Coop Naysayers as “Religious” Thinkers Who Keep the System Going
When Controlling the Means of Production is Not Enough
Once upon a time, left intellectuals argued that the masses or working class should control the means of production or even the economy. Of course this proposition must have assumed that the masses or working class had the knowledge required to organize production or the larger economy. Given growing expertise and a complicated division of labor shaping specialization, power through knowledge must complement power through decision-making control. One also has to ask what the word “working class” means, but let us assume that it means persons who work for a living or have a significant degree of alienation from economic power. The larger idea in any case is that the left would look for various means to gain peak control over workplaces and economic resources rooted in factories, offices, workplaces, corporations, and the like. There could be obvious exceptions, e.g. one would not want a cooperative led by QAnon supporters to organize government workplaces.
Now we come to the January 29, 2021 issue of Organizing Work, where Carmen Molinari, Lexi Owens, and Robert Fontana have recently authored the essay “You Can’t Win Without a Fight: Why Worker Cooperatives are a Bad Strategy.” Before reading a word in the main text, several ideas should logically come to mind. First, why are cooperatives supposed to be mutually exclusive with fighting? Second, who is being fought? Third, is fighting an end in itself or a means to a goal? Fourth, have we encountered yet another “Marxian” (or Syndicalist) left-wing takedown of cooperatives in which all cooperatives are assumed to be homogenous? Finally, what are we supposed to be winning, i.e. is the goal (higher) wages, power, improved income levels, de-alienation from a lack of economic control or what?
Molinari and colleagues begin by critiquing the economist Richard Wolf who they claim “contended that whereas labor unions bargain a better deal for workers from the employer, worker co-ops are the end goal because they are ‘the way in which workers don’t have to bargain with anybody else.’” This critique obviously begs the question about why bargaining would not be necessary if one were part of a cooperative that must function in a larger ocean of capitalist firms. Also, it is not clear that unions often provide “a better deal for workers from the employer.” There are obviously company or state-run unions that do no such thing. There are unions which are too weak to offer much resistance to managerial and arbitrary planning and there are unions who try to represent certain kinds of professional occupations in which the “worker” is partially taking on managerial functions, e.g. a researcher who gets a large grant and hires persons to work under her or him.
Molinari and colleagues continue by writing “that worker cooperatives are often an off-ramp from organizing against the boss, and that even a mass cooperative movement can never pose a legitimate challenge to the employing class.” The logic in this sentence is similar to the logic in the title, i.e. cooperatives and fights are mutually exclusive. One then wonders what the evidence for this proposition is given that social movements engaged in fights often have cooperatives in their portfolio. One could also “fight” to establish a cooperative.
The Old “Cooperatives are Co-opting” Line
The evidence comes in the form of an argument very often heard from so-called “Marxists” (or others on the left) which appears to repeat an idea attributed to Karl Marx himself that cooperatives are idealist utopian propositions which ignore the larger logic of system change. There is academic research to suggest otherwise, but no matter. Some syndicalists may not even care about what Marx thought. Molinari and colleagues argue that the power of the working class comes from its “ability to halt the flow of capitalists’ profits within their own companies.” So “by withholding labor, workers can interfere with the capitalist logic of profit maximization and advance workers’ interests and demands.” In contrast, they argue “worker cooperatives…retreat from the class struggle and actually entice workers into participating in the capitalist system.” Let us call this the “cooperatives and co-optation” argument (C&C).
There are many problems with C&C and let us walk through them. First, C&C is a kind of deductivist proposition which is not necessarily born out by any evidence. It’s asserted almost as a tenant of theory, perhaps based on a kind of Trumpian truth hybrid in which it combines part of a truth with a lie. The truth part of the equation is that many cooperatives link workers to companies which are then embedded within the capitalist system. The lie part occurs because certain cooperatives reach a scale such that they function as what William and Kathleen Whyte referred to as a “mini economy,” i.e. so that an individual cooperative becomes less like a receiver of capitalist logic (depending of course on its size). A network of cooperatives or even a larger scale cooperative network can become more like an author of alternative rules. Larger cooperative firms (and their networks) can begin to control more rules and procedures, i.e. decision-making power, related to the larger society. The larger cooperatives are (or the more they vertically integrate), the more they can aggregate various mechanisms of autonomy. These mechanisms relate to hiring decisions, procurement decisions, use of materials, decisions about where, what, and how to produce and many other such decisions. This repertoire of decision-making has been elaborated upon by various thinkers in the reconstructionist circle of authors, e.g. Seymour Melman, Harley Shaiken, Zellig Harris, and Lawrence B. Cohen.
Second, the C&C argument assumes that workers’ strike capacity is a kind of ultimate tool or weapon. In contrast, authors like Richard Barnet, Fred Block, Barry Bluestone, Bennett Harrison, and Ronald E. Müller argue that the ruling class, capitalist elites or dominant global decision-makers can exercise power by relocating capital or engaging in capital strikes or attacks on government’s credit rating and ability to organize work. Capital mobility can be opposed by the domestic anchoring of cooperatives as Seymour Melman and Gar Alperovitz have argued. In contrast, the syndicalist tendency in the left has never been able to explain what to do when capitalists say, “okay, you go on strike, fine, then we close your company and move it to China, India or Vietnam.” Owners of work(places) can threaten workers who don’t obey. Of course, the counter-factual argument is a kind of idealist utopianism which reasons that global labor solidarity will eliminate capital mobility or capitalist blackmail. Yet, while such solidarity is important, it is hardly guaranteed or sufficient. It’s usually rare. So, while the C&C argument appears to call out cooperatives for being idealist, it turns out the very argument of the C&C camp itself is based on a kind of idealism. In contrast, cooperatives–by anchoring production–can offer a mechanism for reducing capital mobility and job blackmail.
Strikes can of course provide leverage, but a strike does not institutionalize power in the same way a cooperative can through laws, ownership rights and accompanying decision-making power. The counter-argument is that strikes can be institutionalized through the threat of future strikes, but we saw how the Reagan Administration smashed unions and illustrated the limits of such threats (or even their deployment). With so few workers organized, the promise of a strike is hardly a robust way to institutionalize workers’ power today.
Please note: Some union campaigns involve organizing a union in a larger and dominant firm, surrounded by a diverse set of cultural, media, and political actors controlled by the firm. Unionization drives are often peripheral to all these other sources of power. In contrast, if cooperatives achieve a certain scale, then they could make inroads into these other actors. The limited extension of cooperatives partially depends on ideological opposition to cooperatives. Yet, forms of cooperation have been able to negotiate political opposition in ways that union organizing and strikes have been unable to do.
The Argument: Cooperatives are Bad Because they are Effective
The idea that cooperatives can ride the downward wave of even rightwing (or far-right) governments is precisely utilized by Molinari and his colleagues to attack Mondragon. They fault Mondragon’s founder and then director, José María Arizmendiarrieta, for getting an award from Franco’s Minister of Labor. Rather than appreciate the fact that workers can gain decision-making power even during a fascist regime, Molinari and colleagues want to make political fights the ultimate goal. Yet, the U.S. left has often prioritized political fights and ignored the fact that millions of persons lack decision-making power at work. By faulting Mondragon for negotiating around having to operate during a dictatorship, Molinari and colleagues seem to suggest that it would have been better for workers to have even less power during the dictatorship. Molinari and colleagues also blame Mondragon for receiving an award from the Financial Times also won by Apple, Amazon and Fiat. Why? One assumes that the problem was that these are capitalist firms which have exploited their workers. So, if you win such an award you are somehow in bad company.
I find this guilt by association argument somewhat juvenile. If a cooperative manages to be innovative and productive, it might gain an award. Part of the left seems to think that innovation and productivity are bad–which is another way of saying that an underdog character structure is to be valorized above all else, i.e. be less innovative, be less productive, be more marginal in decision-making power and maintain “clean hands” by not getting awards doled out by fascists (during a dictatorship) or capitalists. I rather think that if a cooperative can maintain its operations at the price of getting awards from authoritarians and also gain symbolic power from the Financial Times this is a good idea. The other underlying problem I have with this line of critique is that it assumes that the left is on one side and the right is on another, on all questions. The idea seems to be that the left is in solidarity with one another against the external, capitalist enemies. In contrast, the left (or individuals within it) precisely lacks or is weak in solidarity because it so embraces an underdog character structure (and sometimes a dog-eat-dog mentality) which accompanies the resource scarcity and peripheralization of the left and certain leftists. Such persons seem to wallow in their marginality. Yet, Marx himself did not valorize marginality because he deployed terms like “lumpen proletariat” and chided certain aspects of rural life as under-developed and backwards.
As one gets further into the Molinari article one realizes that one is encountering a kind of argument by dull repetition. They write: “cooperatives don’t and can’t organize the working class to fight the ruling class for wealth and power.” Rather cooperatives “seek to build and develop a tiny slice of capital outside of the direct control of big industrialists,” i.e. “cooperatives retreat from the direct struggle between workers and owners to instead build worker-owners.” This argument is frankly an absurd one which is based on a reductionist logic about cooperatives’ designs, charters and rules.
The argument is entirely without logic and is mind-numbing. Certainly, the scenario portrayed could occur, but there is no reason why it is necessary. Molinari and colleagues seem to think that there are two camps. Camp A is the cooperative. Camp B is the fight against capitalism. But Cooperatives are firms and firms are capitalists, so A and B are in different camps. There are many problems with this mind-numbing logic. First, cooperatives themselves can depend on suppliers or customers or government procurement actors who function as competitors or opponents. Or, cooperatives can be in competition with other firms which are (or are more) capitalistic. The idea that cooperatives and these entities are in always the same camp is therefore absurd. Many Marxists and Anarchists purchase granola, toilet paper, and toothbrushes from capitalist firms. Can we say these Marxists are coopted by making these purchases? Are they on “the same team”? If they are, then clearly the Molinari group’s argument makes no sense. If they are not, then again the Molinari group’s argument makes no sense. Either way: No sense.
Reductionism at Work: Gaining Power in One Sphere Necessitates Not Gaining it in Another
There is an additional reason why the Molinari group is making a reductionistic argument. Can’t a cooperative pool workers’ purchases or donations and use that capital to support a strike fund? Is there any reason why a cooperative would not do that? Certainly the cooperative might not do that if the strike was at a firm with which they do business. Yet, cooperatives don’t do business with all firms. Yet, if Molinari and his fellow authors do business with the firm (by purchasing its products) are they then also strike breakers? This might be a silly question because it assumes that Molinari and co. would act against a strike. Yet, why is this any more silly than arguing that cooperatives can’t fight strikes? Furthermore, the probability that a cooperative would replace a reactionary firm as a partner with a progressive firm is increased the more cooperative firms there are to chose from. Yet, the Molinari group is arguing precisely against increasing the number of firms. What’s going on in the Molinari piece reminds me of the Republican Party. It does everything in its power to increase crime, by restraining the welfare state, and then it organizes its voters around fear of crime. I don’t see why I must be in solidarity with such specious thinking.
Ariana R. Levinson, at the University of Louisville, has advocated using strike funds to form cooperatives. Strike funds were used to finance the Denver Cab cooperative. Logically, one could use cooperatives to advance strike funds. Some cooperatives have even advocated general strikes. A study published in 1937, Report of the Inquiry on Cooperative Enterprise in Europe, which was sent to the President of the United States explains how cooperative institutions have actually supported strike activity. The English Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS), organized in 1863, was established to promote cooperative activity. During a coal strike in 1912, “the Northumberland Miners’ Association applied to its bank for an overdraft to raise strike funds,” but “the request was refused” even though “the union offered excellent security for the loan.” The Bank of CWS “supplied the needed funds immediately when approached.” After this development, the British trade-union movement became one of the bank’s depositors.
In his study, “Symbolic Networks: The Realignment of the French Working Class, 1887-1894,” Christopher K. Ansell cites the work of Fernand Pelloutier to explain the bourses du travail in France as a movement entity which “linked…unions together across…political divisions” and were “jacks-of-all-trades.” They “create strike funds and consumer cooperatives,” illustrating how both activities could be part of a common movement. Pelloutier’s published his study, Histoire des bourses du travail, in 1901. What’s remarkable is that Pelloutier has been referred to as “the father of revolutionary syndicalism.” So how is it that this pre-eminent syndicalist is able to recognize that strikes and cooperatives are not mutually exclusive, but in the new version of syndicalism which Molinari and co. provide a conflict exists?
Perhaps Molinari and co. argue that a cooperative A would not raise money for a strike fund to support a strike against A. This is wrong. Cooperatives can organize work for persons who were laid off or otherwise unemployed. Essentially the retained wages of the workers at cooperative A can be used to support strike activity. In contrast, it could be the case that workers are unemployed and have no jobs or income to support a strike. This latter scenario is not addressed by the authors, except they seem to argue for a moral hierarchy where striking and union organizing is first, being unemployed is second, and being a cooperative is last. Perhaps the authors are union organizers who are employed.
The Argument: Cooperatives are Bad because They are Marginal
The Molinari group is arguing that cooperatives are bad because they are peripheral for as noted above, they write: that cooperatives “build and develop a tiny slice of capital outside of the direct control of big industrialists.” In contrast, a few lines earlier they were complaining that Mondragon was too established, getting awards. Mondragon is precisely a big industrialist. The Molinari group must mean cooperatives are bad because they are small and they are bad when they are big. In other words, their argument boils down to this: cooperatives are bad because they are bad. They must rationalize their thinking by arguing that cooperatives are bad because they are not on the side of the working class and yet Mondragon has protected many of its employees’ jobs and standard of living, having done so in a way not done in non-cooperatives. Yet, the non-cooperatives can strike which is far better, except of course when they can’t strike–which then would be bad or worse. Except strikes can be idealized, but cooperatives are faulted as idealistic. And so it goes.
The Argument: A Movement’s Effectiveness is Reduced to Success in Using a Tactic, Even When it Fails
The mind-numbing arguments don’t end there. They march on. The Molinari group blames Mondragon for establishing a way to advance one form of workers’ power even when other strategies were not achievable. They argue that Mondragon became palatable to Franco because it did not support strikes. They argue that the company’s founders started Mondragon “after a failed attempt to improve working conditions at their previous employer.” These workers were supposed to organize “workers to fight and win,” but instead became “worker-owners, or petty capitalists.” Essentially, this kind of argument reminds one of the idea that we must all suffer in this world, until we get to the next world–even if we might never get to that next world. The workers failed to improve conditions so they exited from the firm. The exit from the firm is akin to a strike. Yet, now Molinari and co. wanted these workers to be loyal to their original firm rather than exit from it and improve their working conditions at a new firm where they actually exercise more control. This frankly is the political equivalent of masochism. The Molinari group displaces or sublimates this masochism by calling the workers “petty capitalists,” i.e. you rename the workers as capitalists when they don’t use the tactics you prefer–even when the tactics don’t work.
The Molinari group argues that choosing cooperatives over strikes or unionism is quite common. They write: “There are many recent examples of organizing campaigns devolving into crowdfunding campaigns to found worker cooperatives after a union drive collapses, especially in low-capital industries such as foodservice and retail.” This seems to be the authors’ unself-conscious attempt at describing why tactics might shift because of dynamics in capital mobile or peripheral sectors. So, the authors make a principle out of deploying unions rather than analyzing how a cooperative could be a mechanism to create a safe space for a union organizing campaign. Molinari and co. continue by trying to shame workers who tried to organize their work into a cooperative after failed unionization drives. They seem uncomfortable with the very Marxian idea that controlling the means of production is a kind of trump card for workers to de-alienate and gain capacities. It is far more important for the authors that workers should persist in failed unionization drives than to actually control parts of their own labor.
Syndicalism as a Pseudo Religion
My best guess is that some members of the I.W.W. treat syndicalism as a kind of pseudo religion rather than view strikes and organizing as a means to an end. The reason for this suspicion comes when the authors write that the United Electrical Workers, “legendary for its history of class struggle unionism…now sees founding worker cooperative small businesses as a way to ‘create union jobs’ as opposed to ‘creating’ union jobs by organizing non-union workers.” Rather than explain why forming a cooperative is not a potential scenario for creating a safe space for unions, the authors instead argue that unionization must always be the first move on the political chess board. They argue this even after providing several examples when this unionization-first sequencing proved wrong.
Molinari do point to non-solidaristic examples of cooperatives. For example, the Lusty Lady campaign in San Francisco involved workers trying to form a union in the late 1990s. After a strike in 2003, the strip club closed down. The employees responded by forming a cooperative, but soon started to compete “against each other for customers” even attempting “to drop heavier and nonwhite dancers” because they were seen as bringing in less money. This example is very telling. Here we have a failed cooperative which fails by being so small as to not encompass all workers. The alternative to the unionizing project fails by being discriminatory and opposing diversity. Yet, rather than view this failure as evidence that cooperatives should have a larger scale or fail when they don’t embrace certain values, the authors instead imply or state that all cooperatives must fail in this way. Let us remember that the authors were not very happy when Mondragon succeeded either. This case teaches us again that the authors think that union drives are ipso facto good, even when they fail. But cooperatives when they fail must always be bad. A unionization drive can fail yet the principle of unionization is paramount as the numero uno tactic because of syndicalism as religion. Given that cooperatives threaten this religion, they are rightfully demonized. This is the logic I surmise is at work here. The dogmatism and absence of knowledge related to empirical facts which contradict the authors’ contentions underlines the pseudo religious format.
This religion faults cooperatives for removing workers from conflicts. The cooperative “effectively takes agitated and experienced worker-organizers, and removes them from the class struggle.” Worker militants are advised to be missionaries and continue militancy elsewhere rather than consolidate gains in a cooperative. Struggle now is an end in itself and no longer a means. So, even if a cooperative were to be financially successful, perhaps paying high wages, changing to more sustainable products, having a greater gender balance and providing space for a union, this cooperative would fail because it de-radicalizes the workers. That seems to be the logic of Molinari and co.
This missionary argument of course is totally absurd for several reasons. First, a cooperative may have other goals than to incubate militancy, e.g. coal workers can be militant and wreck the ecosystem, so their militancy is not the sine qua non of activism. Second, the cooperative could contribute to a capital fund to create other cooperatives or even strike funds. Third, a cooperative might be non-militant today, but turn more militant later. Fourth, some unions have historically crushed and limited militancy. Finally, the authors simply are arguing for militancy as an end itself, even if that were to trigger capital flight, destroy jobs and the ecosystem, and create no durable base for current or future organizing of workers’ decision-making.
Cooperatives as Scarcity and Exploitation
After making a series of illogical points, the authors continue with their original theme. Even if cooperatives can “control production,” they are still “subject to the same market discipline as capitalist enterprises.” They point to cooperatives being in the service industry, a “low-capital sector.” They doubt whether cooperatives can be large enough to compete with firms like Boeing “in the commercial airliner market.” They argue that workers must be squeezed to increase productivity, apparently using a kind of labor theory of value argument that individual worker effort ultimately determines a company’s success. Thus, success must mean “downward wage pressure, unpaid overtime, and most other features of wage labor under capitalism.” The authors say that Mondragon workers struck many times and that many of its non-Spanish workers are not member-owners. They continue, that the cooperative vision is based on outcompeting capitalist firms, but such competition is based on worker exploitation. A key argument is that cooperatives “may gain moral ground on capitalists by being less hierarchical, more fair, and more equitable in their ownership structures, but they actually give up political ground by avoiding the broader fight over where resources are allocated in our society.”
This argument is based on many falsehoods. Let’s go through them. First, the authors believe that companies can only be successful or grow large through exploitation. In contrast, cooperatives can growth by building on communication economies (so that knowledge in the firm is shared without fear of retribution), reducing overheads (caused by excessive decision-making managers), and gaining increased commitment to work (which is often regarded as non-alienating work as opposed to alienating labor). Studies by Seymour Melman and others have shown how cooperatives can actually be more productive and more durable (in labor retention) in the face of downturns than normal capitalist firms.
Second, the authors need to illustrate the limits of Mondragon, but can’t learn from its successes. Rather than simply argue that Mondragon is constrained by capitalism in some ways and transcends capitalism in other ways, they simply make a kind of morally reductionist argument. The fact that hundreds of thousands of firms can offer their workers far worse conditions is ignored. The ignorance is based on false promises from union organizing campaigns that don’t necessarily succeed or could succeed and then later (after capital mobility, ownership changes and the like) could disappear. In any case, the successes which Mondragon has had did not necessarily come at the expense of needed (or more relevant) union campaigns.
Third, the authors again show a kind of mind numbing inconsistency. After expending many words to argue that cooperatives and unions are mutually exclusive or at odds, they then admit that Mondragon has had strikes. Therefore, cooperatives need not exclude strikes and organizing–but that exclusion is one of the authors’ key points.
Fourth, one of the key pressures on wages comes not from an iron law of wage decline in firms operating in capitalist markets, but rather from political decisions by managers. To the extent that cooperatives change the political regime governing firms, such pressure on wages can be reduced.
Fifth, Mondragon may not be a Boeing, but it does contribute to the aerospace market. In theory, if a network of cooperative firms combined with existing production facilities, such an entity could contribute to the passenger rail sector. Whether or not this occurs has more to do with policy support from the state and political organizing, than technical impediments. The Egged bus company in Israel had a cooperative structure for a time. While the company has been criticized for its practices, nothing in this criticism explains why cooperative transportation companies are impossible. In Nepal, Sajha Yatayat is an ongoing cooperative mass transportation company. Passenger cooperatives could sustain cooperative transit companies which purchased from a cooperative mass transit producer. Such networks that organize public goods to promote political (collective) goals have helped provide a showcase for left power in places like Padua, Italy, where the left helped establish a light rail line. Such spaces of consumption provide an additional form of power for left mobilizing in the face of weaknesses sustained elsewhere.
Finally, cooperatives have been formed not to extend exploitation, but rather to oppose it. Susan Levine illustrates this point very well in her study, “Labor’s True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor,” on the original International Workers of the World, the Knights of Labor:
Cooperative production combined with industrial action provided a strategic focus for women in the Knights movement. Because women had traditionally been excluded from trade unions, cooperatives represented an especially important form of protection from the wage system. By taking seriously the Knights’ goal of cooperation, women hoped not only to avoid the exploitation of “wage slavery” but also to alleviate the terrible conditions under which so many worked.” The blacklisted garment workers who founded Chicago’s “Our Girls Co-Op” in 1886 wrote, “We, as wage workers, have been in the workshop for years . .. and not wishing to be dependent upon a wage system we have formed a cooperative society.” Under the banner of “CO-OP OR STARVE,” their venture maintained itself for about two years.
In other words, cooperatives historically have provided an option when few alternatives to exploitation were available. In contrast, today some leftists would deny women and others these options because of a promise related to what social movement activity could bring. This kind of over-valuation of social movement promises is part of a system in which intellectuals make their proposed activity higher on a moral plane than actual solutions established by the people themselves.
Conclusions: Beyond a One Dimensional Theory of Power Accumulation
In many ways the authors offer us a kind of logic that resembles a bad or pseudo religion–bad because while using the form or logic of a religion, the moral codes and egalitarian spirit of a sophisticated religion are missing. Instead, we just assume class solidarity even when such solidarity need not exist in the era of right-wing populism, grassroots racism and sexism, fake news and alternative facts bubbles. Cooperatives can build solidarity, but that form of solidarity is called “bourgeois,” i.e. name calling replaces sociology. The authors conclude that “workers’ greatest power is the power to halt, slow, or otherwise affect production to extract concessions.” They argue that if workers can organize enough they can disrupt industries or economies with “the base of potential union members” including “the entire working class.” They argue that before Mondragon was founded, certain Spanish unions organized millions and during the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s “collectivized property en masse.”
There are several limitations to this kind of argument. First, the authors don’t make a long list of failed union campaigns but even when they acknowledge union campaigns’ failures they go on to essentialize their worth even when cooperatives compensate for such failures. This again underlines the religious element of the arguments deployed. While Mondragon never received a major government bailout, companies like G.M. and Chrysler did when they went bankrupt. While other companies eliminated work through outsourcing and automation, Mondragon largely maintained its employment levels (with periodic displacement), even if employment growth was constrained. Through some kind of logic inversion this success is treated by the authors as a kind of failure.
Second, the earlier successes of the Spanish Revolution and unions are not logically inconsistent with Mondragon’s successes. It is entirely plausible to argue that Mondragon represented an evolution upon these successes which diversified the portfolio of political strategies and established a way to advance workers’ interests even during a dictatorship. To fetishize one set of tactics as a kind of divine occurrence, even when followed another successful yet different strategy, is a kind of pseudo-religious thinking.
Third, the ultimate power of a general strike is rarely in evidence in countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Sweden. This rarity underlines the need to promote a portfolio of strategies such as cooperative development. After spilling many words to argue that cooperatives and strikes are mutually exclusive, the authors concede that the largest cooperative, Mondragon, actually has unions that strike. This intellectual concession is not understood as a refutation of the author’s major claim, but is instead viewed as a weakness. So, the authors argue that strikes are strengths when that suits their argument and weaknesses when that suits their argument. This is another indication of a kind of pseudo religious thinking. While a general strike in India in 2020 reveals the potential for this tactic, there’s no logical reason why such an effort precludes cooperative development. The cooperative movement there has grown substantially in the post-war era.
Fourth, the authors never address changes that limited the power to strike and warranted a diversification in the organizing portfolio of strategies, e.g. Spanish fascism, globalization, deindustrialization, capital flight, the rise of China and other Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs), Neoliberalism, serialization or ossification of certain trade unions, and the ascendancy of consumptive power among different worker groups.
In summary, Molinari and co. tell us what strikes might do, even as authors like myself tell us what cooperatives have done and could do. We both point to potential ways to organize society. Strikes can work, but when they don’t we need other strategies. Cooperatives can even facilitate union organizing and social movements opposing established, more capitalist (or less cooperative) firms. To unnecessarily preclude the cooperative form as an important tactic in social change is to reproduce the status quo and system. I find it remarkable that persons on the left seek to keep the system going in this way. We urgently need new kinds of firms with different governance systems to meet the challenges of ecocide, national chauvinism, sexism, and the abandonment of the organization of work by incumbent firms. A sloppy version of religious thinking is a luxury we can ill afford.
Yes, some cooperatives will be used to divert attention from system change. The same can be said of some unions, political parties, political movements and the like. We need to specify social designs and the required details. We should not engage in pseudo religious polemic mind numbing. One should ask how a study sent to the White House in 1937 actually has more sophisticated ideas than proposals developed by radicals in 2021. The answer is that parts of the left can not engage in basic research, using a deductive kind of argumentation in which data merely services dogmatic propositions, and social amnesia rules the day. This kind of intellectual de-evolution is part of a terrible and tedious tendency in contemporary discourse.
Jonathan Michael Feldman teaches at Stockholm University and is the founder of The Global Teach-In. He can be reached via Twitter @Globalteachin. The proceedings of Global Teach-In can be seen at: https://www.facebook.com/globalteachin/.