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Working for Change

David Bisset

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appears to remove a contradiction from one's life. The factory worker and the educated professional who belong to a revolutionary party presumably believe that most people in society are exploited by an elite, and that this is bad. The party may believe in either taking over and changing society by force (which is only to replace one hierarchy of authority with another—hence no fundamental change in this aspect of society), or convincing a sufficiently large proportion of the people that society must be changed, and only then changing it. The problem here is that it's very hard to believe in a radically new form of society but yet to live as a functioning member of the old. The factory worker is pretty well on the bottom of the pile as far as exploitation goes, especially if female, and could justifiably spend a lot of time striving for better pay and conditions, not to mention paying off the car and house and educating the children—not much energy or thinking time left for being a revolutionary. The educated professional is in a fairly similar position, except often deriving quite a lot of satisfaction from his/her work, and certainly better off materially. The difficulty in creating a revolution stems directly from the would-be revolutionaries' participation in the present work system. They are on the one hand preaching an idea while practising something quite different, and on the other hand are drawn away from their revolutionary ideas by the worries and sattsfactions of their day-to-day lives.

 

I've mentioned these four examples because in my rather vague searching for something to do with my life, I have considered them all, and ended up rejecting them for the sorts of reasons described above. Other possibilities were to become a hermit, or to 'live in the country' but these would deny any feeling of common responsibility for the degradation of people's lives. There is also the possibility of leaving Australia, either to follow brighter lights or to serve in some volunteer capacity, but I feel ties to this land, and feel also that,as a part of the Western world, we are nearer tothe source of many of the world's major problems.This is where the work must be done. The end result of all this is that I want to spend my working life at ordinary work just like most people do, but doing this work in a better way if possible, andthrough this creating at least the possibility of some fundamental improvement in society. Here follows a brief outline of this process. People should have a better future: a future that is better than the present, and better than what will follow from present indications. The nature of the way people work together, especially control and exploitation of some people by others, is one of the fundamental factors determining the nature of society. To have a better Future, that is to improve upon the present, it is important to improve the nature of work.

 

If the nature of work is improved, society is improved . Society will also tend to improve in other ways as a result.

 

 

Each person must decide as an individual to change the way in which he or she works. The decision may be: to work by oneself; to join anexisting group of people; or to set out with one or mo re other individuals. Although any one person's changing makes little difference to society, it means that one more person is living in the present accordin g to his/her ideals for the future. This means that the future (which derives from what happens now) will more closely resemble those ideals. It means that (for the people who have changed their ways of working) the present is more like the ideal future.


The above process is independent of any particular critique of the prevailing ways of  working in our society, and independent also of any particular ways of working found desirable. The point is that if it is important to change the ways of working, then it can be done by individuals and groups of individuals, eventually having an effect on society as a whole, and certainly improving the lives of those immediately involved. I wonder sometimes why people are so keen to set up 'communes', or shared households, on the basis of living their own lives in a way they see as desirable, if unconventional, and yet happily go off to work each morning to exploit and be ex-ploited just like someone from a conventional household: The reasons for forming a commune usually include a desire for sharing, friendship, and cooperation, and yet these are the very anti- theses of the characteristics of most business and government: possessiveness, competition, and hierarchy. Children from the communal households quite likely go to 'free schools', where the emphasis is on sharing, cooperation, friendship, and crea- tivity, and yet as soon as they leave school they must find work in that environment of possessiveness, competition. hierarchy, and stifling conformity. Why have so few people ever thought about setting up workplaces based on these virtues of cooperation, sharing, friendship, creativity, variety...?

 

Once thought about, it is probably quite easy... people usually have interests and skills and abilities, and friends... one has only to make a firm decision, and have the patience to carry it out.

 

I don't think that living in communes has much effect on the relationships between people in society as a whole. It is quite conceivable for half a dozen company directors and their families to live to gether. They could build themselves a Hollywood style mansion, and hire servants and ladies-in-waiting, who would live in a commune of their own at the swampy end of the private park... If there we re no places of work where some people exploit others, however, there would be no rich elite, and communal living and free education would make mu ch more sense—they would flow naturally from the structure of society rather than 'peacefully co-existing'.

 

Society's relationship with the earth, just as with its own people, is one of destructive exploitation. The idea seems to be to compete for control of natural resources, in order to use as much as possible as cheaply as possible so as to get as wealthy, as powerful, and as large as possible, and then to leave rubbish lying around all over the place, making the air, ocean, and land uninhabitable for all except those with private island resorts. If people worked in order to satisfy society's needs rather than to make maximum profit for an elite, then society's relationship with the earth could become one of constructive utilisation instead of destructive exploitation, and we could feel at last that the earth is held in trust by all people but possessed by none.

 

That production which results from the work done by people today is the sum of the natural resources used, the machinery, etc., already produced, and the creativity, skill, and energy of the workers, including designers. But who owns these products? The companies which merely decided to produce them, and thus invested their wealth in buying workers and raw materials? And what happens to the products? Quite a large proportion is sold at a considerable profit back to the workers who made the products in the first place, and the rest becomes the accumulated riches of the wealthy, who didn't make the products in the first or any other place. So I think it reasonable to say that it was the designers and workers who created the accumulated wealth of society over the centuries, and that the wealthy elite had no hand in it because they don't do any productive work.

 

So why should they have so much control over so much wealth, and especially so much control over the people who actually do the work? More importantly, how is this to be changed? 

 

The only way I can see for getting out of this circular process is to leave the rich and powerful out of it altogether; for people to set up places of work owned and controlled entirely by the people wh o work there. The guiding principles could then be cooperation, sharing, friendship, creativity, variety, efficiency, consideration of people's needs, and equality of responsibility... and the concept of profit would gradually disappear. These worker owned and controlled organisations would then be able to cooperate with each other, rather than compete through endless wasteful advertising campaigns (see illustration).

 

By tradition one of the good aspects of our present society is equality of opportunity anyone can have a go at improving his or her position, and some succeed in doing so. Some of our most powerful and respected men and women came from the humblest of social origins. But this traditional concept implies its own opposite, which is often forgotten: if there are a few success stories, then the story for most people is a story of failure. If a few of the jobs in society are accorded great respect, then most jobs are less respected. Some jobs are regarded as inferior by almost everyone, yet some people must do them. Society's idea of improvement seems to be that individuals should attempt to raise their own positions at the expense of other people around them. I think that a part of improving our society is to accord every job equal respect, to give control over the job to the worker, to encourage all workers to take equal responsibility for the work being done, to discourage over-specialisation, and to share out certain types of unpopular work amongst all the people immediately affected by it.

 

In practica terms, how can these general ideas be applied to specific areas of work? I think that the particular people involved in any place of work have to establish their own methods, although these will be influenced by the methods of other groups with which they interact. Possible examples from the four areas of food, clothing, shelter, and communication mentioned at the beginning of this article :

 

A farm. It is quite a common idea to go and live on a farm and grow a few vegies, but in a society where people like to have a great range of items, such as books, films, clothing, vehicles, concrete, electric light it is necessary to grow the food for the people who produce those items as well as food for oneself. Because of this most farms must be reason- ably well organised and efficient, rather than merely country retreats. A farm could be worked by a small group of people, say three to twelve or so, who would be equal partners in its lease or ownership and equally responsible for doing all the work, although there would be some specialisation according to interests or skills. The people would all have to be in basic agreement about how much work per person per week on average, the basic farming method, the market to be served, residential arrangements, and the financial arrangements. Decisions about when to plant the crop, what sort of tractor to buy, sharing out the work, and so on, could be made by a regular meeting, probably working by discussion/consensus. The meeting would take into account the requirements of other cooperative workplaces when planning production and perhaps trade food for manufactured products or different types of food from other regions. If there were other cooperative farms nearby, there could be some sort of federation of farms for machinery ownership, helping with harvesting, distribution of produce, bulk buying of supplies, utilisation of people with special skills, and so on.

A workshop for practical clothing (You could set up a workshop for impractical, i.e. trendy, fashion-able, clothing if you liked, but I don't see the point myse lf.) A few people working together, say three to six to begin with, could rent suitable shop or factory space, and design and make comfortable, durable clothing. This could be sold both wholesale and retail, and supplemented by custom-made orders and special purpose designs. The people involved need not live together; in fact this would probably be undesirable. Once the various routines for book-keeping, ordering, work-sharing, and so forth were worked out, the workshop would run fairly smoothly, leaving such things as what types of clothing to make to be decided by a periodic meeting . While I imagine that most production would be for the general public, there would be much merit in trading with other cooperative groups, e.g. clothing for food from a cooperative

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