Syndicalism and self-management

Claudio Nascimento Brazil

The Meeting held in the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), in July of 2013, allowed us to develop some points on the topic of syndicalism linked to self-management. What are the challenges for the union movement in that relationship? What is the project of twenty-first century syndicalism? What is the historical context that syndicalism responds to?

There are many debates around the turn of the century. This expression translates into a widespread feeling of perplexity about the transformations under way in the world. Truly, the great change of century already happened (it was a short century, that started late in 1914 with the First World War and ended early in 1989). In a certain way, the current transformations were already happening at the molecular level in the ’70s, or even in the year annus mirabilis of 1968. What is certain is that they brought light to a complex world that is profoundly adverse to workers.

In Europe, the capitalist counteroffensive began in the ’60s. Its main weapons were the process of globalization and the computerization of production. Syndicalism did not realize, at that time, the breadth and depth of transformations in production. When did it, it was long after the fact.

Through computerization and the globalization of the financial market, leading groups of capital redesigned knowledge and the place of labor in the productive process, leading to a profound crisis in the mass parties and unions, and to questioning of the State-Nation.

The transformations radically affect two environments of the modern world:

  1. The worlds of labor

  2. The notion of the State-Nation-Territory

The first refers to the field of the restructuring of production; the second, to the setting of the territory, of cities, of public policies. The first requires analysis of the sphere of production, of the current stage of “Capital”; the second, analysis at the level of space-territory, of social reproduction. As a set, this is the phenomenon that Milton Santos calls the “technical-informational system.”

In the current development of the capitalist system, the world of labor is the object of transformation in the broader process of restructuring the organization of production.

The changes are so deep and radical that they seem to be capital’s “revenge” on labor. This really comes from a new form of global capitalism, which is very different from multinational capitalism.

One of the main symbols of this history of the globalization of capitalism is the development of capital in general, overcoming markets and borders, political regimes and national projects, regionalisms and geopolitics, cultures and civilizations.

In the center of the process is the crisis of the world of labor, the technological revolution under way. In certain ways, in the age of the globalization of the world, the question of labor is reopened. What characterized the world of labor at end of the 20th century is that this became really global. On the same scale as the globalization of capitalism, there was a globalization of the world of labor, which is to say, to the extent that the globalization of capitalism, seen as civilizing process, reaches the whole of human society and breaks social and mental frames of reference. This “disorder of labor” acts on all social life: we see the rise of new forms of socializing, a new kind of individualism, new religions, crisis of representation, violence and barbarism. All institutions (union, party, school, family, State, Nation) suffer the effects of the restructuring of the production process. For example: in the world of labor, the notions of Space, Time and function are being radically altered, forcing a revision of the relationship between time and the nature of work.

New technologies produce global cultural impacts on society as a whole and, particularly, on workers. "Flexibilization" involves a whole internal and external reordering of the working class, at the national, regional, and global level. Their patterns of socializing, cultural life, and consciousness are modified, at the same time that there are changes in the conditions of organization, mobilization, and making demands.

Several important points emerge from all this: the crisis of industrial civilization and the transformation of the value of labor. The globalization of the world expresses a new cycle of the expansion of capitalism as a mode of production and civilizing process with a global reach. The future is headed for a dualist fragmentation of society with consequences of marginalization and social exclusion, as well as structural unemployment and labor precariousness.

The field of the worlds of labor is translated into a “conservative modernization” of productive structures, combining the various forms of work (slavery, Fordist, post-Fordist, etc.), bringing unemployment and exclusion to thousands of workers. The central objective of the employer counteroffensive, which started at the beginning of the ’90s, is to dismantle the base of experience in the field of praxis of collective organization through the flexibility of work.

The citizen-community union

The transformations in the world of labor and in the world of life lead us to profoundly rethink the union movement. From what perspective? From that of the growing syndicalism in society; a social syndicalism and more in solidarity, integrated with citizenship, both in factories and in cities. It must be an organic union, but also one of citizenship, which represents the workers and which is also a social movement, that can face the challenges of capitalism as a mode of production and civilizing process. It must integrate work and environment, work and education, work and feminism, work and culture, work and well-being, work and youth, work and old age.

This new syndicalism requires an integration of working-class consciousness with citizen consciousness. Citizenship outside of the world of labor calls on the union movement to expand to new forces and social movements located outside the production process. Just as democracy must enter workplaces, syndicalism must encompass citizenship, the democratic and popular public space. The privileged space of syndicalism has been the business and the profession (the union and the federation). Currently, the geographical aspect at the local level tends to play a greater role. At the local level, syndicalism must participate in the democratic debate, in the management of the city, which is to say, have an active presence in local life.

From this perspective, syndicalism must go through profound transformations. Some aspects can be pointed out:

  • Faced with the challenges under way, syndicalism must change, and above all, must be allied with forces in civil society. To address the process of globalization, it must build new bonds of solidarity. This is new territory for the union movement, which means a true “cultural revolution,” which means abandoning a certain conception of representation and hiring that was determinant when its central objective was the conquest of the monopoly on hiring in the businesses. How to build a hiring collective that also includes the interests of sectors of the population and of “excluded” workers in diverse fields: housing, social security, basic income, education, health, transportation, minority status, etc.?
  • This revolution in corporate union culture also involves its forms of organizing. So, a syndicalism structured in vertical trade organizations, will hardly be able to organically or politically represent the world of those who are in the informal sector, unemployed, or dispersed across the country. It demands an enormous qualitative leap. This means considering their organization at the national level, and joining the dimension of the territory and that of the interprofessional organization at a new historical level. Connecting the “organic union” with the “citizen union.” Organizing the union in workplaces and trades, and enlarging its political mandate to society in general.
  • In “business unionism,” affiliated workers’ rights are stronger than those of the sectors that are “excluded” from work processes. On the other hand, the alternative of a national union encompasses the interests of many other social sectors, not only of the workers. The central point is that of representativeness of the union, building alliances with other sectors of society to be able to be a privileged agent in the collective formulation of an alternative project. The fundamental topic is that of knowing what the world it is that the union must represent.
  • Given exiting misery and unemployment, syndicalism must assume a determining role in relation to the Nation-state, by valuing work through policies of professional qualification and new rights that allow the qualification of work, the creation of new jobs that are still “on the margin” of the formal economy (“Solidarity Economy”), controlling training processes in businesses, and questioning the current education system.
  • Syndicalism needs new strategies for job creation. The transformation of an economy of exclusion and informality into a “solidarity economy” can create a number of well-paying and qualified jobs such as recovery of the territory and the environment, waste recycling, services for people, permanent training, etc.
  • Creation of cooperative communities for mutual aid between workers. They are the new frontiers of work.
  • Fighting the hegemony of savage individualism means building a culture of solidarity, and being open, therefore, to a set of new subjects that have been, so far, strangers to union culture. This opening brings confrontation with cultures that were not part of the union world, but that bring new values and hopes. This new solidarity brings new perspectives for syndicalism, a new ethic to configure the identity of syndicalism in the twenty-first century.
  • A new political culture means the politicization of the everyday. Culture is praxis, something elemental, a context for production. The expression “political culture” indicates an everyday relationship, the way people discuss and decide their fundamental problems. Culture is born of needs, is fed by history, and cannot be introduced “from above” by cultural institutions. It is a vital activity of the mind and of the senses, a human capacity. However, syndicalism acts as if culture and political were two separate spheres. It is not aware of its cultural mandate. In the counteroffensive of capital, the development of microelectronics brings an extension of the industry of consciousness, whose ultimate consequences still we cannot fully foresee, above all, in changes of mentality and opinion. It favors disintegration and a fragmentation of the conscience and of the human behavior.

It does not seek to transform its interests and most organized needs at a political level, as a means of public and collective expression.

Citizen syndicalism (management of work and management of the city)

Historically, citizenship in workplaces tends toward integration with public space of citizenship. For example, at the beginning of their struggles, the workers, when they went on strike, left the factories and went to the city squares (the word “strike” in Spanish, huelga, comes from the name of a place where the workers used to meet to make collective decisions).

From this perspective, the key to citizenship in the world of labor (in workplaces), is local labor organizations, instruments through which the workers can develop resistance, control, and the management of the organization of labor. We call this process self-management of production. At the level of cities, citizens exercise democracy directly through instruments like participatory budgeting, city forums, etc. We call this social self-management.

Therefore, power at the local level is expressed at the level of work settings connected with urban-rural public space. This is the essence of what is called the “citizen union,” or “communal union.”

The solidarity economy

With the process of exclusion and structural unemployment, we have to rethink the topic of work, because while there is no employment, there is a lot of work when we think about the needs of society.

From the analytical perspective of Milton Santos, in cities of underdeveloped countries, the particular mode of organization of the space connects the most varied forms of capital, work, and technology. This organization of urban space is characterized by “divided space,” with two circuits in the urban economy: an upper circuit, which has its direct origin in technological modernization, where monopolies operate, and a lower circuit, which is made up of small-scale activities, and has its roots in poor populations.

The relationship between them is dialectical, which is to say, the lower circuit is the product of the logic of the upper circuit and, at the same time, an obstacle to its expansion.

In these cities, zones of resistance proliferate in the form of activities dedicated to attending to concrete and immediate needs of survival: small businesses, which serve a circuit of production, distribution, and consumption that operates far from the world of the rationalized and computerized economy.

Therefore, there is, on the one hand, a globalized economy, produced from above, and on the other hand, a sector produced from below that, in poor countries, is a popular sector and, in the rich countries, includes the least privileged sectors of society, including immigrants.

So, the formation of a new field in the economy turns out to be possible: the “solidarity economy,” made up of businesses directed by their own workers, and producer/consumer cooperatives.

In field of the economy of employed wage labor, the workers are organized by workplaces; in the field of the solidarity economy, in self-managed businesses and cooperatives, the workers can experience new forms of associated labor.

This way, in cities, through local power, citizens develop their organs of direct democracy (participatory budgeting, various forums of popular participation).

In current experiences, popular-communal power is “power” that, in itself, brings the concrete utopia, the “viable unknown” (Paulo Freire) and the “not-yet-being” (E. Bloch).

Our reading provides elements from the methodological field of the social sciences of Latin America, which seek to reflect the experiences under way and, undoubtedly, many of the ideas in development on our continent.

With a viewpoint in line with the long wave, or long memory, we see that the various attempts by the workers to make an “assault on heaven,” in truth, are rehearsals for building “organs of people power,” often times antagonistic to the fundamental nucleus of the metabolism of the capitalist mode of production.

They are the cases of active mass revolutions, and also of revolts and rebellions. In these moments, the workers found organs of self-management which are, in truth, communal organs.

If, in the field of the “short memory,” we take the experience of Poland, of 1980-81, as the close of a long cycle started in the postwar period, a new cycle was begun in the years between 1990 and 2000 in Latin America: possibly with the indigenous rebellion in Chiapas, in 1994, which revived the ideals of Zapatismo in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-11.

On the one hand, in a way in which the potential is more explicitly becoming “reality,” looking at the movement “from below,” like in the experiences under way in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and less explicitly and solidly, even doubtfully, in countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Peru.

If we go back in time, digging into the field of the “long memory,” these communal expressions of popular power can be found since the experiences of the “revolutionary committees” in 1848, in the neighborhoods of Paris, or in the course of the French Revolution of 1789, in the years 1793-94, in which the sans-culotte created their revolutionary organs of power.

And, above all, we have the founding experience (“the way at last found,” says Marx) of the Paris Commune, in 1871, when the factories became managed by the workers themselves and the people of Paris forged a proposal to manage the whole city. The Commune influenced all revolutionary struggles that followed it, like the Soviet uprising of Petrograd, in 1905, and, above all, the Revolution of 1917, in which the central slogan was “all the power to the Soviets,” which is to say, to the “organs of popular management,” arising in all spaces in Russian society: in factories, neighborhoods, Parliament, the fields, students, etc.

In Our America, the experience we can locate in the field of the long memory, in the ’70s, is Popular Unity in Allende’s Chile, in which organs of popular power were founded: Industrial Corridors, networks that connected factories managed by the workers and neighborhood assemblies. They even foreshadowed a Popular Assembly.

As we already pointed out above, the last offshoot of the cycle started in the postwar period was in the ’80s, in Poland, continuing a long wave begun in 1953-56 of revolts, rebellions, and revolutions. In the heart of the post-capitalist societies of Eastern Europe, there emerged the Self-Management Network that controlled the 3,000 largest businesses of the country, connected through the “Solidarity Free Union.”

At its Congress, which lasted 2 weeks, the workers created, as their Highest Program in Poland, the “Self-Management Republic.”

With the struggles in Poland, possibly, the cycle of the hegemony of the “old working class” closed, which was centered on the great industrial centers. That cycle had the center of the popular project in the factory, and its political expressions were the union and the party, with the peculiarity that, in the countries of so-called "real socialism," due to the merger of the single party and the State, the union expressed the anxieties of all the popular sectors and citizens.

The experience of Allende’s Chile also had the workers’ movement as its main subject, through the Chilean CUT, which was embedded in workplaces.

The current cycle brings new characteristics of popular power. The old mole changed geographic space in subsequent years and, at least in Latin America, took on a “community form.” And he came to the surface first in the Andes, with thousands of Indians, through various insurrections and other forms of struggle, organizations and people power of a “communal nature,” but incorporating the experience accumulated in the previous cycle by country and city workers, in parties and unions.

These historical experiences, keeping the specificity of each country, demonstrate that the construction of new power and counterhegemony in the societies of Latin America only happen to the extent that it is possible to build a pluralistic, multi-part political subject based on ethnic and cultural diversity.

That long cycle of struggles for the emancipation of labor is a phenomenon of great depth that demands studies in the field of philosophy, specifically from the “ontology of the social being.” While, on the one hand, that long history of experiences of emancipation has been marked by defeats, on the other hand, that concrete utopia was not extinguished, and does not die, but is always present throughout the historical process.

It is a common thread, always marking and always coming to light in the historical moments of the change of cycles. That is why it is permanently established in society. And, thus, it demands the connection of different times, short memories and long memories, history, and everyday life.

Anton Pannekoek, who studied this phenomenon and called it “worker councils,” though they are really communal forms of popular power, said that:

“(…) worker councils do not mean a fixed form of organization, developed once and for all and in which there only remains the task of correcting and perfecting details; it is a principle, the principle of worker self-management of factories and of production. (…) It is exclusively a common thread for a long, hard struggle for the emancipation that the working class still has ahead of it.”1

And, historically, its first and clearest form emerged with the Paris Commune. The “political form finally discovered to carry out within it the economic emancipation of labor.”2

So, we can talk about the “principle of community power” or “principle of self-management,” which can take many and various forms: worker, campesino, or neighborhood council, or as the revolutionary praxis of many and plural historical subjects: workers, campesinos, men and women, youth and adults, students, soldiers, Indians, and quilombolas.3

On the Latin American continent, the experiences the community form are phenomena of “long duration” and are part of the civilizing process of indigenous communities, of original peoples.

For example, the Peruvian “ayllu” has its origin in the pre-Incan “ayllu,” which is lost in the mists of American prehistory. What is most likely is that the origin of the “ayllu” is parallel to the settlement of nomads. The “ayllu” was the community cell of the Incan Empire. So great is the strength of the agrarian community in the Andes that it has been maintained from the pre-Incan period up through our day, in spite of the devastating work of the Conquest, which, during its first years, levelled even the most remote caverns of the Andes.

Through the ideas of the Marxist Peruvian Mariátegui, the collectivist and even self-managed nature of the community form is clear. In his “Seven Essays,” while criticizing liberal-individualism, the author speaks of these experiences as a basis for a possible “American Indian socialism.”

Mariátegui says: “I fundamentally consider that incontestable and concrete factor which gives a peculiar character to our agrarian problem: the survival of the community and of elements of practical socialism in agriculture and in indigenous life.”4 For Mariátegui, these elements emerged in Peru in pre-Incan times and were developed together with an economy that was developed “spontaneously and freely,” until the Spanish conquest. Which means that these elements were not eliminated or affected by the Incas, who did not alter that natural state; on the contrary, according to Mariátegui, they “empowered” it: “Collective work and common effort were used beneficially for social purposes.”

This way, these elements guaranteed the subsistence and growth of the population. In the framework of the Incan Empire, communities were cells of a “dynamic” State.

With the Spanish Conquest, a new “vision of the world” was imposed, as René Zavaleta has said well:

The Spanish brought the desire for gold, which is to say, the notions of abundance and shortage, which were unknown in that collectivist culture and also, as a consequence, the ideas of loneliness, competition, and the individual. It is the language of ambition that, in the gold rush of the Conquest, built the myth of Eldorado, whose version in Upper Peru is the Great Paitití, lost or hidden in the inaccessible jungle of Moxos.5

Various Latin American authors point out that there exists a communal system which is expressed in economic and political forms: collective ownership of resources and private management or usufruct of the same. In the system of collective ownership there is collective deliberation and rotation of representation. The representative is not designated to command, but to “simply organize the course of the common decision.”6 That communal system has the characteristics and principles of the experience of the Paris Commune.

The economy of the communal system excludes exploitation or appropriation of others’ work, because collective goods are used privately or by families. In the same way, alienated labor does not exist, because the family and its members control the modes and rhythms of production, and are not subject to control from outside the community.7

In the sphere of political power, the figure of the communal representative is the opposite of what we know in traditional politics: “(…) In the communities, representation is not voluntary, but mandatory and rotating. In contrast to neoliberal logic, in the community, it is not the most capable or the most instructed or intelligent who is chosen, but simply whose turn it is (…). As representation is not an option but a duty that is provided to the community, everyone in turn must provide it if they want continue to use common goods (land, water, fields).8

In Raúl Zibechi’s analysis, it is clear that large mobilizations occur because there is a dense network of relationships between people. These relationships are also forms of organizing. In everyday life, they are the relationships of neighbors, of friends, of companions, of allies, of family. These are also important relationships/organizations. These community relationships bring enormous strength, and it is within them where insurrectional movements are built.

The construction of popular power means a radical transformation of the State, which connects the expansion and deepening of the institutions of representative democracy and democratic freedoms, the conquests of the struggles, with the construction of forms of direct democracy at the grassroots level, and also with forms of self-management.

If we look in Mariátegui, the three central points with which he defined American Indian socialism can be identified in the communal societies of the Andes: the principle of the “community form.”

  • The socialization of the means of production, meaning the abolition of the private ownership of productive and natural resources and their substitution with social ownership;
  • The socialization of political power, the participation of free and equal citizens in the collective formation of a political will and in the direct exercise of authority; in the end, direct democracy;
  • The transformation of the world of intersubjective relationships, in the sense of affirmation of solidarity.


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Mariategui, J.C. (2008). Os sete ensaios de interpretação da realidade peruana, Sp: Editora Expressão Popular/CLACSO.

Marx, Karl(1977). La guerra civil en Francia, Moscú, Editorial Progreso.

Nascimento, Claudio (2010). Do beco dos sapos, pelos canaviais de Catende, aos caracóis de Nuestra America: autogestão, poder comunal, socialismo, Digitado.

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Patzi, Félix (1996). Economía comunera y explotación capitalista, La Paz, Edcom.

Patzi, Félix (2004). Sistema comunal, una propuesta alternativa al sistema liberal, La Paz, CEA.

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Tapia, Luis (1999). Turbulencias de fin de siglo, La Paz, IINCIP.

Zavaleta, René (1967). Bolivia, el desarrollo de la conciencia nacional, Montevideo, Editorial Dialogue.

Zibechi, Raúl (2006). Dispersar el poder. Buenos Aires, Tinta Limón Ediciones.

  1. Pannekoek, 1982, p.7.

  2. Marx, 1977, p.67.

  3. Descendants of the residents of the quilombos, territories of fugitive slaves (editor’s note).

  4. Mariátegui, 2008, p.69.

  5. Zavaleta, 1967.p.19.

  6. Zibechi, 2006, p.38.

  7. Patzi, 2004, p.171.

  8. Zibechi, 2006, p. 39-40.