2007 - 2020

Paradise Regained: Some Notes on the Idea of Reversals

The idea of workers’ control has fallen off the agenda but an independent Scotland could put us back on the radical road, writes Paul Tritschler.

There is an illusion in the field of psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It refers to low ability individuals who confidently believe they have superior ability, and who lack the self-awareness to know the difference. Their perception of their own competencies and that of others is woefully inadequate and fundamentally flawed. They are, in a nutshell, too incompetent to know that they are incompetent. By way of illustration, the eponymous researchers describe the flawed logic of a failed bank robber who believed that lemon juice, because it can be used as invisible ink, ought to fool the bank surveillance cameras if it were coated over one’s face.

In the early 1980s, when I asked hundreds of variously skilled workers across several major industries in Scotland for their views on worker’s control, the overwhelming response was yes: they believed that a democratically accountable worker’s committee could steer their organisation fairly and effectively on their own, or jointly with existing directors. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the same question posed to management and directors brought a categorical no: they maintained the workers wouldn’t know how to run an organisation along capitalist lines—indeed, ordinary workers lacked the competence to know that they lacked the competence. The term wasn’t knocking around in those days, but management clearly subscribed to what would later be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

From a managerial orientation, ordinary workers suffered from a cognitive bias, which in this case simply translated as low ability reasoning: the groundless confidence on the part of workers stemmed, paradoxically, from their inability to perceive their inability. Interestingly, managers—few of whom had risen up the ranks, or had any experience of ‘hands on tools’—believed that their knowledge was vastly superior to the workers, and implicit in this lay a justification for hierarchical relationships. This was typically reflected through their eagerness to roll back the frontier of control—characterised by speed-up, increased workloads, and cut-backs in free time—forming a drive to assert authority, gain maximum control over the production process, and increase dividends for shareholders. Depending on the political and economic climate, this could be achieved by targeting the worker’s scarcity value through deskilling—often by new technology or automation—to reduce their skill exclusivity and therefore their bargaining power; by restructuring, replacing workers with cheaper labour under new contracts or work arrangements; and by relocation, shifting operations to more manageable, malleable and profit-friendly parts of the country, or indeed the globe.

That workers felt informed enough to give a resounding yes to the possibility of worker’s control, has its source in the political developments of the time. Just a few years before, management and unions were discussing the government sponsored Bullock Report on provisions for industrial democracy, which offered ordinary workers the chance to have a say in the boardroom. But there were also wider discussions taking place at the level of the shop floor, in grassroots organisations, and in political parties, about the lessons of history across the globe. These looked at arguments and examples ranging from the Histraduth, the Wobblies, anarcho-syndicalist movements and the IWC (the Institute for Worker’s Control), to contemporary examples of self-management programmes, cooperative enterprises, participation schemes, workers councils, and worker director initiatives—all of which were in operation across Europe.

The unions rejected the Bullock Report in the expectation of something better being negotiated; there were many debates at the time that centred on the question of reform or revolution and all the gradients between: some saw industrial democracy as a foot in the door, others as a formula for co-opting the workers, and many believed it was simply a sell-out. During the interval, unfortunately, Thatcher stepped in, and with her the creeping infallibility of management. The unions shortly afterwards were reduced to rubble, and the chance for any sort of say at Board level was laughingly thrown out. The name of the game was free market forces, the goal was profit maximisation and—to say nothing of our government’s support for gangster regimes that used rape, torture and murder to oppress their populations—there followed an era of industrial wastelands, authoritarian social control, war, and the disciplining effects of mass unemployment. The Thatcher era introduced a new way of thinking with regard to democracy, liberty, equality, privilege, education, health and welfare, and we are still living within those ideas.

There are parallels between the movement for worker’s control in its many variants, and the movement for Scottish independence. At the time of the referendum in 2014, many believed that the Scots, along the lines of the Dunning-Kruger effect, lacked the ability and experience to run their country, and the self-awareness to realise that fact—a criticism that is still unfairly leveled against the movement and its representatives in office. Others wanted a set of more radical, socialist proposals than those on offer, and couldn’t put their wholehearted support behind the independence movement. Others again saw it as a foot-in-the-door towards a more radical agenda—get independence, then we’ll get socialism—openly voicing their support with qualifying caveats, and no doubt many mistrusted it for that very reason.

On a psychological level, voting behavior would have been influenced by the prospect of massive and dramatic change, inducing stress for a great many people, fostering an inclination towards the perceived safety of sameness, and encouraging trust in the devil they know. And many, for reasons of perceived patriotism or blatant bigotry, rejected it on principle.

Given all these factors, tied in with the power and influence of the media—its news values, agenda-setting, and apologia for the status quo—the support shown in the referendum for Scottish independence was enormous grounds for optimism. The same might be said of Brexit: given the prevalence of pro-right opinion-makers in media accounts, one might have expected a swing far in excess of half in favour of what many believe is Britain’s moral retreat away from human values, and its move towards spitefulness, selfishness, and morbid insularity.

Some trade union officials told me that, with the benefit of hindsight, the Bullock proposals might have ensured Thatcherism would not have taken hold—at least not to the extent that it did—and could have become a devolution-style step on the way to worker’s control; instead, they argued, it represents an era of lost opportunity from which the great mass of the population has never recovered. Certainly, I can’t remember the last time I heard worker’s control mentioned in any deep and meaningful political context, and yet if we are not talking about worker’s self-management, and self-management that covers all walks of life—television, arts, publishing, healthcare, education, construction, manufacturing, housing, food production and distribution—then can we safely say that we are talking about democracy at all?

As with Scottish independence, the time for worker’s control is always now. It isn’t something you subject to a referendum and walk away from if you lose: it is morally right and therefore not something you give up on. It is not based on the perpetuation of elite privilege through pluralist notions of remote representation, but on genuinely accountable and revocable forms of democracy, grounded in workplaces and communities that have at their heart a cooperative base and an understanding of the environment in which they are situated. Worker’s control must start somewhere, and an independent Scotland—independent not only of England, but of the distorting developmental paths of other countries deemed similar—is perfectly placed for ideas of self-management to develop.

Comments (19)

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  1. Block says:

    Education is fully devolved but yet the EIS has just voted for a strike because during the period of the Scottish Nationalists being in charge their pay has reduced by 24% in real terms. So probably not a good week to be holding out the promise that workers will be well-looked after in independent Scotland.

    1. Malcolm Kerr says:

      On the other hand, “Block”, the Scottish Government’s overall budget is currently determined at Westminster, and limited by being part of the Union, yet the teachers’ pay offer is better than any offer elsewhere in the “UK”. Oh, and the “Scottish Nationalists” will only be “in charge” if chosen in democratic elections.

      1. Block says:

        “yet the teachers’ pay offer is better than any offer elsewhere in the UK”
        Because of 11+ years of maltreatment at the hand of Scottish Nationalist governments, teacher pay in Scotland has fallen by nearly 25% in real terms. Scottish teachers are more poorly paid than their English counterpart, and they are also expected to work longer hours for the worse pay. That is why they are going out on strike.

        1. Jo says:

          Absolute nonsense! Wages were totally stagnant following the crash. Every person in work suffered throughout the UK with public sector worst hit. It wasn’t because of the SNP and it’s dishonest of you to suggest otherwise.
          It’s also very insulting to suggest that one group is entitled to more than anyone else. As we recover from the years of minimum pay increases it’s important no group sees itself as more deserving than another. Ten percent is an outrageous demand. It is unreasonable and unrealistic. As yet Flannigan hasn’t said what services or wages should be cut to pay for it. Maybe you could tell us instead of indulging is Party-political claptrap which solves nothing!

    2. Wul says:

      Block,

      Have you noticed that we do not currently live in an independent Scotland?

      Devolving something doesn’t somehow place it within an independent Scotland. Reality doesn’t work like that.

      Like many people who denounce the idea of Scots running their own country, you conflate the SNP ( a political party) with the concept of self-rule. They are, in fact, two completely separate things. After many years highlighting this delusion, I can only suppose it is, in fact, a deliberate ploy; “The SNP made an error, ergo independence can never work”

      Sorry pal, your thinking is gubbed.

    3. Alf Baird says:

      Block, over the past twenty years since devolution there has been a rapid increase in the number of teachers coming from rest-UK to Scotland such that in some areas (e.g. Borders, D&G) only around a third of secondary teachers nowadays are Scottish, with two-thirds from rest-UK, mostly England. And in many other local authority areas throughout Scotland almost half of the teachers are from rest-UK. The working and pay and general environment in Scotland is clearly an attraction compared to what is happening south of the border. That said, I would much prefer if the Scottish Government actually provided for more Scots to teach in thair ain laund rather than depend on another country to supply our needs. Or is it the case that increasing recruitment from south of the border serves to reduce opportunities here for Scottish teachers? Maybe someone knows the answer?

      1. florian albert says:

        Alf Baird

        Your statement about the numbers of non-Scots teaching in Scottish secondary schools is nonsense. After getting involved in a dispute with you in late November 2018, I contacted the Scottish Government for clarification. (The Education Analytical Service.)
        I was told that government statistics on the ethnicity of teachers are based on ‘self reporting’; i e teachers choose an ethnicity which they ‘believe to be most appropriate.’
        Specifically, I asked if teachers were given the choice of identifying as ‘white Scottish’ or ‘white British’. The reply said that this interpretation is correct.

        1. Alf Baird says:

          You seem to have a bee in yer bunnet about this. As I told you before, all you need to do is look at: ‘Table 8.8: Secondary school teachers by ethnicity(1) and local authority, 2016’. The main categories shown are quite specific, i.e.: White-Scottish, White-other British Isles, White-other, Ethnic minority

          1. Alf Baird says:

            The SG were wrong to tell you the categories were “‘white Scottish’ or ‘white British’”. They are not. They are as I stated – “White-Scottish (or) White-other British Isles etc”. The key word is ‘other’.

          2. florian albert says:

            ‘You seem to have a bee in yer bunnet about this.’

            There is an old saying about pots and kettles.

            You are making claims which do not stand up to scrutiny as they involve a misreading of ‘self reporting’, where people define themselves as British rather than Scottish.
            Self-reporting is a bit of a joke. I used to report myself as an ‘Irish Traveller.’

            I wonder if you would be viewed as tolerantly if you were drawing attention to an (alleged) huge increase in the number of black/jewish/moslem teachers in Scottish secondary schools ?

            Since you have previously – 1st December 2018 – written that this huge increase accords with your ‘personal experience of teacher composition in a couple of local authority areas’, give us the names of two Scottish state secondaries where there is a majority of English/Welsh born teachers.

          3. Alf Baird says:

            Why should I do your research for you? You don’t appreciate research findings you don’t agree with anyway. You won’t divulge who you are never mind what your ‘interest’ is.

    4. Julian Smith says:

      Block, I worked for 35 years as a classroom teacher. In all that time, teachers’ pay regularly fell behind inflation, no matter which Political Party formed the Government. Every few years, there was a pay campaign, demonstrations, strike ballots, strikes, work to rule until an enquiry was set up, made recommendations, the Teaching Unions reached a compromise and the dispute settled. Until the next time. It is not down to the SNP, no matter how much you want it to be so.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    This is something of a thorny subject. Given a bit of luck workers can make a good job of running businesses but it depends on the calibre of those that end up doing it. If those with the loudest voice are thick and self-centred things become difficult. For many years I worked at the interface between workers and management and saw what can happen at close quarters.

    In the last place I worked there was a sensible TU rep that represented his members well with sense and understanding; he got management’s attention and any reasonable cases that he brought were sensitively dealt with and where possible resolved amicably.

    In one of the previous places the TU leader was more or less full time and his purpose in life was to disrupt the running of the organisation in every way he could. He had several lieutenants that were his eyes and ears and they kept the workforce under an iron control to meet his aims. The senior management of a large government organisation was weak and at all costs wanted to avoid rocking the boat. The organisation ran at huge and unnecessary cost; it routinely failed to meet it’s targets and the morale of the majority of the employees was routinely at rock bottom.

    Yes workers control is a good idea if everyone can be persuaded that they are there to make things work and that there will never be the guarantee of a job for life no matter what the performance levels are.

    1. Josef Ó Luain says:

      “Thick and self-centred” bosses were one of the main problems that I experienced during my economically-active years, Dougie. Unlike TU officials, not one of them ever had to stand for election.

  3. Deirdre Forsyth says:

    And what are community buyouts if not the equivalent of workers control and they have been successful

  4. Wul says:

    I don’t necessarily see worker representation as being about workers getting a chance to run the company. Many workers will be happy to have decent pay and conditions and let someone else deal with the balance sheet.

    However, any capitalist knows that in order to make a good bargain, both parties need influence and representation. Strong union representation is no more than the obvious right of the individual worker. How can she strike a decent bargain in the “job market” without representation, power and a forum to make her “offer”?

    The employers have endless networks to consolidate their power and influence; the board room, the golf club, the old school tie, sports club, the gentleman’s club, the masons, the school board etc, etc. It makes perfect sense for the employees to seek representation and a fair playing field. Research shows that everyone benefits from fairer industrial relations.

    Many of our “great businessmen” espouse the virtue of the “free market” but somehow when to comes to industrial relations they wish their employees to be rendered voiceless, fearful and powerless. Funny that.

  5. Jim Bennett says:

    A good, thought provoking article. Thank you to Bella and the author.

  6. florian albert says:

    Alf Baird

    It is not about ‘research.’ It is about you making claims which are pernicious and nonsense. Specifically, you claim that only a third of teachers in Scottish secondaries in the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway are Scots. The clear implication is that Scots are being disadvantaged.

    ‘You won’t divulge who you are never mind what your ‘interests’ are.’

    This is a political discussion forum. What you – or I – have to say is what matters.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    In The Female Eunuch (1970), Germaine Greer asks (p142):
    “It is tempting to ponder just how many firms are actually run by secretaries.”
    Some bosses may be unaware that they are not actually running their own businesses. Thanks to the myth of leadership, which was pumped up in the Thatcher years by management consultants as this article rightly highlights.

    What effect would lifelong learning have? Some workers at least embraced the ethos of the Workers Educational Association. If you keep learning something new, you will quickly find how the learning curve works, and should be able to adjust to anticipate how much more to a subject or skillset there is likely to be. What kind of commitment to lifelong learning did the managerial class have? Real skills and applicable knowledge that is, not morale-boosting jollies.

    Not that I think lifelong learning and competence is primarily a class or gender thing. I’ve known people at all levels in an organization who were on top of their jobs, as well as people who were useless, and this doesn’t seem exceptional. But where managers were too incompetent to recognize (and perhaps take credit for) good ideas, the organization is in real trouble.

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