“Labour’s collaboration has strengthened property’s dominion. It has legitimised property, the way that voting legitimises the state.”
Labour and property have always confronted each other. However, until quite recently, the labourer was chattel, bonded to the earth as a serf, or to the master as a slave. History is full of peasant uprisings and slave revolts, but the modern form of confrontation only appeared as serfage and slavery were progressively repealed. Labour had to be free to stop working, at least in principle, without being condemned to maiming or hanging. In practice, labour’s dependence on wages and the precarious existence this implies make a lie of this freedom. So that labour’s second ongoing struggle was the right to organise. Except that while freeing labour from bondage was as much an advantage for property as it was for labour, organised labour threatened property. New techniques of agriculture had made serfs cumbersome and mass migrations had made slaves unnecessary, letting free labour organise was another matter.
Labour began to organise along the lines of the ancient trade guilds. These were secretive affaires – patents and copyrights had yet to be introduced – that wielded considerable power. But they were associations of masters defending the interests of property, those merchant bankers and master craftsmen who were to jostle monarchy and join the landowning aristocracy to form a republic, a commonwealth of property. From the start labour unions were fragmented and semi-clandestine. They helped their own when sick or unemployed, and were severely repressed whenever they went beyond such mutual aid. However, unions resisted and gained influence, and even appeared united. The International Workingmen’s Association was founded in 1864, the Trades Union Congress in 1868 and the Knights of Labour in 1869, a high tide for labour that culminated with the Paris Commune of 1871. But it was also the time when labour’s future divisions became apparent. On the one hand, those who wanted property to change hands, on the other, those who wanted to do away with property altogether.
At the Hague Congress of 1872, Bakunin and his party were excluded from the International. This was the consequence of an ideological rift between him and Marx, two opposed visions of history. Marx had developed the concept of class struggle. Just as the bourgeoisie has wrested power from the monarchy, so the proletariat would wrest power from the bourgeoisie to form a class dictatorship of their own. Then, in a classless society, communism would develop and blossom. Bakunin argued that the French aristocrats had been less unsettled by the guillotine than by the confiscation and sale of their domains, that tyrants and exploiters in general were the involuntary products of a certain social organisation, and that the vengeance taken on them was “as futile as the destructions caused by a storm”.
But, to have the right to act humanly with humans without endangering the revolution, no pity must be shown for positions and things. All must be destroyed, first and foremost property and its inevitable corollary: the State. 
Marx had grown up under Prussian rule and was living in London, at the heart of a global maritime empire. He had experienced the power of a military state and could measure the influence of property. These could not disappear overnight, but their hierarchy would change and give them a different direction. Bakunin had grown up in Russia and had moved to Paris, with only brief stays in Berlin and London. His models had weak governments and their populations were still mainly rural. The courts of Alexander II and Napoleon III could disappear overnight and be replaced by a federation of local popular governments. Property would be confiscated and become communal. The two men’s personal circumstances seem to have influenced their particular visions. Marx perceived the complex levels of authority and wealth, between the generals and the private soldiers, between the City and the slums. He was an intellectual who had studied history and saw it as a progressive movement. As labour produced wealth, its struggle through the ages and its ultimate goal were to control that production. That the basic contradiction between property and labour would be synthesised was unavoidable. Bakunin divided society into the people and the state, the labourer and the absentee landlord. He had begun a military career (a common practise among young men of independent means, see Tolstoy et al.), but he left the Russian army in his late twenties and went to Paris. During the half century that preceded his arrival in 1842, Paris had been the theatre of some ten regime changes, from mob rule to military coup, and more was to come. During this entire hullabaloo the people had gone on working and getting things done. Clearly the whole sad business of state and property could and should be done away with. Bakunin remained faithful to his mentor Proudhon, who was a federalist and had proclaimed “property is theft”. And Marx kept faith in Hegelian logic.
The opposition between Marx and Bakunin was played out during the 20th century, without the destruction of property and state. The revolutions were remakes of those that had occurred previously in England and America. They were bourgeois led revolts against absolute monarchs and colonial rule. Nations were born and opposed one another. Ideological borders sprang up and led to ethnic cleansings and war. Property and state dominated everywhere. Bakunin’s ideas had inspired the Soviets, the CNT-FAI and the IWW, and insurgencies from China to Cuba, to no avail, which seems to show that bourgeois revolutions actually strengthen the powers of property and state. They rationalise them and make them law. They enshrine them and make ideological touchstones of them. Property is sacred, and the state is there to insure it is never violated.
Bakunin’s idea that a revolution could abolish property and state was a fallacy. History has disproved it time and again. But the freedom that accompanies this idea is so exhilarating that people will, and have abundantly, put their lives in the balance. It seems that the Hague Congress was justified. Labour cannot do away with property. They are in contradiction, thesis and antithesis, and are condemned to synthesise. There will be no victor, the two will amalgamate. Neither can annul the other, they can only merge as yin and yang. A process that goes on with ebbs and flows regardless of obstacles.
Labour and property are mutually dependent entities in a dialectical confrontation. But these opposed abstractions are made of real flesh and psyche human beings. There are those whose income is a wage for work done, and those whose income is rent derived from the property of shares, bonds, real estate, farmland, mining rights, patents and copyrights. This distinction is beginning to blur. Rentiers earn wages, and wage earners receive rent. Property and state have democratised. Almost everyone can vote, and almost every one can own property. But the bottom of the pile are generally excluded, and the top 1% own a third, a half or more of all property, and have total control of its essential parts. Labour and property are mingling, but the process has widened the base, strengthened the hierarchy and lifted it higher. Labour’s collaboration has strengthened property’s dominion. It has legitimised property, the way that voting legitimises the state. But neither gives control of the hierarchy, which is an ideological construction, the dominant ideology of dominion, the rule of superlatives.
Labour, property and state share power and wealth. Their respective control can vary, but their hierarchical structures are identical. And so it is throughout society. Life is a competition, and everyone admires those who make it to the top. Sporting events epitomise this struggle, as a perpetual competition for the first place, faster, higher, farther. Whether the state controls property or property controls the state, or whether labour has a control of both, winners and losers confirm the competitive nature of society and of living beings in general. In all circumstances humans are divided between the one and the many, the speaker and the audience, the leader and the crowd, shepherds and sheep. Labour is taking control of the wealth it produces by eliminating the rentier, as dividends become a variable of wages and pay for retirement pensions. But this process accentuates the scramble up a higher ladder. It does not contest the ladder’s necessity.
Prehistoric societies, those that precede writing and city dwelling, do not have permanent leaders. They have recourse to a series of individuals, each best suited for a particular function. Some have the accumulated knowledge of old age and some have the supple strength of youth, or the stamina of middle age, while others have various skills, poets and artisans, healers and sorcerers, sculptors and painters, magic skills that set them apart. The one accepted leader is the war chief, but even he must show results to keep his position for the duration of hostilities. Supposing war becomes a permanent state, the full-time occupation of a whole society – as was the case for the Achaeans, always causing trouble, destroying Iliums, stealing golden fleeces and killing Minotaurs, or the Spartans with their secular counter-insurgency against the Messenians – then the war chief becomes a permanent fixture.
Since the dawn of history, humans have waged constant war on fellow humans, and have honoured the best killers as their leaders. Covering at least five thousand years, history relates the many different ways leaders have succeeded one another in almost perfect continuity. And, along with the perennial leaders, come the soldiers and the clerics, the executive, the administrative, the legislative and all the petty leaders, the barons and the sergeants. Property and state may change hands but the pyramid of power and wealth is perpetuated. Yet the pyramid is the most inefficient form of government, whether for decision taking or for wealth distribution. The all seeing, all knowing head of the executive contradicts all initiative. The law is the law, orders are orders, right turn, left turn. And the only alternative to absolutism seems to be an assembly of lifers, a senate or a council of cardinals, gerontocracies that are the most conservative of governments. The Vatican has (unsuccessfully) tried to stop history for centuries, and the high chambers of the major democracies are all allergic to change.
Labour has been absorbed into the structures of power and wealth, and has adopted its hierarchical code. The contradiction has been resolved but the pyramid remains, as firm as ever. The leader ideology is perpetuated with its cascade of supporting roles. And equity must rely on charity. The rule is the most extreme inequality, immeasurable wealth and abject poverty, and the reliance on empathy to bring some solace to the humblest members of a global society. Nations need to look up at models, at exemplary figures on the screen and the green, in government and corporations, in religious faith and on the killing fields of war. But this is the synthetic construction of a historic period. It accompanied the advent of cities and conquest, and writing.
McLuhan – arguably the most materialist of historians – studied what he called media, all those intermediaries between us and our environment, from clothing to words. Words in particular, as they fashion our world view by encompassing all the other media as well as the environment. Language is the master medium. Language is spoken and written. It can be heard and it can be read, and it is a uniquely human interaction. Language models our conceptions. There is the thing and the word for the thing, and words for things that are immaterial. For most of history, ephemeral speech was the only word, and word of mouth the only transmission. Then came writing, and words could be engraved for eternity, and slogans posted at crossroads. In their heyday, the pyramids of Giza were plastered white and used as billboards to glorify the sons of Ra. The phonetic alphabet was the next novelty, followed by the movable type printing press, the rotary press and electronic sound. McLuhan studied the cultural and social transformations and the traumas that immediately followed the introduction of these new media, and reached some interesting conclusions. But he seems to have neglected their accessibility. The medium is the message, but how does the mediation function?
Words and the ideas they provoke are transmitted by sound and writing. Sound needed a theatre and writing a surface. Theatres were subjected to government authorisations, and writing materials were expensive. The rulers had control of both. This centralised control of words was to change with paper and movable type. The Gutenberg revolution was devastating. Books and pamphlets were soon circulating without restraint and were being read in private. Printing broke the ideological monopoly of kings and cardinals. By the mid-18th century, three hundred years after Gutenberg’s brilliant invention, the Earth was one of the planets moving around the Sun, which was a star among countless stars, and gravity governed them all. The material world had expanded infinitely and the ideology of dominance had trouble keeping up. Europe was in cultural effervescence and France was its geographical centre, awash with subversive clandestine literature coming from all sides. Geography and printing had made France the social laboratory of Europe, while neighbouring nations watched with awe and apprehension. Monarchy, republic, empire, monarchy, republic, empire followed in quick succession to quell this continual subversion. It was finally subdued by the rotary press and the mass media era.
Ideas are constructed with words that circulate. And the nature of the ideas depends on the mode of circulation. The words may be identical for all with a centralised diffusion, and they can be a multitude of different words from a variety of sources. Printing created a network of messages. Mass media restored monopolies. The cry of the newspaper vendor and the signature tunes of radio and TV are like the angelus bell and the muezzin’s call. They summon the faithful to communion in a common message. Totalitarian control of mass media led to impasses and precipices. The nations that maintained some diversity fared better. Thanks to offset printing, FM radio and cable TV a counterculture was kept alive, a polyphony provoking novel ideas. Diversity is survival in an ever changing world. Diversity can adapt to new circumstances. However the age old habit of control persists.
Gutenberg’s printing press resulted in a criss-crossing of words that revived old ideas and produced new ones, and broke up the medieval cultural monopoly. The web – let’s say Berners-Lee/Noyce/Jobs – is a similar network, with a global reach and instant connexions. The mesh of words is sparking off new ways of thinking about social cohesion and technology, an absolute urgency with pending climate change, biodiversity collapse, peaking resources, financial piracy, et cetera. And, anyway, historic cycles seem to get shorter and shorter. A few decades may (must?) suffice to repeat the stages of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Internet has broken the ideological monopolies of mass media, and loosened the hold of central thought control. But the controlling forces are fighting back, countering reform as well as insurgency. Is this reaction the last skirmishing before defeat, or is it a prelude to the return of total mastery via the search engines? Will the criss-cross of words nurture protest and future solutions, or will a mono-message lead the world off a cliff?
Labour collaborated with property but did not appropriate it. Dazzled and stupefied by the glamour and celebrity fostered by the mass media, the middle class majority kept the wages of labour and the incomes of property as two distinct entities, instead of merging them. Instead of increasing wages and phasing out incomes, the middle class majority accumulated them, as working capitalists dreaming of wealth and fame. The pyramid of property and state was perpetuated, as were the social scrambles and the heady heights. And it worked for a time, long enough to become the universal model for a successful society. But pyramids can only grow if they have a wider base. And the accumulation of wages and incomes suggests that wealth is coming from elsewhere, from wages without incomes, from immigrant and overseas labour that does not receive the value it produces. The pyramid’s base goes beyond its national limits. It becomes multinational and strives to be global. Property and state supported by a middle class majority must be expansionist. When the expansion stops or regresses, so does the social climbing. Then the middle class majority is deprived of its incomes, and may even lose its wages. And the pyramid is shown to be built on sand, on oppression and exploitation. Expansion (growth!?) came to a standstill two years ago, and the future seems doomed to paying back debts and cleaning a messed up planet. The historic coincidence of a tottering pyramid and a free web of words is a very rare opportunity that must not be squandered.
1. ‘Programme et objet de l’organisation secrète révolutionnaire des Frères Internationaux’, in Ni dieu, ni Maître, Anthologie de l’anarchisme (Daniel Guérin, Maspero, 1972), I, 222.
Kenneth Couesbouc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.