Outgrowing Capitalism 2018 Winter Summary and Reflection
At the beginning of the winter, I set out with a few basic questions: What role might cooperatives have in a transition from capitalism? Which elements of cooperatives help them succeed and advance this goal, and what problems cause them to fail? What are the real-world challenges of organizing, starting and maintaining cooperatives?
Motivating my inquiry is the desire to help the world find a better solution to social, economic and ecological issues derived from a capitalist system of political organization. People have been trying for hundreds of years, and so far haven’t come up with something that works better than and is sufficiently competitive against capitalism to initiate the transition. Learning about cooperatives and their persistence as an alternative organization under the limits imposed by market relations sparked my curiosity for the economic side of the question of social change. Beyond a small core of dedicated activists, people don’t tend to just change the world because they want to. They change the world because they are incentivised to, in protest to existing conditions being unacceptable, or because they see a real alternative available and flock to it as the obvious ethical and rational and more often the most convenient choice. Changing the world requires a solid material base to work from. As Kali Akuno summarized in Jackson Rising, “Politics without economics is symbol without substance” (p. 7). Cooperatives as a political vehicle for change are very limited, but even greater are the limitations of a lack of co-ops/alternative economic institutions in progressive political organizing. Without new forms of work and livelihood, the imagination of the people will be constrained by status quo forms, and progressive forces will not have an independent base to operate from that is insulated from attacks by their enemies.
Reflections on my Research
I came with a few basic assumptions from my prior study. One: Capitalism is the source of a good deal of suffering in the world today, and is the cause of periodic socioeconomic crises, as well as a sustained and ongoing ecological crisis. Two: Cooperative forms of economic activity are not inherently capitalist, despite existing within it. Some develop isomorphisms, mimicking aspects of capitalist firms in response to internal and external pressures. The most successful cooperative movements were those which grew to account for a significant percentage of the economic activity of their sphere of influence, persisted against external threats and created a lasting social impact on the communities responsible for them, such as Mondragon or the cooperatives of the Italian Emilia-Romagna region. Three: These successful cooperative movements shared a commitment to inter-cooperative cooperation, a strong sense of social purpose and a diverse base of economic activities to support their growth, and generally adhered most closely to the ICA’s seven cooperative principles. These assumptions have thus far informed my hypotheses in regards to answering my study questions.
Through my research I discovered many interesting organizations working on the cutting edge of cooperation.The organizational forms, strategies and values of these movements lent support to my initial hypotheses about the characteristics of successful cooperative movements. From Mondragon to Cooperation Jackson to Kurdistan to the Catalan Integral Cooperative, they share an “activist” character, explicitly oriented towards socioeconomic system change; an emphasis on openness, federation, inter-cooperative cooperation; and are supported by a diversity of incomes, drawing money from many revenue/financing sources, rather than relying on a simple residual income from the provision of a good or service. This last part often means working in finance, or partnering with cooperative financing institutions to access much-needed investment capital.
Postcapitalism and the Peer-to-Peer Economy
My interest in innovative forms of cooperation and political economy, starting with my reading of Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future and his predictions on the transformative potentials of information technology lead me down an interesting rabbit hole. From this starting point I looked into the work of various “post-capitalist” organizations and initiatives, often based partially around the production of information technology and with roots in various hacker, open-source software and anti-intellectual property social movements. They are closely aligned with the “commoning” movement, which is quite popular in Europe, and generally tend to proscribe some form of libertarian social democracy as a pragmatic first step towards more utopian horizons. The P2P (peer-to-peer) foundation, founded by Michel Bauwens has to date produced some of the best theoretical and critical work available in english to explain this tendency, while groups such as the Catalan Integral Cooperative and the FairCoop ecosystem, both founded by Spaniard-in-exile Enric Duran have some of the most well-developed economic and social programs in place that showcase the more radical cutting edge of the commons movement cooperatives.
What I find most interesting about these groups and their philosophies is their intense theoretical and practical focus on transition as their means and post-capitalism as their end goal. In a more traditional movement, you would expect to see revolution as the means and some form of communism, socialism, anarchism, or liberalism as the end. Reframing the project as a more ambiguous transition (accounting for much more than just a one-and-done revolutionary change of governments, including reforms, technological developments, economic activism, crisis and more) towards an even more ambiguous post-capitalism does a lot to keep their experiments relatively free of sectarianism and dogmatic, narrow-minded thinking so characteristic of the more prescriptive schools of anti-capitalist thought. The idea that we do not know, and cannot accurately predict the precise arrangement of socioeconomic relations following the eventual end of capitalism appeals to the ecologist in me. The times ahead are uncertain, and I think a mentality of ambiguity, flexibility and adaptability is a wise approach. Better than repeating failed experiments and hoping for a different result in any case.
While I think that this post-capitalist tendency has a lot of potential, it also comes with its fair share of shortcomings. This first is perhaps and over-reliance on technological determinism and marxist theories of value. Mason addresses the countervailing tendencies (such as intellectual property rights, enclosure and the opening of new markets) working against a falling rate of profit caused by increasing information content embedded in machines, but if these theories of value ended up being incorrect, or the countervailing tendencies too adaptable, then many of these post-capitalist may find themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle. They tend to lack ground-game and street-level organizing, relying instead upon a global network of specialists connected by digital communications technology. This issue give me ideas for further research, so I will discuss it in greater detail later on in this summary.
Black Cooperatives and National Liberation Movements:
In my research I also studies historical and contemporary examples of the role of cooperatives in black liberation and civil rights movements, primarily in the United States of America. In the first book Collective Courage, by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, the author demonstrated the role of cooperative economic and social institutions in the black community reaching back to at least 1780, in time of slavery, when freed slaves would pool money in mutual aid societies to support each other economically in hostile social environments. Black scholars and activists as diverse as W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Ella Jo Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and the members of the Black Panther Party were all participants in and advocates of economic cooperation as a means of enabling black self determination and liberty within a deeply racist society. Nembhard shows how these efforts were often integrated with white-lead cooperative movements, but just as often discriminated against by white cooperators, banks and labor unions, and were often forced to form their own institutions without material support from other cooperative movements.
The history Nembhard tells also has a global dimension. The development of cooperative institutions is a common strategy for survival and economic independence pursued by oppressed ethnic minorities, and some of the most famous examples of large-scale cooperation are rooted in these struggles. Mondragon was founded in 1956 as a means of employment, education and liberty amongst the Basque community, which had been dominated by Castilian Spaniards for hundreds of years. Similarly, the anarcho-syndicalist cooperatives of republican Catalonia were based in ethnic-minority struggles for self-determination, and grew to a massive size before their defeat in the Spanish Civil War. A more contemporary example might be that of the Kurds, considered one of the world’s largest nation without their own state. After abandoning an armed insurrectionary pursuit of national liberation in the late 1990s, left-wing Kurdish groups began to promote cooperatives as a means of self-sufficiency. In Turkey and Northern Syria in particular, this cooperative economy has grown to encompass a significant portion of the regions it operates in. The Mayan ethnic communities organized under the banner of the Zapatistas exhibit similar economic tendencies and counter-power strategies, ans do numerous other movements of the poor and oppressed around the world today.
Drawing on these histories, Kali Akuno and the other organizers of Cooperation Jackson and the Malcom X Grassroots Movement seek to reformulate and re-apply the principles of economic cooperation to black liberation struggles in the contemporary USA. Their efforts and study have been decades in the making, culminating in a concerted attempt to create a cooperative economy and democratic socialist government in the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Their book, Jackson Rising, chronicles the theories and strategies behind this work, as well as various participant’s experiences and reflections on these efforts. In fact, it was reading this book that lead me to many of my other sources for this program, including Paul Mason’s writing on technology and post-capitalism, as well as Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s work, and the importance of exploiting contradictions within capitalism and its endemic crises to bring about a better society. Particularly important within Jackson Rising is the book’s first chapter, which details the complete theoretical and strategic approach of Cooperation Jackson to building an alternative economy within their city, including worker cooperatives, financial institutions, electoral and community politics, land reclamation, technological innovation, sustainability and food justice. Akuno explains the decision to publicize such a detailed strategic document, saying, “We are taking this risk because…even if we should fall short or utterly fail in our efforts, we hope that there is enough laid out here for others to be inspired by and learn from to be able to pick up the mantle and continue to run forward with it in the pursuit of liberation” (Akuno, p.36). The experimental work of Cooperation Jackson is not only to transform Jackson, but to inspire others with new ideas for changing socioeconomic and racial relations throughout the North American continent and beyond. Cooperatives have for many decades existed as relatively passive sites of resistance to capitalism, racism and patriarchy within the wider economy. Jackson Rising shows how they can be used as an effective tool in pursuit of a better future.
A third component of my study included a look at trends within science fiction pointing towards more utopian futures. Included in this were the principle texts Sunvault, an anthology of stories and poems in the emerging “solarpunk” sub-genre of science fiction, and New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Also included in this left-leaning science fiction tradition are prominent authors such as Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel Delaney, Ian M. Banks and Octavia Butler. In these works, in contrast to earlier science fiction utopians such as H.G. Wells or Alexander Bogdanov and dystopian writers such as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Neil Stephenson and more right-wing libertarian authors like Robert Heinlein and Vernor Vinge, is an approach to utopian imagination that is very intentionally ambiguous, critical and socially mediated. The subtitle of LeGuin’s The Dispossessed; an Ambiguous Utopia, is perhaps the first instance where this idea was made explicit. The concept of utopian ambiguity fits very well with concepts of post-capitalism and transition that I have been investigating. In Sunvault, the stories share a common theme of ecological mediation of utopia. Many of the societies portrayed possess more liberatory characteristics than our current one, but often this freedom has come only after great tragedy, usually brought about by ecological collapse. New York 2140 shares this theme, speculating on the ways cities, politics and culture might adapt to catastrophic sea level rise and mass extinction. Cooperatives play a significant role in the fluid commons of intertidal urban society, as do familiar modern forces of finance, enclosure and gentrification. Financial civil disobedience is the primary tactic used by the protagonists of the novel, instigating a global debt strike and nationalization of banks and investment funds for the public good. In many senses, 2140 is about 2008, and how the recessions could have been handled differently if a more organized and powerful base existed to force a better outcome at the time.
In contrast to popular dystopian works, which view various collapse events in a purely negative or pessimistic light, solarpunk and other ambiguous utopias, without shying from tragedy, tend to emphasize comedy, resilience and hopefulness even in the face of catastrophe. In fact, many of the societies depicted have found some way to make use of the apocalypse and the ensuing social upheaval to catalyze their transition to a better way of living. Once the worst of the storm has passed, the characters in these stories engage in restorative struggles, pitting them against nature and the limitations of human society to rebuild ecosystems, bring species back from extinction and reform technology and governance. Evil is seldom a significant force, and the work of engineers, bureaucrats, workers and scientists, rather than hero’s, is the work which ultimately transforms society.
The role of science fiction in social change should not be underestimated. The ability to imagine different social, political, technological and ecological arrangements can have a profound effect on people’s worldviews and motivations. Science Fiction can be similar to political philosophies and theories of all sorts, which frequently ask the questions “What could be?” and “What should be?”, going beyond simple descriptive inquiry and helping the imagination to explore a greatly expanded horizon of possibility. This includes, of course, possible futures beyond capitalism, domination and ecological catastrophe. By describing a society with a drastically different set of rules in a chronological narrative, it becomes easier to imagine the steps needed to get from here to there, or at least a little closer to an ambiguous post-capitalist future.
I have learned a great deal this winter, however, my research has also left me with new questions. The first of which is “what is the role of crisis and the role of finance in successful cooperative movements in the past, and their role in the movements of the future?”. I also want to learn more about the philosophies of open cooperativism and ways its information technology-heavy base can connect with and complement mass-movement organizing and more traditional worker and consumer cooperatives.
Crisis and finance are intimately intertwined with each other within the capitalist system, and are sources of success and failure for cooperative economic movements. Crisis can mean an economic crisis, such as the 2008 recession, or it can mean natural disaster, war, and social upheaval. Often natural or political crisis can trigger financial crisis, a disturbance which occasionally opens up space for alternative economic arrangements to occur (syrian civil war, great depression, civil rights movement). Crisis is often a catalyst for the growth of cooperative movements (SOURCE). Understanding the terrain of disasters likely to strike during the 21st century will help cooperatives and progressive social movements able to respond to intervene in these situations in a positive and proactive manner. I will continue this spring with a more intentional review of the available literature on disaster reconstruction, crisis management and community response to disaster.
We may even look to science fiction for inspiration. In the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, particularly New York 2140, cooperative responses to sea level rise and intervention in a periodic financial crisis play a key role in the USA’s transition from capitalism to a new economic order. In another of his novels in the Mars trilogy, cooperatives of a global Mondragon-esque federation play a similar role in providing aid, reconstruction and ecological restoration during a global climate crisis which leaves them standing as one of the most powerful economic entities on the planet Earth (as well as Mars). Consistently, I have found that the main obstacle to having this sort of humanitarian mobilization power available is bound up in the same old issue of cooperative access to capital, also the chief limiting factor when considering organizational growth and competitiveness with capitalist firms.
Finance and access to the means of investment is something I don’t think cooperatives and leftists can safely ignore, as it remains a consistent issue. But why do cooperatives have such difficulty accessing capital? For starters, few investors would invest in an enterprise they could not own and few cooperative founders are wealthy enough to have access to their own means of investment. Banks tend to be discriminatory against cooperatives when handing out loans, and government support for cooperatives can be fickle, leading to over-dependence on state support and interference in the economy (venezuela, cuba, yugoslavia). Cooperatives like Mondragon were able to grow because of their early decision to found their own bank, an approach which organizations like FairCoop and other followers of Open Cooperativism appear to be attempting at global scales through experimentation with digital currencies and lending institutions, such as Bank of the Commons. Finance is an area, due to its complexity and ruling class-character, that many leftists seem hesitant to deal with beyond the realm of oppositional politics. But if it is indeed at crucial to the maintenance of global political-economic relations as it is made out to be then it ought to be treated as another legitimate site of struggle for power and democratic rule. Ideas like Modern Monetary Theory and Dmytri Kleiner’s “Venture Communism” may have some merit in this regard, both in terms of creating a constructive socialist alternative to current financial relations and helping activists, coops and ordinary citizens successfully exploit cracks in the system that will help to ensure their survival.
Another set of questions that came up was on the growing split between schools of activist cooperativism. In the current day, this split seems to be greatest between the high tech, open cooperativists and the more traditional cooperative businesses and federations. Can this split be bridged? What strengths and weaknesses do different approaches have? Which of these differences are ideological and which are context-dependent? Open Cooperativism emphasized flexibility, diversity, speed and experimental approaches, which I think will be key traits to making the most out of the current period of capitalism. Open cooperativism seems to be on the right track, but lacks a solid base in the working classes, and instead motivates educated and middle class people collaborating globally more often than locally. High and low tech cooperativism need to connect and compliment each other’s shortcomings (hi tech: connection to non-networked masses, low-tech: access to powerful “de-massifying comms tech and ease of access to finance and government).
Cooperative movements become most broadly popular among classes of oppressed people, usually a national or ethnic minority in a hostile political territory, such as the black cooperatives in the USA or the Kurdish cooperative movement. These movements amass significant human resources and by extension social capital/people power. But they are consistently held back by lack of access to economic and political resources, and usually outright discrimination and sabotage. And since they are primarily rooted in community and face-to-face interactions, they remain localized. However, they often face challenges when attempting to grow beyond their initial community base, as with Mondragon, or are unable to band together in resistance to global capitalist and regulatory pressures.
Adherents of open cooperativism, on the other hand, tend to be educated/intellectuals, middle class, and part of a globalized network, but not necessarily rooted in local community (or at least not amongst the majority of a community). The strengths and weaknesses of both social movements do seem to compliment each other well, and connect to the questions of crisis and finance in a similarly complimentary way – localized mass-based movements are well positioned to handle crisis and disaster, while the globalized, networked open cooperativists are working out solutions to international cooperative financing and information distribution. The open cooperativists are at the forefront of the fight to erode intellectual property monopolies and centralized financial controls, important pieces of provoking and exploiting economic crisis, and the people’s movements are educating, agitating and organizing for immediate solutions to on-the-ground market failures. Reducing the asymmetry between these tendencies will prove important to forging effective political-economic movements for justice in the 21st century. There are many promising experiments out there in the world today which are finding ways to grow and adapt in a modern context. I hope to focus my research on these issues this spring and present my findings.
Reflections on Internship
Working with NWCDC helped me to understand the reality of cooperative organizing. There are many contradictions and hindrances, and non-profit sector developers have to be able to handle these and work adaptively to further the growth of a movement they believe in. The work can go very slowly, and a good deal of it is educational: teaching people to communicate better and cooperate, teaching workers the skills needed to be their own bosses, teaching residents of a community to manage themselves fairly, educating legislators and other politicians on the benefits of supporting coops.
My internship with the cooperative development center has certainly clarified, if not fully answered these questions. I have learned from this experience that starting a business, or even converting an existing one to worker ownership is often extremely difficult. Most workers do not have the skills, education and financial security to attempt this easily. Cooperative development specialists are necessary to help workers turn their ideas into a reality. I have learned that funding is very scarce, both for cooperators and consultants. Most of the funding for the center comes from USDA and other federal granting agencies. Their ability to operate is highly dependent upon federal policy being favorable to their work. There are few loans available to help cooperatives start up and capitalize either. Independent funding sources are needed, but not available at present. More local government (state, county, city) support of cooperatives could help diversify that funding stream. Just because worker cooperatives exist does not mean they will be organized.
Talking with CoSound organizers has shown me that an immense amount of work needs to be put into facilitating inter-cooperative cooperation. There are many existing cooperatives in the region, but the work of organizing them into a network or federation is challenging, as the members of cooperatives are mainly focused on keeping their business open and don’t have much time for additional organizing on top of all of that. It is a necessary step towards strength and sustainability, but not one that comes organically from the cooperative form itself. The work of organization-building is very slow. Capital homecare has been in development for several years, and lots of board turnover before launching this year in March. Many projects advance and halt as they meet organizational or bureaucratic hurdles. Work on a project can transition from frantic to stagnant in a matter of days or weeks. It’s no wonder that many feel discouraged by the difficulty of it all. To do economic activism effectively requires a lot of patience. I hope to continue this internship in spring and participate in other projects that will give me a better understanding of cooperative organizational development so that I can be of use in advocating for and facilitating the growth of an effective, organized and just solidarity economy that has the potential to accelerate the end of capitalism while ensuring a just transition for the millions who rely on capitalist institutions for the provision of their livelihoods.
Akuno, Kali, and Ajamu Nangwaya. Jackson Rising: the Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi. Daraja Press, 2017.
Bauwens, Michel and Kostakis, Vasilis. From the Communism of Capital to Capital for the Commons: Towards an Open Co-operativism. Triple C, 2014
Conaty, Pat and Bollier, David.Toward an Open Cooperativism: A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons. Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014.
Co-operative identity, values & principles. (n.d.). Retrieved September 02, 2017, from https://ica.coop/en/whats-co-op/co-operative-identity-values-principles
Dafermos, George. The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an Organizational Study of a Post-Capitalist Cooperative. P2P Foundation. 2017.
Georgiades, Niko. FairCoop: An Alternative System Outside of Capitalism. Grassroots Economic Organizing, 2017
Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia. : HarperCollins, 2011.
Mason, Paul. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Nembhard, Jessica Gordon. Collective Courage: a History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. New York 2140. Little Brown, 2018.
Stanchar, Petar. From Chiapas to Rojava – more than just coincidences. Kurdish Question, 2015. http://kurdishquestion.com/oldarticle.php?aid=exclusive-on-kq-from-chiapas-to-rojava-more-than-just-coincidences#edn8
Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness. A Small Key Can Open a Large Door: The Rojava Revolution. AK Press, 2015
Wagner, Phoebe, and Wieland Brontë Christopher. Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2017.
Wright, Ian. Dmytri Kleiner’s Venture Communism. From Here to There, 2016. https://ianwrightsite.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/blog-post-title/