Henri Lefebvre, open access in Antipode - 'The Theory of Ground Rent and Rural Sociology'
New and Green Materialism

Work, workers’ needs and an alternative political economy

by Maurizio Atzeni on July 27, 2015


What alternative plans in the sphere of work and production can be proposed for a transition to a post-capitalist political economy?

In an article recently published in the journal Historical Materialism, reproducing the 2014 Deutscher Book Prize Lecture, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin argue that amongst the strategic guidelines that a rekindled historical materialism and Marxist political economy must entail is ‘the importance of making the public goods and services required to meet workers’ collective needs the central objective of class struggle’. This call, reasserting the primacy of social needs over commodities and of cooperation and solidarity over market competitiveness and individuality, poses the problem of developing practices and institutions able to put forward processes of social change that, going beyond the political economy of capital, might be simultaneously the expression of a truly ‘Political Economy of the working class’, in the words of Michael Lebowitz, another Marxist political economist and winner of the Deutscher Book Prize in the recent past.

But what is the ‘status of the art’ in this respect? What concrete examples can be used to build a political economy based on an alternative, de-commodified and de-marketised, system of economic provision? What kind of production and work organisation based on the satisfaction of workers’ collective needs (to better food, housing, education, environment, social development) does this entail? The absence of left governments’ and parties’ serious engagement with these kind of questions, as evidenced for instance by the recent developments of the financial and economic crisis in Greece, make a call to reflect on these issues all the more important.

Cooperatives, in the sphere of both production and distribution, have historically represented both a bottom up response to the alienated, hierarchical and authoritarian conditions of work within capitalism and an alternative system of distribution of goods based, in principle, on the satisfaction of collective needs. The emergence of cooperatives since the mid-nineteenth century, in parallel with the development of industrial capitalism, has thus represented a concrete manifestation of the existence within capitalism, of a more democratic, collective and humanly enriching form of work and production. Cooperativism has a long history of success as a more ethical and equalitarian form of business organisation. However, early criticisms about the extent to which the logic of the market and profitability can penetrate and distort genuine attempts by groups of workers and consumers to introduce more democratic and enriching forms of work within cooperatives and to create socially oriented institutions, continue to limit cooperatives as a form of organisation. Moreover, cooperatives have often been used as ‘Trojan Horses’ for the more basic violation of labour rights. In other words, cooperativism, both in the production and distribution sphere, is not by itself sufficient to guarantee long lasting workers’ empowerment and less profit-driven access to goods and services.

J.K.Taking into account these limitations, proposals such as  Pluralist Commonwealth by Gar Alperovitz, Community Economies by J.K Gibson-Graham and Participatory Economics by Michael Albert, all put cooperative, self-managed work as the par excellence de-alienating, humanly enriching form of work but in the context of broader calls for inclusive, alternative societies based on participatory communities. As Elinor Olstrom remarks in her seminal work Governing the Commons, that self-management of the commons by local communities has proven to be not just economically efficient and ecologically sustainable but has also allowed the ‘unlocking of human potential’, using the development agencies’ wording.

Social movements’ practices and governance policies have engaged with similar issues. In Brazil the idea of the solidarity economy, of an economy self-organised and self-managed by workers and centred on the dignity of all human beings and the respect of the planet, has been promoted since the 1990s by a wide variety of social movements and is today actively supported by local, regional and federal state institutions. In the city of Jackson, Mississippi, a political campaign advocating self-determination and participatory democracy through the development of city sponsored initiatives in the field of the solidarity economy led to Mayor Lumumba’s election in 2013. In the cities of Zaragoza, Paris, Grenoble and Naples, attempts have been made to manage water supply through co-operation of local government with trade unions/workers in the utility and consumer groups in society. The concept of the Buen Vivir, which appears in both Bolivia’s and Ecuador’s constitutions, similarly links cooperative, communitarian forms of production and consumption to the way in which local populations have self-governed territories since ancestral times. In the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela, to give another example, workers’ active participation in the self-management of cooperatives is seen as the instrument through which workers can achieve in the economic sphere their full human development. But conscious cooperative work is seen as part of a more complex model of society in which production responds to social, community based needs.

PolanyiIt seems clear, thus, that in order to think about and implement alternative political economic practices, more general considerations about the nature and aim of production, the levels and sphere of people’s democratic participation, the urban or rural environment, the ecological sustainability and the social reproductive dimension need to be put on the floor. All these spheres of life are naturally interconnected and include interconnected work activities, giving form to the way in which work is performed and to the social meanings and values associated with it. An alternative system of provision able to reassert the primacy of social needs over commodities and of cooperation and solidarity over market competitiveness and individuality, thus call for a broader understanding of work and a resignification of it. As Karl Polanyi argued, the separation of work from other life activities was directly connected with the commodification of labour and its subordination to the law of the market. As a consequence, this was to ‘annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different kind of organisation, an atomistic and individualistic one’.

Movements of urban gardening and for housing across the world represent further examples of self-organised groups of people, that through cooperative and community work, address more general but interconnected life related issues: dignified living spaces and the regeneration of the urban environment; the poverty, degradation and violence of urban peripheries and marginalisation of youth, the re-appropriation of common spaces and democratisation of decision making (reclaiming citizens’ ‘right to the city’), the development of environmental, ecological and health consciousness. Movements such as these are, however, just an example of the flourishing of initiatives that promote the defence of the Commons. Groups of people and activists across the world are fighting against the privatisation and commodification of shared resources, whether natural, cultural, environmental or related to social well-being. Prefigurative, alternative politics often emerge from these people’s experiences of self-government and self-organisation.  The most recent society-wide example of alternative social practices and politics is certainly that of Argentina. In the context of a deep economic crisis that exploded in December 2001 and led to the default of the country on its sovereign debts, ordinary workers occupied bankrupt factories and started producing again under self-management; unemployed people territorially-organised and formed producers’ cooperatives for the provision of basic services; ordinary citizens engaged in political discussions and decision-making about the life and needs of their neighbourhoods, forming popular assemblies. Others integrated their poor income through participating in the barter economy. While many of these experiences have not survived upon the return and stabilisation of the market economy after 2003, self-managed factories have resisted in a competitive environment and have received institutional support and continue to represent a living example, in Argentina and internationally, of the possibility of a more democratic and humane form of work and alternative production.

What is striking about the work involved in all these experiences/circuits of economic activities is that work is often used as a means for the production of material and immaterial use values (food, health, literacy, protection of the environment, public spaces) rather than for goods with a direct exchange value in the market. In other words these experiences point to the possibility of wealth creation in de-commodified forms, limiting the need of a market’s intermediation, and it forces us to re-think about ‘what production is for’. Posing this question is essential to understand how categories of producers, such as those working in the informal economy of the global cities or in the work of social reproduction within the domestic sphere, whose services are essential to societies, are constantly devalued and made invisible by capital’s own logic of accumulation. Similarly, linking production to a political economy centred on the satisfaction of workers and citizens needs helps to strengthen and defend already existing non-marketised forms of production and to expand the reach of a communal economy.


How far are we from a ‘political economy of the working class’, to use Lebowitz’ powerful wording? At various historical stages the creative destruction of capitalism has pushed the working classes to engage with alternative forms of production and system of provision based on cooperative and solidaristic principles. In this sense there is already a social knowledge about alternatives. However these have always been a response to capital’s own dynamics rather than a carefully planned plan for action in the interest of the working class. In the light of this, in the following paragraphs I just want to concentrate on a few areas of action/policy in the hope these can become central to social and higher education institutions and organisations representing working class interests.  Pre-existing cultural, social and institutional factors at the local level need to be taken into consideration. Thus, policies need to be adapted to the specificity of the context. The following recommendations should also ideally be seen as part of an integral process that points to a re-socialisation of the economy:

  • Re-appropriation of the Commons: legal recognition of the self-governance and self-management of these by local communities for local communities; regulation of the use of the commons (mutual rights and obligations, equal access);
  • Promotion and defence of cooperatives: favour workers take-over of bankrupt factories; introduce cooperative values in educational curricula at all levels; assign the provision of local basic state paid social services to local cooperatives; stimulate the creation of networks of co-operatives along productive chains that immediately satisfy social reproduction needs (food, clothing, housing, education) in order to establish direct and mutual relations between producers and consumers.
  • Democratic Control: legislation to empower citizens/local communities in controlling the respect of health, security and working conditions in companies that make use of public money (for instance for infrastructure building); promotion of participatory and effective decision making bodies within workplaces and communities; campaign for a shortened working day so as to allow a fairer gender contribution to social reproduction and family needs; support/link empowerment in workplaces with that in all other spheres of everyday life by providing spaces for collective sharing and entertainment; and
  • Income security: campaign for living wages and minimum income (see London for instance); expansion of welfare state measures (unemployment, housing and social security benefits; provision of continuous training).
Maurizio Atzeni
Maurizio Atzeni is a researcher based in Buenos Aires at the Center for Labour Relations, National Research Council of Argentina. He has written extensively on work and labour issues in articles and books published internationally. Among his recent publications is the book Workers and Labour in a Globalised Capitalism: theoretical themes and contemporary issues (Palgrave, 2013), in which work is analysed from the broader perspective of political economy.
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  • Red Mantle
    July 27, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Many examples of real world alternative economic projects, and challenges they face, in the collection “Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future” Edited by: Jeff Shantz & José Brendan Macdonald. http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beyond-capitalism-9781623567972

  • Neale
    July 28, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Paul Mason has tried to articulate ways forward, looking to cooperative ideas that are in opposition to Uber, for example, whilst recognsing the obstacles. His time in Greece for the past 5 months has allowed him to look at working examples of alternatives. He does recognise the problems with small scale alternatives when faced with world scale transformations, but he looks at ideas from Gorz (who he admits he didn’t like in the 1970s) as an approach that might help us chart a new course.
    He writes well and accessibly, and has done in Live Working or Die Fighting, Meltdown and now “Post capitalism”. Some (e.g. Doug Henwood) say that it all is a rehash of the living-on-air ideas from the late 1990s but it seems to me to be more aware of the obstacles, and for the need to have real people, not thinktanks, making the moves. Agency is important.
    There is a pretty good discussion with him and others here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HMs0kkUvq8 and an interview here: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blogs/jonathan-derbyshire/interview-paul-masons-guide-to-a-post-capitalist-future

  • Maurizio Atzeni
    August 5, 2015 at 3:51 am

    There are certain aspects of Mason’s Postcapitalism proposal that might be questionable and debatable (for instance the extent to which machines and automation can fully replace human labour or the tendency to magnify the role of virtual networked information over the ‘necessary’ materiality of human reproduction) and he clearly starts from a perspective that is a bit too much Eurocentric (unfortunately many people across the world are still lacking access to information). However I agree that Mason’s contribution is particularly important and this in particular for its policy implications: it talks to the left and to the deficiencies that left parties of all sorts have in their current anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal policies. It poses the problem of reformulating a project and a subject for the XXI century social emancipation, a much needed discussion. Unfortunately recent events in Greece are a further confirmation of the political left’s continuous lack of engagement with a seriuously radical and alternative political economy based on people needs.

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