In general I agree with the arguments you bring forward against Carlos' idea of a proletariat whose battalions are growing weaker and weaker, which is more and more stratified, more and more dispersed along the "logistic chain of surplus value production", more and more tightly controlled by modern computerized equipment, more and more restricted to leading isolated, local, sectional and corporatist struggles, and which could therefore no longer be regarded as the subjective factor overthrowing capitalist society as described in the classical theories of the 19th century.
However, while not disagreeing with anything you say (with one important exception concerning the laws of capitalist development), I am convinced that Carlos' ideas deserve to be even more sharply critized, not only for what he says in his letter to you, but also for the much more elaborate and cautious things he says in the Etcetera article on dispersed Fordism.
Before heading off into the controversy with Carlos' ideas, I will have to make a very general remark about levels of analysis and method - and in reading on you will easily see why I am doing so: In the morning we see the sun rising in the East, and then wandering across the sky until it goes down somewhere in the West. At least this is how things appear to us. Now, even if it is a very cloudy day and we don't see the sun, we are not inclined to think that the sun is taking a different course or that it has disappeared forever. We know that the sun is there and that its taking the usual course could just be obscured by bad weather. And that is not yet all. We are in fact used to not trusting simply our eyes, but to put our observations into a coherent theoretical framework based on reflection. This framework, as developed ever since Kepler, Galilei, Huygens and Newton tells us that the earth is a globe moving around the sun although things appear to be different to us, that the course of the earth is an elliptic one and not a circle, and that the earth is also moving around its own axis thus producing effects of day and night, of particular parts of the earth experiencing alternating periods of sunlight and absence of sunlight quite independent of specific weather conditions. This is what is usually called a scientific attitude in understanding natural phenomena. It rests on distinguishing essence and appearance, to be exact.
I cannot see any reason why we should be satisfied with a less scientific attitude when analyzing and understanding social phenomena, in particular since we know exactly that social processes have a very similar quality of making things appear different from what they essentially are, of hiding a lot of elements from our eyes, and of creating a whole range of false impressions, of impressions which are definitely deceptive. In short: If things would appear in capitalist society as they essentially are (to use the words of Marx), then there would simply be no need for any scientific research . In fact it is one of the basic truths about capitalism that hardly ever do essence and appearance coincide.
My problem here will be to clarify on which level of thinking Carlos situates his own analysis, how he deals with his sources of information, and what kind of conclusions have to be drawn for the validity of his analysis. I will only discuss three major problems, and in each case I will argue that the exact opposite is true of what Carlos wishes us to accept as plain truth, and that this has clearly to do with his failing to distinguish not only essence and appearance, but also in some instances fiction and reality. I regard as major problems:
the way he deals with the ideology of dispersed Fordism, of computerization and of human resource management (as well as the ideology of scientific management or Taylorism and Fordism);
his views on the dispersal and decomposition of the workforce and the new cycle of struggles under dispersed Fordism (as well as the cycles of struggle of the so-called mass worker in the past);
his concept of the totalitarian tendencies of capital and the repressive unification of a world being subordinated to capital.
1) It should be stressed right away that not even in the classical theories the specific role ascribed to the proletariat in the revolutionary process was made dependent on numbers (while evidently numbers play a different role in trade union or party organizations), or local concentration of numbers (again playing a well- known role in trade union struggles), or homogeneity, but on the development of the accumulation process as influencing (and being influenced by) the struggle between workers and capitalists. I would expect that Carlos knows this, since he seems to be somehow familiar with Marxism, and nonetheless he builds his ar- gument on the completely superficial and unfounded assumption that large numbers, a high degree of local concentration and professional homogeneity have been of utmost importance in the struggles of the mass worker in the past. Once these elements have vanished into the air - this is what he mistakenly believes to be the result of dispersed Fordism - the traditional antagonism of workers and capitalists is replaced by a system of repressive, totalitarian domination. This, then, is the end of the revolutionary process which has so far characterized the development of capitalism. The ideologues of capital have decided to get rid of class antagonism, because they are fed up with it, because they feel they don't want it and don't need it anymore, and why not just throw it on the scrapheap of history? That is really an easy job, isn't it, if you dispose of such formidable weapons as dispersed Fordism. Fiat tua voluntas! Thy will be done, o almighty center of financial and technological decision making!
But let us be serious: In fact, if you talk about numbers, you should keep in mind that Marx discusses the numerical growth of the proletariat as a process of capital attracting an ever larger part of the population in its early phase of development (thus increasing the production of absolute surplus value), while the numerical decline of the proletariat is described as a necessary process of capital repelling an ever larger part of living labour and replacing it by dead labour (thus effecting changes of the so-called organic composition of capital and at the same time guaranteeing the falling tendency of the profit rate) once the production of relative surplus value has become the dominant form in the age of big industry. Growing numbers of workers on a world scale would therefore indicate a continuing capacity of capital to transform humans into exploitable proletarians, and vice versa. Equally a shrinking active working class in the highly industrialized countries (and a growing reserve army of workers) would have to be interpreted not as a sign of working class retreat, but definitely as a sign of advance. So if anybody would tell me in ten years that figures for the industrial proletariat have fallen to half of what they are now, this would neither be a surprise nor a disappointment.
Indeed, looking at the world of capital as it is today, we can only be surprised about capital's inability to submit the majority of the world's population to its command by integrating it into the capitalist production process (cf. in particular the cases of China and India where capitalism has practically made no progress at all since the days of colonial rule). I have the impression that Carlos wishes to reverse this fundamental relationship by saying - it is the numbers of soldiers and the concentration of fire power that count in this battle, with decreasing numbers implying weakness and increasing numbers implying strength of the proletariat.
2) I also have the impression that Carlos intends to reverse the relationship between the well-known changes in the organic composition of capital, the falling tendency of the profit rate, and the limits of capitalist development by saying - the life of capital and capitalism could be prolonged endlessly by rigorously eliminating living labour from the production process. There is some beautifully lyrical literature (notably from Japan) on "the factory without workers" - much more lyrical than the lyricism of "dispersed Fordism". And if you ask me, we should all be deeply grateful for the recklessness of capitalist managers translating such self-destructive ideas (never mind the lyrics!) into practice. Would you agree that Carlos, in taking management lyrics all too seriously, entirely forgets about the self-destructiveness of capitalist relations?
But how else does he wish to interpret the history of Fordism, if not in terms of the self-destruction of capital (notwithstanding the fact that we do have some really great lyrics from the beginning of this century praising in turn the wonders of Fordism - e.g. the autobiography of Henry Ford the old bastard himself - although I would say I haven't seen too many pieces of Fordist lyrics from more recent times. Certainly there must be some reason for this???)? I will have to say a few words about Fordism here although Carlos mainly deals with the more recent phenomena of dispersed Fordism. For any understanding of the functions and meaning of "dispersed Fordism", it is absolutely essential to have some precise idea of the functioning of Fordism.
a) Reading what Carlos says about Fordism and even more so about dispersed Fordism, you wouldn't believe that this has anything to do with the production of surplus value (and that is, with the antagonism of classes). Apart from a few misleading headings in his article without any reference to the text itself, apart from some very superficial use of Marxist language (in complete contradiction with the content of his article), Carlos discusses Fordism as well as dispersed Fordism exclusively in terms of managerial, organizational, and technical problems. If we were prepared to trust his allegations, the only real problem remaining for capitalists would be the purely organizational one of properly linking the various elements in the logistic chain of surplus value production, not surplus value production in itself. Provided that could be done - and Carlos seems to have no doubts about it - the world would have to bow to the totalitarian domination of "the centers of capitalist decision making". But such conclusions can only be drawn by someone who firmly believes that capitalism has absolutely nothing to do with value and surplus value production or that the present social system is not capitalism at all. All the elements in Carlos' article and in his letter are pointing exactly in this direction. Instead the image (not to say nightmare) of a totalitarian domination which he presents has a striking similarity with such science fiction films like "Star Wars", "The Empire Strikes Back", "The Return of the Yeti", etc., spreading the idea of some strange and always very abstract "masters of the universe" who are out to subjugate everything to their tyrannical command.
b) Back to something more concrete: No other industry has contributed more to increasing the rate of exploitation, i.e. the production of absolute and relative surplus value, than the automobile industry since its Fordist organization early in this century. This is not big news. But I am sure it is big news for a lot of people that problems of valorization are bound to result not just in the case of a malfunctioning of exploitation, but even in the case of its proper functioning, in the case of continuous increases in the rate of exploitation. The very central problem of capitalism is not that it does not produce enough surplus value, but that it produces too much surplus value (pushed to do so, of course, by the fundamental contradictions of capitalist society). Therefore the entire analysis of Marx' "Capital", including the falling tendency of the profit rate, is based on various assumptions of a smooth and even perfect functioning of capitalist production and circulation, of regular increases in the rate of exploitation, of surplus value not being wasted on luxury consumption. Therefore we will search in vain for any detailed analysis of the importance of strikes (trade union or autonomous), go-slows, sabotage, blue Mondays, etc. in the pages of "Capital". The simple reason is that the accumulation of capital is limited by its inherent principles (replacement of living labour by dead labour), even under the assumption of a complete absence of strikes, go-slows, etc. And therefore it is totally beside the point to ascribe the problems of capital with the Fordist organization of the production process to something so vague as "large concentrations" of workers and the "pressure" they could possibly exert.
c) So why should we be impressed (or even frightened to death) by the perspective of capital perfecting this or that aspect of the production and circulation process by the introduction of "dispersed Fordism"? Not even a more perfect organization of exploitation, not even a drastically higher rate of exploitation could prevent the self-destruction of capital. In fact the process of the dispersal of factory production on which Carlos puts so much emphasis has begun much earlier than he indicates and is anything but a new phenomenon. As far back as the 1950's and 1960's American automobile capital had started moving out of the inner city locations (e.g. in Detroit) to the suburbs, to the South and also to Third World countries, in the end having left the Detroit inner city altogether, except for the administration. The same process of spatial relocation has also been very marked in France (Renault moving out of Paris), but not so much in Great Britain and even less so in Germany.
The latest phase of dispersal, however, has a slightly different meaning (although causes are the same as in the earlier phases). Big capital is not just relocating its production, but instituting a new division of labour, above all trying to rid itself from a number of processes which are labour intensive. The kind of subcontract- ing resulting from this management strategy has three important aspects: It is clearly a preparatory or concomitant phase for drastically increasing the organic composition of capital on the assembly lines; it puts enormous pressure on transport capital for increasing its organic composition and confronts it with extremely rigid demands of the central assembly plants; equally it puts pressure on the subcontractors producing parts to strictly rationalize production and to heavily attack their workforce . The result can only be increasing exploitation - and there is nothing to be said against it. Dispersed Fordism is nothing but capital's tendency of self-destruction pushed to its extreme.
d) So far I have only temporarily assumed that production and circulation of capital are functioning smoothly. If production and circulation do not function smoothly (in reality they are far from doing so), then of course things are even worse for the valorization of capital and for "the centers of financial and technological decision making". This is the place to discuss the subjectivity of capitalists, i.e. management incompetence, with which entire books could be filled. This is also the place to discuss the subjectivity of the mass worker and the way he has turned the Fordist production line into an effective instrument of struggle against the capitalist class. If anything has been of no importance at all in these struggles, then this has been "large concentrations of workers" somehow exerting "pressure". Apart from a few major struggles of national dimensions, the struggles of the mass worker, in fact 95% of all struggles of all workers in the entire post-war period in major industrialized countries (if the American and British example can be generalized) have been characterized by the following elements:
Could it be true that Carlos has not heard of this? Am I to assume that he is unaware of the kind of disruption which could be (and in many instances has been) caused by two or three workers or even a single worker placed in a strategic position on the production line? Does he really want to simply regard as irrelevant the fundamental problem of the Fordist production line - its being so easily immobilized by very small groups of workers?
e) So if it is correct to say that no other industry has contributed more to increasing the rate of exploitation than the automobile industry under Fordism, then this is coterminous with saying that no other industry has contributed more to its own self-destruction and to the self-destruction of capitalism in general. I am at a complete loss to see why different conclusions should have to be drawn for dispersed Fordism. The majority of struggles continue to be local struggles with very low numbers of workers involved and with very restricted, "sectional" demands. The formula of mass actions led by the mass worker and isolated, local actions led by the dispersed proletariat is in no way corresponding to reality.
I wish to emphasize, however, that this continuity of "sectional" struggles completely dominating the antagonism of classes up to this day (probably since the very beginnings of capitalism) is not at all the entire truth; it is just how things appear to us. If automobile workers all over the world, probably in most cases not even knowing from each other even if they belong to the same firm, are leading the same local, sectional, isolated struggles in more or less the same forms and with more or less the same kinds of "sectional" demands, then it becomes utterly ridiculous to describe these struggles as "isolated", "sectional" or "corporatist". Indeed a comparative in-depth analysis easily demonstrates that the so-called "sectional", "corporatist", "atomized" struggles are in fact the most generalized, unified, coordinated struggles integrating automobile workers all over the world into a single antagonistic force with a single opponent. There is nothing in dispersed Fordism which could possibly change this.
f) We cannot even stop here. The concept of capital as developed by Marx includes the notion of a world market, world capital and world history as the essence of capitalist development. All these elements have long since become reality. Many people would not even deny this at all. But then the concept of world capital directly implies the existence of a united (!!) world proletariat and a united (!!) world capitalist class and an average profit rate on a world scale as the real basis of unity. This is where very many people clinging to their self-fabricated illusions start to protest. Their thinking is so much dominated by ideas of party and union organization that they could never imagine class organization to be totally different: no membership cards, no rule books, no written programme, no flags, no hierarchies, no presidents, no delegation of responsibilities, etc. They are unable to understand that unity does not exclude differentiation (e.g. with regard to the rate of exploitation, to working conditions, to wages, etc.), and that on the other hand differentiation does not stand in the way of unity. In fact differentiation, unity and renewed differentiation are necessary elements of capitalist development and the motor of capitalist competition.
3) As I said before, Carlos never mentions that Fordism has been the object of class struggle right from the beginning, and that there is no technical problem of Fordism, only a social problem. In doing so he is indeed following a general trend. A fairly representative piece is Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capital" which naively accepts writings on management theory as evidence for actual developments on the shop or office floor, which overestimates scientific management's impact (most big corporations failed even to give it a try), and which failed to take account of labour responses to the new forms of work that employers developed after the turn of the century. For him there is simply no class struggle, only scientific management as an organizational problem and as an instrument of repression.
The fundamental problem with Carlos' analysis is exactly the same - he has no precise idea of class struggle. Or should I rather say, he has too many different ideas about class struggle which mutually exclude each other? On one page capital is a contradictory reality of social relations between classes, on the next page he writes about the fundamental contradiction between capital and labour, further on in the text the fundamental contradiction is between the totalitarian civilization of capitalism and some wholly mysterious centrifugal forces, and at the end of this hotch-potch of definitions he finally decides that there is no contradiction at all, neither inside nor outside capital, just the repressive unification of the world under the totalitarian domination of capital. I am unable to see any coherence in this.
And things are not better for many other fundamental concepts of analysis. His usage of the terms "capital" and "labour" (defined as describing an antagonistic relationship, as has become commonplace in so-called radical circles) betrays a regrettable ignorance of the simple fact that "capital" is nothing but "labour", dead labour and living labour, and that the antagonism is not between "capital" and something somewhere outside capital, but inside capital. Even if Carlos does not want to accept this (it is clear he doesn't), a presumed antagonism between "capital" and "labour" does not make any sense at all.
This leads me to another question concerning the very complicated problem of objectivity and subjectivity in the development of capital. Class relations are always described in Marx as objective (reified) and subjective at the same time. But that presupposes distinguishing capital and capitalists (also labour power and working class). Does Carlos want to imply that the fundamental distinction of capital, capitalists and capitalism without which there is absolutely no understanding of capitalist development is no longer valid and should be given up? Indeed I can find no trace in his article and in his letter indicating he is aware of the overriding importance of such a distinction. Whereas I find many traces of a usage ascribing total freedom of will (total subjectivity) to the "centers of financial and technological decision-making" and of this subjectivity translating itself magically into a total domination of the world (total objectivity) just because capitalists have subjectively decided that they want it to be like that.
The conceptual framework distinguishing capital and capitalists implies, however, the increasing (!) dependence of capitalists on the necessities and problems of valorization - and the increasing (!) independence of workers from the constraints of capital as an anonymous, objective power. If anything has contributed massively to this independence, then it was Fordism and Taylorism - and we may well expect "dispersed Fordism" to continue along these lines. As for the dependence of capitalists on the problems of valorization, I am reminded of the many attempts to instill some basic knowledge of Marxism into capitalist managers. The question is indeed: Couldn't this solve the problems of capitalism if managers knew about the destructiveness of accumulation? Why should capitalists continue to replace living labour by dead labour if they know that this destroys the profit rate? And the answer will tell you why it makes a lot of sense to distinguish capital and capitalists.
4) To return to the methodological questions formulated at the beginning: Carlos disregards all the available information and all possible observations concerning Fordism and dispersed Fordism except one particular source: management lyrics - and he takes this to be identical with reality. The way he deals with this privi- leged source is completely uncritical. I am afraid his results are some of the wildest fantasies regarding the unlimited power of the capitalist class I have ever read. They culminate in some kind of prophesy of doom for the working class and mankind in general. Whatever the specific situation may be in Spain at this mo- ment - about this I know very little - and whatever this might help us in understanding Carlos' point of view I entirely disagree with the results and the method.