Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Future of Work

‘A lot of resources are going to be spent in our city. Therefore the questions is: who is going to get them? Who is going to benefit?’ says Kali Akuno, of Cooperation Jackson.

The question of the future of work is above all a question of power and ownership. It is a question the cooperative movement seeks practical answers for, every day, in neighbourhoods, cities and regions.

An international survey among 10,000 members of the general population by the consulting firm PwC found that 53% believe technological innovations will be the most transformative factor in shaping the future world of work – more than resource scarcity and climate change, shifts in global economic power, migrations and urbanisation. This is also the dominant narrative in the mainstream media. Yet, co-operators understand that technology follows social and economic power, not the other way round.

‘Platform’ capitalism (businesses whose primary activity is extracting value from pure exchange), automation and the ‘rise of the robots’, 3D printing – these are all subjects of sensationalistic stories that threaten workers with unemployment and poverty unless they submit to atomisation, alienation and precarity by competing harder for a smaller number of skilled, rewarding jobs. ‘Innovation’ is an ideological narrative. It says we must be prepared to rapidly abandon our present and past modes of work, community, solidarity and family life.

In reality, the ‘Future of Work’ is already the ‘Present of Work’ for hundreds of millions of people. We see the acceleration in mass migrations from the countryside to the cities, from the poor south to the richer north, and of people fleeing from areas devastated by war, economic and environmental collapse. In the richest countries, it is more like ‘The Past of Work’ as workers’ rights, incomes and organisation have been eroded by thirty years of ideologically-driven political innovation, the privatisation of public goods, removal of workers’ rights, and erosion of social benefits such as health and social care. As technology, wealth distribution and modes of work follow the social politics, the 21st century looks more and more like the 19th.

In 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers declared their intention “as soon as reasonably practical … [to] arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government”. How close are today’s co-operators to having the tools and the organisation to realise this goal?

From my own country, the UK, I suggest some examples and statistics to show why co-operators should be careful not to swallow the ‘innovation’ narrative wholesale. They point to the scale of the task for our movement in seeking to help transform the situation of the working class, but also its potential.

Twenty years ago, if you owned a car and wanted to get it washed, you went to an Automatic Car Wash. It was expensive. In 2017, very few Auto Car Washes remain, but the humans have reappeared. It is now cheaper for a car wash company to hire six low paid workers than to invest in an unreliable machine.

In UK agriculture, we were promised that ‘in the not too distant future, our fields will be tilled, sown and harvested entirely by fleets of semi-autonomous machines’. In the real world, it is done by tens of thousands of seasonal migrant workers (in 2017 and 2018, a shortage of these workers caused by political disruption and a fall in the value of the currency means that a proportion of the crops will certainly be left to rot). In the UK region, which has a total population of around 64 million, 2.7 million are employed in growing, processing or serving food. 1.6 million work in canteens or restaurants. 5 million work in retail, logistics and warehouses. The country’s food industries are highly centralised; most of the flour, for instance, is produced in just six flour mills. Tens of thousands of low paid, precarious workers are concentrated in logistics warehouses to the west of London, enabling more thousands of drivers to deliver food and fast-moving goods into the capital and across the UK. Without them, London would run out of food in 72 hours. Surveillance technology is used to monitor and discipline these workers. But where are the robots? Perhaps they are coming. Perhaps not.

The point of these examples is that right now – never mind the future – the whole edifice of the social system, even in the most ‘advanced’ industrial countries, rests on the work of those who produce and distribute the goods and services upon which we all depend. And this does not even talk about the majority of people who work in the ‘industry’ of caring for each other, whether paid or unpaid. The private owners of industry, and their public relations advisers, and governments, know this perfectly well. The eternal goal of capitalist innovation – cementing social domination by reducing the cost of workers in the business equation, or eliminating them altogether – conflicts with the need to have able and willing consumers. Without profits and a social order conducive to private accumulation, there will be little investment in automation – just the old story of moving production to somewhere where workers are cheaper. So the threat of automation is precisely that, a threat. Its purpose is to persuade us that resistance is useless – that there is ‘no alternative'.

The cooperative movement knows that there is an alternative. Around the world, in every area of economic and social life, we see bold and inspiring experiments in collective ownership and control, for the benefit of people. We know the obstacles to the cooperative economy are primarily political – that is to say, they are about ownership and control; not about technology, or blueprints for a universal basic income, or utopian dreams.

Business consultants PwC describe three possible scenarios for the Future of Work, as perceived by their clients. The Orange World, where companies break down into small units and specialisation dominates the world economy. The Green World, where companies ‘care’. And the Blue World, where big company capitalism continues to rule. None of these scenarios includes a fundamentally different model of social ownership. What colour would we use to name a cooperative world?

The best cooperative projects make explicit the link between meeting peoples’ needs and aspirations today, with the possibility of a better world tomorrow. They demonstrate and educate about how, to achieve our ultimate aim, local and regional cooperative successes must join together and become  local and global systems, on the peoples’ terms.

First published by CICOPA, the world federation of cooperatives in industry and public services, in March 2018

Production and insurrection

“Cooperation Jackson’s work is situated within the global struggle to eradicate capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and the effect that these systems are having on our planet.” Adofo Minka, CooperationJackson

 “As soon as practicable, to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government…” Fifth Object of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

Capitalism is a machine for socialised plunder, rather than a set of poorly designed economic instruments. The emergence of the alternative is not a smooth and consensual process, growing naturally amid the decay of the old. It is contested, uneven, difficult. This was the experience of the Lancashire Chartists in the hungry 1840s, as it was for Occupy and the ‘movement of the Squares’ in 2012, as it is for today’s radical municipalists in Jackson, Mississippi. The economic question is always and everywhere the political question.

Capitalism and the state as we know it are only around two hundred years old, yet there’s truth in the saying that it’s easier to imagine the extinction of the human species than life without them. This is exactly why the most radical economic experiments imply we have to connect micro and macro, everyday interventions and utopian blueprints, the local and the global.

Political movements without a programme for effecting economic and social change, or lacking the means to make it, end up reinforcing domination. The last transnational wave of social strikes in 2012 saw square occupations, street battles and labour withdrawals in Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Egypt. They were limited in two ways. Firstly, the political focus of the movements was the governmental structure. People gathered in the public sphere, experienced mass participation and confronted state forces but, after a certain point, it became difficult to sustain the occupations and the movements because of the challenge of resourcing them, as well as repressive violence.  

Secondly, strikes only became political in so far as they challenged the management’s connection to government. While they exercised economic pressure among railway and port workers in Egypt, they did not develop the alternative of social appropriation and reorganising production. This left the street protests in a political vacuum. In Greece, a newly-elected popular left government was forced to submit to the demands of international capital, strengthening social discipline and delivering more austerity. 

In Argentina in 2001, piqueteros and demonstrations toppled government after government, but the main focus was on state buildings as symbols of power. While many companies were taken over as worker cooperatives, the occupations were determined as much by the condition of the companies themselves – bankruptcy and capital flight – as by their social significance. Capitalist market relations remained, with the meat industry continuing to export while infant starvation and malnutrition re-emerged in South America’s most developed nation.

Without a political strategy to abolish the capitalist social order, the new economy is hamstrung. The post-1844 cooperative movement includes long-lasting and widespread manifestations of working class autonomy through economic self-determination. The Rochdale Pioneers are worth revisiting for at least two reasons.

Firstly, their Objects show that they saw no problem with combining local economic improvement and social revolution in one short ‘to do’ list. They didn’t create a hierarchy between vision, mission, objectives and tasks, in the manner of a smart business plan.

Secondly, while it’s true that technical innovations helped replicate the Rochdale model quickly, the significance of the experiment was its connection to the broader movement for working class emancipation. The development of the cooperative movement can be interpreted through its subsequent political trajectory.

The UK’s worker-controlled enterprises in the late nineteenth century, for instance, failed to seriously weaken the hegemony of private manufacturing and distribution, except in some industries in the East Midlands. This had two consequences. On one side, the working class became increasingly dominated by reformist trade unions and political organisations with no economic base and correspondingly large parliamentary ambitions. On the other, cooperative enterprises - while still technically ‘owned’ by a mass of working class members – became focused on gaining a larger share of consumer markets. This provoked a backlash from private investor-owned interests, which lobbied to curb their activity. By 1917 the movement was exhausted by wartime measures that disproportionately conscripted cooperative employees and restricted access to food supplies and fuel. In response, the movement’s leadership decided to form its own political party. Meeting with little electoral success, in 1927 that party entered into a permanent alliance with Labour, which was already confirmed in its hostility to direct worker ownership and control. The next 70 years saw the cooperative societies gradually lose their active working class base, mostly succumbing to private competition, executive capture and petty corruption.

Today’s task is partly defined by the way ownership, production, distribution and the power underwriting them have become more centralised. For instance, almost all of the flour milled in the UK is produced by 29 companies on 44 sites, and as much as 60% by only four companies. Roughly two thirds of London’s food and fast-moving goods go through distribution warehouses in one West London borough. These economic concentrations are both the system’s strength and its weakness, so they need to be targeted by new economy activists. It will not be disrupted without decisive and large scale action, including by the people who work in the mills and warehouses.

We have differing views on the inevitability of the state, or the utility of representative politics for creating a solidarity economy based on permaculture, common stewardship, and participatory principles. Even if they’re not explicit, it’s clear that political assumptions and default attitudes influence the direction of our work. We can deflect disagreement by focusing on what we have in common, but weak consensus buckles in any time of revolutionary change. The unravelling of capitalism as an economic system, and the rise of popular disaffection, call for political organisation. Where to start?

Municipalism, regionalism and federalism are all emerging as responses to political chaos, alienation, and as strategies for economic innovation. They hold out the promise of a return to the knowable, a reconnection with the local, environmental balance, and a model of popular participation. Sometimes they are seen as a vehicle for overthrowing racist power structures and feminising politics.

Yet municipalism, along with its cousins regionalism and micro-nationalism, is confronted and informed by existing relations of social and economic power - especially if it involves competing in local elections, or becomes a policy of the existing administration.

Many versions of municipalism contain the idea of building power or counter-power. What is this power? One narrative says it is expressed through democratic institutions by citizens, giving them influence within those institutions. This assumes that people can participate in decision-making processes as equals, and that the authorities acknowledge and enact majority positions. It obviously excludes those without citizenship, or the means to leverage it.

In another narrative, power is primarily understood as an act of coercion by the state or other violent forces. The only way people can overcome this is by overcoming those forces. The commons exist, and there is a struggle about their control and distribution from above and below.

Another understanding does not see capital and the state as external or alien forms of power, but rather as part of a wider set of social relations that result from how we produce this world. Capital maintains its power through private property relations, upheld through violence, but also through the production process itself, because it alienates us from ourselves and what we create.

The fact that only capital is able to combine our otherwise separated work makes capital, rather than us, look productive and all-powerful. In the same way, patriarchal domination mainly emerges from the devaluation of domestic and reproductive work, and the wider sexual division of labour.

In this view, ordinary people can wield power as citizens and vote for a popular government or a local assembly; but that power won’t bring them closer to freedom from exploitation and domination. Building counter-power therefore has to start from questioning and disrupting the social and economic practices that already exist.

The debate about ‘movement and institutions’ revived during the short-lived 21st century surge of popular socialism in South America, and has now been revived in the US and Europe. Some activists in the UK voice the hope that a Left government can open up spaces for the social movement, validating the ‘long march’ of political survivors from the social democratic 1970s and early 1980s. Socialism in one country, nationalisation and redistribution financed by tax changes combined with deficit financing, are back on the political menu; perhaps even state patronage for cooperatives. 

With hindsight, we can see that the governments of Chavez and Lula in Latin America and Syriza in Greece actually contributed to the social movement’s disarray and decline. While many new economy advocates might agree with this analysis when it comes to the national state, municipalism engages with local institutions and politics. Yet these local governments operate within the legal framework of national states, are financially dependent on those states, and on the wider reproduction of capital and labour. There is only so much capitalist value in towns like Preston to capture and recirculate.

In the US, Black Liberation activists of the 60s and 70s were later elected as mayors of cities like Chicago and Baltimore. They ended up having to enforce austerity and anti-poor policing measures, weakening and dividing the movement while stabilising the system. This is the dilemma faced by the revolutionary cooperativists of Jackson today. With eyes wide open, they are trying to build black working class economic and political autonomy in one of the country’s poorest cities, while fighting over the allocation of federal funds, in one of the Union’s most racist states.

Looking at Barcelona En Comu, the citizen platform that won local elections and produced the new mayor, Ada Colau, there are already tensions between the local working class and the citizen-friendly government. In August, three weeks into a strike by airport security workers, Colau defended strike breaking by the Guardia Civil on the grounds that ‘we need to guarantee security above everything’. When Barcelona’s metro workers announced a strike for better pay and job security, Colau called for them to withdraw on public interest grounds, citing budgetary constraints, and in July the city government threatened them with ‘enforced arbitration’. The redistribution of local politicians’ wages by platforms like En Comu did not primarily benefit grassroots organisations, but it did create more ‘movement jobs’, a new layer of professional activists, with the usual consequences. An outcome of these tensions was that En Comu tried to deflect some of the discontent in the direction of Catalan nationalism.

This has been only a partial exploration of some of the political issues arising from peoples’ efforts to envision and build a new economy. It is motivated by a desire to open up debate about political strategy. Without discussion and forms of organising consistent with our ambitions, new economy experiments could turn out to be doughnuts in more than one sense. With them, there may be everything to win.

First published in Stir Magazine 20, winter 2018. The title and large chunks of the text are lifted shamelessly from this and this by Angry Workers of the World

Sunday, 22 January 2017

From bullshit jobs to solidarity

Transcript of Ieva Padagaite's scene-setting speech at the Coop Ways Forward conference in Manchester on 20 January 2017 - the day of Donald Trump's inauguration. 

Ieva is a filmmaker with Blake House coop; a member of the Young Cooperators Network; an associate of Altgen, which works to inspite young people about cooperatives and cooperation. She served on Cooperatives UK's National Strategy Panel, and is a member of the UK Worker Coop Council.

"I’m very glad to be here on a day like today, even though the future looks grim and little seems to make sense. Because today is Blake House Filmmakers Cooperative’s first birthday, and I’m surrounded by inspiring people sharing ideas about creating a different future.

I co-started Blake House coop as an alternative to precarious, exploitative and unethical practices in the creative industries, because trying to win the rat race was too hard for me. Zero hour contracts, minimum wage, 14 hour shifts, abusive bosses, competition amongst colleagues and the complete non-existence of purpose in my work made me disillusioned, anxious and isolated. I saw my friends forced out of the city by rising rents, moving back with parents, in hospital with mental health crises. We blamed ourselves - we were not good enough, we weren’t talented enough, not beautiful enough, not male enough. We were unwanted.

I co-started Blake House because I wanted to create an alternative for myself and my friends to work with dignity and purpose. I wanted to use my skills, my craft, my time as an antidote to the reality we are conditioned into. Now, for almost half a year, I am getting paid a living wage and I couldn’t be more proud.

I don’t think people quite realise the extent of the connection between economic inequality and exploitation, and the mental health epidemic among young adults that is driving brilliant people from my generation into depression and self-medication. People suffer in silence because in society where everything is allowed and everything is possible, it can only be your fault if you are not clever enough to meet your needs and aspirations. Shame keeps people quiet.

As a filmmaker, working mostly on campaigning films, I interview many young freelancers, women and minorities about their dreams, aspirations and challenges. I hear heartbreaking stories that I can relate to on a personal level - stories about exploitation, poverty, sexism, psychological abuse and the collapse of peoples’ sense of self-worth. Stories where people open up about their mental anguish, and the shame of failure. One of these films, which we made for an Altgen campaign about freelancers’ coops, will be coming out in February.

And now we have Brexit, Trump, humanitarian and environmental crises, hitting us endlessly. We have a situation where people don’t just want change, they see the world going in the wrong direction - and they will not accept it. So more and more people open up, share their stories and come out of isolation, realising that they are not alone. They start to see their collective power, and that there is an alternative.

Here lies an opportunity and responsibility for cooperators and the coop movement to inspire, empower and amplify voices and actions of people wanting and trying to build a different world for themselves and others, one based on solidarity, kindness and equality.

I confess I wasn’t a natural cooperator. My whole upbringing led me to be the opposite. I was born in Lithuania, just a year after its independence from the Soviet Union. I grew up in a new America, where capitalism and neoliberalism seemed to symbolise freedom and open borders. Unlike my parents, I was supposed to be able to achieve anything, to be anyone I choose to be. I was told that if I followed instructions, got a degree, worked hard and strove to be better than others, I would be happy. I did everything that was expected of me. Yet I was still failing.

And then a slow shift started to happen. I read an article called Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, in the coop magazine Strike! This was the beginning of my encounter with the coop movement, where I found a place of belonging, solidarity and support. I heard Altgen say that I didn’t have to climb the ladder. I found young cooperators who refused to build their success on someone else's failure. Simon from Blake House taught me about mutual care and collective resilience. Marisol from Cultural Coops and people from worker coops told me I had the right to be angry, and helped me find the words and confidence to express my ideas. Their stories and ideas played a big role in my personal transformation. I feel very privileged and lucky to have had that.

It’s up to us to create spaces and opportunities for more people to become cooperators, especially now, when so many are questioning the status quo. We need to say: “how is it people can value and defend democracy and freedom, while they spend a third of their lives working at a job where they have neither?”

The right says say that making a big wall, a great wall, can solve your problems; that all the immigrants are stealing your identity and dreams. We need to tell a better story. We need a vision of a co-operative future that people can relate to on a personal, not just a theoretical level. We need to tell stories about personal change, before we talk about economic change. If we are serious about spreading cooperation and building a cooperative economy, we need to recognise that cooperatives depend on individuals being co-operators, and that cooperation consists of personal political acts. We can’t tell people to talk to faceless entities, or websites, or numbers at companies house. We have to talk to people on a personal level about what it means to be a co-operator, what it means for me and you.

Today, what is the state and role of organisations and institutions in cooperative and solidarity movements that were built on desperation, honest need and a courageous vision of equality that people were prepared to fight for? Why is it so hard to relate to them today? Why do they seem faded and bloodless, justifying themselves by their history and tradition, turning into museums - rather than actively responding, progressing and transforming, together with people’s needs and values?

People newly discovering cooperation and their political voice need support, they need a springboard to launch themselves and to inspire others. They have energy that you can’t replicate. And what happens if, at this time of awakening and creation, people are met with alien, passionless language, and yet more hierarchy, bureaucracy, disconnection, even hypocrisy?

We need less management and more facilitation; less top down strategy and more grass roots culture; less branding and more platforms for people to co-create and transition. We need to seriously rethink what cooperatives mean today.

Now, I identify myself proudly as a worker cooperator. Why use this word, ‘worker’? It’s a stretch, because of how most people use the word worker in everyday life. When we went through school and university, none of us identified ourselves as wannabe workers. Workers went into factories - now we have robots. You didn’t identify as a worker in a service based economy because you were too busy making up definitions of your very special and unique job title, that would add to your personal brand and justify the £50k of debt you were getting for having an education. The word ‘worker’ just wouldn’t do.

So, to allow more people to recognise worker coops as the most sensible, exciting and responsible technology you can use to pioneer solidarity economy in the 21st century, we need to elaborate on what a worker today is, what workers are collectively. We need to reclaim the future of work, so that people in the growing creative, tech, freelance and other service industries can identify as workers, without cringing. Yes we are entrepreneurs, creatives, freelancers, technologists, developers - and we are workers. It’s a political and technical term, and takes time to grasp. We need to put new emergent and evolving values into our culture and expectation of work, such as our demand that work should be meaningful; that we should have choice about how and when we work; that work should be creative.

Young people are not the spoiled, entitled narcissists we’re often accused of being in media. Our values are quite in line with the culture of coops. We care more than the world lets us express. So it is important in this time of division and growing inequality that cooperators take it upon themselves to be storytellers, to be an antidote, to counteract toxic narratives with courage, curiosity and compassion. We need to say and show that the future of work is ours to build.

It’s not so much cooperatives that are pioneers in the 21st century, as the cooperative people in them, and beyond. To build roads forward, we need to work for a shift in peoples’ consciousness; to show that there are many different paths to move in a common direction, with a shared vision."

See Ieva's video statement about cooperative solidarity and the political character of cooperation.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Eclipse and re-emergence of the cooperative movement

This post was originally published on the What If? blog in October 2016, as a contribution to a continuing debate about the future of cooperative development in the UK.

In his recently republished Cooperative Manifesto, Tim Huet explains why he came to the conclusion that ‘There Is No More Important Social Change Work You Can Do Than Cooperative Development’. Huet was one of the first organisers of the Arizmendi Assocation of Cooperatives, which Ed Mayo describes as a great example of coop replication.
For Huet, coops become relevant when they are part of a wider movement against capitalism. They provide answers to ‘the military question’: while closures, crises, strikes, protests and occupations can create the possibility and space for change, how do people self-organise to consolidate that space and expand it, by developing bases of economic and social power?
The difficult question of times
When cooperatives take a great leap forward, it’s usually in times of social crisis. This is when the relevance, necessity and potential of cooperation become clearest to people. In the ‘hungry 1840s’, the Rochdale cooperators’ fifth object was to ‘arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government’. Providing decent food,  building houses, providing decent work and acquiring land were immediate tasks and also steps towards a hegemonic cooperative commonwealth, to be established ‘as soon as practicable’. Expressed in different language in different times, this is the invariant programme of cooperatives as a movement. So when is ‘practicable’, and what is practical now? These are strategic questions, throwing up yet more questions. What are the possibilities in these times? What resources, self-help and solidarity can we mobilise in this situation?


The political shell
Cooperatives seek to be self-reliant, therefore independent of lobbies and parties that seek to influence through private corporations or state action. The instinct of governments and sectional interests is to enrol, recuperate or suppress autonomous movements, including cooperatives. Coop organisations, therefore, have a strategic defence and propaganda role. In the present time of political turmoil, when parties make policy blandishments towards mutuals and coops, the principle of autonomy guides strategy and tactics. Cooperative movements exercise political ‘neutrality’ in order to maintain strategic freedom to resolve the real questions of social and economic power in favour of people.
Necessity, the mother of cooperation
We cooperate because there is no better or no other way. Meeting peoples’ self-defined needs and aspirations is the relevance test. We know that the movement is re-invented and grows fast in times of widespread social and economic conflict, if people have the means and opportunity to adapt the technology of cooperation. Lancashire in the 1840s, Ireland in the 1890s, post war Italy, Spain in the 1950s, Argentina in the present century.
Change was in the air in the 1970s. A wave of coop formations in the UK and US was inspired by a mix of libertarian socialism, anarchism, anti racism, the rising ecology movement, second wave feminism, community organising and other currents. Cooperatives gave people new infrastructure and tools in a period of social contestation. That wave fell back in the times of reaction which followed, particularly in the 1990s. In that phase, any strategy to rapidly expand coops had its work cut out. So, is now our time?
Of course, we don’t know yet. We know there is social conflict and political disintegration; we know people are in need; that people want change. But are they moving towards self-organised ways and means to get it? Do they have the time, social capital and savings to invest? Are they confident enough? Hindsight is easy, yet experience suggests that productive strategy won’t be a matter of helicoptering legacy coop models onto disparate people and situations, so much as directing solidarity to those expressing a desire to change their situation by acting together, and who feel that change is realistic, possible and necessary, even if they haven’t heard about coops. Where the human and material resources – cooperative capital – come from is another strategic challenge, especially in a country whose coops squandered their assets and failed to invest in the movement for decades.
Strategy has to aim at developing a framework in which cooperators can respond quickly and intelligently to what’s going on around them. Coop advocacy needs to work close to the heat, designing and disseminating relevant information about ‘why’ as well as proposals for ‘how’. Whatever language we use towards governments, policy makers and ‘influencers’, we need authentic language to speak to people. The effort to develop a real, uncompromised cooperative politics is especially urgent in times of cultural dissonance and rampant ideological cretinism.
Not all cooperation is good for you
Not all modes of cooperation are in themselves positive. We can understand the complex cooperation of workers that enables private firms to extract profit, the cooperation of prisoners with their captors, or the enthusiastic collaboration of consumers with extractive platforms, without justifying them as behaviours that meet peoples’ mutually defined needs and aspirations. Cooperative messages have to inspire, but they can’t just be feel good platitudes. They need to express what we cooperate against, as well as for. Our language should be sensitised to the fact that few would-be cooperators want to self-identify as ‘business’ people, for instance. Jargon words like ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’ mask mechanisms for increasing inequality and intensifying exploitation. The more we scramble our messages by trying to reclaim alienated vocabulary – perhaps to appear progressive, mainstream or unfrightening – the more we obscure the potential of cooperation as part of a movement for social change and the less relevant coops will seem to people. Good communication is strategic.
Show us the money
If the purpose of the coop movement is to create new cooperators, we can’t be defensive or patronising when they articulate a radical coop vision literally, even bluntly; or when they challenge the coop establishment. They’re correct, if not always polite. Years of work, negotiation and experience may yield useful knowledge and resources, but they don’t confer superior wisdom, ownership of the movement, or special insight into the goals and methods of coop strategy.
In a sense, any new wave of coops and cooperators begins to fail at the point it stops growing and starts consolidating. In movement terms, a coop that disappears is not necessarily a failure, and coops that go on forever are not all successes. Whether they go back 20 or 150 years, established coops tend to make their peace. They mutate from radical groups, to incorporated bodies, to businesses; move from meeting needs and aspirations, to hitting commercial targets; from self-help to charity. This is predictable. You can create coops, but you can’t make a commonwealth one coop at a time. Raising the game of intercooperation is strategic.
Strategy should to seek to update and adapt the coop development repertoire in response to times and situations. We should be open to the new, the unfamiliar, and the alarming. Strengthening established coops should be an object of strategy, where those coops are able to renew themselves and contribute to the renewal of the movement. In this wider renewal, younger generations often do the heavy lifting. They articulate new needs and aspirations, or old needs and aspirations in a new context. They put in the sweat equity. Many new coops are proposed or advised by old hands, and helping new cooperators make the right alliances and avoid old traps is vital. Yet we should not be in the business of judging whether there is a ‘market’ for their ideas and approaches. Coop renewal often means attempting things that are impossible, according to received wisdom. This is part of coop realism.
We will need to engage with many projects that don’t develop, to find the ones that could change everything. New cooperators are often our most passionate and connected advocates. In the recent uptick of formations in London and in the tech community, for instance, coop methods are being used by social activists contesting the use and ownership of new technologieslooking for new ways to combat exploitationdefending the commonscombatting fuel povertyresisting landlordsradicalising food culture and politicising cultural work. Their views about the utility of what worked for people five, thirty or a hundred years ago are respectful and open, but critical. They look beyond the formal movement, and beyond the UK, for ideas and inspiration. The dimensions of the social crisis are global and local, rather than national. Deepening cooperative internationalism, and looking beyond the existing legal and national frameworks, are strategic for local development.
The places to look for the next wave of cooperators are all around us, if we’re willing to engage. The next game-changing coops may be on the verge of coming into existence.
This post was originally published on the What If? blog in October 2016, as a contribution to a continuing debate about the future of cooperative development in the UK.
Join SolidFund:
Follow @Scumboni and @Solidfund on Twitter.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Is worker cooperation 'flatlining' in the UK?

Co-operatives UK says it has about 170 workers' cooperatives in membership, out of about 400 that it knows of in the country, mainly small enterprises.These figures have been consistent for a few years.

Here are a few Saturday morning thoughts on the subject.

By default, Co-operatives UK defines worker coops as being those where the members are employees of the business, rather than co-ops whose primary goals are around decent jobs, or where workers of one kind or another have a governance majority. 

Direct employment is less of a self-evident option for workers than it used to be - certainly at startup stage. Varieties of self-employment and crypto-employment are more prevalent than in the past.

The rate of worker co-op formations and their strength is linked to general levels of workers' self-organisation, autonomy, ability to articulate and advance their interests. These have been at a low ebb in the UK, although that may be changing. We'd better hope it is. Our interventions are important - workers need to know about the worker cooperative toolkit.

The wider co-op movement in the UK tends to avoid addressing workers directly as workers, and so doesn't treat their main day-to-day concerns head on - compensation, conditions, security, workplace culture, management cretinism. When it talks about worker cooperatives, it tends to lapse into the language of 'motherhood and apple pie' by focusing on enhanced productivity and employee contentment (higher output-per-employee, commitment to the firm, peace between employees and management) - which I don't think particularly chimes with those workers who might be inspired enough or fucked off enough to take over a business, or put the sweat equity into starting their own.

The movement here has a habit of talking about cooperation in general as if its main purpose was changing distribution ('fairness') and consumption ('sustainability') - including the 'consumption' of work. 'We're all consumers now' - encouraged to identify as empowered influencers of the marketplace. This is ideological. I don't believe most workers buy it, since most of them have limited or pretty much prescribed/proscribed consumption choices. The flip side is that in the UK we've neglected to propagandise about producer cooperation  (other than agri/horticulturalists) - although we do bang on a lot about reproducers ('communities').

When workers co-operate with each other, it often means withdrawing their cooperation with the work system as generally understood. In other words, not all cooperation is good for us. Yet, we're a reflexively cooperative species. The work system is profitable because people tend to want to creatively strive, and therefore over-deliver on their employment contracts. In most contexts, that means workers are cutting their own throats.

If some or all of this is true, we have to work out how to talk about it.