From an article "Common notions, part 1: workers-inquiry, co-research, consciousness-raising", by Marta Malo de Molina
"The Italian Alessandro Pizzorno, after importing it to Europe, helped to develop its politicised dimension. Pizzorno, together with a group of Italian militant-intellectuals, (including Romano Alquati and Danilo Montaldi7) would begin to transform and radicalise these methods between 1966 and 1967 applying them practically to struggles in the province of Cremona.
During the sixties and the seventies, the use of the worker inquiry and co-research spreads under different formats: it is used as a device to analyse forms of exploitation in the factory and neighbourhoods, as well as a mechanism to track forms of insubordination by teams from journals such as Quaderni Rossi and Quaderni del territorio (Italy) or groups such as Socialisme ou Barbarie (France). However on many occasions, these techniques were driven by workers’ spaces themselves, in a more or less flexible way, without the intervention from theoreticians or “experts‿ external to the processes of self-organisation. These techniques were used as methods to construct platforms for struggle8. In the Spanish state, the journals of Teoría y Práctica, and Lucha y Teoría would develop their own forms of worker research, conceived to write the history of class struggle “narrated by its own protagonists‿ (as the subtitle to Teoría y Práctica put it).
From our point of view, it is worthwhile paying special attention to the uses of the worker-survey employed by Italian operaismo (workerism a section of the Italian workers’ movement)9. The young operaisti, gathered in initially around the journal Quaderni Rossi10, attempted to explain the crisis of the workers’ movement during the fifties and the early sixties. For the operaisti, it was not possible to interpret this lived crisis merely as a result of either the theoretical errors, or betrayals by the leadership, of leftist parties (an argument repeated by those orthodox elements of the communist and anarcho-syndicalist sections of the workers’ movement). In contrast, the operaisti argued that the crisis had taken place because of the intense transformations, in the productive process and the composition of the labour force, introduced by the Scientific Organisation of Work. Thus, the use of the inquiry was intended to reveal a “new worker condition‿. Looking at the condition of these new subjects, how they could reopen spaces of conflict and reinvigorate workers’ demands become a central theme for the operaisti’s practice and discourse.
However, divergences around the procedures and focus of theinquiry emerged from the beginning. As Damiano Palano tells us “a rather basic fracture emerged around the form and the goals of the survey, since the formation of the first Quaderni Rossi group. On the one side, there was the faction of “sociologists‿ (lead by Vittorio Rieser)11, and at that time the most numerous. This section understood the inquiry as a cognitive tool in order to understand a transformed worker reality, and oriented towards provide the tools for producing a theoretical and political renovation of the worker movement’s official institutions. On the other side, we find Alquati and a few more (Soave and Gaparotto), who, based on factory experiences in the US and France, considered the inquiry as the basis for a political intervention oriented towards organising workers’ antagonism. It was a considerable difference from the point of view of the concrete goals of the survey. The distance was even greater though in terms of method: in fact, while the first faction was actualising Marxist theory with themes and methods from North American industrial sociology, Alquati was proposing a kind of strategic research in the study of the factory‿" ()
What is Capitalism?
The word capitalism is now quite commonly used to describe the social system in which we now live. It is also often assumed that it has existed, if not forever, then for most of human history. In fact, capitalism is a relatively new social system.
But what exactly does 'capitalism' mean?
Capitalism is the social system which now exists in all countries of the world. Under this system, the means for producing and distributing goods (the land, factories, technology, transport system etc) are owned by a small minority of people. We refer to this group of people as the capitalist class. The majority of people must sell their ability to work in return for a wage or salary (who we refer to as the working class.)
The working class are paid to produce goods and services which are then sold for a profit. The profit is gained by the capitalist class because they can make more money selling what we have produced than we cost to buy on the labour market. In this sense, the working class are exploited by the capitalist class. The capitalists live off the profits they obtain from exploiting the working class whilst reinvesting some of their profits for the further accumulation of wealth.
This is what we mean when we say there are two classes in society. It is a claim based upon simple facts about the society we live in today. This class division is the essential feature of capitalism. It may be popular to talk (usually vaguely) about various other 'classes' existing such as the 'middle class', but it is the two classes defined here that are the key to understanding capitalism.
It may not be exactly clear which class some relatively wealthy people are in. But there is no ambiguity about the status of the vast majority of the world's population. Members of the capitalist class certainly know who they are. And most members of the working class know that they need to work for a wage or salary in order to earn a living (or are dependent upon somebody who does, or depend on state benefits.)
The profit motive
In capitalism, the motive for producing goods and services is to sell them for a profit, not to satisfy people's needs. The products of capitalist production have to find a buyer, of course, but this is only incidental to the main aim of making a profit, of ending up with more money than was originally invested. This is not a theory that we have thought up but a fact you can easily confirm for yourself by reading the financial press. Production is started not by what consumers are prepared to pay for to satisfy their needs but by what the capitalists calculate can be sold at a profit. Those goods may satisfy human needs but those needs will not be met if people do not have sufficient money.
The profit motive is not just the result of greed on behalf of individual capitalists. They do not have a choice about it. The need to make a profit is imposed on capitalists as a condition for not losing their investments and their position as capitalists. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to keep their means and methods of production up to date.
As you will see, we hold that it is the class division and profit motive of capitalism that is at the root of most of the world's problems today, from starvation to war, to alienation and crime. Every aspect of our lives is subordinated to the worst excesses of the drive to make profit. In capitalist society, our real needs will only ever come a poor second to the requirements of profit.
Capitalism = free market?
It is widely assumed that capitalism means a free market economy. But it is possible to have capitalism without a free market. The systems that existed in the U.S.S.R and exist in China and Cuba demonstrate this. These class-divided societies are widely called 'socialist'. A cursory glance at what in fact existed there reveals that these countries were simply 'state capitalist'. In supposedly 'socialist' Russia, for example, there still existed wage slavery, commodity production, buying, selling and exchange, with production only taking place when it was viable to do so. 'Socialist' Russia continued to trade according to the dictates of international capital and, like every other capitalist, state, was prepared to go to war to defend its economic interests. The role of the Soviet state became simply to act as the functionary of capital in the exploitation of wage labour, setting targets for production and largely controlling what could or could not be produced. We therefore feel justified in asserting that such countries had nothing to do with socialism as we define it. In fact, socialism as we define it could not exist in one country alone—like capitalism it must be a global system of society.
It is also possible (at least in theory) to have a free market economy that is not capitalist. Such a 'market economy' would involve farmers, artisans and shopkeepers each producing a particular product that they would exchange via the medium of money. There would be no profit-making and no class division—just independent producers exchanging goods for their mutual benefit. But it is doubtful whether such an economy has ever existed. The nearest that may have come to it would have been in some of the early colonial settlements in North America. Some Greens wish to see a return to this kind of economy. We do not think that it is a viable alternative for modern society. Such a system would almost inevitability lead to capital accumulation and profit making—the definitive features of capitalism.
Wage Labour and Capital
Effect of Capitalist Competition on the Capitalist Class
the Middle Class and the Working Class
We thus see how the method of production and the means of production are constantly enlarged, revolutionized, how division of labor necessarily draws after it greater division of labor, the employment of machinery greater employment of machinery, work upon a large scale work upon a still greater scale. This is the law that continually throws capitalist production out of its old ruts and compels capital to strain ever more the productive forces of labor for the very reason that it has already strained them – the law that grants it no respite, and constantly shouts in its ear: March! march! This is no other law than that which, within the periodical fluctuations of commerce, necessarily adjusts the price of a commodity to its cost of production.
No matter how powerful the means of production which a capitalist may bring into the field, competition will make their adoption general; and from the moment that they have been generally adopted, the sole result of the greater productiveness of his capital will be that he must furnish at the same price, 10, 20, 100 times as much as before. But since he must find a market for, perhaps, 1,000 times as much, in order to outweigh the lower selling price by the greater quantity of the sale; since now a more extensive sale is necessary not only to gain a greater profit, but also in order to replace the cost of production (the instrument of production itself grows always more costly, as we have seen), and since this more extensive sale has become a question of life and death not only for him, but also for his rivals, the old struggle must begin again, and it is all the more violent the more powerful the means of production already invented are. The division of labor and the application of machinery will therefore take a fresh start, and upon an even greater scale.
Whatever be the power of the means of production which are employed, competition seeks to rob capital of the golden fruits of this power by reducing the price of commodities to the cost of production; in the same measure in which production is cheapened - i.e., in the same measure in which more can be produced with the same amount of labor – it compels by a law which is irresistible a still greater cheapening of production, the sale of ever greater masses of product for smaller prices. Thus the capitalist will have gained nothing more by his efforts than the obligation to furnish a greater product in the same labor-time; in a word, more difficult conditions for the profitable employment of his capital. While competition, therefore, constantly pursues him with its law of the cost of production and turns against himself every weapon that he forges against his rivals, the capitalist continually seeks to get the best of competition by restlessly introducing further subdivision of labor and new machines, which, though more expensive, enable him to produce more cheaply, instead of waiting until the new machines shall have been rendered obsolete by competition.
If we now conceive this feverish agitation as it operates in the market of the whole world, we shall be in a position to comprehend how the growth, accumulation, and concentration of capital bring in their train an ever more detailed subdivision of labor, an ever greater improvement of old machines, and a constant application of new machine – a process which goes on uninterruptedly, with feverish haste, and upon an ever more gigantic scale.
But what effect do these conditions, which are inseparable from the growth of productive capital, have upon the determination of wages?
The greater division of labor enables one laborer to accomplish the work of five, 10, or 20 laborers; it therefore increases competition among the laborers fivefold, tenfold, or twentyfold. The laborers compete not only by selling themselves one cheaper than the other, but also by one doing the work of five, 10, or 20; and they are forced to compete in this manner by the division of labor, which is introduced and steadily improved by capital.
Furthermore, to the same degree in which the division of labor increases, is the labor simplified. The special skill of the laborer becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple monotonous force of production, with neither physical nor mental elasticity. His work becomes accessible to all; therefore competitors press upon him from all sides. Moreover, it must be remembered that the more simple, the more easily learned the work is, so much the less is its cost to production, the expense of its acquisition, and so much the lower must the wages sink – for, like the price of any other commodity, they are determined by the cost of production. Therefore, in the same manner in which labor becomes more unsatisfactory, more repulsive, do competition increase and wages decrease.
The laborer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labor, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labor. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.
Machinery produces the same effects, but upon a much larger scale. It supplants skilled laborers by unskilled, men by women, adults by children; where newly introduced, it throws workers upon the streets in great masses; and as it becomes more highly developed and more productive it discards them in additional though smaller numbers.
We have hastily sketched in broad outlines the industrial war of capitalists among themselves. This war has the peculiarity that the battles in it are won less by recruiting than by discharging the army of workers. The generals (the capitalists) vie with one another as to who can discharge the greatest number of industrial soldiers.
The economists tell us, to be sure, that those laborers who have been rendered superfluous by machinery find new venues of employment. They dare not assert directly that the same laborers that have been discharged find situations in new branches of labor. Facts cry out too loudly against this lie. Strictly speaking, they only maintain that new means of employment will be found for other sections of the working class; for example, for that portion of the young generation of laborers who were about to enter upon that branch of industry which had just been abolished. Of course, this is a great satisfaction to the disabled laborers. There will be no lack of fresh exploitable blood and muscle for the Messrs. Capitalists – the dead may bury their dead. This consolation seems to be intended more for the comfort of the capitalists themselves than their laborers. If the whole class of the wage-laborer were to be annihilated by machinery, how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labor, ceases to be capital!
But even if we assume that all who are directly forced out of employment by machinery, as well as all of the rising generation who were waiting for a chance of employment in the same branch of industry, do actually find some new employment – are we to believe that this new employment will pay as high wages as did the one they have lost? If it did, it would be in contradiction to the laws of political economy. We have seen how modern industry always tends to the substitution of the simpler and more subordinate employments for the higher and more complex ones. How, then, could a mass of workers thrown out of one branch of industry by machinery find refuge in another branch, unless they were to be paid more poorly?
An exception to the law has been adduced, namely, the workers who are employed in the manufacture of machinery itself. As soon as there is in industry a greater demand for and a greater consumption of machinery, it is said that the number of machines must necessarily increase; consequently, also, the manufacture of machines; consequently, also, the employment of workers in machine manufacture; – and the workers employed in this branch of industry are skilled, even educated, workers.
Since the year 1840 this assertion, which even before that date was only half-true, has lost all semblance of truth; for the most diverse machines are now applied to the manufacture of the machines themselves on quite as extensive a scale as in the manufacture of cotton yarn, and the laborers employed in machine factories can but play the role of very stupid machines alongside of the highly ingenious machines.
But in place of the man who has been dismissed by the machine, the factory may employ, perhaps, three children and one woman! And must not the wages of the man have previously sufficed for the three children and one woman? Must not the minimum wages have sufficed for the preservation and propagation of the race? What, then, do these beloved bourgeois phrases prove? Nothing more than that now four times as many workers' lives are used up as there were previously, in order to obtain the livelihood of one working family.
To sum up: the more productive capital grows, the more it extends the division of labor and the application of machinery; the more the division of labor and the application of machinery extend, the more does competition extend among the workers, the more do their wages shrink together.
In addition, the working class is also recruited from the higher strata of society; a mass of small business men and of people living upon the interest of their capitals is precipitated into the ranks of the working class, and they will have nothing else to do than to stretch out their arms alongside of the arms of the workers. Thus the forest of outstretched arms, begging for work, grows ever thicker, while the arms themselves grow every leaner.
It is evident that the small manufacturer cannot survive in a struggle in which the first condition of success is production upon an ever greater scale. It is evident that the small manufacturers and thereby increasing the number of candidates for the proletariat – all this requires no further elucidation.
Finally, in the same measure in which the capitalists are compelled, by the movement described above, to exploit the already existing gigantic means of production on an ever-increasing scale, and for this purpose to set in motion all the mainsprings of credit, in the same measure do they increase the industrial earthquakes, in the midst of which the commercial world can preserve itself only by sacrificing a portion of its wealth, its products, and even its forces of production, to the gods of the lower world – in short, the crises increase. They become more frequent and more violent, if for no other reason, than for this alone, that in the same measure in which the mass of products grows, and there the needs for extensive markets, in the same measure does the world market shrink ever more, and ever fewer markets remain to be exploited, since every previous crisis has subjected to the commerce of the world a hitherto unconquered or but superficially exploited market.
But capital not only lives upon labor. Like a master, at once distinguished and barbarous, it drags with it into its grave the corpses of its slaves, whole hecatombs of workers, who perish in the crises.
We thus see that if capital grows rapidly, competition among the workers grows with even greater rapidity – i.e., the means of employment and subsistence for the working class decrease in proportion even more rapidly; but, this notwithstanding, the rapid growth of capital is the most favorable condition for wage-labor.
Does Capitalism Require War?
By D.W. MacKenzie
Posted on 4/7/2003
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Of all the false charges leveled against capitalism, the indictment of promoting or requiring imperialism and warfare is most certainly the least deserved. Given recent events, this proposition has received much undeserved attention, but is by no means new. This claim has a long legacy, tracing back at least to 19th century critics of Political Economy.
J.A. Hobson claimed that capitalism concentrates too much wealth into too few hands. Capitalists employ the smallest number of workers so as to keep wages low. This leads to oversaving and underconsumption in capitalist nations, as the rich can consume only so much. The supposed capitalist solution to this alleged problem is aggressive imperialist expansion. Hobson sought third-way reforms of capitalism as an alternative to perceived capitalist imperialism.
Karl Marx claimed that capitalism keeps wages at a subsistence level with a reserve army of the unemployed. Followers of Marx, like Lenin and Bukharin, claimed the profits of capitalism 'cannot' be invested domestically. Capitalists even conspire to promote war, as a means of reaping grim profits from armaments production.
Earlier last century, J.M. Keynes established greater respectability for the notion that capitalism underemploys workers. His Principle of Effective Demand enamored a generation of economists, and still has a few ardent parishioners. For instance, Paul Krugman claims that the Second World War has had positive effects. WWII spending supposedly got us out of the Great Depression by removing our inhibitions towards public spending. Krugman has also claimed (in the New York Times) that the September 11th attacks might improve economic conditions by stimulating business investment. Krugman seems to believe in a kind of destructive creation where prosperity emerges from devastation.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of these various, but similar, claims is that their proponents appeal so often to historical examples. They often claim that history shows how capitalism is imperialistic and warlike or at least benefits from war. Capitalism supposedly needs a boost from some war spending from time to time, and history shows this. Robert Higgs demonstrated that the wartime prosperity during the Second World War was illusory. This should come to no surprise to those who lived through the deprivations of wartime rationing. We do not need wars for prosperity, but does capitalism breed war and imperialism anyway?
History is rife with examples of imperialism. The Romans, Alexander, and many others of the ancient world waged imperialistic wars. The Incan Empire and the empire of Ancient China stand as examples of the universal character of imperialism. Who could possibly claim that imperialism grew out of the prosperity of these ancient civilizations? Imperialism precedes modern industrial capitalism by many centuries. Uneven wealth distribution or underconsumption under capitalism obviously did not cause these instances of imperialism. Of course, this fact does not prove that modern capitalism lacks its own imperialistic tendencies.
The notion that income gets underspent or maldistributed lies at the heart of most claims that capitalism either needs or produces imperialistic wars. As J.B. Say argued, supply creates its own demand through payments to factors of production. Demand Side economists Hobson and Keynes argued that there would be too little consumption and too little investment for continuous full employment. We save too much to have peace and prosperity.
The difficulty we face is not in oversaving, but in underestimating the workings of markets and the desires of consumers. Doomsayers have been downplaying consumer demand for ages. As demand side economist J.K. Galbraith claimed, we live in an affluent society, where most private demands have been met. Of course, Hobson made the same claim much earlier. Earlier and stranger still, mercantilists claimed that 'wasteful acts' such as tea drinking, gathering at alehouses, taking snuff, and the wearing of ribbons were unnecessary luxuries that detracted from productive endeavors.
The prognostications of esteemed opponents of capitalism have consistently failed to predict consumer demand. Today, consumers consume at levels that few long ago could have imagined possible. There is no reason to doubt that consumers will continue to press for ever higher levels of consumption. Though it is only a movie, Brewster's Millions illustrates how creative people can be at spending money. People who do actually inherit, win, or earn large sums of money have little trouble spending it. Indeed, wealthy individuals usually have more trouble holding on to their fortunes than in finding ways to spend them. We are never going to run out of ways to spend money.
Many of the complaints about capitalism center on how people save too much. One should remember that there really is no such thing as saving. Consumers defer consumption to the future only. As economist Eugen Böhm-Bawerk demonstrated, people save according to time preference. Savings diverts resources into capital formation. This increases future production. Interest enhanced savings then can purchase these goods as some consumers cease to defer their consumption.
Keynes' claim that animal spirits drive investment has no rational basis. Consumer preferences are the basis for investment. Investors forecast future consumer demand. Interest rates convey knowledge of these demands. The intertemporal coordination of production through capital markets and interest rates is not a simple matter. But Keynes' marginal propensities to save and Hobson's concentration of wealth arguments fail to account for the real determinants of production through time.
Say's Law of Markets holds precisely because people always want a better life for themselves and those close to them. Falling interest rates deter saving and increase investment. Rising interest rates induce saving and deter investment. This simple logic of supply and demand derives from a quite basic notion of self interest. Keynes denied that the world worked this way. Instead, he claimed that bond holders hoard money outside of the banking system, investment periodically collapses from 'the dark forces of time and uncertainty, and consumers save income in a mechanical fashion according to marginal propensities to save. None of these propositions hold up to scrutiny, either deductive or empirical.
Speculators do not hoard cash outside of banks. To do this means a loss of interest on assets. People do move assets from one part of the financial system to another. This does not cause deficient aggregate demand. Most money exists in the banking system, and is always available for lending.
In fact, the advent of e-banking makes such a practice even less sensible. Why hoard cash when you can move money around with your computer? It is common knowledge that people save for homes, education, and other expensive items, not because they have some innate urge to squirrel some portion of their income away. This renders half of the market for credit rational.
Investors do in fact calculate rates of return on investment. This is not a simple matter. Investment entails some speculation. Long term investment projects entail some uncertainty, but investors who want to actually reap profits will estimate the returns on investment using the best available data. Keynes feared that the dark forces of time and uncertainty could scare investors. This possibility, he thought, called for government intervention. However, government intervention (especially warfare) generally serves to increase uncertainty. Private markets have enough uncertainties without throwing politics into the fray. The vagaries of political intervention serve only to darken an already uncertain future. Capital markets are best left to capitalists.
Nor is capital not extracted surplus value. It comes not from exploitation. It is simply a matter of people valuing their future wellbeing. Capitalists will hire workers up to the point where the discounted marginal product of their labor equals the wage rate. To do otherwise would mean a loss of potential profit. Since workers earn the marginal product of labor and capital derives from deferred consumption, Marxist arguments about reserve armies of the unemployed and surplus extraction fail.
It is quite odd to worry about capitalists oversaving when many complain about how the savings rate in the U.S. is too low. Why does the U.S., as the world's 'greatest capitalist/imperialist power', attract so much foreign investment? Many Americans worry about America's international accounts. Fears about foreigners buying up America are unfounded, but not because this does not happen. America does have a relatively low national savings rate. It does attract much foreign investment, precisely because it has relatively secure property rights. Indeed, much of the third world suffers from too little investment. The claims of Marxists, and Hobson, directly contradict the historical record. Sound theory tells us that it should. The Marxist claim that capitalists must find investments overseas fails miserably.
Larry Kudlow has put his own spin on the false connection between capitalism and war. We need the War as shock therapy to get the economy on its feet. Kudlow also endorses massive airline subsidies as a means of restoring economic prosperity.
Kudlow and Krugman both endorse the alleged destructive creation of warfare and terrorism. Kudlow has rechristened the Broken Window fallacy the Broken Window principle. Kudlow claims that may lose money and wealth in one way, but we gain it back many time over when the rebuilding is done. Kudlow and Krugman have quite an affinity for deficits. Krugman sees debt as a sponge to absorb excess saving. Kudlow see debt as a short term nuisance that we can dispel by maximizing growth. One would think that such famous economists would realize that competition does work to achieve the goal of optimum growth based on time preference, but this is not the case.
While these economists have expressed their belief in writing, they could do more. If the destruction of assets leads to increased prosperity, then they should teach this principle by example. Kudlow and Krugman could, for instance, help build the economy by demolishing their own private homes. This would have the immediate effect of stimulating demand for demolition experts, and the longer term affect of stimulating the demand for construction workers. They can create additional wealth by financing the reconstruction of their homes through debt. By borrowing funds, they draw idle resources into use and stimulate financial activity. Of course, they would both initially lose wealth in one way. But if their thinking is sound, they will gain it back many times over as they rebuild.
The truth is that their beliefs are fallacious. Bastiat demonstrated the absurdity of destructive creation in his original explanation of the opportunity costs from repairing broken windows.
Kudlow is quite clear about his intentions. He wants to grow the economy to finance the war. As Kudlow told some students, "The trick here is to grow the economy and let the economic growth raise the revenue for the war effort". Kudlow also praises the Reagan Administration for growing the economy to fund national defense. Here Kudlow's attempts to give economic advice cease completely. His argument here is not that capitalism needs a shot in the arm. It is that resources should be redirected towards ends that he sees fit. Kudlow is a war hawk who, obviously, cannot fund this or any war personally. He instead favors using the state to tax others to fund what he wants, but cannot afford. He seems to think that his values matter more than any other's. Why should anyone else agree with this?
Kudlow tarnishes the image of laissez faire economics by parading his faulty reasoning and his claims that his wants should reign supreme as a pro-market stance. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to defend capitalism from alleged advocates of liberty, who employ false dogmas in pursuit of their own militaristic desires.
Capitalism neither requires nor promotes imperialist expansion. Capitalism did not create imperialism or warfare. Warlike societies predate societies with secure private property. The idea that inequity or underspending give rise to militarism lacks any rational basis. Imperialistic tendencies exist due to ethnic and nationalistic bigotries, and the want for power. Prosperity depends upon our ability to prevent destructive acts. The dogma of destructive creation fails as a silver lining to the cloud of warfare. Destructive acts entail real costs that diminish available opportunities.
The idea that we need to find work for idle hands in capitalism at best leads to a kind of Sisyphus economy where unproductive industries garner subsidies from productive people. At worst, it serves as a supporting argument for war. The more recent versions of the false charges against capitalism do nothing to invalidate two simple facts. Capitalism generates prosperity by creating new products. War inflicts poverty by destroying existing wealth. There is no sound reason to think otherwise.
D.10 How does capitalism affect technology?
Technology has an obvious effect on individual freedom, in some ways increasing it, in others restricting it. However, since capitalism is a social system based on inequalities of power, it is a truism that technology will reflect those inequalities, as it does not develop in a social vacuum.
No technology evolves and spreads unless there are people who benefit from it and have sufficient means to disseminate it. In a capitalist society, technologies useful to the rich and powerful are generally the ones that spread. This can be seen from capitalist industry, where technology has been implemented specifically to deskill the worker, so replacing the skilled, valued craftperson with the easily trained (and eliminated!) "mass worker." By making trying to make any individual worker dispensable, the capitalist hopes to deprive workers of a means of controlling the relation between their effort on the job and the pay they receive. In Proudhon's words, the "machine, or the workshop, after having degraded the labourer by giving him a master, completes his degeneracy by reducing him from the rank of artisan to that of common workman." [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 202]
So, unsurprisingly, technology within a hierarchical society will tend to re-enforce hierarchy and domination. Managers/capitalists will select technology that will protect and extend their power (and profits), not weaken it. Thus, while it is often claimed that technology is "neutral" this is not (and can never be) the case. Simply put, "progress" within a hierarchical system will reflect the power structures of that system.
As George Reitzer notes, technological innovation under a hierarchical system soon results in "increased control and the replacement of human with non-human technology. In fact, the replacement of human with non-human technology is very often motivated by a desire for greater control, which of course is motivated by the need for profit-maximisation. The great sources of uncertainty and unpredictability in any rationalising system are people. . . .McDonaldisation involves the search for the means to exert increasing control over both employees and customers" [George Reitzer, The McDonaldisation of Society, p. 100]. For Reitzer, capitalism is marked by the "irrationality of rationality," in which this process of control results in a system based on crushing the individuality and humanity of those who live within it.
In this process of controlling employees for the purpose of maximising profit, deskilling comes about because skilled labour is more expensive than unskilled or semi-skilled and skilled workers have more power over their working conditions and work due to the difficulty in replacing them. In addition it is easier to "rationalise" the production process with methods like Taylorism, a system of strict production schedules and activities based on the amount of time (as determined by management) that workers "need" to perform various operations in the workplace, thus requiring simple, easily analysed and timed movements. And as companies are in competition, each has to copy the most "efficient" (i.e. profit maximising) production techniques introduced by the others in order to remain profitable, no matter how dehumanising this may be for workers. Thus the evil effects of the division of labour and deskilling becoming widespread. Instead of managing their own work, workers are turned into human machines in a labour process they do not control, instead being controlled by those who own the machines they use (see also Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press, 1974).
As Max Stirner noted (echoing Adam Smith), this process of deskilling and controlling work means that "When everyone is to cultivate himself into man, condemning a man to machine-like labour amounts to the same thing as slavery. . . . Every labour is to have the intent that the man be satisfied. Therefore he must become a master in it too, be able to perform it as a totality. He who in a pin-factory only puts on heads, only draws the wire, works, as it were mechanically, like a machine; he remains half-trained, does not become a master: his labour cannot satisfy him, it can only fatigue him. His labour is nothing by itself, has no object in itself, is nothing complete in itself; he labours only into another's hands, and is used. (exploited) by this other" [The Ego and Its Own, p. 121] Kropotkin makes a similar argument against the division of labour ("machine-like labour") in The Conquest of Bread (see chapter XV -- "The Division of Labour") as did Proudhon (see chapters III and IV of System of Economical Contradictions).
Modern industry is set up to ensure that workers do not become "masters" of their work but instead follow the orders of management. The evolution of technology lies in the relations of power within a society. This is because "the viability of a design is not simply a technical or even economic evaluation but rather a political one. A technology is deemed viable if it conforms to the existing relations of power." [David Noble, Progress without People, p. 63]
This process of controlling, restricting, and de-individualising labour is a key feature of capitalism. Work that is skilled and controlled by workers in empowering to them in two ways. Firstly it gives them pride in their work and themselves. Secondly, it makes it harder to replace them or suck profits out of them. Therefore, in order to remove the "subjective" factor (i.e. individuality and worker control) from the work process, capital needs methods of controlling the workforce to prevent workers from asserting their individuality, thus preventing them from arranging their own lives and work and resisting the authority of the bosses.
This need to control workers can be seen from the type of machinery introduced during the Industrial Revolution. According to Andrew Ure, a consultant for the factory owners, "[i]n the factories for spinning coarse yarn. . .the mule-spinners [skilled workers] have abused their powers beyond endurance, domineering in the most arrogant manner. . . over their masters. High wages. . . have, in too many cases, cherished pride and supplied funds for supporting refractory spirits in strikes. . . . During a disastrous turmoil of [this] kind. . . several capitalists. . . had recourse to the celebrated machinists. . . of Manchester. . . [to construct] a self-acting mule. . . . This invention confirms the great doctrine already propounded, that when capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility" [Andrew Ure, Philosophy of Manufactures, pp. 336-368 -- quoted by Noble, Op. Cit., p. 125]
Why is it necessary for workers to be "taught docility"? Because "[b]y the infirmity of human nature, it happens that the more skilful the workman, the more self-willed and intractable he is apt to become, and of course the less fit a component of mechanical system in which... he may do great damage to the whole." [Ibid.] Proudhon quotes an English Manufacturer who argues the same point:
"The insubordination of our workmen has given us the idea of dispensing with them. We have made and stimulated every imaginable effort to replace the service of men by tools more docile, and we have achieved our object. Machinery has delivered capital from the oppression of labour." [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 189]
As David Noble summarises, during the Industrial Revolution "Capital invested in machines that would reinforce the system of domination [in the workplace], and this decision to invest, which might in the long run render the chosen technique economical, was not itself an economical decision but a political one, with cultural sanction." [Op. Cit., p. 6]
A similar process was at work in the US, where the rise in trade unionism resulted in "industrial managers bec[oming] even more insistent that skill and initiative not be left on the shop floor, and that, by the same token, shop floor workers not have control over the reproduction of relevant skills through craft-regulated apprenticeship training. Fearful that skilled shop-floor workers would use their scare resources to reduce their effort and increase their pay, management deemed that knowledge of the shop-floor process must reside with the managerial structure." [William Lazonick, Organisation and Technology in Capitalist Development, p. 273]
American managers happily embraced Taylorism (aka "scientific management"), according to which the task of the manager was to gather into his possession all available knowledge about the work he oversaw and reorganise it. Taylor himself considered the task for workers was "to do what they are told to do promptly and without asking questions or making suggestions." [quoted by David Noble, American By Design, p. 268] Taylor also relied exclusively upon incentive-pay schemes which mechanically linked pay to productivity and had no appreciation of the subtleties of psychology or sociology (which would have told him that enjoyment of work and creativity is more important for people than just higher pay). Unsurprisingly, workers responded to his schemes by insubordination, sabotage and strikes and it was "discovered . . . that the 'time and motion' experts frequently knew very little about the proper work activities under their supervision, that often they simply guessed at the optimum rates for given operations . . . it meant that the arbitrary authority of management has simply been reintroduced in a less apparent form." [David Noble, Op. Cit., p. 272] Although, now, the power of management could hide begin the "objectivity" of "science."
Katherine Stone also argues (in her account of "The Origins of Job Structure in the Steel Industry" in America) that the "transfer of skill [from the worker to management] was not a response to the necessities of production, but was, rather, a strategy to rob workers of their power" by "tak[ing] knowledge and authority from the skilled workers and creating a management cadre able to direct production." Stone highlights that this deskilling process was combined by a "divide and rule" policy by management by wage incentives and new promotion policies. This created a reward system in which workers who played by the rules would receive concrete gains in terms of income and status. Over time, such a structure would become to be seen as "the natural way to organise work and one which offered them personal advancement" even though, "when the system was set up, it was neither obvious nor rational. The job ladders were created just when the skill requirements for jobs in the industry were diminishing as a result of the new technology, and jobs were becoming more and more equal as to the learning time and responsibility involved." The modern structure of the capitalist workplace was created to break workers resistance to capitalist authority and was deliberately "aimed at altering workers' ways of thinking and feeling -- which they did by making workers' individual 'objective' self-interests congruent with that of the employers and in conflict with workers' collective self-interest." It was a means of "labour discipline" and of "motivating workers to work for the employers' gain and preventing workers from uniting to take back control of production." Stone notes that the "development of the new labour system in the steel industry was repeated throughout the economy in different industries. As in the steel industry, the core of these new labour systems were the creation of artificial job hierarchies and the transfer pf skills from workers to the managers." [Root & Branch (ed.), Root and Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements, pp. 152-5]
This process was recognised by libertarians at the time, with the I.W.W., for example, arguing that "[l]abourers are no longer classified by difference in trade skill, but the employer assigns them according to the machine which they are attached. These divisions, far from representing differences in skill or interests among the labourers, are imposed by the employers that workers may be pitted against one another and spurred to greater exertion in the shop, and that all resistance to capitalist tyranny may be weakened by artificial distinctions." [quoted by Katherine Stone, Op. Cit., p. 157] For this reason, anarchists and syndicalists argued for, and built, industrial unions -- one union per workplace and industry -- in order to combat these divisions and effectively resist capitalist tyranny.
Needless to say, such management schemes never last in the long run nor totally work in the short run either -- which explains why hierarchical management continues, as does technological deskilling (workers always find ways of using new technology to increase their power within the workplace and so undermine management decisions to their own advantage).
This of process deskilling workers was complemented by many factors -- state protected markets (in the form of tariffs and government orders -- the "lead in technological innovation came in armaments where assured government orders justified high fixed-cost investments"); the use of "both political and economic power [by American Capitalists] to eradicate and diffuse workers' attempts to assert shop-floor control"; and "repression, instigated and financed both privately and publicly, to eliminate radical elements [and often not-so-radical elements as well, we must note] in the American labour movement." [William Lazonick, Competitive Advantage on the Shop Floor, p. 218, p. 303]) Thus state action played a key role in destroying craft control within industry, along with the large financial resources of capitalists compared to workers.
Bringing this sorry story up to date, we find "many, if not most, American managers are reluctant to develop skills [and initiative] on the shop floor for the fear of losing control of the flow of work." [William Lazonick, Organisation and Technology in Capitalist Development, pp. 279-280] Given that there is a division of knowledge in society (and, obviously, in the workplace as well) this means that capitalism has selected to introduce a management and technology mix which leads to inefficiency and waste of valuable knowledge, experience and skills.
Thus the capitalist workplace is both produced by and is a weapon in the class struggle and reflects the shifting power relations between workers and employers. The creation of artificial job hierarchies, the transfer of skills away from workers to managers and technological development are all products of class struggle. Thus technological progress and workplace organisation within capitalism have little to do with "efficiency" and far more to do with profits and power.
This means that while self-management has consistently proven to be more efficient (and empowering) than hierarchical management structures (see section ), capitalism actively selects against it. This is because capitalism is motivated purely by increasing profits, and the maximisation of profits is best done by disempowering workers and empowering bosses (i.e. the maximisation of power) -- even though this concentration of power harms efficiency by distorting and restricting information flow and the gathering and use of widely distributed knowledge within the firm (as in any command economy).
Thus the last refuge of the capitalist/technophile (namely that the productivity gains of technology outweigh the human costs or the means used to achieve them) is doubly flawed. Firstly, disempowering technology may maximise profits, but it need not increase efficient utilisation of resources or workers time, skills or potential (and as we argue in greater detail later, in section , efficiency and profit maximisation are two different things, with such deskilling and management control actually reducing efficiency -- compared to workers' control -- but as it allows managers to maximise profits the capitalist market selects it). Secondly, "when investment does in fact generate innovation, does such innovation yield greater productivity?. . . After conducting a poll of industry executives on trends in automation, Business Week concluded in 1982 that 'there is a heavy backing for capital investment in a variety of labour-saving technologies that are designed to fatten profits without necessary adding to productive output.'" David Noble concludes that "whenever managers are able to use automation to 'fatten profits' and enhance their authority (by eliminating jobs and extorting concessions and obedience from the workers who remain) without at the same time increasing social product, they appear more than ready to do." [David Noble, Progress Without People, pp. 86-87 and p. 89]
Of course the claim is that higher wages follow increased investment and technological innovation ("in the long run" -- although usually "the long run" has to be helped to arrive by workers' struggle and protest!). Passing aside the question of whether slightly increased consumption really makes up for dehumanising and uncreative work, we must note that it is usually the capitalist who really benefits from technological change in money terms. For example, between 1920 and 1927 (a period when unemployment caused by technology became commonplace) the automobile industry (which was at the forefront of technological change) saw wages rise by 23.7%. Thus, claim supporters of capitalism, technology is in all our interests. However, capital surpluses rose by 192.9% during the same period -- 8 times faster! Little wonder wages rose! Similarly, over the last 20 years the USA and many other countries have seen companies "down-sizing" and "right-sizing" their workforce and introducing new technologies. The result? Simply put, the 1970s saw the start of "no-wage growth expansions." Before the early 1970s, "real wage growth tracked the growth of productivity and production in the economy overall. After . . ., they ceased to do so. . . Real wage growth fell sharply below measured productivity growth." [James K. Galbraith, Created Unequal, p. 79] So while real wages have stagnated, profits have been increasing as productivity rises and the rich have been getting richer -- technology yet again showing whose side it is on.
Overall, as David Noble notes (with regards to manufacturing):
"U.S. Manufacturing industry over the last thirty years . . . [has seen] the value of capital stock (machinery) relative to labour double, reflecting the trend towards mechanisation and automation. As a consequence . . . the absolute output person hour increased 115%, more than double. But during this same period, real earnings for hourly workers . . . rose only 84%, less than double. Thus, after three decades of automation-based progress, workers are now earning less relative to their output than before. That is, they are producing more for less; working more for their boss and less for themselves." [Op. Cit., pp. 92-3]
"For if the impact of automation on workers has not been ambiguous, neither has the impact on management and those it serves -- labour's loss has been their gain. During the same first thirty years of our age of automation, corporate after tax profits have increased 450%, more than five times the increase in real earnings for workers." [Op. Cit., p. 95]
But why? Because labour has the ability to produce a flexible amount of output (use value) for a given wage. Unlike coal or steel, a worker can be made to work more intensely during a given working period and so technology can be utilised to maximise that effort as well as increasing the pool of potential replacements for an employee by deskilling their work (so reducing workers' power to get higher wages for their work). Thus technology is a key way of increasing the power of the boss, which in turn can increase output per worker while ensuring that the workers' receive relatively less of that output back in terms of wages -- "Machines," argued Proudhon, "promised us an increase of wealth they have kept their word, but at the same time endowing us with an increase of poverty. They promised us liberty. . . [but] have brought us slavery." [Op. Cit., p. 199]
But do not get us wrong, technological progress does not imply that we are victims. Far from it, much innovation is the direct result of our resistance to hierarchy and its tools. For example, capitalists turned to Taylorism and "scientific management" in response to the power of skilled craft workers to control their work and working environment (the famous 1892 Homestead strike, for example, was a direct product of the desire of the company to end the skilled workers' control and power on the shop-floor). In response to this, factory and other workers created a whole new structure of working class power -- a new kind of unionism based on the industrial level. This can be seen in many different countries. For example, in Spain, the C.N.T. (an anarcho-syndicalist union) adopted the sindicato unico (one union) in 1918 which united all workers of the same workplace in the same union (by uniting skilled and unskilled in a single organisation, the union increased their fighting power). In the UK, the shop stewards movement arose during the first world war based on workplace organisation (a movement inspired by the pre-war syndicalist revolt and which included many syndicalist activists). This movement was partly in response to the reformist TUC unions working with the state during the war to suppress class struggle. In Germany, the 1919 near revolution saw the creation of revolutionary workplace unions and councils (and a large increase in the size of the anarcho-syndicalist union FAU which was organised by industry). In the USA, the 1930s saw a massive and militant union organising drive by the C.I.O. based on industrial unionism and collective bargaining (inspired, in part, by the example of the I.W.W. and its broad organisation of unskilled workers).
More recently, workers in the 1960s and 70s responded to the increasing reformism and bureaucratic nature of such unions as the CIO and TUC by organising themselves directly on the shop floor to control their work and working conditions. This informal movement expressed itself in wildcat strikes against both unions and management, sabotage and unofficial workers' control of production (see John Zerzan's essay "Organised Labour and the Revolt Against Work" in Elements of Refusal). In the UK, the shop stewards' movement revived itself, organising much of the unofficial strikes and protests which occurred in the 1960s and 70s. A similar tendency was seen in many countries during this period.
So in response to a new developments in technology and workplace organisation, workers' developed new forms of resistance which in turn provokes a response by management. Thus technology and its (ab)uses is very much a product of the class struggle, of the struggle for freedom in the workplace.
With a given technology, workers and radicals soon learn to use it in ways never dreamed off to resist their bosses and the state (which necessitates a transformation of within technology again to try and give the bosses an upper hand!). The use of the Internet, for example, to organise, spread and co-ordinate information, resistance and struggles is a classic example of this process (see Jason Wehling, "'Netwars' and Activists Power on the Internet", Scottish Anarchist no. 2 for details). There is always a "guerrilla war" associated with technology, with workers and radicals developing their own tactics to gain counter control for themselves. Thus much technological change reflects our power and activity to change our own lives and working conditions. We must never forget that.
While some may dismiss our analysis as "Luddite," to do so is make "technology" an idol to be worshipped rather than something to be critically analysed. Moreover, to do so is to misrepresent the ideas of the Luddites themselves -- they never actually opposed all technology or machinery. Rather, they opposed "all Machinery hurtful to Commonality" (as a March 1812 letter to a hated Manufacturer put it). Rather than worship technological progress (or view it uncritically), the Luddites subjected technology to critical analysis and evaluation. They opposed those forms of machinery that harmed themselves or society. Unlike those who smear others as "Luddites," the labourers who broke machines were not intimidated by the modern notion of progress. Their sense of right and wrong was not clouded by the notion that technology was somehow inevitable or neutral. They did not think that human values (or their own interests) were irrelevant in evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of a given technology and its effects on workers and society as a whole. Nor did they consider their skills and livelihood as less important than the profits and power of the capitalists. In other words, they would have agreed with Proudhon's comment that machinery "plays the leading role in industry, man is secondary" and they acted to change this relationship. [Op. Cit., p. 204] Indeed, it would be temping to argue that worshippers of technological progress are, in effect, urging us not to think and to sacrifice ourselves to a new abstraction like the state or capital. The Luddites were an example of working people deciding what their interests were and acting to defend them by their own direct action -- in this case opposing technology which benefited the ruling class by giving them an edge in the class struggle. Anarchists follow this critical approach to technology, recognising that it is not neutral nor above criticism.
For capital, the source of problems in industry is people. Unlike machines, people can think, feel, dream, hope and act. The "evolution" of technology will, therefore, reflect the class struggle within society and the struggle for liberty against the forces of authority. Technology, far from being neutral, reflects the interests of those with power. Technology will only be truly our friend once we control it ourselves and modify to reflect human values (this may mean that some forms of technology will have to be written off and replaces by new forms in a free society). Until that happens, most technological processes -- regardless of the other advantages they may have -- will be used to exploit and control people.
Thus Proudhon's comments that "in the present condition of society, the workshop with its hierarchical organisation, and machinery" could only serve "exclusively the interests of the least numerous, the least industrious, and the wealthiest class" rather than "be employed for the benefit of all." [Op. Cit., p. 205]
While resisting technological "progress" (by means up to and including machine breaking) is essential in the here and now, the issue of technology can only be truly solved when those who use a given technology control its development, introduction and use. Little wonder, therefore, that anarchists consider workers' self-management as a key means of solving the problems created by technology. Proudhon, for example, argued that the solution to the problems created by the division of labour and technology could only be solved by "association" and "by a broad education, by the obligation of apprenticeship, and by the co-operation of all who take part in the collective work." This would ensure that "the division of labour can no longer be a cause of degradation for the workman [or workwoman]." [The General Idea of the Revolution, p. 223]
While as far as technology goes, it may not be enough to get rid of the boss, this is a necessary first step in creating a technology which enhances freedom rather than controlling and shaping the worker (or user in general) and enhancing the power and profits of the capitalist (see also section I.4.9 -- ).
What does Class mean in the 21st Century?
There is a popular view that class has something to do with lifestyles, income or status. Working class, ‘middle class’ and ruling class people are supposed to have certain accents, different kinds of jobs and housing in separate geographical areas that define their class. However, subjective approaches that attempt to define class by what people consume, where they live or how they speak focus on how people behave, but not on what created class society in the first place. Judging people by these behavior patterns only focuses on surface appearances and does not explain the underlying social relationships which exist within capitalist society. Many theorists have attempted to explain the phenomena of class, but Marx’s contribution was an examination of how modern class society was created, based on the economic processes of exploitation. It is this that separates his concept of class from other philosophers such as Max Weber. Erik Olin Wright addresses this in his paper The Shadow of Exploitation in Weber’s Class Analysis (2002) –
“Nothing better captures the central contrast between the Marxist and Weberian traditions of class analysis than the concept centred on the problems of life chances in Weber and a concept rooted in exploitation in Marx… (Weber) does not see the problem of extracting labour effort as a pivotal feature of class relations and a central determinant of class conflict” (p832).
The origins of modern class society
Marx wrote in 1852-
“I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was… to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production…”- Letter to Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852- Quoted in Social Theory- A Historical Introduction, by A. Callinicos (Polity Press, 1999) p84.
Events like the English, American and French Revolutions overthrew the age old rule of kings, and began freeing the productive forces of the urban bourgeoisie to develop both industries and colonial empires, thus creating a new imperialist global economy. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels see the development of capitalism as a progressive step in history, overthrowing the superstitions of the old feudal class order with the white heat of science and industry. Capitalism represented a higher mode of production from the previous modes of slavery, feudalism and primitive communism (hunter gatherer classless societies).
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production…All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away… ( K. Marx, Communist Manifesto, p12).
However, this new industrialised society created its own oppressed class, the proletariat or urban working class. The proletariat is exploited by being forced to sell its labour at a price lower than its true value- the surplus is taken by the capitalist and becomes the chief source of the new system’s ultimate goal- profits. This was accepted by early capitalist thinkers- the classical economists John Locke, David Ricardo and Adam Smith, upon whose theories Marx built his work. Smith argued that
“the real price of everything, what it really costs the men who want to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it…It is not by gold and silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased, and its value to those who possess it and who want to exchange it for some other object, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it enables them to purchase or command”- From the Wealth of Nations, quoted in C. Harman, Economics of the Madhouse, Bookmarks, 1995, p20.
Against this, many bourgeois economists have argued that labour is free to sell itself in a contract with its employer. Although this is true, it negates the fact that without wages the worker will not have money for life’s necessities, and as such, most people are compelled to work. In the age of modern welfare states, few people choose to live a life of poverty on unemployment benefits.
Exploitation and Surplus Value
Decades before Marx developed the labour theory of value in Das Kapital, Adam Smith conceded the fact that capitalists, rather than creating wealth, actually took their profits from wealth created by labour. Profits were derived from what Marx would later call the unpaid surplus value that the working class created.
“In the original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole product of labour belonged to the labourer. But as soon as the land becomes private property, the landowner demands a share of the produce…The produce of all labour is liable to a like deduction of profit… In all manufactures, the greater parts of the workmen stand in need of a master to advance them the materials of their work… He shares in the product of their labour”. Quoted by Chris Harman, Economics of the Madhouse, p23.
Thus, it is argued by Marxists that capitalism is based around exploitation of the majority of people in society, who are compelled by economic necessity to work, by a small minority of landlords, corporations, speculators and capitalists. Those who work to earn a wage from this exploitative minority form the working class- this pattern of class domination and exploitation is repeated intergenerationally. Marx argues in his masterwork, Das Kapital-
“This specific form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself… On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production and hence also its specific political form. …in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and independence….” Marx, Capital. III, p927 (quoted in Callinicos)
Class struggle- the fundamental opposition of class interests
For Marx, the exploitation of the working class differs from previous subordinate classes such as serfs or slaves, in that they are exploited collectively, in massive factories, industries and workplaces. This creates the possibilities for workers to begin organising collectively in combinations or unions, pointing the way to a future collective, egalitarian society where wealth can be democratically owned and shared for the common good. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx notes that-
The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the working people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly employs them…
But with the development of industry, the proletariat increase not only in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows and it feels it more. (p15)
When Marx was writing, the global working class was equivalent to that of the workers in modern South Korea. Today, the vast majority of the world’s population (and poor) are urban workers, be they in London or Berlin, or in the sprawling conurbations of Sao Paola, Jakarta or Lagos. For Marxists, the principle of democratic control of the economy and the resources produced by collective labour is irreconcilable with private ownership of the means of production.
…At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or- this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms- with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
K. Marx, a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (London, 1971) p21.
The new middle class?
In modern times, there has been a debate around who constitutes the working class- traditionally; they have been thought to consist of workers in highly unionized manual industries such as mining, shipbuilding, construction etc. However, the proleterianisation of the service industries in recent years has seen nurses, bank officials and teachers not only unionise but take strike action to defend conditions in modern Ireland and New Zealand. These workers although “white collar”, still sell their labour for a wage and are considered by modern Marxists to be members of the working class.
However, modern Marxists do acknowledge the existence of a thin layer of professionals who occupy Contradictory Class positions, such as lawyers, senior managers, university professors etc. These people, whilst paid for their labour by a generous salary, occupy positions of power and status in modern class society, and thus resemble the classical petit-bourgeoisie defined by Marx in the Manifesto. This group can be won to one side or the other of the class struggle by ideological argument, but can be said to benefit from the unequal nature of late capitalist social organisation. (this Marxist analysis of a ‘middle class’ is discussed in greater depth by Lindsey German in ‘ Caught in the Middle?’, A Question of Class, 1996 p66-76)
Implications for social inequality- the Abolition of Private Property
The French Utopian Socialist, Proudhon, before Marx, had declared that “Private property is theft”. In a Marxist class analysis, private property is the ownership of the means of production by a small minority, and it is at the root of social inequality. In the second Part of the Communist Manifesto, Marx distinguishes the difference between the personal objects most working people buy throughout their life with their wages, to which they are entitled, and the ownership of huge industries, corporations and economic sectors by individuals or private cabals.
Communism deprives no one of the power to appropriate the products of society: all that it does is deprive one of the power to subjugate the labours of others by means of such appropriation (p28)
Marx argued throughout his life that the working class, through revolution, will put property and wealth under democratic control, for the use and service of all. Here, Marx addresses those critics who attack the socialists-
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths (p27).
Marx was not the crude determinist that he is often portrayed as- there will be no natural evolution from the barbaric system of capitalist exploitation based on war, imperialism, racism and sexism to a new collective world unless people consciously organise to bring it about. That is why he placed such emphasis on worker’s self emancipation, helping to organise the First International and many political parties and trade unions. He argued for socialism from below- and that the liberation of the workers was not to be done by anyone but themselves- “Philosophers have only interpreted the world” he once said, “The point is to change it.”
How this democratic control of economics is to be achieved today is still widely debated- some reformist socialists argue for gradual legal change, Partnership, a Third Way or market socialism, whereas radical socialists argue for worker’s councils, a fighting trade union movement and in the wider anti capitalist movement, revolution.
For radical egalitarians, the need to democratise the very economy itself becomes a prerequisite, a fundamental principle of how to organise society and redistribute the resources created collectively. The redistributive principle of the socialist movement can be summed up in Marx’s maxim “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. In the 21st century, where 19,000 children starve daily amidst a world of plenty, the urgency of this credo is still with us.
. Bourgeois and Proletarians
The first section, "Bourgeois and Proletarians," puts forward Marx's , claiming that:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
The section goes on to argue that the class struggle under capitalism is between those who own the means of production, the ruling class or , and those who labor for a wage, the working class or . Though the bourgeoisie has played a progressive role in destroying , according to Marx and Engels, it has also brought about the conditions for its own impending downfall by creating a contradiction within capitalism between the and the :
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”... for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
However: The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.
II. Proletarians and Communists
The second section, "Proletarians and Communists," starts by outlining the relationship of conscious communists to the rest of the working class:
The Communists are not a special party in relation to the other working-class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any special principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
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.
It goes on to defend communism from various objections, such as the claim that communists advocate "," and the claim that people will not perform labor in a communist society because they have no incentive to work. The authors typically respond to objections of this sort dismissively, often by accusing critics of hypocrisy; they argue that capitalism has demonstrated concretely all the faults communism might theoretically be subject to, and so such discussions should not be taken seriously.
The section ends by outlining a set of short-term demands. These included, among others, the abolition of and the right to , a progressive , universal , centralisation of the means of and under state management, and the expansion of the owned by the state. The implementation of these policies, would, the authors believed, be a precursor to the and .
One particularly controversial passage deals with this transitional period:
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole , the public power will lose its character. , properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class; if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
It is this concept of the transition from socialism to communism which many critics of the Manifesto, particularly during and after the Soviet era, have highlighted. Anarchists, liberals, and conservatives have all asked how an organization such as the revolutionary state could ever (as Engels put it elsewhere) "wither away."
In a related dispute, later Marxists, particularly supporters of the , made a separation between "," a society ruled by workers, and "," a classless society. Engels wrote little and Marx wrote less on the specifics of the transition to communism, so the authenticity of this distinction remains a matter of dispute.
The experience and the development of power, the chance to break up the seeming 'natural-ness' of the relations of exploitation, all have their starting points in local struggles. If we want to be part of this as proletarian collectives we need to do it here: supporting the struggle of the railway cleaning workers, distributing strike news of McDonald's workers, understanding the conflicts in the asparagus-fields, preventing bailiffs' seizures, throwing ourselves into the sweatshops of the New Economy...
That's how we perceive our inquiry and intervention in call centres in the last three years: as a revolutionary project in a specific sector that tries to understand and criticize the totality of capitalist relations. Inquiry is, on one hand, the way in which we ourselves get together: collective discussions, going to work, interviews, theoretical debates... On the other hand it is our relation to class reality: experiences within daily exploitation, attempts to escape from it, intervention, collective struggles...
Inquiry means understanding the context between the daily cooperation of the workers and their forms of struggle and finding the new (communist) sociality within. We need to analyse the reality with all its contradictions. It makes no sense to glorify strikes or sabotage or to praise the 'unity of the working class'. It's our task to emphasise the prospects and the strength of a struggle by using examples but also to point out limits and weaknesses, the counter-measures of the bosses, attempts of the works council to undermine struggles, the narrow-mindedness of those who are proud of their profession, the racism.
We have to underline the fact that the conflicts and struggles take place on the basis of class relations, and show where the chance for the abolition of these relations and the potential for liberation lies.
This critique and the actual experiences described can be used in future confrontations. As a collective we have started at a certain point. But only as part of a movement, where struggling workers themselves analyse their conditions and connections, can the inquiry become a joint search for a new world...
3.1 Concrete aims of the inquiry
In 1999 when we were sitting together in Oberhausen, Germany and planning the first steps for an 'inquiry and intervention' we had hopes such as:
* Understanding what is going on in one particular sector of exploitation
* Encouraging other leftists to understand class-reality in this region and their own situation as proletarians
* Helping ourselves go further, to get organised in a theoretical and practical way.
But one step at a time...
The class reality
Our situation was that we got reports on strikes from France or scientific studies about the restructuring of the auto-industry from time to time, but we didn't know much about how the workers in our own region were reacting to changes in exploitation. The decision to concentrate on one sector - Call Centres - gave us the opportunity to understand the situation more precisely, especially given our limited capacity. We wanted to continue our previous discussions with other workers about the organisation of exploitation, and thereby keep learning and progressing. And last but not least, we hoped that through contacts at work and the leaflets, we would get in contact with some interesting people as the first step to new proletarian meetings.
We wanted to go beyond our critique of 'leftists', i.e. that they 'navel gaze' rather than being interested in the class reality. We had the impression that our previous attempts (for example: kolinko: The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999) were good on paper, but weak in practical results because we had a critique but we did not have a concrete suggestion. We knew that a lot of lefties were working in call centres and so we were hoping that it would be possible to bring the 'political movement' and the struggle against exploitation closer together. We wanted to concentrate on a common project with our sometimes personal and co-incidental contacts with people and groups of the 'revolutionary class left'. The suggestion for the common inquiry was aimed at pushing the international discussion about the tasks of revolutionaries today and so bring us together with new soul comrades.
had the idea that 'inquiry' would be a 'liberation' for us. After months of making sluggish progress on the 'Subversion of Everyday Life'-text we wanted to have more reality again. Not only reading and writing, but watching, listening, feeling and being creative, making trouble and at the same time getting rid of the existing differences of experience between us. Most of us knew something about 'workers inquiry' through the history of the older comrades and the Italian mythology but we wanted to try it out ourselves. Some of us had experience of distributing leaflets on construction sites, in restaurants and factories but often this was a single action and not the result of a common discussion. We were hoping that the 'inquiry as a collective' would also help us go further: with theoretical debate, with the confrontations with the henchmen of exploitation, with the organisation and arrangement of information, with the ups and downs of everyday working life and with the joint planning of a proletarian intervention.
Why Call Centres?
In summer 1999 we had various concrete reasons to start an inquiry into call centres:
* There was a strike at Citibank at the end of 1998. We asked ourselves whether this was a sign of a rise in new militancy of the workers in this sector.
* In our region, the Ruhrgebiet, call centres were mushrooming and the number of workers was growing into thousands. More and more young people were working there, including some of our friends.
* Most of the jobs in call centres were available for 'unskilled' workers. This gave us a chance to get jobs there. And we hoped to find struggles and conflicts that had the chance to go beyond the limits posed by pride in ones profession or the myth of the higher status of office workers.
* We were excited about the new concentration of workers: companies with a hundred, two hundred and sometimes more than five hundred workers, mostly with the same working-conditions. We wanted to know if this facilitates struggle.
* Businessmen, politicians, union officials and many more were in agreement that here a 'beautiful, new world of work' was growing. We had heard about the 'clean jobs' and we wanted to try them out.
* Call centres were not only mushrooming in Ruhrgebiet. We heard about it in Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris, Dallas... As workers in different regions had similar conditions it would be easier to make connections and exchange experiences. If 'callcentreization' is a worldwide tendency we could suggest a common inquiry project.
3.2 What did we do?
There were different levels of the inquiry. The first level could be called 'Pre-inquiry'. This was:
* Collecting material about call centres: studies from universities about the growth of call centres in certain regions; newspaper articles; materials from management and unions...
* Theoretical discussions, for example about work organisation, machinery, the movement of capital (circulation). We took this as a self-teaching process, so that together we could understand more about the context.
* Comparing (and further developing) 'theoretical knowledge' with our everyday life experiences at the call centre. We decided to work in different call centre (in different sectors, at inbound and outbound), to gain experience of many different conditions, but also in the hope of discovering hidden conflicts. The decision to go alone into a company was a controversial issue during the inquiry.
* Interviews with ourselves and other call centre workers: On one hand the interviews were to give us a more detailed picture of call centres. On the other hand we were hoping that they could be the start of a common discussion about the everyday life of exploitation and the possibilities of struggle.
* Distributing a suggestion to other revolutionaries, that they take part in an inquiry in their own region. Because of electronic communications it got around the whole world of the revolutionary/ class struggle groups. With groups from Italy and England we started an intensive exchange.
The pre-inquiry lasted roughly a year. In Autumn 2000 we entered the second level and everything heated up. We published the leaflets and set up a website, where we could put out the leaflets and other information about conflicts in call centres and anywhere else.
It must be said that we decided early on to bring out a series of four leaflets (flexible work extension, intensification of work, nonsense of work and struggles at call centres). We are now more critical about this decision. We also published extra leaflets about concrete conflicts in single call centres: planned elections of works councils, standard phrasing, forty hours of unpaid work. The leaflets have been distributed in and around the call centres of our region. In other cities they were handed out by comrades.
With the leaflets and the website we wanted to create a place of exchange for 'worker-militants' in different companies. Moreover, we wanted to add our position to the daily break-time discussions to see how the workers and the management would react.
At the moment, we are mainly floating at the third level of the 'political evaluation'. We want to share our experiences with other comrades and learn...
3.3 How do we see it today?
In the following we go through and review the individual 'parts' of the inquiry.
We have been asked if we benefited from the questionnaire and the interviews. In the beginning we had the idea that a political discussion could come about through the reciprocal interviews with other workers in which the daily organisation of work is criticised. But we only did a few interviews with a dozen other workers so it is hard to answer the question.
We mostly got to know these 'other workers' through political contacts rather than at work. During the interviews we had some discussions but there were just too many questions.
All in all, the questionnaire did not produce a 'representative' result. We don't even know if the questionnaire opened up the consciousness or the eyes of comrades in other call centres. We received only a few questionnaires back from those we distributed; one from a call centre in Scotland; one from Holland.
For us, the questionnaire helped to structure our very different work experiences. We did summaries of the interviews - for example about machinery, co-operation and the relationship to work - that fed into our theoretical discussion. Later on in our inquiry, we stopped using the questionnaire, but then we had the problem that the 'company reports' became just like a collection of stories. We came to the conclusion, that we needed three different questionnaires for different situations:
* One long and precise questionnaire, like the original, to get more information about facts and connections (work organisation, machinery, hierarchy, workers' behaviour...). It is enough to have three or four interviews at the beginning of an inquiry. Focus: facts, overview.
* One shorter questionnaire for interviews and conversations at work, for other workers and ourselves to be able to see, for example, the co-operation with workers in different departments. This is also largely about 'self-reflection' and 'self-inquiry': how do we behave in everyday situations at work? What kinds of conflicts exist and what is our position in relation to them? This questionnaire has to be useful for workers themselves, to answer it by themselves and use it for discussions at work. Focus: discussion, agitation.
* Another short questionnaire for interviews with activists and other acquaintances to ask about what's going on in 'their' workplaces. This is good for the exchange of struggle experiences, which we can discuss and distribute. Focus: reflection, exchange. This questionnaire is also good for reports.
On the website we published texts and reports which would normally have ended up collecting dust in files and hard drives. We also got something out of writing the reports:
Finding out what is important and how to write it down clearly. It is unfortunately harder with the reports than with the leaflets, to estimate whether reports about strikes in Italy or about the suffering of young data typists are read and discussed.
Our experience with the website is that it has not become a forum in which others participate and put their own experience on the web, as it was planned. Reports were sent in sporadically. The question is whether an electronic medium helps at all.
The website worked as a reference point; comrades and workers were able to read and download all the leaflets, reports and translations. We have not been dependent on sending texts, so this made the communication easier. Additionally, we could document the hotlines-leaflet from Brighton, England and material from Italy.
Certainly we came into contact with people through the website, which probably would not have been possible with other media. One important critique was that the reports on the website were too short and did not say anything special. They aren't helpful for comparing to each other or as a learning process. It makes sense to have list of questions there, to be able to write reports along the same lines. In the future we have to solve the problem of how we can get to a more 'global' website. One that collects more situations from sectors of exploitation and gives more information about struggles. Information, not from the bourgeois media but from revolutionary initiatives on the ground. But this again, is a completely different question...
At the beginning we had some discussions about whether we should write general leaflets at all, meaning leaflets which did not relate to a concrete discussion or conflict in a certain company, but which say something about exploitation in general. With the concrete leaflets (which we finally produced) we hoped that we could provoke intensive discussions, and maybe even reactions, in which we could get involved directly. With the general leaflets we hoped to have more space in which to present the whole spectrum of exploitation: from the attempts to make us work longer and more intensively, through the contradiction between quality and quantity, right up to the question of union representation. We also wanted to distribute the leaflets not just in front of 'our' call centres but in the whole region and beyond.
The final decision to do a series of leaflets about different issues was influenced by the assessment that, at the moment, conflicts in call centres are rare, and not really open. Looking back, the series had some problems: we tried to build a bridge between 'political analysis in general' and 'concrete situations' by adding concrete reports on several 'theoretical issues'. We got stuck between the levels. On one hand it would have been better to write more 'political' leaflets related to the political situation in general (war, crisis, reconstruction of the exploitation, role of the unions). On the other hand it would have been possible to concentrate on one company in order to have a more precise analysis and criticism of the development of exploitation and the whole organisation of this company. However, it would have been a balancing act: on one hand not losing the concrete situation of the workers through the 'world-view', and on the other hand not getting bogged down with the nitty-gritty of one company...
It is hard to work out whether we actually gave useful 'struggle information' in the leaflets, which was our real aim. In the first three leaflets we wrote about different work conditions, plus information in general; for example, in which other cities there are call centres belonging to the same company. While in the final leaflet we gave some conclusions about struggles that had already taken place in call centres, (about the role of the representatives, problems with petitions and the problem of the work being transferred to call centres that were not on strike), there were hardly any conflicts where the conclusions were put to the test.
We found out that the leaflets about conflicts in a particular call centre provoked more reactions from the workers, and from the management. Here is an example, about distributing a leaflet on forced 'standard formulation' at Quelle:
It was in the evening and I was alone at Quelle. At first the two workers were not interested, but when they heard that it was about the standard formulation they were surprised and took a leaflet.
A little later a tall team leader and a little fat works council woman came along. The team leader had some of the leaflets in her hand already; she explained that we would call for a wildcat strike, which is illegal and that the management would take steps. She also wanted my name. Two other workers came out and an older gentleman asked me if he could have one of the leaflets and asked the team leader if he would be allowed to read it. She was laughing a little hysterically and said: 'If you want to have a laugh, Mr. ... Someone is complaining about the alarm clock that wakes him up'. The works council representative could see that the team leader was not sticking to the point, so she came over all 'confidential' to me:
'This thing is going to fail! Even if we could get 300 people together and walk out for 15 minutes, in a legal sense we would get fired. Get involved in the union!' I talked a bit about the loss of real wages and the loss of jobs which my union was fighting for the last few years. Which she acknowledged with a smile. The team leader found it all a little bit too cosy: 'The election for the works council is soon, you could participate. Apart from that I take it that you are going to carry on leafleting?!' Yo.
After using the toilets at 'Beim Pueppchen' I met a young guy, who clapped me on the shoulder with the words: 'Keep on going on!' This left me with a pleasant warmth, considering the low temperature outside. Together with my late leafleting comrade some other workers came. Everybody wanted a leaflet.
Somebody started shrieking and we were expecting something awful: 'Can you take the responsibility of endangering other people's jobs?' We knew that we had to battle with this person in front of the other workers, and it was not easy because some of the workers agreed with her: 'I like working here,' etc. We said stuff like 'you don't have to grovel', 'there is more to your life than work' and 'don't let them play us off against each other'...
This 'madam' then tried to intimidate us with a rhetoric like gastric acid: and repeated again and again: 'Listen, sweetheart, the company can close down this place at any time; we can be proud of our jobs, we accomplish good quality; only ten percent of the phone call is standard formulation; I am a supporter of socialist-communist ideas; if your colleagues don't like the job they can get a job somewhere else or go self-employed...'
The other workers soon left and the madam was so convinced about herself and the company that after a while it just wasn't fun any more, and we wished her a good day. Later it turned out that she was the boss of the workplace. The next day she wrote a pretty dull memo to all workers, warning them about the leaflet.
Why did we propose a detailed inquiry into the organisation of work and exploitation? As the quote suggests: statistics about the development of wages and strikes, or expressions of conflict, may reflect the crisis of the movement but they don't explain it and neither do they help us do anything about it. We hope the inquiry will help us understand the background of the crisis and also find out where a new movement begins: in the real conditions of exploitation. These are not reduced to 'the workplace' but include the general organisation of society: from the 'rearing' and reproduction of labour power in households, through their '(de)formation' in schools and universities, their squeezing in various workplaces, to their 'correction' in juvenile detention centres and prisons.
We are interested in the process of production as a place where exploited people from all over the world come together and have to get along - whether they want to or not. Where they are opposed to capital or the state not just as victims or petitioners but where they produce the wealth of this society and thereby materially change it. That is why our attention goes to the back-breaking harvest on strawberry fields, to the metal workshops, to the transport of goods and to the call centre 'service hell'. We ask ourselves how the coercion of work changes and under what conditions we have to sell our labour power. How are we actually being put to work within the combination of machinery, the division of work, and the hierarchy that goes with it?
The organisation of exploitation mirrors the current power relations, and new struggles and their possible self-organisation will be based on it. It is not just that someone else draws profit from our work but also that our entire life is determined by this exploitative relationship. It subjects our rhythm of life to shift plans, adapts our movements to the requirement of machines and changes our social relationships.
In the inquiry into call centres we have emphasised everyday working life. The following section is based on our own experiences and on interviews with other workers.