Article: The Fordist Baggage of Anarcho-Syndicalism

by Ben Debney

31st October 2019


Capitalism is a self-contradictory paradigm as a defining feature; its internal contradictions are coming to a head in the ecological crisis, as it tries to maintain the endless growth so crucial to its existence on a planet of finite space, resources, and capacity to absorb the pollution and waste it spews forth with all the self-restraint of an addict. And yet at the same time, global capitalism has also demonstrated a high degree of adaptivity in making changes to its social composition to forestall crisis and prolong their capacity to dominate all life in pursuit of profit – the neoliberal globalisation of capital since the 1970s being not the least of which.

Accompanying globalisation has been a series of associated shifts to the global composition of capital understood in terms of ‘Fordism’ and ‘Post-Fordism’. The industrial capitalism of the 20th century, with its production line work and Taylorist management techniques (associated with industrialist Henry Ford), has given way to the rise of service industries, the feminisation of the work force and the financialisaton of the economy (Hall 1988, 24; Kiely 1998; Gramsci 1999). Autonomist arguments concerning the importance of ‘immaterial labour’ (knowledge work) in the global economy reflect the significance of the cultural markers attached to these respective stages in the mutation of capitalism (Bianchi 2011; Marazzi 2011).

In the face of these developments, the self-directed praxis of anarcho-syndicalism has generally failed to keep pace. Furthermore, the broad failure of anarcho-syndicalism to keep abreast of the evolution of the structure and composition of global capitalism reflects deeper shortcomings within its theory and practise. This failure arguably manifests in two interrelated ways:

  1. In the first, anarcho-syndicalism continues to operate within a Fordist paradigm, assuming the continuance of the industrial capitalism into which it was born (in western countries in particular) amidst the deindustrialisation of the North and exporting of industry to poor countries with less restrictions on the exploitation of wage labour associated with globalisation.
  2. In the second, anarcho-syndicalism continues to focus on wage exploitation as the only means by which value is extracted by subject classes in a class-divided world, generally tending to ignore the colossal contributions of unpaid labour by women caregivers in the home – which all available evidence indicates outstrips exploitation associated with the extraction of surplus value from wage slaves by a significant margin.

We now proceed to consider each of these in turn.


Fordism and deindustrialisation

The global North has experienced a marked de-industralisation in recent decades, with an accompanying shift towards service-based economies; in the United States, this process has taken place predominantly in regional areas, giving rise to the ‘Rust Belt’ and the large-scale emptying out of former manufacturing hubs like Detroit. What jobs do remain are being replaced by mechanisation (Koistinen 2013; Strangleman, Rhodes & Linkon 2013). Multiple factors propel the decline of industry in the North – the aforementioned globalisation being a key feature, though international competition and the diversion of profits into stock buybacks rather than investment in infrastructure also appear to play a significant role (Hudson 2015).


In the face of these developments, much of anarcho-syndicalist praxis invokes archaic and, by now anachronistic, Fordist frameworks; in the United States, the pre-eminent revolutionary union is the Industrial Workers of the World, and its publication is entitled the Industrial Worker. Despite its international claims, the IWW remains largely confined to the English-speaking West, where it agitates using Fordist images of white male factory workers clutching spanners in front of 19th century factories belching smoke – patent indifference to the massive and unmistakable changes to the social composition of capital globally in the half-decade since the 1970s tending to suggest more of a concern with conserving the past than being relevant to workers in the present. White males in overalls is particularly anachronistic when over half of all workers are women – those in low-paid sectors most of all (Close 2016).

Also revealing their vintage are what were, at the time they were written, the most advanced ideas of their day. Though having been through several recent reprints from Pluto Press and AK Press on account of the broad conceptual relevance of anarcho-syndicalist praxis, Rudolf Rocker’s classic 1938 work, Anarcho-Syndicalism, nevertheless points to the developments of 80 years ago:

The restricted strike is today losing more and more of its original importance, even if it is not doomed to disappear altogether. In the modern economic struggle between capital and labour the big strike, involving entire industries, will play a larger and larger part. Even the workers in the old craft organisations, which are as yet untouched by Socialist ideas, have grasped that, as is shown clearly enough by the rapid springing up of industrial unions in America in contrast with the old methods of the AFL .

(Rocker 2004)

The historical decline of unions amidst the capitalist offensive associated with the rise of neoliberal ideology (or what Naomi Klein calls ‘corporate supremacism’), along with the deindustrialisation of the global North, indicates that the developments Rocker hoped for all those eight decades ago did not come to pass.

On the contrary, as the Solidarity Federation (UK) point out in the process of developing perhaps the best attempt to date to update anarcho-syndicalist praxis, Fighting for Ourselves, that deindustrialisation was part and parcel of class warfare and undermining the capacity of organised labour to place limits on the otherwise totalitarian domination of capital over all life.

For the manufacturing sector, the process was less sudden. Instead, firms increasingly employed a ‘spatial fix’, relocating to countries with lower wages and laxer conditions. Often, these were military dictatorships like Brazil and South Korea. Here too, they often found that the workers they brought together on the production lines got organised, fought and won better conditions. But in terms of Britain, the militancy was successfully exported.

(Solidarity Federation 2012)

SolFed note further the aforementioned shift in the North towards the service economy, pointing out the intended effects of this in imposing a ‘generational break in militancy across almost all sectors … Most workers born in the 1980s or since have never been on strike, and for those who have it has been mostly in one day, largely symbolic actions’. To this, they usefully add that, since ‘memories of effective industrial action are few and far between, and the sectors where this was commonplace are long gone,’ the effects of deindustrialisation require new efforts to address effective service sector organising. Inexplicably though, Fighting for Ourselves fails to carry this through to the exported industries. It remains otherwise silent both on the strategic implications of deindustrialisation in the North, and what this means for overcoming Fordist paradigms based on organising strategies for industries that have been exported safely away from union organisers (for the time being).


Social reproduction

A further problem with the Fordist paradigm, and indeed a more significant one for anarcho-syndicalist praxis in many respects, arises out of the ongoing issues associated with care labour in the home, its role on the social reproduction of the labour force for capital, its fundamental character as a colossal gratuity to the system of private accumulation, and its associated devaluing on that basis. We have already seen that the feminisation of the workforce is understood to be a central feature of post-Fordism; this fact is reflected amongst other ways in the hyper-exploitation visited on garment homeworkers in the global South (Marshall 2019; Delaney et al 2019). Feminist scholarship takes this insight further in recognising the centrality of care labour and its role in social reproduction—i.e. the reproduction of the capitalist labour force—to the broad problem of worker empowerment, given the degree to which the system of private accumulation depends on the appropriation of colossal amounts of unpaid labour, and the systems of patriarchal oppression put in place to ensure supply (Federici 2012; Fraser 2016; Bhattacharya 2017; Boeri 2018).

For women doing care work in the home, the systems of oppression put into place to ensure the supply of massive amounts of unpaid labour (called ‘slavery’ in other circumstances) manifests as a profoundly unequal balance of power built on ‘gendered constructs of care’ (women do all the hard work raising kids for free, in other words). These gendered constructs of care thrust women into cycles of pauperisation, since care labour is not valued; women are made to feel like they are ‘only mothers’ and are obliged to perform wage labour on top of care work for any recognition that they perform socially useful activities. Economically dependent on others, be they partners or welfare systems, the colossal amounts of free care work women provide is a crucial free lunch of gargantuan proportions (Boeri 2018, 3-13).

Some sense of the economic significance can be found in Australian government statistics, which find that, in consideration of comparable market rates of pay, unpaid care work in the home is the greatest contributor to national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) states categorically that

It is clear from these data on labour inputs that the three largest industries in the economy are not in the market sector but are in the everyday household activities of (1) preparing meals, (2) cleaning and laundry and (3) shopping. Each of these activities absorbs about 70 mhw of labour time; the three largest market industries require rather less labour: wholesale and retail trade 55 mhw, community services (health and education) 47 mhw and manufacturing 42 mhw.

(Ironmonger 1994)

Comparable statistics from India suggest similar:

Even in the absence of time use surveys, recent labour surveys reveal that more than 80 per cent women in India report their time goes in domestic duties and women do almost seven times the domestic and unpaid care work as men. Estimates reveal that the total value of time spent on unpaid care and domestic work by women in India is equivalent to 39 per cent of GDP.

(UN Women 2015-2016).

39% of GDP sounds conservative when compared with the AIFS statistics. Indeed, unpaid labour as percentage of GDP in Bangladesh, by contrast are discussed in the following terms:

The estimated value of women’s unpaid non-SNA (household) work, if monetised, would be equivalent to 76.8 to 87.2 percent of the GDP.

(Khatun, Khan and Pervin 2014).

The Bangladesh statistics are much more consistent with the Australian ones, and the literature in political economy on appropriation of unpaid care labour in general. Without these massive amounts of unpaid labour invested in rearing new generations of wage-slaves, capitalists have no workers to exploit by paying them less in wages than the value of the work they perform.

The patent implication of this fact is that the traditional focus of anarcho-syndicalist organising on the exploitative nature of the wage system is only half the story; running parallel to the private accumulation associated with wage slavery is the appropriation of unpaid care work associated with social reproduction (Federici 2012; Moore 2015; Fraser 2016). To the extent that anarcho-syndicalist praxis fails to account for private appropriation of care labour, it neglects the single greatest source of value for capitalists, and thus the single greatest basis of their class power.


Adapting anarcho-syndicalism to changing times

The exporting of entire industries to the global South and the emerging awareness of the critical value of unpaid care labour and social reproduction to the capitalist system reveals that the traditional Fordist modes of organising, and of representing the working class culturally, are generally outmoded and obsolete. Industrial workers in the South are by and large far removed from those in the North, which presents as a particular problem to the extent that anarcho-syndicalism remains a predominantly European phenomenon, inclusive of its colonies in North America and Oceania. Somehow, anarcho-syndicalists in the North have to work out how to communicate with industrial workers at the point of production in the global South, encourage interest in the history of the global libertarian workers’ movement and help organise in a revolutionary and non-hierarchical manner.

Similarly, care workers in the home are far removed from anarcho-syndicalist organisers to the extent that anarcho-syndicalism remains focused solely on wage labour and exploitation at the point of production, neglecting to account for the even greater sources of value for capitalism from unpaid care work in the home. Anarcho-syndicalists have to work out how to adapt the ‘why’ of anarcho-syndicalism to the ‘how’ of anarcho-syndicalist organising at the point of social reproduction. The organising of a feminist general strike in 50 countries early in 2019 shows the great potentials in this respect; maybe the next stage is to organise an international care workers’ union so that all the mothers can go on a good work strike (ICL 2019)

These two questions become of even greater significance when we consider the combination of the two issues in industries in the South populated predominantly by women. Organising in Bangladesh (Bangladesh ASF—, National Garment Workers Federation—, for example, demonstrates efforts that have to be encouraged and supported much more widely (Love and Rage 2019). Empowerment narratives in development studies, with their  emphasis on collective autonomy, can be easily linked to workers self-management and cooperative economics (Cornwall & Rivas 2015; Fraser 2016; Bhattacharya 2017; Boeri 2018; Easton-Calabria & Omata 2018). Autonomous unionism can offer a framework for getting from here to there, constructing the facts of the future in the present and helping to empower people through directly democratic structures where they can practice utilising the participatory forms through which production and distribution could be run cooperatively as per fundamental precents of anarcho-syndicalism.

Organising from below would have the empowering participatory features and put pressure on lawmakers to implement regulatory frameworks for worker protections in the present, while developing revolutionary union structures that can potentially be used to organise production cooperatively and without bosses. The practical need to seek redress for injustices in the here and now can in this way be combined with the need to account for the intersection of oppressions at the level of root causes, rather than the instrumentalism inherent to trying to maximise individual potential within a context of exploitative and unjust social relations at the systemic level. Of particular interest on this count is the history of worker’s self-management in the global South, dismantled by aspiring neoliberals in service to capitalist development agendas; with the decline of the neoliberal world economy in progress, and its collapse not far in the offing, this history offers a perfect example of what could be used to spare the South the tribulation of dire water and food insecurity as capitalism passes into history (Plys 2016). Perhaps the global anarcho-syndicalist movement could be a key actor on this count in helping to build to build the new society within the shell of the old.



In looking to establish and maintain a basic harmony between means and outcomes, anarcho-syndicalism is superior to liberalism, which inherits and raises to an artform the contradictions of capitalism in trying to socialise avarice and selfish individualism. It is likewise superior to state socialism, which likewise inherits and raises to an artform the contradictions of capitalism in trying to socialise the state. At the same time, anarcho-syndicalism has failed to build on its strengths in relation to other less principled attempts to ameliorate the human condition in the face of the catastrophic human consequences of capitalist social relations of production.

No small amount of this is due to the historical smashing of the anarcho-syndicalist movement through two world wars, and the experience of the fascism that rears up in moments of crisis in capital accumulation (as in the present). Part of it in the present is also due to our neglect of the fact that most workers are women, and the vast majority of capitalist wealth doesn’t even come from the exploitation of wage labour, but from the massive gratuities given to global capitalism by free care labour in the home, as women reproduce successive generations of workers. It is likewise due to failure to grapple effectively with the exporting of whole industries to third world countries that separates industrial workers in the South from radicals in the North, more or less by design. We have the means to deal with both of these problems; the trick in the main is to recognise them as such.



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