Co-ops or conflicts? -

As half of a Freedom newspaper feature on responses to the credit crunch, Joseph Kay argues for the latter. Read the other half, Bailouts or co-operatives?

Nationalisation has long been a staple demand of the left, but now that an unprecedented nationalisation of the banking system has failed to lead to socialism, anarchist arguments that state control offers nothing to the working class would appear to have been vindicated.

This creates an opportunity to put forward anarchist ideas not as a critical comment on the left, but as proposals in their own right. Against the demand for nationalisation of troubled firms, many have raised the demand for workers control. This demand is no less problematic, for two reasons.

Firstly, and not insignificantly, we are in no position to demand anything. As a tiny minority in the class, our ‘calls’ for this or that are impotent cries. Nationalisation of the banks didn’t happen because MPs heeded the calls of various Trotskyist groups, but because of a material need to prevent a banking collapse and the consequent economic collapse, falling of profits and danger of social unrest this would entail.

The only way our demands can become a necessity for capital to follow is if they are backed by a class movement capable of imposing them. To call for this or that in the absence of such class power is to get ahead of ourselves; there are more pressing matters at hand. We will return to this in a moment.

The second problem is on a more fundamental level. While many are aware that workers’ control under capitalism is simply self-managed exploitation, the demand is still often raised as a sort of intermediate, ‘realistic’ demand short of revolution. However like nationalisation, workers’ control is not a demand based on our concrete material needs as a class, it is about how capital should be managed.

Capital cannot be managed in our interests, so it is pointless to try. Instead we have to make concrete material demands; no to job losses, wage cuts, public service cuts and evictions; and jumping further ahead of ourselves, for wage increases, shorter hours for no loss of pay, improved public services etc.

Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase, it is a recognition of how capital rules social life. It does this both vertically through the person of the boss, and horizontally, through market forces. Many anarchists focus mainly on the vertical rule of workplace hierarchy, and so see workers’ control as a stepping stone towards libertarian communism.

However, it’s not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac. For example, I work in financial services. As you would expect during a financial crisis, we’re feeling the squeeze. There have been redundancies, and the ‘lucky’ survivors are being made to work harder and longer to make up. If we were to turn it into a co-op, those same market forces causing my boss to make cuts would still be there, but we would have nobody to say no to when under pressure to increase the rate of exploitation to survive in a hostile market.

Of course, using the director’s former salaries we might be able to make less redundancies or improve wages. But if the firm has the resources to do this, and we would only be able to create a co-op with sufficiently strong class struggle to force expropriation of the bosses, we should simply demand the concrete material things we want – in this case job security and improved conditions – not demand how capital should be managed to meet our actual needs.

Success in establishing a co-op is success in swapping one form of alienation for another, proletarian for petit-bourgeois. But there is a reason workers are a potentially revolutionary class and small business people are not: class antagonism. When capital makes demands of bosses via market forces, they have to impose them on workers, and workers can resist. Workers’ needs are in direct contradiction to the needs of capital accumulation.

However, if we become our own boss, we have no-one to refuse and the needs of capital appear as the natural imperative of market forces. Class struggle – and with it the potential for revolutionary change – is short-circuited. Ends are made of means, some means get us closer to what we want, others make it more remote and finally destroy its possibility.

So what is a libertarian communist response to the crisis? Communist demands are concrete, material demands reflecting our needs as workers. To be in a position to make these demands, we need to have a level of working class power and confidence that is presently lacking. Therefore our activity should be aimed at increasing the confidence, power and combativity of the wider class.

The Tea Break workers’ bulletin is one such project to this end, it advocates libertarian communist tactics to achieve concrete material gains. These tactics are the advocacy of collective action, for militant workers to network with one another online or face to face, for mass meetings including all workers regardless of union membership to control the struggle (excluding managers and scabs of course), and for links to be made between workers divided by workplace, sector, union, agency/permanent contracts and the manifold other divisions currently present (nationality, gender…).

As a concrete project aimed at spreading libertarian communist tactics and demands and increasing the power and confidence of the class, it is at least a small but definite step in the right direction.