Category Archives: Co-operatives

Capitalism is an Incubator for Pandemics: Socialism is the Solution

A new coronavirus called “SARS-CoV-2” — known colloquially by the name of the disease it causes called “coronavirus disease 2019” or “COVID-19” — is wreaking havoc around the world. In Italy, the death toll has risen to 366 today and the country just extended its quarantine measures nationwide. In China, production has shut down at factories across the country. According to the WHO, over 100,000 cases have been confirmed in over 100 countries and the death toll is now up to 3,809 as of this writing. The stock market in the U.S. fell by 7% today and  we may be headed towards another 2008-like recession.

Reports range from 200-400 (213 per WHO and 434 per NBC News) confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., but there are likely many many more that have not been detected, as health facilities still do not have a readily available rapid test for diagnosis. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) botched a first response, sending out faulty testing kits that required a recall. At this point in the U.S. the CDC is refusing to report how many have been tested, but we know the number tested in the US is extremely low largely due to the immense hurdles government officials have put in place. The FDA recently announced over 2 million tests should be shipped to labs by Monday with an additional 4 million by the end of the week. This could lead to a great increase in confirmed cases around the country. We are also seeing reproduction of racist, xenophobic tropes and attacks as fear of the epidemic grows.

The spread of the coronavirus is exposing all of the contradictions of capitalism. It shows why socialism is urgent.

Coronavirus in Capitalism

It is only going to get worse. The spread of the virus is impossible to stop — and this is due to social reasons more than biological ones. While doctors recommend that people stay home when they are feeling sick in order to reduce the possibility of spreading the virus, working-class people just can’t afford to stay home at the first sight of a cough.

Contrary to Donald Trump’s recent suggestions that many with COVID-19 should “even go to work,” the CDC recommends that those who are infected by the virus should be quarantined. This poses a problem under capitalism for members of the working class who cannot afford to simply take off work unannounced. New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio recently suggested avoiding crowded subway cars or working from home if possible, but many rely on public transit. Suggestions from government leaders show their disconnect from the working class. 58% Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings and around 40% of Americans could not afford an unexpected bill of $400. So for many, staying home or not using public transit is simply not an option.

Even more people avoid the doctor when we get sick. With or without insurance, a trip to the hospital means racking up massive medical bills. The Guardian reports that 25% of Americans say they or a family member have delayed medical treatment due to the costs of care. In May 2019, The American Cancer Society found that 56% of adults report having at least one medical financial hardship. Medical debt remains the number one cause of bankruptcy in the country. One third of all donations on the fundraising site GoFundMe go to covering healthcare costs. That is the healthcare system of the wealthiest country in the world: GoFundMe.

Clearly, this is a very dangerous scenario. Already, people are being saddled with massive bills if they seek tests for the coronavirus. The Miami Herald wrote a story about Osmel Martinez Azcue who went to the hospital for flu-like symptoms after a work trip to China. While luckily it was found that he had the flu, the hospital visit cost $3,270, according to a notice from his insurance company. Business Insider made a chart of the possible costs associated with going to the hospital for COVID-19:

Of course, these costs will be no problem for some. The three richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. The concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists is part of capitalism’s DNA. But as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkson highlight extensively in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, people in more equal societies are healthier. They live longer, have lower infant mortality, and have high self-ratings of health. Inequality leads to poorer overall health.

So how does this relate to COVID-19? The main theory for these outcomes is that inequality of wealth and power in a society leads to a state of chronic stress. This wreaks havoc on bodily systems such as the cardiovascular system and the immune system, leaving individuals more susceptible to health problems. This means as societies become more and more unequal, we will see individuals more and more susceptible to infection. Capitalism’s inequality puts us all at greater risk as COVID-19 spreads.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Socialism

COVID-19 highlights the need for socialism to face epidemics like these. And by socialism, we don’t mean Medicare for All or New Deal liberalism. Medicare for All is not enough to face pandemics like the coronavirus. We mean a society in which human needs govern production, not the drive for profit. It’s a society without capitalists, where production and reproduction is democratically planned by the working class and oppressed. In this kind of society, we would be able to respond to the COVID-19 infinitely better than in capitalism.

In a socialist society, both prevention and responses to outbreaks of illness would change drastically. Supplies such as hand soap, hand sanitizer, and surface sanitizing wipes or sprays are in extremely high demand at this time. We are already seeing shortages of key supplies around the world. The need for profit maximization under capitalism has led companies to drastically raise their prices in this time of high demand. For example, the Washington Post has reported drastic increases in prices of products such as Purell Hand Sanitizer. Under capitalism, scarcity leads to greater profit.

Capitalism has led to a globalized system of production containing industries at disparate ends of the globe that truly depend on each other to function. This allows for a capitalist’s exploitation of a worker in a factory in China producing iPhones that goes unnoticed by an Apple customer here in the U.S.. It also allows corporations to drive down costs in one area of the world that may have weaker protections for workers. While this is beneficial for capitalists, outbreaks of illnesses such as COVID-19 highlight clear weaknesses in this system. A large portion of the basic materials used to make new medicines come from China. Since industry is so affected by viral spread, production of supplies has been drastically cut. This delays the ability for a rapid response in other countries such as the U.S..

A central aspect of socialism is a democratically run planned economy: an economy in which all resources are allocated according to need, instead of ability to pay. Need is decided democratically by both producers and consumers. With the means of production under workers’ control, we would be able to quickly increase production of these products in an emergency.

Furthermore, with the elimination of the barriers between intellectual and manual labor, increasing numbers of workers would be familiarized with the entire production process and ready to jump in where needed. In worker cooperatives within capitalism like MadyGraf in Argentina and Mondragon in Spain, workers already learn all aspects of production. This allows workers to shift to areas where extra effort is needed.

Socialism cannot exist in only one country, so a global planned economy would be key in these moments. If one country is experiencing a shortage, others would have to make up for it. This is key for reigning in global epidemics like the coronavirus: it will only be stopped if we stop it everywhere. In a global planned economy, this would be a much easier task.

Staying Home

If one does get sick, making a decision to protect oneself and others by taking time off should never lead them to have to worry about losing their job, paying their rent, putting food on the table, or being able to provide for their children. Under capitalism services such as housing and healthcare are reduced to commodities. This often presents people with the ultimatum: work while sick and potentially expose others, or stay home and risk losing your job.

Under socialism, the increased mechanization of production and the elimination of unnecessary jobs — goodbye advertising industry! goodbye health insurance industry! — would already drastically reduce the number of hours that we would need to work. We would be spending vast hours of the day making art or hanging out with friends and family.

During disease outbreaks, we would be able to stay home at the first sign of a cold, in addition to getting tested right away. In a planned economy, we could allocate resources where they are most needed, and take into account a decrease in the workforce due to illness.

Where are the Coronavirus Therapies

Currently, multiple for-profit companies are attempting to test (sometimes new, sometimes previously rejected and now recycled) therapies to see if they can treat or prevent COVID-19. While there are attempts to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, this vaccine would not be ready for testing in human trials for a few months according to Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Yet even last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar refused to guarantee a newly developed coronavirus vaccine would be affordable to all stating, “we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest.” The statement is ironic to say the least coming from the former top lobbyist to Eli Lilly who served at a time when the company’s drug prices went up significantly.

Companies such as Gilead Sciences, Moderna Therapeutics, and GlaxoSmithKline all have various therapies in development. Each company’s interest in maximizing profits around their particular COVID-19 therapy has kept them from being able to pool their resources and data to develop therapies in the most expeditious manner possible. The state of COVID-19 research exposes the lies about capitalism “stimulating innovation.”

It is also important to note that much of the drug development deemed “corporate innovation” could not have been possible without taxpayer-funded government research. Bills such as the Bayh-Dole Act allow for corporations to purchase patents on molecules or substances that have been developed at publicly funded institutions such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), then jack up the prices to maximize profits. A study conducted by the Center for Integration of Science and Industry (CISI) analyzed the relationship between government funded research and every new drug approved by the FDA between 2010 and 2016. Researchers found “each of the 210 medicines approved for market came out of research supported by the NIH.”

Expropriation of the capitalists would mean the public would no longer have to subsidize private corporate profits. The nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry would allow for both intellectual and financial resources to be pooled to tackle the globe’s challenges, instead of focusing on blockbuster drugs that benefit only a few. In the case of COVID-19, we would see a mass mobilization and coordination of the world’s greatest minds to pool resources and more quickly develop effective therapies. In fact, there would likely be more doctors and scientists as people who want to study these fields are no longer confronted with insurmountable debt.

Health Care in Socialism

Under socialism, the entire healthcare industry would be run democratically by doctors, nurses, employees, and patients. This would be drastically different from the current system in which wealthy capitalists make the major decisions in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturing firms, and insurance companies (the key players that make up the “medical industrial complex”). In the case of the COVID-19, health care would be a human right, and not a means to make money. This would allow for every individual concerned to obtain testing and treatment without fear of economic ruin. If hospitalization or quarantine was needed, a patient and family would be able to focus on what was best for their health instead of worrying whether a hospital bill would destroy them economically.

The purview of what is considered “health care” would also need to expand. An individual’s overall living situation and social environment would be key to addressing their health. This would mean a health system under socialism would address issues such as pending climate collapse. While a connection between COVID-19 and climate change has yet to be established, rising global temperatures — largely driven by 100 largest corporations and the military-industrial complex — will increase the emergence of new disease agents in the future. Shorter winters, changes in water cycles, and migration of wildlife closer to humans all increase the risk of new disease exposure.

Capitalism created the conditions of the epidemic. Capitalist “solutions” are insufficient and exacerbate the crisis, meaning more sickness and more death. Capitalism has been an incubator for the continual spread of the coronavirus. Health care under this system will always be woefully inadequate in addressing epidemics. The coronavirus highlights the fact that we must move to a more social analysis of health and well-being. We are all connected to each other, to nature, and to the environment around us. Socialism will restructure society based on those relationships.

At the same time, socialism is not a utopia. There will likely be epidemics or pandemics in socialism as well. However, a socialist society — one in which all production is organized in a planned economy under workers’ control — would best be able to allocate resources and put the creative and scientific energy of people to the task.

Fake News, False Democracy and Phony Economics

The growing popularity of an American social democratic presidential candidate who calls himself a democratic socialist has revived every anti-humanity distortion of the past, emanating from the tiny minority ruling our country through its servant class of professionals in media and politics. Newer and more bloody mythologies about supposedly existing socialisms are expanding on the incredible death tolls supposedly inflicted by previous attempts at achieving the common good by confiscating the wealth of royalty and the rich in nations where free markets were supposedly destroyed by savages who felt that one thousand people and one thousand loaves of bread meant they should be distributed one to a person. That was instead of being owned by a capitalist and sold only to those who could amass the market forces to buy bread by creating private profit for the investor-rulers who owned the bakery.

Every attempt at creating a socialist let alone communist society has incurred the bloody violent wrath of the capitalist world, beginning with the Paris Commune of the 19th century, extending to the Soviet Union and China in the twentieth, and continuing to the present when truly electoral democratic attempts at revolutionary transformation in places like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia are met with external warfare in the form of sanctions and foreign financing of internal opposition reducing populations having finally achieved balanced diets for the first time in their lives to not only scrounging for survival but living under threat of military invasion for doing so.

While this minority created imperial policy that views the world as subject renter and American wealth as royal owner will soon be replaced by real democracy if it doesn’t destroy everything in its process of failing, attempts at creating what is called a “sharing” economy are made by well meaning souls trying to take the merchant relationship away by replacing it with person to person deals, as in the ancient markets which offered humanity a place to bargain as equals. But making a deal with someone at a flea market or neighborhood swap doesn’t really amount to a social change, just as a private non-profit hardly transforms market forces. The non-profit results from massive tax write-offs for the rich making donations that insure their system remains strong, and the innocent personal bartering that takes place among well meaning people is no comparison to a truly collective worker owned democratically controlled enterprise. We might as well claim that McDonalds is “sharing” its burgers and fries with us, as Tesla is “sharing” its autos, General Dynamics “shares” its weapons, and documented pharma and undocumented dope dealers “share” their drugs. The market still rules and it remains under the ownership and control of minority wealth, with the number of dollars they command at a peak never before seen in the history of humanity. The Roman Empire’s wealth amounted to chump change compared to the trillions of dollars owned and controlled by a tiny handful of global, mostly American billionaires.

A philosopher teaching the social values of the capitalist market and calling them democratic is like a pimp teaching social values of the sex market and calling it love, or an economist doing a cost-benefit analysis of dating that skips the expense of dinner and a movie and gets right to the rape. Under the control of such market forces, unless you are the philosopher, the economist or the rapist, ultimately you get screwed. Unfortunately, it is most of the world that has been criminally abused, but rising populations of workers are demanding and taking action for radical change to transform reality before it transforms all of us into lonely souls screeching and tweeting “me-me” while all collapses around “us”.

A real sharing economy will be cooperative, not competitive, involving majority social behavior, not individually imposed anti-social-ism promoted as beneficial for all when it only rewards some at the expense of the many. And too much that passes for “progressive” politics is like the “progressive” tax system which takes far more from the vast majority while rewarding the ruling class of fantastic wealth all manner of deductions, write-offs and constitutionally sanctioned criminality that makes them richer and the rest poorer. That is regressive, not progressive, using words that have nothing to do with the actions, which speak much louder. We need radical economic changes like a 20-hour workweek at a $20 an hour minimum wage, free public transit, worker owned and controlled businesses, public banks, health care for all, and far more. At cries of “how can we afford that? made by the innocent and ignorant under the control of their slick manipulators, try this: Stop spending trillions on war and instead spend it on life. Duh? But, all those jobs will vanish. How will those workers survive? With better jobs that serve humanity – their “identity group” – the environment, and their personal and social lives. Double duh?

We can defend our nation, if such is needed, with a truly defense force that does not involve spending hundreds of billions to place our military in foreign locales. We can save lots of transportation dollars by staying the hell out of other people’s national, political and economic business unless trading with them on a fair, non-superior market forces arrangement but one that treats everyone as having the same rights of pursuit of life and liberty, but in reality instead of just rhetorically.

If we truly mean to aid foreign people in a time of need, we can do it the way Cuba does by sending doctors, nurses and medical equipment at a time of plague or disease, and not the way we’ve always done it by sending bombs, guns and bullets to help prevent looting. And to the really ignorant bordering on stupid charges that we can’t afford to offer our entire population health care under public control because taxes will have to increase: For the rich? Of course. But even if working people see a tax increase of $500, and a health care expense decrease of $1,000, unless their education has exclusively been at private schools, they can see that represents a savings of money, not a loss.

Attempts to transform economic reality have always been, at their core, to establish a class free society of truly equal citizens, with no survival aspect of life denied anyone because it is not affordable. The shame of people living in the street in a society that spends trillions on war and billions on pets should relieve us of any fear of a judgmental, righteous, vindictive Old Testament god. We’d have been wiped out by such a deity, with holocausts, earthquakes, tsunamis and worse until he-she-it was finally rid of us. But our problem is not a deity, nor even the corona virus, which may be a threat to some of us, but  the capitalist virus is a threat to all humanity.

The Sanders campaign is the American equivalent of the growing global demand that ends the hypocrisy of calling minority electoral rule of the rich by the name democracy and using media and political hired help to plant that idiotic notion more deeply into public consciousness.  It wont work anymore. Real democracy means choosing the greater good, not the lesser evil which is the usual choice for the minority that has voted in the past. Hopefully, a majority will show up at the polls and vote for humanity in the majority, contradicting the minority shapers of what passes for conscious reality and beginning the transformation of the nation, in accordance with what is going on all over the world, from a selfish, anti-social and anti-human environment, to one of mutual aid, social justice, peace, and for the first time in human history, rule of the majority. The beginning of that pro-social democracy is dependent on the end of anti-social capitalism.

Righteous Capitalism vs. Cooperative Values

Employee Stock Option Plans

Beer enthusiasts are bemoaning the sale of the fourth largest US craft brewery, New Belgium Brewery, based in Ft. Collins, Colorado, to Japanese conglomerate Kirin. They fear that the quality of the beer may suffer. Others have decried association with Kirin because of its poor business practices. Kirin, Amnesty International maintains, authorized its Myanmar subsidiary to make donations to Myanmar’s military at a time when those very forces were carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State. Amnesty International produced a video clip of a televised ceremony showing the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces gratefully receiving the funds as proof of its charge.

The sale, however, raises significant issues related to the way New Belgium has been promoted as a pioneer company practicing a brand of “ethical” capitalism. Decades ago it established an Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP) that provided for employees to acquire shares in the company. The company modeled itself as a socially responsible business and led many other craft breweries to adopt a similar plan or a more radical option of cooperative incorporation.

ESOPs were initiated by Washington in the mid-1970s to provide a way for ownership in a company to be shared with employees. The system was established as a retirement plan with trustees overseeing the plan to assure fiduciary standards. The trustees are the final authority on company practices. Each plan, however, could be customized to permit limited ownership rights exclusively to the corporate officers and managers, or extensive ones. New Belgium’s plan was the most permissive in terms of ownership rights and therefore a minority plan amongst ESOP companies in that it provided for all vested employees to accrue stock. New Belgium publicized themselves on all their beer labels as 100% employee-owned. At the time of the sale though this meant that only 300 of the 700 employees actually had stock in the company. Newer employees had not reached their vesting period or opted out of the program.

Most ESOP companies that allow employee ownership beyond the usual limited plans publicize themselves as 100% employee owned. It is a known marketing advantage within several retail sectors, just as being local serves this purpose. New Belgium promoted their ethical credentials by signalling that they shared profits with the employees.

New Belgium went a step further, beyond the standard ESOP company, by actively seeking employee participation in management. ESOPs don’t require any employee input since the plan only serves as a retirement fund, though many companies promote “ownership” to increase company loyalty (and productivity) and offer some modicum of participation. With its practice of open book management, which allowed employees to see the earnings sheets at company-wide meetings and have a voice about future plans, New Belgium became a prime example of progressive business practices. A popular documentary called We, the Owners featured the company’s liberal approach to management.

There has been a decline in ESOP companies over the last few decades from a high of 11,000 at the end of the 20th century to 6,600 as the most recent tally. However, the number of employees covered remains constant at more than 14 million. For years New Belgium starred as both a successful business and one that practiced the most righteous management. It was exemplary of a business that did good and profited doing so.

Worker Cooperatives

The explosive growth of craft breweries over the past few decades saw this sector account for a large number of worker cooperatives. Unlike ESOPs, worker cooperative membership consists of one share, a voting share, that doesn’t increase in value over the years. Some cooperatives place a fixed value on the share for new members, which can be returned upon leaving. Compensation for membership over years is determined by various means within cooperatives beyond a wage. A yearly sharing of revenues beyond expenses can be simply paid out or converted into a pension plan of some sort. Each cooperative determines the best allocation of funds without the individual shares increasing in value so that new members can afford to join the cooperative.

The new worker cooperatives, seeing how the much more visible ESOP companies were touting employee ownership, began to use the term worker ownership to help clarify for the public their organization. Unfortunately, the use of “ownership” only confused the situation. Neither the ESOPs nor the worker cooperatives used the term as most people did. Ownership implies some degree of control and liquidity; that is, it is generally understood that the owner of an enterprise controlled the enterprise and could sell it whenever a buyer appeared. The individual “owner” of ESOP stock or a co-op share could not do that.

Compounding this confusion, ESOPs that were 100% employee owned got mistaken for worker cooperatives by the public. And to make matters worse, economic developers began offering both organizational structures to company owners seeking a non-traditional management option, like selling their company to the employees. The usual practice by development agencies seeking to expand economic ownership as a way to promote local economic sustainability was to suggest worker cooperatives to small enterprises and start-ups and for larger companies, ESOPs. The cost of creating an ESOP and its annual expenses to maintain it is prohibited for small outfits, whereas forming a cooperative is cheap in comparison.

While there was some tension between these two major economic alternatives, they pretty much tolerate each other in practice. Certainly, the ESOPs helped to pave the way for the legitimization of worker cooperatives that in the popular mind carried the baggage as non-serious hippy ventures.

The Repercussions of New Belgium Sale

To the casual observer New Belgium’s progressive management style resembled that of a worker cooperative. In fact, recently it seemed the New Belgium was moving closer to a cooperative vision when it adopted B Corporation certification. This is a voluntary process companies undertake to verify their social and environmental performance. Worker cooperatives already have a set of international, socially responsible principles that they abide by that reinforces their democratic management ethic.

The recent sale prompted responses from both ESOP and worker cooperative communities. Promoters of ESOPs were saddened at the loss of a “star” company, but they endorsed the prospect of future growth the sale promised. Management, that is the directors not the employees, laid out the reality of the situation. New Belgium they said had reached a plateau and could not expand further without both an influx of funds and a vast distribution network. Kirin offered both. Kirin also said that they would not disrupt the “culture” of the New Belgium management style. This latter is problematic since all 300 employees who had shares had to sell them to complete the deal. Those holding shares received approximately $100,000 from the buyout. The majority (the actual vote count has not been released) of the company went for the cash out.

This ESOP buyout was not unusual. Periodically, for one reason or another, an ESOP company decides a buyout is the best economic decision, especially if it is in decline. In fact, some proponents of ESOPs thought this was a great outcome. So long as no one is laid off, they said a $100,000 windfall could mean a new home, a college education for the kids, or a sizable retirement contribution.

For the cooperative community the buyout came more as a disappointment. It seemed to many cooperators that the sale was a repudiation of values that they hold dear. Since the beginning of the new phase of cooperative development in the 80s a few cooperatives were sold to capitalist firms—they were de-mutualized. But it is pretty rare. The fear some cooperators expressed with New Belgium sale is that the same temptation to seek funds for growth exists for the poorly financed cooperative sector.

The New Belgium sale, however, has one good consequence—it has clarified the essential difference between ESOP 100% employee-owned companies and worker cooperatives. ESOPs are capitalist enterprises where individual values dominate, while worker cooperatives are collective ventures struggling to maintain their values in a hostile environment. This may seem an obvious distinction, but the past practices of cooperatives have ignored the implications of this distinction. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised since the dominant cultural expectations reinforce individualism and simply disregard any activity in the realm of economics outside those expectations. Cooperative activity within traditional business practice is, at best, subsumed as team-work—it serves the interest of generating better individual solutions.

The fatal error of cooperatives decades ago was to emphasize ownership in imitation of the ESOPs. Almost from the inception of cooperatives as collective economic projects in the early 19th century, they were characterized as urban commons, duplicating in those new settings the centuries old practice of rural lands held in common by an exclusive group, like the families of a village or parish. So, the operative term for participants in cooperatives isn’t owner, but member. Retail co-ops serve consumer-members, housing co-ops have members whereas condos have owners, and worker-members manage worker cooperatives.

Cooperative membership provides an egalitarian teaching opportunity. To effectively participate in the daily work of a cooperative presupposes deconditioning the social indoctrination of hierarchical presumptions. Worker cooperatives in a sense practice a subversive use of the language: the individual in a collective is not empowered by competing against the group, but by collaboration with the group. Members of cooperatives learn how to function in a real democracy.

There are probably fewer than 500 worker cooperatives in the country, but each is a crucible of everyday democratic practice. They are unique in this way. And their uniqueness imposes upon them a special mission that is captured in the slogan “Democracy in the Workplace and Responsibility in the Community.” Cooperatives are by definition local, sustainable, and visionary. These three aspects put cooperatives on the other side of the pro-growth mania that plagues businesses like New Belgium, which succumbed to the “grow or die” mantra.

Given the reality of the climate emergency, local and democratic institutions will necessarily lead the way to a saner economy. Those of us in California who continue to suffer under the mismanagement of Pacific Gas and Electric know too well that the only alternative to the massive monopolistic overreach of this corporation is to decentralize it into cooperatives—a local and democratic alternative. Worker cooperatives, in political alliance with other cooperative institutions and grassroots initiatives of all sorts, can provide the model for a smaller economy rooted in serving the real needs of communities.

The Origins of Democratic Socialism: Robert Owen and Worker Cooperatives  

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – and its two predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM) – emerged in the early 1970s, during a long-term rightist movement in the United States.

The DSA’s contribution to the American Left was its new founded identity as a radical organization born out of a merger between the DSOC and NAM. DSA also sought to become a democratic, socialist party, which fostered the inclusion members, similar to that of the Bernie Sander’s presidential campaigns (2016, 2020). Nevertheless, it was under the leadership of DSA Michael Harrington’s penetrating critique of American culture in The Other America (1963), that catalyzed the nascent civil rights movement, its leaders and the Kennedy Administrations to prioritize combatting racism, poverty and inequality. This, in turn, set the stage for Martin Luther King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” and eventually King’s denunciation of American global hegemony. These events thus presaged the Johnson Administration’s Great Society War on Poverty.

The foundations of democratic socialism, and in root the DSA, have its origins in the eighteenth century during the breakdown of feudal Europe, specifically England, where the medieval guilds and the protection of workers’ rights was subsequently replaced as a “commodity” or as Marx describes as “commodity fetishism”. The emergence of capitalism during this period further reinforced the domination of capital over labor and the horror this unleashed on labor in the Industrial Revolution. Confronting this crisis were religious leaders Bishop Joseph Butler and Reverend John Wesley, philosophers and economic reformers, John Locke and Adam Smith, arguing that labor creates profit and value, not capital. Moreover, they argued that workers possess a property right to the profits and value they create. This implied that labor, rightfully, must direct the control of capital since this determines how and to whom surplus value will be distributed in a democratic manner.

Robert Owen and the Industrial Revolution

The origins of this position can be traced to such reformers as Robert Owen. I argue that Owen’s model represents the initial development of what today has become known as “democratic socialism.” The injustices and oppression of the Industrial Revolution provided the context for a democratic socialist economy movement. Led by Robert Owen (1771–1858) and the utopian socialists, private property, understood as the exclusive right of industrialists, was identified as the source of existing exploitation and inequality. While the Industrial Revolution brought about unprecedented wealth, it is without question that only capitalists received the lion’s share. Though labor created massive profits (surplus value) for the capitalist class, labor received a subsistence wage, barely enough to survive. Owen and the utopian socialists sought to counter this injustice by opting for labor’s democratic ownership of capital and the surplus value labor produced. Put in other terms, labor had a “property right” to the profits they created.

The Industrial Revolution that gathered momentum in eighteenth century Europe and the United States created the historical context for democratic socialism. Utopians argued that private property (capital) was the source of existing inequalities, but the framework of their thought, based on conceptions of a pre-industrial society, is today remote. The extensive development of factory production and the social conditions that ensued — and the laissez-faire interpretation of these events favored by conventional economists — created the conditions in which modern socialism was born. Nonetheless, the Industrial Revolution brought about unprecedented increases in productivity based on the development of factories and the widespread use of machinery.

The major cost of these innovations was borne by society’s least powerful — the working class — or, for all intents and purposes, the vast majority of poor. In 1750 the working class in Europe, specifically England and the United States, lived near subsistence levels, and the purchasing power of wages deteriorated considerably during the second half of the eighteenth century. National income grew over this period, so that workers’ relative living standards fell and the potential consumption they involuntarily sacrificed financed the investment required for industrialization. Had working-class incomes kept in step with national income, the average worker would have been approximately 50 percent richer in 1840 than thirty years earlier.

The Industrial Revolution replaced traditional occupations — typically rural farming or guild status as an artisan in various crafts. This change resulted from the breakdown of the old feudal societies of Europe and the industrialization of those same economies due to mechanistic innovations in the means of production. Mechanization facilitated the division of labor, creating tasks that women and children could perform. Entire families often worked to achieve subsistence. The conditions under which labor was performed were unregulated and dangerous and involved long hours in dehumanizing conditions. Moreover, the growth of factory production stimulated urbanization in Europe and the United States. As a result, roads, water, sewage, waste management, public health, and provisions for open spaces failed to keep pace with urban migration, while housing was concentrated in crowded slums. The inevitable result manifested itself in air and water pollution, epidemics of typhoid and cholera, and widespread respiratory and intestinal disease, with a consequent low expectation of life.

Successive administrations in England, specifically during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, were slow to intervene and remedy social problems and maintain the price of bread and impeded, or subverted, the development of trade unions. Within this context it can be asserted that the period of Napoleonic war and the subsequent economic crisis constituted the bleakest chapter in British labor history, precisely because the foundations of modern industry were erected on the suffering of workers denied access to the fruits of an expanding economy. By contrast, capitalists enjoyed absolute power over their labor force. Thus the Industrial Revolution created the modern working class, nominally free but able to live only by selling their labor power. Suffice it to say, Britain witnessed a considerable development of radical economic doctrines in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Radical Response

Owen’s prestige was based on his reputation as a businessman, an economic theorist, and a social reformer. From the age of ten he served as a draper’s apprentice, but at twenty he was the manager of a large cotton factory at New Lanark, which became renowned throughout Britain for its conditions of work. Owen was a benevolent autocrat who insisted on strict industrial discipline, but in combination with living wages, a decent work environment, abolition of child labor and compulsory education for workers’ children. The profitability of New Lanark demonstrated the shortsightedness of other capitalists’ notion that profit maximization is best achieved through the alienation and exploitation of labor. New Lanark provided a viable moral counterstrategy to neoliberal market rationality.

Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century industrialization rested on three sets of institutional principles: (1) the absolute nature of private property, (2) a self-regulating laissez-faire market economy, and (3) the transformation of labor into a commodity. While Owen accepted industrial innovations he did not agree with the unrestrained rule of private capital, self-regulating markets, and the exploitation of human labor. He argued these three economic “truths” were the ultimate causes of contemporary inequalities and social injustice and thus urged their elimination. Owen believed that an industrial economy, if it is to be moral, must be created based on the principles that every person must be treated with dignity and the proceeds of production were divided equitably. The operation of any economy was then to be criticized and evaluated according to such principles. Owen believed that a more just and efficient economy should be focused on his experimental model at New Lanark. Thus Owen’s political economy was based on three important “radical” tenants.

The first tenant is based on what Owen described as an “Economy of High Wages.” Owen held the view that a wage increase — or higher labor costs — leads to: (1) an improvement in the living standards of workers, (2) which then leads to greater efficiency and production by workers. In other words, increased wages generate additional revenue for both company and workers. Yet Owen’s theory conflicted with the prevailing orthodoxy, which argued that any wage increase occurred at the expense of profits and hence led to a diminution in employment and economic activity. Nevertheless, by extending the “Economy of High Wages” from an individual firm to the nation, Owen embraced an embryonic under-consumption theory of depressions. He advocated a high-wage policy that maintained purchasing power as a cure for unemployment and promotion of economic growth.

The second tenant on which Owen based his political economy was a belief that an individualistic economy is inequitable, irrational, and antisocial. Moreover private ownership is an institution whereby one class gains power over the rest in order to maximize profits. In contrast, Owen did not attack industry or new technology as it manifested itself in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Rather, he denounced private ownership of the means of production, the spread of unfettered and unregulated economic competition, and elements of narcissistic individualism propagated through Enlightenment liberalism. Owen argued to the contrary that private ownership and unrestrained competition destroys social cohesion. Furthermore, he argued that individuals by themselves cannot simply improve their own lot in life. Rather it was within the context of a community and its many support networks that the betterment of individuals was realized.

The third tenant is based on Owen’s labor theory of value premised upon the priority of labor. He viewed human labor as “the natural standard of value” and that this concept required capital and machinery to become the servant of labor. Owen believed that capital and profit are designed to serve the human person and community as its first moral priority. Public policy and not the “market” should determine the amount of labor expended on commodities, and workers ought to be compensated based on both human needs and effort. Owen argued for economic cooperation, rather than competition, through a network of self-governing communes, where private ownership of the means of production was transformed into a democratic alliance eliminating any labor-ownership conflict. Owen argued that capital and profit should never come at the expense of labor.

Owen as Social Reformer

Owen’s career as a national reformer can be understood in different stages. Between the publication of Towards a New View of Society in 1813 and A Report to the County of Lanark in 1821, he concentrated on ameliorating existing social problems such as poverty, child labor, inhumane work hours and unemployment. He thought that these social injustices could be avoided if other manufacturers replicated New Lanark on grounds of “enlightened self-interest.” Indeed, his arguments applied to capitalists more concerned with long-term profitability than with immediate gains, but he found that his appeals met with little response. He then attempted to persuade government to alleviate poverty and inequality and was popular in official circles after 1815, only by virtue of the fact that he focused on the importance of environmental improvements more than his personal brand of socialism. As he advanced beyond the role of wealthy philanthropist to structural reforms that threatened the establishment power centers, he became decreasingly influential in elite circles.

Between 1824-1835, Owen established what he described as “communist” communities. The cities of Orbiston (near Glasgow), Tytherley (in Hampshire) and New Harmony in Indiana were three of the most prominent. The aim was to settle unemployed laborers on the land in self-governed “Villages of Unity and Cooperation.” Such schemes reflected his conviction that society as then constituted would permit cooperatives to supplant existing institutional structures. Owen did this by attempting to persuade the rich and influential about his ideas for social and economic transformation. Nevertheless, the Owenite settlements were challenged partly because of the hostile external environment of the business community and the agricultural depression, which generated an influx of unemployed workers which exceeded capacity. Consequently, an excess supply of labor to the villages of cooperation proved counterproductive to the communist communities yet not insurmountable.

Owen persisted in his collectivist experimentations. In 1824 the London Co-operative Society was formed as a store for cooperative trading, designed to supersede competitive distribution and allow craftsmen to exchange goods without capitalist intermediaries. It aimed to sell at trade prices and use the savings accumulated through elimination of retailers’ profits to financially bolster socialist communities. The next envisaged stage of development involved members’ cooperation to produce directly for each other rather than choosing between capitalist goods sold in their stores. For example, the London Society opened an Exchange Bazaar for societies and individuals to engage in mutual exchange. Owen returned from the United States in 1829, after establishing more than three hundred cooperative societies, in the United States and England. This figure rose to almost five hundred by 1832, although many pursued solely educational objectives.

Cooperative stores bought wholesale and sold retail, the commodities demanded by their members, but cooperative producers faced the difficult problem of obtaining a market for all their products. This problem stimulated development of labor exchanges where workmen and producers’ cooperatives could exchange products directly and thus dispense with both employers and merchants. The most important such institution, the National Equitable Labor Exchange, was established by Owen in 1832 and stimulated the formation of similar exchanges in provincial cities. They sought to secure a wider market for cooperative groups and to enable them to exchange their products at an equitable valuation resting on labor time.

Owen appointed trade union “valuers” to price goods on the basis of the cost of raw materials plus the amount of labor time expended on them. A new currency of labor notes was issued for the conduct of transactions. Crucial weaknesses emerged, however. Labor and commercial prices coexisted; goods the exchanges offered more cheaply were soon disposed of, while the more expensive remained unsold. Exchanges would not control their stocks to demand levels and movements in the manner of capitalist retailers, since they had to take what members brought them. Consequently, they became overstocked where there were many cooperative producers and understocked in trades where there were few.

In particular, their supplies were concentrated on goods that could be produced by craftsmen possessing little capital. Despite this major weakness, they enjoyed considerable success for a time but collapsed in the general crash of the movement in 1834. Even then some exchanges balanced their books while the National Equitable Labor Exchange incurred a heavy debt, which then fell to Owen. When Owen returned to England in 1829, he found that a trade-union movement had emerged after the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824, and in 1829 he witnessed the formation of the first modern national union, the Operative Spinners.

While this was happening, the next two years saw much social unrest in the form of agricultural riots and a wave of strike activity in the northern textile towns as a means of achieving the eight-hour workday. Then, by 1832 several distinct but related bodies, such as the Owenite societies, cooperative stores, cooperative producers, labor exchange, and trade unions, looked to Owen for leadership. Most were growing rapidly as workers, disillusioned by the terms of the 1832 Reform Act, swung away from political mobilization toward organized labor action. Owen sought the fusion of these groups into one national organization, centrally directed and under worker control, which would challenge and transform economic relations through its practice of cooperative production.

By 1833 the Operative Builders’ Union (OBU) was the largest in the country, with a membership of sixty thousand. The OBU adopted an Owenite agenda to take over the construction industry and reorganize it as a national guild. To implement this program none of its members would work for capitalist builders who refused to join the guild. The owners attempted to destroy the OBU by a lockout by forcing those reemployed to sign a document (i.e., a written pledge not to join a union, which gives the employer the right to fire them if they violate the pledge). The workers lost as the OBU simultaneously fought the lockout and attempted to launch the guild with inadequate financial resources. Its members were then forced back to work by various regions during 1834, and by the end of that year the OBU ceased to exist. It split into craft sections with a greatly reduced membership.

Owen, nevertheless, sought to unite all the associations intended for the improvement of the working class. To this end he inspired the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) which was intended to be a single inclusive union aiming to supersede capitalism by a cooperative system based on workers’ control of production. It sought to implement on an economy-wide basis a plan similar to the OBU guild for construction. Ultimately the GNCTU would control, through its constituent members, all industry, thereby taking over the functions of capitalists, parliament, and local government. It would become the locus of economic, and ultimately political, power. The GNCTU’s formation was followed by feverish organization by discounting cooperative retail and producer societies; unions alone attracted over one million members.

As with the OBU, owners reacted to the GNCTU by presenting the document to workers, with the threat of a lockout if not signed. This response originated in Derby; it was imitated in other towns, but Derby remained the test struggle. The workers lost, being forced back to work after a lockout lasting four months. Given the repeal of the Combination Acts, the case was pursued under the 1797 Naval Mutinies Act, which was never intended to apply to trade unions. Nonetheless, this opportunity for the government to deter union organization arose because many unions adopted secret initiation ceremonies under the threat of employer retaliation. As a result, the GNCTU encountered severe administrative problems. The recruits it made and the disputes it faced were so abundant that urgent problems of management were inevitably ignored.

Internal dissention developed, and Owen became disillusioned; he hoped to initiate bloodless revolution by providing examples of the benefits derived from cooperation. Accordingly he dissolved the GNCTU in August 1834, arguing for a return to education and the need for an ethical appeal in preference to coercion. The GNCTU faded away, but some of its constituent groups and elements of its cooperative ideology remained. Owen returned to establishing villages of cooperation (e.g., Queenswood in 1839), and in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers’ Cooperative Society developed from a local Owenite body. However, after 1834 the thrust of working-class agitation moved from industrial to political arenas, focusing on the demands of the Chartists.

The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was undoubtedly a failure in its implementation, yet it was attempting an impossible task that no leadership could have achieved. This is because trade unions were still learning the art of organizing into a cohesive, effective unit. At the time, workers were only able to accomplish sporadic results from organizing into unions and cooperatives. However, they were unable to achieve any sustained action. By contrast, having just won a significant political victory in the 1832 Reform Act, factory owners and burgeoning industrialists were determined in their resolve to counter any form of organized-labor movement or cooperative-based industry. They also possessed the support of a Whig government determined to show that the Reform Act would not destroy property rights. Against such power, workers were poorly paid, uneducated, and only beginning to understand the importance to organized efforts to seek improved working conditions and living-wage salaries.

Although Owen’s innovations beyond the sphere of New Lanark failed during his lifetime, he left an enduring legacy to the future of radical theory. The influence of Owen’s would be: (1) he established a personal example of one who cast aside his personal wealth in an endeavor to secure a more just future for others, (2) the economic measures at New Lanark illustrated that a policy of high wages and improved conditions need not destroy profitability, (3) many of Owen’s theoretical innovations (e.g., labor value to replace money as an Equitable Labor Exchange) are not inherently impractical, (4) his theories of, and attempts to establish, workers’ cooperatives made Owen the instigator of a significant movement of later times, as developments from the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844 demonstrate, and (5) Owen’s appreciation of the role of trade unions in replacing individual worker motivations by collective policy provided a clue to improving quantitative and qualitative living standards and also pointed to a force that could potentially be harnessed for achieving a future transformation of just and productive economic relations.

Owen’s approach to resolving economic injustice epitomized the Utopian approach to resolving exploitation. He hoped for individual conversion, then government action. Yet this was an unrealistic ambition given the existing power structure at the time. What Owen lacked was a theory of class struggle, believing instead that the transition to socialism, or a more democratic economy, would occur through the influence of reason and persuasion. Nevertheless, the idea of reconciling capital and labor and Owen’s worker co-operatives, represents what is, arguably, the initial stages of democratic socialism in the tradition of Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America and the radical legacy of Bernie Sanders, Cornel West and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

• Author’s Note:  Marx, in Capital, discusses the expropriation of agricultural land from the poor who are dependent on that very land for their basic needs. The historical context of the enclosure movement was based on a policy measure initiated by the aristocracy and wealthy land owners in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. The movement was aimed at confiscating land that was owned in common by a village or at least available to the village for grazing animals and growing food. The enclosure movement was designed to expropriate village land and redistribute it to the aristocracy and wealthy for their ownership. In 1845 British Parliament passed the Enclosure Act of 1845, in which the British government started “enclosing” land (walls, fences, or hedges) and awarding this land to the aristocracy and wealthy land owners who, arguably, knew how to make more efficient use of it. The consequence for the people who were using this land was often eviction, sending many of them to slums in the cities in hopes of finding work in low-paying jobs such as factory work spawned by the Industrial Revolution. The most well-known enclosure movements were in the British Isles, but the practice had its roots in the Netherlands and caught on to some degree throughout Northern Europe and elsewhere as industrialization spread.

Workers Need More Rights and Economic Democracy

As someone who has been a union member since I was a Marine with the American Servicemen’s Union until I retired last year as a Teamster as well as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, I have lived the reality of mistreatment of workers in the United States.

It is good to see labor rising with teacher and other strikes increasing across the country and with the US public showing its highest support for unions in decades. The next president should harness the energy of working people and build political power for a transformation agenda for working people who have not gotten a real raise in decades, while executives and investors have been getting rich off of higher rates of exploitation with increased productivity and globalized markets and corporate-managed trade deals that enable global corporations to pit the working classes of different countries against each other in a race to the bottom.

Urgent Reforms Needed, Time to Transform the Workplace

The centerpiece of my campaign for president is an ecosocialist Green New Deal. Responding to the climate crisis is going to require changes to many sectors of the economy. We need to create a new democratic and ecological economy. We must define this economy with the rights of workers in mind, not only their right to collective bargaining but the need to make workers into owners to end the capitalist crisis highlighted by the reality that three people have wealth equal to 50 percent of the population.

We need social and cooperative ownership where workers receive the full value of their labor. Now we are exploited. We get a fixed wage and all the surplus value we create with our work is taken by capitalists as profits simply because they own the company, not because they did any work.

The Green New Deal requires the United States to reconstruct all economic sectors for ecological sustainability, from agriculture and manufacturing to housing and transportation. This means millions of new jobs in a democratized economy where some sectors are nationalized, others are controlled by state and municipal government and more are re-made into cooperatives that are worker-owned.

A Green New Deal must include a Just Transition, which means income to compensate all workers whose jobs are eliminated by steps taken to protect the environment. Displaced workers should be guaranteed up to five years of their previous income and benefits as they make the transition to alternative work.

As part of the Green New Deal, I am calling for an Economic Bill of Rights, which includes a job guarantee and a guaranteed minimum income above poverty for all. The housing crisis will be alleviated with the institution of universal rent control and expansion of public housing in walkable communities with access to regional mass transit. Air and water pollution will be relieved by putting in place a 100% electrified transportation system emphasizing freight rails, high-speed inter-city rails, and urban light-rail mass transit, with electric powered cars and trucks where they are still needed.

A crash program of federal government investment and public enterprises to rebuild our economy for zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% clean energy by 2030 will create full employment and shared prosperity. But not everyone is able to work. And some things should be human rights, not commodities you can only get if you have enough money. That’s why we need a social safety net of social services funded publicly, not privately out of pocket. That means a national health service for universal health care, lifelong free public education, student debt relief, and a secure retirement by doubling Social Security benefits. The ecosocialist Green New Deal is a plan to remake the economy so that it serves the people and protects the ecology and the climate. Those objectives require a socialist economic democracy so that we the people–not big business interests–have the power to choose economic justice and ecological sanity.

Immediate Reforms For Working People

In addition to changes coming as a result of putting in place an ecosocialist Green New Deal, we need are immediate labor law reforms.

Repeal Repressive Labor Laws: Repeal the sections of the Taft-Hartley Act, the Landrum-Griffin Act, the Hatch Act, and state “Right-To-Work” laws that have crippled labor’s ability to organize by outlawing or severely restricting labor’s basic organizing tools: strikes, boycotts, pickets, and political action. This should include putting in place Card Check which extends union bargaining status to majority sign-up or card-check recognition.

A Workers’ Bill of Rights: Enact a set of legally enforceable civil rights, independent of collective bargaining. This should include:

(1) Extending the Bill of Rights protections of free speech, association, and assembly into all workplaces.

(2) Establishes workers’ rights to living wages, portable pensions, information about chemicals used, report labor and environmental violations, refuse unsafe work, and participate in enterprise governance. OSHA must be funded adequately to protest workers and communities and workers empowered to enforce safety and health regulations. Retirement should include a mandatory system of Guaranteed Retirement Accounts that provide a return of at least 3 percent above inflation guaranteed by the federal government.

(3) Establishes workers’ rights to freedom from discharge at will, employer search and seizure in the workplace, sexual harassment, and unequal pay for work of comparable worth. These rights should ensure that workers can take legal action to stop wage theft. In addition to a living wage, workers should have subsidized, high quality child care and elder care. Workers should receive six weeks of paid vacation annually in addition to federal holidays. For every seven years worked, they should receive one year of paid educational leave and one year of parental leave for each child with no loss of seniority.

Employer Accountability: There must be strong and speedy penalties for employers who break labor laws. In addition, federal law needs to ban striker replacements, provide triple back pay for illegally locked-out workers, and there must be unemployment compensation for striking and locked-out workers.

Labor Law Protections for Farm workers: Extend to farm workers the same rights under labor law as other workers, including A Day of Rest, Overtime Pay, Collective Bargaining Protections, Disability Insurance, Unemployment Insurance, Child Labor Protections, and Occupational Safety and Health Standards.

Labor Law Protections for Prisoners: Enact legislation to end the super-exploitation of prison labor at pennies per hour, which undercuts the wages of workers outside the prison system. The prison labor system as it exists now is akin to slavery and the prison labor camps in other authoritarian countries. Work done by prisoners can be part of rehabilitation and enable prisoners to acquire job skills, support their families, and have savings upon release. Work done by prisoners for private contractors and for public works and services should be paid prevailing wages. Prison workers should have all the protections of labor law, including the right to organize unions.

Fair Trade: Trade deals should be rewritten to uplift labor and environmental standards across borders. Fair trade pacts should eliminate secretive trade tribunals to which only governments and corporations have access. Trade disputes should be adjudicated in public courts to which workers, unions, and public have access.

It is time to correct the decades of diminishing worker rights and shrinking unions as well as low-pay. The United States is about to begin a transformation to a clean, sustainable energy future. The new economy we create must prioritize the rights of workers to create an economy that works for the 99 percent, not just the 1 percent.

Linking Popular Movements And Unions Is A Winning Strategy For Workers

After years of declining power and stagnant wages, workers in the United States are awakening, striking and demanding more rights.  A Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows the number of striking workers is the highest since 1986. In 2018, 485,000 people went on strike, a number not exceeded since the 533,000 people in 1986, and 2019 will be even larger. Workers should be in revolt, as the Economic Policy Institute found workers have had stagnant wages for three and a half decades even though productivity is increasing.

This week we look at the origin of Labor Day, how workers are returning to those roots and the future for workers in the United States.

From the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Labor Returns To Its Roots: Strikes Escalate

This is the 125th anniversary of Labor Day, which was declared in 1894 after the nationwide Pullman railroad strike led by the American Railway Union under Eugene Debs when 260,000 workers in 27 states participated. Federal troops were used to stop the strike and 26 people were killed. Six days after the more than two-month-long strike ended, President Grover Cleveland pushed legislation through Congress creating Labor Day as a conciliatory gesture to the workers.

Near the end of the strike, on July 4, Debs described the strike as the beginning of a conflict where “90 percent of the people of the United States will be arrayed against the other 10 percent.” Six days later, Debs was arrested and, after his conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, he served six months in prison for violating an injunction against the strike. When released, Debs started the Socialist Party, which built worker power in elections, resulting in many changes to the laws.

The Pullman Strike was part of a growing labor movement that won reforms such as ending child labor, the 8-hour workday, the right to unionize and Depression-era New Deal laws, which included many laws demanded by workers, the Socialist Party and the Progressive Party.

Since the 1947 Taft-Harley Act, which restricted worker rights, unions have been in decline with reduced members and rights. The Janus decision, which some saw as a fatal attack on public-sector unions, might be the low point, perhaps the darkness before the dawn, for workers in the United States. Workers are realizing that democracy requires unions and now 64% of people say they approve of unions, a dramatic increase of 16 percent over a record-low figure registered in 2009.

Janus seems to have focused unions on the need to rethink their approach, and so far unions who have moved to an organizing culture have not been hurt by Janus. In recent years, there has been an awakening with a wave of strikes such as the teachers’ strikes in multiple states (California, ColoradoMichigan, New JerseyOregonPennsylvaniaTennessee, WashingtonWest Virginia, among others). There have also been recent strikes by healthcare and hotel workers in ten citiesgrad studentsfarmworkers and Stop and Shop, National Grid and Steelworkers, as well as the largest strike of manufacturing workers in the Trump era, McDonald’s, and even prisoners on stike in 17 states. WalMart workers threatened to strike and won increased wages.

Workers in the new gig economy also face challenges. When Uber and Lyft went public, it was bad news for drivers. While investors made billions of dollars, it created new “demands from investors for fare increases and further attacks on drivers, already grossly undercompensated.”  These drivers are contractors, not employees subject to minimum wage laws or the benefits of being an employee. The effective hourly wage of an Uber driver is less than what 90 percent of US workers earn. Drivers have begun to organize and strike to demand better wages and benefits.

It is time for a new era of worker rights, union organizing, higher wages, and worker ownership. Decades of mistreatment of workers are boomeranging and could make the next decade one of massive advancement by workers.

People participate in a workers’ rights protest. (Ben Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Transformation Requires More Than Wages

The vast majority of people in the United States are wage slaves as they depend on their job for survival and missing a short time without work puts people in serious financial difficulty. This is the time to transform the relationship of workers to their jobs.

The Congressional Budget Office found the wealth divide has reached new levels of disparity, finding the wealthiest top 10 percent of families with incomes of at least $942,000 now hold 76 percent of the total wealth and average $4 million in wealth. The remainder of the top half of the population took most of the rest, 23 percent, which left only 1 percent of wealth for the bottom 50 percent. That bottom half can barely pay their bills, has no money for emergencies, has no savings, can’t afford to send their children to college and is trapped with great insecurity and no upward mobility. In fact, the bottom 25 percent of people in the US are, on average, in debt $13,000 and the bottom 12 percent is $32,000 in debt.

One reason for the wealth divide is that since 1979 productivity has increased by 70 percent while hourly compensation has increased only by 12 percent. During this period, the top one percent’s wages grew 138 percent, while wages of the bottom 90 percent grew just 15 percent. If the wages of the bottom 90 percent had grown in parallel with the increase in productivity, then the bottom 90 percent’s wages would have grown by 32 percent, more than double the actual growth. Breaking this down further, middle-class wages have been stagnant with an hourly wage increase of only 6 percent since 1979, while low-wage workers’ wages have actually declined by 5 percent. Those with very high wages had a 41 percent increase.

Radical transformation is needed to correct decades of decline in worker’s rights and wages. This means reversing the era of privatization and creating economic democracy, such as worker ownership and workers sharing in the profits. As the calls to declare a climate emergency get louder, there is an opportunity to do both while we confront the reality of the climate crisis. Various proposals are being put forward for a Green New Deal. Transitioning to a clean energy economy requires changes in many economic sectors; e.g., construction, manufacturing, transit, agriculture, housing, finance, energy, and infrastructure. Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein list twelve reasons why a Green New Deal could be good for workers.

Responding to the climate crisis is going to require major public capital investments over the next two decades. With these public investments, the United States needs a democratically controlled economy. This means more public works, and the nationalizing of some sectors of the economy, especially the energy and transportation sectors.  It is an opportunity to put in place public ownership where workers have a share in ownership of businesses or complete ownership based on a worker-cooperative model.

Labor unions need to be involved in determining the details of the new Green-era economy. As Labor for Sustainability points out, many unions are already on board. It is important for workers involved in the fossil fuel economy to realize the new economy of the future will not include fossil fuels and they need to help create that new economy so they can be part of it and benefit from it. Green New Deal advocates are calling for a “Just Transition”, where workers are compensated and receive training as they transition to the new economy. One of the challenges of building the new economy is it will require millions of workers. There will be a worker shortage as all sectors of the economy will have to transition to sustainability and clean energy.

Join the People’s Mobilization to Stop the US War Machine and Save the Planet, September 20 to 23 in New York City. We will join the climate strike with messages that war = ecocide. We’ll march for Puerto Rico’s independence. We’ll talk about racism, militarism, and resistance. We’ll rally and march to demand the US be held accountable for its global gangsterism with Cornel West, Roger Waters, and the Embassy Protectors. And we’ll hold an evening of solidarity with representatives from countries impacted by US sanctions and intervention and music by David Rovics (you must register for this at bit.ly/RSVPapathtopeace). Learn more at PeoplesMobe.org. And sign the Global Appeal for Peace.

The shift to a democratized economy is already underway as more people are developing worker-owned businesses. The movement for worker ownership in the United States has been growing rapidly since before the 2008 financial crash. This movement is now reflecting itself in the electoral process. Polls show widespread support among people in the US for workers having ownership in corporations where they are employed.

Last week, Senator Sanders put forward a labor program that included giving workers a greater ownership stake in companies. Senator Warren made a similar proposal last year when she announced her exploratory campaign that included workers on boards of directors and receiving a share of the profits. Green candidate Howie Hawkins has a long history of support for economic democracy, giving workers more rights, a share in profits and ownership of corporations. Such “codetermination” policies are widely prevalent in Europe providing unions with a strong voice in corporate decision-making.

Commencement celebration, Bronx, NY

Wage-Slaves Must Revolt To Reverse The Era of Privatization

The attack on workers is a product of the privatization era that began under Reagan, accelerated under Clinton and continues today. Some of the teacher’s strikes have focused on charter schools, highlighting how privatization hurts workers. Privatization strengthens the financiers. The negative consequences of the privatization era are increasing support for socialism and economic democracy as well as specific policies such as national improved Medicare for all, municipal Internet networks, public utilities, and worked-controlled businesses.

There has been an increased call for general strikes by workers, climate activists, and immigrants. When the people of the United States become mobilized enough to organize a general strike, it will be a revolutionary moment in the development of the United States. People will realize they have the power to determine their own futures.

When we describe building power at Popular Resistance, we are describing the kind of people’s movement that is able to stop business as usual with a mass general walkout or other tactics. A wage-slave revolt is where the popular movement is going in the foreseeable future.

The escalation in worker organizing in the US, both inside and outside of unions, over the past half-dozen years is coming at a time when people are being radicalized in social movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter. Unions are connecting worker struggles to community concerns and as a result, when they strike, the community supports them.  The linking of the popular movement to growth in unions strengthens both workers and activists. People uniting across issues is building a popular movement that is demanding people and planet, not profit.

Labor Day is a time to reflect on the potential of workers building power. The people are on the path to build a powerful political movement against both corporate-controlled parties to fight for a government that represents the interests of workers and puts people and planet before profits.

Robert Owen, Worker Cooperatives, and Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – and its two predecessor organizations, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM) – had their origins in the early 1970s, at the beginning of a long-term rightward shift of United States and global politics. This shift to the right – from the 1980s of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – to the 2016 Donald Trump charade – overshadowed the central role these organizations played in the movements of resistance to corporate domination, as well as in today’s ongoing project: organizing an ideological and organizational socialist presence among trade union, community, feminist and people of color and other activists.

DSA made an ethical contribution to the broader American Left by being one of the few radical organizations born out of a merger rather than a split. DSA also helped popularize the vision of a democratic, ecumenical, multi-tendency socialist organization, an ethos that enabled it to incorporate many thousands of new members, mostly out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Nevertheless, it was under the leadership of DSA Michael Harrington and his groundbreaking The Other America (1963) that catalyzed the civil rights movement, its leaders and the Kennedy Administrations to prioritize not only issues of race but equal attention to domestic poverty and inequality. This set the stage for Martin Luther King’s “Poor People’s Campaign.”

The foundations of democratic socialism have its origins in the eighteenth century and the breakdown of feudal Europe, specifically England, where the medieval guilds and the protection of workers’ rights was subsequently replaced as a commodity. The emergence of capitalism during this period further reinforced the subordination of labor under the domain of capital and the nightmarish results of this priority in the Industrial Revolution. Confronting this crisis were religious leaders, philosophers, and economic reformers arguing that labor creates profit, not capital which is the hallmark of democratic socialism and today the DSA. The origins of this position can be traced to such reformers as Robert Owen. I argue that Owen’s model represents the initial development of what today has become known as “democratic socialism.”

Robert Owen and the Industrial Revolution

The negative externalities of the Industrial Revolution provided the context for a democratic socialist economy movement. Led by Robert Owen (1771–1858) and the utopian socialists, private property understood as the exclusive right of industrialists, was identified as the source of existing exploitation and inequality. While the Industrial Revolution brought about unprecedented wealth, only capitalists received the lion’s share. Though labor created massive profits (surplus value) for the capitalist class, labor received a subsistence wage. Owen and the utopian socialists sought to counter this injustice by opting for labor’s democratic ownership of capital and the surplus value they produced.

The Industrial Revolution that gathered momentum in eighteenth century Europe and the United States created the historical context for democratic socialism. Utopians argued that private property (capital) was the source of existing inequalities, but the framework of their thought, based on conceptions of a preindustrial society, is today remote. The extensive development of factory production and the social conditions that ensued – and the laissez-faire interpretation of these events favored by conventional economists – created the conditions in which modern socialism was born. Nonetheless, the Industrial Revolution brought about unprecedented increases in productivity based on the development of factories and the widespread use of machinery.

The major cost of these innovations was borne by society’s least powerful – the working class – or, for all intents and purposes, the vast majority of poor. In 1750 the working class in Europe, specifically England and the United States, lived near subsistence levels, and the purchasing power of wages deteriorated considerably during the second half of the eighteenth century. National income grew over this period, so that workers’ relative living standards fell and the potential consumption they involuntarily sacrificed financed the investment required for industrialization. Had working-class incomes kept in step with national income, the average worker would have been approximately 50 percent richer in 1840 than thirty years earlier.

The Industrial Revolution replaced traditional occupations – typically rural farming or guild status as an artisan in various crafts. This change resulted from the breakdown of the old feudal societies of Europe and the industrialization of those same economies due to mechanistic innovations in the means of production. Mechanization facilitated the division of labor, creating tasks that women and children could perform. Entire families often worked to achieve subsistence. The conditions under which labor was performed were unregulated and dangerous and involved long hours in dehumanizing conditions. Moreover, the growth of factory production stimulated urbanization in Europe and the United States. As a result, roads, water, sewage, waste management, public health, and provisions for open spaces failed to keep pace with urban migration, while housing was concentrated in crowded slums. The inevitable result manifested itself in air and water pollution, epidemics of typhoid and cholera, and widespread respiratory and intestinal disease, with a consequent low expectation of life.

Successive administrations in England, specifically during the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, were slow to intervene and remedy social problems and maintain the price of bread and impeded, or subverted, the development of trade unions. Within this context it can be asserted that the period of Napoleonic war and the subsequent economic crisis constituted the bleakest chapter in British labor history, precisely because the foundations of modern industry were erected on the suffering of workers denied access to the fruits of an expanding economy. By contrast, capitalists enjoyed absolute power over their labor force. Thus the Industrial Revolution created the modern working class, nominally free but able to live only by selling their labor power. Suffice it to say, Britain witnessed a considerable development of radical economic doctrines in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Radical Response

Owen’s prestige was based on his reputation as a businessman, an economic theorist, and a social reformer. From the age of ten he served as a draper’s apprentice, but at twenty he was the manager of a large cotton factory at New Lanark, which became renowned throughout Britain for its conditions of work. Owen was a benevolent autocrat who insisted on strict industrial discipline, but in combination with living wages, a decent work environment, abolition of child labor and compulsory education for workers’ children. The profitability of New Lanark demonstrated the shortsightedness of other capitalists’ notion that profit maximization is best achieved through the alienation and exploitation of labor. New Lanark provided a viable moral counterstrategy to neoliberal market rationality.

Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century industrialization rested on three sets of institutional principles: (1) the absolute nature of private property, (2) a self-regulating laissez-faire market economy, and (3) the transformation of labor into a commodity. While Owen accepted industrial innovations he did not agree with the unrestrained rule of private capital, self-regulating markets, and the exploitation of human labor. He argued these three economic “truths” were the ultimate causes of contemporary inequalities and social injustice and thus urged their elimination. Owen believed that an industrial economy, if it is to be moral, must be created based on the principles that every person must be treated with dignity and the proceeds of production were divided equitably. The operation of any economy was then to be criticized and evaluated according to such principles. Owen believed that a more just and efficient economy should be focused on his experimental model at New Lanark. Thus Owen’s political economy was based on three important “radical” tenants.

The first tenant is based on what Owen described as an “Economy of High Wages.” Owen held the view that a wage increase – or higher labor costs – leads to: (1) an improvement in the living standards of workers, (2) which then leads to greater efficiency and production by workers. In other words, increased wages generate additional revenue for both company and workers. Yet Owen’s theory conflicted with the prevailing orthodoxy, which argued that any wage increase occurred at the expense of profits and hence led to a diminution in employment and economic activity. Nevertheless, by extending the “Economy of High Wages” from an individual firm to the nation, Owen embraced an embryonic under-consumption theory of depressions. He advocated a high-wage policy that maintained purchasing power as a cure for unemployment and promotion of economic growth.

The second tenant on which Owen based his political economy was a belief that an individualistic economy is inequitable, irrational, and antisocial. Moreover private ownership is an institution whereby one class gains power over the rest in order to maximize profits. In contrast, Owen did not attack industry or new technology as it manifested itself in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Rather, he denounced private ownership of the means of production, the spread of unfettered and unregulated economic competition, and elements of narcissistic individualism propagated through Enlightenment liberalism. Owen argued to the contrary that private ownership and unrestrained competition destroys social cohesion. Furthermore, he argued that individuals by themselves cannot simply improve their own lot in life. Rather it was within the context of a community and its many support networks that the betterment of individuals was realized.

The third tenant is based on Owen’s labor theory of value premised upon the priority of labor. He viewed human labor as “the natural standard of value” and that this concept required capital and machinery to become the servant of labor. Owen believed that capital and profit are designed to serve the human person and community as its first moral priority. Public policy and not the “market” should determine the amount of labor expended on commodities, and workers ought to be compensated based on both human needs and effort. Owen argued for economic cooperation, rather than competition, through a network of self-governing communes, where private ownership of the means of production was transformed into a democratic alliance eliminating any labor-ownership conflict. Owen argued that capital and profit should never come at the expense of labor.

Owen as Social Reformer

Owen’s career as a national reformer can be understood in different stages. Between the publication of Towards a New View of Society in 1813 and A Report to the County of Lanark in 1821, he concentrated on ameliorating existing social problems such as poverty, child labor, inhumane work hours and unemployment. He thought that these social injustices could be avoided if other manufacturers replicated New Lanark on grounds of “enlightened self-interest.” Indeed, his arguments applied to capitalists more concerned with long-term profitability than with immediate gains, but he found that his appeals met with little response. He then attempted to persuade government to alleviate poverty and inequality and was popular in official circles after 1815, only by virtue of the fact that he focused on the importance of environmental improvements more than his personal brand of socialism. As he advanced beyond the role of wealthy philanthropist to structural reforms that threatened the establishment power centers, he became decreasingly influential in elite circles.

Between 1824-1835, Owen established what he described as “communist” communities. The cities of Orbiston (near Glasgow), Tytherley (in Hampshire) and New Harmony in Indiana were three of the most prominent. The aim was to settle unemployed laborers on the land in self-governed “Villages of Unity and Cooperation.” Such schemes reflected his conviction that society as then constituted would permit cooperatives to supplant existing institutional structures. Owen did this by attempting to persuade the rich and influential about his ideas for social and economic transformation. Nevertheless the Owenite settlements were challenged partly because of the hostile external environment of the business community and the agricultural depression, which generated an influx of unemployed workers which exceeded capacity. Consequently an excess supply of labor to the villages of cooperation proved counterproductive to the communist communities yet not insurmountable..

Owen persisted in his collectivist experimentations. In 1824 the London Co-operative Society was formed as a store for cooperative trading, designed to supersede competitive distribution and allow craftsmen to exchange goods without capitalist intermediaries. It aimed to sell at trade prices and use the savings accumulated through elimination of retailers’ profits to financially bolster socialist communities. The next envisaged stage of development involved members’ cooperation to produce directly for each other rather than choosing between capitalist goods sold in their stores. For example, the London Society opened an Exchange Bazaar for societies and individuals to engage in mutual exchange. Owen returned from the United States in 1829, after establishing more than three hundred cooperative societies, in the United States and England. This figure rose to almost five hundred by 1832, although many pursued solely educational objectives.

Cooperative stores bought wholesale and sold retail, the commodities demanded by their members, but cooperative producers faced the difficult problem of obtaining a market for all their products. This problem stimulated development of labor exchanges where workmen and producers’ cooperatives could exchange products directly and thus dispense with both employers and merchants. The most important such institution, the National Equitable Labor Exchange, was established by Owen in 1832 and stimulated the formation of similar exchanges in provincial cities. They sought to secure a wider market for cooperative groups and to enable them to exchange their products at an equitable valuation resting on labor time.

Owen appointed trade union “valuers” to price goods on the basis of the cost of raw materials plus the amount of labor time expended on them. A new currency of labor notes was issued for the conduct of transactions. Crucial weaknesses emerged, however. Labor and commercial prices coexisted; goods the exchanges offered more cheaply were soon disposed of, while the more expensive remained unsold. Exchanges would not control their stocks to demand levels and movements in the manner of capitalist retailers, since they had to take what members brought them. Consequently, they became overstocked where there were many cooperative producers and understocked in trades where there were few.

In particular their supplies were concentrated on goods that could be produced by craftsmen possessing little capital. Despite this major weakness, they enjoyed considerable success for a time but collapsed in the general crash of the movement in 1834. Even then some exchanges balanced their books while the National Equitable Labor Exchange incurred a heavy debt, which then fell to Owen. When Owen returned to England in 1829, he found that a trade-union movement had emerged after the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824, and in 1829 he witnessed the formation of the first modern national union, the Operative Spinners.

While this was happening, the next two years saw much social unrest in the form of agricultural riots and a wave of strike activity in the northern textile towns as a means of achieving the eight-hour workday. Then, by 1832 several distinct but related bodies, such as, the Owenite societies, cooperative stores, cooperative producers, labor exchange, and trade unions, looked to Owen for leadership. Most were growing rapidly as workers, disillusioned by the terms of the 1832 Reform Act, swung away from political mobilization toward organized labor action. Owen sought the fusion of these groups into one national organization, centrally directed and under worker control, which would challenge and transform economic relations through its practice of cooperative production.

By 1833 the Operative Builders’ Union was the largest in the country, with a membership of sixty thousand. The OBU adopted an Owenite agenda to take over the construction industry and reorganize it as a national guild. To implement this program none of its members would work for capitalist builders who refused to join the guild. The owners attempted to destroy the OBU by a lockout by forcing those reemployed to sign a document (i.e., a written pledge not to join a union, which gives the employer the right to fire them if they violate the pledge). The workers lost as the OBU simultaneously fought the lockout and attempted to launch the guild with inadequate financial resources. Its members were then forced back to work by various regions during 1834, and by the end of that year the OBU ceased to exist. It split into craft sections with a greatly reduced membership.

Owen, nevertheless, sought to unite all the associations intended for the improvement of the working class. To this end he inspired the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union—or GNCTU—which was intended to be a single inclusive union aiming to supersede capitalism by a cooperative system based on workers’ control of production. It sought to implement on an economy-wide basis a plan similar to the OBU guild for construction. Ultimately the GNCTU would control, through its constituent members, all industry, thereby taking over the functions of capitalists, parliament, and local government. It would become the locus of economic, and ultimately political, power. The GNCTU’s formation was followed by feverish organization by discounting cooperative retail and producer societies; unions alone attracted over one million members.

As with the OBU, owners reacted to the GNCTU by presenting the document to workers, with the threat of a lockout if not signed. This response originated in Derby; it was imitated in other towns, but Derby remained the test struggle. The workers lost, being forced back to work after a lockout lasting four months. Given the repeal of the Combination Acts, the case was pursued under the 1797 Naval Mutinies Act, which was never intended to apply to trade unions. Nonetheless, this opportunity for the government to deter union organization arose because many unions adopted secret initiation ceremonies under the threat of employer retaliation. As a result, the GNCTU encountered severe administrative problems. The recruits it made and the disputes it faced were so abundant that urgent problems of management were inevitably ignored.

Internal disention developed, and Owen became disillusioned; he hoped to initiate bloodless revolution by providing examples of the benefits derived from cooperation. Accordingly he dissolved the GNCTU in August 1834, arguing for a return to education and the need for an ethical appeal in preference to coercion. The GNCTU faded away, but some of its constituent groups and elements of its cooperative ideology remained. Owen returned to establishing villages of cooperation (e.g., Queenswood in 1839), and in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers’ Cooperative Society developed from a local Owenite body. However, after 1834 the thrust of working-class agitation moved from industrial to political arenas, focusing on the demands of the Chartists.

The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was undoubtedly a failure in its implementation, yet it was attempting an impossible task that no leadership could have achieved. This is because trade unions were still learning the art of organizing into a cohesive, effective unit. At the time, workers were only able to accomplish sporadic results from organizing into unions and cooperatives. However, they were unable to achieve any sustained action. By contrast, having just won a significant political victory in the 1832 Reform Act, factory owners and burgeoning industrialists were determined in their resolve to counter any form of organized-labor movement or cooperative-based industry. They also possessed the support of a Whig government determined to show that the Reform Act would not destroy property rights. Against such power, workers were poorly paid, uneducated, and only beginning to understand the importance to organized efforts to seek improved working conditions and living-wage salaries.

Although Owen’s innovations beyond the sphere of New Lanark failed during his lifetime, he left an enduring legacy to the future of radical theory. The influence of Owen’s would be: (1) he established a personal example of one who cast aside his personal wealth in an endeavor to secure a more just future for others, (2) the economic measures at New Lanark illustrated that a policy of high wages and improved conditions need not destroy profitability, (3) many of Owen’s theoretical innovations (e.g., labor value to replace money as an Equitable Labor Exchange) are not inherently impractical, (4) his theories of, and attempts to establish, workers’ cooperatives made Owen the instigator of a significant movement of later times, as developments from the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844 demonstrate, and (5) Owen’s appreciation of the role of trade unions in replacing individual worker motivations by collective policy provided a clue to improving quantitative and qualitative living standards and also pointed to a force that could potentially be harnessed for achieving a future transformation of just and productive economic relations.

Owen’s approach to resolving economic injustice epitomized the Utopian approach to resolving exploitation. He hoped for individual conversion, then government action. Yet this was an unrealistic ambition given the existing power structure at the time. What Owen lacked was a theory of class struggle, believing instead that the transition to socialism, or a more democratic economy, would occur through the influence of reason and persuasion. Nevertheless, Owen’s worker co-operatives represent what is, arguably, the initial stages of democratic socialism, to legacy of FDR, Michael Harrington, and the Democratic Socialists of America, urged the same Owenite plan for a more just economy and society,

Notes

Marx, in Capital, discusses the expropriation of agricultural land from the poor who are dependent on that very land for their basic needs. The historical context of the enclosure movement was based on a policy measure initiated by the aristocracy and wealthy land owners in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. The movement was aimed at confiscating land that was owned in common by a village or at least available to the village for grazing animals and growing food. The enclosure movement was designed to expropriate village land and redistribute it to the aristocracy and wealthy for their ownership. In 1845 British Parliament passed the Enclosure Act of 1845, in which the British government started “enclosing” land (walls, fences, or hedges) and awarding this land to the aristocracy and wealthy land owners who, arguably, knew how to make more efficient use of it. The consequence for the people who were using this land was often eviction, sending many of them to slums in the cities in hopes of finding work in low-paying jobs such as factory work spawned by the Industrial Revolution. The most well-known enclosure movements were in the British Isles, but the practice had its roots in the Netherlands and caught on to some degree throughout Northern Europe and elsewhere as industrialization spread.

The Fragility of the Colombian Peace Accords and the Reincorporation of Ex-insurgents of the FARC-EP

Mural in one of the FARC reincorporation zones (Photo by Viviana Rocha)

In this article we discuss the (non-) implementation of the Colombian peace accords, based on a conference given by Victoria Sandino, a leading FARC figure.1 We also examine an initiative, Ecomun, to build peace through the construction of alternative economies in the Colombian countryside.

*****

The peace agreement reached in 2016 between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP, now renamed the Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Common, keeping the acronym) offered an opportunity to turn the page on decades of conflict. It was also a recognition, by the Colombian government that the armed resistance was not a matter of “terrorism,” but rather rooted in the structural inequality of Colombia, and the countryside in particular.

But two years on we find the peace accords are at their most fragile point, due to what Victoria Sandino terms as a systematic non-implementation from the Colombian government, both under Juan Manuel Santos, who ended its term in August, and currently under the far-right presidency of Ivan Duque. Political violence and assassinations are rampant, and statistics, which are very quickly outdated, total over 340 social and political leaders murdered since the peace deal, including 84 FARC members. The specter of the Patriotic Union (UP) is never very far away.2

This political violence is a result of the unchecked activity of paramilitary groups, who continue to act as shock troops for Colombian economic interests, old and new, clearing the way for new investments and protecting the established ones. Organisations mobilising for labour, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, peasant, environmental rights are constantly attacked with impunity by paramilitaries. These now operate more through targeted killings, as opposed to armies that occupied territories, and frequently under the name “Aguilas Negras” (“Black Eagles”).

Beyond the constant human rights violations, under the complicity or direct responsibility of Colombian authorities, despite the guerrillas fulfilling their end of the bargain and putting aside their weapons, other aspects of the peace accords are also ignored. One of them concerns the political participation of the FARC. Their presidential candidate, Rodrigo Londoño “Timochenko”, had to call off his presidential campaign because a far-right mob, armed and deadly, kept popping up at every campaign event.

In addition, the Havana agreements contemplated economic measures which, for the very first time, showed a willingness from the Colombian government to address some of the issues that underlined the decades-long armed conflict. Chief among these was land reform. Colombia has historically had one of the most unequal land distributions in the continent, with the largest one percent of landholdings concentrating 81 percent of the land.

This issue was then compounded by a population of over 7 million internally displaced Colombians, mostly from rural areas, resulting in a peasant population that is by and large landless and finds it very hard to subsist. Needless to say, the Colombian government has not moved an inch in this economic reincorporation of ex-guerrillas and rural communities in general (more on this below).

“The government has not done anything. The cooperatives and productive projects in the reincorporation zones,3 many of them run by women, have been left to fend on their own,” added Sandino.

Victoria Sandino speaking in an event organized by Swiss party SolidaritéS (Photo by Ricardo Vaz)

One of the most blatant violations from the Colombian government is the case of Jesus Santrich, a high-level FARC commander and key negotiator in the peace process. Santrich was arrested in April. He staged a hunger strike for 41 days to protest against his detention, and the time and prison has taken a toll, Sandino explained. Santrich is blind, and no effort is made to take him outside nor to provide him with a tablet that would allow him to read or write.

Santrich was arrested on instructions from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), accused of conspiring to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States, and with attempts to extradite him being fought in court. This has been denounced both in Colombia and abroad as a clear violation of the peace accords, with no evidence being produced to place his charges outside the jurisdiction of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal set up as part of the agreements.

“The attack is not just against Santrich. The goal is to take out the entire leadership from the struggle, either through imprisonment or extradition,” Sandino summed up.

Santrich was one of the FARC leaders slated to take 10 assigned seats in the Colombian senate. This case has also severely tested the faith of sectors within the party on the peace accords, with leading figure Iván Márquez not taking his senate seat in protest. When asked if Santrich’s case put the accords in jeopardy, Sandino was clear in her reply:

“It does not place the accords in jeopardy, in the sense of our returning to the mountains. We are committed to peace. It is insecurity and the non-compliance from the Colombian government that put peace itself at risk,” Sandino concluded.

Peace coops: The example of Ecomun

Given the grim picture painted above, some ex-guerrillas have left the reincorporation zones to look for safety and means of subsistence elsewhere. They can hardly be blamed. But others remain hopeful and defiant. While it has become very hard for them to present their model for an alternative society in the political arena, they hope to show it on the economic front.

Ecomun (Economías Cooperativas del Común) is a cooperative looking to make strides in this aspect. With plenty of experience accumulated during the armed conflict and different expertises, they hope to act as a kind of umbrella cooperative that will undertake some projects as well as provide support to others, alongside efforts to document all these experiments. Given their insertion in the Colombian countryside, agricultural production is one of the main avenues being pursued.

Agriculture and animal rearing are some of the main activities that Ecomun wants to develop in the Colombian countryside (Photo by Viviana Rocha)

It is important to point out that the widespread coca growing in Colombia is nothing but an economic issue. Simply put, peasants could not subsist on any other crop. Crop substitution plans never went very far, with a general lack of infrastructure and free trade agreements not helping these “voluntary” efforts and the forced eradication via herbicide spraying being preferred.4

Ecomun stresses that crop substitution is the goal, but that forced eradication criminalization of coca producers is not the way to go about it. Several of their projects are aimed at building a solidarity economy through productive projects that can provide a livelihood for ex-combatants and peasants in zones that were marred by conflict. These span a variety of areas, from farming to fishery, as well as agritourism and culture.

However, several ingredients are needed to get these projects off the ground, and this is another area in which the Colombian government has not held its end of the bargain. The program to redistribute land to landless peasants is yet to start, and the new government is even less inclined to do so. Additionally, peasants and ex-insurgents have virtually no access to credit, with loans having demands they cannot fulfill, nor to any legal support in the process of creating cooperatives.

Where the government has not delivered, Ecomun is hoping that solidarity will step up and fill the void. They have launched a fundraising campaign with multiple goals. The idea is to create a Solidarity Revolving Fund (SRF) so that fledgling cooperatives can have access to affordable loans to jump through some of the initial hurdles, among them access to land.

The ex-guerrillas are not naive in thinking that cooperatives can just flourish amid a capitalist environment such as the one in Colombia. Their creativity and hard work, as well as the fact that profit is not the holy grail, are not enough to offset the structural factors of the Colombian economy. Rather, they hope to develop alternative economic networks that will create local economies that have a degree of self-sufficiency, as well as bring agroecological practices and environmental concerns to the forefront.

Peasant woman working in a textile cooperative (Photo by Viviana Rocha)

With hindsight anyone can judge the FARC’s decision to bet on a peace process, whether the lack of good faith from the Colombian government was to be expected or not, but this was their collective decision and time is not going back. The current battle is one for survival, and the FARC’s ability to showcase and enact their vision for an alternative society faces terrible hurdles. Add to that Colombia’s central role in the US empire’s projection of power in South America, and the conclusion is that the odds are clearly against them.

But at the same time, nobody expected this to be easy, certainly not the ex-guerrillas themselves. They hope to count on the international community to hold the Colombian government to account and, perhaps more importantly, they hope solidarity movements will play their role. Whether it is by denouncing human rights violations or by supporting cooperatives for economic reincorporation, small steps can help shorten those odds.

• First published in Monthly Review on Line

  1. Sandino’s quotes are from an event organised by Swiss party solidaritéS, and are reproduced with her permission. This event was part of a larger tour in Europe to denounce the human rights situation in Colombia and the violations of the peace deal.
  2. The Patriotic Union was a political party formed by the FARC in 1985 as part of a previous attempt at peace negotiations. The party fell was targeted by unspeakable violence, with 3000-5000 of its members killed within years.
  3. Reincorporation zones were geographical set for the reincorporation of ex-guerrillas into civilian life, with economic, social and political focus.
  4. It should be pointed out that there was a coca record crop in 2017, shattering the myth that Colombia’s rebel problem and narco problem were one and the same.

Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds

I’ve often wondered about the limits of activist’s reach and the lack of coherent, organized progressive social movements in the US. Does it come down to the precarious nature of our jobs, the stress, strain, and exhaustion caused by the realization of being a paycheck away from penury? Or is it all the fault of our monopolistic media, with the puppet strings controlled by their advertisers, the corporate giants and multinationals? Is it geographic distance from Europe where socialism advanced far broader and deeper into society? Could it be the anti-communist Red Scare that dominated the binary and delusional cold war mindset? Was it the very real threat and use of violence via COINTELPRO, and overseas with Operations Gladio, Condor, etc? Is it deeper psychological issues stemming from the trauma of having to grow up in a cold capitalist world which leads to false consciousness?

It would seem to be a mixture of all of the above. Yet millions of citizens still are able to see through the mendacities inherent in our empire, in our collective cultural death-wish, and many millions more would be able to if provided the education, tools, and resources to see through the lies of our global system of capital.

Activists and educators must reconsider their approaches in light of the repeated failures of international progressive organizations. In short, part of the failure lies with the leadership of non-profits, NGOs, community leaders, and the type of worldview they adhere to. For one, unstable vertical hierarchies are reproduced, with not enough feedback from concerned citizens and community-based, small-scale pressure groups. Also, technocrats and lawyers are relied far too heavily upon to perform band-aid, stopgap procedures in the social and environmental justice fields. Endless petitions and protests are planned which do not lead to fundamental change.

Organization in the majority of so-called progressive movements mimics the neoliberal order. Pedestals and soapboxes are lined up for the official learned classes, who are offered cushy positions to run vote campaigns, to lobby (beg) a corrupt Congress or Parliament to do the right thing. This is turn creates a new split between the middle-class non-profit lawyers, campaigners, and managers; and the working class constituencies, which only fuels social division and alienation.

These maladies contribute to the false consciousness of the mostly liberal, white, middle-class, urbane, college-educated non-profit and social justice managerial class, as well as progressive activists. All of the racist, sexist, and classist baggage is carried alongside these organizations, as we can see so clearly in the faux “progressive” areas like Silicon Valley.

Let us take this line of thought further. I believe the lack of rigor and effectiveness also shows up with so-called radical activists and intellectuals who believe they are sincerely committed to revolution. It works in a few ways: radicals take on the feelings of others in unhealthy ways, bottling up anger and sadness that legitimately occurs and is expressed in subaltern groups. Another point involves the expectation of success, the attachment to pet projects and the personal rage that spills out when failure occurs.

US progressive and radicals are, for the most part, not versed in modern scientific advancements, ecology, or Eastern traditions. There is no tolerance for balance, paradox, and contradiction. Most are stuck on treadmills and attached to their egos and personas. Then there is the problem of speed: trying to catch up with every travesty the establishment and corporations impose on us (playing defense), as if one could bail out a sinking Titanic with a bucket. There is the notion of taking on social justice burdens as a very Christian-like type of “work”, instead of blending work and play into a post-modern, post-coercive labor environment that could put humankind on a type of threshold, a liminal state, towards a saner society of free association and mutual aid which could end much unnecessary suffering.

Running in Circles

There is most likely an inverse relationship between how seriously one takes oneself and one’s wisdom. The most serious among us are almost undoubtedly the least wise. The vast majority of the endless running around from protests or events or conferences or speaking engagements are just a series of distractions.

There are appropriate times for all those things, to be sure. Yet it must be noted that the predominant mode of liberals, leftists, and progressives is predicated on constantly reacting to and diagnosing mainstream culture, rather than arriving at any original prescriptions for changing society.

Many people in the US of all political persuasions are quite aware of the near terminal nature of politics: and many are looking for a model that works. The diagnosis has been made countless times. People are ready for an alternative to our broken system.  Obviously, with no capital this is nearly impossible for poor and marginalized communities.  An international network of direct action, worker co-ops, and communal agriculture must begin as soon as possible to fight neoliberal economics and the looming challenges of climate change.

Brecht’s Stance

A few years ago, I stumbled across Bertolt Brecht’s Stories of Mr. Keuner. The first passage is entitled “What’s wise about the wise man is his stance.” Here is the full passage:

A philosophy professor came to see Mr. K and told him about his wisdom. After a while Mr. K said to him: ‘You sit uncomfortably, you talk uncomfortably, you think uncomfortably.’ The philosophy professor became angry and said: ‘I didn’t want to hear anything about myself but about the substance of what I was talking about.’ ‘It has no substance,’ said Mr. K. ‘I see you walking clumsily and, as far as I can see, you’re not getting anywhere. You talk obscurely, and you create no light with your talking. Seeing your stance, I’m not interested in what you’re getting at.’

Now we’re getting somewhere! As Sean Carney explains in Brecht and Critical Theory: Dialectics and Contemporary Aesthetics:

The most important thing to draw from Brecht’s play, then, is the attitude it displays, which Brecht also calls a kind of wisdom that is performed or staged for us. It seems important here to distinguish between the form of wisdom, and the content of wisdom. Brecht, for his part, is concerned only with the former, the posture of wisdom, wisdom as an action. The form of this wisdom is dialectical and historical.

There is no space to flesh out all the implications here. A few thoughts will have to suffice.

When Western activists scream, “Rise up!” they should be reminded: “Sit down.” Always consider the antithesis. Slowing down, sitting: calling for nationwide wildcat general strikes would do much greater good than marching around with placards along predetermined protest routes.

When others shout “Speak out,” we can remind them: be silent (just imagine kids in school refusing to speak the pledge of allegiance or taking a knee in high school sports in solidarity with Kaepernick). When protestors implore: “Wake up,” they can also be chided and reminded: “Keep dreaming!” (of a genuine revolution, not stopping the imagination at some milquetoast progressive reforms led by the DSA or other pseudo-leftists, which, while helpful, do not go nearly far enough). I am not advocating not speaking truth to power here, or any escapism, only that in certain cases we should ignore the constant dramas and tragedies engendered by the corporate ruling-class and focus on building parallel structures and intentional communities to bust an escape hatch from global tyranny.

Non-striving

It should be recognized that many so-called “radicals” mimic the striving, combative, and authoritarian nature of the neoliberal order. Raised in an ultra-competitive society, some proponents of revolution refuse the inner work necessary while clinging to whatever social capital or insignificant platform one can muster up.

We live in a culture of constant striving, clinging, petty jealousness and egomaniacal childishness. It is no wonder that it shows up on many outlets of progressive outlets as well as on social media, and in activist circles.

Instead, we should begin the work of instilling a radical patience. Not because we have a lot to time left to act (we assuredly don’t), but because attaching oneself to unobtainable goals in the very short term only has the effect of tiring out and disillusioning many sincere people. Western activists could learn something by practicing non-attachment.

Only by giving up hope can we become present in the moment. This has continually been best expressed among Buddhists. As Pema Chodron writes:

As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot. In a non-theistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put ‘Abandon Hope’ on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like ‘Everyday in everyway, I’m getting better and better.’ We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.

Thus, this brutally honest reflection (on our individual lives, but also on the fate of our civilization as we hurtle into the Anthropocene) leads to self-love, joy, and to vulnerability. This is a baseline for giving our collective culture what Rollo May called The Courage to Create. May contrasts happiness (in this sense a cessation of wants, a sense of security) with basic joy (quoted here):

Happiness is related to security, to being reassured, to doing things as one is used to and as our fathers did them. Joy is a revelation of what was unknown before. Happiness often ends up in a placidity on the edge of boredom. Happiness is success. But joy is stimulating, it is the discovery of new continents emerging within oneself…Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers.

One cannot understand joy without noting the sense of timelessness: the past, present, and future all converging into the present moment. Athletes, artists, scientists, and others call this “flow” or “being in the zone.” Time moves more slowly, certainly everyone has experienced this phenomenon at one point or another. Relativity has proven that this is possible, as well as studies in consciousness, meditation, and psychedelics.

Is any of this useful as a guide towards activism today? I will leave it to you to decide. Is it possible to “create light” when you speak, or be in tune with “higher harmonies?”

Time

Regarding time, we can turn to Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin, and his notion of the Jetztzeit. In order to break free from “homogenous, empty time,” which, notably, Francis Fukuyama unintentionally expressed so well as the ever-looming backdrop to the neoliberal era in The End of History, Benjamin writes that society must struggle towards “the messianic zero-hour of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for a suppressed past.”

That is to say, only by looking backwards in time can we assess the damages of the present age, even as the storm of progress pushes us further away from mending the wreckage, as Benjamin explains Klee’s Angelus Novus. Only in the zero-hour, the ever-present moment, can we blast open a historic event. This explains Benjamin’s concept of the monad, a “constellation overflowing with tensions.”

On the Horizon

Does any modern science conform to these ideas of reality as a constellation of energy and matter, something like Benjamin’s monad, influenced by Leibniz, overflowing with possibilities, tensions, and constant flux? Put another way, are there are empirical/scientific fields which show a healthy stance or posture of wisdom?

Here we turn to some of the modern science that corroborates what people like Benjamin, the German Idealists, process philosophy, Leibniz, and before him, Spinoza, Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, and various Eastern traditions have contributed to: a systems view of life and the universe that explains phenomena holistically. In a nurturing system such as this, cross-discipline studies would expand, converge, and enrich social life and ecosystem health.

In many ways, modern science shows a return to the old ways of knowing: concepts in relativity and quantum mechanics were foreseen millennia ago, such as in Buddhism’s principle of dependent co-arising, for example.

Chaos Theory

Some of the greatest 20th century scientists were: Einstein, Watson and Crick, Margulis and Lovelock. Yet the most influential of all may turn out to be the little known meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, pioneer of chaos theory, the butterfly effect, and the strange attractor.

For a thorough introduction, James Gleick’s Chaos is a great start. For those mathematically inclined, I recommend Manfred Schroeder’s Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws.

It is this system-view approach that can explain, even, the formation of life on this planet: self-organizing proto-nucleotides and amino acids along with fatty membranes and mitochondria/chloroplasts which gave rise to the first unicellular organisms. It is these non-linear dynamics which do, in fact, create higher harmonies- Poincare’s three body problem being the first modern example.

In non-linear systems based on power laws, when the variable in the function passes a certain limit (dependent upon the initial conditions), the function starts to behave chaotically. The next figure cannot be predicted from previous answers. Eventually, a bifurcation will occur: this simply means that further on in the progression, the function bounces back between two figures, back and forth. If the parameter is pushed higher, period-doubling occurs: this simply means that instead of bouncing between two numbers, the function doubles to bounce between four, then eight, 16, etc. This applies to many dynamic systems and can start with any integer, so depending upon the function, you could have period doubling of 3, 6, twelve; four, eight, 16, etc. Period halving is possible, too.

The scientist Robert May was the first to prove this in population biology, and many fields have found it a useful tool for studying dynamic systems since. The point I want to make clear is in regard to climate and weather: all climate scientists and meteorologists accept weather cannot be predicted after 3 weeks, weather is inherently chaotic, yet climate, for now, is stable.

Without significant changes, the positive feedback loops currently warming the planet will eventually push the relatively stable, homeostatic climate model into the “Hot house Earth” model. Wild changes in weather are more likely to occur. Not only that, but much higher-level droughts and flooding will occur more frequently; i.e., climatic normality may switch into an non-linear, chaotic state.

In the US, the Southwest in particular will be hit hard. Consider central Arizona, where the ancient Hokoham population could have reached 80,000 around 1300 CE. The area around Phoenix could have provided for 10,000 people. You make think, well, that was before modern irrigation and food transportation. You would be wrong. The Hokoham were masterful farmers with over 500 miles of canals and estimates of over 100,000 acres of cultivated, irrigated land. Today, metro Phoenix has approximately 4.7 million people. This won’t end well. By 2050, much of Arizona and the wider region could be ghost towns.

The second point: self-similarity is inherent in nature at many scales, as observed in fractals. How does this apply to culture? Direct democracy can be implemented at all scales (local, from worker councils to communal town meetings; to international, with a trans-national body such as a re-imagined UN.)

Chaos theory applies to the brain as well: there is evidence that psychedelics reform and rearrange new connections of neurons, changing the “criticality” of its structural firings. This is what is able to cure patients of depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc., by changing the flow of thoughts and giving a wider expression, to get your mind out of a rut or a bad habit of harmful/fearful thinking.

There is plenty of sociological and anthropological evidence that mimetic theory (pioneered by Rene Girard) has some merit. Mostly, this is studied cross-culturally (horizontally), but we should consider the vertical dimension of hierarchies: at levels of coercion and exploitation are imitated at all scales of the socio-economic pyramid. The ruthless hierarchy was not that different between the mind-numbing conformity and bureaucratic chicanery of state-capitalist countries, contrasted with the crushing alienation and faux-competitive crony capitalism of neoliberal nations. If the structure is rotten at the top, most state and local governments mimic and take their cue from the power relations above them.

This played out very clearly on the international level after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Once the Patriot Act, NDAA, and AUMF were passed, once NATO and ISAF forces invaded Afghanistan, with troops and spooks using “rendition”, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, with nighttime raids on civilians, and outright drone murder was rolled out by the US, other nations followed suit, with a rash of authoritarian copycat legislation, as well as police and military brutality playing out around the globe. For instance, the uptick in violence by Israel in 2002-2003 during the second Intifada is telling. Without the September 11 attacks and the relentless anti-Muslim propaganda coming from the US, there is little doubt that the IDF would have been so emboldened.

On a positive note, it’s quite telling, and appropriate, that the self-similar snail shell (caracol) became the emblem of the Zapatistas, and the model for their communities. Rebecca Solnit explains this well, and quotes a wonderful passage from Marcos, who draws from his folk hero, “Old Antonio”:

The wise ones of olden times say that the hearts of men and women are in the shape of a caracol, and that those who have good in their hearts and thoughts walk from one place to the other, awakening gods and men for them to check that the world remains right. They say that they say that they said that the caracol represents entering into the heart, that this is what the very first ones called knowledge. They say that they say that they said that the caracol also represents exiting from the heart to walk the world…. The caracoles will be like doors to enter into the communities and for the communities to come out; like windows to see us inside and also for us to see outside; like loudspeakers in order to send far and wide our word and also to hear the words from the one who is far away.

Contradiction, Paradox, Nuance

There is a great passage in an old Marcos communiqué, “The retreat is making us almost scratch at the sky.” As the echo chambers, petty infighting, and silos build up on the Left, I thought it’d be appropriate to share his thoughts on how to respond to those fearful of heterodox-postmodern-non-ideological-anarchic stances:

After these confessions, he of the voice was exhorted to spontaneously declare himself innocent or guilty of the following series of accusations. To each accusation, he of the voice responded:

The whites accuse him of being dark. Guilty

The dark ones accuse him of being white. Guilty

The authentics accuse him of being indigenous. Guilty

The treasonous indigenous accuse him of being mestizo. Guilty

The machos accuse him of being feminine. Guilty

The feminists accuse him of being macho. Guilty

The communists accuse him of being anarchist. Guilty

The anarchists accuse him of being orthodox. Guilty

The Anglos accuse him of being Chicano. Guilty

The antisemitics accuse him of being in favor of the Jews. Guilty

The Jews accuse him of being pro-Arab. Guilty

The Europeans accuse him of being Asiatic. Guilty

The government officials accuse him of being oppositionist. Guilty

The reformists accuse him of being ultra. Guilty

The ultras accuse him of being reformist. Guilty

The “historical vanguard” accuses him of calling to the civic society and not to the proletariat. Guilty

The civic society accuses him of disturbing their tranquility. Guilty

The Stock Exchange accuses him of ruining their breakfast. Guilty

The government accuses him of increasing the consumption of antiacids in the government’s Departments. Guilty

The serious ones accuse of being a jokester. Guilty

The adults accuse him of being a child. Guilty

The children accuse him of being an adult. Guilty

The orthodox leftists accuse him of not condemning the homosexuals and lesbians. Guilty

The theoreticians accuse of being a practitioner. Guilty

The practicioners accuse of being a theorist. Guilty

Everyone accuses him of everything bad that has happened. Guilty”

I take inspiration from this; I see a sort of playfulness, a glimpse of his “inner child”. Today, we could also say: to those who, without nuance, accuse others of being heretics or dogmatic; to those who would accuse us of rather having a messy, non-violent, and imperfect revolution on the streets rather than continue to perpetuate a self-congratulatory, alienating, bloviating, insular, suffocating, and self-defeating movement in substance and style, we must reply: we are Guilty.

Quantum Theory

Our understanding of reality and consciousness has grown by leaps and bounds with advances in quantum physics. The parallels between Eastern thought and quantum mechanics are uncanny, and no one has explained this better than Fritjof Capra in his bestseller The Tao of Physics. Exploring connections between the sub-atomic world and Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophy, Capra takes the reader on a tour-de-force. Of course, it was the early physicists who worked on the uncertainty principle, double-slit experiment (wave-particle duality), complementarity, and quantum superpositioning who originally noted the connections between Eastern philosophies. Thus, consciousness and the observer effect somehow influences these experimental designs in ways science currently has no answer for.

Capra synthesizes this and builds upon these models: he insists on the interrelationship operating at certain scales of reality, and calls it a holistic/ecological worldview in his afterword to the 3rd edition.

There has been lots of push-back from other physicists since 1975 when the first edition appeared. The science is not in debate at the sub-atomic scale, rather, how it applies to the macroscopic world is what is at stake. There are plenty of scientists that dismiss Capra completely without acknowledging the very qualified, modest theory he put forward.

The new revelations about quantum entanglement push this line of thought further. The basic idea is: two electrons become “entangled” where the spin of one is connected with the other regardless of distance. When one electron’s spin is measured, the second spin correlates instantaneously, faster than the speed of light. This is what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Non-locality is another name. This flies in the face of the fundamentals laws of physics.

So what does this mean? The best analogy I can come up with (paraphrasing from someone, somewhere) is that when measuring (observing) the first particle, you are pushing through the fabric of space-time with your finger to “touch” the second particle at the same time, bypassing the physical distance between the two.

What are the implications here? Physicists insist this phenomenon doesn’t “scale up” to the macroscopic level. If we look at today’s level of scientific knowledge in physics, they’re right. There is little evidence to suggest this.

Yet, the simple fact that this can occur on sub-atomic levels is staggering. No one knows where these new teachings will take us.  Certainly, though, there are parallels with shamanic/animistic ways of thinking, or, to put it in the words of Stephen Hawking: “every particle and every force in the universe contains information, an implicit answer to a yes-no question.”

However, this interpenetration of levels/worlds in the social and mental realms, is quite pronounced, say, in medical facts. The higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, in poor and working class communities as well as for minorities is tied to the mental strain and stress of living in substandard housing without proper nutrition, lack of access to education, etc. African American women are 3-4 times more likely to lose children in childbirth compared to white women, due to lack of pre-natal care, and sometimes because their doctors won’t listen to them. Women who’ve suffered a heart attack are more likely to survive if their doctor is a woman, rather than a man. Again, because women doctors are generally: more competent, listen to patients’ symptoms better, and show higher emotional intelligence and compassion.

Gaia Theory

Turning to Earth systems, it was the pioneering work of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock who together formulated Gaia theory. Thinking of the Earth as a self-regulating super-organism is helpful in many fields, from geology to climate science to evolutionary biology. From the simple-programming of Lovelock’s Daisyworld, today we can model ecosystem resiliency, albedo effects in the Arctic Sea, and deforestation in tropical rain forests, the lungs of the Earth, all in terms of feedback loops which can tie into trends such as global warming, species extinction, desertification, and declining biodiversity.

Scientists are now willing to combine the shocking implications of chaos theory within Gaia: in the journal Nature Barnosky et al. write of “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.” The authors write that “the plausibility of a future planetary state shift seems high” and they acknowledge the uncertainty about when it may happen. They also point out: “it is extremely unlikely or impossible for the system to return to its previous state.” Thus, if a hothouse Earth scenario becomes a reality, there will be no going back. Real estate speculation on Antarctica could be a thing in 100 years.

There are reasons to be hopeful. One line of thought was taken up recently by Bruno Latour, who along with a co-author, postulate what they call Gaia 2.0. Simply put, they are referring to a global system where:

…deliberate self-regulation—from personal action to global geoengineering schemes—is either happening or imminently possible. Making such conscious choices to operate within Gaia constitutes a fundamental new state of Gaia, which we call Gaia 2.0. By emphasizing the agency of life-forms and their ability to set goals, Gaia 2.0 may be an effective framework for fostering global sustainability.

While they posit this self-conscious biomimetic planning of bioregions as new, because they see it as the first chance to endeavor to perform this on a global scale, the novelty only really applies to a certain brand of Eurocentric/anthropocentric materialists, anti-intellectual monotheists, and other deniers of common sense and basic ecology. Indigenous groups have used bioregional eco-friendly practices for millennia, with First Nations sustainably caretaking land from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle.

Consider terra preta in Amazonia, the miraculous change from teosinte to maize which many estimate domestication circa 9000 years ago, mountain terracing in the Andes, super-high productivity with Central American milpas, multiyear field rotation for fallow lands to rejuvenate nutrients, seasonal burns throughout North America which increased deer and upland game bird populations, with agroforestry “forest farming” of chestnut (Chestnut Trees could produce over a ton per acre in vast portions of America before the die-off occurred), hickory, butternut, oak (acorns are used as a food source removing tannins with water) and more. Not to mention the thousands of uses of native plants and fungi for herbal/traditional medicine, preventive/holistic care, and shamanic/spiritual uses.

I would say one of the most interesting debates about what Gaia 2.0 could look like is mostly ignored, because it is occurring on the far side of the globe: Aotearoa, aka New Zealand. Their government has already launched a “Predator Free” program for 2050, where all mammalian predators are hoping to be eliminated with a variety of programs forming in the near future. Intense debate surrounds the gene drive approach, some techniques using CRISPR and some using other gene editing technology, to in effect, using genetic manipulation, create all male future generations of predators and thus, lead to localized extinction of these mammals in Aotearoa and its small outlying islands.

The bioethics are being debated by UN and national groups and many conservation groups are totally against the idea. Some Maori are open to the possibilities of gene-drive technology, yet they understandably critique the bad faith of the scientists involved, citing:

[An] increasing lack of cultural accountability in academic journals who seem happy to publish anything without thought, consideration, or commentary from the communities those papers have extracted from, taken swipe at, or made promises to… The second issue is what I deem bad research-dating behaviour, or rather how to build respectful relationships with indigenous peoples/communities… Relatively few, however, are actually committed to investing their time into building long-term relationships, despite being continually told that that is what is required… However, some researchers by-and-large continue to push an extractive model whereby they attempt to take intellectual property from communities in return for ‘the greater research good’. This model is naïve to the political situations that indigenous communities are operating in, and often places those communities in culturally unsafe positions.

Fritjof Capra notably calls the first step in transitioning to such a state of ecological awareness and cultural sensitivity “eco-literacy” and the next step eco-design. He’s on point. The funny, sad, and tragic thing (to me at least) is that exposes the orthodox technophile Western Left (seemingly the majority) as supporters of what many like to call Industrialism, the over-arching system, including capitalism and state socialism, of fossil fuel exploitation which is killing the planet.

According to the technophile proponents of unrestrained instrumental reason, many of us, well, sane and sensible people, who, in advocating for appropriate-scale technology, have the basic common sense to understand that Small is Beautiful, are a bunch of Luddites, crazy hippies, anti-civ, lifestylists, primitivists, nihilists, and/or misanthropes.

This type of thinking exposes the narrowness and superficiality of many “Leftists” who espouse all the right mantras, yet never bothered to take Marx’s example and actually study and stay abreast with key scientific and ecological advances.

I try my best to remain calm, patient, and equanimous, yet it is difficult with unabashed technophiles- again, possibly the majority of what qualifies as what’s left of the Left. There is a discomfort from listening to the droning on of progressives, and also many banal Leftist economists and historians who pay lip service to sustainability, while not even giving token acknowledgment of the nature of spiritual transformation required.

Many of these people, even on “progressive” alternative media, are unaware of their own immiseration via lack of engagement with the natural world, which I take no pleasure in pointing out, so my queasiness doesn’t qualify as schadenfraude, but apparently, there is another German word for what I’ve been feeling: Fremdschämen: “‘exterior shame’, for those of you who cringe in phantom pain when others make a fool of themselves, this is your word. It describes the feeling of shame when seeing someone else in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation.” Perhaps Mr. Keuner was feeling this, as well.

Planting Seeds

Well, there is no high note to end this on. Most of activism goes towards wasting time attempting to change the minds of adults whose conditioning and social infantilization have already reached epic proportions. There is no systemic, global plan for engaging the youth in ecological-cultural restorative practices. This is absolutely ridiculous and a severe oversight of academia, including lackadaisical teachers and administrators, as well as conservatives and liberal-progressives who insist on vote-campaigns and the wonders of traditional higher education which indoctrinates and obfuscates class issues: yet the idea of revolutionizing public education never crosses their minds.

Revolutionary artists have always understood this, as well as indigenous tribal societies and many poor and working class communities. Yet today, the hungry ghosts of global capitalism are here to consume the sustenance and life force of future generations in an era where information is at our fingertips as never before.

The current education model effectively imprisons children in unsafe and unhealthy schools, with psychotropic drugs, authoritarian teachers, mind-numbing boredom and ennui functioning as social conditioning for a future hellscape with billions in poverty worldwide, no decent jobs, benefits, or forms of belonging; alongside a crushing tyranny of corporate rule, oligarchy, global war, climate chaos, and a culture ruled by a principle of “repressive tolerance.”

Thus, it is inevitable that the most important thing to do is raise our children in a healthy way. This will require social engagement on a spiritual, intellectual, communal, emotional and material basis (i.e., sharing extra housing for homeless and low-income families, paying child-rearing adults a living wage for their time and labor, equal pay for women, ending oppression against the LGBTQ community, serious environmental education, etc.). Patriarchy and racism will not be solved, until youth are gifted the freedom and opportunity to pursue their passions unencumbered by structurally racist and sexist policies which enforce hierarchy, capitalism, and war, until pathetic guidelines advocating rote memorization in school are abandoned, and crippling conformity fueled by vapid pop culture and the psychically numbing effect of social media is no longer glorified. Poverty, war, and disease cannot be significantly lowered or eliminated without a fundamentally redistributive model.

Furthermore, some sort of restorative healing measures, including some sort of reparations for minorities, including but not limited to redistributing money, property, land, and the means of production, via a process truth and reconciliation in the public sphere, is absolutely crucial. This would necessarily coincide with the dissolving of corporate and state power.

Public and private land must be given back to citizens: we are only free when given the ability to use the means of production to transform corporate agriculture into communal, appropriately-scaled endeavors where communities can directly and deliberatively interact, and transform as need be, to the world-historical changes (climatically, ecologically, and socially) on the immediate horizon.

This would seem to entail relaxing the grip of the Apollonian style of “emotionless” pure logic (techne/episteme), and instrumental reason; and coming to terms with the obverse: the Dionysian, where the shamanic/animistic, nomadic, and anarchic ways of being are accepted. This shift, with the science to back it up, is seen in a many counter-culture belief systems: the push for radical intersubjectivity, expanding studies of the realms of consciousness, a hylozoic belief system, and formulating a new model of recognition (see Taylor, Fraser, Honneth, Butler, among others) which does not re-invigorate the power of capital.

There is no hope of this happening in today’s 24/7 mainstream media, driven by fear and sensationalism. Only a world-historical process, a paradigm shift, can overturn this momentum, which would require inner work to be done on a mass scale in the Western world alongside collective general strikes, debt jubilees, a bit of carnivalesque (Bakhtin)/festival/regional cultural appreciation/in the spirit of a Communitas, and a counter-cultural force which does not overly privilege the economic at the expense of other social struggles.

This critical way of teaching is a sort of “stance”: a tendency towards what Aristotle called eudaimonia, “the good life,” informed by virtue, areté. Another way of phrasing it would be “human flourishing,” and here this referred to a moral sensibility, but also an aesthetic, a form of posture or “stance” if you will, an art of living, a way of (Hölderlin-esque) dwelling poetically upon the Earth.

From another angle, we could consider this a search for The Ethics of Authenticity. As Charles Taylor describes, what is structurally called for is:

…a many leveled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos.

Yet, again, this type of work should get started by educating children, because under the current conditions of liberal democracy, there is no acknowledgment of “interlinking”. There is only the autonomous individual: at least understood by most adults, whose notion of civic duty is voting, or volunteer work, or donating to charity. Rather, youth could be asked to inquire, as Rudy Rucker wondered:

One might also ask whether a person is best thought of as a distinct individual or as a nexus in the web of social interaction. No person exists wholly distinct from human society, so it might seem best to say that the space of society is fundamental. On the other hand, each person can feel like an isolated individual, so maybe the number-like individuals are fundamental. Complementarity says that a person is both individual and social component, and that there is no need to try to separate the two. Reality is one, and language introduces impossible distinctions that need not be made.

We can imagine a single cell in our body asking itself the same question: am I an individual or just part of a wider integrated whole? We can shift the scale but the self-similarity always follows: it’s turtles all the way down. This famous saying, of course, echoes what we know about fractals, and the possibility that we’re in a multiverse. There are also the First Nation stories about Spider Woman, or Grandmother Spider, who created the world. Again, we find the notion of the web- the basis of our bio/psycho/social being, and also a connection to string theory: spider-woman’s creation song; i.e. vibrations held by interconnected threads.

My preferred analogy to the individual/social false binary is mycological (or rhizomatic, though I’ll save D+G for another day): our conception of ourselves (ego) is the mushroom, the fruiting body which rises above the soil, while the unconscious mycelium sustains us below the surface. Although we stand above the detritus (wreckage, as Benjamin says) we are deeply enmeshed in it, history “is not even past” and it feeds, and thus can warp, our consciousness and sensibilities.

Thus we must tend to the soil, nurture the sprouts and green shoots of this new culture. The meager results of our efforts can be depressing (April really can be the cruelest month) yet we must move on, without clinging to hope.

As for the problem of language which Rucker mentioned, it’s worth reminding our sisters and brothers that propaganda is all around us today. As Malcolm X said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Now is the time for the “revaluation of all values.” The struggle continues.

Realities and Challenges of Recuperated Workplaces in Argentina

Workers demonstrate in defense of Cerámica Zanon and other recuperated ceramics factories, in 2003 (Photo: Indymedia Argentina)

In this interview we talk to Andrés Ruggeri, anthropologist and researcher who directs the Facultad Abierta programme (Open School) of the University of Buenos Aires, dedicated to researching and supporting workplaces recuperated by their workers. Ruggeri tells us about the history of this movement, the challenges it faces, the relations with recent governments in Argentina, and much more.

*****

Ricardo Vaz:  Can you tell us a bit about this programme, Facultad Abierta?

Andres Ruggeri:  Facultad Abierta (Open School) is something that in Latin America is usually known as a University Extension, understood as the university function that is dedicated to the community. Usually these have to do with cultural aspects, courses, workshops, and this issue has also been commodified recently.

We started the programme in 2002. In the School of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires we set up a tiny extension unit to work with social movements, popular movements, that were flourishing at the time, among them the recuperated workplaces. We quickly turned to the subject of worker self-management, or workers’ control, on one hand doing research, and on the other taking part in the processes, trying to support the organizations that emerged.

RV: So it is not just a matter of doing research and documenting. What is, so to say, the contribution in the opposite direction? What do recuperated workplaces look for from Facultad Abierta?

AR: We never come with an attitude of telling the workers that “this is what needs to be done,” rather we look to work on a joint analysis of the issues, that will help with self-management. There are many aspects to it. One of them is actual participation: spreading information, supporting the occupations, collaboration in specific tasks, as well as articulating with other professionals. For example, we work with engineers, lawyers, accountants, people from the exact sciences, that may on occasion collaborate with a given company.

At the same time through the canvassing of recuperated workplaces, and the reports that are always discussed with the workers, we are generating a body of knowledge. I think at this point the work of Facultad Abierta is something that the movement has embraced as one of its tools. There is a documentation centre of recuperated workplaces that works out of a cooperative which is Imprenta Chilavert. There we document an endless number of things that have fuelled this relationship, as well as share the day-to-day life of this cooperative. At this point, it is sometimes hard to tell apart what is the movement and what is Facultad Abierta.

Facultad Abierta also edits the “Cuadernos para la autogestión,” (“Self-management notebooks”), produced at the Imprenta Chilavert.

RV: Does the movement also extend its reach beyond the Argentinian borders?

AR: Yes, another important development are the international meetings, called The Economy of the Workers. This was also an initiative of ours, in 2007, but it now extends far beyond Facultad Abierta.

These are meetings that bring together workers, activists, movements, and researchers. These international meetings were planned to be held once every two years, and later regional meetings started taking place in the intermediate years. Last year we had the sixth international meeting, with participants from over 30 countries, many different recuperated workplaces from around the world. It took place in Textiles Pigüé – a recuperated factory from the south of the province of Buenos Aires.

Billboard for the VI International Meeting Economy of the Workers, which took place in 2017 in Textiles Pigüé.

RV: The recuperated workplaces [note: we will often use the Spanish acronym ERT (Empresas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores)] emerge strongly with the crisis in late 2001. Were they building on an existing tradition?

AR: Argentina is probably the Latin American country with the oldest history of cooperativism, dating back to the late XIX century. It is related to the history of migration and the emergence of the workers’ movement itself, just like in Europe. The workers’ movement, trade unions and cooperatives, emerge more or less in parallel, before diverging over time. But a certain tradition of cooperativism remained, even if generally separate from the question of production.

With the implementation of neoliberalism, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a shift in the economic structure: the country starts getting de-industrialised, lots of production chains are destroyed, resulting in lots of unemployed workers. Some unions, very few, start to promote and form cooperatives in the companies that were being shuttered. They were mostly small metal workshops, print shops, these kinds of companies. And the unions were essentially of metalworkers from the south of Greater Buenos Aires, from Quilmes, and the Buenos Aires Graphics Federation. Then in some locations in the interior other cooperatives also sprung up, as means of resisting against this process.

RV: Is it fair to say that these are more cases of abandoned companies than of occupied ones?

AR: It is a bit of both. Actually the workers occupy companies that are being abandoned, it is a simultaneous process. When the bosses are looking to close doors, or when there is a fraudulent bankruptcy, that is the moment when the occupation takes place. In the 1990s, we estimate there were around 30 cases in which cooperatives were set up, because there were many others in which it was attempted but it was not possible.

What happens in 2001 is that this becomes a movement. This movement acquires an identity, calls itself “recuperated workplaces,” organizes, sets forward demands, and in some sense creates a strategy of “what to do” when a company is abandoned, in order to preserve jobs, which is to form cooperatives and fight for expropriation. The movement’s slogan, which is actually borrowed from the MST [Landless Workers Movement, from Brazil], sums it up: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”

RV: Do new cases of ERT keep appearing after 2001?

AR: According to our estimation of currently existing recuperated workplaces, which is around 380 with some 16.000 workers, there have been more recuperated workplaces after 2001 than the ones that took place at the time. The thing is that in 2001 there was a tremendous concentration of occupations, with massive mobilisations, with lots of social and political impact.

RV: In terms of the relationship with the state, how was the relationship between the Kirchner governments and the ERT? What was their perspective?

Andrés Ruggeri being interviewed during the sixth international meeting (Youtube screenshot, video available here)

AR: Kirchnerismo was very contradictory in what concerns recuperated workplaces, just like they were with many other issues. Nevertheless, they were not hostile to recuperated workplaces, even if they did not particularly favour them. Within their neo-keynesian conception of development, workers’ control and all of this did not really fit. All of the state’s policies for economic recovery were geared towards – and with great success for the most part – recovering employment and production by focusing on the internal market, but with a national bourgeoisie leading the way.

Then as the economy recovered, all these expressions such as cooperatives, small companies, even social movements, would tend to disappear because people would go back to formal employment, thus strengthening the unions. This was the plan. In that sense, the Kirchner governments collaborated with the ERT, with some programmes of subsidies and support. But never with an economic policy, it was rather a social policy, of managing conflict, with the perspective of helping people that had lost their jobs and formed cooperatives. However, ideally these people would go back to work in the formal job market.

Naturally the entire policy of kirchnerismo had this idea as its base, but it morphed over time. At some point, especially with the international crisis in 2008-2009, we see that the economy is troubled and that it cannot meet this goal of full employment. Then state programmes for creating cooperatives appear, although these were “cooperatives” in which the state paid salaries and said what was to be done. In the end you had a kind of two-faced policy, in which the cooperatives seemingly did not fit but were fostered at the same time.

RV: We could say that support towards cooperatives and ERT was due to necessity…

AR: Precisely. And a significant debt of kirchnerismo towards the recuperated workplaces was that it did not contribute to solving the judicial problems that have lingered and are now a liability for many ERT, such as the Hotel Bauen.1 These are usually disputes surrounding property. Not necessarily with the former owners, but since these are often bankrupt companies, they are still involved in legal proceedings, there are still creditors, who want to collect debts with property. The property is in the hands of the workers, but not legally, and that creates many problems.

RV: How was this sector affected by the arrival of Macri?

AR: We produced a report midway through 2016, and subsequent events proved us right. The general economic policy of the Macri government affects cooperatives just like it affects all aspects of the productive economy destined towards the internal market, small and large companies alike. These are the common effects of neoliberal programs, especially in Latin America.

It is a policy dedicated to weakening the working class, to lowering salaries in favour of an economy designed for the exporting of raw materials and energy, and for the prevalence of financial capital. The results are massive layoffs, both in public and private sectors, a decrease in the purchasing power and the consumption capacity of the population. As a result, production goes down, demand goes down, cooperatives cannot fight against that, they need to accommodate. To this we must add the opening up to imports. There are very cheap products coming in especially from China, and national production, cooperative or otherwise, cannot compete.

Finally there is the tarifazo, which is something incredible that has multiplied utility costs in a way that completely breaks cooperatives. Many recuperated workplaces, for example, currently have gas bills that are higher than their revenue. This means they either not pay or try to stop their electricity from being cut off, but this does not stop debt from building up. The goal is somehow to buy time, waiting to see if there is a change in the political arena.

RV: Beyond its economic policy, does the government have an ideological position with regards to the ERT?

AR: Besides the economic choking there is a constant hostility and, when an opportunity arises, the government acts against the recuperated workplaces. The clearest case is the Hotel Bauen, which never saw its situation regularized, it was never expropriated. There was an attempt to do so in the last parliamentary session with the previous correlation of forces of kirchnerismo, it then went to the Senate when Macri was already in office, and Macri vetoed the law.

Rally in favour of the expropriation of Hotel Bauen (Photo: workerscontrol.net)

The same thing has happened to every expropriation bill coming out. The law of expropriations was a mechanism that we had managed to put in place as a way to legalise the ERT. Macri will always use some pretext, but ideologically he is clearly against everything that has to do with workers’ control. This in turn is reflected on the judges, who are ever less inclined to helping the workers.

RV: But the justice system, in principle, would not be a natural ally…

AR: Definitely not. Nevertheless, on labour matters there have often been more or less favourable rulings, as the judicial power is also influenced by mobilisations, by the political context. When the political context was a bit more favourable there were decisions that prioritized the continuity of production, the safeguarding of labour as opposed to the seizure of assets. The bankruptcy legislation was modified, in 2011, to offer a legal way out for bankrupt factories and companies so that they were taken over by workers’ cooperatives. But this always implies putting pressure on the judges.

All of this is now much more difficult. The judges that by nature are against the working class are now much more so. Another thing that macrismo is trying to do is to stop factories from being recuperated. The factory closes and the police is there to ensure that it does close, avoiding any occupation. They stay one step ahead to stop workers from trying to occupy.

RV: Can you describe the relation between trade unions and ERT? Because they operate with different logics.

AR: Trade unions, with the establishment of fordism and of the welfare state, have occupied a place that is generally understood, by the organisations themselves as well, within the framework of struggle, or negotiation, between capital and labour. But the traditional base of the wage-earning, formal worker, has been shrinking with the rise of precarious and informal work, and most of the unions retain a “classical” mindset, they have not found a way to represent these new kinds of workers.

In general it is hard for them to think about what happens to a worker after he loses his job. Some unions simply do not care because they can no longer extract anything from this worker, neither a union fee nor a social security contribution.2 But leaving the corrupt unions aside, the ones that take part in fraudulent closures of companies in exchange for something from the bosses, the traditional union will go as far as trying to stop the company from shutting down, to stop the workers from losing their jobs. However, once these jobs are lost, there is nothing left to do. This is the approach, more or less.

Then there are some unions that have asked themselves: if we do not manage to stop the closure, because there is a general policy, an economic context that leads to this, what do we do? That is where the support for eventual recuperated workplaces appears. Some unions have long understood this issue, and others are coming to grips now.

RV: Are these, for the most part, smaller unions?

AR: Yes, very small unions in general. It also has to do with the interests they have. Unions also work as corporations that negotiate. For the larger unions, especially the industrial ones, it is very hard for them to embrace such as strategy.

Smaller unions, or from specific crafts, are ever more interested in the subject, also because practically all of their companies are shutting down. For example, the union of marroquineros, leather workers, if it does not actively intervene to stop companies from shutting down or to recuperate them somehow, it is doomed to disappear because there will be no workers left. Because of this I see a growing support for this struggles from trade unions.

RV: Turning now to political parties, in Argentina we find this strong ERT movement without there being a strong “workers’” party. How do the leftist parties position themselves vis-a-vis the ERT? Is it a struggle that is common to all of them?

AR: No, leftist parties have not always been favourable to this question of recuperated workplaces. Some have, but here the left is a minority. Within peronismo we could say there is a left, and in general the left in peronismo is very favourable to the recuperated workplaces. I believe that in the large majority of ERT, the leaders identify themselves, despite all the contradictions, with this political position.

The non-peronista left, be it trotskyist or otherwise, also has a very classical conception of class struggle, where self-management in general does not fit. Some have even declared themselves against self-management because, from their perspective, it does not contribute to the path towards revolution. This discussion was very visible in 2001-2002. There were recuperated companies whose leaders identified with some of these parties from the trotskyist left who were against forming cooperatives. Their goal was nationalisation, or state ownership, with worker control.

This is a slogan that may be fine as an horizon, but which is unfeasible with a state that is not a revolutionary state, so to say. Therefore many of these cases ended up in dead ends. With each experience of a recuperated workplace, we can derive many things that question capitalism in its foundations: property, democracy in the workplace, the division of labour, horizontality, all of that. But that is not necessarily the goal of the recuperated workplace. The goal, first and foremost, is to safeguard jobs.

RV: More important than having the correct horizon is addressing the immediate needs of the workers…

AR: Exactly. If the proposal is maximalist and offers no way out to the specific situation, the workers will turn their backs on you. This is a problem of the left. While peronismo perhaps does not have this horizon of workers’ control, nor of the socialist revolution for that matter, nevertheless it understands these situations of workers fighting for their jobs. From the left, where we would expect this, these experiences are often rejected because they do not conform to the manual…

 

The incomprehension from sectors of the left is due to a lack of ideological flexibility, but also a lack of presence in the working class. Because if it had delegates, workers in each of these experiences, it would understand them much more clearly. Not having them, and coming from the outside, it ends up clashing.

To give an example, in 2001-2002 there were two cases that everyone was hearing about, both in Argentina and abroad, which were Zanon and Brukman,3 [3] which had ties to the PTS [Socialist Workers’ Party], a trotskyist party that is now part of FIT [Workers’ Left Front]. In Zanon the leaders were trotskyist militants and their vision was widely shared by the collective, but in the end Zanon ended up forming its cooperative, and walking the same path as all the others, although it is a very interesting and creative experience. In Brukman it was different. The workers did not even have a union, the militants arrived from outside looking to direct the struggle, but the direction was according to the manual. And with the manual they were doomed.

RV: In a 2006 article you talked about a “social innovation” component in the ERT. What is the importance of the ties to the community for these companies?

AR: Nowadays I think I would not talk about “social innovation” because it is a term that is also being used from the neoliberal side. But yes, clearly there are changes in the economic rationale of a recuperated workplace, which articulates with the political and social spheres. And that would be this question of ties to the community, which I believe are important.

 

Not all recuperated workplaces have this concern, or this strategy. For the most part, the opening up to the community is something that the workers see as positive, but also a strategy to build strong ties to the neighbourhood, to the people, articulating with organizations, etc. Because the ERT are often small or mid-size companies, and each on its own does not have the strength to implement self-management without these social networks of support, everything that mobilises around a recuperated workplace.

Workers’ assembly in Cerámica Zanon (Photo: La Izquierda Diario).

I think any time a company is recuperated there is a strong wave of mobilisation and support that is generated, reaching way beyond the strength of the workers themselves. Therefore the workers realise this and want to do right by it, to give something back for the support. But later, along these lines of innovation, or of changes in the production rationale, many ERT activities make no sense from a business standpoint. This, I should stress, has nothing to do with “corporate responsibility” or anything of the sort. It has no logic, it does not generate business…

RV: Nevertheless, the goal is also to overcome this separation between economic, social and political spheres…

AR: Of course. Since they transcend this logic, they break the concept that a company is a mere tool for the accumulation of capital. It is broken in two ways. For one, because the workers are not necessarily interested in accumulating capital. What they want is to keep their jobs, and they can possibly manage with much less than it would take for a capitalist to, within his rationale, keep the company running.

At the same time, there is a risk that a recuperated workplace will operate in a conservative fashion, doing the bare minimum to survive, with no growth or renovation. There are ERT that have been around for several years, and it is clear that when the workers retire, or die, the cooperative will disappear. But if on the other hand we take into account this opening up to the community, reaching into social and political spheres, that is another avenue of growth that does not necessarily have to do with accumulation.

RV:study of around 100 ERT suggested that around 20% of their economic activity is with other ERT or with the solidarity economy. Do you think this is progress in terms of creating a sub-system that is not 100% capitalist?

AR: Yes, but it is much harder than it sounds. The numbers, I believe, are not that high. We usually track this in our reports. But it is a necessary step, one which we are working on. Sometimes, precisely in the context of economic growth we had before, with a dynamic internal market, this was not seen as a priority because each company could survive on its own in the market.

Now that the situation has completely turned, there is a bigger concern that there is a need to build links, even create a sort of special market, with different rules, that will allow both for survival and for growth. This will also demonstrate that an alternative is possible. Nevertheless, it is much more complicated than it looks, even with the 400 recuperated workplaces by themselves. We need to extend to other cooperatives, other types of organisations.

In one case we are trying to articulate Textiles Pigüé, a very recent ERT that produces clothing for children, and another cooperative that produces fabric in the north of Argentina, and we are working on a common product. One of the ideas is also to place production in solidarity networks in Europe, not just for sale but also to bring these products to migrants and refugees.

I do not believe the challenge is just to build chains inside the same sector. Textile factories do not just require products from other textile factories, the same for metallurgical ones. Production can be integrated in other chains and inputs can come from other sectors. We need to create wider networks and also fight in terms of consumption. This means getting people to consume products from sectors where there is no exploitation of labour, or at least not to the same degree as in capitalist companies, and where environmental concerns are taken into account. There are a number of struggles ahead. But this one is a struggle against capitalism in its economic core.

RV: In your opinion, where does the state stand in all of this? Sometimes a very romantic vision is generated, of an ecosystem on the margins of capitalism, but is there not still a need to struggle for the state?

AR: Yes, I think this struggle for the state should not be abandoned. This romantic vision exists, of creating a ghetto where we, the good guys, stand, without capitalism or the state. But the state will still exist. Both the state and capital will not sit idly by while we build the economy of the future! In fact, the experiences of the recuperated workplaces have shown time and again that the struggle is always on 2 or 3 fronts at the same time, against the capitalist market, against the state, even when the state thinks it is helping.

Worker in Imprenta Chilavert. (Photo: Taringa).

Therefore, obviously all the state policy tools we can put to use to strengthen the movement need to be used. No matter how much we want to stay outside or want nothing to do with the state, the state still wants something to do with you. That is the question. And although the neoliberal state is weak in terms of allowing financial capital and large corporations to run rampant, it remains strong and repressive in what regards us, with no concern for legality whatsoever.

RV: Almost all the ERT form cooperatives. Is there a difference between these cooperatives and others which are not borne out of this struggle to preserve labour posts?

AR: Indeed. In general the discourse we find among the workers in recuperated workplaces is that they are cooperatives out of necessity. Because there is also a romantic vision of cooperatives like the one we were just discussing.

Even within this more traditional cooperative movement, for a long time the ERT were questioned because they were not true cooperatives, they were so only out of necessity, did not share the values, etc. And in truth this sector is reviving this old cooperativism, giving it a content that had been lost, of a cooperativism which is not just about companies coexisting with capitalism with no issues whatsoever. On the contrary, they are part of the same capitalist economy with almost no contradictions.

Of course, a cooperative is not the same as a corporation, a capitalist company with a boss, but in many cases it is hard to tell them apart. In general the juridical form is called work cooperative, in the case of the ERT these are cooperatives of the workers. This is not the same as a consumption cooperative, or a credit one, or a housing one, or one that provides services, and which in turn hires workers.

RV: This self-management/worker control component is missing…

AR: Precisely. Even the non-exploitation of labour is not a cooperative principle, for example. Cooperatives will often outsource work or exploit workers just like other companies. I believe the emergence of these cooperatives, the ERT, has generated an important contradiction inside this more traditional cooperativism. It is a breath of fresh air that is bringing back an old tool, which at its inception belonged to the workers.

RV: In their struggle to survive in a capitalist market, the ERT will also be tempted to sub-contract workers, or resort to other practices of capitalist companies. Are these contradictions that need to be confronted all the time?

AR: I believe so. The ERT emerge from different kinds of workers’ struggles. Therefore, at least at the beginning, they are more or less vaccinated against the exploitation of other people. Not necessarily against their own self-exploitation, which is an equally complicated matter. Now, as time passes, the market mechanisms also influence and condition self-managed companies that emerge within capitalism, because it is not a case of a movement that is fighting capitalism and building something else. Rather, these emerge as solutions to the very problems and the lack of options that labour faces in capitalism nowadays.

Therefore, within this context there can very well be processes of bureaucratisation, or of the leaders identifying with market values such as competitiveness, efficiency, etc., and starting to see that the economic viability of the company requires certain kinds of practices. The fact that one works in a context of self-management/workers’ control does not imply that one has the conscience that this is the economic system worth promoting. It is an ongoing struggle to learn from the self-management experience and to change how we envision labour.

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• First published in MR on line

Andrés Ruggeri is an anthropologist and directs, since 2002, the Facultad Abierta programme in the School of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires, dedicated especially to the issue of workplaces recuperated by workers. He is the author or co-author of several works on this subject [in Spanish], including Qué Son Las Empresas Recuperadas (What are the recuperated workplaces) and Crisis y Autogestión en el Siglo XXI (Crisis and self-management in the XXI century). Ruggeri is also the director of the Autogestión magazine.

  1. The Hotel Bauen is symbolic as an ERT due to its central location in the city of Buenos Aires. It is also a space where popular movements gather. Andrés Ruggeri has written a book about the history of the Hotel Bauen.
  2. In Argentina a part of social security is managed by trade unions.