Co-operatives: springboard to revolution or hipster capitalism? By Scanx.

A response to the Libcom discussion here: 

Co-operatives, capitalism and the IWW.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Co-ops rock.

I absolutely think that under the current economic circumstances co-ops might provide a route to that Utopian future I’ve got my heart set on. I don’t get why they would be dismissed out of hand as a tool for systemic change in how we work and the permanent undoing of capital.

The reason the Tories see Co-operatives as the shiny great hope for a continuing infrastructure, rather than social melt down, is because it is. However, they understand the libertarian, personal responsibility ideas at the heart of co-operative working and recognise them as Tory. They do not understand that there are seven co-operative principles and you cannot begin to explain the essence of several of them to a Tory because they are so locked into a competitive neo-liberal capitalist paradigm that they cannot conceive of a reality where endeavour flourishes through co-operation and investment does not lead to control.

There was a comment by a child services worker who was currently employed by the state on the Libcom discussion. They dismissed co-ops because they felt that the Tories wanted their department to reorganise as a co-op and they felt that tainted the idea. I think that he’s missed a trick. For years before the Condems came in I told world-weary state workers, who were employed by agencies and experienced all the precarity and exploitation associated with those blood suckers, to form a co-op where they work and bid for their own contract. They would win against the agency with its parasitic cut. If I don’t want a state but I do want care services and clinics how are they to transition from state to local control and how does that control stay in the hands of the workers doing the work? Co-ops?

The Tories, like me, see this as a win – win situation. BUT, those dozy bastards, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, call it a big society and think the plebs will still have care homes and that will be that. The significant thing about co-ops is really to do with co-operation. Despite there being a clue in the title the Tories don’t see it because as capitalists they can’t imagine anything being more important than money.

In co-ops people are the most important consideration not the accumulation of capital. If it’s not you’re doing it wrong. You’re co-op-ish. The Tories can only ever do co-op-ish because they can’t conceive of mutual aid. The promotion of the right to exploit is their whole point. People don’t have to be dyed in the wool Tory to stare at me in wonder when I talk about the workers’, not-for-profit, co-operative that employs me, which I do, A LOT. It is often hard for people to get their heads round how business works with no profit!!!

I heard a housing analyst in the employ of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing speak last summer. He claimed that a huge proportion of Cairo’s housing stock was managed as co-ops. The inference being that the Tahrir Square was taken under the nose of the state by the communication, organisation and co-operation that was second nature in neighbourhoods where neighbours owned and managed their homes together.

Now that might be a load of old shite and you know what, I wont even defend it if someone says that it’s bollocks. I’d love it to be true ;~}

So, my Utopian future….

(With apologies to anyone who’s heard this rant before)

I live in a co-op. Many of the tenants (co-op members) live off state benefits. Many of them will loose their benefits in the coming months. As a co-op we have three choices. We can take the hit when our tenants can no longer pay their rent. This will destabilise the co-op and could undermine our collective security. We could evict the impoverished and possibly disabled tenant. This is clearly at odds with several of the co-op principles and not an option within our business model. This forces us to invent another option.

My co-op has several needs. We need more housing stock. We need the derelict housing in our community to be full of families again and we need a local economy and jobs so that we can all participate in it.

My community has an abundance of housing need, unemployment, derelict housing, skills shortage, precarity and no fucking money to do anything about it.

I refuse to accept this. We’ve got people who need houses and houses that need fixing and people who need work and training – I’m sorry to labour this but it is a no fucking brainer!! Why should no money stand in the way of this situation resolving itself into a perfect circle of mutual aid?

So if I pay my rent to a co-op I know that I can take the value of my rent in ‘co-op tokens’ if I work for a co-op, confident that I wont be left holding useless co-op tokens. If there is a co-op that I can buy my food from, and I know that they will take co-op tokens and that I spend the same as my rent on food, I can double the number of co-op tokens I can confidently accept. The more places I can meet my exchange needs that are part of the co-op syndicate the more tokens I can take confidently. If groups of unemployed co-op tenants can form workers co-ops to provide services to those co-ops and co-op workers can easily find quality housing….

We’ve done a couple of things here. We’ve unlocked people’s right to work and created wealth (in the form of homes, transferable skills, jobs, cash flow {sorry co-op token flow}) within our community and a means of circulation (not means of exchange, that implies a potentially linear transaction) for that wealth. The token is not a store of wealth nor has it value of itself. It is tied to the local circulating co-ops and anyone else they choose to include. It’s like a sponsorship of endeavour and as a currency it can not do lots of things that capital can generally do and would be a huge tool for shaking people free of their worries about what we’re all going to do when there is no more money.

All the while the nature of co-operative business means that those who participate in the co-op syndicate are getting experience of responsibility, autonomy and co-operation that are transferable skills for revolution.

I really think that the Stirling economy is going to become an unbearably uncomfortable place to be in the near future. And I know that my little fantasy has some important problems like the tax man’s equal opportunity policy towards currency but I think that for now this is the direction that will keep my community from eating itself as the shit continues to hit the fan. I would love to see a co-operative syndicate flourish in my city, the alternative keeps me awake nights.

So, I’ve set out my stall. Tell me again why co-ops can’t provide a springboard to revolution. That is all.

We are supported by people giving us donations and loans when we have need of it and they can afford it (and they have been for 38 years this May Day.) We exploit ourselves ruthlessly doing what we fucking love to do and are rewarded when the struggle is too great by the support of customers who value us despite the fact that we haven’t been competitive on price since the death of the Net Book Agreement in 1997. They value us for something other than our cheapness then, if that was your measure of ‘competitiveness.’

So I think Co-ops provide a hub around which a community of co-operators (all practising their little co-operative socks off and getting better and better at it – ‘cos it’s not fucking easy) find mutual benefit in doing what they enjoy collectively, how can that not be ‘prefigurative’? We know we are coerced but we discuss our coercion at our staff meetings at least acknowledging the role it plays in our relationships with the business and each other.

We are also, often, peoples first contact with an organisation that isn’t obsessed with exploiting every resource at it’s disposal to maximise surplus. I was a reactionary little fucker once upon a time and discovered the purity of Liberalism while in my teens. I was in my thirties when I discovered that what others had always called bolshie was actually Anarchy. I’d been working at the co-op for over a year by then. No one is born with a fully formed political agenda. Some of us are further on with that process than others, some will never bother. I like to think that everyone’s got a little bit of revolutionary in them, especially if their life is hard. Co-ops are a place where these kinds of principles can grow and strengthen. We need nurseries for ideas around autonomy to grow through practical endeavour. Opportunities for this under capitalism are limited.

Retail is only a part of what we do. It’s the bit that involves currency exchange and so can be measured in a sterling value. We also endeavour to force a crack in capitalism (Anyone read ‘Crack Capitalism’ John Holloway? I liked it). It is only a small crack but it’s big enough for people to see through it into possibilities outside of the fucking capitalist reality tunnel we all exist in. What they see will depend on where they’re standing in their political journey. And that, like the credit card ad says, is ‘priceless’. It also means that under a market minded critique it literally has no sterling value and so is deemed valueless compared to the quarter of a million turnover that we manage without making a profit if we can possibly help it. It is actually the point of us. We have to play with capital and compromise massively but we also subvert capital in small ways, cracks you might say, in how we value it relative to other resources at our disposal.

The most potentially revolutionary thing about co-ops is their insistence that mutual benefit, opportunity, community, non-exploitation, and the well being of the individual within the body of the group is what we strive for. People brutalised by capitalism can’t believe their ears when I tell them such a thing exists and is within their power to create and that existing co-ops will help them do this if they are interested and can find other co-operators.

I have no illusions about the likelihood that Radical Co-op run bookshops are going to single-handedly cause the end of capitalism and speed in the fully functioning autonomous society we hope for, however I don’t think that they are a force against this process either. But we exist on different junctions on the same capitalist web and it is really hard to find enough cracks in capitalism to step on to get from A to B without engaging with that fact let alone arrive at the Z of freedom. Make a crack, as big as you can make it. Hold it open for as long as you can and then move on to the next thin spot and make a new one. Mixing metaphors is optional.

I don’t think any of the criticisms of co-ops stand up as a reason for them not to hold some part of the multi-layered solutions that will take us where we want to go. Especially if my bookshop could take Co-op tokens for books and then give them to me in wages that I could give to my housing co-op in rent and who redistribute to plumbers and gardeners and roofers who love books and we all get our food from the local food growing co-ops eventually abandoning any currency and operating like a lending library being supplied by other workers who love printing and writing or just reading and circulating books, who all live in homes created and maintained by co-ops.

Did I say, I love co-ops?

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