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Coops: thinking politically
This article by Andrew Bibby was first published in In The Making way back in 1979!
(In The Making described itself as 'A Directory of Co-operative Projects', was produced at that time collectively in Milton Keynes and was distributed by PDC, Publications Distribution Co-operative. This article, like the rest of issue 6, was set on an IBM golfball typewriter, with the headlines carefully ;letrasetted...)
To people who believe in the philosophy of workers' co-ops, the death of a co-op is not just sad news - it's also a direct blow to deeply-held convictions that working co-operatively works. It's not surprising, therefore, if those of us involved in co-ops read, in In The Making and elsewhere, more euphoric accounts of newly-started co-ops than hardened obituaries of the ones which went under.
There's a tendency to write off the problems which confront co-ops, and in some circumstances cause their demise, in a superficial manner. If the problems aren't dismissed in a mystical fashion as just accidents of fate ('bad luck'), they are put down to the difficulties of learning to work collectively... to personality clashes... or to the technical difficulty of learning the necessary business skills, like bookkeeping and accountancy.
This isn't sufficient. For the problem co-ops face aren't just accidents or the results of personal problems: they reveal, I think, a contradiction deep at the core of the co-op philosophy which has to be faced and resolved politically.
A few years ago - back in the days when In The Making was still a duplicated and stapled bulletin (remember?) - it was easy to be optimistic. Not only was there a healthy growth in the small-scale 'alternative' co-op movement; in the world outside, too, interest was being shown in the principle of working co-operatively. In the early days of the Labour government, when Benn was at the Department of Industry, one could feel that Triumph Meriden, the Scottish Daily News, and the Kirby Manufacturing and Engineering co-ops were the vanguard of a new dawn of industrial co-operation. Now the situation looks different.The Scottish Daily News is dead; after various problems, including unofficial strikes, KME announced last November that it was being taken over by another (non co-op) engineering firm though this is in the melting pot at the moment; while Meriden's future looks decidedly dodgy. Some 'alternative' co-ops are in difficulties, too, while others are finding they have had to become more orthodox and commercial to survive.
For individual co-ops, and the workers in them, the last few years may variously have been interesting, exciting or depressing. For many co-ops, however, they were also years when, above everything else, loomed the single question of survival. That, at root, means staying profitable - playing the same game in the external world as ordinary non co-operative firms. To keep going (that is, to be able to continue to pay rents, wages, bills, etc) they have to play a completely traditional role in the existing economic system.
This can be worrying, especially to people involved in small community co-op projects who see their work as 'radical' in some sense. The problem, however, is that often their political analysis remains at the level of a critique of the hierarchical nature of society in general, and work-relationships in particular. What is necessary, it is maintained, is for these hierarchies to be abolished (both in theory and in practical day-to-day work) - and then all will be well. Hierarchies are seen as the cause of problems - not as a symptom of a deeper and more insidious malaise, which also needs attacking.
In other words, analysis of society remains primarily at a level of personalities, and personal inequalities of power and wealth - rather than identifying the economic and social organisation, which far from being run for collective gain, os geared to competition and individual gratification. It is because this analysis doesn't carry on to attack the whole capitalist economic and political system that the belief can grown that co-ops can successfully be islands of enlightenment, based on different, more desirable values - whilst they are inextricably linked into a system where competition and profit are essential for survival.
Basically the principle every co-op tacitly maintains is that the interests of workers coincide with the interests of the co-operative itself. This is fallacious, however. The interests of the workers may be listed: good money, interesting work, good working conditions, socially useful work, non-hierarchical forms of structure, as much security as each individual desires, involvement in decision-making, freedom to work when one chooses... and so on, other items may be added to the list.
The interests of the co-operative, however, are different. To survive within the existing system it has to be able to ensure that its income outbalances its expenses - it has to be profitable. Its interests are therefore frequently antithetical to the workers' interests. To ensure work is successfully completed, workers may have to submit to a discipline or strict timetable; work of a socially undesirable nature may be more profitable than socially useful work; and the interests of the co-operative are such that low wages, poor working conditions and redundancies may be desirable. The contradiction therefore between the interests of workers and company which is another way of stating the conflict between labour and capital, is not therefore overcome by working as a co-operative... as long as the economic system outside the co-op remains unchanged and unchallenged.
Frederick Gregory, in an excellent article in Socialist Review on Workers' co-ops (Dec 1978/Jan 1979) focuses on the experience of workers at the Kirby co-op:
"The militancy of the Kirky workers had achieved top rates for the area and a 35 hour week by 1974. This was needed especially since the work at Kirby was predominantly exhausting mass production in the press shop and radiator shop, which allowed little opportunity for personal development. However workers found that instead of a drastic improvement in working conditions with the commencement of the co-operative, they were demanded to work harder. Images of workers' control were shattered as workers found they had the same wages. hours, shifts and supervision as before... Co-operative idealism disintegrated as workers fond that they had not escaped from the ravages of the capitalist system: they were confronted by constantdemands for greater output, interrupted by abrupt lay-offs. The market still dictated the level of production in the co-operative."
Does it matter, however, if in some co-ops, workers do identify with the interests of their co-operatives even if these are objectively opposed to their own interests? If people choose 'self-exploitation', should that concern us? I think it should, particularly if political generalisations about co-operative working are to be made.
Firstly, workers in co-ops, particularly the small 'radical' community co-ops, are frequently in privileged positions which the majority of working people do not share. For example, they may have a source of private wealth to augment earnings, may have the security which comes fro educational qualifications or middle-class upbringing, or may be intending only to remain in their present work a short time. What workers in this position in essence are doing, consciously or unconsciously, is allowing their co-op to make use of these special factors to achieve a commercial - or ideological - advantage vis-a-vis other non co-op concerns.
This is possible when co-ops play only a marginal role in society, but is possible no longer whenco-ops become more numerous.
Secondly, workers' involvement and commitment to their own particular co-operative can lead to an unhealthy and reactionary isolationism. Co-ops with 'committed' workers who accept lower wages can damage attempts by other workers to fight for better wages and conditions, and can help weaken union organisation. In this context, it is encouraging that some small radical co-ops are beginning to become more union conscious. For the reasons discussed previously, unions have a justifiable reason for being sceptical, or even hostile, towards co-ops.
(Inevitably there may be contradictions involved in working within a union, which historically in Britain have confined themselves to economistic, often defensive, action within the existing system, rather than taking a lead in more positive, political issues. But these contradictions need to be resolved from within a union.)
The unhealthy retreatism brought about by excessive commitment of workers to their co-op's own sectional interest has other effects, too - and can lead to wider issues and struggles being ignored. I know I must tread carefully in pointing out in In The Making the dangers of the 'small is beautiful' point of view (and I accept the positive results which can come from any challenge to capitalism's ever-greater centralisation of organisation and structures). However, there is a great danger that in reaction to this, people will attempt to escape from the complexities of the real world and seek small, cosy 'solutions' to complicated problems. To an extent the co-operative movement reflects this tendency, and energies and attention to a part of a whole, rather than to the whole itself.
This may all seem very negative. It doesn't have to be. I know, from experience in my own co-op, how important it can be to prove that other ways of doing things are possible, in theory and in practice... that other systems of organisation, where power is shared democratically, not allocated hierarchically, can work. I know that in this way we can challenge the idea that the present system is the 'natural' one, or the only one possible.
Co-ops, then, can be a window on the future, a pointer to the way forward. It's our job to ensure that this happens - but it's also our job to know that supporting co-ops, by themselves, just isn't enough.
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