Saturday, 23 November 2013

For A Political Revolution At The Co-op - Part 2

On the basis of workers' democracy, even where elections are required, for example to appoint managers, chairmen etc., or delegates to higher co-operative or labour movement bodies, workers can make decisions based on direct knowledge and experience of those fellow workers to be appointed to the position, and that same democracy can ensure that control is exerted over them. The benefits of that are obvious even when those appointed to such positions are not workers themselves, but have the required expertise. For example, Marx writes about the Lancashire textile co-operatives.

“The wages of management both for the commercial and industrial manager are completely isolated from the profits of enterprise in the co-operative factories of labourers, as well as in capitalist stock companies. The separation of wages of management from profits of enterprise, purely accidental at other times, is here constant. In a co-operative factory the antagonistic nature of the labour of supervision disappears, because the manager is paid by the labourers instead of representing capital counterposed to them...

It is manifest from the public accounts of the co-operative factories in England that — after deducting the manager's wages, which form a part of the invested variable capital much the same as wages of other labourers — the profit was higher than the average profit, although at times they paid a much higher interest than did private manufacturers. The source of greater profits in all these cases was greater economy in the application of constant capital. What interests us in this, however, is the fact that here the average profit ( = interest + profit of enterprise) presents itself actually and palpably as a magnitude wholly independent of the wages of management. Since the profit was higher here than average profit, the profit of enterprise was also higher than usual.” 

And, Marx points out that where former owners of failed companies were employed, by workers when they took over these factories, they were so on low wages compared to what they had previously paid themselves for the function of supervision.

But, its clear then why a member owned Co-operative cannot fulfil this function. The members of such a Co-op have no material reason for its continuation outside what meets their immediate needs for the supply of good quality commodities at a low price. If some other enterprise can provide that for them, they will have every incentive to simply buy from that alternative supplier. In fact, they will have every reason to take short term decisions that may be detrimental to the long-term interests of the business. One such reason might also be to extract as much in dividends from the business as possible.

The early retail Co-ops were established by workers to provide themselves with such quality goods at low prices, and because many of these workers had ideological reasons for establishing them. That meant they would be likely to participate actively in decision making. But, the very success of such Co-ops undermines that basis of their continuation. The larger the Co-op membership, the larger the number of members who have no real ideological commitment to it; the larger the number who are simply passive members, prepared to hand over the task of management and control to professional managers, or simply activists prepared to put themselves out enough to get elected to positions. In her book, “The Co-operative Movement and Communities in Britain, 1914-1960”, Nicole Robertson cites, studies of both the LP and even of the German SPD at its height, showing the number of activists was tiny compared to the enlisted membership. She quotes G.D.H. Cole who wrote that it represented,

“... a perpetual danger for Co-operative Societies as for many other voluntary bodies, [because] their affairs may fall into the hands of small cliques with little or no participation in the control of policy by the main body of members.” (p 215)

For workers in a worker-owned co-operative, the task of participating in decision-making is not a “voluntary” act, but an essential aspect of the labour process. But, as soon as direct ownership of the means of production is removed from the workers and handed to someone else, be it a capitalist manager, the capitalist state, or even a “workers' state”, that link is broken, other than at the most mundane level. In any of these situations, workers have to co-operate and communicate with each other because even capitalist production is based, via the division of labour, on co-operative labour. But, beyond that level there is no reason for them to have any concern. Their labour is alienated. In fact, that is more likely to be the case in a situation where the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the state, precisely because such ownership encourages rent-seeking. If the enterprise you work for has the potential of going bust, you may feel, as a worker, that it is your interest to ensure its success, by producing commodities efficiently and of good quality, if only to help protect your job. If the firm is underwritten by the state and you get paid anyway, no such material incentive exists, which is part of the reason for poor quality and lack of care in the NHS, for instance. It was a major reason for the inefficiency and poor quality of products and services in the USSR.

Workers democracy is not something that can simply be plucked out of thin air to be imposed on alien property relations. It can only grow out of truly proletarian property relations based upon direct workers ownership and control of the means of production. But, for the same reasons as I will demonstrate, neither can proletarian property relations operate under a system of bourgeois representative democracy.

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