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Stronger Together?

Fabricas recuperadas argentinas
Bernard Marszalek spent eighteen years as a member of a worker-cooperative union printshop, and was a founding member of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives.

Peter Ranis, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism (London: Zed, 2016), 166 pages, $26.95, paperback.

Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 120 pages, $12.95, paperback.

Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds., Ours to Hack and to Own (New York: OR, 2017), 252 pages, $17, paperback.

In recent decades, various pundits, activists, and self-styled entrepreneurs have sought to shoehorn worker cooperatives into a mainstream narrative based on principles of ownership—of course, “democratic” ownership. Their intent is, in part, to extricate worker cooperatives from their flighty, idealistic associations with 1960s hippiedom—itself the legacy of that era’s mass media.

However, grassroots cooperatives first appeared in the United States much earlier, during the rise of the Knights of Labor in the latter part of nineteenth century. Hundreds of worker cooperatives were established, though for various reasons they proved unsustainable. The New Deal years saw another surge in cooperative development, largely sponsored by the federal government, mobilizing farmers’ cooperatives, which in turn spurred interest in cities, where retail, food, and housing cooperatives began to form. And then, of course, all sorts of collective and communal ventures proliferated in the 1960s.

But cooperatives also have a more recent history, one that draws on the legacy of workers’ rebellion at the turn of the twentieth century. Over twenty years ago, the first regional federation of worker cooperatives in the United States, the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC, pronounced “no boss”), was organized in San Francisco, in collaboration with the Industrial Workers of the World. Beyond mere collective ownership of individual enterprises, the group aimed explicitly to create a national movement for workers’ control over large sectors of the economy.

That strategy contrasts sharply with the recent vogue for worker cooperatives as entrepreneurial endeavors, which seeks to expand, rather than challenge, the rule of market economics. It therefore comes as a relief that Peter Ranis’s Cooperatives Confront Capitalism corrects the record. Ranis traces the origins of workers’ efforts to gain control over their productive lives to the beginnings of the factory and wage labor system itself. Agitation for workers’ control, sometimes advancing from a political demand to an economic reality, escalated as the labor movement grew throughout the nineteenth century, and only declined as a movement with the rise of a reformist labor leadership that abandoned its radical roots.

For Ranis, worker cooperatives provide the agency for social change that was missing from recent movements such as Occupy in the United States and the anti-austerity protests in Europe. He also examines the recent emergence of worker cooperatives in Cuba, whose success has in part derived from the kinds of tax benefits and subsidies that elsewhere are given to private firms. Ranis gives the most attention to the experience of recuperados, or “recuperated enterprises,” in Argentina. Abandoned by their owners during the country’s late-1990s financial crisis and subsequently reclaimed, these factories have become vital sites of solidarity between workers and their communities, with local residents supporting expropriations, and the liberated enterprises in turn providing space for community projects. A print shop in Buenos Aires, for example, hosts local cultural events, while the high-rise two hundred room Hotel Bauen offers accommodations for workers’ conferences, and the FaSinPat (an abbreviation of “Factory without Bosses” in Spanish) tile factory in southern Argentina regularly donates tiles for community building projects and holds concerts on its property. Such collaborations are central to Ranis’s thesis that worker cooperatives can drive systemic change.

Platform Capitalism and Platform Cooperativism

Despite the depth of Ranis’s analysis of cooperatives themselves, he has little to say about their broader economic context in which they find themselves, especially the phenomenon of rentierism. Historically, a rentier was an individual or firm that extracted wealth from the use of a vital resource like land, energy, or water. Today, a new form of rentierism has taken hold over a resource that promises the largest and fastest accumulation of wealth in history: data.

Google, Facebook, and other tech giants collect vast volumes of data from their users, which they then rent at an enormous profit to advertisers. They are thus effectively advertising platforms, while Uber and Airbnb are “lean platforms,” as defined by Nick Srnicek in Platform Capitalism. A platform, in his conception, is any mechanism for extracting data as a resource, and lean platforms are businesses that eschew capital expenditures on assets, such as cars for Uber, rooms for Airbnb, and, for both, employees. They instead compel their workers to make these investments, from auto maintenance and housekeeping services to health insurance. In these most “innovative” and “disruptive” of firms, as much risk and cost as possible is transferred to precariously employed “associates,” “partners,” or whatever other euphemism the company prefers.

All of the platforms that Srnicek identifies tend toward monopolization and encroachment on others. Facebook, determined to prevent users from leaving its platform, is devising a search function to rival Google and an e-commerce site to compete with Amazon, and all are vying to dominate data stored in the cloud. In the years to come, the so-called Internet of Things, an omnipresent web of networked “smart” devices, promises to expand exponentially the quantity of personal data to be mined. This race for data represents a kind of digital enclosure of the commons, making a mockery of the idealistic visions of a democratic and freeing online experience that characterized the Internet’s early years.

For those who still wish for the Internet to be, as its early engineers did, a commons—an open field for free exploration and communication—the rise of the current digital oligopoly is a dystopian outcome. In response, some theorists and activists have embraced the notion of a cooperative internet, often focused on “platform cooperativism.”1 The subtitle of Ours to Hack and to Own, a recent collection of essays on the subject, suggests the enthusiasm this idea excites among its adherents: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. Drawing on the democratizing ideals of the early Internet, one of the editors, Nathan Schneider, recognizes that the ubiquity and, increasingly, the necessity of social media platforms makes them resemble “public” utilities, and argues that they should therefore be institutionalized as public goods, presumably decentralized and regulated locally.

The many contributions to Ours to Hack and to Own, none longer than three pages, cover a wide range of topics, and the editors try to bring as many collectively owned and organized projects as possible under the larger program of platform cooperativism. This catholicity can cause confusion. Under such a broad definition, it is not clear, for example, what distinguishes the most successful self-identified “platform” cooperative, Stocksy, a multimillion-dollar online agency for photographers, from Magnum, the cooperative photo agency founded in 1947 whose structure is quite similar, but which plainly belongs to an earlier era of both business and technology.

Despite this attempt to expand the idea of platform cooperativism to encompass all kinds of worker-run enterprises, the book’s focus remains the Internet. However, to my mind, the most significant social platform developments are not worker cooperatives at all, but interactive digital bulletin boards in Hong Kong, Barcelona, Zaragoza, and other cities. In Hong Kong, a new app has been developed by single mothers to serve hundreds of poor families, introducing them to community services and other resources. Barcelona, in 2016, took advantage of EU financing to create a digital toolbox to enhance citizen participation by providing an online forum for suggestions and discussion of city projects, along with online access to administrative meetings and public proceedings.

This potential for enhancing civic participation cannot be discounted as a fad. In Italy, the Five Star Movement has taken the digital potential of platformism the farthest, with votes on party leadership and policy held online (even if the movement has had its greatest victories in cities where members assembled in city squares to agitate for their demands in person). These developments in Europe have also inspired Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to adopt the language of platform cooperatives in his campaign’s “Digital Democracy Manifesto”:

We will foster cooperative ownership of digital platforms for distributing labour and selling services.… We will introduce new laws guaranteeing a secure employment contract and the inalienable right to trade union membership to everyone who earns most or some of their livelihood from digital platforms. We will apply the best practices and adopt the technological innovations of this cooperative upgrade of the sharing economy to improve the provision, delivery and utilization of public sector services at the local, regional and national levels.2

Thus, at least within some parties and movements of the left, Schneider’s vision of the Internet as a public utility, while far from a reality, appears to be gaining ground.

One of the book’s best presentations of issues related to worker cooperatives, platform or otherwise, comes from Yochai Benkler, co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a longtime advocate of the digital commons. Benkler comes to cooperatives through his study of commons-based peer production, which in turn explains his explicit emphasis on governance, as opposed to ownership:

Cooperativism is not simply shared ownership, as are many employee-ownership plans [ESOPs, retirement plans that transfer a percent of stock to employees]. It is, first and foremost, shared governance.… The primary resource for platform cooperativists must be the rich literature on commons governance pioneered by Elinor Ostrom, which did in fact focus on collaborative communities managing their livelihood resources together without property rights or government laws. (94)

Benkler’s model of peer production is Wikipedia, though he alludes to other open source projects, and he notes that with cooperatives, “the biggest divergence from peer production will be the need to define membership more strictly…. In cooperativism, as with commons-property-regimes, it will be important to clearly define who members are, and place a higher barrier on membership than peer production has done” (95).

The very title of Ours to Hack and to Own suggests that the editors have not fully absorbed Benkler’s lesson about the false primacy of ownership—a lesson that in fact precedes Ostrom’s work. As far back as the late eighteenth century, the Irish political theorist and social reformer William Thompson had noted the confluence of cooperatives and commons as democratic membership organizations. It is unfortunate that the participants in worker cooperatives, who until the late 1970s were called members, began to use the term “owners,” as in “worker-owner cooperatives.” To give primacy to property relations, as opposed to membership, obscures the vital day-to-day practices of radical communication and collaboration required of all successful cooperatives.

Daily Life in Worker Cooperatives

Perhaps not surprisingly, since only two of its forty contributors are current members of worker cooperatives, Ours to Hack and to Own contains little discussion of the day-to-day life of cooperative ventures. After all, cooperation is more than just a principle; it’s a process of implementing, often on a mundane level, cooperative values to overcome hierarchy and greed. Ranis recognizes this process when he speaks of cooperative members as “a workforce that is potentially far more than workers producing a product. They can reappropriate their lives beyond their existence in production. They are cultural beings, not simply cogs in a machine or a service provider. Cooperatives and recuperated enterprises bring the whole life of the worker beyond his/her simple place as a worker for someone else into play” (155).

Likewise, Yochai Benkler summarizes daily life in cooperatives this way:

Decades of studies of cooperation tell us that communication among members—particularly communication that humanizes members to each other—is central, as is developing a shared identity. A strong core of moral values, avoidance of an ethic of “I’m just here for the extra few bucks,” and a clear commitment to fairness among the members will be necessary to overcome the inevitable tensions associated with work and income sharing. Framing is important, and while self-interest undoubtedly plays a role in any community, no effort that appeals primarily to that self-interest will likely survive, let alone out-perform explicitly self-interested models of investor-owned firms. (95)

Benkler focuses on resolving tensions between members in a cooperative, but just as important are the challenges to members’ values posed by the capitalist marketplace itself. The most successful cooperatives create a niche in a local economy, such as the Cheeseboard Bakery in Berkeley, and in a few rare cases nationally, like the Equal Exchange Coffee Roastery, based in Boston. But when cooperatives struggle to compete with conventional firms, their members run a high risk of “self-exploitation”—working long hours for low wages, in conditions that come to resemble the same capitalist workplace they seek to escape. Indeed, this tendency presents perhaps the sharpest critique of the viability of cooperatives generally. Members of a worker cooperative thus need to balance vision with pragmatism—if not every day, then often. How they sustain their emotional equilibrium is likely to determine both the quality of their work-life and the sustainability of their organization.

At Mondragon Corporation in Spain, the world’s largest federation of cooperatives, an entire department of the company’s internal bank is devoted to funding and developing new cooperatives. Often these new ventures are spun off from existing co-ops by a core group of workers, with the assistance of development staff. The bank requires that such groups have previously worked together and reached a level of camaraderie before it will study or sponsor their plans. This policy suggests the potential benefits of what is often negatively referred to as founders’ syndrome—when early members of a cooperative enjoy a bond that newer members lack, unless the founders make explicit efforts to welcome them. (A similar experience is common in technology start-ups, where new employees are enticed with various perks but no meaningful control, and a steep professional hierarchy keeps founders and early employees on top.)

Worker cooperatives have devised many tools to strengthen member solidarity, facilitate transparency, and coordinate decision-making. But beyond this, another, more elusive area of cooperative work-life stands out, one that is not easily documented. Richard Sennett mentions it in passing in his book Together, when he relates his experience visiting a crafts workshop. The workers there had to “dance” around each other in cramped quarters to use available tools and machines without getting in each other’s way. Sennett sees their activity as finely choreographed but not consciously so. Their habits of work intuitively account for their peers and their needs, and the result is a mode of working that almost transcends the work itself, at its best approaching what a Buddhist might call group meditation.

This kind of collective work-that-isn’t-work can also be found outside the world of manual crafts, in places like research labs, small industrial plants, or any setting where workers respect each other and their tasks. Of course, most work is not like this. In cooperatives, however, it must be the norm. The work must have a fluid, even playful aspect, or else the cooperative will fail. The egalitarianism of cooperative ventures, coupled with practical control of the workplace, is a precondition for this playful environment, which is uniquely conducive to expressing one’s personality in a group setting.

Conventional corporations recognize the bottom-line benefits of a harmonious workplace, and many hire consultants to create it—often without much success. This is no surprise, since a ludic environment does not come in the briefcase or slideshow of the professional human-resources expert; it is instead organic to the institution, and must develop authentically over time in an empathetic workplace.

A Political Strategy

For all their breadth, both Ranis’s and Scholz and Schneider’s books ignore several larger issues that affect cooperatives—and much else—such as climate change and unbridled economic growth. Perhaps most glaringly, the increasing degradation of work, which explains the rise of platform capitalism better than the Silicon Valley mythology of dynamic, innovative entrepreneurialism, is not emphasized. This is unfortunate. Without a global surplus population of unemployed and underemployed workers—the “precariat”—platform capitalism, which depends on cheap and flexible labor markets, would never have achieved its explosive growth. Furthermore, worker cooperatives, no matter how much they may dream of expanding on their own terms, cannot absorb these workers, but will necessarily have to compete with companies that thrive by exploiting the labor surplus.

Ranis recognizes the issue of underemployment, but chooses to concentrate instead on eminent domain as the primary state tool for expanding the worker cooperative sector and therefore, presumably, jobs in general. This is a problematic proposal. Workers’ occupation of abandoned factories and other facilities might be viable in communities where popular support can be mobilized, as in Argentina, but it hardly serves as a general organizing principle. Indeed, the three examples of eminent-domain cooperatives that Ranis discusses, all in thriving urban areas, each failed for one reason or another. While these failures do not condemn the policy, they nevertheless suggest that worker cooperatives require a strong presence in their communities, beyond a few sympathetic politicians or organizations, to successfully pressure the state to make real concessions. And that presence can only be manifested by political means. Worker cooperatives can never be only a state-sponsored enterprise, but must have grassroots support.

Based on their omission of any discussion of political strategy, we might assume that Ranis and Scholz and Schneider believe that as the advantages of worker cooperatives become clear, they will grow by a kind of cloning process (the “better economic model” thesis), finally reaching a critical mass that will transform society. History, however, does not favor this hypothesis. Some worker cooperatives are successful, decades-old enterprises, and if they were capitalist businesses they might be expected to have franchised their operations. But while a few cooperatives have grown by prudently expanding their services and membership, most have expanded slowly, if at all. In a few cases, successful cooperatives have facilitated similar enterprises to launch in other neighborhoods or nearby cities. On the whole, however, cooperatives have been cautious of growth.

Many cooperative developers lament this fact, though slow growth has arguably served their membership well in a hostile market environment. Indeed, when presented with a major expansion scheme, members often reject it, wary of taking on greater stress, not to mention debt, for dubious benefits. A slow-growth or even no-growth business plan is not necessarily an indictment of members as selfish or short-sighted. More likely, it reflects a reasonable aversion to risk in an uncertain economy.

The argument of developers for job growth based on worker cooperatives, especially in low-income areas, sounds appealing as a strategy, since it offers stable employment, local economic benefits, and personal empowerment for members. And this strategy has found some success in several cities, most notably New York. But expectations of significant job growth must be tempered not only by the demands of creating a sustainable business model, but also by the long-term need for financial backing—many banks are hesitant to issue loans to cooperatives—and the still longer time it takes to form a cohesive membership team. Needless to say, this is not a case of a boss expediting growth by hiring and firing at will.

Where conditions are favorable, the job growth strategy should be tried, but there is another avenue—a political strategy, beyond simply growing worker cooperatives to a critical mass—that worker cooperatives could take to gain recognition and influence in their communities, and subsequently expand their numbers. As the most effective examples of radical democracy of any economic institution in our society, worker cooperatives must first recognize their natural position as agitators. The next step would be to unite all cooperatives within a defined geographic area to agree on principles and practices to strengthen their sector. Some of these might be straightforward internal matters, such as better communication or financing, but others would demand outreach—entering a field of play with which most cooperatives are unfamiliar. Because of their expertise in collective decision-making, worker cooperatives are best placed to lead this political aspect of a federation of cross-sectional cooperatives.

Along with the inter-cooperative agenda, worker cooperatives should explore relations with the myriad of grassroots economic, social, and cultural groups and activities that are mainly organized along non-profit or volunteer-based lines. One area of such mutually beneficial connection could be housing: large and growing constituencies in many communities suffer a lack of affordable housing. At the same time, in some cities, housing cooperatives already provide homes to a significant portion of the population, from students to apartment dwellers to, increasingly, mobile home residents. By enlisting, for example, the support of what is often a community’s largest and most visible cooperative—the food co-op—and perhaps students at local colleges or universities, a cross-sectional cooperative initiative could solicit the financial ingenuity of a local credit union to sponsor and build much-needed housing, free from the profit-making demands of the real estate market.

The aim of this kind of cross-sectional organizing is to develop common goals and values that can serve as the basis for further community collaboration. To give another example: cooperatives are natural allies of the environmental movement, most evidently in the cooperative consumer sector, where food cooperatives have taken the lead in supplying organic and toxin-free food for generations. There are other areas, however, such as sustainable energy ventures, where worker cooperatives specifically have made inroads. A pressing political project for the cooperative community is to agitate for established electrification and utility cooperatives, such as those found throughout the Midwest, to adopt renewable energy sources and abandon coal and gas.

Worker cooperatives can also wield significant influence in cultural life. Beyond the more familiar example of craftspeople collaborating to open an outlet, there is a small but vital community of cooperative schools throughout the country, from pre-schools to high schools, as well as a larger grouping of alternative schools practicing cooperative pedagogy. While they may not be legally organized as cooperatives, with staff-based control and strong community involvement, these schools function as cooperatives. And in the arts, all sorts of cooperative associations exist, some of them established as legal cooperatives, such as orchestras, art galleries, and craft workshops. These institutions may not hold explicit political commitments, but they nevertheless represent key allies in any plan for a broader cooperative movement.

The above outline gives only a hint of the diversity of cooperative ventures, beyond worker cooperatives. Forming a cross-sectional cooperative agenda must be the beginning of a distinct cooperative politics, and the first step toward taking a seat at the table within local power structures. Building this constituency must thus occur before, for example, Ranis’s vision of eminent domain projects can be implemented as municipal policy.

Besides this agenda, worker cooperatives could take another, more mainstream approach. As viable businesses, worker cooperatives possess a legitimacy that many political organizations or advocacy groups lack—a kind of “street cred” as pragmatic institutions. But more than that, their practice of micro-democracy gives them a unique status as economic actors, which they could use to influence or pressure local businesses, politicians, journalists, and others. Among other businesses, they could challenge their peers to take the high road in commercial and labor practices. In the civic arena, they could agitate for more civic participation and community engagement.

Finally, worker cooperatives need not remain aloof from labor unions, but should instead ally with them to uphold and extend workers’ rights. In fact, some worker cooperatives, especially those in the printing trades, have been union shops for decades, and in several cities, such as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, newly formed cooperatives have affiliated with supportive existing unions. Above all, worker cooperatives need to be seen as principled peers by traditional businesses and not as eccentric fringe institutions.

Confrontation and Conciliation

The last essay in Ours to Hack and to Own is by Astra Taylor, a filmmaker, writer, and activist, who, although claiming only minimal cooperative experience, succinctly states the central conundrum facing all cooperatives: “ultimately this isn’t just a war of ideas; cooperativism demands we put our principles into practice.” She goes on to discuss the practical projects of self-help that have emerged from the history of cooperatives, and sets out to show that cooperative values can be realized and sustained—until power seeks its revenge. Cooperatives are like an inoculation against the virus of capitalism, and sometimes a booster shot is needed. Most cooperators do not view their activities or organizations this way, but Taylor thinks they should. Indeed, the goal of cooperative politics, as she sees it, is confrontation: “We need an inside/outside strategy: building cooperative alternatives on the margin while challenging the existing structures at the center. I’d like to see positive cooperative experiments combined with strategic campaigns of non-cooperation, of resistance to the financial system that promotes selfishness over solidarity.”

Taylor must be acknowledged as the only contributor to Ours to Hack to introduce the notion of a cooperative political strategy, even if her emphasis seems misplaced. For while there can be no argument against the positive side of her strategy—building cooperatives—confrontation for its own sake must play a secondary role. Precisely because worker cooperatives do not undertake mere “experiments,” but instead seek pragmatic economic responses to real needs and opportunities, they stand a greater chance of success in adopting an inclusionary approach toward traditional economic actors—this is the “outside strategy.” Its “inside” counterpart is the positive effort to unite the whole of the alternative economy in a city, state, or region to begin to build an oppositional power base. Confrontational politics certainly have a place, since power never gives up without a fight, but for confrontation to be effective, the battalion of solidarity and justice needs more than banners: it needs numbers.

Notes

  1. It is worth briefly recounting the history of the term “platform.” Originally, a computer’s operating system was its platform, because it determined what software could be used based on its hardware capacities and technical requirements. Microsoft and Apple, along with a few minor competitors, each marketed their own such platform. Gradually the term came to denote any kind of proprietary software or hardware that serves as the foundation for product development and consumer use. Today, going a step further, the notion of a “platform business” has expanded beyond computing to encompass seemingly any commercial enterprise dependent on a certain technology. For example, everyone recognizes Uber and Lyft as platform firms, but if a taxi company equips its drivers with smartphones and makes available software for customers to hail a cab digitally, does it become a platform business? According to present usage, it does—and in fact, in two cities, Denver and Madison, Wisconsin, cooperatively run taxi companies are now considered platform cooperatives.
  2. Jeremy Corbyn, “The Digital Democracy Manifesto,” http://jeremyforlabour.com.
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