Saturday, 24 October 2020

Commons or shares: the trouble with worker ownership - and the debate that followed

'Commons or shares' came out in the Spring 2020 issue of Stir to Action magazine. The critical reply from The Democracy Collaborative appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue, along with my response which develops a political view of worker co-operation.

Commons or shares: the trouble with worker ownership

The sale of US craft beer maker New Belgium Brewing to the Kirin conglomerate by its worker owners has provoked in an outbreak of soul searching among people who believe employee ownership is central to a new, more equitable economy. It has reignited discussion of the difference between common ownership worker cooperatives and shares-based models in the US, UK and Canada, and has led to new calls for legislation on ‘indivisible reserves’ for worker-owned enterprises – a proxy for common ownership.

As a national-reach business in the market for craft beer, New Belgium was a poster child for advocates of ‘inclusive capitalism’. Jennifer Briggs, its ‘VP Human Resources’ for more than ten years, says “it was the combination of the employee ownership mindset, broad-based business literacy, critical thinking and attention to building a great culture, that catapulted us to the top”.

The furore around New Belgium reveals confusion about the nature and meaning of worker ownership, even among people who think about it a lot. Among those who don’t, it looks like a religious argument about a minor difference of emphasis, concerning a small industrial sector – and who cares about workers anyway? But for new economy and worker activists, it’s important because it’s about being careful where they put their energy.

‘Ownership’, like ‘democracy’, is a word packed with conflicting interpretations, but often used as if it has universally shared meaning. The economist Elinor Ostrom articulated a view of collective management of common resources as ‘stewardship’. In the 1970s and 80s, a similar concept underpinned a wave of worker cooperative formations in the UK, as well as a new law - the Industrial Common Ownership Act of 1976. Co-ops like Suma, Calverts, Unicorn, and new worker coops in technology and other sectors, are ‘owned’ by their worker members in this collective sense of stewardship. It describes the form of corporate possession, but also extends to cultural assets such as the sense of job ownership, solidarity practice and social mission 

Typically in this type of enterprise, a worker does not need to ‘buy in’ when they join; and they receive no payout when they leave. Although there is no legal provision in for ‘indivisible reserves’ - as there is in countries with codified legal systems like France, Spain and Italy - on dissolution they must pass any residual assets to another common ownership co-op, or to a sympathetic collective body. Unlike a charity or a Community Interest Company, this ‘asset lock’ is voluntary, in the spirit of the first co-operative principle; it can be undone by a decision of a supermajority of worker members. That happens rarely. On the whole, such co-ops have an ethos of honouring the social contract between previous and present generations of worker members, by passing collective ownership of the enterprise to the next – hopefully in better shape.

Employee ownership through direct allocation of shares to individuals, or the holding of shares in a trust for employee benefit, leans into a different idea of ownership: one which is more transactional and individualised, because it implies the right of the current owner to dispose of the owned thing as they see fit, and to profit from the disposal. This is the model of New Belgium, which used an Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP) - a key feature of the US employee ownership system. Of course, as in any other actual example of ownership, the right of the owners of ESOP shares in New Belgium to dispose at will was hedged with internal and external regulation. In practice, as long as the firm was a profitable going concern, the ESOP built up a supercharged and ‘tax efficient’ retirement fund for employee members. The Kirin deal simply induced them to cash out early.

The handwringing over the loss of New Belgium is in some ways strange, because it’s just the latest in a string of such sales in the US and Canada. The experience in the UK is similar. Firms like John Lewis - a supertanker among the UK’S small fleet of employee owned businesses - have sailed a steady partnership course for decades. But in Wales, where Wales Co-operative Centre facilitated many worker buyouts through trusts and shares in the 80s and 90s, most of the converted firms ended up back in conventional private ownership within a few years. Why does this surprise?

At the surface level, worker co-ops and employee ownerships have a lot in common, because they  give workers equity in the enterprise. According to sympathetic researchers, this correlates with higher levels of productivity and profitability, better work conditions, greater business durability, and more industrial peace. If you could walk down a high street where 40% of the firms were worker coops, 40% employee owned, and 20% family businesses, what wouldn’t be to like?

Yet on another level, they diverge sharply. To generalise: worker cooperatives come out of and align with the workers and social movements; contest capitalism; and ‘prefigure’ a classless and solidarity-based social system. Employee ownerships come out of the quest for legacy by philanthropic owners; favour a more stable and efficient capitalism; and are comfortable with present social relations inside and outside the workplace.

In reality, things are more blurred – especially if you look outside the Anglophone countries. Once again, who cares? If you think workers are the only social class with both motive and latent power to overturn the present system, the answer may be clear. Yet even in the cooperative movement, there’s a strand of opinion that doesn’t regard worker co-ops as legitimate, since they ‘only’ benefit workers. On the other side, some advocates of share based models say common ownership just keeps workers down, by promising them endless labour in exchange for a threadbare utopian fantasy. To paraphrase one business conversion expert – a person with a foot in both camps - ‘I don’t lose sleep if the workers cash out, and the business goes back into private ownership. They got a wedge of money from the deal, which they wouldn’t have otherwise.” Looked at this way, both models of ownership hold out the prospect of ‘jam tomorrow, not today’ for workers, but with share ownership just getting there a bit quicker.

It gets more interesting when we move from the question of ownership to that of control, both of the enterprise and in terms of accountability to the wider social movement. We’ve seen that share ownership appears to confer greater powers of disposal to the worker, and maybe it does when the question is whether to flog the business. In practice, however, employee owned firms often keep significant ownership in the hands of the legacy shareholders, and they almost always preserve the mode of command-and-control, with layers of professional management directing workers at both the strategic and day to day level.

This may be explained by the philanthropic origins of many employee owned businesses. Owners find it harder to give away the idea that they possess special knowhow than they do some or most of their shares. In the words of Bob Moore, former owner of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods in Oregon, a large and profitable ESOP: “nothing about the new arrangement will change a thing. I may have given them the company, but the boss part is still mine”.

In general, the idea is that a financial stake in an employee-owned business in itself will spark the worker loyalty and extra productivity that gives the company its edge. Yet we know that in most jobs, money isn’t the only or even the main motivating factor for workers. Successful worker cooperatives embody lifelong skills development, a culture of equality, the opportunity for workers to collectively self-manage their working lives, and support for life outside the workplace. When they achieve this, they also increase efficiency by reducing the need for executive managers, whose principal function in any firm is to maintain discipline, and whose services are generally expensive.

Employee ownerships are often keen to amplify what they see as their ownership advantage with management initiatives aimed at getting a deeper level of buy-in from employees, using systems theory and business school ideas to wring out the extra juice. All this management is, of course, costly. Worker cooperatives are more likely to be able to assume commitment and dispense with the hoodoo. Their disadvantages mostly stem from problems around capital – the lack of which defines their members as workers in the first place.

The conclusion might be that both forms get a business advantage by being able to retain skilled workers and thus build build a base of expertise, resulting in higher productivity, but that they do this in different ways. In worker co-ops, which have developed some of the most advanced applications of practical democracy anywhere, collective self-determination reaches well beyond the realm of ‘corporate governance’, into the everyday process of production.

Employee ownerships and worker co-ops also have a different take on information and transparency. To work well, co-ops have to practice true ‘open book’ management, with almost all information available to members, on the basis that ‘if you don’t have the information, or can’t use it, then you aren’t in control’. By contrast, information culture in many employee ownerships amounts to giving members an annual update of their financial ‘pot’, running quality circles - the old suggestion box with bells on - or implementing ‘nudge’ measures to improve worker performance. At the launch of the ‘1 Million Owners’ campaign – Co-operatives UK’s joint initiative with the Employee Ownership Association - the boss of a London PR company spoke with pride about how her employee-owned business has become more transparent. “Everyone has access to all the information. Except of course sensitive things, such as how much each of us earns.”

None of this might matter, except that mistaking employee ownership for worker cooperation, or conflating them, leads to wasted effort on the part of activists - boosting business narratives that have no real meaning for us, or exhausting us in the pursuit of misguided policy innovations. The future of worker cooperation lies in the hands of workers, to whom, wherever they are, the tools and experience of present and past worker cooperation need to be made meaningful and available. That’s a hard task, which can’t be achieved with top-down initiatives or novel legal and tax frameworks.

It’s true that organisations rarely change their culture in any important way. When preparing this, I asked if anyone could give me an example of a worker co-op that converted to an employee ownership, or vice versa. There weren’t any. But in truth, there are probably quite a few enterprises that embody elements of both, and don’t worry about it – like Lembas, the wholefoods merchant in Sheffield that has equal pay, practices collective management, calls itself a co-op, does serious community engagement, and hacked the employee ownership trust model years ago.

Which is the more unlikely vision: a mixed social economy populated by cheerful consumers and contented workers, or the hegemony of a new social and economic order based on principles of equality and sustainability? The revolutionary horizon is indistinct, yet probably closer than we think. So the difference between a holistic, class-centred perspective on worker ownership and control, and a reformist, bloodless one is relevant. Meanwhile, let’s keep up the pressure for higher wages and better conditions.

SW

Reply to Commons or shares: the trouble with worker ownership by Jessica Rose and Marjorie Kelly, The Democracy Collaborative

It hurts when employee ownership loses a champion, as with the sale of New Belgium Brewery to “Big Beer.” New Belgium was a B-Corporation, deeply committed to sustainability, and employee owned via an ESOP (a U.S. trust structure that holds company shares). Now that’s all at risk. Reflecting on the sale, Sion Whellens returns to an age-old debate: is employee ownership via shares worthy of attention from new economy activists? Or should we focus on cooperatives, with potentially more revolutionary potential?

Whellens suggests this may seem like a narrow religious debate—we couldn’t agree more. While New Belgium’s decision was disappointing, we understand it may have needed the distribution potential of this larger company to survive. Unlike a typical corporate sale, this one brought long-time employees six-figure payouts.

Still, it wasn’t a perfect outcome: We’d all prefer employee ownership in perpetuity. But as a movement we need to ask ourselves – is our aim perfection or impact? We argue for impact.  

The revenue of all U.S. worker cooperatives adds up to $550 million. Revenue at a single Bay Area ESOP called Recology is more than twice that at $1.2 billion. This waste hauling and recycling firm is fully owned by its 3,000 workers and pays garbage truck drivers family-supporting wages far above the median for this occupation – because without absentee investor owners, there’s more wealth for employees. And their vision of a world without waste has made San Francisco a leader in diverting trash from landfills.  

Compare Recology to CERO, a scrappy worker co-op that has also embraced a zero-waste future: CERO recycles 80 tons of food waste per week, employs seven, and has revenues of about $700,000. In five years, this democratic company hopes to employ 35 and recycle a million tons of food waste annually: a nontrivial contribution. But as a co-op, it is more difficult to raise the kind of capital that has allowed Recology to go to scale.

Both Recology and CERO are worthwhile enterprises, and CERO may offer more meaningful worker governance. But is CERO having a more profound impact than Recology on people and the planet? Either way, is this a useful argument?

We think not. Social entrepreneurs today can select from a diverse menu of legal entities and governance models, to structure a firm that is positioned to raise capital, operate in a competitive and tax-efficient manner, and express a unique social mission. The fact is, broad-based ownership of any kind is a radical and transformative paradigm. Additionally, decisions of firm structure at the individual level are primarily technical, not ideological.

Ownership matters

As Marjorie demonstrated in her books Owning Our Future and The Making of a Democratic Economy, our system of capital ownership—driven by the principle of maximizing returns to capital — underpins an extractive economy that serves the few, not the many, and is blind to damaging impacts on workers, communities, and the Earth. 

But ownership is just one dimension of enterprise design and does not reflect the full solution. What we need is a massive shift to a generative, democratic economy that puts people and planet ahead of profit maximization. To do that, next generation enterprises needed in the new economy must combine broad-based ownership models with beneficial purpose. Currently, neither the cooperative nor the ESOP structure requires the incorporation of social purpose.

In a 2019 report, we looked at purpose-driven firms (like B Corporations) that were employee owned and not. We found that the best firms—those that provided quality jobs and sustainable environmental outcomes—were both employee owned and purpose driven. Some were worker cooperatives, others were ESOPs. All were producing materially better social and ecological outcomes than their peers.  Among the “the best of the best” was Recology.

At The Democracy Collaborative, we support broad-based ownership in many forms, including public ownership. Our aim these days is to frame the COVID-19 crisis as an opening to create a radically different kind of economy, employing a variety of beneficial forms. We raise the critical question: Who will own the economy post-virus? Will we have an Amazon recovery where only absentee-owned mega-corporations remain after half of all small businesses close?

There is another path, in which a more democratic, just, multi-racial economy is elevated. Public holding companies could preserve local business, eventually passing ownership to employees or the community.  When big companies are bailed out, the public could require beneficial purpose and an ownership stake.

What’s needed today are large steps toward a massive transition in enterprise design – and helping the public understand the difference between broad-based ownership versus elite, extractive ownership. It’s past time for quibbling about co-ops versus share ownership. Far too much is at stake.

Marjorie Kelly is the executive vice president and senior fellow at The Democracy Collaborative. Kelly has been a long-time critic of shareholder capitalism and is leading The Democracy Collaborative’s work on next generation enterprise design.

Jessica Rose is the CFO and director of employee ownership programs at The Democracy Collaborative. Her work focuses on alternative finance and cutting-edge market-based solutions to inequality. 

 Response: why ownership doesn’t matter

‘Commons or Shares’ enquired into the potential of typical employee-owned and cooperative enterprises by looking at their origins – broadly speaking, philanthropic action and workers self-organisation. Far from arguing for sterile ‘purity’, I noted that both types can boost the living standards of workers. We don’t need to cherry pick to find worker-owned firms of both types, big and small, that do great things.

Jessica and Marjorie mainly object to my conclusion that worker cooperation is a better focus for the energy of ‘new economy activists’ because of its emancipatory potential. I’ll explain why, but first will respond to their defence of ESOPs and other “broad-based ownership models with social purpose, including public ownership”.

Their narrative about what distributed ownership is ‘good for’ doesn’t address working class existence as such, but is only concerned with changing the social purposes of entrepreneurship. In this story, new economy leadership can be about almost anything other than ending the domination of capital itself. Social enterprise, green recovery, responsible investing, integrating migrants, the liberation of women, global justice, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by COVID or reviving the American Dream of a ‘multi-racial economy’ can all be part of the mix.

CERO might indeed look scrappy, compared with Recology. In reality they are both part of a small cohort, competing with the networks of red-in-tooth businesses that dominate regional and global production and distribution. The answer, for The Democracy Collaborative, is to expand the sector by having more access to capital and changing the policy environment. Capital is so central that they can even be ‘understanding’ about the New Belgium sale – not because it might have been a smart tactical move on the part of the workers, but because they needed the distribution clout of a global company to survive. And so it goes round in a circle - a circle revolving around capital.

To re-centre the discussion on workers, we have to go back to basics on capital. What is it? And how does worker cooperation – in its different forms – create the tools for a practical and theoretical critique of capitalism?

Capital is always and everywhere dependent on living labour, even as this labour develops an increasingly complex and globally cooperative character. Capital flees from the 'insubordinate power of labour', but it can only flee in the direction of its further socialisation. In the 20th century we might have used Fordism in North America as an instance of this social formation; today we might talk about the global reach of Amazonism.

Sometimes, capital appears to be nothing more than a money ‘thing’ that some people have access to, and others don’t. But capital is not in fact money, or only money. It’s the fetish for a set of social relations that enables the profits from yesterday’s production to reproduce itself as further profits, which it can only do by further exploiting labour. To do this, the conditions have to be right. Law, politics, ideology, police, managerial elites, financial policy instruments and armies are needed in different proportions at different times, to enable the process to continue. Capital then appears to be the unquestionable precondition for social production, even more vital than the human beings who created it. We have a society organised not for the reproduction of human life, but for the reproduction of capital.

The point is that capital and workers have an intrinsically antagonistic relationship, and that workers hold the practical keys to unlocking the question of why capital appears to create wealth, rather than workers themselves. To do this, we need to start by breaking down the arbitrary divisions – for instance between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’, ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘manual’, 'productive' and 'reproductive' work – that stand in the way of collectively realising our power to create everything we need or want, without exploitation or overwork, and without burning the house down.

If we develop the tools to do this, we can also deal with deranged relationships like racial oppression and partriarchy. I wrote in ‘Commons and Shares’ that the worker co-op sector in North America and the UK has roots in currents such as the C20th ‘new left’, ecology, feminism, anti racism and gay liberation. In opposition to capital, none of those forces has the same structural antagonism as the working class - but if you want to see where work is being done to demystify and deconstruct such divisions, cooperatives are one place to look. The best examples have a culture of tackling the hyper division of labour, alienated work and social hierarchy, as part of their everyday practice.

Cooperation between workers for themselves, rather than for capital, doesn’t only happen in worker cooperatives. Nor will we build the new economy ‘one co-op at a time’, because the stakes are so high. It’s in this sense that the forms of ownership don’t matter, compared to changing the form of work itself, and the social relation that defines it; none of the current modes of ownership is likely to survive a rupture with capitalism.

Such a break would come at the point ‘policy’ runs out of tools to defend the rate of profit, and the working class has had enough. It will be global and fast moving. As we move closer to it, creating bridges of collective action and enquiry between worker co-ops and workers unions, solidarity networks and defence organisations is vital.

SW

Saturday, 20 June 2020

The Co-op Bug

Review of The Detroit Printing Co-op: The Politics of the Joy of Printing
Danielle Aubert, Inventory Press, 240pp, ISBN 978-1-941753-25-5


Between 1970 and 1980, anarchist and ultra leftist students in English-speaking countries devoured texts by European and American thinkers like Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Cornelius Castoriadis, Jean Barrot and Fredy Perlman; writers who produced elegant, turbocharged and wildly exciting critiques of contemporary capitalist social relations. Dog-eared copies of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, Barrot and Martin’s Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement and Perlman’s On the Poverty of Student Life circulated on UK campuses. Many of them were printed by Detroit Printing Co-op, and exported by Black & Red, Fredy and Lorraine Perlman’s publishing project.

Starting in 1970 and over the next ten years, Detroit Printing Co-op produced dozens of book titles and millions of pamphlets, journals and posters for diverse social and political currents in Detroit, the Great Lakes area and internationally. Legendary co-ops often have competing and murky origin stories. Danielle Aubert has interviewed some of the key participants, as well as going to secondary sources to show how the co-op stood in a tradition of propaganda, education and organising by anarchist and socialist printers in America going back to the early nineteenth century. Fredy Perlman wasn’t a tramp printer, but arrived in Detroit in 1969, having spent time in Yugoslavia and much of 1968 as a witness to the political upheavals in Europe:

“Detroit in 1969 held palpable revolutionary potential. Radicalized students were dropping out of college and moving to working class manufacturing cities where they saw possibility for enacting system change. Various leftist groups were active and labor unions were strong…the effects of the 1967 rebellion were felt widely. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers organized in auto factories. The Republic of New Afrika was founded in Detroit in 1968 and the city also had a vibrant chapter of the Black Panthers.”


Reflecting the politics of the place and time, the printing co-op came out of an ecosystem of radical publishing and production platforms that collaborated and co-evolved, including The Community Print Shop, Radical Education Project (REP) and Black Star Productions, the publishing wing of the League of Black Workers. When they first arrived in Detroit, the Perlmans – already publishing as Black & Red – joined forces with people from REP, the underground newspaper Fifth Estate, Community Print Shop and a printing co-op in nearby Ann Arbor, to form the Revolutionary Printing Collective. The Collective’s mark or ‘bug’ featured the red and black flag of anarchist communism. Later, the Collective and then Detroit Printing Co-op itself incorporated the formal mark of the revolutionary syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), to create a new bug that included the slogan “Abolish the Wage System, Abolish the State, All Power to the Workers!”

Fredy Perlman at the Detroit Printing Co-op in 1979. The entrance to the two darkrooms is on the right.

Most of Detroit Printing Co-op’s printed outputs were simple, by professional graphical standards, but although the Perlmans were largely self-taught printers, their work was of a higher quality than you’d see from the generality of samizdat printshops. Coarse screen rulings for halftone pictures, with crisp reproduction in black line and usually one other printing colour, meant that student punk printers could cut up and re-paste images and chunks of content from Black and Red pamphlets, collage them with our own texts done on golfball typewriters, then scan them to make stencils for the Gestetner rotary duplicators in the student union office to produce fantastically crude leaflets, pamphlets and posters.

In 1977 I followed in the footsteps of the Glasgow anarchist publisher and printer Stuart Christie, by making a pilgrimage to Spain. My host in Barcelona, a veteran of the 1936 revolution, half-jokingly invited me to help equip an underground press with the purpose of forging travellers cheques to bankroll the movement. Instead I went to London, to learn the trade and get involved in its radical publishing, printing and political scene.

By the end of the 70s London and other UK cities had diverse networks of typesetting, printing, publishing and distribution collectives and co-ops, set up to serve feminist, anti racist, ecological, gay and autonomist political causes. Community groups, the radical arts milieu and leftist parties were also setting up their own presses. Like Detroit, London was a magnet for young working class radicals from smaller towns, as well as ex-students looking for action and a different kind of life. Inner London boroughs had empty houses and underpopulated blocks of flats that could be squatted or turned into ‘short life’ housing co-ops. There were opportunities to get down with black urban culture and link up with rebellious youth in the working class neighbourhoods. Unemployment and social security benefits helped subsidise the lifestyle, giving us time to ‘learn on the job’ in low-rent, low-tech co-op startups.

One such arrival was Jessica Baines, who arrived in London aged 18 from Oxford, already with community printing experience and looking to do more. She worked at See Red Womens Workshop, then later Calverts North Star Press1, before going into education. She recently wrote a definitive study of the scene2, finding that:

“the heterogeneity of printshop memberships kept them open to diverse movement struggles and internal self-criticism, but…this could also be a source of internal instability and conflicts about aims”.

Disregarding party-managed printshops like The People’s Press (Communist Party) and East End Offset (International Socialists), there were dozens of radical presses, ranging from community printshops with a mission to educate, to typesetting collectives, screen poster printers and back-alley presses. While most of them were organised democratically, only a minority identified as cooperatives. An even smaller number incorporated under co-op rules or joined the Industrial common Ownership Movement (ICOM, the UK worker co-op federation). Most of these formal worker co-ops were what Baines identifies as ‘service’ presses; they had a mission to create decent jobs by trading with and serving customers in the social movements, but also commercial and private clients. They tended to become the most professional outfits. By the early 80s, there were enough of them to form a co-buying group called London Cooperative Printers Association, whose members included Calverts, Blackrose Press, Lithosphere and Spiderweb. Two of them – Calverts and Aldgate Press3 – are still in business, having weathered the 1990s when the development grant money, trade union and local authority work dried up. Significantly, while both these co-ops invested heavily in technology and skills over the years – and as a result are among the few ink-on-paper printing businesses left in inner London – they are both still ‘social movement’ enterprises, providing subsidised print for political causes.

Aubert’s book illustrates both the radical ethos and the joyful aesthetic of the Detroit Printing Co-op. She describes how falling entry costs, fuelled by technological innovations, enabled the growth of the co-op printshops. Entry-level tech in 1970s was an IBM Selectric setting machine, a basic darkroom and a Multilith press; nowadays it’s basic Adobe software and a Risograph. Design and print worker co-ops and collectives are still very much around - the RedGrafica network in Argentina includes more than 25 of them. But as the terrain of public communication technology, and the struggle for control over its means of production, shifted, so did the worker co-ops.



There are parallels - as well as important differences - between the development of the printshops and the growth of digital technology co-ops. In 2020, local and global networks of worker co-ops in digital tech are just as diverse in politics, composition and production. They share a commitment to free and open source technology, and to creating digital resources for the social movement. The Cooperative Technologists network, CoTech4, was launched in the UK in 2016 and now brings together 43 primary worker co-ops. FACCTIC, the Argentine Federation of Worker Coops in Technology, Knowledge and Innovation, fosters high level collaboration between co-ops inside the country and internationally. Tech worker co-ops are also at the forefront of innovations in democratic participation, adapting techniques of dynamic governance and combining them with web-based tools.

The political, social and economic context for the new generation of worker co-operators, and their co-ops, couldn’t be more different to the 1970s. They have to be better organised than we were, and they waste less energy on political infighting. But one commonality is that creating, or being, worker co-ops is not an aim in itself. Now as in the past, once the model is discovered, it simply becomes the default way to organise an enterprise in line with what the members are aiming for. The founders of the Detroit’s Revolutionary Printing Collective expressed this in their own maximalist way:

“The co-op is not its own goal…its activity is restricted by capitalist commodity production. But survival within capitalism is not its aim…Its aim is to contribute to the junking of the capitalist carcass.”

Aubert writes with restrained lyricism about the sensory and aesthetic aspects of print. It’s true, print is a medium you can smell, touch and hear as well as read. There’s even print you can eat. If it’s no longer the peoples’ number one communication tool, print is still very much around - and maybe due for a recall, should we eventually lose the fight over the internet. Meanwhile, someone should think about writing a long blog post called CoTech: The Joy of the Politics of Writing Code.    

1 https://www.calverts.coop

2 Baines, Jessica (2016) Democratising print? The field and practices of radical and community printshops in Britain 1968-98. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3452/

4 https://wiki.coops.tech/wiki/Main_Page

This review was originally written for the UK Society for Co-operative Studies, June 2020


Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Thoughts on Democratic Socialism

Middle-_Class

Reblogged from https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2019/12/21/labour-defeat-thoughts-on-democratic-socialism/ in the aftermath of Labour’s general election defeat.

The following thoughts on the strategy of democratic socialism forms part of our upcoming book reflecting on six years of working class inquiry and intervention in west-London…

‘Democratic socialism’ is currently the main alternative vision to transforming capitalism, and as such we need to take it seriously, despite our deep disagreement with it. By democratic socialism we mean the idea that by using the two legs of the organised labour movement – the trade unions and a socialist party in government – we can walk step-by-step towards socialism. Socialism is defined as a society dominated by either nationalised or cooperative ownership of the means of production and workers’ representation when it comes to management of these economic units. The general strategy of democratic socialism can be summarised briefly.

The idea is to campaign for an electoral victory of a socialist party based on an economic program of partial re-nationalisation of a limited number of key industries and the creation of a wider sector of ‘solidarity economy’ formed by cooperative or municipal companies that can guarantee more de-centralised workers’ participation. In tandem with electoral activities, democratic socialists encourage the support of working class or ‘social movement’ organisations outside of parliament, in order to have an economic power-base to put pressure on both capital and government. Once the party is in power the strategy needs to create a dynamic between a) structural institutional changes decreed by the government which creates more space for the participation of working class organisations (so-called non-reformist reforms) and b) pressure from below to defend and extend these spaces. An example could be to enact banking sector reforms, which limits the scope of financial speculation and tax avoidance and at the same time gives ‘common ownership enterprises’ preferential treatment when it comes to commercial credits. While this happens on the governmental level, trade unions in companies that might try to undermine the reform by threatening to disinvestment will have to increase the pressure on management. The material improvements of workers’ lives and the strengthening of trade unions are supposed to create greater unification within the working class – a kind of jumping board into socialism.
There are two hearts beating in this project. We see many comrades, fed up with the social isolation of so-called ‘revolutionary politics’, becoming attracted to the practical and strategical debates of the democratic socialist project. They can be intellectually invigorating. These comrades might have come from classic anarchist or otherwise ‘revolutionary’ organisations or they might have been politicised during the horizontal, but ineffectual and often self-referential ‘social movements’ of the anti-globalisation or Occupy era. We understand the urge of these comrades to ‘make a difference’ and to think about short, medium and long-term steps towards social change. We can see many fellow working class people who feel the limitation of trade union activity and who hope that Labour in government can turn trade unions into powerful workers’ organisations again. We want to fight for the hearts and minds of these comrades. Then there exists the usual careerist swamp within these organisations, from DSA, Podemos to Corbyn’s Labour. The in-fights and power-games.
The direction of the democratic socialist project in the UK is not primarily determined by its political outlook, but by its class composition. The new Labour left is composed of three main forces: a segment of ambitious and perhaps precarious professionals who feel that according to their educated status they should have more say in society. They also want a good life for ‘the working class’, but their approach is technocratic: learned people and progressive experts are supposed to decide how things are run, not the bankers and the parasitic elite. They form an alliance with the second main force, the union bureaucracy. The union apparatus allows the new professionals to speak in the name of the workers and the union bosses can extend their power into the political class. The third element are the most marginalised parts of the working class who’ve had to suffer from years of benefit cuts and sanctions. Labour under Corbyn gave them hope, but the party machine will end up instrumentalising their victim status.
We could write a long list of points of disillusionment with Corbynism, which took place even before the election disaster. The second leader of the party’s ‘hard-left’-wing, John McDonnell, felt obliged to publicly whitewash the war-criminal Tony Blair. People who voted with Blair to invade Iraq are presented and hosted as ‘left candidates’, such as the MP David Lammy. Activists at the 2017 party conference learned that Momentum could be used as a disciplining arm, enforcing that delegates wouldn’t vote on contentious issues, such as a Brexit referendum. Experiences in local party branches are largely dominated by tedious petty power plays and boring formalities.
During the winter 2019/20 it turned out that the only thing that Corbynism has been able to re-nationalise is the fringe left. As we witness one of the biggest wave of working class protests – from Ecuador, Chile, Sudan to Iran – the left in the UK was completely focused on whatever Corbyn or Johnson were saying on TV. The national narrow-mindedness would have become worse if Labour had entered government: would any democratic socialist have supported unruly working class mobilisations, such as the Yellow Vests or the protests in Iran, under a new and fragile Labour government? We can try to adorn ‘Corbynism’ with all kind of radical looking paraphernalia and woke memes, from Acid Corbynism to ‘luxury or literal communism’ – but in the end it’s a Party that promises us a minimal minimum wage increase, free broadband and slightly less austerity. But then our focus here is not to argue about utopian visions, but to point out the internal shortcomings of this political strategy.
1) This is not a historic phase for social democracy
Historically, social democracy developed during phases of economic upturns, based on a relatively strong national industrial production capacity. What we face now is an economic crisis and an internationalised production system. This limits both the scope for material concessions and for national economic policies. Secondly, social democracy primarily became hegemonic in post-revolutionary situations. Social democracy was based on large organisations within the working class and a ruling class that allowed workers’ political representation in order to avoid revolutionary tensions. Left-communists never get tired of repeating that the establishment of the NHS was not a result of Labour party reformism, but of Tory Cold War counter-insurgency – to avoid large-scale social discontent after the war. Again, this is not a situation we find ourselves in today. The main point for us to stress is: we face harsher conditions of struggle than democratic socialism prepares us for. We can’t bypass the day-to-day confrontations with bosses and their violent lackeys. Democratic socialism tends to overemphasise the autonomy of government politics. In the UK the Labour left portrays the Thatcher government and their ‘wicked policies’ as the source of evil neoliberalism, whereas it was the global crisis in the mid-1970s which forced all governments to attack the working class. You cannot vote your way out of this.
2) Current democratic socialism ignores the capitalist character of the state
Democratic socialist strategies are based on the assumption that the state stands above ‘capitalism’ and could intervene in it as a politically neutral form. Historically the state emerged as the violent arm to impose and secure class relations, e.g. through enclosures, vagrancy laws and the military expansion of markets. The state appears as a neutral force that is only there to look after law and order and the wider organisation of society. But law and order means primarily that the property relations which are the material basis for the exploitation of the working class are maintained. By making us citizens the state disarms us as a collective class force. State politics separate the sphere of social production from the sphere of social decision-making – we are supposed to produce the world, but apart from casting a vote every four years have no say in how the world is run. Materially the state apparatus depends on the continuous exploitation both through taxation and as an employer.
3) Current democratic socialism misreads the relationship between the market and capitalism
Democratic socialists think switching from private to public (state) ownership will be the antidote to capitalism. They see no contradiction therefore between a ‘big state’ and socialism, despite the fact that state intervention – regardless of where it is on the political spectrum – has always played the fundamental role in expanding, enforcing and defending the market. The process of industrialisation itself required state ownership and central economic planning, last but not least in order to enforce order against the emerging industrial working class. During this phase it didn’t matter if the left or the right was in government – large-scale state planning was required by the social situation and was not a political choice. Furthermore, the idea that cooperatives and national (state) ownership go hand in hand is not verified by history: the big decline of cooperatives in the UK didn’t happen under Thatcher, but during the ascent of national economic planning and concentration in the manufacturing sector during a 1960s Labour government. The competition between companies – the market form – or the formation of monopolies is just a surface appearance of the underlying class relations. So it wouldn’t be enough to just ‘smash the monopolies’. A more fundamental change is required. We can see this when class relations are in crisis – when workers organise mass strikes and hit the streets. The state, no matter if it is left or right, has no problems suspending the ‘free market’ in these situations to repress and maintain class society. For example, after the oil shock in the 1970s it was no contradiction that the Indira Gandhi government nationalised the mining and banking sector in order to prevent economic collapse, inscribed ‘socialism’ into the Indian constitution, obtained the support of the Communist Party and launched the most brutal attack against striking railway workers and other working class insurgents during the State of Emergency.
4) Democratic socialism in practice avoids the structural weakness of the working class and focuses on professionals
The current proponents of democratic socialism know that class struggle is at a low ebb – but instead of focusing on building organised cores within the class they largely focus on the recruitment of professionals and ‘activists’. While previous revolutionary upheavals like 1968 questioned the role of the ‘intellectual expert’, the current generation celebrates it. This is very obvious for parties like Podemos or Syriza, but also valid for the so-called Labour surge – most of the new party members have a higher education and are living in metropolitan areas. Materially the new left intelligentsia reproduces itself as the ‘neoliberal self’ that they pretend to criticise: hardly any of them are ‘organic intellectuals’ forged in working class existence and struggle, most of them survive by creating a social media and academic persona whose opinion is valued on the marketplace. Whether you read the “Alternative Models of Ownership” by the Labour party advisers, Bastani’s ‘luxury communism’ or Srnicek’s ‘Inventing the Future’, the prime agent is always the figure of the well-educated and networked activist. Unfortunately this forces our intellectual democratic socialist comrades to chase their own tails. There is a big blank space when it comes to the question of how their well-meaning ideas will be enforced and implemented. Who will enforce workers’ participation if workers are seen as people who are only able to engage in political discourse during election times? The absence of a strategy rooted in the working class then leads to the creation of a trite and kitsch icon of ‘the people’ – a mass of honest victims who need cultural belonging and political leadership.
5) Democratic socialism’s understanding of ‘workers’ participation’ is formal and therefore flawed
We criticise socialist thinkers for seeing state planning as essentially opposed to capitalism, though confronted with history most of them would hasten to add that nationalisation and planning have to go hand-in-hand with the ‘democratisation of the economy’. The problem is that their understanding of ‘workers’ participation’ is largely formal, e.g. proposed in the form of workers’ shares in enterprises, union delegates on company boards or voting rights when it comes to management decisions. The aforementioned class background of many of the new socialist intelligentsia also contributes to their limited understanding – or actual trajectory – of what workers’ control would require. Their understanding of class is largely economistic – defined by the fact that workers all depend on wages. This understanding of class doesn’t focus on the actual form of the production process and its hierarchical division of labour (intellectual and manual workers, productive and reproductive work etc.). In their policies, their understanding of ‘ownership’ of the means of production and ‘democratic participation’ of workers is formal. Just because workers or trade unions hold 50% or 100% of shares doesn’t mean much. If workers are still forced to do the drudge work the whole day, performing only a limited amount of tasks, this won’t allow them to have an understanding of, and therefore say in, how a company or sector is actually run. You might give them a vote on a company board, but it will be those who have a greater overview and more time – due to their professional status as intellectuals (engineers, scientists etc.) – who will make the decisions. The ‘vote’ will be reduced to a fetishised process to confirm the experts’ monopoly of knowledge. As we have seen in history, workers survive the worst defeats inflicted by the class enemy. But the deepest and longest-lasting traumas are inflicted when oppression and exploitation is enacted in their own name – didn’t the ‘workers’ state’ of the Stalinist regime formally belong to the workers, too? A mere change in government or a shift from private to state property would not touch the core of what defines ‘working class’, its’ power and disempowerment.
6) The trade unions and the workers party are not the working class
The democratic socialist perspective relies on the idea of a transmission between the working class and the state through the interaction of the two main ‘workers’ organisations’ – the parliamentary party and the trade unions. This perspective relies on an idealistic or pre-historic view on trade unions as the ‘democratic representation’ of the class. Plenty of historical examples (Labour/TUC in the UK in 1926 or the 1970s, CC.OO in Spain after Franco, Solidarnosc in Poland after 1981, PT/CUT in Brazil recently etc.) demonstrate that during the heat of struggle waves, the trade union/government connection becomes the heaviest blanket on working class initiative. During the last years that we’ve been shop-stewards, we’ve gotten quite a bit of insight into the internal mechanisms of two major trade unions – both loyal to the Labour party. Democratic socialism’s idea that these organisations will be the main force in ‘keeping the government and its enemies under pressure’ is totally illusory. More often than not we can see how the party and the union leadership instrumentalise workers’ struggles for their own ends, e.g. the recent symbolic ‘strikes’ at McDonald’s in London were called by the union leadership at a time where it suited the Labour campaign circus, but actually undermined the organising work of the union’s own organisers. Many of the proposed reforms that Labour wanted to bring in, e.g. sectoral collective bargaining and contracts, would facilitate economic planning for the bigger capitalists and strengthen the central trade union leadership’s grip than actually boost workers’ independent power. The regional and sectoral contracts in Germany are the best example.
7) Focus on the ‘political arena’ saps energy
The leadership of democratic socialism tends to try and bypass the mundane and laborious problems of power relations between workers and capital and instead focuses on the electoral leap. But these tend to be leaps forwards and backwards. The governmental politics of 21st century socialism in Latin America (Chavez, Morales, Lula etc.) and their structural weaknesses have created widespread disillusionment. The subjugation of the Syriza government in Greece to the system and its representatives has closed down, rather than opened up spaces for the class movement against austerity. The internal power-fights within Podemos or Momentum has created cynicism and burn-out. By adopting a ‘lesser evil’ voting strategy and calling for people to vote for Macron to avoid Le Pen, the left undermined its own position in the anti-government rebellion of the Yellow Vests. The media hype of Corbynism, the engagement with electoral tactics etc. diverts focus from daily struggles for working class self-defence. There is also a misunderstanding of parliamentarianism: just because a political party is composed by workers doesn’t make party politics and the parliament a form of working class politics. Parliamentarianism is the exact opposite of working class politics, as it is based on individual citizenship, not on collective and practical relations. This is true for national parliamentarism as much as for the ‘parliamentarianism light’ in the form of ‘radical municipalism’ (campaigning for independent candidates in local elections) that some activists propose. The best example for the limits of local electoral politics can be found in the US. The election of militants of the black liberation movement after its decline in the late-1970s meant that in towns like Chicago and Baltimore, black mayors had to enforce austerity and anti-poor policing measures in the 1980s, which further weakened and divided the movement while stabilising the system: who better to enforce cuts against black urban poor, but a black mayor? While history provides us with ample examples, cracks also appear in the present. If we look at Barcelona En Comu, the citizen platform that won the local elections in Barcelona and provided the new mayor, Colau, we can see various moments of tension between the local working class and the new ‘citizen-friendly’ local government, e.g. when the local government acted against the striking airport and metro workers in 2017. Comrades in Spain also noticed that the ‘redistribution’ of local politicians’ wages by platforms like Barcelona En Comu did not primarily benefit rank-and-file organisations, but created a larger number of so-called ‘movement jobs’, a new layer of professional activists with all the contradictions of professionalisation. One outcome of these tensions with the local working class is that Barcelona En Comu tries to channel some of the discontent into Catalan nationalist waters, as if Catalan independence had much more to offer working people than yet another dividing line within our class. We will now face the same problem in Scotland.
8) Parliamentary power and state power are two different things
Let’s assume a socialist party manages to get into government. The idea of a parliamentarian road towards socialism neglects the fact that ‘taking over government’ and ‘having state power’ are two different kettles of fish. There is little analysis of the actual material and social class structure of the state (administration, public servants, army) and its independence from parliamentary democracy, for example, despite changes to its outer form the material core and trajectory of the Russian state apparatus (i.e. social strata of people employed in carrying out state functions) has reproduced itself from the time of the Tsarist regime, through the Bolshevik revolution, Stalinist terror, Glasnost to Putin. If we want to look closer to home, even the revered Tony Benn had to understand as Secretary of State for Industries in the mid-1970s that the struggle with the right-wing of the Labour party was child’s play compared to the struggle with his ‘own’ civil servants.
9) By focusing on the national arena and the state, democratic socialism tends to misjudge the global relation of capital
Let’s assume that a socialist party not only manages to get into government, but also manages to dominate the state apparatus. Due to the fact that the nation state is the core element of the strategy for democratic socialism the project is immediately confronted with the global nature of capital. Higher levels of taxation and other impositions will result in capital flight amongst global companies. Democratic socialism accounts for this, by, for example, proposing alliances with smaller enterprises, as a kind of national productive united front against global corporations and finance. We’ve seen time and again how this necessary alliance shifts the ideological viewpoint towards ‘left patriotism’ and other bullshit. If a Labour government would actually try to increase taxation and redistribute assets, the most likely outcome is a devaluation of the pound and an increase in inflation due to a trade deficit, which cannot be counteracted easily – given the composition of agriculture, energy sector, general manufactured goods. The new Labour left leadership – trained in political activism and speech and aided by their influence amongst the union leadership – will be the best vehicle to tell workers to ‘give our Labour government some time’, to explain that ‘international corporations have allied against us’ and that despite inflation workers should keep calm and carry on; wage struggles will be declared to be excessive or divisive or of narrow-minded economic consciousness. We have seen how, for example, the Chavez government in Venezuela organised the ‘urban poor’ against strikes of teachers who demanded higher wages, denouncing them as greedy and therefore responsible for other workers’ poverty.
10) Class struggle doesn’t develop gradually
Democratic socialism’s focus on electoral campaigning and official union organising results in a misjudgement of how class struggle develops. Historically class struggles developed in leaps and bounds – in a much more complex dynamic between ‘organising’ and external forces and factors. The belief that class struggle is based on ‘step-by-step’ organising and mobilising often results in leftists putting stumbling blocks in the way of future waves of struggle. In the short-term getting ‘community leaders’ or your local MP involved, or relying on the trade union or party apparatus in order to mobilise or encourage fellow workers, might seem beneficial. What initially seemed a stepping stone turns out to be a stumbling block: for example middle-men who get in the way of things or illusions in symbolic forms of struggle. The challenge is to find ‘step-by-step’ forms of struggle which help in the moment, but don’t pose problems long-term. In their need to create a transformation of workers’ action (controlled strikes etc.) on the ground into ‘economic pressure’ to support state policies, socialist organisers tend to become scared of the often chaotic and seemingly spontaneous character of struggles. They run the danger of misunderstanding that these situations of breakdown of normality are precisely the situations where workers have to face up to their responsibility to re-organise social reproduction. These moments are the necessary learning curves and laboratories where we actually change things and ourselves. To stifle this means killing workers’ participation.
11) Democratic socialism and its fear of uncontrolled class struggle becomes its own gravedigger as it weakens the working class activity necessary to defend it
The fact that the biggest socialist party in history – the German SPD – first agreed to support the German government in the 1914 war efforts and oppressed workers’ revolutionary upheavals after the war was not a betrayal. It was part and parcel of a long-term strategy to gain governmental power and to re-shape the national economy – to which workers revolutionary ‘adventures’ posed a risk. After having weakened workers’ self-activity the SPD was then confronted with a global crisis in 1929, which limited a national economic strategy. The combination of these two factors – a working class weakened by government tactics and powerlessness vis-à-vis global capital – resulted in the SPD opening the door for the most brutal reactionary turn in 1933. Another example is the social democratic government under Allende in Chile in 1973. It shows us that the relationship between working class movements and left governments is more complicated than the often mechanistic picture of force (movement) and container/stabiliser (government). We can see that the initial social reforms were introduced by a right-wing government, which failed to contain class struggle. When Allende took over he had a hard time keeping workers‘ and poor peoples‘ struggles under control – struggles which might well have been encouraged by the incoming left government. Allende feared that the local upper-class and international imperialist forces would use the social turmoil as an excuse for intervention. Industrial unrest also created shortages which threatened to destabilise the government further. International price developments, in particular of mining products, curbed the scope for material concessions towards striking workers. Allende’s policies towards the working class unrest – which ranged from concessions to military repression – undermined and literally disarmed the working class. When the local military, backed by the CIA, went in for the kill, the resistance was already weakened. This historical example seems irrelevant for the sitation in the UK or the US today, but once we look beyond short-term goals of electoral tactics we still face the same fundamental dynamics.
12) Strategy starts from actual struggles and actual potentials and difficulties imposed by the social production process
We need strategies and we need organisation. We have to start by analysing the real conditions and relationships of our class: how is production organised today, how is it organised beyond company or national boundaries, how are we as workers divided from intellectual labour and knowledge and how can these divisions be overcome? How can we make use of the fact that workers cooperate along supply-chains, often using modern communication technologies in order to develop new forms of transnational organisations of struggle? How does our class lead its struggles today, where do we use the potentials of modern production and where do we fail to use them in our favour? How do the struggles in the bigger workplaces and industrial sectors relate to areas or regions where workers are more atomised? We have to create a dynamic between industrial and workplace power and the inventiveness of working class people to organise their survival, be it in the form of workers’ cooperatives, hack-labs, squats or self-run community projects. Within these struggles we have to develop the organisation and strategy to imagine a coordinated take-over of the central means of production, their defence and their socialisation beyond national boundaries. This will not happen on Day X of our choosing – this will happen with the increasing disfunctionality of this system to which our own struggles for survival contribute. Democratic socialism and its strategies will not be adequate for the vastness, harshness and joy of what lies ahead for the working class.
We have seen that the strategy of democratic socialism clashes with the two main historical forces in capitalism. Firstly, by focusing on the national arena it clashes with the global character of capital. And secondly, by reducing the question of exploitation to the question of whether workers work under private or public command, their strategy clashes with the substantive discontent of the working class. A socialist government would be forced to weaken its own power base in order to deal with the continuing discontent (“Keep calm and give your workers’ government a bit more time”). In the long run this creates disillusionment and the material basis for a reactionary turn. These are the historical lessons.

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