The following is a translation of “Chapter 4” of Carlos Taibo’s Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Self-Management, Autonomy (La Catarata, Madrid, 2013). We have already translated and posted the “Prologue” and the “Chapter 1″ of this work (Click here), “Chapter 2” (Click here) and “Chapter 3” (Click here). And we hope to continue in what will be the complete translation of the book. In this way we hope to share with English readers the work of one of the most significant anarchist voices today in spain.
Chapter 4: Capitalism, Class Struggle, Self-Management
I have already noted that though all of the ills which burden us were not created by capitalism, a good part of these are certainly its product. Only with great difficulty then could it be surprising that anarchism, which is for good or ill contemporaneous with the industrial capitalism of the 19th century, in its doctrinal dimension, had always assumed an inevitable collision with capital and its interests. It is a relatively simple task to identify what anarchist theorists consider as specific to capitalism: exclusion and exploitation, inequality and marginalisation and, above all, the order of private property. Before such a pernicious social system, which may nevertheless be individually gratifying, collectivist and communist anarchists – that is, the majority – call for the expropriation, first, and the socialisation, after, of property as the sign of a revolution commonly referred to as social, and not merely political. Let it not be forgotten that, when in their villages and towns libertarian communism was declared, the libertarians of Aragon of the 1930s would first burn the property registries.
Beyond what has already been said, libertarian thought concludes that there is no possibility whatsoever of autonomy and self-management under capitalism, which logically then implies exiting from it. To do so, in the end, does not necessarily call for any deterministic schema as proposed by the mature Marx, nor does it require urgently one or other elements: “I have repeated on many occasions that socialism is possible and necessary regardless of the economy or technology; it is not linked to the large industry of the global market, and has little need of the industrial and commercial technology of capitalism.” (Gustave Landauer) (1) In conformity with this perspective, history is made on the basis of a combination of conditions and will, but the first in no way establishes anything firm, inevitable or indubitable.
The Class Struggle
The dispute over capitalism is, in one of its principal dimensions, the dispute over the class struggle. Today, as the struggle led by the ruling class has attained a singular intensity, a reflection on what those from below mobilise or should mobilise, imposes itself. And it imposes itself because often the class struggle has itself become an icon whose meaning gives rise to little more than disagreements and differences.
The first reflection with regard to it must inevitably be about the working class. I confess that I am suspicious of both those who believe that the working class has been diluted to the point of nothingness – that it is an artefact of the past – and those who fail to discern any relevant changes in the condition of this class. If the first of these attitudes usually ends in a vague citizenshipist [*] impulse, the second usually translates into the sterile repetition of old slogans and nonsense. In the last decades, we have witnessed a certain decomposition of traditional classes that gave light to differentiated manifestations often in tension with each other. The phenomenon is obvious in the case of the working class, fragmented by various factors, among which unemployment, precariousness, underemployment, part-time employment and the weight of the underground economy. In virtue of a parallel process, there are many experts who identify in the traditional working class, or in what remains of it, a position of relative privilege that is at the origin of conservative behaviour and which pushes it to confront sub-proletarians and lumpen-proletarians who are ever more severely punished. Among these same experts, though marginally, there is no shortage of those who consider as distinct the labouring classes and the working classes. But who falls within the first of these categories, the more general of the two? As Holloway asks, would Marx and Engels, the peasants of Chiapas, feminists, activists of homosexual movements, the police, belong to this category?(2) Is it useful, in the end, to reduce the labouring classes to the urban proletariat that works in factories, knowing full well that it is an increasingly less numerous human group?
If we assume, and probably little remains but to do so, that the working class is not the unquestionable subject that suffers exploitation, nor that class which leads emancipation, it would nevertheless be a mistake to forget that it is still with us. How could we abandon the contestation in the work world? When we speak of self-management, we fundamentally think of, logically and without excuse, factories and companies (though, also, evidently, of other instances). The existence, in sum, of problems with the reality of the revolutionary subject can in no way translate into forgetting what the world of the working class presupposes, as it likewise can in no way justify the conclusion that no attention should be given to what happens to those who are de-classified, lumpenised or those made precarious.
The libertarian perspective to a certain degree outlines historically the basis for a broadening of views that is called for by any serious reflection on the terms of the contemporary class struggle. I would emphasise that for Marx, primitive societies and their contemporary consequences – peasants, for example – refer to a social evolution that is already closed, and consequently, they can play no active role in the awaited for revolution. This is not a perception shared by the majority of anarchist thinkers, who see in the peasantry, in particular, an attachment to the land and a laudable capacity for cooperation and mutual aid. What reveals itself behind this controversy is a well-known fact: if Marx seems to have believed in the proletariat as the unique revolutionary subject because in parallel he believed in large industry, in technological development and in what cities signified, his anarchist contemporaries – beyond putting into question the virtues of all of these elements – embraced a more complex reality in which participated segments of the middle classes, peasants and lumpen-proletariat, in an amalgam within which should also be given consideration, in addition to the proletariat, those more heavily abused.
I emphasise that this in no way suggests that anarchist thinkers of the 19th century failed to heed the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. The distorting and reductionist vision of anarchism as a petit-bourgeois and artisans movement with a difficult – or very easily – identifiable class position must be contested. Not even the work of Proudhon, which is the lure most often used to justify this vision, serves this claim in a convincing way. What these thinkers do – I will repeat – is give value to the revolutionary potential of other human groups, in addition to the proletariat. And the argument most often expressed in this regard is that which refers to the already mentioned and very significant role that has been played by the peasantry in the revolutionary processes of the last century and a half – for example the agrarian rebellions in many colonised countries – and this despite their disqualification by Marx, always engaged in depicting them as idiots and reactionaries. Jean Giono pointed out, for example, that Stalin had lowered the condition of the peasants so as to make of them workers, instead of raising the condition of the workers so as to transform them into natural men, like the peasants. (3) There is equally no good reason to accept, on the one hand, the Marxist disqualification of the lumpen-proletariat, commonly described by the German thinker as a mere collection of antisocial beings. And Marx does not seem to have gotten matters right, on the other hand, in his prognostics relative to the changes and conduct of the very proletariat. There are many examples of how some of the longer and more militant working class struggles preserved a relationship, in the end, with the fact that their protagonists continued to live a part of their lives, or of their economic life, in the neighbouring countryside, in a scenario in which the limits between the urban and the rural blur. In his writings, Murry Bookchin suggested that amid many of the first proletariat it was easy to discern the healthy ascendancy of the pre-capitalist and peasant world from which they emerged. (4)
It is not an easy matter to explain this thing that is citizenshipism, a concept that perhaps can be grasped in different ways. The first emphasises its opposition to what, rightly or wrongly, has often been called workerism [“obrerismo”]. Citizenshipism would postulate a series of rights that would benefit all citizens in general, in such a way that any element linked to the class struggle would tend to find it difficult to accommodate itself to the corresponding project. It would be essentially a proposal articulated by people clearly integrated into the logic of the system and as such they would aspire to little more than a civilised management of it. A second account of it, closely associated with the first, considers that citizenshipism, content to question some specific elements of the reality that we endure, would oppose itself fundamentally to any frank contestation of the system as a whole.
How has the question of citizenshipism in many of the contemporary social movements – understanding these in a broad way – manifested itself? I must first note that among them are those who exhibit a clear citizenshipist frame of reference and there are those, by contrast, that distance themselves from it. There is also no shortage of organisations in which co-exists, often in a conflictual manner, people who place themselves within citizenshipism and others who do so in the active opposition to the system. To describe social movements as a reality captivated by citizenshipism is therefore as equivocal as making them out to be examples ontologically committed to radical contestation.
I will note secondly that behind the many debates follows the already referred to dispute relative to the class struggle. Whoever believes in this last as the central element for the articulation of emancipatory projects cannot close their eyes to – and I repeat arguments already used – the significant changes registered in the scenarios that we have inherited from the past. The principal argument reminds us that many of the characteristics that defined the traditional working class have been diluted, with many of those who belong to this class, with reformist labour unionism as an active collaborator, having assumed the rules of the system with docility. New issues and subjects have also appeared, or consolidated themselves – the natural environment, women, to cite two examples – which force a rethinking of strategies and tactics, and which do not necessarily call for a citizenshipist proposal; many of the most profound contestations to contemporary capitalism have arisen precisely from feminism and ecology. In this sense, it would be as problematic to forget these issues and subjects, as it would be to throw aside the ever present legacy of workers struggles, an option even more disturbing when many of the characteristics of the class struggles of the past are reappearing.
On a third level is the debate over the material and the post-material. Without the least intention to provide a canonical definition, I will affirm that the first refers to labour and social relations, and salaries, and abides by the satisfaction of what should be understood as – the matter is more difficult than it appears – what are basic necessities. The second emerged, by contrast, once these necessities were met and would respond to the aim of effectively satisfying our demands in what is referred to, for example, as leisure or culture. It has often been said that the anti-globalisation movements particular to the wealthy north situated themselves on a post-material terrain, while those of the south continued, in opposition, in the material domain. The truth be said, it has to be asked if this distinction, which would place citizenshipism in a position close to that of the post-materialists, has any significance today. In which of the two domains outlined would for example ecological struggles be situated?
Given the difficulties that all of these concepts carry with them – we can neither dispense with them, nor would it be beneficial to employ them without any initial critical evaluation –, it seems a simple matter to demand that which must be the principal task of those who aspire to contest capitalism as a whole: to bring together the demands of the radical working class movement – that which originates, among us, from the anarcho-syndicalist world – and those that emerge from non-citizenshipist social movements, and particularly, those that have to do with women and their subjugation and exploitation, with future generations and their rights, and with many of the inhabitants of the countries of the south. The task at hand calls for, even so, something more: a clear challenge to the logic of States and a parallel defence – as is so often demanded in this book – of direct democracy, assemblies, self-management and de-commodification.
I believe that many of the popular assemblies of 15-M, with their aim of committing themselves to the creation of self-managed and de-commodified autonomous spaces offer an adequate illustration of what it means to leave behind the mere citizenship centred contestation. The everyday practice that concerns me here outlines, furthermore, an adequate antidote to a particular verbal radicalism which, without breaking any china, scorns daily struggles as if these, insufficiently stimulating, offered no contribution to shaping the future. If we abandon the clear opposition to evictions or we say of the integral cooperatives that they are partial and compromised projects, then the most probable is that the enemy will feel comforted. Equally problematic as this would be if we refused the open opposition to the reality that we live.
The principal response of the libertarian movement in the ambit of labour has been without a doubt, with particular force in the first third of the 20th century, anarcho-syndicalism. It is known that among us it maintains an unequalled vigour, however much it is far from the levels reached three quarters of a century ago.
It would seem unwise to disregard, above all at a moment such as the present, the important contribution of anarcho-syndicalism, as it would be foolhardy to abandon – as I have already said – the world of work. This appears even more obvious when as measured by many concepts we are returning to conditions of labour of the 19th century, a circumstance that is by itself sufficient to justify the re-emergence of a radical labour unionism. In a striking way, old debates re-appear that many thought definitively discarded, as is the case of that which opposed Marx to the nascent German Social Democratic Party as regards whether or not capitalism necessarily brought with it the polarisation of classes and the degradation of the of the condition of workers.
As long as the contrary is not demonstrated, anarcho-syndicalism – and forms more or less consonant with it – continues to be, whatever its deficiencies, the primary instrument for the expression of anti-capitalism in the libertarian world. It offers the most ambitious and visible perspective of intervention, as a comparison of its active members, however superficial, with those of fragmentary so-called affinity groups, reveals. It exhibits a practical dimension, of real intervention in society – and not only in the world of work – which other organic expressions of the libertarian magma lack. It constitutes, furthermore, a bastion against state compromised labour unionism and its defects, while offering a project for the future: “Presently, for syndicalism, the union is an organ of struggle and of demands of the workers against their bosses. In the future, it will be the basis upon which will rise normal society, freed from exploitation and oppression”, stated Émile Pouget in 1903. (5)
Nothing of what has so far been said implies that anarcho-syndicalism is without problems. And it is probably those problems that justify an affirmation so often formulated: that which suggests that libertarian syndicalism is so much more preferable the less syndicalist it is and the more it is open to a diversity of tasks. It is not a matter of debating the convenience of the existence of the union: it is a matter of breaking with many of the frontiers of the world of work. And this is the case because strictly labour union activity brings with it weaknesses that should not be ignored. Some of those were already referred to, a hundred years ago, by Errico Malatesta. I will cite two of his statements. The first, undoubtedly excessive, emphasises that “syndicalism is not and will never be anything but a legalist and conservative movement, without any other end but the improvement of the conditions of work”; (6) the second affirms that “in the working class movement the functionary is a danger comparable only to that of the parliamentarian. The anarchist who accepts being a permanent and salaried functionary of a union is lost to anarchism.” (7)
Beyond Malatesta’s views, syndicalism in general – as well as, though to a lesser degree, anarcho-syndicalism – commonly grants a radical primacy to the salary, and thus forgets – or at least postpones – important matters. Never, or almost never, have questions about environmental and resource limits, the marginalisation of women, the submission suffered by the unemployed or, to leave it here, the excesses that surround consumerism, been a priority of labour union activity. That in our times there are still many unionists who do not understand that a general strike must not just be a strike of production, but also of consumption, seems to express clearly what I mean.
Obsessed by the salary, and beyond this, by the accumulation of goods, there is no shortage of those who consider that the workers movement should reflect upon the usefulness of distinguishing between misery and poverty, with the aim of valorising the second against the misery associated with the logic of capitalism and with it the apparently unstoppable aim of increasing wealth exponentially. From this perspective, one recalls that in many archaic societies and in many peasant societies, poverty is and was a voluntary choice: “It concerns the aim of maintaining an equilibrium between the social group and the environment, of always limited resources. Or, even more, the aim of preserving another equilibrium, between the members of the social group, that avoids an increase in wealth that favours inequalities between them at the expense of the cohesion of the group.” (François Partant) (8) Behind this, and as is so often the case, it is easy to appreciate the importance of distinguishing between relational goods – those that have to do with our often weak social life – and material goods.
Even though the concept has clearly been around for a long time, the term self-management only appeared to gain ground in the decade of the 1960s, per chance as a translation, initially to French, of the Serbo-Croatian samo-upravlje. It is relatively common, furthermore, to suggest that the extension of the word occurred in the heat of the events of May 1968. Irrefutable proof that the proposal outlined in the light of the word self-management existed before its use however is evidenced by the resolutions of the congress that the CNT celebrated in 1919: they speak of the socialisation of the land and of the instruments of production and exchange. (9) Almost twenty years later, in 1936, the congress that the CNT held in Saragossa defined libertarian communism as a regime produced by the federation of free and autonomous agrarian and industrial associations, constructed on the basis of labour unions and free communes. (10) It is also good to recall that among us existed, before the civil war, a notable culture of self-management – the collectivisations testify to this – that were certainly not exclusive to the libertarian world; many of the unions of the UGT also participated in them. That this culture of self-management has dramatically lost power is certified by the fact that the current majority Spanish labour unions, CC OO and UGT, with hundreds of thousands of members and significant resources, have been incapable of offering any example of a self-managed organisation other than that of a modest travel agency …
In the nucleus of the proposal of self-management is to be found the idea, very dear to our grandparents, that the world can function without bosses, but not without workers. Before the primordial aggression that the concentration of private property in the hands of a few presupposes, and before the consequent injustice and inequality, self-management promotes the organisation of everyone, and not an organisation above everyone. And it does so, furthermore, in the most diverse domains, but singularly in that of work, in hand with the parallel defence of formulas of federal coordination. It combines, in sum, the principles of autonomy and equality, embodied in rich and plural communities, and not in monolithic realities. Internal pluralism, diversity of opinions and their respect are vital, as is the consciousness that nothing good is gained if the resolution of problems is delegated to external authorities.
It is obviously the case that the practice of self-management is not without difficulties. I will refer to but two. If the first has to do with the interest of people – sometimes, objectively, they are not interested in participating –, the second points to the real knowledge of things, often slight, that these same people display. It must be asked though if the first dimension has not been intentionally induced by the system and if the second has not acquired the unusual importance that it has because we have unjustifiably accepted complex societies that call for the help of experts. The facts as they are, it seems that the fabric of resistance offered by practices of self-management is much more solid than what is provided for by parliamentary parties.
The practice of self-management, thoroughly horizontal and egalitarian, implies for obvious reasons, the disappearance of employers. This is the occasion to note that the corresponding project has little to do with what in the last years has come to be called the “economy of the commons/or of common goods”. At the heart of this is to be found the aim of trying to have employers assume, always within the limits of the rules of the reigning capitalism, measured behaviours. The idea of a good employer however appears foreign to all libertarian approaches.
- Cited in VV AA: Construire l’autonomie. Se réaapproprier le travail, le commerce, la ruralité. L’Echappée, Montreuil, 2012, p. 177.
- Holloway, cit., p. 141.
- Cited in VV AA: Construire l’autonomie, op. cit., p. 30.
- Ibid., p. 203.
- Waintrop, cit., p. 117.
- Cited in Guérin, cit., p. 109.
- Ibid., pp. 109-10.
- François Partant, cited in VV AA: Construire l’autonomie, op. cit., p. 190.
- Waintrop, cit., p. 296.
[*] This rather barbaric neologism, and related versions of it, is coined to capture the Spanish term, ciudadanismo, which refers to an ideology and/or movement that promotes the “ideals”, “values” of citizenship as a political project.