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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.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun