Andy Blunden 1999
Introduction - Capital - Labour - Conclusion - Home Page - Index

Labour versus Capital
— not Poles apart, but Pole and non-Pole

This article is the third part of an investigation into the forms of consciousness which reflect the way people live and work in bourgeois society in the advanced stage of its development when wage labour actually declines, giving way to the transformation of workers into supposedly independent contractors, and the family and the welfare-regulator state are on the decline, and people create new forms of voluntary organisation in order to sustain human life.

In this part, I intend to embark, somewhat experimentally, in a methodological departure. Rather than viewing the development of the proletariat as one determination of the development of bourgeois society, as would have been appropriate in the earliest days of capitalism, I shall treat free, self-organised labour and capital as irreconcilable opposites and the class struggle as the struggle between two elements which are foreign to one another, rather than as the struggle between two opposite aspects of the labour process, between "living" and "dead" labour.

"Actual extremes cannot be mediated with each other precisely because they are actual extremes. But neither are they in need of mediation, because they are opposed in essence. They have nothing in common with one another; they neither need nor complement one another. ...

"Had the difference within the existence of one essence not been confused, in part, with the abstraction given independence (an abstraction not from another, of course, but from itself) and, in part, with the actual opposition of mutually exclusive essences, then a three-fold error could have been avoided [by Hegel], namely:

  1. that because only the extreme is true, every abstraction and one-sidedness takes itself to be the truth, whereby a principle appears to be only an abstraction from another instead of a totality in itself;
  2. that the decisiveness of actual opposites, their formation into extremes, which is nothing other than their self-knowledge as well as their inflammation to the decision to fight, is thought to be something which should be prevented if possible, in other words, something harmful;
  3. that their mediation is attempted. For no matter how firmly both extremes appear, in their existence, to be actual and to be extremes, it still lies only in the essence of the one to be an extreme, and it does not have for the other the meaning of true actuality.

[Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx 1843]

Taking these comments as my point of departure, I want to look upon the principles of voluntary organisation (or labour) and capitalist organisation (capital accumulation) as irreconcilable opposites. How else can we understand and recognise the emergence of the new way of living as it emerges within the interstices of capitalist society, if we see it as one possible determination of wage-labour or of bourgeois consciousness?

  1. Voluntary labour and wage-labour are both labour processes which are capable of existence independently of the other and of providing for all the needs of the community without the aid of any other principle.
  2. We have no desire or need to reconcile the systems of voluntary and wage-labour, but on the contrary seek the destruction of the system of wage labour and hence its replacement by a society based on voluntary labour.

I say this despite the fact that voluntary labour is clearly conditioned by and a product of bourgeois society. Nevertheless, it is not, together with wage-labour, an aspect of a "higher principle", other than the given fact of the world as it is today.

Thus I am going to examine the interpenetration, conflict and mutual interaction of wage-labour/capital on one side and voluntary labour on the other as if contemporary society constituted a kind of "mixture" of two elements which have nothing in common other than the fact that they both exist.

This is not an heretical approach. For example, what would be the appropriate approach to looking at the arrival of the Conquistadors in America? "Unity and conflict of opposites"? Hardly. Likewise when the bourgeoisie emerges from the bowels of feudal society, its principle is entirely foreign to that of the old society. It has no other means of growth other than the food and clothing provided to it by feudal society and no other origin that the possibilities and problems of feudal society, but its principle is quite foreign to it. The rise of capital signals the demise of feudal society.

The relation between finance capital and industrial capital, or between agricultural labourers and their farmer-employers are not the same kind of opposition though. In each case here the "opposites" develop in a specific relation to one another according to principles which are more fundamental. For example, finance capital and industrial capital are different kinds of capital, and both are subordinate to the laws of movement of capital according to which one can be transformed into the other. Farm employees and farm-owners are two mutually interdependent sides of the process of capitalist agricultural production and cannot exist separately.

By way of exploration, I want to examine several aspects of contemporary life where voluntary labour and capital come in contact with one another: (A) the class struggle, (B) trade unions and the relation of their structure to that of capital, (C) the flow of money within all voluntary organisations, including working class organisations, (D) the relation between the working class and other kinds of voluntary organisations apart from unions, particularly the kind of organisation which might be needed to achieve the abolition of capital and find a way towards a truly human life.

(A) Class Struggle

The class struggle is a specific form of voluntary organisation wherein the universal principle is either a struggle over the share of revenue accruing to labourers or over the conditions of labour, or at the other extreme, the struggle for political power.

Our method must be to observe those forms of class struggle which actually exist, in however attenuated a form, so as to avoid the confusion which would arise from pure speculation, and to set our assessment of the various forms of struggle within the analysis that:

Where wage-labour is the predominant form of exploitation of labour, the class struggle may be furthered by:

As wage-labour becomes supplanted by contracting, the class struggle includes the fight to restore wage-labour, in order to maintain the value and conditions of labour-power already secured. This is a necessary and unavoidable fact not to be minimised in any way. However, there is an element of trying to turn the clock back in this tactic and it must be obligatory on workers' leadership to consider how workers selling their services as products may be strengthened, all the more because the conditions of the labour market will ensure that a lower price for services as against labour-power will undermine wages.

Consequently, side by side with the struggle against conversion of wage-labourers into contractors, we must ask ourselves: What measures will improve the lot of the class of self-employed contract labourers, other than them ceasing to be self-employed contract labourers?

(i) Market forces alone will ensure that the "necessary labour time" as a proportion of the working day, is determined by the enhancement of productivity in the production of the means of subsistence brought about by the socialisation of labour. Good old-fashioned unionism, which amounts to the formation of a cartel of producers, however, can force up the value of simple labour. It would be, however, unionism of a new kind, since the union members would have to include both employees and independent contractors, and the action of the union would be to exercise a restraint on trade and force up the going price not only of wages, but of products.

(ii) Alternatively, workers could combine to sell labour only in its developed form, that is to form "workers' cooperatives", to themselves become "joint-proprietors" in order to enhance their share of the product. It may be an inevitable outcome of the formation of a workers cooperative, that a differentiation takes place within the cooperative in which some workers become managers while others remain navvies, and nothing more is achieved than the incorporation of the workers' leaders into the system of exploitation. This problem is part of the consideration of part (C) below.

Either way, the immediate, "economic" struggle takes the form of struggle for revenue, i.e. money, and consequently remains dependent upon the very conditions of bourgeois society itself. Since it is a fundamental fact of life in today's bourgeois society that one has power only in proportion to the money one owns or disposes of, it is undeniable that workers need money and the more they have of it the better position they are in to organise themselves against capital, or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, so long as they depend for their power and wealth upon the money they own, they remain trapped within the system of money.

One of the characteristics of union struggle is that capital itself organises the working class. The industries and systems of payment in which workers earn a living and relate to one another are produced by capital. All the employees of a given enterprise are brought into relation with one another by capital and capital forms them into a coherent body. The employer can regret this outcome of her work, and may struggle mightily to keep the workforce fragmented and at odds with itself, but the conditions of labour require that employees cooperate with one another. It is on the grounds of this cooperation in the labour process that union solidarity may grow. The independent contract labourers created by contracting-out, privatisation and deregulation meet each other as sellers of a similar product, and a new kind of unionism is required to organise this mass.

The current discussion within the Australian union movement about the future of the union movement following the retirement of Bill Kelty may provide a useful airing of the issues involved here.

One of the chief problems of development of the union movement is bureaucratism, and central to this, the flow of money within trade unions, the best of which become medium-scale employers and own considerable assets. This will be the subject of part (B) below.

(iii) What happens if workers combine to apply a part of their day's labour to meet their needs cooperatively without recourse to the market, by voluntary "mutual aid"? This is a step backwards inasmuch as their efforts will be at a lower level of socialisation than under capital which mobilises the whole community, but a step forward from the sale of their labour as individuals. Cooperatives of this kind differ from the workers' cooperative envisaged above in that they only purchase from the market, and sell only internally if at all. The Coop in Europe developed into a large retail chain indistinguishable from any other capitalist corporation with the so-called members' coupons being somewhat like today's Fly-Buy cards. This possibility will also be further investigated in part (C) below.

On the other side, in relation to the development of the struggle for public political power, how can voluntary organisation extend itself to the point of being able to mobilise the labour of the whole community, while the power of money is continuously able to exert itself on an unlimited scale? Here the class struggle can take the form of a social movement which wins the support of the entire working class and part (D) below will consider this line of action.

(B) Industry- and Trade-Unionism

During my time as a unionist at the University of Melbourne, I have had the opportunity to observe and in most cases participate in the activity of five different kinds of union:

  1. The "Enterprise unions" or staff associations respectively for general staff and academic staff employed at the University, prior to about 1988;
  2. The Public Service union, an industry union for employees of the state government, which inherited coverage in Universities as a result of the earlier promotion of former State colleges to the status of Universities;
  3. The Tertiary Education union, which was formed by amalgamation of trade and enterprise unions and defections of industry unions outside the sector, and which organised all grades of employee except the blue-collar trades, across the whole country;
  4. The Miscellaneous workers union which had members among cleaners at first, and later child care workers, but was granted, by the Industrial Relations Commission, the right to cover the "maintenance trades", and
  5. An alliance of the various "Maintenance trades" unions, especially the Builders and Electricians.

Of the above, only the Tertiary Education and Maintenance unions have succeeded in gaining and holding the loyalty of workers and conducted effective organisation within the higher education industry. The Miscellaneous workers never gained any members among the maintenance trades and all the cleaners were contracted-out, but later on, all the child-care workers joined. The public service union remains with a handful of members and the enterprise unions have long since disappeared.

I want to make some observations about union structure which are based on my own observations of these unions and which may shed some light on our subject.

The Staff Associations

The staff associations appeared within the University during the early 1980s when widespread militancy swept through the Australian working class seeing off the Fraser Liberal government. The employers fostered their development believing that it was the best means of holding off the unionisation of university employees by a burgeoning union movement. During the period of Labor government at Federal level which was characterised by corporatist arrangements between the government and national union leaders, the staff associations found a place, albeit a second-rank one and consolidated their position. However, as industrial conditions became increasingly complex and legalistic (particularly under the impact of the Hawke Labor Government's Accord, the Federal Award system and the increased pressure towards conciliation, the expansion of the intrusion of university-trained professionals into the unions and the ACTU's policy of forcing unions to amalgamate), the staff associations had to face the fact that they were incapable of keeping up with the progress being made by other sections of workers and made overtures to trade unions to be taken over and absorbed into the union movement proper. I believe I am correct in saying that never during their lifetime did the staff associations take strike action.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the workers' movement must be able to organise on a scale superior to that of their employers to be able to match blows. The staff associations did well in terms of level of membership but there was always a problem of maintaining the independence of the association from management, who were always able to exercise influence within the association, and bureaucratism was as rampant as in the largest industrial union in the country.

In the last days of the University of Melbourne General Staff Association, we tried to place an industrial ban on collection of the so-called "administration fee", the thin end of the edge which soon led to the end of free tertiary education. In the last instance, the handful of workers who were faced with refusing to process the forms said simply that they were not confident that if they were victimised, that they would actually have the promised full support of the trade union movement, and the GSA had to quietly back off. Later on, it was always the case that when faced with the requirement to take industrial action, workers would always ask first: "Is it only Melbourne Uni. branch?"

The Public Service Association

I was a State Council member of the State Public Service association representing higher education general staff for 7 years, and during 2 years of this time my own comrades were leaders in the Victorian branch, but at the end of this time I had to draw the conclusion that it was impossible to transform the State Public Service union into a union which was able to defend the interests of employees within higher education.

The State Public Service union was a federation of unions each representing the employees of one of the state governments. At much the same time as the general staff associations were looking for a way out of the growing complexity of industrial law, particularly the need to achieve federal awards to defend workers, the state public service unions set up a federal umbrella organisation and later amalgamated with their federal public service equivalent. Broadly speaking these amalgamations were a dismal failure. The branches of the participating unions corresponding to their respective employers were and remained the owners of the fees income contributed by members and stalwartly refused to give this up for the benefit of a united union. Thus, the main bodies of workers in struggle with each of the main employers ran their own offices, employed their own staff, elected a leadership of one or another political stamp, and correctly refused to give this up. A by-product of this situation however, was that employees of the 40-odd universities whose funding was a mixture of federal government grant and private income, never managed to get any significant commitment from or any effective voice within the public service union. Seven years after joining the public service union, former general staff branch delegates were still doing their own organising, negotiating and advocacy and paying 10 times to subscription they had paid the staff association to sustain the public service union structure. A union member who phoned head office for industrial advice, would be more likely having to explain to the official that he did not have access to the Public Service Board, than receive useful industrial advice.

The supposed "Higher Education Committee" within the public service union's federal structure was a charade which included 2 or 3 employees in higher education who had to be members of the Public Service union's Federal Council and participate in the running of a public service union before getting access to the higher education committee; the rest of the committee was made up of paid officials of the union, public service members substituting for higher education members or the positions were simply left vacant. The Melbourne Uni branch paid my travelling expenses to attend these meetings as an observer, as I never made it through the legal hoops to become a formal member of the HEC of the SPSF.

The conclusion I draw from this experience is that the flow of money within a trade union must mirror that of the employers, and the flow of money is more important in determining the power structure within a union than any set of written rules and regulations.

The Miscellaneous Workers

After the maintenance unions failed to satisfy the Industrial Relations Commission that they were willing and able to form an alliance or agency of some kind to look after each others' members (each University employed a handful of each of the dozen different trades, and the trade-specific method of representation was not viable, particularly after the Single Business Agreement system of bargaining was introduced by the consensus of government, unions, courts and employers), the Miscellaneous workers union was given coverage of all the blue collar workers, despite the fact that the electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc., remained loyal to their own unions and in fact the handful that joined the miscos to get access to negotiations, still held on to their trade union membership. The miscos tried valiantly but were never accepted by workers who identified with the union of their trade, and it remained the case that these trade-based union were defending workers in their trade via the award system whether or not they participated in enterprise or industry-level negotiations. However, as legislation undermined the status of awards in regulating working conditions and wages, and at the same time the IRC ruling locking the maintenance unions out of the industry expired, the maintenance unions re-entered the industry and now represent their members. The Miscellaneous workers union rose from the ashes when the child-care workers, part of that union's natural constituency, all joined up when faced with the threat of a wholesale cut in wages.

The continuing vitality of these unions is based in their ability to maintain the loyalty of all workers in a given trade and exercise some kind of "restraint on trade" in sale of a specific kind of labour. The award system is the natural kind of regulation for this kind of unionism and there is no doubt that the enterprise agreement type of regulation poses a threat to them and the unions representing the different trades have grouped themselves in more or less loose federations, still structured around the trades. This industrial strength has enabled the trades unions to find ways "around" the award stripping and Enterprise Bargaining legislation, and to continue to some extent with the essentials of the old award system.

There is no doubting the effectiveness of these unions in defending the interests of their members in the blue-collar trades. However, the fact remains that those of their members who are employed in the Universities (and I am guessing that the same will apply elsewhere, outside of areas where the trades form the main body of employees) have conditions which are determined by negotiations at enterprise level.

Now what happens if we assume that the division of labour continues to expand and the process of contracting out continues so that maintenance services in places like the Universities are provided by maintenance or facilities management contractors? Full circle! in the sense that these alliances of trades unions will then become the industry unions of the maintenance industry, instead of being the representatives of marginal sections of workers employed in support sections of businesses engaged in other industries.

Thus, despite the fact that the maintenance unions are hanging on to their old structure as best they can, we see a mirrored confluence of the structure of working class organisation with capitalist organisation.

In contrast, the Public Service unions, which have organised on the basis of the governments which employ their members, and failed to get the Industrial Relations Commissions to recognise the "public sector" as an "industry" for the purposes of defining union coverage, are seeing their constituency disappear with the process of contracting-out and privatisation, and are withering away almost visibly as a result.

Tertiary Education Union

When the Tertiary education union was formed by the amalgamation of general staff and academic staff unions, it was the tension between these two sections of the tertiary education workforce which was the most problematic. The outcome however was that these tensions dissolved within a short time and the relation between the general and academic sections of the union is certainly the least problematic of all conflicts within the union. The union brings together in fact a vast array of trades from porters to professors and only healthy collaboration results. Tensions within the union are at their sharpest in conflicts between different branches and state divisions of the union and between different levels (branch-division-national) of the union, each of which receive a fixed proportion of the dues income.

The other feature of the tertiary education union which is particularly noteworthy is that it is the institution-level branches which, partly as a legacy of its origins in enterprise unions, own the subscription income from members. As a result, not only are branches able to employ their own staff quite independently of higher levels in the union, but even though the rules require the payment of fixed levies to state and national offices, branches from time withhold payment to enforce their will. All the same, with 30% of the union's income, the national office is the single most powerful entity in the union. Thus, this union's structure fairly accurately mirrors that of the employers, especially as the industry becomes less and less dependent on government funding.


My experience has led me to believe that the real structure of a union is the flow of money within it. Those points within a union which are the owners of the income from members are the real centres of power. If a union is to be effective in furthering and expressing the interests of its members, then the flow of money within the organisation must mirror that of the labour process in which its members are organised.

Currently, I find the situation within my own union quite satisfactory in this regard. However, if my analysis is correct, as the process of development of the division of labour continues, the structure of the union will have to change. If, for example, Melbourne University is able to purchase teaching services from the market on a sessional basis as the principal means of delivering its courses, then the institutional branch structure will become a fetter. In fact, under those circumstances it would make more sense to move back to a structure more like that of the maintenance unions who are already better situated to meet this development even though they are poorly organised for the situation as it actually exists at the moment.

(C) The flow of money within a voluntary organisation

When I have mentioned the observation which I have raised above — that whatever the formal structure of decision-making within a voluntary organisation such as a trade union, the circulation of money within it constitutes the real constitution — I have usually been met with the reply that I am cynical. However, I believe that this is no more cynical than the observation that in this world the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. I think this fact deserves closer observation.

For a start, I have never known an organisation where effective power has not been exercised by full-time employees of the organisation, where these exist. From time to time of course there are coups. A union election takes place and a paid general secretary is replaced by an opponent from the ranks, and power shifts to a new person in the old job. Even then, in more cases than not, it is the support of a faction of the ALP or the paid officials controlling the funds of another union which provide the wherewithal for an effective rank-and-file campaign.

Formally speaking, it is usually the national council (or whatever), an elected body of honorary officials which acts like the board of directors, supervising the work of the paid secretary or whoever is acts as the effective employer of the staff, draws up the budget, speaks to the press and so on. Typically such councils meet monthly for one or two hours and have to exercise control over full-time officials who work 40 hours a week in the union office and exercise immediate control over the entire union staff.

The truth is always concrete and many different situations may eventuate, but other things being equal it is that full-time paid official who acts as the chief employer who exercises real power in any union.

Secondly, while it may be the "council" or whatever it may be called in a given case who exercises control over the office, such honorary committees are on one side the creatures of the real power in the union (i.e. the paid general secretary) or creatures of the branches or other electorate which they represent, or some combination of the two (See the section on Hierarchy in "The Self-Organisation of Labour"). If there is to be a challenge to the power of the general secretary from the membership, then the issue arises as to where if anywhere there are other seats of power. More often than not membership dues are paid direct to the same office and if this is so, the position of the general secretary is very secure and gives considerable room for even dictatorial behaviour. In the NTEU, branches have significant power arising from their ownership of members' dues, but being small individually, have to form alliances to effect real changes. In the public service union, there was a "country" bloc which was the greatest single independent point of power outside of the state office, and their power in the union built on close social ties and common interests, was given reality in the appointment of a full-time, paid "country organiser" who exercised power in the state office on their behalf. The branches and departmental sections of the union who represented members working in specific agencies and were funded with a pittance from the state office, were nearly powerless despite the strong social ties of their members working for the same employer. The federal office together wit its federal secretary was almost as powerless as the departmental sections, dependent as it was on money provided by the state offices, despite the fact that the federal office was the peak body of the whole union. In the federal public service part of the union, where dues were paid direct to the federal office, the federal office clearly exercised predominant power over the state and agency sections.

All this is simply to say, in my experience it is the circulation of money within a voluntary organisation which constitutes the real constitution of the organisation. Secondarily to that, it is the social ties within the labour force which constitute the possibility for overturning the power of money. The formal constitution of the organisation, while appearing to rule supreme on a day-to-day basis, since everyone must work within the rules, comes in a poor third.

What this poses for those of us who are interested in prosecuting the class struggle, rather than in earning a secure living within a voluntary organisation, is that the flow of money within an organisation must be designed to meet the needs of the class struggle. However, this always poses the problem of challenging the status quo which rests on a given mode of circulation of money. In the ideal situation, the circulation of money within the organisation reflects the formal, agreed structure of the organisation. In this case, the influence of money has been subordinated to the needs of the working class, at least within the confines of its own organisation. However, things constantly change and the very first attempt to change the monetary arrangement will come up against the most almighty opposition from those that have the power vested in them by the status quo. Consequently, a kind of "permanent revolution" is required within the organisation.

(D) Political Organisation and the Working Class

As remarked above, the working class is organised by capital, and ideally the trade unions must mirror the money relations within the labour process organised by capital. Further, as was emphasised in the Syndicalist perspective of the IWW who wanted to "build the new society (One Big Union) within the shell of the old", the trade union movement is potentially as capable of taking over and running the production process as it is of stopping production.

However, there are a number of serious barriers for such a vision. The very idea of voluntary labour is antithetical to trade unionism, whose principle is that people should be paid for what they do, and it is difficult to see how the trade unions in themselves can do anything which steps outside the system of wage-labour. To overcome these limitations, the unions established a Labour Party, and working class intervention in government has always gone beyond providing a "shield" for the unions, as in the Syndicalist perspective. The fight for the "social wage", for the development of a welfare state and public enterprises run by the state, the Reformist perspective, is well-established in the workers' movement.

This approach itself has a serious impediment. First, the working class hands its welfare over to the state and relies in turn for its intervention in the state on its trade union structures and particularly its full-time paid officials who get bumped into parliament and, so long as Labour hold the numbers in parliament, key administrative roles. Our analysis in the second part of this work has shown that however successful this strategy may have been in the past, it is increasingly less likely to be effective, because of the necessarily diminishing capacity of the state to deliver — quite apart from the manifest short-comings of this perspective which hands the gains of the working class over to an enormous centre of power, based on ownership of taxation income, armed force and the legal and moral authority of the state, a power quite able to corrupt those union officials who have not already been corrupted by capital.

Since the Paris Commune of 1871, the alternative Communist perspective has posed a possible alternative to the dead-end of Reformism by using the momentary supremacy of the organised working class which may come about as a result of a crisis in the capitalist system as an opportunity to destroy the capitalist state and allow the organised working class to assume public political power.

There are two problems with this perspective which concern us here, the before and the after. The problem with the after is that unless the working class is already sufficiently developed to do without a state and feed and clothe itself without the aid of money, then their problems have only just begun; which brings us back to the problem with the before.

(E) The Decline in Union Membership

It is one of the central paradoxes of the workers' movement of this period that over several decades, more or less consistently across the world, there has been a definite decline in membership of the trade unions, despite the fact that over the same period, the world has become more and more organised and integrated.

This problem has been the subject of very extensive empirical and theoretical study, and it would be very ambitious of a paper like this, which is aimed principally at developing some new concepts to provide a new explanation for this phenomenon. Nevertheless, it would not be acceptable to pass this issue by without comment.

There would be broad consensus I think that the decline in union membership is associated with the following changes which were mentioned in the introductory paragraphs of the chapter on capital:

In summary, the whole range of problems for unionism which originate from the disorganising effect of the speed of change and from obligatory cultural changes, have no special place in this paper; however, I believe that the challenge to working class organisation posed by the last two issues need to be dealt with within the scope of this paper.

The question posed is: what place if any do trade unions have in a society in which contract employment has supplanted wage-labour, and what form of working class self-defence can not only defend workers who have been made contractors, but will also promote class-consciousness in the same way that trade unionism has in the past?