Co-opted, absorbed, or destroyed by Capitalism?

This twitter thread put into clear words a topic that has been in my mind for a while:

Co-ops, credit unions, community land trusts, and more sprouting up willy-nilly are not going to get us out of Capitalism, white supremacy, or any other systems of domination.

We need to develop these kinds of institutions politically.

In fact, any of the institutions mentioned above that are developed without the Left politics, strategy, or vision will be co-opted, absorbed, or destroyed by Capitalism.

It has happened before in different global contexts throughout history, and it can 100% happen again.

Their efforts to put that into practise can be seen in the co-operation jackson project (also see this thread about that project).

In the UK we have Cooperation Town which was inspired by co-operation Jackson. Beyond that I don’t know much about it (does anyone have better info?).

My feeling has been that just making loads of co-ops isn’t nearly enough on it’s own to really create the society people talk about wanting without including wider political, economic, social visions.

I know people find it hard enough to get people to engage in the basic co-op stuff in the first place… but perhaps the bigger vision would animate people more (my motivation in projects seems to be deeply connected to the bigger vision).

Any insight into what is going on here? Does the bigger vision seem too daunting? Or unclear? Not interested? “Don’t talk politics” mindset? Already co-opted, absorbed, or destroyed by Capitalism?

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Totally agree. This is mine and many people’s critiques of co-ops.

The way Autonomic attempts to address this issue is by doing a lot of solidarity work to build the movement. We provide dev and hosting for lots of leftist groups/organisations based on what they can afford as well as our bigger clients.

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The Radical Routes Aims & Principles address this to some degree, it includes:

We want to see a world based on equality and co-operation, where people give according to their ability and receive according to their needs, where work is fullfilling and useful and creativity is encouraged, where decision making is open to everyone with no hierarchies, where the environment is valued and respected in its own right rather than exploited.

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I do find it slightly amusing we talk about worker equity on a tech forum.

In my career I’ve met a lot of very well paid software engineers. I don’t think any of them felt hard done-by by capitalism! In fact, their tax bills seem to fund half the country I live in.

In Silicon Valley the salaries blow my mind. Their take-home buys a lot of personal equity!

I’m personally not involved in co-ops for any political purpose, to me it’s just an extremely sensible way of working in a group of highly expert colleagues. When you add in working from home you can seriously minimise costs and maximise productivity (no building, no reception, no commute)

I work in open source not for political reasons but because it appears to solve the problem of long term software maintenance and helps guard against monopolies and proprietary license ‘hostage taking’.

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What would developing these institutions politically mean in practise? What does co-opted or absorbed look like? These are sincere questions, and I understand that opening up in detail the terms in a Twitter thread is not practical. For example, the Co-op Group in the UK donates to the Co-operative Party. Is this a sort of thing that prevents it from being co-opted?

There was a thread in the platform cooperative email list to a post that argued the following, which I think is bit similar:

We (co-ops) cannot win ‘their game’, the deck is stacked. The lie however, is that their’s is the only game in town. We do not have to play, & we can start our own game. Without us, they have no game. To quote David Korten, we can, ‘walk away from the King’.

To be honest, this is what gets me down about most coops, including platform coops, They still in the main want to be just a bit more benign element of the same old tired old game, We need a platform commons movement. That’s the new game, completely beyond the old paradigm. Only platform commons is truly post-capitalism."

My reply was:

"I don’t know if it’s true that we cannot win their game - credit union membership is expanding massively (credit unions worldwide served 50% more people than 10 years ago). In Finland the most popular bank and retailer (which is also the largest private employer) are both coops - so I would argue that there are examples of coops pretty much “winning the game”. In Rwanda the coop membership has increased from 200 000 to over 5 million in the last 25 years.

However we in the platform coop movement should perhaps control expectations so that we don’t overpromise and underdeliver.

My thinking is that coops do bad things 20% less and good things 10% more. However, doing so is pretty unthankful - you are not thankful towards a cooperative bank because it’s less likely to go bankrupt than a shareholder bank no more than you are thankful for your friend for not stealing from you. Canadian credit unions giving 5x larger share of their profits to charity than their competitors is not gonna turn the world upside down.

Cooperatives seem to change things gradually and offer tangible, practical economic benefits. In my view virtuous cycle of accumulating gradual improvements is the most sustainable way for meaningful and substantial progress. This is not to say we don’t need bold ideas and reforms - New Deal or the Nordic welfare state build on cooperation between unions, left wing parties and coops are all examples of such gradual virtuous cycle that leads to a radically different economic system.

I’m afraid people who wish coops to offer more will be disappointed. Perhaps they will move on to another movement promising more revolutionary change and I hope they will find one. "

That is not to say we shouldn’t seek to engage in cooperative electoral politics more - indeed revitalising electoral politics in existing big cooperatives could have huge potential. Good example can be found in Texas.

"in 2007, a single members acting on his own contacted an electric co-op he was a member of to ask for solar incentives, and was told none existed. This wasn’t just any cooperative - it was the largest electric cooperative in the US, the 300 000 members strong Pedernales Electric Cooperative. He pushed the cooperative to learn more about how it operated and how to influence its policies. The board reacted by aggressively trying to prevent him and other members to do so - including by taking the member to court. This inspired the membership to start organising by setting up an organisation that in 2008 board elections won 5 out of 7 seats on the board. The new board started distributing capital credits, that had been used to enrich the board, to the members and set out some of the boldest renewable energy targets of any electric cooperative in the country.

The fossil fuel lobby started a counter-attack, and managed to reduce the majority held by the reformists from 5 to 4 in the next election. This shows that the revitalisation of democracy can be done, even in large cooperatives against hostile management, but it needs to be more than a single campaign; it needs to be a new way of operating.

If this is possible in a cooperative with hostile management, such initiatives in the majority of cooperatives where the management is supportive or at least agnostic of greater member participation has massive potential for member-led revitalisation. In the 16 million members strong Nationwide building society, it requires a signature of 500 people to put forward a motion. In 1998, 87% of the members who voted approved a motion to donate 1% of pre-tax profits to charities, which meant £11 million last year. What if a similar motion would be put forward, but instead of donating to charities, the building society would invest 1% of its pre-tax profits to new cooperatives every year?"

So what would it look like in practice for a local credit union to act more politically and challenge capitalism better? Would it have to reduce the tangible, individual economic benefits it offers to its members and instead focus more of its resources on supporting political movements?

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Hi @nick
Whilst it is of course true that some co-ops and similar organisations get co-opted/absorbed it is not inevitable. The problem and the solution, in my view, lies in the underpinning vales and principles and how they are implemented and nurtured within the organisation. In the vast majority of co-operatives and similar orgs that I’ve come across, the understanding and application of the seven co-operative principles is almost always under-developed, even ignored. Even in cases where the principles are applied, it is very often the case that they are not applied holistically, and this leads to the downfall that you talk about. I’m thinking in particular about the 5th, 6th and 7th principles (education & information, co-operation amongst co-operatives, and care/concern for community).

This said, co-operation, when boiled right down to it’s barest essentials, is in my view apolitical. Within a left context co-operatives can be incredibly powerful vehicles for social and economic transformation. Within a right of centre context co-operation can be a really effective organising principle (I’m thinking of some of the big ag co-ops, enterprises like Ace Hardware, insurance mutuals, etc. By any measure these orgs are not left wing).

If your goal is building a post-capitalist economy then co-ops – or perhaps more accurately co-operation – can be a really valuable tool. The co-operative model is highly flexible: it can survive and thrive in a capitalist economy as we know, and it can also work in a post-capitalist setting. At the end of the day it’s about the people involved, their paradigm, and how the principles and values are understood and applied.

A lot of co-ops alone is not a game changer. When they are underpinned by effective education, and work together (principle 6) then we can begin to see some traction. It’s also worth remembering that I think co-operatives should seek to have broad appeal if they are going to realise economic power.

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Wow, so much to say! Thanks for engaging :+1:

During my first visit to a housing co-op 9 years I wrote a guest entry for the radical routes newsletter - although since that trip I haven’t encountered radical routes so much other than a few visits to housing co-ops. Perhaps because I’ve spent a bunch of time outside the UK. I met @leedscath on that trip, would be interested to hear her input on this thread and how/what radical roots looks like in relation to this :slight_smile:

This seems like a very narrow version of the even just the basic co-op vision, no? As @Graham mentions later, what about the 5th, 6th, and 7th co-op principles?

It depends what the game is I think, if the game is just creating co-ops for everything then that’s not the game I’m in it to play. I like the vision where co-ops are an important part of a bigger whole, but it’s the bigger whole that is more interesting to me. What is the bigger whole for you?

The discussion is often turned towards a dichotomy between “small incremental steps” and “big radical changes”. Reform vs revolution. But I’m probably more interested in finding out what is the vision beyond the strategy first. What are we actually trying to make? I’m sure actual strategies are not so easily split into two big abstract categories.

I think I had/have a lot of frustration in this area, the more an idea/approach excites and animates me, the more people say it needs to toned down and made realistic/incremental. I’m down with that as part of a strategy, but not as a vision.

I can’t answer you specifically (I have no idea really what is going on in a local credit union…:confused: ), but maybe a good step is just connecting with other local groups and find out what their needs are. I have great faith in peoples interest and willingness to help and support the specific people around them. I guess it’s co-op principle 7?

More abstractly I find it an interesting point about the relationship of the part vs the whole. Each part is always embedded in a whole (credit unions, or anything else, can’t exist in isolation, we are all part of some ecosystem), but which whole? Which ecosystem? The whole (or other parts) might provide more guidance on how the part can support it better.

I think it’s this bit I want to hear a bit more about. The co-op model itself doesn’t really specify clearly enough to directly act on, and as you said @Graham, the model can thrive in capitalist or post-capitalist settings.

Co-operation Jackson have extended the basic co-op principles from 7 to 13, including a Social Transformation, and is a bit more specific for the context of that project.

I’ve also enjoyed reading how the Guerilla Media Collective have extended the basic co-op principles into the DisCO model which integrates 4 facets:

  • The Commons and P2P;
  • Open Cooperativism;
  • Open Value Networks; and
  • Feminist Economics

And they have their own 7 principles that I think make a lot of sense in 2020.

So, pulling out a few concepts from those two things: social transformation, commoning, active federation, care work, transnational… do these things animate you? Or are they some radical fringe that is unclear how to act on? Irrelevant? Something else?

(I would love to hear more input from people with a bit more practical/direct experience of these new ways than me, I’m mostly coming from the “middle class white guy sitting in a hammock getting excited reading books and articles” perspective :wink: - well, I had enough experience of being professional software developer building things for whoever has the money, but done with that)

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As it happens we have a tiny capital footprint. If at all. If we become seriously successful I guess our brand might achieve some market value for the balance sheet, but that’s a long way away if ever.

We don’t pay salaries, we work on a freelance only basis. We don’t have any equipment or premises.

We don’t take a financial contribution from new members, there is no need as we don’t have significant capital value (yet). It’s early days though. We base onboarding on criteria that focuses on open source contribution.

We have established the principle of democratic control but have yet to fully legally incorporate that. It’s work in progress.

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I sympathise with what you’re saying. It’s not about the quantity of co-ops, and co-ops are not ‘the answer’. As a worker co-op organiser, my guiding lights are something like:

  • Most co-ops are not revolutionary, but the revolution will be co-operative - which is why both co-ops and independent political organisation are necessary.
  • Playing footsie with electoral parties and the state is a waste of energy, and at worst a trap - but we have to act in defence of cooperatives from time to time and that means engaging.
  • Fifth Object of the Rochdale Pioneers: “As soon as practicable, the Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies”. An uncompromising statement of autonomous working class intent - from 1844.
  • Co-ops contain ‘prefigurative’ elements of future non-capitalist arrangements - but not their end form.
  • Worker coops help develop the individual and collective self-confidence and self-management skills we will need to overturn the present arrangements and institute new ones.
  • Worker co-ops are more relevant the more they are networked within and across industries, within and across working class communities (locally and internationally), and involved in socially useful production.
  • Worker co-ops (direct worker intervention through enterprises) are only one form of worker cooperation. Most of the time, workers cooperate with each other to reproduce the shitty system they live under - and also they cooperate against it. Strikes, occupations, petitions, stay-homes, collective sabotage and go-slows are complementary forms of worker cooperation.
  • Much of the good work done by cooperatives during the COVID crisis is the kind of free labour that capitalists love and will gladly co-opt. Capitalism depends on such cooperation. If it can get the working class to resource and socially guarantee its own reproduction, it will do everything to support that effort. Yet, they still do owe us a living and indeed a life - so the question is, what forms of organisation and approach we can develop that allow us both to meet our day-to-day needs, and satisfy our desire for a different world, that are not easily digested - or in fact give the present social system a life-threatening stomach ache? Workers taking over the food system and critical production centres. Developing tools and infrastructure that make tech a weapon in the hands of the working class.

I’m a financial supporter of Cooperation Jackson, and am working with Cooperation Town, let me know what you’d like to know!

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Thanks for the post and lively discussion here. The BSA has done a lot of really great work over the past couple of years, and I think they bring a great argument as to how leftist workers organizations such as co-ops and unions fall short when standing up to the powers of capitalism.

I think that this exact thread here is an excellent example of the shortcoming of co-ops. Worker co-ops can most definitely exist in a capitalist economy but will always be inherently disadvantaged to powers with a significant amount of centralized wealth. The fact that many co-ops consider themselves “apolitical” (which I strongly disagree with) naturally lessens the struggle against those who they seek to liberate themselves from.

As the BSA alludes to in their tweet chain, cooperatives are great tools to build dual power. While it can be argued that cooperatives are not necessarily socialist, they begin to remove the owner’s ability to steal the labour of their employees. Cooperatives are a way to build dual power. However, if a cooperative is uninterested in participating in this larger struggle in a vain effort to remain apolitical, I would imagine that as an example of a cooperative being “co-opted” by capitalism.

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I’ve been working in and with stuff around co-operation since about 1986. What I’ve learned in that time is that co-operation is a process, not a structure or a place. By practicing co-operation we change ourselves and the people we co-operate with. Given that we are talking about a process, a journey if you like, then it is fair to assume that other people are engaged in different parts of that journey, and will therefore have a different view of the world and indeed of the journey itself.

Seeking to impose an overt political mission or vision on what is essentially a bottom-up mutual self-help process will almost by definition exclude or alienate a large chunk of your constituency, and you become immediately a niche interest.

For me the beauty of the co-operative model is its elegance, its subtlety, its ability to be appear both totally conventional and deeply radical at one and the same time. Through this it is possible to engage much more broadly, right across the spectrum of society, and bring people together on that journey, through the process of co-operation. Of course, co-operatives are not perfect, but they can be very powerful tools for social transformation, as the folks at Co-operation Jackson so eloquently explain.

I’ve yet to come across a better approach. I’m not convinced that they are inherently disadvantaged in a capitalist economy. I am convinced that far too few people have a really solid understanding of how to do co-operation, and therefore lots of co-operatives tend be CINOs (Co-ops In Name Only). Effective education is key (P5), effective federation is critical (P6). The political vision then becomes an emergent property of the process of co-operation as those engaged in the process educate themselves and each other.

What’s the BSA?

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Cooperation can’t be apolitical when society is organised for competition.

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Black Socialists in America (the author of OP’s tweet)

I would argue that choosing to side with capitalist liberalism isn’t being any more inclusive than choosing to side with a socialist alternative. I would also argue if your constituency would feel alienated by a deliberate struggle to return ownership to workers than participating in co-operatives either isn’t right for them, or they have not been adequately educated as to what co-ops are for and why they are good.

I think the lack (or suppression) of education, as well as the lack of competitive co-operative organizations in the global market, show that they are disadvantaged under capitalism.

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Great thread, thanks all! I agree that co-ops are disadvantaged and tend to be co-opted under capitalism, which can easily extract value from communities: market intermediaries are adept at ‘arbitrage’. I guess there is a possibility of an enlightened ‘entrepreneurial state’ in some countries/jurisdictions, but it’s blocked in many others, and I’m impatient. Coexistence and struggle is inevitable, and the odds are stacked against many enlightened co-operators by a highly concentrated ‘big digital’ industry that has benefited many of us, including me in the past. I feel digital’s brief history has seen surveillance, gambling, porn, mis-selling of digital hardware shiny toys, data science in political ‘nudge’, global tax avoidance through transfer pricing and many more, like fake news, hate speech. Of course set against that is digital in education, art, culture, tax and welfare, health, communication and ‘connectedness’: all great advances for all those in the world fortunate to have access to them. I feel that ‘big digital’ has enough of a debt to repay and that platform co-operativism, for both workers and customers is an efficient means to do that globally and ethically. It’s also a matter of timing: using the power of digital platforms to ride on the critical events of social change. Why should we leave it to the marketing departments of digital corporates to exploit the ‘zeitgeist’ and boost their profits even further in the crisis? Maybe we can allow ourselves to organise, as Z the OP from BSA suggests.

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I think this interview is relevant to the discussion here

It seems possible to view a bottom-up mutual self-help process as an overt political mission or vision, no?

… or maybe it’s the overt bit that throws it off? Over time I felt that doing conventional and obvious nice things (e.g. helping the people around you with their needs) can actually be directly connected to a wider and very radical politics, and that it doesn’t need to be overtly about the bigger political/social/economic vision at the level of each individual act.

But I think the individual act never exists in total isolation of it’s “containing philosophy”, and that’s perhaps where the possibility for being co-opted comes in: currently it feels like the individual act is tolerated to the extent that it doesn’t challenge the system.

And thus co-ops end up in the state they’re in now, their individual success inversely proportional to how much they challenge the wider system rather than by how much they embody the collaborative/co-operative ideals (I personally, am not very excited to have co-op clones of what seem more fundamentally capitalist things - e.g. takeaway food deliveries).

The “state of the co-op movement today” is obviously highly debatable, and we have @LeoSammallahti to give us the more optimistic assessment :slight_smile:

If I understand you correctly, the premise is that if people really did co-ops properly as per the 7 principles, then all the good stuff will emerge? If so, I agree that would be a great step forward.

I guess the 7 principles are one version of the bigger whole I’m talking about. I think principles need to be under constant evolution, and some of these extended/adapted versions I linked to above are useful additions to include more stuff we’ve found out about since…

For the CINOs, I wonder if their guiding framework really is the 7 principles? … if the framework is not explicit and alive, probably some kind of implicit framework is in play, defaulting back to what is possible or tolerated in our default bigger whole (capitalism).

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Guys, quick question, (and perhaps something for a distinct Topic), here goes:

Is this group a business support forum or a forum for would-be Marxist revolutionaries?

Is the goal here to further the strength of cooperative businesses or to overthrow capitalism?

I thought it was the former initially but am now having my doubts.

If it’s the latter I will leave you guys in peace and not return here.

I am quite frankly sick to the back teeth of hearing Left-wing propaganda on social media and the news and the last thing I need is to be confronted with it at work.

Am I the only one who feels that way?

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I’m not going to pretend I’m not a socialist here. Regardless, I don’t think the parties I’m a part of really matter in this discussion.

It’s a forum dedicated to supporting cooperatives. I think we all agree on that.

I don’t see how these are mutually exclusive.

Look. Cooperatives are a method of workers organizing where they can actually have ownership over their labor. I think we can all agree upon that. Where you draw the line on something being “political” or “propaganda” is something you determine. I’ve heard people complain about unions striking at their work for bringing politics into their work and making them feel guilty for crossing the picket line. I’ve had people complain to me about suggesting using a Code of Conduct because it was “politicising” software development.

If this is one of those communities that wants to ban politics (whatever that means) I’m happy to show myself out. I’m certainly not a moderator here and frankly, I’m new here so maybe I just misunderstood. I’m here trying to build a cooperative and learn from those who have more experience than I do but I don’t think that’s worth having to keep my mouth shut whenever the topic of empowering workers comes up.

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Helloooo, I have been following this thread because I was really interested by Nick’s initial question, and I think the question around politics has brought a lot up.

This is a public-facing forum for CoTech, we wanted to have a place where we could have conversations online and keep it open to the rest of the world. If you’re not sure what CoTech is, we’re a network of digital co-ops from all over the UK. You can read our manifesto here.

In terms of these questions:

Is this group a business support forum or a forum for would-be Marxist revolutionaries?

Is the goal here to further the strength of cooperative businesses or to overthrow capitalism?

It all depends on who you speak to in the network. Some of us are more political than others, some of the co-ops are more political than others.

One of the good things about this forum is that there is space for all of us who are here, so no need to show yourself out unless you would like to go - that’s entirely up to you.

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These three pages are probably the best reference documents for what this forum is about:

I’d like to see @merefield’s co-op, Pavilion joining CoTech — we are not a politically homogeneous group but I think we all try to get on and work together in a productive way, the best we can, while politely disagreeing or tolerating our political differences where necessary.

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