Workers? Autonomy? - Workers Playtime

Article by Workers Playtime arguing against the capitalist need to impose ever higher workrate and hours on the working class.

Submitted by Fall Back on July 10, 2009

The following article is excepted from a pamphlet entitled The Playtime Omnibus published by the Workers Playtime Group in the UK in the 1980s. The group produced ten issues of a newsletter of the same name between 1983 and 1985.

Nine years ago [1974], the miners struck for a real increase in pay, and not only got it, but brought down a government. Since that time, industrial disputes have been getting fewer, and more likely to end in defeat. The most powerful groups of workers, according to tradition, are being forced to accept mass redundancies. Those who have public sympathy, according to the opinion polls, have lost many weeks wages in strikes, and then gone back to work with nothing, like the firemen and health workers.

Dole has been cut at the same time as unemployment was rising. There is now competition for the worst paid jobs. The value of state benefits and allowances has fallen. Other elements of the social wage, like education and health, are being run down. More money and wider powers are being given to welfare agencies and the police, so as to contain, soften and if necessary suppress the response of working class people to the effects of poverty.

In 1983, the miners face the same prospect as workers in the steel, motor and railway industries: their wages falling in value, thousands of redundancies, and a speed-up in the rate of work. These changes, and their effects, are being felt everywhere in the working class. The small gains we made in the past, are being taken away by employers and the state. As the rate of profit falls, it is the workers who pay the cost, as always. We seem to benefit when profits are growing, but these improvements vanish as quickly as they appear, through price rises, higher taxes, faster work, shoddier goods and mass unemployment.

Workers do not want to fight over wages during a recession, partly because they know they will probably lose, and also because of the fear which mass unemployment brings - of losing their job to an employer who pays less. As the water workers found, even 'winning' is in reality defeat, since it usually means standing still for twelve months instead of slipping backwards. As for the methods workers use to get their demands, the simple stay-at-home strike is getting less and less effective. It often plays into the hands of the employers looking for a way to close down without having to pay compensation. The tactics used to get pay rises reflect the nature of that kind of demand, which can only help one group of workers for a short time. That is why the health workers could not expect wildcat sympathy strikes in support of their pay rise, which they were trying to get by arguing that they were a 'special' category.

The economic crisis is not short-lived. It cannot be blamed on bad luck or bad planning. It has happened before, on a smaller scale, and results from the unstable nature of the system itself.

In order to live, the working class depends on being able to sell its labour. What goods and services we produce, how they are distributed, consumed and reproduced, is determined by the logic of capital and those who manage it. This minority controls and effectively owns most of the natural, industrial and human resources. Its aims are to maintain social stability and a steady rate of profits. Stability means keeping the working class in its place, working as and when required, consuming what is for sale. Profits are made by selling goods and services for more than they cost to make, over and above what it costs to renew the economy and keep the workers in line. The source of this surplus is our labour.

In both human and economic terms, the interests of the working class are opposite to those of its bosses. From the point of view of capitalists, crisis results from the profit motive itself, the pressure to keep growing, to re-invest profits in order to get the same rate of return. The only way for them to do this is to find new markets, or to intensify the exploitation of markets that already exist (by increasing productivity or forcing wages down). If this does not happen fast enough to meet the desire for profitable investment, the result is a conflict between capitalists as they search for new sources of profit.

On an international scale, economic war can lead to real war. Usually, the state acts a mediator between capitalists within its boundaries. But the state is not just a mediator. It is also the military and repressive arm of the ruling class, and a capitalist in its own right. When competition goes out of control on this scale, the state becomes an aggressive entrepreneur, whipping-up nationalist feeling in support of national capital. Whether or not the crisis becomes military, workers are taken out of normal production (through unemployment or conscription); austerity is imposed and workers are set to fighting out their bosses' quarrels. The resulting devastation provides capital with the right climate in which to recuperate and start growing again.

It is not just that one class owns and profits from the work of another. The production of commodities - that is, goods or services for exchange - means that our whole lives are modelled on the profit motive and its requirements. We cannot give of ourselves, our time, our labour, according to our capacity or desire to do so; we cannot take what we need; we cannot decide for or among ourselves what those needs or desires are, or how to go about meeting them. We are only permitted to produce what can be exchanged, sold. In fact we are forced to do so in ways that alienate us and turn us against each other. We can only take what is on sale, not what we need, not what we want, in strict proportion to our wage. And then most of it is rubbish, stuff on which someone can make a killing. Our social relationships repeat the pattern. We are isolated from each other, at work according to profitable divisions of labour; on the streets according to our capacity to purchase goods and other peoples time; even at home, where the division of tasks is made strictly domestic, and we are cornered into making private contracts, in the hope that this will secure us against the world outside.

Seen in this way, the question of what demands working class people make, and how to go about making them, takes on a wider meaning. It becomes a question of classes themselves, the way we are exploited, and how this can be opposed. We believe it is necessary to struggle against the ruling class and its system in every possible way; to go beyond our isolation in the struggle, by developing solidarity at every level and in every place; and in this way to assert the autonomy of the working class against its oppressor. We can only do this on our own, for ourselves. Finally, we wish to see the ruling class overthrown, and a social revolution in which commodities, the state and both the classes abolished.

Workers autonomy is not a blueprint or a set of policies. It exists in as much as we can develop our own activity and ideas in opposition to the ruling class. It develops from our desire to see the downfall of this system becoming a conscious understanding of the need to destroy it and the ways of bringing this about, in the course of everyday struggle with other members of our class. When theories are cut off from our practical experience, they become mere ideology, at best irrelevant, at worst elitist. If, on the other hand, we deceive ourselves that anything worthwhile and permanent can be gained by reforms, then we are condemned to endless isolation, cynicism and defeat.

Trade unions, which rely on this deception among waged workers, stand as a barrier to their struggles, even on the level of reforms. They exist only to negotiate the price and conditions of labour, and are therefore a part of the system itself, since they cannot be used to challenge it. At the highest levels of the bureaucracy, unions operate alongside national governments and private capital. They take part in economic planning, enforce government policy on wages and conditions, and participate in schemes of social control, especially when Labour is in power. The unions reinforce all the divisions within the working class, between workers in one country and another, between waged and unwaged, skilled and unskilled, between workers in different industries, trades and workplaces. At the local level, union branches manipulate their members by pre-empting their demands and enforcing agreements on discipline. They restrict workers' demands to short-term wage settlements and changes in conditions. Activity against employers is only permitted if it can be used to consolidate the power of the union officials. The unions require militancy on tap, to order. Sometimes they will suppress strikes, sometimes they will demand heroic sacrifices. Sometimes they miscalculate (last month the miners dealt a second blow to the personal ambitions of their union president, Scargill).

Unions smother autonomous activity in the workplace, by outlawing independent agitation of all kinds, and by keeping discussion to a minimum. When disputes are made official, the unions take control. They slow down the pace of activity by sending strikers home, organizing phony one-day stoppages, demonstrations, delegations and endless negotiations. This is how they span out the dispute over wages in the National Health Service, which ended in defeat. When strikes threaten to by-pass union channels, spread out of control or use unsanctioned channels, the union officials will attempt to sabotage them, denounce their members, and sometimes call in the police, as they did during the 1979 lorry drivers' strike, and again last month, when assembly workers at Fords Halewood damaged cars in protest at layoffs.

If unionism is a dead end, so is politics. It is not a question of electing people who will manage things more efficiently on our behalf, any more than it is one of putting forward more militant demands to negotiate our wages. It was the Labour government of 1974-79, not the Tories, who began the present round of austerity measures. Meanwhile the inner cities have felt the full force of leftist welfare planning. The old working class ghettos have been demolished in programmes of estate building, brand new ghettos where twice as many people could be put at half the cost. Labour councils have built up heavy welfare bureaucracies, partly to deal with increasingly poor and unruly populations, partly to build up a power-base for themselves in the local state.

As for the notion of a working class party, it is a contradiction in terms. Whether they aim at being elected in order to nationalize factories, or at overthrowing bourgeois democracy in order to substitute their own brand on our behalf, political parties can only be concerned with management and control. They cannot, even if they wish to, overturn capital itself; that is a task for the whole of the working class and nobody else. Nobody can create a better world for us. The problem of exploitation is in the end a problem of social relations, not of economic management. Historically, every socialist and revolutionary union, has ended up in one of three ways; oblivion, complete integration into the ruling class, or if they managed to seize power on the back of a revolution (as the Russian Bolsheviks did in 1917) they have become a new ruling class, the state and the only employer, and just as ruthless.

A fairly new proposal, but one getting more popular with politicians of all shades, is the idea of workers co-operatives, in which everyone has an equal say in the running of the business. The theory is that this will make everyone work harder, since they have a share in the profits. Very little changes. In fact, it can be a way of making workers pay for unprofitable factories. Co-ops are still subject to capital, because they have to sell their products at market values. This means that they are still engaged in commodity production, and cannot claim to be making what people need: at their worst, co-ops are an extreme form of exploitation, working long hours very hard for low wages. Self-managed misery, all for the sake of an illusion.

In this country, talk of Workers Autonomy has only appeared quite recently. Elsewhere, and especially in southern Europe, it has been a recognizable current in working class struggles over the last fifteen years. In reality, autonomous workers groups have existed for a lot longer. Wherever working class people have brought their resentment to bear on the collective problems of everyday struggle, they have found the need to organize and fight in a completely independent way, not only against the employer and his class, but outside of unions and parties, and often against them. Such groups appear during periods of conflict as a way of developing communication and solidarity among the workers involved; they can draw lessons freely and apply them as they are learned, then pass that knowledge on to other groups. When the level of struggle dies down, so inevitably the autonomous groups cease to function as before, often being re-integrated into reformist political structures. Nevertheless, those who remain can develop the movement towards autonomous workers struggle by continuing to try and open up discussions and anti-work activity in the workplace. If they are isolated, they may form groups outside the workplace itself, as a way of continuing this discussion among the widest possible circle of people, even though such groups can never be a substitute for workplace activity. (The group which produces Workers Playtime comes into this category.)

In the longer term, we believe that the development of the revolutionary working class can only come about through autonomous activity and discussion at every level- within the workplace and outside. This article has concentrated on the struggles of waged workers in the work place, but the principles apply to every member of the working class equally, wherever they are in conflict with the bosses and their system. We fight for ourselves, with others who share our struggle, whether we are on the dole, working, homeless or harassed (or all at once - think about it). The pressure and divisions which are imposed on us can be turned into an attack on the system from all sides. As these attacks grow in strength and number, they will become a revolutionary movement of the whole working class, which has one common interest; the end of capitalism and its conditions of endless poverty, work, crisis and war.

We need a new world.

Published in Red and Black Notes #19, Spring 2004, this article has been archived on from the Red and Black Notes website.