Workers’ cooperatives as an alternative to Capitalism – 2

10698536_420301091453164_5593204590190940624_nMarxists believe that conditions determine consciousness.  The ideas that most people have are products of their circumstances.  Currently workers sell their labour power as a commodity.  That is why they concentrate efforts on the price of their labour power (wages) and the terms and conditions at which it is sold.

It is why they value those services that they cannot provide for themselves individually but are unable to provide collectively because they lack the consciousness and organisation to do so.  This includes such things as unemployment insurance, pensions, health care and education.

The sanctification of capitalist private property means that the former is not strictly political while the distribution of the revenue from capitalism is.  Through the latter the working class is made dependent on the state for these services, including through employment in their delivery.  The welfare dependency culture repeated like a mantra by the right has this much basis in fact.

What there is not therefore is the material basis for the growth of a consciousness that workers should own, manage and control the productive activities of the economy and the state.  Instead the growth of the state and its acknowledged political leadership are the grounds for the view that the redistributive powers of the state are the basis for a solution.  This mistaken view takes the extreme form on the Left that the state should take over production itself.  Of course this has been tried.  It didn’t work well.

What we have with the Keynesian alternative then is an expectation, doomed to disappointment, that the capitalist state will divide the fruits of capitalism to benefit those who have first been exploited in opposition to those who have carried out the exploitation, which must remain in place in order to continue funding the redistribution.

Marxists believe that the future socialist society is not utopian because current society contains its anticipation in various ways.  Capitalism is pregnant with the future socialism; except that if the state is the embryo then the pregnancy taken to full term does not result in socialism but something else entirely.

Workers’ cooperatives are one of the crucial elements of this anticipated new society growing within the womb of the old.  It reunites workers with the means of production and removes the capitalist from the workplace.  It gives ownership to the workers and elevates their power, confidence and consciousness.  It can prepare the workers involved and other workers for the task of making the whole economy the property of the working class, which is socialism.

Workers ownership can provide the basis for workers to provide the services that are currently provided by the state and which leaves them at the mercy of the state and the politicians who preside on top of it.  Such services include education, health, welfare and pensions.  Workers self-provision of this would result in their own priorities being imposed on their provision.

However to posit this as the alternative immediately demonstrates a major difficulty.  While it is possible to envisage workers cooperatives supplanting individual capitalist production it is much more difficult to envisage this in regard to the services now provided by the State.  What this once again demonstrates is the role of the state as defender of the capitalist system – through exclusion of the working class from direct control within society and protection of the accumulation needs of capitalism.

Workers’ self-provision of what are now services provided by the state would necessarily lead not to demanding more taxation by the state but less, so that workers would have more control of their earnings and would have more to pool together and employ to their collective benefit.  In short workers would take more and more responsibility for their own lives, even when temporarily or permanently unable to work.  The dependence on the capitalist state would be weakened, at least in this respect.

In Ireland workers would have the grounds for recognising that there is an alternative economic development model to reliance on US multinationals.  They would have an example of a model of development that didn’t rely on the state.  They would have a living alternative to the threats that they need the capitalist banks.

Instead of workers relying on the state to provide for them by taxing the rich or investing in infrastructure to promote private capitalist investment they would have an alternative in which it is their own activity which is the alternative to capitalist crisis.

Is this the viewpoint of a reformist and utopian scenario?  I think not.

Firstly thousands of cooperatives already exist; they are not purely idealistic mental constructions.  What’s more they can be, and many are, very successful; providing hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Living proof that workers can do without capitalists to tell them what to do.  Workers can take control, can make decisions and can be successful.

The spread of workers’ cooperatives in entirely possible, their growth and development is not precluded by any necessarily limiting factor in capitalist development, at least to the point where capitalist accumulation appears threatened by it.

The trade union movement and the political organisations of the working class can play an important role in their development.  Workers’ cooperatives are therefore not an alternative to the existing workers movement but are something that can be complementary to its development, freeing it more and more from dependence on private capital and the state.

In fact workers’ cooperatives will inevitably demonstrate through their development the antipathy of the state to workers ownership and the power that workers as a class will develop as a result of its development.  The state will inevitably be used by the class it serves, the capitalist class, to undermine competition from workers cooperatives and support private capitalist accumulation.  Such a development will clarify the lines of battle between the workers’ movement and the capitalist system.

Workers’ cooperatives are not an alternative to class struggle but a means of carrying it out.  The creation of workers’ cooperatives in Argentina following its capitalist crises is evidence of this – how much better to promote workers’ cooperatives before such cataclysmic crises rather than in their midst or aftermath.

When workers say – “where is your socialist alternative after over a 150 years of your movement?”, we might have a living movement to point to rather than a simple promise for the future.

And such a movement will be an international one because just as capitalist development has become international there is every reason why workers’ cooperative production should also be international.  Every bit of such development will strengthen the international bonds between workers and undermine nationalist solutions that are currently growing.

In other words workers’ cooperatives provide the living link between resistance against the injustice of the current system and the creation of a real alternative.  Instead of simple rejection of cuts and lack of democracy workers’ cooperatives not only posit employment and democracy within the cooperative but the transition to a new society.  Workers’ cooperatives thus provide the material basis for linking the struggle against capitalism to the creation of socialism.

Workers’ cooperatives are not a magic bullet answer to the current crisis on the Left.  There is no simple or singular programmatic answer to a crisis that exists at the level of working class consciousness and organisation.  But for the Left a programmatic answer is currently by far and away the most important contribution that it can provide to workers.

Traditionally the revolutionary left has rejected workers’ cooperatives because they have been seen as an alternative to revolution – a militant class struggle against capitalists and the state culminating in an insurrection, the smashing of the capitalist state and creation of a new one.  I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the patient work of class organisation involved in union organising, party building and creation of workers’ cooperatives would get in the way of a burgeoning revolutionary movement.  Anyway, when was the last revolution in an advanced capitalist state, one in which the working class is the vast majority of society?

It can be legitimately claimed that workers in existing cooperatives lack socialist consciousness so how can they provide the material basis for socialism?  This objection however must also take on board the reality that decades of union organisation has also not turned the majority of trade unionists into socialists.  However no one advocates abandoning the organisation of trade unions.

Finally an objection is made that workers’ cooperatives will simply teach workers to exploit themselves within a market economy based on competition.  They will simply become their own capitalists.

However, at the extreme, the ownership of all production by the working class would not only remove the capitalist class but would also remove the need for all allocation by the market, or by socially necessary labour time, to use the strictly Marxist definition.  In other words workers’ cooperatives would cooperate with each other.  Such competition as would exist would not play the same role as capitalist competition just as the continued existence of money tokens would not make it a capitalist system.

So for example, a factory making shoes that became unfashionable would not close down and throw its workers into unemployment but would see them transfer to either production of shoes that were in demand or to some entirely different branch of production.  Other workers would support this because they would all know that what they produce might equally go out of fashion, become technologically obsolete or have its workforce reduced by automation.  In the same way the receipt of money as salaries and wages would not mean that this money would exist as capital, able to purchase labour power in the pursuit of profit.

The current value of workers’ cooperatives is not just as living practical examples of socialism but that they allow theoretical and political clarification of just exactly what socialism is.  They shine a light on the difference between workers power and all the solutions that rely on the state – from Keynesianism to nationalism.

This is the second part of the post.  The first part appeared here.

Workers’ Cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism – 1

420389_494371703955556_1654331871_nIn October I was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Glasgow South branch of Left Unity on the subject of workers’ cooperatives.  The post below is the first part of the text on which the speech delivered was based.  I would like to thank the comrades for the invitation and for the couple of pints in the pub afterwards.


The first thing I want to do is look at two problems to which I think workers’ cooperatives can play an important role in providing an answer.

In 2008 the Irish banking system was on the verge of complete collapse.  It had lent exorbitant amounts of money to commercial property development and for the construction of houses.  Not only finance but employment and state revenue became overly dependent on construction.  When the price of houses rose beyond a certain point, and when the commercial property market became saturated, the over-extension of property developers became evident in bad loans that bankrupted the banks.

This was an international problem because much of the financing of Irish banks came from Britain, the US and Germany for example.  The bankruptcy of the Irish banks would thus have had severe repercussions for investors in these and other countries, including the financial institutions in these countries.

To save the Irish banking system, to bail out the native bankers and foreign investors, the Irish Government launched a bailout of the banks through a state guarantee of all their liabilities, worth around €440 billion in an economy nominally producing €154 billion a year.  It was declared ‘the cheapest (bailout) in the world’ by the Irish Finance Minister.  This could not possibly be afforded and has so far cost an estimated €64 billion, although the exact figure is still a matter for development.

This bill and the huge budget deficit caused by the collapse of construction resulted in a series of attacks on working class living standards involving seven austerity budgets consisting of a variety of tax increases, cuts in public services and investment, the robbery of workers’ pension funds, massive unemployment, emigration and lots of praise from around the world at how well the Irish swallowed the austerity medicine.  From poster boy for the boom the Irish have become poster child for austerity.

In the following election the ruling Fianna Fail party was badly mauled and a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour Party was elected on the promise of a ‘democratic revolution’ and by Labour the promise it would reign in Fine Gael.  The vote was a choice between ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way.’

In truth however no one could really be surprised that this coalition continued and intensified the policies of austerity began by Fianna Fail.  That anyone thought differently demonstrated only a very low political awareness.

On the ‘left’ 5 United Left Alliance candidates were also elected and 14 Sinn Fein TDs out of a total of 166, although Sinn Fein had also voted for the bail-out.

In 2012 the Irish State was compelled to hold a referendum on the new EU Fiscal Compact that limited state deficits and debt.  It basically required signing up to continued austerity which is why it was called the ‘austerity treaty’.  Despite the unpopularity of austerity it was approved by 60% to 40%.  In my view a crucial reason for this was the complete lack of a convincing alternative.

What was the alternative proposed?

This consisted of a number of elements – repudiating the debt, opposing austerity, taxing the rich, and increasing public expenditure in order to improve public services, boost employment and further economic growth.

There are two points to note about this alternative – first it doesn’t change the nature of the economic system, it is what is called Keynesianism.  This does not mean that socialists should not support some of these measures, or point out the hypocrisy in their not being implemented.  But the question is, if the problem is capitalism and this alternative doesn’t threaten the system then quite obviously it cannot be a solution.

The second flows from this, because if it isn’t a solution would it actually work?  I’ll just take two examples from this programme – why on earth would the rich allow their wealth and income to be taken off them?  And how then could the state increase public sector investment when it was heading towards budget deficits of over 13%?

This illustrates a deeper problem with looking to the state as a solution.  This is because the burden placed on Irish workers was not simply, or even mainly, carried out by the banks and property developers.  It was the State that made their debts the debts of the Irish people and it has been the State that has increased taxes and cut services, making their own particular contribution to cutting wages and increasing unemployment.

Since the state is a capitalist state, funded and staffed at the highest levels by the propertied classes this can really be no surprise.  The actions of the capitalist state are not therefore the answer.  Not only does it not have any interest in providing a solution but it is incapable of being the solution.  State ownership, bureaucratic ownership, is not democratic and is totally unsuited to running productive activities the civil servants that staff it have no knowledge of.

There is no point calling for the state to nationalise the banks – they did and that was precisely the problem!

At bottom this is the root of the failure of resistance to austerity and is why it has not only failed in Ireland but in every other country affected by the financial crash.

The second point is connected to all this.  If the Keynesian alternative is not a road to socialism what is the road to it?

The alternative to the view that the capitalist state will reform society is that the state is actually the mechanism for enforcing oppression and exploitation and should therefore be smashed.  In this scenario of revolution the oppression of capitalist society breeds resistance which develops into a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class that then proceeds to build a new socialist society.  In this society the market is replaced by planning and capitalist economic crises become history.

But how are workers to become aware that their own ownership and control is the alternative?  How does it not only come to consciousness of this but is actually trained, ready and able to play this role?  How in the middle of crisis is a workers’ economy supposed to rise from the ashes more or less fully formed and present itself as a qualitative advance on what has went before?

Of course in some ways capitalism itself anticipates this planning through the growth of big business with advanced forms of planning within it, increased cooperation between companies that ostensibly are in competition and increased interdependency of different firms and different countries, encapsulated in the term globalisation.  This has all been demonstrated negatively through the simultaneous near collapse of the financial system, world trade and economic growth through the credit crunch plus the increased role of the state despite privatisation.

There is however one thing missing from this anticipation of the new society in the existing one and one thing missing from the scenario of revolutionary overthrow.

The missing factor is what the new society, the harbinger of socialism, actually is – the rule of the working class and its allies; the rule of the majority of society in place of the capitalist class and its managers, bureaucrats and politicians who all currently administer its rule.

Where in the anticipation of socialism within existing capitalist society is the growth of workers participation in running the economy, in preparation for taking over complete control?  Where are the grounds for workers to build a new society before, during and after revolution?  Where is the alternative that would avoid a new version of Stalinism where the State rules society rather than a society ruled by workers subordinating the state? Where even arises the motivation for workers to see that their own rule is the only valid unfolding of their resistance to the exploitation, oppression and iniquity of current society?

How are workers to come to see that it is they that not only can but must take control of society and its productive powers if they do not first take initial steps now through workers’ cooperatives?  Are we to believe they will suddenly come to realise through a revolution – an episode of at most a few years – that they must take over the economy?  How will they come to seek this as their solution unless many of them have already tried to do it and become committed to it?


The Scottish referendum result – Part 2

ftdownload (1)In the first part of this post I noted that some ‘Yes’ voters said that their decision was not a vote for nationalism.  I said that in one sense this is very important but that in another it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter because, as I explained, the objective significance of an action is often very different from the subjective intention of the person acting it out.

On the other hand subjective intentions are important because if these voters were really for social justice, and saw independence only as a means to this, then these voters are open to arguments that there is a very different and much better road to take in order to fight against austerity and for a new society, one based on internationalism and not on nationalist division.

It must be clear to such people that the referendum was deeply divisive not only between Scotland and England and Wales but also within Scotland itself.  Much has been made of the bullying of the British establishment and big business, and I will come to this, but it is also clear that big sections of Scottish nationalism ran an aggressive campaign that is incapable of seeing political questions in other than rancorous and bitter nationalist terms in which the Scottish people are either courageous or fearties, confident or scared, proud or filled with low self-esteem.  Many No voters claim to have felt intimidated.

The nationalists have lost the vote but they clearly believe the relative success of their campaign may allow them to continue to push the nationalist agenda.  Already Salmond is claiming the promises of the ‘No’ parties are a trick, and by implication calling into question the basis of the referendum result.

The promises of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were one of two factors at the end of campaign which appear to have made some difference to the vote, with this one being the most important in this respect.  It is also therefore important that the promises of these parties are carried through and that additional devolution is given to Scotland.

The purpose of this is not to make the lives of Scottish workers better.  The SNP and nationalist movement have made much of getting increased powers for the Scottish parliament but such is the political shallowness of Scottish nationalism that it hasn’t even used the powers it already has.  The SNP has refrained from increasing taxation, and spending more on state services, for the same reason the Tories in England have opposed it.  Political attitudes are not so very different north of the border.

This is not the sign of a popular movement bursting with ideas to transform Scotland into a social democratic nirvana but a cynical populist one that damns Thatcherism while stating “we didn’t mind the economic side so much”; condemning Labour for sharing platforms with the Tories while the SNP relied on them as a minority administration to stay in office, and now demanding more powers when it hasn’t used existing ones.

The main purpose of ensuring the promises are kept is to confirm the validity of the result and to stymie the nationalist project.  This project has already engendered division within Scotland but has also fanned the flames of English nationalism.  That there is nothing inherently progressive about devolution is demonstrated by the Tories attempt to compete with the nationalism of UKIP by demanding ‘English votes on English laws’ and a diminution of the role of Scottish and Welsh MPS at Westminster.

The plans being hatched by the Tories have implications for the spread of resources across the UK and most of them aren’t good.  The demand for redistribution of such resources demanded by Scottish nationalists is a game that can be played by English nationalists, although of course the former can easily see through the greed, selfishness and divisiveness of the latter.  Other people’s nationalism always looks narrow-minded and egotistical.

For Scottish workers, and for their English and Welsh brothers and sisters, the fight against austerity and for improvements in their position cannot be won either by relying on the combined promises of the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties on devolution or by deepening nationalist division within and without Scotland.  An entirely different road needs to be taken.

If, for example, the Radical Independence Campaign is sincere that independence was not a goal in itself, but only because its supporters believed it made social justice and equality easier to achieve, will it now fight as equals with workers in the rest of Britain against austerity?  Or will it divide these forces by seeking change only within Scotland?  Will it argue that English and Welsh workers should join them in a campaign or will they maintain that these workers should remain separated and do their own thing?

Do they believe that justice and equality relies on independence or that such ideals are by their very nature international ones?  Do they really believe that further nationalist demands will further workers unity or will even be successful?

Is self-determination only the right to say ‘Yes’, and just what sort of self-determination would this amount to?

If they maintain the demand for independence as a necessary part of their work against austerity then they not only cut themselves off from English and Welsh workers, they also cut themselves off from half of Scottish workers.

The second new element in the latter days of the campaign was the prominence of threats by big business in the event of a Yes vote.  The pound sterling fell in value, dropping over 2 per cent against the dollar in the days following an opinion poll showing the ‘yes’ campaign with a small lead.  A fall in the value of the currency would mean that Scottish workers would pay more for imported goods.

Five Scottish banks said they would relocate their headquarters south of the border in the event of independence.  The chair of the BT group, deputy chairman of Barclays and president of the Confederation of British Industry said independence would destabilise investment in Scotland and Aegon and Standard Life also said they would move their registered offices.

The ‘Financial Times’ (FT) reported that funds data provider EPFR had said that $672m had left UK equity funds during the week, the second biggest since its records began in 2001, and one of Germany’s biggest asset managers was going to reduce its holdings of UK equities and bonds.  Share prices were therefore falling.

The FT also reported that Trusts with investments in fixed assets in Scotland such as wind farms had been engaged in an investment strike and that corporate investors had pulled more than $14bn from 36 funds with primary operations in Scotland since January.  The FT also pointed out that big Scottish companies have more customers in England than in Scotland, such as Standard life, which has 90% of its British clients south of the border.  Seventy per cent of Scotland’s external trade is with the rest of the UK and in a survey, 65% of 200 of the City of London’s top investors believed Scotland’s economy was ‘at risk’ if it voted Yes.

The message was that in the event of  a ‘Yes’ vote big business would stop investing, would move out, tax revenues of the new state would fall, its currency would devalue and jobs would be lost.

The reaction of Alex Salmond and the SNP was revealing.  Just like its response to the UK-wide parties’ claims that they would not participate in a currency union, Salmond and the SNP did not accuse big business of bullying and threatening behaviour but of ‘scaremongering’ in a campaign orchestrated by David Cameron.

In other word big business didn’t really mean what it was saying and there was nothing to worry about – an independent Scotland would be good for them.  Of course they didn’t address the problem that it wasn’t just a matter of what big business were saying but of what they were actually doing.

Salmond and the SNP could not directly challenge big business aggression because their whole case is that an independent Scotland would benefit it.  The leadership of Scottish nationalism is not anti-business, it is not ant-capitalist.  Its reaction to opposition by big business to their plans demonstrated that they are pro-capitalist, hence the weakness of their response.

The capital that supports the SNP and Scottish independence is generally small sized and there is nothing more progressive about small business with its more parochial political outlook and big business with its more global concerns.

Only one prominent independence supporter took up a different response.  Jim Sillars, a left nationalist, stated that the oil company BP would face a “day of reckoning” and nationalisation because of its opposition to independence.  However by and large the mainstream nationalist movement left him on his own and the last thing the SNP wanted were threats to business in its campaign for a business-friendly Scotland.

Not that Sillars threat was any sort of alternative.  Nationalisation would either be limited or it would produce a flight of capital.  In itself, unless there is fixed assets in the country, investment and money can move quickly out of the country and avoid nationalisation.  The Scottish State is in no position to pursue such a strategy to utmost effect and would sooner rather than later back down in the very, very unlikely event it pursued any sort of nationalisation.  The Scottish state cannot manage and operate the Scottish economy.  It would be the Soviet Union writ small.

In any case the nationalisation of the Scottish economy would not be the introduction of socialism but would rather represent a move towards national autarky with a more and more internationally isolated economy.  This is the road to regression, not to the future.  State ownership is not socialism; it is not the exercise of workers’ power.  Look at the activities of the State today?  Do Scottish workers run the state currently?  Do they have any hands –on control of it now?

The state is a strictly hierarchical structure with a bureaucracy and it is this bureaucracy that would manage and run state-owned industry under such a policy, not its workers.  That’s how all nationalised industry has worked.  In effect the state becomes the capitalist.

Real socialism on the other hand would mean BP workers owning and managing the company just as workers across the economy would own and manage their own workplaces and firms, joining together to reproduce the cooperative character of their company outside it across the wider economy.

Unfortunately the cooperative movement is currently too small and politically undeveloped to step up to the challenge of running society and the labour movement has not taken upon itself the task of making this its goal.  The sabotage of big business and the strangulation of bureaucratic state control would both produce disaster but the working class is not yet in a position to put its own rule forward as the solution.

This is nevertheless the real solution to the problems posed in the referendum debate.  The alternative to austerity is a new social system that priorities the satisfaction of social needs and not private profitability.  The answer to the demand for a democracy that satisfies the demands of the majority is a society where this majority controls society itself, not seeks the promises of career politicians to do it all for them.

Only a state structure and apparatus that isn’t separated from workers but whose management and control is a part of their working lives can end the subordination of working people to the bureaucratic state.  A country that really is ‘ours’ can only exist where the productive infrastructure of society that satisfies it varied needs is owned directly by society itself and directly managed by it.

The possibility that such a society can exist is demonstrated by existing cooperative production.  What such production needs is its extension, its politicisation by socialists and the creation of a new workers’ cooperative State that protects this form of production.

It is ironic that Monday’s ‘Financial Times’ contained an article in the Fund Management section of that paper which was headlined ‘power to the (working) people works’.  This provided evidence that even financial asset investment it is firms that are majority owned by their workers or have some form of workers’ ownership that perform best.

Rather than seeking a new capitalist state as the answer, the lesson of the referendum is that the most impressive power comes from working people themselves when they begin to organise.  Instead of falling in behind any variety of nationalism working people should set out a programme that advances and develops their own power so that one day it is their own independent power that becomes the alternative.

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.

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.

Reforming the Northern Ireland Economy – A job for the State

No_Entry_to_Joy_Street_in_Belfast,_Northern_Ireland,_1974The following two articles originally appeared in the newspaper of the Irish Socialist Network.


Northern Ireland got a new Finance Minister in August, Simon Hamilton from the DUP, and he made a bit of a splash in his first major speech.

He noted the well known facts that around one third of the workforce is in the public sector and two thirds of economic output is in the State’s hands.  However, instead of simply deploring these figures and blaming an inefficient and bloated public sector he said that the public sector can help the economy grow and not simply hold it back.  He said that what was needed was a reformed public sector that was more efficient.  And who could disagree with that?

Let’s skip for the moment what he means by reform and efficiency.  Surely socialists are in favour of reforms and efficiency? Aren’t we?

Well, the answer has to be yes.  Socialists are in favour of change.  In fact we want so much change that this requires not only reforms, not only radical change, but revolutionary change.  Of course we know the DUP aren’t advocating this but that doesn’t mean we don’t welcome change that involves genuine reform that, for example, improves efficiency.  And yes, we are in favour of increased efficiency.

In fact we are socialists because we believe a socialist society is a higher form of society than capitalism and is higher because, among many other things, it is more efficient.  Such efficiency could eliminate the need for unnecessary work, reduce the burden of work that does need to be done and create enough wealth so that poverty is eliminated and everyone has a standard of living that can satisfy our reasonable needs.

Simon Hamilton also said that he is in favour of alternative models of service delivery – like mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises.  In other words public sector organisations or companies run or owned by the people who work in them.  What could be more socialist than firms or state bodies owned and controlled by workers?

Some might think this is a very naive approach to what Simon Hamilton is saying.  Surely he isn’t advocating the sort of reforms we would want?  Since when did the DUP become socialist and advocate workers’ ownership as a solution to economic underdevelopment?

Well there is a reason for the above approach and we can appreciate this reason when we compare it to the reaction of the trade unions to his speech.

I got a copy of the speech through a circular by my trade union NIPSA.  The letter from the General Secretary of NIPSA, Brian Campfield, noted the references to different models of public service delivery but said only that the view of NIPSA is that these would be detrimental to the interests of the union’s members and to the general community.

Of course Hamilton referred not only to cooperatives but also to ‘partnering with the private sector’, which is code for privatisation.  (You see! I’m not so naive!)  But this is only part of the story and not the most important part either.

Sticking only to the question of privatisation, which of course we should vigorously oppose, presents only a negative answer.  When our class enemies propose change our answer isn’t that things should stay as they are, but just be funded better.  We don’t defend the current state – or public sector as many call it – we want it changed just as much as we want the private sector changed.  We want the whole capitalist system changed, not just big private corporations but the bureaucratic state that supports and defends the corporations.

Socialists don’t look at the current state as a model for socialism. It’s bureaucratic and undemocratic.  I’ve worked in various bits of it for nearly 30 years and I haven’t had any meaningful say about how I do my work in all that time.  I have a boss, in fact I have loads of bosses, and I don’t have any say over who they are or what decisions they make.  How could this be any sort of socialism?

Socialists are socialists not only because are we against the present set-up but because we actually have an alternative – something positive to say.   So when the DUP says the present state is in need of change the first thing we should say is yes – and here is what it should look like.

It is much easier to be against things but much harder to say what you are for; even harder to explain what the alternative is and harder again to put it into practice.  That’s why when we see an opportunity to say we have an alternative and explain what it is we should grab it.

Part of the current weakness of socialism is that we, like the majority of people, are against how things currently are – with unemployment, inequality, crap jobs and the stress of everyday life – but we haven’t fought for the socialist answer that demonstrates the alternative.

Instead socialists have often been seen as defenders of the status quo – opposing privatisation but not offering any alternative to how the state delivers services, except to demand that it gets more money to do it.  Instead we are often seen as demanding solutions that don’t offer any radical change to the present system.  A better funded and bigger state is often how our alternative is presented, not just by our enemies but by ourselves!

The economy in the North of Ireland is well know as a bit of a basket case and the big size of the state sector is not the cause of it but is an expression of it.  This is also pretty well known by many.  It should be a big clue that a big state is not the answer.

Simon Hamilton thinks the public sector can be a vehicle for changing this situation and ironically the trade unions agree with him.  They just have slightly different ideas about how this can be done.

Socialist don’t agree with this and so don’t agree with Simon Hamilton or the standard trade union view.  In my next article I’ll explain this a bit more by looking at what else Hamilton said in his speech and what the standard left response has been.


When the new Finance Minister in the North said that the public sector could be a vehicle for developing the North’s economy, instead of being simply a drag, this was welcomed.  But with suspicion that this might mean privatisation.  There was also concern that he was continuing to boast of his party’s record of supporting low taxation.  In response the NEVIN economic think tank, sponsored by the trade unions, called for adequate levels of taxation; that is it was calling for increases in taxes.

What attitude should socialists take to this argument?

First of all we should recognise that states all over the world have involved themselves in promoting economic development, some more successfully than others.  Nationalists of all types are in favour of the nation state promoting its own economy in competition with other states.  For much of the last century this type of political programme was held up as ‘national liberation’. More and more state ownership was and still is presented as socialism.

It is very hard to see how the Northern state could ever be one of the successes.  State led economic development elsewhere has been successful to a point but the Northern State is dysfunctional.  Behind the rhetoric what is being proposed is not state led development but state enablement and facilitation of growth, but it is doubtful if the Northern State could even make progress with this.  Instead it will at best be reduced to attempting to lower taxes and entice a few footloose multinational companies to invest, based on a bucket of state hand-outs.

How desperate this has become was illustrated at the beginning of October when £3.3 million was given to a call centre company to promote nearly 1,000 jobs.  Half already existed, no capital investment was being made by the company and it had previously closed in Derry two years ago with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

The Northern Ireland Assembly hardly meets, it discusses things it can do nothing about and hasn’t a clue about what to do about things it can influence.  The Executive meets but has nothing to talk about since the DUP and Sinn Fein can agree nothing except to give hand-outs to multinationals.  But state led economic development requires much more than this.

It is doubtful if this is understood.  The DUP is a party of small businessmen who see the state and taxation purely as red tape and expense.  The need for the state to provide high class infrastructure and a well-educated and healthy workforce is all far removed from their immediate concerns with ‘how much tax do I have to pay?’

However a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development records that in Northern Ireland (and England), 16 to 24-year-olds scored  266 on average in a literacy test, which put them third from bottom in a 24-nation league table.  In numeracy, 16 to 24-year-olds scored 257 – putting them fourth from the bottom.

Sinn Fein thinks the economy would be great if there were only one Irish economy rather than two but there is not even an inkling that a united economic state might result in benefits for the larger Southern bit to the detriment of the smaller Northern bit.  It’s called uneven development.

A policy of relying on the state in the north for economic development looks hopelessly improbable not least because the state hasn’t been able to modernise itself never mind anything else.  The new minister, Simon Hamilton, announced the creation of a new Public Sector Reform Division but there is no strategy.

It is recognised that innovation comes from people but in his speech all he can do is ask the question – “and how do we motivate our public servants and unlock their ability to innovate?”

Don’t expect an answer.  Workers won’t get paid any more and they won’t be trusted with ownership or control over their own workplace or job.  And if you’re not trusted to control your own job how could you be trusted to make truly transformative changes to society?

One ideological supporter of capitalism once wrote a book with the interesting title ‘Why most things Fail’.  It noted that most companies fail sooner or later.  While the capitalist state will accept that this or that capitalist enterprises can fail there is one capitalist undertaking that cannot be allowed to fail, ever, because it protects the rest.  That is the state itself. Only the most trustworthy can be entrusted with state power which is why the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t really have it.  What they have are the powers of a glorified council and they don’t even exercise the powers they have.

If workers were really to be given the power to develop a new economy there would still be many failures but the powers unleashed would ultimately lead to a new society.

This however isn’t the model of state economic development on offer or championed by any nationalist party.

The Northern state has failed but unfortunately for Sinn Fein so has the Southern State.  The nature of the capitalist state everywhere is that it cannot give workers the autonomy or freedom to take risks, innovate and try to change society, for example by promoting workers’ cooperatives.  Such economic power might sooner or later form the basis of a rival political power.

In other words state led economic development is nothing to do with socialism, which is the power of the working class.  And ‘national liberation’ tells us that the key problem is liberating a state in the oppressed nation instead of liberating the working class of the oppressed nation from the state – foreign and domestic.

This means workers have no interest in supporting many of the measures usually associated with such a programme, including tax increases, which will inevitably hit them hardest, or supporting local industry against foreign as if it was somehow ‘ours’.  Socialism is not the growth of the existing state or its accretion of more and more powers.

Simon Hamilton’s proposals on privatisation are widely recognised as bad news but the bureaucratic state is not the alternative.  If the Northern economy shows one thing it shows this.