Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Co-opting cooperatives


Socialism is beginning to show signs of life again. This reawakening of the labour movement is to be welcomed. A political movement which has been in a state of suspended animation never begins again exactly where it stopped. The men and women who take it up afresh are like children repeating their lessons: they must go back to the beginning and run rapidly through the stages already traveled. Many have returned to the early promise of co-operatives or s some re-label “workers self-directed enterprises” and re-wording the vocabulary of the 19th C co-operators. The socialist movement had started with the proponents of co-operatives but these days some view that the economic emancipation of the workers can only be brought about when the workers themselves become owners of the elements of production – raw materials and the instruments of labour which are really as a matter of fact only a version of different capitalist ideas. The co-operators represent the benevolent notions of the philanthropists, who attempt to lull the awakening spirit of the working class by measures not of a very controversial  nature.

In its normal state, capitalism has become an obsolete oppressive system that ought to be binned. A relatively small minority recognise this and are consciously anti-capitalist, but the majority continue trying to satisfy their needs within the system rather than by overthrowing it. There is presently no real possibility of overthrowing that system and attempts to do so degenerate into futile reformism and/or terrorism, whatever the “revolutionary” rhetoric. Reformism is capitalist trickery used to keep the working class under wage slavery. Reformists maintain that we can arrive at a certain “socialism” by winning reforms one after the other. What they don’t say is that whatever the employers has to give up with one hand after a hard struggle, it will just take back with the other. To fight against reformism means not only to stop creating illusions about capitalism but also to break with reformist tactics in our struggles. For workers, there is an urgent need to understand the limitations of the co-operatives before the revolution. The fact that co-operative ideas are demonstrably utopian does not prevent them having a wide following. The ideas are influential because they correspond to certain tendencies in the development of capitalism. To pretend that you can go in for anything but capitalism in a capitalist society is really folly. General laws, born out of the form of property, impose themselves, and those people who want to build oases in the desert cannot escape those laws; the oasis will be swept by the simoom just as the desert is. And the oasis, in this case, is the co-operative, forced to bow before commercial or mercantile necessities. Whatever you do as a co-operative, you cannot help being governed by all the laws which determine and regulate production and exchange in the society of profit of to-day. There is a widespread feeling that co-operatives are enough, that there is no need for strikes, for conflict. Cooperatives are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production.

Many have heard arguments in favour of workers self-management based on the experience of the factory occupations in Argentina. The occupied factories were factories that had been abandoned by the capitalists precisely because they were not profitable. The desertion of employers from companies ceded space for workers to takeover and begin production. The experience of Argentina shows us that these factories were able to become profitable for the market again by becoming competitive at the price of self-exploitation and operating within the very same entrepreneurial logic that prevailed before the factories were occupied. By calling attention to the mythological nature of these occupations of the workplace we do not intend to discredit the impulse that lies behind them: the people could keep their jobs in order to survive, a collective process was set in motion that could create a common project and, if any profits were forthcoming, they could be socialised. In these cases, we can see that the fact that conflicts took place after these occupations, if the managers of the enterprise quit or were dismissed, it was not because of pressure from the workers but for other reasons—economic recession, economic crimes, etc. Thus, the enterprise under the control of the workers actually means that the latter are under the control of the enterprise, that is, that the logic of competition will continue to regulate production, regardless of who manages production. If self-management causes our material conditions to improve, then we may support this process. If not, all that remains to the field of critique is how to manage capital and therefore to argue that an egalitarian capitalism can exist if the latter is managed correctly. That is, if the expropriation of the capitalist is carried out in order to redirect production towards the satisfaction of needs, then it is self-management that we will defend. Otherwise, if it is a matter of going back to work, producing in the same way and selling commodities, only now without the direction of the employer, then this is self-exploitation. The act of occupying a factory gives room to workers’ control of the labour process and to a more democratic, collective decision-making. But workers’ need to compete in the market reduces the sphere of collective decision, leading to centralisation of power and divisions between directive and productive workers, hampering the possibility for workers to enrich their job and avoid self-exploitation.

One hears arguments that capitalism is only an unjust economic system because it profits a handful of people to the detriment of the rest and so by achieving certain institutional and legislative changes that will lead to a more equitable division of the wealth that is produced by the vast majority, we have a solution to our social ills. The “revolutionary” version would want to overthrow the parasitic minority and organize, on that basis, the economy in a collective and egalitarian way. Both versions believe that the change is brought about by those who make the decisions and who decide how the economy is managed. Both versions are mistaken. Capitalism is not a very small group of rich people, this group exists and they are the ones with the most privileges in this social form, but they are only one part of the problem. We see that capitalism is a social relation that permeates all the aspects that affect us as human beings and which it falsely attempts to present as separate compartments: economics, politics, culture, etc. If we do not confront them in all their forms, capitalism will re-arise. If we do not see that it is not just a relation that is established between the powerful classes and the rest of us but instead that it is a relation that we reproduce among ourselves, horizontally, capitalism will return again once we have thrown the capitalists out of power. We thus see that, if what we are fighting for is a form of society that is not based on either exploitation or oppression, this will inevitably condition the way that every aspect of this society is managed.

We are workers, whether we like it or not. It is not a question of ethics, morality or politics, or because we want to cling to words that some have already abandoned. We are workers due to an objective issue: in the capitalist world, we are condemned to have to pass through the circuit of labour in order to survive. We are disinherited, and the fact that you may have a house or a car does not free us of this scourge. Whether we are looking for work or whether we are doing everything in our power to avoid it by taking from the state in the form of benefits, our condition is that of being exploited. And only the destruction of work and the relations that derive from it will be able to situate us in a new context. We say this it is because, at times we forget this and succumb to the widespread illusion that it is possible to escape from our class condition and transform ourselves into people who are free from capitalist relations without having to pass through the process of an open war against capital, once we have set up our business, once we are working for ourselves. And that is false. Members of co-operatives necessarily live schizophrenic lives. On one hand, they must function as owners of small businesses and contend with all the insidious forces of capitalism. At the same time, they are members of an egalitarian corporate entity working together day-in-and-day-out dealing with all the tensions arising from individual personality quirks. The ability to collectively manage an enterprise in a democratic manner isn’t utopian to us. The problem is that while there would be no external bosses, the co-operative members have to be both bosses and workers themselves. They will still be existing within a capitalist marketplace, and so will still be subjected to competition and the whims of the market. So while their boss may not cut Joe's hours, if market forces dictate it they will have to cut their own hours themselves.

Say, for example, a capitalist chain coffee shop we can call Coffeebucks opens down the road from a co-operative coffee shop. The co-op will have to compete with it in terms of prices if it is to attract customers. Coffeebucks only pay minimum wage, with no sick pay, no pensions, no benefits etc. They are also a large chain, so they can use their purchasing power to drive down suppliers' prices to get cheaper coffee and food. So they sell their products much cheaper than the co-op.  Facing going out of business, the co-op members either internalise the capitalist boss and cut their own wages, conditions or jobs. Or they go bust. In a capitalist economy, we cannot extract ourselves from the market. We cannot self-manage capitalism in our own interests as it is automatically weighted against workers. The only way we can really live without exploitation and bosses is not by internalising them but by abolishing capitalism. Co-ops facing competition do have one option which is to go more niche market: make the co-op part of their brand and market themselves to people for whom that would be a selling point, a campaign based on "Come to our coffee house, where we are still alienated and self-exploiting but y'know got to make a living somehow and it's better than working in Starbucks"

Socialism is a non-property system, and systems which accept and reject property cannot co-exist. However, critics claim that “socialistic” relationships will invade the capitalist economy. The main example of such an invasion which is sometimes presented are co-operatives. It is proposed that as socialist consciousness develops these co-ops will be gradually be gutted of their capitalist content. They will be run eventually upon the basis of “free production” and ultimately they will link together and evolve “towards a totally socialist society.” This projection of social change is incompatible with what capitalism can allow. Relationships are being envisaged as developing within capitalism which the system dooms to failure. Where is the financing of these co-ops to come from? Presumably not from workers’ savings. If capitalist banks are to provide loans to finance these co-ops is it not certain that they will make demands upon them which will undermine their “socialistic” nature? Existing within the cut-throat environment of the world market, is it not inevitable that the economic goodwill of the co-operators will be swamped by the iron laws of the profit system, with all of the exploitative demands which it places upon enterprises? Indeed, far from being able to “demonstrate a better life to workers trapped in the remaining units of capitalism”, the workers making an inevitable failure of running “free production” under capitalism would provide an ideal case study for the anti-socialist propagandists—even more so if such enterprises failed with the backing of the socialists. 

Let us remind ourselves that socialism aims not to establish "workers power" but the abolition of all classes including the working class. In socialist society, there would simply be people, free and equal men and women forming a classless community. That is the goal and co-ops are not a step on the path towards it. While the co-operative form might provide an example of how production ought to be run in a socialist society, this cannot make a meaningful and sustained contribution to the emancipation of the popular classes now. Once we realise socialism, we can call it the co-operative commonwealth, because co-operation is not a means, but the aim of the workers. It will then triumph and gather into the hands of the whole of society all capital and labour so that there shall be no more exploitation, sale, nor profits. And we are bound to say that co-operatives, as they are operated to-day, have is only one means of emancipation, viz., the capturing of the political power, and through the help of it, of the capitalist property, industrial and commercial. The socialist idea, the idea of a society owning its means of production, utilising them socially, and distributing among all its members the products of a common labour.
nothing in common with socialism. Co-ops bring nothing to the socialist movement but the fruits it can contribute when it is a socialist co-operative. Otherwise, it becomes a diversion if not an obstacle to the recruiting and developing of the socialist movement. Workers concentrate upon co-operative, carrying inside their heads nothing but commercial schemes, how to create a market for it, how to secure its prosperity and development, and thus there is no room left in their brains for the socialist idea, no more time for the socialist education, to whom we cannot repeat enough that there

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