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3. Fighting competition in the workplace

November 29, 2011


In Karl Marx’s Capital Volume 1, somewhere in the final section of ‘So Called Primitive Accumulation’, Marx re-tells the story of a guy who emigrates to Australia intending to set up a profitable capitalist colony. He takes with him capital, in order to provide the means of production and the subsistence needed for him and his workers for this production when he arrives. He also takes with him the work-force. The only problem is that he forgot to take with him the relations of production; that is, the dependence of the worker on the capitalist for his/her means of survival. This was crucial because the land in Australia upon which he planned to form his capitalist colony was still held in common, and the people required no capitalists to provide them with subsistence, as they could just get on with producing for themselves. No private property = no capitalism. As Marx says, this guy made the mistake of thinking that capitalism was a thing and not a relation between people mediated by a thing (the commodity).

Marx theorised the concept of primitive accumulation to explain how capitalism came about in the first place. So he looked at the enclosures of “the commons” towards the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries in England. The commons were enclosed, creating a landless working class, who then have to sell the only private property that they have left, their labour power, in order to be able to afford to live (renting from landlords).

It is important to note that this is an over-simplification, and primitive accumulation isn’t always this straightforward, and perhaps never has been. But this structure has a lot of explanatory force. It explains how the relations of production came about. It also explains a lot about how modern capitalism works: the various methods that capitalism uses to create new markets, or to stimulate growth – war in Iraq (to free up oil supplies), intellectual property rights on the Internet, the privatisation of common goods like the NHS education and the welfare state, and so on.

One really crucial phenomenon the concept of “primitive accumulation” illuminates is how the so called “division of labour” came about. This idea has lost its original meaning over time to mean something like a positive and necessary way to get anything done, pretty much anywhere. Of course this is a tendency in capitalist ideology, to pervert (or “reify”) original meanings until they become empty truisms. But originally the division of labour it had a definite meaning: it is the process of individuation, first splitting up the people into new class divisions between workers and capitalists, and then the further division of the workforce into individual workers in competition with each other. So going back to primitive accumulation, when the capitalist class, by use of force or government intervention, displaces a people from the commons, it also individualises them into workers because the only thing they have left is their individual labour (which then becomes alienated from them in commodity production).

Now that the relations of production are in place, the capitalist can (or must) create competition within the work-force to drive productivity and push for ever higher levels of exploitation and therefore super-profit (remember that exploitation in terms of wages and standards of living are always relative, i.e. the minimum wage is relative to the amount of profit made by capitalists and the cost of living for the worker). This is why “solidarity” is such an important concept in anti-capitalist struggles. In the early days of commodity production, when it involved mass production and concentration of the work force in factories and working class towns/cities, this division of the workforce was in danger of being overcome in favour of solidarity, and perhaps eventually revolution.

This sounds very dramatic now, but what allowed Marx to so confidently predict the collapse of capitalism as an inevitable process was not only the then blatant and simplified contradictions within capitalism, but that socially the work-force was already together and already in control of the means of production. On paper at least, the workers really only had to form unions and kick the capitalists out of the factories.  In an already socially and geographically consolidated working class, It would only take the spark of revolution to ignite a transformation in the relations of production.



However, in reality things weren’t so simple. The consciousness of the “proletariat” (the political self-awareness of the working class) in advanced capitalist countries was not quite ready for this transformation, and in the countries where socialism actually happened, they hadn’t gone through the capitalist transformations of society and production. The communist revolutions were easily co-opted by a new ruling class, often with horrible consequences.

In advanced Western capitalist societies, especially in America, technology saved the day for capitalists and transformed the manufacturing process so that industry wasn’t so dependent on labour. Workers were now in competition with machines, and they would always lose because it is impossible for a human being to be as exploited as a machine. The mechanisation of labour meant that there would be an increasingly redundant labour force, which means that there will always be someone else who can do your job for cheaper, work longer hours, survive on less money, live in a country where the government ignores labour rights, etc.

The next phase of capitalist hegemony is the reintroduction of liberal ideology, in the form of neo-liberalism. And so back to primitive accumulation – the gains of the international labour movements in Western society created an economic stalemate between socialism and capitalism (within national boundaries and internationally in the wider ramifications of the Cold War). Certain infrastructures and social provisions were socialised, and capitalism was regulated by the nation state. Growth stalled and unemployment rose. Panic ensued in what was still fundamentally an increasingly global capitalist system. Western democracy was faced with two options: socialism proper, or a new phase of liberal capitalism. And then we have the Thatcher-Reagan socio-economic ‘pincer move’, and “neo-liberalism” is invented by the Chicago School of Economics and institutionalised by these two horrible excuses for human beings.

The first tactic of neo-liberalism, within a strategic return to “primitive accumulation” as the primary source of capital growth, is to turn the commons of social democracy into private property. That is first: opening up social housing, the welfare state, the NHS, education, the communications and transportation infrastructure, technological research to capitalist speculation, by privatising them (turning what is common into private property). And second to release the constraints put on capital accumulation, so that there is no restriction to the exploitation of the workforce in order to create super-profit. This all conveniently makes the workforce desperate for work, no matter how degrading and cheap it becomes, as there is no security, support or protection from the state. We can now see why the neo-liberal state wants to specifically abolish the welfare state and public services, because these make the people less dependent on capitalism to provide them with the means for survival; these social provisions blunt the competition within the workforce, and also within the “reserve army of labour” (broadly understood as the unemployed and about to be unemployed, now called “precarious labour”)

Today capitalism is hegemonic (without ideological alternatives) and has total control of society. We are all convinced that there is no working class, in England especially we believe that we live in a “classless society” (thanks especially to New Labour). The government fully supports, if not pre-empts (to ensure “growth”, especially today after the so-called “financial crisis”, all primitive accumulation justified under the banner of  ‘saving the world economy’) all measures to split up the solidarity of workers, to pit them against each other in a bloody fight to the death  and to make sure there is no state support to reduce the competition between the workers.

The point of this long story of industrial and post-industrial capitalism (apart from the re-telling of history being crucial to fighting hegemony) is that we need to fight this “division of labour” whenever and wherever we can. We can do this at work by acting in solidarity with each other. The history of the division of labour is crucial to giving the concept of solidarity a real social meaning. In fact, “solidarity” shouldn’t be a concept at all, it should become a definite social relation. Just like the one capitalism relies on for the creation of surplus-value. We need to work on this solidarity until it is the dominant social relation (and then we are ready for revolution!) 

It’ll take time, but slowly we can create a society based on solidarity.  We can start the process at work, by talking to each other as real people and not as things (i.e. commodities, or abstract labour, or in more everyday terms, ‘that cunt over there who wants my job or who pisses me off because is he/she is this that or the other’, and so on). We should do each other favours which do not rely on a speculative advantage in the future. We mist always stand up for each other when we can (of course this is the most difficult thing to do at work, because we have no power to stand up for ourselves or each other. But to do this is actually a spectacular form of solidarity) We should notice the class structure of our workplaces (whether there is a division between say office and warehouse/factory floor, and if there is, flouting it constantly! You will never be sacked for being nice!)


I think the interesting point about a lot of post-Fordist wage work is that we get paid per day/month/year (ok not everyone has the luxury of a contract). This can work to our advantage because we aren’t as monitored as we were 100 years ago. Do your work quicker and better than you are usually inclined to do and spend the rest of the time secretly writing, or thinking, or doing favours for colleagues, or researching if you are able to surf the internet, etc. Steal some of that surplus value back and use it against the fuckers. But be careful! Work environments are subtle in their panopticon-like monitoring of productivity. Often you will find one of your colleagues grassing you in, or worse, you feeling guilty and working harder instead!

Solidarity as a social relation isn’t something we have yet, and it will only become definite on a healthy foundation of mutual respect and cooperation. In the mean time, we can hold the concept of “solidarity” above and against capitalist work relations and work towards it, together. Our bosses can’t really complain if the work gets done, and if you and your colleagues can create a good argument why working together is better than working against each other, as long as money is being made they won’t care. This is just a strategic plan; it might seem counter-productive and demeaning, to work out how to make money better for someone else (we are doing this anyway), but you can secretly know that this is a long-term war and you are making progress towards a united work-force that could one day be called the proletariat again. Post-Fordist workers of the world unite!!

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