Nasty, brutal and small

Nasty, brutal and small

An article published in the Playtime Omnibus on the possibility of workers' unity in small firms and the actions of atomised militants. Originally written between 1983 and 1985.

In small paternalistic firms, relations with the boss are direct - people are obliged to have a personal relationship with him. Wage rises and promotion (or, more exactly, increased responsibility) depend on dealing with him on an individual basis. It involves competition with your fellow wage-labourers. Those competing hardest grass up their rivals and everyone else to the boss. Loyalty between workers may exist, but it is often only as strong as loyalty to the boss who is 'almost one of us'. The degree of responsibility in each job is much higher than at large firms, because the division of labour is less. People thus tend to be much more 'involved in their jobs' - are usually obliged to be in order to hold them down. The divisions between 'workers' and 'management' and who's on what side are difficult to see or determine. Fellow workers will often be relatives or friends of the boss - or will share a common nationality with him as opposed to the work force.

The situation presents difficulties for that aspiring militant. Collective discussion is usually hampered by the impossibility of communication out of earshot of the boss or his toadies. Perks, dodges and fidles have to be worked on an individual basis and hidden not only from the boss but from the other workers. (Part of the paternalist bosses power derives from ‘allowing’ fiddling.) The development of unity among workers is a slow process of building and testing interpersonal solidarity at a friendship level, and trying by all means possible to stoke the natural antagonisms between boss and work force into concrete divisions. Without getting sacked. It’s absolutely not a matter of winning people to ‘revolutionary’ positions. Indeed, it will normally involve a conscious choice between building relations of trust or discussing ‘politics’. I will return to the latter.

Core Blimey

All this in the hope that some incident will arise (or more usually some change in the company will take place), which will catalyse this latent solidarity into a collective struggle, and hopefully a more collective unity afterwards. Hopefully is the key word. Agitating in a small firm is a dodgy business – ‘success’ can only ever be a matter of hope rather than expectation, and equally a matter of many months, even years. The problem is always that the company is liable to change faster than the growth of unity in the work force.

Small firms like this essentially consist of a ‘core’ of wage labourers closely tied to the boss – a community already established in relation to him, with little space for any ‘autonomy’ form him. The ‘core’ group about the boss doesn’t disappear in larger firms. It merely forms the top layer of the hierarchy. When a firm grows in size those who were there at the start become the first department heads (and those that don’t often constitute a problem on the shopfloor). Old, loyal and preferentially treated and paid workers are generally rabidly pro-boss and company.

Recruitment in firms up to a certain size is normally ‘internal’. Companies start up with the boss hiring old friends, friends of friends, his relatives and so on. Most of these people will be a dead loss from the point of worker solidarity – being effectively what would be middle management in a larger firm, and often becoming same. The first actual ‘workers’ as distinct from management will be people hired as assistants to this ‘core’ of management. Again, these people are more likely to be recruited from people recommended by existing employees than from the dole office or by advertising. Bosses like to think of these recruits as part of the family. It’s with the growth of company size to the level of seperate departments that deliberate recruitment of a distinct ‘workforce’ will take place. It’s now that departments will be expanded around recuitment from particular strata of ‘cheap labour’, depending on what’s available locally.

In the boom years after the last world war, pools of cheap labour were built up through immigration, while women and youth were being exploited on a hitherto unknown scale. The advantage of using such pools of ‘reserve’ labour is not only its cheapness – it’s also the possibility of exploiting the inevitable divisions between sex, age and race. This was particularly important where these ‘reserves’ were used in the breaking up and reorganising established industries, as Asian and female labour was used in the wool textiles industry.

Today, of course, labour needs are totally reversed. Mass unemployment has swollen the numbers of the ‘reserve army’ of available cheap labour. Offering, one might think, immense possibilities of exploitation for sweat shop proprietors. However, the same economic climate that's produced mass unemployment has sharpened the economic pressures on small businesses as well. Hence, the state intervention by the Tory government to reduce wage costs by establishing a supply of cheap youth labour, and by reducing unemployment and supplementary benefit putting on pressure to reduce low pay. The end result is super-exploitation as industries are forced to restructure, and still great numbers of job losses. As companies expand or are merged together (though not so much where companies are merged into a group but maintained as seperate firms) the possibilities for workers' unity and struggles multiply dramatically. Where a section of the work force has been employed (usually around a particular process) and the whole idea is that they are paid less and treated worse than everyone else, there is an obvious source of grievance. However, the isolation created by their seperation as a particular department or shift increases the possibility of unity developing. This can be helped by a common sex or racial background. To start off with this is usually a solidarity of the oppressed – a defensive reponse to common treatment. But it can build into something more, especially in small firms where the sophistications of personal management will create immense problems for themselves through incompetence compounded by racism, sexism and general unpleasantness. The possibility for communication out of earshot of middle management increases as departments become well seperated in terms of function and geography. It can equally develop in those situations where a language or patois is shared in common as distinct from management. That said in the context of Asian workers, obviously not all Asians speak the same language or share the same cultural background.

It’s equally important to avoid the idea that it’s always a question of white bosses exploiting coloured or black labour. In the rag trade, there are large numbers of sweatshops owned or managed by people from one national or racial group, exploiting their relatives and co-nationals as the ‘core’ group, and then exploiting other racial or sexual groups as the work force.

Why Bother?

So what does this all mean and why am I writing it? A large and expanding sector of the working-class are employed in small to medium size businesses without unions and often without any negotiating machinery whatever. In such firms, the first priority of workers is self-defense against exploitation. The task of militants and ‘revolutionaries’ - almost invariably isolated individuals – is to help generate shop floor soldiarity and increase the divisions between shop floor and bosses.

But what’s that got to do with revolution? Hard core ‘revolutionaries’ will doubtless already dismissing the above as mindless economism, mere demand militancy or somesuch. ‘Revolutionary’ papers like Workers Playtime normally concentrate on struggles in large unionised industries. (The ‘Key’ sectors of ‘The Class’). It’s comparatively easy to cobble together accounts of strikes in them by assiduously reading lots of newspapers and drawing political conclusions from a distance. (Though to be fair to Workers Playtime it still takes more effort than fleshing out a single press clipping with a lot of ‘revolutionary’ hot air as most of our rivals do).

Inside large industries, it’s the degree of relative job protection provided by formal negotiating and grievance structures which allows the growth of rank and file groups/ factory groups organised around a political platform/ even party cells. Whether these are loyal oppositions to unionism or ‘anti-union’ they exist in the space opened by the existence of unionism, and can concentrate on being a militant ‘political’ opposition to the official negotiations over wages and conditions.

Political Celebacy

In most small businesses by contrast this space for ‘political’ militancy doesn’t exist. As I said above, where the isolated militant decides to openly proselytise his ‘revolutionary’ views he usually does so at the expense of isolating himself as at best a standing joke or at worst an active nuisance. I am not suggesting for a moment that people abandon their political views about the need to destroy capitalism in favour of militant sectional self interest. I am saying that political discussion can’t be forced on people, but should arise out of what’s being commonly discussed. And more importantly, the militants have to decide for themselves the question of what to is more important in any given situation – building interpersonal collectivity or arguing about politics. Both are obviously necessary – but often enough they are contradictory needs. I am also saying that neither can be done outside the workplace collectivity. Of course, people can choose to isolate themselves politically and argue for ‘pure communism’ if they want, just as they can isolate themselves by becoming devotees of ‘conspicuous militancy’ and attempt to ‘lead’ their fellow workers into Struggle (or into bringing in The Union). In the latter case, they make it easy for management to pick them off (or buy them off). In the former, they make it easy for their fellow workers to discount what they say, and for themselves to keep clean hand in the ‘reformist mire’ of defensive struggles.

It is often said despairingly by leftists that the ‘unions have forgotten how to organise or struggle’. Of course these struggles reveal most clearly the anti-working-class nature of trade unionism. But even revolutionaries, busy setting up autonomous groups in big industry, will shrug thir shoulders and agree it’s an impossible situation for organising. I believe that such arguments stand the priorities for revolutionaries today on their head. Because they presuppose a level of consciousness, of class community and solidarity which does not exist. For some ‘revolutionaries’ this is no problem. The crisis will reduce us to the same level of exploitation and our ‘spontanous’ response will be to throw up autonomous fighting institutions – Workers’ Councils. This ignores the obvious fact that where Councils have been set up by workers themselves (as opposed to politicos (1917) or ‘anti-politicos’ (1936)), it has been on the basis of existing working-class communities and solidarity. Community clearly doesn’t presuppose solidarity, but it is it’s necessary precondition.

Community Service

In Britain since the last world war, we have seen the disintegration of the ‘old’ working-class communities – through the restructuring of industry, through ‘urban planning’ which has destroyed working-class communities and cultural ties, and through the relative prosperity produced during the post war boom. The period has seen the destruction of many of those ties of mutual dependency which ran through those working-class communities. Capitalism’s tendencies towards a society of atomised individuals – Citizens, Workers, Consumers – has proceeded apace as the space for ‘individual realisation’ has grown. Wider communities of dependency crumbled in the face of the rise of the nuclear family as an economic unit, and now we see the ‘crisis of the family’ as jobs for women and youth give them the potential for economic ‘autonomy’ enjoyed by many men.

The primary task of a revolutionary movement in this situation is not fighting to build up power bases in the ‘Key Sectors’ of society – even where it’s genuinely ‘autnomous groupings’ as opposed to people getting themselves elected as stewards. For militants in those sectors this is obviously one task. But the basic task of revolutionaries everywhere is helping to rebuild class community and solidarity in the face of its obvious decomposition. In workplaces of whatever size that means doing the basic work of helping to rebuild collectivity and unity in the face of management.

Within small firms, that goes hand in hand with the need for everyday self defence. Even if the unions were fighting, anti-capitalist bodies they would be impotent where there was no collective strength on the shop floor. In reality, of course, their power is rooted in our impotence.

What does a new working-class community mean? After all, we have no truck with peddlars of socialist nostalgia with their lies about how wonderful it used to be.

I’ll leave off with a couple of conclusions.

We must get away from the idea that isolated individuals in unorganised workplaces can only participate in the ‘real’ class struggle at second hand by joing political groupings, or acting as back-up to workers in the ‘Key Sectors’. Where you are – however ‘uncompromising’ or ‘difficult’ – is where the fight is, where the basic struggle starts.

We must get away from conceptions of the struggle which start from the construction of ‘Power Bases’ in ‘Key Sectors’ – (as all the various conceptions or ‘Workers’ Autonomy’ do) – or which see class consciousness and solidarity as something which the developing contradictions of capitalism will ‘spontaneously’ solve for us. Of course it’s true that capitalism as a crisis-ridden system suffers from periodic breakdowns, offering an opportunity for class struggle against the system itself. But it’s equally true that if the situation finds the working-class atomised, divided and confused, then all the courage, militancy and radicalisation they’ll undoubtedly display will not prevent capitalist barbarism from re-establishing itself over our dead bodies.

Posted By

Feb 27 2012 21:22


  • We must get away from the idea that isolated individuals in unorganised workplaces can only participate in the ‘real’ class struggle at second hand by joing political groupings. Where you are – however ‘uncompromising’ or ‘difficult’ – is where the fight is, where the basic struggle starts.

    Workers Playtime

Attached files


May 10 2012 17:28

Some of this is quite good, mad how pertinent it is 30 years on. Unfortunately the conclusions don't leave much food for thought....

May 11 2012 09:19
Arbeiten wrote:
Some of this is quite good, mad how pertinent it is 30 years on. Unfortunately the conclusions don't leave much food for thought....

To be honest I think they were more pertinent at the time. Nowadays nobody (apart from ASR in Australia) talks about trying to focus on building a base in "key" industries as a primary aim because we realise it's a dead-end strategy.

May 11 2012 11:32

no sorry, i wasn't talking about that. i was talking about the description of working conditions in small firms.