By FW Noah

In “From Bowling Alone to Posting Alone”, Anton Jäger re-analyzes the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (published in 2000) from the perspective of today. Putnam described the decline of social institutions — ranging from unions and mass organizations down to local bowling clubs, sports leagues, and clubs such as the Elks or Shriners. This decline has caused economic and political stagnation, and as alienation and loneliness increase, so does the potential for a totalitarian resurgence. Jäger found that the atomization of daily life and the decline of social life has turned out to be far worse than Putnam predicted.

Jäger notes: “Since the 1980s, citizens have been actively ejected from associations through anti-union legislation or globalized labor markets. At the same time, passive alternatives to union and party power — cheap credit, self-help, cryptocurrency, online forums — have multiplied. The result is an increasingly capsular world where, as commentator Matthew Yglesias warned, “our home has become an ever-greater source of comfort, allowing citizens to interact without ever leaving their house.”

Jäger points out that the crisis of collapsing community affects unions as well. “Despite surges of militancy in some sectors, the ‘great resignation’ ushered in by COVID’s tight labor markets has not led to a politics of collective voice but rather to one of individual ‘exit,’ as Daniel Zamora put it. European unions have suffered a similar fate, losing members to self-employment.”

The decay of community impacts not only the suburb or the dance hall, but also the workplace. As workers become less socialized outside of work, they lose the ability to socialize at work as well. The less social integration on a personal level that we have, the less we know our coworkers as people with their own unique personalities and concerns, and the more we begin to focus on our own concerns as individuals navigating the challenges we face under capitalism. Through this individualization we forget the power that collective action could have in our living conditions, working conditions and the broader scope of political or economic arrangement.

Overall, the decay of social organizations and community get-togethers, as well as the rise of the internet age and the “cyberbalkanization” of online spaces, have contributed significantly to the decline of union membership and organizing campaigns through the end of the 20th century. Jäger connects these trends to the Marxist concept of alienation: as the working class becomes more and more tied to their ability to produce and consume under external capitalist pressure, they become alienated from their ability to control the means of production, become socially alienated from other workers through artificial competition, and become alienated from the product of their labor. This alienation is often experienced as inter-class conflicts between workers over the availability and “skill level” of available jobs, associations with institutions that provide relief but do not change to the status quo of capitalist dominion, and ultimately a working class that holds onto a “false consciousness” of possible upward mobility and the obfuscation of their exploitation.

As our lives become increasingly individualized and atomized, and as the workplace changes further away from long term jobs toward contract or part-time employment, we lose the social environments that allow us to negotiate our mutual struggles with our fellow workers. With the nature of work becoming more remote, tasks more automated or specific in craft, and with mounting concerns over the many immediate and existential crises that the working class now face, the ability to foster a working culture of solidarity and the will to collectively and directly act can be eroded by isolation, apathy and by workers being overwhelmed — mentally and emotionally — by what they are experiencing in their own lives.

This current period of labor activism and the successful campaigns that have taken place over the past three years may be the ushering in of a new labor age, but so long as the social frameworks and human connection that comes with the social aspects of our lives outside of the workplace continue to decay, both inside and outside of the workplace, the future of labor organizing is at risk.

We as fellow unionists must make sure that when we gather for the cause of a union, that we not only direct our energies towards the more logistical or strategical aspects of organizing but provide the community of care that social institutions of ages past have provided. Union halls were once not just places where workers could get together, collect their grievances and make a plan of action, but were also dance halls, social clubs, providers of childcare, and places of entertainment.

The IWW itself in its first three decades was no stranger to this, as there were many union locals that held community picnics, hosted speeches and informational pickets, and even organized dances and marching bands.Those locals became communities unto themselves, and provided the social and cultural environment that made the solidarity those fellow workers had with each other so much more meaningful. They were places where those who felt lonely in their struggles could be comforted and offered aid, places where families could take their children for childcare and educate them on working class solidarity and the power of collective action, and where the marginalized of all stripes could find communities that accepted them and fought for them as equal and fellow human beings.

Today, the IWW continues in this spirit, such as creating local and national publications for fellow unionists such as the Industrial Worker and the Seattle Worker, radio shows and podcasts such as Wob Radio and One Big Podcast, volunteering in the community such as Food Not Bombs, and taking part in other pro-worker organizations to see our values reflected in them. The need for rebuilding a working class culture of community, mutual aid, and solidarity with our fellow workers against the pro-capitalist and individualized paradigm of today is more pressing than ever. It is important to make sure that such cultural and social relations live on, as it provides the foundation for organizing and unionizing, and potentially the future of unionism, to be possible.

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