Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

It’s possible, it’s necessary

Antonio David Cattani reviews Ours to Master and to Own by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini (eds)

October 9, 2011
5 min read

In Jean-Luis Cornolli’s film Cecília (a history of Giovanni Rossi, the Italian anarchist who built, with his companions, a libertarian community in the south of Brazil at the end of the 19th century) the main character speaks sublimely of comunità anarchica sperimentale. These communist principles ensured that common property and individual autonomy were guided by economic solidarity and mutually-constructed norms of living.

After a few years, political and personal internal conflict, aggravated by material difficulties and external repression by the authorities, provoked the end of the self-managed community. One of the leaders laments the failure but Rossi calmly retorts that they had proven that it is possible to live freely without bosses and working in a spontaneous way for the common good. Despite being short-lived, the experience had various lessons for advancing the search for freedom.

The social experiences analysed in Ours to Master and to Own illustrate this same principle: it is possible! It is possible to live without oppressive hierarchies and despotic authorities, and to live without petty competition.

Highly precarious institutional structures such as communes, workers’ councils, soviets, cooperative acts of resistance to factory/manufacturing discipline, factory occupations, self-management and so on are a dynamic proof of the role of work as an essential element in the construction of identity and social relationships. They demonstrate how cooperative workers are agents of the advancement of freedom. Their collective action attends to the interests of the whole of humanity, more so than initiatives by other agents.

The examples analysed here are varied, ranging from the classic European cases, the evolution of workers’ direct action in the United States and the experiences of the third world through to recent events in Venezuela and Brazil. This serious piece of work, put together by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azellini, deserves to be read alongside two other essential studies: Seymour Melman’s After Capitalism and Trabalhar o Mundo by Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Melman analyses the limits and possibilities of democracy in the workplace, exclusively in the US. Santos’s collection of work has a wider perspective, specifically considering cases in the global South.

Using different theoretical approaches and with distinct political orientations, these three pieces of work converge in their consideration of the inherent difficulties of libertarian action. These include internal difficulties, historical context and repressive politics, frustration and deadlock. But the authors also consider the achievements and the partial advances that have barred capitalism’s attempt to take complete control over hearts and minds.

The writers of Ours to Master and to Own point out new areas for debate, research and practical experiments, some of which are worth highlighting. These include the fact that, in general, direct action and attempts at workers’ control tend to occur as isolated experiments in just a few limited sectors of society. However, the transformation of society as a whole involves extending the democratisation of the workplace beyond isolated units.

In the wake of the bureaucratic degeneration and collapse of the Soviet system, the aim of many progressive activists today is no longer the construction of socialism, however it may be defined. Rather, it is the struggle for human rights, including the rights of ethnic and other minorities and the general expansion of the rights of citizens. Such formulations are well intentioned, but they are unable to present a comprehensive proposal for the transformation of the whole of society. In the absence of a comprehensive alternative, social movements are devoid of clear and defined objectives and an ideology that can bring together theoretical, historical and practical considerations. This condition manifests itself notably among organised structures, including left-wing parties and trade unions.

In the case of the unions, wage negotiations, working conditions and other such matters completely absorb the energy of activists. Such institutions carry out the role of modernising capitalist structures, without offering alternatives to capitalist exploitation.

Another area of debate and conflict lies in the relationship between any workplaces under worker’s control and society in general. A society that is socialised must be so in its whole, and not only in its individual units of work. But new structures have yet to be developed that can function on a society-wide level. Because of this, in the last chapter, Dario Azzellini analyses the experience of attempts at building popular communes for the modern era, such as those in the Venezuelan Bolivarian republic.

The social and environmental disaster that international capitalism has caused in the past 20 years reinforces the importance of this book. The alternative popular initiatives it describes are socially and economically far more advanced than the productivist and predatory canon of industrial capitalism. They are an antidote to the suicidal tendencies of high finance.

Workers’ control, self-management, economic solidarity and other forms of human economy are no longer merely possibilities for the achievement of utopia, but rather have become an imperative. It is necessary to put an end to the most negative trends of the dominant economics. It is necessary to overcome the mediocrity of conventional union action, and to recuperate work as an element of un-alienated human fulfilment.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes