Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The co-operativist manifesto

Introduction

First, two quotes:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
R. Buckminster Fuller

"A cooperative ("coop") or co-operative ("co-op") is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual social, economic, and cultural benefit." - Wikipedia

People co-operating - probably

More and more people know that it's time to get serious and get involved when it comes to politics. No one comes to this blog to read more of the drivel they have to suffer when they open a newspaper. We're sick of the same old voices churning out the same crap, repacked for another generation. Hopeless solutions re-applied to the latest crisis and simultaneously sowing the seeds of the next one. I'm tired of it, I'm even tired of complaining about it, even our complaints are growing stale.

There is so much to hate and be angry about; my blood boils when I see coverage of another war and comfortable self-righteous idiots justifying it from thousands of miles away, I'm ready to punch the next person who has an answer for everything and thinks they're being clever, explaining away other people's homelessness, hunger, sickness and oppression as products of bad choices or judgement from God.

This world can be awful and anyone who has got even the slightest inclination to work to make it better is welcome to read on and consider a realistic proposal as to how we fix it. I will lay out a vision of how things could be and the practical steps we will need to take to get there.

You can get thousands out in support of a protest against something horrific, but it's far fewer of us who dare to get involved in the business of proposing an alternative

The Goal

The goal is not one that we should expect to arrive at. We won't wake up one morning, look outside and see the sun shinning and hear the birds tweeting and realise that the fight is over. Readers of this blog may have differing opinions as to where the meta-narrative of human history is taking us, if anywhere, but for as far as our limited minds can see and understand we know that the goal is to be pursued perpetually.

And yet it is a specific goal and a very high goal:

Imagine a world where we we really did live as equals, where the interests of one group were no longer mutually exclusive to another, free from war, free from hierarchy, free from oppression and exploitation. Imagine in world where we were free to focus on love and creativity, free to travel and free to contribute our uniqueness to society. If this kind of world can even be imagined then why not aim for it?

Let's not even start out on this journey with an already limited preconception of how much better things could or should get, to do so would stifle our own energies and would be strategical suicide; like letting slip the minimum you'd settle for from the outset when trying to make a deal. The message we need to internalise, and we need to make sure that the authorities and the elites hear it too, is that we are not looking to settle at all. We are pushing with all our energy and strength for a revolution and standing in our way risks them being knocked down and crushed.

Anarchism

For some people the word anarchism might conjure up images of chaos and destruction, or simply immature teenage rebellion. Anarchism is just the word that many of use to describe our yearnings for the kinds of freedom and justice described above, anarchism is meaningful to me but if it means nothing in your culture or to you personally then ignore it and imagine another word in it's place.

Anarchists are people who believe that the root of many of our problems is found in the way in which our societies are organised and the defining characteristic of the way in which we are organised is hierarchy. hierarchy cannot be reformed, it must be replaced.

Zooming right in on our own socio-historical context we find a globe divided up into hundreds of states where people are farmed according to the norms of an economic system we have come to call capitalism.

Lots of things are 'a' problem, hierarchy is 'the' problem!
Mutualism

There are various strands within the wider anarchist tradition; anarchist communism, collectivist anarchism, mutualism and individualist anarchism being the main ones. Each believe slightly different things about what exactly constitutes a hierarchical society and what is the best way to change it.

Mutualism is the broadest of these encompassing arrangements from communists who hold all things in common to those who wish to participate in a kind of market economy. Mutualism simply says that arrangements must be mutually beneficial for those who choose to participate in them. Again, if the word puts you off, call it something else, labels are only helpful when they're helpful.

The mutualist flag; red for socialism, black for anarchism, arrow thingys for reciprocity
What would be different in a world where all human relationships and collaboration was done for mutual benefit? In practice the most obvious and simple expression of mutualistic human collaboration is the co-operative (no, not the supermarket chain, if you live in the UK).

There is much more to co-ops than just employee owned businesses:

Some types of co-op:

  • Housing co-ops - Under capitalism greedy, and usually privileged people are free to accumulate huge hoards of property, property they neither personally occupy or use. Not only are they free to do this, their actions are protected by the state. In a capitalist society housing co-ops are ways for residents to pool resources to purchase land and housing. This is then cooperatively managed for their mutual benefit, not for any one person to make a profit.  In a mutualist society the principle for establishing a legitimate claim to property would be based on occupying and using it personally (and having come to do so peacefully). Some may want to take sole responsiblity for their housing and live more independently housing co-ops would work for those who preferred the inter-dependence of being able to rely on each other for maintenance, providing basic services, looking after communal grounds/ roads etc. These could be mixed with consumer co-ops.
    • Consumer co-ops - Under capitalism these are largely effective ways to pool resources to benefit from the discounts associated with bulk buying. In a mutualist society we are likely to find whole towns, villages and neighborhoods clubbing together to arrange for electricity, water, waste disposal etc. these utilities would be provided by a co-operative joint run by consumers and workers, most of whom would likely live in the particular local area.
    • Friendly societies - Those of us who can see the state for what it is; a weapon in the hands of the elite, know that the words 'welfare' and 'state' don't sit comfortably together. Centuries ago, as feudalism transitioning to capitalism people began to club together to form friendly societies. These have now been intentionally pushed to the margins. In a mutualist society friendly societies would be the primary vehicle for mutually looking after each other when we fall on hard times. Health care, insurance, pensions etc. would all be provided to each other reciprocally through these. Those of us who are in the most vulnerable situation often feel most tempted to cling to the state, believing that without it they would be destitute or reliant on the charity of others. This need not be the case, our collective welfare is at the heart of what we are pushing for. The state offers a pittance to those who are in difficulties just to keep revolution at bay. In a mutualist society welfare would be provided horizontally, as mutual aid amongst equals.
    • Credit unions - Credit unions under capitalism prevent the big bankers from harvesting up interest and fees and charges from our resources. After profit has been extracted, tax has been extracted, rent has been extracted interest on loans and heavy charges for late payments are what finally breaks many of our backs sending us into debt and causing us to loose our homes and necessities. If people in a particularity area are still using money in a mutualist society the credit union would simply function as their bank. Any interest which might be taken is returned to all account holders as a dividend after any workers have been paid.
    • Volunteer's co-ops - Potentially a separate category from thee above for those who want to organise a project or achieve some goal together. Equally a volunteer co-op could be seen as an alternative form of any of the above specifically organised outside of market relations all together. Communists propose a society where work is done without the expectation of immediate reward and that the products of labour or the services provided are freely available to all in the safe knowledge that one's own needs will be provided for by others in the same way. Credit and debt is not held against each other at all. This will work for some people, possibly for all people in time.
    • And more...
    In fact, when we step back and think about it, any activity that requires people to come together can be run on the basis of a co-operative as opposed to either a state or a capitalist business, the state and capitalism would be redundant. This would produce a number of systematic benefits:
    1. There would be no 'boss/ landlord/ capitalist' involved to extract profits/ rents/ interests from workers. No one is getting rich off anyone else's hard work just because of claims of private ownership. 
    2. By ensuring that workers have their rightful stake in the organisation and a democratic input in decision making their incentives to work are improved. Many of us, especially when we've been in jobs that are dull and demeaning know exactly what it's like to sit watching the clock trying to get away with as little as possible, wasting our lives away waiting for the weekend. Work in a co-op would not necessarily be perfect and 100% enjoyable every day but a huge amount of what makes us hate going to work would be gone: An angry boss/ competitive colleagues sucking up to the boss/ no input on decisions that effect us/ no outlet for our creativity/ no sense of ownership in the organisation or project... all gone.
    3. Co-ops are run by the people, not an absentee boss. The people who show up to work every day are much more likely to live nearby and are invested in the local community. This ensures that they will look after the environment around them in a way that capitalist businesses will not. Capitalist businesses are legal fiction, personified in law, decisions are made as much by the demands of capital itself than the will of any individual or group. If they were human they would all be diagnosed as psychopathic, co-ops would not.
    4. No assholes. Giving people authority over others turns them into assholes. People step on each other to please the boss or get a promotion, managers gleefully exert their authority in pointless ways just to feel good, the work place becomes a high pressure environment and a constant struggle. This makes people physically and mentally ill.
    5. Co-ops have much less incentive to expand, this would be even more true in a mutualist world. If no one is harvesting profits no one has much of an incentive to build an empire. This keeps organisations smaller and more localised, the days of mega corporations would be history.
    Internally co-ops are networks of equals, in a mutualist society co-operatives themselves would also be networked fulfilling all the functions that both big corporations and the state fulfill now.

    But how could we get from where we are now to there?

    Strategy - Mutualise everything!

    1. List every organisation you currently associate with, whether voluntarily or not: Your place of work, the hospital where yo go when you get sick, the places you buy the things you need, the school you go to or went to, the religious institution you are part of etc.
    2. Get together with friends/ housemates/ family/ neighbors, maybe everyone on your street/ workmates and do the same with them. Make sure you involve people who are often truly getting a beating from the way things are now; prostitutes, homeless people, racial minorities, women, gay people, old people and whoever else you know could easily get left out... they must be listened to and treated as equals.
    3. Think about your personal relationships and each others' personal relationships too.
    4. Decide together that an injustice against one of you is an injustice against all of you and that none of you will truly be free until you are all free.
    5. Starting from what seems the most urgent find ways to transform the associations and relationships that you all have into ones which are peaceful, voluntary and beneficial to all involved.


    Number 5

    It's impossible for me to tell you exactly how to do number 5. We all have to be involved in finding the answers here though. It will be a process of collective discovery. You've got landlords to fight, police to avoid, bosses to undermine, empty homes to break into, local councils to battle... and as many more as you can imagine. It will be an adventure if nothing else.

    Here are two decent links to use to begin to think through how it might look, beyond this, you just have to get started.

    42 ways to build a culture and economy beyond capitalism

    http://www.filmsforaction.org/takeaction/42_ways_to_build_a_culture_and_economy_beyond_capitalism/

    What do anarchists do (from the anarchist faq)

     http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secJcon.html

    It doesn't matter how small you start, we don't make progress without the first tentative moves and the little victories that might come at the beginning.

    Sunday, 10 May 2015

    Dear people of the UK, Mutualism

    So... another election cycle is over. If most of the people on my Facebook news feed are anything to go by a lot of us aren't happy with the results. Considering only about 25% of the country voted conservative that's not very surprising! 

    Things are bad. Rough sleeping is up 55% in the last 5 years, foodbank usage is off the charts, we're told that the economy is recovering but we know it's slowly and we know that it hasn't been an equal recovery for all. We've got a housing crisis, we've got an explosion in zero hours contract jobs and we're afraid in ways that people haven't been for a while. Our jobs feel less secure and when we peek over the precipice we see that there isn't much of a safety net left to catch us if we fall. Destitution is back, and that is a horrible surprise for a nation that was expecting things to get better and better with every passing generation. 

    http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/destitution-uk-interim-report


    London
    We have the Conservatives for another 5 years now (unless anything massive happens) so, contrary to the popular opinion that we should be wallowing in depression or raging with anger this is exactly the time to be thinking and talking and planning for what we want next. The work starts now. 


    !--MUTUALISM--!

    Our heads are spinning with thoughts of what those with power are going to choose for us but put all that to one side for a moment. Take a breath, relax, look out the window, think about your neighbours, your friends, your family, the people you work with... 

    --Give it a moment--

    We are all equal. Whether our equality is respected in the world we see around us or not, we are fundamentally equal, we all matter, whoever we are. This is where the mutualist tradition begins as well. Mutualism is neither capitalism nor communism. It doesn't require a big powerful government to make it work and it doesn't ask you to put faith in a pre-ordered set of policies or a great leader. So what is it?


    Mutualism says that when we come together, as a society/ community/ workplace/ whatever, it should be as equals and it should be for mutual benefit. We should all have a stake in the things we're part of. This translates first and foremost into the idea of the co-operative. A co-operative is an organisation of any size and almost any kind that exists for the benefit of its members and is democratically controlled by them. Co-operatives are free to join and free to leave. Mutualists think that this is not only a nice idea but could form the entire basis for a new way of organising society.

    The state will never do the job we want it to do

    The state is not fit for purpose, not for the purposes that most of us want to use it for anyway! 



    Back in the days of feudalism it was obvious that the state existed to maintain the upper classes in lives of privilege and luxury and keep the peasants down but then democracy happened. Now every five years we have a chance to try to hold the people who run the show accountable. So we do what comes completely naturally; try to use our powers to get the state to make things better. To  get it to look after the poor and sick, to regulate what the richest and most powerful people can get away with

    BUT

    If you were going to design an organisation to do all that, starting from a blank sheet, would you really design anything that look remotely like the state or the government that run it. Would you design the following?
    • A massive ugly hierarchy.
    • A system where un-elected royals and lords (people who live entirely at our expense) are an integral part of how it functions. 
    • An organisation which both openly and behind closed doors answers to it's corporate sponsors.
    • An organisation where we get a small say in picking a representative but are far removed from actual decision making.
    • An organisation where if our representative lies to us or breaks their promises there is nothing we can do but wait and hope to boot them out next election, but for what? Another representative who might do the same? 
    • Ultimately an organisation which has lots and lots of rights that we don't have and if we get upset about it we are treated as a threat.

    Capitalism and what's to be done about it

    Capitalism is a naughty word in the UK, much more naughty than it is on the other side of the Atlantic. We blame it for an awful lot, are we clear on what it really means though?

    Workers built the factory, workers labour in the factory, workers transport the product, workers clean up, workers look after those who get injured in the process, workers work in the shops that sell the final product... All belongs to the boss.
    There are three elements that  I would say are definitive of a capitalist economy:

    • Capitalist property norms (this is absolutely crucial): How does your landlord get to claim rent from you for living in your house? How does your boss get to make a profit off your labour? Answer: Because it's not your house, it's his, and it's not your labour, it's the bosses' because he hired you to work for him. How can it be that people can collect up property that other people occupy and/or use? How can they use their claim of ownership on it to extract rents or profits from the labour of those people? Capitalist property norms backed up by the state, that's how! Mutualists believe in a much simpler and much more natural system of property norms; if you occupy it and use it (and came to do so peacefully) then it's yours,  if you stop occupying it or using it then you've abandoned it. I call this an embodied claim on property as opposed to the capitalists' one which is often a conceptual claim on property. Capitalist 'private property' backed up, not by a physical reality but by property deeds written on a bit of paper somewhere.
    • Markets: A market economy is just a system where people hold credit and debt against each other. The stuff on the shelves in the shops isn't seen as equally belonging to us all due to us being members of the global working class, or as fruit of the earth and therefore part of our natural inheritance.... at least not by most people. If we want stuff we have to be able to offer the seller sufficient compensation to get them to let go of it. Mutualists are neither pro or anti markets, we're accepting of any way of organising the distribution of goods and services, as long as it is mutual for all involved. Taxation and other forms of economic exploitation have historically been used to drag unwilling peasants into the market economy when they were previously quite happy sharing and holding property in common, for this reason many mutualists do tend to predict that markets will decrease in importance in a mutualist society.  
    • The state: This one is debatable in other schools of thought but mutualists believe that the state is an essential part of how capitalist economies work. Whether or not it might be theoretically possible to have capitalism without the state is not an important question, the question is over the role of the state in actually existing capitalism. In a nut shell this can be summed up in two ways: 1) The state is the board of executives for the capitalist class (i.e. the state manages the economy on behalf of the capitalist class, ensuring that the whole system remains stable) - Karl Marx came up with this one. And 2) The state exists to socialise the costs of capitalism on to the people whilst ensuring that it's profits can continue to be privatised by a tiny minority - Noam Cholmsky came up with this one. 

    So capitalists have got a whole lot of wealth that they really shouldn't have and everyone else is often left without enough; the best solution we hear of which is based on using the state as a means to fix this? Tax the rich and spend it on health/welfare/education etc. for the people.

    Why isn't this what mutualists are asking for? Mutualists recognise that all taxes applied to the capitalist class are passed on. Those who are in a position to raise rents/lower wages/increase interest rates in order to deal with the cost of taxation always do it, passing it on to tenants, workers/ borrowers/ consumers. The rest of us who pay tax on income that we have earned as wages cannot pass the cost on to anyone and so have to take a double hit personally.

    It's not just super rich tax dodgers that are the problem (they're just breaking the rules of their own game), it's the entire system that is the problem.

    Probably not the heroic heroes you thought they were.


    What do mutualists suggest we do?

    Start organising ourselves into co-operatives that can resist and don't stop until we over turn the whole thing.

    If your landlord owns the whole building and there's 50 other tenants, get everyone together, form a tenants' union. In South Africa under apartheid huge tenants' unions organised prolonged rent strikes resulting in tens of thousands of units of housing having to be turned over to the occupants. In Glasgow during WW1 tens of thousands of tenants went on rent strikes and also got together to block bailiffs who came to try to evict them. There is a fast growing movement around housing activism happening in London right now, read about it here: http://www.oceanmediagroup.co.uk/features/housingprotests/?utm_source=Housing60&utm_medium=email&utm_content=article_link&utm_campaign=H60 

    The Glasgow rent strikers


    Squat in some unused property.

    Join a radical workers union like the Industrial Workers of the World, take the boss on to make sure that at absolute minimum you get all you are due under current legislation. If everyone did this we could organise a general strike and bring the entire economy to a halt. At this point we wouldn't even have to list our demands, politicians and capitalists would be falling over themselves trying to offer us all kinds of compromises deals to calm us down.

    If you are in a position to do so you might consider starting some kind of co-operative from scratch. Anything from a credit union to a factory is possible. Do it with or without permission.

    Mutual aid. Mutual aid is different from charity because it is supposed to be all about sharing as equals. If I have surplus of something I share it with you knowing that if our positions are flipped around you will do the same for me. Mutual aid can be very loose and informal or it can be a big organised 'friendly society' providing health care, welfare payments and more to it's members when they need it.



    Voting for a political party is controversial within mutualism, should we try to avoid it altogether or could it be seen as one of many legitimate tactics? The bigger that smaller parties like the Greens get the more their message will be heard but I for one believe that if we empower a political party enough for them to actually get real power they will become like all the rest. Political parties always disappoint because they work within the system according to it's internal logic so they are never capable of being revolutionary on their own.

    Other ideas...

    • Refuse to pay your taxes
    • Join a protest march
    • Buy fair trade (so very un-revolutionary but I still claim it's a good idea)
    • Write a blog
    • Go to jail over something you believe in if you are in a good position to do so (I'm not)
    • ... I don't know... think of more stuff yourselves... 

    Conclusion

    We haven't really "lost" this election because there was nothing much to win through elections anyway. We win when we take action directly, we lose when we get depressed and give up. We don't need representatives, we need to get our hands dirty and get involved. The time is now, you aren't even going to be offered another vote in a general election for a long time,  give this a try for the time being!