Saturday, March 20, 2021

Looking at cooperatives

 For most Scots the local Co-op store was a feature in their daily lives. For someone my age,  remembering your divvy number was a most important act of memory for a working class child. And for the elderly, the Co-op funeral services was perhaps their last call upon it. The Labour Party and the Co-op went together like bread and jam. The Socialist Party, however, understood the economics of cooperatives from a socialist analysis.

Whence does profit come from? Until our opponents can show us any other source of it than unpaid labour somewhere or other, we are bound to regard even co-operatives themselves as exploiters in so far as they have profit to divide among their members. Remember that each co-op claims its product as its own property, little different from the capitalist asserts his rights over his own property.  The aim of the workers is not to make profit out of the unpaid labour of those not within the ranks of their organisation, but to get all the means of production and distribution into the hands of all workers. Co-operation really thoroughly carried out, made at once international, would, of course, be socialism pure and simple.

Many radicals call for the democratising of the economy where policies for our communities and planet take precedence. Many progressives promote cooperatives    for their democratic virtues of their operations or the affordability of their services. They suggest, tacitly or explicitly, that such enterprises contain possibilities for displacing the dominant corporate framework of capitalism and an improvement upon centralised command economy of public ownership.    

The cooperative movement as of 2018 consists of  465 worker co-ops in the United States employing 6,454 workers and generating $505 million in estimated revenue. More than 100 million Americans are members of profitable consumer cooperatives, covering sectors as diverse as banking, electricity, housing, food, and utilities. Altogether, there are currently 29,000 co-ops in the United States representing 130 million member-owners generating $650 billion per year in revenue. There are also in addition various community development corporations, land trusts, and companies with employee stock ownership businesses. Yet it remains relatively insignificant to the far wider economy. Nor is it  surprising that consumer cooperatives generate over 1,000 times that revenue, because consumer cooperatives do not require to extract and share surplus value to build wealth for workers but instead serve to modestly reduce prices for customers.

Nevertheless, cooperative ownership does nothing to eradicate the dangers of hierarchy or exploitation within them. Nor, as long as these enterprises must remain profitable, does changing ownership eliminate the compromises and tensions that attend making those profits. 

 It is difficult to compete with manufacturing corporations and the financial industry. Enterprises organised on a cooperative basis will have to compete with each other for a market for their product just as the capitalists do today. Society is still robbed of surplus value, the only change being in the number of the robbers.

Advancing worker ownership of enterprise, and taking the means of production and distribution out of the hands of capitalists requires a political struggle.

We need a new economy—one that is socially productive, democratic in operation, and equitable in distribution. We need common ownership. The cooperative commonwealth the Socialist Party aspires to is something much more substantial than isolated islands of co-ops within a capitalist ocean.


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