By Dave Davies
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A Design for Life

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Review of "Workers' Control", Ken Coates, Spokesman £7.99
Issue 281

This book is a collection of essays written by Ken Coates between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. Although in some ways historically dated, it contains a number of debates and ideas that anyone who thinks (as the subtitle runs) ‘another world is possible’ will find interesting.

In particular the brief history of the development of unions in the East End in the 1890s and the description of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) sit-in of 1971 are well worth reading. The victory of the sit-in gives the lie to the argument that globalisation undermines the ability of workers to fight, as production can easily be moved across the world. The UCS sit-in took place in an industry which had spread across the world, particularly the Far East. The common argument was that low paid foreign labour meant UCS had to close. The sit-in kept it open.

Coates is at his strongest when he describes the pitiful condition of work under capitalism, and how it destroys human creativity and potential. The ‘Wage Slaves’ chapter provides poignant anecdotal examples of this process – how workers spend the majority of their working lives longing for the hooter to sound, or for Friday to come round again, or ultimately their own retirement. As the essay states, the stark fact that work under capitalism causes so many people to effectively wish away their lives surely ‘cannot embody the final wisdom of the ages’.

Coates also hits home in his chapter on education. He argues that capitalism’s needs shape the nature of education, whereas it should be the other way round – the needs of an educated workforce should shape the nature of production. In today’s era of Sats, league tables and schools churning out children as fodder for industrialists, the ideas put forward by Coates about lifelong education seem exceptionally relevant.

There are a few problems with the book, however. Firstly, because it is a collection of essays it fails to develop a strong argument about the strategy for change. This argument – the need for workers’ co-operatives to augment serious social change – is present in a few of the chapters but doesn’t develop throughout the book.

Also, the book is steeped in the language and arguments of the time, and at first glance doesn’t equate with debates in the anti-capitalist movement today. On closer reading the idea that we can carve out a socially progressive island within capitalism that prefigures some future society and in the process overthrow capitalism is very current.

Socialists will always support people who want to live and work in a different way, rejecting the values and norms of capitalism. But we argue against the idea that this model is the best way to effect change. It is because workers create the profits that are capitalism’s lifeblood that they have the potential power to strike the killer blow. The problem with workers’ co-operatives is that it is almost impossible to remove yourself from the realities of capitalism. The workers’ co-ops, by trying to challenge capital on its own terms, were subject to all the pressures of competitive accumulation. The worse the economic conditions, the more the co-ops were faced with the choice of adapting to the values of capitalism or going under.

In his 1976 chapter ‘Workers’ Producer Co-operatives’ Coates outlines this basic argument with quotes from a 1970s Socialist Worker editorial and from Ernest Mandel. In his counter-argument he cites the successful workers’ co-ops of the time – Triumph Meriden, Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering Company, and the Scottish Daily News. The subsequent fate of these projects is instructive. Triumph Meriden went into receivership in 1983 and was sold off, Kirkby was taken over by Worcester Engineering in 1978, and the Scottish Daily News went bankrupt in 1975 shortly before the article was published.

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