Jorge Silva: Libertarian Self-Management (1996)

Jorge Silva, an anarchist writing from Brazil, emphasizes in the following piece, translated by Paul Sharkey, the difference between genuine self-management and the “participatory” forms of management adopted by some capitalist enterprises to increase production while leaving actual control of the enterprise firmly in the hands of management (

Libertarian Self-Management

If we are to understand Capitalism and the State and their bureaucratic institutions, it is not enough that they should be analysed as modes of production; we must also see them as specific, historical forms of the hijacking of society.

Clarity on this issue is vital for social movements, mainly for those that aim to keep the prospect of change alive at a time when the prevailing ideology would have us believe in a new historical determinism encapsulated in a theological dogma: that capitalism and the state will be around for all eternity.

Capitalism is an historical mode of production that manages to extend its logic into every social institution and its values into every single culture,  in a process of homogenization that is without precedent.

While it is true to say that it  did not invent the machinery of exploitation and domination, it is also true to say that by accentuating and setting social roles in stone, rendering them one-dimensional and impoverishing the life of the producer already prey to economic modes of exploitation, capitalism boasts all of the negativity of both exploitation and of political and cultural domination which translates as the growing alienation of human beings.

These days, contemporary forms of capitalist administration are characterized by their bureaucratic, remote control nature, whereby the workers and indeed the intellectuals and the experts in absurdity are losing control over the production and management of everything. Likewise, the so-called law-based state finishes up usurping all decision-making powers on its own behalf or on that of its bureaucracy and experts in representation, the citizenry being reduced to the status of mere spectators whose task it is to vote for these elites.

Which is not to say that the ruling elites do not need to call upon us to “participate”. Certain contemporary forms of management have at their core the virtues of participation, with workers cooperating and acting and being represented as “partners”. From the USA to Japan and Brazil, there are “experts” who make their living doing this. Doing away with social conflict, especially on the terrain of production, through corporativism or feudal paternalism is what capitalist modernity is all about. As reflected in the prison model already in place in some countries with self-governing prisons where the inmates stand guard over themselves!

The only thing is that self-management has nothing to do with this caricature. The values of autonomy, self-organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid were, historically, values at odds with capitalist values and in the socialist movement their chief manifestation came in the form of the self-managerial school of thought. The still relatively new notion of self-management addresses another notion that was central to libertarian socialism, namely, that all of us as citizens or workers can manage without bureaucracy and the state in the running of society. This was a central point for the social movement during socialist experiments, from the Paris Commune through the Soviet Revolution and the Spanish Revolution. But it was not just a stratagem designed to boost private profit through a more intelligent form of administration that looks no further than lining up the workers inanely on production lines, Henry Ford-style, if only because, over time, automation is  doing away with the need for human ‘machinery’.

The social division of Labour — and the rule of representative parties — requires that there be some semblance of participation across the board but mainly by the lower orders, so that two things can be achieved: boosted production and legitimacy and the elimination of apathy, this being a socially dangerous phenomenon. One has only to listen to what is happening on many industrial production lines, what with absenteeism, low productivity levels, stress and sabotage. In politics, we can imagine the consequences of political leaders being returned on the basis of a 20%, 10% or 5% turn-out at the ballot box. How could they claim any legitimacy for their speeches and policies?

By way of a counterpoint to the state and hierarchical, authoritarian modes of organization, social movements were developing a model of organization based upon egalitarian collective practices obtaining in relations of solidarity and willing cooperation — self-management, in short — a system made up of self-governing, cooperating groups from which hierarchy and domination have been banished.

True, such forms of voluntary, non-hierarchical organization require personal commitment, engagement and a consciousness at odds with hierarchical modes of organization that resort to coercion, blackmail and reward. For which reason it is harder and more time-consuming to create and develop cooperative forms of organization, if only because resistance to innovation, the impact of the prevailing values and routine tend to yoke us to forms of organization involving an onerous and ongoing quest for innovation and partnership. But is self-management — let alone systemic self-management — likely to be achievable over time?

The anarchists will optimistically answer in the affirmative, since exploitation and domination, with their concomitant wretchedness and alienation, provoke resistance and dreams that flesh out the craving for a different sort of society that mirrors different forms of organisation and inter-human relationships.

To be sure, the path to this alternative society is not as short or linear as some — the advocates of Marxism-Leninism — used to think, if only because history shows us the extent to which the phenomena of subordination and alienation have been internalized by every class and group in society, especially in our society, massified and captivated as it is by an ideology of consumerism and spectacle.

Competitive rivalry has deep cultural (and, some say, biological) roots and the upshot of these are the more violent forms of exploitation, death, war and alienation, but, as Peter Kropotkin showed in his book Mutual Aid [Volume 1, Selection 54], even in the animal kingdom one of the crucial factors in the evolution of species was cooperation within the species.

In philosophical and political terms, the point is for us to discover the lengths to which human societies can carry their process of historical apprenticeship and re-creation of forms of social organisation or whether the conservative force of inertia, blended with authoritarian power networks can lull to sleep the human creativity and restlessness that runs throughout history.

The freedom route, the route to moving past complete dependency upon nature or someone else — in short, the building of autonomy and the path for which social groups and individuals have been searching throughout history, requires that we put paid to the bonds of exploitation, domination and alienation and boost an authentic, deep-seated relationship between the individual and those around him and the sort of reciprocity that Buber used to talk about.

This is the issue that continues to confront social movements, unless they want to go for the sort of trinkets that the system always dispenses (once upon a time to trade unionism, and these days to the newer social movements), turning them in most cases into mere beneficiaries of the exploitation and domination that they used to condemn. This course is described as pragmatism, but can be better gauged in terms of the leadership, their premises and  shares portfolios.

A bureaucratic brand of trade unionism that reproduces differently named forms of organization and which is based upon the existence of a team of immovable leaders who specialize in representing the world of work, thereby fitting in with the managers of all of the institutions in capitalist society in arguing the case for the “necessity” of delegation and the “inevitability” of the bureaucratization of organizations.

Autonomous trade unionism — autonomous in terms of its dealings with the state and with capital — is voluntary organization on the basis of affinity and still represents one of the main potential tools for social change. Except that this approach to trade unionism is not confined to merely adopting a few vague theoretical principles but necessitates other forms of association that strive in the here and now for an egalitarian, autonomous and self-organizational model, a miniature of what our ambitions for society as a whole would be like.

A model of direct, inter-active participation (in which delegation is tailored to specific tasks with specific time limits, with delegates accountable at all times to the rank and file and liable to recall at any point) that rejects the bureaucratization and administrative sclerosis of the unions and social movements, making a contribution towards the cultural and social enrichment of the workers, conjuring up an alternative culture and resistance that underpin new social relations, is a prequisite for any re-creation of forms of social organization.

This was the path upon which revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism had embarked before they were tragically interrupted by converging negative forces at the beginning of the century: by Leninism, by Nazism and fascism and, in the Brazilian case, by Vargas’s authoritarianism in the 1930s.

With the overthrow of state capitalism in eastern Europe and with capitalism racked by a profound crisis,  it is high time that we venture again with open eyes and hope down what Martin Buber [Volume 2, Selection 16] called the ‘paths to utopia’ that lead on to systemic self-management.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Yes, self-management requires individual responsibility – when one is critical of “big government” or government in general, and then asks for “big daddy” to rescue them when they have made no plan or provisions for obvious eventual disaster – well, i for one don’t have much sympathy ( as a former new orleanian).

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