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.