Monday, February 23, 2009

Self-Management in Cuba? Part 3

Worker Coops

There is something missing from the statements of both Pedro Campos, the proponent of worker coops, and Jorge Martin of the IMT criticism of this option. Campos states that workers in these coops would not get wages but an equitable sharing of the profits. Martin points out that this would led to extreme inequality and competition.

What is the prime function of a cooperative or mutualist organization of any type? It's prime function is to create a product or perform a service – the production of use values, not to amass profits as with a capitalist company. A cooperative eliminates the exploiter, and what profits are made are certainly divided up among the members, but maximizing profit is not the real reason for the cooperatives. Take but one example – a coop store. People join to get good products at a lower price, and also because it keeps wealth circulating in the community rather than being sucked out of it like a capitalist corporation. They also belong because they like the idea of having a say in what the store does, which they would not have with a capitalist institution. Once a year they might receive a small cheque, their share of the store's profits, but this is hardly the reason for their membership.
Marketing coops like for dairy and grains exist to prevent cut-throat competition among farmers, smooth out the market vagaries, eliminate parasitic middlemen and of course, sell the farmer's harvest.

All the worker coops I am familiar with pay wages. The function of worker coops is two-fold; to create a product and to provide jobs for the members. Like with the other coops, the dividend at the end of the year is not its raison d'etre. (2) Sharing out the profits rather than paying wages is more like a capitalist business partnership than any worker coop I am familiar with.

Mutualists and cooperators were aware of the problems of competition and inequality a 150 years ago and found remedies for these problems. Rather than having worker coops ruthlessly competing with each other, driving members into bankruptcy or forcing workers to self-exploit, the coops can associate, just like the farmers in the example above. Indeed, the main function of the worker coop federation ought to be one of solidarity and mutual aid among members. (And from the examples I know, these are among their main functions)

Martin suggests that Campos' worker coops, could through competition and an emphasis on profit taking, evolve back into capitalist companies. Maybe so with the Campos version. But here in Canada we have coops that are more than 100 years old, and they still function as coops - in spite of having to endure an economic environment where the cooperative and non-profit sector is only about 5% of the economy. While it is true, they have adopted many capitalist aspects (1) the core cooperative values are still there - primacy of use values, democracy, localism, and federation. And by being democratic, rather than authoritarian institutions like capitalist companies, these conservative policies can be changed by a simple vote at the annual general meeting, were the members to chose to do so.

I would suggest that Campos consider the creation of worker coops as they have been done elsewhere – de-emphasizing profit-taking and competition, emphasizing solidarity, mutual aid and association - and this would go a good way to eliminate the potential problems that Martin foresees.

Martin, of course, prefers a planned economy, but not a bureaucratic top-down one, rather a democratic bottom-up version. But I would suggest that the existence of a genuine worker coop sector in the small-medium layer of the economy does not preclude planning and organization. (Existing cooperative federations already engage in both.) It is not an either-or situation. Planning and association are not ideals to be imposed no matter what, they are there to improve the economy and the situation of those who do the work in that economy. If planning and association improve the lot of the workers in the cooperative sector, those workers will eagerly embrace it.

1.A number of credit union branches have had strikes in the past decade. See also

2. What is a Worker Co-op?

Worker co-ops are cooperative enterprises that are owned and democratically controlled by the employees... The main purpose of a worker co-op is to provide employment for its members... Members combine their skills, interests and experiences to achieve mutual goals, such as creating jobs for themselves, providing a community service or increasing democracy in the workplace. Taken from;


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has been a great series, Larry, many thanks. And keep up the good work!

7:21 AM  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

A coop is only a form. It doesn't necessarily have to be progressive or reactionary.

There were reactionary soviets.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

A good point, Ren. And this only goes to show the need for association, for an ethos of solidarity and mutual aid, to prevent this form being filled by reactionary content. The ideological struggle just does not end because we have workers councils or cooperatives. For cooperatives to really function well and not be conservative they have to grow out of a struggle or movement to create them. Such was and is the case in Canada. If you were to hand them down from on high as a government program, the consciousness would not be there. Cuba cannot decide by fiat to create worker coops, it will have to also build a movement that wants them.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

Very interesting series Larry. I have been a member of a few co-ops, and they are far superior to capitalist enterprises. (When I lived in Fargo I used to get electricity from a coop. They'd round the bill up to the nearest dollar in order to provide assistance to those who couldn't afford it. Very cool.)

A quick somewhat related question though (and I should mention to those reading this I'm a member of the Workers International League which is affiliated with the IMT). what role would, or could, the government play? It is certainly true a government controlled by bureaucrats isolated from the working class could no doubt sell out their workers by enacting neoliberal reforms, but if the workers control the governing body one would think they'd be just as likely to resist privatization as they'd be if ownership of industry was spread out among co-ops.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Unless you have genuine power at the base of society - in the work places and neighborhoods - you will have an inevitable growth of bureaucracy and thus a split between the governing bodies and the people. It is this new ruling group which sees the possibility of establishing itself as a capitalist class through seizure of the nationalized wealth. The problem with Cuba is that such a bureaucracy already exists and coops or the alternative form of nationalization is one way of combating them. I also believe that the form of national ownership that I suggested in Part 2 would be much less likely to develop an independent bureaucracy and therefore suggest it even in the case of the ideal situation - the state apparatus dismantled and replaced by the workers and community councils.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Another thought on Graeme's question. So far, most revolutions have degenerated into Bonapartism, bureucratism, and Stalinism. Even those that haven't, have seen the working population lose power to a new elite. This is not to say future revolutions will follow these sorry paths since the trajectory of a revolution depends upon a number of internal and external factors that I need not go into. But, I don't think that you can ever emphasize enough the need to forestall and combat degeneration and counter-revolution. If revolution is essentially the empowerment of the working population, then counter-revolution is their dis-empowerment. Every possible obstacle to prevent this dis-empowerment must be erected. One of these obstacles is having the workers actually own the industries and not the government, though, as I have shown, the latter may have input into the process, but not title.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Graeme said...

Unless you have genuine power at the base of society - in the work places and neighborhoods - you will have an inevitable growth of bureaucracy and thus a split between the governing bodies and the people.

Thanks Larry. Absolutely. I agree 100%. But I think this split could happen, thousands of times over, with excessive decentralization.

I think there must be a venue for the workers to collectively defend, and continue, a revolution. This "workers' state/federation/government/whatever people want to call it" should have councils practicing direct democracy at the local level and elected leaders, who are recallable at any time, at a broader level.

Anyway, my point is, I think there must be a happy medium. Some centrality is necessary to fight off the obvious threats to revolution. Competition breeds growth and I'd be worried about decentralizing to the point of a "each co-op for itself" mentality taking hold (or even each industry). There will no doubt be every effort we can think of to stop the working class from achieving emancipation, and without proper leadership future comrades will be sitting around talking about how the Canadian or American revolution failed. I used to cringe at words like "leadership" and "power" but it all depends on who gives the leadership their mandate and who actually wields the power. If that makes any sense :)

10:32 PM  

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