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the road to class antagonism is paved with good intentions

February 12, 2012

Today, a friend of mine posted a link to the website of the New Seasons Market Workers’ Voiced, a grassroots campaign dedicated to “promoting and improving conditions and workplace democracy at New Seasons Market.” Their current campaign is “centered around the reinstatement of Ryan Gaughan, a long-term employee who was arbitarilly (sic) terminated due to his involvement in promoting a democratic voice within the company.” One part of their statement in particular caught my attention:

While there are undeniably many positive things about being employed at NSM, the company is changing. Workers are finding themselves being “written up” for minor infractions, which can lead to terminations for long term employees. Wages continue to lag behind competitors such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and even at some of the cooperatively owned grocery stores. And now, when workers begin to come together and advocate for change collectively, the response is selective enforcement of rules clearly targeted at workers who dare to speak up for each other.

Unfortunately, examples like this are all too common and endemic to the system as it’s currently structured. More importantly, they actively illustrate the logical consequences of what Marx termed the ‘coercive laws of competition’ that ultimately make things like progressive companies, co-ops, etc. difficult to create and almost impossible to maintain.

As good as employers’ intentions may be at the start of their respective enterprises, they’re eventually forced to seek greater profits while at the same time suppressing wages as much as possible, which is the only way they can survive in a field full of competitors compelled to do the same. Quite often, employers as individuals are found to be good people, many of whom give generously to charity, etc. Nevertheless, the logic of the system forces the hand of employers to exploit labour as much as they can; and at the same time, labour is coerced into the position of working for a wage and fighting for gains that employers quickly counter in an endless battle punctuated by regular economic crises (these days better known as the ‘business cycle’).

And it’s not simply that these types of businesses are inherently less efficient, competitive, profitable, etc., but that the logic of the system is overtly hostile to their fundamentally pro-worker design. They can certainly be successful, especially in more supportive economic environments (e.g., the MONDRAGON Corporation); but they can never truly thrive on a mass scale when the deck is so overwhelming stacked against them—a point Rosa Luxemborg stresses in chapter seven of her famous 1900 pamphlet, Reform or Revolution:

Co-operatives – especially co-operatives in the field of production constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialised production within capitalist exchange.

But in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise. The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labour is intensified. The work day is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labour is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market. The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.

Bernstein has himself taken note of these facts. But it is evident that he has not understood them. For, together with Mrs. Potter-Webb, he explains the failure of production co-operatives in England by their lack of “discipline.” But what is so superficially and flatly called here “discipline” is nothing else than the natural absolutist regime of capitalism, which it is plain, the workers cannot successfully use against themselves.

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only if they manage to suppress, by means of some detour, the capitalist controlled contradictions between the mode of production and the mode of exchange. And they can accomplish this only by removing themselves artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And they can succeed in doing the last only when they assure themselves beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure themselves of a constant market.

It is the consumers’ co-operative that can offer this service to its brother in the field of production. Here – and not in Oppenheimer’s distinction between co-operatives that produce and co-operatives that sell – is the secret sought by Bernstein: the explanation for the invariable failure of producers’ co-operatives functioning independently and their survival when they are backed by consumers’ organisations.

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’ co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is limited, in the most favourable of cases, to the small local market and to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are excluded from the most important branches of capital production – the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone (forgetting for the moment their hybrid character), co-operatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation. The establishment of producers’ co-operatives on a wide scale would suppose, first of all, the suppression of the world market, the breaking up of the present world economy into small local spheres of production and exchange. The highly developed, wide-spread capitalism of our time is expected to fall back to the merchant economy of the Middle Ages.

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.

Places like New Seasons Market are great in theory, but they’re not immune to the driving forces of, and the logic behind, the global capitalist system of production and exchange they find themselves in. In order for more neighborhood-centric, worker-friendly, and/or worker-owned businesses to sprout and flourish, a more socialized economic ‘field’ needs to replace the current undemocratic one in which we presently plant our seeds of enterprise.


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