Workers’ Liberation and Institutions of Self-Management

[This is a reply to the article “We Are More than We Eat” by Odessa Steps in The Northeastern Anarchist #10. These articles are part of a debate on participatory economics at http://nefac.net/en/taxonomy/term/28.]


We live under a system with a series of oppressions woven together: domination and exploitation of workers by elite classes of owners, managers and professionals; a system of gender inequality that disadvantages women; a racial hierarchy that places people of color at the bottom; oppression of gay people by a rigid heterosexist culture. And over it all, protecting elite interests, is a top-down state apparatus, not really controllable by the people even in so-called "democratic countries."


It doesn’t have to be this way. Humans have the capacity to control their own lives. We can think ahead and develop plans of action, to self-manage our own activity. This is the human potential for self-management. In the plans that we might develop, inspired by our own aspirations, many of the activities would inevitably require the help of others or involve common work for common benefit. Through communication and the back-and-forth process of giving each other reasons for proposed courses of action, we have the ability to coordinate and cooperate with each other, to self-manage together. In fact humans have not only the potential but the need to self-manage their own activities, to fulfill their goals through activities they plan out and control themselves. 


But in both the capitalist and Communist countries, working people are forced to work to fulfill the plans of others, exploited for the benefit of elites. This is the denial of our human need for self-management. As class struggle anti-authoritarians, we propose to replace the existing systems of domination by a new arrangement that gives people free scope to develop their potential for self-management, to control their lives. Not only in social production but in all spheres of life. In what follows I focus mainly on eliminating the class system. We need to keep in mind that class is not the whole story about oppression.


What Creates Class Oppression?


What creates the division into classes? The property system within capitalism is one source. A small investor class owns buildings, land, equipment, etc. This class has a monopoly over the means of producing the things we all require to live our lives. The rest of us are forced to sell the use of our working capacities to their firms, to work under structures of domination that profit the owners. Marx views capitalist society as mainly a dynamic opposition based on ownership, a conflict between labor and capital. But in reality there is a second structural basis for class division that emerged in mature capitalism, generating a third major class.


At the beginning of the 20th century large corporations coalesced. These firms had sufficient resources to attempt a systematic redesign of jobs and production processes, attacking the autonomy and job control exercised by workers under traditional craft methods.  “Efficiency experts” like Frederick Taylor advocated concentration of conceptualization and detailed control over decision-making in the hands of a hierarchy that would take control off the shop floor.


The period between the 1890s and the 1920s saw the growth of a new class of professional managers, engineers and other expert advisors to management. I call this the coordinator class. The expansion of the state in the 20th century also contributed to the growth of this class. Ventures had grown too large, and the political economy too complex, for the investor class to run everything itself. It was forced to concede a realm of power to the coordinator class.


The social power of the coordinator class is not based on ownership of productive assets but on a relative monopolization of empowering conditions — control over their own work and over the work of others. Engineers participate in the control of workers when they design software or physical plant in ways that enhance management control. Lawyers help to maintain labor subordination when they help to break unions or defend the legal interests of the corporation. Managers track and direct our work.


Thus, the ability of the capitalists to appropriate wealth through their ownership of means of production is not the only systematic rip-off of the working class under capitalism.  Capitalism systematically under-develops the potential of workers to develop skills, to learn from controlling our work, and to run the economy ourselves. Decision-making, expertise and control over the conditions of work of others is appropriated as the possession of the coordinator class.


Moreover, the coordinator class has the potential to be a ruling class. This is the historic meaning of the Leninist revolutions. These revolutions eliminated the capitalist class but created a new class system, based on public ownership of the means of production, corporate-style divisions of labor, and the preservation of income inequality. The working class continued to be a subjugated and exploited class.


Coordinator class rule flows from the strategic and programmatic commitments of Leninism. The idea of a “vanguard party” is that it concentrates expertise and manages popular movements, eventually capturing control of a state apparatus and then implementing its program top-down through the state.


Odessa’s organization, the British Anarchist Federation (AF), doesn’t “see” the coordinator class. Odessa and the AF lack a program aimed at dissolving its class power.


Participatory economics (parecon) includes a number of structural elements to ensure liberation of workers:


·         Institutions for the self-management of industry are based on the direct democracy of assemblies in the workplaces.


·         To avoid market competition, social production is governed by a social plan that is crafted directly by workers and residents of communities, through individual, workgroup and community proposals, articulated through a federative system of workplace and neighborhood assemblies.


·         The buildings, land, equipment, and so on of the entire system of social production are owned in common by the entire society. Production resources are allocated only to self-managing worker production groups through a socially controlled planning process.


·         Workers would be empowered to design their jobs to ensure that there wouldn’t be a concentration of empowering tasks and responsibilities into the hands of an elite. All jobs involve both some of the physical work of production and some of the conceptual or control or skilled work. This is called job balancing. Job balancing would be controlled by the mass democratic worker organizations and its purpose is to protect workers against the emergence of a coordinator elite.


·         Income would not be based on ownership of assets or power in a corporate-style hierarchy. Able-bodied adults would earn a share of the social product for private consumption based on their effort in socially useful work.


Odessa rejects the job-balancing proposal:


“Suppose instead of trying to create equal jobs we start from the assumption that people are (socially) equal.”


But how do people become socially equal? And what structures do we need in society to secure this social equality?