When capitalism first began to take hold in one country, Britain, employees’ working hours were 17 or 18 hours a day with no days off. In 1848, when workers first appeared as a political force, the most developed countries – France and Great Britain – granted the 60-hour week. The struggle for the 8-hour day, which workers remember every 1st of May, led at the beginning of the 20th century to the extension of the 48-hour week. Since then this process has stopped and gone backwards. The 48-hour week would take another half century to become, in theory instead of in practice, a 40-hour day: the overall tendency is towards longer and more precarious (“flexible”) days forced by fear of unemployment and instability. This is our life.
That is to say, during the first 200 years in which capitalism conquered and transformed the world, the workers, country by country and not without fighting, developed alongside it: the working day was reduced, consumption increased, access to culture grew and new freedoms were guaranteed. From then on, in the era of world wars, ours, even the periods of “economic growth”, that is to say the years of greatest profitability of capital, the working day remains at the same level, the daily culture of the great majority of people becomes degraded and the specter of more and more internationalized wars reappears again and again in every corner of the globe.
A steamroller in the middle of the crowd
Today the system is a steamroller that goes amok in the middle of the crowd. It doesn’t matter who drives it, it doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter if the engine increases or decreases its revolutions. Regardless, it will crush us and crush everything in its path because what it really exists for – making capital profitable – is already in direct opposition to the needs of Humanity as a whole.
The way out is within our reach
And yet today’s technology, the capacities that the system itself has created but wastes or perverts, is immense. The possibility of a society of abundance, of an economy driven by the needs of people is within reach. But it is not enough to “orient” capitalism in “a different way”. Neither through the market, nor even concentrating all property in the state does the logic of the system change: the reproduction of capital, making investments profitable, in other words, exploiting labor in order to maintain the rate of accumulation.
We march the opposite way: we aim to produce according to the conscious needs of consumption, we push for the reduction of the working day, the increase of freedom and the development of humanity. That is what socialism really means. And it points to communism: a society where wage labor and exploitation disappear, where productivity does not oppose Humanity and Nature but frees people by converting the “economy” -now a blind accumulating machine- into a common metabolism with Nature.
How not to get out of capitalism
It’s not about taking capitalism somewhere else. Because capitalism is precisely what is responsible for all these disasters. It’s not about mitigating its effects because these can only get worse and worse globally. It’s not about choosing different “flavors” of capitalism, because that does not change the nature of what’s destroying us. This is not about “right against left”, no matter how radical the left wants to present itself because the two only differ in how to keep the economic machine of profits going and how to reinvest those profits. The machine is the problem and both right and left are part of it.
No one is coming to rescue us. Neither a political messiah nor a social or environmental catastrophe can “force” the system to be what it is not and cannot ever be. Capitalism is the great disaster machine. In the last century, it has carried out two world wars, a multitude of local wars, it has caused the marginalization and misery of millions, it has normalized violence at all levels and it blames its own victims every day with a morality of “winners” and “losers”, of sanctification of plunder and “every man for himself”. Nothing is going to rock the system and nothing would be gained if we were to reproduce its morality. On the contrary, disorganized outbursts, looting, the affirmation of particular rather than general needs… will only atomize us more.
How turn upright this upside-down world
The way out is hidden… in front of our eyes. When workers confront the company they work for, two opposing logics confront each other. We struggle to meet our needs. They are universal human needs – well-being and decent working conditions. Needs that we would like to see satisfied for everyone. Companies oppose to this the importance of paying a dividend on the capital invested in them. Dividends that are produced by the whole working class’ work.
By defending our needs in every strike, in every company, the workers show that it is possible and necessary to “upright” the world, a world organized according to human needs instead of according to profit. That society organized according to the needs of all is what is called “communism”. It is exactly the opposite of totalitarian dictatorship, militarism and nationalism.
Can unions serve that purpose?
State capitalism does not allow workers and their demands to move outside of the very narrow space that they have given us: the mediating role of the unions and their committees that discuss and settle the price of our hours of work, company by company and sector by sector. This is a mediation that all parties – unions, employers and the state – accept, since it is dependent on profit.
What empowers strikes is precisely what lies outside of that framework: not accepting the submission of universal human needs to the profits of capital. But that cannot be done in isolation in a company because capitalism is a system of exploitation of one class by another. That is why it is even more counterproductive to divide staff between men and women, between precarious and permanent, between contractors and the rest of the staff. The subordination of Humanity to profit can only be overcome when we overcome the division by sexes, by types of contract, by companies, by industrial sectors or by any of the many divisions that the system itself imposes on us in order to better organize our submission.
Is there an alternative to the union?
Today what gives strength to any strike, big or small, as well as to any class struggle, is that it, even if it is only in a potential way, materializes a collective subject. A subject that is much more powerful than any simple sum of individuals whose level of commitment and cohesion remains unknown. If the assembly decides we all go on strike, if they decide that we don’t, no matter how much we believe in its necessity, we will have to accept it and continue fighting to convince the comrades. The idea of strike as an individual right limited to follow or not follow the unions, makes the strike the opposite of a class affirmation. The strike thus becomes an exercise of citizenship, isolating us, atomizing us and, as in any market or parliament, reducing our sovereignty to choosing among the options offered to us by the institutions designed to sustain the system that causes all of these problems. Institutions which include the unions, the large monopolists that determine the price of our hour of work, the salary.
The alternative to the union is not an abstract model, it is a practical experience. And this same year we have seen it in the massive strikes in Iran and Mexico. The strikes that obtain substantial concessions today are those that extend from one company to another in a territory, coordinating among themselves and uniting assemblies through committees of delegates elected and revocable by them. Such self-organized strikes have nothing to do with a general union strike. And in fact, they only arise when the workers, fed up with the unions, work outside of them and organize for ourselves.
That’s the way out. Only workers can lead society through that path. Only by going out of the set path is there a future.