The worker economy: Self-management, cooperatives, and recovered businesses in times of global crisis
Selection of works from the International Meeting on “The Worker Economy” (João Pessoa, Brazil, July of 2013). Andrés Ruggeri, Henrique T. Novaes and Maurício Sardá de Faria (organizers).
Andrés Ruggeri, Maurício Sardá de Faria and Henrique T. Novaes
This book, and that which follows it (The Worker Economy: Views on Precarious and Informal Work, the Solidarity Economy, and Self-Management) contain a selection of works presented in the Fourth International Meeting on “The Worker Economy,” a space for debate among workers, cooperators, social movements, and intellectuals. The Meeting emerged in 2007 as an initiative of the Open Faculty Program1 of the University of Buenos Aires, inspired by the experience of businesses recovered by the workers (BRW) and, in successive years, began taking on more and more of a character of international space for discussion on matters related to the practice and theory of self-management and the problems of workers in contemporary global capitalism.
The Fourth Meeting, held in the Brazilian town of João Pessoa, capital of the northeastern state of Paraíba, was the setting for the discussion of nearly 100 works from more than 15 countries of America, Africa, and Europe, some of which we have selected here to make up these two volumes which also inaugurate a collection dedicated to exploring this problem in depth and called, not coincidentally, “The Worker Economy.”
When we talk about the “worker economy,” we’re referring very broadly to a whole series of problems and experiences that, as an example of their diversity and complexity, are addressed in these volumes and will continue to be throughout the whole collection. These problems concern both worker self-management as an experience present in the framework of globalized capitalism under neoliberal hegemony and as a historical experience of the workers arising practically simultaneously with capitalism itself, as well as the struggles of different sectors of labor in the conditions of a world system which has reconfigured and reconstructed itself under forms of precariousness, informality, and exploitation which are reminiscent of the very beginnings of the regime of capitalist production. This reconfiguration demands that the working class rebuild its unity within the extreme fragmentation and diversity in which it is immersed, as well as reconsider and creatively reconstruct its theoretical frameworks of the analysis of reality and its emancipatory project.
But, at the same time, this reconfiguration of capitalism has led to a structural crisis of enormous proportions. This is a structural crisis of capital that devastates workers in all parts of the world and whose development since the ’70s has brought far-reaching consequences: the failure of the totalitarian democracy of financial capital and the emergence of innumerable revolts against this “democracy”; precarious processes of urbanization, “favelization,” and proliferation of “gated communities” where the rich close themselves in to protect themselves from the world that they themselves create and reproduce; concentration of income and of land; jails overcrowded with “excluded” and socially marginalized workers; an increase in unemployment and of the structural precariousness of work, as well as the intensification of work, the return of relationships of servitude and slavery, and the growth of child labor. This structural crisis of capital, which leads to economic, political, and social regression, also brought with it the resurgence of associated labor in Latin America and in other parts of the world.
In Latin America, there was an explosion of struggles for classic demands like land, the right to employment and work, quality public services, etc.; in synthesis, for a dignified life. It is in this context that many experiences emerged with great anti-capital potential, though restricted to several regions and economic sectors: struggles for land by campesinos and for housing by homeless urban workers; resistance by populations affected by dams and large infrastructure projects, struggles for the self-organization of labor, struggles for an end to gender hierarchy or for gender, generational, and ethnic equality.
There have been struggles against the expropriation of indigenous territory, against the advance of megamining, of oil companies, of corporations that produce genetically modified and poisoned foods. Struggles to build new forms of democracy that exceed formal democracy—the abyss between representatives and the represented—that question parliaments dominated by benches of capital or by representatives who come from the people but who personify capital. At the same time, defensive struggles appeared for human rights, against the commodification of public education, against the privatization of state businesses, and against governments that looted the wealth of the country, even leading to the fall of Presidents in Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador.
One of the popular movements that stands out most at this moment of the structural crisis of capital is that of businesses recovered by the workers.
This is a form of struggle whose breadth holds great possibilities for the working class, since it goes beyond union movements, which are oriented to the improvement of working conditions and wage increases, to question the ownership of the means of production and the management of productive processes.
The reader will see that there are not yet many experiences of business recovery by workers. The articles in this compilation show a significant set of experiences that are developing as struggle and resistance, that, even though they do so with the contradiction of developing within this mode of production, show positive aspects that are certainly pedagogical for the new struggles that are emerging in various parts of the world. Classic topics pointed out by Marx and by various tendencies in Marxism and other tendencies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reappear in the debate of associated labor in the twenty-first century: self-management in the industrial microcosm and the social macrocosm, the “devolution” of power to workers, the construction of new social relationships of production, the possibility and the need to overcome the wage system, the contradictory relationship with the State, unions, and parties, with governments, and with other social movements. And then there is the difficulty of creating a movement of recovered businesses in countries and between countries, the question of property—which is to say, “the expropriation of the expropriators”—and new ways of organizing labor, production, and the distribution of surplus which, to a certain extent, overcome alienated labor. These, along with the redesign of machines and of manufacturing techniques, and the role of researchers-extensionists with the BRWs, are all topics, among many others, that were also observed. Finally, but no less important, it is possible to perceive the theoretical unity of the authors and uniqueness of each theoretical construction on the topic.
In the end, the reader will have in his/her hands various articles that analyze the BRWs and other experiences from different angles, offering a broader vision of the phenomenon of self-management and of associated labor in general. In spite of the numerous difficulties, the process of these experiences and their persistence over the years allow an accumulation of strategic teachings for the struggles to come.
That said, in this presentation we will only be able to quickly draw some general but essential sketches for the construction of a theory of self-management for the twenty-first century, among which it seems fundamental to us to understand and look in depth at the importance of self-management of economic units, in which struggles for self-management have the principle of building new social relationships. These economic units show us the disposability of bosses, managers, and technocrats, and are also creating ways of overcoming the wage system and collectively discussing the allocation of surpluses. But they also show the importance of starting to understand, think about, and formulate theory about the fact that it is impossible for full self-management to exist without questioning the production of goods. From this point of view, self-management advances to the extent that the workers gain growing degrees of control of production, seeking to meet human needs and not the domination of “consumers” by capital, or the expanded reproduction of capital. Self-management in the social macrocosm brings with it a debate on the democratic planning of production and the reproduction of human existence, which is to say, the global coordination of the production and reproduction of life by freely associated workers, together with the expansion of emancipated labor, the development of education beyond capital, and the unification of anti-capital struggles to overcome the social metabolism of capitalism through the politically convincing example of the workers themselves that another world is possible and necessary.
In the end, the framework of a theory of self-management is the framework of overcoming alienated labor and the alienating life, and of integrating all spheres of production and reproduction of human existence, which includes putting an end to hierarchical relationships at home (the woman holding down two jobs and caring for the children), through the building of forms of emancipated labor, through the struggle for non-commodified transportation and health, and through the production of non-alienating culture. In synthesis, through the struggle for and construction of a society that does not produce commodities and does not have social classes, but is a society of freely associated workers.
For this theory of self-management, it will be fundamental to recover the history of autonomous social struggles in Latin America and in the Third World, as well as the best-known struggles in the self-styled “developed” countries. From this point of view, this book and the collection which it begins help update the debate on the contemporary history of self-management, with a focus on Latin America, which is a fundamental step for the construction of the Great Latin American Homeland and, on a broader plane, of the construction of a society beyond capital.
The Open Faculty Program is a university extension and research team from the School of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires, which has worked since 2002 with businesses recovered by their workers. Every two years since 2007, it has organized the International Meeting on “The Worker Economy.” Andrés Ruggeri is its director.↩