Blog entry critiquing a promotional graphic of the revolutionary union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) comparing a capitalist coffee shop with a co-operative one.
I have seen this picture (click on it to see an enlarged version) doing the rounds on Facebook recently, posted by various anarchists and IWW pages.
However, I felt I had to write some sort of response to it, as the politics it contains basically show up quite a profound misunderstanding of the capitalist system. Which unfortunately is very important for people and organisations, such as the IWW, who want to overthrow it.
So this isn't meant as negative criticism of the IWW, or the creator of the image, but is meant in a constructive way to assist us all with our understanding of capitalism and how we can (try to!) supersede it.
The picture compares an exploitative capitalist coffee shop, compared to a happy, egalitarian co-operative one.
Now, the actual problem with this picture depends on what it is meant to represent. So it depends on whether the picture on the left of the "barista co-operative" is meant to be a collective coffee shop in the present day, also in a capitalist system, or if it's meant to be a collective coffee shop of a future anarchist/communist society.
If the former, a co-operative coffee shop today, then the problem with it is that while there would be no external bosses, the co-operative members have to be both bosses and workers themselves.
Their coffee shop will still be existing within a capitalist marketplace, and so will still be subjected to competition and the whims of the market.
So while their boss may not cut Joe's hours, if market forces dictate it they will have to cut their own hours themselves.
Say, for example, a capitalist chain coffee shop we can call Coffeebucks opens down the road from their happy co-op. The co-op will have to compete with it in terms of prices if it is to attract customers.
Coffeebucks only pay minimum wage, with no sick pay, no pensions, no benefits etc. They are also a large chain, so they can use their purchasing power to drive down suppliers' prices to get cheaper coffee and food. So they sell their products much cheaper than the co-op.
Facing going out of business, the co-op members either internalise the capitalist boss, and cut their own wages, conditions or jobs,1 Or they go bust.
In a capitalist economy, we cannot extract ourselves from the market. We cannot self-manage capitalism in our own interests as it is automatically weighted against workers.2 The only way we can really live without exploitation and bosses is not by internalising them but by abolishing capitalism. Which brings me to the second option.
If the barista co-operative depicted is meant to be a co-operative in a postcapitalist society then the problem with it is different.
Firstly, after a revolution which abolishes wage labour (a fundamental principle of the IWW), who in their right minds would want to continue working in their crappy coffee shop?
Coffee shop work is one of the pointless jobs (which artist William Morris referred to as "useless toil", as opposed to "useful work" ) which in a communist society no one would have to do. Basically staff only have to be there to make sure customers actually pay for their coffee and panini.
Not to mention the fact that coffee shops mainly exist to quickly sell coffee and sandwiches to workers doing other pointless jobs in their breaks - a situation which should no longer be the case in a communist society. (That and of course that after the revolution everyone will have a Gaggia!)
Finally, the co-operative picture shows money (wages) being distributed equally to all the workers. The IWW aims for the abolition of wage labour. And if the idea is that after a revolution everyone will have to keep working and just all earn the same amount of money than actually this is not a socialist society at all but will actually be a form of dysfunctional capitalism.3
Another key problem I have with the graphic is that what was good historically about the IWW (and what is still good about elements in it today) is that it is about workers fighting together in their own interests, regardless of the dictates of capital. This idea seems absent from the image, which seems to propose setting up co-ops instead of fighting.
One minor issue is that I would disagree with the emphasis given to the point on unemployment being created by design to hold down the rate of inflation. While unemployment can hold inflation down, that is not why it was created. Mass unemployment exists to keep wages down. It is a weapon to use against workers who demand better wages or conditions, as there is a large pool of people who could take their place. Similarly, inflation can be used to attack workers' wages as well, where if employers grant wage rises they can claw back profits by increasing their prices further.
(As a disclaimer, this does seem like a disproportionately long article to write about a little image on Facebook, but for some reason I just felt compelled to write it. Procrastinating about getting on with more important tasks was probably a factor as well…)