The Role of Cooperatives in Anti-Work Theory

Nick’s Notes: This is one of those articles I’m writing at the request of a fan of the site! You can see previous efforts alongside similar lines here and here.

One of my favorite slogans from within the co-op movement.

This is another one of those blogs where I’m not going to bother with a fancy title. What you see is what you get on this one and so today I’ll be addressing the idea of cooperatives (worker cooperatives to be specific.) and what their place is in anti-work theory as well as practice.

Okay, so I’ve already gone past what the title says, sue me.

I’ve discussed cooperatives before, though they were much more based on a representative model that uses a managerial focus. This model is referred to as an “industrial” one and while it has many (relative) benefits over current capitalist patterns of ownership in firms, it doesn’t go far enough as I stated in the article.

My idea of worker cooperatives is the workers actually owning the means of production. The workers are the ones who make the decisions in the firm and they come to these decisions through consensus, not majoritarianism or representatives. That’s not to say that representatives or majoritarianism can never be used, but it should be frowned upon.

Namely because these forms of organization often rely on hierarchical relations that undermine equality of authority. I take equality of authority to be a much more important part of an economy and society than equality in things like wages or social positions. The sort of authority I’m talking about here is a moral authority, equality with the law, as opposed to having people being under and subjugated to it.

Similarly, people in worker cooperatives would be there voluntarily and also able to leave easily. They should be free to form their own autonomous affinity groups if the firm is big enough. The bigger the firm is the more likely that some representatives may be needed so the benefits of decentralized and bureaucracy need to be balanced carefully.

Anarchist communists, syndicalists and other similar anarchists think that representatives within worker cooperatives may not be at least as objectionable, as long as the representative from each affinity group is immediately responsive to their groups. There are dangers however in relying too much on the good-will of process and social capital over the fact that dominating personalities, people without disabilities and so on have certain advantages.

I am particularly indebted to the writing of William Gillis and his posts on organization and post-leftism and would recommend both to get a handle on possible problems for worker cooperatives. Even with those issues looming, I do think worker cooperatives as sleek, decentralized and autonomous firms are one of our best hopes towards reducing the amount of work in society within an economy.

Part of what makes worker cooperatives so attractive to me (and other anti-work theorists) is, I’d theorize:

  1. The work is shared: Worker cooperatives are more likely to help balance work and life by delegating who gets what job in a more just manner. That manner coming from everyone being on similar levels of knowledge and authority as each other and relating to each other directly and as equals, not as potential subordinates.
  2. Profit isn’t the main goal: Although I have nothing against profit, a worker cooperative is much more interested in fulfilling some element of social justice within its own community. And if we imagine a society where work has been abolished and the government has been abolished (alongside capitalism, naturally), we can see that there’d be a lot less of a need for dedicating firms narrowly to the idea of profit. This isn’t to say they couldn’t focus on that to some degree or have it as a concern, but it’d be less of an overriding one. Thus workers may have to less work hard, though one could argue the motivation of profit could be replaced with some sort of “communal benefit”, etc.
  3. It’s non-hierarchical: Often bosses have to justify their positions and to do so they give workers pointless or otherwise “busy” work. Much of this work would either be automated, eliminated altogether or shared much more equally if it turned out to be actually necessary for efficient production. In any case, there’d be a lot less of it and thus workers would need to work far fewer hours to reach their maximum potential.

As you can see, I have some mixed ideas about worker cooperatives. I definitely think they’re one of the best firms to advance for a freer and less work-filled world. But at the same time they definitely have their problems and potential for getting bogged down in bureaucracy, however more decentralized it may be.

There’s also the issues of actually causing more work for the workers, depending on how they feel about meetings. This is one of the bigger criticisms of anarchist communist and syndicalist organizations from post-left anarchists. The abundance of meetings relative to actual decisions being made could in fact be crippling if they’re too unbalanced.

This is also a critique I’ve seen Thaddeus Russell make about worker cooperatives. There’s definitely some truth to it, but I think the concern is (at this point in the discourse) slightly over-exaggerated. While there’s a risk for meetings taking up far too much time, I think this is part of exactly why free market anti-capitalism is important. Having markets be a proxy as the intermediary and not only relying on social capital, gifts, “artificial” economies, vouchers, etc. can be useful.

Generally, many of the problems I’ve discussed are less likely to come into play if we not only liberate people’s ability to access social capital but also material capital, instead of abolishing the latter. Leaving society to only (or even just majorly) rely on social capital is a recipe for possible disaster in an economy dependent on meetings.

When it comes to anti-work practice, turning modern capitalist institutions into worker cooperatives is always a welcomed change. Though it should be stated that it’s likely much more effective and powerful to create new communities and collectives of cooperatives instead of trying to breathe new life into the corporate dinosaurs.

I’m not sure where on the totem pole of strategic maneuvers creating a cooperative would be for anti-work theorists. Given their importance in a more anarchic society, I would say it’s certainly not low. I’ve thought myself about starting up a coffee shop and bookshop somewhere in NH called de Cleyre’s but it’s a lot of money and expertise, etc.

Another thing I’m unsure of is how much good worker cooperatives actually do. I know that they help build an alternative economy where people can support more equitable relationships. But if you’re using US dollars and reporting taxes and so forth, how much good are you doing? Then again, imposing such limits just to make “radical” change could make projects like this harder to do, more underground and thus even less influential.

To be honest, the best worker cooperatives I’ve seen our ones like Firestorm that provide a place for people to organize, eat, read together and support each other. Whether that means supporting their own community, marginalized communities in particular, or distant communities that are radical and need their support.

I think the world needs more Firestorm Cafes and I think the more of those sorts of institutions we can build in our communities, the better off as anarchists and radical thinkers we’ll be. We’ll have the space to breath a bit more freely and easily without worrying (at least as much) about contributing to the evils of government and capitalism.

That said, I’d love to see more integration within the cooperative community of alternative currencies such as Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies so they can give customers more options. In general, more opening up between the hacker world and the anti-authoritarian left (which isn’t a new idea by any means) is almost always welcome in my book.

In my time of looking into cooperatives I’ve discovered a few handy PDFs. Can’t say I recall what I’ve read and what I have not, but in the interest of helping those who may want to set one up, I recommend this guide in particular. That one was recommended to me by someone at Firestorm itself, if I remember correctly.

Overall, I have positive feelings about worker cooperatives, but I also have my critiques and concerns depending on how it’s operated and under what economic system. I think worker cooperatives would do worse in an anarchist communist society than individualist or mutualist society but it’d also likely do better in some ways than under a state-capitalist one.

Either way, I see cooperatives as a possible way forward for a world with no work.

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