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.