“Is there a Democratic Co-operative Alternative”… to privatisation or bureaucratic state control of the economy.
The labour movement has a long tradition of engagement with cooperatives – with both their strengths and limitations.
Broadly, cooperatives show that a different, alternative form of production – worker-owned enterprises – are possible and that the dominant capitalist private enterprise is not the only way it has to be.
Coops can be little islands of a different future – models for a different way of doing things.
However they can also be a sham or a snare if they are simply captive of private market conditions and/or of capitalist governments. Therefore we need to be clear what we mean by cooperatives if they are to be a more progressive form of work organisation. Across the globe, never mind just the UK, there is a wide variety of enterprises and entities that are regarded as coops:
Credit and banking unions
Worker self-directed enterprises
I will confined my remarks to coops that produce goods and services – production cooperatives – and especially to recent UK developments, which I have to say are troubling.
1. Mutuals and the uses of cooperatives
I want to illustrate my point about needing clarity on the nature of cooperatives through recent attempts by the Westminster government to promote mutuals, social enterprises and community interest companies aimed at public services – including the NHS and the fire and rescue service.
In 2011, the Cabinet Office produced a White Paper; Open Public Services, promoting mutualisation. It has done further work to promote this work, including using scarce public money to fund it. For example, in Cleveland, the chief fire officer tried to get the fire and rescue service there to become a mutual organisation, separate from the rest of the fire and rescue service in England.
This was done in a totally top-down way.
At Westminster, ministers tried to sneak legislation through the Regulatory Reform Committee to avoid scrutiny.
Locally, the chief fire officer did not consult with firefighters. An FBU survey found that 97% of Cleveland firefighters opposed mutualisation.
Because it would have taken them out of national pay and conditions and onto local rates – which would almost certainly go down in the long run.
It would have hit their pensions and other benefits won by the union.
It would have separated them from their sisters and brothers in other services.
And it would not have improved the service to the public.
The point is that under the guise of mutualisation, a fundamental change to the fire and rescue service has been promoted.
For the FBU,- in this case – mutuals were, and are, a Trojan horse for privatisation of our fire and rescue service.
For that reason, we are resolutely opposed.
2. Ownership matters
That brings me to my second point, which is that ownership matters
I am opposed to the private ownership of big industry and of public services because I believe the system based on endless pursuit of profit is wasteful, exploitative and inefficient.
However I am equally opposed to the old Stalinist command economies – where workers could not organise their own unions and where bureaucratic plans and targets were imposed from on high and without any democratic control at all.
I think the case of the old nationalised industries is a bit different and the call for re-nationalisation of rail raises the question sharply; what sort of public ownership do we want?
I won’t idealise British Rail and other such examples – they are not my models. I believe we could build models of ownership and control that involve workers and users or consumers in decisions making about what is produced and how it is done – including in public services.
For the fire and rescue service now, the public ownership of our service matters. It makes a difference both to the service we provide to the public and to the conditions firefighters have at work. I think some within cooperative circles downplay the importance of ownership.
But it does matter whether any surpluses are reinvested or whether they are bled off in dividends. We have seen disastrous examples of privatisation in the fire service.
Ownership does matter because the goal of production – and especially of public services – makes a difference.
3. Workers control
The second point, arising from the experience of the old nationalised industries and relevant to the cooperative alternative, is workers’ control. Giving the workforce a definite voice in the production of goods and services is the key democratic argument to make.
I don’t mean just a union rep on the board of a company. I mean assemblies of workers, elected representatives with real powers, in short a real collective voice at work, is crucial to any alternative.
On a small scale for many years, the FBU had partial control over many aspects of the service, through our role on government-management-union bodies and on fire stations.
Again, I don’t want to idealise it. But it is possible for unions and workers to play a much more significant role in the management of any enterprise and any service. It makes the work safer and it makes the service better.
So my answer to the question about alternatives is clear:
No, there is not an alternative if the ownership structure of private enterprise (or command economy) stays in place and if the organisational changes are superficial and cosmetic.
However, YES, there is an alternative if it involves public, social ownership, workers control and democratic accountability.
“The co-operative factories run by workers themselves are, within the old form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form, even though they naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organization, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them. But the opposition between capital and labour is abolished there, even if at first only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalists, i.e., they use the means of production to valorise their labour.”
Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 571
“If cooperative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if the united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of Capitalist production—what else, gentlemen, would it be but Communism, “possible” Communism?”
Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 22, 335.
“[A]s far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeoisie.”
Karl Marx, The Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 24, 93–94.