I recently wrote a short piece as part of a debate, where I politely but polemically argued about the turn to collective bargaining by state economic planners in the U.S. in the mid 1930s, a turn which involved earlier experiments by law (and perhaps by state statute, I’ve not looked into that).

David Gordon among others has argued that one of the core components of the U.S.’s prosperity after World War Two was a “limited capital-labor accord.” (On Gordon et al see http://books.google.com/books?id=ncgV5-fvEkoC&pg=PA578#v=onepage&q&f=false ) We can understand “limited” here in two senses – the accord could dampen but not alleviate class conflict, and there were limits in that only some of the working class was cut in on the deal. Gordon writes that for those in on the accord, “it provided the carrot of real wage growth, improved job security, and better working conditions in return for acquiescence to complete corporate control of the production process and allocation of the profits from production. For those millions excluded from the accord, by contrast, corporations continued to wield a heavy stick of intensives supervision and the threat of job dismissal – with wages, job security, and working conditions continually falling behind those in the more advantaged structures.”

The limited accord still meant that “corporations explicitly retained absolute control over the essential decisions governing enterprise operations – decisions involving production, technology, plant location, investment, and marketing. This set of corporate prerogatives was codified in the “management rights clauses” of most collective bargaining agreements. In return, unions were accepted as legitimate representatives of workers’ interests. They were expected to bargain on behalf of labor’s immediate economic interests, but not to challenge employer control of enterprises. Unions would help maintain an orderly and disciplined labor force while corporations would reward workers with a share of the income gains made possible by rising productivity, with greater employment security, and with improved working conditions.” (page 55 http://books.google.com/books?id=KIxkVOri1R0C&pg=PA55#v=onepage&q&f=false See also description of the capital-labor accord here http://books.google.com/books?id=vkO8Z_078GoC&pg=PA1054#v=onepage&q&f=false )

Gordon’s term “acquiescence” is unfortunate. I don’t think it’s so much acquiescence as it’s a matter of channeling and forming conflict. That it so say, there was still a tremendous amount of friction. The capital-labor accord didn’t eliminate friction, it reduced it and, even more importantly I think, it shaped the form that it took.

(Note to self, Lichtenstein places the decisive change in the immediate post-war period, I think it goes back much further than that; http://books.google.com/books?id=yd4GqkP5XYgC&pg=PA122#v=onepage&q&f=false )

This is the thing I want to think about – the form of social conflict and the role of social conflict in capitalism. This brings me back to the debate I started with, about collective bargaining and state planning. I’m right in this debate, but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that alongside the dominant approach – collective bargaining – was an overtone, or an undercurrent. (As an aside for thinking about later – the rise of a social structure of accumulation requires institutions to develop before they become dominant institutions; the history of collective bargaining via courts prior to the NIRA is one example of institutional evolution, as is the history of contractualism more broadly; this is relevant to the issue of collective bargaining but also more broadly to the evolution of social structures – there has to be some space to allow different experiments which could potentially be sources of future institutional innovation. Dividing up jurisdiction by geography and by section of government helps provide such space.) This overtone was the right to concerted activity outside of collective bargaining. Now, there were limits to this, but the point is that there was legal space created – there were mechanisms created to bring to bear the power of the state in enforcement – for workers’ activity outside of collective bargaining agreements. This means that the polemical association on my part between collective bargaining and economic planning cuts both ways. That is to say, I’m right that collective bargaining formed a core part of U.S. capitalist economic planning, but planners also made room for other forms of conflict: made room for it in the sense of creating state willingness to step in to act in support of it. The ILGWU winning an injunction in the late teens or early 1920s is a good example, prior to the national statutory regime brought in in the 30s.

The point here for now is that collective bargaining or not strikes me as the wrong issue. More important, I think, is that struggles can be pro-systemic sometimes, despite being serious, sincere, and genuinely heated and conflictual against some capitalists or against actually existing capitalism. This is some of what I’ve tried to get at in my couple posts about Marx’s discussion of the English Factory Acts in chapter 10 of Capital v1. This doesn’t mean don’t struggle and is not a matter of pouring water on anything or anyone, rather it seems to me a theoretical problem that we (well, certainly I) don’t have clarity on. Sometimes class conflict is part of the stick that disciplines some of the capitalist class (sometimes including throwing some of their fellow capitalists under the bus in service of their class’s over all interests) and helps force through institutional innovations (or the spreading or making hegemonic of institutional innovations, like collective bargaining). To put it another way, this is partly about return to normal and partly about acceptable levels and forms of friction. These can be quite high but still regularized in such a way that is pro-systemic and relatively stable. Maybe then the key bit is not intensity but variety of form?

[Bit to come back to —
the section “In the name of Humanity and the cause of Reform” http://books.google.com/books?id=eiDv9ag33WgC&pg=PT84 and “The Hegemonic Function of Law”
http://books.google.com/books?id=eiDv9ag33WgC&pg=PT52 ]

Old posts to return to –