Article about the state and ways that struggles by workers sometimes reinforce capitalism.
In 1935 the United States Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This Act is often credited by progressives with creating incredible new opportunities for the U.S. working class. The NLRA created a new regime of industrial relations in the U.S., but that change was less a matter of creating something new and was more a matter of further spreading practices that already existed. What the NLRA did is throw greater weight of the U.S. government behind a range of forms of workers' organizing and left room open for unions to define some of the specifics. In an article in the Industrial Worker newspaper, part of a debate about what some of us sometimes call "direct unionism", I dealt with aspects of this history.
The heart of the NLRA was about bringing to bear state power on employers, in a very limited way, with one main goal: greater stability for capitalism. One argument that supporters of the NLRA made was that state backing of workers organizing would result in redistribution of wealth into the pockets of more workers. This redistribution in turn would make for more consumers able to buy goods, thus encouraging economic activity. Another argument that supporters of the NLRA made was that the act would prevent more disruptive conflicts. In other words, the NLRA would channel and shape workers struggles in a direction that posed less of a problem than other forms of struggle.
Capitalists tend to have a good sense of their interests as employers. These terms aren't ideal but employer-consciousness arises organically from the social relationship of employment under capitalism. Many readers will be familiar with this but in case anyone isn't, generally speaking capitalists employ people to create goods or services which the capitalist own. The capitalists sell these goods or services for prices that are higher than the capitalists' costs. That is, they sell the good/service for more than the cost of the materials and the wages of the people who worked on those materials in order to produce the good/service sold. When workers work on something, we increase its value. We're not paid the full value of the increase we bring about, the capitalist keeps some or most of it. That difference - between the increase in value we bring about and the share we get in wages - is what Marx called surplus value. This is the heart of the profits capitalists make from workers. This is where capitalists get their wealth; this is what employers live on.
Capitalist employers have a sense that their employees produce surplus value and they act accordingly. If they don't, they face threats from the rest of the economy - a capitalist who pays higher wages than other capitalists who sell similar goods/services will, all things being equal, fall behind. If they don't become more competitive, they will go out of business. That's part of what I meant when I said that employer consciousness arises organically. If capitalist employers don't get enough surplus value from employees, they face penalties. These penalties help make employers relatively aware of their position as employers.
Awareness of the dynamics of being an employer is not the same thing as being a class conscious capitalist, however. Every capitalist is a capitalist in relation to his or her employees, but not every capitalist acts in ways that are favorable to the capitalist class as a whole or the long term life of the capitalist system. As an analogy, anyone who works for a living is in some way aware of the power relationships involved in being an employee but not all employees are class conscious workers. Workers sometimes act in ways that are bad for other workers or the working class as a whole. Similar things can happen with capitalists. Being a worker doesn't automatically provide working class consciousness. Likewise, being a capitalist doesn't automatically make someone a class conscious capitalist.
One of the roles of the state is to help identify needs for the current capitalist system and needs of the long term health of the capitalist system. I began with the National Labor Relations Board; the NLRA was part of an important set of institutional changes in U.S. capitalism. It involved challenges to many currently existing capitalists, and yet the changes were made in order to preserve the long term health of capitalism in the United States. The policymakers and economic planners who pushed for the NLRA opposed many capitalists but they did so in service to capitalism. The NLRA was an attempt to answer some problems within actually existing capitalism and to do so on capitalism's own terms.
This is part of the role of the state, not only to attempt to identify systemic needs but also to try to get capitalists to act in line with those perceived systemic needs. This can serve to create capitalist class consciousness or at least to discipline capitalists to act in ways that planners believe are good for capitalism. In some cases this can result in long term benefits to actually existing capitalists but in other cases it involves some businesses being put out of business and, eventually, some of them or their descendants being ejected out of the capitalist class. This is part of why capitalists hesitate in the face of state introduction of changes - no capitalist wants to lose. If they do so enough times, they or their children might have to actually work for a living… In the words of the historian of slavery Eugene Genovese, in his book Roll, Jordan, Roll:
"the great object of social reform is to prevent a fundamental change in class relations."
This means that reformers
"must fight against those reactionaries who cannot understand the need for secondary, although not necessarily trivial, change in order to prevent deeper change (…) reactionaries will insist that any change, no matter how slight, will set in motion forces of dissolution."
Sometimes capitalists oppose reform because they're reactionary ideologically; sometimes they do so because they believe that they will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the new version of capitalism that will exist after the reform.
The state is in part a mechanism for helping identify problems that are systemic – tied to the interests of the capitalist class as a whole – and a way to work out politically how to respond to the capitalists’ class interests. That is, visionary capitalists and their functionaries in foundations and think tanks can use the state to put forward proposals and communicate them to others to try to win them to this view. If that fails, with enough political support from other capitalists (and some workers, in many cases), particular parts of the capitalist class can get the state to do certain things, to discipline individual capitalists who aren’t acting in line with what is believed to be the capitalist class’s over all interests.
Individual capitalists or fractions of the capitalist class don't necessarily pursue the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. Often there is disagreement among the fractions of the capitalist class about what is the best course of action to pursue. That a given fraction is dominant does not mean it necessarily does what is best for the capitalist class, but usually the dominant fractions, and those who the state acts in service of, will believe they are doing what's best for capitalism over all. The dominant fraction can be wrong, though. For example of this is health insurance in the US. The only measure according to which 'our' healthcare/health insurance (non)system makes sense is that of the profits of insurers. The current non-system poses public health risks (which can become political and economic problems) - for many people it results in less preventive care, which is cheaper to provide than other forms of healthcare. So it causes worse health outcomes, which cause loss of economic productivity and more expensive health care. This arrangement also raises the costs of the same procedure in the US. By maintaining a very minimal floor - you can always get treatment in a hospital emergency room if you have an immediate healthcare problem - the system results in very large amount of public dollars going to healthcare, in addition the excessively high private healthcare and health insurance costs. These expenditures are inefficient from an over-all social perspective, however, even according capitalist logic, because the high expenditures purchase lower quality healthcare. This is not good for anyone except the insurers making money off of it. Some of the costs are passed onto employers (via unions, via market pressures - need to have a competitive benefits package for certain jobs, and via taxes), as well as causing conflicts with employees that could be avoided. This is a form of highly mediated inter-capitalist conflict with regard to who gets what share of the total surplus wealth extracted from workers (some companies have to pay what would otherwise be profits). Over all it's not good for US capitalism beyond insurers and a few others. That this arrangement continues demonstrates that changes in these arrangements stuff are not natural or built in to capitalism or predetermined, they're political. Those politics include the class struggle above all, but also political conflict among the capitalists.
Sometimes an individual capitalist or group of capitalists pursues things that are believed by the dominant capitalists to be detrimental to the capitalist class as a whole and and so they need to be brought in line. To quote Eugene Genovese again,
"The most advanced fraction of the slaveholders - those who most clearly perceived interest and needs of the class as a whole - steadily worked to make their class more conscious of its nature, spirit, and destiny. (…) For any such political center, the class as a whole must be brought to a higher understanding of itself - transformed from a class-in-itself, reacting to pressures on its objective position, into a class-for-itself, consciously striving to shape the world in its own image. Only possession of public power can discipline a class as a whole, and through it, the other classes of society. The juridical system may become, then, not merely an expression of class interest, nor even merely an expression of the willingness of the rulers to mediate with the ruled; it may become an instrument by which the advanced section of the ruling class imposes its viewpoint upon the class as a whole and the wider society. The law must discipline the ruling class."
Genovese is overly statist when he writes that "possession of public power" is a requirement, but he is right that state power plays this role in capitalism, in helping the capitalist class guide and discipline itself. Here's Genovese again:
"The slaveholders fell back on a kind of dual power: that which they collectively exercised as a class, even against their own individual impulses, through their effective control of state power; and that which they reserved to themselves as individuals who commanded other human beings in bondage. In general, this duality appears in all systems of class rule, for the collective judgment of the ruling class, coherently organized in the common interest, cannot be expected to coincide with the sum total of the individual interests and judgments of its members; first because the law tends to reflect the will of the most politically coherent and determined fraction, and second, because the sum total of the individual interests and judgments of the members of the ruling class generally, rather than occasionally, pulls against the collective needs of a class that must appeal to other classes for support at critical junctures."
The NLRA brought the power of the U.S. state to bear on U.S. employers as part of bringing capitalists into line with what policymakers and economic planners at the time thought were the interests of the capitalist system. In my article in the Industrial Worker I used these points as part of argument against the IWW pursuing collective bargaining. I suggested that state endorsement of collective bargaining ought to make us pause. At the same time, while collective bargaining was what economic planners preferred, there is another component to the National Labor Relations Act.
In addition to helping spread collective bargaining, the NLRA included language stating:
"Employees shall have the right of self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."
In the contemporary IWW in the U.S. some of us have advocated form of workplace organizing that go by a variety of names - solidarity unionism, minority unionism, direct unionism… These names track onto differences in practice but what all of these approaches have in common is that they fall into the legal category of "concerted activities." In the United States there is legal support for attempts to engage in collective bargaining (understood to include a union contract and a single exclusive bargaining agent in the form of a union), but there is also support for workers "self-organization (…) for the purpose of (…) mutual aid." What this means in practice is that in a non-unionized workplace one worker who complains about work conditions can be fired with impunity (part of a doctrine called at-will employment) but two workers who complain have gained a new sort of legal protection. Two or more workers who approach management to make changes at work have engaged in protected concerted activity. If an employee retaliates against them, the employees can file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, a charge called an Unfair Labor Practice. Now, American labor law at this point is weak and enforcement is poor, but the legal power brought to bear in cases of retaliation against two workers self-organizing to demand change at work is the same as that brought to bear in collective bargaining with recognized unions. Direct unionism can be just as legally protected as contractualism.
I can't speak to the actual historical origins of the legal language protecting some forms of workers' self-organization, but here are some reasons why I think this protection makes sense. One is about shaping the forms that workers' struggle take - concerted activity is not protected when it breaks the law: violence isn't protected, for example, nor is the seizure of employers' property. Protecting some activity over others is partly a way to encourage or channel workers' struggles into some forms instead of other forms. In addition, again to quote Genovese,
"The law (…) may compel conformity by granting each individual his right of private judgment, but it must deny him the right to take action based on that judgment when in conflict with the general will. (…) It appears mere egotism and antisocial behavior to attempt to go outside the law unless one is prepared to attack the entire legal system and therefore the consensual framework of the body politic."
That is to say, by allowing some measure of redress, labor law helps make workers' grievances a matter which can potentially be addressed within the capitalist system and under capitalist governments.
More fundamentally, though, I think the protection of concerted activity is about one of the same things that makes the state support collective bargaining: sometimes workers' struggles can help advanced class conscious capitalists and the state preserve capitalism. The state, by backing workers' struggles in some cases, bets on the potential power of those struggles to help capitalism. Workers' struggles can do so by helping discipline capitalists into acting in ways that support capitalism, or by helping identify practices that are particularly prone to creating social friction, and perhaps by helping identify potential solutions to those practices.
None of this is to say that struggle always reinforces capitalism. Nor is this to say that we should reject the call for 'direct unionism' because it sometimes fits into activity that the U.S. state recognizes as acceptable ('protected concerted activity'). Rather, the point is that those of us who are engaged in conversations about the form of workers' struggles, including so-called direct unionism and other efforts to avoid the traps of collective bargaining and other institutionalized forms of workers' struggles, we should have further discussion about a few things. One thing I think we should discuss further is the role of explicit, openly revolutionary political perspectives as part of our activity in struggle. (I discussed this to the best of my abilities in a discussion paper called Mottos and Watchwords. I think some of the reflections by Joseph Kay and other comrades in SolFed about what they call political-economic organizations are thought provoking on these themes as well.) Another is the connection between struggle over immediate conditions and the struggle to end capitalism. These are clearly connected, and yet it's not the case that all victory in any particular struggle over the terms of life and work under capitalism is also a victory that brings us closer to the end of capitalism. The third point is that I think we should talk more about the ways in which workers' struggles can sometimes be temporarily made to serve as a tool which some capitalists use to get an advantage over others and can sometimes be a source of innovations within capitalist institutions, innovations that strengthen the system and boost profits. Struggles and efforts can play this role even when strongly opposed by actually existing capitalists because capitalists, like workers, don't always believe in or act in accord with the interests of their class as a whole. That capitalists fight or fought hard in opposing a reform can sometimes make it seem like a given struggle or victory is more radical than it is. Fourth and finally, I think we should discuss what it means if and when we make use of state resources and enforcement provisions. In the United States in IWW campaigns we sometimes make tactical use of filing Unfair Labor Practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. There is much to be said about problems that can result from this. Among the potential problems one might be that we inadvertently encourage the view that the current system can accommodate workers' grievances. Use of the NLRB to file ULP charges doesn't necessarily reinforce capitalism or bad ideas among workers, but it might if we do it wrong. We should discuss better and worse ways to make use of this aspect of state power against employers.