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Workers Control, not Controlled Workers: the case for libertarian socialism & workers control

Much work carried out in today’s society is boring, useless and stressful, affording workers little in the way of genuine autonomy or self-determination. Further, the forces of capitalist industry are profligate in the use of our time, talents and natural creativity, making us mere minions to the machinery of profit. This wastefulness is compounded during times of recession when unemployment levels soar. Under capitalism, workers are typically paid far less than the true value of their labours, while the owners of capital grow ever richer by creaming off the surplus value in the form of profit. Mass poverty and social inequality are other by-products of the profit economy, sanctioned in the final analysis by the institutions of government. Moreover, capitalist production as a whole is damaging to the environment and leads to wars between nation states over resources, territory and markets. As the economy spirals ever deeper into crisis, increasing numbers are questioning the very legitimacy of the current global economic order. Here we outline the case for replacing capitalist wage labour with libertarian communism (or anarchism) and direct workers control.

The term “workers control” refers to the collective worker ownership, control and management of all aspects of production and distribution in both industry and agriculture. Under libertarian socialism, free democratic workers assemblies, councils and federations would perform all the functions previously reserved for the owners, managers and financiers. However, in stark contrast to under capitalism, these activities would be organised and discharged for the general well being of society, rather than to maximise the power and profits of the controlling minority. In this way, production is directly harmonised and attuned to the needs of consumers, taking full account of the wider social and environmental costs of any such undertakings.

Workers’ self-management means the end of hierarchical and authoritarian modes of production to be replaced by free agreement, collective decision making, direct democracy and social equality. Syndicates – that is, voluntary associations responsible for managing and organising work – would form the bedrock of the new co-operative order. But although libertarian socialism abolishes the dichotomy between order givers and order takers, self-management does not mean that all decisions are made by everyone. As GDH Cole explains:

A mass vote on a matter only understood by a few experts would be a manifest absurdity, and, even if the element of technique is left out of account, a factory administered by constant mass votes would be neither efficient nor at all a pleasant place to work in.

The distinction is often made by libertarians between a person who is an authority (because of their specialist skills and knowledge) and a person who is in authority. While we reject the latter we respect the former. That some decision making has to be delegated need not lead to hierarchy, because ultimate control rests with the worker/community councils as a whole, who would have the final say in determining what types of decisions could be safely delegated. To put this in more practical terms, the decision to commission, let’s say, a civil engineering project, would lie with a federal assembly, but the logistics of carrying the project through would remain with the responsible syndicates. These syndicates would remain fully accountable to the federation by periodically reporting back on the progress of the project. This is not to say, however, that the institutionalised division of labour under capitalism will remain intact – far from it.

“You are what you do. If you do boring, stupid, monotonous work, chances are you’ll end up being boring and monotonous. Work is a much better explanation for the creeping cretinisation all around us than even such significant moronising mechanisms as television and education. People who are regimented all their lives, handed to work from school and bracketed by the family in the beginning and the nursing home in the end, are habituated to hierarchy and psychologically enslaved. Their aptitude for autonomy is so atrophied that their fear of freedom is among their few rationally grounded phobias. Their obedience training at work carries over into the families they start, thus reproducing the system in more ways than one, and into politics, culture and everything else. Once you drain the vitality from people at work, they’ll submit to hierarchy and expertise in everything. They’re used to it.”

Bob Black

Many observers have noted how capitalism has given rise to an insidious culture of professional elitism, conferring undue status upon academic rather than practical skills. Those at the lower end of the pyramid of production are condemned to carry out rote, mundane tasks for much of their working lives, with little or no scope for intellectual or professional advancement. “Brain work” on the other hand, tends to be the preserve of a small band of highly-qualified professionals, with the remainder of other jobs filling the void somewhere in between. Over time, this hierarchy has naturally reproduced itself and is used by the intelligentsia to justify their superior status and earnings. Capitalism also bestows unduly large rewards on its unproductive money makers, bureaucrats and administrators, while domestic workers, carers and community minded volunteers enjoy little or no recognition or financial return for their efforts. For these reasons, while we embrace the division of work to maximise productive efficiency, we bitterly oppose the division of labour. It would be impossible to completely eradicate the division of labour overnight, but with equal pay and coordinated work rotation, knowledge can be shared and skills developed. This promotes a proprietary interest for workers in their sphere of work and, with greater autonomy and control, puts an end to the arduous, meaningless, and alienated labour so prevalent under the current system. The responsible deployment of technology will also render many mundane tasks a thing of the past.

Economic cooperation and the common ownership of social capital would eliminate competition for survival, resource wars and the “expand or die” dynamic of the capitalist market. Production “from each according to ability to each according to need” ensures equity of access to resources, unlike at present where the ability to pay can literally determine if you live or die. Our organic need to live, eat, belong, contribute and create will ensure that the wheels of production will keep on turning. But work activities that are socially damaging or have little or no real value, of which capitalism has many, would be phased out. It can be concluded that this would result in less waste, less bureaucracy and shorter working hours all round. Once our basic needs have been met (ie. food, warmth, shelter, transport, communication, healthcare etc.), the decision to produce luxury items would have to be made collectively and prioritised accordingly. Our tendency to succumb to alienated forms of pleasure such as mass consumerism, designed to keep the capitalist economy afloat at cost to both ourselves and the environment, will vastly diminish. In their place, we will enjoy the contentment associated with genuinely creative, fulfilling self-managed activity.

“If workers’ management of production does not transform work into a joyful activity, free time into a marvellous experience, and the workplace into a community, then they remain merely formal structures, in fact class structures. They perpetuate the limitations of the proletariat as the product of bourgeois social conditions. Indeed, no movement that raises the demand for workers councils can be regarded as revolutionary unless it tries to promote sweeping transformations in the environment of the workplace.”

Murray Bookchin

Direct workers control also makes for ongoing social transformation and enables productive forces to constantly readapt to the changing aspirations and needs of society at large. As Tom Brown argued:

the syndicalist mode of organisation is extremely elastic, therein lies its chief strength, and the regional confederations can be formed, modified, added to or reformed according to local conditions or circumstances.

Workers’ control entails decentralisation and rejects the Leninist centrally planned economy with its inbuilt tendency to degenerate into authoritarian state capitalism, which has absolutely nothing to do with socialism. However, this does not mean that larger scale productive/distributive tasks cannot be carried out or administered efficiently. The worldwide postal and telecommunications systems of the present operate largely without central control. In future, the activities contributing to such large scale undertakings would be overseen and organised directly by the workers’ syndicates delegated by the regional federations to ensuring their smooth running.

So how do we get from A to B? The involvement of workers in revolutionary syndicates within capitalism is intended to accustom them to making decisions (something which hierarchical society robs them of) and also to build confidence, through class struggle, to finally transcend wage labour and assume control of the means of life themselves. By deploying instantly recallable, mandated delegates derived directly from the “shop floor”, the horizontal structure of the new social order can be implemented in the present. Moreover, the principle of “building the new society in the shell of the old” must also be applied outside the workplace, for production must not be an end in itself, but the means to satisfy our wider human needs, wants and desires.

To those who remain unconvinced that such a programme is nothing but utopian wishful thinking, the experience of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) shows otherwise. In the words of Sam Dolgoff:
...millions of people took large segments of the economy into their own hands, collectivised them, administered them, even abolished money and lived by communistic principles of work and distribution – all of this in the midst of a terrible civil war, yet without producing the chaos or even serious dislocations that were and still are predicted by authoritarian ’radicals’. Indeed in many collectivised areas the efficiency with which enterprise worked by far exceeded that of a comparable one in nationalised or private sectors.

Against a backdrop of military assaults by the fascists and sabotage by Stalinists, against all odds, some 8 million people participated in this revolutionary social project – a project which shows that ideas of workers control and libertarian socialism retain enduring and practical relevance in an age where disillusion with chaotic capitalis and state “socialist” repression reigns supreme.

“Anarchism aims to strip labour of its deadening, dulling aspect, of its gloom and compulsion. It aims to make work an instrument of joy, of strength, of colour of real harmony, so that the poorest sort of man should find in work both recreation and hope.”

Emma Goldman

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