Anarchy 47/Editor's note

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Editor’s note

James gillespie’s essay is not likely to please every­one! Most man­agers will re­gard his ideas as a threat to their right to man­age. In­dus­trial work­ers will view them as the sales-talk of in­dus­trial con­cili­a­tion. In­dus­tri­al­ists will see him as an anar­chist, and anar­chists will see him as an apo­lo­gist for half-meas­ures. But to cate­gor­ise him in this way would be to miss the point of his argu­ments.

  If anyone can claim to have seen manu­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try from every angle, it is the author of this essay. He has been a thir­teen-year-old la­bourer, ap­prent­ice ma­chine-hand, time-study man, shop steward, strike leader, works man­ager and man­age­ment con­sult­ant. In this last cap­a­city he has writ­ten a num­ber of books on in­dus­trial or­gan­isa­tion: Train­ing in Fore­man­ship and Man­age­ment, Dyna­mic Mo­tion and Time Study, Engin­eer­ing Re­or­gan­iza­tion, Foun­dry Or­gan­iza­tion and Man­age­ment, Pro­duc­tion Ef­fi­ciency Man­ual for Trade Un­ion­ists, Prin­ci­ples of Ra­tional In­dus­trial Man­age­ment, and Free Ex­pres­sion in In­dus­try.

  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—an act­ive so­cial­ist and Quaker, not a typ­ical man­u­fac­turer, cer­tainly, he was full of en­thus­i­asm at the way in which the adop­tion of Gilles­pie’s sug­ges­tions had changed the whole atmo­sphere of his fac­tory. Mr. Gilles­pie touches on this ex­peri­ence in his essay, and it is to be hoped that a full ac­count of it will be pub­lished.

  The idea of “in­dus­trial demo­cracy” has taken many forms over the last hun­dred years—vary­ing from schemes of co-part­ner­ship and co-owner­ship, which as Mr. Gilles­pie points out “sel­dom have more than a super­fi­cial ef­fect if unac­com­pan­ied by in­di­vidual di­rect in­volve­ment in the man­a­ging pro­cess”, to the plans of the Guild So­cial­ists for na­tional guilds and the de­mands of the syn­dic­al­ists for workers’ control.

  Taken at face value, all these aspir­a­tions have failed, in that they have not changed the struc­ture of in­dus­try in this coun­try. Fifty years ago in their paper “Why the Self-Gov­ern­ing Work­shop Has Failed”, Sidney and Beatrice Webb at­trib­u­ted this fail­ure not to any de­fects in the char­ac­ters of the people in­volved, nor even to lack of ad­equate cap­ital, but to three lead­ing dis­ad­vant­ages which they saw in prac­tic­ally all the then re­corded ex­per­i­ments: “The group of work­men who make a par­tic­u­lar com­mod­ity, though they may know all the tech­nical pro­ces­ses of their in­dus­try, do not seem able, when they con­trol their own enter­prise, to secure in a high degree, either (i) ad­equate work­shop dis­cip­line, or (ii) the re­quis­ite know­ledge of the mar­ket, or (iii) suf­fi­cient
alac­rity in chan­ging pro­ces­ses”. The Webbs re­garded these fac­tors as in­her­ent draw­backs rather than as “ac­ci­dental or re­medi­able de­fects”, and they thought that the fu­ture of this kind of ex­peri­ment lay in as­so­ci­a­tions of pro­du­cers work­ing for a “tied” mar­ket of as­so­ci­a­tions of con­sum­ers which pro­vided cap­ital and was re­pre­sented on the com­mit­tee of man­age­ment. (In other words the re­la­tion­ship which exists be­tween those co-oper­at­ive co-part­ner­ships feder­ated in the Co-oper­at­ive Pro­duct­ive Fed­er­a­tion and cer­tain <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: re­tail co-oper­at­ive so­ci­eties">re­tail co-oper­at­ive so­ci­eties.)

  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—whether in the form of in­de­pend­ent work­ers who want to build it from the bottom up, or of en­light­ened em­ploy­ers who are as much in­ter­ested in mak­ing things as in mak­ing pro­fits, or of trade un­ion­ists who are anxious to put the idea of work­ers’ con­trol back on the agenda.

  What dis­tin­guishes the modern dis­cus­sion of this issue is a cer­tain sobri­ety of tone which for­swears the lux­ury of re­volu­tion­ary rhet­oric in order to con­cen­trate on the actual steps for­ward in the pres­ent situ­a­tion. One aspect of this is the in­creas­ing ad­voc­acy of the “col­lect­ive con­tract sys­tem” some ex­amples of which are dis­cussed by Mr. Gilles­pie, and another is the re­vival of the no­tion can­vassed in the first two dec­ades of this cen­tury by the syn­dic­al­ists and guild so­cial­ists of “en­croach­ing con­trol”. Thus in re­port­ing the Notting­ham con­fer­ence, Tony Topham notes that “there were too many pre­lim­in­ary prob­lems of defin­i­tion and under­stand­ing, for an agreed set of spe­cific de­mands for en­croach­ing con­trol to be for­mu­lated, though there were many ref­er­ences to such things as the right to hire and fire, the right to de­term­ine speed of work, the right to con­trol ex­pend­iture and pol­icy in wel­fare and safety mat­ters, etc.”[1] The Amer­ican writer Daniel Bell has stressed the same aspect: “If there is any mean­ing to the idea of work­ers’ con­trol, it is con­trol—in the shopover the things which di­rectly af­fect his work-a-day life: the rhythms, pace, and de­mands of work; a voice in the set­ting of equit­able stand­ards of pay; a check on the de­mands of the hier­archy over him.”[2] Or as Ken Alex­ander puts it more pos­it­ively, “And it is from work­ers’ desire to change the char­acter of their lives—work­ing
and leisure—that the mot­ive power for so­cial change must come. The Guild So­cial­ist pol­icy of ‘en­croach­ing con­trol’ in­dic­ates how in­dus­trial action, eco­nomic power exer­cised by work­ers, can be used to set in mo­tion basic changes in in­dus­trial or­gan­isa­tion and indeed in so­ciety. A few simple aims—for ex­ample, con­trol over hire and fire, over the ‘man­ning of the ma­chines’ and over the work­ing of over­time—pressed in the most hope­ful in­dus­tries with the aims of estab­lish­ing bridge­heads from which work­ers’ con­trol could be ex­tended, could make a be­gin­ning. The factors de­term­in­ing whether such de­mands could be pressed suc­cess­fully are mar­ket, in­dus­trial or­gan­isa­tion and, most im­port­ant, the ex­tent to which the na­ture of their work al­ready com­pels the work­ers to exer­cise some con­trol.”[3]

  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 …[4]

  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-Making and Pro­ductiv­ity:

  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-going system of “work­ers’ con­trol” that can be con­ceived. Melman himself, in the study re­ferred to, dif­fer­en­ti­ates be­tween the “pred­at­ory com­peti­tion” which char­ac­ter­ises man­age­ment and the “mu­tu­al­ity” of the work­ers:

  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-steward says of his fellow-workers: “They’ll cut each other’s throats for an hour’s over­time”.

  1. Tony Topham: “Con­fer­ence Re­port” The Week 30/7/64.
  2. Daniel Bell: The End of Ideo­logy (1960).
  3. Kenneth Alex­ander: “Power at the Base” in Out of Apathy (1960).
  4. Robert D. Best: Shar­ing Power, Thought and Re­spons­ibil­ity (Birming­ham Fabian So­ciety 1961).