Co-ops or conflicts? - libcom.org

Co-ops or conflicts?  - libcom.org

As half of a Freedom newspaper feature on responses to the credit crunch, Joseph Kay argues for the latter. Read the other half, Bailouts or co-operatives?

Nationalisation has long been a staple demand of the left, but now that an unprecedented nationalisation of the banking system has failed to lead to socialism, anarchist arguments that state control offers nothing to the working class would appear to have been vindicated.

This creates an opportunity to put forward anarchist ideas not as a critical comment on the left, but as proposals in their own right. Against the demand for nationalisation of troubled firms, many have raised the demand for workers control. This demand is no less problematic, for two reasons.

Firstly, and not insignificantly, we are in no position to demand anything. As a tiny minority in the class, our ‘calls’ for this or that are impotent cries. Nationalisation of the banks didn’t happen because MPs heeded the calls of various Trotskyist groups, but because of a material need to prevent a banking collapse and the consequent economic collapse, falling of profits and danger of social unrest this would entail.

The only way our demands can become a necessity for capital to follow is if they are backed by a class movement capable of imposing them. To call for this or that in the absence of such class power is to get ahead of ourselves; there are more pressing matters at hand. We will return to this in a moment.

The second problem is on a more fundamental level. While many are aware that workers’ control under capitalism is simply self-managed exploitation, the demand is still often raised as a sort of intermediate, ‘realistic’ demand short of revolution. However like nationalisation, workers’ control is not a demand based on our concrete material needs as a class, it is about how capital should be managed.

Capital cannot be managed in our interests, so it is pointless to try. Instead we have to make concrete material demands; no to job losses, wage cuts, public service cuts and evictions; and jumping further ahead of ourselves, for wage increases, shorter hours for no loss of pay, improved public services etc.

Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase, it is a recognition of how capital rules social life. It does this both vertically through the person of the boss, and horizontally, through market forces. Many anarchists focus mainly on the vertical rule of workplace hierarchy, and so see workers’ control as a stepping stone towards libertarian communism.

However, it’s not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac. For example, I work in financial services. As you would expect during a financial crisis, we’re feeling the squeeze. There have been redundancies, and the ‘lucky’ survivors are being made to work harder and longer to make up. If we were to turn it into a co-op, those same market forces causing my boss to make cuts would still be there, but we would have nobody to say no to when under pressure to increase the rate of exploitation to survive in a hostile market.

Of course, using the director’s former salaries we might be able to make less redundancies or improve wages. But if the firm has the resources to do this, and we would only be able to create a co-op with sufficiently strong class struggle to force expropriation of the bosses, we should simply demand the concrete material things we want – in this case job security and improved conditions – not demand how capital should be managed to meet our actual needs.

Success in establishing a co-op is success in swapping one form of alienation for another, proletarian for petit-bourgeois. But there is a reason workers are a potentially revolutionary class and small business people are not: class antagonism. When capital makes demands of bosses via market forces, they have to impose them on workers, and workers can resist. Workers’ needs are in direct contradiction to the needs of capital accumulation.

However, if we become our own boss, we have no-one to refuse and the needs of capital appear as the natural imperative of market forces. Class struggle – and with it the potential for revolutionary change – is short-circuited. Ends are made of means, some means get us closer to what we want, others make it more remote and finally destroy its possibility.

So what is a libertarian communist response to the crisis? Communist demands are concrete, material demands reflecting our needs as workers. To be in a position to make these demands, we need to have a level of working class power and confidence that is presently lacking. Therefore our activity should be aimed at increasing the confidence, power and combativity of the wider class.

The Tea Break workers’ bulletin is one such project to this end, it advocates libertarian communist tactics to achieve concrete material gains. These tactics are the advocacy of collective action, for militant workers to network with one another online or face to face, for mass meetings including all workers regardless of union membership to control the struggle (excluding managers and scabs of course), and for links to be made between workers divided by workplace, sector, union, agency/permanent contracts and the manifold other divisions currently present (nationality, gender…).

As a concrete project aimed at spreading libertarian communist tactics and demands and increasing the power and confidence of the class, it is at least a small but definite step in the right direction.

Comments

pingu
Jan 22 2009 10:51

Thanks for that, I have worked on collective farms in Denmark and they had no control over the working hours at all, because they had to compete with neighbouring farms. On a slightly different note I have also lived in a housing co-op in this country and that was a form of self-managed exploitation too.

Django
Jan 29 2009 17:07

This has been responded to at length by Iain Mckay here:

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/co-operatives-and-conflicts

Spikymike
Jan 29 2009 21:52

Too tired to respond in detail to this but just a couple of points for now:

Iain in the above link does point out some inconsistencies in Joseph's line of argument but Joseph is at least on the right lines unlike Iain.

Both co-op's and nationalisation as policies advocated by the old, and now dead, labour movement of Marx and Bakunin's days, cannot be seen as any kind of stepping stone or useful reform on the way to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the state in today's modern globalised world, whether promoted as being achieved through reformist agitation or 'direct action'. They don't work.

Joseph is right to stress the need for workers struggles to extend and deepen rather than become inward looking to backward solutions like co-op's,. which in most cases stand little chance of survival in the crisis conditions of capitalism.

However, it is a moot point in situations of unavoidable isolation and defeat as to whether in some (but certainly not all ) cases workers might at least be temporarily better off by forming some kind of co-op where that is feasible. Many things/compromises have to be accepted in 'defeat' and I wouldn't be going round condeming them if that was their choice in these circumstances.

I hope that distinction makes sense?

Joseph Kay
Jan 29 2009 23:21

i certainly don't oppose co-ops, i simply oppose promoting them as a strategy, since if we're in a position to expropriate firms with the resources to meet our needs then we should just demand they meet our needs, and if they don't have the resources then co-operative insolvency is still insolvency.

so yeah, i understand the distinction, but i think the chances of workers managing a failed firm better than capitalists (in capitalist terms) against a backdrop of the worst recession in 60 years are pretty slim. of course by putting in massive unpaid overtime and the like, as many self-employed people do they might be able to turn failing firms around - but then why would this unpaid overtime be any better than doing it for the boss, like my boss is asking me to do? (hence self-managed exploitation).

i'll try and put a response to Iain together by the weekend.

fatbongo
Feb 3 2009 11:34
Quote:
"Nationalisation has long been a staple demand of the left, but now that an unprecedented nationalisation of the banking system has failed to lead to socialism, anarchist arguments that state control offers nothing to the working class would appear to have been vindicated."

Most banks haven't been nationalised - state intervention has been limited to shovelling loads of money their way and insuring them against future risk - and none of them have been nationalised in the sense the socialists intended.

When socialists talked about about nationalisation of the banks, they envisaged a situation where allocation of investment was designed to met socially defined priorities (indicated through democratic planning) rather than being focused on maximising profits.

The more general socialist critique was that the nationalised industries were run along capitalist lines. For example, in the railway industry where my dad worked British Rail was expected to run as a business - focussing on cost cutting, efficiency and maximised returns to the treasury (or at least minimised subsidies) and the workforce had no say in the way the industry was run.

fatbongo
Feb 3 2009 12:01

Sorry, i posted that before i had finished it.

My point is that i don't think that the government's approach to the banks proves that all forms of nationalisation are rubbish and i'm interested to know how you would critique the socialist type of nationalisation (eg investment related to democratic plan plus workers democracy within industries/workplaces).

Joseph Kay
Feb 3 2009 20:12
fatbongo wrote:
My point is that i don't think that the government's approach to the banks proves that all forms of nationalisation are rubbish and i'm interested to know how you would critique the socialist type of nationalisation (eg investment related to democratic plan plus workers democracy within industries/workplaces).

well i didn't go much into it as this was written for an anarchist newspaper, so a rejection of statist solutions could be taken for granted. i don't have time at the moment to write a comprehensive critique or anything, but in essence my argument would be that nationalised firms do not exist outside the capitalist world and can only cheat its laws in very circumscribed ways, as gilles dauvé writes:

Gilles Dauvé wrote:
It’s crucial to understand why Russia was capitalist in 1980, or 1930, or 1920, if we wish to understand what capitalism really is, and what can and must be revolutionized in Russia as well as in Britain in the XXIst century.

Capitalism is not just a system of domination whereby a minority of bourgeois or bureaucrats force the masses to work and earn them wealth. In 1950, in Prague as in Chicago, money was buying labour, which was put to work to valorize sums of money accumulated in poles of value called companies or corporations. These firms could not go on unless they accumulated value at a socially acceptable rate. This rate was certainly not the same in Prague as in Chicago. Czech firms worked as separate units but (unlike Chicago-based firms) had no private owners that could sell or manage them at will. Still, a Czech company manufacturing shoes did not just produce them as objects supposed to fulfill a function: it had to make the best profitable use of all the money that had been invested to produce them. Value formation mattered as much in Prague as in Chicago. Those shoes weren’t given free to the Chicago or Prague pedestrian who would then have tried them on, put them on and walked away. In both towns, the pedestrian paid for his shoes or went barefoot.

Of course, the Czech State could decide to subsidize shoes and sell them at a low price, i.e. below production cost. But in each country, value had to be finally realized on the market. Czech planners kept bending the rules of profitability, but they couldn’t play that game for ever. These rules always asserted themselves in the end, through poor quality, shortages, the black market, etc. The State protected the Prague company against bankruptcy. But that was artificial. Limiting competition helps maintain social cohesion: over-limiting competition stifles productivity. No-one can fiddle the logic of valorization for too long. One firm, ten firms, a thousand could be saved from closure, until one day it was the whole society that went bankrupt. If the Belgian or French State had kept bailing out every unprofitable company from the early days of industrialization, capitalism would now be defunct in France or Belgium. In short, the 'law of value' functioned in very different ways in bureaucratic and in market capitalism, but it did apply to both systems. (Nobody denies the capitalist nature of Bahrein or Togo, though these capitalist forms are quite different from the British or Italian ones.)

i'd add that the same criticism i make of a co-op strategy also applies, that the state would only act in such a way (socially useful investment etc) if forced to by a powerful workers movement; thus our task is to facilitate such a movement and push demands for the concrete things we want (more healthcare, higher wages, mortgage/debt cancellation, whatever) and not make demands about how capital is managed (by the state, democratically by workers etc).

RedTom
Mar 27 2009 15:17

"anarchist arguments that state control offers nothing to the working class would appear to have been vindicated."

Nice try. It proves that planning can still have negative social results if it's done for the purpose of enriching executives and large shareholders. Socialists should recognize that 'nationalization' comes with it's perks ONLY if it's done democratically.

LauritzTheAgitator
May 2 2009 04:30

If worker self-management is such a bad thing, just petty bourgeois self-exploitation, then why should one be a libertarian socialist/anarcho-syndicalist in the first place? Why go to all the trouble of trying to forment a revolution, much less actually carrying one out, if the objective of social ownership is such a negative for working people? Ideological rhetoric stripped aside, this sounds largely like a call for "trade unionism, pure and simple."

Spassmaschine
May 2 2009 06:36
Quote:
Why go to all the trouble of trying to forment a revolution, much less actually carrying one out, if the objective of social ownership is such a negative for working people?

Others can probably explain this much more coherently than me, but the basic idea is that the revolution can only succeed if we do more than just take over. Rather than worker's control/social ownership/self-management or whatever as the final goal, what is necessary is to communise production; in other words rather than continuing commodity production under workers' control we need to immediately put the things and places we seize to a different purpose, one aimed solely at directly meeting our needs. Which kind of leads naturally on from the "communist demands" JK is talking about above - the need even now to focus solely on actually meeting our needs.

Joseph Kay
May 2 2009 09:50

Lauritz, captain soap's pretty much answered, but i'll address your points too...

LauritzTheAgitator wrote:
If worker self-management is such a bad thing, just petty bourgeois self-exploitation, then why should one be a libertarian socialist/anarcho-syndicalist in the first place? Why go to all the trouble of trying to forment a revolution, much less actually carrying one out, if the objective of social ownership is such a negative for working people?

because commodity production cannot be managed in our interests. the objective of libertarian socialists/anarcho-syndicalists is not the fairer management of a system based on commodity production and exchange, but the reorganisation of production (and society) on the basis of 'from each according to ability, to each according to need' - communisation.

LauritzTheAgitator wrote:
Ideological rhetoric stripped aside, this sounds largely like a call for "trade unionism, pure and simple."

not at all. in fact the trade unions are hardly going to be pushing militant occupations and trying to spread struggles within and accross sectors - unless forced to by a militant and angry membership. now i will allow that there are limited instances where turning a failed business into a co-op is viable, and it can put food on the table for the workers rather than going on the dole. what i'm opposing is a general strategy of turning occupations into co-ops, which i think is a dead-end for such militancy.

MT
May 2 2009 10:12

we have Prisme workers example here who after over 50 days of occupation started their own co-op. now they will have food on table but i think that this argument is bit vague because we can argue for "food on the table" everytime, you know. because the case is almost always failed business.

Joseph Kay
May 2 2009 10:41

the details of prisme are vague, but there are examples of co-ops being successful in terms of providing a continuing income to their staff, and even expanding and taking on some social functions - like Zanon. however i think these examples are really the exception, and not something from which to base a general strategy.

take the Visteon workers for instance... as i understand it they mainly supplied Ford, who were partly who they're in dispute with. who would they sell their co-operatively produced products to? if they shifted production to something else, taking advantage of existing machinery and skills, the chances of success for a effectively a new business in a recession are slim. of course, to even have got to this point, they'd have needed to continue the occupations, resisting police evictions and court orders, and such militancy would have undoubtedly forced more concessions from the bosses, thus putting 'bread on the table' anyway, without needing to try and run a business in a recession. which is basically my argument against a co-op strategy in a nutshell.

MT
May 2 2009 11:00

reply to joseph:
so if market is ok for the workers to be successful co-op runners then you say yes and if it is obviously clear that they would have no chance, you are against? but i think there is another side of the problem and that lies in the fact of (self)management. to self-manage your exploitation or not. what i am trying to say is that we are speaking here about success in terms of business not in terms of revolutionary potential. for example, what is so cool about zanon from the perspective of a revolutionary? they are running a participative business model with a kind of shareholders scheme. to reach this point they passed points of success in maintaining the production and so. So, my point is the the mid-term or long-term perspective and seeing how the co-op developes and where can it develop (or until what point it is allowed to develop facing capitalist relations).

Still, the question remains - to rather fight for as much as possible and ending on a dole with a lot of money in the pocket or building a business which le'ts say can be profitable and ending with job "in the pocket" where everyone is a boss and has to collectively decide on how to give in to the rule of the capital.

Joseph Kay
May 2 2009 12:13
MT wrote:
so if market is ok for the workers to be successful co-op runners then you say yes and if it is obviously clear that they would have no chance, you are against? but i think there is another side of the problem and that lies in the fact of (self)management. to self-manage your exploitation or not. what i am trying to say is that we are speaking here about success in terms of business not in terms of revolutionary potential. for example, what is so cool about zanon from the perspective of a revolutionary?

no, i completely agree that running a co-op is a dead-end from a revolutionary point of view. as i wrote in the article: "Many anarchists (...) see workers’ control as a stepping stone towards libertarian communism. However, it’s not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac." However, as far as i'm aware the Prisme, or Zanon workers were not revolutionaries, but workers concerned primarily with meeting their material needs (these things aren't mutually exclusive of course). unless they can be persuaded of -or come to of their own accord - a revolutionary perspective, it's for them to determine the goals and methods of their struggle. that doesn't mean we have to be uncritical cheerleaders - in fact if there were to be a growing, militant occupations movement i'd imagine proposals not dissimilar to Iain's would be one of the ways it would be recuperated, precisely because it only threatens individual capitalists rather than capital itself.

MT
May 2 2009 12:34

so then the revolutionary "dilemma" is then - to support the fighting spirit of workers struggling against capital (for their own capital?!) and perhaps speaking with them about how their own model is most probably going to end up, OR having a moralising stance and not giving a damn about what they do as every model of self-management is lost beforehand in capitalism which means they necesserily become capitalists and thus exclude themselves from being potentially revolutionary agents?

I am just trying now to come back to the critical question or dilemma from which we are trying to reach answers because sometimes I feel like we are missing this ground which we are trying to start from.

Joseph Kay
May 2 2009 16:11

It's a valid question. How do (pro-) revolutionaries both support workers in struggle maintaining control of those struggles, and be consistent revolutionaries? my own experience of strike support etc is limited, and I'm sure others can add to what I say, but I think we just need to be solid and honest in supporting other workers in struggle and the idea they should control their own struggle directly, not preaching or banging on about politics/the dispute constantly and avoiding the opportunistic recruitment/paper selling antics of the trots, but at the same time not hiding our politics or our reservations over particular demands or tactics (all the while stressing these aren't our decisions to make).

SPN
Jan 19 2013 20:10

OK. The idea that co ops are self manged exploitation is a reason not to start co ops is really dumb -- the best part about a worker cooperative movement is to show people that WORKERS CAN OWN THE MOP. Worker cooperatives can help build the class consciousness, it is a means to building the movement. Simply waiting for the movement, unionizing people, and trying to pass out newspapers to people who don't really give a shit is a terrible, purely ideological, uncreative, authoritarian idea.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 19 2013 21:36

Yeah, you don't really understand the argument, do you? [/drunk post]

lowwintersun
Jul 3 2015 17:30

Agree with SPN, this is real Christian stuff. You'll get your reward after the revolution- until then suffer and agitate. Cooperatives are a way for workers to organise and provide resources, this doesn't just raise class consciousness but also enables people to gain some control over their workplace. Simply accepting the master/servant relationship will never change until some utopian post revolutionary future is the real dead end. Everything I read on here about coops imagines some general strike followed by worker councils taking control - it's doctrinal and illusionary, no different from socialists arguing about what Marx would have done.

Oh, and worker coops do go on strike, just because you have an ownership stake doesn't mean you can't disagree with the decision of management or coworkers. Workers can agitate, organise and withhold labour. A lot of the comments here seem to be from people who don't know much about worker coops and have made a series of (sometimes quite naive) assumptions.

Khawaga
Jul 3 2015 17:34
Quote:
Oh, and worker coops do go on strike, just because you have an ownership stake doesn't mean you can't disagree with the decision of management or coworkers

Not much of a co-op if there is separate management... and you don't have an ownership stake. Then it's just classic old wage labour.

And btw, strawman much?