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Can workers run society?

Colleen Bolger
Socialist Alternative

22 June 2010

Workers already make society run. It is an indictment of the system that they don’t also run society. Workers perform all the practical tasks that make society function; however, decision-making power is out of their control.

This becomes apparent whenever workers take industrial action. Take the World Cup. Recent strikes have revealed that our enjoyment of the soccer tournament is brought to us by the electricity workers who power the stadium lights, the stewards who collect the tickets, the bus drivers who ferry people to and from the games and the retail workers in the department stores selling tourists all of life’s little necessities.

The World Cup, like everything else, is the result of the collective labour of tens of thousands of workers.

The travesty is that although they make it run, they don’t run the show. They have no control over whether to invest millions of dollars in sports stadiums and luxury hotels rather than poverty alleviation programs.

The electricity workers cannot decide to power the homes of people who cannot afford exorbitant bills. The bus drivers cannot decide to put on more services to ferry people to and from work. The retail workers cannot decide that basic foodstuffs will not be sold for more than what is affordable. Their work is indispensible, but their views are not sought.

Socialism is about abolishing this inequity by putting decision-making power back into the hands of those who produce, power and service everything we need in society.

Even under capitalism, many workers take pride in performing socially useful tasks – like teaching, nursing, cleaning and construction – despite working in stressful and under-resourced environments. Millions of people even volunteer their time and energy to sports clubs, charity and community organisations because they see it as worthwhile. Then there are the 2 billion people who are denied the right to work and contribute in a meaningful way at all.

Working on projects that will enhance and enrich our society, and having input into that process will enable workers to derive real dignity from their labour. We should have confidence that unleashing the creativity and know-how of those who already perform all the practical jobs in the world will massively improve the functioning of our society.

The capitalists are running society into the ground. War, poverty and environmental disasters are the fruits of their efforts thus far. For example, the executives at BP are responsible for the devastating pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Ten days before the disaster BP official Brett Cocales responded to advice from Halliburton recommending additional safety precautions: “But, who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.”

It’s not just a case of bad apples either. ExxonMobil’s disaster response plan includes 40 pages on media strategy – compared with just nine pages on clean-up. The clean-up plan includes monitoring the impact on walruses, which have not inhabited the Gulf for 3 million years.

The problem is that those in charge of the oil companies are not the engineers that designed the rig; they are not the construction workers who built it; they are not the conservationists who assessed the environmental impact; they are not the seamen who transport the barrels of oil; and they are certainly not the ones that have to work the drill in the unsafe conditions that led to the death of 11 workers in the BP explosion.

The oil executives are in charge not by virtue of their skills and expertise, but by virtue of their wealth. The decisions they made that caused the spill were based on one thing only: how to make more wealth for themselves.

Similarly, the 2008 food crisis was caused by bankers on Wall Street bidding up the price of grain and rice, pricing 150 million people into starvation. The bankers had nothing to do with the production of the food – they didn’t sow, harvest, transport or package the crop. To them it was a good investment.

While they toasted their success at New York’s finest restaurants, mothers in Haiti fed their babies mud cakes. We cannot afford to allow the rich to decide our fate on the basis of how they can generate more profit.

If the working class ran society, they would do so to benefit humanity as a whole. This is because they are a collective class and do not own productive property as individuals. When workers take over the running of their workplace, they must cooperate with each other because work is a cooperative process.

A small group of workers in one place cannot decide to utilise the materials and machinery to make mobile phones whilst the rest are making laptops: the workplace would not function. Instead, they must decide democratically what is produced, how it is produced and what it will be used for.

When workers have taken over their workplaces they have demonstrated again and again that they know how to run them more efficiently than their managers.

As a result of the Argentinazo in 2000-2001, over 100 workplaces were taken over by their employees when they were abandoned by their bosses. One example was the Israelite Hospital in Buenos Aires where a series of poor business decisions drove it into bankruptcy.

Today it is run collectively by over 250 nurses, technicians, cleaning and administrative staff. Maria Pino is the secretary of Grissinopoli, a baking company managed under workers’ control. She says as she does the accounts, “I always did this work, but what’s different now is that I have more responsibility, because there’s no one else above me.”

Although workers already have the practical skills to employ in a reorganisation of society, Marx said it was necessary that workers themselves wrest control from the do-nothing criminals who run capitalism. This is because revolutions provide the education workers need to rid themselves of the oppressive ideas of being submissive, sectional, prejudiced, disengaged and everything else that stops people from fighting today.

It is in the process of changing society that workers change themselves. In doing so, said Marx, “they rid themselves of the muck of ages and make themselves fit to rule and found society anew.”

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