Everything Is Just Dandy!

Cornelius Castoriadis – Hierarchy of salaries and incomes

The Anarchist Library

Author: Cornelius Castoriadis
Title: Hierarchy of salaries and incomes
Date: Published in The Red Menace Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1979.
Notes: Originally published in CFDT Anjourd’hui, No. 5 (January-February, 1974), reprinted in Cornelius Castoriadis, L’Experience du Mouvement Ouvrier: Proletrariat et Organization (Paris: Union Generale, 1974). Translated by Tom McLaughlin.
Source: www.connexions.org

1. For several years now and especially since May 1968, the idea of self-management, of the effective control of production by workers, has ceased to be a utopian concept held by a few individuals and small groups, and has become a topic of frequent and animated public discussion as well as the programmatic position of such an important labour union as the CFDT. Even those who up to now were the staunchest opponents of self-management are gradually being reduced to defensive positions (such as "it isn’t possible right now", "not absolutely", "it depends what you mean by it", or "we must test it first").

Someday it will be necessary to examine the reasons for this change. For the time being we can note that this is the destiny of new ideas in all fields, particularily in the social and political sphere. Their adversaries start by saying that such ideas are absurd, then say that everything depends on what meaning is given to them, and end up by saying that they have always been strong supporters. We must never forget that such a purely verbal "acceptance" of an idea is one of the best ways of robbing it of its vital energy. If those who up to now were its strong enemies suddenly adopt an idea and take on the job of putting it into practice, we can be sure that, whatever their intentions, in the vast majority of cases the result will serve to emasculate it. There is strong evidence that modern society possesses an unparalleled virtuosity in the art of co-opting and sidetracking new ideas.

But in the case of self-management other important factors have aided its acceptance by some business leaders and politicians — something that no one could have predicted.

These factors relate to the profound crisis of the modern industrial system, the organization of work and the techniques that correspond to it. On the one hand it is more and more difficult to make workers accept tasks that are strictly limited, brutalizing, and totally uninteresting. On the other hand it has long been apparent that the division of labour pushed to absurd lengths — Taylorism, the attempt to fix the workers’ tasks in advance down to the smallest detail in order to better control them — has passed the point where it benefits the business enterprise and now creates enormous difficulties at the same time as it intensifies the daily struggle in production between workers and those who would impose the system on them — a conflict which becomes more and more evident, for example, in strikes over working conditions.

The bosses say that this conflict cannot be reduced by granting wage increases, and faced with the collapse of the dream of complete automation, they are led to consider the introduction of some partial modifications in working conditions. Hence the projects and attempts at "job enrichment", autonomy of production teams, etc. Opinions may vary as to the real meaning and possible results of these efforts. However, two things are certain: such a process once started could very well achieve a momentum which might not be controllable by the capitalists and the state. On the other hand, since the present organization of society sets precise limits to such efforts, they will not affect the power of the hierarchical bureaucracies which really run every business, however small, and even less will they challenge basic relations of power in society. Without a fundamental change, all modifications inside the business will have only a very limited significance.

In any case there is only one way to combat this dilution of the idea of self-management by the powers that be. We must make it as clear as possible, and draw out all the implications. Only in this way will we be able to distinguish the idea of a collective management by producers, the control of society by all men and women, from its empty and misleading caricatures.

2. In all discussions of self-management one fundamental aspect of the organization of business and society is hardly every mentioned: hierarchy of power and of wages and incomes. However, as soon as one thinks of self-management beyond the limits of a production team, the hierarchy of power, and the chain of command as it now exists are necessarily called into question, and therefore so is the hierarchy of incomes. The idea that true self-management of an enterprise could co-exist with the present power is a contradiction in terms.What meaning could we give to the term "self-management" if we still had the same pyramid of power with a minority of bosses at different levels managing the work of a majority of workers reduced to following orders? In what sense could workers really run production and the enterprise if a separate group of bosses kept the power to make decisions in its own hands? Above all, how could workers take an active interest in the progress of the enterprise and feel that it vitally concerned them — failing which, any attempt at self-management would be defeated — if, on the one hand, they are condemned to passivity by having to maintain a system of leadership that makes the final decisions by itself, and on the other hard, the economic inequality finally persuades them that the progress of the enterprise is not their concern because it benefits only a small part of the personnel?