Shovel According to Your Ability, Dibs According to Your Need "'Chicago Dibs', Chicago - 1/11/09" by TheWanderBroad is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Shovel According to Your Ability, Dibs According to Your Need

Chicago winters create certain routines: dealing with snow, dealing with dibs, debating dibs. The fact that the debates always end up deadlocked points to a problem in how we approach the debate. What I’d like to try to do is take a Marxist approach to the dibs debate to arrive at a resolution while also trying to demonstrate what the Marxist approach could look like. While this winter is winding down, my hope is that this approach could be applied next winter, as well as to other political questions like the current hot topic of mutual aid.

What is “Dibs” and How is it Debated?

Dibs is the practice, going back to 1967, of individuals shoveling their car out of a parking space, then leaving some piece of furniture or garbage in the parking space to claim it as theirs and hold it until they return. If someone else takes the parking spot with a dibs item in it, they risk some kind of violence or vandalism by the person that originally shoveled it clear. This behavior only occurs after heavy snowfall and is essentially a response to scarcity.

Regarding the practice of dibs, Chicagoans fall into principled camps:

  • Pro-dibs — it is a justified, organic phenomenon of the working class
  • Anti-dibs — it is selfish and anti-public spaces

Both of these camps basically see dibs as an all-or-nothing behavior: people either should or should not do it, no gray space.

The Marxist Compass

Next, I’d like to define my sense of a Marxist approach to politics.

Marxism is a compass with its true north defined by this opening statement from the rules of the International Workingmen’s Association (i.e. The First International):

That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves

If our ultimate goal is to help in the self-emancipation of the working class, then our primary objectives are to identify, and learn to work within, working-class movements.

As stated in the Communist Manifesto:

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

In other words, we go into movements to draw out all the connections that a given struggle has to the larger struggle to overthrow capitalism. In doing so, it is our job to bring our political compass into the movements, to work with the movements to figure out a socialist approach to any given self-activity of the working class.

We never stand apart from these movements, telling them that they are wrong or forbidden. To put it another way, Marxists have the duty to take a “sexual education” approach to movements, rather than an “abstinence-only” approach. As mentioned in the Communist Manifesto:

[The communists] do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The self-activity of the masses will carry on, with or without us. But without our compass, they are more likely to lose direction.

Finally, the Marxist approach looks to culminate in an organized proletariat capable of the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Again, from the Manifesto:

The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.

Just to summarize:

  • Marxism is a compass
  • Its true north is the self-emancipation of the working class
  • Its method is identifying the self-activity of the masses and figuring out a socialist approach to that activity with the masses
  • to culminate in working-class self-emancipation by the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class

There is much more to say about Marxism’s understanding of race, class, gender, sexuality, economics, imperialism, internationalism, etc. But those are the things that Marxists take into the movement to figure out the socialist approach.

For the purposes of this article, we mainly need to understand Marxism as a compass that allows us to both identify working-class self-activity and guide us as we engage that self-activity.

Dibs and Marxism

I think dibs is a form of working-class self-activity. It has become an undeniable cultural phenomenon that people all across Chicago engage in. But they collectively engage in it in an isolated way. To the best of my knowledge, this is in part because the socialists, as well as all other political tendencies, have stood aloof from it: either uncritically supporting without anything to add or taking a sectarian stance against something that the vast majority engage in.

We can draw comparisons to this debate in the discussion of mutual aid.

People all over the country have set up mutual aid to support each other, but there has not been an organized, socialist approach to it. The default approach is to simply provide “direct service” (i.e. collect money, goods, individuals that can provide something the needs, and then distribute those things or people).

In the absence of socialists that can help craft a socialist approach to mutual aid through engagement with it, some socialists have taken the sectarian position that mutual aid is inherently a substitute for the “real work of class struggle”. In other words, in some cases, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other cases, it misses the fact that “the real work”, with or without socialists, is finding ways to organize increasingly larger sections of the working-classes. Unions, ward organizations, socialist organizations, neighborhood block clubs, single-issue groups, shoveling groups: all of these are ways to get people organized.

So if we step back, we see that the work of socialists is to

  • identify working-class self-activity
  • engage with it to develop a socialist approach to it so that the activity can become an opportunity to organize larger sections of the working class
  • because the self-conscious, organized working class is the true power that we want to build

In this light, dibs is an opportunity.

Socialists could walk up and down their blocks and recruit neighbors to form shoveling squads that will shovel the entire block. Socialists could build their own mutual aid organizations, or work with existing mutual aid organizations, to form shoveling squads. Socialists could work with local organizations or elected officials to expand this program across wards/districts.

In all of these examples, working-class people are being organized, experiencing the power of their collective action, and are in regular contact with socialists. Socialists can use these opportunities to agitate for unionized, government jobs that will perform these tasks for a living wage. Socialists can use these conversations to discuss wider problems of local, national, and international politics, and recruit to socialist organizations.

These newly organized workers can now form the basis of networks that could be mobilized for other emergencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids (immigrant defense), racist or fascist attacks on a neighborhood (community defense), or responses to a climate catastrophe (like the ongoing horrors in Texas). These can also become networks to provide strike solidarity for neighborhood schools or part of the infrastructure for local elections, etc. Lastly, these organizing lessons can also be taken by these individuals back to their workplaces, school campuses, essentially spreading the seeds of organizing.

When working-class people experience productive organization, especially alongside organized socialists, they become emboldened and curious about what else can be achieved.

This is just one hypothetical example of how a Marxist approach to any instance of working-class self-activity can become an opportunity for the long battle to overthrow capitalism.

Socialist politics should not be dogmatic. There is no need to defend a behavior as “inherently working class” or attack it as “inherently anti-social”. Study the behavior, learn from the working class self-activity, and build power from where people are at.

That is socialism: dynamic, humanized, and dialectical.


I’m grateful for the advice and contributions by J. Michael Eugenio.