From Socialist Voice, November 2006

Convincing critique of fashionable theories

Bill Harley, Jeff Hyman, and Paul Thompson (editors), Participation and Democracy at Work: Essays in Honour of Harvie Ramsay, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 (ISBN 978-1-403-90004-3; £25.99).

This book is dedicated to the late Harvie Ramsay, an influential Marxian theorist and leading critic of the vogues of “partnership,” participation and democracy at work so beloved of the right and “third-way” social democrats.
    His most famous contribution was on employer “cycles of control,” which criticised the idea that workers’ participation is a natural product of a gradual and continuous “democratisation” process within capitalism. Instead Ramsay argued that what the chimera of partnership and workers’ participation showed was a cyclical phenomenon that emerged when employers’ authority was under challenge and it was necessary to gain workers’ compliance.
    Such schemes were therefore located within an inherently expansionist and power-hungry capitalism that has always sought to corrode the forces of workers’ resistance through cyclical strategies of accommodation and coercion. Workers, even when strongly organised in their unions and able to assert and claim many of their interests, in time come once again to face the advances of capital when the economic tide turns in the employers’ favour. Since the 1980s the cycle has turned again, as labour has retreated before the imperative of globalisation and the power of the transnational corporations.
    In such contexts, offers to unions of “partnership” agreements are no more than a fig leaf to hide the fact of the management being once again firmly in the saddle.
    While this theory has its problems—it might be that employer-driven involvement is both durable and continually expanding, rather than cyclical—it has nevertheless provided a far more scientific and class-based understanding of “partnership” and “work-place democracy” than is typically found in the inflated fantasies and evidence-free zones of right-wing and social-democratic thinkers.
    Indeed Ramsay’s core thesis is represented strongly throughout the book by a number of international researchers. Some chapters provide useful empirical evidence on the outcomes of work-place democracy schemes in a variety of countries, while others are of a more weighty theoretical nature.
    Chapter 6, for example, draws on evidence from empirical research into work-place partnership in the aerospace industry in Britain. This research found that work-place partnership was consistently undermined by the realities of employers’ capital accumulation regimes. Evidence was found that work-place partnership arrangements were an inherently one-sided affair, threatening not only any control of jobs by workers but also independent forms of work-place trade unionism.
    Other chapters, using similar kinds of empirical findings to discuss more meaty theoretical issues, debate the nature of workers’ involvement in capitalist enterprises.
    For the most part, the assessment is one of scepticism: pseudo-participation dominates because of an ingrained conflict of interest built in to the very fabric of capitalist work relations.
    Of course for most people subject to the realities of working life, such outcomes are hardly news. Anyone who has spent time on a factory or office floor will be familiar with the instinctive scepticism and ridicule that greet the latest participation gimmick from the management. The battery of “human relations” schemes rarely brings with it any more than greater work loads and longer working hours for the workers subject to them.
    In this regard, this book will supplement what many working people instinctively know about such schemes, informing our experiences with a theoretical and political understanding. This collection of essays, therefore, is a useful read; though at €40 a copy it might be best to order it from the local library!

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