Worker self-management: A sociocultural and historical perspective

Carlos Eduardo Martínez
National University of Córdoba


In this work, we will address the problem of self-management and its sustainability with a sociocultural and historical focus. In this framework, technology will be analyzed, broadly speaking, as a social product and as a mechanism to regulate an independent (and at the same time, heterogeneous) space, built in the framework of unequal social relationships.

The concept of “appropriate technology” will be seen as a contribution towards finding productive solutions that try to become forms of production equipped with greater social sustainability, to the extent that they try to become productive spaces that accompany the development of an associative logic imbued with democratic and self-managed processes run by the workers.

The concept will be discussed this way as part of a proposal framed by the possibility of thinking of popular sectors as sectors specifically linked to the adoption of technologies called "appropriate," and in the context of a practice that tries to lay the foundation for a new productive framework linked specifically to self-management. The political potential of these forms of production must be accompanied by a space for connection with networks that allows not only knowledge and political alliances, but also debate and exchange of experiences as ways of consolidating a space to go beyond being a circumstantial proposal in times of social, economic, or political crisis.

The transition towards a new form of production is blooming in this kind of experience, and its advance into different productive sectors is part of a new experience for the working class, in both urban and rural spaces.

Some criteria and concepts in self-management

To refer to this topic, and to try recreate this subject with the greatest clarity possible, it seems important to us to establish what kind of of phenomenon and/or activity we’re referring to when we talk about self-management by workers. We also believe it is necessary and important to clarify that this concept, applied to processes that occur between workers, can be closely linked with the story of the autonomous organization of workers and with their diverse struggles, through which we must analyze and contextualize these experiments in self-management. That is to say, we do not believe it is possible to isolate this kind of productive and social experience from the long tradition of struggle and of conflicts with capital that workers have carried on throughout their history.

The use of the concept of self-management has connotations with great ideological weight, rather than concrete. The concept, seen from various viewpoints, is part of an idea or alternative with democracy and solidarity, linked to a given project, that tries to make explicit what the characteristics of economic, social, and political relationships should be in a society, and show that they can transcend the limits imposed by capitalist relations by laying out an alternative proposal for society.

In this way, when these experiences are analyzed, they are visualized as fundamentally positive and proactive phenomena; but, together with this vision, it is necessary to also have a critical view, so as to not hide or minimize a series of concrete problems or the fact that they are embedded almost structurally in this kind of experience. Therefore, it is important to avoid an idealized and uncritical vision of their functioning that ends up having few points of contact with the concrete reality in which they develop. In this regard, Peixoto de Albuquerque1 points out that the concept of self-management resurfaces associated with collectively-managed businesses that have inherited bankrupt companies in the process of neoliberal globalization and, at the same time, “again taking up the political and ideological struggles that gave rise to the concept, that is, associated with a utopian ideal of transformation and social change.” In spite of this, and as the author himself recognizes, it continues to be an ambiguous and polysemous concept that generally refers to a certain idea of “collectivism,” which encompasses social relationships, but more directly and specifically, economic relationships, though without getting too deep into their specific characteristics, which is why the concept ends up referring to multiple processes, without clarifying concretely what shape production spaces connected with self-management take, or should take.2

With the objective of minimizing this conceptual ambiguity, we will establish that when we refer to productive self-management, we are talking about and referring to “worker management of a productive unit without capitalists or managers, developing their own organization of labor under non-hierarchical forms.”3 That is, we understand that self-management means that the workers collectively impose the rules that regulate production, the organization of the work process, the use of surpluses and the relationship with the rest of the economy and society. This last aspect is of vital importance, because the current attempts at self-management seek to transcend the limits of the productive space.4

On the other hand, self-management is also susceptible to being understood as an appropriation by the workers of the productive process. This appropriation entails, in a nutshell, the possibility of the productive processes beginning to be taken over by the workers, who have the possibility of modifying the rules governing such processes in a capitalist venture, with the goal of being able to replace them with another kind of organization of labor.5

It is important to clarify as we seek to deepen the debate on the concept of self-management that, for certain visions, it does not necessarily refer to an alternative form of economic organization of production. With this in mind, it is necessary to establish that it is a concept in dispute. With the habitual discursive capacity of the hegemonic system, it has reused the concept of self-management, introducing it into the very sphere of capitalist production.

In this regard, so-called “Toyotism” promoted a space for concrete “self-organization” in so-called “quality circles,” where “self-organized” workers are supposed to reach production quotas. This system means an overexploitation of the worker, since it not only exploits their physical capacity, but intellectual and dynamic as well. This new business model tends to replace the tight control of productive time exercised by the Taylorist-Fordist model of organizing work with another model in which the workers get involved in a space-time that goes beyond productive time.6 Self-organization led by capital turns workers into subjects who must “live” in service to the business, and their free time is reworked into productive time whenever they have to carry out functions of planning of production to guarantee a better development of the product.

The new self-management practices

From a general point of view, it is no longer possible to understand the practices of self-management in a purely economistic and productivist way; it is necessary take into account the new sociocultural practices in them, because their differented value and their chances of success, as well as of continuation and expansion, will only be possible to the extent that a differential value resides in them that holds them up as a possible alternative to the hegemonic model of labor exploitation that capitalist society offers. This society’s current strength has to do with its ability to enforce not only a productive model, but also a value system, in the end, a culture in which the workers themselves are not absent, though they are the weak link in the set of social relationships.

In the current self-management proposals in Latin America, there is something distinctive, something with different characteristics, which can transform these experiences into models of production that contribute politically towards a change in social relationships in a revolutionary sense and not simply progressive.

In this regard, we believe that is important not only to reflect on productive practice, but also what value system these practices are going to be oriented to. We are reminded of the old anarchist political practices, where the social library meant a mechanism of action that tried not only to struggle in the production space, but also to do battle on the plane of ideas and symbolism, which is to say, in the space where a cultural model is built that, inevitably, is reflected in our practice as historical subjects.

This summation of social organizations that are different from each other has a long tradition in the history of capitalism. It can traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century as a response to the contradictions in industrial capitalism. These organizations tried develop a productive logic that was different from the capitalist logic that implied a steady concentration of wealth and profit. In contrast, community organizations that are managed with the logic of what is commonly known as the “social economy” or “solidarity economy” try to create an alternative founded on practices that are based on collaboration and solidarity among members that belong to an organization. This conception of the economy tries to displace capital as the guiding center of relations in the productive sector and places human beings at the center of the economic connections of society. “These experiences are fed by the principles of cooperativism created in Rochdale, England, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and were perfected and reworked in different socio-cultural contexts.”7

This second dimension of the concept also rescues the potential of what some prefer to call the solidarity economy,8 which presents many of these economic or microeconomic experiences from the point of view of proposing an alternative to capitalism. According to this perspective, the solidarity economy is important above all as a chance for society to learn about economic forms based on solidarity, with the potential to become an alternative to the neoliberal political economy. Sustaining initiatives that border on subsistence gives, for this dimension, a dignifying meaning to human beings reduced to conditions of “exclusion” and generally provides the only way out of extreme social situations through relationships of economic solidarity and linked to movements and popular organizations that can gather the potential for transforming the struggle for survival into a new model of economy. Coraggio9 maintains, for example, that the social economy is “a transitional proposal of economic practices for transformative action, conscious of the society that they want to create from inside the currently existing mixed economy, in the direction of another economy, another economic system, organized by the principle of the expanded reproduction of the life of all citizen-workers, contrasted with the principle of the accumulation of capital.” From this programmatic conception, self-managed experiences like the businesses recovered by their workers that are most linked to the workers’ movement take on a different dimension, which holds up when put to the test of the greatest challenges of the rebuilding of another logic of work and production that revalidate the smaller but much more numerous experiences that swarm in the framework of the precariousness and informality of work, especially in Latin America.

In this sense, the most detailed analysis of the processes of self-management is possible, which sees them as an innovation in the use of technology and in possible changes, as well as in the limits that are discovered in the framework of these processes.

Taking into account the analysis of Ruggeri and Novaes,10 it is possible to see self-management processes and frame them in analysis of the relations of ownership, as well as the changes in the work process and changes that occur in the subjectivity of the workers. It is obvious that in all self-management processes currently underway, whether in experiences begun in businesses recovered by their workers,11 in other kinds of cooperatives, or different groups that are beginning to work on the production of a good or service in a self-managed way, the problem and the adaptation of “really existing technology” becomes a problem to solve, or rather, to adapt to. This problem begins to be substantial if the intent is to work in another way and not simply repeat the form of capitalist production. According to Novaes and Dagnino,12 the important thing is to analyze what technological development is in the processes of self-management.

The authors mentioned above point out that to think about the problem in a more theoretical framework, it is necessary to analyze the role of productive forces and to place that analysis in the framework of the dialectic of the capitalist mode of production and its possibilities of changing on the path towards another social system.

The question appears to be, then, how a technology can be verified as appropriate and how it can be visualized from the theoretical point of view. In that sense, Herrera proposes the concept of “technological space.” According to the author,[^13] the concept presents several advantages because: 1) it frames the technological problem in a global context; 2) it recognizes the historical-productive particularities of the societies involved; and 3) recreates basic concepts such as local participation and endogenous development.

Such characteristics mean understanding technological space as a dynamic space not susceptible to being fossilized, because no space with these characteristics remains unaltered over time. The problem, then, of what could be called Appropriate Technologies, must consider these points and analyze how the different self-managed spaces relate to the broader framework of capitalist relations that surround them and impose limits and restrictions on them.


The quantity and quality of self-managed enterprises that have emerged in the last two decades have accentuated several matters that are important to analyze. At the level of general context, it is a confirmation of the weakness in hiring the work force in capitalist society, despite verified economic growth in the last decade in the majority of the countries of our region. This “weakness” means that, in cases of business crises, capital opts to dismantle the labor force, even abandoning productive activity. So, there remain in our countries not only a reserve industrial army in the form of permanent structural unemployment, but an enormous percentage of the labor force that remains precarious and easily abandoned by capital in the case of economic necessity or simply of seasonal dips in profit rates.

In this context, which was intensified in the 1990s, self-managed enterprises have demonstrated a growing capacity to absorb, in autonomous spaces, a certain number of workers that, while not a large part of the labor market, are a growing number and, more importantly, constitute an alternative for the above-mentioned crises.

The challenges of self-management, then, can come to be understood as the other side of the permanent crisis of the capitalist economic system, and are finding a productive framework that situates them in a scenario of autonomy, where different technologies can be developed that help to develop their productive capacity.

In this regard, the development of new technologies must keep in mind that they are indissolubly attached to their political capacity to establish networks and alliances with other social actors. Today, more than ever, it is necessary to understand the space of self-management as a political, technical, and productive space, at the same time that it is being analyzed as a sociocultural space. Technology, thus understood, is capable of being transformed into a space for struggle and political connection that contributes to the construction of a new productive form that offers itself as an alternative for workers, just as it is carried out currently by thousands of workers in very diverse contexts, both geographic and productive.


Coraggio, José Luis (1998). Economía Popular Urbana: Una nueva perspectiva para el desarrollo local, Cartillas 1, Instituto del Conurbano, Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento.

Coraggio, José Luis (2008). Economía social, acción pública y política (hay vida después del neoliberalismo), 2da. ed., Ediciones Ciccus, Bs. As.

Gaiger, Luis (1996). "Emprendimientos solidarios: ¿Una alternativa para la economía popular?", in Unisinos, Sao Paulo, Brasil.

Herrera A. O. (1981). The generation of technologies in rural areas, World Development.

Martínez, Carlos (2004). "Procesos de autogestión en empresas recuperadas," Presentation to the Second National Congress of Sociology.

Novaes, Henrique T. (2005). Para além da apropriação dos meios de produção?

O processo de Adequação Sócio-Técnica em Fábricas Recuperadas, Masters Thesis, Universidad de Campinas

Novaes, H; De Assis, U; Dagnino, R (2004). "Mapeando mudanças em empresas recuperadas sobre a óptica do Conceito de Adequação SócioTécnica," Trabalho apresentado no 2º Encontro Internacional de Economia Solidária, São Paulo.

Peixoto de Albuquerque, Paulo (2004). "Autogestión," in La Otra Economía, Cattani, A. D. (Comp.), Fundación OSDE – Altamira – UNGS, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Ruggeri, Andrés (2004). "La política en las Empresas recuperadas," Ponencia al II Congreso Nacional de Sociología.

Ruggeri, Andrés (2009). Las empresas recuperadas: autogestión obrera en Argentina y América Latina, Buenos Aires, Editorial de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras.

Ruggeri et al. (2011). Las empresas recuperadas en la Argentina. 2010. Informe del tercer relevamiento de empresas recuperadas, Ediciones de la Cooperativa Chilavert, Buenos Aires.

  1. 2004.

  2. The case of this concept is like the use of the concept of reciprocity in anthropology and sociology. Its misuse has left it unclear what it refers to and in which circumstances it is appropriate to apply it.

  3. Ruggeri, 2011.

  4. Ruggeri, ibid.

  5. The experience of businesses recovered by the workers is an example of these possibilities (Martínez, 2006).

  6. There is no doubt that it is an appropriation of the concept by the capitalist organization of labor. Self-management was never part of capital’s conceptual treaty with labor.

  7. Gaiger; 1996.

  8. Although the term “social economy” is also used in this sense.

  9. 2008.

  10. Ruggeri, 2009; Novaes; 2007.

  11. The Businesses Recovered by their Workers started a process of self-management that was and is the fruit of various reflections on self-management. The phenomenon goes beyond our country and is found in various countries in Latin America.

  12. Novaes and Dagnino, 2004; Novaes, 2007 (prologue by Dagnino and Sardá de Faria).

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