Some Thoughts about On-Going Discussions in Ultra-Left Milieus

Discussions which have taken place in various milieus of the 'ultra left', be it about trade unionism, the 'revolutionary project', 'post-fordism'..., proceed from a basic common approach. Be they openly marxist or libertarian, or trying to practice a difficult ecumenicalism, if they express an reformism, alternative or categorical rejection (in relation to the unions to reform them from inside, support/create alternative unions or oppose/reject them), the people involved in these questions have - beyond their differences - more or less the same prospect: to find a basis for some kind of militant activity. (1)

This common militant preoccupation could be summed up as: "How to find an action, a way of intervention so that one's own revolt can join the revolt of others in order to change the world ?" On one hand the deep crisis of the capitalist system (basically the impossibility to stop the fall of the rate of profit and to alleviate its consequences) destroys the previous ideological blankets and the pretended security of the periods of relative prosperity: the day to day life now reveals the actual nature of society and how it works. On the other hand, the fading of this ideological varnish and the fact that the structures of control have become powerless, have made obsolete most of the topics which till recently could give a meaning, a content to this 'intervention'.

In this search for the revolt of the 'others' and for struggles (as a reservoir of 'revolutionary topics' and eventually of militants) in which individuals or 'revolutionary' groups could 'work', most of the discussions make similar statements:

* The economic structures have evolved towards a new world division of labour: In the western contries, the first to have been industrialised, a lot of jobs have been delocated to remote countries. In these new quickly developing industrialised locations, the survival conditions are closer to the conditions of 19th century capitalism. In the old industrialised countries there only remains high technique production, services, management and a high rate of unemployment.

* The rapid evolution of the techniques of production (parallel to and often taken for the new division of labour) which reduces the importance of the productive sector and consequently furthers the development of the non-productive sectors (though these latter sectors are also presently affected by the technical evolution and the crisis).

*The consequent evolution of new methods of work organisation with highly automatised processes and an individualisation of the workers in a new kind of alienation centered on the topics of 'participation' and 'cooperation'.

* An apparent reduction of struggles, according to the official statistics on the number of strikes and of working hours 'lost' due to strikes.

* The weakening of the unions, which see their membership reduced. A growing class collaboration at every level of the economic structures would be the consequence and the cause of this constant shrinking.

However, this latter point in reality appears more as the transformation of the function of the unions in the new methods of work organisation and of the new world distribution of production. This evolution of the unions shows more and more clearly that any attempt to reform the unions from inside remains an illusion. The evident consequence of this evolution has been, especially for the past ten years, the expulsion of militants or groups who had joined with the belief they could install more rank and file democracy or act in a 'revolutionary' way (these evictions being only apparently in contradiction with the weakness of the unions). As many of those evicted still had some illusions about trade unionism, they tried to maintain the rank and file organisations of a concrete struggle or to transform these into or create new permanent structures with a new label to make them distinct from the official unions, often using the general term of 'alternative unions'. However, they ignore the fact that historically quite a lot of parallel unions existed in the past on such a basis, often with different names (independent, unitary, renovated, autonomous, of class struggle, etc...), but always ending up like the official unions.

Groups or parties claiming, in writing, word or actions, to be 'revolutionary' or to work for a new society (i.e. wanting through various reformist, parliamentary or violent means to remove or to destroy capitalism and/or its instruments of domination), have crumbled just like the unions. This has opened some fields of action in areas which have become important only as a consequence of the world domination of capital, but which through an illogical inversion are made into substitutes for the system that's causing and including them: ecology, third worldism, antiracism, feminism, marginalism of the 'autonomists', etc... 'Workerism' even in its recent form of 'operaism', looking desperately for a 'revolutionary proletariat' amongst the emigrants, or in other ways trying to find a layer/section of the worker class being especially more revolutionary, exploited or suitable for intervention towards, has lost most of its supporters. Some try to use their militancy in only one specific sector, others try to work in various sectors which they try to put together in the same bag: often the previous general political aim is replaced by a kind of strategy working in various directions which becomes a substitute of a real 'revolutionary project', even of any kind of real global coherent thinking. Instead, attempts are made to present these 'new organisations', either unionist or political, and activities as answering to some 'new situation' as a consequence of the capitalist evolution and to construct an ideology laying a new basis for a militant activity for todays 'revolutionaries' looking for a post on which to hang their flags.

This new set of thinking often develops an eurocentrist tendency and some narrow views when modern capitalism is quickly expanding all over the world, mainly in the 'backwards' zones which still cover 2/3 of the world population in whole continents like Africa and Asia. This globalisation and transformation of capital still permits individual capitalists to exploit the enormous differences in the exploitation of labour between the various countries and to suvive in a world of fierce competition. But because of these differences and of the consequent huge accumulation of capital, the rate of profit still continues to fall: the destabilising effect of this situation can be seen in the rush of speculative capital, in the exacerebation of capitalist competition, in the developing crisis itself.

Present ideological activity in western capitalism converges to pretend that the production system is the scene of fundamental transformations, with theories about the 'end' of the proletariat, of social classes and of class struggle, the end of History, etc. All that is not coming by chance, but corresponds to a need of the new techniques of production to work efficiently by participation and cooperation of those involved in these new production processes, which often no longer are called 'workers', 'employees' or 'wage earners'... but 'collaborators', 'cooperators', etc:

"For 20 years sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists looking for fame have every day foreseen new revolutions which never occured. All this happens as if these 'researchers' projected their wishes and their optimum solutions on the society and on the factory. A small transformation is interpreted as the break with a pretended out of date system... One has too quickly... confused the crisis of capital accumulation and the emergence of new productive structures... This crisis brought about a certain financial restructuring in the economic activities in general and an readjustment of the relationship employers-workers: for a time the positions of capital have become stronger in relation to labour... [Note by Echanges: This pressure on the individual workers corresponds to a greater fragility of capital at the general level of the vital need to extract an always larger part of surplus value, exactly as the rise of profit of individual capitalists corresponds to the impossibility to stop the fall of the rate of profit]. It is in the light of this that we have to see the social changes and to consider the reenforcement of capitalist domination to analyse these theories about 'the end of fordism', to understand both the innovations and the continuity... One has too often a tendency to take the details for the most essential thing of the actual movement...". (Quotation from J.P. Durand: 'La realite fordienne du post fordisme' - Contradictions no. 69-70).

Following this new dominant capitalist ideology, a parallel ideology try to find in the mysteries of 'post fordism' the causes of their dispair as militants and the terrain for a new-born activity. In the past, in a society dominated by the ideology of the value of labour as intrument for liberation, the revolutionary ideologies of 'communism by decree' glorified labour as the main ingredient for the 'building of a socialism'. The present 'revolutionary' ideologies walk in the footsteps of bourgeois ideology by promoting such ideas as the disappearance of the kind of worker which formerly was the symbol of emancipation (with labour as the main agent for liberation); they discuss what could be in such a situation the activity of a 'revolutionary' group or militant, a very hard task indeed in a period where we can see the collapse of all the previous beliefs in the efficiency or even the possibility of any kind of reformism (social democracy) or of a 'communist society ' built after the 'revolutionary conquest' or the destruction of the bourgeois state.

Theories are also constructed which see the 'end of fordism' as a total transformation of capitalism and as the birth of a new system in which capitalism will achieve a total command over labour, wiping out not only the reformist or revolutionary organisations, the official or alternative unions, and reducing the workers to some kind of easily manipulated zombies and the class struggle to a programmed management of survival. The only way out of this cul de sac where old ideologies are located, is not, according to these new theories, a fundamental analysis of what their previous relationship to the working class was, but only the definition of a new aim for this relationship. Again, the 'conscious' activity of the militant is at the center of a new theoretical system where the 'imaginary' has to replace the hurricane which would have wiped off all kinds of prospects for a future among all 'active' people (and also the non-active ones): for them and for everybody only the 'individual' revolt remains. These theories are spreading precisely when capitalism is invading not only all possible locations in the world, but also the slightest part of human activity. They neglect as out of date the essential points in any analysis of capitalism (the fundamental features of which 'modernism' has not at all eliminated but on the contrary reinforced), of the class struggle (whose fundamental basis 'modernism' has not at all removed, but only changed some superficial features of), and of the critical analysis which is more than ever needed of a jacobinist revolution concept completely separated from its economico-social context.

The history of capitalism and of class struggle did not start in I917 with the Russian revolution, which with the present perspective appears more like another episode in the geographical expansion of capital. Leninism and its various children have not distorted in a reactionary way class struggle for decades. They were only - in various forms - different versions of the idea that socialism or communism could be implemented by decrees from a superior authority (the parliament for the reformists, the revolutionary party for others, with the numerous varieties of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', of the conquest or the destruction of the state through a direct attack, etc): this authority would settle the golden rules of a new society. Such a concept was widespread around the first world war and largely shared by reformists and 'revolutionaries' (marxists and anarchists): most of them thought that it will be enough to 'abolish', to conquer and to put something else instead. The fact that such a concept was accepted by a large part of exploited workers for almost one century was not at all by accident, the action of 'bad' leaders or of traitors, or the consequence of propaganda. It corresponded not only with the global ideology of a system pretending to work for 'progress', but also and above all to the economico-social reality of a hierarchised society in which everybody could think it was sufficient to change the top people to transform it into a human society. In a world where the techniques took a larger and larger room, most of the proletariat could think it was completely unable to manage a complex economy and so consider that it had to rely not on the ones who owned but on the ones who knew. It is this last concept which is presently swept away by History, not because of the collapse of the last of Lenin's children but because of the extent of the technical progress used by capital and of the general extension of capital in any world location and in every aspect of social life. It's no longer regimes which needs to be overthrown or leaders which one must change. Even the revolt often has no other meaning that its powerlessness; the revolution has to come from the very inside of the capitalist society and has to be the work of everybody. The 'revolutionary' critique has at first to get rid of all the rags of the past, out of date ideologies - an important concern for all of us irrespective of the 'political school' where we were nurtured.

Preoccupied, not to say obsessed, by the organisation of the big battalions of the Revolution, the whole 'revolutionary' movement has practically ignored those features of the class struggle which weren't the open, direct fights of a certain size allowing some hope that they would expand into a general movement. It also neglected the totality of the various forms of the class struggle (often despising most of them because they were not expressing, according to them, a 'class consciousness', something we also can find today among the apostles of post-fordism). They haven't only ignored the facts themselves, but also the fact that - and the ways in which - the struggle moves from one form to another, for example when the pressure is too strong to allow a previous form (for instance a strike) to exist openly. All the theories about the refusal of work has been pushed aside behind a pretended workers submission to the capitalist imperatives linked to the threat of unemployment. Everything is discussed as if the 10-15% of unemployed - temporarily or permanently - outside the field of exploitation had not in front of them 85-90% of the workers who are still exploited and still struggling according to their possibilities. The struggles can be less and less visible so a systematical campaign of disinformation can pretend they don't exist any longer, which gives some credit to the thesis about the disappearance of the proletariat, of class struggle and the emergence of a new individualised subject, participating and cooperating in a new concept of labour.

In a study published by the London School of Economics, Simon Milner (quoted by Financial Times 19/5/93) wipe away - with quite a lot of figures - the idea of the disappearance of the struggles opening a new era in the relations of production (this discussion concerns the UK but it could also concern any other industrialised country):

"Most managers must rate industrial relations as the least of their current worries given the virtual disappearance of strikes. But the absence of strikes does not necessarily mean a contended workforce. Currently conflict-free industrial relations appear to result more from worker compliance than from co-operation with management.

The UK has seen important changes in industrial relations over the past decade, with many observers now talking of the "new industrial relations"' (N.I.R. ). One of the most important features of N.I.R. is the decline in strike incidence since the mid-1980s. There has also been a reassertion of managerial prerogatives, the death of the closed shop and a slump in trade union membership.

According to some, we have moved from an era of industrial conflict to one of co-operation, with workplace relations no longer characterised by "them and us", but simply referred to as "us".

The evidence on strikes is fairly clear cut. Fewer working days were lost due to strikes in 1992 than in any other year since records began a century ago. There were only 240 officially recorded strikes last year, less than a tenth of the number 15 years ago. But other evidence suggests that the NIR label may be somewhat misplaced.

A strike has two basic elements: an unsatisfied grievance and an ability to strike. The reduction in strike activity must have resulted from either a decline in unsatisfied employee grievances and /or a decline in the ability to strike. If advocates of N.I.R. are correct, then a fall in the level and intensity of grievances must be the more important explanation.

There are at least three points to make against the N.I.R. case. The most obvious is the current spring of discontent, with industrial action at the Timex electronics plant in Dundee, on British Rail and buses, in the pits and in schools '. [Note from Echanges: we could make the same statement for Italy, Germany, France, USA, Poland,etc...]

Evidence has also emerged that the official record of strike activity does not tell the whole story. [Note of Echanges: we could say the same for France for instance, not only with a systematic boycott of industrial information and due to the fact that in the previous period figures were artificially swollen by numerous and useless union 'days of action' or similar token actions which don't exist any longer or are not followed at all because of the declining influence of the unions]. Alongside the contraction in strikes was a shift in favour of the overtime ban.

Using information collected by the CBI Pay Databank survey of manufacturing pay negotiations, research at the London School of Economics has revealed that, on average in the period 1979-89, overtime bans were twice as likely to occur as strikes. This was not the case throughout the economy, however, as public sector workers have continued to favour strikes over non-strike action.

Why did employees turn increasingly to overtime bans to pursue their grievances? Contributing factors include: the role of the law which concentrated, before 1988 at least, on stamping out strikes and largely ignore non-strike forms of action; leaner production systems, such as just-in-time and other techniques which made an overtime ban more effective, and high unemployment which appears more effective in discouraging strikes than overtime bans. The common thread is that the overtime ban provides a relatively low-cost way for workers to express their dissatisfaction.

A final piece of evidence on worker disquiet concerns the use of dispute procedures. The recently published Acas report for 1992 reveals that the statutory advisory and conciliation body was busier than ever last year... As strike incidence has plummeted to an all-time low, the number of conciliation requests has stayed stable at around 1200 -1300 a year.

The number of individual conciliation cases shows a more marked trend upwards. Last year, Acas received more than 72,000 requests, up 12,000 on 1991. In part, this increase results from the recession, since most conciliation cases concern claims for unfair dismissal. But it must also result from a decline in workers' ability to pursue disputes in another way.

The decline in strike action... results largely from the most disaffected employees no longer being able to take strike action, rather than from the absence of grievances... The fact that some dissatisfaction is still being expressed through non-strike industrial action and the use of Acas suggests that the foundation of N.I.R. is workplace compliance rather than co-operation.

Compliant employees may be sufficiently productive when labour markets give management the upper hand. But when (and if) unemployment starts to fall, the absence of a co-operative spirit may lead to problems of employee turnover, absenteeism and a lack of effort ..."

All these explanations can be summed up in some words, more or less what the author of the report above said: the antagonism between labour and capital always exists. It can take quite a lot of different forms, and the movement and changes of the balance of struggle at the state, industry and factory level could see a quick shift of the present specifically adaptated forms of struggle to other more agressive forms. Only a superficial observation, however, can bring people to think that some forms of struggle have definitely disappeared and that some new forms of industrial relations are developing.

Such a statement does not at all mean that the change in the production techniques has no influence on the form and character of the struggles. In the article quoted above, "La realite fordienne du postfordisme", the author underlines that "to talk about a break, for example the wages system would have to evolves towards another system of social relations of labour, or even more that the repartition of the social surplus is radically transformed, or that the organisation and division of work is no longer a kind of semi-military dictatorship... In fact, the social transformations we can observe are closely linked to the crisis of capital accumulation since the early 70s and in which the exhaustion of the productivity gains, of the consumer power and the development of the unproductive services (public and private) are the main basic elements.... One has too often the tendency to take the details for the essential of the real movement... post-fordism could appear as an accident in fordism or more like its natural perfect adult form achieved only now after a lot of crisis during its growth..."

We will not here develop further this point of view which is radically different from the thesis of the advocates of post-fordism and of the consequences it could have on workers combativity, on the role of the unions and on the 'revolutionary perspectives'. On the other hand, we want to underline a field of thinking completely ignored in the debates we're discussing: the role of the development of new techniques and especially of the communication techniques (taken in their widest meaning), not only in the media (it is not essential though most of the attention is directed towards this point), but in the functioning of the whole productive system. This development introduces something at the very center of any productive system: the joining (and the immediate implementation) of the close connection between production and consumption where the socalled market laws are located. On one hand these new techniques bring about a high vulnerability of the whole system (and the need to get a minimum of co-operation from everybody involved in the production process to allow the company to stay competitive and to answer immediately at every moment to the 'needs of the market'). On the other hand the immediate circulation of all data and the quick response in terms of production of what is needed, in a more and more simple way linked to the general appropriation by ever more people of these new information techniques. The utopian prospects which formerly could shape the ideas about the functioning of another society, can be radically transformed into a close reality which is already in front of us.

Another point could deserve to be discussed in these debates on the present form of capitalism and on the consequences of this evolution on the struggles for emancipation: The fact that a large share of the surplus value extracted from the intensive utilisation of the differences in the conditions of the exploitation of labour all over the world is used to maintain (with more and more difficulty) a social status quo in the old industrialised countries (mixing social benefits and a growing repression) and in the developing countries (from the cancelling of debts to local wars). It is a problem which can't be solved: the most profitable sources of surplus value have to be maintained by the use of repression, corruption, etc... and their extension through the global pressure of capital reduces at the same time the possibility of realising this surplus value in the industrialised countries, where a more and more important number of the workers are obliged to manage on the minimum consumption level necessary to maintain the social peace and to allow the crisis not to go deeper. How can such a system be maintained and what are the consequences on the workers movement? This question has to be linked to the accumulation crisis mentioned above, not as a theoretical question but considering the practical effects on the life of the workers and on their struggles. HS

(1) This article was written by a French comrade and part of the debates and facts pointed to are to a great extent oriented towards French and Italian debates and experiences. The text is consciously written with general references to debates and opinions, without any particular reference to specific groups and journals, without a lot of polemical footnotes, etc.

Concerning the ideas elaborated in the text, we can also refer to other Echanges material, for example the pamphlet "Myths of dispersed fordism. A controversy about the transformation of the working class" and to various material in the latest issues of Echanges like no.74/75 (debates about Spain and with Spanish comrades), no.76/77 (material about France and Italy and debates about 'alternative unions') and no.78/79 (Discussion about present socety, 'marxism' and workers' struggles).