Meaning in Work-A New Direction

Meaning in Work-A New Direction

In recent years there has arisen a sophistication which understands that the abolition of private property alone will not guarantee the end of exploitation. The problem has been posed as: how does one check bureaucracy. The problem is a real one. In socialist thought the “new” answer is to raise again the theme of “workers’ control.” This has shaped the demand for comites d’enterprise in France, for mitsbestimmungsrecht in Germany, and is emerging in Britain as the left-wing answer to the British Labor Party’s plan, “Industry and Society.” It underlay, of course, the demand for workers’ councils in Poland and Yugoslavia. I have no quarrel with the demand per se. But often it is difficult to know what the concept means.

In Communist theory (to the extent there has been one apart from the opportunistic absorption of syndicalist ideas), the slogan of “workers’ control” was conceived of almost entirely in political terms, as one of the means of undercutting the economic power of the employer class under capitalism, as a means to power, but not as a technique of democratization or the administration of industry in a socialist society.

At the other extreme there were the detailed, imaginative, but unworkable blueprints pieced together by the medievalists, distributivists and syndicalists who formed the Guild Socialist movement in Britain before and after World War I. The movement has been insufficiently appreciated for the Guild Socialists wrestled, as did the earlier Fabians, with concrete problems of administration. Most of the questions which beset socialist and managerial societies today were anticipated and thrashed out in Guild Socialist debates. They were aware that nationalization of the means of production might result in the exploitation of the individual Guilds by the State (e.g., the building of unwanted new investment at the expense of consumption or leisure, the setting of high work norms, etc.). On the other hand, syndicalism, or the ownership of production by the individual Guilds, might lead to a separatism or “parochial imperialism” whereby a single Guild might seek to benefit at the expense of others. The Guildsmen “solved” the problem by vesting title to capital and land in the State, but leasing the property to the Guilds at a rent (or interest) large enough to cover Government expenses. Politically, the Guild State was to be composed of a bicameral body, the one a geographical Parliament, the other made up of functional (i.e., vocational) representatives. The consumer, through Parliament, was to set the goals of production; the Council of Guild Representatives was responsible for the efficient conduct of industry. Each Guild was to be a self-governing body, based on local councils; membership was to be open freely, but if jobs were unavailable, the State was to support the waiting applicant unt...


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