The cooptation of commons and coops by the mainstream logic

* Article: Commons and Cooperatives. Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford. Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action, Vol 4, No 1 (2010). Special issue on The New Cooperativism.

In the special issue of Affinities on The New Cooperativism, the article by Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig de Peuter specifically discusses the dangers of capito-cooptation and whether anything can be done to strengthen the counter-economy as a seed form for a overall alternative.

Capitalist co-option or circulating common?

“J.K. Gibson-Graham and their colleagues problematize what they see as a “capitalocentrism” suffusing anti-capitalist discourse. It is suggested that the categories of mode of production used by Marx are to be understood not as “historic chronology but as a formal typology that could be present in any combination.” A worker coop could thus be viewed as a “communal enterprise” within and against capital’s dominant distributive logic to the extent that in a worker cooperative “the workers who produce the wealth also collectively appropriate and distribute the surplus associated with their productive economic activity.” How surplus wealth is managed is, as we noted earlier, one of the sharpest distinctions between a worker coop and a conventional capitalist firm. Does this mean that worker-owners, in a situation where common ownership over assets is combined with labour’s sovereignty over the surplus, have transcended capitalist exploitation?

Some would regard this line of questioning as naïve. Here it must be noted that running throughout this paper is a familiar but fundamental point: that, from the perspective of anti-capitalism, the worker coop is a deeply ambivalent organizational form. The issue is not only that worker coops are vastly uneven in terms of the political commitments animating them. Even more basic is the ambiguity arising from how worker coops operate inside the wider capitalist economy and therefore escape neither the discipline of the market nor the hegemony of the commodity form.[73] This market containment is one of the reasons why the radical labour movement and some socialist theorists have been skeptical of coops as a means to counteract capital. We have already cited Marx’s critique of the tendency of cooperatives within capitalism to assume “dwarfish forms.” The radical economist Robin Hahnel expands on this concern:

[W]hen worker-owned firms must compete in goods, labour, and financial markets with capitalist firms which adhere to the bottom line there is relentless pressure on worker-owners to abandon prioritizing the quality of work life and fair systems of compensation, and to succumb to exploitative relations with suppliers, customers, external parties, and the environment.

Elements of a cooperative ethos can even be framed as a way of revitalizing capitalism when capitalists confront declining productivity and employee morale. Take, for example, the logic at play in Richard Reeves’ article “We Love Capitalism,” published in The New Statesman: “The solution is this: for the people who work in an enterprise to have a real financial stake in its long-term performance. Firms in which employees are also the ‘co-owners’ are more productive, with more engaged employees.” Reeves is careful to stress that this is not about “reheated cooperatives,” but rather “the next-generation capitalist business model.” He refers to this model as “socialism without the state”–or “capitalism with more capitalists.”

For worker coops to avert a co-optive fate they must be part of a larger vector of transformation moving beyond capitalism. The failure of authoritarian state socialism, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, and, recently, its catastrophic financial crisis, have prompted a wave of new thinking about the form of such system-change, such as the schematic models of “life after capitalism” offered by Michael Albert, or the more fluid conceptualizations of a post-capitalist politics proposed by Gibson-Graham. As a contribution to this discussion, we propose the concept of “the circulation of the common.” It is, again, Marx who provides our point of reference–not, however, so much as a theorist of the seizure of state power but rather as an analyst of how modes of production emerge, grow, and become self-perpetuating.

Marx deemed the “cell form” of capitalism to be the commodity, a good produced for exchange between private owners.[79] In the “circuit of capital” the commodity is exchanged for money, which buys resources in turn transformed into more commodities.[80] This cycle is expressed in the formula, M_C – . . . P . . . C’ ? M’. Money (M) purchases as commodities (C) labour, machinery, and raw materials for production (P) to create new commodities (C’) that are sold for more money (M’), part of which is retained as profit, part used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities; rinse and repeat. This becomes an auto-catalytic, self-generating, boot-strapping process.

Within this circuit, there are different kinds of capital. The transformation of commodities into money (C-M) is the role of mercantile capital; the production of commodities by means of commodities (P) is conducted by industrial capital, and the conversion of money capital into productive capital is the ostensible task of financial capital (M-C). This is the growth mechanism that converts the cell form of the commodity into what Marx termed more “complex and composite” forms, an entire capitalist metabolism, the path from capital’s molecular level to its molar manifestation. If we think of a rotating sphere not only accelerating in velocity as its speeds its circulatory processes but expanding in diameter as it fills more and more social and geographic space, we have the image of global capital.

If the cellular form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of society beyond capital is, we suggest, the common. A commodity is a good produced for exchange, a common a good produced to be shared. Exchange presupposes private owners between whom it occurs. Sharing presupposes collectivities within which it occurs. The circuit of the common traces how these collectivities–which we term association–organize shared resources into productive ensembles that create more commons, which in turn provide the basis for new associations. So in a rewritten circulation formula, C represents not a Commodity but Commons, and the transformation is not into Money but Association. The basic formula is therefore: A ? C ? A’. This can then be elaborated into A ? C . . . P . . . C’ ? A’.

Just as the circulation of capital subdivides into different types of capital–mercantile, industrial, financial–we should recognize differing moments in the circuit of the common. Let’s call them eco-social, networked, and labour commons. Eco-social commons would be institutions managing the biosphere not as a commercial resource, but as the shared basis for any continuing form of human association–collective agencies for planetary climate control, fishery reserves, protection of watersheds, and prevention of pollution. Eco-social commons indicates that the same planning logic also encompasses epidemiological and public health care provisions, regulation of the food supply, biotechnological monitoring, all understood, again, not as strategic opportunities for commercial exploitation, but as a precondition of species life.

By networked commons we mean communication systems that unleash, rather than repress, the tendency of digital technologies to create non-rivalrous goods and common pool resources that overflow intellectual property regimes. We are thinking not merely of liberal “creative commons” initiatives, but of large-scale adoption in public institutions of open-source practices; the remuneration of cultural producers in ways that allow the relaxation of commercial intellectual-property rights; plus the education and infrastructures that make access to peer-to-peer systems a public utility as common as the telephone.

By labour commons we mean the democratized organization of productive and reproductive work. And this brings us back to worker cooperatives, in which the workplace is an organizational commons, the labour performed is a commoning practice, and the surplus generated, a commonwealth. Worker coops would not, we emphasize, be the sole component of a labour commons. Their growth would have to go alongside (and could potentially be aided by) wider measures; for example, we think that there is much to be said for the combination of worker coops with a universal basic income, conceived not as a glorified welfare handout, but as an acknowledgement of the contribution to collective productivity of every life. But accompanying such a guarantee of basic material conditions of dignity, worker cooperatives would, as an expression of self-organized associated labour, be exemplary “cells” building a larger commonwealth metabolism.

To speak of the circulation of the common is to propose connecting eco-social, labour, and networked commons to reinforce and enable one another, creating a circuit in which the common goods and services produced by associations at one point in the circuit provide inputs and resources for associations at another, making what Gibson-Graham call a “generative commons.” So, for example, we can envisage large-scale eco-social planning seeding various worker cooperatives and associative enterprises, which then in turn generate the goods and services required for ecological, public health, and welfare planning–including the non-rivalrous networked commons, a pool of free knowledge and innovation to be used in turn in the planning and production of the eco-social and labour commons.

The three moments in our model of the circulation of the commons–ecological, labour and network or communicational–map onto the three moments of the circulation of capital–financial, industrial, and mercantile–yet also signal a profound alteration in their logic. While the financial circuit of capital defines that system’s prime directive, making money from money, the ecological circuit specifies a contrary priority, the preservation and enhancement of the biospheric commons; where the industrial moment of capital’s circulation concerns the appropriation of productive surpluses by owners, the labour moment in commons circulation specifies the sharing of these surpluses by workers and their communities; and while the mercantile moment of capital hinges on commodity exchange as capital’s most important form of social interaction, the communicational moment in the commons involves the dialogic interaction necessary for democratic planning and an economics of association. Thus the circuit of the common and the circuit of capital are symmetrical yet shifted, homologous but displaced from one another by transition to a set of alternative social priorities.

Theoretical and abstract as these formulations may sound, we find concrete and practical demonstrations of the circulation of commons in the various experiments in solidarity economics gaining traction in Latin America and elsewhere.[83] Brazil’s solidarity economy system, for example, arises from movements of workers and landless peasants, infused by liberation theology traditions, and by the history of quilombos (self-governing communities) of escaped slaves. Strongest in agricultural production, the sector also includes industrial, service, and software components. It links workers cooperatives and self-managed enterprises with alternative financial institutions, consumer cooperatives, and fair trade systems in an attempt to create a self-reinforcing network of economic activities in which participants’ activities are informed by an ethical and political sense of shared social responsibilities. The units of these networks are conceived not just as individually following principles of social and environmental justice, but providing inputs for each other, to create an inter-cooperative, self-expanding system.

Euclides Mance, a leading solidarity economist, writes of “socially based cooperation networks” reinforcing their component parts until “progressive boosting” enables them to move from a “secondary, palliative or complementary sphere of activity” to a “socially hegemonic mode of production.” This solidarity economy now garners some support, however equivocal, from the Worker Party government elected in 2002, which, for example, funds experiments in the development of digital tools not only to map participant organizations, but also to track inputs, outputs, and wastes so that the sector can be increasingly integrated and self-sufficient. The difficulties and pitfalls faced by Brazilian solidarity economics under a Lula government that often continues to follow neoliberal policies are manifest; nonetheless, it is a striking example of the sort of cell-growth of commons envisaged here.

Such a circulation of commons can only arise from the circulation of struggles, that is, from social experiments created in resistance to the expanding circulation of capital. As we noted at the outset, fights for commons–terrestrial, networked, labour–are underway. The circulation of the common is a forward projection of these contests; it is a concept of emergence. If capital is an immense heap of commodities, commonism, as we envisage it, will be a multiplication of commons. The idea of the circulation of the commons proposes a systemic transformation, but starts small, with cellular model of commons and association that is simple, even rudimentary. It then scales, at levels from the domestic to the municipal to the planetary. The totality it envisages is a multiplicitous one–a complex, composite non-capitalist society composed by an interaction of different kinds of commons with distinct, specific logics.

This is not necessarily a model of changing the world without seizing power. The role of the state in co-management initiatives, such of those of the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments we noted earlier, may be vital in allowing the circulation of commons to attain a critical mass. Our concept does, however, suggest that growth and interconnection of the commons have to precede such state interventions, to prefiguratively establish the necessary preconditions. It must also grow beyond the moment of such direct interventions, in a proliferation of self-starting components that exceeds centralized control. In this sense, the idea of the circulation of the commons is a concept from and for the Marxian tradition of autonomous free association.

Even as we acknowledge the many constraints on and co-options of worker cooperatives, we think it unwise to dismiss their contribution to widening the horizon of commons politics. Despite their contradictions, worker coop experiments are part of a long tradition of troubling the subject of waged-labour (associated labour), developing an ethics of production (workplace democracy), sharing wealth produced in common (surplus distribution), demonstrating the state can aid in the encouragement of alternatives to capitalist enterprise (state support), and fostering a parallel, community solidarity economy (cooperation among cooperatives). Furthering the radical potential of these labour commons initiatives, rather than reducing them to modest forms compatible with capitalism, depends, however, on worker coops becoming part of a broader movement–what we term the circulation of the common–with the explicit aim of creating not just more work but rather workable alternatives to the dominant mode of production: cooperating to produce not more jobs under capitalism, but more of life in common.”

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