We’ve mentioned For the Win a number of times on the podcast, so I thought it was time to write a review. We’d still like to create a books section on the site, so hopefully this can contribute towards that.
There is a shortage of literature on trade union organising, so it is a real pleasure to come across Cory Doctorow’s novel about the union organising efforts of a group of young workers in online games in the near future. Unions often seem stuck in the past, and we have suffered from a collective failure of imagination as we have been too busy fire fighting to look at how we might organise emerging sectors. It’s interesting that the best exploration of trade union organising in the information age comes from the world of science fiction.
Doctorow’s For the Win outlines a campaign by the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web – the Webblies – to organise cyberspace. For the Win is set in the internet cafes of South East Asia in the near future, and tells the story of workers in online video games earning points to sell to Western players. In these games – like current games World of Warcraft and Skyrim – it takes many hours of gaming to earn perks such as effective weapons and other digital, in game bonuses. The young gang of sweatshop gamers puts in long shifts of gaming to earn credit that can be sold to Western gamers keen to level up, but too lazy to put in the hours. When their gangmasters crack down, they start an in game union organising campaign. Their online avatars unionise and take part in the kind of coordinated mass online action that Anonymous has made famous.
They have to face old-fashioned scabs, and real world vicious gangs hired by the bosses. In order to survive, they build links and solidarity with workers in the real world economy. There are plenty of misunderstandings as they make their case to the more traditional trade unions in the Indian textile industry, but solidarity wins the day in the end. Crucially, they are able to make links with a woman organising illegal “factory girl” unions in China’s sweatshops through a talk show podcast.
The book is aimed at young readers, and would be an excellent gift for a young person with an awakening political consciousness. However, it’s well written and researched, and makes an excellent read for anyone interested in the intersections between unions, technology and economics. Doctorow’s description of the development of a speculative bubble in “game gold” – digital currency earned in online games – is all to believable. This is how capitalism works.
Doctorow’s vision of a new unionism emerging from developing economies and new sectors opened up by technology is prescient, as is the implicit critique that existing unions are too bureaucratically rigid to take on this challenge. He suggests that the challenge for trade union leaders is to realise that we need decentralised organisation, and to let power pass gracefully from their hands to their activists. Activists should be encouraged to experiment with technology, and to build horizontal networks. By managing the shift to more open and decentralised organising structures, the new breed of trade union organisers will be radical facilitators, rather than tub-thumping militants.
The age of mobilising industrial armies is passing. The information age needs a networked trade unionism that builds a swarm of activism around workplace rights and popular campaigns, and acts as the industrial muscle in a world-wide struggle for social justice. Doctorow’s book is a remarkable work of the imagination that allows us to envisage this future.
Even better, Doctorow believes in flexible, balanced copyright, and the book has a Creative Commons license. That means you can either buy a hard copy
, for free and legally, from his website.
– Follow @doctorow on twitter.