The debate on the Coordinadora is interesting because this union offers a perfect example - an exemplary case so to say - of the unavoidable transformation of a struggle organisation practising direct rank and file democracy into a traditional union in which the bureaucratic development is the consequence of the very function of regulation on the labour market (even though its existence was the result of the rank and file resistance against the application of such methods of regulation).
This discussion has to be welcomed because the struggle movements for the last years mainly in France and in Italy have seriously shaken the syndicalist milieu and brought about the building of organisations which try to become permanent after the period of struggle which had seen their creation, some with the label of 'alternative unions'. It would be interesting to write a pamphlet telling the whole story of the Coordinadora because in some countries (especially in the UK) and in the libertarian papers a lot of illusions have been spread on the possibilities to build 'democratic' unions in following the Coordinadora example.
We could examine this attempt with the arguments of your letter when you asked yourselves to which extent we analyse the present conflicts in the developed capitalist countries in prejudiced forms and with concepts inherited from the past and being no longer relevant to the present world. I think it is always like that, in the struggles themselves and in our mind. To escape these constant references to the past, we must analyse closely all the struggles going on all over the world in trying to detect in them what is referring to the past and what is new. Such an analysis must concern as well the struggles in the old, traditional industries (like the Asturian miners' strike for instance) as the struggles in the new modern industries (like the strike of the maintenance workers in the air control centers in France for instance). Inside a struggle in a traditional sector, we can find new forms of action (see for instance the British miners' strike in 1984-85); inversely, some apparently new forms of struggle organisations (like the COBAS in Italy or the coordinating committees in France) have simply borrowed a lot from the old union forms of organisation. An Echanges comrade has developed such a criticism about the coordinating committees, explaining the anachronism of some finalist view and of organisational models like the workers' councils. A similar view was developed in a more theoretical manner by the French group 'Theorie Communiste'.
This last point could be linked to what is called 'the crisis of Eastern Countries' which is often erroneously identified with the 'end of communism'. We have to compare these developments with what happens in the western branch of capitalism: the end of the social-democratic ideas of a possible management of the eco- nomical system with elected organisations more or less identified with the State, after its conquest either via the parliament or via a 'revolution'. This fading of the idea that an economical regulation of the present system could be performed by some kind of delegated organisations not only concerns the crisis of confidence in such organisations (which involves what is called the 'crisis of politics') but the very idea that such a regulation could be possible at all.
If I could agree with what you said on the weakness, even the disappearance of the traditional structures of struggle, and beyond that the 'disappearance of finalism' (though I have doubts about their previous importance and the role they have had in the class struggle), I disagree with what you write about 'the more and more advanced process of decomposition of the social form of the classical proletariat'.
You identify this 'classical proletariat' as the factory worker who worked in big industrial concentrations and whose work and living conditions were characterized by a certain homogeneity. Do you really think that this kind of proletariat as you define it has disappeared? It could be true if you consider that in the industrialised countries whole sectors of the industry like coal mines, steel industry, textile industry, have, if not disappeared, then certainly declined enormously. This decline or disappearance has of course been effectively followed by the disbanding of the workers communities which, to answer the need of capital, have been built around the productive centers, the mines, the factories.
But such a statement, although it may be true in limited national or local circumstances, will have to be considered if not as untrue then at least as of very relative value if we consider the capitalist world in its totality:
- Homogenous industrial concentrations have been rebuilt in the newly industrialised countries according to the tendencies of the new international division of labour.
- Inside the old industrialized countries new industrial concentrations have replaced the old ones. If I take the figures for France, the staff of the top 1.000 industrial entreprises has increased from 3.342.000 in 1981 to 4.016.000 in 1991, and the average for each enterprise has increased from 3.000 to 4.000. If we take the top 100 enterprises the same figures are respectively 2.200.000 and 2.980.000 and the average has risen from 22.000 and 30.000. The last Renault strike at Cléon has revealed the importance of the transfer of workers in a number of huge factories where the staff is between 5.000 and 10.000 workers.
When we look at the figures concerning the different categories in the working population (still the figures for France), we can see that this active population is growing after having been constant for a long time: 19 millions from 1900 to 1954, 21 millions in 1970, more than 25 millions in 1990. The part of this active population working in industry and in public enterprises has increased from 6 millions to 8,5 millions in 1980 but began to decline to around 7,5 millions in 1990. In other words, if the population working in industry has somewhat diminished, its relative importance is about the same as before. But we have to keep in mind that this relative importance was to be seen against a background of a numerous population of peasants, a lower middle class of shop keepers and artisans fifty years ago, and that now it is to be seen against the background of a majority of wage earners in the services sector (in which are included the transport industry and other industrial services separated from industry through new divisions of labour but formerly included in the industrial sector).
The extension and the concentration of this services sector has meant not only the proletarisation of these specific workers but the development of large working units similar to what already existed in the banking or the insurance sectors (transports, telecommunications, supermarkets, health sector, ...). You underline that in the industrial sector certain forms of homogenization have disappeared (I don't agree with this assertion); if we consider this services world we can see the development of a homogenization where there was formerly a certain degree of dispersion: The lorry drivers strike in the UK in 1978-79 (we can add in France in 1992) or the nurses strikes in several European countries during recent years offer examples of such a homogenization of struggles in spite of the dispersion of the places of work.
It is true that some large concentrations have disappeared when the industry looked for better profitability in using selectively small subcontractors, a policy which broke with the former organisation of production with the typically vertical form of concentration, especially in the car industry. But this new policy included on one hand the development of subsidiary companies and on the other hand in more recent times the constitution of industrial poles around a central factory surrounded by a multitude of small or medium factories, all of them linked by mutual interdependence and totally depending on the central factory. For instance, the Renault factory at Douai (Northern France) with 6.300 workers is surrounded by a local industrial network employing 25.000 workers. We could cite a lot of other examples; and we can add that the difficulties of transport (not to speak of the recent lorry drivers' strike) push to this restructuring to make the 'just in time' method of production work effectively.
We can assume that there is a rebuilding of a proletarian social form different from the old one but no longer hierarchical or differentiated (you tend to think the opposite is true), more uniform and thus more homogeneous (in the UK, the Japanese car factories have only one category of workers, and the other British factories are on the way to follow this example). Even more than that, the wage level, the obligation to live in specific accommodations in specific locations, the limitations to a similar standard of living (with the use of the supermarket) and to the same kind of leisure (mainly TV) are evident factors for the reconstitution of a 'homogenous social formation' different from the previous one which some even considered as being 'a better way of life' when it is very fashionable to insist on the 'degradation of the present proletarian life'.
Fordism has been defined as mass production for mass consumption: These two elements are still here. The factory with the Taylorist division of labour and the production line still works even if automation has introduced some deep going changes. When you speak of decentralised production, it is true for the production of parts (not all of them, even the Japanese factories produce 40/50% of their parts) but all that converges on the line which is not decentralised but only often transferred in other locations to be able to use cheap manpower and to reconstitute in these locations the homogenous proletariat you think is disappearing.
I don't see exactly what you mean when writing about the disappearance of an older fundamental contradiction which will be replaced by a 'conflictuality 'which is believed to testify to a tendency towards the decomposition of capitalist society. In my opinion, this 'conflictuality' has always existed but was always considered as very minor, even as something despisable, a kind of technique of individual survival very far from a 'revolutionary consciousness' and 'revolutionary activity'. In my opinion, this 'subjectivity' was and remains essential and is the expression, at the lowest level of the rank and file, of this fundamental contradiction you think of as vanishing, or is, in simpler words, a pure expression of the class struggle. We have to consider how this important aspect of the class struggle has been completely hidden in the past behind the idea of finality; according to this ideology, the class-conscious proletarian had to detach himself from the simple problems of daily life, the so-to-say banalities of his daily struggle, and this perspective was often linked to a very specific work ethic.
All this would in itself necessitate a separate discussion. We would certainly have to analyse what the union militant or the political militant represents for the workers and for the work organisation in the different periods of capitalist development, and we would also have to analyse the corresponding workers' movement, in particular the problem in which way the 'revolutionary' ideology really was an expression of the real workers' behaviour inside and outside the place of work (for instance, why a proletariat apparently deeply influenced by the socialist and somewhat anarchist ideas accepted so easily the bloody war of 1914- 18).
When writing that the transformation of society is no longer following laws, you seem to think that in former times it did. I believe there were and still are a lot of illusions about the role of the proletariat as representing or possibly representing some historical finality, or about ways of deducing from the present forms or character of the class struggle some basic elements of a future social order. I must say that I rather agree with what you said at the end of this passage in your letter. I think that society evolves in a dynamic movement and that nobody can foresee either its path of evolution or its finality (any finality will be in contradiction with the evolution of life itself on the earth). The fundamental contradiction labour-capital works in complex dialectical relations in which any movement of one side is followed by a movement of the other, all this being linked to immediate interests: profit on one side, survival on the other side (i.e. the resistance to reification). Beyond these immediate interests, everybody is pragmatic and never considers any finality. This pragmatism introduces what we could call tendencies which do not allow us to draw a picture of the future. All we can do, and what we constantly try to do, is drawing comparisons, always with the previous periods, to see what is changing and eventually to discern some tendencies but never forgetting to consider them as relative in space and in time.
You draw a parallel between:
- triumphant capitalism which thought to conquer the world in an endless progressive movement, seen as the endless development of science and technology,
- and the revolutionary theories which in another way proposed to follow the same kind of basic ideologies.
And for the present times you link the tendency towards the decomposition of capitalist society to the parallel decomposition of all revolutionary ideologies and to their support by unions and parties. I could agree with these ideas but they will have to be developed more concretely.
This will oblige us to examine another important point: A new society could arise only out of the development of the old one, not at all through some catastrophic events, and this might happen almost without the knowledge of the participants. It could arise only through the dynamic of present society, driven by the conflicts of interests, by the internal transformations of the relations of production and of the corresponding social relations. Most of the time when we discuss these questions we consider the events (which are only the consequence of the already accomplished internal transformations, often hidden to everybody) thinking that they are the true cause of these transformations. In other words, to come back to this question of finality, what we tend to regard as a finality could be nothing but the formalisation of what already exists.