Cooperatives Confront Capitalism

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This book’s opening chapter, with its genesis of Marx’s vision of a socialist society, contains surprises. How many socialists know of the influence of William Thompson or John Bray, who promoted major elements of communism well before 1848 or the Paris Commune of 1871?

Ranis goes on to assess struggles for worker-led cooperatives with rigour and authority. Highly instructive examples from Argentina, Cuba and the US comprise three quarters of the book. When bankruptcy (real or contrived) threatens jobs, worker-community alliances find themselves at the back of the queue of creditors. Yet in recent Latin American crises, factory occupations have not just won jobs back, but also ownership of enterprises.

The legal processes of “recovering” workplaces threatened with closure are discussed and prominence given to the US Fifth Amendment provision for “eminent domain” (“compulsory purchase” in UK parlance). Most countries have legal procedures for expropriating private land, for example, for public infrastructure purposes. To date, successful applications of eminent domain to give ownership of bankrupt US companies to their workers are very rare. Cuba is more encouraging. Since the break-up of the soviet bloc, serious legal and financial provision for worker-led cooperatives has been made.

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism is an excellent anti-capitalist manifesto. But, despite continuing references to Marx, Gramsci, Luxemburg and Lenin, the most crucial question of all — how to achieve worker-led democracy in all workplaces — is fudged. Ranis fails to draw out the central lesson from his own material: that these authentic glimpses of what a socialist workplace would look like spring from capitalist crisis.

The long-established and highly successful Spanish cooperative, Mondragon, is fully assessed. Despite holding to its founding principles into the 1980s, it has recently increased the ratio of highest pay rate to lowest and taken on non-member employees.

Cooperatives, and other “transitional initiatives” like self-help campaigns, credit unions, alternative currencies and so on, are great for workers who need them to survive capitalism. Actually, we need more cooperatives, about ten million more. But there is no evidence that they multiply simply by osmosis. Only rarely are they at the cutting edge of the political struggle for socialism.

Yet, they convincingly demonstrate the falsity of TINA (there is no alternative) and provide a concrete answer to doubters who ask, “What would a socialist future look like?” As propaganda, they are double-edged. As an antidote to pessimism, they demonstrate what can be achieved, even in the teeth of capitalist opposition. As a purgative for excessive optimism, they demonstrate what can’t.