A response to Peter Marcuse

Monthly Review’s February, 2015 issue contains two essays on the cooperative sector. “Neoliberal Co-optation of Leading Co-op Organizations and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation” by Carl Ratner explores the tepid economics and the conformist politics of these “leading” organizations. The other essay by Peter Marcuse, “Cooperatives On the Path to Socialism?” focuses on worker cooperatives and deserves extensive discussion amongst members of those cooperatives.

As a humorous aside, it needs to be mentioned that finding a socialist, or indeed a Marxist, in a US worker cooperative, would be a shade more difficult than finding an egg during Easter. Of the 300 to 400 worker cooperatives (and allied enterprises) in the US, I would guess not more than a dozen would subscribe in their mission statement to anything approaching universally transformative anti-capitalist politics. I hesitate to use the “R” word so as not to limit that cohort further.

Given this situation, one could presume that Marcuse’s speculations border on magical realism. However, while his Marxist diagnostic (unintentionally) reveals the paucity of radical politics within worker cooperatives, it also highlights the objective condition of worker cooperatives in our ruthless economy as they demonstrate, in their everyday reality, the proposition that people come before profit.

Marcuse, possibly aware of the oddity of his enterprise, hesitates to be definitive about almost every topic he touches upon. Regrettably, serious questions are raised but left unresolved, possibly because Marcuse lacks direct experience with worker cooperatives. Of course, this fact doesn’t stop other academics (who will remain nameless here) from pontificating on the subject, so Marcuse’s measured critical efforts are appreciated.

Let’s start our excursion into this analysis at the end with Marcuse’s concluding sentence:

Their [worker cooperative’s] main importance, in a perspective looking towards basic social change in a non-capitalist direction, is thus perhaps more in what they may say about and teach about the potentials of self-management, and the capacities of the 99% to work and manage the society—rather than in the actual changes they themselves bring about in what they do.

Earlier in the essay Marcuse says this:

The contribution that the struggle for, and development of, worker co-ops could make is not so much as it affects non-participants, but rather in the effect on the participants themselves, in consciousness raising.

These excerpts may seem contradictory, but the fact is that worker cooperatives have vital external and internal roles. They serve as a model of self-management in their communities and, if they are to survive, they need to develop an internal culture in opposition to the rankism, racism, sexism, etc., of the dominant society. Yet, whether they see one of these functions as dominant or both inherently anti-capitalist, much less socialist, is debatable.

On the other hand, popular promoters of worker cooperatives in the so-called alternative media, and increasingly in the mainstream one, have decided the question – worker cooperatives are cool. Nothing in the way of economic development is more chic today than cooperatives, or more misunderstood precisely because the internal dynamics of deconditioning the dominant culture are ignored.

Marcuse raises, in his ramble through Marx’s views, several important issues that concern members of worker cooperatives, but hardly make the agenda for any collective’s discussion. The first issue concerns the role of government. Despite the popular perception that Marx was a stone-cold statist, he actually cautioned against state sponsorship of cooperatives. As Marcuse says:

Otherwise, Marx argued, socialism would be established through state action—in stark contrast with the central idea of scientific socialism that workers will only achieve emancipation through their own efforts. If workers were to require the support of the state for their revolutionary movement, they would thereby only reveal “their full consciousness that they neither rule nor are ripe for rule! .… [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.” (The Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Naturally, we have no fear that Washington will be burdening cooperatives, or their developers with taxpayer revenues to create incipient socialist experiments, but we do have foundations increasingly funding cooperative development. The Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, was funded this way. Evergreen has been praised for its innovative program of cooperative development using “anchor institutions,” like hospitals and universities (corporate non-profits), to purchase services from worker cooperative in economically marginalized communities.

This model, which established three cooperatives in six years with more in the pipeline according to their consultants, may soon be replicated in other cities, like Rochester. This may not be the state directly creating cooperatives as Marx cautioned, yet the state indirectly supports foundations financially through various tax breaks and legal niceties. (Further, the directors of foundations share the same social outlook as the minions who parcel out state subsidies as directed by legislative decrees.)

Smaller cooperative development agencies, often organized as non-profits, partake of similar funding sources though they are less obviously top-down enterprises. They adopt a more traditional community-organizing model that seeks to empower the grassroots. These agencies are responsible for the significant growth of worker cooperatives amongst immigrant communities. Organizing cooperatives in this manner is a relatively new phenomenon amongst worker cooperatives, which historically rose directly from farmers and industrial workers needs.

And this brings us to the second issue that Marcuse raises and is more compelling for the future of the cooperative sector, though it too is a “missing in action” concern amongst cooperative members. Here is how Marcuse introduces the subject:

When Marx writes of the “mode of production,” he has in mind a class system in which the essential struggle is between proletarians and the bourgeoisie, taking place at the workplace; consumption is secondary, and finance perhaps tertiary.

Marx’s view of cooperatives is within this framework. Co-ops are proletarian, their organization and power is a step on the road to full societal power, their importance based on the importance of the proletariat, and their class struggle against capital.

These comments by Marcuse are not meant to dismiss the class struggle, but to recognize the changed reality of that struggle. In nineteenth century America skilled workers formed cooperatives as a means of defense from outrageous labor practices. Often these enterprises collapsed under attacks, both financial and physical, by the bosses. And if that didn’t do them in, then the boom and bust cycles of capitalism finished them off. Several however lasted decades and furnished their communities with a proud citizenry of laborers. The members of these cooperatives were highly skilled men and women – proletarians exactly as Marx depicted – coopers, shoemakers, cabinet-makers and seamstresses.

Today the average member of a worker cooperative works in the service sector and the number of manufacturing worker cooperatives in the US resembles the number of “radical” ones – a dozen at most.

The point here is not to dismiss the continued relevance of manufacturing, nor even to necessarily expect a further decline of worker cooperatives in this area. It is not inconceivable that manufacturing businesses, especially those on a small scale, with owners facing retirement, and a skilled workforce able to continue the enterprise, will convert to worker cooperatives. There is much precedent for this in the recent history of cooperatives.

The real issue regarding the changed nature of the class struggle that Marcuse alludes to, has two facets – the changed nature of jobs and their disappearance. It would be only partially correct to attribute to technology the deskilling of jobs and their demise. The real culprit here is the morphing of traditional, production-based capitalism into finance capitalism. Jobs are evaporating because capitalists make more money with money than with workers.

The implications of these developments extend far beyond the horizon of cooperatives in one sense, but not in another. Marcuse doesn’t develop his musings regarding technological change to discuss the future of jobs, but it is obvious that cooperatives can’t exist without them. Marcuse does however recognize the significance of workers control:

Thus, whether or not co-ops within a capitalist society are the motor of societal change, they suggest an alternative to the capitalist mode of production—even though they retain the form of wage labor—simply by distributing the surplus value produced to the laborers themselves.

In other words, in a world, hopefully not too distant in the future, when jobs are separated from income through the implementation of universal basic income and a new era of economic democracy arrives, the necessary work that still needs to be done, and which will require fewer hours to accomplish, will be modeled on worker cooperatives.