Sunday, 16 March 2014

For A Political Revolution At The Co-op - Part 17

If we want to build an efficient, powerful worker-owned sector of the economy that can act to demonstrate that there is a better alternative to capitalism then we have to bring together as much of that worker-owned sector into a single organisation as possible, just as Marx demonstrates that the normal operation of Capitalism leads to concentration and centralisation. In the First International, Marx and Engels closest British co-thinker was Ernest Jones. They saw Jones as becoming the leader of the British working-class. Jones set out this view of how workers needed to build their co-operative movement in a letter to the co-operaterive conference. The relevant point was this.

“Then what is the only salutary basis for co-operative industry? A NATIONAL one. All co-operation should be founded, not on isolated efforts, absorbing, if successful, vast riches to themselves, but on a national union which should distribute the national wealth. To make these associations secure and beneficial, you must make it their interest to assist each other, instead of competing with each other—you must give them UNITY OF ACTION, AND IDENTITY OF INTEREST.

To effect this, every local association should be the branch of a national one, and all profits, beyond a certain amount, should be paid into a national fund, for the purpose of opening fresh branches, and enabling the poorest to obtain land, establish stores, and otherwise apply their labour power, not only to their own advantage, but to that of the general body.

This is the vital point: are the profits to accumulate in the hands of isolated clubs, or are they to be devoted to the elevation of the entire people? Is the wealth to gather around local centres, or is it to be diffused by a distributive agency?”


In fact, given that the Co-operative movement is now a global movement, with more people employed within it than by multinational companies, we should be working not towards a national body, but a global body. As I have set out previously, such an international co-operative federation would be a powerful lever. For example, if some of the profits were set aside to cover workers' welfare needs, that would be a very great attraction to workers in poorer countries, where no welfare provision is currently available. The extent to which existing worker-owned co-ops could be brought together in such a federation, would not just strengthen them, it would also be a powerful lever to encourage member owned co-ops to convert.

But, the Co-op, despite the fact that it has declined considerably from its heyday, remains a powerful force. It is the biggest farmer in Britain, for example. It would not be surprising if the existing bureaucracy within the the Co-op resisted losing their jobs and privileges, as it is converted into a democratic worker owned enterprise. The kinds of mobilisation of workers as set out above may be required to force such a restructuring. But, more than that, the trade union bureaucrats and labour party bureaucrats have their own reason for opposing such a transformation. It challenges their own position as intermediaries between capital and labour. Any struggle for the restructuring of the Co-op will have to go along with a similar struggle to build the power of the rank and file in the unions against the TU bureaucracy, and for a democratisation of the Labour Party on similar grounds. But, the extent to which workers do build their own worker owned property, means that the very basis upon which the Trade Union and LP bureaucracy rests is challenged.

If workers show they can run their own enterprises, within which the contradiction between capital and labour is overcome, the need for a TU bureaucracy to act as an intermediary disappears. But also, when workers show that they can resolve their own problems by their own self-government, the basis of the LP bureaucracy resting on parliamentarism disappears too. No longer is the centre of political action the winning of votes, but is the turning out of the LP and TU activists to building real working class organisations and solutions within the community. Workers are led to see voting not as an end in itself, but only as a means of overcoming the resistance of the bourgeoisie and its state to the solutions they the workers have already brought forward.

The local council says it cannot run the local sports centre. Its workers occupy it and begin to run it as worker owned property supported by the local community. Local workers demand a compensating reduction in their Council Tax, to cover the fact they are now funding the Sports Centre directly themselves. They support Labour Councillors who support this position, and get involved in the selection process to ensure such Councillors are brought forward. The local Trades Council is mobilised to generate industrial action where needed to support such a change. At the moment such developments are not likely, but the more workers show that they can run their own enterprises, the more this alternative is demonstrated, the more this change in the minds of workers in general can take hold. That is what has been seen in Argentina, for example.

Such a change implies that this political revolution in the Co-op, generates a similar revolution in the trades unions and the LP as I will turn to next.

2 comments:

Jacob Richter said...

Boffy, over the past month or so I might have been changing part of my aversion to your emphasis on for-profit co-ops as strategy. However, one aspect of the change has a military aspect, while the other a heightened neo-Lassallean hostility to the collective bargaining process.

On the first, the military aspect, the Communist League in 1848 demanded "that the army will not merely be a consumer, as it was in the past, but will produce even more than the cost of its upkeep." Ironically, I do think this has been realized in historical developments within the form of military-owned enterprises. This policy applied to the Chinese People's Liberation Army might have been the only positive aspect of Deng Xiaoping's economic agenda.

Should the entire military-industrial complex of any nation-state be transformed into one huge military-owned co-op, while retaining for-profit operations? This would have to be accompanied with unionization rights for soldiers, inroads against those standing officer corps that aren't such due to technical expertise (i.e., those operating nuclear weapon sites, engineering corps and other logistic corps, aviation corps, etc.), and so on, of course.

On the second, the chill towards collective bargaining, the most adversarial vehicle for non-political dispute resolution is not the trade union, but the law firm. Perhaps there can be non-profit and for-profit law firms specializing in labour litigation and labour law counselling?

Boffy said...

Marx and Engels argued for universal military conscription, which was seen as a necessary concomitant of universal suffrage, so the the workers organised as such a militia, were also the military force which stood behind the elected Parliament, and enforced the people's will.

But, this was before the development of the kind of huge, centralised state apparatus that exists today, and its control over armed force.

Today that state armed force needs to be broken up. First it requires that we propose democratic rights for members of those armed forces. Secondly, it involves arguing for democratic control of the military top brass, as part of the demand for their election as with all other top posts within the state. Thirdly, it involves organising alongside that workers militia, self-defence squads, self-organised policing of workers communities and so on, so that these forms of workers democracy, and proto workers state are built in opposition to those of the capitalist state.