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.
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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.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Commons at Work

A version of this post was originally published as an article in Stir to Action # 7, October 2014

How do commons principles apply in the production of goods and services?

Enclosures of natural and human resources like land or knowledge are the subject of resistance from movements for community land rights, anti copyright and defence of the open internet. But what about the commons at work?

Workers' co-operatives use principles like open membership, equality, democracy and autonomy. Even for someone working a lifetime in co-op enterprises, the meaning of common ownership - the third co-op principle, so contrary to the dominant law and ideology - can be hard to get. It may be most radical co-op principle of all.

Like the commons, the international workers' co-operative movement manifests in responses to present and historical local conditions. The empresas recuperadas, Mondragon's industrial co-ops, the Seikatsu Clubs and Women's' Worker Collectives of Tokyo, got their character from where they grew. Working class organisation to mitigate the impacts of bourgeois flight in Argentina, fascist repression in the Basque region, the crisis of economic isolation and dependency among Japanese women, created them. Ideology, history, law and politics shapes them - Peronism; cultural exceptionalism and radical catholicism; the primacy of traditional families; the social conservatism of the left. Yet everywhere co-operatives proclaim their alignment with seven global principles. This practical code is both an organisational toolkit and a manifesto.

Britain is where the modern co-op movement started, which is not surprising since Britain produced modern capitalism. As in Asia or South America, European workers' co-ops are the product of specific episodes of social conflict, influenced by the history and ideas of the places they occurred. The first co-op in England to invent a model which could be copied successfully - 1,000 times within 10 years - was founded by ex-Chartists in Rochdale, Lancashire in the 1840s. Its founders were veterans of a period of intense and violent class struggle in capitalism's early industrial heartland.

The Rochdalers' first objective was to obtain unadulterated food, and to supply it in fair weights and measures, by establishing "a store for the sale of provisions, clothing, etc." But it's wrong to think of them as an early version of the modern supermarket multiples, the 'consumer co-operatives'. Their ambition was all-encompassing and radical. Here's their fifth objective:

"As soon as practicable, the Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies."

That's a statement of intent to create the co-operative commonwealth. It's also remarkable in the way it moves seamlessly from the quotidian to the revolutionary, from practice to theory, and back - a hallmark of co-operativism.

The first great wave of worker co-op formations came on the back of the Rochdale experiment, as people inspired by the early successes expanded the co-operative commonwealth into housing, education and production. While less successful in the face of private capitalist competition than the retailing co-ops, worker co-operators made inroads in industries like clothing, footwear manufacture and printing - particularly in districts like the English Midlands - even as they were fought tooth and nail by private capitalists.

The relative decline of workers' co-ops in Britain in the late 19th and 20th centuries is a complicated story, which can partly be told through the story of mainstream English working class ideology, with its loss of faith in the commonwealth and infatuation with state socialism. Commonwealth socialism had deep roots; in the early anti-enclosure movement, milleniarian currents in the English revolution, and further back in the Peasants' Revolt, which fought ecclesiastical enrichment and the power of rulers. The socialism of the co-op pioneers was also informed by religious nonconformism, whose values of self-help and self-responsibility are echoed in the fourth co-op principle of autonomy - from the state or any other external power. As early as 1891, the influential Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb - later Baroness Passfield, an enthusiastic Stalinist - was dismissing workers' co-ops as an impossible experiment, on the grounds that workers are too lazy and venal to be in control of enterprises. That argument had contemporary echoes in the insistence of the great and good that ordinary members were too stupid and greedy to be in charge of the Co-operative Group, and that we must instead give more power to the class of professional executives and moneymen who practically bankrupted it over recent years.

Fabianism had more or less secured its baleful ideological hegemony over British labour and trade union thinking by 1930. Our second wave of worker co- ops arose between the 1960s and 1980s. This wave was led by political and social activists - not Fabians or Leninists, but autonomist, anarchist and libertarian communist workers, internationalists, feminists, anti-racism campaigners, community organisers, housing activists and people from the growing ecological movement. Many of today's workers' co-ops were founded in those years including Suma, Infinity, Essential and Green City (whole foods); New Internationalist and Calverts (publishing and communications); Delta-T Devices (agronomy) and Dulas (green energy).

In English law, you can be an employee, an employer, unemployed or self-employed - but the law doesn't recognise groups of autonomous, self-organised workers. English law protects and advances private and state ownership, but not the commons. Legalities and definitions are important. The very word 'commonwealth' has become conflated with 'nation state' - almost the opposite of our concept; indeed 'The Commonwealth' is what they decided to call the rump of the British Empire.

The co-operative commonwealth, common ownership, the commons of the commons, indivisible reserves; these are overlapping and often poorly understood concepts. They need claiming and clarifying, to be of greater use to the movement. Does that mean the state should define them for us? No. The battles are  about language and praxis; the movement itself needs to find the favourable ground on which to fight those battles.

Common ownership workers' co-ops take different legal forms, but they are not the same as Community Interest Companies, where an asset lock - set by law and controlled by a state regulator - is used to decide what ultimately happens to the wealth of an enterprise.  Co-ops are also different from employee-owned businesses controlled through trusts, transferrable shares or a mixture of the two, like the John Lewis Partnership.

Using the 'Overton window' analogy, in the frame of UK polite bourgeois and political discourse, workers' co-ops are regarded with alarm and horror. Share-based, tax-avoiding models, on the other hand, are incubated and promoted. The goal is to raise workers' productivity and compliance by 'involving' them, giving them 'a voice'- whereas the goal of workers' co-ops could be summed up as mitigating the horror of wage labour, by enabling workers to develop confidence and skills in a culture of respect and equality, and giving them a degree of autonomy. The wealth of workers' co-operatives was created by the members who went before; it will be passed on to those to come.

Meanwhile the ghost of Baroness Passfield stalks the land. She whispers in the ears of her followers, the priests of 'caring capitalism', 'corporate responsibility', 'social enterprise' and its ghastly offspring, the 'Big Society'.

So, what does a contemporary version of the Rochdale co-op look like? A shiny, retail-modern Co-operative convenience store, with its depressed workers and bright pink rows of shrink-wrapped pigmeat? No. It looks like Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton, Manchester - a workers co-op selling healthy, unadulterated, whole and organic products and produce, much of it locally sourced. Unicorn serves all demographics in a mixed income neighbourhood. It often beats the multiples on price, as well as quality. Staff pay, engagement and conditions add up to jobs as decent as you'll find in that line of work. Unicorn's Business ethics flow from its co-op identity, rather than being bolted on - for instance, it's relationships with suppliers are also based on equality and equity. All permanent staff - more than forty - are members. Many customers have invested loan stock in the co-op, to help it grow. It generates zero food waste. Its constitution and policies are public, and like Rochdale it publishes a guide on how to replicate the model. It's in common ownership, meaning that if one day the members collectively decide to quit while they're ahead, Unicorn's residual assets - its common wealth - will be passed on to the movement.

Co-operatives are reckoned to provide more jobs than all the world's multinational companies put together, and to secure the livelihoods of half the world's population. The most recently agreed written version the third co-operative principle says that members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative - and at least part of that capital is "usually the common property of the co-operative".

That may be a timid-sounding statement, but it makes co-operatives the only actually existing, large scale business model with the commons at its heart.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The geometric dog days of summer

The phone doesn't ring. Insects buzz through an open window. There's almost no traffic in town. Why does work feel more futile than usual in August?

Why don't business networks take off until they reach a certain size?

What have these got to do with each other? The effects of arithmetic versus geometric progression.

I run Principle Six co-operative business referral events, where people fulfil other network members' business 'asks' by making third party introductions to people from their own contact book.

If, every time a networking group added a new member, the number of referrals increased by the same amount, that would be a 'straight line', or arithmetic, progression. Let's say there are 10 people in the network, and each of them can make 5 possible referrals. That would mean 50 potential referrals. When the group grew to 6, you'd get 55 possibilities; and when the group expanded to 20, it would make 100 potential connections.

But in fact the progression isn't arithmetic - it's geometric. It goes more like this:

The number of potential referrals in a group of 5 people is represented by the sequence 4+3+2+1 = 10. In a group of 10, it's 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 = 45. On the same lines, for a group of 20 networkers it's 190, and for 40 it's 780. In other words, every time the group doubles in size, the potential benefit to the members increases roughly fourfold. And actually the number of potential connections in a group of 40 isn't 780, it's more of the order of 10,000.

A business network of 10 people is not worth the effort. A network of 20 is the minimum you really need, and 40 is probably ideal if you want the members to know each other and create lots of business interactions and opportunities.

The geometric principle also works in reverse. In August, when a quarter of the workers disappear to the beach or the park, the world of work seems to slow to a special grind. Those of us still toiling wonder what we're doing. The workers' battlecries "Never work!" and "Sous les pav├ęs, la plage!" resonate with awful meaning.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The precarious generation of creative workers

Despite hits from tuition fees and the rising cost of living in centres like London, there was a 25% increase in the numbers of students doing design and creative arts degrees in the UK between 2003 and 2010 – up from 139,000 to 174,000, which is around 7% of the total numbers of students.

So about 50,000 design and creative arts graduates are coming onto the labour market each year. Although many of them are overseas students, and despite the superficial vigour of the creative industries sector, this enormous number of new workers is far more than the creative industries can absorb. In 2011, more than 1/3 of creative graduates were without full-time work three years after graduation. In addition, the UK – and particularly London – is at least temporarily home to many mobile, underemployed young creative workers from EU countries where their economic prospects are dire. And these statistics of course exclude non-university educated workers coming into the creative industries fray.

Traditionally, fine art graduates worked for gallerists as unpaid assistants or apprentice curators for low or no wages, in an industry which could be seen as one of the last strongholds of pre-C18th employment relations. This at least partly explains why the creative industries are playing such a prominent role in spreading temporary, part-time, unpaid or super exploited labour. Over the last 10 years, they have crossed over into design and the applied arts, the professions and other industries.

Many design agencies and arts organisations use a constant churn of skilled and productive long-term interns, sometimes comprising a third or more of the workforce, with only the more senior employees earning what would have been considered a decent income twenty years ago. Along with changes to the benefits system and the rise of workfare, this is one jaw of a pincer movement which has produced in a substantial layer of precarious young workers, sometimes called permalancers, carrotworkers or lifestyle hackers (GuyStanding).

‘Proletarianised’ creative (and other) workers have responded by developing agile, collaborative and creative approaches not just to work, but to the necessities of life including accommodation, leisure and social support, relying more or less entirely on their own resources and networks.

This is the other half of the ‘innovation’ story, and it’s where we should look to understand why creative workers may be particularly responsive to the utility of a model defined as ‘men and women coming together to meet their shared economic, social and cultural needs through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise’ - the co-operative.

“The people in my network don’t really understand the difference between employment and self-employment. I know that being employed brings rights which self-employed people don’t have, like holiday and sick pay, protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal, redundancy pay and so on. I sometimes think that our generation hasn’t fought for or defended those rights, so we don’t understand them.”

Those are (more or less) the words of an educated ‘GenerationY’-er. It’s suggestive of the extent to which her cohort has become so detached from traditional educated working class discourse, attitudes and protocols that it regards them as almost irrelevant, along with trade unionism and representative politics.

The following remarks are based on my experience of working with groups of young creative workers as a co-operative business advisor, and also my conversations with individuals and groups of students, teachers and graduates about the nature and benefits of co-operative approaches to work and creative life, at institutions including City University, The University of the Arts (Camberwell, LCC and Central St Martins), East London, Bristol and Brighton Universities, the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths.

  • Collaborative practice is taught in many design and arts schools. It is therefore familiar and normal for many students and graduates, although the primacy of individual genius and effort go with the territory, especially and obviously in fine and applied arts.

  • Most if not all of these institutions, and many schools, now include some form of ‘PPD’ or business education as part of their offering; for instance, University of the Arts holds an annual ‘Creative Enterprise Week’.  As in the UK’s business schools, the co-operative model  is marginalised by default in these programmes, although other forms of social enterprise are often included. There is a rich opportunity for co-operative practitioners, activists and business advisors here, but they have to be both proactive and credible in finding platforms and opportunities to get their message across, and they need to be able to back up talk with ongoing support and advice.

  • Like the graduate cohort in front of them, the unpaid or underpaid internship model is now regarded by many students as axiomatic, whether they think it desirable or not. Advocating collective and ultimately co-operative working as an approach to the prospect of exploitation, isolation and underemployment is a very fruitful line – for instance, I am currently advising two co-operative startups  (ceramics designer/makers and set designer/makers) as the outcome of a single seminar at St. Martins. Some design and arts teachers, perhaps more familiar with previous waves of creative co-operation, and in the face of the industrialisation of higher education, are as receptive as their students - even to the idea of the co-operative university (Goldsmiths).

  • Many in this cohort are disengaged from mainstream political ideas and institutions, and receptive to ideas of self-organisation, new forms of democracy, the commons and fundamental social change (the Occupy aftereffect). They are internationalists. They are as animated by motives of personal self-development, sustainability and community good as they are by their prospects for individual material gain. They are not as imbued with a love of ‘entrepreneurship’ and business as everyone is telling them they should be, but they are strongly influenced by the ideology of ‘innovation’. This is both a barrier and an opportunity for getting over a co-operative message, and it depends whether we pitch it as a ‘business model’ or a technology for meeting needs and serving desires, collectively.

  • There are some parallels with the context for the last wave of worker co-op formations in 70s and early 80s, most of which were founded by people looking to fulfil political, social or environmental goals as well as looking to create decent jobs on a basis of equality, solidarity and autonomy. There are important differences which present barriers to co-operation and co-operative startups. This generation has less collective confidence and lower expectations in terms of its place in, engagement with and rewards from the formal economy. Perhaps more importantly, with the usual issues around capital, sweat equity is harder to accumulate because the dole doesn’t provide a breathing space. ‘Necessity’ means something different. Effective co-operative advocacy must comprehend this.

  • While sharing a vague knowledge of co-operatives with the rest of the population, they regard co-operatives as a good thing and contemporary rather than old-fashioned. They are as unaffected by the decadence of parts of the existing co-op movement as we were.

  • Medium term, to influence this cohort and see results, we need to focus on pre startups. The most fruitful area will be working with existing collectives, networks and informal enterprises who want to go from mutuality to co-operation, from small to larger scale, from barter to trading, from individual risk to collective protection and getting the benefits of limited liability.

  • We should class and treat any consortium of self-employed creative workers as a worker co-operative, if its main shared purpose is to enhance work. The people I talk to readily self-identify as workers, even if they’re not in a position to, or don’t wish to, become employees. The current Co-operatives UK and CICOPA definitions, which suggest that only employees can be members of a worker co-op, are not flexible enough. It’s also a reason to use the language of worker co-operation, not employee ownership, when talking to this cohort.

I have focused here on young workers in design and applied arts. The wider creative industries context has much in common with other industry sectors, as does the situation of young workers here and elsewhere in the world.

What’s perhaps special about creative industries and creative workers is their degree of familiarity with sharing technologies and shallow-hierarchy enterprise models, strong social clustering and peer networking of workers, geographical clustering of businesses, and the relative parity of status and skills.

We can’t predict the desire or capacity of any group of people participating in an industry to create a wave of co-operative formations, but I do believe that this is as good a bet for us as any. As part of a sector-by-sector co-op development strategy, it would mean honing careful messages and delivering them to potentially receptive audiences using a network of competent activists, using resources developed centrally, then following words with practical support.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Cookmaids and consumers

Nathaniel Bacon's 'Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit' (c. 1620) is a picture that makes Alain de Botton feel less alone. He says:

"... at it's best, consumerism is founded on a love of the fruits of the earth, delight in human ingenuity and due appreciation of the vast achievements of organised effort and trade ... A good response to consumerism might not be to live without melons and grapes, but to appreciate what really needs to go into providing them."

Bacon was a gentleman amateur artist. He probably picked up his painting style in the Low Countries, cradle of early modern mercantilism, where buxom servants surrounded by horticultural commodities were a popular subject. 

The luminous melons at the focal point of the painting may be another source of hope and reassurance for Botton, although he doesn't mention them. In fact he doesn't refer to the servant at all. She doesn't look very comfortable. That could be a response to her objectification, or maybe she's just nervous of the giant cabbages.

I don't really get this idea of 'conscious consumerism' (ethical or otherwise) as a route to self-realisation or social change. To me it makes far more sense to focus on the human, on the worker as subject. But I hope at least, from now on, Botton will get his solace from fairly traded melons and grapes.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Common ownership

I am amazed by the cooperative principles. They are a practical guide to 'what works now', based on the learning of cooperative activists. Yet they sometimes appear as commandments written in stone. Each principle has a lowest common denominator - democracy, education, sustainability. At another level, understood as a matrix of cooperative theory and practice, they are profound and revolutionary. They throw light on every aspect of the struggle to create a fully human social, economic and cultural life.

The International Co-operative Alliance is calling for responses to guidance papers on the principles. One of these is Jean-Louis Bancel's erudite commentary on the third principle, member economic participation. Like any set of texts with a quasi-talmudic character, the principles are the subject of deep and wide interpretation. Unlike them, the cooperative principles are revised from time to time, to reflect current conditions.

Over the years, I've persuaded myself that particular principles are a magic key to the others. I was mesmerised by principle six between 2004 and 2009 (cooperation between cooperatives) and principle four between 2009 and 2012 (autonomy). The third principle is often seen as the most knotty of the seven. Right now, I'm focusing on principle three, because it talks about common ownership as a characteristic of cooperatives.

Jean-Louis Bancel's paper refers to the particular importance of common ownership for worker cooperatives. Collective stewardship and control of the means of production are fundamental to worker coops' mission to provide 'decent' jobs, maintain the culture of equality and solidarity at work, provide a basis for members to develop their capacities, and underpin workers' autonomy and self-management.

Common ownership is the antithesis of private or state ownership. Creating commons is the opposite of creating enclosures or commoditising everyday life. It's a long time since most of the land and most of the means of production was taken out of common ownership. In the present, we're seeing intensive efforts to enclose, privatise and securitise such common goods as water, clean air, free time, open source technology and personal communication.

Meaningful cooperative action increases the confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation, solidarity, egalitarianism and self-activity of workers, and helps them collectively define their own interests. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of workers, their apathy, cynicism, differentiation through hierarchy, alienation, reliance on others to do things for them, and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others, including those claiming to act on their behalf.

Cooperatives are meaningful when they align with the global movement to defend and extend the commons.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Stir to Action

The first number of the new print-only Stir magazine arrived today, and it's an inspiring read. Marina Sitrin's article on worker takeovers of factories and workshops in Argentina and Greece strikes a particular chord, because the UK's common ownership co-operatives - firms like Calverts and Suma - share so much with them in terms of politics and attitude, even though our co-ops were founded in a different context.

It affirms for me that we have at least as much in common with - and to learn from - autonomous workers outside the UK as we do with our domestic co-operative movement.

The article isn't, as far as I can tell, reproduced online. Luckily, Sitrin's writing on Argentina is freely available on her website. Or, if you'd like to take a £16 4-issue subscription, you can get Stir delivered, and read the other excellent articles, including good analysis of tax havens and the global cotton industry.

Alongside New Internationalist, Stir is turning into the closest thing we have to a radical co-operativist magazine in the UK.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Co-operatives and strikers in Italy

In a forthcoming article for a new workers' paper, migrant logistics workers in Italy describe their fight against attacks on wages and conditions at IKEA and TNT:

"During recent months migrant transport workers in the north of Italy have enforced significant improvements of their working and living conditions through hard strikes. Usually they are not directly employed, but through subcontractors, which are registered as so-called 'cooperatives'. If there are any problems or workers try to struggle against precarious conditions, these 'subcontractors' just change their official company name and status - and workers are left alone with their demands ...

"After a few months the Cooperative tried to go back to the conditions before the strike. It wanted to almost triple the average number of palettes; they cut most of the employees’ hours to 4 hours so that they compulsorily had to stay at home two days a week and only earned 400 euros a month. When productivity fell, everyone had to work overtime. In October they locked out about 90 workers, fired 12, through a struggle we were able to get 3 of these workers reinstated, so that 9 remained fired. So we blockaded the gates every day. On November 2nd there was an extremely brutal police attack at gate 9, there were 20 people injured and 30 workers got charged, I got 6 charges. I don’t know whether I’ll get problems with my residents permit in the future but no struggle is without risk ..."

This is going on in the Piacenza region of Emiglia Romagna, a supposed stronghold of worker co-operation.

I was of course interested to read that 'co-operative consortia' are controlling the supply of labour to TNT/IKEA in Italy, and I'm going to find out more. CICOPA (the world worker co-op federation) explicity rejects co-ops purely for the supply of labour, unless they're owned and controlled by workers for the defence of conditions and wages (e.g. freelancers, actors, sex workers) - at least partly in reaction to the experience of state-sponsored co-ops in the Soviet Union and China.

There's growing interest in the UK in co-op consortia as an organisation method for self-employed or atomised workers. I'm working with a couple of such groups  - IT, design, modelmakers. God help me.

Looking for more information, I used the internet search term 'IKEA + co-operatives' and out popped this, from IKEA's Privacy Policy page:

"Just as shopping at IKEA is a co-operative experience, IKEA makes a point of working with our customers when it comes to their privacy."

All of this just shows us why words are so important, and co-operative identity worth trying to be clear about.