Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Future of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Production and insurrection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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