An error in an article on cooperatives that appeared on one continent – Europe, last March – only to be transmitted to another – North America, recently (byline dated 22 Feb.), and which by now may have gone around the world a few times and possibly be translated (at least by machine) into several languages.

The original article appeared in economia, which is the online journal of an international accountancy organization – ICAEW! Not in anyway associated with the co-op community other than that the author, Dave Boyle, is an accountancy consultant to UK co-ops.

Boyle’s article includes many interesting stats that demonstrate the resilience of co-ops, especially during the Great Recession, and which the author, Nina Misuraca Ignaczak, summarizes for her contribution to This is perfectly reasonable. In fact, it is laudable to publish well-documented evidence in favor of the cooperative model.

However, Ms. Ignaczak’s Shareable article got picked up by Popular Resistance, the group that came out of the Occupy Washington agitation several years ago, because of Shareable’s eye-grabbing headline: Cooperatives May Increase Worker Life Expectancy. I know this comes awfully close to what I imagine as an Onion spoof – “Cooperative Members Die of Old-Age at Meetings”

In Boyle’s original article the life-expectancy issue is raised amongst much evidence that co-ops are gaining mainstream interest based on sound capitalist criteria. Certainly, the issue of long life is the punchy part of what he writes, though he only brings it up deep into his piece and it does not appear in the headline.

The research he quotes for this startling revelation comes from David Erdal. Erdal is an interesting fellow. He inherited a paper mill business in the UK, which, out of familial obligation, he reluctantly he took over. After several years of running the business, he decided to turn it over to the workers. He spent three years meticulously making this transition work and once free of the business returned to university to gain a Ph.D. His research for that degree was based in Northern Italy where he studied the social effects of the cooperative economy. His focused on the population of one town, Imola, with many co-ops and he compared that town to a neighboring one, Sassuolo, without co-ops.

His findings are remarkable on several levels. Imola scored higher on a number of social indices of well-being. Simply put the townsfolk were happy. But more importantly, Erdal studied the mortality data and discovered that the folks in Imola lived two and a half years longer than their nearby fellow citizens. *

Now here is the odd part of this escapade into journalistic veracity. Boyle notes these findings in Erdal’s book, Beyond the Corporation, favorably, but inaccurately.

Boyle states that Erdal:

. . . attributes this [longevity] to the fact that employee-owners are less likely to be made redundant and more likely to be better paid, both of which have major impacts on health and well-being, which in turn are crucial to longer life expectancy.

But this is not what Erdal writes. The lack of redundancy and high pay do contribute to a less stressful life for the citizens of Imola, but nowhere in the section on life expectancy does Erdal mention these factors, in fact, the rate of pay of the co-op members in Imola is matched by the wages of the citizens of Sassuolo, with no co-ops. Both towns are prosperous, middle-class enclaves.

Here is what Erdal writes:

Why should they [the citizens of Imola] live longer? For the reasons that this book already has set out. In each employee-owned business, the employee-owners vote their colleagues onto the board, which chooses and supervises the boss. Together they are in control of their destiny. They share the profits they create together through their work. They are full participants in their businesses. They live lives in which they are respected, active participants, engaged players, and nobody has authority over them that they cannot together remove if it is abused, or if the person in authority does not perform.

Erdal emphasizes that the cooperative members’ democratic work-life exists as their vital core experience that radiates throughout all their social relations to produce a profoundly egalitarian society. Consultants like Boyle, you will notice, tend to shy away from references to democracy in the workplace. Actually, so do the promoters of the “sharing economy.” One interesting consequence of the lack of domination at work, and a relatively low gap between the highest and lowest paid, Erdal discovered, is the lack of conspicuous consumption in Imola, in contrast to the citizens of Sassuolo. Sassuoloians drove large cars rarely seen in the streets of Imola. He speculates that Imolians have little desire to create consumerist hierarchies where none are tolerated in their daily life. Can we learn something here about the preconditions for living a more sustainable life?

A fairly extensive exploration of the literature on early human and primate social behavior serves to ground Erdal’s certainty that we are best suited to live in societies that practice equality. He says:

We know that among primates life is stressful for the individuals placed lower in the hierarchy, we know too that government bureaucrats, although they are educated and well off, die younger if they are lower in the hierarchy at work. All of this evidence suggests that a social environment with reduced hierarchy, and one in which key resources are shared, will fit our evolved minds and hearts more naturally than one in which there is no sharing, whether of money or influence. My conclusion, based on this research, is that we are primed by our evolved nature to be natural partners in businesses that we own together. The system fits us well. That is why we can feel so intensely liberated and enthused as fellow owners.

A key aspect of Erdal’s research shows that citizens of Imola not only live longer, but also live happier . I think this fact needs to be emphasized given the ubiquitous “happiness gurus” who essentially place the burden of increasing our happiness squarely on our own shoulders. This is only to be expected in our individualist, self-help society, where the notion of co-equal relations at work, or anywhere, is too radical to contemplate.

Published about the same time as Beyond the Corporation, and congruent with Erdal’s analysis, is the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that they published in The Spirit Level, which makes the case for healthier and happier societies when there is a small gap in incomes from the highest to the lowest. Their subtitle says it succinctly – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Erdal adopts a micro-level approach to a happier society by focusing on work-life practices and Wilkinson and Pickett tend to take the macro approach – the governing policy approach – but we cannot ignore the psychological studies on the human need for camaraderie, which must be the basis for a democratic economy. This extremely well documented area of research has defined personal social relations in general, though not specifically work place relations, as essential for human well-being. (I suspect that studies of “positive human connections” that focus on working conditions would be rare, for obvious reasons, but I will return to this.)

The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, recently issued a comprehensive review of the various fields of psychology that have studied social connection, which they define as “a person’s subjective sense of having close and positively experienced relationships with others in the social world.”

They found that different sub-fields of psychology use different terms for social connection, but all research arrives at the common conclusion that the development of positive relationships with others is a primary human need and essential for healthy human development and survival. Furthermore, recent studies confirm that social relations promote psychological and physical health and increase longevity.

The people at CCARE recognize the social significance of these findings, given all the evidence that –

Social connection is waning at an alarming rate in modern American society. Household sizes are decreasing and biological family and friends are more geographically and emotionally disconnected from one another than ever before…. Consequently, loneliness, isolation, and alienation are rising … and represent one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counseling…. A revealing sociological study found that in 2004 the average American reported having only two close others with whom to confide while nearly 25 percent of Americans reported having no one at all.

The quantity of social relations, psychologists tell us, is not decisive for health benefits; what’s important is not the number of friends one has, but the number of close, intimate friends. For most people, their spouse often serves as their sole confidant and while the statistics show that married couples live longer, we should not discount the significant ties people form with others outside the home – when given the opportunity.

And this is the situation that Erdal came across when studying the citizens of Imola – they had a multiplicity of opportunities to develop their social contacts, and not exclusively at co-op meetings! One of his more remarkable discoveries was that they had an extensive adult education system that may have developed from the technical training the cooperatives supported. And they participated more in politics and their kids stayed in school longer and achieved more, and so forth.

Imola’s citizens are intriguing because they have created a truly cooperative culture by practicing democracy in their daily lives. But what does “practicing democracy” mean? It is certainly not spending nights at meetings debating abstract notions of economic justice. Nor are they standing on street corners seeking signatures on petitions. For them practicing democracy is integral to how they work together.

And how they do that is the core notion that is missing in all the studies of social psychology. What can be more transformative than dealing with others in an egalitarian way at work? I mean you can’t leave without loosing your job. And if you do not participate in the decision-making opportunity afforded to you at work, your fellow workers in Imola wouldn’t immediately kick you out, but rather see your behavior as indicative of some deep trauma and come to your aid. They would “practice compassion” as the folks at CCARE recommend to strengthen social connection.

I think many of those who write about cooperatives, or democratic practices of any kind, too often refer to the formal structures in place and ignore – because they lack the experience – the micro-social relations that are necessary to establish true egalitarianism in practice. But egalitarian peer-to-peer relations are the bedrock of the entire cooperative economy. A finely tuned structure will provide, at best, a context for the practice of group collaboration; it cannot guarantee it. The hard work of fostering sensitivity to the needs of others, of developing good listening habits, of refining one’s ideas within a consensual situation are not practices we learn in the real world. In fact, what the real world teaches us regarding working, that there are order-givers and order-takers, needs to be systematically unlearned. I envy the population of Imola in that they have less to unlearn.


* These findings, I have been told, might be similar in the town of Mondragon, if someone did the research. And, of course, both may be closer to an ideal human scale for ideal urban living. And both are prosperous, without being ostentatious. These are not to be dismissed, but Erdal tried to limit the effect of these variables by choosing two towns very close in all social metrics, but one – Imola had one-quarter of its residents involved with cooperatives.

In the April 23rd issue of the New Republic Tim Wu published a review of Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s book  Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think and compared its theme – “more is better” –  with Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. In sum, the issue for Wu is that we have been overburdened by the choices that material abundance delivers and this exactly has led to an inability to define our real needs, a condition addressed in Roy and John’s book.

Wu is a Professor of Law at Columbia University and he is famous for coining the term “net neutrality.” Further, according to Business Week Wu “provided the intellectual framework that inspired Google’s mobile phone strategy.” In other words, we have someone here who believes in the free market, in the traditional sense of the term, not as a shibboleth with which to beat skeptics over the head, but still someone who assumes the permanence of the market society, and simply wishes to tame its excesses.

This explains his perspective regarding Abundance, Diamandis as Wu mentions, “[is] a space entrepreneur and the co-founder of “Singularity University,” – an institute that attracts rich fools for tools (not his term, but mine) in great numbers, and has great influence in the same pond that Wu swims in.

The extreme techno-utopians, like Diamandis, imagine a world where technology acts as an autonomous force, unrestrained except by the creative geniuses that guide it. And so, for them it is completely plausible that within a decade or two we will arrive at “a world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping.”

A world, undoubtedly, that resembles The Land of Cockaigne where pigs wander around with knives stuck in their backs to make carving easy. One could be inopportune and inquire about the nature of the economic system that would provide this idyllic life, or sustain it. But to ask questions introduces complications that reveal the cognitive defects of the pessimist, as Diamandis says, “the “linear brain cannot comprehend our exponential rate of progress.”

Wu is not convinced. Yet, instead of addressing the theoretical suppositions of Diamandis’ utopia, he accepts the premise that our technology produces abundance – he calls it “extreme abundance” – and assumes, referring to Baumeister and Tierney, that this surfeit of goods tempts us to become obese, debt-ridden consumers, overwhelmed by too much infotainment and material goods and vainly trying to control our addictions by fad diets and 12-step programs.

The authors of Willpower have no easy answers to this conundrum of perverted desire. They recognize that doubling-down on self-control, as fundamentalists of all stripes dictate, can lead to unpleasant social results – Hitler, they say, was willpower’s supreme advocate. Their advice? Avoid situations where the overabundance of choices leaves one’s critical faculties exhausted (they think of willpower as a muscle that can be strained and become dysfunctional). I hope that they don’t expect folks to pay for that advice.

Wu says that Baumeister and Tierney would agree with him that –

It is time . . . to think systematically about the human environments that we are creating with technological powers only imagined by previous generations. At this point, using our powers to create still more of everything—the prescription of Abundance—is simply to add fuel to the fire. It is time to take seriously the problems of overload and excess as collective, social challenges, even though they may be our own creations.

Further on Wu offers a prescription:

. . . it is increasingly the duty of the technology industry and the technologists to take seriously the challenge of human overload, and to give it as much attention as the abundance project. It is the first great challenge for post-scarcity thinkers. 

On “the other side” of the superabundance that Diamandis advocates, Wu maintains –

. . . will be the technologies of self-control, which seek to augment humanity’s powers to deal with too many choices and with too much of what we want. It may sound crazy, but our technologies are always extensions of ourselves, and humans are strange and conflicted creatures. 

And he ends with these odd sentences:

So advanced are our technological powers that we will be increasingly trying to create access to abundance and to limit it at the same time. Sometimes we must create both the thesis and the antithesis to go in the right direction. We have spent the last century creating an abundance that exceeds any human scale, and now technologists must turn their powers to controlling our, or their, creation. 

I am reminded of my previous post re Autopilot and the “science of idleness” that another techno-academic reviewer, like Wu, characterized as the subject matter of that book. Are we talking about sound-proof flotation tanks, or space-music, or meditation caps?

I don’t know.

I do know that this whole discussion of abundance (and its supposed opposite, scarcity) hovers somewhere near the Van Allen Belt and not in the realm where I live. Actually, I live in California not too far from Silicon Valley, but a bit closer to San Mateo where Stewart Brand opened his first Whole Earth store and by so doing became the precursor of today’s techno-utopians. It’s true that he was pushing atoms and not bytes then, but he quickly re-tooled and became the founder of The Well, a techno-community that prefigured the Singularity University. We have a long line of utopians in these parts. Today’s Annual Makers Faire, coincidentally, takes place not far from that first Whole Earth store. I only mention that for those who have an interest in psychogeography.

Maybe the Makers are the slow-technologists that Wu thinks we need for balance, but more realistically they are the old-fashioned hobbyists re-made by a clever PR campaign initiated by their ‘trade journal’ Make magazine. The creative impulse that lies behind the pursuit of hobbies and the pleasure that ensue and more, the bonds between hobbyists, are to be celebrated, I just find the marketing of Make debasing these desires. 

It comes as no surprise that subjectivities are ignored – where’s the profit in that? Or rather, though subjectivities are not monetized, they are manipulated. That’s why we have a so-called movement of makers: by creating roles for individuals they are transformed into consumers. This was one of the insights of Debord expressed in The Society of the Spectacle over fifty years ago.

Recently, The Kitchen Sisters, with their latest project – “The Making Of…” affirmed this aspect by noting that the Makers where as much about enriching subjectivities as about making things.

“Jim Fleming, To The Best of Our Knowledge ( Do you think that’s its homemade that is the key to this? Is that what makes a community?

KS: Not necessarily homemade. I think it’s that energy that comes with ideas and innovation. And it’s not just about things. I think that was something we found out pretty quickly with this whole project, that the things were important but really, it was kind of the community that was built around doing things like this either in a family or the neighborhood or the larger community. I feel like those kinds of things where people are really putting their mind towards something that they have a passion for whether it’s making a jar of jam or, you know, building a 3D printer, it all kind of comes from that same urge to create and to share that creation with others.

Before the 19th C. the nobles could indulge in art, music or sports on a grand scale, while the poor had lesser diversions, but hobbies became popular with the rise of industrialism – with abundance. In the US, the expansion of hobbyist culture occurred in the 50s when a booming economy provided time for leisure, which really meant time to develop interests and find ways of expressing them that required time away from jobs. The hobby, while an escape from the daily tedium of earning a living, became a means of satisfying a desire to discover a vein of joy in an otherwise bleak life. The greater quest was to make one’s hobby a lucrative business, and a whole sector of the economy – consultants, educators, publishers and so forth – developed to mine that vein. A goodly number of failed businesses each year testify to the ongoing seduction of being one’s own boss, for gaining control of one’s economic fate. To escape the tedium of a job, what other route is there to follow to enjoy a pursuit one relishes than to “go into business?” Control of one’s time is first, wealth second.

What we have here is another conundrum. Abundance precedes the growth of personal pursuits and at the same time circumscribes the extension of these pursuits, first because we need to keep working to buy our time, or secondly, if we wish leave the job, we are stuck into predictable economic avenues of small business development. It is ironic that when this latter course is followed the initial creativity of the pursuit becomes layered with the dead weight of market imperatives. The original desire, monetized, leads to a restriction of experimentation due to either lack of time or financial factors, and the adoption of tasks that contradict the free-wheeling intent behind the whole idea in the first place – the job returns through the window that was to open to a new life.

What is missing in this whole discussion about the nature of abundance, with its proponents like Diamandis and Kotler, its skeptics like Baumeister and Tierney and its philosophers like Wu, is that they don’t recognize that achieving material abundance changes the nature of the our society by creating choices previous generations could only fantasize (not to mention the ancients who dreamed of cooked chickens running around). If we do not understand these changed circumstances, I am fearful that we will devolve (further) from the masters of machines to their servants.

Abundance for the techno-utopians refers to the material, and even the immaterial world, but not to our desires, though the link is assumed and intellectualized, or better, academicized, into Happiness Studies. However, the reference to the material is oddly ethereal. Abundance as a concept used by these authors stands aloof from the real world. Even as a cause for social maladies, the presumption seems to be that abundance acts as a natural force, a given like the rocks in the garden.

But where does abundance come from? What are its presumptions? Where is the discussion of resources? And what about the work it takes to create the abundance? I am not saying that all these aspects are totally ignored or dismissed, but when they are addressed, for instance with resource depletion, there’s a ready answer – we will simply replace natural resources by using nanotechnology to create synthetic substitutes. Work? Machines will replace the workers. Discussion finished. If you persist, the ready answer is that new highly sophisticated jobs will flow from the technology. And those who aren’t building new machines, will be servicing the innovators. I grimace at the thought of more dog walkers.

The productive forces, one assumes with these techno-utopians, are like clay that creative geniuses form into more stuff. Supposedly for them the economy simply is an act of will. This should come as no surprise given that these Silicon Valley types have little interest in manufacturing, and why should they, when for example one 120 gallon vat of synthetically created goop can replace the entire vanilla production of Madagascar? They only focus on what they call “cutting-edge innovation” and, of course, the jackpot at the end.

The techno-utopians unfortunately are not unique in their reluctance to be concerned with the future of work, or rather, the lack of same. To question the premise of future abundance – that it must continue to grow to provide jobs for all – betrays one as a fringe element, or maybe even a dystopian! The unanimity of the political spectrum arraigned against those who raise this issue is remarkable.

Some of this reaction must be blamed on the proponents of the “end of work” going back to the late 50s. On hindsight it would have been best if those who questioned the rise of automation had posed the issue more as the end of “good-paying jobs” because the vast majority of the surplus of workers created by the mechanization of manufacturing found employment alright, but at jobs with no future of establishing a middle-class life-style. If it weren’t for the mass entry of women into the labor force, the metastasized credit card debt and financial bubbles the consumer society would have crashed long ago. Like a 100 year flood, at some point the sand-bagging fails and the inevitable economic disaster must be faced. I believe we are there now.

What to do? I think incomes must be divorced from jobs. Some sort of mechanism needs to be created to provide everyone with a guaranteed income to sustain a modest, but adequate life. No means testing, no limitations. The democratic political right, needs a complementary, and equally empowering, economic right to a livelihood.

And here lies the revolutionary situation we have arrived at with the triumph of the material world: that world of abundance, based on sacrifices of time and blood, is undermined by its realization. Sacrifice under the conditions of scarcity can no longer be the premise upon which we construct a (repressive) society. The tables are turned on the entire deformity of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic worldview and it stands revealed as inherently a ravaging fundamentalism.

Of course, abundance is a term fraught with distortions –the poverty rate in the US is inexcusable. Abundance is not causing obesity, poverty is. Abundance is not the reason we have too many choices, the market is. Abundance is not causing the increase in sociopathic behavior, repression is. We need to be straight here. Reviewers for the New Republic, the faculty of Singularity University, authors of best-sellers and celebrity academics of all sorts will not park their cars at Walmart. They will not be in unemployment lines, nor will they show up at food banks.

The idea of creating a basic income for all will not magically eliminate the effects of poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement. It will however begin to unravel the net of oppressive circumstances that exists in the economy and by extension the political sphere. I see no other reform as radical, with implications across a spectrum of issues, than the demand for universal basic income.

Those troglodytes who characterize basic income as hopelessly unattainable, have no alternative but their fruitless call for full employment. Or their Plan B, which is to demand better pay for miserable jobs. If we all had economic security, then debasing employment would disappear overnight as bosses introduce the latest technology, or alternatively they would have to be value jobs at a rate to attract laborers. Those who wanted to increase their income by taking on a job could then be in the position of strength to negotiate a reasonable wage. And for jobs that are stressful, they could be shared.

The society that would take shape with this move to create economic security addresses Wu concerns about run-away technological expansion, not by imposing limits on it directly, but by circumventing its consumerist appeal that accounts for a large portion of the so-called abundance the Singularity crowd celebrates. It is hard to imagine people who had the time to explore their creativity, devoting much time to shopping, especially if it meant adding non-free hours of working at a job their day to accumulate more stuff. If they shop, it is for those items that further their interests, and those might be purchased not from mega-stores, but from small developers with a niche market. Think antique car restoration. Or woodworking. Or any manner of leisurely pursuit of today’s makers

If Wu wants to see the growth of a slow technology, he should support a guaranteed universal basic income, so that possibly a “slow” technology can develop in basements, garages and in the shared community spaces where real innovations develop. If we want to put the brakes on a venture capitalist future masquerading as some glorious utopia of abundance, we should support basic income, and release the creative potential from the drudgery of stoking the furnaces of corporate America.

We need to steal the future from the true dystopians, those who have a vision of lucrative investments determined by technologies in the service of profit.


Here are two excerpts from a recent news feature.

“I cannot direct anybody to do anything that they do not want to do. All decision-making is by consensus.”


All around . . . groups organized themselves in democratic cooperatives, arranged in an anti-hierarchy. All deliberations are open — and exhaustive. Everyone gets their say no matter how long it takes. “It is bottom-up and not top-down.”

Members of worker cooperatives will recognize these comments. In fact they are so commonplace as to be burdened with a ton of baggage. For some a smile will approach the lips in appreciation of the value of these statements. Others might feel their teeth clenching in anticipation of the seemingly endless meetings that they associate with deliberations over meaningless details

The quotes however do not emanate from a co-op board meeting. They are attributed, in a Wall Street Journal blog, to the scientists working on “the largest machine in the world.”

That happens to be the Large Hadron Collider — a $6 billion particle accelerator near Geneva, with thousands scientists involved in its operation.

This wasn’t the only science collaboration mentioned in the article. Also highlighted was OpenWetWare, a wiki established in 2005 by two MIT students “to promote the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology & biological engineering.” It now has 7,000 users.

In a similar vein, paleontologists launched the Open Dinosaur Project  “to involve scientists and the public alike in developing a comprehensive database of dinosaur limb bone measurements, to investigate questions of dinosaur function and evolution.” They further state as their goals: “1) do good science; 2) do this science in the most open way possible; and 3) allow anyone who is interested to participate.”

To be absolutely clear about their last point, they stress that they “do not care about your education, geographic location, age, or previous background with paleontology. The only requirement for joining us is that you share the goals of our project and are willing to help out in the efforts.”

The Internet, originally devised decades ago by researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the Collider is based, amplifies worldwide the historic collegiality cultivated by scientists.  Given the obvious success of scientific endeavors, one wonders why these cooperative practices haven’t migrated to other areas. In some limited ways they have been adopted by the arts, and to a lesser extent, education. But in the realm of business, collaboration occurs only under strict guidelines, if at all.

We don’t need to idolize the community of scientists. There are researchers who eagerly enlist in schemes to privatize science – to value the marketplace over the disinterested desire to further research for the public benefit. Nevertheless, the model of collaboration many scientists seek, in which peers define projects and seeking solutions, remains foreign to the world of business.

Capitalist collaboration on the level of mutual advantage, of course, as in price-fixing, certainly happens more frequently than its criminalization. And there is the transparently manipulative practice of  “team work” in many corporations, which I only mention to quickly dismiss. 2

Cooperatively working together embodies a reciprocity of dignity that finds no place in the corporate world we know today, where individual advancement rules.

As commodification intensifies, enveloping all aspects of life, the ethic that must sustain community diminishes. We diminish too. It comes as no surprise that kids enter middle school as full-fledged consumers. What should shock is that they have internalized their commodification. Buying into the notion of society as an arena for a never-ending quest for ego fulfillment leads directly to life viewed as a battle of egos. This socialization of our children, as essentially a fight over scarcity on an individual and social level, is a consequence of the popular perception of our “human nature.” We have here the reactionary, individualistic thinking that drives capitalism – the survival of the fittest: social Darwinism.

The rise of Darwinism (a toxic blend of Darwin with Malthus) served the 19th century capitalists well. “Captains of the economy” claimed as their right to rule a pseudo-science founded on a specious law of biology.

Capitalist “science” didn’t persuade the partisans of the newly organizing industrial workers. The masters of the workers, as the workers themselves experienced, were not to be held hostage to the  reason of science, when the science of power – ultimately clubs and bullets – was far more effective. The clarity of the left to recognize the abuse of science, as a servant of power, didn’t prevent them wholeheartedly endorsing Darwin as a liberator. For the left, Darwin forever consigned the Christian origins of humankind to myth

Friedrich Engels eulogized Marx as the discoverer of the law of human development, comparing him to Darwin the founder of  “the law of development of organic nature.”3  Engels here was following Marx who viewed Darwin’s scientific contribution as pertaining only to human anatomy and physiology. Centuries before the birth of Marx, “enlightened” thinking held that human development was determined by environmental factors. Moreover Hegel, Marx’s mentor, envisioned society “evolving” to greater heights.

The only exception to the general celebration of Darwinist biological determinism came from Peter Kropotkin. His fieldwork across an impressive range of animal and human societies made him recognize and appreciate the role of cooperation in human endeavors.  Kropotkin’s anarchist criticism of Darwinism as new theology in defense of the status quo, of course, relegated him to obscurity outside scientific circles.

Amongst social scientists the nuanced interpretation of evolution presented by Kropotkin, and others, lately has led researchers to devise experiments that show “that both 25-month old toddlers and school-age children in a very similar paradigm select the equitable option more often than the selfish option.”

There are studies that show that very young children, working in teams develop trust by negotiating perceived selfishness. Other studies show that a shared project with a joint goal creates interdependence, mutually recognized – a “we” amongst the children. And even babies, unable to use language, show helpfulness in carefully structured experiments by pointing or by their eye movements. Language itself may have developed within the context of collaborative activities where achieving a common goal depends upon the coordination of individual roles

This research has significant implications for a politics beyond ethical aspirations to one grounded in a view of human nature with an innate need for camaraderie. Those who seek a more just society need not counter a spurious conception of human nature as “red in tooth and claw” with the equally false proposition that the human condition is infinitely malleable. A belief which leads to dystopian dead-ends and which still informs, in a less maniacal way, political liberalism and its love for social engineering.  The perfectibility of humankind is not the issue.

The issue is encouraging collaborative activities beyond the intimate dealings of a small group – outside what Michael Tomasello calls the protected environment:

When we are engaged in a mutually beneficial collaborative activity, when I help you play your role either through physical help or by informing you of something useful, I am helping myself, as your success in your role is critical to our overall success. Mutualistic activities thus provide a protected environment for the initial steps in the evolution of altruistic motives.5

Over ten years ago, before most of this research was conducted, Peter Singer wrote an intriguing little book: A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. In it he critiques social Darwinism and the left’s fear of engaging in the controversy over human nature. He takes his stand for a left that abandons the paradigm of human progress based on fine-tuning social conditions.

Singer calls for a broader interpretation of self-interest that current findings of child behavior validate.  He also promotes the idea that the left needs to encourage cooperative behavior and to channel competition into socially desirable ends, which corresponds to the notion of extending the protected environment mentioned above.

As a philosopher, not a scientist, and writing about research which at the time was tentative, Singer however falls back on the same ground as the traditional left that he critiques. He relies on the role of reason, to balance or offset nature. He approvingly quotes Richard Dawkins who grants that though we are built like gene machines, “we have the power to turn against our creators”6

No one wants to argue against the role of reason in the pursuit of knowledge. However the latest behavioral discoveries lead to a firmer footing in science than thought possible a few years ago. From these studies of children implications can be drawn that improve our understanding of the building blocks of social norms, that is mutually expected standards of behavior. Human beings are biologically adapted to grow and develop to maturity within a cultural context, through collaborative efforts.

This research informs an optimistic view of the human condition. It seriously undermines the perspective that Herbert Marcuse postulated in One-Dimensional Man, where he questioned the liberation of humankind given the universal internalization of domination through socialization. And it supports Rebecca Solnit’s view in A Paradise Built in Hell that catastrophes can disperse the weight of commodified behavior to free deeper, life-affirming motivations.

In Tomasello’s conclusions one aspect relates to the larger issues of scientific collaboration noted at the beginning of this essay. He writes:

Children are motivated to engage in these kinds of collaborative activities for their own sake, not just for their contribution to individual goals.7

What are we to make of this comment? Certainly it relates to those experiences we have as adults when we find ourselves, either by plan or circumstance, engaged in an activity with great social significance. The activity may be physically grueling, we may even be in the company of strangers and the goal may not be of our devising, but when that goal is attained, or even when to the best of our collective abilities it is lost, during and afterwards we feel elation and a heightened sense of awareness.

For most people these experiences of collective pursuit occur sparingly and with modest intensity under circumstances that are not wholly spontaneous, as when regulated by church or civic activities. Or they are confined to those parts of our lives that are lived haphazardly as leisure pursuits. Even in scientific communities the pressures of professional performance inhibit the fullest realization of collaboration as a collective intellectual adventure. This reality may account for the eager participation among scientists when simple wiki-style collaborations do appear. 

The innate pursuit of collaboration that Tomasello records challenges Singer’s wholesale dismissal of utopianism. The simple association of utopianism with the view that humans are malleable creatures, a view that Singer attributes to the traditional left, is flawed.  Firstly, it ignores the sense of hope explicit with visionary strivings.  Secondly, Singer’s views are wide of the mark in light of these new behavioral studies. How else can we think of expanding the space for collaborative experiences if we are not open to the allures of utopianism? What in fact are the ultimate collaborative experiences if not those associated with play in its many forms as games, festivals and more? Nowhere else in our societies does the exuberance of human fulfillment readily appear. And, to venture a utopian question, why is it absent in those parts of our lives where we spend so much time seeking our survival?

December 2, 2009

1 More Scientists Treat Experiments as a Team Sport Robert Lee Hotz, November 20, 2009, Wall Street Journal

2 I should mention that an indirect subversion of the usual hierarchical business methods may result from the growing influence of “social entrepreneurship” but only if those who are intrigued with this approach to solving social ills recognize the systemic exploitation that created them in the first place.

3 Engels quoted in Peter Singer. 1999 A Darwinian Left (21)

4 Michael Tomasello. 2009 Why We Cooperate (23)

5 Tomasello (85)

6 Richard Dawkins 1976 The Selfish Gene (63)

7 Tomasello (105)

The Financial Times reports that at Davos the treasure hunt, so to speak, was for that elusive plan to curb the worldwide financial meltdown. If the luminaries of world capital came away luckless and no better informed than when they arrived, I suspect that the half-wits and dead-beats in Washington (best exemplified by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers) will not succeed either.


No surprise that fewer politicians attended Davos this year than in previous years when Davos was a celebratory event. Nothing corrodes the finely spun verbosity of politicians swifter than the acidic spray of reality. The few politicians who did attend simply made fools of themselves with their exchange of accusatory remarks.


Recession, Depression or Panic?  Politicians speak only of recession as do most journalists. Popular columnists of a liberal bent define the crisis with a broader selection of terms, yet they are all snared in the traps of a poorly informed historic perspective. This insures that their endeavors to provide informed analysis will be fruitless. Quick fixes of a neo-Keynesian kind that they propose, may at best slow the hemorrhaging of world capital, but far more radical procedures are needed to save this patient. 


A more farsighted bunch of policy wonks have captured the multifaceted nature of the crisis and have noted that the financial aspect is merely the outer layer to a deeper crisis of resource depletion that in turn reveals an inner core of ecological limits. And while this view connects the dots for some with potentially revolutionary implications, too often the faulty premise returns: all we need to do is tweak the economic system. Funding alternative energy systems, encouraging recycling and conservation, developing a new breed of entrepreneurs who have a social conscience or similar quixotic remedies come to mind.


I think, to extend the metaphor of the ailing economy, we should opt for euthanasia and put the decrepit creature out of its misery. Images of Morgan, the artist in the cult eponymous film, dancing by Marx’s grave in Highgate come to mind. He dances in homage to the old man’s foresight. And in my daydream, he’s joined there by Kropotkin, the declassed Russian prince who, 150 years ago, envisioned a popularly administered decentralist society that today resembles the sustainable society many dream of. And joining that unlikely duo (and the other dancing radicals who prefigured a saner society than we have been saddled with) is the recently departed Andre Gorz (more on him shortly) all reveling at the prospect of the demise of capitalism, ironically but predictably, by its own invisible hand.


Unfortunately – and I am not alone suspecting this – the great carcass of finance capital though comatose will be kept alive, if only barely, at our expense. No credit, homes gone, jobs too. How do they expect us to cough up a contribution? The answer in part is that by reducing our expectations, by increasing regressive taxes on consumption and occasionally providing subsidized work, they could sufficiently reduce the costs of maintaining us, the working population. Their game plan is to fortify post haste the foundation of gross income inequality.


Will we take the prospects of no prospects lying down? A good question. It seems likely that a rebellion of any substance would be severely repressed. The last several decades of compliant behavior, however,  tends to argue against rebellion. The mass media has successfully circumscribed dissidence to the margins. And while during the Bush years the Fear Card of terrorism got played at every opportunity. During the early days of the Obama reign we are already witnessing a much more sophisticated tactic of control. It would come as no surprise to see climate change employed as the new scarcity, the new Fear Card. Is it ludicrous to expect Obama to plead that limited resources mean more belt-tightening and further enclosures of the commons? The grim future rolled out by the clever manipulators now in power could be their dream, but our nightmare, of a country united to accept its own austerity.


This dystopian analysis may be the last word for some. And while it cannot be dismissed as a future possibility, for the sake of a balanced appraisal of social currents, of a better appreciation of both dominant and subversive trends, we need to assess all the contending forces at work in society. I believe that what many commentators dismiss as irrelevant is the spectacularized opposition – what the media refers to as the “fundamentalists of right or left.” Those oppositional elements that offer more than a sectarian reading – but an alternative practice – are hidden from media view, and media manipulation, by working in the folds of ordinary life.


Across the country there’s a multiplicity of grassroots projects, signifying a groundswell of activism not seen in decades. Every city, for example, has urban/rural alliances that assure the availability of fresh food to millions at farmers markets, buying clubs and co-ops. And which municipality is without a viable cyclist culture? And how many garages and old industrial sites are occupied with grassroots alternative energy inventors, open-source programmers and artisans re-using the debris of society to create something new and useful?


Furthermore, as the state abandons social services and as the markets, free of regulation, come to dominate more and more aspects of people’s lives, every community sees the growth of non-profits and volunteer groups undertaking innovative programs. This is the take-charge, do-it-yourself (DIY) economy. One of the most creative aspects of this new economy is the amazing expansion of public media and digital technology. Combined they develop rhizomic alliances across the entire spectrum of the alternative, grassroots economy amplifying local practices and making replication possible.


The power of all these various local ventures, separated geographically and unlinked to a great extent, was manifest at the very beginning of Obama’s campaign. Let’s be clear of this fact: the Obama phenomenon drew upon social forces waiting for a spark. He was not the organizer of this movement – but of course he deserves credit for growing it; in those critical early days, he was the beneficiary of it.


These mundane and seemingly miniscule projects ranging over an entire, bottom-up economy, are sustained, from my experience, with activists who posses a savvy awareness of the hydra-headed nature of the crisis before us. The literally millions of people working in this emerging grassroots economy, or directly affected by it, demonstrate by their commitments that they want to supercede the media-projected consumer society. A society bankrupt of ethical values and life-affirming vision.


Last years reference to the 40th anniversary of the ’68ers threw into relief the differences between that generation and the current one. Where the previous rebellious generation appeared to have little grounding in reality and felt comfortable roaming Utopia, the current one may be too grounded in the minutiae of everyday life. Too concerned with the pragmatic and too suspicious of intellectualism. But does this sound like a criticism? Is there any justification in critiquing practical self-help activities in our society where the ruling circles have spiraled to the heights of hubris?


The qualities of pragmatism and persistence, the desire to attain skills and show measurable results, need recognition. But lacking a perspective of context, of history, the projects of the DIY economy can easily remain isolated; and their social relevance underestimated by its practioners who prioritize immediate viability.


As work in the dominant economy looses all meaning, as a job is nothing more than killing time, the value of altruism and volunteerism grows in significance. And yet, the more time away from the clock is sought for self-realization the more it ironically enforces acceptance by some of a limited horizon for change. As if the “outside,” mainstream, commodified world is not only too large, but also too corrupt, to change. Sustenance of the body constricts to a regimen of conformity while the sustenance of the spirit seeks expression in another realm of possibilities apart. They don’t connect.


But why is this separation tolerated? Why do we tolerate that riches flow to those activities that intrinsically have no use and are embarrassing to do for a livelihood? Gorz, the French journalist intellectual who died last year, asked these questions to the generation of ’68. And to subsequent generations in an ever  more thoroughly analytic way. He wasn’t the first to call work slavery if the worker had no control of the direction of that work, but he was one of the first to declare that even if the workers controlled their work, it wasn’t enough. The work itself needed an ethical base. It had to contribute to the viability of society as a whole.


There was good work and there was bad work. Workers’ control of an armaments manufacture would only make sense if the workers re-tooled to build modern plowshares.


This is where we are today. The stuff that needs to be done is done around the fringes of our society. Much of it is tenuous even if it is obviously useful. How do we scale up the grassroots economy? And in the dominant economy, how do we scale up our range of ethical choices in the work we do? That’s the question .

February 13, 2009

. . . posted at Right to be Lazy blog

Social Text’s Periscope web page currently features a number of essays on “Work and Idleness in the Age of the Great Recession.”


This special issue of Periscope on “Work and Idleness in the Age of the Great Recession,” reconsiders our sense of what qualifies as work or idleness when there is little or no work to be had.

The Introduction to the collection, by Alex Wescott, begins this way:


“This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence–to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”

Refusing the valorizing impulse that so often characterizes American perspectives and discussions of work, this rather dour opening passage from Studs Terkel’s Working serves as a reminder of our quotidian relationship to labor. While many Americans may often find themselves declaring their love and passion for work, Terkel’s observations seem far more in line with our everyday experiences and feelings; after all, while some of us may have the privilege of “enjoying what we do,” even in these cases we may find ourselves complaining more than celebrating, feeling exhausted more often than energized, miserable more often than appreciative.

This idea, that we should appreciate what we have–that we have a job at all–is, of course, valid in the sense that at any given time in the history of American capitalism, and no more so than during the hard times of economic recession, there are those who cannot find work and therefore are unable to “make a living.” Yet the idea that employment is a privilege, and that it is “what we do” and how we “make our livings,” reveals the limits of our conceptual frameworks regarding work under capitalism.

After all, as Andrew Ross notes, “Today’s livelihoods are pursued on economic ground that shifts rapidly underfoot, and many of our old assumptions about how people can make a living are outdated pieties” in these precarious times (Ross 2009).

This special issue of Periscope on “Work and Idleness in the Age of the Great Recession,” reconsiders our sense of what qualifies as work or idleness when there is little or no work to be had. The role idleness might play in our lives, and in our collective imaginaries, may strike some as unthinkable or even irresponsible when so much suffering and uncertainty has been triggered by high unemployment rates.

Recent “right to work” legislation and rhetoric, primarily used by conservative politicians and pundits to reduce workers’ rights while espousing work as a fundamental (if not human) virtue–or as Ronald Reagan once put it, “We’ve rediscovered that work is good in and of itself, that it ennobles us to create and contribute no matter how seemingly humble our jobs”–should give us pause.

Earlier writers such as Paul Lafargue, Oscar Wilde, and Walter Benjamin, to name a few, saw the radical potential of idleness (or laziness) as an oppositional stance; a counter-gesture to the exploitation and alienation of work and the increasing speed and efficiency of life that became the hallmark of modernity. Lafargue’s critique of the Right to Work in his 1880 anti-work manifesto, The Right To Be Lazy, reveals the ways in which (even on the Left) the insistence for the Right to Work in a capitalist society serves only to reify the logics of capitalism itself, and reflects “a proletariat corrupted by capitalist ethics.”

As an alternative, he offers the Right to Laziness, and insists that the proletariat take for itself the privileges enjoyed by the bourgeoisie, not in the form of extended leisure time but laziness as a form of play that lies outside of the labor-leisure dyad.

Among this rich offering I was drawn to these two essays: Retromania, the Canon, the Refusal to Work and the Present: The Crassical Connection by Gregory Dobbins and Imagining Non-Work by Kathi Weeks

Worker Co-operatives and Ownership

Part Two in a series on Worker Co-operatives

Bernard Marszalek

                                               June 16, 2012

The popular slogan “People before Profit” adopted by worker co-operatives begs the question how people, in this case members of worker co-operatives, can trump profit in a profit-driven economy. The predictable response is that the democratic organization of co-operatives, where decisions are guided by the interests of the members and not exclusively by the imperatives of capital, amply validates the truth of the slogan. But is this so? If the members of a worker co-operative democratically vote to cut their wages during an economic downturn, are they demonstrating their supremacy over capital? How does this decision, albeit arrived at democratically, significantly differ from a boss telling his staff that he regretfully needs to cut their salaries due to a lack of sales? Does collective decision-making become farcical because it is unable to challenge the ultimate power of capital?

The market-based society limits our life-choices and we should find ways to subvert its power, for we don’t deserve its manacles. Contrary to the belief that the political arena is primary, I would say that collective projects to achieve egalitarian participation in the economic field are more relevant. Such struggles, which in reality are a defense of our humanity, need to be more like sustained and sophisticated guerrilla operations and not like the often employed, isolated and desperate, hit and run tactics we see, for example, in traditional (capitalist) workplace. The skilled industrial workers in the 19th Century used the knowledge that they acquired running production in capitalist enterprises to organize the work themselves and so gain a degree of workers’ control that threatened the bosses. David Montgomery documents this history in Workers’ Control in America, where he also analyzes employers’ assertion of their power through scientific management techniques, a ruthless division of labor and anti-union practices.

The worker co-operatives of today carry on that legacy of shop-floor control of work. For me therefore, to put people before profit in the everyday operations of the co-operative is more important than contending with capital on the macro-level where it holds all the cards. On the micro-level, people before profit means good communication, operational transparency and cross-training and skills-building, among other things. This daily life practice of the co-operative makes relevant the vision of another way of “doing business.” The intention then is not simply to develop “good team-building skills” like those promoted by corporations, but to develop individual capacity to take charge of the workplace. The deeper relationships with our fellow workers that may ensue, and which make work-life more tolerable, are a pleasant consequence of developing the skills needed to function in a democratic work place. Self-management demands this concentration on the minutia of daily practices, where we fine-tune the work we do together so that the collaboration we seek invites spontaneity.

I plan to return to this theme of collective process and the more elusive and subjective side of collective enterprise (where the retrieval of time pits us against capital) in a future installment, but first, the larger context that encompasses these micro-processes of cooperation and resistance in worker co-operatives needs clarification.

Another way to approach my topic – and let me be clear here that the topic is utopianism – would be to think of our popular slogan, people before profit, as vision before economic pragmatism. This returns us to the binary of the previous installment in this series, “Worker Co-operatives and Democracy,” where we discussed the complex meaning of workers’ control in a capitalist society, but this time we’ll explore it from another angle. The angle of language and meaning.

How we define our role in society and what “story” we tell others and ourselves depends on the shared meanings of the words we use. So too, in an endeavor as unusual as a worker co-operative, the story we tell defines our situation in opposition to the larger society. And to carry our analogy further, in telling our story, as we stray from the mainstream conception of “normal,” we become very sensitive in our choice of words. That is, like the feminists forty years ago who came up against the unbearable restrictions of social expectations, we become conscious of language as they did with their radical declaration that the personal is political. Our choice of words to describe our condition can be confrontational or compromising, or all stops in between – no matter – we need to use language meticulously.

In the same way, to recognize the distinctive characteristics of worker co-ops, as a business, requires an acute sense of the meanings of commercial jargon. Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of trying to secure a commercial bank loan knows what I mean. The banker speaks one language and we speak another even when we use the same words! There are, of course, obvious similarities in the language that both traditional businesses and worker co-ops share – an accountant could quickly determine them, so too would a marketing person, however there are some unbridgeable differences. “What, you all vote?” – the befuddled question all co-operators have heard uttered by businessmen who can’t grok whether we are members of a cult or just insane.

When we attempt to describe worker co-operatives we of necessity begin with the vision, an ideal, that sets apart the co-op from other enterprises and only afterwards do we embellish that description with the more mundane business aspects of our venture. Again that distinction appears – the vision and the pragmatism of the so-called economic imperative. But this is not a binary in balance, one aspect finely tuned to the other, weighing equally in significance. The pragmatic always tries to seize ground from vision. There is a tension here.

Let’s return to the early feminist story. In opposition to the mainstream, the feminist story began with a predictable single form as a reaction to the dominant script, and then, after establishing their autonomy, the feminists’ various life-stories followed. The point is that the narrative begins as a statement of identity-in-opposition. For instance, to use a banal (but all too real) example: “My family wanted me to pursue a nursing career in hopes that I would marry a doctor, but I preferred art.” What is happening here is that the definition of who we are – in-opposition – is emphasized because it defines what follows. The mainstream, simply because it defines expectations, needs to be put in its place. It needs, in other words, to be actively opposed in the narrative.

Using this analogy I think it becomes clearer that when we talk about worker co-operatives, we conscientiously choose our words to describe an economic arrangement outside the traditional economic paradigm, because we understand, at least in part, that the “normal” has an arm lock on language. Commonplaces, clichés, the quotidian definitions employed unconsciously are, in fact, constraints on language since clarity must be confined within the parameters that power deems necessary. So when we discuss worker co-operatives as democratic enterprises we are subverting the sequestered language of capital by juxtaposing “democratic” and “enterprise.” In the same way, when we talk about workers’ control we are joining two words that have no combined meaning in the popular lexicon (unless it’s control over the workers!).

The above serves as a somewhat long introduction to a discussion of ownership and worker co-operatives. In the early 80’s the term “worker-owned co-operative” began circulating at the same time that Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP) became federal law. Those advocating adoption of the ESOP scheme used the term “employee-owned” as a shorthand description of this new corporate entity. The intent of the ESOPs was to establish “peoples capitalism,” with employees as owners of stock in their companies. This isn’t the place to delve into the nature of ESOPs, but the use of the term “employee-owned” is odd since the employees typically do not have voting rights attached to their stock like regular stockholders; those voting rights are held by a trust set up to manage their funds, ostensibly to safeguard the employees’ interests.

In any case, before the 80’s the term “worker-owned” didn’t appear in the literature on worker co-operatives. It was simply assumed that co-operatives were controlled democratically by their members, unlike corporations, where outsiders who control a majority of the stock can displace local control.

What we are saddled with today is a term, worker-owned co-operative, that seems both redundant and wrong. Redundant because we should assume that when someone refers to a worker co-operative it means that the workers run the co-op as opposed to say a consumer co-op, organized to benefit consumers (I haven’t heard the term consumer-owned co-op, yet). And wrong because ownership popularly means the right to sell ownership, or shares, and that is not possible given the vast majority of co-op statutes. So why is the term used? Those who defend its use say that it helps to clarify the nature of co-operatives and that it has “marketing appeal.” I don’t know about the latter, but the notion that it adds any content in the way of clarification about worker co-operatives is dubious given the usual definition of ownership. Of course there is a secondary way in which ownership expresses responsibility, as in “ I own my opinions.” I hardly see how this sense of the word has any applicability.

Ownership isn’t the main tenet of worker co-operatives. What is? I think we can define worker co-operatives this way: an economic institution founded on democratic control as an inherent and equal right of all members (membership based on qualifying a standard probationary period), despite job role, years of service or any other hindrance to full participation. This is our story. So then wouldn’t it be better, but still redundant, to say “worker-controlled co-operatives?”

It is true that if a worker co-operative dissolves the members may be treated as owners and the assets could be divided up between the workers, depending on how the bylaws stipulate dissolution. Still, for me, this is a weak argument for continued use of the term. This notion of ownership of the corpse of a co-op opens up another, more radical, layer to the vision behind the slogan people before profit.

In the US the 60’s and 70’s proliferation of communal enterprises displayed the characteristic generic to that period: an enthusiastic devotion to idealism. The infectious excitement of building new institutions, mediated by little experience in the practicalities of the endeavors undertaken, collapsed when the old society’s viral excrescences regained their presence, internally in the projects as recurrent psychological maladies, and externally as legal repression. The social/psychological resources for strengthening solidarity to maintain the highest ideals could not be mustered and most of the social experiments failed miserably. We had here a case of vision defeated, not so much by a lack of economic pragmatism, as by a lack of concern for the human relational skills needed to defend against the micro-level display of power.

When a resurgence of the US co-operative movement occurred in the 80’s, the legal parameters of traditional co-op structures were adapted by the newly forming worker co-operatives, providing thereby, at least, a legal structure in response to the failures of the hippies’ collectives. In the UK another path was chosen. There an upsurge of co-operatives took place in the 70’s, but unlike the US movement it gain significant political support. The British Labour Party endorsed the co-operatives with legal and financial support from Parliament. Across the UK dozens of co-operative development agencies were financed to support and facilitate the spreading movement with expertise and funds. And at that time a new conception of co-operative ownership took shape – common ownership.

With common ownership the assets of an enterprise are held by the entire enterprise as a trust, and not by individual shareowners. In practice this means that the assets are passed on in perpetuity to new members. If the enterprise fails, then the assets are sold to pay off liens and any remaining funds are transferred to another similar enterprise. Americans will recognize this formulation as the typical non-profit legal dissolution.

In the UK, the notion of common ownership has a long socialist pedigree and, in fact, was adopted by the Labour Party as Clause IV in its program. With Tony Blair’s right wing coup and rise of New Labour that clause got scuttled in a rush to abandon, for electoral purposes, the central tenants of democratic socialism for a woolly set of non-ideas that for all intents and purposes endorsed neo-liberalism. Blair’s government, following the policies of Thatcher’s Conservative reign, failed to re-fund the co-operative development agencies that she eviscerated.

Common ownership is significant because it puts a check on the influence of capital investments; it is the legal form that best puts people before profit and establishes the co-operative as clearly in service to the community. It is, in other words, the modern form of the traditional commons and as such it reinforces the ethic of a shared economy, not a proprietary one. In the light of this ethic stewardship emerges to supplant individual member ownership. For those who think that these ideas are too radical to promote and that they fly in the face of social conditioning about the financial rewards of ownership, I can only refer to the many research studies that record the sentiments of those who work for rewards other than the monetary ones. David Erdal, a British CEO who transformed his family’s business into a wholly employee-owned company, has written a superb book (Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working,) about his experiences with his former company and many other worker controlled firms, and thoroughly documents studies that demonstrate salaries take a back seat in firms controlled by the employees. He writes that sometimes he thinks that the pleasures of work have been reserved for those who have an advanced science degree, or a craft skill, or those who have been able to scale-up a hobby into a small business, while the rest of us must toil away with only money as our reward. I believe he would agree with me that an impoverished life awaits those who have no other goal but to make a buck.

Of course, it goes without saying that no one should sacrifice basic necessities in order to squeeze a little bit of personal satisfaction from their work. With adequate reimbursements and a workplace where income differentials are modest, most people focus on the subjective aspects of their work environment, aspects that are absent from the calculations of the economics profession. Those who work at jobs that they like tend to rate highly the following attributes of the experience: trust, recognition, reciprocity, justice and equality; and it turns out that the more control workers have in their workplaces, the higher they score these qualities. Along with control, which leads to greater participation in the workplace, the mission of the firm, as it expresses the employees’ ideals, motivates and sustains productivity. This phenomenon has not been lost to corporations, which is why they have expanded their HR departments to create the illusion of a “mission-driven” firm to entice loyalty and reap profits for the bloated bottom-line.

Of course, members of co-operatives have the real thing, not a phony, condescending substitute, which is why they can’t imagine returning to a situation where they submit to the arbitrariness of a boss. Again, given a fair wage, the humane work environment becomes the main reason behind employment longevity in the co-operatives. To diminish the importance of these aspects of worker co-operatives by emphasizing proprietary rights with a focus on ownership tends to give value to a capitalist perspective, when the point of collective enterprise revolves around creating an alternative enterprise where people have control. Worker co-operatives practicing democracy in the workplace and responsibility in the community, another popular slogan of the co-ops, legitimately put people before profit.


Capital can be viewed as a thing, but it is also a specific social relation. And too, we can look at worker co-operatives as embodying (humane) social relations. This will be the topic of the next installment on cooperation in the workplace.


David Erdal Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working (The Bodley Head: London, 2011)

INTRODUCTION to Co-operatives and Democracy

Three months into the UN year of the co-op, after over half a year of OWS and now beginning the fifth year the continuing economic crisis a vast expansion of interest in co-operatives has been generated. More specifically, this interest has focused on the most radical aspect of co-operative development – worker cooperatives. Those of us who are active in promoting a democratic economy, as an alternative to the economy of the oligarchy, can only be pleased with this interest and the inquiries that we have received. On the other hand, some of this new interest brings with it assumptions, misunderstandings and worse, an agenda. To help clarify the place of worker co-operatives in “the larger scheme of things,” from so to speak, the inside out, I am contributing some thoughts based on my experiences. I expect that these comments will elicit some controversy, so I need to say that they represent my opinions alone and do not reflect the views of Inkworks Press, NoBAWC or JASecon. –bernard

Worker Co-operatives and democracy

Part One in a series on worker co-operatives

Bernard Marszalek

March 15, 2012

 Members of worker co-operatives necessarily live schizophrenic lives. On one hand, we must function as owners of small businesses and contend with all the insidious forces of capitalism – the anti-ethic of profits before people. At the same time we are members of an egalitarian corporate entity that most people can’t imagine existing, much less thriving. Here we are, a diverse group – some friends, some OK folks and some who we don’t socialize with after hours – working together day-in-and-day-out dealing with all the tensions arising from individual personality quirks, the aforementioned forces of the marketplace, unexpected emergencies, and, when everything else is under control, the boredom of daily tedium.

A collective life like this for those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of individualism – also called the Great Ape theory of human nature – think that it must be hell. Of course, when we face “challenges” in our co-operatives, especially during contentious meetings, the thought crosses our minds that, in fact, hell is other people. We all have doubts and wonder, at times, if we have taken the wrong fork on the path of life and have foolishly placed ourselves on a trajectory heading towards a nervous breakdown. Luckily for most of us, this fear passes and we realize that we wouldn’t want to trade our bizarre lives for confinement in a cubicle of some “friendly fascist” enterprise – even if it paid more.

To attempt to discuss our unorthodox life-choice with “civilians” can be distressing. Once we have assured our audience that we are not affiliated with a cult, we must then address the expression of incredulity on peoples’ faces when we tell them that we are part of an enterprise where all the workers have a voice – an equal voice – in management. In those situations, when we are trying to explain how it is possible that we make it work, that the incredible nature of what we are doing strikes us.

For me, those moments conjure up an imaginary episode in a utopian novel:

As a delegate from the morning production meeting, I am next to a half-million dollar machine calmly discussing with the operator how to organize the collective work schedule given the priorities of the day. We are doing this in a lighthearted, almost jovial, manner confident that other members of our collective will finish their preliminary tasks so that by the end of the day our work will easily move on to the next stage.

The ability to collectively manage an enterprise in a democratic manner isn’t utopian to us, but is usually perceived as such by those who readily accept the reality dished out at the cafeteria of capitalism. Yet, in a very real sense, to oppose the version of economic life that our fellow citizens accept situates us in a tradition of revolutionary transformation. We may not know much about the Luddites, the Communards of Paris, the sailors of Kronstadt, the Spanish anarchists or the Hungarian workers who seized their factories in ’56, but we know enough to know that they all struggled to take control of their lives. Theirs is a history of glorious defeat, and while we are not beautiful losers on that world scale, neither are we so removed from their vision, their dream of a better life, to be oblivious of how that same desire, more or less consciously, motivates us in our work. Upon entering our workplaces we don’t salute the altar to the Revolution, nonetheless, no fight by workers to enlarge the scope of their economic self-determination can be foreign to us.

To the world of our co-op suppliers, to the salespersons who call on us and to some of our customers and clients we appear as small business proprietors. To social scientists we are radical democrats who daily push against the confines of the economic system. Amongst ourselves we hesitate to characterize the task we have undertaken with labels, especially political ones, and instead concentrate our energies on problem-solving both economic and personnel issues. If any label comes close to fitting co-operative members it must be that anomaly that refers back to our schizophrenia: we are pragmatic utopians.

It strikes many of us as a little odd, these days, that our miniscule sector of the economy achieves mainstream recognition, as if it were a viable economic alternative. Co-operators are intimately aware of the difficulties of starting a co-operative, much less maintaining one, and realize that this is not a project that one takes down from a shelf to implement in a matter of weeks or months. From concept to full realization, we are talking years in most cases. However, the facts of co-operative development do not drive the popular interest in our co-ops; the vision of a people-based, community-serving economy juxtaposed to the crumbling order around us, piques journalistic inquiries, in almost a millenarian desire, to search for an alternative. And now that OWS (itself no stranger to a “cargo cult” mentality) gears up for resurgence in the spring, we can imagine that that interest will expand.

To adequately respond to future publicity with our meager resources (both financial and organizational) it seems appropriate that we define our limits, so as to contain, if not prevent, disappointments and dashed expectations by the public. And, at the same time, to participate in what appears to be a growing political upheaval (finally), we should clarify our position in relationship to the radical heritage of worker self-determination. The former makes obvious sense, but the latter raises some issues that the worker co-operative community has only sporadically dealt with. For example, today the largest institutional expression of worker self-determination is the unions and yet very few worker co-operatives are organized. This is unfortunate given the US history of worker co-operatives as defensive worker organizations during strikes, lockouts and cyclical economic collapses in the 19th Century. This is the history that John Curl’s exhaustive study of co-operatives, For All the People, covers. He details the first national organization of workers – The Knights of Labor – and their initiatives to establish dozens of worker co-operatives across the nation in the hopes of developing a Co-operative Commonwealth.

Co-op union membership, where it exists, makes public co-op support for a tangible baseline of benefits that the labor movement won for millions of workers; however, despite the desire to express solidarity with unions, many co-operatives cannot meet the wage and benefit requirements for membership. And even if wages are not an impediment, the undemocratic character of most unions clashes with the egalitarianism of co-ops.

Though the unions portray themselves as the embodiment of the labor interests, the largest unions have not distinguished themselves as tribunes of the working-class when, for example, they capitulate to the corporations as we have seen with the auto industry in the last few years. The more farsighted union organizers and supporters see a future union movement that allies with communities through expanding the presence of local Labor Councils and by encouraging union member participation in various grassroots struggles. And a few exceptional unions believe that with the emergence of OWS a discussion of class-based issues has been opened. Yet even with an expansion of non-traditional unionism, even with a rise of democracy within the labor movement, the worker co-operatives have a distinct economic, and political, agenda to promulgate and will never be subordinated to a labor union program.

If we return to the organizational binary of the worker co-ops – one facet directed towards the marketplace and the other towards utopia – co-operators realize that these facets are not of equal significance. Issues related to the marketplace might dominate the concerns of the collective, especially when the bottom line is endangered and the financial picture requires sacrifices on one level or another. Granted, that if this situation persists, the whole psychology of the membership may resemble an army in full retreat. It can be devastating. The utopian facet, on the other hand, determines how well the co-operative cooperates in extreme circumstances, how resilient it is in the face of distress. All co-op developers, for instance, stress communication skills – to formulate precise statements and to listen intently to others – so that neophyte co-operators can learn decision-making through a democratic meeting process. Smoothly run meetings, where all opinions are heard, establish trust amongst members. The command structure of traditional work places, on the contrary, generates a toxic response of revengeful and snide backbiting amongst the employees. No democratic workplace can tolerate that. Even the corporate world knows this and pretends to mollify the boot camp regimentation of a former era with all sorts of HR subterfuges.

Clear communication builds trust and just as importantly an individual’s ability to work collectively contributes to trust. The work ethic in a co-operative is defined by solidarity, not sacrifice. Co-operatives do not see the work ethic like a boss, who simply wants his workers to burn calories at a profitable rate for himself. The work ethic functions in co-operatives as an aspect of companionability. In co-operatives tasks get done with healthy collaboration. Working together is the concrete manifestation of the democratic control that co-operators endorse, and so each member’s contribution is individualized. Some may be faster at a task, but others add flair, grace and precision, while others contribute merriment that makes any task easier to manage. So long as the group accomplishes the task agreeably, these individual nuances are encouraged and not simply tolerated. No aspect of a worker co-operative better defines it character – its radical nature – than how it manages its work. The constraints of capitalism define the overall context, but the management of the enterprise, the expression of its radical democratic goals, creates a buffer against the imperatives of an oppressive economic system. What we have with these methods and practices of worker co-operatives can be considered tools for democracy. And like any tools, as they are used, they are refined to improve their effectiveness.

Though the worker co-operative sector, as was mentioned, amounts to an almost insignificant economic factor in the larger, hostile economy, as an exploration of pragmatic utopianism it resonates with a history of liberation that resolutely situates itself outside the boundaries of capitalism. And yet, liked a caged bird, worker co-ops contend with their confinement as best they can. This is not an enviable situation. The more that we try to develop our autonomy within our collective process, the more confining seems our cage. The joy of recognition that we experience with other co-operators at local meetings or national conferences seem to be the only times that we glimpse a world as we would like to see it – a world where our values are recognized by others outside our immediate collectivity. Speculations like this border on the cultish, as if we can build a democratic movement simply by hanging together. Worker co-ops precisely because they promote, from the political sphere, the human right of one person, one vote and apply it to the economic sphere, bring a unique contribution to an alliance with other partisans of freedom. And it is in political alliance with others, I believe, that the worker co-ops will have their greatest impact extending democracy throughout society. Democratic control is not a static concept; it must be practiced. And in our workplaces we can practice it daily.

Bernard Marszalek began his involvement with collective ventures in Chicago. He has since been on the Board on the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC), spent seventeen years with Inkworks Press (Berkeley,CA) and currently participates in JASecon ( He can be reached at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.