Cooperativism: The Need for a Proletarian Socialism

In the February 16 2019, edition of The Economist, the author of the cover story about “Millennial Socialism” used a word I had not seen before: “Cooperativisation.” Although the author intended to juxtapose this against democratic freedoms as something “forced” and “with few antecedents in modern democracies,” I think that I quite like the term. I like cooperativization as a term of concrete socialist policy. I also believe that there is much value in a closely related term: cooperativism. Cooperativism constitutes a more specific term for a type of socialism — an actual proletarian socialism — that has the potential to revolutionize the economy to be more efficient, productive, and equitable.

It is a testament to the explanatory powers of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign that socialism is no longer the dirty word it was during and following the Cold War in the United States. Senator Sanders had no fear when he gave a political speech in favor of socialism. On a platform described as socialist, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uprooted her centrist opponent in the New York’s 14th District Democratic primary. Now, 48 percent of millennial Democrats consider themselves socialists. However, the socialism of this new wave of acolytes has too great a focus on state programs, resembling more social democracy than democratic socialism.

Social democratic programs should not be discounted, but they will not fundamentally change the economic power relations between labor and capital. Socialists absolutely must defend social democratic programs against the onslaught of austerity-mad conservatives and neoliberals. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps) and Medicaid defend the working class against the worst barbarisms of capitalism; workers begging for food and medicine are unlikely to form an effective, independent force against unlimited greed. At the same time, a politician begging for these programs hardly forms an independent force against this same capitalist greed. Based on taxation of the rich, the longevity of these programs will never escape the Sword of Damocles hanging over them any more than a petition of rights from a king guarantees those rights in the long term. To shield against this bourgeois sword, a more fundamental socialism constructed from the iron hardness of the working class is needed. Cooperativism comprises that armor.

While activist campaigns for the expansion of social democratic programs like Medicare for All and expanded college tuition support should remain key issues on the docket of socialist groups, the advancement of cooperativism as an alternative to capitalist political economy must be the prime concern of any serious leftist group. The end goal should not be merely to petition the king but to subvert and make superfluous the very notion of a king. From this position, cooperativists can articulate concrete systems for which they advocate, make compromises when preferred, and rout political opponents when necessary. If the American Revolutionaries had started from the position that George III indeed had the divine right to rule the colonies, they would have cast into a burn pit any moral, rational, or ideological basis for the foundation of the United States, and their revolution would have been no revolution at all. Similarly, the Left’s current acceptance of the moral right to private accumulation of social wealth has degraded leftist demands into flaccid calls for better state management and subsidies for favored constituencies.

The demand for a cooperativist movement should not be confused with the demand for and elevation of cooperation as such. The latter has been the fetish of most manifestations of the American Left for some time, and it poses no radical questions to the bourgeois power structure. Cooperation can occur among a small group seeking to control vast wealth or a majority seeking to crush a minority. In fact, calls for cooperation and party loyalty have been used effectively by conservatives and centrists within the Democratic Party to bludgeon its own social democratic wing. Therefore, organizing around cooperation is no more economically revolutionary than organizing around competition and is little more than a psychic balm for quasi-formulated leftish ideals.

For this reason, cooperativism should focus on the cooperative as a particular form of proletarian business, separate from and superior to the consumer cooperative, which is little different from Costco or Sam’s Club. And if, for instance, you buy into the stock of an REI rather than merely purchasing a membership card, the difference either way is hardly material from the standpoint of the Left. Imagine a typical grocery cooperative in an upper-middle class neighborhood that is frequented and owned by the petty bourgeois patrons who shop there. Does this cooperative not still employ and exploit the labor of its employees under the same objective conditions that face the Whole Foods worker? Perhaps these cooperative owners, self-selecting for their love of the idea of cooperation, elect to pay the workers more than their Bezosian counterparts. The fact still remains: The cooperative owners wield the arbitrary power to cooperate in the decision to hire and fire the workers or to elect their own executive despot to do so for them. The fundamental power relation has not changed, and the petty bourgeoisie can plan their next European vacation with stomachs full of organic brie without a care in the world.

The worker cooperative is a fundamentally different economic entity. Where once stood the managerial Barad-dûr casting its greedy gaze upon the employees to ensure the greatest extraction of surplus labor, the workers would be free to manage themselves in the manner most productive and socially acceptable for the cooperative. The liberty, coordination, and democracy of the cooperative would allow workers to exert a similar — or more if they so choose — amount of productive labor in a manner according to democratically chosen norms of the cooperative. Before there was despotism; now there is democracy.

The critic may quip: How can a business govern itself? Workers obviously would shirk and laze about! The cooperativist would answer: How can a people of 320 million govern themselves? Those who rule obviously would shirk and laze about! On this last point, I admit, we do have some evidence. More seriously, the worker cooperative would face the same economic pressure to produce as the dictatorial business, except the benefit of that productivity would be captured by the workers themselves. As joint owners with democratic voting rights, the cooperative workers can decide how to use that surplus. Perhaps, like small profit seekers, they decide to extract from their own hard work excess profits, or they elect to lower the time spent at work. The beauty is in the variability and freedom with which the cooperative workers can decide. Varying levels of democracy can be used where needed, like our own system of federalist government; giant combinations of cooperatives could form into corporate republics with individual cooperative units determining their own internal structures. In fact, we already have such an example existing today in the form of Mondragon in Spain.

None of this is to say that cooperativism is an antidote to all political-economic ills in society. As the eminent geographer and urbanist David Harvey stated in a recent talk, the continued capitalistic revolutionizing of society has not been merely a pacific movement of economic forces but a conscious, formulated, and purposeful sociopolitical project. So, too, was the accumulation of policy and political power by corporations over the American Republic a well-laid effort; why then should the Cooperativist program be any different?

Capitalism is characterized first and foremost as a system in which private individuals own the means of production, expropriate the value produced by collective labor using these means, and convert the surplus into profit that is circulated through a financial system that allows for the sustainable self-enrichment of these private individuals. Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist hero of a failed revolution in 1918 Germany, noted that cooperatives alone cannot revolutionize the capitalist economy while facing the competitive pressures of the that same economy. And, of course, she was right. However, she failed to consider that a cooperativist movement could apply social pressures of its own.

Capitalism continues to reproduce a class that pays, lobbies, and influences public policy toward its own ideological goals. In the same way, a cooperativist movement would not have purely economic goals; it would wield the forging hammer of a more just society for the working class. Cooperativists would work within the broader Left to push for policies that improve the lives of the working class. Cooperativists, through the expansion and normalization of the worker cooperative, would expand the economic power, and therefore the stakes, of the working class in society. Like the mega corporations that seek to shape the very foundations of policy and government around the world into a technocratic tool perfectly formed for their mode of production, the cooperativists would apply pressure to mold policy into something equitable, effective, and productive for the toilers of the economy.

The cooperativist standard would enhance the movement toward a progressive and equitable future for all. The power of combined labor holds within it the power to unite peoples of all stripes in the struggle for liberty and equality: The Enlightenment fulfilled at last. The nature of the labor process itself could even rouse the cooperative spirit between slaves, indentured servants, and workmen of Bacon’s Rebellion. Bacon’s methods were treacherous and not to be emulated, but it showed that a spirit of solidarity can be invoked in even the most barbaric times of U.S. history. What limit then is there for a cooperativist movement, in a time of tremendous productivity within a broader Left, working tirelessly to blow away the clouds of bigotry that shadow our social life?

The path toward the absolute progress of humankind has been cleared by the successive economic developments of capitalism. However, the capitalists and proletarians working within the bourgeois framework cannot see it through. The pernicious incentive to devour the value produced by workers holds back everyone from realizing final liberty for all. Only through the combination of labor in the cooperative, the proletarian enterprise, can humanity walk the path to liberation of mind, body, and spirit. Begging at the hand of the wealthy can no sooner revolutionize the mode of production and social relations than a peasant kissing the feet of a king. It is time for the working class to take their fate into their own hands. It is time for a cooperativist march into the future.

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