The scorecard of NAFTA: Losses for all three countries

The North American Free Trade Agreement has been a lose-lose-lose proposition for working people in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Let us count the ways: Lost jobs, reduced wages, more unemployment, higher food prices and reversals of environmental laws. NAFTA, a 20-year laboratory for mainstream economics, has been a bonanza for the executives of multi-national corporations, and that is all you need to know why the so-called “free trade” model continues to be promoted despite the immiseration and dislocation it spawns. Agreements like NAFTA, and proposed deals that would go further in handing power to corporate executives and financiers such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have little to do with trade and much with ensuring corporate wish lists are brought to life.

Not dissimilar to medieval doctors who insisted that having leeches bleed the patient was the only course of action, neoclassical economists, who dominate the field, won’t budge from their prescriptions of neoliberal austerity. But although the medical field has made enormous strides in recent centuries, there is no such progress among neoclassical economists. That is because said economists — most often under the banner of “Chicago School” but sometimes using other names — promote ideology on behalf of the powerful, not science for all humanity.

"Canada in fog" photo by Kat Spence

“Canada in fog” photo by Kat Spence

Thus the spectacularly wrong predictions made for NAFTA before it was went into force on January 1, 1994, have no effect on their predictions for new deals. To provide one example, in 1993 the Peterson Institute for International Economics predicted 170,000 jobs would be created in the U.S. alone by 1995, that the U.S. would enjoy an expanded trade surplus with Mexico and that the Mexican economy would grow by four to five percent annually under NAFTA.

As we will see presently, none of those rosy predictions came close to becoming reality. (True to neoliberal form, the institute is grandly predicting “gains of $1.9 trillion” for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.) The point here isn’t to pick on one particular institution — in fact, it is quite typical. The models developed to make these predictions and explain economics are mathematical constructs disconnected from the real world.

Sure it works better in a dream world

The Chicago School and other mainstream neoclassical schools of economics rest their models on the concept of “perfect competition,” which assumes that all prices automatically calibrate to optimum levels, and that there are so many buyers and sellers that none possess sufficient power to affect the market. This model assumes that employees are in their jobs due to personal choice, and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences. That this bears little resemblance to the real world is not your imagination.

From this, mainstream economists assume all trade will be beneficial because all economic activity quickly adjusts to create a new equilibrium following a disruption. As Martin Hart-Landsberg wrote in his 2013 book Capitalist Globalization: Consequences, Resistance and Alternatives:

“[T]his kind of modeling assumes a world in which liberalization cannot, by assumption, cause or worsen unemployment, capital flight or trade imbalances. Thanks to these assumptions, if a country drops its trade restrictions, market forces will quickly and effortlessly lead capital and labor to shift into new, more productive uses. And since trade always remains in balance, this restructuring will generate a dollar’s worth of new exports for every dollar of new imports. Given these assumptions, it is no wonder that mainstream economic studies always produce results supporting ratification of free trade agreements.” [page 104]

World Bank studies promoting “free trade” agreements, Professor Hart-Landsberg wrote, assumes that tariff reductions will have no effect on government deficits, governments will automatically be able to replace lost tariff revenue with revenue from other sources and that there is full employment. He writes:

“Although working people have been ill served by capitalist globalization, many are reluctant to challenge it because they have been intimidated by the ‘scholarly’ arguments of those who support it. However … these arguments are based on theories and highly artificial simulations that deliberately misrepresent the workings of capitalism. They can and should be challenged and rejected.” [page 80]

Mexican farmers forced off their lands

Mexico had annual per capita gross domestic product growth of 0.9 percent in the first 20 years of NAFTA — one-fifth of the per capita GDP growth of the preceding 20 years. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that Mexico’s growth during the past 20 years under NAFTA ranks the country 18th of 20 Latin American countries and is half of the average Latin American growth rate. Among other results, the center reports:

• 4.9 million family farmers have been been displaced — more than half the total number of Mexican farmers in 1991.
• More than 14 million more Mexicans live below the poverty line than in 1994. Just more than half of Mexicans are below the poverty line, nearly identical to the 1994 rate, but the population has increased.
• Inflation-adjusted wages have risen two percent over 18 years and are barely above the 1980 level.

Subsidized corn from the United States flooded Mexico, sold below the costs of small Mexican farmers. Corn imports from the U.S. increased fivefold and pork imports from the U.S. increased by more than 20 times, according to a Truthout report by David Bacon.

As a result, Mexican farmers forced off their land either became seasonal workers on growing agribusiness farms, sought work in the cities or migrated north. Seasonal agricultural workers (those working less than six months per year) grew by almost three million — more than doubling their ranks — during the same period that 4.9 million family farmers were displaced. The number of Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. rose by almost 80 percent from 1994 to 2000, before falling significantly afterword because of the post-9/11 increased border security.

Nor did Mexicans get cheaper food as a result of the flood of U.S. corn. Public Citizen, in its just released report on NAFTA, reports that the deregulated price of tortillas nearly tripled in the first 10 years of the agreement and that a Mexican minimum-wage earner can buy 38 percent less than he or she could when NAFTA went into effect.

The only countervailing effect, the increase in factory jobs as maquiladoras (factories near the U.S. border producing for export) increased for a time, but those low-wage jobs are now dwindling because China’s wages are far cheaper than Mexico’s. The same pitiless market competition that sent jobs south now sends them across the Pacific. China now accounts for 23 percent of U.S. imports as compared to Mexico’s 12 percent, according to International Monetary Fund statistics.

A 2011 paper issued by the Economic Policy Institute summarized the effects of NAFTA on Mexico:

“From the standpoint of the business community, NAFTA’s most important achievement was that it made Mexico a much safer and more attractive location to invest and outsource U.S. manufacturing production. NAFTA’s investment provisions created new and improved safeguards for foreign investors, including new dispute settlement tribunals providing a mechanism for settling disputes with foreign governments outside of the Mexican legal system. By eliminating Mexico’s developmental state and use of local content rules, and other demands and conditions on foreign investors, the trade agreement greatly reduced the cost of doing business in Mexico, and increased the security of those investments.” [page 6]

Mexico’s conversion into an export platform does not mean higher skills for its workforce. The biggest initiative in job creation came during the administration of Vicente Fox, which offered training in low-skill jobs for landscapers, construction workers, factory workers and maids.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs leave the United States

The United States has seen a net displacement of almost 700,000 jobs through 2010 directly attributable to NAFTA, according to Economic Policy Institute calculations. Moreover, the U.S. has had large annual trade deficits with Mexico since NAFTA was implemented; in earlier years, trade was roughly balanced between the two. In addition to the job losses, Public Citizen reports these negative impacts on U.S. workers:

• U.S. food prices have risen 67 percent since NAFTA took effect, despite an increase in food imported from Mexico and Canada.
• Purchasing power for U.S. workers without a college degree, adjusted for inflation and taking into account those consumer goods that have become cheaper, has declined 12 percent under NAFTA.
• Two-thirds of displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2012 experienced a wage cut; the reduction in the majority of cases was at least 20 percent.
• U.S. manufacturing and services exports to Mexico and Canada grew slower after NAFTA took effect than it had been earlier.

By making it easier for capitalists to move production, NAFTA has directly contributed downward pressure on wages. With fewer well-paying manufacturing jobs, pressure on wages not only affects manufacturing but other industries as well as displaced workers seek employment elsewhere.

Capital mobility has been an irresistible hammer for holding down wages and worsening job conditions — a study by Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner found that more than 50 percent of employers made threats to shut down and/or move their facilities in response to unionization activity during the three-year period of 1993 to 1995, and that the rate of actual shutdowns tripled from the pre-NAFTA rate. She wrote:

“NAFTA has created a climate that has emboldened employers to more aggressively threaten to close, or actually close their plants to avoid unionization. The only way to create the kind of climate envisioned by the original drafters of the [National Labor Relations Act], where workers can organize free from coercion, threats, and intimidation, would be through a significant expansion of both worker and union rights and employer penalties in the organizing process both through substantive reform to U.S. labor laws and by amendments to the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation.” [page 3]

That would take massive organizing to achieve. The Obama administration is actively trying to use the rules of NAFTA as a starting point for further weakening of labor, safety, health and environmental laws in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which would tighten corporate control should the ongoing TPP negotiations be successful. The White House undoubtedly has the same goals for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks with the European Union.

Canadian safety net shredded to ‘compete’ in markets

Spending on Canada’s social safety net has decreased while corporate revenue has doubled and manufacturing jobs disappeared. In addition, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researcher reports, the country’s growing trade surplus with the United States has translated to few jobs. The study found:

• After 12 years of NAFTA, government transfers to individuals have dropped from 11.5% of GDP to 7.8% of the country’s GDP.
• “[M]uch of the growth in gross exports over the last decade reflected the markedly elevated use by Canadian-based companies of imported inputs in their production, significantly overstating the employment impact of the growth of manufactured exports.”
• The length that Canadians could collect unemployment benefits was reduced, the amount of the benefits were cut and the criteria for those eligible were reduced, reducing the proportion of unemployed people who qualified for unemployment insurance to one-third from three-quarters.
• Composite revenues of 40 of Canada’s biggest businesses increased 105 percent from 1988 to 2002, while their workforces shrank by 15 percent.

These developments fueled rising inequality, the centre’s executive director, Bruce Campbell, wrote:

“The most striking feature of this growing inequality has been the massive gains of the richest 1% of income earners at the expense of most of the population. The growth of precarious employment, the undermining of unions as a countervailing power to transnational capital, the erosion of the Canadian social state, and heightened economic dependence on the United States are the hallmarks of the free trade era in Canada.” [page 53]

Pressing its advantage, Canadian big business interests demanded and received tax cuts on the ground that Canada could not be competitive otherwise. Those cuts resulted in loss of C$20 billion in federal revenue for 2005 alone, the study said, on top of provincial revenue losses of $30 billion. The tax cuts were primarily given to high-income individuals and corporations, who argued that these would create “a level field of competition” with the United States but also increase labor market “flexibility” — a code word meaning lower wages and reduced job security, always the goal of capitalists.

It’s always our turn to ‘cut back,’ never the bosses’ turn

The key NAFTA provision is Chapter 11, which codifies the “equal treatment” of business interests in accordance with international law and enables corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or law that might prevent the corporation from extracting the maximum possible profit.

Under these provisions, taxation and regulation constitute “indirect expropriation” mandating compensation — a reduction in the value of an asset is sufficient to establish expropriation rather than a physical taking of property as required under U.S. law. Older decisions become precedents for further expansions of investor “rights” and thus constitute the “evolving standard of investor rights” required under “free trade” agreements.

Toothless “side agreements” on labor rights are meaningless window dressing; the arbitration bodies that decide these cases (in secret with no accountability or right of appeal) are governed by the main body of the text, such as Chapter 11. Corporations can sue governments over regulations or laws they don’t like, but working people and governments have no right to sue.

As Mr. Bacon put it in his Truthout report:

“The most any union or group of workers got from filing a case was ‘consultations’ between the governments and public hearings. There is no process in the agreement for penalties for violation of union rights. And although there are minor penalties for violating child labor or occupational health laws, they’ve never been implemented. Not a single contract was signed as a result of the side-agreement process, nor was a single worker rehired. Those unions that have filed cases have generally sought to use the process to gain public exposure of abuses and exert indirect pressure on employers.”

The neoliberalism that began gathering steam with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and which has intensified since, is not the handiwork of some secretive cabal, nor is it some tragic bad turn from an otherwise “rational” system. It is the natural evolution of modern capitalism and its relentless competition. “Free trade” agreements that have little to do with trade and much to do with imposing corporate wish lists in the service of ever more inequality and power imbalances is an inevitable component.

Implementing a “reform” of agreements designed to maximize corporate profits above all other considerations and shred the remnants of democracy is less than an illusion. Overturning the entire “free trade” apparatus is indispensable to any serious project of building a better world. Trade should conducted for the benefit of all, not only the one percent — unlike the current global system in which human beings are in the service of markets instead of the other way around.

More capitalism for Chinese ‘Communist’ Party

A deeper integration into the world capitalist system appears to be the goal of the Chinese Communist Party, a decision obscured but not occulted by the ritual “all hail the party” slogans littering the “communiqué” the party issued following this month’s much anticipated planning meeting.

Nonetheless, the gradually mounting contradictions of China’s heavy reliance on exports and investment, and the larger implications for global living standards, remain in place. China’s role in global capitalism, despite its impressive growth figures, has been an assembly platform for foreign multi-national corporations. This system has brought wealth to a minuscule layer of Chinese capitalists while enormously profiting Western and Japanese companies, and their East Asian contractors.

Two-thirds of China’s exports are shipped from factories wholly or partially owned by non-Chinese companies. In high-technology industries, the ratio is higher: Wholly owned non-Chinese corporations account for 68 percent of high-tech exports and, if firms partially owned by foreign companies are included, the total is 83 percent.

And in contrast to misleading trade statistics, most of the money captured by this Chinese production is taken by Western and East Asian multi-national corporations, not by China. The world’s multi-national corporations profit immensely from China’s low wages and like the current Chinese system just as it is.

Socialist rhetoric, but capitalist content

The communiqué referenced above is the official statement released by the Chinese Communist Party following the “Third Plenum” of the 18th Party Congress. The plenum, a meeting of the entire party Central Committee that concluded on November 12 in Beijing, was intended to re-orient the Chinese economy in a new direction. The corporate media predictably issued downcast reports in the wake of China not immediately adopting International Monetary Fund diktats.

Factory on Yangtze River

Factory on Yangtze River

The communiqué is full of long-winded sloganeering and short on details. Nonetheless, in between the repeated ritualistic panegyrics to the party’s guidance and the “magnificent progress” it has bequeathed China, there are clear indications that the party intends to continue down its capitalist path. That no significant backtracking is contemplated is signaled by this oxymoronic formulation:

“The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance.”

The “Three Represents” reference is an official line announced in 2001 the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. Promulgated by former President Jiang Zemin, it is a declaration that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously. One can of course enunciate such a program if one wishes, but such a theory has nothing in common with Marxism. “Three Represents” follows naturally from the policies of President Jiang’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, who firmly pushed China on to its capitalist path.

Also noteworthy is the one Communist leader omitted from the list — Hu Jintao, the president between Jiang Zemin and current President Xi Jinping. President Xi is seen as a protégé of former President Jiang, who is believed to have helped pack the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest political body, with his followers. The references to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought are ritualistic references, necessary to establish the party’s right to continuity in power and thus its authority to continue to rule.

That only “Three Represents” had the adjective “important” in front of it can be interpreted as to the importance of that line. Moreover, President Jiang was elevated to power following the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which smashed dissent and enabled paramount leader Deng to dismantle social protections. During the 1990s, when President Jiang was in power, state- and collective-owned enterprises were privatized, millions were laid off, peasant rights were revoked and dislocation induced a steady stream of migrant workers into the urban sweatshops. No basic change to this pattern should be expected.

Exalting the party but the market, too

Some of the key ideas put forth by the communiqué are these:

• “The Plenum pointed out that we must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources.”

• “The Plenum pointed out that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must base ourselves on the largest reality that our country will remain in the preliminary stage of Socialism for a long time, persist in this major strategic judgment that development still is crucial in resolving all of our country’s problems.”

• “We must relax investment access, accelerate the construction of free trade zones and expand inland and coastal openness.”

• “[W]e must strengthen and improve that Party’s leadership, fully give rein to the Party’s core leadership function in assuming all responsibility for the entire picture and coordinating all sides.”

The corporate media was unified in grumbling over the last of these, and although the party will certainly maintain a tight grip on political power, the direction of the party over the past three decades is what has granted Western and East Asian multi-national corporations opportunities for massive profiteering on the backs of Chinese workers. In contrast, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, focused on the word “decisive,” declaring the use of that word to describe the role of markets a development from the party’s previous use of “basic.” Xinhua wrote:

“The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda. [The party] communique … stressed profound economic reform, with the market to play the decisive role in allocation of resources. The previous socialist market economy — official policy since 1992 — attributed only a ‘basic’ role to the market. … [A] unified market for both urban and rural construction land and an improved financial system are definitely in the pipeline.”

More market capitalism then. But as there are no perpetual-motion machines, how long can China continue to its current path?

Export-based economy can’t be easily changed

China’s economy continues to be overly dependent on investment and unable to easily shift toward more household consumption, and thus dependent on exporting. Its ability to be the world’s workshop rests on its ultra-low wages, which are in turn based on systematic exploitation of its rural population.

Three Gorges Dam (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

Three Gorges Dam (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

For China to re-orient itself to producing for internal consumption would mean having to allow dramatic growth in workers’ income. But doing so would mean ending foreign capital’s reason to move production to China. China could try to switch to high-end manufacturing — to some degree, it is trying to extend its mix of production to do that — but it doesn’t have the capabilities of non-Chinese companies that are already making such products and it would have to compete by muscling out foreign competitors. (Much of China’s machinery is imported from Germany.)

As their own populations become more restless, foreign governments could find it politically difficult to continue to allow themselves to be swamped by cheap Chinese imports. Moreover, the internal demand for such high-end products is limited within China, so it would be right back to having to rely on exports. Considerable Chinese demand for high-technology products comes from government infrastructure projects and there comes a time when such a high level of investment ceases to be prudent and becomes wasteful spending, as has happened to Japan.

The Chinese Communist Party can continue to apply repression to keep wages and working conditions low, but such policies directly contradict its supposed reliance on Mao Zedong Thought, which produced the now-shredded social safety net known as the “Iron Rice Bowl” — an achievement not lost to collective memory. If the continual drip of scattered local rebellions organizes enough to force competitive wages, Western capitalists would still want to sell their products in China, but would produce at least some of them elsewhere.

Chinese industry could step in and build new capacity, or acquire the capacity that Western capitalists abandon, but the upward pressure on wages would undercut China’s ability to export cheaply, and without much increased internal demand China would have a glut of capacity that would face shuttering.

Chinese workers endure long period of low wages

Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — constituted about 36 percent of China’s gross domestic product in 2012, only two percentage points above China’s bottom three years earlier and far below the 51 percent in 1985. In comparison, household consumption is 58 to 72 percent of the economy of the world’s largest advanced capitalist countries. Fixed capital investment continues to account for large and growing portions of China’s GDP — 46 percent in 2012, a figure more than double countries like Japan and the United States.

What those numbers signify is that China, despite the repeated proclamations of its leaders, has made no progress in re-orienting its economy.

The share of labor income in China’s gross domestic product shrank to 37 percent in 2005 (the latest for which I can find statistics) after having been consistently above 50 percent in the 1980s. A bigger proportion of China’s surplus is being taken by capitalists, but not necessarily Chinese capitalists.

For example, a paper written by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that almost all of the value created by iPhone production in China goes to manufacturing corporations outside of China, where only the final assembly is conducted. The paper, “How the iPhone Widens the United States Trade Deficit with the People’s Republic of China,” argues that conventional trade statistics are highly misleading because the value of the entire product is assigned to the country where the final assembly is conducted, rather than allocated by the value of the various inputs. The paper reports:

“The US also has an absolute advantage in the smart phone category. … [T]heory would suggest the US should export iPhones to the [People’s Republic of China], but in fact the PRC exports iPhones to the US. All ready-to-use iPhones have been shipped to the US from the PRC. Foreign direct investment, production fragmentation, and production networks have jointly reversed the trade pattern predicted by conventional trade theories. Chinese workers simply put all these parts and components together and contribute only US$6.50 to each iPhone, about 3.6% of the total manufacturing cost.

If the PRC’s iPhone exports were calculated based on the value-added, i.e., the assembling cost, the export value as well as the trade deficit would be much lower, at only US$73 million, just 3.6% of the US$2.0 billion calculated by using the prevailing method. … Bilateral trade imbalances between a country used as a final assembler and its destination markets are greatly inflated by trade in intermediate products. … The Sino-US bilateral trade imbalance has been greatly inflated.”

The paper argues that the other $162 of the total manufacturing cost of iPhones (all of the cost other than the $6.50 contributed by underpaid Chinese labor) came from U.S., German, South Korean and Japanese manufacturers who supplied the parts and shipped them to the final assembly plant, which itself is owned by a Taiwanese corporation that is a subcontractor to Apple. The iPhone is designed and sold by Apple, which enjoys a large profit from it. Thus, the money from trade deficits fills Apple’s, and not necessarily Chinese, coffers.

Rural exploitation drives sweatshop exploitation

The dramatic increase in Chinese manufacturing is driven by multi-national corporations from the U.S., East Asia and Western Europe. State-owned enterprises account for 25 percent of China’s industrial output, down from 75 percent in the mid-1980s.

Exploitable workers are needed in those factories, and China’s supply of labor comes from rural wages being consistently 40 percent or less that of urban wages and that local and regional officials continually take and sell off farming land to developers, partly for their own enrichment but also to generate revenue to fund local government. According to a Reuters report, about four million farmers lose their land annually — and those farmers receive an average of $17,850 an acre from local governments, which resell it for an average of $740,000 an acre.

The vast disruptions, vicious exploitation and cavernous inequality of early capitalism is being repeated in China, at an accelerated pace. Earlier industrializing countries did so during a time when capitalism covered only a portion of the globe and thus had considerable room for growth. Wages could eventually rise because of the scope for expansion via exporting, capital controls and the difficulty of moving production to other countries. Mass organizing, including the creation of then-militant unions, leveraged those factors into rising living standards.

Capitalism no longer has places into which to grow, having blanketed the Earth, and the capitalist class has succeeded in eliminating barriers to their moving production at will, accelerating a race to the bottom. The rise of China, or any other country, can only come by taking market share away from somebody else, and the growing mass of low-wage workers drags down wages globally. The alliance of party-connected Chinese capitalists with Western capitalists is profitable for them, but at the expense of working people in those countries and around the world.

Bankruptcy of Mondragon company demonstrates limits of cooperation under capitalism

The announcement that one of Mondragon’s companies is filing for bankruptcy isn’t a commentary on cooperatives, but it is a reminder that even the world’s largest cooperative enterprise is not immune to capitalist competition.

Cooperatives point toward a more humane way of organizing production, but in themselves don’t necessarily alter market relations. That is true not only because cooperatives are yet minuscule islands in a vast sea of capitalism, and thus must make decisions strongly impacted by a continual buffeting by market forces, but because a cooperative economy would require that cooperation, rather than competition, be the basis of relations.

The shuttering of Mondragon’s household-appliances company, Fagor Electrodomésticos, is also an opportunity to ask if there comes a point where a cooperative becomes too big. Mondragon has expanded steadily, through internal growth and creating new businesses but also through buying companies outside Spain. Although that expansion is not a factor in Fagor’s closing, Mondragon has had difficulty absorbing some of its acquisitions, with the result that at least 14,000 workers are actually employees of the cooperative.

Mondragon UniversityThus the cooperative members profit through extracting surplus value from these employees, who do not share in the decision-making. In fact, Fagor’s Polish factory (where the workers are employees, not members of the cooperative) was the subject of a slow-down strike in 2011. Fagor, reacting to capitalist competitive pressures, had moved some production there from France to take advantage of lower wages.

The failure of Fagor, unable to survive the drastic downturn in the Spanish economy, is also noteworthy because it is Mondragon’s original business, and one of the larger among Mondragon’s federation of 110 cooperatives. A manufacturer of washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers and other “white goods,” Fagor’s revenues declined to €1.1 billion in 2012 from €1.8 billion in 2008, the year of the financial crash, and has not earned a profit since 2008. Revenue has been hurt by the intensity of the economic downturn in Spain, where unemployment is 27 percent amidst a collapse of the housing market.

Cooperative members better off than capitalist employees

Unlike at a capitalist corporation, where workers are routinely laid off merely because of a slight decline in profits, Mondragon strives to keep all its members employed. Decision-making is made by the workers themselves, in assemblies and through their elected, accountable managers, representatives and board members.

In the case of Fagor, its cooperative members had previously agreed to cut their pay by 20 percent. In addition, Mondragon had provided €300 million in financing in an effort to keep the appliance maker afloat. But Mondragon’s general council, which coordinates the policies of the various companies, decided it would provide no more funds, rejecting Fagor’s request for another €180 million that Fagor believed would finally stabilize itself.

A Mondragon press release issued on October 30 said:

“[T]he proposal submitted by Fagor Electrodomésticos is not viable, and [Mondragon’s general council] has unanimously agreed the company no longer responds to market needs, and the financial resources it requests would not ensure its business future.

“The [Mondragon] Corporation has analysed the situation following the financial assistance given to Fagor Electrodomésticos in recent years both by the cooperatives themselves and through sundry corporate instruments, and it has considered that the feasibility plan submitted by Fagor Electrodomésticos is not viable.”

Because each of Mondragon’s companies are autonomous, self-managed cooperatives (which assist each other through mutual support mechanisms), Fagor’s closing has no effect on the viability of other units. But because one of the mutual-support mechanisms is retraining workers in struggling companies and their transfer to stronger businesses, Mondragon may have difficulty absorbing a bankruptcy unprecedented in size.

On the other hand, the cooperative members of Fagor are not simply out in the street, as they would be at a top-down capitalist corporation. Mondragon’s press release went on to say that its general council pledges to:

“[C]ontinue to activate all the support mechanisms required to reduce to the furthest possible extent the impact on employment due to the circumstances of Fagor Electrodomésticos. These measures will range from reassignments to early retirements and the implementation of training schemes that will reinforce the employability of the worker-members of Fagor Electrodomésticos. … The diversity of sectors and markets in which our cooperatives operate is an assurance that leads us to believe they will continue to launch new activities in the short-to-medium term, with a positive knock-on effect on job creation. The fact our businesses are competitive in their respective markets is good news for the absorption of any redundancies forthcoming at Fagor Electrodomésticos.”

Given Mondragon’s history, that is not empty talk, although El País reports that Fagor’s employed workers, which would include those in its Polish factory, are not covered. There have been no layoffs in Mondragon despite the exploding Spanish unemployment rate; instead workers have agreed to reduce their wages by an average of five percent with a shifting of some to stronger from weaker companies. Fagor’s cooperative members will be paid 80 percent of their salaries for two years through Mondragon’s own insurance company.

Forced to ‘become their own capitalists’

Mondragon’s growth from a handful of people in the 1950s to its status as a major competitor in a range of industries rests on its ability to successfully compete against capitalist enterprises while riding the ups and downs of market competition. No article about Fagor’s closing — not even the sneering “I told you so” of The Economist’s report — so much as hints at any quality-control issues. Rather, Fagor went under due to slack demand in Spain and France, and stiff competition from low-wage Asian imports.

Therein lies a contradiction. Mondragon operates as a cooperative, fully under the control of its workers (at least those in Spain), in which all management and oversight posts are elected internally, wages are vastly more equal than in a capitalist enterprise, and it is owned exclusively by its workforce. In other words, the cooperative members share in the risks, gains and decision-making, with profits distributed to the workers themselves, to investment funds and to the overall organization’s internal support fund.

Despite that internal cooperation, Mondragon must operate like a traditional capitalist enterprise outside its gates. Forced to compete against capitalist corporations operating in capitalist market conditions, it can not do otherwise if it is to survive. This is the case for other cooperatives today. In essence, cooperative workers in a capitalist economy are, in the words of Karl Marx, forced to “become their own capitalists.”

Because of Mondragon’s size, Fagor’s workers may be able to secure work elsewhere in Mondragon. They didn’t face the prospect of their jobs being moved to a low-wage haven on the other side of the world, but they also could not stay in business in the face of capitalism’s worst slump since the Great Depression.

Moreover, Mondragon also acts like a capitalist corporation in that it acquires businesses and sometimes the employees of those acquired businesses, particularly those outside Spain, remain employees of the cooperative rather than become full members. Such a result flows from the need to expand to survive the rigors of capitalist competition. Any economy that operates on the basis of market competition — that is, in which markets are allowed to determine social outcomes — will lead to some form of “grow or die,” in which enterprises struggle to survive.

Cooperators’ own wages remain a commodity if everything else is a commodity priced by markets. In an economy dominated by cooperatives but with capitalist market relations intact, collective workers would face market pressure to reduce their own wages in order to compete better against their competitors. Some enterprises would become much bigger than others; smaller enterprises would be compelled to sell themselves to larger competitors, consolidating production until an oligarchy arose. Some industries would be much bigger than others. As market competition intensified, survival would require more ruthless behavior.

Democratic control as the basis for a new economy

A cooperative economy, therefore, has to not only be based on enterprises run on cooperative lines, but the cooperatives must cooperate with each other as well. The entire economy would have to be based on democratic control, with commodity prices negotiated in fair and open talks, and with a rational system of distribution that would be supple enough to respond to changes in consumer demand while not over-producing. Such an economy might largely be in the hands of cooperative enterprises, but with critical industries, such as banking and energy, in state hands, under democratic control.

Successful cooperative enterprises such as Mondragon provide glimpses of an economy organized for human need rather than uncontrolled private profit, but are insufficient by themselves. That is not a criticism of cooperatives; on the contrary, the growth of cooperatives should be encouraged as strongly as possible. In present circumstances, they exist on the margins, fully subject to the rigors of capitalist competition.

No cooperative today, no matter how successful, can operate outside the demand of the “market” — and the capitalist market is the aggregate interests of the world’s largest industrialists and financiers. As more industries follow the leads of textiles and electronic gadgets — that is, move production to places with ever lower wages and ever less regulations — the more pressure there will be to follow suit or go out of business. Fagor will not be the last cooperative to face this dilemma. It is inevitable as long as cooperatives remain small islands at the mercy of capitalist competition.

A better world, a rational economy geared to human need, requires a different system. As large as Mondragon is, it is has no ability to operate outside the logic of capitalism. Overall, it has thus far competed successfully, but at the price of becoming too large to integrate all its workers. The world would need many more Mondragons, cooperating and negotiating with one another, to even begin to crack the façade of capitalism, and capitalists are not likely to sit by idly while an alternative to their rule grows.

As worthy a model as cooperatives can be, they are not a substitute for working people around the world struggling collectively to create a better world. All the advances of the 20th century are the product of collective struggles, but because those movements settled for reforms while leaving the system in place, the gains have steadily been taken back.

If capitalism is to be transcended, the relations among enterprises, and between people and enterprises, have to be put on a new footing — one based on cooperation, not competition.

One small step for French workers but no giant leap

France appears on the verge of advancing the rights of workers, and although such a victory will be slight, even a tentative step forward is welcome. But it is no more than that: Once we get past the comedy of business leaders wailing that the sky is falling, do we really have anything other than a small reform that leaves the system intact?

It would seem not. The French National Assembly, on September 30, passed a bill that would grant employees a voice when their company is the target of a takeover attempt and require owners of companies with at least 1,000 employees to seek a buyer for a plant intended to be closed. The French Senate must also approve the bill before President François Hollande can sign it into law.

Marching in Paris against pension reformShould the bill be passed, a committee of workers would be organized inside a company being targeted for a takeover, which would be empowered to appoint an accountant to assess the bid. The board of the target company would be required to take the assessment under consideration before making its final decision. Although it is unclear what legal force this workers’ assessment would have, the company’s “works council” (an employee oversight body larger French companies are required to have) could ask a judge to intervene if it believes the board has not responded adequately to its queries, potentially delaying any deal.

The bill would also put a temporary roadblock in the path of a company that intends to shut a plant or some portion of its operations. Enterprises with more than 1,000 employees that intend to shut a facility with more than 50 workers would be required to seek a buyer for three months. Judge would be authorized to impose a fine if the company fails conduct a search or turns down a serious offer.

The French Senate has a narrow majority bloc of Socialists, Communists, Greens and other Left-leaning members, so it would appear that the bill is likely to pass the Senate, enabling President Hollande to fulfill a campaign pledge to give workers more say in the running of their enterprises.

A tiny change, a giant rage

In reality, these new powers, should they enter into law, would do nothing to alter existing relations within the workplace. Nonetheless the principal of the bill — that workers are entitled to a modicum of control over their working lives, at least in theory — has driven business leaders and the corporate media that loves them into fits of rage.

A Bloomberg report on the bill quotes a series of speculators in full indignation, including a Paris investment banker:

“In the M&A [mergers-and-acquisitions] world, the image of France viewed from outside is deplorable, and this law is adding extra complexity.”

Quelle horreur! Bloomberg itself grumbles:

“Foreign companies have spent $14.8 billion on French targets this year, putting 2013 on track to be the weakest for such deals in at least a decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The new rules may further dissuade potential buyers. France hasn’t seen a major hostile takeover since Mittal Steel Co. bought Arcelor SA in 2006 in a transaction then valued at about $36 billion.”

Oh, the humanity! Seven long years of only relatively smaller takeovers. How is a poor investment bank supposed to keep its speculators in the style in which they are accustomed? Although the underlying imperative of capitalist competition — expand or die — propels the frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions, the proximate cause is to enable enormous profits for corporate executives, investment bankers and partners at corporate law firms. The bigger the deal, the bigger the payday for those on the inside.

Keeping score of the money but not the human cost

Definitive totals on the numbers of jobs lost to takeovers are extremely difficult to come by; this is not surprising when the corporate media reports on mergers and acquisitions in breathless terms of the size of the deal and with assurances that jobs will be sacrificed on the alter of “efficiency.” In other words, the human cost is not even an afterthought. To take just two examples, Washington Monthly, in a report detailing the increasing monopolization that characterizes most industries, wrote:

“Consider two recent deals in the drug industry. The first came in January 2009 when Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, announced plans for a $68 billion takeover of Wyeth. The second came in March 2009, when executives at number two Merck said they planned to spend $41.1 billion to buy Schering-Plough. Managers all but bragged of the number of workers who would be rendered ‘redundant’ by the deal — the first killed off 19,000 jobs, the second 16,000.”

The money to pour into these deals has to come from somewhere. So can measures like those passed by the French National Assembly reverse this trend? Because the limited “voice” to be granted workers is connected to France’s “works councils,” a look at these councils will help us answer that question.

Although only a minority of workers in France are protected by a traditional labor union, all who work in enterprises with 50 or more employees are represented by a works council. French law proscribes fines and even jail terms for employers who interfere with the functioning of these bodies. In unionized companies, trade unions put forth the candidates for the works council, although if more than 50 percent of the eligible voters do not vote, a second election is organized in which any employee is eligible to run.

The works councils are required to be consulted on the management and general organization of the company; personnel decisions, including dismissals; and changes to equipment, working conditions, professional-training procedures, or hygiene and safety issues. The opinion of the works council is not legally binding, however, unlike a collective-bargaining agreement negotiated with a trade union. Works councils decisions are binding in only a small number of minor issues, such as the hiring or dismissal of the labor doctor.

As private-sector union membership in France is low, the works councils provide a modicum of enterprise participation for French workers. The bill that has passed the National Assembly represents a tiny incremental gain while leaving all the prerogatives of ownership firmly in the hands of capitalists. The wailing from capitalists and the corporate media is more of a reflection of their desire for total control than any actual change in labor relations.

Works councils as controllers rather than consultants

Although their consultative status currently makes them little more than a safety valve, France’s works councils could, in theory, form the nucleus of actual workers’ control. The concept of real workers’ councils, assuming control over the decision-making of an enterprise, has taken root at different times in several countries. All the workers collectively make strategic decisions, and elect a council to oversee the running of the enterprise (including supervising management) and to act as links with other enterprises.

Meetings to discuss, and vote on, the enterprise’s business would be a part of the regular workweek. All ownership would stay within the workforce — each would own one share and relinquish it upon leaving or retiring. Shares could not be transferred or sold, except to the collective. Management would be recallable and promoted from within.

Why should democracy stop at the entrance to the workplace? Cooperatives are already flourishing. There are the examples of the Mondragon collective and the recovered factories of Argentina, among others, in which assemblies of all the workers make the strategic decisions and elect supervisory boards that are responsible to the assemblies. Mondragon has been a planned enterprise from its foundation; Argentina’s recovered factories are the products of workers struggling to restart production while slowly gaining the confidence to be their own managers.

Cooperatives are as yet minuscule islands in a vast sea of capitalism. Several countries have works councils, including Germany, where employers must reach agreement with them in regards to rules covering, inter alia, smoking bans, dress codes, overtime, introduction of new technical equipment and policies on pay bonuses. Employees are also represented on corporate boards of directors in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and several other European countries.

Reforms should be taken whenever possible, but reforms can always be taken away. Instead of being the basis of minor tinkering, why shouldn’t works councils be one starting point for a complete transformation? Top-down authoritarian enterprises that give an elite dominating power over the overwhelming majority of humanity hasn’t been working out so great.

Tuition battles, debt and union-busting: The many faces of neoliberalism

The eleven students who barricaded themselves inside Cooper Union’s tower have ended their occupation, but their struggle resonates well beyond the New York City university. Inextricably bound up in the movement to save Cooper Union’s tradition of free tuition and enable meaningful student and faculty participation in the affairs of the university is a struggle against neoliberalism.

The victorious students who endured police violence and heavy-handed legal tactics during the months of the Québec student strike earlier this year; the unsustainable student debt burying students across the United States; the union-busting offensives in Wisconsin; and the latest anti-union effort in Michigan — to name only some of the struggles from 2012 alone — should not be looked at in isolation but rather are part of a continuum of which Cooper Union is one manifestation.

Workers’ struggles and students’ struggles are linked, and not simply because today’s students are tomorrow’s workers. Education is now treated as a commodity — professors are increasingly part-time adjuncts and students are expected to hand over ever larger sums of money for tuition, and students are encouraged to think of higher education in mercenary terms, as nothing more than technical training for a job rather than (or in addition to) an opportunity to improve oneself through study. Being an employee in a capitalist enterprise is indistinguishable from oneself being reduced to a commodity — we have no choice but to sell our labor if we intend to eat and keep a roof over our heads.

All this requires atomization of society: set off at each other’s throats, fiercely competing over scraps. It is solidarity that breaks this pattern. Thus it was not surprising when a Cooper Union spokesman, presumably speaking for the president, Jamshed Bharucha, issued a statement claiming that the occupiers “do not reflect the views of a student population of approximately 1,000 architects, artists and engineers.” Did they do a survey? One suspects not.

The suggestion here seems to be that the strikers are unreasonably “spoiled,” an intimation made during recent student occupations at nearby New York University and the New School. Note that the student strikers in Québec were similarly denounced when they took to the streets in massive numbers to block an increase in tuition although Québec already had the lowest tuition of any Canadian province.

This is a favorite neoliberal tactic — attempt to engender jealousy that somebody has something you don’t have, and loudly proclaim that something should be taken away from them. This tactic was on ample display during Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s unilateral attempt to eliminate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state-government employees and impose draconian cuts to education and social programs. Government workers and unions were the designated scapegoats, making their pensions easy targets; Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do.

Although a similar effort was defeated in Ohio, by forcing a referendum that was won, Michigan legislators this week approved legislation banning automatic payroll deductions of union dues. In states with such laws, unions are required to represent all workers despite receiving dues from only a portion of them, leaving unions with less resources and therefore weaker, and fueling the neoliberal ideology of hyper-individualism because “free riders” gain the benefits of collective bargaining by the union, funded by members, while not contributing dues.

Using the force of the state to break unions on behalf of capitalists to force reductions in wages is simply neoliberal austerity in legislative clothing.

Continued free tuition would be a victory for all students

Similar to higher union wages setting a higher bar for everybody’s wages, continued free tuition at Cooper Union should be defended as a gain for all students. Once lost, it is unlikely to be regained. The public City University of New York system had free tuition until 1975; tuition has risen fivefold since it was first instituted, well above the rate of inflation and a pattern replicated by public and private universities.

With that in mind, the demands of the Cooper Union student occupiers and their supporters, which have not been rescinded, are straightforward:

  • The administration must publicly affirm the university’s commitment to free education.
  • The Board of Trustees must immediately implement structural changes to create open flows of information and democratic decision-making, including making board minutes publicly available and the appointment of a student and faculty members.
  • President Bharucha steps down.

The students say Cooper Union’s weakened finances are a result of mismanagement. The university has been on a building spree of late, leveling two of its three main buildings and replacing them with expensive new buildings. In ending their occupation but vowing to continue to struggle, the students said:

“The problems at Cooper Union strike a nerve with millions of others struggling with student debt, administrative bloat, and expansionist agendas. We live in a world where massive student debt and the rising costs of higher education remain unchecked, where students are treated as customers and faculty as contracts. Cooper Union’s mission of free education affords equality and excellence and offers an alternative for a better future of higher education.

For over a century, the Cooper Union has sustained the mission of providing free education to all admitted students. After decades of financial mismanagement, the administration now seeks to implement tuition-based programs. Rather than dedicating themselves to the difficult task of maintaining the promise of free education — Jamshed Bharucha’s administration and the Board of Trustees have chosen to pass the consequences of financial and institutional mismanagement on to the shoulders of the college’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, and future generations. They’ve taken the easy way out.”

Not dissimilar to how working people are expected to bear the burden of an economic crisis caused by financiers while the financiers’ institutions are bailed out. Those same financiers are hungrily circling Social Security, falsely blaming one of the few remaining strands of the social safety net so that they can get their hands on it and plunder it for their personal profit.

Solidarity achieves tuition freeze in Québec

The struggle for a sane higher-education system is one that must be fought everywhere. The struggle to maintain free tuition at Cooper Union is not separable from the struggle to rein in out-of-control tuition increases elsewhere. The successful student strike in Québec, although centered on Francophone students in Montréal, nonetheless was a province-wide struggle that drew enormous support from working people. It was so successful, in fact, that it caused the provincial government to fall.

It also helped that students were already organized in three student province-wide associations. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

That move backfired, as the demonstrations over what become known as the “Maple Spring” in a nod to last year’s “Arab Spring” only grew bigger. After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. That victory did not come easily (the process is called “struggle” for a reason). A supporter of the strike who is long past being a student himself wrote on the Waging Nonviolence web site:

“The revolting students paid a heavy price. They put their academic year in jeopardy and many were beat up by the cops. Over 200,000 students maintained a strike for five months, 3,387 were arrested and hundreds injured — some seriously by plastic bullets and batons.”

Moreover, students estimate that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the largest of the province’s student associations with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Explosion of student debt

College tuition in the United States is far higher than it is in Canada and has risen to the point that student debt is estimated to be more than US$1 trillion. A Center for American Progress report said U.S. tuition has increased more than 1,000 percent during the past three decades. (That is more than three times the official rate of inflation.) The report notes:

“One of the major self-inflicted causes is the consistent decline in state funding for higher education, which had helped colleges keep tuition affordable. The steadily and rapidly increasing cost of college nationwide prompted a dramatic rise in student borrowing—a natural result as families could no longer rely on scholarships, grants, and personal savings, which cannot keep up with the rapidly increasing tuition costs.”

Similar to governments running deficits because they borrow from the wealthy rather than tax them, financiers profit from the explosion of student debt. A major contributor to this mounting debt are for-profit private colleges, many of which enroll huge numbers of students, many unprepared for college, by virtue of government-guaranteed loans given with no oversight.

Just as corporate initiatives attempt to replace public primary and secondary school systems with “charter schools” run by corporations for the profit of executives, the neoliberal model of higher education is to saddle students with heavy debt. Not only is this profitable in the short term, but it also makes the students, once they enter the workforce, more pliable employees due to the massive loans hanging over their heads.

Corporate executives want students drilled for business needs, but refuse to pay taxes needed to support education. And they want students to shoulder the burden of tuition although they, and society as a whole, benefit from an educated workforce.

The idea that anyone achieves success all on their own is preposterous — all of us rely on institutions (including schools) and build on those who came before us. Least of all can capitalists who accumulate fortunes on the backs of students, employees and freelancers, and benefit from government-funded infrastructure, claim to be free of society. The neoliberal cult of individualism is a means to foster jealousy and atomization — and to keep the 99 percent subordinate.

Self-directed workers as a “cure for capitalism”

The economy of the future will not be a tabula rasa. Today’s bricks will form part of tomorrow’s edifice and, assuming that humanity’s zig-zagging and often circular course toward greater freedom continues, pieces of a better world exist scattered around us.

Cooperative enterprises are surely part of that (hoped for) better tomorrow. If tomorrow’s better world is one of economic democracy, environmental sensitivity, rationality in production and distribution, equality and meaningful community involvement, than cooperatives will form some of the backbone. Some of these bricks are already here: Successful cooperatives exist today, although they are as yet small islands of democracy in the vast sea of authoritarian capitalist enterprises.

No one model could ever be universal. Differentiated internal operations and cultures are bound to develop. But certain bedrock principals can, and should, be in place for cooperative enterprises operating in an economy that increasingly includes them. The economist Richard Wolff, in his latest book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,* argues that the ability of the workers of an enterprise to be involved in all its strategic decisions is the most important principal to bring about economic democracy, without which political democracy is a formal, empty shell. He introduces the term “workers’ self-directed enterprises” to encompass such enterprises.

During the last structural crisis of capitalism, the Great Depression of the 1930s, massive movements from the Left, including unions, socialist parties and communist parties, forced widespread reforms to be instituted. Eventually, however, Keynesianism and social democratic programs developed new sets of instability and capitalists were able to at first slowly and then more vigorously roll back one reform after another. Professor Wolff argues that even if a suite of reforms could be enacted, the fix would be temporary — capitalists would intervene to take back the reforms, plunging us back into crisis.

But the problem is not simply that the wealthy, through their concentration of accumulated capital, can so readily bend political systems to their ends. The problem is the instability of capitalism itself — capitalists are induced to do everything they can to increase profits due to the relentless nature of competition. That can be achieved through taking a larger share of a market or through cutting costs — the latter can include the introduction of machinery or moving facilities to somewhere else where the workers can be paid far less. These decisions are made by a small number of people at the top of the company, ultimately by the board of directors, a body that almost always includes top executives.

A similar process of alienation happened in countries that used the system of the former Soviet Union, in which the government owned all enterprises. Professor Wolff uses the term “state capitalism” to describe that model because, in place of a private board of directors, state officials made all the decisions, again excluding workers. Those officials controlled all the production of the workers, appropriating the surplus by paying the workers a small fraction of the value of what they produced, the same as in a traditional private capitalist enterprise. A many-sided argument among Bolsheviks and others on how to organize production raged after the October Revolution, but, within a year of assuming power, the Bolsheviks nationalized large enterprises under the impact of the multiple deep crises of World War I and the threat of the advancing German army.

Such a system became synonymous with “socialism.” Along with many others, Professor Wolff argues that “socialism” has to be a much different system, one in which the workers themselves make the decisions of their enterprises, in conjunction with the community of which they are a part. A central part of the ongoing furious campaign against “socialism” is the supposed efficiency of capitalism in comparison to anything else. The inherent instability of capitalism (euphemistically called “business cycles” in orthodox economics) is itself inefficient, nor is it possible to measure all the wins and losses across a society.

“In short, the notion of measuring the efficiency of economic events or processes or of an economic system is a mirage. It is not possible to identify or measure all of the effects of any social factor, nor is it possible to separate and weigh all the influences that combine to produce each effect. The very concept of efficiency would have been banished from discourse, let alone science, long ago had it not proven so ideologically useful. Efficiency discourses resemble capitalist notions of efficiency, which in turn resemble the medieval doctrines and debates concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: they too will one day strike people looking back as bizarre and absurd.” [pages 29-30]

Moreover, Professor Wolff continues:

“The efficiency argument for capitalism rings hollow in the face of high and enduring unemployment affecting jobless millions and their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Watching the growing absurdity of foreclosures creating both homeless people and empty homes throws into serious question the standard defense of capitalist efficiency. … Socialists and communists during the Cold War often simply inverted the standard argument by insisting that is was [their version of] socialism or communism that was efficient (or more efficient than capitalism) and thus represented progress. They, too, often ignored the impossibilities of identifying and measuring all costs and benefits and of separating and evaluating each of the myriad influences that produced them.” [pages 30-31]

Having set the stage, Democracy at Work provides a concise summary of the lead-up to the present crisis, from the Great Depression through the explosion of debt incurred as a result of stagnant or declining wages, and summarizes in clear, accessible language the basic problems of advanced capitalist and Soviet-style systems. The book then gets to its heart, sketching out the concept of “workers’ self-directed enterprises.” WSDEs are a distinct form of cooperative enterprise — this is an enterprise in which the workers themselves are the directors, making all decisions on what to produce, where to produce, how to distribute, determining wages and other compensation, and hiring management.

The surpluses produced would never be appropriated and distributed by anybody else. In a capitalist corporation, the board of directors are legally required to maximize the profits of the corporation going to the shareholders, regardless of the cost to the workers or the local community, and only the shareholders vote on who the directors are. The profits of the company, the bloated pay of the top executives and the huge piles of cash diverted into speculation are the product of the surpluses produced by the workers — and the competitive pressures of capitalism ensure that this process continually deepens.

WSDEs would operate in a far more humane manner. The workers themselves will make the decisions on technological innovation, which is only proper since they, and the surrounding community of which they are a part, will have to live with such decisions. (This is unlike a capitalist enterprise, in which those who bear the cost have no say in the decision.) The self-directed workers can consider a far wider set of issues and concerns about adopting new technology, or any other strategic decision, thereby fully weighing the effects on themselves, their families and their communities.

Professor Wolff proposes that a specialized agency be created that would monitor technological innovations, what enterprises need more workers, which enterprises have registered a desire to commence new production, and other social needs, to be funded with enterprise profits.

“Rather like a matchmaking service, this agency’s task would be to match employees willing to change jobs with job availability and to arrange for appropriate training and inducements to facilitate the reallocation of personnel. No loss of income would attend the transition period for workers who left one job for another. To run this agency would cost a small portion of all the surpluses distributed by WSDEs to sustain its staff and activities. This agency’s reports and services would form one basis for the decision by all workers about whether to make the technical change in question.” [page 132]

Jobs can be rotated (easing boredom), pay differentials minimized (drastically reducing inequality), environmental concerns would be taken seriously (otherwise you’d be polluting your own home) and communities would be stabilized (who would move their jobs to another country for a cut in pay?). And by being involved in your workplace’s decisions — and rewarded for your efforts in making the enterprise a success — alienation is drastically reduced. Without the need to work a crushing number of hours to compensate for low pay, you would have the time to be more of a participant in your community.

Professor Wolff’s concept of WSDEs rests on the workers being their own directors; that is, making all the strategic business decisions themselves. He stresses this aspect, and sees ownership of the enterprise as less important, arguing that different ownership models can co-exist with WSDEs. Local, regional and national governments could own them but allow them to be run by the workers; the workers themselves could own the enterprise individually or collectively; or ownership could take the form of shares traded on a market. The author also prefers not to pre-judge whether a system based on WSDEs would take place under market conditions or in which planning predominates; he believes that they can be compatible with either.

“How WSDEs will come to exist with private versus socialized productive property and to coexist with markets versus planning will not be determined by spurious claims about their comparative efficiencies. It will be determined through the construction of particular, specific postcapitalist economic systems as they emerge in transitions from both private and state capitalist systems.” [page 144]

Fair enough. But here I believe caution is warranted. Leaving a full market system in place would inevitably re-introduce some of the problems of capitalism, albeit in different and milder forms. As I have previously discussed, if collective enterprises, no matter how democratically they are run internally, compete with each other in unfettered markets, market forces would require the collectives to ruthlessly reduce costs (including their own wages) and aggressively expand the market for their products. Failure to do so would mean not surviving in competition with the enterprises who do adapt themselves to market conditions. Because all materials and finished products would remain commodities subject to price volatility in this scenario, the cooperative workers’ own labor would also become a commodity — in essence, they would “become their own capitalists.”

Some amount of planning — democratic, bottom-up planning based on aggregate demand as a guide and not top-down planning imposed as an order — would seem to have a significant role in an economy dominated by cooperatives; moreover, the cooperatives would have to have some cooperation with each other, particularly in negotiating prices up and down the supply chain. Ultimately, these are questions that won’t begin to be solved until there is more practice, although a “matchmaking” agency of the type proposed above implies some amount of planning.

Much more immediate is the question of how WSDEs would co-exist with capitalist enterprises. WSDEs would handle competitive problems and grapple with issues of size and other issues differently than a capitalist enterprise. For instance, Professor Wolff argues, if WSDEs organized mutual support and pooled political strength, or prove to be more productive, they could prevail against capitalist enterprises. Not extracting large amounts of money for bloated executive pay could free extra funds for developing innovations, or differentiating their products as made under democratic conditions could be a marketing advantage.

Early on, WSDEs would need state assistance. Professor Wolff advocates adapting the model of Italy’s “Marcora Law,” which enabled workers to take over troubled enterprises. The author suggests offering the unemployed a choice: Either the traditional weekly benefits, or taking it as a lump sum, pooling their resources with others taking the lump sum, and forming a WSDE. These new enterprises would likely need to rely on technical assistance, subsidized credit, tax breaks and other assistance; such aid can be looked upon as an extension of existing programs to assist small businesses or for women- or minority-owned businesses.

Social solidarity with and by existing cooperatives, unions and activist groups would be another form of support. A strong cooperative movement would provide an alternative to traditional authoritarian capitalist employment, eroding capitalists’ ability to impose harsher working conditions.

Democracy at Work does formulate one difference from traditional concepts of cooperative enterprises that will likely be seen as controversial: A differentiation between “surplus-producing” workers and “enabling” workers. The first group are those who directly produce the outputs that are sold. The second group include accountants, managers, secretaries, clerks and many other job functions that provide the conditions that enable the “surplus-producing” workers to do their work. Professor Wolff is careful to stress that both categories are equally crucial to the success of an enterprise.

Nonetheless, he advocates that only the “surplus producers” be allowed to make the decisions regarding the appropriation and distribution of the surplus. All other decisions would be voted on collectively by all workers. The rationale is that such an arrangement “secures the absence of any exploitation within the WSDE” [page 166]. But leaving such major decisions to only a portion of the workforce risks engendering a division within the workforce, the opposite of the goal, and arguably applies too narrowly the laudable goal of ending exploitation.

Moreover, this formulation presupposes that management will form a group distinct from line workers. But there should not be such a distinction: Managers should be elected by the workers a whole, to specific terms and be recallable. There is no reason why management and supervisory positions should not be rotated — workers can become managers, and then go back to being workers. More people would become familiar with more roles, be able to assume greater responsibility and be better equipped to participate in strategic decision-making.

Nor is there any reason why people can’t change roles from a direct production job to a support job, which, to be fair, is tacitly acknowledged in the author’s stress on the ability of workers to change job functions within WSDEs. Having two categories of jobs with a crucial decision-making function reserved for one category would seem to defeat the purpose of cooperation — equality. If everybody is necessary to the enterprise, then everybody should be eligible to vote on everything.

Decision-making, however, will not be confined to the walls of the enterprise. Residents and workers should participate in each other’s decisions to the extent that they are affected, Professor Wolff writes. Community representatives should participate in WSDE decision-making, and vice versa, as WSDE members are part of the community.

“In societies where WSDEs are the prevailing organization of production, capitalists will no longer occupy a crucial political position. Capitalists’ use of the surpluses they appropriate will no longer dominate politics. We will no longer have capitalists making political use of the resources typically at their disposal — the surpluses they appropriate. Instead, the community of workers who direct WSDEs will be the prevailing political partner of residence-based governing bodies. …They might finally realize democracy, which under capitalism was never allowed to go beyond very limited electoral functions.” [pages 167-168]

A much higher level of democracy does not mean that a society with an economy based on WSDEs would be a utopia. Professor Wolff is forthright in noting that there will be new problems and contradictions. But with vastly less inequality distorting all areas of society, problems would be more easily tackled. And just as the transcending of earlier systems eliminated many but not all social ills, transcending capitalism will put many problems behind us.

“The slave and feudal systems that proceeded capitalism fostered forms of crime rooted in their mixes of economic risks and rewards. But those systems never displayed the recurring boom-and-bust cycles common to all forms of capitalism. These cycles are the products of capitalism — not of this or that group (the state, criminals, others) functioning within that system and in response to its upswings and downswings. … Overcoming the systemic roots and nature of capitalist crises requires a change in the economic system.” [pages 51-52]

Professor Wolff’s Democracy at Work offers us a well-written practical guide to alternatives to capitalism, one that we can begin to build today with the tools at our disposal. Whatever disagreements a reader may have with this or that detail, Democracy at Work is recommended to anyone seeking a concise study of why we need to bring a better world into being and how we might get there.

* Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism [Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012]

The formation of cooperatives doesn’t by itself eliminate competition

More people are becoming interested in cooperative enterprises as an alternative to the capitalist top-down corporation. In reading about and discussing the topic, I have found an interesting pattern: An assumption that competition will continue but that it will become benign.

It would be unrealistic to forecast that a cooperative economy would be without competition. But competition in what, and in what form? When we think of competition, often the visualization is of two or more companies competing to make a better consumer product. That is visible — the company that produces a shoddy product when another company produces a quality product puts itself at risk of going out of business (at least in theory).

Less visible, because it is abstract unless it is your job that is shipped overseas or eliminated, are the marco-economic results of competition. Among these are increasing downward pressure on wages; the creation of rust belts as industrialists move production to locations with ever cheaper wages; the relentless pressure (most often applied by the financial industry) to reduce costs, often by workforce reductions; the drive to produce ever higher profits, regardless of human cost; and environmental destruction. All these developments arise not because of this or that greedy banker or the personality of this or that industrialist. They arise because they are the inevitable product of market forces.

Market forces are not a “natural” phenomenon, they are the aggregate interests of the most powerful capitalists. The concentration of production in most industries into a handful of giant corporations — an oligopoly — is also the result of capitalist competition. Expand or die is the inexorable law a capitalist lives by: If you don’t get bigger and stronger, your competitor will and put you out of business. As the winners from this ruthless competition grow bigger and more powerful, they have more weight to throw around the political arena, and can (and do) exert decisive influence over the political process. It is in their interest for them to do so — and we shouldn’t expect them to act otherwise.

I have often been struck by a belief I often encounter that presumes that we need only convert business enterprises into cooperatives and capitalist competition will cease. Underlying that assumption, in my opinion, is locating the cause of greed, injustice, inequality and other social ills in the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of the capitalist enterprise. That structure is surely a significant contributing factor. But that shouldn’t obscure the cut-throat nature of unfettered, market-driven competition: The relentless pressure to increase profits, maximize market shares and eliminate competition — on pain of enterprise death for those who don’t do this sufficiently — makes unethical or anti-social business decisions inevitable.

It is not only the direct competition that compels such behavior, it is also the financial industry: Billionaire speculators, institutional investors, hedge funds, investment banks and other financiers are ever ready to apply the whip if profits falter — and can move gigantic sums of money through stock, bond and foreign-exchange markets at the click of a button to punish those who don’t deliver. During periods of economic upswing, wages may rise for a time as unemployment falls. But wage increases eventually eat into profits; falling profits are intolerable and will be punished by financiers. Cuts to wages, whether in givebacks or in the form of layoffs, and the destruction of productive capacity ensues.

Wages — and thus the human beings who work for the wages — are commodities in capitalism, or any system in which distribution is monopolized or largely controlled by capitalist-style market relations. If all enterprises were converted into cooperatives, collectively owned and managed by the full workforce, but capitalist market relations were left intact, the same competitive pressures would exist. There would be much less inequality because, presumably, all workers within a given enterprise would receive the same wage or would have small differentials, and the workers would be sharing in the profits they create rather than have them confiscated by top executives and financiers.

But their own wages would remain a commodity if everything else is a commodity priced by markets. The collective workers would face market pressure to reduce their own wages in order to compete better against their competitors. Some enterprises would become much bigger than others; smaller enterprises would be compelled to sell themselves to larger competitors, consolidating production until an oligarchal situation arose. Some industries would be much bigger than others. As market competition intensified, survival would require more ruthless behavior. In somewhat different form and with somewhat less intensity, the instability and social ills of capitalism would be reproduced.

A cooperative economy, therefore, has to not only be based on enterprises run on cooperative lines, but the cooperatives must cooperate with each other as well. An economy would have to be based on democratic control, with commodity prices negotiated in fair and open talks, and with a rational system of distribution that would be supple enough to respond to changes in consumer demand while not over-producing.

Part of the waste of capitalist production lies in its chaotic, unplanned nature: Production is increased until too much product is produced that can’t be sold; productive capacity is then destroyed (such as shuttering factories) until a shortage arises and a new cycle begins. This is done through uncoordinated, individual decisions based on guesswork. The pressure of competition compels decision-making to be done in secrecy and, additionally, no mechanism exists to judge composite demand. The result is alternating booms and busts, with accompanying human costs.

Democratic planning, from the bottom up, would be necessary to determine need and enable proper distribution. Ideally, there would be many enterprises for most products. Enterprises might work best as small or midsized production units. Here is where competition would still exist and provide a positive, rather than a destructive, role. If there are dozens of cooperatives producing shoes, the consumer would have many choices, and the enterprise that made a poor-quality shoe would have to do better — a producer that makes a product that people don’t want to buy won’t stay in business.

If one cooperative makes an innovation that gives it a higher-quality product, then other cooperatives would naturally copy the innovation. If democratic planning, to throw out a hypothetical example, determines that 1.2 million shoes need to be made because 1.1 million shoes were produced last year and the supply fell a bit short, and there are several shoe makers who make a quality shoe, that increased target can be distributed among them. If limits to capacity are being approached, one or more cooperatives can go to the local community-run and -controlled bank for a loan to expand capacity by making a case that more shoes should be made.

Production in unfettered markets will become production for private profit, not social need, even if that private profit is collective rather than concentrated at the top. Production needs to be oriented toward human need — that is the other half of the equation of cooperative enterprises.