Socialism and the transformation of work

Workers' management is not just a new administrative technique: it means that for the mass of people, new relations will have to develop with their work, the very content of work will have to alter.

Socialism and the transformation of work

Socialism will only be brought about by the autonomous action of the majority of the population. Socialist society is nothing other than the self-organization of this autonomy. Socialism both presupposes this autonomy, and helps to develop it.

But if this autonomy is people's conscious domination over all their activities, it is clear that we can't just concern ourselves with political autonomy. Political autonomy is but a derivative aspect of what is the central content and problem of socialism: to institute the domination of mankind over the work process. [n7] A purely political autonomy would be meaningless. One can't imagine a society where people would be slaves in production every day of the week, and then enjoy Sundays of political freedom. [n8] The idea that socialist production or a socialist economy could be run, at any particular level, by managers (themselves supervised by Councils, or Soviets, or by any other body 'incarnating the political power of the working class') is quite nonsensical. Real power in any such society would rapidly fall into the hands of those who managed production. The Councils or Soviets would rapidly wither amid the general indifference of the population. People would stop devoting time, interest, or activity to institutions which no longer really influenced the pattern of their lives.

Autonomy is therefore meaningless unless it implies workers' management of production, and this at the levels of the shop, of the plant, of whole industries, and of the economy as a whole. But, workers' management is not just a new administrative technique. It cannot remain external to the structure of work itself. It doesn't mean keeping work as it is, and just replacing the bureaucratic apparatus which currently manages production by a Workers' Council -- however democratic or revocable such a Council might be. It means that for the mass of people, new relations will have to develop with their work, and about their work. The very content of work will immediately have to alter.

Today, the purpose, means, methods, and rhythms of work are determined, from the outside, by the bureaucratic managerial apparatus. This apparatus can only manage through resort to universal, abstract rules, determined 'once and for all'. These rules cover such matters as norms of production, technical specifications, rates of pay, bonus, and how production areas will be organized. The periodic revision of these rules regularly results in 'crises' in the organization of production. Once the bureaucratic managerial apparatus has been eliminated, this sort of structure of production will have to disappear, both in form and content.

In accord with the deepest of working-class aspirations, already tentatively expressed at the heights of working-class struggle, production norms will be abolished altogether, and complete equality in wages will be instituted. [a11] These measures, taken together as a first step, will put an end to exploitation and to all the externally imposed constraints and coercions in production. To the extent that work will still be necessary (and this itself will be a matter for constant review by society as a whole), work discipline will be a matter of relations between the individual work and the group with which s/he works, of relations between groups of workers and the shop as a whole, and of relations between various shops, and the General Assembly of the Factory or Enterprise.

Workers' management is therefore not the 'supervision' of a bureaucratic managerial apparatus by representatives of the workers. Nor is it the replacement of this apparatus by another, formed of individuals of working-class origin. It is the abolition of any separate managerial apparatus and the restitution of the functions of such an apparatus to the community of workers. The Factory Council isn't a new managerial apparatus. It is but one of the places in which coordination takes place, a 'local headquarters' from which contacts between the factory and the outside world are regulated.

If this is achieved, it will imply that the nature and content of work are already beginning to alter. Today, work consists essentially in obeying instructions initiated elsewhere. Workers' management will mean the reuniting of the functions of decision and execution. But, even this will be insufficient -- or rather, it will immediately lead on to something else. The restitution of managerial functions to the workers will inevitably lead them to tackle what is, today, the kernel of alienation, namely the technological structure of work, which results in work dominating the workers instead of being dominated by them. This problem will not be solved overnight, but its solution will be the task of that historical period which we call socialism. Socialism is, first and foremost, the solution of this particular problem.

Between capitalism and communism there aren't 36 types of 'transitional society', as some have sought to make us believe. There is but one: socialism. And, the main characteristic of socialism isn't 'the development of the productive forces', or 'the increasing satisfaction of consumer needs', or 'an increase of political freedom'. The hallmark of socialism is the change it will bring about in the nature and content of work, through the conscious and deliberate transformation of an inherited technology. For the first time in human history, technology will be subordinated to human needs (not only to the people's needs as consumers but also to their needs as producers).

The socialist revolution will allow this process to begin. Its completion will mark the entry of humanity into the communist era. Everything else -- politics, consumption, etc. -- are consequences or implications, which one must certainly look at in their organic unity, but which can only acquire such a unity or meaning through their relation to the key problem: the transformation of work itself. Human freedom will remain an illusion and a mystification if it doesn't mean freedom in people's fundamental activity: the activity which produces. And, this freedom will not be a gift bestowed by nature. It will not automatically arise, out of other developments. It will have to be consciously created. In the last analysis, this is the content of socialism.

Important practical consequences flow from all this. Changing the nature of work will be tackled from both ends. On the one hand, conditions will be created which will allow the fullest possible development of people's human capacities and faculties. This will imply the systematic dismantling, stone by stone, of the whole edifice of the division of labor. On the other hand, people will have to give a whole new orientation to technical developments, and to how they may apply to production. These are but two aspects of the same thing: man's relation to technique.

Let us start by looking at the second, more tangible, point: technical development as such. As a first approximation, one could say that capitalist technology (the current application of technique to production) is rotten at the core because it doesn't help people dominate their work, its aim being the very opposite. Socialists often say that what is basically wrong with capitalist technology is that it seeks to develop production for purposes of profit, or that it develops production for production's sake, independently of human needs (people being conceived of, in these arguments, only as potential consumers of products). The same socialists then tell us that the purpose of socialism is to adapt production to the real consumer needs of society, both in relation to volume and to the nature of the goods produced.

Of course, all this is true, and any society lies condemned in which a single child or adult goes hungry. But the more fundamental problem lies elsewhere.

Capitalism does not utilize a socially neutral technology for capitalist ends. Capitalism has created a capitalist technology, for its own ends, which are by no means neutral. The real essence of capitalist technology is not to develop production for production's sake: it is to subordinate and dominate the producers. Capitalist technology is primarily characterized by its drive to eliminate the human element in productive labor and, in the long run, to eliminate man altogether from the productive process. That here, as elsewhere, capitalism fails to fulfill its deepest tendency -- and that it would fall to pieces if it achieved its purpose -- does not affect the argument. On the contrary, it only highlights another aspect of the crisis of the system.

Capitalism cannot count on the voluntary cooperation of the producers. On the contrary, it has constantly to face their hostility (or, at best, indifference). This is why it is essential for the machine to impose its rhythm on the work process. Where this isn't possible capitalism seeks at least to measure the work performed. In every productive process, work must therefore be definable, quantifiable, controllable from the outside. As long as capitalism can't dispense with workers altogether, it has to make them as interchangeable as possible and to reduce their work to its simplest expression, that of unskilled labor. There is no conscious conspiracy or plot behind all this.

There is only a process of 'natural selection', affecting technical inventions as they are applied to industry. Some are preferred to others and are, on the whole, more widely utilized. These are the ones which slot in with capitalism's basic need to deal with labor-power as a measurable, controllable and interchangeable commodity.

There is no capitalist chemistry or capitalist physics as such -- but, there is certainly a capitalist technology, if by this, one means that of the 'spectrum' of techniques available at a given point in time (which is determined by the development of science) a given group (or 'band') will be selected. From the moment the development of science permits a choice of several possible techniques, a society will regularly choose those methods which have a meaning for it, which are 'rational' in the light of its own class rationality. But the 'rationality' of an exploiting society is not the rationality of socialism. [n9] The conscious transformation of technology will, therefore, be a central task of a society of free workers.

Marx, as is well known, was the first to go beyond the surface of the economic phenomena of capitalism (such as the market, competition, distribution, etc.) and to tackle the analysis of the key area of capitalist social relations: the concrete relations of production in the capitalist factory. But "Volume I" of Capital is still awaiting completion. The most striking feature of the degeneration of the Marxist movement is that this particular concern of Marx's, the most fundamental of all, was soon abandoned, even by the best of Marxists, in favour of the analysis of the 'important' phenomena. Through this very fact, these analyses were either totally distorted, or found themselves dealing with very partial aspects of reality, thereby leading to judgments that proved catastrophically wrong.

Thus, it is striking to see Rosa Luxembourg devote two important volumes to the Accumulation of Capital, in which she totally ignores what this process of accumulation really means as to the relations of production. Her concern in these volumes was solely about the possibility of a global equilibrium between production and consumption and she was finally led to believe she had discovered a process of automatic collapse of capitalism (an idea, needless to say, concretely false and a priori absurd). It is just as striking to see Lenin, in his Imperialism, start from the correct and fundamental observation that the concentration of capital has reached the stage of the domination of the monopolies -- and yet, neglect the transformation of the relations of production in the capitalist factory, which results precisely from such a concentration, and ignore the crucial phenomenon of the constitution of an enormous apparatus managing production, which was, henceforth, to incarnate exploitation. He preferred to see the main consequences of the concentration of capital in the transformation of capitalists into 'coupon-clipping' rentiers. The working class movement is still paying the price of the consequences of this way of looking at things. In so far as ideas play a role in history, Khrushchev is in power in Russia as a by-product of the conception that exploitation can only take the form of coupon-clipping.

But, we must go further back still. We must go back to Marx himself. Marx threw a great deal of light on the alienation of the producer in the course of capitalist production and on the enslavement of man by the mechanical universe he had created. But Marx's analysis is at times incomplete, in that he sees but alienation in all this.

In Capital -- as opposed to Marx's early writings it is not brought out that the worker is (and can only be) the positive vehicle of capitalist production, which is obliged to base itself on him as such, and to develop him as such, while simultaneously seeking to reduce him to an automaton and, at the limit, to drive him out of production altogether. Because of this, the analysis fails to perceive that the prime crisis of capitalism is the crisis in production, due to the simultaneous existence of two contradictory tendencies, neither of which could disappear without the whole system collapsing. Marx shows in capitalism 'despotism in the workshop and anarchy in society' -- instead of seeing it as both despotism and anarchy in both workshop and society. This leads him to look for the crisis of capitalism not in production itself (except insofar as capitalist production develops 'oppression, misery, degeneration, but also revolt', and the numerical strength and discipline of the proletariat) -- but in such factors as overproduction and the fall in the rate of profit. Marx fails to see that as long as this type of work persists, this crisis will persist with all it entails, and this whatever the system not only of property, but whatever the nature of the state, and finally whatever even the system of management of production.

In certain passages of Capital, Marx is thus led to see in modern production only the fact that the producer is mutilated and reduced to a 'fragment of a man' -- which is true, as much as the contrary [n10] -- and, what is more serious, to link this aspect to modern production and finally to production as such, instead of linking it to capitalist technology. Marx implies that the basis of this state of affairs is modern production as such, a stage in the development of technique about which nothing can be done, the famous 'realm of necessity'. Thus, the taking over of society by the producers -- socialism -- at times comes to mean, for Marx, only an external change in political and economic management, a change that would leave intact the structure of work and simply reform its more 'inhuman' aspects. This idea is clearly expressed in the famous passage of "Volume III" of Capital, where speaking of socialist society, Marx says:

'In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus, in the very nature of things, it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. ... Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it... and, achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of their human nature. But, it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins ... the true realm of freedom, which however can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite.' [a12]

If it is true that the' realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases' it is strange to read from the pen of the man who wrote that 'industry was the open book of human faculties' that freedom    could  'thus'    only be found outside of work. The proper conclusion -- which Marx himself draws in certain other places -- is that the realm of freedom starts when work becomes free activity, both in what motivates it and in its content. In the dominant concept, however, freedom is what isn't work, it is what surrounds work, it is either 'free time' (reduction of the working day) or 'rational regulation' and 'common control' of exchanges with Nature, which minimize human effort and preserve human dignity. In this perspective, the reduction of the working day certainly becomes a 'basic prerequisite', as mankind would finally only be free in its leisure.

The reduction of the working day is, in fact, important, not for this reason however, but to allow people to achieve a balance between their various types of activity. And, at the limit, the 'ideal' (communism) isn't the reduction of the working day to zero, but the free determination by all of the nature and extent of their work. Socialist society will be able to reduce the length of the working day, and will have to do so, but this will not be its fundamental preoccupation. Its first task will be to tackle 'the realm of necessity', as such, to transform the very nature of work. The problem is not to leave more and more 'free' time to individuals -- which might well only be empty time -- so that they may fill it at will with 'poetry' or the carving of wood. The problem is to make of all time a time of liberty and to allow concrete freedom to find expression in creative activity.

The problem is to put poetry into work. [n11]  Production isn't something negative, that has to be limited as much as possible for mankind to fulfill itself in its leisure. The institution of autonomy is also -- and, in the first place -- the institution of autonomy in work.

Underlying the idea that freedom is to be found 'outside the realm of material production proper' there lies a double error. Firstly, that the very nature of technique and of modern production renders inevitable the domination of the productive process over the producer, in the course of his work. Secondly, that technology and in particular modern technology follows an autonomous development, before which one can only bow. This modern technology would, moreover, possess the double attribute of, on the one hand, constantly reducing the human role in production and, on the other hand, of constantly increasing the productivity of labor. From these two inexplicably combined attributes would result a miraculous dialectic of technological progress: more and more a slave in the course of work, man would be in a position enormously to reduce the length of work, if only s/he could organize society rationally.

We have already shown however that there is no autonomous development of technology. Of the sum total of technologies which scientific development makes possible at any given point in time, capitalist society brings to fulfillment those which correspond most closely to its class structure, which permit capital best to struggle against labor. It is generally believed that the application of this or that invention to production depends on its economic 'profitability'. But there is no such thing as a neutral 'profitability': the class struggle in the factory is the main factor determining 'profitability'. A given invention will be preferred to another by a factory management if, other things being equal, it enhances the 'independent' progress of production, freeing it from interference by the producers. The increasing enslavement of people in production flows essentially from this process, and not from some mysterious curse, inherent in a given phase of technological development. There is, moreover, no magic dialectic of slavery and productivity: productivity increases in relation to the enormous scientific and technical development which is at the basis of modern production -- and it increases despite the slavery, and not because of it. Slavery implies an enormous waste, due to the fact that people only contribute an infinitesimal fraction of their capacities to production. (We are passing no a priori judgment on what these capacities might be. However low they may estimate it, the manager of Fords and the Secretary of the Russian Communist Party would have to admit that their own particular ways of organizing production only tapped an infinitesimal fraction of it).

Socialist society will therefore not be afflicted with any kind of technological curse. Having abolished bureaucratic capitalist relationships it will tackle at the same time the technological structure of production, which is both the basis of these relationships and their ever-renewed product.


n7   We deliberately say 'to institute' and not 'to restore', for never in history has this domination really existed. All comparisons with historical antecedents -- for instance, with the situations of the artisan or of the free peasant, however fruitful they may be in some respects, have only a limited scope and risk leading one one into utopian thinking.

n8   Yet this is almost exactly what Lenin's definition of socialism as 'electrification plus (the political power of the) Soviets' boiled down to.

n9   Academic economists have analyzed the fact that of several technically feasible possibilities, certain ones are chosen, and that these choices lead to a particular pattern of technology applied in real life, which seems to concretize the technique of a given period. [See, for instance, Joan Robinson's The Accumulation of Capital (London; 1956; pages 101-178]. But in these analyses, the choice is always presented as flowing from considerations of 'profitability' and, in particular, from the 'relative costs of capital and labor'. This abstract viewpoint has little effect on the reality of industrial evolution. Marx, on the other hand, underlines the social content of machine-dominated industry, its enslaving function.

n10   In other words, abilities, know-how, and awareness, are developed in production.

n11   Strictly speaking, poetry means creation.


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