May 8, 75,000 deaths

An article in the New Yorker describes the fractured supply chain for medical supplies and the obstacles to getting approval for tests, apparently because if you test, you find out how many people have got it. If what you find out is that a lot of people have it, then you have to make a choice between stopping the contagion (shutting down gatherings, including workplaces and markets; ie, the economy) and just letting people die. So it’s better that the information about how many people test positive doesn’t exist in the first place.

Speaking of staying home, I am learning the meaning of “practice.” I am finding that if I play something over and over and over again, trying each time to do something better, it gets better. At the beginning, I was learning this one note at a time:

So now, on to something a little more famliar.

Theorizing learning for DSA reading groups: learning and a mass strike

Speaking of learning: learning can be theorized as discontinuous change ((Bateson), punctuated equilibrium (Gould), quantities of small steps suddenly synchronizing into a single wave that exhibits completely new qualities (Newton?), unexpected leaps in the capacity of an individual or a group to understand and accomplish something – these last two in particular traceable back through Marx to Hegel and the idea that contradictions are what produce social change.  The lineage of the theoretical tradition that I’ve been educated in goes from Marx to Vygotsky in the early days of the Soviet Union, Leonti’ev in the mid-twentieth century there, then Engestrom in Finland until the early 2000s. Vygotsky was a psychologist tasked with creating a Marxist psychology; Leonti’ev called it Activity Theory, as did Engestrom, who built a whole research unit around it, and today it can be found in Critical Historical Activity Theory, or CHAT (recently changed from cultural historical activity theory, also CHAT). Details upon request – I just want to demonstrate that I’m not pulling this out of my hip pocket.

The core idea at the heart of all these approaches to learning is that change, whether it is individual, collective or world-wide, happens through the resolutions of contradictions.  That’s where the power comes from. Sort of like splitting the atom, except that things snap together. What makes it radical is the focus on contradictions. An unequal world abounds in contradictions. Learning therefore requires exposing contradictions and often pressing them, using the tools of social relationships like speech, art, culture, organizing, democracy, law, and so on, to move them upward into the change we want to see.

Learning and the mass strike

Learning relates to the mass strike in that like a mass strike, learning itself emerges from the sometimes invisible small accreted resolutions to lesser contradictions (quantitative change) that suddenly burst into some new character that was potential to them all (qualitative change). You try and try and try, and suddenly you can do something like play a Bach prelude easily; a school class resists and objects and complains, and then suddenly the light goes on and the kids get it; a social class struggles and suffers and then suddenly they look at each other and say, “Wow, there’s a lot of us, isn’t there?” and they figure out what to do next.

We change, the world changes, and our place in the world has changed.

The DSA Red States Revolt (Eric Blank, Jacobin) Reading Groups

When the DSA reading groups launched on March 9, 2020, we met in person. Within a few days, California was in lockdown, people had lost their jobs, roommates went home to other cities, bills started coming due that couldn’t be paid, climate change was no longer “theoretical” and happening elsewhere, the death count was climbing towards 75,000 (that’s what it is as of this writing), and Trump was mouthing dangerous nonsense on TV. The reading groups moved to Zoom. 

Two months later we’ve conducted three groups, meeting every two weeks via Zoom. We’ve involved about 25 participants, many of them DSA members. Only 6 of the original 31 seem to have dropped out. Some of these have definitely disappeared due to having to find a new way or place to live.  We’ve read and discussed Heath Madom’s description of the OAE 2019 strike and Eric Blanc’s analysis of the three red state mass teacher strikes. The group leaders have also met between groups and discussed what goes on in each group.

And on the outside, while some countries have managed to block off or manage the virus (New Zealand, Vietnam, South Korea), and others have done a pretty good job (Europe generally), others are stewing with it, including India, the UK and us. The wealth of our country is built upon a shaky stacked tower of people working for less money than they need to live on, which means that even before the virus their labor was already churning out value that was being captured somewhere up the chain of exchange, but now the people at the bottom of the tower can’t go to work.  They are at home (or on the street), churning out nothing, and the tower is wobbling. Therefore the people at the top are saying, “Open the economy! Get people back to work! Help help!”

Health crisis, economic crisis, social crisis

Healthcare workers, seeing this as a health crisis – which it is – go to work with insufficient PPE and risk their lives and the lives of their families. They get saluted as heroes for doing so, paid for their dangerous work with what amount to emotional frequent flyer points.  But a pandemic, or plague or contagion is not just a health crisis; that’s just the first hit of impact.

The second hit, following immediately on the first, is the economic crisis, namely that the economic system is crashing, the World Trade Center in slow motion.  Warehouse workers, grocery store workers, transit workers, postal workers, packinghouse workers, farmers, travel and hospitality workers, school employees (including teachers, of course)—bit by bit as each of these hits the point at which they have to choose — or their state or local government chooses for them by shutting things down – between doing a job and getting paid, or risk catching the virus, a little chip of the economy breaks off. It happens at the point at which one human being would normally would be within arm’s reach of another, or part of a group or crowd of people.  You can take a picture of that actual place — bodies moving away from each other. Then the people who count or bundle or sell those chips get chipped away themselves. And so on.

Then the economic crisis becomes a social and political crisis. The description above suggests that it’s all passive: this is just happening to us. That’s not the case. As the virus spreads and the economic tide goes out (revealing, as Warren Buffet says, who is swimming naked), people are doing a lot. The ferocity of the commands from the upper levels of the tower (get back to work! If you don’t come back to work you’ll get fired!  You’ll be denied unemployment! You’ll lose your health insurance!) is an indication that they appreciate how much leverage workers actually have right now. All over the country, workers are taking advantage of this leverage, going on strike, demanding adequate protections, filing grievances. 

But things are still in the early days. Even a few hundred individual strikes is not a mass strike. Neither is a 30% unemployment rate, which is what I read this morning.

A challenge for the reading groups

Since March 9 we in the reading group project have come to know each other, both the leaders and the participants, and engaged with participants outside the groups. This means that we share a common knowledge base: of the readings, the discussions, how we interact in a group setting, and to a limited extent, of each other’s lives and thoughts. We seem to all agree that this has been a good learning experience. So what do we do with this? This is the kind of slowly-accumulating store of social capital that can be used to go on to the next step, whether the purpose of continuing to build is to repeat something that has worked well, to expand it by adding more groups, to change it by choosing a different kind of shared experience (like each group reading a different book), or whether the purpose is to put what we have built to a different use. What’s next?

Labor education is education for action. Unlike school learning, it is not capped off by a test given at the end of class. Also, its goal is not individual. Although individuals do learn in labor ed programs, the value of the program is in what happens with or to the group and the people outside the group.

The role of teachers is to challenge the individuals and the group, separately or together, to move on to the next step. Vygotsky would call this creating a “zone of proximal development,” the thing that you can do with a more advanced partner that you can’t do by yourself. Engestrom calls this “learning by expanding” – expanding the horizon of potential action. In a labor ed class, learning by expanding would mean thinking about strategy.

On one side, the US is at a pivot point in the pandemic where the contradiction between what the working class needs and what the ruling class wants is galloping toward the maximum conflict. The speed with which this is taking place almost boggles the imagination. I don’t need to summon up examples. It’s probably happening elsewhere, too – but it’s clearly happening here.

So I propose that when the three DSA Zoom groups come back together on May 18 we ask the united group to propose some challenge that ties to what has changed since March 9. Create a zone of proximal development for ourselves (don’t call it that). Identify something we can do that draws on what we have built so far and takes it to the next level. Maybe several different levels.

I think this is actually not very different from what we would have done anyway. Maybe what I have added to the discussion is an explanation of why it will work.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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