The Social Factory - Cleveland Modern Times Group

Social Factory graphic

A useful introductory essay from 1974 on the autonomist idea of the social factory.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 13, 2024


The following article was written in September, 1974. For many of us, it was a turning point. We had recently dissolved our political group, Modern Times, an independent left organization in Cleveland, Ohio. Like many other collectives of the era, we had emerged from the student, anti-war and women's movements and our politics had been shaped by those experiences and the wave of black and other community struggles of the '60s. Through the student, anti-war and women's movements, we had tested the limits of our power and felt the need for a base bigger than ourselves, ‘the working class’.

Again like many of our peers, we left the universities or the 'movement' and went out looking for the working class. Where was it? In the factory? In the community? In the offices? In the army? We were essentially libertarian—anti-vanguardist, anti-trade union, anti-left dogma and devoted to developing theory from practice on a local level. We did not see the necessity of an international perspective. We had failed to grasp the meaning of the struggles of the '60s. We had failed to see our connection with the rest of the working class and we had failed to see the working class, black, white and 'other', working in the community and in the 'workplace', divided by the wage or lack of it.

We knew what we were against, but we did not know what we were for. We knew the community was important but were not sure why. We knew we had to organize women but didn't know how. We concentrated on 'workplace organizing' because we thought that was where the power lay. Our ‘practice' did not lead to ‘theory'. But it did lead us to discover that not to understand how to organize in the community meant not to understand how to organize in the factory. Not to understand how to organize the power of women meant not to understand how to organize any sector of the working class.

We were politically bankrupt and we dissolved Modern Times in the spring of 1974. Some of us, however, were beginning to understand the wages for housework perspective and its implications for the entire working class. This understanding transformed our view of the class struggle and allowed us to break from our past, break from left politics, both libertarianism and vanguardism. The dissolution of Modern Times freed us to make that transformation and the writing of ‘The Social Factory' several months later marks the transition. 'The Social Factory' documents our break with the left and we hope it will help others to do the same. Although our understanding has gone beyond the article, we have chosen to print it as originally written.

For most of us in Modern Times, 'The Social Factory' also represents our last effort in the context of a mixed men and women's organization. Although Modern Times had been dissolved several months before the article's writing, at the time it was important to speak in the name of the organization. Many of us are now in the Wages for Housework network and are helping to organize an international campaign for the wage. As part of an autonomous movement of women, we can finally speak for ourselves.

There are two points which we cannot leave without comment. The first was the failure to make clear that the document could not have been written without the wages for housework perspective. That perspective allowed us to see the power struggle within the working class and the need for the autonomous organization of various sectors.1 It enabled us to begin with the unwaged labour of women and, through that, see the unwaged labour of the rest of the working class. It allowed us to understand the 24-hour working day of the international working class and the need to struggle on that level. This is the debt that the whole movement owes to revolutionary feminism. The second error to be noted here appears in the second paragraph of the article. We then believed that we lacked a national perspective; we did not yet understand that what we lacked was an international one. The Wages for Housework network sees the need for an international perspective and strategy because we recognize the level of power we need in order to confront capital. Our international solidarity is neither based on moralism nor restricted to words. We are beginning to understand the implications of an international perspective because we have no other way to understand our local situation. We are beginning to organize internationally because we have no other way to win.

The truth of this became much clearer to a few of us since we moved to Los Angeles, California. Undocumented workers2 from Mexico are continually brought into the United States and primarily into the Southwest. They are forced to come to the U.S. because their alternative is starvation in Mexico. They have been used as strike-breakers against the United Farmworkers and work under the worst conditions because their employers, who knowingly use them in the fields, factories and domestic service, threaten them with deportation. At the same moment that Mexican workers are slipped into the country with Uncle Sam looking the other way, Mexican women are being sterilized against their will in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Women in labour, women under sedation, Women who speak no English, are being compelled to sign consent forms. Capital plans internationally: who will receive a wage and who will not, who will work in factories and who will breed children, who will be denied abortion and who will be sterilized, who will live and who will be allowed to starve. The conditions of our lives are determined by the needs of capital internationally. The wages for housework perspective not only shows how capital plans in order best to exploit our labour power internationally, it points the way to defeating capital's plans. Wages for Housework means wages for everything we do; it means developing the power to refuse all the work we do for capital, whether it consists of turning screws on an assembly line, washing dishes or quietly dying in a corner. Wages for Housework means to struggle for what we need and to develop our power to get it. In other words, it means to defeat capital.

Beth Ingber
4403/4 North Lake Street
Los Angeles, California 90026

The Social Factory

Many of us in the independent left have reached a point of re-evaluation. We have found our political perspective and organizing inadequate and sometimes irrelevant to the needs and activities of the working class. And yet we have found ourselves unable to integrate our collective practice and maintain a national discussion from which could emerge new perspectives.

Our lack of political clarity and development on both a national and local level contributed greatly to the dissolution of Modern Times. For example, we in Modern Times came to doubt the viability of our primary organizing perspective: the ‘mass revolutionary organization at the workplace'. To the extent that such organizations are possible, how are they essentially different from trade unions? In what way are they capable of going beyond the limitations of the factory? But although our own experience made us doubt our original organizing perspectives, we were not able to posit alternatives which might have helped us move forward.

Our inability to move forward left us in a political limbo. Four members of the former Modern Times collective reacted by retreating to traditional left politics based on class struggle trade unionism (for example, the politics of I.S.). The majority of us reject these politics.

Perhaps at a future time, it would be useful for us to present a direct critique of traditional left politics. We feel, however, that at this point, there are more urgent matters. We would like to present an alternative perspective on the class struggle, one which we hope will help us go beyond our former limitations. Although these ideas are still in embryonic form, we feel they point in new and important directions.

What is the working class?

We begin with the question: what is the working class? The answer is generally posed by the left as follows: the working class is the industrial proletariat, i.e. the blue collar workers. Sometimes the working class is stretched to include non-industrial waged workers—white collar workers, nurses, etc. Outside the working class, there are 'the rest of the people'—blacks, women, prisoners, gay people, students, the unemployed, welfare mothers, schizophrenics and cripples.

This is essentially capital's definition. There are productive workers on the one hand, and on the other, there are the social problems who are a drain on the 'society'. The left picks up on this analysis and develops it further by designating the productive workers as exploited and the rest as oppressed. Productive workers are sometimes defined by their position in industrial production, and sometimes simply in terms of their being waged or not.

This view of the working class reflects a failure to understand that modern capitalist society is a factory—a social factory—the whole of which functions to reproduce capital in an ever-expanding form.3

In the social factory the state more and more plans the utilization of our labour, always with the view toward the maximum profitability on the social level. When capital decides to cut inflation by creating more unemployment, the unemployed are functioning to expand capitalist profits. When capital needs women's labour power off the market, both their unwaged labour in the home and their ‘unemployment' are productive to capital. When it is more profitable to capital to keep the elderly off the labour market, they are thrown into the junk heap of social security.

The working class, then, cannot be defined in terms of its productivity on the individual factory level, nor can it be defined according to whether or not it is waged labour. The productivity of the working class exists on the level of the social factory and the role of some of us in that factory may be to be unemployed.

Employed or not, we spend 24 hours a day working for capital in the social factory. Waged labourers spend their remaining hours 'after work' reproducing themselves to return to work. Eating, sleeping, drinking, movies, screwing are all essential work which we do in order to be prepared for the next day's labour. These same functions are perhaps even more essential for the 'unemployed' so they will not turn their violence against capital.

Women's labour is central to the social factory. Aside from providing a cheap labour force which can be returned to the home with relative ease, women bear the burden of bringing up the next generation of workers and feeding, clothing and comforting their men so they can return to another day's labour. They also have to manage the family budget in the face of inflation. All this is unwaged labour for capital.

One reason that it has been so difficult to see the working class is that some labour is waged and some unwaged. For example, the unemployed, welfare mothers and the elderly receive social welfare which disguises their role in the social factory. The amount of money the unwaged receive generally depends on two elements: the minimum required to reproduce labour power—their own and their children's—and the amount of power they have or can threaten to exercise.

There are many levels of power within the unwaged sector. Unemployed youth have more power and can demand more money than invalids—not only because their labour power is potentially more valuable to capital, but because black youth can threaten to burn down the cities.

As a whole, the unwaged have less power than the waged, their wageless state being both a cause and effect of their powerlessness. There is, however, an overlap. Domestic workers have been known to earn less than the unemployed!4

The division between the waged and unwaged

The division between the waged/unwaged is one of capital's strongest weapons against us. Perhaps the most obvious way this division is used is in the creation of the 'reserve army of labour', which is an international army. To the extent that there is a large group of unemployed competing for the same jobs, wage levels are depressed. This function of unemployment is being challenged by the working class. Many young workers have refused to accept low-paying or distasteful jobs and prefer welfare or hustling.

A second and related use of this division is the turning of the waged and unwaged against each other. Wage labourers are invited to join in an attack on welfare recipients who are supposedly causing higher taxes. Since a disproportionately high percentage of the unemployed are non-white, this encourages white racism.

A third use made of this division is to divide the working class in its loyalties. It is difficult for waged and unwaged workers to see an identity in their class interests. When welfare women fight for more money, auto workers don't easily see that as a wage struggle which should be supported like any other.

The division between waged and unwaged is used very effectively against women whose work in the home is only beginning to be recognized as work. Particularly because of the central role of women in reproducing the working class, both in terms of raising children and keeping men going and ready to work, men could easily see a struggle of women for wages and a shorter workday as a threat to them and not as a legitimate workers' struggle.

In reality, the wageless and powerless condition of housewives and other sectors of the working class is both the strength and weakness of the more organized sectors of the class. The wageless position of the wife gives a power to the husband. Skilled workers and highly organized mass workers have maintained a position of power against capital and within the class because they can demand concessions from capital, the cost of which is borne by the less organized sectors. If auto workers strike for higher wages, the price of cars will go up and that higher price is borne primarily by those sectors of the class that are not in a position of power to demand commensurate wages. That includes lower-paid workers as well as the unwaged.

On the other hand, the wageless condition of vast numbers of workers weakens the struggles of the more organized in the ways outlined earlier. The ability of industry to move south or out of the country in the face of high wage demands is an example of this. (This in no way implies, however, that as industry moves, the working class in the newly developing areas won't increase its own struggle. On the contrary, capital's inability to control the working class is international.)

Waged women have keenly felt the effects of the wageless state of their sisters. Women have been compelled to accept low-paying jobs because their only alternatives are to be a wageless wife or a welfare recipient.
Another example of the way the wageless condition of some weakens all would be found by looking at an auto worker in his family situation where the wageless condition of his wife means that his wage is not only expected to reproduce himself but his entire family.

The same kind of dynamic clearly applies within the waged sector of the working class. Capital is more willing to give in to demands of the more organized sectors if the cost can be passed on to the less organized. But in the same way, the powerlessness of any sector of the class weakens the whole working class. Perhaps a classic example of this dynamic is the South African auto worker, where the white workers earn enormously higher wages than the blacks, yet their wages are far lower than auto workers' in the U.S.

The trade unions both express and promote the division between the waged and unwaged sectors, as well as within the waged sector itself. Al-though one's relationship to the union in a particular workplace must be a tactical question, developing trade union struggles as the prime emphasis cannot be a revolutionary strategy since it neither relates to the activity of working class militants, nor does it challenge the division of labour and power within the class.

Power struggle within the class

The explosions of the '60s, such as among blacks, women, welfare recipients, students etc., can now be seen in a different light. These were not 'oppressed minorities' struggling against discrimination. They were sectors of the working class struggling for power. They represent not only a struggle against capital but also a power struggle within the working class.

The working class is continuously redefining itself through its own activity. When the black community demanded more money, it clearly raised the point that if blacks were unemployed, it was because capital wanted them unemployed. This is both a demand for wages for unemployment and a struggle for power. The recent unionization and wage struggles of hospital and clerical workers is another instance of a sector of the class demanding recognition as workers and developing power within the class. Prisoners have struck as well to demand union wages and recognition as workers.

These workers are making clear their relation to the productive process—to the social factory—a relation which has been mystified for so long. And they are challenging the position of the more powerful layers of the male industrial working class, just as the mass industrial workers challenged the skilled workers in the '30s.

An understanding of this power struggle within the working class as well as against capital must be the departure point for revolutionary strategy, for it is only through this struggle that the working class can unite itself and increase its power as a class. This whole dynamic applies on the international level as well. Any increase in the strength of the international working class strengthens the position of the national working class.

In the Portuguese 'coup' it was the struggle in the colonies in conjunction with increasing strike activity in Portugal which forced the capitalist class to loosen the reins in the metropolis—Portugal. But Portugal is a kind of third world to the more advanced capitalist countries. And it is the increasingly acute class struggle in Portugal which is preventing international capital from continuing to use Portugal as an escape from the class struggle in the rest of Europe and the United States; i.e. it is the strength of the Portuguese class struggle which will strengthen the working class in the metropolis.

To locate the vanguard of the working class in the already more powerful or more easily organized sectors of the class is to base one's strategy on the divisions within the class rather than on their destruction. To base a revolutionary strategy on the trade unions is to base one's strategy on an even narrower layer within the working class—that layer which is still willing to channel its energy through the unions—mainly some white males.

Disrupting the social factory

Our strategy is to disrupt the social factory, to develop the power of the class as a whole so that it can choose to act according to its own needs, and not those of capital; to withhold its labour, to refuse its function in the social factory, to destroy capital's plans. To do this, a strategy must attack the divisions within the working class, divisions among waged workers, and between the waged and unwaged. The capitalist-defined division between the workplace and the community must also become irrelevant. Our whole lives are integrated into the social factory and we do and must resist on that level.

This strategy does not envision all sectors of the working class subsuming their needs under a general program which would of necessity reflect the interests of the already more powerful layers within the class. It seeks to develop the power of all sectors of the class so that unity can be built on the basis of the power each sector could offer the others. That is the meaning of autonomous organization of different sectors of the class. Women, for example, must organize autonomously, not only because men cannot express women's needs or develop women's politics, but because women must develop their power within the working class.

The struggles of the wageless are crucial. Money demands by the unwaged are a direct attack on the waged/unwaged division. They are also extremely subversive in that they allow workers to make the choice to refuse to work for capital. As long as we are unemployed for the benefit of capital's profits, we are working in the social factory. When we begin to find ways to disrupt capital's plan for how many and who are to be unemployed, we are sub-verting the social factory.

Women need wages for housework. Women in the home, whether or not employed outside the home as well, are providing up to 24 hours a day unwaged labour. This is not only a source of weakness for women but for the whole working class. Women must struggle for power against capital and within the working class, for the recognition of their labour, a shortening of the workday, services provided by capital, and money.

Wages for Housework would fundamentally disrupt the social factory. Capital could no longer expand on the backs of an unwaged female population. Housework would have to be revolutionized if it were paid hourly. And women would have the choice of refusing to be pushed into the second job, outside the home, whenever it suited capital.

If much of this appears to neglect those highly organized and powerful workers in, for instance, auto and steel, we wish to make it clear that this is not the case. At the time of writing we are on the brink of a miners' strike which could easily change the whole character of the class struggle in this country. If, as happened in Britain, the miners defeat the government, they will have made it clear to all those less powerful that the government can be defeated. They will have raised the level of expectation of all other waged workers and made the gap between the waged and unwaged even more glaring.5
The fight between the miners and government is a critical one because both the size and the nature of the miners' demands challenge capitalist planning and disrupt the social factory. The size of the demand makes a mockery of capitalist wage policy; and the nature of the demands (e.g. $500 (£250] a month pension after 20 years with the union rather than with any particular company) will allow workers to stop working at 40.

This already begins to go beyond the factory gates. We are beginning to decide when, and under what conditions, we are going to be on the labour market. The large-scale unemployment which seems to be in store for us can be met in a similar fashion. We must make it clear that it's the money we're interested in, not more jobs. Sub pay6 in auto and steel is already a realization of this demand.

These points hardly begin to indicate what kind of struggles could be developed with the perspective we are putting forth. This whole discussion has of necessity been very schematic. Many other elements could have been explored, like the false dichotomy between economic and political struggles—a dichotomy which leads one into being a good trade union militant at work and a 'revolutionary Marxist' in the party. But hopefully this will do for a start, to open up some needed discussion.

We do not pretend to have everything figured out. But confusion is something that we may have to live with until our practice and the activity of the working class will clarify many things. We cannot allow our inability to answer all questions to cause us to return to more comfortable, traditional approaches.

Beth, Bob, Joe, John, Kathy, Michael C., Paula, Rick, Sam, Sidney

November, 1974

  • 1 For this and a great deal more, we are indebted to Selma James's Sex, Race and Class, originally published in Race Today and since republished as a pamphlet by Falling Wall Press and Race Today Publications, February 1975.
  • 2Workers who have entered the country 'illegally' and have no work permit.
  • 3The functioning of the social factory is more and more under the direct management of a constantly expanding state. The institutions which comprise the modern capitalist state attempt to both absorb our struggles and organize our exploitation. Universities, social workers, town planners and prisons, for example, plan and attempt to carry out the absorption of social revolt. Economists, trade unions, the army and the media either plan or function to facilitate the regulation of our labour and consumption. Through taxation, the state accumulates large chunks of capital which are necessary for economic planning. The defense industry is expanded or shrunk. Injections are given to near bankrupt industries to prevent social dislocation (for example the $200 million given to Lockheed to prevent bankruptcy). The economy is inflated, deflated. stagflated.
  • 4Just as there is a continuum of power within the unwaged sector and between the waged and unwaged, there are two continua of power within the waged sector. One is the continuum among industries: steelworkers in general have more power and earn higher wages than agricultural workers. Labour which is an extension of housework—hospital work, clerical and domestic labour, etc.—is low on the scale. Some power is based on skill and restricted union membership, as in the construction industry—a situation maintained by the trade unions. On the other hand, the power of mass industrial workers is based on organized struggle—struggles which gave birth to industrial unionism. The other continuum of power within the waged sector exists within each industry. Again this may be based on skill or degree of organization. Certain sectors of the population are clearly over-represented in the bottom layers of these continua. Women, blacks, chicanos, immigrants ... the list could go on of the more powerless sectors of the class which are either unwaged or concentrated in poorly paid or dangerous jobs. Racism has been a tool to keep non-whites in this powerless position.
  • 5The government was attempting to put a ceiling on wage settlements, hoping they would be somewhere in the region of 5%. With a declared inflation rate of 12.5% in the U.S., this would have meant an enormous defeat for the working class. By the time the miners' strike took place, in early November 1974, steel workers had already had a wage increase of 14% rammed down their throats in exchange for a no strike clause lasting until 1980. The miners, on the other hand, were dealing from a position of strength, having just won a series of wildcat strikes against the mining companies and the state government over questions of safety, the right to take time off, and buy petrol whenever they wanted it [in defiance of rationing during the 'oil crisis'] . The government, perhaps with an eye to what had taken place in Britain a few months before, decided this was not to be a test case and the miners were given much of what they asked for after only about 5 weeks. The gains were estimated at about 54%. Pensions jumped from $150 to $375 per month (about £190). They won company paid disability insurance of £47 a week for up to one year, and a cost of living escalator which will cover about 60% of the rise in the cost of living. Wages were increased by 9% and will increase by 3% in each of the two subsequent years (from an average of £24 per day to £28). While it is clear that the strike did not in fact radically alter the class conflict, in part at least because the government refused the challenge, a settlement of this size can-not but have some long term consequences. Already Ford has had to invoke Taft-Hartley [a law postponing a strike against the 'national' interest] against the railway workers who are demanding a package of similar proportions.
  • 6A benefits system under which a laid-off worker from one of the big auto makers receives 95% of his base take home pay. He must have at least one year's seniority. But the money comes from a Fixed fund, which is contributed to on the basis of the number of workers working at any given time. Because so many autoworkers are on lay off now, the fund at both Chrysler and G.M. has already been exhausted. Workers are back to living on regular state compensation (which varies from $35 [£18] per week in Texas to $95 [£48] per week in New York).