Cooperatives becoming bigger part of Cuba’s reforms

The continuing debates over cooperatives, including whether they represent a promising form of socialism or a reinforcement of capitalism, will likely have fresh evidence in coming years from Cuba.

The nascent cooperative movement in Cuba is genuine and growing, but many questions about its future direction are yet to be answered. That the Cuban cooperative movement is largely a top-down process, and subject to still opaque decision-making by party and government officials, adds more uncertainty. And inevitably intertwined with these debates are long-standing tensions between traditional state-owned models of property and emerging de-centralized models of cooperative property.

Perhaps the safest observation that can be made today is that nobody knows where Cuba’s experiment will lead.

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

The beginning stages of Cuban cooperatives were handled with considerable input. Thousands of meetings were held throughout the country in advance of the Communist Party of Cuba’s Sixth Congress, held in April 2011, to discuss the document Lineamientos de la política económica y social en Cuba (Guidelines on Economic and Social Policy in Cuba), which listed more than 300 goals intended as significant reforms to the Cuban economy. The guidelines approved at the Sixth Congress included autonomy for the state enterprises, an expansion of cooperatives, new taxing laws and changes in the system of subsidies.

Changes came swiftly. Almost 200 occupations previously limited to state enterprises were opened, and within three months of the Sixth Congress, more than 100,000 new small-business licenses were granted. The Cuban government estimated that about 489,000 people, representing nearly a tenth of the workforce, were self-employed in the first half of 2015.

The cooperative sector has not grown as fast, but by October 2013, 270 urban cooperatives had been approved. By late 2014, that number had reached nearly 500. But cooperatives are not new to Cuba — agricultural cooperatives have existed since the early years of the revolution and they produce about 80 percent of the food grown in Cuba. What is new is that cooperatives are now encouraged outside of agriculture, although they are primarily in services rather than manufacturing.

Reversal of previous openness to discussion

The Communist Party had intended to “update” the Guidelines at its Seventh Congress, held in April 2016. But no final documents have been released, nor had the documents to be discussed at the Congress been made available for discussion. This lack of transparency, said to be due to a continuing inability to complete the work, resulted in considerable public disapproval. A commentary in Green Left Weekly, contrasting this lack of transparency with the public input that helped shape the Guidelines approved by the Sixth Congress, noted the party faced a choice of either abandoning public consultation or postponing the congress.

The congress was not postponed. But the party did acknowledge the criticism directed at it. In a March 28 article (shortly before the Congress convened) in Granma, the official party newspaper, the paper wrote:

“The editorial office of this newspaper has received, by various means, expressions of concern from Party members (and non-members, as well) inquiring about the reasons for which, on this occasion, plans were not made for a popular discussion process, similar to that held five years ago regarding the proposed Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and Revolution.

The fact that such opinions and doubts were expressed is in no way reproachable, much less when they come from people who are genuinely concerned about the work of the Party and the country’s destiny.”

The Granma article argued that the discussions scheduled for the Seventh Congress would be a “continuation” of the work of the Sixth Congress, and that most of the Guidelines were still in the process of being implemented. Therefore, “what is more appropriate is finishing what has begun” rather than opening new discussions. The article argued that:

“[T]he guidelines approved by the 6th Congress serv[e] as the tactical approach to reach our aspirations, reflecting their continuity and development. These documents do not, therefore, represent anything different in terms of the road taken, but rather a higher level expression based on what has been discussed and submitted for consultation to all Party members and the people.”

Responding to criticisms of this line, President Raúl Castro later proposed that the Seventh Congress would adopt any documents “in principal” rather than definitively, promising further public consultation. The Congress did agree, but the documents still have not been released. This delay appears to be due to the drafts still being in progress; one of the documents is reported to have been drafted eight times.

Differing ideas as to direction of reforms

There is a consensus among informed observers that a primary reason for the Communist Party’s slowness in promulgating clear rules for the formation of cooperatives is that the party leadership has yet to reach a consensus itself. The Green Left Weekly commentary mentioned above suggests this division of opinion is behind the delays in producing the updated documents promised for the Seventh Congress. The author, Marce Cameron, wrote:

“The Central Committee’s glacial progress in drafting the two key documents suggests that it has tried to reconcile, behind closed doors, divergent conceptions of the new Cuban socialist model that is aspired to. They had to be reconciled if the leadership were to present a more or less coherent programmatic vision to the party as a whole—rather than strive to involve the party as a whole in developing that vision from the outset over the five years since the 6th Congress.”

In a thoughtful NACLA article, Roger Burbach, basing his analysis on the work of Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, summarized three visions of socialist economic development in Cuba. They are:

  • A statist position, largely reflecting the old guard. Advocates of this position call for more discipline and greater efficiency among state industries and enterprises, and argue that Cuba’s economic problems can be corrected through a more efficient state, not through a dismantling of the state.
  • A market socialist perspective, advanced by many economists. Advocates of a “socialist market economy” argue for privatization, even at the price of increased inequality, the exploitation of wage workers and environmental degradation, as the route to increased productivity and efficiency. These advocates assert the state can always step in to correct excesses.
  • An “autogestionario,” or self-management, stance that calls for democratic and sustainable development primarily through the promotion of cooperatives. Participation, association and solidarity should be at the heart of the new economy, advocates say. In this view, control should not come from the top down but from the bottom up, as workers engage in self-management to further their social and economic concerns.

The so far strong push for cooperatives from the party, and the assistance provided to them, is a good indication that cooperatives will be a part of Cuba’s future. To what degree remains an open question, but however that question is ultimately answered, the intention is that a significant portion of the economy will remain in state hands for the foreseeable future.

No return to capitalism

In a presentation on Cuba cooperatives at the Left Forum in New York last May, Isaac Saney noted that, despite the top-down manner of cooperative creation and the ongoing debate on whether the state should drive the development of cooperatives, popular support remains firm. He gave the example of U.S. President Barack Obama, on his trip to Cuba, saying the U.S. would buy coffee directly from Cuban coops, but the coops condemned that as intended to undermine the socialist state, which they would not go along with.

In the same Left Forum presentation, Al Campbell offered five considerations:

  • Cooperatives tend to build a sense of responsibility for the participants.
  • Coops build collective consciousness.
  • A negative is that coops can develop competition and rivalry with others; structures and practices are necessary to connect coops with the rest of society.
  • The danger of leaving economic coordination to the market; planning is an essential aspect of socialism.
  • Self-determination is a collective process; different decisions must be made by different people.

Parallel to these factors, in a part a reflection of the complex nature of the reforms, is that many cooperative enterprises did not become so on their own initiative. The Left Forum presenters, and others, have interviewed members of cooperatives who, when asked why they became a cooperative, did not know, saying they were told their state enterprise would now be a cooperative. Of 124 non-agricultural cooperatives created by mid-2013, 112 were former state enterprises, according to the Inter Press Service.

Complimentary to the creation of cooperatives, enterprises remaining in state hands are to be given more autonomy. The Inter Press Service reports:

“The authorities have defended ‘social ownership of the basic means of production’ as an essential aspect of the new economic model being built on the basis of reforms outlined by the ‘economic and social policy guidelines’ of the governing Communist Party of Cuba, considered a roadmap for ‘updating’ the socialist system promoted by President Raúl Castro.

In recent legislative debates that touched on this issue, the vice president of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, said the changes underway were aimed at building ‘prosperous and sustainable socialism, in which the main protagonist is the public enterprise, strengthened with greater autonomy in its management and the distribution of its results.’ ”

Cooperatives not necessarily a path to socialism

There is some fear that cooperatives could lead Cuba back to capitalism. Although cooperatives represent a socialized form of production, and potentially can form the basis of a socialist economy based on democratic principles, coops are also completely compatible with capitalism. The formation of cooperatives in itself does not eliminate competition, not even capitalist competition. Locating the cause of greed, injustice, inequality and other social ills in the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of the capitalist enterprise is an overly simplistic analysis.

Co-op symbolAlthough that structure certainly is a factor, the cut-throat nature of unfettered, market-driven competition is central. 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. Putting social decisions in the hands of the capitalist “market” means putting those decisions in the hands of the biggest industrialists and financiers.

What if an economy was dominated by cooperative enterprises, but those coops competed ruthlessly with one another in unfettered market competition? Cooperative members would wind up reducing their own wages (which would be a commodity in such a scenario) and cutting whatever corners they could to survive the competition, just as capitalist enterprises do today. Smaller coops would go under or sell themselves to larger coops — an oligarchy would inevitably arise in most industries.

Working for a cooperative has its advantages, even under capitalism, but even a hugely successful cooperative such as Mondragon faces limits due to the relentless nature of capitalist competition, as the 2013 closing of its household-appliances company, Fagor Electrodomésticos, demonstrates.

An economy based on cooperatives would have to have cooperation between its cooperatives, rather than competition. Prices would have to be negotiated up and down the supply chain (with all enterprises’ financial information available to prevent unfair price-gouging) with perhaps an arbitration board to step in when parties could not agree. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods.

Cooperative enterprises can be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions — subject to democratic oversight — but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.

And of course an economy based on cooperatives does not preclude that certain key industries remain in state hands (with democratic control). Banking, energy and basic utilities such as water come to mind as too important to allow any private control.

Old patterns of hierarchy not eliminated

The foregoing are theoretical constructs for a more developed system. In present-day Cuba, as would any society moving toward a cooperative model, there are many practical questions still to be worked out. There are also growing problems that need to be tackled. Writing in Daily Kos after a trip to Cuba, “Geminijen” observed that hierarchy seemed to stubbornly survive in some coops. She wrote:

“Although the coops are managed by the workers and the workers share the profits, many of the criteria of a coop seemed to be missing or in progress — i.e., there was usually one spokesperson who appeared to be the manager or ‘boss’ or a husband and wife heading up the business (coops are not supposed to be family businesses) and there did not always seem to be a clear path as to how the people who worked there could elect a different manager or board members (they all had elected boards) if they wanted to do so. In some cases, the members were encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, in others not so much.”

Although the writer noted that workers mostly seemed to not mind these conditions because they were making more money and had a say in pay scales, nonetheless inequality is a potential problem. In examining why “self-organized” forms of private enterprise approved by the state seemed more successful than state-run coops,

“[W]e didn’t consider that the state coops were hampered by their lack of access to raw materials necessary to create the coops. As a visiting Puerto Rican educational scholar pointed out to me, the privately organized coops have come in and taken over the failed state coops because they have the money (capital) to develop the business that the state run coops do not. When I asked self-organized coops where they got their capital, they were often evasive. My source suggested that many of these businesses were started with money from remittances from wealthy relatives in the United States. She also noted that since most of the wealthy people living in the States are white, this ability of one group of Cubans to obtain and invest capital not only was reintroducing class divisions, but increasing the divisions again between the races since most Afro Cubans did not have access to remittances.”

The Cuban government is making efforts to assist the coops created from state enterprises. Earlier this year, the government announced that restaurants and some other ex-state enterprises would be able to buy products at reduced prices from wholesale operations to be established for them, along with a tax cut, in exchange for price controls. Construction cooperatives are also hampered by inconsistent access to supplies and the sometimes poor condition of equipment inherited from state companies.

Cubans not looking north for answers

Forming a cooperative from scratch can still be difficult. There are heavy barriers, a Cuban anarchist visiting New York earlier this year reported in a presentation — approval is needed from the government, and there is no time period in which a response must be made. Political resistance remains; the presenter reported that his group was told to take down a banner saying “socialism is democracy” while participating in a parade, although they refused to do so. He is also fearful that Cuba is headed toward the model of China and Vietnam — a capitalist direction that he disapproved of.

Concomitantly, his biggest fear was of genetically modified organisms and other ills pouring into Cuba from the United States. Although there is a widespread desire among Cubans to be rid of the U.S. blockade that has done so much damage to their country, there is little desire for Cuba to revert to capitalism.

Daniel Hellinger, writing of the increased incomes but widening class divisions resulting from the reforms, reports that Cubans are firm in seeking to defend their gains. In a report written after a two-month stay in Havana, he wrote:

“They unfailingly welcome change — so long as three major accomplishments of the revolution are left untouched. No one wants a future without free, quality universal health care; free, quality education; and the peace of mind that comes with streets that are virtually free of crime or violence at any hour of the day or night. Moreover, while Cubans clearly welcome the thaw in relations, they are not looking to the U.S. to save them. Virtually everyone who talked to me seemed to agree with the government’s approach to rectifying problems; where they disagreed was over the pace of change, with most hoping to see it speed up, but more than a few anxious about their jobs, rations, pensions, etc.”

The Cuban government has consistently said it intends its reforms as a renewal of socialism, not a retreat. An objective accounting of the old Soviet model of centralized control with state ownership of all means of production has to acknowledge the disadvantages that come with it, along with the accompanying political constrictions. Change came too late, too haltingly and too much on the backs of working people in the Soviet Union, factors that can’t be ignored in assessing why the Soviet Union crumbled.

Cuba is a different country, but does face the problems of centralization. To the leadership’s credit, it is making a bonafide effort to effect necessary change, even if that change is yet to be agreed upon. It is much too early to say where Cuba’s experiment in cooperatives will lead, but the surest guarantee that it will prove to be an advance and not a retreat is the Cuban people themselves, who have stood up to unceasing U.S. attacks for more than a half-century.

Working collectively beats working for a boss

Cooperative enterprises are more stable than conventional capitalist enterprises, are more productive and create jobs that are more sustainable. And although the temptation to see coops as a magical solution to the ills of capitalism should be resisted, that they are better for workers than top-down enterprises shouldn’t be any surprise.

The better performance of cooperative enterprises, and the better results for workers, than that of traditionally run capitalist enterprises was recently summarized by the organization Co-operatives UK in its report, “What do we really know about worker co-operatives?” Written by Virginie Pérotin, the report analyzed international data on worker-owned and -run businesses in Europe, the U.S. and Latin America and compared the results with conventional businesses.

Moreover, the report said, conventional enterprises have something to learn from cooperatives: “in several industries, conventional companies would produce more with their current levels of employment and capital if they behaved like employee-owned firms.” Setting aside the unlikelihood of capitalists suddenly deciding to cede control and/or share profits, the preceding quote only makes sense. Why wouldn’t we be more productive if we were working for ourselves and had a say in the running of the business rather than toiling within the traditional concept of having to accept orders from above by people who have no interest other than squeezing as much out of you as possible?

Les Mees Cereal Food Cooperative PAD in France (photo by JPS68)

Les Mees Cereal Food Cooperative PAD in France (photo by JPS68)

The Co-operatives UK report defined a worker co-operative as an enterprise in which all or most of the capital is owned by employees (members) whether individually and/or collectively; all categories of employees can become members; most employees are members; in accordance with international co-operative principles, members each have one vote, regardless of the amount of capital they have invested in the business; and members vote on strategic issues in annual general meetings and elect the chief executive officer. Law firms were excluded because only some lawyers can be partners nor can any support staff.

The main findings of the report are:

  • Worker co-operatives are larger than conventional businesses and not necessarily less capital-intensive.
  • Worker co-operatives survive at least as long as other businesses and have more stable employment.
  • Worker cooperatives are more productive than conventional businesses, with staff working “better and smarter” and production organized more efficiently.
  • Worker co-operatives retain a larger share of their profits than other business models.
  • Executive and non-executive pay differentials are much narrower in worker co-operatives than in other firms.

More productive and more stable

There are benefits not only for the workers of the cooperative, but also for the local community:

“Labour-managed firms are probably more productive and may preserve jobs better in recessions than conventional firms, creating more sustainable jobs. Promoting worker co-operatives could therefore improve local communities’ employment, and therefore health and social expenditure and tax revenue. …

Employee control is thought to increase productivity, and in a labour-managed firm adjusting pay to preserve jobs makes sense for the employee-owners. Worker-members make the decision to adjust pay and they get the future profits (whereas it is more difficult for a conventional firm to elicit employees’ agreement for pay cuts in exchange for job preservation, since the firm’s owners have an incentive not to increase pay when business recovers).”

And certainly no cooperative is going to vote to ship itself thousands of miles away to a low-wage haven!

Interestingly, perhaps because the example of the factory takeovers in Argentina come readily to mind, cooperatives are more commonly formed from scratch, rather than as rescues of failing enterprises. In France, for example, 84 percent of worker cooperatives started from scratch with only seven percent a rescue of a failing conventional firm during the years 1997 to 2001, whereas in the same period, 64 percent of all firms started from scratch and 20 percent as a rescue of a failing conventional firm.

A significant reason for that is undoubtedly government support. The French and Italian governments provide support for cooperatives and this accounts for the relatively higher number of coops in those two countries. The Co-operatives UK report estimates Italy has at least 25,000 coops, France has 2,600 and Spain has 17,000, compared to only 500 to 600 in Britain.

Government support for coops in France and Italy

During the last years of the 2000s, about 200 new enterprises joined France’s national federation of cooperatives (Société coopérative et participative, or SCOP) annually, and the numbers continue to grow. According to Co-operative News, three-quarters of French coops remain in business after three years, while only two-thirds of French businesses overall last that long. The French government directly provides assistance:

“[W]orker co-operatives receive tax benefits from the French government. SCOPs do not have to pay the professional tax, which is 1.5% to 2.5% of revenues and income on worker shares is exempt from income taxes. There are also financial mechanisms for workers to use redundancy payments as part of wider financing package to buy-out and provide cash-flow for the business once they take it over.”

The federation also provides financing for capital needs through its own financial institution. Financing is also available for cooperatives in Italy.

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The formation and sustainability of cooperatives in Italy are facilitated by the country’s Marcora Law. One aspect of this law is that laid-off workers can elect to have their unemployment paid in a lump sum to be used toward the formation of a cooperative, in conjunction with a minimum number of similarly situated workers. Cooperative members have technical assistance and financing available to them through a mutual fund run by cooperatives, to which all coops in turn contribute 3 percent of their net income. There are also banks that specialize in servicing cooperatives on advantageous terms.

The stability of coops in turn provides stability to the communities in which they operate, notes Co-operative News in a report on Italy’s Marcora Law:

“But beyond the economic and employment policies, the social dimension should not be underestimated: co-operation, by nature, is inextricably linked to geographical territory and, therefore, the re-launch of a business is almost always the re-launch of an important contribution to the economic regeneration of the area in which the enterprise operates; the assets of the business continues to be indivisible and inter-generational, which helps link the co-operative with its social reality.”

Continued survival in Uruguay

In Uruguay, mutual aid cooperatives have a long history — housing cooperatives began to be formed in 1966, with a rapid increase in them after the passage of the National Housing Act in 1968. These were suppressed during the years of military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

Worker-run cooperative enterprises constitute a tiny percentage of the economy in Uruguay. There was, however, a significant expansion in their numbers following a deep economic downturn there in 2002 and they have since gained some government support from the Frente Amplio government. These are often successful. A study finds that cooperatives have survival rates one-third above other enterprises. The study’s author, Gabriel Burdín, writes:

“[S]urvey evidence … in Uruguay indicates that [worker-managed firms] employ less supervisors compared with [conventional firms], rely more on mutual monitoring among co-workers and are more likely to introduce organizational innovations such as team work, quality groups, job rotation and consultation mechanisms.”

In Argentina, workers’ cooperatives were formed as acts of survival.

An organizer at the Zanón factory that is often seen as an exemplary model, Raúl Godoy, speaking at a Left Forum panel organized by Left Voice, told the audience of the long years of organizing necessary to have made the takeover possible. Even after the fall of Argentina’s military dictatorship, blacklists were maintained by employers during the era of formal democracy, and the Zanón factory had a “very harsh regime” for workers. Mr. Godoy reported that organizing had to be done “in almost conspiratorial fashion” outside the factory.

The Zanón activists built relationships with workers fighting in other places; sought to defend the rights of workers; built relationships with “picateros” (organized unemployed people who frequently use direct-action tactics), Mapuches, women and other workers; and did “important militant work that involved building confidence.” Thus when the factory was to be closed and the workers had to occupy it, and physically defend themselves from expulsion, they were able to be cohesive and to count on the assistance of the surrounding community.

The limits of the possible in Argentina

Although forming a cooperative was not necessarily their desired outcome, it represented what was possible at the time. Mr. Godoy told the Left Voice panel:

“There is no individual escape from the capitalist situation. We did not have the power to go beyond the cooperative form. It was the way we could maintain what we had accomplished.”

Argentine authorities have never been supportive of the recovered factories, and the new neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri has quickly slowed itself openly hostile to them. Thus Argentina’s cooperatives face a challenging future. “There is no solution within the capitalist system,” Mr. Godoy said.

Co-op symbolNonetheless, Argentine cooperatives have provided a demonstration of worker-run enterprises forging strong links with their communities, with mutual benefit to the enterprise and the community that supports the enterprise. The employees doing so first had to overcome their own doubts about themselves, but were able to draw on the experience of those who went first and created national organizations to represent the cooperatives and enable coordination among them.

It is no so simple matter for working people to acquire the confidence to run businesses themselves; pervasive capitalist ideology insists the businesses can only be run by a small elite, who are therefore entitled to collect hundreds or even thousands of times more in compensation than their employees. Yet how could any business function without the know-how and cooperation of its workforce?

That the working conditions within cooperatives are superior to traditional top-down enterprises is simply common sense. But cooperatives are small islands in a vast sea of capitalism, and can’t escape the pull of capitalist markets, no matter how humane an internal culture might be. Cooperatives in themselves don’t necessarily herald a coming socialist dawn; they are quite compatible with capitalism.

Cooperating with cooperatives

Even if cooperatives were to become the dominant enterprise model, that by itself would not eliminate competition. To create a truly new, better system, in an economy based on cooperatives, the cooperatives would have to cooperate with each other in a system with democratic accountability. (This does not preclude that certain key industries, such as banking, would be in state hands under democratic control.)

An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain, and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion.

For now, however, cooperatives must compete with capitalist enterprises with all the rigors of capitalist markets. Not even the world’s most successful cooperative, Mondragon, is exempt from this. That cooperatives tend to cut wages rather or dip into reserves rather than lay off workers, with an eye toward future better times in which pay cuts can be made up, may be more humane, but it also reflects that a cooperative enterprise that must compete is eventually forced to treat its own wages as a commodity.

If an economy is based on cooperatives, but those cooperatives compete against each other, the cooperative members will become their own capitalists and be forced to cut their wages to survive competition.

The intention here isn’t to pour cold water on the idea of cooperatives — they have tremendous value in demonstrating that working people don’t need bosses and that it is not necessary to work long hours for little pay so that a few people at the top can amass fortunes. The profits divided between industrialists and financiers derive from the difference in the value of what you produce from what you are paid.

Shouldn’t the people who do the work earn the benefits? Shouldn’t communities have stability instead of being subjected to the whims of far-off corporate bosses? In a better world, they would be.

What might a cooperative economy look like?

In any country in which a model of worker cooperation or self-management (in which enterprises are run collectively and with an eye on benefiting the community) is the predominant model, there would need to be regulations to augment good will. Constitutional guarantees would be necessary as well. Some industries are simply much larger than others. In a complex, industrialized society, some enterprises are going to be much larger than others. Minimizing the problems that would derive from size imbalances would be a constant concern.

Furthermore, if enterprises are run on a cooperative basis, then it is only logical that relations among enterprises should also be run on a cooperative basis. An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised—such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain, and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion.

It's Not Over coverCentral planning in a hierarchal command structure with little or no local input proved to not be a long-term viable alternative system. What of tight regulation? That is not a solution, either. Regulators, similar to central planners, can never possess sufficient knowledge to adequately perform their job and local enterprises can use their special knowledge to give themselves an advantage rather than share that knowledge with regulators.

Responsibility, then, would have to be tied to overall society. Negotiations among suppliers and buyers to determine prices, to determine distribution and a host of other issues would be necessary. Such negotiations are already common in certain industries; for example in the chemical industry, where companies negotiate commodity prices on a monthly or quarterly basis. Those are competitive negotiations in which the dominant position oscillates between buyer and supplier, resulting in dramatic price changes.

In a cooperative economy, negotiations would be done in a far more cooperative manner, with a wider group participating in the discussions. In this model, prices of raw materials, component parts, semi-finished goods, finished goods, consumer products and producer products such as machinery would be negotiated up and down the supply chain, leading to a rationalization of prices—markups to create artificially high profits or pricing below cost to undercut competitors would be unsustainable in a system where prices are negotiated and pricing information is widely available.

These would have to be fair negotiations—prices throughout the supply chain would have to be set with an eye on rational economics. Industry facilitators to assist negotiations and/or a government arbitration board to make decisions when parties are unable to agree to terms might be necessary. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods. It may be desirable to include these community interests in pricing negotiations directly. As more people take on more responsibility, more will gain the experience of fair negotiations, enabling more to peer over the shoulders of those involved in these decisions. In turn, more experience means more people within the community who can shoulder responsibility.

Regulating social standards

Although regulation, as noted above, is not in itself a solution, that is not a suggestion that regulation should be done away with. One method of using regulation to ensure socially positive economic activity might be a system of certification. Enterprises would be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions, but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.

The allusion to “workers’ rights” in the preceding paragraph might seem a bit odd. These are enterprises under workers’ control already, so what rights are contemplated? That is a more specific question than can reasonably be answered in all situations ahead of time, but in large enterprises workers might still need protections codified in the laws covering the governance of enterprises. In the Czechoslovakia of Prague Spring, as we saw in Chapter 3, this issue was directly confronted. There, the enterprises were under state ownership, and no change was contemplated to that status—enterprises were to be managed directly by their employees on behalf of the country and its people. Activists had begun to set up (until the Soviet occupation stopped it) a system of workers’ councils as the instruments through which enterprises would be directed by all the employees.

Although these have a similar name, they should not be confused with the councils and soviets set up in 1917 and 1918 across Europe; these councils were enterprise-management bodies, not alternative government bodies. The Czechoslovak workers’ councils were designed to give the entire workforce of an enterprise a say in management and would also send representatives to national conventions that would coordinate production at the national level. These councils were to exist simultaneously with trade unions, which would represent the same workers as employees. The activists, mostly trade unionists and grassroots Communist Party members who worked in these factories, believed that separate organizations were necessary to represent workers properly in both their roles because there are potential conflicts between being a member of an organization and an individual worker.

Socialist triangleIn a country where capitalism has been transcended, and a new system of social control and democracy is being established, employees in those large enterprises that are to be formally owned by the state will have the same dual role of managing the enterprise collectively at the same time they remain workers. It is not impossible that biases or favoritism could slowly arise in such enterprises; a union would provide another source of protection that could defend a worker as an individual when necessary. Trade union membership, then, would remain a social value to be respected.

Workers in enterprises that are collectively owned, since they would be owners and not simply managers, might find less ambiguity between their two roles, as long as strategic decisions are made collectively. Still, it may be that there remains a place for trade unions even in these types of enterprises, or it could be that unionization is simply a social value and all members of the enterprise join or form a union for reasons of social solidarity or to provide another check against any centralizing tendencies emerging within the enterprise or within government.

Open information for social accountability

A system of democratic control and social accountability would require open information. Records and accounts of all enterprises and major production units of enterprises would have to be made available to all other parties to negotiations in order for the fairest deals to be reached and to prevent attempts to unfairly benefit at the expense of suppliers or customers. Social-justice organizations—such as those upholding civil rights, consumer rights or the environment—should also have a role, perhaps in enterprise negotiations when appropriate, but more likely in helping to set social goals, in monitoring compliance with standards and possibly being the bodies that issue certifications to enterprises that achieve the standards.

Some amount of planning and coordination would be necessary as part of the process of determining raw materials needs and ensuring that those needs are met. Any planning committee would have to be democratically controlled and have wide social representation to oversee production and to assist in the determination of investment needs.

Co-op symbolInvestment would need to go to where it is needed, a determination made with as many inputs as possible, but because of its importance banking is one area that would have to be in state hands and not in collectives. Financial speculation must be definitively ended, with banking reduced to a public utility. Enterprises seeking loans to finance expansions or other projects will have to prove their case, but should have access to investment funds if a body of decision-makers, which like all other bodies would be as inclusive as possible, agrees that the project is socially useful or necessary.

Government infrastructure projects should be subject to the same parameters as enterprises, with the added proviso that the people in the affected area have the right to make their voices heard in meaningful ways on local political bodies and on any other appropriate public boards. No private developer wielding power through vast accumulations of money will be able to destroy forests or neighborhoods to build a project designed for the developer to reap profits while the community is degraded. Development would be controlled through democratic processes at local levels, and regional or national infrastructure projects should require input from local bodies representing all affected areas.

Capitalist ideology holds that the single-person management that goes with private ownership produces the most efficient system, and soon after the October Revolution communist leadership agreed that single-person management is best. But in contrast to these “givens,” is it not true that a content workforce able to have control over its working life will produce better than a workforce that is alienated by a lack of control? Studies consistently conclude that measures of workers’ control increase satisfaction in work, productivity and solidarity. But workers’ control threatens the domination of elites.

An unprecedented level of democracy would be possible in a cooperative economy because the power of capital would be broken. Social constraints ensuring responsibility to the larger community would be required to prevent the accumulation of capital that translates into power, although such tendencies would be countered by a system that rewards cooperation rather than greed. The society that has been sketched out in these very broad strokes is a society with no classes. Working people—the overwhelming majority of society—have taken control. The (ex-)capitalists are just as free to go to work as everybody else. When the power of capital is abolished, capitalists are converted into ordinary people. Surely some, those with expertise and an ability to work well with others, would be among those cooperative members elected into administrative positions; regardless, they would have to become regular cooperative workers, contributing to the production of a quality product or service and having their say equal to all others who do the work.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, officially published on February 26 by Zero Books. Citations omitted. Sources cited in this excerpt are: Pat Devine, “Self-Governing Socialism,” anthologized in William K. Tabb (ed.), The Future of Socialism: Perspectives from the Left [Monthly Review Press, 1990]; Diane Elson, “Socializing Markets, Not Market Socialism,” The Socialist Register, 2000; and Herbert Gintis, “The Nature of Labor Exchange and the Theory of Capitalist Production,” anthologized in Randy Albelda, Christopher Gunn and William Waller (eds.), Alternatives to Economic Orthodoxy, [M.E. Sharpe, 1987]

What if Bernie Sanders were really talking about socialism?

Socialism has re-entered the realm of popular political discussion in the United States, for the first time in decades. There are several reasons for this, the most important being that a quarter-century has passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the force of the bogey it represented has little resonance for a younger generation; several years of ongoing economic turmoil has led to more people being willing to question capitalism; and the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign because of the Vermont senator’s willingness to challenge the status quo.

Senator Sanders routinely speaks in front of large, enthusiastic crowds and although it remains unlikely that he will win the Democratic Party nomination, his strong showing and common-sense demeanor has forced the corporate media to expand the ordinarily heavily constricted boundaries of political and economic discourse. He calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and the corporate media by and large seems content to use his label, often even dropping the “democratic” and simply referring to him, without the usual rancor, as a “socialist.”

So is it really true that socialism has become acceptable and mainstream? Or, to be more direct: Is Bernie Sanders really a socialist?

Bernie Sanders rally in Louisiana (photo by Bart Everson)

Bernie Sanders rally in Louisiana (photo by Bart Everson)

The answer to the first question remains to be answered, but the answer to the second is “no.” Senator Sanders offers reforms to the capitalist system. Significant reforms, ideas and platforms far beyond any other major-party candidate for president. These would certainly be welcome if they could be enacted. But they are still reforms, not real change. Reforms, unfortunately, can and are taken away — as the past three decades have vividly demonstrated. Just as Keynesianism is not going to save us, there is no going back to the past nor is it still possible to believe capitalism can be a progressive force.

In the first Democratic Party presidential primary debate, Senator Sanders offered Denmark and Sweden as examples of the democratic socialism he has in mind. The front-runner, Hillary Clinton, immediately parried with a claim that the United States dare not “turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.” That more of those in the broad middle or with less are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads and keep from drowning in debt, that wages have been stagnant since the 1970s while the one percent grab all the gains, that prospects for students and recent graduates are more dismal than for their parents or grandparents, it would seem that Secretary Clinton’s middle class doesn’t have it so good.

Europe versus the United States

It tales no more than a cursory glance at Denmark, Sweden or many other countries to see the unreality of her claim. For one thing, health care is a right in most of the countries of the world, but in the United States health care is a privilege reserved for those with money or a full-time job (if it has reasonable benefits). In Denmark, all people who reach age 65 are entitled to a retirement pension, all residents have sickness benefits if they are unable to work, health care is a right, stays in public hospitals are free and paid parental leave is available up to 46 weeks. Danish workers are entitled to five weeks of vacation each year by law and many workers have a negotiated sixth week of vacation.

European countries require 20 to 30 day of vacation, and Australia and New Zealand require 20 days. The United States is the only advanced capitalist country that mandates none.

The idea that working people in the U.S. have it good is laughable. Secretary Clinton is no different than her Republican challengers in her ideological belief in “American exceptionalism,” the nationalist term used by United Statesians to claim theirs is the greatest country and a mandatory ideology for those seeking political office. However much better life may be there, however, it isn’t true that Denmark or Sweden are socialist countries. Those countries, and others applying versions of the Scandinavian welfare model, are capitalist countries that have laws and regulations to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism. So austerity is not an impossibility there; the relentless downward pressure applied to working people under capitalism is in force across Europe.

It is no accident that the European Union bureaucracy is unaccountable to any democratic vote; the E.U. is designed by central bankers to benefit European big business and financiers. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the European Union, including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and policies that are designed to break down solidarity among wage earners and different regions by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

The European Union, in its current capitalist form, is a logical step for business leaders who desire greater commercial power on a global basis: It creates a “free trade” zone complete with suppression of social accountability while giving muscle to a currency that has the potential of challenging the U.S. dollar as the world’s pre-eminent currency. Europeans’ ability to keep the reforms they have won are dependent on their organizing and going into the streets, the same as in the U.S. or any other country.

A basic sketch of socialism

What would socialism look like? There is no specific set of formulae, but some basics are:

  • Everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs, and that pricing and other decisions are not made outside the community or without input from suppliers, distributors and buyers.
  • Nobody is entitled to take disproportionately large shares off the top because they are in a power position.
  • Every person who reaches retirement age is entitled to a pension that can be lived on in dignity. Disabled people who are unable to work are treated with dignity and supported with state assistance; disabled people who are able to work can do so.
  • Quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights.
  • Artistic expression and all other human endeavors are encouraged, and — because nobody will have to work excessive hours except those who freely volunteer for the extra pay — everybody will have sufficient time and rest to pursue their interests and hobbies.

In such a world, there would not be extreme wealth and the power that wealth concentrates; political opinion-making would not be dominated by a numerically tiny but powerful class perpetrating its rule. Without extreme wealth, there would be no widespread poverty; large groups of people would not have their living standard driven as low as possible to support the accumulation of a few.

In any country in which a model of worker cooperation or self-management (in which enterprises are run collectively and with an eye on benefitting the community) is the predominant model, there would need to be regulations to augment good will. Constitutional guarantees would be necessary as well. Some industries are simply much larger than others. In a complex, industrialized society, some enterprises are going to be much larger than others. Minimizing the problems that would derive from size imbalances would be a constant concern.

Furthermore, if enterprises are run on a cooperative basis, then it is only logical that relations among enterprises should also be run on a cooperative basis. An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion. Prices would be negotiated, with all enterprises’ financial information publicly available so no unfair profiteering could take place.

Investment would need to go to where it is needed, a determination made with as many inputs as possible, but because of its importance banking is one area that would have to be in state hands and not in collectives. Financial speculation must be definitively ended, with banking reduced to a public utility. Enterprises seeking loans to finance expansions or other projects will have to prove their case, but should have access to investment funds if a body of decision-makers, which like all other bodies would be as inclusive as possible, agrees that the project is socially useful or necessary. Energy, another critical industry, would also be nationalized and under democratic control.

Government infrastructure projects should be subject to the same parameters as enterprises, with the added proviso that the people in the affected area have the right to make their voices heard in meaningful ways on local political bodies and on any other appropriate public boards. No private developer wielding power through vast accumulations of money will be able to destroy forests or neighborhoods to build a project designed for the developer to reap profits while the community is degraded. Development would be controlled through democratic processes at local levels, and regional or national infrastructure projects should require input from local bodies representing all affected areas.

None of the foregoing is being talked about by Bernie Sanders, and certainly not any other candidate for the U.S. presidency. But such gains are unattainable under capitalism, no matter how many reforms are (temporarily) extracted from industrialists, financiers and the politicians who whistle their tune.

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.

Those who do the work in the workplace should get the rewards

A cooperative enterprise rests on a basic concept — the people who do the work earn the money. Strange, isn’t it, that this straightforward idea is considered radical.

It shouldn’t. Yet it is. The modern capitalist system is advertised as a “meritocracy” — those who work the hardest earn the most. In reality, this is a fairy tale; those who accumulate the most are those who have the most capital, often inherited. The system is called “capitalism” for a reason.

Not even the hardest-working chief executive officer works 340 times harder than his or her average employee. The financier who manipulates numbers on a computer screen, indifferent to the humanity that produces those revenues and net incomes, surely does not work hundreds of times harder. Or, likely, even as hard, particularly if the corporate raider is looting a manufacturing company with a factory floor.

If the chief executive, or any manager, is elected from the ranks of the workforce by those same co-workers due to his or her meritorious effort and/or willingness to obtain a degree in management, then indeed an enterprise can be said to operate on a meritorious basis. Such enterprises already exist; some were created as cooperatives at the start and some were taken over by their workers to forestall closure or abandonment.

If you gave the average employee the choice of working in a cooperative, in which everybody shares in the rewards if the enterprise succeeds and everybody has a vote in strategic decisions in a democratic process, as opposed to being an exploited, powerless cog in the traditional authoritarian, top-down capitalist enterprise, there would be considerable support for the former option. If the person given this choice were to be told that wages, benefits and working conditions would be better in the cooperative (as in fact is the case), the decision becomes easier.

But what do we say to a small-business owner? Mom-and-pop businesses form part of the backbone of communities and, unlike a large corporation in which ownership shares are traded among speculators far removed from the actual underlying business, the small businessperson is present, often for long days. Here we have people who do put in more hours than others, and have put their limited capital at risk.

Why should anyone have to work 14 hours a day?

Two recent conversations have gotten me to think about this particular question. One was a debate conducted on another blog in direct response to a question from a small business owner who said he works 14 hours a day, six days a week. The other was a debate with a passerby I had last weekend while staffing an Occupy Wall Street literature table who insisted she was more deserving than others because she worked 12 or more hours a day when others weren’t willing to do so.

If someone chooses to work such hours and is personally fulfilled by doing so, that is that person’s business and not mine. But if you are at your job 14 hours a day, six days a week, your family is missing all the other things you have to offer them. And no matter how nice a house you may have, you’re not there to enjoy it.

Nobody should have to work such punishing hours. There are those who choose to do so out of personal conviction, but there are many millions of people in sweatshops working such hours, or still longer hours, who earn starvation wages — and they have no choice about it. The big capitalists of the world — people who have far more than any small-business owner — earn their fabulous wealth by exploiting such people, and by exploiting relatively more privileged people in advanced capitalist countries who work lesser hours but nonetheless work long, hard days.

Capitalists become rich by paying their employees less than the value of what they produce — usually far less. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t capitalists who don’t work, but a person who runs a small family business is not in the same category as a big capitalist. The passerby with whom I debated last weekend said if the people whom she claimed were jealous of her house were to run businesses like she does, and put in as many hours, they could have what she has.

But there is only so much space for such businesses; under capitalism, most people are going to have to work for somebody else. Moreover, opportunities are vastly unequal. I grew up in a middle class household where the expectation was always that I would go to college (which I did), and we lived in a town with an excellent public-school system, so I received a better education than most students. I had advantages that many people do not have, had I wished to pursue a business career.

Yes, some folks do climb out of disadvantageous situations, but only so many can do that in a (capitalist) system that puts tremendous roadblocks in front of people. Saving is difficult when mere survival is an increasingly difficult struggle.

A small-business owner may object that s/he puts in more hours than employees do (if they have any) and has capital at risk. That may be true, but having to do so is a requirement imposed by the capitalist system; it is not something ordained by some natural order. The capital put at risk was undoubtedly lent by a bank, which collects high interest — in other words, the bank is exploiting the small businessperson. The banker did nothing but sign a piece of paper while the owner works 14 hours a day. Why should the banker earn such big money? Quite likely, the banker, who repeats this exploitative operation with others, earns far more money and works far fewer hours.

The small businessperson is exploited by capitalists, too, just in a different way than an employee is.

The proprietor works, the landlord takes

Let’s take a concrete example. For more than 30 years, including two decades at his last location, a vegan baker much loved by the community operated a bakery before being forced out of business by a landlord who continually jacked up his rent, at three times the rate of inflation. The baker always gave to the community, frequently donating goodies at public events; I was far from the only person routinely greeted with a hug and often offered a free tea when I stopped in. During those years, the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City changed from a unique enclave of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks to its present-day state of gentrification run amok.

[Credit: VegGuide.org at http://www.vegguide.org/entry/436]

[Credit: VegGuide.org]

The baker worked from early afternoon to midnight six, and usually seven, days a week, just so all of his money could go to the landlord, who merely needs to sit in his comfortable office many miles away and let the money roll in. For landlords, the neighborhood is nothing but a cash cow to exploit, cynically taking advantage of the cachet created by the residents they are squeezing out by their exorbitant rents. The baker’s fate has been the fate of countless small businesses; only faceless chain stores are able to afford the rents. This corporatization has been replicated in countless other neighborhoods.

The free-lance worker gets the short end as well. For years, I was self-employed, and had to, for tax purposes, operate as my own small business and fill out tax forms the same way an actual small business would. But I was no businessperson — I was a worker who didn’t have a regular job. I was exploited; in fact I was more exploited than I now am with a regular job because I had no health insurance and I had to pay double the usual Social Security taxes (my half and the employers’ half).

People are taught to have a 19th century, romantic notion of capitalism — a myriad of small enterprises competing in a free market. But a “free market” has never existed. Capitalism was built on pushing people off their farms and passing draconian laws to force them into the new factories; markets are expanded through force both military (World War I is one particularly bloody example) and financial (such as International Monetary Fund diktats); and the largest competitors become a handful of oligarchs whose wealth enables them to get governments to give them yet more advantages and who compete by cutting wages rather than through competition that exists only in textbooks.

Employees are exploited through this system, regardless of collar color, by being paid only a small fraction of what they produce and forced to compete for a dwindling number of jobs, but also because they, as consumers, have to pay the high prices that result when competition reduces an industry to a small number of oligopolistic behemoths who dominate a market. Small businesses are also at the mercy of larger corporate entities, including rapacious bankers, and are hurt when their customers have less money.

In a cooperative economy, no individual must assume all the risk. The cooperative can do so, taking loans at reasonable rates by making a good case to a publicly accountable bank operated as a public utility. Enterprises would relate to other enterprises in a cooperative, not competitive manner, eliminating much of the anxiety inherent in a capitalist system in which humans serve markets instead of the other way around.

Hard workers such as the small businesspeople under discussion would be valuable to a cooperative enterprise. Someone possessing such drive would likely wind up being elected to an administrative or management post by their collective. Talents and hard work would still be recognized; such a driven person would still have the personal satisfaction of a job well done; and s/he could work fewer hours, allowing more time to be spent with family and friends.

Others, too, will contribute talent and work to the cooperative enterprise while sharing the burden. Everybody who works should have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, with community input — after all, it is the community that would be supporting the enterprise, and the enterprise in turn would be operated by people from the community. Production should be for human need, not for a minuscule elite’s private profit with no regard to the greater good. Benefiting the community and earning a comfortable living while working a humanistic workday shouldn’t be oxymoronic.

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]