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For the Regeneration of a social-labour movement from the base for emancipation

photo of Vasilis Kostakis

Vasilis Kostakis
15th January 2014


This was written by the collective of the labour newspaper Drasi (Action) in relation to discussions around unions and labour collectives in Greece trying to deal with the following question: “How do we organise and connect our struggles against employers and state terrorism today?

The “state of illegality”, into which labour struggles and social spaces of resistance have fallen, doesn’t only consist of the direct and autocratic attacks of the state, but also the formation of a wide area of “grey rights ” where wage labour is unprotected in a “state of exception”.

The old era of a labour movement based on negotiating the price of its labour power; one recognised and integrated as an institutional actor in the smooth reproduction of labour power, and ultimately of capitalism itself, has come to an end.

Let’s see it as a historic challenge and “opportunity” for a rebirth of a labour movement based on self-organisation, direct democracy and lasting combative competition with capital and the state. A “chance” for a break from all the things that were holding the labour movement dependent and ultimately subservient within the established order, transcending mere protest, claims and negotiations, and now creating our own world of solidarity and collaborative activity.

How can there be this rebirth along these new foundations (in a historical irony approaching the foundations of the birth of the labour movement)?

  • Release the 3rd-grade higher federations from regimented bureaucratic structures. This could consist of grassroots assemblies in workplaces that make decisions autonomously and are co-ordinated horizontally with one another (apart from professional and sectoral corporatist separations and entrenchments). This will require militant grassroot struggles (now even wages or working hours may be subject to institutional demands) alongside battles around issues such as the radical reduction of working time with a parallel wage increase – something which addresses the question of working from the point of view of reducing labour and deconstructing the concepts of productivity/efficiency.
  • Work centres of a “new style” that gather in each town for joint action, that join in structures to create solidarity between the unemployed, part-time workers, precarious workers, stable workers and immigrants.
  • A socialisation of the labour movement (beyond both a narrow and distorted “class nature” and a party “politicisation” from above) which projects the problems, projects, needs, life and emancipation of society. This goes beyond the immediate narrow labour interests that result in “whatever job” without considering the social utility and environmental impact (see, of example, Chalkidiki where the “direct class interest” leads workers to support a destructive investment to communities and the environment in the name of providing work).
  • The development of direct links, without mediators, with the communities surrounding workplaces so as to break the divisions between “producer-consumer”, “public-private employee”, “worker-unemployed” etc.

On this basis, self-management, labour collectives and collaborative production can be the link for this renaissance, ensuring a livelihood for a large part of society in ways that “detox” work and society by capital and the state. At the same time, they are changing the very form and content of the labour movement, turning it from claiming (including through militant forms) things which guarantee our status as “workers” (in an always subordinate role), to supporting ourselves and to the creation of the “common” which can build a world free of profit, exploitation, hierarchy and domination over the life of society.

There is of course no “magic wand” that can transform both ourselves and the world in an instant. This is a battle (with no guaranteed results) for societal-class stakes around the immediate question: who will ensure the survival, reproduction and future of society? A totalitarian capitalism that will restart accumulation around a core of modern slavery (the “development” that we have been promised) or a regenerate social-labour movement that takes life into its own hands, based on solidarity, co-operation and equal access to the “common”?

Some people say that the workers getting their hands on the factories (like they are doing here in Greece at Vio:Me) is transforming the workers into capitalists. Obviously for them “class nature” means remaining a slave! However, they have not referenced many capitalists that work themselves, that work without profit, without being given order and without hierarchy. Or, with a higher body – the general assembly of workers, which distributes part of any “surplus” to foster other self-organised ventures and social causes.

Others say that at best these takings are “islands” that can’t change the overall situation. But every struggle can be seen as an island, and they are not saying (quite correctly) not to have any at all! The difference, that they are not saying, is that some islands claim a better position within capitalism whilst the island of self-management at least attempts to make a crack in the regime of exploitation and profit. It puts into practice values and techniques guided by the principles of another emancipated organisation of society.

Others even say that these projects suit capitalism fine, because capitalism (with our help) manages unemployment and social needs for no extra cost. Obviously for them the process of self-training, creating relationships of equal co-operation, without bosses or government patronage, is consistent with the spirit of capitalism. whereas standing like beggars in unemployment queues steels an anti-capitalist and genuine class consciousness…

Let’s get real. These criticisms do not relate to the real questions of the issue of self-management, but the fear of those who feel that such ventures do not only make capital and hierarchy unnecessary but also make these so-called “leaders of the working class movement” redundant.

The real issues, whose theoretical and practical solution we all need to contribute to are; how can these projects break the grip of the market (which squeezes them in terms of efficiency and competitiveness); how will these projects multiply and come to be generalised through experience and mutual support; how will they interconnect, horizontally without the mediation of states, parties or market institutions (which flock towards them like crows) so they can form a more coherent, effective and social world where empowerment and autonomy move from being an ideological project to a shared experience, a social need and a daily practice.

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