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What's the System? Review of an Angry Workers Pamphlet

What's the System? Review of an Angry Workers Pamphlet

The Angry Workers of the World (AWW), a group based in West London which publishes the irregular workplace bulletin WorkersWildWest, has released a pamphlet collecting their articles on history, crisis, and revolution. We want a new society – and don’t we need it! seeks to explain in a straightforward manner how the current system emerged and how a new society can replace it.

For us in the ICT, the current world system is capitalism, a transitory society – characterised by waged-labour, the cash nexus, and production for profit on an international scale – that can only be overcome through a social revolution. As we wait for their new book Class Power on Zero-Hours, in the following critical notes we look at what the AWW understands by “the system”. It should be read in the context of our previous engagements with modern and historical “autonomism” (with which the AWW approach shares certain similarities).1

History

The first part of the pamphlet serves primarily as a demonstration that “certain things that we take for granted or as unchangeable are actually pretty new – on a mass scale perhaps only 300 to 400 years old”. While it is true that the capitalist mode of production has only existed for some 300-400 years, we should point out a number of inaccuracies and simplifications in the narrative we are presented with around its origin and development.

For the AWW the history of all hitherto existing society is that of “struggle against being exploited and oppressed”. In their exposition of the emergence of capitalism, they only “focus on the very recent past, on the conditions since around 500 years ago”, i.e. late feudalism (although they never use the term). The main contradiction in feudal society is presented as that of a struggle between the “poor” (peasants and serfs) and the “rulers” (feudal landlords and later the “middle-classes”). The subjective human forces of the oppressed are the driving force of history here (to which the ruling class adapts), typical of “autonomist” interpretations of history. In this, they obscure the actual process of transition from a feudal to a capitalist mode of production.

To take England as a prime example, what we see in fact is a declining feudal system already by the 1300s, with various processes present undermining its social and economic structure. Increased agricultural production stimulated population growth (in England, from 1.71 million in 1086 to 4.81 million in 1348), towns expanded, and markets proliferated. Trade in wool became England’s main export, and gave motive for enclosures, which signified a shift from communal arable farming to private property rights in pasture (while those driven off the land faced unemployment and pauperism). Thus, if at the beginning of the millennium society was understood, according to ecclesiastical ideology, to be divided into three categories – “those who pray, those who work, and those who fight” – by the 1300s we increasingly also had “those who trade” and “those who idle”.

Plague, famine and war accelerated these contradictions. The Crusades opened up new markets, while the Hundred Years' War led to the phasing out of feudal levies in favour of professional wage-based standing armies – both increased the power of the monarchy over the nobility and the centralisation of the state. Meanwhile, the end of the Medieval Warm Period signalled an era of famine and disease. First the Great Famine of 1315-1322 and then of course the Black Death shook the foundations of feudal society. A third of the world population, and as much as 40–60 percent of the English population, perished. Employers increased wages in order to address the shortage of labour and in 1349 the first labour legislation was introduced, declaring that everyone under 60 must work (and unsuccessfully attempted to fix wages to pre-plague levels). In other words, before the end of the 14th century serfdom was already being undermined, and the gradual replacement of payments in kind by money payments was under way. Feudal relations gradually became fetters on the forces of production.

No surprise then that, in this context of social turmoil, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 united a rising bourgeoisie (farmers and merchants) with dispossessed peasants and the urban poor against the feudal order. And while it managed to reverse the poll tax for military campaigns in France, the promise to end serfdom was retracted. Over the 15th and 16th century, we see the state free the last remaining serfs and attempt to curb the swelling numbers of vagrants and vagabonds as enclosures intensify:

"Simultaneously with the beginning of manufactures there was a period of vagabondage caused by the abolition of the feudal bodies of retainers, the disbanding of the swollen armies which had flocked to serve the kings against their vassals, the improvement of agriculture, and the transformation of great strips of tillage into pasture land. From this alone it is clear how this vagabondage is strictly connected with the disintegration of the feudal system. As early as the thirteenth century we find isolated epochs of this kind, but only at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth does this vagabondage make a general and permanent appearance. These vagabonds, who were so numerous that, for instance, Henry VIII of England had 72,000 of them hanged, were only prevailed upon to work with the greatest difficulty and through the most extreme necessity, and then only after long resistance. The rapid rise of manufactures, particularly in England, absorbed them gradually." (Karl Marx, The German Ideology)

The AWW however allege that “the poor were able to overthrow serfdom” in England, and as a consequence the social situation “at the turn of the 17th century was the most explosive and unstable” which “rulers” could only handle “by constantly expanding their rule through development of the ‘commodity market and trade’, the state and industrial apparatus.” But, as we have already seen, the expansion of the commodity market, the state and industrial apparatus was already well underway by the 17th century (to analyse that you need to go back more than 500 years however). It was not Tyler's rebels, the Diggers and the Levellers who “changed the system”, even if they played a part in undermining it, but the development of productive forces, first of agriculture and then of industry, and the rise of the bourgeoisie which “played a most revolutionary part” (Marx). Against a decaying feudal order, the bourgeoisie posited a world of human rights, democracy and secularism. It imposed itself economically (using property to build up its own power within the system) and politically (in England, during the 1640-1689 revolutions, enabling the expansion of Parliamentary powers) – so that by the 19th century England would become the manufacturing centre of an otherwise agricultural world.

Crisis

While the AWW consider falling profit rates to be the “most fundamental reason for crisis”, they put forward contradictory statements. “Crisis mainly happens because too much is produced that cannot be sold or does not generate profits”, “the only way to make more profits is to produce more with less workers”, “companies invest more and more of their money into machinery and technology […] this cuts into their profits – which then forces them to churn out more with less people”, etc.

For those who agree with the premise that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the most important law of capitalism and its main contradiction, as both we do2 and Marx did, the law of value is the point of departure. According to this law, commodities are exchanged in accordance with their value (the average socially necessary labour-time that goes into them). Throughout the working day workers reproduce the value of their wages but also produce surplus value (i.e. the labour time we work over and above the necessary labour time). This surplus value, when realised, is the source of all capitalist profit. The extraction of more and more surplus value of out of the working class tends to cause a rise in the organic composition of capital (increasing proportion of constant capital to variable capital, i.e. more capital becomes tied up in machinery and raw materials compared with the number of workers involved in production), which in turn makes the rate of profit fall over time. Low profitability leads to crisis, at which point the accumulation cycle (since the 19th century taking the form of world war – reconstruction – crisis, etc.) starts again.

If the AWW arrived at the same conclusion by the same method, then it makes no sense to say that capitalists make more profits by employing less workers but when they invest more in machinery and technology this cuts into their profits. In reality, it is all part of the same process: by investing more money into machinery and materials (constant capital), capitalists can employ less workers and spend less on wages (variable capital), thus increasing profits at first, but over time causing the rate of profit to fall as more and more value-producing workers are replaced by dead labour.

On the question of over-production and under-consumption, which the AWW define as the “most simple form of crisis” and the “most blatant form of crisis” respectively, we would see both as phenomena (rather than forms) of the capitalist crisis of profitability. This might be just a question of terminology, but previous statements in the pamphlet, such as that “crisis mainly happens because too much is produced”, suggest some confusion regarding causes and effects, and, as the AWW write, “there would be no alternative to this system if it would not show clear signs of crisis – so we have to know what actually causes this crisis.”

Revolution

The AWW briefly mention a number of uprisings and the reasons for their downfall: the peasant wars where the “main problem was that they remained isolated locally”; the French Revolution of 1789 and the Haitian Revolution of 1791 undone by the “betrayal of the middle classes”; the Paris Commune "defeated by the French and German army"; the revolutionary wave of 1917-21 that might have succeeded “if the connections between councils in towns and in the vast countryside had formed quicker” and “if the revolution in more developed countries like Germany had won”; the global uprisings of 1968 that “had different conditions and goals” while “the changes in production made it much more difficult to imagine how to run society in general”.

What ties all these movements together? According to the AWW they all form part of that continuum of “struggle against exploitation and oppression”. This simplification once again obscures the actual contradictory social forces involved in those movements (peasants, the rising bourgeoisie, workers, students, etc.). The pitfalls of these movements are reduced to mostly technical questions (isolation, repression, separation of town and country, uneven development, etc.), which of course play a significant part. But other aspects, such as the class nature of these struggles, the balance of class forces at the time, or the revolutionary minorities actually involved and their aims, are brushed aside.

So for example when it comes to the international revolutionary wave of 1917-21, which remains the primary reference point of our tendency, the AWW praise the “councils and other examples of organisation and resistance (factory militias, neighbourhood assemblies etc.)” that showed many working class people all over Europe that “a different society is possible”. But the actual process of the 1917 Revolution, and the crucial role that the Bolshevik Party played in it, is completely ignored. All we are told is that “Lenin’s party, which had influence in the councils, said that in this situation [famine, invasion and isolation] the councils have to give up power towards a new ‘workers’ state’”. This is a caricature – in fact, the Bolshevik Party expressed the wishes of the most advanced section of the class (summarised in the slogans “All Power to the Soviets”, “Down with the Provisional Government” and “Bread, Peace and Land”). Thanks to the degree to which it rooted itself among the class, becoming a revolutionary tool of the class in the process, the party was able to gain a majority in the councils and make the October Revolution possible. For Lenin personally, the existence of a “workers’ state” was predicated precisely on the existence of workers’ councils. By 1921, when most councils had ceased to function, so did the “workers’ state”.3 What was left behind was a vast bureaucracy and party apparatus which became one of the agents of the counter-revolution. But to reduce this process to Bolsheviks somehow convincing workers to give up their power is to do disservice to history.

Towards the end of the pamphlet we are told that “There are struggles everywhere, where working people take back control for a moment. In these struggles we have to build links across sectors and borders. This has happened before, there were many ‘revolutionary international organisations’ - we have seen earlier on why they have failed.” But why these organisations have failed is actually never properly explained. For us the failure of past “revolutionary international organisations” means we have to learn their lessons4, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater. Without a political reference point, spontaneous economic struggle will not adopt a political perspective on the need of a new society.

Towards What?

While clearly influenced by Marxism, the pamphlet does not follow a Marxist method. This itself will not be taken as a flaw by a group which considers itself to have gone beyond “traditional left-communist or whatever ancient roots”, but it means there is no real framework here for understanding the patched together history of class struggle or the dynamics of modern capitalism. In fact, it would be no surprise if some came out more confused after reading this pamphlet than when going in.

While we share the AWW’s desire to “struggle against exploitation and oppression” and to see society organised in alternative ways, in their attempt to eschew a Marxist framework and simplify everything as much as possible, they end up obscuring important aspects of this struggle. In fact, they avoid the terms capitalism and communism/socialism altogether. And we do no favour to our fellow workers if we reduce the struggle against a specific system (capitalism) for a classless, stateless society (communism) into some vague ahistorical struggle against “the system” – we have to explain the meaning of words, even if they are contentious. To end on a positive note however, we can only agree with the following sentiment:

"Movements against austerity, against corruption, for better living conditions will erupt again and again, no question – in the current system this is like a law of nature. We have to help these movements find a direction."

And towards that very end we set our energies, and hope to be joined by others, towards the creation of an international political organisation which can root itself in the class and put forward a programme based on the historical lessons and acquisitions of previous struggles of the class.5

Dyjbas

Comments

Spikymike
Apr 11 2020 17:45

A useful and mostly comradely response from the AWW here:
https://libcom.org/blog/response-comrades-cwo-their-whats-system-review-...