Solidarity Economy Alternative Emerging Theory and Practice

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Labour as applied creativity in practice

There is a spreading refusal to accept the limited horizon of labour as a mere ‘factor of production’ – especially, increasingly, a ‘redundant’ or reserve factor of production. There are also many scattered examples of initiatives to act directly to make labour usefully and collaboratively creative. Many arise out of conflict with the consequences of neoliberal capitalism, but envisage a future other than a return to welfare capitalism.

It is perhaps too early to draw many conclusions from these experiences, but I want to end by sketching three distinctive forms that practical attempts to realise human creativity are taking. First, there is the assertion of control over the ‘use value’ of labour in the defence and extension of the decommodified public economy. Second, there are initiatives to realise human creativity in and against the market, on the disputed terrain of decentralised or ‘distributed’ production. And third, there is the application of the thinking behind labour as a commons to the labour of co-operative self-government, challenging the reality of a ‘specialised’ political class.

I will sketch some key features of all three, bearing in mind the wider arguments of this chapter concerning labour, knowledge, production and its relation to politics.

    1. Defending and extending the decommodified sphere

Neoliberalism as political project, an offensive in a class war, had two related priorities: the destruction of organised labour, and the marketisation of any part of the public, decommodified sector that could produce a secure profit (Harvey 2005a). Interestingly, it is where these two priorities overlapped that neoliberal politics has stumbled.

In a strikingly wide range of contexts, across continents South and North, public service workers have resisted privatisation because of the damage that will be done to water provision, health, education, and other services. In other words, trade unionists have struggled over the use value of their labour, not simply its price. They are have organised as citizens and with fellow citizens, not only as wage earners within the confines of the workplace. They have exposed corruption, proposed improvements in mediocre services, and shared their practical knowledge and creativity in increasing productivity from the point of view of raising public value and maximising public benefit (Hall et al. 2005; Novelli 2004; Wainwright 2012; Wahl 2011; Whitfield 2011).

When we consider the context of these struggles, it is worth asking how far and in what way the partially decommodified nature of the public sphere opens up distinct possibilities for the struggle against alienated labour. In principle, I would suggest, this context of employment makes it more possible (than if it was an enterprise in the capitalist market) for workers to express themselves through their work, in the delivery of services to fellow citizens, as knowing, feeling people, rather than simply as workers selling their creativity as if a commodity. Of course, many workers in private, profit-maximising enterprises try to do the same, but the partially decommodified sphere of public services enables this to take place and be struggled for within the proclaimed rationale of the organisation.

Realising this possibility has always been a struggle. Few, if any, public sector institutions were designed to realise the creativity of labour in serving their fellow citizens. But when workers have struggled alongside communities against privatisation, this is exactly the possibility that comes to the fore. It is the workers’ commitment to the purpose – the potential use value of their labour – that underpins the move from a struggle simply to defend workers’ livelihoods to a struggle over a service for the benefit of all.

As far as the organisation of knowledge is concerned, a key dimension of this radical expansion of the trade union role is how it becomes a means of giving confidence and organisational support for workers – and service users – to voice and share their knowledge. The everyday fragmentation of Fordist-style public administration, along with a replication of the alienation characteristic of the private sector, leads workers normally to keep their heads down and their knowledge to themselves; indeed, they are rarely made aware of the wider significance of their skill, or the information they hold. In effect, in these cases of resistance the union becomes a means of socialising the practical knowledge of its members, and turning this into a source of bargaining power over the future of the service.

In many of these cases the sharing of knowledge also involves the knowledge of users and communities – for example, of their underground water systems, of their health needs, of how best to contribute to recycling. Another distinctive feature of successful campaigns for alternatives to privatisation has been trade unions’ willingness to learn the capacity for horizontal organisation – to be one actor among several rather than the controlling force, and nevertheless, given the resources at their disposal, play a distinctive role.

The development of this kind of trade unionism, albeit still a minority trend, is an expression in the public sector of the diffuse aspiration for autonomy and meaning, with its ambivalent origins in the 1960s and 1970s, as discussed previously. It is striking that these initiatives attract to trade unionism technical, professional workers on the basis of the public service ethics that drive the campaigns.

In general, these initiatives around the use value of labour and the mobilisation of workers’ knowledge and power to maximise public benefit have arisen in the context of defending the public sector from the corporate search for opportunities to maximise profit. But there are also signs – although still weak and exceptional – of a similar dynamic to extend the public sphere of production. These can be found, for example, in the context of action to achieve the shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy to counter climate change, where public concern is introducing pressures for a social and environmental logic to apply throughout the energy and energy-related industries (Jackson 2006).

In some contexts, for example South Africa, there are trade unions with active traditions of engagement with issues concerning the use value, purpose, and social context of their members’ work – an engagement which they pursue through their bargaining strategies, not only wider political campaigning. Here again, as with union initiatives to defend public services with plans for reform, the role of the union in the workplace is crucial as a means of organising the knowledge necessary to achieve the shift towards renewable energy. The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA), a union committed to working for a socially owned renewable energy sector, has created research and development groups (RDGs) with shop stewards (workplace leaders) in energy-related companies, including the factories where solar water heaters and small wind turbines are manufactured. This serves as a basis for organising workers’ knowledge, and support for bargaining strategies to implement its commitment. Moreover, like the way in which trade unions have supported citizens’ campaigns around public services, NUMSA works with a wide range of social and community movements, especially around the theme of ‘jobs from climate change’ (One Million Climate Jobs Campaign 2011).

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