A debate between Iain McKaye and the libcom group about an adequate workers' response to the credit crunch - should we advocate nationalisation, co-op's, or struggle?
Bailouts, co-operatives or class struggle - a debate
The initial two articles were published simultaneously in Freedom newspaper, the latter responses were published online.
Co-ops or conflicts? - libcom.org
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.
Bailouts or co-operatives? - Iain McKay
As capitalism goes into crisis (again), there have been bailouts of the financial sector as well as calls for the bailing out of certain industries. There are many reasons for rejecting this, but the problem is that their workers will be harmed by this. As such, I think it is wise for anarchists to have some practical suggestion on what to do – beyond, of course, calls for social revolution.
May I suggest that in return for any bailouts, the company is turned into a co-operative? This is a libertarian alternative to just throwing money at capitalists or nationalising workplaces.
Proudhon argued in 1848 he
“did not want to see the State confiscate the mines, canals and railways; that would add to monarchy, and more wage slavery. We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers' association..”
In his classic work, The General Idea of the Revolution, he made a similar suggestion as part of his critique of capitalism and he influenced the Communards, who turned empty workplaces into co-operatives.
In 1912, Kropotkin argued along similar lines. He noted that the “State phases which we are traversing now seem to be unavoidable.” However, aiding “the Labour Unions to enter into a temporary possession of the industrial concerns” anarchists would provide “an effective means to check the State Nationalisation.” So there is an anarchist tradition of making this kind of demand.
What of the obvious objection, namely that this is not socialism and just “worker capitalism.”
Yes, it is not socialism – but it contains more elements of socialism than the alternatives of bailouts or nationalisation. It is a suggestion that could be applied in the here and now, where a social revolution is currently unlikely. If our position is one of revolutionary purity then it will be unlikely that anyone will pay much attention to us and if a revolt does break out then our influence will be smaller than it could be if we addressed social issues today.
If done in the right way, such activity can be used to get us closer to our immediate aim – a libertarian social movement which uses direct action and solidarity to change society for the better.
What of the notion it is “worker capitalism”? This is confused. It is not capitalist because workers own and control their own means of production. If quoting Engels is not too out of place, the
“object of production – to produce commodities – does not import to the instrument the character of capital” for the “production of commodities is one of the preconditions for the existence of capital... as long as the producer sells only what he himself produces, he is not a capitalist; he becomes so only from the moment he makes use of his instrument to exploit the wage labour of others.”
So workers’ associations are not capitalist, as Marx also made clear.
This is Proudhon’s distinction between property and possession and he placed workers’ associations at the heart of his anarchism, considering them as “a protest against the wage system” and a “denial of the rule of capitalists.” As long as these associations remained democratic (i.e., all people who work there are members) then this is a socialisation of the means of life (albeit, currently within capitalism). The key to understanding socialisation is to remember that it is fundamentally about access, that every one has the same rights to the means of life as everyone else.
This was Proudhon’s position, that “every individual employed in the association... has an undivided share in the property of the company”, has “the right to fill any position, of any grade, in the company, according to the suitability of sex, age, skill, and length of employment” and that “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members.” Bakunin was also a firm supporter of cooperatives, as was Kropotkin – although both were clear about their limitations.
This should be the criteria for any bailouts suggested now – the turning of the company into a co-operative which is run by its members and which any new workers are automatically members with the same rights as others.
Of course, it is unlikely that any government will agree to such a socialisation of companies. Unless pressurised from below, they will pick bailouts or (part/full) nationalisation in order to keep capitalism going. If ignored then people should simply socialise their workplaces themselves by occupying and running them directly. Nor should this be limited to simply those firms seeking bailouts. All workplaces in danger of being closed should be occupied – which will hopefully inspire all workers to do the same.
This support for co-operatives should be seen as a practical response to current events, a means of spreading the anarchist message and getting people to act for themselves. At the very least, it helps people who are suffering from the crisis while, at the same time, showing that another world is possible. And it is doubtful that the people whose jobs and communities are on the line because of the decisions of their bosses can make any more of a mess than has already been inflicted on them!
But this is a short-term libertarian solution to the crisis, one that can be used to help create something better. Capitalism has failed. It is time to give economic liberty a go!
Co-operatives and conflicts! - Iain McKay
I'm not sure whether Joseph Kay (“Co-ops or conflicts?”) actually read my article on co-operatives before writing his piece. I would guess not, as it has the feel of a standard libertarian communist response against co-operatives within capitalism. If so, that is a shame as I may need to repeat myself somewhat as the analysis I presented was not really addressed.
I had hoped that my article (“Bailouts or co-operatives?”) had made clear that suggesting co-operatives was a short-term solution for those workers facing closing workplaces or whose bosses are seeking bailouts. I did not address the issue of (so-called) “self-managed exploitation” simply because that is a different question, relating to the issue of co-operatives within capitalism and the future libertarian society. As my original article addressed neither issue. Instead it was a call for action, plus an explanation why co-operatives were a valid socialist alternative to bail-outs and nationalisation within the current crisis.
Firstly, I do need to point out a few contradictions in his argument. He proclaims that we are “in no position to demand anything. As a tiny minority in the class, our ‘calls’ for this or that are impotent cries.” Yet, without irony, he raises various “Communist demands” we should be making! What is it to be? Are we in no position to demand anything or can we raise demands? I assume the latter, which means that his real objection to demands to create co-operatives is that he opposes that specific demand.
Key suggests that “Communist demands are concrete, material demands reflecting our needs as workers.” Apparently avoiding unemployment does not reflect our needs as workers. Is he seriously suggesting that workers, faced with the closure of their workplaces, should simply collect their P45s and head straight to the unemployment office? That the task of anarchists is not only to not suggest occupations but to oppose them as “petit-bourgeois”? Or that we should be indifferent when public (our!) money is used to bailout the muppets who got us into this crisis to begin with?
Somewhat ironically, he lists some “concrete material demands” we should “make” (forgetting that we are “in no position to demand anything”), namely “no to job losses, wage cuts, public service cuts and evictions.” No evictions? Like when bosses close their workplaces and evict their workers from them? And how would we ensure no evictions? Perhaps by occupation? And how are the occupiers to resist the resulting “wage cuts” this would create (I doubt the bosses would pay them wages)? Perhaps by resuming production under their own control? Surely occupation of workplaces in the face of closure is but one of many “concrete material demands” anarchists should be raising?
And that is a key point. I never suggested that supporting co-operatives was the only tactic we could make in the current crisis. Far from it! Need I point out that deciding to turn your workplace into a co-operative involves both the “advocacy of collective action” and “mass meetings”? Need I point out that it is a form of direct action? So it is a case of co-operatives and conflict! Kay argues that co-operatives are pointless unless:
“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.”
Yet, as I suggested, raising the demand that any bailout be premised on turning the firm into a co-operative is a means of encouraging the formation of such a movement, a movement we can both agree is sadly lacking just now. Nor can it be considered getting ahead of ourselves to suggest possible libertarian solutions to the “pressing matters” of bailouts, workplace closures and unemployment!
So need I say that my suggestion for co-operatives was aimed at encouraging workers to act for themselves, to get them to find their own solutions to the problems caused by the current crisis? As such, I agree with Kay that “our activity should be aimed at increasing the confidence, power and combativity of the wider class.” Opposing bailouts and closures with demands for occupations and co-operatives is part of that, I would suggest.
Kay spends some time discussing the limitations of co-operatives. Capital, he argues, “cannot be managed in our interests, so it is pointless to try.” Yet, as both Proudhon and Marx made clear, co-operatives are not capitalist:
“Let us suppose the workers are themselves in possession of their respective means of production and exchange their commodities with one another. These commodities would not be products of capital.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 3, p. 276)
Suggesting that workers faced with unemployment form co-operatives hardly means, to quote Kay, that “Class struggle – and with it the potential for revolutionary change – is short-circuited.” Does he really think that the state or capital will happily let workers expropriate their workplaces? I doubt it. I noted how Kropotkin suggested union control as an alternative to Nationalisation, I should also point out that in the 1880s Engels suggested as a reform the putting of public works and state-owned land into the hands of workers' co-operatives rather than capitalists. (Collected Works, vol. 47, p. 239). So, really, were both Kropotkin and Engels advocating the ending of the working class as a “potentially revolutionary class” and the end of “class antagonism” when they suggested co-operatives as an alternative to nationalisation? I doubt it.
Kay suggests that “often raised as a sort of intermediate, ‘realistic’ demand short of revolution” but that “workers’ control under capitalism is simply self-managed exploitation” and that “establishing a co-op” would be “swapping one form of alienation for another, proletarian for petit-bourgeois.” I plead guilty to the first charge, although I stress that my suggestion was an attempt to bring a revolution closer by encouraging direct action by workers – in other words, I am not aiming for “workers’ control under capitalism” but rather workers’ control (among other tactics) as a step towards ending capitalism.
As for “self-managed exploitation”, that is just confused. “Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase”, Key asserts but I disagree. He is confusing the fact market forces would still exist and rule workers' lives (and this is a serious objection) with capital/wage labour and so exploitation (in an anarchist or Marxist sense of expropriation of surplus by non-producers). He argues that “capital rules social life” vertically “through the person of the boss” and horizontally “through market forces”, yet do I really need to point out that capitalism is a mode of production, not a mode of distribution? Markets existed before capitalism and a self-employed artisan working his own tools is not exploited by a capitalist. He argues that is we turn his workplace:
“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.”
Really? Is he saying that workers’ would make the same decisions as a boss would in the same circumstance? Ultimately, his argument is identical to the apologists of capitalism – bosses have no power, the market is supreme. Yet this is false – market forces may cause bosses to act in certain ways, but being a boss shapes any decisions made.
If that were not the case then why would we need unions? We would not be able to gain any reforms, for the boss would be simply passing on the demands of “market forces”! But we know better than that. The issue of “market forces” does raise the question of whether bosses practice “self-managed exploitation” when they make decisions they dislike (for example, not to buy that third holiday house but rather make investments in their company to keep it profitable)? Is capitalist investment “exploitation” of the capitalist? Kay’s arguments would, I think, lead us to conclude that it is – which shows its weakness.
He argues that “if the firm has resources” then we should “demand the concrete material things we want.” Yet my argument was primarily related to when firms are about to go bust. Is he really suggesting that rather than expropriate the boss, we just accept our P45s? All in all, I am surprised that a member of the Solidarity Federation would resist suggestions to expropriate capital, to oppose calls for workers to occupy their workplaces, to be quiet when the state bailouts or nationalises capitalist firms.
In summary, I would suggest opposing, rather than supporting, co-operatives is “not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac.” I feel he is confusing the notion of piecemeal reform by co-operatives with a response to redundancies I have advocated (hence his comment that “like nationalisation, workers' control is not a demand based on our concrete material needs as a class, it is just about how capital should be managed”). Perhaps it could be argued that expropriating workplaces in a non-revolutionary situation is a bad idea, yet why is it a non-revolutionary situation? Perhaps because workers are not expropriating their workplaces?
All in all, I feel that my suggestion for co-operatives as a practical alternative for libertarians remains valid. Provided, of course, that they are seen as one form of many kinds of direct action and solidarity. Our focus should be, then, co-operatives and conflicts with both supporting each other in an attempt to first build the revolutionary workers’ movement we are sorely lacking and, ultimately, to abolish capitalism!
On co-ops, conflicts and straw men - libcom.org
A reply to Iain McKay on the question of anarchist responses to the economic crisis.
The initial pair of articles, ‘Bailouts or co-operatives?’ and ‘Co-operatives or conflicts’ were published in Freedom newspaper’s Christmas 2008 edition, Iain’s response to my piece is available here. As we head into what is expected to be the deepest post war recession there are already signs of both heightened class conflict and reactionary slogans, and therefore the importance of a comprehensive discussion of a libertarian communist response to the crisis is reaffirmed. To this end, I'll reply to Iain in the hope of clarifying some of his misunderstandings or misrepresentations of my position and contributing constructively to this necessary debate. To begin with, Iain claims that my arguments are contradictory:
"Firstly, I do need to point out a few contradictions in his argument. He proclaims that we are “in no position to demand anything. As a tiny minority in the class, our ‘calls’ for this or that are impotent cries.” Yet, without irony, he raises various “communist demands” we should be making! What is it to be? Are we in no position to demand anything or can we raise demands?"
There is no contradiction here, for two important reasons. Firstly, because as I made clear in my article my objection to a strategy of co-operatives is twofold:
"Firstly, and not insignificantly, we are in no position to demand anything. (…) The second problem is on a more fundamental level (…) 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."
My argument is that like Trot demands for nationalisation, anarchist demands for co-operatives are impotent, since we’re in no position at present to force them. Demands as to how capital is managed (by the state, by co-operative workers associations) are meaningless without a workers movement strong enough to impose them. But in any event they would not represent a communist demand even if we were.
Secondly even in the absence of a powerful workers movement, proposals of what workers should do are not as impotent as demands over how capital should be managed, because while the incumbent managers of capital can only be swayed by force – that is by class struggle; strikes, occupations and other forms of direct action – our fellow workers can in principle be persuaded by force of argument, that is to say by propaganda activities promoting libertarian communist tactics.
Of course even if you think co-ops are a good idea, we’d first need to get into a position to force them. Iain agrees, thus the over-riding challenge for an anarchist response to the crisis is how we increase the power and confidence of the class – which unlike the management of capital is something we are in a position to influence at the moment. That said, it’s still worth debating what demands we’d make with such class power as and when it exists, as to do otherwise would be to assume failure from the outset. Therefore it’s worth revisiting my criticisms of a strategy promoting co-operatives.
Iain summarises his argument as being that co-operatives represent “a valid socialist alternative to bail-outs and nationalisation within the current crisis,” (while being clear that "yes, it is not socialism"). He writes:
"[Kay] argues that if we turn his workplace “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.” Really? Is he saying that workers’ would make the same decisions as a boss would in the same circumstance?"
Aside from Iain presuming to know more about my workplace than I do, one could answer this question by reading my original piece! I in fact addressed precisely the possibility that if my work became a co-op we could manage it differently, saying that:
"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."
However, Iain’s “argument was primarily related to when firms are about to go bust”. What then are we going to take over and self-manage? In the case of my work, we lend money that we borrow from major banks. The way would be likely to go bust is if either our bad debts rose too high, or if these funding lines were cut off. In either case, a co-op would be faced with the same problem as the boss, but would only have the option of managing it differently. The same is true more generally for Woolworths or Zavvi workers: co-operative insolvency is still insolvency. Occupations may help prevent the administrators selling off assets to pay off credtiors instead of workers, and help secure improved redundancy terms, but they can't make a failing firm viable. The only thing that might is a big increase in unpaid overtime by the workers providing the surplus labour to kickstart the firm's profitability, but even that unappealing prospect is dependent on creditors and suppliers extending credit and workable terms of trade to the illegally occupied firm, which seems about as likely as Barclays providing mortgages to squatters.
Iain’s claim that this “argument is identical to the apologists of capitalism – bosses have no power, the market is supreme” is thus nonsense. It is not an apology for capitalism to understand how it works (ironically, to claim that self-managed firms are “socialist” is much closer to an apology for capitalism than anything I have written). Bosses are not free, they must act broadly in accordance with the market. They’re almost certainly not lying when they say they regret making redundancies and the like, I’m sure they would rather be taking on more workers and making more profit. Of course they choose to lay off a worker on £15k rather than take a £15k pay cut themselves, so yes “being a boss shapes any decisions made” – as I made clear in my article.
But this returns us to the point, if the resources are there to make less redundancies, in what way is it more realistic to demand the boss surrenders his capital to the workers rather than say forgoing some or all of his salary to save jobs? What boss would rather surrender their capital than take a temporary pay cut? Iain argues co-ops are a “short-term solution for those workers facing closing workplaces or whose bosses are seeking bailouts” – but if expropriation – which is what co-ops represent – is on the cards, I’m sure the mere safeguarding of jobs would have been on the table long before that.
It’s not that I think it would be a bad thing if laid off workers occupied their workplace and tried to run it as a co-op (a la Zanon), but I think it’s (a) not really on the cards given the current state of the class struggle and the severity of the coming recession, (b) far less practical and realistic than demanding improved redundancy packages (as in Derry and Poland) or no redundancies at all, and that given this it's (c) not something libertarian communists should be proposing as a strategy given as if we’re in a position to expropriate capital, co-operatives are a dead end for such militancy. I argued all this in my original article, and Iain still hasn’t explained why co-ops are a more realistic response to the crisis than struggles resisting cuts or demanding decent redundancy packages – the kind of struggles that are actually happening already.
Thus the problem is not how capital is managed, but that it is capital, regardless of who manages it or how democratically they do so. Quote-mining Marx does not change the fact that there is money in motion, returning with a surplus (M - C - M') - the assets of a co-op do not cease being capital when votes are taken on how they are used within a society of generalised commodity production and wage labour. That is to say there remains an imperative to accumulate with all the drive to minimise the labour time taken to do a task this requires, even in a co-op. This is why it is accurate to talk about self-managed exploitation. Iain disagrees, and it’s worth exploring this point further, because it cuts to the heart of just what the capitalist social relation is, and how to oppose it. He says that:
“As for “self-managed exploitation”, that is just confused. “Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase”, Key asserts but I disagree. He is confusing the fact market forces would still exist and rule workers' lives (and this is a serious objection) with capital/wage labour and so exploitation (in an anarchist or Marxist sense of expropriation of surplus by non-producers).”
A firm operating in a competitive market – as would certainly be the case with firms “about to go bust” - must generate enough surplus to re-invest in expanding output and new technology to maintain or improve its market position relative to its rivals. That is to say the firm - as a concentration of capital - has a logic of its own. It needs to be nourished by surplus living labour or it will whither and perish. As dead labour, it must vampire-like suck life from the living, and lives the more, the more it sucks. This is why it is "exploitation in an anarchist or Marxist sense" without "expropriation of surplus by non-producers", which is an unneccessary personification of social relations. The firm can have a logic of its own - expand or die - without there being a villain in a top hat and monocle sat atop it. This is the reality of running a business, and it exists independently of how that business is run (as a one-man private tyranny, a Plc or a co-op). Thus when I wrote that “many anarchists focus mainly on the vertical rule of workplace hierarchy” - I unwittingly anticipated Iain’s one-sided understanding of the capital relation. So when Iain writes…
“[Kay] argues that “capital rules social life” vertically “through the person of the boss” and horizontally “through market forces”, yet do I really need to point out that capitalism is a mode of production, not a mode of distribution? Markets existed before capitalism and a self-employed artisan working his own tools is not exploited by a capitalist.”
…he really makes my point for me. Within the prevailing capitalist mode of production, the abolition of the capitalist - that is, and individual personification of capital at the level of the firm - does not abolish the exploitation of labour by capital, that is by dead labour, which requires a surplus to sustain and expand it relative to its rivals, lest those rivals expand and swallow it up or force it out of business.
Thus by appealing to pre-capitalist artisan production to explain why co-ops under capitalism supposedly do not involve the exploitation of labour, it is Iain that is confused, and ahistorical to boot. He commits precisely the mistake I warned against of focussing on capital’s vertical rule though workplace hierarchy - the person of the boss – to the detriment of understanding the horizontal rule imposed by the market; the imperative to accumulate - that is to extract a surplus from living labour – that is inherent to any firm in capitalism, however it is managed. The fact the market is the main mechanism by which this imperitive is imposed does not make it a question of distribution; under capitalism production for the market, i.e. commodity production necessitates this dynamic of 'grow or die.'
Iain is right that “there is an anarchist tradition of making this kind of demand [for co-ops]” for precisely the reason that there is an anarchist tradition of myopically focussing on the hierarchical aspect of the capital relation to the detriment of the horizontal – and thus championing the bourgeois freedom of the market against the despotism of production, which is its necessary counter-point. Proudhon, Kropotkin et al at least had the excuse of not having the wealth of hindsight now afforded us in the early 21st century. No matter how eruditely Iain marshals his army of authorities, he doesn’t have the same excuse.1 The rallying cry “it is time to give economic liberty a go!” is precisely in this tradition – the tradition of 19th century small business socialism that was discredited both practically and intellectually long ago.2
So, having addressed the more substantive matters at issue, I feel I must now address some of the rather uncomradely accusations and misrepresentations with which Iain peppered his response. He asks:
"Is he seriously suggesting that workers, faced with the closure of their workplaces, should simply collect their P45s and head straight to the unemployment office? That the task of anarchists is not only to not suggest occupations but to oppose them. I am surprised that a member of the Solidarity Federation would resist suggestions to expropriate capital, to oppose calls for workers to occupy their workplaces"
This a ridiculous insinuation, and one (unsurprisingly) made without any quotation from my article. This is of course because nowhere do I oppose workers occupying their workplaces or propose workers “simply collecting their P45s.” If you doubt this, simply see what I wrote in my piece that Iain is purportedly responding to:
"we have to make concrete material demands; no to job losses, wage cuts, public service cuts and evictions"
I couldn’t really be any clearer than that – and Iain has the benefit of actually reading my article before responding, so there really is no excuse (our original articles were written 'blind', simultaneously). I would therefore appreciate him withdrawing this charge, because it makes it hard to have an honest discussion when you stand baselessly condemned for things precisely the opposite of what you actually said. Workplace occupations are indeed something I support, my argument is that demanding they be turned into co-operatives is misguided. Iain goes onto say:
"Perhaps it could be argued that expropriating workplaces in a non-revolutionary situation is a bad idea, yet why is it a non-revolutionary situation? Perhaps because workers are not expropriating their workplaces?"
Unfortunately this has all the logical rigour of suggesting the frost outside is caused by the low reading on the thermometer. Clearly ‘revolutionary situations’ are not created by the expropriation or workplaces so much as characterised by them. Revolutions are the high watermark of class struggle, and so the question becomes ‘how can we help increase the level of class struggle?’ This is a much more pressing question, since until some increase comes about, any demand we dream up is meaningless (I don’t pretend an increase in class struggle will only come about through us answering this question, but the question must be posed since we are workers being fucked over during this crisis and can only defend ourselves collectively).
To try and answer this question, the Brighton local of the Solidarity Federation has recently produced a pamphlet on anarcho-syndicalist strategy and organisation. We advocate trying to create networks of militants on a regional and industrial basis, who can encourage practices of solidarity, direct action and rank-and-file control amongst their workmates and the wider class. We think workers who agree with these principles should network with one another and produce propaganda advocating mass workplace meetings and collective, direct action. The demands we would argue for are concrete ones relating to our actual needs (against pay and job cuts, for income and job security, in case of redundancies happening anyway for improved pay-offs etc).
We would certainly include workplace occupations as an example of collective, direct action. But I would see it as a mistake to encourage workers to try take over businesses on the verge of going bust going into the worst recession since WWII, since even if the businesses could be turned around it would only be at massive extra effort in terms of unpaid overtime and the like – the kind of thing we would rightly resist if imposed by the boss, but have no choice about if imposed on self-employed co-ops by the market. Finally, I feel I must address one more point which belies two assumptions unbecoming of a libertarian communist. Iain writes:
"Is he seriously suggesting that (…) we should be indifferent when public (our!) money is used to bailout the muppets who got us into this crisis to begin with?"
Firstly, the identification of state funds with “our!” money (exclamation no less!) requires an embarrassing conflation of the population with the state. State funds raised by taxation are no more ‘ours’ than my boss’ Bentley is ‘mine’, because tax revenue represents the state's portion of the surplus value expropriated by the capitalist class.3 Of course taxes are more visible than other forms of surplus value, but they are no more ‘ours.’ The notion of ‘taxpayers money’ may have rhetorical advantage to populist orators, but it’s a staple of bourgeois ideology from George Galloway to David Cameron. I would expect anarchists to see through such naked conflation of the population and the state.
Secondly, it repeats the line of no less an exemplar of bourgeois ideology than the Prime Minister, that the bankers are to blame for the crisis.4 It’s not that there aren’t greedy or reckless bankers, but that any materialist, communist analysis of the crisis has to see through such populist scapegoating and look at the underlying causes of the crisis (I wrote a brief account here for Tea Break). Of course without such ‘irresponsible’ lending the economy wouldn’t have experienced the decade of steady credit-enabled growth on which Brown built his reputation, which once again demonstrates the vacuousness of the notion bankers “got us into this crisis.”
Thus in conclusion I feel Iain has failed to defend his assertion that co-operatives represent “a valid socialist alternative to bail-outs and nationalisation within the current crisis (...) a practical alternative for libertarians” Instead, he has misrepresented my objections and claimed - undoubtedly in continuity with some in the 'anarchist tradition' - that running your own business is a useful strategy in the class struggle. In doing so he has demonstrated several assumptions quite in line with bourgeois ideology; that the market represents a freedom worth fighting for, that state finances are 'our money' and that the crisis is all the fault of some banker 'muppets' and not rooted in the very contradictions of capitalist accumulation.
Therefore I maintain that a libertarian communist response to the crisis is one which increases the power, confidence and self-organisation of the class to demand the concrete things we want from capital, and not one which puts forward 'realistic' ways in which capital could be better managed (i.e. co-operatively instead of hierarchically); since capital cannot be managed in our interests it is pointless to try. A strategy of promoting co-ops and conflict in the 21st century would have as much to do with communism - the real movement asserting our needs against the present state of things - as nationalisation and conflict had in the 20th. We have to learn to stop trying to manage capital and instead try to fight it.
- 1Of all the logical fallacies one could expect from an anarchist, appeals to authority are perhaps the most ironic (“both Proudhon and Marx made clear”). I count Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx and Engels. More a phalanx than an army, I concede, but what bearing do the 19th century political strategies of dead celebrities have on the crisis today? This is not explained, we are expected to be wowed by their authority "were both Kropotkin and Engels advocating the ending of the working class as a 'potentially revolutionary class' and the end of 'class antagonism' when they suggested co-operatives as an alternative to nationalisation? I doubt it."
- 2Marx’s demolition of Proudhon springs to mind.
- 3For example income tax never enters a workers bank account and is paid directly from the employer to the state. A raise in income tax would attack wages in exactly the same way as a direct wage cut, only generalised across society. Both represent an increase in the value appropriated by the capitalist and an attack on the price of labour power, which if unresisted would result in a lower standard of living, i.e. reproduction of labour power at a reduced cost.
- 4Gordon Brown has said of city bankers that he’s “angry at irresponsible behaviour (…) where there is excessive and irresponsible risk-taking, that has got to be punished.”