The activities of labouring classes show that establishing a system that puts their interests before corporate profits is possible.
When global elites speak of ‘harnessing the opportunities of the market’ they mean the ability of global capital to exploit global labour under conditions of decreasing societal regulation. The success of these policies is reflected in the way that global wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, while the world’s poor have seen their income decrease as a share of GDP. The present system is based upon the degradation (and denial) of work and the heightened exploitation of labour.
Where can we seek alternatives to global free markets? We need to look at the activities of labouring classes themselves, so often ignored by elite policy-making bodies. Historically, labouring class struggles have been central to the emergence of democracy and some degree of accountability of capital to society. In some cases they have been able to generate conditions where investment favours labour rather than capital. Their struggles show the desire for an alternative political-economic system. For example, mass struggles by labouring classes led to the downfall of dictatorships in Brazil and South Korea, and of the South African apartheid regime respectively and raised, briefly, the spectre of further, progressive, transformations.
Labouring classes can, through their collective actions gain access to land as with the Landless Labourers Movement (MST) in Brazil. Since its formation the MST has challenged rural property rights and, through land invasions, gained access to land for over 350,000 families. From facing unemployment and destitution, the MST has established relatively democratically-organised rural communities, and has begun the process of constructing new livelihoods denied to them by elite-implemented, anti-labouring class, economic policies.
Workers can take over factories and increase employment and wages, as occurred in Argentina following the economic crisis in the early 2000s. According to one account, rather than face unemployment, workers in the Neuquén province occupied and ran the factory themselves:
“In October 2001, the workers officially declared the factory to be 'under workers’ control'. By March 2002, the factory fully returned to production…. During the period of workers’ control, the number of employees has increased from 300 to 470, and wages have risen by 100 pesos a month, and the level of production has increased. Accidents have fallen by 90%”
Hundreds of such factories still exist across Argentina under worker-management.
Recently, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has begun discussing ways to democratize the South African economy, including through nationalization of the highly lucrative mining sector. In doing so NUMSA draws on the 1955 Freedom Charter:
“The people shall share in the country’s wealth! The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people; all people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.”
These are just a handful of examples of alternatives to contemporary neoliberal capitalism. They have been formulated and enacted by labouring classes themselves. They disprove the neoliberal ‘there is no alternative’ thesis, and contradict elitist conceptions of development which deny that workers’ experiences of self-activity and amelioration are constitutive of human development. From these examples we will find fresh ideas for establishing an alternative system that puts labouring classes before corporate profits.
Photo credit main picture: ZANON- amamblea-patio / Oriana Eliçabe via Flickr