It is widely claimed, especially by marxists, that working-class people have both an interest in rebelling against capitalism, and a capacity to overturn the system by means of their own concerted action. I, too, endorse this claim.
But, supposing it’s true that workers would benefit from rebellion, why do they in fact seem so reluctant to rebel? Why is anti-capitalist revolt both rare and, by and large, relatively unpopular, at least in most parts of the world?
A common answer is that working-class people do not rebel because they are in the grip of an ideology, relentlessly promoted by schools, mass media and the culture industry. According to this theory, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class, and the hegemony of pro-capitalist belief systems and value systems overrides the class interests of workers, leading them to embrace an alien, bourgeois world-view. In short, the compliance or acquiescence of workers is explained in terms of their alleged internalization of a conception of society that undermines their willingness to revolt against the system that exploits and oppresses them. According to this view, workers are behaving in an irrational, self-defeating way to the extent that they refuse to revolt. But how likely is it that they would persistently act in ways that are self-defeating? There’s something about this explanation, the “ideology” theory, that just doesn’t ring true.
Another explanation appeals to affluence to explain the absence of revolt. Maybe relatively highly paid workers — the “labour aristocracy” — are “bought off” by the system, because they benefit from it in ways that lower-paid workers do not. The problem with this view is that, like the “ideology” theory, it assumes that at least the lower-paid workers are acting in self-defeating ways whenever they fail to carry out a revolt that they would benefit from. Again, it is hard to see why they would behave in that way for a long time, decade after decade, if the whole time they had more to gain from acting otherwise.
I think we can bring out what both the ideology theory and the labour aristocracy theory are missing, by presenting a kind of parable, which conveys vividly the predicament of the workers’ movement today. (Note that, as to the substance of the views conveyed in the parable, I claim no originality; many social scientists have raised these points about rebellion and rationality, in more or less similar ways, for the past 40 years. See Heath 2000, for a recent application.)
Imagine that a passenger jet is carrying 200 passengers. Two of the passengers, however, have used makeshift knives to commandeer the plane. Call them the 1%. Their intention is to use their position of power to extract money from the others, under the threat that non-cooperating passengers will be penalized in various ways, such as by being denied food or a proper place to sit. Conversely, the most cooperative passengers would be given advantages, including extra comforts and more freedom to move around. We can call the penalized passengers, “the worse off,” and the rewarded passengers, “the better off.”
It occurs to many, perhaps even to all of the passengers that 2 hijackers, in spite of the weapons that they have at their disposal, could easily be overpowered by the combined force of 198 others. And yet, no one challenges the hijackers at all. But why not?
Should we imagine that they are lulled into complacency and apathy by the comfort of their seats? Could it be that they are too immersed in the on-flight movie that is being shown on screens throughout the plane?
No. Their ready compliance is due neither to their level of comfort, nor to the distractions of the entertainment they are allowed to enjoy. Instead, what happens here is what is known as a “collective action problem.” A collective action problem exists whenever the action that would be most advantageous to a group of people, were they to cooperate with one another, is not advantageous to any of them individually in the absence of such cooperation. As a result, each of the individuals is in the position of being reluctant to “stick their necks out.” In my passenger jet case, no one tries to overpower the hijackers, because doing so alone would be at least self-destructive (because they would fail, and then suffer penalties, ending up not better off but worse off), if not suicidal. It is only advantageous to attack the hijackers if enough of one’s fellow passengers also do so, in the same way and at the same time. If that sort of large-scale coordinated response is unavailable, it is fruitless to try to confront the hijackers one or two passengers at a time. For each individual passenger caught in this situation, the most advantageous thing to do is to try to make the best of a bad situation. But the only way to do that is to try to be one of the most compliant passengers, in the hope that one can thereby gain entry into the “better off” group, rewarded for acquiescence. After all, the hijackers, who are now in a position to confer benefits and harms on the other passengers, have promised extra comforts and freedoms to the most compliant passengers. While attacking the hijackers will surely make one worse off, currying favour with them might actually improve one’s position.
To be sure, if rebelling against them seemed likely to end the whole ordeal, most of the passengers would probably be willing to take that risk. They would have a strong incentive to do so, as long as the great majority of the other passengers could be counted upon to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in this struggle. But in the absence of a coordinated, large-scale response, rebelling as individuals, in ones and twos, is just plain irrational and self-destructive. It simply can’t succeed. No doubt a few passengers will try, hoping to set an example for the others, perhaps expecting to spark a wider revolt. But when the others see how easily the rebellion is crushed, the most likely effect will be to reinforce the impression of most passengers that the only option is to make the best of a bad situation, doing what they can to please the hijackers in order to extract some relative advantages.
This, in a nutshell, is the structure of the situation that the workers’ movement finds itself in today. Collectively, we have the potential power to topple the ruling class and its systems of exploitation and oppression. By large-scale withdrawal of labour, and refusal of socio-political compliance, the workers’ movement (that is, the oppositional struggles of the exploited and the oppressed) could bring the system grinding to a halt and deprive elites of the social basis of their power and authority. Moreover, we would benefit greatly from doing so. And yet, in practice we seem powerless to resist. Indeed, when we do resist, our efforts usually fall flat, since it is clear both to ourselves and to our adversaries that we are unable to mobilize our forces on the scale and with the intensity, coordination and persistence needed to pose a real challenge to the system.
At the very centre of the crisis of the Left is a collective action problem, essentially identical to the one that plagues the passengers on that flight. Small groups here and there try to put up a fight. But they are easily defeated by the superior strength of the ruling class. Were all of the exploited and oppressed, or even most of them, to challenge the system at once, in a sustained and coordinated way, there is no doubt that the rebellion could prevail. But this kind of coordination does not exist, and everyone knows that it does not exist. As a result, revolt against the system just does not seem like a plausible or appealing course of action for the vast majority of people. Why stick your neck out, when you know you cannot prevail?
What is the way forward, in the face of this impasse?
What is missing, obviously, is coordination. Each individual or isolated group needs to be able to trust all the others that, when one person or group sticks their neck out to fight, all the others will “have their back” and take up the fight. This is the missing ingredient. But how can we begin to address this “atomization,” this sense that we all stand alone, wishing we could stand together?
Traditionally, the workers’ movement knew exactly how to address this problem. It systematically cultivated, and even “enforced” in certain ways (above all, during a strike or boycott), a set of norms and practices that reinforced habits of reliable coordination: the movement took great pains to inculcate the familiar “proletarian values” of cooperation, mutual aid, and solidarity. The power of the workers’ movement rested on the widely shared understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Injustice anywhere was recognized as a threat to justice everywhere.
Unfortunately, there has been a long term process of “decomposition” of these forms of solidarity and cooperation, brought about by changes within the workers’ movement itself (the bureaucratization of unions, the displacement of self-organized practices of mutual aid by professionalized, state-administered social services), the legal reconfiguration and ‘domestication’ of ‘labour relations,’ the reorganization of workplaces to disempower and de-skill workers, the reordering of the forms of life available to workers (suburbanization, car culture, etc.), and the enclosure and commodification of most opportunities for recreation and the production and consumption of popular culture, among many other factors. The effect of all these (and other) transformations has been to weaken the grip of expectations of mutual aid and reciprocal solidarity within and among the organizations of the labour and social movements. The grip of those proletarian values has steadily weakened, to the point where now the “bourgeois” norms of competition, social climbing, and careerism have come — paradoxically — to prevail even within the working class, which for so many generations scorned these ruling-class aspirations and counterposed to them the socialistic ideals and material practices of solidarity and cooperation.
In the wake of this long-term process of decomposition, what is needed now is a similarly long-term process of recomposition. The exploited and the oppressed have to take up the challenge of constructing new forms of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, while reinvigorating (where possible) the old forms. One part of this will be the emergence of new styles of struggle, more effective in today’s context than the domesticated and de-fanged varieties of collective action that now predominate, too often integrated into the official political process or the state-supervised labour relations regime. But just as crucial will be the cultivation of effective vehicles of cooperative production and distribution that can draw us out of the seemingly totalitarian reach of market and commodity relations, on the one hand, and bureaucratic ‘command-and-control’ systems, on the other hand. A resurgence of grassroots collectivism could offer a much-needed reminder of our capacity as human beings to support and sustain one another, outside of and against capital and its state. Community-based, self-organized forms of cooperation and “solidarity economics” not only could exist, but they already do exist, albeit under constant pressure to collapse into the capitalist forms of organization that they attempt to eschew. No less important, the workers’ movement of today must learn to push back against the total privatization and enclosure of popular culture, by finding ways to produce and share cultural expressions that articulate the grievances and aspirations of the exploited and the oppressed in ways that are harder to recuperate or co-opt within the confines of capitalism and commodification.
The Left should not allow its anxiety in the face of non-statist forms of “localist” cooperation and solidarity to discourage it from offering much-needed support for so-called ‘prefigurative’ forms of working-class self-organization. The latter take many forms, from cooperative workplaces and popular assemblies to community gardens and collective kitchens. The absence of red flags and anti-capitalist manifestos should not obscure the fundamental antagonism between these egalitarian and democratic projects and the logic of capitalism that they so obviously reject.
Only a concerted and persistent commitment to this process of renewing and regenerating the shared sense that “an injury to one is an injury to all” can begin to turn the tide, reviving the deep bond of mutual trust and commonality of fate that nourished the struggles for justice and democracy in decades past.