Friday, November 19, 2021

Co-ops - False Hope


Cooperatives have been associated with working-class movements for a very long time. Things like worker-owned co-ops are great in theory, but they're not immune to the driving forces of, and the logic behind, the global capitalist system of production and exchange they find themselves in. In order for more neighbourhood-centred, worker-friendly, and/or worker-owned businesses to sprout and flourish, a more socialised economic 'field' needs to replace the current undemocratic one in which we presently plant our seeds of enterprise.

The  Socialist Party has nothing against working in a 'workers cooperative' if it means better conditions at work under capitalism and being treated better. We can have a little bit of improvement in our days of drudgery under capitalism and needn’t wait for the Glorious Day of the Revolution? Co-ops are not the panacea as presented by some, but they can improve the lives of a few of us. Co-ops don't exist outside capitalism but you can at least have some say in how you are exploited which is an improvement for many. We would all rather work for a business that at least treats us tolerably well and like human beings rather than making us miserable. However, seeing cooperatives as anything other than a partial palliative at improving one's working condition is definitely a huge mistake.

Setting up co-ops is not a revolutionary strategy or one which advances the interests of the working class as a whole, and as such isn't something we should promote. There are also dangers with it as described in the Mondragon example, in that workers at a capitalist enterprise facing pay cuts can take direct action such as strike action against it. But workers at a co-op cannot do this as they would just be striking against themselves. Another issue is that there are those on the right who are encouraging workers to set up cooperatives to take over some social services - to privatise public services much as the Irish government farmed out social services to the Catholic clerics in the past and describing such approaches as ethical consumerism.

The cooperative movement was easily integrated into the capitalist system and, in fact, was to a large extent an element of capitalist development. Even in bourgeois economic theory, it was considered an instrument of social conservatism by fostering the savings propensities of the lower layers of society, by increasing economic activities through credit unions, by improving agriculture through cooperative production and marketing organisations, and by shifting working-class attention from the sphere of production to that of consumption. As a capitalistically-oriented institution, the cooperative movement flourished, finally to become one form of capitalist enterprise among others, bent on the exploitation of the workers in its employ, and facing the latter as their opponents in strikes for higher wages and better working conditions. The general support of consumers’ cooperatives by the official labour movement – in sharp distinction to an earlier scepticism and even outright rejection – was merely an additional sign of the increasing ‘capitalisation’ of the reformist labour movement.

If factories anywhere fell into the hands of workers’ cooperatives tomorrow what would happen? Since workers at the moment all over the world are committed to capitalism because they have not yet grasped any alternative method of organising society, these factories under ‘workers’ self-management would continue to produce commodities for sale. It would simply be a question of the workers driving themselves, holding their own whips, managing their own exploitation. The factories will be run on socialist lines only when the goods they turn out are no longer for selling on the internal and world markets and when the people working in them have no need for wages.

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