Anarchy 47/Editor's note
If anyone can claim to have seen manufacturing industry from every angle, it is the author of this essay. He has been a thirteen-
The last of these books was so radical and original in its approach to the question of industrial management that it virtually ended its author’s career as a consultant. Firms were unwilling to pay for the advice of a man whose opinions were unacceptable to them because they challenged all their preconceptions about the role of managers and the rights of workers. There were, however, exceptions. A handful of manufacturers in the Birmingham area adopted Gillespie’s “free group theory” and attempted to apply it in their works. When I met one of these Birmingham industrialists—
The idea of “industrial democracy” has taken many forms over the last hundred years—
Similarly the efforts of syndicalist movements to propagate workers’ control as a revolutionary objective have always met with the dilemma which Geoffrey Ostergaard summed up in the words: “To be effective as defensive organisations the unions needed to embrace as many workers as possible and this inevitably led to a dilution of their revolutionary objectives. In practice, the syndicalists were faced with the choice of unions which were either reformist and purely defensive or revolutionary and largely ineffective.”
But in spite of every discouraging experience, the idea which some call “industrial democracy”, and others call “workers’ control”, and which Mr. Gillespie would call “free work in fellowship”, does not die. Every aspect of this aspiration still has its advocates and eager experimenters—
Another of the dominant themes discussed at Nottingham was the failure to advance beyond the normal capitalist methods of industrial management in the nationalised industries. “There was unanimous agreement on the need to press with utmost vigour for the democratisation of the existing nationalised industries. This general position was developed in one of the working groups which, in its report back, urged the need for legislation to give executive powers to the consultative machinery in the mining industry, as a first step”. On this topic, Mr. Robert Best, whose experiments in the “free group method” are described in the following pages by James Gillespie, writes:
- Before 1945 we all thought that if industry came under Common Ownership workers would participate in the fullest sense of the word, and would feel that the nationalised industries really belonged to them. It is almost a truism to say that this has not happened. But what is tragically strange is that at no time has there been any evidence of a strong desire, on the part of our socialist leaders, for experiment and change. Even when there was a national Labour government it was quite clear that those at the top just weren’t thinking along these lines at all. And now … where are we? Read this from the latest Fabian Tract, Nationalised Industries in the Mixed Economy: “The Webbs, discussing nationalisation, called for a searchlight of published information. All too often the information published by nationalised industries resembles smoke screens rather than searchlights”. Or “The fact remains that no new forms of industrial democracy have been thrown up in our nationalised industries, there is no change in the basic commodity status of labour and the wage system”.
- Just think what an opportunity for experimentation has been missed. Experiment in one or two pilot schemes would have proved beyond any doubt that participation is not only humane but, in the long run, efficient.
- But really this authoritarian resistance to real participation on the part of managers, chairmen, secretaries, big business bosses, trade union leaders, politicos and others is so well documented that I must apologise for stressing it now.
- Still there it is—
and that brings me to the obstacles to sharing power and responsibility. They are formidable. Participation takes time. In the short run authoritarian leadership looks more efficient. Many people like power for its own sake and for the status it brings. Furthermore some of the managers are now using the knowledge of the social psychologists to manipulate groups …
Mr. Best’s reference to the dangers of manipulation brings us to an important point raised at the Nottingham conference by Ray Collins, in commenting on the conclusions to be drawn from Seymour Melman’s Decision-
- It is interesting to note how some American sociologists characterise the arrangements described by Melman. Blau and Scott in their book Formal Organizations warn against the dangers of “pseudo-
democracy” in the context of a discussion about what we might call non- hierarchical methods of management. They urge that allowing scope for initiative and decision- taking does not amount to democracy unless the most basic decisions about operations are made by workers. They then go on to state that management by the use of “impersonal mechanisms” does not involve any assumptions about democracy. As an example of such impersonal control mechanisms they cite Melman’s account of the gang system at Standard Motors, which, they say, “reduced the need for supervision because work- group pressures assured a high level of productivity”. In short you get the workers to apply the whips to themselves! To be quite fair, however, there should be less danger of managerial manipulation in this situation precisely because of the collective bargaining situation in which the gang system has been worked out. This only emphasises how dangerous “self- control”; “worker participation” etc., could be in the absence of unions at the place of work. Here we have to meet the criticism of writers such as Clegg that systems such as that obtaining in Yugoslavia do not appear to measure up to collective bargaining in their protection of workers’ rights.
He is right of course, and no modern advocate of “industrial democracy” suggests that it does away with the traditionally defensive role of the trade unions, which provide the best safeguard against the dangers of a worker participation system being exploited by manipulative managements, and would still be required in the most thorough-
- Within the management hierarchy the relationships among the subsidiary functionaries are characterised primarily by predatory competition. This means that position is gauged in relative terms and the effort to advance the position of one person must be a relative advance. Hence one person’s gain necessarily implies the relative loss of position by others. Within the workers’ decision system the most characteristic feature of the decision-
formulating process is that of mutuality in decision- making with final authority residing in the hands of the grouped workers themselves.
What Melman calls “mutuality” and Gillespie calls “fellowship” are at the heart of the argument of the following pages. As Gillespie says, “our economic culture rewards some of the worst of human characteristics and penalises some of the best, in the running of the economic rat-race”. This is why he vehemently opposes incentive payment schemes like individual piecework which have the effect of reducing group solidarity and increasing predatory competition. A change here, to Gillespie, is fundamental.
If you don’t think his arguments are relevant, read the chapters on the Ford works in Graham Turner’s The Car Makers, where a shop-
- ↑ Tony Topham: “Conference Report” The Week 30/7/64.
- ↑ Daniel Bell: The End of Ideology (1960).
- ↑ Kenneth Alexander: “Power at the Base” in Out of Apathy (1960).
- ↑ Robert D. Best: Sharing Power, Thought and Responsibility (Birmingham Fabian Society 1961).