Article by Swedish group Kämpa Tillsammans on class composition in Sweden and the syndicalist 'register method'.
Revolutionary perspectives today: society is a factory
The development of capitalism has reached the point where society is turning into one big ‘social factory’ that produces commodities. By commodities we’re not referring to things like food, clothes, soap, gadgets and houses, but also animals and human beings. Humans are commodities first and foremost in the form of labour-power. This is as true in our part of the world as it is on a global scale, i.e. everywhere. Capital’s power is not limited to the places where people are working for a wage; it has developed into a omnipresent system of dominance, shaping our entire existence.
The goal of the capitalist production of commodities is not to meet people’s needs, but to create surplus-value for capital. If you don’t have enough purchasing power your needs are discounted by capitalist commodity production. Purchasing power is money, and most people earn money by selling their labour-power to capital. The capitalists take the surplus-value that labour creates; they sell the commodities produced by the workers and reap the profits. It is not only the working class that work for capital, but also the middle class that manage this exploitation.
Life reduced to work
Capital is striving for all human activity to be subject to the demands of an effective and profitable production of commodities. Thus, life as a whole is reduced to work. Nowhere can we escape the laws of profit. The production of human beings, that is, the reproduction of labour-power, is also a form of work. This reproductive labour is the work required to recreate labour power: household work, social work and care, etc. A great deal of this work is unsalaried and performed by women.
The schools educate the workforce, and the universities are science-factories. Cognitive work (so called immaterial labour) and the production of ideology are often forgotten in various class analyses, but are nevertheless necessary and central to capitalist production.
The unemployed also serve a function in the accumulation of surplus-value. Through participating in reproductive labour, intensifying competition for jobs thereby keeping wages low, being part of the reserve pool of labour to be used by capital when needed and increasing the value of their labour-power through education and retraining (e.g. computer literacy classes). If you’re employed, you don’t only work when you’re at work, but also when you reproduce yourself in order to keep working. You have to eat, sleep, rest, exercise, be hygienic, wash your clothes and maybe party at the weekend. And you do it so that you‘ll be able to keep working for capital.
The struggle against work
The reduction of life into work in the social factory is not occurring through mutual agreement – on the contrary! Capital is constantly encountering resistance and being challenged by proletarian struggles everywhere in the social factory. All these struggles have one thing in common: they are antagonistic against the dictatorship of capital.
A consequence of the analysis of the social factory is that the working class exists wherever alienated work exists, regardless of it being at home or by the conveyor belt, if it’s salaried or not.
Class struggle and class composition
“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” (Marx)
Those who share a Marxist view of history (so called dialectic and historical materialism) usually claim that the class struggle is the motor of history. However, what this really means is not at all that obvious. We will, in short, describe our view on these matters. In capitalist society, the main struggle is between the working class and the capitalist class. Working class struggles for a self-determined life and less alienating life leads to crises in capitalism. The crises force the capitalist class to change the forms of control and organization of capital accumulation (i.e. exploitation of labour-power). But at the same time, the capitalist class’ constant struggle for more surplus-value, i.e. more work for the working class, destroy former living conditions and the possibilities for working class struggles.
It is the constant antagonism between the classes that produces the class composition; that is, the objective working- and living conditions of the classes and also their subjective forms of struggle and organization. The class composition is always changing, all the time, through the course of the class struggle. This means that we, through our collective and self-determined struggles, participate actively in the subjective creation of our new composition as a class. Or, as it is sometimes described: in the subjective prerequisites for revolution.
A tangible and up-to-date analysis of our class composition is essential in order to adapt our methods of struggle and forms of organization to the new conditions that are constantly being (re)formed by the class struggle. If we have a dogmatic in our politics we risk being caught in a predetermined and obsolete pattern of struggle that doesn’t fit the current class composition. The it becomes just a question of time before dogmatic politics, reluctant to renew itself, lapses into ritual and lose its content and relevancy.
Why the left is out of touch
No methods of struggle or organizational models can correspond to the class composition forever. Regardless, a large part of the left is not able to renew politics when society changes. They stick to their old truths and try desperately to represent an out-of-date understanding of the working class. The class struggle has inevitably left the institutionalized left behind and made old political truths obsolete. This is an important explanation to why communist parties, unions, and other leftist organizations that used to have considerable political relevance in the past, are totally out of touch today. Their methods of struggle and their organizational models simply do not correspond to the new composition of the working class. They don’t correspond to the possibilities of struggle, or to the interests of the class today. And most important of all: many of them haven’t taken the consequences of the fact that the emancipation of the working class has to be the making of the working class! Representative politics is bourgeois politics, and has never been a threat to class society.
The personal is political
It is necessary to denounce any political understanding that limits itself to the ‘public’ sphere and does not see that the personal is political. The separation of life, of struggles and relations, in ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ spheres (or ‘public” and ‘private’) is bourgeois politics maintained by patriarchal structures and interests. This perspective sees the political battlefield and the power relations in society as being separate from the social relations between human beings and their division into, e.g. classes and genders. This type of political understanding is destined to decay into something existing outside, or above, actual human beings.
It is of fundamental importance that we as subjects are responsible for how the class struggle develops, and that we are collectively participating in the creation of the new composition of the class in all spheres of society. The self-organized struggles that we fight today are seeds for the classless society of the future.
The course of the class struggle
In our text Same enemies – same struggle! we analysed the global restructuring of capital, which created a new class composition - a proletarianization. A short summary of this text is in order as this new class composition affects the preconditions for revolutionary struggle.
In response to the international struggles of the proletariat in the late sixties and early seventies, a global capitalist restructuring of the conditions of exploitation occurred. Capital’s offensive didn’t breach Sweden until the 1990s, which is very late seen from an international perspective. The working class (broadly speaking) was re-structured due to the new post-Fordist organization of production, expressed in unemployment, downscaling and privatizations etc. The old welfare state gave way to a ‘competition state’ that, in competing with other states, does its best in offering capital the most favourable conditions and the least restrictions. To make this possible, increased control and repression is needed everywhere in order to keep the newly composed proletariat in line.
Many people claim that the society of today is a so-called two-thirds society, in which one third of the population is excluded from the state’s social security system. This analysis has its merits, since it does not, like earlier leftist ones, emphasize the situation of the white, male, and educated worker; it sees all groups subjected to capitalist extortion. However, the analysis is imperfect, because it primarily concentrates on the dismantling of the capitalist welfare state and not on capitalism and class society as a whole. Our opinion is that the recent developments have staked out a new course in the class struggle, which has caused a general proletarianization in society as whole, with no exceptions. Although young people women, immigrants and marginalized groups are the ones affected first and the worst.
Proletarianization is caused by the aggressiveness and destructiveness of capital, and it is not possible to manage it away with any reformist politics of redistribution within the framework of the nation-state. There are no shortcuts to emancipation from class society. The dominion of capital is international and it has to be identified and crushed in all spheres of life.
The return of antagonism
We hope that this article will provide a clearer perception of the class struggle’s different courses throughout Swedish history: from rural population, via the ‘welfare-workforce’ of the social democratic model, to the today’s modern proletarianization. We can discern three different courses in the class struggle: before, during, and after the social democratic model. These different courses come from different class compositions, which in turn correspond to different forms of organization and struggle among the working class of the 19th and early 20th centuries – from relative social peace with moderate class conflicts, towards a rebellious 21st century! In the same way, the various courses of the class struggle correspond to capital’s varying phases of ‘free competition’, Keynesianism, and the neo-liberal state of global competition; and the modes of production from craftsmanship to Fordism, and from Fordism to Toyotism (or post-Fordism).
We are now living in a course of class struggle after the social democratic model, in a time of increasingly open class conflicts and antagonisms in our part of the world. We must therefore try to benefit from the struggles waged here in Sweden before the establishment of the social democratic model. That is, from the course of class struggle born out of the proletarianization and transformation of the 19th century farmers and rural workers into the ‘welfare workforce’ of social democracy.
The Swedish model: the politics of compromise
The social democratic welfare model has managed class relations in Sweden during most of the 20th century. The neutrality of the two world wars was advantageous to Swedish capitalists, who, especially during the 50s and 60s, could ‘buy’ themselves social peace in the form of improved living conditions for a large part of the working class. Through compromises and concessions they could avoid the rise of revolutionary movements. Those parts of the working class that were less privileged and couldn’t be bought off were repressed.
Norway and Denmark had similar political systems during this period, based on centralistic and bureaucratic unions (negotiating wages and working conditions), mass consumption and national welfare institutions. Keynesianism, the economic model these welfare states were built upon, was a temporary emergency solution and a historical compromise from capital. Internationally and historically speaking, reformism and capitalist welfare are just small detours and exceptions to the rule, practised only during a couple of decades in the 20th century and only in the imperialist countries. The European workers, a class born out of the industrialization of the 19th century, forced capital into this compromise through their will to struggle and their international victories during the early 20th century.
The threat of revolution
With the October revolution in Russia 1917 the European working felt that victory in the class war was close. The flames of revolution spread throughout the continent, and the existence of the proprietor class seemed to be threatened. To the rulers, the socialist victories were so alarming that they were forced to stage more or less fascist takeovers of the state in countries such as Finland, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Portugal. But in Sweden, as we know, it wasn’t necessary to go such measures. The rulers were still able to suppress the revolutionary struggle of the working class and to continue capitalist exploitation without restraint. Here, the open and intransigent class struggles were snuffed out by the social democratic model through state planning in the form of social welfare. Thus, large parts of the working class simply gained a higher material standard and more social security than they had had before. At the same time, this meant that they were ‘bought off’ and that their class interests were shaped more in line with the bourgeois.
From a short-term perspective, repression is a very effective way of disciplining the workforce than reformed capitalism. However, in the long run capital secures itself better through compromise in the form of material benefits. In Sweden, the ruling class could afford to enforce this expensive, but more effective long-term, strategy to stabilize the conditions of exploitation. Today, however, there is no revolutionary threat, which means that capital no longer has any interest in social welfare.
The imperialist division between rich and poor countries was one of the prerequisites of capital’s acceptance of the welfare compromise. It meant that the burdens of poverty could be increased on the three colonial continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Capital uses imperialist division to divide the working class in various parts of the world. It uses development in the central countries (Western Europe, USA and Japan) and underdevelopment on the colonial continents. Now, as before, capital uses this division to manifest its power. The idea is to prevent that the struggles of all exploited groups connect and strengthen each other. In other words, the imperialist division of the world is an absolute necessity for capital’s power. As soon as we realize this, we also realize what a formidable weapon international solidarity can be if we were able to use it effectively.
But social democracy was a project within the boundaries of the nation-state, just as the Soviet model of ‘socialism in one country’ and the various post-colonial development states in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The limitations within the framework of the nation-state had consequences for the class composition, which capital uses to its advantage in the restructuring of the late 1970s and onwards, a process which has come to be known as globalization.
Counterrevolution in the welfare state
The social democrats’ integration of the working class into the capitalist Swedish state was not possible without resistance and violent repression of the workforce and the revolutionary movements. Some examples: the bombing of the communist daily Norrskensflamman’s printing house in 1940, the internment of communists and syndicalists into labour camps during World War II, racially motivated forced sterilizations, the institutionalization of the nuclear family as a unit of production and consumption, constant militarization of the police force, and a ‘cold war’ waged in the workplaces during the whole post-war period. We now know that the social democrats didn’t stay clear of any means in their struggle for control over the unions and the worker struggles, using everything from espionage and informing to armed counterrevolutionary groups (so called ‘stay behind-groups’ controlled by the CIA).
The ‘register method’
In many ways, collective wage agreements and centrally coordinated negotiations with employers were the centre of workplace struggles during the social democratic model. Today, however, these methods have outplayed their role because of the new class composition and restructuring. Therefore, new methods of struggle and qualitatively different forms of organization need to emerge that correspond to our interests as unemployed, trainees, short-term, part-time or other types of flexible and replaceable employees. It is just a matter of time before the working class discover forms of struggle that are suitable to our material needs, and it is up to the left to speed up this process. We should let ourselves be inspired by earlier independent and militant worker struggles – collective wage agreements is far from the only means of struggle! In fact, the ‘work peace’ of the collective agreements was one of the reasons why the social democratic model was able to struck out workplace struggles of the openly antagonistic kind, such as wild strikes and blockades. One of these methods was the syndicalist ‘register method’, which we will examine closer.
A new model of compromise: the function of small businesses
Today, a new model of compromise between SAF (the Swedish employers’ organization) and the unions is being planned, resembling the classic Saltsjöbad-agreement. This is without a doubt an attempt to counter the uncontrollable workplace struggles that, in spite of everything, are appearing after the restructuring of recent years. At the same time, the deregulation of the labour market continues and a governmental investigation has proposed the prohibition of strikes in small businesses – where it is already quite hard for the workers to strike to begin with. This development is totally in line with the post-Fordist mode of production, with its turn to subcontractors, outsourcing and entrepreneurs. In addition, people are encouraged to start their own private enterprises. E.g., Telia (one of Sweden’s largest telephone companies) has fired good workers to make them start their own companies. This small company hype is linked to increased exploitation. In part because of increased individual freedom in work-situations, but mainly because the conditions of work in small companies form a state of exception where ordinary labour laws do not apply and where self-discipline rules. Thus, an informal ‘grey’ sector is created, where labour laws do not reduce exploitation. Nevertheless, this form of work is intimately incorporated in international capital as multinational companies’ insane growth of surplus value depends on it. In addition, it is also more and more common for companies to pay a little extra for temporary labour power since they have no obligations towards them.
The practical use of the register method
The syndicalist register method, dating from the early 20th century, was a totally unique method of struggle, used in the transition period preceding the establishment of social democracy. In our opinion, the method had certain qualities that, perhaps, should be resurrected today. Of course, the conditions of production and class composition are different now, which means that that the forms of struggle and organization also need to be different. But still, revolutionary perspectives have to be linked to concrete experiences of real class confrontations.
The register method was first used by syndicalist construction workers in the 1910s, as a militant alternative to the system of agreement. They demanded a fixed price for their labour power, without any margin for bargaining. The workers didn’t negotiate the salary, but posed ultimate, non-negotiable demands.
The worker teams of the construction industry in those days functioned as subcontractors, which meant that they had to put out tenders for work. When work opportunities were scarce, the competition between teams increased and salaries went down. The register tried to fight this competition with solidarity. By keeping statistics of salaries and a register of the prices for different types of work, the worker teams could agree on minimum prices that no one were allowed to undermine. In this way, salaries were raised and the difference between them decreased. No one had to sell their labour cheaper than their comrades or for a lower price than they had decided was fair.
Solidarity and militancy
The only way the capitalists could counter the register method and lower the salaries was by breaking the workers’ monopoly on labour power. They tried to employ skilled workers that didn’t participate in the register (that is, unorganized workers or people from LO, the largest union in Sweden) and were also prepared to work for lower wages. But these so called register-breakers were treated in the same uncompromising way as ordinary strike-breakers - with physical confrontation. Militant methods were needed to maintain the price lists of the register. Only violence, or the threat of violence, could stop people from becoming register-breakers and thereby lowering the wages. This meant that the workers connected to the register had to be in majority where they worked and it also required strong bonds of solidarity.
The register method depended on solidarity, but it also strengthened it. The largest fight was “the battle of Los” in west Hälsingland, where logging companies tried to break the register’s power by employing 1100 ‘work-willing’ LO-organized workers from other towns. However, they were met by 800 militant syndicalists that stubbornly refused them entry to the site until they accepted register prices. After a couple of days’ fight the scabs were forced back home again...
In some areas, the register also functioned as an employment centre, which further weakened the employers’ position. The register committee then decided which worker, or team of workers, was next in line for a given work. This was done according to principles of solidarity; for example, those who had been unemployed for a long time were usually first in line.
The results of the Register
The register functioned best in the construction and logging sectors and among the plant workers of Stockholm. In the logging sector, the last great register struggle was waged in the winter of 1949-50 when workers eventually won after four months of struggle. The register really led to higher wages. The average salary for an hour’s work was usually 30-40% higher than the salary of LO’s agreements. During the most active period approximately 30.000 workers participated in the register. Only a minority of these were syndicalists since many LO-members didn’t hesitate to join in when they realized its positive results. In some lines of work, those connected to the register were the highest paid workers in the country. In other words, the register was effective and the employers understood that it would become even more effective if more people joined. Therefore, it’s not strange that they were quick to sign agreements with LO as soon as they got the chance.
However, the depression of the 1920s meant massive unemployment and SAC (the Swedish syndicalist union), in order to keep their members’ jobs, was eventually forced to accept the agreement strategy of LO. At the same time, new recruits were scarce in the sectors where the register was in use, and the workers also became older and less willing to struggle than in the revolutionary years of 1917-1919. In time, this led to the gradual establishment of LO’s poor collective agreements. The turning point to the far less confrontational class struggle of social democracy came in the thirties.
Antagonistic struggle over consumption
A comparison can be made between the uncompromising antagonism of the register method and the autonomous so called auto-reduction struggles in Italy during the 1970s. These struggles were aimed at consumption, where activists collectively refused to pay the increased prices on e.g. public transportation or the cinema. The line of reasoning was that even if people couldn’t afford it, they were entitled to transportation and culture. Another popular form of action was proletarian shopping, which meant that people collectively simply took what they needed, but couldn’t afford, from the stores. With the refusal to pay more than what was considered fair even the costs of electricity and telephone facilities could be reduced. Due to the fact that autonomous comrades working in the electricity and telephone businesses reconnected all households that were disconnected, this auto-reduction movement grew until it consisted of 180.000 households in one single area (Piemonte)! In this way, the auto-reduction movement actually became a realistic, struggling alternative to the reformist unions. The common element in the register method and the autonomous auto-reduction struggles is that they put trust in the power of the working class, and that they try to establish a so called dual-power situation in their antagonistic struggle against capital. Such struggles can also have reproductive work as their point of departure. This has resulted in demands for wages fro housework among other things.
For recapturing human dignity and the whole fucking planet!
A revolutionary initiative today can’t simply be an attack upon the ruling social structures, it must also entail creativity, the development of collective feeling and the recapture of subjectivity – that is, the very life and human dignity that has been taken from us and smothered by competition. On the whole, we must focus on the positive, social dimensions of the struggle, if we are to infuse radical politics with any real substance. Too often, revolutionary analyses and perspectives have focused one-sidedly on the enemy, on capital, in a way that has damaged the revolutionary process. Marx reminds us that the revolution is necessary, not only because it is the only way the ruling class can be overthrown, but also because it is the only way the working class can free itself from its old shackles and create a new social order. We have to give priority to discussions about political substance and about the meaning of a classless society here and now. The left’s weakness and isolation isn’t just something forced upon us from outside, but also to a large extent a consequence of our own actions and lack of initiative. During earlier periods of the class struggle, social dimensions and contexts were created that formed the preconditions for solidarity and struggle. Today, we have to create these social contexts ourselves. The isolation, separation and individualisation of today’s society are consequences of our own actions, too. Thus, we can’t let our antagonism against the system suffice – we must also create a collective feeling and forums where radical politics can be shaped, developed and injected with real substance.
There are a lot of questions that have to be answered and many struggles to be fought. But one thing is certain: new revolutionary perspectives can’t be realized and victorious without being tested in reality. The revolutionary process develops through practical experiences of political struggle, and the key to success is starting!
Kämpa Tillsammans: November 1998
Published in Brand: 1998
English translation: April 2008