Discussion – introduction Len Arthur
A word of explanation could be necessary. The first four discussion pieces from me can be criticised for being too abstract. Laying down some foundations in the socialist tradition is the aim, hopefully to act as an aid and reference point for more specific policy discussions as well as being an interest in their own right. It may also be a retired socialist indulgently working out some personal demons! Well, whatever your view, the blog format allows any interested WLG reader to add to the blog by posting or, by any reader commenting, so there is also a hope that these pieces and others are transformed into a collective reference point. I’ll soldier on for another two weeks in this vein and please feel free to join in. This week and next week will explore how it is possible to challenge the power of global capitalism.
Discussion – we shall overcome: challenging the power of capitalism (1). Len Arthur
Whilst texts such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (see previous blog) are both revealing, frightening and lead to anger, they can also act unintentionally in a contradictory way, re-enforcing a consciousness of being dominated and unable to resist. Naomi demonstrates that ‘shock and awe’ is the intention of perpetrators of the history she describes: the description however, requires a consideration of effective methods of resistance, to avoid being caught in this dilemma.
Like Wilt, the fictional Liberal Studies lecturer of Tom Sharp’s novels, I also used to teach the subject and remember vividly when after a number of weeks describing how capitalism and the class system works one of the engineering apprentices stopped me in full flow and said ‘look we agree with you, but what can we do about it?’; then answered his own question by saying ‘nothing’. From that day on I re-wrote the lessons to work from where the students were at, on matters that concerned them trying to make links with the wider context; one or two may have joined a union as a consequence, but little more could be done within the education context. For us, in a political context, answering the ‘what can we do about it?’ question is essential and does require some consideration of how the exercise of power operates in our society; what are ‘the balance of forces’; and how we can shift them in our direction.
Power, among social scientists is a massively controversial concept. This needs to be recognised and it is difficult to set all the issues to one side. However, the Marxist tradition has had and continues to have much to offer if we are interested in resisting and challenging those that currently hold power, suggesting alternatively, that a society where power is distributed and held effectively accountable is a viable form of democratic socialism. ‘Labour power’ is a central concept of Marx explaining how it is central to the process of creating and adding value. When employers employ workers it is their potential labour power they are interested in and only then as people that can make this contribution. Within this description is rooted the key to understanding how power operates in capitalism: what the employer has purchased is only a potential; power, control – otherwise known as management – has to be exercised over the worker to extract and control as much as possible of the value created by the application of labour power. For Marx the source of surplus value and ultimately profit depend on the effective use of power and control over collective and creative process of labour power. As the employer – capitalist – needs workers to cooperate with each other and be compliant, the contradiction is that they can resist or take back some of this power by not cooperating and by stopping being compliant: the potential of resistance is built into Marx’s understanding of labour power.
Labour power being central to the operation of capitalism was, for Marx, a development of his philosophical understanding of dialectics and his critique of the philosopher Hegel. Consequently, for Marx, society was in constant change as a result human collective activity which takes place within a historical and physical context as in the famous quote ‘Men make their own history... . Moreover, in his Theses on Feuerbach Marx, following a number of positional statements on the centrality of ‘human sensuous activity’ makes the statement that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’ For me, Marx is proposing that as change is constant, the key question is having the power to influence the direction of change: that, as even capitalism depends upon the difficult and often unpredictable process of influencing the future creative acts of employees working collectively together, within that unpredictable process lays the potential for resisting and changing the world in our direction.
Nicos Mouzelis is a sociologist who in the 1990s has written about power within the Marxist tradition. He has drawn upon and synthesized many of the key writers in this area in particularly in his book ‘Sociological Theory: What went wrong? Much that is in this book is useful to help develop ideas about how power works in modern society and, in particular, how it may be possible to challenge the power of capital. Social interaction (social relationships) is, for Mouzelis, central to understanding how society works but, like Marx, this takes place within particular institutional and historical contexts. Mouzelis suggests that individual actors within a particular social relationship – such as a workplace - can have unequal access to power resources, what he calls ‘capitals’ following the work of Pierre Bourdieu .
These capitals can be described as economic, social, political or cultural and an actor that has a high level of access can be seen as a ‘macro’ actor and one with less as a ‘micro’ actor. So, for example, in a workplace an employer can be seen to have a high level of all the capitals, but particularly economic and political (legal in this case). In addition, within an institutional setting, actors not only experience the distribution of capitals that is part of the structure or organization of the workplace but bring with them a ‘disposition’ from their other roles and from their personal history. These, potentially, could conflict with the institutional capitals, particularly the social and cultural. Then, finally, actors with these power capitals interact, say, within the workplace situation, creating a creative social process, the outcome of which may not be entirely predicated on the distribution of capitals – the balance of forces – as the workers – or micro actors – may be able to challenge the employers’ power through collective or individual negotiation. A strike would challenge the employer in all three areas, including the institutional and an agreed settlement may shift some power in the workers favour. It can also be seen, for example, that an institution like a formal church service will be dominated more by institutional interaction than say that which would take place in a ‘rave’ or club situation, where situational interaction would dominate.
Carter Goodrich, in his 1923 book called The Frontier of Control, describes the ‘stand-off’ situation over wages and piece rates in the British engineering industry as a ‘frontier of control’ which represents a temporary agreement which both sides continue to push against. It is possible using Mouzelis’ framework to see that a frontier of control could be seen to exist in many other institutional settings, that despite an unequal organizational (formal) distribution of power capitals between actors, in the logic of disposition and in the process of interaction, actors who could be seen as micro actors could have some capital that they could use and accrue these over time. In the late 1960’s one of the main bargaining aims of trade unions was something called ‘mutuality’. It represented the idea that a long term aim of workplace bargaining was to gradually ensure that all power of employers that affected workers was gradually submitted to collective and joint control. It was a project to progressively shift the frontier of control in the trade unions’ and workers’ favour.
One of the key methods that macro actors use to maintain their power is to divide and rule. If the micro actors whose interaction they attempt to direct and control can be reduced to seeing themselves as having a primary individual relationship with macro actors, it helps to change existing dispositions and reduces the possibility of alternative interaction taking place between the micro actors. The most nefarious tactics are adopted to achieve this. Similarly, avoiding divide and rule and creating an alternative collective opposition is a key to starting to shift the frontier of control toward micro actors. It is not possible to do this abstractly and largely revolves around making grievances - issues, problems, call them what you will - into as big as possible collective issues, by generalizing the relevance of the social justice issues involved. This can be readily seen in workplaces, but of course applies across all social movements, which are strengthened by collective action.
So how does this apply to the Labour Party and taking control through elections? Drawing upon the interaction framework outlined, it can be seen that if a majority among elected representatives is won, essentially the leaders of the winning party become the macro actors, taking over the economic, political, social and cultural power resources that come with the institution – local authority, parliament etc. However, in the wider country or international context, these representatives may be micro actors or up against equal or stronger macro actors, thus challenging their ability to use their hard won electoral power. Similarly, within the confines of the institution controlled, there is a large constituency of employees and electors who will have dispositions and a large range of interaction that exists beyond immediate institutional control and is thus very available for collective mobilisation. So, if a left administration is going to challenge other powerful institutions – such as international corporations - it will need to look to its own constituency to try to ensure that the potential of collective mobilisation works with it as opposed to against it, drawing upon all four forms of social capital.
Well I hope this makes some sense. What will be explored finally and next week, is how such an understanding of power provides a way of answering the ‘what can we do about it’ question, linking local issues with larger challenge to capitalism through ‘transitional demands’ and how the notion of a ‘frontier of control’ can apply not only to situations of trade union type collective mobilisation and challenge, but also to ‘alternative space’ type challenges through ‘transitional actions’.