Solidarity Economy Alternative Emerging Theory and Practice

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The ambivalence of neoliberal capitalism

The ambivalent fate of the steep rise and pervasive spread of the rebellion against ‘toil’ (in William Morris’s famous distinction between mindless or degrading work and useful labour), and of people’s determination to govern, define, and think for themselves, was evident by the end of the 1970s in the open-ended nature of the rebellions. Consider the sphere of production.

While, in the big car factories in many parts of the world, workers and their shop floor leaders challenged, ridiculed and destabilised the prerogatives of management, they rarely overturned them in a thoroughgoing way. In the words of one writer, Huw Beynon, who observed the struggles at Ford Halewood in the UK in a particularly perceptive way, those struggles ‘had an enduring, almost endless quality; a refusal to accept hedged by a reluctance to entertain the possibility of things being better’ (1973). He adds that ‘almost everything in their experience confirms that reluctance’.

Beynon’s description captures the combination of workers’ rejection of their positions as little more than appendages of machines and the absence of the means to realise the aspirations behind this refusal. Beynon himself documents the limited economistic horizons of the trade unions as part of the reason for this absence. His contemporary description of Fordist production and workers’ daily refusal of its imperatives points now, nearly 40 years on, to the need to distinguish two features of what has happened since. The first is the decisive defeat of the historic institutions of the post-war Northern labour movement and the severe weakening of new radical movements; and the second, the deeper changes in consciousness irreversibly produced by the challenges of the late 1960s to the post-war order.

Applying this distinction to production and the role of labour reveals a paradox during the past two decades or so in respect of the restructuring of production, namely that the various post-Fordist production models have been constructed on both ‘the defeat of the Fordist worker and on the recognition of the centrality of (an ever intellectualised) living labour within production’ (Lazzarato 1996). Mike Cooley, a design engineer at Lucas Aerospace who led one of the few examples of organisation in the UK around an alternative politics of production and a resistance to alienation, reinforces Lazzarato’s point about intellectualised ‘living labour ‘ from his own direct observation of new management strategies. In a book that provides the background to the ‘Alternative Corporate Plan for Socially Useful Production’ conceived and promoted by the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards’ committee, he describes how management techniques are looking for ‘the gold in the workers’ mind’ to make their tacit knowledge part of the production (or service) process (Cooley and Cooley 1982). In an important sense, management now expects workers to help co-ordinate the various functions of production and distribution instead of simply being commanded to perform them. Today’s managements want a situation in which the command resides among the workers themselves, and within the co-ordination process. The old conflicts between labour and capital are not overcome, but re-purposed at a different level involving forms of control that both seek to mobilise and clash with the personality of the worker (Lazzarato 1996; Richardson and Stuart 2009). The new technologies, after all, provide tools for more comprehensive surveillance as well as for expressive communication.

Lazzarato suggests the concept of ‘immaterial labour’ to explore these new forms of exploitative relations between labour and capital. It refers in a fairly precise way to two aspects of labour in contemporary capitalism. The first is the changing nature of the production process, and the way in which it tends to depend on co-operation, communication, and the circulation of information. The second is the activity that produces the cultural content of a commodity; activities that define fashion, taste, cultural standards, and consumer norms. These are not normally considered ‘work’, thereby blurring the boundaries between consumption and production. Lazzarato is using the concept not simply to describe the activity of highly skilled ‘knowledge workers’ but to refer to the nature of labour in today’s capitalism, including the potential labour of the young unemployed or precarious worker.

The point to reinforce here is that the neoliberal 1980s, 1990s and early twenty-first century were not simply a defeat, a rupture from the 1960s and 1970s. Aspects of the new consciousness generated in those years became a source of innovation and renewal. As capitalism broke out of the regulatory constraints of the post-war years, this consciousness was in effect reproduced, albeit in ways that the rebels of the 1960s and 1970s would not necessarily recognise.9 For a period in the 1980s when neoliberal economics were on the rise, capitalist individualism captured that spirit, celebrating it as a new spirit of enterprise (Boltanski and Chapello 2005). Now, however, as capitalism has lost its shine for the aspirant young, both morally and materially, the desire for personal autonomy and meaning is finding expression in a growing and hugely varied civil economy, and a diffuse and often individual or networked entrepreneurialism (Murray 2012, Berlinguer in this volume).

An obvious question flows from this. If the origins of this ambiguous renewal of capitalism lie in significant part in capital’s contradictory responses to the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, underpinned by the financial expansion of recent decades, what are the possibilities – now that these financial conditions are in crisis – for the renewal of the social organisation of labour (understood in the broad terms of applied human creativity) on a non-capitalist basis?

I would add a tentative question, in two parts, which takes us back to the techno-economic paradigm proposed by Carlota Perez. First, how far did the creative rebellions of the late 1960s against ‘scientific management’ in the factories and the uniformity and passivity of mass consumption contribute to the cultural conditions for the initial emergence of the technological innovations that led to the new techno-economic paradigm? And second, to what extent were the changes that contributed to this new paradigm stimulated by the search for meaning and social connectedness, and the radical social movements that first produced the emphases on participation and horizontal ways of organising associated with the new paradigm?

There is considerable evidence that these influences were crucial (Turner 2006). This remains a hypothesis, but it makes intuitive sense on the basis that technological innovations so integrally and uniquely bound up with human intelligence, communicative desire and capacity are likely to be related in some reciprocal – not simplistically causal – way to the explosion of a diffuse and diverse rebellion against authority.

What is certain is that the development of the internet and the IT industry centred on California’s Silicon Valley depended on and encouraged forms of creativity produced by the ‘counterculture’ of the late 1960s autonomous of capital and the state. If this is the case, is it not highly likely that the social actors most able to understand and have an enthusiasm for spreading the new techno-economic paradigm are again forces in civil society who are using today’s technical and cultural resources to realise their creativity?

What kind of political action can support this process? How can it be framed so that it contributes to resolving the challenges of inequality and the current threats to the environment rather than once again being appropriated by the corporations, albeit corporations of a new kind?

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