A labor organizer’s review of Cory Doctorow’s For the Win

An alternative cover for <em>For the Win</em>.  A young man in a baseball cap climbs over a fence.  Behind him stands mecha suit.

The cover of For the Win. Three Asian teenagers stand in a line, wearing helmets and riot shields. A tagline reads, "Online or offline. You've got to organize to survive."

The following is a repost of a book review I wrote of Cory Doctorow’s novel For the Win that I posted on the Feminist Science Fiction Blog.  I am sharing my book review here because Border House readers may find Doctorow’s themes of gaming and social justice relevant and engaging.

Just when I think my interests are obscure, blogger, journalist, and author of science fiction Cory Doctorow is there for me. When I wrote my English literature master’s thesis on posthumanism and Disney theme parks and my advisor suggested I talk about, you know, literature in my the thesis for my literature degree, Doctor’s first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was there for me. Now, just when I think my academic interests in virtual economies, my enthusiasm for gaming, and my participation in labor activism will never intersect, I read Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win. My thoughts on the novel follow, from my perspective as both a labor organizer and gamer.

Before I go on to review For the Win, you can click the above link to download the book. Doctorow, a Creative Commons pioneer, releases all his books online. I don’t have the attention span to read a novel on the computer screen (plus it feels too much like reading fanfic), but I appreciate the accessibility of his literature.

For the Win is a revival of early 20th century labor novels; it’s a story of class struggle in a world where 8 out of the twenty largest economies are in virtual worlds. Gold farmers and other virtual workers organize the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web (or Webblies) to fight back against the bosses stealing their wages. The struggle is chronicled through a diverse cast of mostly teenagers and young people in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, India, the factory cities of South China, and the red-light district of Singapore. Characters include the 15-year-old Mala, also known as “General Robotwalla,” who commands her own virtual army, and her best friend Yasmin, who stands up to strikebreaking thugs and union bureaucrats alike. Both girls are both formidable in a fight online and off. Then there is Leonard, a rich American teenage Chinaphile who changes his name to Wei-Dong and smuggles himself to China in a shipping container to join his guildmates in the struggle. My favorite of the guildmates is Lu, who stood up for factory girls when they were locked out of their sweatshop. Another hero is Jie, a young woman whose arms are branded with the corporate logos of the sweatshops she’s worked in. Jie runs a popular radio show and tells the millions of factory girl listeners to stand up to their bosses and stand with their sisters. Jie is a catalyst in instigating a general strike amongst the sweatshop workers in solidarity with gold farmers.

I’ve just noted some of the major characters; For the Win has a huge cast. These young workers follow the guidance of Big Sister Nor, an Indonesian labor organizer who has moved from organizing sweatshops towards online workers. She founds the IWWWW, which is a revival of the historic Industrial Workers of the World (or the Wobblies), the radical labor union comprised of anarchists and other socialists that organized as many as 300,000 workers in the United States during its peak years in the 1910s and 1920s. Doctorow briefly explains some of the history of the Wobblies and defines some labor terms like wildcat strike (when workers strike without the support of a union), scabs (workers hired to break strikes) and Pinkertons (thugs hired to beat up strikers, named after the Pinkerton detective agency) for his teenage audience who probably is unfamiliar with labor history thanks to the erasure of labor movements from mainstream textbooks. As Doctorow writes through the perspective of Big Sister Nor:

They called themselves the Webblies, which was an obscure little joke that pleased Big Sister Nor an awful lot. Nearly a century ago, a group of workers had formed a union called the Industrial Workers of the World, the first union that said that all workers needed to stick up for each other, that every worker was welcome no matter the color of his skin, no matter if the worker was a woman, no matter if the worker did “skilled” or “unskilled” work. They called themselves the Wobblies.

I’ll elaborate a little bit on the history of the Wobblies because I find their revival as Webblies in For the Win to be fascinating. The Wobblies intentionally differed from the moderate American Federation of Labor AFL unions that were organized around craftsmen (use of men is intentional) and excluded people based on gender, immigration, race, and skill to protect unionized workers. This exclusion was based on the fear that women, immigrants, people of color, and unskilled workers would work for less money and bring down wages for everyone. The Wobblies had a different perspective, and believed in organizing everyone into one big union. The IWW’s critique of traditional unionism can be found in the preamble of their constitution:

The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

AFL union leaders made backroom, undemocratic deals with bosses that screwed over rank-and-file workers. The Wobblies, on the other hand, organized everyone and believed in one big union. The IWW’s critique of traditional unions is essentially a critique of the classic divide and conquer tactic utilized by oppressors across the ages; make sure that the people with the least (be they workers, women, people of color, and so on) fight amongst themselves. Doctorow imagines how workers in a global economy might resist contemporary manifestations of divide and conquer. Many of the characters in For the Win, who have worked in sweatshops and stood up against unjust working conditions both as individuals or collectively, have seen how bosses and owners utilize this tactic in contemporary transnational business models: a worker resist as an individual, and she is fired and replaced by someone desperate for a job. Workers resist collectively, and their factory is shut down and moved to a country with even worse labor laws. The Webblies, our clever heroes, adapt the Wobbly philosophy for “an injury to one is an injury to all” and organize across borders through the virtual worlds in which they work.

In short, Doctorow captures some of the key philosophies of the Wobblies through his fictional Webblies revival: solidarity across race, and gender. This tactic is an especially smart response to the challenges organizers face in the 2010s–and I’m going to recommend this book to activist friends who know little of virtual worlds because their is fertile ground here for organizing. I also hope that this novel will inspire young people, gamers and virtual workers, to form their own Webbly locals in real life; since the nineteenth century utopian novel Looking Backward science fiction has a tradition of informing real world practices, and For the Win is an awesome candidate to continue this tradition.

An alternative cover for For the Win. A young man in a baseball cap climbs over a fence. Behind him stands mecha suit.

An alternative cover for For the Win. A young man in a baseball cap climbs over a fence. Behind him stands mecha suit. A tagline reads, "In the virtual future, you've got to organize to survive."

(Here on out I vaguely discuss the end of the book, be warned!)

The Webblies miss out on adapting other key elements from the traditional Wobblies, however: direct democracy and the abolition of capitalism. How the Webblies organize themselves is not fully explained in For the Win, but characters seem to defer to Big Sister Nor for leadership. At risk of being spoilery, Big Sister Nor challenges the Webblies dependence on her leadership and declares when she is matyred: “I am nothing more than the switchboard. You all lead yourselves.” Big Sister Nor reminds me of the martyred labor activist and songwriterJoe Hill‘s famous last words in 1915, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize!” that evolved into the activist slogan, “don’t mourn, organize.”

By the conclusion of For the Win, Big Sister Nor’s last message catches, and on the Webblies by the novel’s conclusion are self-empowered and autonomous–to an extent.

To explain my point, I’d like to include a dialogue from the book. Before Mala joins the Webblies, her army works as Pinkertons and virtually attacks gold farmers. One of Mala’s soldiers, Sushant, considers defecting and joining the Webblies. He confesses to Yasmin, who at this point is already a member of the IWWWW:

“But now I think that there’s no reason that Mrs Dotta’s job is more important than my mother’s job. Ammaji wouldn’t have a job without Mrs Dotta’s factory, but Mrs Dotta wouldn’t have a factory without ammaji’s work, right?” He [Sushant] waggled his chin defiantly.

“That’s right,” Yasmin said. She was nervous about being in public with this boy, but she had to admit that it was exciting to hear this all from him.

“So why should Mrs Dotta have the right to fire my mother, but my mother not have the right to fire Mrs Dotta? If they depend on each other, why should one of them always have the power to demand and the other one always have to ask for favors?”

Yasmin felt his excitement, but she knew that there had to be more to it than this. “Isn’t Mrs Dotta taking all the risk? Doesn’t she have to find the money to start the factory, and doesn’t she lose it if the factory closes?”

“Doesn’t ammaji risk losing her job? Doesn’t Ammaji risk growing sick from the fumes and the chemicals in the dyes? There’s nothing eternal or perfect or natural about it! It’s just something we all agreed to — bosses get to be in charge, instead of just being another kind of worker who contributes a different kind of work!”

“And that’s what you think you’ll get from the Webblies? An end to bosses?”

He looked down, blushing. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t think so. I think that it’s too much to ask for. But maybe the workers can get a better deal. That’s what Big Sister Nor talks about, isn’t it? Good pay, good places to work, fairness? Not being fired just because you disagree with the boss?”

I’ve included the dialogue leading up to the part I’ve bolded to capture some of Doctorow’s didactic writing style (which I’m fond of, in the tradition of labor novels) that reveals his perspectives through the dialogue of characters. Here, Sushant stresses that the Webblies have reasonable demands; they don’t want to disrupt hierarchies, but just make them more equitable. This demand contrasts the demands of the original Wobblies, who famously asserted in their preamble that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” and “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system’.”

The Webblies build towards a general strike, a tactic in which all members of an industry, or all industries, shut down in solidarity with striking comrades, practicing the slogan, “an injury to one is an injury all.” In For the Win, the general strike spontaneously breaks out early (struggles for justice are as much spontaneous as they are planned) when the police in China masacre 42 of the Webblies. In solidarity with all workers, hundreds of thousands of workers go on strike in multiple countries, including the women who work in sweatshops thanks to the radio host Jie building connections between their movements.

I was excited to see a general strike implemented in young adult science fiction. I found the conclusion a bit disappointing, however, because Wei-Dong and other Webbly leaders make a deal with bosses that is mutually beneficial to both parties. Ultimately Wei-Dong is unwilling to destroy the games he loves. (Which raises interesting questions about the investment we have in the unjust but pleasurable systems we participate in. Would it have been possible for the Webblies to seize control of the virtual worlds to the point that they ran them? Perhaps that is a question for another novel.) The Webblies become like the AFL of the previous century; they’ve made a deal with the people who oppress them rather than creating a socially just society democratically run by workers. On the other hand, I can appreciate that the Webblies are not attached to a particular ideology or revolutionary vision; their struggle is a fresh and innovative fight against multinational corporations and capitalism.

I also want to note that the Wobblies still exist today and operate on the same principals they organized around during their early decades. I hope young gamers who are inspired by For the Win look into getting involved with an IWW local, and that activists might be inspired by this book to think creatively about how we might utilize virtual spaces to organize.

Why write about For the Win on a feminist blog? Foremost, class struggle has been and still is a feminist concern if our goal is to create a socially just world. Second, I want to give this book props for centering women as the key players in a social movement. This book gave me a lot to cheer for: Jie, who keeps her cool as she fled from safehouse to safehouse to continue broadcasting her subversive radio show; a factory girl who publicly called out sexually abusive boss; Mala, who commands a virtual army and singlehandedly puts a would-be sexual assailant in the hospital; Yasmin, who stood up to old labor leaders who refused to see her work as legitimate labor; Big Sister Nor, who recruited activists across national borders and language barriers; and the hundreds of factory girls who battle cops in the street when the police try to break their strikes. For the Win is indulgent fiction at its best, and gives me plenty to root for.

8 thoughts on “A labor organizer’s review of Cory Doctorow’s For the Win”

  1. Industrial Workers of the World, not “International.” (Common mistake, though.) Otherwise, this is being led to the VIP door of the to-read lineup. Thanks! :)

  2. It is such a superb book, isn’t it? Some people complained about the occasional info-dumps and I could do without the explanations of MMO terms (being familiar with them myself), but hell, I’m certainly too ignorant of economic theories to not require the info-dumps and to some people the MMO terms were probably gibberish.

  3. Great post, nice review. I appreciate the labor context. (Though I could not get into the novel, myself. I think Doctorow’s short fiction is better. FTW was distractingly flat for me. Perhaps I will try again.)

  4. Thanks ED! I also had a hard time getting into FTW when I tried to read it online when it first came out. I liked it more once the characters started rioting.

    I hope you write a guest post here sometime, too!

  5. I think the book could really have used a better editor; it gets quite repetitive at times (which is especially jarring when the repetition involves the author’s ethnic stereotypes, if I see “dumplings” one more time I might just cry) and it’s way way too long for a YA novel. I found myself struggling to finish, and I’m a Socialist, a gamer, someone from the Second World, and a Cory Doctorow fan… so one’d think I’d love this book, but I didn’t. It wasn’t bad but it was somewhat of a disappointment. IMO he should stick to short story or novella length, that’s what he does best.

  6. Um… how is eating dumplings a stereotype? Is it a stereotype for a poor white American to talk about living off “American” fast food? Dumplings, baozi… these are Chinese street foods, cheap, filling, and easily available. I have my problems with FTW, but seriously, characters eating dumplings is not one of them.

    And yeah, I’m Asian, and yeah, I grew up in a culturally Chinese-influenced Asian nation. Don’t even go there.

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