Co-operatives – a heterogeneous category

As a previous blog commented, Cooperantics was lucky enough to get a ticket to the Rebellious Media Conference in London last autumn, headline speaker Noam Chomsky amongst a lot of other illustrious participants.

After hearing the recording of the Q&A session on the published DVD, I had some further thoughts on Noam Chomsky’s reply to my question: Can the co-operative business model succeed where the capitalist business model has so evidently failed?

 His answer was as ever, thoughtful and informed. He said that yes, of course the co-operative business model can succeed, and has a long history of success, in Britain and other countries around the world. However he qualified this by describing co-operatives as a ‘very heterogeneous category’. He went on to explain that there are co-operatives where the participants really run it and there are co-operatives and worker owned enterprises where control is handed over to management. Referring to Mondragon, Chomsky described it as ‘worker owned but not worker managed’.. ‘they pick professional managers who act like professional managers’ and ‘they are investing overseas to exploit super cheap labour, not the kind of thing we’d like a progressive institution to do’.

 Noam Chomsky was accompanied on the platform by Michael Albert, a leading authority on political economy, U.S. economic policies, and the media. Michael Albert primarily focuses on matters of movement-building, strategy and vision, creating alternative media, and developing and advocating his participatory economics vision (“Parecon”).

Michael Albert had recently attended a meeting in Argentina with representatives of 50 occupied factories. At the start of the meeting there was a go round where people were telling their stories. At the start the mood was upbeat, but by the 4th or 5th person the mood became maudlin and by the 7th person people were crying. ‘I never thought I’d say anything like this’ said the 7th person to speak ‘but we took over workplace, we equalised wages, we instituted democracy but now many months later it feels the way it felt before, it’s alienating – maybe Margaret Thatcher was right there is no alternative’

 Michael Albert said that their mistake was to keep the old divisions of labour, which over time distorted their intention to be different, to be humane. This left them so demoralised they thought change really wasn’t possible.

 He concluded that yes, co-ops can be an important part of a project to change society but only if there is an understanding – not just a desire, but the understanding – that will cause the co-op to be a truly exemplary institution.

 I was sad to hear about the situation in the Argentinian co-ops, because they are so frequently used as an example of what can happen when working people take control – and I wonder if it is truly the case that in all instances they have retained the old divisions of labour?  But what a great answer and it is one we know already – it’s not enough to have the right legal structure, the right market conditions and the financial & human resources in place.

 For a co-operative to be a ‘truly exemplary institution’ there must be an understanding of how to work together within the legal structure and an understanding by managers that their role is a function like any other and does not confer any special status. Members also need to understand the rights and responsibilities of membership as well as how to work as a team, how to take decisions and delegate, how to hold management accountable, and lastly but most importantly, how to ensure participation and thereby commitment.


  1. I too was lucky to attend this conference. While reading this, I thinking, this is the review I wished for.

    Thank you Kate this is a faithfull and articulate account of what was said and makes the points well.

  2. Heterogenous category: very thought provoking! I think I know what you were asking Chomsky with the question ‘can the co-operative business model succeed where the capitalist business model has failed’ because of course that’s the gazillion dollar question. A quick summary of my view would be that it’s not co-operation’s job to save capitalism, or even to replace it in the sense of it being a different ‘business model’. Incorporated trading co-operatives as we know them are, at the root, defensive economic formations within capitalism that invent and build legal, democratic and fiscal barriers to the expropriation of wealth by the giant squid. In a different world with a just economy based on human need, all transactions would take place in the context of co-operation – not just the production, consumption and circulation of good and services, but the whole of human culture. What’s so fascinating and powerful about co-operatives is that they contain a glimmer of that world, while providing for peoples’ needs in the here and now.

    So I agree about the importance of Albert’s distinction between radical and less radical co-operation. To me it’s obvious that co-operative democracy and culture are different things in an intense environment like a small worker co-op and a stretched one like a large consumer co-op. The constraints of competitive trading in a capitalist environment predicated on hierarchy and overspecialistion (Fordism) means that larger co-ops fighting for market share tend to have a shallower co-operative culture than smaller ones which are fighting to create new markets. Also, our key principle of democracy (lowest common definition: one member one vote) encompasses a huge range of practice and ideology, from consensual thinking and action informed by very little voting but a high level of mutual respect and co-operative culture, to something that looks like a debased version of parliamentary democracy; management as a process co-enacted by groups of people, to management as a separate and privileged cadre; participative democracy at one end, direct democracy in the middle, and representative democracy at the other. These are things we tend not to talk about openly in the official movement, because it’s contentious, but it’s definitely a sign of our weakness that it’s generally only discussed at the fringe. To paraphrase Anton Pannekoek “the workers are not weak because they are divided; on the contrary, we are divided because we are weak.”

    Creative compartmentalisation and overspecialisation in work is one of the evils of capitalism and an important mechanism for alienation. As a social system, capitalism is the organisation of society as a means of extracting surplus value with the least short-term friction – it’s a production line for profit and class domination. At the level of the individual enterprise, I’ve seen my co-op go from somewhere where, although we all had our own jobs and particular skills, we could rotate when needed and as a matter of routine, to one where we are all highly specialized to the point of sometimes not being able to understand what each other actually does. The funny thing is that we’ve gone down from 14 to 12 people in the last couple of months, and to maintain capacity we’ve started to train each other across some job areas. Lo and behold, not only is it not too difficult, but it’s helping us to get more of those important feelings of personal/collective creativity, and solidarity.