Chapter 4 - The Road of Labor
Translated by Matt Noyes
(Thanks to Emi Do and Leo Sammallahti – MN)
[Translator's Note: In this chapter, Razeto explores the human meaning of work and its social organization, showing how this fundamental creative process has been impoverished and expropriated under a regime of dependency and wage labor. At the same time, work itself, the relations formed by workers, and the solidarity to which they give rise make the recuperation of work possible. Razeto ends with the specific contribution of unions and other worker organizations and their potential as modes of incorporation of solidarity into the workplace and the economy. - MN]
The Road of Labor
The human meaning of work
A third road to solidarity economy begins in the world of labor. The experience of work, the quest for the fullest realization of its human meaning, and the condition of dependence on private and public companies in which people whose work takes the form of wage labor find themselves (workers, laborers, employees), create openings for introducing solidarity into the economy and lead many to search for and experiment with important forms of solidarity economy.
Work is one of our principal activities as human beings, occupying a great deal of our time and much of our lives. Work’s importance to us is expressed not only in the many hours of the day and many days of our lives that we dedicate to its realization, but also in the fact that we spend much of our non-working lives either preparing ourselves to do adequate work (I think that this is one of the objectives of education), or resting in order to be in condition to work again. But the importance of work shows itself not only in the time we directly or indirectly dedicate to it, but also in the meaning we attribute to it.
It is through work that we obtain the things we need for sustenance and personal and social development. It is from work that labor derives social recognition and whatever prestige it comes to have. And it is through work that people make themselves useful to others and to society, taking on roles and finding places in social life, drawing the intimate satisfaction of being useful and esteemed for what they do for the benefit of others.
But even more, work is the activity through which we manifest our capacity for creativity, for innovation, for bringing into being works in which our personal subjectivity becomes at once objective and transcendent. Work is how we each make ourselves, assemble ourselves, the activity through which we learn to know the world and appropriate it to ourselves, unfurl and deploy our capacities and forces, and relate to nature and other people.
Work is one of the principle activities and means through which we develop our potential, taking possession of reality and transforming it according to our needs and ends, expressing and enhancing our creativity, opening the path to knowledge, humanizing the world and building ourselves up through increasing levels of subjectivity. Work expresses our human dignity even as it dignifies us. Finally, it is in and through work that we realize ourselves at the level of our most intimate essence, as creatures made in the image and likeness of our Creator.
But how is work carried out in reality? Under what conditions is it developed? Does work in its current configuration really allow us to discover and express the richness of content described above? Do we find in the practice of work evidence of the profoundity and relevance that is revealed when we reflect on its meaning?
Wage labor and the current condition of workers
The truth is that if our labor is for wages and we are dependent on an employer – as is the case for the majority of workers today – it is difficult to find in work the wealth of meaning and content that would be present if it were a process of authentic human realization. Wage labor implies the subordination of labor to capital or the State, and of workers to their employer. While this domination by capital and the State in modern economies may have given rise to large companies and institutions, it has also meant the creation of an immense majority of women and men who are small, insecure, dependent, fearful, and dissatisfied, people who are suffering, weak, and quite unhappy. It is not difficult to grasp that the condition in which we find ourselves has much to do with the conditions under which we currently work.
One effect of the current organization of work is that workers lack the necessary means and resources to undertake initiatives that would enable them to develop their own creative projects. Having transferred all their initiative and entrepreneurial capacity to the capitalist boss or the State, the immense majority of people have lost control over the conditions that make their lives possible. When work is reduced to employment the working person becomes nothing but an employee: a dependent, instrumental subject. Impoverished and expropriated, workers, families, communities and intermediate groups have lost control of the necessary productive resources as well as the capacities needed for organizing, managing, and decision-making. Multitudes of workers have also suffered from the expropriation of work’s cognitive and technological content.
The technological processes in which they participate are unknown to the workers whose role is limited to the execution of activities whose meaning and location in the ensemble of the process is no longer understood. The material and financial means of production are concentrated in the hands of one small group, another group, also small, possesses the information and understanding of the technological and scientific processes involved in production, and decision-making capacity is concentrated in very few heads. An enormous quantity of people, precisely those we identify as workers, are left with nothing but a general capacity for labor, undifferentiated and partial, reduced to offering their labor power for sale in the market, hoping that someone will want to employ it.
And even the meager status of wage laborer turns out to be something fairly difficult to reach and maintain: a significant proportion of the labor force is forced to remain inactive because workers are unable to find stable employment. If a worker reaches the grand goal – the anxiety-filled state of having a job – their entire life depends on the employer. There is nothing left but to submit, whether to a capitalist boss or to the State. If these subordinated people, insecure, fearful, weak, suffering and hurt, don’t develop the special qualities of moral and cultural resistance that lead workers to organize, to participate in unions, and to commit themselves to political processes or communities that aim for higher goals, they are all too likely to end up debased and dissolute. And what can be said of the state into which the workers fall if they fail to attain even this wretched condition of employment? How are they to value themselves if nobody is interested in them even as mere labor power to be employed?
Recuperation begins on the road of solidarity
Down here, in the depths of human poverty, a surprising process starts: the slow rediscovery of the person that exists in each of us, however impoverished and socially excluded that person may be, and the concomitant appreciation of our strengths and capacities for doing and being, working and creating. But this process does not start spontaneously with the individual, as some kind of natural rebound after hitting the bottom. Rather, the road to higher ground begins with the appearance on the scene of the most powerful of forces – solidarity – which liberates by creating bonds of community and organization.
In the beginning, the road from work to solidarity economy takes the form of three main paths. The first is that followed by workers who do not find satisfactory work in the labor market, or search for another mode of work in which they can find better conditions. Concretely, they experiment with forms of independent or autonomous labor, creating small economic units of their own.
The emergence of these experiences of autonomous organization of work from among the poorest and most excluded groups represents a birth of solidarity economic forms centered on labor, extraordinarily precarious and weak, but real. While they may not set out to create a project in which labor is central, the simple and unadorned fact is that in this place labor is just about the only available factor of production, the others – materials, technology, management, finance – being so scarce and limited that they could hardly constitute the center of anything.
But the road to economic solidarity doesn’t necessarily have to begin from the very bottom. One does not have to wait until impoverishment and subordination of labor have imposed themselves with all their reductive force in order to start reversing the process. Thus opens a second path to solidarity economy, made by those who aspire to recuperate work’s human dignity and fullness: the experience of associated work, in self-managed and cooperative businesses belonging to the workers.
In order to understand how these experiences imply both an effort to give fullness to work as a human experience and a process of incorporation of solidarity in the economy, we need to consider how the process of degradation and impoverishment of labor has coincided with a particular social division of labor that disarticulates existing community connections and relations of solidarity.
Very briefly, the process of degradation and division has gone as follows. Imagine, at the beginning, a hypothetical integrated community of work in which the purpose of production is to satisfy needs and reproduce social life. Within this community of work a process of differentiation occurs: one person or group appropriates the capacity of management and administration, taking over authority and decision-making power. Another group comes to specialize in the generation of knowledge, useful information, and technical know-how. Others take ownership successively of the land and the material means of production. Still others establish commercial relations with other communities, concentrating financial means in their hands. This developing social division of labor creates a residual capacity for labor and, consequently, the impoverishment of the human as such. Community ties fray as people relate to each other competitively, adversarially, on the basis of their various specialties and functions, generating relations of force and struggle. The type of sociability possible between such depleted human beings, excessively focused on particular interests, is not constitutive of true community.
Reversing this process means progressively recuperating and integrating a wealth of content into work, content that belongs to real people and groups. More concretely, it is a matter of workers acquiring the capacity for decision-making, developing understanding of how to do things, and recuperating control and ownership over the material and financial means of production.
This process through which work is enriched signifies at the same time a progressive potentiation of the person, an overcoming of dependency, extreme precarity, poverty, and insecurity. People render themselves newly capable of entrepreneurship, of creation, of autonomous work done in their own manner, of control over the conditions of their existence.
All of this can only be made real in the encounter between people themselves, in cooperation and the formation of communities – businesses being communities of work – in which divided labor is socially reassembled. This is because we develop and enrich each other in tandem, and do it better when we engage in relations of reciprocity and solidarity rather than struggle and conflict. The enrichment of work, a condition of the recuperation of the centrality of labor, requires the development of relations of cooperation. This is where processes oriented towards the centrality of labor meet those leading to the solidarity economy.
Having been made real in the cooperation among subjects possessing different economic resources and capacities, the recuperation of the contents of work and the recomposition of social labor do not imply a loss of the content developed through specialization. That is, the integration of work does not signify a return to a simple, undifferentiated, originary community, because it is accomplished by the constitution of a communitarian or social subject made up of people and groups in cooperation each bringing their own capacities and factors developed to various levels or degrees of quality. In other words, the reassembly of social labor implies the conservation of the positive aspects of the technical division of labor, guaranteeing elevated levels of efficiency and productivity.
Dependent workers develop solidarity
The road to social experimentation with specific forms of solidarity economy begins on these paths of autonomous and associated work. That said, as we wrote in the first chapter, in addition to the development of a sector of economic activities and units characterized by solidarity, solidarity economy implies a process through which greater solidarity is incorporated into companies, the market in general, and the global economy. It is in this sense that even when starting from work as it currently exists in the dominant capitalist economy, that is, from dependent wage labor, a third path to solidarity economy opens up.
Labor, in any of its forms, is always in some way a social activity, notwithstanding the social and technical division it has undergone. With the exception of some simple, artisanal types of labor that can be carried out by individuals, most labor processes presuppose and require the active and direct cooperation and complementary efforts of many workers. (This is not to suggest that individual work ceases to be social, in fact it always requires learning and inputs generated by other labor processes). Given the complexity of contemporary technical processes, those jobs that can be done completely by independent workers are fewer all the time.
Work being a social activity that implies complementarity and cooperation, it naturally generates ties of solidarity among those who carry it out, for various reasons that are mutually reinforcing.
Solidarity arises from the technical necessity of complementarity between tasks, functions, and roles which are reciprocally necessary.
At the same time, solidarity arises from the condition of being a worker, which homogenizes those who participate in the same productive process, placing them on a plane of equality and horizontality.
Finally, inasmuch as doing something together is a general human experience, many situations lead to the establishment of relations of comradeship and amity among those who experience them: sharing similar objectives and interests, having similar living conditions, experiencing the same problems, needs, and practical situations, living together in the same place for prolonged periods, and committing oneself to collaboration in the production of a common piece of work.
For all of these reasons, there is a flow of values and energies between work and solidarity, reciprocally augmenting the potential of each. It can be said that the culture of work contains many of the elements of a culture of solidarity, in the same way a culture of solidarity implies a culture of work.1
Workers’ solidarity finds expression in various forms, giving rise to a great variety of informal groups, many small but some quite large, to clubs and other organizations dedicated to various activities of common interest, and especially to unions and guilds in which workers defend and advance their common interests and aspirations. It is through these associative and communitarian forms that work constantly introduces some element of solidarity into businesses and the economy in general.
But work contains an even greater potential for solidarity. The subordination of dependent wage laborers, the resulting injustices, and the poverty of content that they experience in their work give rise to an obstacle. The solidarity expressed by union organizations tends to exist solely between members, and occasionally with other unions which are undergoing extremely intense struggles. In their relations with other sectors of the company and the economy, especially with employers, unions typically take an antagonistic stance of struggle and confrontation.2 In addition, given the need to defend the jobs of their members, unions rarely manifest solidarity with other categories of workers or the unemployed.
That said, there are many ways in which unions and other formal and informal worker organizations can bring greater solidarity to companies and the economy in general. For example, by participating in different economic bodies to which they should rightfully gain access, bringing to those spaces their own criteria, knowledge, and experience, and their particular ways of thinking, relating, and acting. In point of fact, many union organizations go beyond the defense of employment, salaries, and working conditions, inserting themselves into questions like the organization of work, investment decisions, questions of technological innovation and adaptation, human resources management, etc.
In these and other areas the action of organized workers can introduce into companies, and from them into the global economy, criteria of cooperation and solidarity that are born from the experience of work and have become part of the culture of labor.
The emergence of solidarity in labor comes to coincide with the broader process of recuperation of the rich meaning and content inherent to work itself. This is what happens when workers, acting through their own organizations, begin to participate in decision-making and take over new responsibilities and fields of action in the company and in the economy in general.
Discovered many years ago, this third road to solidarity economy remains open to all people whose principal economic activity is work.
1 For Razeto, solidarity can also be understood as a factor of production, alongside capital, labor, and land. This factor, which he calls the “C Factor” – C for cooperation, collaboration, community – is present to one degree or another in all workplaces and accounts for the special productivity of worker controlled enterprises. See Tópicos de Economía Comprensiva http://www.luisrazeto.net/content/t%C3%B3picos-de-econom%C3%AD-comprensiva – MN
2 Readers in the United States may find this description of adversarial unionism as the norm surprising, given the prevalence of concessionary bargaining and labor-management cooperation schemes since the 1970s. (See Parker & Slaughter Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. Detroit, MI: Labor Notes Books, 1994) Interestingly, as Jane Slaughter reports in a 2013 story on the TRADOC tire factory in Mexico, labor-management cooperation and team concept strategies have been recuperated by worker cooperatives, including those created by militant unions. https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/04/can-worker-owners-make-a-big-factory-run/ - MN
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Go to the GEO front page
Luis Razeto Migliaro (2019). Solidarity Economy Roads: Chapter 4 - The Road of Labor. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/solidarity-economy-roads-chapter-4