests via the black lives matter movement.

The power of the internet has allowed for connection and coordination that is unprecedented. Event pages and sign ups, organization rallies, and ever-present online advocation for equality have proven effective in the past several months and will continue to be. We’ve seen great change across the nation, with some highlights being Colorado ending qualified immunity, Minneapolis completely disbanding its Police Department and Austin Texas defunding its police by about 30%. Now it is time to take our collective power and that collective experience and take another historic step: a nation wide call to action, a General Strike. The match has been lit, it’s time to use it. Get involved, join local organizations, volunteer, talk about striking with co-workers. Standing for what’s right can be scary but its necessity is more clear then ever. Remember, you are not alone, do not act alone.

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