Showing posts with label CO-OPERATIVES. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CO-OPERATIVES. Show all posts

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Orbiston –The New Babylon

Commemorating Orbiston in Strathclyde Park, the plaque reads
"The Babylon Community, Orbiston (1825-1828)
The first experiment in communal living in Britain" 
 Since the beginning of civilisation, men have repeatedly attempted to build better societies than the ones they have known. The industrial revolution had changed both the prospects and livelihoods of the majority of workers, and rather than increasing their opportunities, they had led to greater uncertainties. The earliest communitarian movements attempted to transform this by forming religious and secular communities with participatory governments and to produce an equilibrium between the private and common ownership of property and work.

The word ‘socialism’ originates with the followers of Robert Owen who is still popularly regarded as “the father of British socialism”. It is not always remembered, however, that the socialism he advocated was co-operative or community socialism. Owen did not think along the lines of the later socialists. His approach was basically apolitical and he rejected the notion of class struggle as a means of social change. Instead, he believed in communitarianism as a method of social reform. Society, he argued, was to be radically transformed by means of experimental communities, villages of cooperation, and this he regarded as a valid alternative to other methods of effecting change, such as revolution or legislation. The foundation of communities was not a series of more-or-less accidental happenings, but the attempt to put into practice a coherent theory of social change. One such project was a Orbiston, later nicknamed Babylon by the locals, near Motherwell and not too far from the reknown New Lanark site. Owen subscribed £10,000, but ultimately withdrew from the scheme because of differences of opinion with other promoters. Instead Owen himself commenced another at New Harmony, in Indiana, America which is surprisingly better known than the Scottish attempt. A  proposal by the British and Foreign Philanthropic Society for the first Owenite Community begn with the purchase of 600 acres of land, owned by Hamilton of Dalzell for the community. After 3 years of inactivity the Motherwell community never came into existence and the scheme was overtaken and in its place, in 1825, Archibald Hamilton and Abram Combe founded a community near Bellshill  at Orbiston, the estate of Hamilton’s father.

Abram Combe was born in Edinburgh on 15 January 1775. In 1826, Combe's health began to fail; he suffered from a serious lung disease, which killed him on 19 September 1827 (11th or 27th of  August according to other sources). His death spelled the end of the Orbiston co-operative. In 1820, Combe met Robert Owen and visited his co-operative community at New Lanark. Combe, a tanner by trade, was quickly converted to the cause of co-operation and became an advocate of Owen's principles. He wrote ‘Metaphorical Sketches of the Old and New Systems’ (1823), a critique of competition and exposition of co-operation. Combe influenced the Ricardian socialist economist John Gray, who paid tribute to him in an appendix of his book The Social System (1831).  In Edinburgh, Leather Workers Community was a short-lived community experiment set up in Combe's Edinburgh Tanyard - the leather workers lived communally and operated a profit sharing scheme. The Practical Society was a co-operative venture set up in 1821 by Archibald James Hamilton in partnership with Abram Combe. The Society aimed to improve the lives of members and opened a store for the sale of goods to 500 families. A school was established and members were required to sign a pledge to abstain from drink, tobacco and swearing. At first successful, the Practical Society foundered within a year when the storekeeper appropriated Society funds. Hamilton and Combe proceeded with plans for a grander, co-operative experiment at Orbiston. Archibald James Hamilton (1793-1834) was the eldest son of General John Hamilton, 11th of Orbiston and 6th of Dalzell. Archibald was an idealist and social reformer, and was chiefly responsible for the establishment of an experimental socialistic community on Orbiston Estate. Hamilton's prospectus for establishing a socialistic community at Orbiston was based on Robert Owen's "Report to the County of Lanark of a plan to relieve distress etc ", 1820. Owen's report had been rejected by Parliament as too idealistic, but Hamilton was determined to pursue his dream of creating a community in which "the poor and working classes .. provide themselves…with the necessaries and comforts of life." His prospectus invited wealthy individuals to apply for shares in the Orbiston Community. Share-holders would form a company and could expect in return "full interest and the satisfaction of seeing poverty, and ignorance disappear from their neighbourhood." Funds for the project were not initially forthcoming, and it was left to Hamilton and Abram Combe to bring the project to fruition.

Orbiston Community

The Orbiston Community, dreamt of introducing a new social order to the world and was situated on 290 acres of land. Separate from Owen, Combe purchased land in cooperation with John Hamilton with the help of a bond issued by a joint-stock company, The Orbiston Company. The community did not see the immediate success that had taken place at New Lanark, nor did it predicate its existence on that model. In fact, Owen did not learn of its existence until months after the community was founded. Orbiston was built around the ideals of liberty, security, and knowledge. Combe was to instill this in the membership from the beginning. The commune was constructed around a series of community buildings at its center along a running stream, with a school being central to this plan. As with Owen, Combe tied the idea of education to personal and economic advancement. The main building consisted of a large center building with two wings for living quarters, containing some 120 private rooms. The community also included a theater for cultural advancement, a foundry and forge, and a press for printing its newspaper, The Register. Everything was whitewashed with blue slate roofs. The pearl white community was surrounded by scenic hills and had the appearance of utopia, even if it may not have reached that goal. Combe would work himself to sickness to see its success.

Orbiston was built to earlier plans though with modifications. The main building resembled the design advocated earlier in Relief for the Poor and the Report to Lanark. A classically styled central block (somewhat akin to both the Institute and Mill No. 3 at New Lanark) was to be four storeys high and be intended for community use. It would house the kitchens, dining rooms (to accommodate up to 800 persons), drawing rooms, ball room, lecture hall and library. The vast symmetrical L-shaped wings on either side were to provide private living quarters for the communitarians, with Orbiston was therefore built to earlier plans though with modifications. The last consisted mainly of workers who had fallen victim to the on-going slump following the end of the wars, particularly a group of hand-loom weavers, casualties of mechanisation. As in the original scheme the poor and unemployed were being assisted much as Owen intended. Among the educationists were Catherine Whitwell, and, for a time, Joseph Applegarth, another Owenite teacher, who later participated in the New Harmony community. Economic foundations, in common with the majority of the Owenite communities, were shaky, though as the design suggests, considerable thought had been given to the social and educational aspects of life.

290 members of the community nicknamed 'Babylon' worked as weavers, blacksmiths, joiners, cabinet makers, wheelwrights, printers, painters, shoemakers, tailors, seamstresses and harness-makers. They ran a successful iron-foundery on the 291 acre site that included a 5 storey main communal building, school, apartments & communal dining facilities. 75 acres of the land was cultivated with vegetable garden & orchard. The land being manured with waste from the community sewage system.

 Orbiston community never became truly solvent and survived precariously as it constantly ran short of capital due to the little success it had in production and manufacturing in all areas of endeavor. This had to do with some of the inhabitants it initially attracted, more than a few of which were unsuited for the hard work and others who were idlers by nature. Locals came to call the place “Babylon” referring to the collection of rabble that flocked to the community from the surrounding area. The community spent its second year ridding itself of these and consolidating its membership around those that truly wanted to work toward the commune’s success. Orbiston’s internal government was a further trouble as the members were divided over the operation of the community. The division of income also became a matter of contention as well. The community originally was founded on a system of individual reward for labour, with economic equality to follow later. By integrating agriculture and industrial manufacturing it was believed that this would encourage outside capitalists to invest in the venture. When this did not materialize, the community was hard pressed to survive on its own capitalization.

Abram Combe produced a newsletter "The Register", which reported on progress being made within the community as well as on lectures, plays and other events organised for the edification of Society members. The first edition of the Register was issued on 10 November 1825. Abram Combe wrote of his perplexity at the pessimistic views on the commune's viability being expressed by two Orbiston Company members, who opposed moves to transfer proprietorship of the commune to the tenants, believing that the members were not up to the task. Combe was confident that a restructure of the community into departments was showing signs of success and that an audit of accounts for each department would produce a favourable outcome. Combe disapproved of the thoroughly communistic principles which were adopted in September 1826, after the scheme had been at work for a year. 1827 had begun as a period of hope and renewal at the Orbiston Community. The old payment system had been replaced by one of total communism: communal ownership of property, and equal distribution of wealth. The division of the community into 6 departments or companies was showing signs of success. Weavers were manufacturing cotton for shirts, trousers and jackets. Bookbinders and printers were gainfully employed, and the foundry and horticultural departments were planning to provide goods for the Glasgow market.

The community could satisfy certain personal goals, particularly of people who were in some way social misfits. It offered a solution to problems of personal deficiency or social maladjustment, and had an obvious appeal to those who sought security or escape from the world. Communities such as Orbiston collected their share of such types.  Combe’s views of the earliest members of Orbiston were recorded in the Orbiston Register of 19th August 1827:
“A worse selection of individuals, men, women and children, could scarcely have been made — a population made up for the most part of the worst part of Society. The adults were steeped in poverty ; lazy, dirty and thriftless : the smell of tobacco in almost every house, and a dunghill beginning to rise under almost every window. The children and youths were no better ; they were quarrelsome, unmannerly”
It is clear that Combe believed that the poor folk seeking refuge at Orbiston were fleeing the designs and misery of the Old System, “rather than to seek the advantages of the New.”

The death of Combe in 1827, the single point of commonality for the community was lost and signalled the beginning of the end for the socialistic community at Orbiston. With the loss of Combe came a loss of direction. Funding for the community was becoming scarce. Pressure for repayment of a loan forced William Combe to announce the abandonment of the bold social experiment in December 1827. In November 1828, Thomas Lawrie from Edinburgh compiled a report on behalf of General John Hamilton advising on the value of the lands, and on the best method of dividing the estate for a sell-off. The proprietors soon suspended all further proceedings and disposed of the property after two years and the buildings were pulled down. The demise of the community at Orbiston was attributed more to a lack of interest and desire by its residents in its success, than to its economic failure. More to the truth was its problem with under capitalization. Profits could not overcome the community’s early over expenditures. At least one of Orbiston’s investors was placed in “debtors prison” for advances made to the community, and this fact cannot be discounted as a detriment to future undertakings.

The last remnants of the "Orbiston Community" experiment in social reform can be found in Strathclyde Park, North Lanarkshire; close to the park's Visitor Centre on the Bellshill side of the park. Stone pillars or Key Stones mark a spot near where the Orbiston Community was sited. Known locally as "New Babylon" on account of the unorthodox views and behaviour of residents, the lands and buildings of the Orbiston Community were sold on 7 December 1830, bought by Mrs Douglas, a local landowner who ordered all trace of the community to be removed. A housing estate now covers part of the site and the community is remembered in street names such as Babylon Rd., Community Rd., Hamilcombe Rd. and Register Avenue.

The Influence

Pioneer socialist, John Gray, published a criticism of Combe's experiment, entitled: A Word of Advice to the Orbistonians, on the Principles Which Ought to Regulate their Present Proceedings. The co-operative, anti-capitalist nature of Owen's New System created tension between the administrators and the communitarian's themselves. And, although various trade persons and artisans were initially attracted to Orbiston, the community itself could not generate enough wealth to permit complete autarky and it began to borrow in order to remain buoyant. Internal factionalism and animosity began to tear Orbiston apart. His death marked the end of the scheme; the buildings were pulled down in 1828. Still, Orbiston came closer to success than some later communities would. But Robert Owen appeared blind to the eminent failure of Orbiston and in 1828 he wrote:
“It will gratify you to learn that the good cause is progressing substantially in all countries, and that your exertions, although not crowned with immediate success at Orbiston, have contributed essentially to make the principles known, and to prepare the way for their practice in many places.”

Some previously involved in the Orbiston project later become active in the trade union and Chartist movements, but most slipped back into what Owen had termed the Old Order.

Henry Jones, who was to become founder of Canada’s only Owenite community and perhaps the earliest avowed socialist in British North America, came to Scotland that year  making a loan of £5,000 (approximately a third of his assets) towards its funds that was given to Hamilton Jones was already sufficiently involved in the Owenite movement to become a member of the society’s committee and became one of its auditors.  In the summer of 1826, when Combe had to leave Orbiston temporarily because of illness, Jones took charge of it. But by 1827 the difficulties caused by the poor selection of members had made him apprehensive of its future. In a letter of 23 March he broached to Hamilton the matter of a return of his loan to the Motherwell community and accused him of an “Aristocracy of decision” in his “pronunciation respecting the identity of the friends of the New Views, – and the proper understanding of the principles of the System.” Nevertheless, Jones continued, “We may go on, separately, to exert ourselves in what we believe will best advance the object which we profess to have in view, and where we can, conjointly.” His forebodings were justified when the Orbiston community came to an end after Combe’s death in August. In later years the loan was to prove the cause of litigation that would consume much of Jones’s time and energy. Archibald James Hamilton had died in 1834 and for several years Jones was involved in complex litigation to get back from Hamilton’s estate the money he had advanced to the Motherwell community.

In 1827 Jones sailed to New York and travelled, mostly by water, to Lake Huron, where Jones found suitable land for a new cooperative community in Upper Canada near the mouth of Perch Creek, about 10 miles northeast of present-day Sarnia. Jones returned to Britain later that year. In 1828 he gathered together a group of settlers from the Glasgow area… the community, which he called Maxwell, reputedly after Robert Owen’s residence at New Lanark, Scotland. He hoped eventually to settle between 50 and 100 families. The first contingent of 20 people, which arrived early in 1829 accompanied by a surgeon, consisted mostly of former members of the Orbiston community, almost all of whom were Lowland Scots and unemployed hand-loom weavers. A log building was erected that year with Orbiston as a model, for there were individual family apartments and common kitchens and dining-rooms. A contemporary sketch shows the building, not entirely completed, occupying three sides of a rectangular green; there is a central, two-story block and the wings are single-storeyed. Jones also established a store and a school on Owenite principles.

In 1834 on 17 May after Jones had left on a trip to England and Scotland a fire started in the community house and, as Henry John Jones, his son, recorded, “in less than an hour Maxwell had disappeared – the greater part of the books and light furniture was saved.” The few people remaining in the community after the fire lived in the barn and above the stables until a new building was erected. Jones returned to Upper Canada some time after July 1843, he may have partly shed his Owenism and may have largely remained immune from phalansterianism. In 1840, after Owen’s presentation to Queen Victoria had resulted in vigorous criticism of his principles, Henry John Jones had noted that his father seemed “a little ashamed of ‘Socialism.’” He nevertheless appears to have remained a utopian thinker and planner and, in the sense of desiring a social change in the direction of voluntary association apart from the state, a kind of libertarian socialist. Henry John Jones, remarked in 1839, that his father became “further gone in Socialism than ever.” He bombarded his reluctant relatives in Canada with letters suggesting that they should form a kind of “family community” with the few settlers who remained at Maxwell. He talked “of bringing out another ragged regiment to form a community in case his own family shd fail to come to terms.” Jones’s days of activity ended. He found that the few people at Maxwell who remained from the original settlement had established their own households and had no interest in forming a new community. The family home at Maxwell had been burnt down in 1839 but was rebuilt in 1842 and there Jones lived the rest of his life. Nobody in Canada was influenced by his utopian ideas,


A study of Orbitson reveals the following:
The creation of a new community is likely to attract those who seek an immediate escape from the old order and interests are liable to conflict. And of course there can be no islands of socialism in an ocean of capitalism. The rules of finance still rule.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cooped up in Co-ops

Socialists should learn from history and experience. The idea that society can be transformed by the introduction of cooperatives is not a new one. The first cooperatives represented a peaceful attempt to build an alternative economic system by organising peoples' institutions that would co-exist alongside capitalist ones, and would gradually expand to involve the majority of the population as cooperative producers and consumers. The first American dairy cooperatives were founded in the Goshen, Connecticut and South Trenton, New York, both in 1810. A decade later a group of Ohio farmers formed America's first agricultural marketing cooperative on record. In 1822 Pennsylvania barley farmers set up the first cooperative brewery. The first cooperative wheat elevator was opened in Dane City, Illinois, in 1847. The Amalgamated Houses is the oldest non-profit housing cooperative in the country established in 1927, now with 1500 families in 11 buildings on 15 acres between Van Cortlandt Park and the Jerome Park Reservoir, New York.

In 1933, the author turned activist, Upton Sinclair, outlined a plan for ending the depression in California, in a widely-distributed pamphlet. His plan, EPIC (End Poverty In California), was to create "land colonies whereby the unemployed may become self-sustaining" in the countryside, while in the cities EPIC would procure "production plants whereby the unemployed may produce the basic necessities required for themselves and for the land colonies, and to operate these factories and house and feed and care for the workers." These two groups, in the cities and countryside, would "maintain a distribution system for the exchange of each other’s products. The industries will (constitute) a complete industrial system, a new and self-sustaining world for those our present system cannot employ." EPIC planned to incorporate the widespread "self-help" cooperatives into the program. The plan's supporters began forming EPIC clubs; in less than a year Sinclair won the Democratic Party nomination for governor, dumping out the "regular" machine. With the slogan Production for Use, Sinclair and EPIC waged an uphill campaign against both the Republicans and the Democratic machine, who joined to defeat him, spending twenty to thirty times as much and controlling virtually every major newspaper and radio station in the state. Still, Sinclair got 38% of the votes but not enough to jettison the Republican/Democratic political machine from the driver's seat and seize control of the steering wheel.

With the collapse of the campaign, numerous EPIC clubs turned their energies to organizing co-operatives, mostly stores and buying clubs, reviving the consumer movement. Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley, which became the largest consumer cooperative in the United States. But reckless expansion undertaken in closed-door sessions by a “conservative” board, without membership input or approval, brought it to ruin. The Berkeley Co-op expanded into surrounding areas where there was no base of support, simply taking over other (and already failing) supermarkets. The whole house of cards came tumbling down in 1987 when the Berkeley Co-op filed for bankruptcy and dissolution.
In the 60s, thousands of people, mostly young, moved out of the cities into rural cooperative communities and communes, and tens of thousands stayed in their own communities and worked to create a survival network outside of and against the capitalist system, with a common ideological base of working to build a new social system based on cooperation and sharing "within the shell of the old.' At first the mass media called it the "counterculture" or "alternative." Although most of its participants did not know it at the time, it was stemming from one of America's oldest and deepest traditions. Groups such as the Quakers and Mennonites have used the collective form for hundreds of years and before them the Iroquois Confederacy. The basic idea was to withdraw, (drop-out) from the system of competition and exploitation, and create a new system based on cooperation (tune-in) which could expand to embrace all of society when the old system collapsed, as many naively expected to happen imminently. Very old forms of cooperation found rebirths. The San Francisco Diggers' built a system of gathering necessities and giving them away. But the need was endless. The class problem ran through all countercultural organisations, including rural communities: since it was only people with access to money who could gather the resources to get the projects started, they usually wound up in control, at least in the beginning. Many founders never relinquished control, and those projects never became truly cooperative.

Cooperatives did about a third of the total farm production and marketing in the US in 1980, with 7500 farmer co-ops and almost six million members. But these numbers have been shrinking continually through the century. Twenty-five years previously there were 1600 more farmer co-ops with 1.6 million more members. Most rural people today are no longer independent farmers as they once were, but wage-earners, part of a fast-growing "rural proletariat."

Millions of people around the world are desperately searching for a way out of the misery inflicted by capitalism. Within the constant mass upheavals taking place in many parts of the world, many are debating new and old ideas of how to change society for the better. The idea of worker’s and consumer’s cooperatives is one issue that has regained some attention. In the United States the current popular advocates are David Schweikart, Richard Woolf and Gar Alperovitz. The problem to get around is that cooperatives are established in the context of the capitalist market and so must compete in order to survive, and if the rate of exploitation is high among your competitors, then you must match it. Co-operatives means a continuation of the market. Some cooperatives find small niche markets in which to survive, but the majority will either be driven out of business or be forced to copy the practices used by other employers. Co-operatives are bound to fail within the confines of capitalism. Cooperatives that exist within a general framework of capitalism are still subject to the laws of capitalist operation. They often must seek loans and finance from capitalist banks and they must compete on price against other privately owned capitalist businesses, amongst other restrictions. This means the cooperative workers are pushed and pulled to play the contradictory role of exploiter to themselves. If they refuse to play by the rules they face the prospect of the cooperative collapsing.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s words:
“The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur—a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.”

There is also the related argument that co–ops by themselves do not challenge the system and may divert energy away from doing so. Individual co–ops do not threaten the system, are likely to degenerate, and can absorb time and resources that could be used for other kinds of organising. Workers can potentially learn about the need to take economic and political power from the capitalist class through this process. However people tend to lean towards what seems to be the least complex or easiest solution to any problem they face. Rather than grapple with broader political, economic or social questions those involved in the cooperatives often take on the outlook of small business people or focus exclusively on commercial problems that face their own cooperative. Many of the old cooperatives around the world have ceased to be cooperatives except by name. Many are out and out capitalist enterprises now. Cooperatives under capitalism are ‘islands of socialism’ in a sea of capitalism. They are battered by the storm forces of that capitalist sea i.e. credit conditions, the price of raw materials, rent, competition, the ability to make profitable sales, etc. They can only temporarily shelter from some of these pressures by finding a guaranteed market to avoid ‘free competition’.

Co-ops are not a microcosm of a socialist society any more than socialism will be simply co-ops writ large. Worker collectives and cooperatives keep a vision of a different and feasible system alive in daily practice. Cooperatives can be a legitimate way in which workers attempt to better their circumstances. But some people go much further, arguing that establishing cooperatives is a strategy capable of fundamentally transforming the world. But is it possible that capitalism can be overcome and replaced by a critical mass of producers and consumers cooperatives? The answer is no. Cooperatives offer no ability to take this power away from the capitalist class. As such, it is impossible for a cooperative movement in and of itself to overwhelm capitalism. Luxemburg put it cooperatives are “an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree”.

For sure, the history of the 20th century shows that centrally planned economies don’t work.  Knowledge is too widely distributed in society for a tiny group of masterminds to be able to direct the economic activities of everybody else.  But unfettered capitalism isn’t working either.  Power has migrated into the hands of financiers and corporate executives who are rewarded for exploiting their positions. Cooperative movements will almost certainly find new life as capitalism rolls on. The working class will instinctively and understandably seek ways to patch over social wounds to improve their quality of life. Both producer and consumer cooperatives can provide some immediate relief from the various symptoms of capitalism. Cooperatives can also act as an important school for those involved. They are real-life examples that it is possible to organise production and distribution without greedy private capitalists at the helm. In doing so they help dispel the myth that working class people can’t organise or run society and go some way to showing that the capitalist class is unnecessary and parasitic. They make a vision of an alternative society seem more practical and possible.

Today the people who run this world speak about "capitalism", "freedom" and "democracy" as if they are all synonymous. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although individuals are "free" to take a job or quit it, for the vast majority there is no viable option to taking a job. Others own all the means of survival, so the only way to survive is to get money, and the only legal way to get money is to find a job. Being an employee should be considered a form of bondage – wage slavery. Whoever controls the basic means of survival controls society. There is no such thing as democracy or equality without the people having collective control of these means, both locally and on a large scale, in the neighborhood and the workshop, and the transport and communications interlinking it all. The fortress of capitalist power is in production a widespread co-op network is by itself no real threat: for just as long as capital rules production, all gains can be taken away in a different form. If the world is ever to become truly free, the organised power of the people must be used to ensure that everyone has an alternative to wage slavery. That choice can only be through socialism. The way of capitalism and competition offers only increasing bondage, while the way of collectivity and cooperation offers real freedom. Market “socialism” is oxymoronic. These days the '99%' and 'Another World is Possible' are slogans fluttering atop many a radical social movement. Yet on those occasions activists' deliberations turn to what a post-capitalist future might look like, there will be a lot of talk about participatory democracy, community networks, the decentralisation of power and so on but at the bottom of it all, an acceptance of the basic principles of capitalist production. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Self-managed exploitation

In E.P. Thompson’s phrase, workers have “warrened capitalism from end to end” since the industrial revolution with co-operatives and self-help societies. It is not our intention to undermine any initiatives by those who, like ourselves, must often out of necessity search for a way to survive in the least painful way possible. We have no objection to the fact that some workers try to live the way they want and try to make the best of the circumstances in which they find themselves. In certain and appropriate situations, in many (but not all ) cases, workers might  be temporarily better off by forming some kind of co-operative where that is feasible. Many compromises have to be accepted and there is no need in condemning them if that was their choice in these circumstances.

 But what we want to point out is that these escapes are not really escapes at all, but ways of existing within capitalism. They can only be little more than adaptations to the current system and should not seek to present themselves as a form of socialism, or, worse still, as a means to transform society. The idea that it is possible to escape from our wage-slave condition and transform ourselves into people who are free from capitalist relations once we have set up our co-operative business and are working for ourselves is false. The fact that some are trying to do what they think is necessary and what they think is advisable, does not stop us arguing that the class struggle can be conducted in  no other way than one that puts an end to capitalism.

Some defenders of co-operatives continue to assume that getting rid of capitalism and capitalist social relationships is primarily a matter of gradually changing peoples 'values' and that this can be achieved by the growth of practical examples such as are embodied in the likes of radical workers and consumer co-operatives. This idealist approach both overestimates the strengths of the co-operative movement and underestimates the power of the capitalist economy (in which co-operatives operate.) It ignores workers resistance ie class war against capitalism in creating the  material conditions that might achieve a mass change in social consciousness and peoples values. When capital makes demands of bosses via market forces, they have to impose them on workers, and workers can resist. Workers’ needs are in direct contradiction to the needs of capital accumulation. However, if we become our own boss, the needs of capital appear as the natural imperative of market forces. Class struggle – and with it the potential for revolutionary change – is short-circuited. Ends are made of means, some means get us closer to what we want, others make it more remote and finally destroy its possibility.

It may seem rather obvious: we cannot live without capitalism as long as we have not put an end to it. Co-op members are not capitalists in the sense that they are profit-seekers, but nevertheless they are still tightly bound within the relations of private property.  There is nothing fundamentally radical or progressive about co-operatives. They are not inherently antagonistic toward capital, and do not intend to be so, but in fact all are strategies for the immediate or long term alleviation of some of the problems that arise throughout our lives.  Socialists should stress the need for workers struggles to extend and deepen rather than become inward looking to backward solutions like co-operatives. which in most cases stand little chance of survival in the crisis conditions of capitalism.

Over centuries idealists  dreamed of the possibility of living on communist islands amidst the ocean of society. Whatever may be their value in ameliorating the present conditions of the working class —  cooperatives or communes will not accomplish the social revolution. Many people may speak of alternative economics on the premise that the basis of capitalism is money.  However, exchange is the basis upon which the market stands and its foundation is not the creation of a relation between persons, but between persons and things: what do you possess?; what do you have to offer? What do you want instead of what do you need? To set up any business and expect it to profitable requires it to be competitive. This applies whether you set up your business by yourself as self-employed or  if you create a cooperative. If a business is not competitive, it dies. Co-operatives sometimes emerge when capitalism falters. The experience of the factory occupations in the Argentinan economic melt-down (and elsewhere) 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 business practices that prevailed before the factories were occupied.  A firm possesses a logic of its own - expand or die.  This is the reality of running a business, and it exists independently of how that business is run (as a one-man owner, a  joint stock PLC or a co-operative). An enterprise under the control of the workers actually means the workers are under the control of the enterprise. The need to take decisions quickly, to search for new  clients, to decide about strategic investments, and, in short, to fully  engage with other enterprises in the sphere of circulation, has  immediate consequences on both the decision-making process and  the organisation of work. Self-management meant self-exploitation. With the  disappearance of supervisors, the personification of capitalist  authority also disappears. Yet, it is the authority of market  competition the one that now directly, without any intermediaries,  imposes on workers the respect of delivery times, product quality,  and competitive prices. Thus the market itself may be seen as the  fundamental regulator of workers’ discipline, and this in the forms  of both collective sanctions, like with rules books and peer reviewed  quality standards, and individual rewards.

Co-ops are companies whose ownership is shared equally among its members. Nonetheless, co-ops are usually hierarchical organisations. Democratic perhaps, but hierarchical nonetheless. Managers may be selected through some democratic or consultative process involving members but, once selected, they delegate and command their ‘underlings’ in a manner not at all dissimilar to a standard corporation. Members of worker co-operatives necessarily live schizophrenic lives. On one hand, they function as owners of small businesses and contend with all the insidious forces of capitalism – the anti-ethic of profits before people. At the same time they are members of an aspiring egalitarian corporate entity.

As good as employers' intentions may be at the start of their respective enterprises, they're eventually forced to seek greater profits while at the same time suppressing wages as much as possible, which is more often than not the only way they can survive in a field full of competitors compelled to do the same. In many cases, employers as individuals are found to be good people and may want to provide decent wages and benefits for their employees, etc. Nevertheless, the logic of the system forces the hand of employers to exploit labour as much as they can; and at the same time, labour is coerced into the position of working for a wage and fighting for gains that employers quickly counter in an endless battle punctuated by regular economic crises.

And it's not simply that these types of businesses are inherently less efficient, competitive, profitable, etc., but that the logic of the system is overtly hostile to their fundamentally pro-worker design. Nevertheless, they can certainly be successful, especially in more supportive economic environments (e.g., the MONDRAGON ).

Co-operatives, barter networks, time banks or credit unions, so long as they are confined to a few groups they can function adequately. But to suggest that capitalism will provide capital for the absorption of the unemployed in this way, when capitalism needs an army of unemployed, or that co-operative economy must remain on a primitive basis and separate from the economics of society as a whole is just nonsense. Such schemes may make things a bit easy for some poor devils thrown on the scrap heap of capitalism, but the problem of deviling with unemployment is inseparable from the socialist task of abolishing capitalism altogether and founding the economy of socialism. Endeavours to strive to establish its separation, self-sufficiency and independence from the private property system continues a tradition of Utopian socialism and petty-bourgeois escapism that spans working class history. It calls to mind the experiments of Owen and his followers and the cooperative ventures of the trade unions.  Like them, they aim to solve the economic and social problems – abject poverty, degradation and starvation resulting from unemployment – born of the profit system.

Marx underlined the limits that workers’ cooperatives within the capitalist system since these “naturally reproduce, and must reproduce everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system” Luxemburg insisted in Reform or Revolution htmcooperatives were “totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production” Bakunin wrote:
“The various forms of cooperation are incontestably one of the most equitable and rational ways of organizing the future system of production. But before it can realize its aim of emancipating the laboring masses so that they will receive the full product of their labor, the land and all forms of capital must he converted into collective property. As long as this is not accomplished, the cooperatives will be overwhelmed by the all-powerful competition of monopoly capital and vast landed property; ... and even in the unlikely event that a small group of cooperatives should somehow surmount the competition, their success would only beget a new class of prosperous cooperators in the midst of a poverty-stricken mass of proletarians...”

Creating or supporting co-operatives is not enough in itself to overcome capitalism as they adjust in order to survive within capitalism. Those involved in the co-operative movement must define their limits, so as to contain, if not prevent, disappointments dashed expectations and false hopes. Many start-up worker cooperatives are founded on “venture capital” of its members’ sweat. Worker co-operatives are not free from the pressures of competition with “conventional” capital, in fact, contra Proudhon and his followers, worker co-operatives are even more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of competition, often due to their lack of access to resources with which to build competitive advantages to capitalist enterprises. Co-operatives sponsored by the state, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia and  Algeria, while offering the possibility of startup capital and relative protection from the market, engender dependency on the state, and subject the co-operative’s autonomy to the whims of state managers.

The Socialist Party has a plan of action that is in harmony with the philosophy of socialism. As socialists we want people to control all aspects of their lives, of which the production of goods is but a small part. As long as the profit motive rules, workers will be exploited and have little say or control in what they produce. Co-operatives will still be wage slavery. Co-operatives (and nationalisation) cannot be seen as any kind of stepping stone or useful reform on the way to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the state in today's modern globalised world, whether promoted as being achieved through reformist agitation or 'direct action'. They don't work.

1. Self-management of misery or the miseries of self-management - Terra Cremada
2. Labour process and decision-making in factories under 
workers’ self-management: empirical evidence from 
3. And various contributors to various threads on Libcom

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Co-ops are for coping

One of the main proposals advocated by the New Economic economists and many others is worker-owned and controlled  co-operatives. It has never been argued by the Socialist Party that co-operatives are a means to-wards socialism but rather it is the aim of the people - the Co-operative Commonwealth.

The idea of the workers’ co-operative originated in the early days of the labour movement. It is based on the simple attractive idea: “Get rid of the bosses who make a profit from our work and instead work for ourselves so we can enjoy the full fruits of our work.” Capitalism is not to be overthrown by class war but undermined by the  cooperative movement until it crumbles is the theory  But how does the ownership of the factory by the employees differ from ownership by a capitalist? A cooperative has to buy its raw materials on the market, just the same as every other company. A cooperative has to sell its finished products on the market, just the same as every other company. A cooperative has to invest in new plant and equipment, just the same as every other company. Thus, they have to buy goods at the same price as any other capitalist concerns. They have to sell goods at the same price as any other capitalist firms. They have to compete for extra capital or borrowing as any other capitalist firms. To succeed the worker in a cooperative is obliged to attacked their own living standards by taking less pay, or intensifying his work-rate or laying off some of his colleagues. Workers’ co-operatives face all the problems of capitalist competition and require to resort to all the capitalist cost-cutting strategies. The cooperative  means the workers are landed with the responsibility of making the business a going concern which will involve workers on lower wages and in higher productivity. Those proposing cooperatives are advocating self-imposed sacrifice.

When people endeavour  to ease their life by shopping for their families by purchasing collectively with others at wholesale prices so as to benefit by the difference with retail prices, this is not to be condemned. We understand very well that in our present state of society the workers will try to alleviate  as much of their misery as they can, and to give their families as much comfort and satisfaction as they can. We do not condemn those food co-ops. But as Marxists we must observe that if these means of tackling their poverty and making  their life more bearable were the general rule, instead of being the exception to the present state of affairs, the consequence would be that the cost of living having become cheaper, wages would not increase and would even decrease.

 Employers would simply refuse to increase the wages of their employees with the explanation that they can now live very well, with their cost of living thus reduced so why should we pay more. We witness the proof of that everyday. Pay in London is higher because the costs of living there is more expensive than in the provincial cities and towns. [SEE APPENDIX]

The concept of co-operatives also suffers from the same problem that the market domination of the conglomorates such as Walmart have on local communities. The success of co-operatives would close down the small local corner-shop (the “mom and pop” stores as they are called in the US) as much as the opening of a giant supermarket does and place tens of thousands shop-keepers out of work.

There is still another reason why co-operatives can have no socialist value. The proponents of co-operatives insist that in the co-operatives for consumption, the antagonism between seller and buyer who henceforth are one and the same is done away with,  just as with profit of one at the expense of the other. Yet nearly all of them are obliged by the commercial pressures of the capitalist milieu, to go in for capitalism themselves. Therefore just instead of selling only to their members at the price of cost, they are more and more obliged to sell to outsiders for the sake of profits. The antagonism between seller and buyer, which it is the role of co-operation to abolish, is still in existence. They are more and more compelled by competition to look for means of existence and development outside the distribution of products and are compelled to sell to the public. In attempts to realise and accumulate profits commercially co-ops become only a new sort of department store, constituted by small workingmen share-holders instead of department stores constituted by large capitalist share-holders. Co-operatives cannot help being governed by all the laws which determine and regulate production and exchange in the society of profit of to-day.

 Despite their glowing recommendation co-operatives do not even prepare the elements of the new society. Capitalism itself has already prepared us for a long time, both materially and as organisationally to administer socialist society. It is precisely because of capitalism, that all the work of administration, direction, execution, the most scientific sort of work as well as the most manual, is carried out by members of the working class hired for the task. We can change the present way of running industry into a new one without any shock or disruption or upheaval. Everything is ready for this transformation or revolution, because the role of the capitalists to-day, does not represent any sort of work, even of directing, and they may disappear to-morrow without anything being touched or destroyed in the operating of the different sorts of industries.


 “However, the capitalist character of our worker has still another side. Let us assume that in a given industrial area it has become the rule that each worker owns his own little house. In this case the working class of that area lives rent free; expenses for rent no longer enter into the value of its labor power. Every reduction in the cost of production of labor power, that is to say, every permanent price reduction in the worker’s necessities of life is equivalent “on the basis of the iron laws of political economy” to a reduction in the value of labor power and will therefore finally result in a corresponding fall in wages. Wages would fall on an average corresponding to the average sum saved on rent, that is, the worker would pay rent for his own house, but not, as formerly, in money to the house owner, but in unpaid labor to the factory owner for whom he works. In this way the savings of the worker invested in his little house would certainly become capital to some extent, but not capital for him, but for the capitalist employing him...Incidentally, what has been said above applies to all so-called social reforms which aim at saving or cheapening the means of subsistence of the worker. Either they become general and then they are followed by a corresponding reduction of wages, or they remain quite isolated experiments, and- then their very existence as isolated exceptions proves that their realization on a general scale is incompatible with the existing capitalist mode of production. Let us assume that in a certain area a general introduction of consumers’ co-operatives succeeds in reducing the cost of foodstuffs for the workers by 20 per cent; in the long run wages would fall in that area by approximately 20 per cent, that is to say, in the same proportion as the foodstuffs in question enter into the means of subsistence of the workers. If the worker, for example, spends three-quarters of his weekly wage on these foodstuffs, then wages would finally fall by three-quarters of 20 = 15 per cent. In short, as soon as any such savings reform has become general, the worker receives in the same proportion less wages, as his savings permit him to live cheaper.” Engels in the Housing Question

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Co-Op Cop Out

“We are private companies that work in the same market as everybody else. We are exposed to the same conditions as our competitors.” - Mondrag√≥n’s human-resources chief

Many regard the co-operative movement as being in some way linked up with socialism. Socialists have come to realise that co-operatives cannot be used as a means for establishing socialism and that they only flourish to the extent that they can be successfully accommodated within capitalism.

The idea of the workers’ co-operative has flourished since the early days of the labour movement and has been seen by many as a possible alternative to nationalisation. The originators of the co-operative movement saw it as a movement that would eventually out-compete and replace ordinary capitalist businesses, leading to the coming of “the Co-operative Commonwealth” (which is an alternative name for socialism occasionally used by both Karl Marx and the Socialist Party). The co-ops would constitute, as it were, little oases in the desert of capitalism. They anticipated that the movement would grow until finally the workers would have achieved their emancipation. Essentially, each community would own its own means and instruments of production and each member of a community would work to produce what had been agreed was needed and in return would be issued with a note certifying for how many hours he had worked; he could then use this note to obtain from the community's stock of consumer goods any product or products which had taken the same number of hours to produce. (G.D.H. Cole was another who proposed a variant, that he called “Guild Socialism”. Although Cole’s blueprint did provide for close links between consumers and producers which could be interpreted as “production directly for use”, it still envisaged the continuation of finance, prices and incomes. It was to come into being through the guilds eventually out-competing capitalist industries in the marketplace)

Because co-operatives have to compete with ordinary capitalist businesses on the same terms as them, so they are subject to the same competitive pressures, to keep costs down and to to maximise the difference between sales revenue and costs (called “profits” in ordinary businesses, but “surplus” by the co-op). The co-operative movement was out-competed and is now trying to survive on the margins as a niche for “ethical” consumers and savers, leaving the great bulk of production, distribution and banking in the hands of ordinary profit-seeking businesses. Co-operatives did not provide a real solution to the workers' situation as it was incapable of providing an answer in the interests of all workers. At no time did it question the capitalist production relationships - it questions only superficial features (monopolies, competition, etc.).
Whether or not a place of work takes the form of a workers’ co-operative can have no bearing whatsoever on the pressures which compel it to meet the economic conditions for its existence. Nor do the details of how it run its affairs matter. It can be a kibbutz or a co-operative taking decisions collectively; it can be a monastery producing fortified wine; it can be a conventional business; in whatever way they are internally structured, authoritarian or democratic, and in whatever scale they may operate, as a part of social production they can only operate within the pattern of capitalist buying and selling.

In what way does the ownership of the factory by the employees differ from ownership by a capitalist? A co-op has to buy its raw materials on the market, along with every other company. It does not get steel, oil, copper, coal, any cheaper because it is owned by its employees. In buying in its machinery, equipment, materials, premises, transport etc., and in paying its rates etc, any unit, including any workers’ co-operative, must pay all these costs. How could any imagined “socialistic” unit operate without power supplies? In its application of socialist principles in production and consumption, is it going to persuade the utility companies to provide supplies free?

In addition to this income, the individuals working in the unit must have income to cover personal living costs such as rent or mortgage repayments, food, clothes, leisure activities, and so on and on. This is inescapable. Regardless of their make-up, production or service co-ops can only continue their existence whilst they are economically viable; that is, where income exceeds expenditure. If expenditure exceeds income, then inevitably they disappear.

A co-op has to sell its products on the market, along with every other company. It does not get higher prices for its goods because it is owned by its employees. It has to compete with every other manufacturer in terms of price, delivery dates, quality etc. In order to compete over any length of time, a co-op will have to invest in new plant and equipment. To do this it will require a large amount of capital. If this is obtained by borrowing, then the co-op will have to convince the banks that it is a viable and profitable concern, run along good business lines. It will be under even greater pressure to prove that it is viable just because it is a different sort of enterprise. Of course, it may decide to raise the capital needed for investment out of the profits. Inside the factory, there are no owners other than the workers. But they buy goods at the same price as other capitalist concerns. They sell goods at the same price as other capitalist firms. They compete flat out with other capitalist firms. If they are to make enough surplus to re-invest, or to convince the banks they are good for a big loan, how are they to do it?They are in a trap. Either they sack some of their fellows; or they increase their own intensity of work; or they take a wage cut. Elected workers’ councils would be in exactly the same position of having to lay off staff, if there is no market for the goods they produce.

Whichever avenue they choose, their decision has two effects. Firstly they have attacked their own living standards. Secondly, they are acting as an unconscious argument in the hands of other bosses against their work-forces. If an employer in another factory is faced with a demand for, say, a wage rise, he will immediately reply that he can’t afford it and point to a worker co-operative and say: ‘they work for less than you are demanding. It seems a perfectly reasonable wage to them, with no boss, why are you demanding from me more?’ The capitalist has been provided with an excellent propaganda weapon against his own employee demands as a way of mitigating the class struggle and persuading workers that they have an interest in accepting ‘realistic’ (i.e. lower) wages. Co-ops exhibit the exact same vices as capitalist firms.
The logic of capitalism dooms the efforts of those who seek co-operatives. The co-operative movement cannot solve the basic economic problems of the workers as a whole, or even of the co-operative societies' own members. Where it was a success it was merely the success of essentially capitalist undertakings. There is a tendency for worker co-ops to resemble more and more over time the conventional capitalist business model and the case of Mondragon - the largest worker co-op conglomerate in the world - would seem to bear this out. It has grown and has departed more and more from its original egalitarian principles and Mondragon has been noted for employing heavy hand tactics against its own two-tier workforce.

Co-operatives can only ever involve a minority of workers, and the more they are integrated into the capitalist economy and its profit- seeking, the more their members will have to discipline and pressurise themselves in the way the old bosses did - what is known as "self-managed exploitation". The fact is that there is no way out for workers within the capitalist system. At most co-operatives can only make their situation a little less unbearable. We cannot self-manage capitalism in our own interests and the only way we can really live without exploitation is by abolishing capitalism.

The worker cannot claim ownership and control of the mine or the factory because these are huge production organisations, part of a wider interlinked network and cannot be divided into separate pieces. This is the reason why socialists demand common ownership of the means of production – the land, factories, railway, etc. To suit collective work, collective property. The big issues are not decided “on the shop floor”, to use a militant phrase much loved by advocates of “self management”. There should be collective ownership and collective control of what is collectively produced.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Forward to the past?

The economic crisis has provoked a number of "non-capitalist" schemes to ameliorate the reductions in workers' living standards. Co-operatives and "peoples banks" [credit unions] are being hailed as alternatives to capitalist businesses. These attempts, however, do not significantly challenge the status quo. Creating a "non-capitalist" sector is like reinventing the wheel. We have had the experience of the 19th century thrift movement of savings banks and building societies and the local Co-op yet some still have not learn the lessons of the past.

Some advocate that workers should create a "non-capitalist" economic sector that could compete with the big capitalist enterprises and gradually overturn the existing order. If workers co-ops function efficiently under self-management, surely all other industries could be run in this manner goes the argument. Theorists of the co-operative movement see it as a movement that will eventually outcompete and replace ordinary capitalist businesses, leading to the coming of “the Co-operative Commonwealth” (which is often used as an alternative name for socialism). They would constitute, as it were, little oases in the desert of capitalism. The movement would grown until finally the workers would have achieved their emancipation.

The creation of cooperatives may very well offer an example of self-management but they simply cannot compete with the economic might of modern capitalism. We cannot self-manage capitalism in our own interests and the only way we can really live without exploitation is by abolishing capitalism. The state can be counted on to represent and protect the interests of the privileged minority. A "non-capitalist" sector just do not have the same resources at its disposal and therefore cannot beat the capitalist sector at its own game. In any endeavour to challenge their capitalist rivals, co-operatives would require to hire wage labour, resulting in exploitation. History is littered with the experience of failed co-operatives or corrupted co-operatives. Either the cooperatives "sell-out" or they are "put-out" by market-forces. We know what happened. This was because they had to compete with ordinary capitalist businesses on the same terms as them and so were subject to the same competitive pressures, to keep costs down and to to maximise the difference between sales revenue and costs (called “profits” in ordinary businesses, but “surplus” by the co-op). The co-operative movement was outcompeted. Cooperatives in a capitalist economy are still capitalist enterprises. Co-ops facing competition have one option other than cutting wages which is to go for the niche market: make the co-op part of their brand and market themselves to people for whom that would be a selling point, aim for "ethical consumer" market.

As with our position on reforms, we do not oppose reforms per se if they are to the workers' advantage, but we do not support reformism, a political policy of proposing palliatives as half-way measures towards socialism and similarly we do not view setting up co-ops as a revolutionary strategy or one which advances the interests of the working class as a whole. It isn't something to be promoted as anything more than a mere coping mechanism to survive a bit better under capitalism. The Socialist Party have nothing against working in a 'workers' cooperative if it means better conditions at work under capitalism and not being treated like a piece of trash every single day. We'd all rather work for a boss who at least treats us like human beings. But we emphasise that co-operatives can only ever involve a minority of workers, and the more they are integrated into the capitalist economy and its profit- seeking, the more their members will have to discipline and pressurise themselves in the way the old bosses did - what is known as "self-managed exploitation". The fact is that there is no way out for workers within the capitalist system. At most, co-operatives can only make our situation a little less unbearable.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Exposing the ethics of the Co-op

On Thursday 22nd a dozen people, including members of benefit claimants' groups Black Triangle and the Crutch Collective, Clydeside Industrial Workers Of The World, Glasgow Anarchist Federation, Glasgow Solidarity Federation as well as other individuals took part in the hour long picket of the Co-Op Bank and supermarket on the same street in central Glasgow.

They gave out leaflets to Co-Op customers and the hundreds of people going pass on their way home from work. The leaflet highlighted the Co-Op's four year occupational health contract with Atos. Atos continue to make huge profits by continuing to assess most sick and disabled benefit claimants as fit for work, ignoring contrary medical evidence, to comply with Government targets for benefit cuts. The cuts are being imposed to make the poor pay again for the latest crisis in capitalism caused by the rich. They asked people to contact the Co-Op to tell the company, that sells itself as ethical, that they will be losing their custom until they cancel their contract with Atos.

Most interest came from older women who perhaps know from experience what the Co-Op is really about. Maybe they know the reality of the Co-Op's claim that they have always been ethical, because they have always provided affordable prices to those in need. In past generations the Co-Op mostly employed women. Their exploitative employment practices are still the same as any other business. Historically the Co-Op has played a significant role in the daily lives of many working class people. But it's contribution to working class emancipation has been marginal at best and at worst has added to illusion that such an aim can be achieved within the capitalist system. Like any other business it is open to the pressures that come with the fluctuations of the marketplace and has made workers redundant when the markets are down. Like any other bosses the Co-Op management have made older workers redundant, using the excuse that they would be incapable of coping with the introduction of new technology, that was never introduced, because managers had nothing better to do than manage workers like cogs in a machine.

Co-Op management tried to placate the protesters with more empty words about ethics, rather than taking action against Atos. They have refused to rule out Atos from the bidding process for their new occupational contract, that starts next year, despite the unethical behaviour of Atos being well documented. If the Co-Op were interested in ethics they would have already publicly rejected an Atos bid. Their decision on who to award the new contract to will be based primarily on cheapness even though the profitable Co-Op do not have to do this out of economic necessity.

Atos and the police have been monitoring anti-Atos activity to try to manage dissent towards ineffectiveness. Now the Co-Op are up to it as well to help their Atos partners. The communications from Co-Op management, the hiring of extra security staff and the ludicrous number of police present for the picket show that the Co-Op are extremely worried about their ethical image, no matter how fake, even from the dent that can be caused to it by a relatively small group and one action. We must be doing something right. Just imagine what actions against the Atos contract by larger groups in more that one place could do.

From here

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Death of Co-ops

Co-operative Funeralcare, which organises more than 100,000 funerals a year from 900 funeral homes has begun an inquiry after staff were secretly filmed storing dead bodies like "stacking television sets" in a warehouse on an industrial estate off a busy motorway. While relatives believed their loved ones were at funeral homes,the bodies were being stored in a warehouse or "hub". The warehouse contained a garage with a fleet of limousines and hearses, storage for dozens of coffins, and a large refrigerated area – the mortuary – with rack upon rack of bodies, some of them uncovered. When families asked to see their loved ones, the body would be taken back to the funeral home, a journey of up to 30 miles. The documentary claims staff are under pressure to sell expensive funeral packages to mourners, to increase profits, which last year were £52 million. The former funeral ombudsman, Professor Geoffrey Woodroffe, described the practices alleged in the film as shocking. "I had no idea that they're treating people as if they're stacking television sets, really. I'd hate to think that a member of my family would have been treated in that way," he told the programme.

When people are exploited and oppressed they co-operate with each other to escape from poverty, to overcome exploitation and oppression. As do people wishing to improve working conditions and the quality of their lives.  Workers are not going to let themselves starve: if the means of production are there they'll go ahead and use them. They often get together and form co-operatives. So, although there are some benefits to co-ops, we still find them exploiting workers (like Funeralcare in their fight with the GMB, which they tried to derecognise), and they can go bust. They aren't a panacea, and they are not a step towards socialism - workers already co-operate at work even in capitalist firms, and we run capitalism from top to bottom. Workers co-operatives are seen by many as radical and anti-capitalist. The Socialist Party do not see co-ops, communes, mutual aid projects and the like as leading to socialism in themselves.

 Far from challenging capitalism, many workers’ co-operatives are actually an important sector of modern economies on the basis of promoting a more ‘ethical capitalism.’ Workers’ co-operatives may provide a catalyst for change and glimpse of what is possible but their gradual and reformist nature must be resisted as futile. Workers’ co-operatives depend on wider market forces to survive and grow and cannot exist outside of capitalist social relations due to the pressures of market forces and competition. Like private enterprises, co-operatives are also subject to the same pressures such as layoffs, price rises and reduction in wages in the process reducing any resemblance of ‘workers’ democracy.’ The more they are integrated into the capitalist economy and its profit- seeking, the more their members will have to discipline and pressurise themselves in the way the old bosses did - what used to be known as "self-managed exploitation". The aim of emancipating the labouring masses is so that the land and all forms of production and distribution is converted into collective property. As long as this is not accomplished, the cooperatives will be overwhelmed by the all-powerful competition of monopoly capital and vast landed property. Even in the unlikely event that a small group of cooperatives should somehow surmount the competition, their success would only beget a new class of prosperous co-operators in the midst of a poverty-stricken mass of proletarians.

Co-operatives lay rest to the lie workers cannot organise production without bosses. But we cannot self-manage capitalism in our own interests as it is weighted against workers. The only way we can really live without exploitation and bosses is by abolishing capitalism. The fact is that there is no way out for workers within the capitalist system. Not cooperatives, not reforms, not trade unions. At most these can only make their situation a little less unbearable. Co-operatives usually only flourish to the extent that they can be successfully accommodated within capitalism. Co-ops by their very nature as worker owned and operated enterprises are always going to be marginal to the capitalist economy because of the enormous concentration of capital in the hands of the capitalist class - which concentration has become more accentuated, not less , in recent years. Co-ops like many other small businesses are struggling to exist and to compete against the might of established capitalist corporations. They are going to need every bit of money they can lays their hands on just to keep afloat. A cooperative is after all a capitalist business unit and as such has the potential as much to divide as to unite workers. It is engaged in capitalist competition after all - and all that that entails

We dont want to embark on setting up coops simply because its nicer way of doing business in capitalism. No, the point has to be to ultimately break as far as is possible with the logic of capital. Otherwise co-ops will simply be coopted by capitalism (if you might excuse the pun). We've seen this happening with
Mondragon. It has moved steadily away from its original egalitarian ideals and it has been able to do this because it lacks any firm anchorage in a genuine socialist outlook. Co-ops in the absence of such an outlook will simply drift into becoming like conventional capitalist businesses, competing with each other and if necessary shedding labour and cutting wages in the process. With co-ops we still have capital, the requirement to turn over capital and restore it to it's initial form, which, no matter how the democratic structures attempt to put use values first, means that the essence of commodity exchange and labour exploitation continues to occur, merely without the person of the individual capitalist.

Being an employee of a co-op is much like being an employee of a joint-stock company, still a hierarchical relationship built on market forces. The co-operatives themselves are in competition for labour and finance. Why do you think the Tories here have discovered mutualisation of public services? It's a means to break unions, enforce market discipline and extend market relations. Mutuals/co-operatives are a worthwhile means to resist market relations, but they in no way supercede them.

The co-op system would not do away with capital, the need to turn it over in the circuit of money-commodity-money, which will mean:
a) Crises would still occur.
b) That income of a co-op will be proportional to its capital, not to the needs of its membership.

The co-operative group: are the fifth largest food retailer, the third largest retail pharmacy chain, the number one provider of funeral services and the largest independent travel business. The Co-operative Group also has strong market positions in banking and insurance. The Group employs 120,000 people, has 5.5 million members and around 4,800 retail outlets. Co-operatives across the UK have reported a combined turnover of £27.4 billion, with profit before tax reaching £539 million. According to Co-operatives UK there are over 4,735 jointly owned, democratically controlled co-operative businesses in the UK, owned by 10.8 million people and sustaining more than 237,000 jobs.

 Are we any closer to socialism for all of this?