Collapsing the Difference Between Private and Public, Research Time, 06/06/2014

In late 1920, there was a breakdown in negotiations over national wage agreements in Italy for engineers employed in factories. That September, factories in Torino, Milan, and Genoa were seized by their workers. There were now two organizations of the working class in northern Italy. 

The trade unions had existed for a while. They were and are still today, essentially, the voice of working people in capitalist relationships. An individual worker has little power to negotiate his wage with his employer. For the most part, conditions of the labour market set employee wages. Basically, employers pay as little as possible to keep workers of the quality that their businesses need. Workers form trade unions so that the strength of their aggregate numbers gives them better bargaining power to keep their wages at pace with inflation. The trade unions remained powerful in these revolutionary times.

But the really interesting organizations were the new ones: the factory councils. These were the workers’ associations that governed the newly occupied factories. They were chosen by the people and genuinely supplanted factory owners and management through physical occupation. Trade unions depend on capitalist relations; they’re bargaining units to put workers on an equal footing with owners and management. The factory councils had the goal of putting the factories literally into the ownership of the workers, completely subverting the established order of things.

The factory occupation movement in Italy did not end well. One would not suspect that it did, because the owners were literally turfed out, and immediately began laying plans to take back their assets. The military, police, and legal actions that eventually broke the northern Italian factory councils in 1921 were the forerunners of the rise of fascism and the 20 year rule of Mussolini the following year.

A symbol of Argentina's workers'
revolution, the seizure of shuttered
factories post-recession.
Contemporary factory occupation movements have ended well, fortunately. The Fábricas Recuperadas movement in Argentina carried out the same process and goal as the worker occupations of Italian factories in 1920, seizing over 200 factories across the country. The main reason they succeeded where the Italians had been crushed was that the Argentine seizures took place over 2001 and 2002, following the collapse of Argentina’s economy. The Italians had to contend with still-powerful factory owners who would stop at nothing (including fascism) to get their assets back. 

The Argentine factory owners who found themselves dispossessed of their assets had already declared bankruptcy. The Argentine factories were shuttered, their owners having given up. All the former employees had to do was take a pair of industrial pliers to the chains on the gates and fire up the machines again. Many of these factories are still run as cooperatives today. 

What I find philosophically intriguing about this phenomenon is how Gramsci characterizes it. He calls the occupied, worker-controlled factories “factory-republics,” and openly discusses the typical corporate factory as a despotism. Wealthy owners control the assets and make all the decisions, appointing a team of privileged functionaries to control the masses who actually make the factory work properly. 

My post regarding the Robert Buckingham affair described the problem with running private corporations by different rules than public institutions. The corporation could carry out horribly destructive activities, but would have so many other protections than the state or state institutions against redress by the people because of their status. As a business, a corporation holds particular rights against the citizenry. 

I hypothesized that a better political philosophy acknowledged the ecological interconnection of companies and the public. When a company’s action harms the public, the company has an obligation to that public. It is not ownership or legal status of an institution that matters for whether it should be publicly accountable for its actions; it is the effects those actions can have on the public. Therefore, any individual, government, or corporate body should be transparent and responsible in relation to the harm that it can do. The boundary between private and public, the corporate and the state, collapses.

In his own way, from his own direction, Gramsci is doing that as well with his metaphor of the corporation as a despotism and the factory council as a republic. Both companies and states are institutions that can control people’s lives, mandate how they will spend their day, their degree of material prosperity, and how they identify themselves (George is a Canadian; Ella works for Apple). 

For Gramsci, if we care about democratic norms of the people’s control of their government, we should similarly want our businesses to work according to democratic principles too, where employees get some manner of a say in how the company is run. Gramsci himself spoke about the overthrow of the entire corporate ownership structure, of course. It was 1920, and he was a communist revolutionary. His response was appropriate to his times. My response is appropriate to mine.

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