Sheila Cohen reviews Workplace Conflict: Mobilization and Solidarity in Argentina by Maurizio Atzeni (Palgrave Macmillan 2010).
This is a book which should be read by anyone interested in and committed to rank and file activism. There are two obstacles – the price, which as with so many “academic” texts is absurdly high  and the English, which can be hard to get your head around. This is no fault of the Italian author, but the publisher clearly has not forked out for the necessary editing – which, at £60 a throw, is a bit of a cheek.
The content and theoretical approach of Workplace Conflict make it more than rewarding, despite these obstacles. In fact it is something of a landmark in the analysis of working-class consciousness, carrying as it does theoretical and strategic perspectives which depart from the static and non-dialectical approaches found in more conventional analyses. This is a book which can suggest ways forward for the rank and file working-class movement.
As its title suggests, the theoretical analysis is rooted in a study of resistance and workplace organisation in Argentina. The account of the two occupations in the mid-1990s on which the analysis is based follows two major chapters in which he analyses theoretical approaches to studying workers’ collective action in penetrating and provocative detail.
What makes the analysis so valuable for activists and socialists focussed on working-class action is its emphasis on economic and material structure as an essential component of working-class agency. Working-class self-activity and mobilisation are decisively identified “by reference to the existence of a structure that constantly produces conditions for conflict. The same structure that has justified the historical appearance of trade unions… explains the existence of daily routine struggles at the point of production” (p. 22). This may seem obvious to some, but it is an approach effectively undermined by more idealist Marxists like John Kelly, whose 1998 book Rethinking Industrial Relations floated a highly influential reconceptualisation of the significance of workplace conflict as rooted in “injustice”. This essentially abstract and schematic conception (obviously immensely simplified here) sparked a lovefest among Industrial Relations (IR) academics to which Atzeni’s contribution is a welcome antidote.
The rooting of conflict in objective structure, rather than subjective feelings of “injustice”, is directly connected to an incisive understanding of the crucial elements of self-activity and spontaneity in workplace conflict. Atzeni extensively re-examines the nature of strike action and its misrepresentation in many conventional IR analyses as “institutionalised collective action”. By contrast, the spontaneity of much collective mobilisation and action is emphasised here along with its cyclical and unpredictable re-emergence in different environments and at different times with or without an institutional, “official” setting. Again, a key component of the analysis is the structural basis of such waves of worker resistance, and indeed of less dramatic episodes, in the material, objective dynamics and contradictions of capitalism.
In this way the pervasive pessimism characteristic of many socialist analyses of working-class consciousness which emphasise the ideological colonisation of workers is challenged simply by recapitulating the circumstances in which such undoubted obstacles are swept aside by materially-based struggles generated by just the structural contradictions mentioned above.
Such necessarily temporary and isolated icebergs in a sea of working-class fatalism and accommodation to capital, welcome as they are, call for deliberate processes of generalisation based on the conscious recognition of their significance. This is where the left comes in; and here Atzeni is again to the point in invoking the alternation between “optimistic” and “pessimistic” perspectives on trade unionism adopted, often with little conscious awareness, by revolutionary writers and activists from Marx and Engels onwards.
Interestingly, Atzeni cites Antonio Gramsci as producing “probably the most comprehensive” analysis of trade unionism among these revolutionary Marxists. This judgement is based on a reading of Gramsci’s Scritti Politici or “Political Writings” (Lawrence and Wishart 1977). In Atzeni’s summary, Gramsci’s most valuable insights are connected to his “envisag[ing]… the factory council [as] an alternative working class organisation” (p. 8). Such essentially independent, worker-created formations not only embody crucial forms of direct democracy but also reflect what Atzeni identifies as the fundamental of workers’ labour process-based collectivity and its inherent connection with rank and file solidarity.
The everyday logic of a necessarily cooperative labour process, even in the least class-conscious workplace, is thus highlighted as intrinsically connected with the more overt processes of solidarity which arise in situations of collective conflict. At the same time the equally everyday “need to contest capitalists’ control of the labour process” (Atzeni p. 9, citing Gramsci) ultimately informs the development of potentially revolutionary organisations like factory councils and their political heirs, workers’ soviets.
In this first chapter, entitled “Framing Workers’ Collective Action”, Atzeni focuses, then, on the directly democratic structures and processes generated organically by the labour process as such. While this may seem idealist and over-optimistic, it is a logic derived directly from the dynamics of capitalist production. As Atzeni sums up the point: “Overall, the approach used in this book rehabilitates a vision of collective action as a structurally determined… expression of workers’ power.” The importance of workplace leadership, unions and political parties is acknowledged, but the purpose of this approach is to bend the stick away towards a recognition of the key political and historical role of “the repeated, spontaneous explosions of workers’ resistance [which] are testimony to their powers of self-organisation” (p. 12).
Atzeni’s second chapter, entitled “A Marxist Perspective on Workers’ Collective Action”, is largely a critique of the “mobilisation theory” approach in terms of its emphasis on perceived injustice as a key trigger for worker resistance. In Kelly’s influential analysis, such action is explained in terms of the interaction of four key factors: injustice, leadership, opportunity and organisation. Workers’ fundamental feelings of injustice are brought out by “natural” leaders who utilise opportunities to attribute injustice to the employer.
Against this somewhat abstract, stageist and moralistic approach, Atzeni counters the structural and “spontaneous” dynamics of actually-existing worker resistance: “It cannot be denied that mobilisation often follows this sequence and that leaders always play a central role… but we should also account for those cases of spontaneous, all-of-a-sudden, mobilisations in which no preconditions could be detected [my emphasis] and where leaders did not play any fundamental [prior] role” (p. 19).
Finally, Atzeni returns to the crucial insight that self-activity and solidarity are rooted not in any overt ideology of conflict but in the conditions of collective labour inherent in the capitalist (or indeed any) labour process. Even in today’s managerialist, “target”-obsessed workplace, the everyday requirements of mutual, interactive work processes generate a collective culture in which workers cooperate on a practical basis, empathise with one another’s problems, and often form a close, solidarity-based camaraderie. Recognition of this crucial point not only indicates theoretical clarity but carries the crucial practical (or praxis-al) consequence of challenging “commonsense perspectives like the one that considers a minimum level of solidarity as a basic condition for [my emphasis] any collective action” (p. 27). This (mistaken) assumption marks “injustice”-based characterisations of worker mobilisation, which compound the error by seeing solidarity as a product of leadership-induced action rather than a dynamic rooted in the collectivism and cooperation engendered by the capitalist labour process.
Spontaneity and labour process
So far, so theoretical (in a good way). But it is, of course, when we get to the concrete examples of worker self-activity that the arguments on spontaneity and labour process-based collectivism explode into life. In his third and fourth chapters, Atzeni presents detailed research into two occupations in mid-1990s Argentina – the first, at a Fiat plant, entirely self-activated, the second (at Renault) led from above by what might be termed a radical-bureaucratic trade union formation. In the case of Fiat, management had abruptly confronted the workforce, tamed by decades of Peronism and comparatively secure and well-paid jobs, with an entirely new employment contract bringing not only the familiar package of “flexible” employment practices but also a pay cut of almost 50 per cent.
The dynamic of the ensuing occupation vindicates Atzeni’s analysis in occurring “spontaneously, without any previous organisation or militant activity… Structural conditions forced them to react and… they did it without any preparatory work but in a very revolutionary way [my emphasis]” (p. 20).As one typical participant put it:“The day after [the company announcement] there was a very strange atmosphere… People meeting together in corners, everybody was meeting, it was as though the day could not start. We reached the changing room but we did not even change [for work], ‘a mate is saying that we have to gather’. And it was something spontaneous…” Other quotes sum up the powerful sense of outrage and upheaval which sparks such outbreaks of class struggle amongst even the most previously passive workers. As another worker put it, “They forced you to fight.”
The fight, while ultimately unsuccessful, was all the more remarkable amongst a group of workers who had been passive for decades; Fiat workers “occupied the plant after more than 20 years of collective inactivity, without an organisation or a leader [yet] reached an unexpected level of consciousness and radicalisation” (p. 46). In addition, the explosion of resistance threw up its own rank and file leaders in a dynamic very different from the pre-existing leadership assumed in the “mobilisation” thesis. In the words of one workers’ delegate: ”They thought I was a powerful leader because I could transform this mass of lambs… into exemplary fighters. But they did this!!! They did it. The only thing I did was to clarify the situation…” (p. 112). Such grass-roots leaders, who acted as directly democratic and accountable delegates along classic “workers’ council” lines, did not pre-date the explosion of resistance which produced them.
Compared to the somewhat “stageist” mechanics of mobilisation theory, this case study evokes an immediate dynamic of simultaneous response, action and consciousness; and it is one mirrored in recent episodes closer to our own shores such as the 2009 Visteon and Vestas occupations. Again, a relatively passive pre-history shot to fragments by the brutally sudden announcement of plant closure was reflected in the Visteon experience: “We were in a relatively well-paid job and basically you… get on with your normal life… and maybe a lot of us had had our blinkers on for a while… But this whole dispute has opened up our eyes again and we see a lot more of what is going on… and I think we all look on it quite differently now.”
The crucial lesson, then, of events like the Fiat occupation is that worker resistance and consciousness does not occur through propagandistic activity by socialists from without, but via the very dynamics of capital – the way that companies, driven by the requirements of profitability deliver such shocking and vicious attacks on workers as to shake and undermine their entire conception of society.
I have spent less time here on the second, Renault, plant occupation examined by Atzeni, largely because it illustrates a form of “radical” bureaucratic control perhaps unique to Argentina’s specific Peronist tradition of reformist incorporation. What has been termed “bureaucratic militancy” is indeed a phenomenon to be watched out for (see accounts of the operations of the Service Employees’ International Union in the US). But the main message of Workplace Conflict that will, I hope, be taken on board by UK socialists active in the rank and file trade union movement is that it is not the “creation” of an oppositional consciousness that is the major task of the left – capital, as this account shows, is pretty skilled at instigating this for us – but explicit recognition by socialists of this dynamic and of the need to build politically from that base.
We cannot do better than to conclude with the moving words of one Fiat worker: “People were now different, the same person was not the same as before, he had ‘jumped’, and this happened to all of us, to all of us” (p. 119).
 If The Commune readers want to read an inspiring, creative and ultimately perspective-shifting understanding of workers’ “economistic” struggles, I suggest they (so to speak) steal this book – or, better still, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.