Left Lockdown Sceptics interviews Andy Libson, an American anti-lockdown high school teacher and revolutionary socialist
1. Could you tell us what your background is and your experience in the working class movement and where you are active?
I am a high school physics and chemistry teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco, California. I have been teaching for 21 years at Mission High, a public school serving a population of largely poor students of color. As a member of the United Educators of San Francisco, I have been active in the union my entire career as the equivalent of a shop steward, and even spent a few years on the union’s executive board. Currently, I am not the shop steward, but was elected to the Union Building Committee that helps organize our work site.
Politically, I am a communist. I joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO) [twinned with the Socialist Workers Party in the UK – Ed] around 2000. In 2010 I left the ISO because I felt it was an organization entirely run from the top and that it was moving in a troubling reformist direction. Afterwards I was part of a group called La Voz, but was kicked out a few years later for publishing articles La Voz felt I should not put out publicly (here and here).
Today, I would describe myself as a Marxist who thinks the Russion Revolution of 1917 was the most recent example of a working class revolution but would describe its counter-revolutionary collapse as ending in state-run capitalism. I still believe the experience of the Bolshevik party in Russia is vital to look at as an example of what needs to be built today, and there are writings of Lenin and Luxemburg that I use as a political touchstone today. However, I no longer adhere to the idea that “socialism in one country” came only with Stalin, but that you can see its beginnings under Lenin in the policies of the NEP and other changes in policies of the Soviet state under Lenin. The revolution’s fate was sealed when it did not spread to Germany shortly after the socialist revolution in Russia.
Still, I believe the only way out of the mess we are in today is another working class revolution for the establishment of socialism. But that will not take place through the ballot box. It will require mass strikes and an armed insurrection to establish it. Also, it cannot be called socialism unless working class democracy is at its center and is preserved and expanded through the course of the revolution and beyond. Overall, while I firmly believe capitalism must be dismantled, I have more questions than answers about the state of our political tradition and the process by which this mass socialist uprising will take place. Part of the reason I started “What’s Left?”, a podcast/channel I host with two friends, was to give myself an open space to investigate political questions that I am still working through.
The last year has made the prospects for revolutionary change (which were exceedingly dim before the mania around COVID started) seem even more unlikely. I have witnessed the revolutionary Left collapse behind the capitalist state and institutions through the course of the pandemic. I am exceedingly grateful for the existence of Left Lockdown Sceptics and their attempt to fashion a Left response and oppositions to the authoritarian maneuvers of the capitalist classes across the globe. This blog has been a glimmer of hope for me in what has felt like an ocean of despair.
2. What has been your experience of the lockdown policy in the USA?
Lockdown in the United States has been miserable on several levels. First, it has led to our physical schools being shuttered for a full year. We have been forced to teach entirely remotely. This has been terrible for the students and downright awful for me. Education under capitalism is an exercise in indoctrination and preparing future workers for accepting their continual exploitation at their work, but the one element of my job I actually believed in was the relationships I formed with students and their families. Also, working and talking with my colleagues in person made the job less soul-crushing.
All of that has been stripped away this year, taking with it the last vestiges of meaning for me in the work I do with students and fellow workers. Personally, I also miss training in jiu jitsu which I used to do 3 to 4 times a week. I miss the random encounters I would experience at stores and cafes or traveling to work or to the gym. I miss meeting with people in groups for political or social reasons. I miss seeing people’s full faces. I miss hearing people’s actual voices and not wondering whether it is ok to hug someone or shake their hand.
But the most troubling element for me politically has been that opposition to the political developments around COVID have largely come from the political Right and not at all from the Left. Opposition to lockdown, to mask mandates, to mandated PCR testing, to vaccination mandates, to remote learning and to even the notion that we should question the narrative around COVID being spread by the capitalist state, none of that has come from the reformist or revolutionary Left here in the United States. The most meaningful critiques and actions in response to these mandates are all found on the Right or among libertarians.
Two outliers to that have been the work of Alison McDowell and Cory Morningstar on exposing the connection between these mandates and the political and economic initiatives pushed by what is globally being described as the Fourth Industrial revolution. Their work has been fundamental in helping me understand what is going on right now. I would also recommend the work of Jake Klyceck in exposing how these initiatives intersect specifically with changes taking place in education.
3. When did you begin to question the lockdown policy?
Pretty much from the beginning in February and March 2020 when all the fear of Sars-Cov-2 was really picking up in the United States, the level of alarm being rung never made sense to me. Both then and now, I consider the scale of danger of Sars-Cov-2 and the COVID-19 associated with it, as not too different from the flu. When all the mandates for shutting things down were happening last March, I suspected there was another interest in play. I largely believed we were seeing a ‘controlled demolition’ of the economy as capitalism was entering another period of global crisis (or business cycle). I felt the mandates were economically driven and conveniently provided political cover of blaming the economic destruction on a virus rather than the normal boom bust cycles of Capitalism.
It was not until I read an article by Whitney Webb describing the connection between these events and the plans to develop artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the notion of seeing data as most important commodity to control and accumulate within the inter-imperialist rivalries of global capitalism (particularly in the competition between the US and China). This is where my exploration changed from seeing this as just another moment of capitalist sleight of hand to seeing that the world was in fact being changed not as a ‘cover’ for a weak global economy but out of the rapacious competition for profits by the largest global capitalist centers who were about to hurl us into a world of even greater ‘productivity’ by using our data and the data we generate from our daily work and lives to replace both our manual and mental labor with machines.
I also began to see a future where the working class was being physically separated and atomized in a process that looked to me like ‘reverse enclosure’. I worry that this physical separation, where all our work is eventually done remotely (which I believe is where this is headed), may actually turn the working class effectively into a peasant class (or gig workers). We will still be exploited, but no longer a class that understands itself or experiences itself as a collective class. To me, this takes the Marxist notion of working class revolution off the table, making me wonder if this is part of what is in operation right now. Nevertheless, I know the capitalists are wanting to separate us, and I know that is part of their plan for accumulating profits and competing even more aggressively with each other for a share of those profits in the coming decade. All of this, by definition, comes at the expense of the working class unless we oppose all aspects of the changes being implemented today.
4. As a socialist teacher you have been campaigning to re-open schools. How has that campaign been going?
I think we need to get back to our source of power – our workplace and centers where we congregate to do work – immediately and begin figuring out how we can stop what is coming. The remote learning experience we are going through right now is not a momentary mirage of a world trying to escape COVID. What we are witnessing and participating in (as either educator or student) is the future of education that is preparing future workers for what work will be like in the coming years: remote, on a screen, mediated through data flow and transmission, overseen, monitored and directed by AI. Students are experiencing education (separated, individualized, isolated, controlled and obscure) as they will experience their future work.
Participating in remote learning today isn’t ‘safer’, it’s actually far more dangerous to all our futures. It means our lives will be more separated, more surveilled, more scrutinized and more controlled than ever before. Physical schools will be replaced with laptops and drop-in centers. Teachers will be replaced with screens and AI. Education itself will be a lifelong chase, not of learning, but of job skills so each worker can compete in a global labor market where ever-centralized capitalist centers get their pick of the litter to screen for and exploit workers not as a class but as an isolated worker connected via a screen.
This is not how my colleagues see things. They believe the danger is COVID and have accepted the capitalist narrative that the greatest danger we now face is a virus and society must be restructured to face that danger. My desire to get back immediately, with full in-person contact—no masks or 6 feet of separation, no mandated tests or vaccinations—is largely seen as dangerously conspiratorial or even as right-wing demagoguery. Virtually everyone around me has accepted the narrative that what must animate our actions are safety precautions related to COVID rather than the need to immediately reassemble our forces at work so we can figure out how to oppose the Fourth Industrial project that is being put in place without our knowledge, but with our implicit agreement and participation.
I have worked with a small group of educators to discuss reopening schools but we have been largely ineffective at reaching our fellow workers. Our union leadership and the vast majority of our membership has been focused on COVID and safety rather than the more immediate and dangerous threat of the dismantling of in-person education, the mass datamining of students and educators that will result from it, and the deskilling of education through our work evermore being replaced by AI. The position of ‘keeping ourselves and our students safe’ has actually hidden the real threat we are facing and has led teachers to be seen by many parents as animated only by the interests of saving our own skins (rightfully so in my opinion). But this story of safety is not true—we are actually hurting ourselves by agreeing to ANY remote learning at this point. The capitalists are now exploiting this schism between educators and parents.
Now the initiative has been pretty much taken by the capitalist class as lockdown fanatics like CA Governor Gavin Newsom or SF Mayor London Breed suddenly become champions of ‘opening schools’ when they have spent the last year cynically being merchants of the fear used to shut them. We educators, slow to recognize this shift in the narrative from the top, are now going to be blamed for some of the worst aspects of the lockdown imposed by the capitalist state. Now the workers (who were indoctrinated in fear by the capitalists) can be scapegoated as the barrier to ‘returning to normal’.
At the same time, capitalists are using all the fear they have whipped up to push for a return to school experience that will emphasize masks, social distancing, mass vaccinations and PCR testing, and of course, hybrid learning. Many people will mistake hybrid learning as a ‘transition’ back to full in-person learning at a future date (2023, 2024). That is false. Hybrid learning is the transition state to full online learning which is not yet workable for the capitalists but COVID made possible to begin the shift to the ‘experiment’ in education we’ve gone through this last year.
In a nutshell, education and educational workers have been smashed this last year, and we don’t even know it happened. Our situation, in my opinion, is dreadful.
5. What has been the attitude from other socialists when you raised criticisms?
Socialists in the United States have completely accepted the ‘virus as the greatest danger’ narrative even if their own politics are centered on understanding that the capitalist class and Capitalism represents an existential threat to all workers. They have accepted the need for lockdown and, in fact, have been critical that the lockdown has not been more severe.
They have accepted mask mandates. They have accepted the need for continued remote learning. They have accepted mass vaccination, critical only of the social justice issues of its implementation. They have accepted contact tracing largely without a peep of opposition nor even wondering who will benefit from our DNA being collected and mined as a result. They have accepted the narrative that the threat COVID represents justifies all these changes. They have also accepted and promoted the notion that any opposition to these measures is right-wing and anti-worker.
To the extent there has been a critique, it has been calling for a stimulus package that offers economic relief and more money in workers’ pockets from the government in the form of a universal basic income (UBI). This is also playing into the hands of the capitalists who will be delivering us a UBI as they move to a digital currency where they can use cash distributions to more directly control a working class population that’s increasingly desperate as more and more jobs are automated.
Basically, the revolutionary Left here has not only made a complete capitulation to the capitalist project but has joined in by pushing virtually every one of these anti-worker initiatives in the name of fighting for workers’ rights. It is really enough to make a revolutionary crazy in a world where ‘up’ means ‘down’, ‘freedom’ means ‘bondage’, ‘safety’ means ‘danger’, and ‘opposition’ means ‘surrender’.
6. Why do you think there has been so little pushback from the Left against lockdowns?
That is a good question. First off, the working class movement has gone through almost four consecutive decades of record low levels of class struggle. This fact has weakened the revolutionary Left for sure. Also, our association with socialism to these authoritarian states (from the former Soviet Union, to China, to Cuba, to Nicagagua, to Venezuela) as opposed to insisting on understanding socialism as direct working class control of all production through the institutions of working class democracy. Socialists have become infatuated with top-down State institutional answers to questions that can only be answered through working class struggle and insurrection.
Additionally, things like the Transition Program as a guide to getting our bearings in the absence of struggle and in our relative isolation has led revolutionaries to become reformists as they come up with schemes of proposing specific reforms that will lead workers to revolution. Tracing out a bread-crumb trail of reforms has had the effect not of radicalizing workers but of transforming generations of revolutionaries to think like reformists. Last, I think the low level of struggle, the atrophy of our organizations and complete isolation from the class has largely caused us to give up on the idea of working class revolution in anything but name. We are no longer animated by that singular goal because we see it as so far off. That’s my best guess.
Since Marxist class politics are largely absent and separated from the U.S. working class, the revolutionary Left has both been weakened and even politically influenced by the rise and dominance of identity politics within the U.S. Left as a response to the attacks by the capitalist class. While wrapped in radical, anti-racist rhetoric, identity politics has had the net effect of both dividing the working class along identity lines and politically feeding workers into the Democratic Party who are the main ruling class advocates of both identity politics and of lockdowns, biomedical mandates and Covid fear-mongering.
Overall, A revolutionary Left that has given up on revolution can only work within the capitalist framework of reforms as it makes its way through the system. I think that is what we have been doing, coming up with capitalist solutions to problems that have no fundamental answer save through international working class socialist revolution. But if you have given up on that possibility because it seems so far off, then you are stuck talking about capitalism in capitalist terms.
7. Have you any ideas on how the Left can fight back and build a resistance movement against the bio-security state?
You can’t fight these things if you are not actually against them. So the first thing the Left in the United States needs to do is get its head on straight and realize it must oppose all contact tracing initiatives, any mandated testing, mandated vaccinations and any ID system that will be used to force workers and students to participate in these programs. We also have to expose and oppose the DNA mining endemic in the testing regime we are being put through and the data mining in all this remote work, remote learning, remote purchasing and remote living we are being put through.
Fundamentally, we have to remind ourselves that our project is a collective one and that any attempt to separate workers instituted by the capitalist class must be seen as an attack on our class and resisted as such. We will not be able to wage ANY sort of resistance to what is being instituted through the Fourth Industrial revolution behind our laptops. No matter how big our virtual meetings, we have to understand those meetings are in a controlled, corporate space that can be shut down by them any time. No fundamental change will come through participation in those spaces. So our starting point must be to challenge the mainstream narrative that is being used to terrify us of each other and then actually reassemble at work or other physical spaces to figure out what we do to try and turn the tide.
At schools, I think that means ripping up the Silicon Valley software and hardware infrastructure that is being used to dismantle in-person learning and prepare future workers for an all-remote experience and to use the work of current educators to lay the groundwork for replacing us with AI. In my opinion, that means uprooting the entire digital apparatus that’s in place and returning education to a physical, sensory experience of the world and in relationship with each other. How deep does the uprooting have to go? I am not sure, but I would say that the fight is not just about ‘returning’ to our pre-COVID educational system (that system has always been about exploitation), but seeing our schools as a center of struggle against the machinations of the Capitalists trying to reorganize all of society to maximize profits by maximizing their data collection on us.
8. Would you like to send out a message to other socialists internationally who are fighting the lockdown?
All I can say is thank you to socialists, anarchists and revolutionaries of any stripe across the water who have been responsible for reminding us that revolutionary work requires complete opposition to the capitalist project. We have fallen down badly here in the United States and I think it will be your efforts abroad that may shine a light to help orient and re-orient revolutionaries here.
I guess I would ask that we remember that the fight isn’t against Lockdown but against the capitalist class that is using lockdown to control and frighten us. Lockdowns will pass, but unless we remember that our goal is to take down the entire system, and that that project, as far away as it may seem, is an immediate and an urgent one, then we are much less likely to get fooled again. We still have nothing to lose but our chains. That is worth remembering in this time of drought and difficulty.