It seems appropriate to briefly review a book on Workers’ Control to commemorate US Labor Day.
Ours to Master and to Own, Immanuel Ness and Dario Azellini (Haymarket Books, 2011)
Ness and Azellini have edited a splendid collection of essays covering the history, theory and practice of workers’ control.1 Beginning with the Paris Commune in 18712 to the most recent factory takeovers in South America, this collection is superb. At over 400 pages it is hard to fault some of the missing history, for instance, of Hungary in 19563 and France in 1968. The theoretical exposition is clearly written and certainly informative. This book fills a gap in the published record of revolutionary activity and proves, through its coverage, its central theme – worker takeovers of the “means of production” in times of crisis appears to be almost a natural response to repression.
That said, the haunting suspicion for me is that this collection borders on the gratuitous, because it fails to deal with the question of the relevance of workers’ control for today’s struggles. No one can deny that the history of class warfare can instruct in the methods people have adopted to meet their demands and in so doing provide a vision of a better society. But the peasant revolts in the Middle Ages can inspire us and, even before that period, so to can the slave revolts in antiquity. So, while the inspiration may be valuable, the relevancy of distant struggles needs to be questioned. And, as history has speeded up for us, those workers’ battles only several generations removed from the present, seem like distant ancient history.
To speak of workers’ control brings to mind those ancient factories where thousands of workers toiled at furnaces smelting iron, or building ships, or any number of industrial jobs. These were Marx’s army of the proletarians, brought together for no other purpose than to enrich the capitalists, but who once so conjoined became an explosive force threatening the capitalist order, especially by simply withholding their labor – the General Strike.
In a world of baristas, data-entry drones and endless cubicle warmers in all manner of enterprises, it’s hard to see what power over their bosses these workers possess. But it gets worse. When we look around today at the rebellions all over North Africa, in various European capitals and now beginning to emerge in South America (in Chile) what do we see? Who is fighting the effects of neo-liberalism? It is of course the youth – the youth with no prospects for an economic future.
How does the struggle of workers at the height of industrial expansion relate to young people who fear that they may never have a stable job – the Precariat (The New Dangerous Class)?4 That there is no reference to the precariat in Ours to Master and to Own is an unfortunate missed opportunity to explore the book’s thesis – that worker rebellions erupted like clockwork throughout the two hundred years of industrial capitalism – in a new world. Is this workers’ history now coming to an end in the formerly industrialized North? Will the new workers’ struggles occur only in China, and maybe a handful of other emerging nations?
And most interestingly, will the first “workers rebellion” covered in this book – the Paris Commune, involving all strata of the city – be more like the template for future insurrections?5 The editors contemplate a second volume to accompany this one and we can only hope that some of these issues are dealt with there.
2 The City of Paris commemorated the Commune this Spring with an exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville titled Paris: Capitale Insurgée or Paris, the Rebel Capital, and one envies the citizens of Paris their history, recognized as significant when, for example, in Chicago, the home of the Eight Hour Day and the Haymarket Martyrs, its citizens are oblivious to theirs. http://bit.ly/pv9iES