DONATE NOW TO HELP UPGRADE LIBCOM.ORG

Workers self-management in capitalism: Extremely important reform to fight for?

15 posts / 0 new
Last post
ultraviolet's picture
ultraviolet
Offline
Joined: 14-04-11
Oct 22 2011 04:08
Workers self-management in capitalism: Extremely important reform to fight for?

Below is an excerpt from Berkman's ABC of Anarchism where he discusses the importance of workers gaining the skills of self-management. He says this is essential knowledge to have before we embark on a revolutionary general strike. Otherwise, we will not have the knowledge to operate production and distribution, and either the revolution will fail or we will have to maintain a hierarchical workplace structure, where we are managed by experts -- many who will be hostile towards the revolution, so dependence on them may also mean the failure of the revolution.

I've long felt the same way. I personally think that when unions negotiate for a contract, that greater management control should be a central demand, in many cases more important than wages (as long as they aren't below poverty level wages).

I am familiar with the criticisms of workers self-managing capitalist enterprises, particularly if it is merely co-management. I agree with the critiques, but I think the good outweighs the bad by far. There are certain skills and knowledge we need to gain or we won't be ready for revolution.

What do others think?

Excerpt from the last couple pages of chapter 10 of ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman

Quote:
The labour organizations of a given place take charge of the public utilities, of the means of communication, of production and distribution in their particular locality. That is, the telegraphers, the telephone and electrical workers, the railroad men, and so on, take possession (by means of their revolutionary shop committees) of the workshop, factory, or other establishment. The capitalistic foremen, overseers, and managers are removed from the premises if they resist the change and refuse to cooperate. If willing to participate, they are made to understand that henceforth there are neither masters nor owners: that the factory becomes public property in charge of the union of workers engaged in the industry, all equal partners in the general undertaking.

It is to be expected that the higher officials of large industrial and manufacturing concerns will refuse to co-operate. Thus they eliminate themselves. Their place must be taken by workers previously prepared for the job. That is why I have emphasized the utmost importance of industrial preparation. This is a primal necessity in a situation that will inevitably develop and on it will depend, more than on any other factor, the success of the social revolution. Industrial preparation is the most essential point, for without it the revolution is doomed to collapse.

The engineers and other technical specialists are more likely to join hands with labour when the social revolution comes, particularly if a closer bond and better understanding have in the meantime been established between the manual and mental workers.

Should they refuse and should the workers have failed to prepare themselves industrially and technically, then production would depend on compelling the willfully obstinate to co-operate - an experiment tried in the Russian Revolution and proved a complete failure.

The grave mistake of the Bolsheviki in this connection was their hostile treatment of the whole class of the intelligentsia on account of the opposition of some members of it. It was the spirit of intolerance, inherent in fanatical dogma, which caused them to persecute an entire social group because of the fault of a few. This manifested itself in the policy of wholesale vengeance upon the professional elements, the technical specialists, the cooperative organizations, and all cultured persons in general. Most of them, at first friendly to the Revolution, some even enthusiastic in its favor, were alienated by these Bolshevik tactics, and their cooperation was made impossible. As a result of their dictatorial attitude the Communists were led to resort to increased oppression and tyranny till they finally introduced purely martial methods in the industrial life of the country. It was the era of compulsory labour, the militarization of factory and mill, which unavoidably ended in disaster, because forced labour is, by the very nature of coercion, bad and inefficient; moreover, those so compelled react upon the situation by willful sabotage, by systematic delay and spoilage of work, which an intelligent enemy can practice in a way that cannot be detected in due time and which results in greater harm to machinery and product than direct refusal to work. In spite of the most drastic measures against this kind of sabotage, in spite even of the death penalty, the government was powerless to overcome the evil. The placing of a Bolshevik, of a political commissar, over every technician in the more responsible positions did not help matters. It merely created a legion of parasitic officials who, ignorant of industrial matters, only interfered with the work of those friendly to the Revolution and willing to aid, while their unfamiliarity with the task in no way prevented continued sabotage. The system of forced labour finally developed in what practically became economic counterrevolution, and no efforts of the dictatorship could alter the situation. It was this that caused the Bolsheviki to change from compulsory labour to a policy of winning over the specialists and technicians by returning them to authority in the industries and rewarding them with high pay and special emoluments.

It would be stupid and criminal to try again the methods which have so signally failed in the Russian Revolution and which, by their very character, are bound to fail every time, both industrially and morally.

The only solution of this problem is the already suggested preparation and training of the workers in the art of organizing and managing industry, as well as closer contact between the manual and technical men. Every factory, mine, and mill should have its special workers' council, separate from and independent of the shop committee, for the purpose of familiarizing the workers with the various phases of their particular industry, including the sources of raw material, the consecutive processes of manufacture, by-products, and manner of distribution. This industrial council should be permanent, but its membership must rotate in such a manner as to take in practically all the employees of a given factory or mill. To illustrate: suppose the industrial council in a certain establishment consists of five members or of twenty-five, as the case may be, according to the complexity of the industry and the size of the particular factory. The members of the council, after having thoroughly acquainted themselves with their industry, publish what they had learned for the information of their fellow-workers, and new council members are chosen to continue the industrial studies. In this manner the whole factory or mill can consecutively acquire the necessary knowledge about the organization and management of their trade and keep step with its development. These councils would serve as industrial colleges where the workers would become familiar with the technique of their industry in all its phases.

At the same time the larger organization, the union, must use every effort to compel capital to permit greater labour participation in the actual management. But this, even at best, can benefit only a small minority of the workers. The plan suggested above, on the other hand, opens the possibility of industrial training to practically every worker in shop, mill, and factory.

It is true, of course, that there are certain kinds of work -such as engineering: civil, electrical, mechanical-which the industrial councils will not be able to acquire by actual practice. But what they will learn of the general processes of industry will be of inestimable value as preparation. For the rest, the closer bond of friendship and cooperation between worker and technician is a paramount necessity.

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Oct 22 2011 08:44

For me, our experience in self-management is in managing the struggle and in managing industrial organisations. We already know how to run the means of production as that's what we already do!

Two best things to read (in my opinion):

http://libcom.org/library/participatory-society-or-libertarian-communism

http://libcom.org/library/co-ops-or-conflicts

Picket's picture
Picket
Offline
Joined: 20-12-10
Oct 22 2011 12:11

I suppose it's different in different industries, professions, trades, whatever, but my personal experience of managers (in financial IT) is that their responsibilities are mostly:

- recruitment (but invariably skilled workers are involved too, for technical roles)
- allocation of work ("resource management", who picks up the phone)
- dealing with "issues"
- staff "development" (annual/bi-annual reviews)
- pay awards (yeah, maybe)
- escalation (remembering which management diktat is the current trump card)
- "oiling" (if they've been around a while they'll know people)
- playing golf
- reporting and taking flak
- going on all-expenses paid fact finding trips
- reorganisations
- hair-brained schemes around buzzword implementation

So there's a fair amount of stuff to do there but a lot of it is either the direct result of capitalist relations or nonsense, and the rest is not rocket science. I wouldn't be worried.

RedEd's picture
RedEd
Offline
Joined: 27-11-10
Oct 22 2011 14:22
Chilli Sauce wrote:
For me, our experience in self-management is in managing the struggle and in managing industrial organisations. We already know how to run the means of production as that's what we already do!

Well, yes we do run production, but we collectively only know how to do that in the way it is currently run, with layers of management, extremely atomised job roles, hierarchical command structures, a large degree of reliance on materially privileged experts, resources allocated according to profitability/state targets etc. etc. and we individually often know very little about anything more than the small, repetitive tasks that our jobs consist of. I think this does present a problem.

Unfortunately, I don't think self management at work is the right answer. History seems to have shown this to be generally the case in two ways.

1) Cooperatives that aim to create self managed work places have generally either been small and niche in labour intensive and straightforward industries (cafes, shops) or have become strucutured in basically the exact same way as any large company with layers of management, labour discipline etc., see mondragon, the co-op, etc. for examples. In both cases possibilities are to a large extent externally determined by market forces. All in all the very limited forms of self management that have actually existed under capitalism have hardly been a school for libertarian communist self management.

2) The demand for self management within standard corporations is always going to be a losing battle. Capital needs to manage us more and more closely in order to squeeze more and more labour out of us. The only forms of 'self-management' we can actually reliably win are those that are at least as good at keeping us sweating away for their profit. Not that these aren't sometimes good. Employees working out their own shift patterns can be very positive in people's day to day lives, and can help out the boss by making workers contented and not needing to hire someone to set shift patterns. But all in all, the scope for actual increases in self management at work is basically non-existent for almost all workers. The overall trend is certainly in the opposite direction, at least in any given industry.

So I think Berkman was wrong to argue for efforts to self manage production within capitalism, not because it wouldn't be usefull, but because it can't happen on any large scale.

As chilli says, we can get experience of self managing large organisations with lots of tasks when we take political action. But I don't think that is sufficient. I can't see a way of overcoming the problem of specialisation of knowledge, and large scale inexperience with self management outside of a revolutionary period.

The standard Leninist answer AFAIK is that with a high enough 'level of culture' workers will be just fine (but the backwards ex-peasants in Russian factories couldn't read and were all superstitious, so they had to submit to one man management) but this seems like bollocks to me, there is even more conceptual distance between our experience of work today and the overall organisation of an industry than there was 100 years ago. We don't overcome that because we can read.

I don't think there is a solution to the problem. Capitalism by nature constantly deskills us, constantly organises itself in more and more complicated ways and constantly distances what we do at work from the needs of a human community.

Because of this I don't think we can directly prepare for the running of production under worker control. We'd be better off trying to understand how capitalist production works and trying to ensure we don't unwittingly reproduce it because we assume it's categories to be natural.

Picket's picture
Picket
Offline
Joined: 20-12-10
Oct 22 2011 14:52

I'm finding other people's (well, RedEd's and Berkman's*) comments incongruous with my actual experience. Which actual tasks of management are the ones the working class don't know about?

RedEd, you talk about layers of management being the only organisational structure we know about, this again is not consistent with my own experience. Most places I've worked have had heavily hierarchical structures and the most effective way to get anything done is to bypass the management lines and co-operate as workers. Management (lower level, anyway) often like this as it means less work for them.

* and I can understand Berkman being wrong as he's long dead. Not saying you're "wrong" RedEd, just "wrong as far as I can tell".

ultraviolet's picture
ultraviolet
Offline
Joined: 14-04-11
Oct 22 2011 15:35

Good discussion so far. Everyone's post has got me thinking. I agree with Chili Sauce that we can gain experience in self-management through self-managing our political struggles. But as RedEd pointed out, there is certain technical and practical knowledge specific to particular industries that we need and currently lack.

Pikel pointed out that management at their job tends to do stuff that is only necessary in capitalism. But what about "the labor aristocracy" (highly paid workers, "professionals") with advanced training/education/skills, such as engineers, etc. This segment of the working class is probably less likely to be on side during a revolution, no? In some cases others will have to take over their jobs. Also, I don't think the financial IT industry where you work, Pikel, is such a good example of what it's like in other industries, such as (but not only) manufacturing. RedEd points out how atomized our jobs have become. I imagine that management would be the one group of people who have a good understanding of how all the atomized jobs fit and work together.

To be honest, it's hard for me to have an informed opinion about this, because I work as a nanny and tutor, past jobs have been in retail or telemarketing and bullshit like that, and have little clue what goes on in a "real" workplace!

RedEd, your observations of self-management in a capitalist context are accurate -- a hierarchy ends up forming, and rather than all the workers participating in self-management, a privileged few take on that position, leaving the rest as ignorant of managing skills as ever. But I still think self-management has the potential to be useful/educational to all workers, if we refuse to accept anything less than real participation by ALL the workers in self-management. It would take a stronger fight, and a more advanced political consciousness in the workers, to obtain this -- but isn't that true of any meaningful reform?

In any case, even Berkman said in the excerpt above that self-management will not be enough to educate workers in the necessary skills, because it will likely be a rare occurrence. He recommends that the workers go ahead and educate themselves in the diverse knowledge and technical skills necessary for the overall operation of their workplace through rotating participation in skill building classes. Do y'all think this is a good way to go about it?

(I'll quote the relevant section again)

Quote:
Every factory, mine, and mill should have its special workers' council, separate from and independent of the shop committee, for the purpose of familiarizing the workers with the various phases of their particular industry, including the sources of raw material, the consecutive processes of manufacture, by-products, and manner of distribution. This industrial council should be permanent, but its membership must rotate in such a manner as to take in practically all the employees of a given factory or mill. To illustrate: suppose the industrial council in a certain establishment consists of five members or of twenty-five, as the case may be, according to the complexity of the industry and the size of the particular factory. The members of the council, after having thoroughly acquainted themselves with their industry, publish what they had learned for the information of their fellow-workers, and new council members are chosen to continue the industrial studies. In this manner the whole factory or mill can consecutively acquire the necessary knowledge about the organization and management of their trade and keep step with its development. These councils would serve as industrial colleges where the workers would become familiar with the technique of their industry in all its phases.
RedEd's picture
RedEd
Offline
Joined: 27-11-10
Oct 22 2011 15:51
Pikel wrote:
I'm finding other people's (well, RedEd's and Berkman's*) comments incongruous with my actual experience. Which actual tasks of management are the ones the working class don't know about?

RedEd, you talk about layers of management being the only organisational structure we know about, this again is not consistent with my own experience. Most places I've worked have had heavily hierarchical structures and the most effective way to get anything done is to bypass the management lines and co-operate as workers. Management (lower level, anyway) often like this as it means less work for them.

* and I can understand Berkman being wrong as he's long dead. Not saying you're "wrong" RedEd, just "wrong as far as I can tell".

I'll try to restate what I meant on this point more explicitly:

1) There is no way of constructing a workplace that can actually survive outside of a couple of niches that is run in a way that could reasonably pre-figure production in a libcom society, and even then 'the workplace' is a problematic category from a libcom point of view. Everything from the types of machines we might chose to use, the relationship between labour and the rest of life, the kinds of things we produce, etc., etc. are all massively over-determined by the fact we're doing things in a capitalist system. If we take co-ops as anything like a model for future society, we'll end up with self managed capitalism.

2) Almost everything most workers know about their industry (I'm guessing) is how things run on the bit of shop floor/job role they are in. Unless they are management, where they might know a smaller amount about several shops floors/job roles. What non-management workers tend not to know about it things like supply chains, research programs, the relative resource requirements of different forms of production in terms of machines and raw materials. All the planning stuff. Which is hardly surprising since that is the job role of managers, more the upper level than the mid level ones. How R&D work relates to production work in the train manufacturing industry is not a question even managers whose job it is to supervise workers in either of these spheres (or control research, or purchase new machines, etc.) have very complete knowledge of (due to the commodity form of both the machines R&D workers are designing and the labour of production workers).

I'm not saying mangers have more or better knowledge or anything. They have management type knowledge, and even that is pretty limited in all sorts of ways given the way our labour and its products is mediated by the commodity form.

And more than that the very function of management that we currently have are different to the kind of organisation that would be compatible with a communist society. The layers of management I mentioned are appropriate to a large capitalist enterprise because they help it to maintain it's profitability (even when workers don't relate to the management in the 'official' way in order to get things done). But if capitalist notions of profitability and efficiency are out the window, then the organisation of production needs to changed. For example, the individual enterprise makes a lot of sense in capitalism, but could it be appropriate in communism? Jobs make sense in capitalism, but would they in communism? If the answer to these is no then whether or not 'the workers' can self manage 'their workplace' becomes a redundant issue. Instead the task is to re-invent social organisation as a whole, and workplace experiences under capitalism are not giving to give us a guide to that.

So to an extent I disagree with you that non-management workers know how to run their industries. Most workers could quickly learn how to do management though. But that's slightly besides the point because the problem is bigger than that.

I hope that expresses better the problem I was trying to get at, though I think I might have just confused the issue (and possibly myself).

RedEd's picture
RedEd
Offline
Joined: 27-11-10
Oct 22 2011 16:18
ultraviolet wrote:
In any case, even Berkman said in the excerpt above that self-management will not be enough to educate workers in the necessary skills, because it will likely be a rare occurrence. He recommends that the workers go ahead and educate themselves in the diverse knowledge and technical skills necessary for the overall operation of their workplace through rotating participation in skill building classes. Do y'all think this is a good way to go about it?

I did ignore this bit of what Berkman said. It is an idea that makes some sense. It has a couple of problems though, at least for me as a person living in the UK. Essentially, most people don't both 1) do work that would exist in a communist society and 2) have insufficient knowledge of how to do that work already. So for example telesales workers don't need to learn about how their industry works because it shouldn't exist and domestic plumbers don't need to learn because they already know. Some forms of work would sort of still exist but be so different as to render education about how things work now meaningless. For example the retail industry. We'd still need to get goods from producers to users, but we'd do it in such a different way that knowing how it works now would be mainly useless.

So yes, at a point in time when large numbers of people are starting to think about a self managed society, it would be useful for workers to start learning about how things work, but only in useful jobs. The larger task for revolutionaries, I think, is to get rid of forms of organisation of production, distribution and control like shops, banks, security firms and so on and also to reimagine how the useful jobs are done in ways them make them more pleasant, more integrated into day to day life and easier to self manage than they are now.

ultraviolet's picture
ultraviolet
Offline
Joined: 14-04-11
Oct 22 2011 16:21
RedEd wrote:
But if capitalist notions of profitability and efficiency are out the window, then the organisation of production needs to changed. [... W]hether or not 'the workers' can self manage 'their workplace' becomes a redundant issue. Instead the task is to re-invent social organisation as a whole, and workplace experiences under capitalism are not giving to give us a guide to that.

Agree. But surely there are still certain skills and knowledge that we currently lack yet will need, even though we will be reorganizing production along anarchist principles? Things such as what you mentioned in your post:

RedEd wrote:
What non-management workers tend not to know about it things like supply chains, research programs, the relative resource requirements of different forms of production in terms of machines and raw materials. All the planning stuff. [...] How R&D work relates to production work [....]
Picket's picture
Picket
Offline
Joined: 20-12-10
Oct 22 2011 16:51

I'm happy to accept my experience isn't typical if that is indeed the case.

But in any case I agree with RedEd that post-capitalist organisation of industry and service provision will be very different, and from that perspective a deep understanding of current practice will not be particularly useful.

On the specialist management knowledge that might be useful, I think it's a mistake to think there will be no-one with the relevant knowledge who is sympathetic to the cause. Or are we sending managers, engineers, architects etc to the Gulag?

CRUD's picture
CRUD
Offline
Joined: 11-04-10
Oct 22 2011 19:46

Managements role is to squeeze as much productivity and thus profit out of workers as is humanly possible. Worker self management will never happen under capitalism. If it does workers will somehow be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome if they keep the same pace as they did under the magnified glass. Just my opinion smile

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Winslow_Taylor

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Oct 22 2011 22:25
Quote:
past jobs have been in retail or telemarketing and bullshit like that, and have little clue what goes on in a "real" workplace!

Just to say, don't get caught up in the mistake that only classical industrial work qualifies as real proletarian work. If you've got a boss and they're paying you wages while extracting surplus value from you, you're a worker. The modern proletarian is a telemarketer or a Wal-Mart "associate".

That said, I think it's fair to say both these industries will be abolished post-capitalism. Thank God!

ultraviolet's picture
ultraviolet
Offline
Joined: 14-04-11
Oct 25 2011 02:08

My most recent post was written without seeing this one... our posts were published 3 minutes apart so I guess you wrote yours as I was writing mine, and I didn't see it. Anyways, this clears up alot for me. Thanks.

RedEd wrote:
ultraviolet wrote:
In any case, even Berkman said in the excerpt above that self-management will not be enough to educate workers in the necessary skills, because it will likely be a rare occurrence. He recommends that the workers go ahead and educate themselves in the diverse knowledge and technical skills necessary for the overall operation of their workplace through rotating participation in skill building classes. Do y'all think this is a good way to go about it?

I did ignore this bit of what Berkman said. It is an idea that makes some sense. It has a couple of problems though, at least for me as a person living in the UK. Essentially, most people don't both 1) do work that would exist in a communist society and 2) have insufficient knowledge of how to do that work already. So for example telesales workers don't need to learn about how their industry works because it shouldn't exist and domestic plumbers don't need to learn because they already know. Some forms of work would sort of still exist but be so different as to render education about how things work now meaningless. For example the retail industry. We'd still need to get goods from producers to users, but we'd do it in such a different way that knowing how it works now would be mainly useless.

So yes, at a point in time when large numbers of people are starting to think about a self managed society, it would be useful for workers to start learning about how things work, but only in useful jobs. The larger task for revolutionaries, I think, is to get rid of forms of organisation of production, distribution and control like shops, banks, security firms and so on and also to reimagine how the useful jobs are done in ways them make them more pleasant, more integrated into day to day life and easier to self manage than they are now.

As for what ChiliSauce said... amen, comrade.

Mike Harman
Offline
Joined: 7-02-06
Oct 25 2011 05:06

@Chili Sauce - Wal Mart is food (and other crap) distribution, I don't think that industry can disappear overnight in the same way telemarketing could.

Quote:
But what about "the labor aristocracy" (highly paid workers, "professionals") with advanced training/education/skills, such as engineers, etc. This segment of the working class is probably less likely to be on side during a revolution, no? In some cases others will have to take over their jobs.

If you're talking about skilled workers I don't think there's any basis for saying that group is 'less likely to be onside'. There are some professions like engineering, medicine etc. where people can quickly and easily move into management or become small capitalists (GP surgeries are run as small businesses for example), but then they're management or petit-bourgeois rather than skilled workers at that point. Also most skilled jobs are permanently in the process of being de-skilled by management (broken up into more and more specialized pieces, automated etc.), and people working in those industries know this is happening.

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Oct 25 2011 09:39

Thanks Ultra. Mike, point taken, but the nature of distribution will change dramatically, no doubt.