On the American progressive website, Truthout, there is featured an article on cooperatives.
Once more people are being counseled that such schemes are a solution to their misery.
In the past decade, the number of worker-owned cooperatives in the United States has almost doubled from roughly 350 companies to nearly 600. We are informed that the immediate motivation for their creation is that coops equitably share the benefits in the good times and the burdens in the hard times. It's not the job of the Socialist Party to tell fellow-workers the way to live. We are not in the business of telling people how they should live their lives under capitalism. It might indeed be more pleasant to work in a cooperative. Co-operatives are usually portrayed by their proponents as more satisfying working arrangement than those found in the hierarchical structures of conventional enterprises. Who needs a martinet boss hectoring us every moment of our working time? People will instinctively and understandably seek ways to bandage over social wounds to improve their quality of life. People are genuinely suffering and seeking a solution. People are becoming increasingly atomised, alienated, and anxious. With the financialisation of capital and globalisation, power is concentrating in the hands of a few. The situation that we are in is getting worse politically, socially, and economically yet the opposition to capitalism is so divided we can't get organised to oppose the powers that be.
Cooperatives can provide some immediate relief from the various symptoms of capitalism. They are also real-life examples that it is possible to organise production and distribution without greedy private capitalists at the helm. In doing so they help dispel the myth that working class people can’t organise or run society and go some way to showing that the capitalist class is unnecessary and parasitic. They make a vision of an alternative society seem more practical and possible.
Having said that, we must take issue with the article's other claim, that we should aim towards “entire ecosystems of cooperatives that transform the way the economy works.” Per usual Mondragon is cited as something to be aspired towards. This is where we part company with the author.
Co-ops can’t “out-compete” capitalism. Corporations will always have larger capital to invest in research, technology, machinery and their willingness to cut costs through lower wages, less environmentally sounds practices, outsourcing, etc, will give them an advantage. Second, is that cooperatives are subject to market pressures to compete just the same as capitalist enterprises and this lends itself to pressures to create the same practices of corporations. For instances, in the Mondragon cooperatives there have been strikes in the past, outsourcing and low wages in production sites opened developing countries, as well as a trend towards unelected management that is more like a typical capitalist corporation. It is self-managed capitalism, because it offers no solution for changing the underlying logic of capitalism, which is production for maximum profit. There would be restrictions on the lengths to which a self-directed enterprise would go as opposed to a traditional capitalist company, but those restrictions would likely not hold up when they threaten the survival of the enterprise.
Co-ops do not eliminate owners. What happens is that ownership changed hands. And whereas previously a company might have had a few influential shareholders, it now has a few hundred (or thousand) But private property has not been abolished. Socialists aim to abolish the social structures that allow for the division between the rich and the poor - private ownership, money, markets etc. Socialists advocate the socialisation of the means of production, not the dilution of ownership of the same. "Capitalist" isn't a needlessly obtuse term of abuse for people we don't like, it denotes people who own capital, the means of production under capitalism. The owners of a co-operative are collective capitalists. The problem is that what exploits us isn't the bosses, but capital. As long as the purpose of productive units is to produce value, workers will be enslaved to the production of value, regardless if there are an enterprise’s owners. Coops aren’t an alternative way to socialism because they still produce value. Both capital and value are social relationships. By making them the owners, workers do not abolish the relation of ownership, nor do they abolish the anarchy of the market etc. etc.
Cooperatives that exist under a market economy inevitably replicate the problems of capitalism although it makes life better for some, but it doesn’t end the system of exploitation. They reproduce capital and prioritises sectional interests of pockets of workers of the class interests over the working class as a whole. The market is to remain, but not, apparently, its laws. It should be obvious that if any enterprise produces to sell, and pays its bills out of its revenue, it will be subject to the same basic market laws as any other enterprise. Of course, at the moment these laws are observed and interpreted by management, which then makes the decisions and' imposes them on the other workers in the interests of the shareholders. It should have occurred to the advocates of cooperatives that these same laws might have the same force whoever does the managing and even if the shareholders, so to speak, are the workers. "Capitalism without capitalists" could never in fact come about. They argue for some sort of “self-managed capitalism” that could only exist on paper.
Should the working-class reach a level of understanding where they could pressurise the owning class out of existence, they would long since have passed the stage where they would have already abolished the wages system and established socialism.