Arguments against workers’ cooperatives: the Myth of Mondragon Part 2

mondragon-humanity-at-workIn Part one of this post I looked at the argument that the most famous example of workers’ cooperative ownership involves the division of the working class within the cooperative so that technicians and especially mangers have different views and interests from manual workers.  This is reflected in their relative enthusiasm for the cooperative form.

In fact there is no evidence or argument presented in the book under review that there is a fundamental difference of interest between managers and workers arising from class position within the relations of production, although some evidence that there is differing levels of enthusiasm.

I argued in response that the evidence for the view that there is weaker engagement of workers in the cooperative involves writing off the views of the higher paid workers, some of whom might be called managers, but that there is nevertheless some weak evidence of an unhealthy lack of participation by manual workers in decision making.  In Marx’s support for cooperative production he noted that:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”

The evidence of the book is that some of the most political workers have organised to struggle against some of these shortcomings and have succeeded.  This response of the workers is one that should be supported rather than dismiss workers ownership outright.  To anticipate the whole argument – if workers should not take up experiments in running their own workplace how are they ever to be expected to – in one momentous event called revolution – ever to take over running the whole of society and creation of their own state to protect it?

The actions of these politicised workers show the role that a workers’ party could play in advancing the socialist project within cooperative production.

The argument of the book (The Myth of Mondragon) however is not only that the real workers cooperative, as opposed to the mythical one, divides workers within the cooperative but more especially has resulted in, and was meant to result in, the division of the working class in the local area and within the Basque country more generally.

The argument has already been referred to but it is made up of several components.  The first is that the cooperative has imposed middle-class values on workers by making them, in effect, small property owners.  In this they faithfully reflect the motives and views of the original sponsor of the cooperative in Mondragon, Catholic priest José Mariá Arizmendiarrieta, who was heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and who sought to ameliorate class struggle through education and co-operativism.  Hence the significance noted in the first post of relatively more co-operators viewing themselves as middle class than workers in a private sector firm.

This fed into the views of Basque nationalism, particularly the bourgeois PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco) but also the radical nationalism of ETA, which, like the Irish versions of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism, liked to look on the Basque people as inherently egalitarian and predisposed to small property ownership which united the nation against the outside enemy, harking back to an original society free of class contradictions that preceded foreign rule.  For the radical nationalists the cooperative could simultaneously be supported by emphasising Basque unity and workers participation, so demonstrating the compatibility of nationalism and socialism while opposing any role for foreign multinationals.

The cooperative was thus a conscious political instrument to divide the working class, which was traditionally militant and socialist.  This division is also exhibited in resentment by some workers in Mondragon expressed in remarks that ‘los cooperativistas’ “have it easy”.

A third element of the argument is that it is no coincidence that the cooperative was set up under the fascist regime of General Franco since both co-operativism and fascism share a desire to negate class struggle.  Cooperatives were also supported by Mussolini and the Mondragon cooperative came into existence only because more militant forms of working class action were illegal and repressed.

The author of the book refers to the first criticisms of Mondragon by ETA which accused the Mondragon cooperative of dividing the local working class between co-operators and the rest because the cooperative workers did not want to engage in strikes with their fellow workers.

What is to be made of these arguments?

The argument that the cooperative workers have bought into the illusion that they are middle class is not strongly supported by the evidence in the book but if they did they would not be alone because such identification is not uncommon amongst many better off sections of the working class.  That through the cooperative, through their ownership of the firm, there is some basis for such a view is reflected in the quote from Marx above, that the workers make themselves their own capitalist.  However, this has not prevented workers expressing solidarity with their fellow workers or being sensitive to inequality within the workplace. Objectively their position is a transitional transcendence of capitalism but a very partial one, the more partial the more isolated it is, and cannot provide on its own guaranteed grounds for the development of socialist class consciousness.

This needs to be fought for by a working class party.  The class struggle is not abolished by cooperatives but is a means to pursue it and a battle ground on which to wage it.  The question is whether this battle involves growth and development of the cooperative form or not?  The answer for Marx was clear:

“. . . however excellent in principle and however useful in practice, co-operative labour, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries. . . To save the industrious masses, co-operative labour ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means.”

That the Mondragon cooperative was sponsored by a Catholic priest should no more be a reason for condemning it than should the Bolsheviks have condemned the demonstration led by the Russian Orthodox priest Father Gapon, which sparked the revolution in Russia in 1905.

That cooperatives have existed under fascist regimes does not demonstrate that they are essentially instruments of fascism any more than it demonstrates that fascism is the essential expression of cooperatives.  In Italy Mussolini’s fascist thugs terrorised and burnt cooperatives before making them subordinate to the fascist regime.  In Spain the dictatorship of Franco could allow isolated cooperatives to the extent that they did not follow the path, recommended by Max to the First International above, that they expand and combine to develop nationally and indeed internationally.

The example of fascist sponsorship or acquiescence is but the most extreme warning to workers that the potential for their independent initiative should not be compromised by seeking the sponsorship of the capitalist state, no matter how democratic its form.  The revolutionary content of workers cooperatives, whatever its workers might believe at any particular point in time, is that they represent the independent actions of a class that is taking measures that undermines one pillar of existing society, which is the monopoly of the means of production in the hands of a separate class of capitalists.

The need to expand is not limited to national growth but is practical demonstration that workers ownership can only succeed internationally.  So far from supporting any form of nationalism it is practical vindication of the need for workers to reject national solutions, and not just at some future point in time but now.  Workers’ ownership should be extended internationally not tied to some view that workers are part of a purely national development of a specific country and its particular state, especially when this state is inevitably a capitalist one.  Workers of different nationalities united by ownership of the one enterprise with different workplaces in different countries would be powerful demonstration of unity of interest and practical international solidarity.

The first criticisms of ETA reflect a common view on the Left, which appears to be endorsed by the author of the book, which is that the struggle of trade unions against employers is a better model of class struggle than the development of workers’ cooperatives.  Hence the criticism that the cooperative workers often did not go on strike, even though the author quotes a local militant expressing the view that this is perfectly understandable.

Who would they be striking against?  If the purpose is not to influence or pressurise their employer, which is themselves, then it would be part of a movement to demonstrate support for particular demands and the strength of feeling and organisation behind those demands.  In that case this is what demonstrations and meetings are for.

In themselves trade unions do not exist to undermine capitalism but to enforce its operation by acting on one side of the supply and demand of labour power which sets its price.  It enforces the laws by which capitalism regulates workers alienation from ownership of the means of production, it does not in itself threaten it.  Strikes can be seen as a simple refusal to sell labour power for a period rather than an existential threat to the wages system itself.

Would Left critics criticise strikes that demanded workers ownership of their firms?  Or would this be seen as a demand not actually to be realised but one only useful in so far as it leads more or less quickly to revolution?  In which case what would they say if some workers, but not all, actually succeeded – fuggedaboutthat and let’s start all over again?

None of these points negate the argument that trade unions might not be helpful for cooperative workers in order to assist them in both elaborating alternative plans for their coop or to protect them against the actions of management. Particular interests of workers are not guaranteed by workers ownership but we should not believe that trade unions are somehow superior forms of workers’ organisation and representation than the organs of the cooperative.

The latter will be composed of all the workers while the trade union will usually not.  Trade unions are not inherently more democratic as the current bureaucratised organisations show.  Nevertheless for particular workers or in particular circumstances they may be useful in representing the interests of some workers even against the majority.  These workers need not be more backward but could be more advanced and we should not necessarily believe such organisation is required because the unions are needed to represent workers in the same way Lenin claimed they were required as protection against their own bureaucratised state.

The book recalls a significant strike in the Mondragon cooperative in 1974 sparked by job regradings and the system for their evaluation.  The strike only lasted one day, following a walk-out by some of the workforce, but twenty-four leaders were fired pending a vote of a general assembly of the workers.  When this assembly convened the workers voted to uphold the sackings.  A campaign was launched to let them return which eventually, in 1978, led to their being readmitted.

The strike and its aftermath exposed the political assumptions behind the participants on both sides with cooperative managers claiming the strikers were anti-Basque while some of the strikers went on to join a Maoist-oriented organisation.  Some Left organisations then went on to develop left-wing critiques of cooperativism.

The messiness of such events gives a headache to those who like their politics simple, with workers on one side and bosses on the other.  Simple trade unionism seems to provide for that although simple trade unionism does not go beyond capitalism, much of it is purely sectional and some of it is even reactionary.

Despite the authors apparent approval of this model of class struggle she notes that, contrary to her overall argument, that the “most important factor influencing the local labour movement” was the Moncloa Pact between the Left parties, including the Spanish Communist Party, the trade unions syndicates and the Spanish Government.  This accepted changes to the law which reduced workers’ rights below what had been provided under the Franco dictatorship.

So trade unions are not an anti-dote to workers’ failure to make islands of socialism out of workers’ cooperatives, which can hardly be expected because they haven’t been able to do that for themselves.  The answer is not to see workers cooperatives as alternatives to class struggle but as part of it.  Once again the question is whether the answer lies in expansion of cooperatives or their rejection.

The answer for Marx was that they should be developed.  This is elaborated on in the two posts recommended by Boffy in his comment on the first of these posts on Mondragon.

On their own a cooperative can easily be a capitalist enterprise owned by its workers in which, as Marx says, the workers become their own capitalist.  What makes them a powerful weapon of transformation is their development and growth into a social and economic alternative to capitalism through cooperation between them and their living example of workers’ power.

As isolated coops they are indeed subject to the economic and political subordination of the capitalist economy and its state.  If content to be providers of jobs and income only to their members there is clearly no wider ambition.  However as a cooperative movement determined to grow and develop in other areas of production, both to secure its own future and share its benefits with others, and to provide other cooperative services such as education, health and other socials services, it inevitably poses itself as an alternative to capitalist production and the capitalist state’s provision of services.  It becomes a political alternative because its growth, as an economic sector driven by the needs of its workers and their customers and not by profit, is a real, practical and living example of an alternative economic and social system.

The development of the cooperative sector to become such a political rival and alternative is at least partly dependent on Marxists fighting for such a perspective within cooperatives and for cooperatives to propagandise their alternative.  In Marx’s remarks to the First International he praises workers’ cooperatives and calls for the workers to pursue just such a task:

(a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

(b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. to convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

(c) We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(d) We recommend to all co-operative societies to convert one part of their joint income into a fund for propagating their principles by example as well as by precept, in other words, by promoting the establishment by teaching and preaching.

Let’s see how such a perspective might address another frequent criticism of Mondragon and other cooperative enterprises.  This is that the cooperative further divides the working class through its large use of temporary contract labour, as much as one third of a particular workforce in Mondragon.  These workers are not members of the cooperative with all the rights of membership and obviously have much less job security.  In these circumstances the workers are not their own capitalist, since they do not have membership of the cooperative, and are exploited not by themselves but by others – the Mondragon cooperative.

If it was the case that these workers were indeed needlessly kept on purely temporary contracts it would be open to the most class conscious workers within the cooperative to campaign and seek a vote on their award of cooperative membership.

On the other hand let us assume that the cooperative workforce does not accept this because it views these workers as an unfortunate but necessary buffer against periodic reductions in demand for their products, such fluctuations being an inevitable feature of capitalism.  Then it would not be possible to give these workers cooperative membership because the cooperative could not guarantee their continued employment should demand for the products they make fall.  This might be despite the fact that the Mondragon and other cooperatives seek to move workers around the wider cooperative group in order to protect the employment of their members.

The second class status of the workers could lead to resentment within the wider working class and support for the view that the cooperative workers are indeed a privileged layer that is separate from the rest of the workers.

What is the answer to this problem?

The answer is not obviously to give these workers the same rights as the rest of the cooperative workers for this solves no problem.  If demand does suffer a drop or there is some other crisis in the cooperative, for example if some customer does not pay up because it has gone out of business, the cooperative can choose to keep all its workers on the payroll and then either weather the storm or as a result go out of business altogether.

If the latter is the foreseeable result of the event then keeping all the workers on is a mistake, not only for those workers who could otherwise save their job but for the cause of worker owned production in general.  The whole cooperative would cease to exist when part of it at least could be saved.  If all the workers, including temporary workers, have equal rights how is it to be decided who will lose their job?

If this problem is to be minimised the cooperative should seek to be part of a wider federation of cooperatives so that downturns in economic activity in one area can be made up by possible growth in employment in another.  The larger the cooperative movement the more scope there is to diversify risk and build up reserves to protect its members during crises.  Were this to happen then cooperative production would be seen by workers in the capitalist sector as a real progressive alternative to the insecurity of the capitalist sector in which workers jobs are more or less quickly sacrificed for the profits of the big wigs.

The answer then is not to reject cooperative production but to seek its growth.

In the meantime there are steps that could be taken to defend the rights and position of temporary workers.  The first might be to ensure adequate union organisation and representation for them within the cooperative.  The second might be for these temporary workers to form or be part of a ‘temporary workers’ cooperative themselves, which has a membership across a number of firms that might not all have to be cooperative enterprises. (Just such an idea is proposed by Boffy in the posts referred to above).

In this way the temporary workers would not have to simply rely on the actions of others but would, through their own cooperative employment agency, take some control of their employment situation including building up reserves for bad periods, providing social insurance or job seeking support, including retraining facilities.  Such a cooperative could be the sponsor of a political campaign in defence of the rights of temporary contract workers.

To return to the main argument: the promotion of cooperative production is not an alternative to class struggle but a part of it.  It is the solution to a problem that many of those who believe in socialist revolution believe does not exist.  This problem is that the majority of the working class do not see any need for their own ownership and control of production.  They not only do not see the need for it but even if they did they have no experience of it, nor any particular, in fact any, view of how it would seek to achieve its aims.

The view that running society is something that can be done more or less easily on the morrow of the revolution does not ask why workers would carry out this revolution in the first place or why they would be fit to run things after it.  What is it they would seek to do differently and how could it be done?

Instead the process of revolution, as normally argued, envisages workers rebelling against attacks on their living standards and democratic rights through some sort of politicised general strike which develops into workers councils.  These will then take over from the capitalist state.  What is missing from this is any understanding of socialist revolution as a change in the mode of production.  From one based on profit to one based on use.  From one based on capitalist ownership of the means of production to one based on workers ownership.

We are asked in this scenario to believe that the whole working class will in one fit of more or less violent rebellion against repression etc, seek and know how to implement its own ownership of production but that such strivings should not be encouraged or expressed before the revolution in the growth of workers cooperatives.

There is no need for workers to learn about how to organise production within their own factories and offices.  No need to learn how to manage trade and production between other workplaces and customers.  No need to master how the economy works the better to make changes that benefit fellow workers and fellow consumers.  No need to learn how to compile economic plans within the firm, within the wider cooperative movement and the wider economy.

No need to learn by practical experience the role of the capitalist state in protecting capitalist property against rival workers’ owned property; to learn the need to build their own structures that will defend their plans to develop production as they see fit, and no need to seek to defend their own cooperative property through the overthrow of the capitalist state.

The argument is not whether cooperative production plays a role in the move to socialism but what role that is, over what period of time such production can realistically be expected to develop and what the role is of Marxists in politically fighting for and defending the growth of workers property.

Back to part 1

Arguments against workers’ cooperatives: the Myth of Mondragon Part 1

9780791430040Perhaps the most well-known workers’ cooperative is the Mondragon Group based in the Basque country, famous not only because of its success and longevity but because of its involvement in manufacturing.  Its approach has been recognised by many around the world as an alternative to the capitalist corporation, resulting in numerous visits and studies of its performance and operation from those keen to learn its lessons and apply them at home.  For Marxists it would seem practical demonstration of the claim that capitalists aren’t needed and workers can successfully organise production in a fairer and more equitable way and without abandoning efficiency or the making of goods that other workers would like to buy.  I therefore want to look at the arguments in a book that says that this view is wrong and is based on an understanding of the Mondragon story that is mistaken because that story is a myth.[i]

The myth arises, says the author, by de-contextualising the cooperative from its social and political environment and from its historical origins and development.  The workers of Mondragon are not more class conscious but less.  She quotes approvingly the view, expressed in a separate study of a particular group of workers’ class position, that political and ideological dimensions are often more significant for actual class position than are strict property relations.  When we adopt this perspective things look quite different.  The author presents general arguments around the question of workers’ cooperatives and a particular analysis of Mondragon.  She does so ‘from a working-class perspective.’

I am not knowledgeable enough to make judgements on the particular arguments about the Basque country but I will comment on the evidence for her claims that she presents and the general arguments presented on workers’ ownership within capitalism.

In my view her first mistake is to identify workers cooperatives as part of a spectrum of labour-management cooperation, ranging from quality circles, team organisation, works councils and employee share ownership programmes all the way to workers’ ownership.  All are designed not only to make workers obey management but to make them want to obey.  They involve various mechanisms of labour management cooperation and compare unfavourably with the conflict model that involves militant trade unions facing up to management and representing the workers.

Her mistake is to see workers’ ownership as a model of capital-labour cooperation.  Far from a mechanism for cooperation with management and capitalists it is a model for workers cooperating with each other and in which capitalists, at least within the firm, do not exist.  Its logic is to extend cooperation among the working class and in so doing create the grounds on which a new socialist society can be built and there are no capitalists anywhere.

Of course there is still a management within the cooperative and the model involves various mechanisms for shop-floor worker and management cooperation but it is the workers themselves who can appoint, and if so devised, replace management because it is the workers who are the owners.  Management is accountable to the owners who are the workers.  In a capitalist firm workers are accountable to management.

Of course Kasmir is aware of this but at places within her book she presents the management of Mondragon as virtually a separate class from workers on the shop floor.  As an anthropologist she is sensitive to the differences between the daily lives of workers and managers even where the income differences are relatively small compared to most capitalist enterprises. She sees these relatively small but significant differences in income reflected outside the workplace also reflected in knowledge, responsibility and power within the cooperative.  She notes that it is the cooperative’s managers who are most enthusiastic about the cooperative and that it is they who invariably welcome visitors and present the views of the cooperative’s members to outsiders.

It is undoubtedly true that workers are sensitive to even relatively small differences in income, especially in contexts in which equality is held as a primary virtue and objective.  It was just such dissonance between claims and reality that led to such cynicism among workers in the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.  While workers were supposed to be in power and equality reigned, in the reality that everyone lived and saw the bureaucracy maintained exclusive power and defended all the material privileges that went with it.

It is not the case however that Mondragon is a little bit of Stalinism in the Basque country or economy of the Spanish State.  There is no attempt made to claim this in the book.  In fact the book records that repeated attempts by management to increase the allowed differential between management and shop floor pay have been repeatedly voted down by workers.  Workers have the power to limit the pay of management.  What capitalist firm allows that?  Read the financial press and it is full of complaints that even capitalist shareholders have difficulty doing this in big corporations.  How many votes did the Stalinist bureaucracies in Eastern Europe ever allow themselves to lose?  Unlike in these states the Mondragon cooperative does not outlaw political activity and the author records the actions of a small group of politicised workers who campaigned actively against the management proposal and succeeded.

The author however also reports that workers do not feel the strong identification with the cooperative that might be assumed.  She demonstrates this through a survey in which she is able to compare the attitudes of workers in a factory within the Mondragon Group to those in a similar privately owned one.  These results have been referred to on a number of occasions by people on the Left as justification for opposition to cooperatives, here for example.

Asked in the Clima cooperative whether ‘in your job, do you feel that you are working as if the firm is yours?’ 23 said yes (40 per cent) and 33 said no while in the privately owned Mayc 10 said yes (28 per cent) and 25 said no.  If technicians and managers are excluded the difference between the two almost disappears with 6 in Clima and 5 in Mayc agreeing.  In both therefore the majority denied feeling that they were working as if the firm was theirs.

Asked if they ‘feel that you are part of the firm?’ 34 agreed in Clima and 21 said no while 23 in Mayc said yes and 13 said no.  While a majority in both therefore agreed that they felt part of the firm a higher percentage agreed in the privately owned firm (64 per cent) than in the cooperative (59 per cent).  Again the feeling was stronger among managers within the cooperative.

Cooperative workers did however report that they felt solidarity with their co-workers, 97 per cent in Clima compared to 86 per cent in privately owned Mayc, while 53 per cent of Clima workers compared to 56 per cent of the private Mayc reported that they had participated in a solidarity strike.  The total for the Clima cooperative included 14 managers at all levels.  The author notes that age played a big part in the answer given the decline of such strikes.

To the question ‘is there any competition over salaries/job indexes?’ (indexes denote salary, responsibility and skill levels) 72 per cent in the cooperative said yes while 56 per cent in the private firm said yes.  When asked ‘is there competition for jobs?’ 79 per cent in the cooperative Clima said yes while 56 per cent in privately owned Mayc also said yes.

The author reports that in neither firms did the workers express strong confidence in the organs that represented them – the social council in the Clima cooperative and the workers’ council in Mayc.  Managers voiced stronger confidence in Clima.  Asked if trade union syndicates should play a role in the cooperative 13 manual workers said yes and 11 said no.  Asked if they needed them to support them and assist in getting expert advice to feed into alternative production and business plans 15 manual workers agreed.  Nevertheless though half of the sample agreed to trade union syndicates playing a role, and although individual membership was allowed while syndicate activity was not, only a handful of workers in 1990 were actually members.

Only six co-operators said they would prefer to work in a private firm.  Of those who did not want to change one said “but I would like it if things changed a lot in the cooperatives.”   Another, explaining his preference for a cooperative, said “because in theory we are worker-owners and the decisions are made by the manager as well as the guy who sweeps the floor.”

Finally asked ‘what social class are you?’ 25 per cent of manual workers in the private Mayc said they were middle class while 70 per cent in the Clima cooperative said they were middle class.  It is an argument of Kasmir that there is a tendency for cooperative workers to see themselves as middle class although she says that while this may be the case these workers see clear distinctions between themselves and their cooperative managers.

So what are we to make of these responses?  First we should note that the evidence is not clear cut and sometimes appears contradictory.  So more co-operators than private sector employees felt that they were working as if the firm was theirs, while a higher percentage of workers in the private firm agreed that they felt part of the firm.  More co-operators viewed themselves as middle class – 70 per cent -yet 97 per cent felt solidarity with their fellow workers.  Like all surveys we might not interpret the questions correctly never mind the answers.  Is there more competition for jobs in the cooperative and if there was was this a good thing rather than a bad thing – a sign of the openness to individual progress and a less rigid and restrictive job structure?

The most immediate problem however is that the survey was not representative.  In other words no robust conclusions can be drawn from it.  Only 58 cooperative workers answered the survey, which was only 19 per cent of the workforce.  Only 36 or 6 per cent of the private firm answered the survey.  The cooperative survey was also not representative because it contained a higher number of new recruits to the Clima cooperative, which might explain a lower identification with it.  Cooperative workers were also more likely to skip questions and write in their own answers and the author speculates that this might be evidence of the ‘culture of dialogue’ which exists in the cooperative.

The author is keen to point to the differences of response from manual workers and the technicians and managers, with the latter being more positive about the cooperative.  As we have seen, she endorses the view that ideological and political views might be more important than class position defined by the relations of production.  It is more than probable however, given the income differentials permitted in the cooperative, that these technicians and most managers were simply better paid workers and their views cannot be reduced on that account.  In the present context it would be rather circular to claim that particular ideological views are working class (less enthusiasm for cooperatives) than others (endorsement of workers’ ownership) without some argument as to why objectively cooperatives are not an expression of working class power inimical to capitalism.  To make such a case one would inevitably have to refer to relations of production but this is the approach the author appears to reject.

It would be a mistake however to simply reject and ignore the finding s of the survey because it is unrepresentative, although one could quite legitimately do this.  The author considers the survey important because its findings are consistent with the more informal and anecdotal evidence she has collected in her stays in Mondragon, including her conversations with some of the local people and review of the political debate among the left on the Mondragon experience.

But the same sort of criticism can be made of her evidence here as well.  So she refers to a demonstration in Mondragon over the annual province-wide labour contract for the metal sector.  This involved a ritualistic demonstration and a short strike as sometimes both the workers and business owners “simply go through the motions so that the structure of the contest does not break down.  Thus the strike is not always a genuine struggle between labour and owners but a ritual of class solidarity.”(page 169)

However this year, 1990, only 60 people turned up; many workers did not vote on whether to have a strike; many who did vote voted against one; the demonstration was short, was over in half an hour and “was disappointing for all who participated.”  It obviously graphically demonstrated the overall decline in workers’ struggle in the town and more widely in the Basque country and the Spanish State.  Given all this there is no big point to be made in noting that not one cooperative worker took part in the demonstration (and the metal contract only indirectly impacted on cooperative workers’ pay).  The author notes that co-operators always made some showing in the past.

The argument of the author however is that the cooperative model was a conscious stratagem to weaken the class combativity of the Mondragon working class – this argument, and that the cooperatives divide the working class, will be reviewed in the next post.  At this point however it is worthwhile accepting the possibility that the workers in Mondragon are not fully engaged in the management of the cooperative, might be apathetic and might not have the enthusiasm that we would wish for.

All this could be true and it would not at all invalidate the struggle for workers’ ownership as a crucial and central part of the struggle against capitalism and for a new socialist society.  Only if one believed that the weight of capitalist society could be lifted from workers’ shoulders by the still limited development of cooperatives could it be possible to be either surprised or deflated that the class consciousness of cooperatives workers has not risen to the requirements of socialist revolution.

It should be recalled that socialist revolution is not just the product of such consciousness but its creation and realisation.  Neither is such revolution reducible or possible as a one-off event but is the culmination of long and varied experience.  Since workers ownership and control of the whole of the productive powers of society is central to socialism it should not be a surprise that relatively early and limited steps towards this do not reflect in purity the future that socialists seek.

The Mondragon experience proves that cooperative workers and their political consciousness might not leap beyond that of their fellow workers.  The evidence of the book under review however is that the class consciousness and combativity of the Mondragon workers was not the cause of the downturn in class struggle in the Basque country and Spain but was simply a reflection of it.

Unlike workers in private firms however cooperative workers maintain ownership of their workplace even during such a downturn.  They therefore maintain an economic and social power which they can build upon in the future.  Their example lives on and they have at hand much greater resources to call upon when it is a more opportune time to advance.  All this compares very favourably with the more or less unrestricted powers of private owners and managers in firms stripped of trade unions or in which unions are weaker, thoroughly bureaucratised or in which they have become company poodles.  None of these rather common scenarios invalidates the correctness of continuing to fight for union organisation as part of the fight for socialism.

Perhaps the evidence of this book illustrates that greater trade union involvement might help raise the participation of workers in running the cooperative or that more open and structured involvement of political groups might achieve the same.  The point is that the possibility of this only arises where workers already own their workplace.

 Forward to part 2

[i] ‘The Myth of Mondragon. Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town’, Sharryn Kasmir, State University of New York Press.

What the Haass talks failure tells us about Northern Ireland

bruegel3The failure of the negotiations chaired by the US diplomat Richard Haass is a significant failure. This can be seen for three reasons.

Firstly there was widespread initial expectation that an agreement would be reached – these talks are always carefully choreographed and why else had the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein set it up?  .  Later it was equally widely assumed that some fudge would emerge.  In the event no agreement was reached.

Secondly, all the participants declared that the talks were not a failure; all keen not to be seen to be the party responsible for the failure.  If they were unimportant this would not have mattered.

Lastly their importance can be seen by recognising why they were required in the first place – because the issues they were to deal with have led to a year of low level conflict and proved the last bit of grit that was gumming up the works of the Stormont administration.  Over the last year it has been increasingly impossible to maintain the pretence that the governance put together by the Good Friday Agreement was working even minimally.  Ministers were taking each other to court, the smell of corruption was getting more rancid, meetings were not taking place and one representative from the DUP tweeted her approval of the killing of a fellow Sinn Fein MLA in Government.

The latter was a direct result of the bitterness created by a year of loyalist demonstrations against the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the union flag over City Hall on only designated days instead of all day, every day.  Apparently this was the last straw; a challenge requiring a demand for No Surrender; a provocation that required movement by not an inch; the final step in the war against the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist People; one that required that this people stand in defiance because they could do no other.  In other words this supposedly existential crisis, like every other of Irish loyalism, invites ridicule before everyone is expected to take the grossly exaggerated claims seriously before then being gently told by the British State that they should be accommodated.

The three issues that the talks dealt with were the legacy of the past, flags and emblems, and parading.  The past is not about the past but about the nature of the present.  Flags are the symbols that represent this present and parades are the street-level reality of the symbols.

It was widely reported that the talks collapsed because the most extreme fringe of loyalism  that has been behind the flag protests would not accept a code of conduct for parading, something the DUP and Sinn Fein had previously agreed to in principle.  Such a code might have outlawed paramilitary displays and other unacceptable behaviour.  The unionist parties were not quick to deny this.  The right to parade past Catholic areas by loyalist paramilitaries, while they are also engaged in drug dealing, extortion and intimidation – mostly of the communities they live in, is the apparent reason for the failure of the Haass talks.

There is some truth in this despite what it says about the character of the Northern Ireland State, which cannot function with any sort of consensus because this consensus must reconcile itself to the most blatant displays of naked bigotry.  This cannot be too openly admitted but what we see is the proverbial emperor’s new clothes.

Go to any loyalist parade, say on the 12 July, and you will see serried ranks of smug and arrogant suited men (sometimes women) in bowler hats marching behind temperance banners led by uniformed flute bands, sometimes named after a sectarian killer, playing sectarian tunes to the beat of drums pummelled as violently as it is possible.  Surrounding and following the parades will be hundreds of drunken youths in various stages of stupor.  This is what you see and appearance faithfully corresponds to essence.

Loyalist parades contain the worst of the petty bourgeoisie and what Marx would have called the dangerous classes.  The make up of the latter can be seen in newspaper reports of the court cases dealing with those arrested at loyalist parades.  These include middle aged men miles from home who have sunk enormous quantities of beer and cannot remember what they have done.  They include Scotsmen who couldn’t get enough of their sectarian fix from attendance at Ibrox every two weeks following the new Glasgow Rangers Football club but have to come to Belfast to worship at the Mecca of bigotry.  It includes bandsmen whose reason for failing to stop playing sectarian tunes is that they are so illiterate they could not read the feet-long neon signs put up by the police telling them to stop.

Such classes exist everywhere and are a tribute to the worst aspects of capitalist society.  What differentiates Northern Ireland and makes its politics so incomprehensible to outsiders and so intractable inside is that these classes and their reactionary political representatives are sponsored by the State because they are the most vocal and enthusiastic supporters of the State’s existence.  This is not so much important as vital when the existence of that state is explicitly or implicitly continually in question.

The main force behind the crisis thrown up by the flags dispute has been the Ulster volunteer Force, which must have hundreds of members and a few thousand followers.  It has been repeatedly accused of sponsoring the riots surrounding the dispute, especially in East Belfast, and the conspicuous lack of action by the State’s police force has led even supports of the police to question just exactly what it is up to.  Collusion between the police and loyalist paramilitaries is not so much suspected as assumed and mountains of evidence in the recent past has shown the police arm, direct and facilitate loyalist murder gangs.  Even after massacres of plainly innocent civilians agents of the police responsible have had their payments from the police increased.

Most recently murals on house walls of armed UVF men have been painted while the police claim there is nothing they can do about it unless someone complains.  Such action is of course illegal – try painting your neighbours wall magnolia and you will soon find out.  The approach of the Police Service of Northern Ireland however, if consistently pursued, would leave murder as a legal activity unless the victim made a complaint.

The lack of action has emboldened loyalism.  When they come under some political pressure because of their drug dealing (or shooting of a young woman reported to be an ex-girlfriend of a UVF boss)  the police have issued statements, after much delay, to state that although such and such an attack  was carried out by members of the UVF it had not been sanctioned by the organisation’s leadership.  So that’s all right then.  The police present public alibis for the criminals that the criminals don’t even claim.

Just how they know this is rarely asked and never answered. However it is obvious that only by having agents within the UVF leadership could this be the case.  Since the organisation remains largely intact the only conclusion can be that the agents of the police are not there to destroy this organisation but to bend it to the police’s will and this requires that it continues to exist and exercise the  power that it does.  Loyalist paramilitaries have their uses and these aren’t to help old ladies across roads or collect litter.

I have explained before how relatively small loyalist organisations appear to exercise undue influence on unionism as a whole and in this case the failure of the Haass talk’s is put down to the upcoming electoral cycle in which being the most extreme defender of sectarian privilege is rarely the road to failure.

The talks failed not only on the issue of parades but also on that of flags and dealing with the past.  The past includes what all the previous peace process deals have represented – not an accommodation with nationalism but a recognition that unionism had won and thus simply stepping stones to majority rule within the North and the retrieval of all the sectarian powers unionism once held at Stormont.

Close acquaintance with Sinn Fein has demonstrated to unionism that deals can be broken; republicans arrested, threatened and insulted; their ministers taken to court and prevented from implementing policies of their own, and Sinn Fein will do nothing.  Nothing except agree with the DUP to call in a couple of Americans and watch while that DUP walks away from its own initiative.

The DUP now say that what nationalism has agreed is nothing but the starting point for new negotiations that will shift the result further to the right.  And when the unionists don’t like that street mobilisations, stewarded by the armed forces of the British state, will shift things further right again.

In a society in which over 40 per cent are Catholic and many Protestants are shamed by the antics of the Orange Order and repelled by loyalist paramilitaries this might seem irrational.  It leads only to increased political instability in the State they seek to defend.  Only the accommodating position of the British rulers, who are the real objects of unionist pressure, make this strategy continue to appear to be realistic.  Unionism cannot use a modern day B Specials or army mutiny to directly enforce its demands.  It can only succeed where the British allow it.

The problem for unionism is that the British will accommodate the most extreme loyalist actions when it feels it is necessary, and it will provide for increased loyalist privilege, but it will not provoke a crisis that will exclude nationalists from any role in administering the State.  This role can become smaller and smaller but the Catholic population is not prepared to accept a return to the old Stormont regime and this is what unionism wants.

In this situation Northern nationalism is not an opposition but merely an obstacle.  The difference?  With an opposition the possibility of defeat exists or perhaps retreat.  With merely an obstacle the possibility of victory is always there.  Sooner or later the obstacle might be removed.

There is an opposition but both the British State and loyalism are blessed by its character.  Republicanism, real Irish republicanism in the shape of what is termed the dissidents, is the major opposition to both but they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from a quarter century of armed action.  Such action has not, cannot and will not achieve its aim of destroying partition.

In the past it played a parasitic role on the political struggle, appearing to offer a more militant road to freedom, but ultimately collapsing into the arms of imperialism.  When the gap between its methods and objectives was eventually closed this led not to a re-evaluation of methods but a ditching of the objective.  The building of a united Irish working class movement North and South and within the North itself is therefore a task for socialism.  Only it seeks the liberation of people, the class that will liberate all classes, while republicans seek the liberation of an as yet to exist Irish Republic, in other words a new State machine.

For republicans workers are instruments for revolution while for socialists they are the subject of revolution.  For republicans workers might sometimes be the best fighters for a Republic while for socialists the liberation of workers is the purpose, the means and the objective.

In concrete reality the adherence to militarism by republicans continues to be the alternative that makes the crumbling peace process – that the Haass talks have failed to shore up – attractive.  The prospect of violent political action that substitutes for a political strategy is not at all attractive, except to ideological republicans irreconcilable to British rule and poorer working class Catholics who have gained nothing from the peace process.

This is not an insignificant support but it is not enough to move to a position that threatens British rule.  Instead its actions appear provocative in that they easily allow the British not only to hold them up as the horrible alternative to their own sectarian stew but also to justify whatever repression they consider necessary.  They also provide threadbare cover to loyalist actions.

In this way the armed actions of republicans have only reactionary consequences.  Whether such provocation is meant or is merely considered an acceptable by-product is ultimately of no importance.  The result is the same.  While socialists must continue to debate with those republicans that might listen on their mistaken road of armed action we cannot do so without patiently explaining their failures, the reactionary consequences of their actions and the alternative strategy.

This alternative involves complete opposition to the sectarian parades of the Orange Order, the claims of unionism to sectarian privilege and the protection of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State.

Employee ownership and socialism

coop-klBeyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book is clearly not a Marxist and he approves of arguments for workers’ cooperatives that encapsulate ‘good, basic, capitalist thinking.’  He puts forward the view that what he is proposing is, far from being woolly and utopian, not only immensely practical but has been implemented many, many times in many, many places.  It’s sheer practicality is one of its attractions and let’s be clear – the practicality of something is an attraction.  It is a clear advantage for any option that it can actually be implemented.

Much of the Left however recoils in horror at the ideas proposed in this book.  Nevertheless the impulse and development as well as the ideological case for workers’ ownership are forceful reflections of the analysis of Marx, which posits the growing contradiction between the socialisation of production and the private appropriation of this production by capital.

Ironically the author gives an illustration of this contradiction.  He compares the electronics industry in Silicon Valley favourably to that of Boston and accounts for the relative success of the former as a result of the fluidity of the movement of people involved in the industry, lack of proprietorial authority in many of the industries’ firms  and the inability of owners and managers to contain the flow of information within individual companies; all contributing to creative development of products and production.

It is notable, he says, that there is less of a top-down culture in Silicon Valley and that employee ownership has been a major driver in business development.  Companies could not attract good people simply by cash so instead used share options, a form of ownership, to get them to come, work for them and stay in the firm.  This together with the excitement of the work itself became the greatest motivating factors for employees.

The socialisation of production is evidenced by the increasing division of labour in which thousands, if not millions, of products are separately produced across the globe in order to come together as one combined product.  The necessity for this production to take place in a balanced and proportionate way, so that the final product can be efficiently produced, requires co-ordination and planning within and across hundreds and thousands of companies.

In April two years ago the BBC reported that a fire in a factory in the small town of Marl in western Germany had killed two people and affected the production of a resin called P-12, used in car braking and fuel  systems. This threatened car production across the world so that “Earlier this week, more than 200 executives from companies including General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford met in Michigan. -. . . The group said that it was clear that “a significant portion of the global production capacity” had been compromised.  After the meeting, the big car companies were saying nothing on the record.  But some sources now say there is a real worry that the potential impact could be serious, including a slow-down in production.”

Such cooperation is planned but insufficiently so.  The inevitable disproportions in production lead not to conscious alterations in levels of production in order to seek balance in the myriad locations but to individual crises of cash-flow or profitability in individual firms and production units, leading to crises and disruption.  Economic and production efficiency is calculated at the individual firm level without regard to the overall system of production, the cooperative system of labour, which is in place.

We saw this through the recent dispute at the Grangemouth refinery and petro-chemical works, on which much of the British chemical industry was apparently dependent.  The economic calculation that was carried out rested solely on the relative profitability of the Grangemouth plant and not on an assessment of the industry as a whole.

Both examples illustrate the contradiction between private ownership of the means of production and the increasingly socialised system of production on which it is based.

An even more dramatic illustration of this contradiction is shown by the following two graphs.  They show the falls in world trade and industrial production following the credit crunch in 2008 compared to the impact of the great Depression of 1929:

World Trade

eo fig 2 eichengreen_2ndupdate_fig1

World Industrial Production

What these show is the dramatic falls in economic activity consequent on the decisions of individual banks and financial institutions not to lend because they did not trust each other to be in a position to pay the loans back.  The huge socialisation of resources that is carried out through the credit system became a prisoner of the private ownership of these credit institutions.  Each feared that the other might be fatally insolvent due to speculation in sub-prime mortgages or old-fashioned overproduction of houses and offices as in the case of Ireland.

What has this to do with the growth of workers cooperatives?  Well, if we  understand that capitalism is characterised by the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production (including credit) and the ownership and control of these means in a separate class, the class of capitalists, we can see that such a system can exist only by workers gaining their livelihoods by selling their capacity to work on the labour market and using the money received to purchase the means of subsistence that they have just produced (but which are owned by the capitalists for whom they work).  The sale and purchase of these two types of commodities, labour power and means of subsistence, takes place in the market and the economics profession attempts to analyse how the economy works by focusing on how these markets work – without previously understanding or analysing why there is a need for these markets in the first place.

The explanation for this is that workers do not own the means of production and therefore cannot allocate these means or the output derived from them directly, through conscious planning, to satisfy the needs and wants that they have themselves previously identified.  They do not set the priorities for what has to be produced, how and where it is to be produced or consciously regulate the effects of what they produce so that any relative over-production does not lead to a closure of workplaces but to a planned decrease in capacity and switch to other desirable production.

The creation of workers cooperatives is a step in overcoming the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production and therefore of overcoming capitalism.

Many on the left advance fears that workers will become their own capitalists and because the author of this book is not a socialist he quotes approvingly the view that while capitalism is good at creating capital it is not good at creating capitalists. The fear is that the competition involved in the Market will lead workers, even those owning their own businesses, to compete with each other in a way that simply replicates the exploitation involved in private capitalist ownership.  The drive to produce cheapest will lower wages and increase work effort.  In effect workers will exploit themselves.

What this view does in effect is give priority to the Market in analysing capitalism in just the same way as do the mainstream economists.  What they don’t see is the potential of workers cooperatives to overcome the separation of workers from ownership of the means of production and through ending this separation threaten the monopoly of the capitalist class, in doing so undermining the existence of the market as a regulator of economic life.

This can be done through the simple expedient of individual workers’ cooperatives cooperating!  The immediate objection to workers cooperatives is that they will have to compete with each other, or at least with private capital, and while the latter may be true the former is not.  Workers cooperatives can cooperate with each other.

Will workers cooperatives still exist within a society that is capitalist?  Yes, which is why books like the one reviewed see no contradiction between capitalism as a system and workers ownership.  Will this involve competition and will this not involve unwanted and unpleasant features and decisions? Yes, but Marx explained that the new society would not be born except on the basis of the old one and not on one that we could choose.

The sometimes contradictory arguments of this book reflect this contradiction existing in real life.  No more so than the argument about how the transition to workers cooperatives can come about.  Here it is argued, obviously on the basis that there is no contradiction between cooperative production and capitalism, that the capitalists themselves should simply transform their companies into cooperatives.  ‘The powerful need a change of heart’; senior managers will have to ‘make do with a smaller proportion of the wealth’; managers will ‘certainly have to learn how to exercise their power differently’ and ‘advisors will need a change of outlook’.  The book has explained why this should happen but not why it is in the interests of these people that it should happen.

The author calls on Government to prefer cooperatives and points out that this will increase prosperity, boost tax receipts, reduce social problems, increase citizen welfare and reduce social expenditure.  This makes sense only if you think the State is there for all citizens and not just for a few.

It calls on trade union leaders to realise the importance of workers gaining ownership rights and the potential it has for higher earnings, enhancing workers’ rights to information and their power to influence company decisions.  On this score it might appear that the author is on more secure ground since trade unions claim to represent workers and their interests.  Unfortunately it is just for this reason that many do not support worker ownership since such ownership would undermine claims that they exclusively represent workers in a particular workplace.  Normally union leaders prefer state ownership because the state will often guarantee union recognition, and therefore the dues income that pays the salaries of the union officials, while it allows these same officials the ability and right to claim exclusive representation rights.

The alternative perspective of some of the Left – of a once and for all take-over of all capitalist production by a workers’ state – has its own problems.  It leaves no role for the accumulation of prior social power and experience by the working class or of the potential radicalising effect of prior widespread workers ownership.  Such ownership would allow a ready reply to the accurate critique we now hear – where is your workers’ and socialist alternative?

Through many posts we have pointed out the fact that this has disarmed workers in fighting austerity, debt bondage and workplace closures.  Keynesianism – increases in state expenditure – is usually put forward as the only alternative to austerity but it is not an alternative that belongs to the working class.  The perspective of a workers’ economy can take root as a concrete alternative, at least in part to the degree that workers already own and control production.

Instead the ideal of a revolution, that in one blow achieves the requirements of decades of class struggle and experience, slides into the view that this comprehensive creation of socialised property becomes a single task of a country wide mechanism, usually the state.  So the State which is the protector of private ownership is wrongly held up as the means of overcoming it, through nationalisation etc.

Even those who see the creation of workers’ ownership as a task only for a workers’ state do not appreciate that this workers’ state itself must be based on workers ownership of production and of society.  How else do we prevent the bureaucratic degeneration experienced after the Russian revolution or expect the state to ‘wither away’ after revolution, which is the goal of Marxists and which was proclaimed by Lenin after the revolution?

The fight for workers cooperatives is a transitional one in that it contains the seeds of future society within the old.  It therefore contains elements of the old and those of the new but to condemn it for the former while ignoring the latter is a mistake.  In the next post I will look at criticisms of the idea of workers cooperatives as a means of achieving working class liberation and socialism.