Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Socialism through the looking glass, or wage-labour as liberation (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone on the left in France during the past two decades cannot help but be struck by the constant references to the need for the Labour Movement to defend, yes defend, wage-labour (le salariat.) The problem here is partly that of translation. For English speakers, a ‘salaried worker’ is an ’employee’, often someone who has a certain security of employment. Salaried staff were paid monthly by direct payments into a bank account. Le salariat retains something of this flavour. In Britain in the sixties, indeed, parents were happy if their offspring could get the qualifications needed to work in a bank, earning a salary; regular work, a permanent contract, good pay, and the chance of finding accommodation. Salaried work was what got you out of the uncertainties of hawking yourself around for factory work in return for low earnings paid in cash. Those old enough to recall the sensation caused by Clive Jenkins when he succeeded in recruiting white-collared salaried staff into the trade union movement know all about this. However, that was then. Nowadays, insecure and poor pay has made massive inroads into the world of white-collar employment.

Similar considerations hold for France of course. But in this case the increasingly frequent inroads into employment conditions undertaken by the capitalists have led some Communist Party intellectuals to openly defend le salariat notably against the promotion of the pseudo-independence of workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’. As a result, calls for ‘l’abolition du salariat’ have become inaudible, if not incomprehensible. The CGT trade union literature which once considered the elimination of le salariat as tantamount to the abolition of capitalism now call for the former’s consolidation. Take for example, the 2002 leaflet by Bernard Vasseur Vers l’après capitalisme (‘Towards post-capitalism’). Or the very popular writings of Bernard Friot, very much the leading expert of social security on the left. In these publications there is the idea that le salariat represents something of a power independent of capitalist relations of production, French workers having succeeded in imposing preconditions on the employment of labour which have not only improved the bargaining power of workers but largely conquered a bulwark against exploitation. They have done this collectively by partially socialising the wage itself through reforms based on the contributory welfare system, unemployment insurance, family allowances, municipal housing and so on. In all this, the building of the code du travail has been a major vector in this progressive tendency.

Doubtless, the popularity of the notion of le salariat is due to the massive entry of women into paid work and the expansion of the service sector. This has undermined traditional trade union practices largely centred on manual workers or their French equivalent, les ouvriers. In France (but not exclusively) ouvrièrisme tended to be heavily gendered even when practised by the so-called Marxist left and white-collar workers were seen as doubtful class allies. The notion of le salarié by contrast encompasses both white and blue-collar work irrespective of gender and is clearly a step towards the notion of a wage-earning class. Nonetheless it creates its own peculiar difficulties. For example, it implies that militants have to wrestle with the intricacies of social policy given that the state is necessarily more heavily involved in the social reproduction of this class than in the simple cash nexus of nineteenth-century exploitation. The remaining confusions probably derive from the difficulties involved in capturing the reality of an exploitation which was once exclusively identified with noisy factories in the private sector.

True, however, to their often eccentric reading of Marx, the French Communists of this tendency have signally failed to rise to this challenge, their confusions over the centrality of exchange value production leading them to badly fudge its relationship to wage-labour (see Alain BihrUniversaliser le salaire ou supprimer le salariat. A propos de “L’enjeu du salaire” de Bernard Friot). As a result, when wage-labour is identified with the separation of the worker from the means of production and subsistence, they are surprisingly silent. Perhaps this is a tribute to the all-encompassing nature of the French ‘welfare state’, now up for grabs. For whatever reason, students of le salariat on the French side of the Channel are more prompt to mask the reality of lack of property than English social historians. Hardly surprising then that the former civil servants enjoy an almost legendary status as exemplary salariés largely because they benefit from the security of lifetime employment. It’s surely not an accident that many of the policy recommendations outlined by Friot and his collaborators read like an extension of the terms and condition of public service employment into the private sector. With politicians tending increasingly to move the cursor in the opposite direction, it is surely important to devote some effort to understanding the link between capitalist growth and the reality of dispossession.

So what then is le salariat? 
Much of the conceptual groundwork for this thinking is to be found in Robert Castel’s Les metamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat published in 1995. The American edition, which heroically translates ‘salariat’ as wage-labour, tends to over-determine the notion but is fairly uncontroversial. Castel usefully traced the development of wage-labour from its origins on the fringes of medieval society where (artisanal) work took place in organised guilds operating in parallel to peasant production. Such forms of labour were gradually supplanted by employment in its modern form as factory work although semi-artisanal forms of labour persisted and indeed still do. Marx, of course, concentrated his attention on the situation of those who begin their working lives as the sellers of labour-power on the open market. Similarly, in constructing his own particular genealogy, Castel (rightly) laid stress on the long transitional phase where a certain class of workers were pitchforked into vagrancy as a result of the dissolving of feudal relationships. Here propertyless workers emerged as vulnerable vagabonds and marginals; the despised scum of a traditional culture.

The singularity of Castel’s approach to this historical development is the emphasis he placed on the long period in France wherein semi-artisanal forms of labour co-existed with the continuation of small and medium-scale peasant holdings. Because the French economy was less subject to the large-scale enclosures typical of English agriculture, the mobility of the French working class tended to follow seasonal patterns of inter-sectional mobility. Much of the large-scale economic development took place in the rural hinterland where wannabe capitalists tended to rely upon sub-contractors and worker-peasants, classes which defy easy definition. The sharp cut-offs and sudden take-off into capitalist industrialism of the English case are not so evident in France.

In this context, employers were often sub-contracting entrepreneurs hiring members of peasant households. But there were also forms of labour involving skilled artisanal workers in the urban areas and a fluctuating group of nomadic semi-artisanal workers who dovetailed seasonal patterns of work in agriculture with occasional remunerative work in the urban areas. With the advent of industrialisation French workers managed to transform what could have been an unpromising situation of economic dependence by mobilising what civic advantages were available.

Following the French revolution, the existing code civil was extended to produce the famous code du travail. This was a movement towards a legal framework which clearly identified employers as the agents responsible for undertaking the tasks outlined in a work contract based on legal equality. (In England, of course, the relations between workers and their employers were governed by the class-biased Master and Servant Acts backed up by the severely repressive Poor Laws.) Although the emphasis placed upon legal égalité, took the form of an explicit recognition of the subordination of the wage-earner to the employer, this subordination was limited by co-managed industrial courts.

In the case of some workers, a very varied population of workers (ouvriers) recruited by sub-contractors into piece-work were increasingly paid time-wages and identified as salariés. The employers were obliged to accept their legal responsibilities towards their workers and could no longer rely upon management through intermediaries. Over time, the collective power of the working class has consolidated around trade unions which have skilfully used these legal structures to good effect. This has meant that in France permanent contracts still operate as the standard of employment in industrial tribunals and employers often have difficulty in opting out of their obligations in this respect. This is very much the reality that the notion of the salariat (or the société salariale) seeks to capture.

The current situation
This being said, Castel later traced the unremitting efforts of the French capitalist class to weaken the collective strength represented by le salariat with legislation aimed at creating a more precarious class of hired hands. (The list is long.) Against this the French Communists involved in promoting the salariat are really all involved in defending the way wage-labour has been constructed around integrative measures. This is a good way to avoid welfare-statism, or the patronising idea that wage earners as helpless workers need protection against poverty. After all, many of the measures identified with ‘welfare’ were constitutive of wage-labour and its reproduction. To a large extent, their elimination is often not at all on the agenda. On the other hand, de-naturalizing is more often than not the objective sought after.

Thus, for example, the existing pension schemes in France were better defended against budget cuts by arguing that they were in fact a continuation of the salary of the worker rather than depicting them as deferred savings granted to the elderly poor. In the same way, unemployment insurance can be seen as nothing more than a continuation of the salary during the inevitable downswings of economic activity and redeployment. Similar things can be said about family allowances which, for all their shortcomings, constitute a real salary capable of replacing the haphazard pseudo-equality of nominal wages. These are some of the more interesting points contained in the notion of the salariat, students of Titmuss would do well to note.

These points being made, does all this mean that wage-earners should be satisfied with their current position within global capitalism? Obviously not. Interestingly, Friot himself promotes measures aimed at the abolition of what he describes as ‘lucrative property’ presumably meaning private ownership of the means of production. But this is precisely the axis around which the relationship between capital and wage-labour turns, the workers being obliged by their slim grasp on the means of subsistence to sell their labour-power to employers bent on the expansion of capital. This is the point we already raised. At the moment, the impersonal forces operating within the sector of finance capital are imposing conditions of work which have more to do with profitability than with the preservation of le salariat, however defined. So to some extent the fraught relationship between capital and labour is being dragged backwards towards the conditions of the nineteenth century.

Worker co-operatives in the capitalist system (2024)

From the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Proponents of capitalism would have you believe that there is no alternative, that the free market provides the most efficient system of exchange and that any deviation risks endangering freedom and prosperity. This is a falsehood, for humans have demonstrated throughout history a remarkable capacity to co-operate without private ownership and the insatiable need for profit. Closer examination of worker co-operatives, despite their long-standing orientation towards generating wealth within the capitalist system, offers a glimpse at how humanity may one day succeed in recasting incentivisation to meet people’s needs rather than to make a profit.

The history of worker co-operatives and self-management is deeply rooted in the 19th-century efforts to address the socio-economic challenges brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Robert Owen, a visionary social reformer and industrialist in the early 1800s, laid the groundwork for the co-operative movement. Owen championed the idea that workers should collectively own and manage the means of production to ensure fair wages and better working conditions. His experiments at New Lanark in Scotland and later at New Harmony in the United States provided early models of co-operative living and working. Others like Charles Fourier, a French social theorist, contributed to the co-operative movement by proposing the concept of phalansteries—self-sustaining communities where individuals could live and work co-operatively. Although Fourier’s ideas were not widely implemented, they inspired later developments in the co-operative movement.

Elsewhere, the Rochdale Society of Pioneers, formed in 1844 in England, played a pivotal role in shaping the co-operative principles that persist today. They established a successful consumer co-operative, emphasising open membership, democratic control, and distribution of surplus based on patronage. Indeed, the so-called ‘Rochdale Principles’ became a blueprint for subsequent co-operative endeavours.

The modest successes of the co-operative movement led Marx to pronounce that worker self-management proved the superfluousness of capitalist managerialism; a statement ostensibly corroborated decades later during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Worker co-operatives and self-management gained prominence across the Republican zone as a means for labourers to assert control over their workplaces. In Catalonia, particularly in the city of Barcelona, workers took over factories and implemented self-management practices. Notable examples include the textile industry with enterprises like Fabrica de Hilaturas Fabra i Coats and the metal industry with companies like Talleres Roca. These initiatives were characterised by worker assemblies, decision-making through consensus, and the elimination of hierarchical structures. The success of these worker co-operatives during the Spanish Civil War was evident in increased productivity and improved working conditions. The textile co-operative, Fabra i Coats, for instance, not only maintained production levels but also witnessed enhanced efficiency under worker control. Similarly, in the metal industry, Talleres Roca thrived under self-management, showcasing the viability of co-operative principles in sustaining economic activity during a tumultuous period.

However, the existence of worker co-operatives within a capitalist system has inevitably led to certain contradictions. Notwithstanding the inculcation of workplace democracy and equality, the necessity to compete and accumulate in the broader system persists, and in face of these structural demands, worker co-operatives have often proven ineffective and unreliable.

Despite his visionary ideals, Owen’s experiments at New Lanark and New Harmony faced internal strife and financial difficulties. The co-operative model struggled with issues of governance, as decision-making by consensus often led to slow and inefficient processes. In New Harmony, the lack of a clear organisational structure and the imposition of Owen’s communal ideas contributed to the ultimate failure of the experiment.

Similarly, during the Spanish Civil War, worker co-operatives in Barcelona faced both internal and external challenges. While some co-operatives thrived, others struggled with management issues, as decision-making by assembly sometimes hindered effective responses to rapidly changing circumstances. Even the relatively successful Fabrica de Hilaturas Fabra i Coats faced difficulties due to disagreements among workers on key decisions, highlighting the challenges of implementing democratic practices in high-stakes situations. External factors too, such as wartime pressures and political instability, also impacted the sustainability of these initiatives. The Barcelona co-operatives, despite notable successes, faced challenges in the broader socio-political context of the Spanish Civil War, ultimately contributing to their limitations and demonstrating the complexity of implementing worker self-management in tumultuous times.

That said, worker co-operatives endure today. The Mondragon Co-operative Corporation, based in the Basque region of Spain, is an often-cited example. Founded in 1956 by a group of visionary individuals led by Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, Mondragon has grown into one of the world’s largest and most successful co-operative networks. Proponents point to the active participation of employees in decision-making processes through a system of co-determination, where major decisions are made collectively by the workers and management, as well as the commitment to equality of income. While wage differentials exist based on skills and responsibilities, the ratio between the highest and lowest-paid worker is significantly lower than in traditional corporations. This approach promotes a more equitable distribution of wealth among the co-operative members. In terms of profit distribution, a portion of the profits is reinvested in the co-operative, another portion is allocated to social and cultural activities, and the rest is distributed among the members.

Critics, however, argue that Mondragon, while often lauded as a successful worker co-operative, still operates within the broader capitalist system, raising concerns about its limitations and contradictions. One major criticism is that, despite its co-operative structure, Mondragon has adopted certain hierarchical elements, resembling a conventional corporation. While the co-operative members elect management, there exists a professional managerial class that holds considerable decision-making power, potentially diluting the essence of true workplace democracy.

Additionally, Mondragon’s global expansion has led to accusations of replicating conventional corporate practices, including outsourcing and wage differentials, especially in its international subsidiaries. Critics contend that this compromises the co-operative’s commitment to equality, as the wage gaps between the highest and lowest-paid workers have widened in some instances.

Furthermore, the co-operative has faced challenges in maintaining its founding principles as it expanded. In certain situations, Mondragon has implemented cost-cutting measures and layoffs, contradicting the ideal of job security within a co-operative framework. The co-operative’s financial structure has also been a subject of scrutiny, with some arguing that it still operates within the capitalistic framework, reliant on traditional banking and financial institutions. These criticisms highlight the complexities and challenges of attempting to establish a fully co-operative model within the capitalist system, revealing that Mondragon, despite its successes, does not represent a complete departure from capitalist structures and practices.

World co-operative commonwealth
Thus, it is evident that simply introducing a system of worker co-operatives cannot expunge capitalism. The worker co-operative in its current form is not a panacea. Like other workplaces it is geared towards the generation of wealth within the capitalist system. However, the worker co-operative endures as an ideal, an alternative framework where decision-making is collective and understanding one’s role in a larger societal context becomes paramount, fostering a spirit of co-operation and shared responsibility.

If humans across the globe were to adopt worker co-operatives within the confines of capitalism, it would likely serve to mitigate some of the exploitation associated with the current economic system by redistributing wealth and cultivating workplace democracy. That said, an integral component of the capitalist system would remain in the form of surplus value and money exchange, and so there would persist a means to profit through the exploitation of workers. The ideal of a global system of co-operatives could only reach its full potential on the basis of world socialism, a system in which production is geared not towards sale and the accumulation of private wealth but towards using one’s abilities to meet both individual and community needs.
John Elliston

Reforming capitalism (2024)

Book Review from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Climate Change as Class War. Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. By Matthew T. Huber. Verso, 2023. 312pp.

American geographer Matthew Huber has produced a thought-provoking book on society and climate change. It examines in wide-ranging and immensely knowledgeable fashion how history (and in particular the history of capitalism) has got us where we are as a species and offers considered proposals for addressing the current planetary environmental crisis in a way the author sees as benefitting the majority of the population, ie, those who have to sell their energies to an employer for a wage or salary in order to live.

He makes it clear from the start that his concern is for this latter group, ie, the world’s workers. And his aim – his ultimate aim anyway – is a non-class-divided society. Then of course there is the perennial question of how to achieve that, and this – in part at least – is what this book is about. However, since in the author’s view post-capitalism in terms of a classless society is not on the immediate horizon, he sees immediate action of some kind as essential, otherwise the climate crisis will engulf humanity and nothing will be left to save.

The action he advocates (focusing almost exclusively on the US situation – something he recognises) is the strongest possible pressure on government to adopt and implement ’Green New Deal’ policies (described as ‘a working-class environmental program’). Such policies would involve the government taking over the energy sector completely and instituting drastic policies of decarbonisation to achieve a ‘just transition to a clean energy economy’. One of the keys to this he sees as the overwhelming adoption and use of electricity to replace fossil fuels for the purpose of producing and supplying energy and so, in his view, avert the dire climate consequences and environmental degradation we see at present. This is because, in the author’s words, ‘electricity is at the core of almost everything we do in an increasingly digital world (…) economic activity is impossible without electricity’. He sums up his vision by saying that ‘the politics of the Green New Deal seeks to conjoin working-class and ecological interests into one, under the umbrella of a politics of life’. How will this pressure be placed on government? The author sees it as happening via sustained trade union action by workers from ‘a broad and diverse working class’, but especially those in key industries with ‘strikes and disruption at the point of production’.

Is this possible or likely? Of course, the author is perfectly right in arguing that, when trade union action is sufficiently solid and well-focused, employers and governments have no choice but to listen and may make concessions. He gives certain examples from the experience of industrial action in the US to show that ‘strikes can build power and win’. But the question then arises, what would be the consequences if such a strategy were successful in the key sector of energy and the government moved to take over the sector?

To answer this, it is worth mentioning a book possibly dating from after when Climate Change as Class War was written. This is   by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert (reviewed in the January 2023 issue of this journal), which explains how any Green New Deal agenda, even if implemented, would be no less harmful than the fossil fuel use it might seek to replace. This is because, with the money and market system still operating (even if under government supervision), the Earth would still be a target for commodification, and the process of production and setting up and maintenance of infrastructure even for ‘green’, ‘renewable’ sources of energy would continue to extract from the environment resources it could not afford to lose and in this process carry on causing climate change and destroying the Earth’s geological fabric.

So though, as already stated, Huber’s book is extraordinarily wide-ranging in the many areas and sources it draws on, would it be possible for governments, whose very function is to be, in the author’s own words, ‘committed to private capital and anarchic market competition’, to somehow change their nature and the role of managing and supporting the market system, to truly recognise ‘the inherent antagonisms between capital and the climate’ and to no longer act as an executive committee for their national owners of capital?

Then there is the author’s focus on trade unions. While unions are necessary institutions for workers to try and resist the encroachments of capital and get what they can in terms of pay and working conditions, they are by their nature defensive bodies, whose purpose is not, nor can be, ‘political’ as such. Trade unions may of course be places where political ideas circulate and where socialist consciousness may spread, but they cannot in themselves offer solutions to the fundamental inequalities inherent in the class-divided society, which the author rightly sees as fundamental to capitalism and its market system. Still less can unions be a tool for some kind of quick solution to the problems of ecological breakdown that threatens the whole planet.

So rather than look to the short-term ‘fix’ (which isn’t actually a fix at all) of action to try and force governments to take control over energy, a far more practical purpose would be served if all those who, like Matthew Huber, have striking and often subtle insights into how the world is organised, recognise the class-based nature of society and understand its highly detrimental effects both for human life and the biosphere as a whole, campaigned as part of a democratic political movement putting forward the case for majority action of the world’s people to collectively organise for a leaderless, stateless, marketless society – one that will emancipate the human species, protect the environment and look after the Earth’s ecology as a whole. That will be the real ‘just transition’.
Howard Moss