Self-Management = Self Exploitation
"Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives. It appears, therefore, that the latter must be the beginning of the proposed social change. But this way the expected reform of society by means of co-operatives ceases to be an offensive against capitalist production. That is, it ceases to be an attack against the principal bases of capitalist economy. It becomes, instead, a struggle against commercial capital, especially small and middle-sized commercial capital. It becomes an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree." - Rosa Luxemburg
Capitalism is a system of society based on the class monopoly of the means of life, it has the following six essential characteristics:
1. Generalised commodity production, nearly all wealth being produced for sale on a market.
2. The investment of capital in production with a view to obtaining a monetary profit.
3. The exploitation of wage labour, the source of profit being the unpaid labour of the producers.
4. The regulation of production by the market via a competitive struggle for profits.
5. The accumulation of capital out of profits, leading to the expansion and development of the forces of production.
6. A single world economy.
In capitalism, the motive for producing goods and services is to sell them for a profit, not to satisfy people's needs. The products of capitalist production have to find a buyer, of course, but this is only incidental to the main aim of making a profit, of ending up with more money than was originally invested. This is not a theory that we have thought up but a fact you can easily confirm for yourself by reading the financial press. Production is started not by what consumers are prepared to pay for to satisfy their needs but by what the capitalists calculate can be sold at a profit. Those goods may satisfy human needs but those needs will not be met if people do not have sufficient money. The profit motive is not just the result of greed on behalf of individual capitalists. They do not have a choice about it. The need to make a profit is imposed on capitalists as a condition for not losing their investments and their position as capitalists. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to keep their means and methods of production up to date. Capitalism produces wealth for sale on a market with a view to profit as do cooperaatives. The internal structure of the enterprise — who makes the decisions, who gets the profits varies according to their differing historical and political conditions. The significant about the enterprise from an economic point of view is not its internal structure but its role as the mechanism through which the laws of the market are transmitted to those who make the decisions about the production of wealth— whoever they may be and however they may be chosen. The internal structure of the enterprise could be, and in a few cases is, quite different from either private or state enterprises. The workers could elect their own management committee or workers' council, but not even this would make any difference to the enterprise's economic role.
The attraction of cooperatives is very easy to understand. You have no boss to struggle against. If your aspiration is to find a comfortable niche within capitalism to live out your days, then various cooperatives are indeed a benefit but if you are determined to engage in social revolution then pursuing cooperatives will be a dead-end. But, nevertheless, you have to comply with the outside force of capital all the same. Cooperatives in capitalism are still subordinate to the logic of capital (constant rationalisation, growth and globalisation.) Cooperatives are still subject to the whims of the market. Workers at a washing-machine company could strike against wage cuts or resist lay-offs if there is a dip in sales. Workers at a cooperative washing machine manufacturing co-op couldn't do this, they would just have to cut their own wages by some means, or make some of themselves redundant or go to a bank for a loan to tide them over the slump but who would then impose their own terms upon the cooperative. Operating in a competitive market economy, workers have to exploit themselves as if they were exploited by capitalists. While this may be more palatable, it does not change the fact of their subordination to economic processes beyond their control. Profit production and capital accumulation control behaviour and perpetuate the misery and insecurity bound up with it.
Co-ops are not autonomous from capitalism’s dictates. The capitalist system is composed of owner who sell for profit. The fact that an owner is a group of individuals rather than a single person makes no essential difference. This has long been recognised for joint-stock companies. It must now also be recognised for co-operatives. A cooperative which collectively owns all the means of production is merely a collective capitalist company as long as it remains a participant in the market of the capitalist world-economy. No doubt such a business may have different models of management and differences in the division of profit, but this does not change its essential role operating in the world-market. Cooperatives are proof that workers can do without capitalists to tell them what to do, that workers can manage, can make decisions and can be successful but we don't need to keep experimenting to show that. Any redundant 19th century argument that it a school for socialism in the sense of demonstrating that workers are educationally and culturally capable of making decisions about how to operate production are now superfluous as justification for cooperatives. Self-management under capitalism is self-management of your own exploitation. The problem is that coop workers are forced to think like capitalists in order to survive in a capitalist world. It impossible to avoid all the evidence of well over a 100 years of trial and experimentation. Look at what happened to all the co-ops that were set up in the past. They all went bust or were co-opted and utterly transformed from their ambitious beginnings.
Cooperatives will have to compete with each other for a market for their product just as the capitalists do today. To prevent the inevitable ruination that must follow unbridled competition they will have to resort to combination just as the capitalists do today or be out-competed by larger enterprises with more ready access to capital investment. Worker ownership and cooperatives will not succeed by competing on capitalism’s terms. The idea that co-operatives will acquire the economic power to supplant and replace conventional capitalism flies against all the evidence. In the UK did the coop divvy ever politicalise the customers? Has the John Lewis Partnership produced a flood of left-wing syndicalists? It’s this all down to a question of whether you would rather work for John Lewis or Walmart? Just a difference in the degree of wage-slavery you are choosing, in the end, isn't it? Cooperatives may also embody more capitalistic features: they may, for example, hire temporary workers or be inhospitable to potential members of particular ethnic or racial groups. Cooperatives, therefore, often embody quite contradictory values.
We shouldn't make the mistake of seeing cooperatives as providing a vehicle for social revolutionary change and that they are not immune from the capitalist society they exist within. Let’s not forget that it was only a few years ago that the Tory David Cameron were praising cooperatives and using cooperatives as an argument for privatisation in disguise (much the same as those on the right wing use the Universal Benefit Income as a case for abolishing the welfare state.) Self-management indeed can be promoted by the most very establishment-orientated conservative. We have a few hundred years of experience of cooperatives in action, we are not criticising from any hypothetical position. Workers self-management is in no way incompatible with capitalist exploitation.
The cooperative movement is easily integrated into the capitalist system. Socialism is SOCIAL ownership and DEMOCRATIC control of the means of production and distribution with PRODUCTION being FOR USE to meet the needs of the community and not for exchange on the market to make profits nor should what is commonly used in short-hand "workers control" be confused with SECTIONAL ownership and control, that excludes wider society from the decision making of what, where and how production takes place. Cooperativess are critiqued in much the same way as traditional syndicalism was. Work-place does not equate with community. Cooperatives by themselves do not challenge the system but may offer particular groups of people a means for a survival strategy under capitalism. However if the very demand for workers’ self-management goes no further than seeking to change the form of management of the modern enterprise, it is profoundly conservative. The cooperatives would still have to take decisions in accordance with what the market dictated. Real control by the producers over the production and allocation of wealth is simply not possible within an exchange economy.
Eroding capitalism is a fantasy and as implausible as the idea of taming capitalism. Given the immense power and wealth of large capitalist corporations surely if “non-capitalist” emancipatory forms of economic activities and relations ever grew to the point of threatening the dominance of capitalism, they would simply be crushed. It is enticing to believe that even when the state seems quite uncongenial for advances in social justice and social change, there is still much that can be done. We can get on with the business of building the kernel of a new world, not from the ashes of the old, but within the shell of the old. It is a far-fetched vision of political and economic action.
So if cooperatives are a flawed model, is there anything better to point to? Public libraries are a better example of socialism. A library embody principles of access and distribution which are profoundly anti-capitalist. Consider the difference between the ways a person acquires access to a book in a bookstore and in a library. In a bookstore, you look for the book you want on a shelf, check the price, and if you can afford it and you want it sufficiently, you go to the cashier, hand over the required amount of money, and then leave with the book. In a library you go to the shelf (or more likely these days, to a computer terminal) to see if the book is available, find your book, go to the check-out counter, show your library card, and leave with the book. If the book is already checked out, you get put on a waiting list. In a bookstore the distribution principle is “to each according to ability to pay”; in a public library, the principle of distribution is “to each according to need.” What is more, in the library, if there is an imbalance between supply and demand, the amount of time one has to wait for the book increases; books in scarce supply are rationed by time, not by price. A waiting list is a profoundly egalitarian device: a day in everyone’s life is treated as morally equivalent. A well-resourced library will treat the length of the waiting list as a signal that more copies of a particular book need to be ordered. Libraries can also become multipurpose public amenities, not simply repositories of books. Good libraries provide public space for meetings, sometimes venues for concerts and other performances, and a congenial gathering place for people. Of course, libraries can also be exclusionary zones that are made inhospitable to certain kinds of people. They can be elitist in their budget priorities and their rules. Actual libraries may thus reflect quite contradictory values. But, insofar as they embody emancipatory ideals of equality, democracy, and community, libraries represent socialist practice.